Thursday, August 21, 2014

Knowing When to Let Go: Are Old Bikes Always Worth Rescuing?

Bikes of Westport
Sometimes I think I'm a bad influence. Like, when a friend phones last week, excited by her two-wheeled vintage find. "You'll appreciate this - I think it's a mixte!" She texts over a picture. 

"What do you think?"

"Hmmm…" I reply.

"???"

" Did you buy it already?"

"Yea… why?"

"Fork's bent."

" :((( "

Now, I've owned a bike with a bent fork before - a beautiful vintage Gazelle. It rode great for the 2 years I had it and continues to ride great for the current owner. But in this case, I could tell from the picture that the fork at the very least would need straightening by someone who knew what they were doing. That, plus a few other problems I could readily see, made me think my friend was not equipped to deal with the work required to bring this bike to ridable condition. Sadly, at this point she was already attached to the idea that this specific bicycle was meant for her. So she shlepped it to a bike shop and asked for an estimate. I suspect the 4-figure quote they gave her was only half-serious and mainly meant to discourage her (a topic for another time, this!). But in any case, that was the end of it. Having paid very little for the bike to begin with my friend counted her losses and donated it to a local co-op. 

But we do not always let go so easily. 

At the moment I myself have two old bikes in the garage that are, quite frankly, probably destined to return from whence they came (the skip!)… But I am not quite ready to admit that yet, instead tinkering with them pathetically and agonising over whether to spend money on replacement parts that will probably do no good. 

Rebecca of velovoice recently documented the saga of her Puch swoopy mixte, which, despite her best efforts could not be made fully road-worthy due to a kinked rear stay. The bike was beautiful and unusual, and everything she had been looking for in a vintage machine, which perhaps made her more optimistic about its viability than she otherwise would have been. But after months of trying, she finally admitted defeat, stripping it for parts and throwing away the frame. Hopefully the parts will find a new home some day.

A former blogger I knew back in Massachusetts bought a sweet-looking vintage 3-speed that seemed to be in perfect condition, only to discover hidden problems that made it unridable. She took it to bike mechanics, and when that did not produce satisfactory results she enrolled in workshops to try and fix it herself. By the time she finally gave up, she was frustrated, exhausted, devastated and disillusioned in vintage bikes as a whole - which was the part I found most disappointing. 

It really is possible to find vintage bikes with few to no problems. And even those that start out worse for wear can be a joy to bring back to life. But a vintage bike can also become a white whale. And so it's important to recognise when to let go - when a restoration project is too much to take on, be it in terms of skills, finances, or even emotional investment. My advice when it comes to buying a vintage bike of unknown provenance? Acknowledge the risk. And don't get attached until you have it assessed. It's no fun to get trapped in an obsessive quest to restore the unrestorable. After all, you could be out riding a functional bike instead! 

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Dry Cleaning Your Wool… with Fresh Air

Airing Out Wool
One of the much-touted attractions of wool clothing - and the basis on which it is recommended to cyclists - is its supposed odor resistant properties. In fact, it is not uncommon for proponents of the stuff to brag about how infrequently they wash their clothing (once a month! once a year! never!!!) As a wool enthusiast myself I am often asked about my take on this claim. Can wool clothing really be worn endlessly without washing? or - as one friend recently put it - "are woolsters just grungy?..." 

Well, speaking from personal experience I would put it this way: Wool retains odors to a lesser extent than cotton, and to a much lesser extent than synthetics. This is not to say that it does not pick up odors at all; only that it picks them up at a slower rate, and perhaps emanates them more subtly. Still, eventually there will come a time when you will have to clean your wool garment. But cleaning need not mean washing. And one thing I've discovered over the years, is that "dry cleaning" wool with fresh air can be amazingly effective. 

The practice of airing out clothing is of course nothing new. Compulsive laundering after brief periods of wear is a relatively recent trend, and it was once common practice to hang clothes in the window or even on the backs of chairs overnight to keep them fresher, longer. 

