Thursday, June 28, 2007

A Bike Old Enough to Drink?

My touring bike turned twenty years old this week. Next year, even though I don’t drink I suppose I can pedal it to a bar to celebrate.

My twenty one inch pink, yes pink, Univega Gran Turismo has spent most of the last fifteen years hanging from a hook in our garage, but I brought it back in the last couple years as a “chores” bike. I use it roughly twice a week to ride into town to pick up odd items form the store, return library books and books on tape, and go to my regular basketball game on. I’ve had it so long that I don’t know if it fits me or I fit it though I’m probably thirty pounds heavier than I was in the summer of 1987 (ironically, that's more or less the weight of the Univega...eeeew). Of all the items I use on a regular basis, the Univega is the oldest. My Thorens turntable sold a few months ago was a few years older, but I hadn’t played records on anything resembling a regular basis for many years. Come to think of it, I also have a Bosch hand jigsaw that’s older, but I cut things with it maybe twice a year. The next oldest thing in our household is our Kitchen-Aid refrigerator-freezer which my wife keeps threatening to get rid of any time we stop spending money on club volleyball.

In the meantime, I’ve owned four television sets, four cars, six phones, eight computers, three PDA’s, three DVD players, two couches, three beds, and four toasters. I also had a General Electric clock radio that had taken up residence in the back bedroom that was older than the Univega, but I noticed that the cassette player in the radio had finally stopped working the other day. Perhaps more relevant, I’ve been through three mountain bikes as well. Two of the other senior manmade objects in our household are also bicycles. I gave my wife a blue Fisher Hoo-Koo-E-Koo mountain bike about a year before we married that she still rides (I’d originally bought it for myself and gotten her another bike, but she liked the way the Fisher fit better) and I took the Blue Nishiki Colorado that I’d bought for her. Two Christmases ago with the derailleur conversing loudly with the chain on the Nishiki and the bottom bracket making funny noises, my wife surprised me with a silver Fisher mountain bike of my own. My other bike was also a surprise gift eighteen years ago from my wife for my second birthday with her, a Celeste green Bianchi racing bike. She got upset both times because I guessed my gift before she gave it to me.

We are not supposed to love functional objects, but I make an exception for bicycles. The pink Univega with its eighteen speeds Suntour derailleurs, biopace chain rings, and twenty seven inch rims marked a dividing point in my life. My first marriage lasted just two years and four months and my wife left rather abruptly. We celebrated the Christmas of 1986 together by hosting my family (the first time I had done that), I went to return two videotapes rented for my nieces, and returned to find a note in our kitchen. While the marriage wasn’t going well, this was a shock since we’d both promised our marriage counselor not to do anything sudden over the Christmas Holiday. It was not an amicable parting especially after I learned a few days later that she had cleared out our joint savings account and hidden the money.

A few months later, I saw a newspaper article about a group called Bike Aid that was raising money to bring “intermediate” technology to developing countries by coordinating bike trips to the United Nations in New York City. My bike at the time was sixteen years old, a white Peugeot with a Simplex derailleur, maybe one of the worst derailleurs ever built, that weighed about four pounds more than the Japanese bikes that were beginning to take over the market. The group had gotten a deal on bicycles for those who did not have mounts that were up to the task of a cross country ride. The touring bike, a longer framed drop-handled bicycle made for carrying heavy loads and with an unusually wide gear range, was one of the more sensible cycling products ever. The Japanese were particularly good at it and Miyata built something known as a triple-butted frame that was strong, comfortable, and provided a smooth-stable ride on a variety of surfaces. The same frame was also branded by Univega and I believe Panasonic. In 1986 though, the touring bike died because of the sudden incredible popularity of the mountain bike, a craze that foreshadowed the SUV in the car world. The vast majority of mountain bike owners never road off pavement, their intended use, they just liked the rugged look and the comfort of the upright position. The irony, of course, is that riding upright is only more comfortable if you plan to ride no more than a few miles. The touring bike was and always will be a much better match for the way most people ride their bicycles most of the time.

Anyway, Univega which distributed out of Los Angeles sold Bike AID participants brand new Gran Turismos for about forty percent off retail, a price that was slightly below what dealers paid for them. Anyway, list on the bike was about 459 and I got one of the best mass produced touring bikes of all time for 274. Of course, there was the minor matter that almost all of their back stock was pink. When I started the trip, I had never ridden more than sixty miles in a day and on steep hills I often got off the bike and walked.

I made it to New York and had only one flat (outside Needles, California naturally) and one crash in New Jersey along the way. I’d gotten involved with one of the young women on the trip and she hit my rear tire mid-ride while we were chatting and riding at the same time on a bike trail just outside of Princeton. On the way, the Univega had made it across the continental divide which fell somewhere in the Navajo nation. Indian territories have the smoothest highways in America because they’re all federally maintained and have very little traffic. We had a downhill that lasted for something like four miles with no car traffic in either direction. The bike hit fifty four miles an hour and I wasn’t nearly as scared as I should have been. It hadn’t occurred to me that at that speed there’s no real way to stop a bike with two half-inch wide pairs of rubber pads and the squeeze of a hand.

I’d ridden through a day of drenching rain in Johnson, Tennessee without falling off and without any part of the bike rusting through. There were no towels in the gym we showered in afterwards and I had to figure out how to dry myself with one of those electric hand dryers built into the walls.

