About a week ago, I took part in my first "Ride of Silence," an event where bicyclists get together and ride to honor the people who have been hurt or killed by motorists while cycling. In Lansing this event starts at Michigan State University and ends at the State Capitol building. There was a good turnout of people, and most there sadly had a story to tell about a confrontation with a motorist on the roads. You can see some photos here.
I'm not sure what I feel about the Ride of Silence, and associated Critical Mass, to be honest. I like to ride with groups of people so I go to these things, but I don't think a mass of cyclists riding down Michigan Ave gets any kind of point across at all. Most of the comments I heard from passing motorists were derogatory, from the snide "Nice bike Lance," to the ubiquitous "Get out of the road!" It's hard not to be struck by the sheer amount of people out there who believe a bike has no place on the road, and unfortunately the people who hold these opinions are the ones behind the wheel of 2-ton vehicles "bearing down on you," to quote a famous State News writer.
We belong on the roads, and we're not going anywhere. What can we do to get the point across? I don't think huge masses of cyclists does much other than anger people behind the wheel, which I can understand. The few times I've driven lately I've begun to notice just how aggravating it is to be stuck inside a car in traffic. I certainly don't want to make a motorist any angrier. I really think the best way to make drivers understand our situation is to "drive the bike" as I've heard many say. But that's the big predicament. Do we ride our bikes in the way we would want a car to drive? Or do we ride in the way that motorists actually drive - turning when they shouldn't without signaling, rolling through stop signs, stopping in the middle of intersections, and disregarding the right of way? I'll be honest, I don't stop for every red light or stop sign on the bike, and I don't always "drive the bike," so to speak. I'd consider my commute "aggressively defensive." I ride in a way that will keep me alive, because there are already too many dead cyclists.
Riding has not gone too well lately. There have been an awful lot of trips where I've needed to be picked up in a car after getting to my destination for one reason or another. My road bike got another flat, which should teach me to a) have a spare tube and b) not rely on it as a daily commuter. I've just started nursing school as well, and there have been situations where I cannot carry everything I need for school, or been running too late due to poor planning, to ride the bike. Hopefully I'll be able to get the Bridgestone configured where I can haul enough to commute, and get my schedule in order so that I'm not rushing out the door at the last second.
In the meantime, the weather is just gorgeous in town. The flowers are blooming, the air is light and crisp in the mornings, though the sun has started to slow me down in the afternoons already. The scenery makes for a pretty picture, if only I find the time to slow down, and have the wherewithal to bring a camera.
Speaking of which, I stumbled across a garden bike on a trip around town. I like the idea of retiring a bike out to garden duties. It's a perfect way for a bike that has served decades of use to find a permanent home, and eventually fade away into oblivion. It's much more fitting in spirit than chucking a bike into a dumpster. I'll have to keep my eyes peeled and see if I can find any more in the area.
Much of my riding is done on a commute, and commuting calls for a specific sort of bicycle - durable, relatively swift, and protected from the elements. My Bridgestone XO that I have written much about does a good job of this. It's not road-bike fast and it never could be - the bike is too heavy and the single speed only lets you pedal so fast. But it has full fenders, racks for carrying things, and the single speed makes it simple to keep running smoothly in all sorts of weather. Its mustache bars provide lots of comfortable hand positions, but they aren't necessarily beautiful.
For the past week or so I've been fixing up an old Raleigh for my sister. It's got the old 3-speed Sturmey-Archer hub on the rear, full fenders, and elegant understated styling. Typical British bicycle, in other words. For those who don't know, the Internally Geared Hub, or IGH, is a wonder of maintenance simplicity. The gears are all inside the rear hub, which means you have a straight chainline, no derailers to muck about with or keep clean, and only a few drops of oil keeps it functioning for decades. Literally - this one was built in 1974, and shows no signs of slowing down. The downsides are that the 3 speeds aren't exactly spaced apart much. The low gear is only useful for really hammering on the pedals flat-out, and the high for going very slowly up steep inclines. This means you find yourself pedaling at a leisurely pace in the middle gear for 90% of the time. Other companies like Shimano and SRAM make hubs with more gears, and a high end maker, Rohloff, sees fit to go up to 14 gears. Those hubs are a bit beyond my budget at this point, however.