But with wool, this method is disproportionally effective. Just as wool is reluctant to retain odors, it's also eager to shed them if given a chance. The back yard clothesline does the trick best, especially on a breezy day. After I hang my wool clothes on the clothesline for half a day, they don't just smell fresh-er; they smell no less clean than had I actually washed them, then hung them out in the garden. They smell like the sun and the wind, that "fresh laundry" scent that detergent manufacturers try so desperately to bottle, but that can't quite compete with the real thing. And if you don't have a yard with a clothesline? Opening the window and hanging the garment off the curtain rod (or a hook) can work too. 

But why bother with this at all, you might ask, when you can just toss the clothes in the washing machine? Well, environmental and financial issues aside, there is incentive to wash wool as infrequently as possible. Wool tends to be more delicate than synthetics and cottons, as well as more prone to losing its shape. And while this is not necessarily true for all wool clothing (anything made of the "indie" fabric from Ibex I've found to be especially resilient), it has been true for enough of it, so that I avoid washing unless I have to.

While it may seem suspiciously simple, I have found that airing out wool works wonders to remove not only body odors, but also ambient smells picked from the environment, including strong food and cigarette smoke odors. Of course, airing out won't get rid of stains. So with a stain, I'll treat then handwash just the area around it - then air-dry. 

The only time I really wash my wool clothing fully and properly, is after I wear it doing something active on a hot day. When fabric becomes salt-encrusted from sweat, there is really no way to deal with it but wash the entire thing. Otherwise, the airing out method keeps my wool's contact with the washing machine at a minimum. Am I grungy or is wool just that cool? Try it out and decide for yourself!

Monday, August 11, 2014

The Summer Lull

After several years of roadcycling, you start to see patterns: strengths and weaknesses, highs and lows, energy surges and dips - the mysterious ebb and flow of the drive and desire to be on a bike. One thing I've noticed in myself - though it took me some time to acknowledge - is the summer lull.

I fought it at first, so counterintuitive of a thing it seemed. After all, summertime is the best time to be on a bike. The long days. The dry weather. The scenery at its lushest. The abundance of group rides, with cycling clubs at their most active and cycling buddies with free time on their hands. In the winter, it feels natural to hibernate and take a break from the bike for a bit. But the summer seems like the time of year to take advantage of and spent every spare moment you have in the saddle.

And yet, quite reliably, there comes a time - typically in July - when something in me snaps and I go from being on my roadbike every single day (and thinking about being on my roadbike when I am off it), to being out only occasionally, if at all. Instead, I start to crave other activities. Swimming in the sea. Forest walks. Lying in the grass with a book. Friends suddenly find that they can easily lure me out to help shop for baby furniture and kitchen appliances. "Out riding much these days?" they ask, already knowing what the answer must be if I'd agreed to do this in my spare time.

Oh I still cycle for transportation of course; every day. But those waves of restless energy that compel me to pedal, hard as I can, over winding country roads till exhaustion for no reason at all except cycling itself? No matter how I spin it, they've abandoned me.

The first summer it happened, I panicked. What was wrong with me, was I sick? Or (worse) was I sick of bikes? Did I try so hard at something I can never be good at anyway, that I simply burned out?  Well, fine then. Maybe I was not meant to do this after all. Maybe utility cycling was enough. Feeling like an outsider to the athletic side of things, this seemed a reasonable conclusion.

But no sooner did I become resigned to this fate, then the summer lull ended. It ended as suddenly as it began. No pep talks were needed, no guilt trips, no encouragement. Those waves of restless energy, that compulsion, that boiling insanity - it was all back. One August morning I simply woke up and got on my roadbike …and practically never got off, till the winter frosts set in.

The following summer, this pattern again caught me by surprise and worried me. Only toward the end of the lull did I remember the same having happened the previous year and relaxed a little. And sure enough, it ended a month later, as before. After that, while I didn't exactly welcome the summer lull, I would expect it and stopped trying to fight it. Last year I hardly touched my roadbike from mid-July till mid-August - a month of rest sandwiched between periods of hyperactivity. This summer, the lull came a bit earlier, so that I already snapped out of it last week.

