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First hard ride of the season

Saturday, May 6, I rode the metric option of the Litespeed Bicycles 3 State 3 Mountains Challenge in and around Chattanooga, Tenn. This ride was worth the drive and expense. Everything about the ride was welcoming and professional. I met some really nice people on the ride and before. A group of Christian Cyclists from Indiana chatted with me at breakfast and then I tagged along with their group to the start. The start/finish at Finley Stadium meant no lines for facilities and lots of room to park and roll around on bikes before the start. On the road, there were police at critical intersections and during the roll out of town on high-traffic streets. The inconvenienced motorists were courteous whenever I saw them. The course itself was beautiful — scenery, pavement, marking, it all worked. The rest stops were nicely spaced and well-stocked with both volunteers and refreshments. I rode near the back of the group the whole time, where socializing is more important than speed.

After a ten-mile roll out, I started up Suck Creek Mountain, which had become Everest in my fears and lack of training. I surprised myself with how easily I got to the top. Not fast, not stylish, but not struggling, either. Given my lack of training this spring, I was happy. I rode for quite a while with James Sumner (I hope I have the last name right) and his friend Ray. James is a huge fan of track bikes, and had started racing in 1963. Coming back from a bad bicycle crash, this was his first big ride in a couple of years.  His conversation and cheerful attitude helped me over the mountain and subsequent hills.

A lot of the other riders treated this as a social event, too, despite the timing chips and the Litespeed bike frames as prized for the fastest climbers.

I finished at the other end of the spectrum, last or nearly so. That was OK. My custom Litespeed bike felt great, and I was really good about riding within myself and not blowing up anywhere along the route. In the past, I have worked to ride with somebody a little fitter than me, only to end up exhausted a few miles short of the finish. I was glad I did not let this happen this time.

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Forty Years Fixed

When the temperature climbed into the 50s a couple of weeks ago, I got out my fixed gear bike and did a few miles with my friend Brian. As I was basking in the unseasonable warm sunshine, I remembered that it was 40 years ago last month that I first built a fixed gear bike.
It was no great shakes as bikes go, an old Raleigh three-speed. But with new wheels and drop bars, it was enough. I had moved to the Tidewater area of Virginia to get serious about bicycle racing. The club I joined was a big club, with experienced racers working with the newbies to make sure we did things right. Early season fixed gear training was part of the program. The club leaders told me I could ride with gears later in the season.
At first, I found riding fixed slow and awkward, but I soon got over that, and got a little smoother. As I gained fitness, my time for the 17.5 mile ride to work kept creeping downward. My time for the first time I rode to work was about an hour and 15 minutes. For the next month, my times crept lower, a minute or so faster each day. I could feel myself getting stronger, but more importantly, I could feel my leg speed going up, and I felt like it was easier to spin the cranks. I was still taking more than an hour, but much closer to an hour.
Then one day, everything felt right. My legs just went faster, the grade on the railroad overpass seemed to flatten right out. Going down the grade, I was able to relax and let my legs just fly on the pedals. I had broken through to the next level of speed and fitness. And when I arrived at work, the clock told me I was on the right track. Not only had I broken an hour, but I also broke 50 minutes.
Forty years later, I am not trying to race, but I have some challenging rides scheduled for this season, and I am training for the first time in decades.
After my second ride this calendar year, I can see just how far I have to go. Six and two fifths miles, forty minutes, a whopping ten miles an hour if I am generous. But I did it.

Shipping rates to change

I have now started using ewheelShipper boxes from shipbikes.com to ship finished wheels. In the past, I have used wheel boxes from bicycle stores, but have had diminishing success. I also will make wheel boxes from bike boxes I cut down to size. Not only is it time-consuming to create a box, but the boxes do not protect the wheels as well as they should. Ewheelshipper boxes are specifically designed to protect both wheels, and to be used several times. They are also designed to fold to a much smaller size for shipping empty. Simply put, the boxes are great. They are not cheap, however. The boxes cost me almost $35 apiece. My previous price for shipping was a flat $50 to addresses in the Continental US, which included a labor charge for finding and/or building a box. The new rate will be $35 for the box plus the actual shipping cost. The first two wheel sets I sent using shipbikes.com went from Wisconsin to New York for $22 a box. This shipping cost is a little less than another service I had been using, and only a little more than my previous price, but the bonus is that customers get a really good wheel box that can be used to ship wheels or to travel with wheels. I am also willing to discuss having the box shipped back to me if you do not want to keep it.