Also in Tennessee, which is a very big state if you’re going west to east, I got in trouble with a sheriff. One effect of riding for long stretches of time is that it’s not your legs or lungs that necessarily wear out. It’s the different bits of your body that are in casual but persistent contact with the frame and the vibrations from the road. Once you get the hang of setting up a cadence with your legs and heart-lung system, it’s things like your neck, hands, and crotch that wear out first.
Over time, the ulnar nerve running to my hand just wore out and the handlebars felt like fire. I had five miles left to go that day’s destination, a school for wayward boys founded by the husband and wife owners of several Florida A&W drive ins. I started riding without using my hands, not a good idea alongside a highway, but that’s both how stable the bike was and how much I’d come to trust it to keep me out of trouble while sharing thousands of miles of road with cars and trucks. Boss Hog began by yelling at me from his car, pulled me over, but let me back on the road (Southern justice) The last couple miles were very painful because I didn’t dare let go of the handlebars even with one hand.

At the end of the trip, I knew I couldn’t sell the bike. I packed it into a cardboard box and brought it home. It rode from Beverly Hills to San Francisco once with two female med students from Philadelphia. I rode my mountain bike and I lent the bike to one of them for most of the trip, but I insisted on riding the hills near Big Sur along Highway One on my pink bike.

Over time, I turned it into a cross bike by changing out the tires to Specialized tri-cross and giving up my toe clips in exchange for mountain bike style pedals. It had some adventures off road and served as my transportation during the week when I took a year to get a teaching credential. At the end of class, I’d ride the thing home along the El Camino Real between campus and Mountain View.

Amazingly, the derailleur, cranks, and brakes (other than the pads) are all original. Many years ago, 27 inch wheels disappeared in favor of the slightly bigger and metric 700 c rims. I worried that I just wouldn’t find replacement parts for the Univega and thought about moving it until I exchanged e-mails with Sheldon Brown, a bike shop guy in Massachussetts who venerates older bicycles. One his shop makes a point of carrying parts for bikes with screws, wheels, etc, that are no longer standard. Part of the genius of the Asian-bike takeover of the market in the eighties was that they standardized bike construction and design in ways the Americans and Europeans hadn’t managed. Second, he pointed out to me that the Univega deserved respect and care for having served me so well.

At a time in my life where I wasn’t sure about my own judgments about people or anything else and I felt incapable of any kind of balance. I wound up trusting in the capacity of twenty nine pounds of chrome molybdenum steel and two circles of rubber.
The Univega made it possible for two spinning strips of one inch thick rubber to keep me upright for more than three thousand miles in a wide range of conditions. In some very real sense, my Univega helped convince me not only that balance was possible in my world but that the portion of my life post-Univega could be better than what had preceded it.

My bicycle is three years older than my daughter. I knew my bicycle before I met my wife. One of our first dates was to let her ride my Univega the five mile ride up the hill to Occidental, California. She praised the bike. Last night I hopped on my eighteen speed bike (I still can shift easily into any one of the eighteen) to get to my basketball game and many of these things cycled through my mind as I pedaled. For some reason, I thought about the way the Aztecs had seen Cortez’s men mounted on horses and assumed that they were a single-joined beast.

One day the frame of my Univega will crack or there will be some key part of it that even Sheldon Brown can’t help me replace. By then it’ll have taken me many thousands of miles that can be measured and many of the sort that can’t.



At 6/30/2007 09:17:00 AM, Blogger Tanya Espanya said...

You should do a bike trip up here...How long would it take, do you think?

I rode a bike. Once.

At 6/30/2007 11:01:00 AM, Blogger Unknown said...

Pennsylvania? I don't think so!

Sheldon Brown
Newtonville, Massachusetts

At 6/30/2007 11:09:00 AM, Blogger Chancelucky said...

Sorry about that Sheldon. The correction is made. I'm not sure why I moved you to another state. Continental drift?

I'd love to ride across Canada at some point or maybe something like Newfoundland down to the Great Lakes.Great journal of your bike trip through Pennsylvania, I mean Spain.

How many different blogs do you have?

At 6/30/2007 02:13:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Venerable. Well done, bike.

18 speeds!!! I can't imagine how one knows which to need?

At 6/30/2007 02:26:00 PM, Blogger Elizabeth McQuern said...

Yay for old things! I'm creaking around Chicago on a 35 year old girly bike with flip-out back baskets. It' superheavy and very slow and I LOOOOVE it.

At 6/30/2007 02:58:00 PM, Blogger Chancelucky said...

Mr. Pogblog,
a lot of the speeds on a bike are nearly identical. It's mostly about being able to produce a greater range between the lowest gear and your highest gear. I tend to be one of those riders who mostly stays in a single comofortable gear.

Yes, I remember your story about having your bike stolen and your mother appearing in Chicago with a new/old bike for you.
I assume this is the same one?
Old bikes are perfect for around town. For one, I don't think they're as much a target for thieves and in a city without hills like Chicago, there just isn't that much difference between a decent bike and a great one.

At 7/01/2007 07:12:00 AM, Blogger Tanya Espanya said...

Chance, I have a couple:

Our Basement Renovation

Our Trips

My regular blog

At 7/01/2007 08:38:00 AM, Blogger Chancelucky said...

So Tanya,
When will Alexander start his own blog?

At 7/01/2007 01:23:00 PM, Blogger Tanya Espanya said...

I made a private one for the family, but I end up posting most of the stuff on my own blog anyway.

At 7/01/2007 03:48:00 PM, Blogger Chancelucky said...

So, are all your blogs air conditioned now?

At 2/12/2009 11:19:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Do the cantilevers work with 700c wheels?? I want to get the frame but worried that it will not run 700 wheels. Thanks.
-randy, nyc

At 7/08/2009 10:04:00 AM, Blogger Chancelucky said...

Sheldon Brown's likely to know for sure, but they probably do. You can adjust the angle of the pads, so I'm pretty sure you can switch out to 700C wheels. One of the advantages of the Univega is that all the clearances on it are very generous.


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