Why does this happen to me at a time that for many cyclists is their peak riding season? Probably because my body cannot sustain the intensity that begins in late March or April and grows through the early summer months. And as bodies go, mine must be an "all or nothing" kind of customer: Unwilling to simply cut back, it allows me to overexert myself day after day and month after month, then simply gives out - with-holding whatever cocktail of hormones is giving me the drive to ride until it's ready to sustain me through another 4 months of madness till winter.

The summer lull feels not unlike overtraining or bonking, only less intense but deeper-rooted. In one sense I feel more "normal," like cycling is not ruling my life. In another sense, I feel flat, empty, depleted. More disturbingly, the sight an smell of my bike lose their visceral effect on me. But when it returns, it does so with a vengeance. I don't need to wonder when the lull is over; when I'm pulled toward the bike again like a magnet, I know.

Thursday, August 7, 2014

The Ghost Bike of Magilligan

Magilligan Ghost Bike
The shortcut to the beach is hidden along the main road, just before the big bend leading into Benone. Sun-drenched and shelterless, this stretch of road is like a child's drawing of a sunny day: blue skies, white clouds, yellow fields; the colours oversaturated; the edges unnaturally crisp. Veering away from all this, the shortcut plunges into leafy shade as it winds through parcels of forest all the way to the strand. The tiny lane is easy to miss if you don't know where to look. But if you do know, it is unmissable: Just watch for the handpainted stark white bicycle, chained to the caravan park fence.

Magilligan Ghost Bike
No matter how often I pass it, the sight of the Ghost Bike rattles me. Perhaps it is the location. I am accustomed to seeing these monuments to fallen cyclists in cities. But this one is jarringly out of place on a rural coastal road. In this unexpected environment, the ghost bike is more noticeable, more striking. Isolated and uncamouflaged by urban clutter, it refuses to blend with its surroundings; it is unignorable.

As the eye wanders from the bike to the sharp bend in the road, the imagination engages, activating a sequence of horrible stills. How did it happen? Who did it happen to? The plaque attached to the top tube names Gareth, aged 16. I know that I can ask around and learn the whole story in great, terrible detail. But I don't. Once I pedal past the bike and turn into the shaded backroad, I try to put it out of my mind. Because when I ride to the beach on a beautiful summer day, I do not want to think about ghost bikes.

Magilligan Ghost Bike
I do not want to wonder, for instance, whether the bike in front of me was the boy's actual bike. The very bike that got hit and… I close my mind's eye before the sequence is finished.

Benone
Smelling heavily of pines and, more faintly, of seaweed, the road to the beach disorients with its un-Irish feel. It is more like Maine, or Croatia. The sun filters through dense pine needles and the shapes dance on the rough pavement. The beach is not visible, but its presence is felt beyond the pines, and at any moment you expect to glimpse it around the next bend. It is the kind of road where, even before you've gone where it wants to take you, you are gripped by a pre-emptive nostalgia for the experience you're about to have.

Benone
And when I feel this, I do not want to think about ghost bikes. I do not want to think about death, or injury, when the sun is on my face and the waves of the ocean beckon. The ghost bike intrudes, but I shake it off as I would a fallen leaf tangled in my hair.

Benone
Through the pine needle shadows, past the caravan park and the holiday homes, a steady stream of kids makes its way to the Strand. They throw their bikes down in haste and run to the water.

Benone
Past the too-vibrant bunting that delineates the entrance and exit points, more kids pedal.

Benone
By the water, a father teaches his son to ride a tiny two-wheeler. The boys falters and tumbles into the soft sand, unhurt and undeterred. They laugh and try again. The sun shines.

Benone
I try to relax, to enjoy myself, to swim. But the children on bikes are all around me. As I watch, I catch myself wondering about the parents of the boy for whom the ghost bike was put up. Are they resentful when they watch such scenes? Are they merely sad? Or, are they happy for these other children, feeling the sun and the water on their healthy, intact bodies?

Magilligan Ghost Bike
I try to shake these thoughts off, so at odds they are with this beautiful summer day. But as I pass the ghost bike on my return, I stop and something compels me to sit on the grass beside it. I look again at the bend in the road, and I read the plaque, and I take it all in without trying to push the imagery away, as I run my fingers through the buttercups and the Queen Anne's lace that flourish around the scuffed white tires. The bike will be here every time I ride to the beach. Perhaps I'll grow immune to it over time. Or perhaps not, and every time I see it my mood will darken and these thoughts will haunt me. And maybe that is as it should be. I just hope the motorists driving past feel a least a trace of the same reaction. 