Why an "original" bicycle makes me sad


On the Classic Rendezvous list, where I have been a member for a decade or more, there has been much discussion of the Concours d’Elegance at the California L’Eroica and ride. I have been fascinated by the discussion, because I have been a rider of high-end bicycles and a bicycle business employee on and off since 1973.
“Originality” has become the holy grail of collectors. I will agree that it is very cool to find a forty-year-old bicycle in totally original condition. Cleaning it up and showing it would gather oohs and aahs from the most jaded of collectors. I will admit having mightily lusted after a 1971 Peugeot PX-10 that had been for sale at a very reasonable price a couple of years ago, right in my neighborhood.
But I have been thinking long and hard about “originality” and what it really means. Looking at the PX-10 in question, it seemed that the bike had been ridden a few times and then hung in the garage, gathering dust for a few decades, then getting donated to a charity bike shop. How sad. Bicycles are meant to be ridden.
A high-end bicycle bought in the 1940s or 1950s was not meant to be a static piece of art. The buyer clearly made some financial sacrifice to own a good tool. That tool was used. And as it was used, parts on it wore out. Riders would rarely replace the parts with the originals, especially in those years when everything bicycle-related was rapidly improving. Would you really replace a Cyclo-Benelux coil-spring derailleur if you could afford one of the newer Simplex or Campagnolo parallelogram units? Would you continue to ride with wimpy brakes as the technology improved? Of course not.
When I started working in bike shops, during the first 10-speed boom, “original equipment” often varied wildly as parts shortages were a regular occurrence.  And the economical race bikes of the day, the bikes that appeared alongside the more mundane entry-level 10-speeds of the day, seldom left the shop in “original” condition, and sometimes, were heavily modified even before they were ridden. One of my colleagues bought a PX-10 new, stripped off all of the parts, sent the frame out to be repainted with modern paint and clear-coat over the decals, then rebuilt it with a mix of top-of-the-line French and Italian parts. The only original equipment he kept was the Stronglight 93 crankset and V4 headset, which are already very nice components. Now fast forward to 2015, and here’s what the judges would say: Super LJ derailleurs with Retrofriction levers – not original, points off; Mafac Competition brakes with drilled levers and full gum hoods – not original, points off; Campagnolo Record hubs with Mavic Module E rims, shod with much later Continental Grand Prix 4000 tires – yep, you guessed it, not original, points off. So in the judges’ eyes, this bike that will keep its looks longer, with a modern two-part clearcoat over the decals and will work better because all of the parts were upgraded, is a less valuable bike than the original, with plastic Simplex derailleurs, Normandy Luxe Competition hubs, with their unique and unavailable bearing cones and integral dust covers that cannot be removed for easy cleaning, and Mafac Racers with the silly half hoods on the brake levers?
To my eyes, as a bicycle rider, not a bicycle collector, a 1940s top-end frame, with parts representing the best available from every decade since, repainted when needed, and still loved and ridden by the grandson of the original owner is far more interesting than the wall queen that was ridden 100 miles when it was new, discovered by a collector and then polished and hung on the wall as a sculpture.
And it makes me a little sad to think that the unridden bikes are the ones that people want to look at.

Tension can be a good thing


One of my friends swears that wheels I built for him roll faster than other wheels. He says he has even tested it with similar tires at the same pressure, trading wheels with another rider. He has said it enough times to enough people that I believe him. His tests are on long, steep hills with no pedaling but no brakes either, just coasting. And no matter whose bike has the Earle Wheel on the front, that’s the one that rolls away from the rest.
I build my wheels for maximum reliability and durability, but I had not really thought about making them roll faster. But as I mulled over the findings, I realized that the same things I do to make a strong, long-lasting wheel also make the wheel roll faster. Spoke tension. Specifically, very even spoke tension makes the wheel roll a little bit easier.
A trained engineer who studies wheels could certainly say it better than I can, and will have numbers to back up the words, but for the average rider, that would be overkill.
The thing to remember is that when it is rolling, a wheel is not really a static structure. As the wheel rolls, each spoke loses a little bit of its tension, then regains it. When a spoke that is significantly looser or tighter than its neighbors, the oscillation of tension is enough different that slows the bike down ever so slightly, the way a small bump in the road would.
We all know that smoother roads are faster. Well, my story (and I am sticking to it) is that wheels with very even tension will roll more smoothly and faster, the same way a bike goes faster on smooth road.

The continuing conversation with Maynard Hershon

Maynard: So many things you just said resonate with me. We never imagined that rides would start and end in parking lots. Why would we have wanted to arrive at the ride start in a car? What, so we could get home 10 minutes after the ride ended? 