These old steel machines are also extremely heavy, which means they last a long time, but are also slow getting up to speed. The upright riding position is quite comfortable, especially on a sprung saddle, but it sure makes for rough going in wind, as I found out. So, in my view, this is a great "ride around town" bike, but not a "get me to work on time" bike. I'm not turned off by the IGH for a commuter yet, however. I have been pleading the local bike shop to order an Origin 8 3-speed commuter, but if that falls through I may just find a way to put an IGH on the Bridgestone.
I am one of those that has what I call the "More Power" disease. This is a nod to the old sitcom Home Improvement, where Tim Allen's character can't seem to leave anything as it is, and has to modify everything to suit his eccentric tastes, in his case adding ridiculous amounts of power to any appliance with a motor in it. I have my own eccentric ideas about the way things should be, and though there are people out there who build things the way I want them, it always seems that those things cost much more than I can justify spending. Like when I wanted to buy a new car, I wanted a microcar. The only microcar on the market is the Smart Fortwo, and for reasons unknown the local dealership was asking about $15,000 for a Smart sans A/C. Needless to say, I don't drive a fortwo.
Or the bikes I like, old handbuilt steel frames designed with attention and care, that have flowing graceful lines, beautiful paint and chrome accents, and a smooth days-on-end ride quality. Sure there are folks out there that make such bikes, and do a great job at it. But I can't afford the $3,000+ a bike from Rivendell, Sweet Pea, or the like are asking.
So I do the best I can with what is available, and find cheap ways to make the things I can afford suit my taste. I built up a club racing Fuji with the idea of running 650B wheels, but when it was finished it was obvious the only wheelset and tires that would fit were thin 700 x 23c, think "skinny" with a capital S. It's fast, pretty, and fun to ride around, but it's also buzzy, somewhat flat-prone, and no way can it fit fenders. Simply, it could never be more than a sunny day ride.
I recently found a pretty Trek 560 frame and fork sitting on the local bike shop's shelf, with nice paint and racing geometry, and my mind instantly sprang back to the 650B wheelset I had sitting in the garage. A week later, Holly's new commuter took to the streets. It has lots of room, cushy but fast-rolling Grand Bois tires that are a good 10mm wider than what would be possible with the original sized wheels. Even though the width has increased, and the diameter of the wheels decreased, the bike still acts sprightly, and accelerates quickly to cruising speed.
Not that there are no problems with switching to a smaller sized wheel on the frame. The first and most obvious problem comes when you try to mount a brake. The original brakes were placed to hit the rim quite a few millimeters higher than the 650B rim, so you have to hunt down some longer-reach brakes. I was lucky enough to have some Dia-Compe centerpulls in the garage that worked perfectly, but the popularity of wheel conversions has prompted brake makers such as Tektro to start building some very nice brakes for just this kind of build.
The other problem is less apparent, but impossible to fix. Since the new 650B wheels are smaller than the original wheels, the bike sits a bit lower than it was designed to. This actually places the top-tube in a lower position which can have stand-over benefits to some riders. But it also moves the bottom bracket, and therefore the crankset and pedals, closer to the ground. This isn't a terrible problem so long as you are aware of it, and don't pedal through a deep turn. I've already had a pedal or two strike pavement as I rounded a turn, and have cautioned Holly about it. It would be much more worrisome on a fixed gear bike, where you can't help but continue to pedal through a turn.
I finished off the build with some old Campagnolo Victory shifters and derailers, and busted out the old Mothers Aluminum Polish to give it all a nice shine and sparkle. Holly reports satisfaction so far. So there you have it. A pretty lugged steel frame made in the US, a lightweight and fast ride, but also made more supple and comfortable due to the additional benefits of the wider 650B tires. Not that it couldn't have a bit more power...