Monday, August 4, 2014

Mapping Enchantment

Northern Ireland Ordnance Survey Maps
A couple of months ago I decided it would be nice to get ahold of some Ordnance Survey maps, and I set out on a quest to purchase them. Like most things here, this was not without its share of adventure. At the local book shop the salesman looked at me like I had two heads. "Ach no," he said, "you're best to get them online." So I tried online, and sure enough there's a special government website that sells them and it all seemed straightforward enough …until their payment system deemed my debit card suspicious and then not only could I not order the maps, but a fraud alert was activated and I could not use my bank card for days. 

I was just about to give up, when who should I see, whilst hanging about the local airfield, but a pilot unfurling a delicious-looking map, full of all manner of dotted lines and squiggles, decidedly ordnance-surveyish. Eying the colourful paper with envy, I told him of my unsuccessful attempts to score one of my own. He smiled with some satisfaction, as if to say "of course this is what happens when you try to buy something in Northern Ireland without consulting an expert first." Then he revealed the name of the book shop where the maps could be got locally. 

The very next day I cycled there. The salesman nodded at my request so matter-of-factly you would think Ordnance Survey maps were the most natural thing in the world to ask for. I followed him around the store to a cavernous section in the back where he stopped beside a dauntingly overstuffed shelving unit. A subtle flicker of gratification illuminated his face when I looked duly impressed, and I wondered how often he got the opportunity to lead someone to this tremendous cache. 

Northern Ireland Ordnance Survey Maps
Done to a scale of 1:50,000, the maps were numerous, each covering a tiny section of the region. I could hardly decide which I wanted as they were all so lovely and shiny and the covers featured alluring photos, one more scenic than the next.

In the end I bought four maps that covered the areas closest to me. Clutching them to my chest like a bouquet of flowers, I carried them out into the town square. Then I spread them out on the stone bench and let out a sigh of happiness. What was it about these things that caused such emotional stirring? I had used maps before, for heaven's sake. But in these, there was something particularly enchanting. 

In the UK and Ireland, Ordnance Survey agencies put out maps beloved by walkers and cyclists for the level of detail and topographical information they provide. I wanted a set for the purpose of finding local trails and hidden right of ways to use as shortcuts when cycling through the region. Perhaps I could even piece together some local unpaved routes

My impression from stumbling onto such routes organically so far, had been that unpaved stretches existed, but were disjointed. Having studied the maps, this has proven to be more or less accurate. Unfortunately there is no cohesive network of trails running through the area where I live. But there are lots of individual fragments here and there - considerably more than I had thought. And in many cases they can be combined with quiet back roads to make for a cycling experience that's scandalously scenic and very nearly traffic-free. Discovering the local trails and rights of way also provides access to many interesting locations and landmarks that cannot be reached otherwise. 

Northern Ireland Ordnance Survey Maps
In a practical sense, this has certainly been useful. But the maps have affected me beyond that.  Profoundly altering the way I see the landscape, they have deepened and texturised it. It is as if the information gleaned from their dense markings has integrated with my sensory experiences to form a rich hologram, so that when I look at a stretch of land in front of me it has a luminous transparency that can be activated at will. Not only am I aware of all the backroads, and of the trails beyond those backroads, and of the hidden nooks and crannies beyond those trails, but I am also aware of how they all connect, interact, diverge. The through-ways and the dead ends. The lands that back up onto each other without quite touching. The woods with clearings and without. Bogs that can be criss-crossed and bogs that cannot. Paths rendered invisible by tall wheat. Shallow ledges that make for secret river crossings. Remnants of stone walls, buried under a crust of rotten leaves, that can be used as directional guides. Beyond and within what's in front of me, there are layers upon layers. 

As I pedal through my surroundings, neither the distances nor the views have changed, and the textures beneath my wheels are familiar. Yet there is an unprecedented newness to it; the fluttering secret excitement of having gained access to a new dimension.