Drive and leave immediately and never have a chance to hang out with your friends? I have to think that our friends were more important to us then. Our cycling friends were our best friends.

I worked for three bike shops on the sales floor and behind parts counters. I worked for my friend Tom Petrie, who represents several cool Euro parts suppliers, in his office in El Cerrito, California. 

I worked for Mavic, Shimano and SRAM at dozens of national and international level bike races. I wrote columns for Winning Magazine, VeloNews, the Bicycle Paper and the Rivendell Reader.

I wrote catalogs for Serotta Racing Cycles, Fuji Cycles, LeMond Racing Cycles and now Formigli USA.

I never HAD a resume. What we had were friends. You could say our circle of friends was almost like family. Someone you knew also knew someone in almost any cycling hotbed in the US. 

We didn’t need no stinkin’ resumes.

Earle: No stinkin’ resumes? With first names as uncommon as Maynard and Earle, we seldom needed last names. Earle is a little more common than Maynard, so I sometimes would get, “Oh, you’re THAT Earle.” 
Maynard: It’s funny when you say it that way, Oh! You’re THAT Earle, but it’s true! I wonder if we knew how perishable out little world was, Earle… Sigh….
Earle: In a way, that world still exists. That close circle of friends is still out there. It’s just that for most of us, cycling is no longer the center of our lives. We get together just a few times a year. Or we keep in touch via the Internet. 

When I went to San Francisco State to finish my degree, I had to find work more lucrative than a bicycle shop job, at least for part-time hours. I also widened my circle to include a lot of people who had never been serious cyclists. 

In those days, at the dawn of the personal computer era, it was easy to lose track of people. I had to go out of my way to stay in touch with even a few people.
Meeting again was sometimes a happy accident. In Boise, Idaho, I’d been away from the bike business for most of a decade when I went to the start of the HP Women’s Challenge. Wandering around as a fat man with no credentials, it still took me just a little time to connect with old friends. 

You were there doing motorcycle duty. Brian Greiger, now living just a few miles down the road from me, was a hired gun for a European team that could not afford to bring a mechanic. Mike Neel was managing the Saeco-Timex Women’s team. Our conversations picked up right where they had left off years before.
The same thing happened last summer when I went to High Point, North Carolina, for the National Criterium Championship. I walked into a nearly empty hotel bar and started talking to one of the two other patrons. He was Bill Humphreys, who I had not spoken with in something like 35 years. Within minutes, we were laughing and exchanging John Allis stories.

The Internet has made it easier to maintain at least some contact. You and I have not been face to face in more than a decade, but here we are, talking as if we had a steady stream of beer pitchers and all the time in the world.

More conversation with Maynard

Maynard: I lived in Marin County from ’75 until ’84, so I watched the mountain bike revolution happen. And I sure knew Charlie Kelly, as did anyone who rode a bike in Marin in those days.

Thinking about Charlie makes me think about Phil Brown, another cyclist, rock ‘n’ roll roadie and later a sound engineer. He and Doug White, who makes some wonderful bike parts today, built road frames called Brown and White. 

Phil was just here in Denver with his old friend Paul Stubblebine, another cyclist and sound engineer. Paul and Phil tell great stories of working with music business folks back when. 

You ask, “Who was the smartest personal manager, Phil?” Or, “Paul, who was the greatest waste of talent?” The stories just roll out of those guys.

Guys like these, Charlie and Phil and Paul, would be great guys to know even if we hadn’t met them through cycling. But cycling introduced us to SO many super people, men and women….

I’m afraid that the social aspects of cycling, the opportunities to get to know people, are not so frequent today. People drive to the rides and take their bikes out of their cars.

They look at their phones when the rides break. They’re so connected that they have to get somewhere right after the ride ends. No hanging out for coffee. No getting to know their own Charlies, Phils and Pauls.

Earle: Especially in the early season, rides could be at a “conversational” pace, meaning nobody was working so hard you could not talk to the person next to you. 
Rides also ended at a destination, not a parking lot. In Berkeley, rides began or ended at Peet’s Coffee, either the Northside location or Domingo Avenue, at the start of the Tunnel Road climb. The conversations continued there, sometimes for hours.
A day off work was a day to hang around with your bike friends. A ride might last a few hours, but nobody was in a hurry to part company.
Some of this can be attributed to the small world we lived in. Before Greg and Lance, before the Ironman, the world of high-end bikes was small. Small enough for no more than one or two degrees of separation from virtually everybody who mattered.
A personal example: When the economy dipped in 1981 and the Bicycle Exchange might have to lay somebody off, I was also ready to leave Cambridge. Rich Olken, the owner of the BiEx, and Mike Zane, one of the founders of Kryptonite Locks, each told me that I would probably get along with Peter Rich of Velo Sport in Berkeley. 
So I called the store, talked to the manager, who was from the planet known as Southern California, and he said, “Yeah, we need somebody, can you send a resume?”
I said I would, but also suggested that the manager check with other friends in the business. I got a call the next day. Somebody from Velo Sport had made a few calls and I had passed muster. More important than a resume was the recommendation of friends in the business.

The bike world is a lot bigger than that now. The small world we lived in hangs on in small pockets, but we get together for rides only a couple of times a year instead of a couple of times a week.

Continuing the conversation

Picking up where the conversation ended on my last post:

Maynard: As Earle suggests, there’s not all that much to say about bicycles. I know that the online and paper bicycle publications fill their pages with content about stuff issue after issue.

But — it’s just stuff. Stuff won’t guarantee a great ride. It won’t climb the hill for you or set a new PB on your usual loop. 

Actual skill, fitness or genius isn’t for sale. REI doesn’t offer them. You have to have them or earn them.

What can be sold is stuff. Selling it means convincing you that using that stuff is the equivalent of possessing skill, class or genius, qualities that can’t be sold.

Earle: There have been a few publications that were not ‘stuff’ driven. The best of these was Fat Tire Flyer, the first ever mountain bike magazine, edited by the incomparable Charlie Kelly. Here is everything you need to know about ‘stuff’ and complete bicycles, for that matter: http://www.sonic.net/~ckelly/Seekay/bike_review.htm
SeeKay was there when mountain biking took off, and one of the inaugural inductees into the Mountain Biking Hall of fame. But he never got so caught up in himself that he forgot that it was just stuff, and the ride was the most important thing.  He was also a first-class rock ‘n’ roll roadie and a decent guitar player with an eclectic repertoire.  I met SeeKay through bicycles, but we had much more to talk about.

Charlie is just one example of the great people I have met through bicycles.

Finally, some new content

I have been away from this blog for far too long. I’m sure anybody who tried to follow it has given up hope. Well, please come back. I have new content and will update the blog far more regularly.

On my regular Website, I started an electronic conversation with Maynard Hershon, an old friend and talented writer. I am going to continue that conversation here, picking up where we left off:

This is a continuation of an electronic dialog between Maynard Hershon and me.
Earle: In our last installment, we talked a lot about classy riding and riders and how much has been lost from the days of our youth. What we left out was the personalities involved. At one time or another, Maynard and I have both written pieces for Grant Peterson’s Rivenell Reader.
In the late 1980’s, I was finishing a degree in magazine journalism and was looking for writing outlets. I had met Grant, knew he had the Reader, so called him and asked what I could do for him. He suggested that I interview Jobst Brandt.
I jumped at the chance. Jobst was widely known as highly opinionated, and less known for being right far more often than wrong, even when he contradicted conventional wisdom. I had met him a couple of times, and the world of high-end bicycles being as small as it was then, he readily agreed to have me meet him for lunch and then spend the afternoon with him in Palo Alto.
We spent the time in a wide-ranging conversation about his annual ride in the Alps, his friendships with titans of the Italian bicycle business and more. When we talked about mindfulness on the road, he showed me the buckets of tools he had picked up on various rides. We talked about ice riding, his relationship to the Palo Alto Bicycle catalog and the Avocet brand, and much much more.
I really liked the three-page piece I wrote for Grant. It was a glimpse into the world of international cycling at the highest level.
Grant, however, was disappointed. We had not discussed five-speed freewheels versus six or even seven; never mentioned indexed shifting versus non and barely touched on bald tires versus tires with tread.

In short, we had talked about bicycling, not bicycles. To be continued …

New from Maynard Hershon

I asked Maynard to write some original content for the Earle Wheels Website, and he readily agreed. He wrote a nice piece, much in the vein of columns he has been writing for decades. Any of his regular outlets would have run it without changing a word.
But I am picky, and wanted to coax more out of him. We exchanged a series of emails back and forth, with me suggesting changes and him making some of them. He got closer to what I had in mind, but wasn’t there yet. He wrote me saying he had thought of a different approach, and was going to start fresh. I responded with this: How would you feel about a dialog? You write 100 words or so, I respond to it in 100 words or so, and through the exchanges, build the article I want to write, but cannot write alone.

“That’s a super idea,”  he responded.

The first installment of that conversation is now spread across five pages of http://www.earlewheels.com. Please read it and comment.