People sometimes wonder why bicyclists wear such weird clothes. Most of them make sense. This is the section for non-geeks, who wonder about the sanity of the bike geeks. I’ve been writing this post in my head since I bought my first bike shorts 40-some years ago.
Bike shorts. If you’ve ever ridden any distance in jeans, (cutoff or otherwise) you know why bike shorts were invented. They’re shorts so they don’t impinge on knee movement. They have no inseam to chafe your inner thighs. They fit snugly so they move with your leg rather than rub against your thigh as you pedal. They are padded because your pudendal nerve is right where the seams on jeans meet – if you press on that nerve long enough (like on a bike saddle), you go numb. There is something disconcerting about having to look to see if you’re peeing because you can’t feel anything. On bike shorts, there is no seam there.
The padding used to be chamois and is now synthetic. Chamois is very soft when new. Once it has gotten wet and dries again it needs to be moisturized, which led to the development of “chamois fat”, various patented concoctions to replace the natural fats washed out of chamois. (The chamois fat I used to use seemed to be fish oil based, so I could absorb all those good Omega-3 fatty acids.) (No, I don’t really mean that last part, and I hadn’t heard of Omega-3 fatty acids back in those days – but it did smell kinda like fish.) With synthetic chamois, some folks still use weird concoctions, but now they call them butters, for the pun. Bike shorts are (or used to be) black because bike saddles were leather, which was oiled for softness. The oil left visible stains on any other color. Saddles are now usually synthetic, as are shorts.
Jerseys. Frankly, jerseys are (in part) a vehicle for advertising, just like the coveralls NASCAR drivers wear. If you are a professional racer, your sponsors put their logos on your jersey so they can make money from your success. If companies are not paying you to ride, it is mostly silly to advertise their products on your body. Jerseys are made to wick away moisture (they used to be wool, as shorts used to be). They fit snugly so as not to flap in the breeze. They have a zipper for ventilation because it is easier to work than buttons or snaps while riding. They have pockets on the lower back because that’s the easiest place to reach and the stuff in your pockets doesn’t make your jersey sag, as it would if the pockets were in front. Jerseys tend to be brightly colored. That way, if a car runs you over, you know they were aiming for you rather than failing to see you.
Gloves.See shorts. The pressure on your median and ulnar nerves (as well as vibration) tends to make your hands numb. Padded gloves prevent that. Leather palms protect your palms in a crash. The old-fashioned crocheted backs give you really neat tan lines. (Most gloves no longer have crocheted backs.) Gloves also allow you to run a hand over the surface of your tires if
you ride through glass (don’t try this without gloves), on the theory that when you run over a piece of glass it only goes partway through your tire but when you keep riding on it, the pressure drives it further into your tire so you get a flat. There used to be little gizmos called tire savers for the same purpose, with the idea that they would knock a piece of glass free before you ran over it a second time.
Helmets. Because a helmet is a lot cheaper than the treatment for a traumatic brain injury.
Shoes. Bike shoes have a stiff sole to transmit power to the pedals more effectively. This also protects from hot spots and numbness in your feet. If your feet are attached to your pedals (via the cleats that make people walk funny), the power transmission portion of your pedal stroke is doubled – you can both push and pull (or, more effectively, pedal in circles rather than just a series of alternating pushes). It helps to disconnect your shoe from your pedal before you stop.
By now you’re probably hoping I’ll get on the road already and write about the scenery and post pictures of exotic places instead of my garage door. Good luck with that.
P.S. Thanks to the half-fast club for a great birthday dinner on 2/27. Nothing like stretching a birthday for five weeks.
When I had my paper route I rode 364 days per year (no paper on Christmas Day). I didn’t think much of it; it was what I had to do for my job. Nowadays people make a big deal about winter riding. There were a few exceptions to my daily riding: when I was sick I got a ride in the car, and my dad had a rule that when the temperature was colder than -20 degrees I got a ride. (My mom once pointed out that, while it was my dad’s rule, she was usually the one who got up to drive me.) This was before wind chill was widely known or reported, so it meant actual air temperature. There were mornings I looked out the window and saw -18 and wondered how I could make it read a few degrees colder. This was at 4:30 AM and the temperature tends to continue to drop until shortly after sunrise, so I was probably out at -20 several times without knowing it. I figure if that rule was good enough for my dad, it’s good enough for me, so I ride to work unless the temperature is colder than -20 degrees.
There are a few simple principles for winter riding that I have figured out over the years: 1) keep your hands and feet warm, 2) cover all skin when it is below zero, 3) don’t fall – it hurts more in the cold, so use studded snow tires. (Those didn’t exist when I was a kid, either.) (The mittens shown above were made by Kevin Kinney of Empire Wool and Canvas Company. They are no longer available. Maybe if enough people ask nicely, he’ll bring them back.)
It also helps to have wraparound glasses if your eyes are sensitive. Mine tend to water in the cold and my eyelashes flick the tears onto my lenses, where they freeze – when the ice sublimates (or melts and evaporates when I go inside), I’m left with salt stains that are hard to see through. Glasses do make their own problems. If you have your face covered it is hard to keep from fogging up your lenses. If it is cold enough, that fog freezes and may need to be scraped off periodically. Not needing glasses may be an advantage. I know someone who wears goggles and breathes through a snorkel.
There are a few tricks to winter riding. Studded tires work great on ice and hard-packed snow. They are not great on clear pavement. Since you’re riding on metal and not rubber, you need to take turns more slowly with less lean or they will slide out from under you. They are not great in deep snow. The worst is that brown, greasy snow that collects at the edges of roads and in unplowed intersections. If anyone knows a good solution to that snow (other than staying out of it) put it in the comments below.
Riding predictably in a straight line is more important than staying to the far right. There will be more on this in a later post. Snow tends to get pushed to the edges of the roadway and then partially refreezes. The edge between pavement and this stuff is treacherous. Rather than riding in the slop and sliding around, ride on the clear pavement in a straight line. The law in most states says to ride “as far to the right as practicable“, not as far to the right as possible. I avoid streets with bike lanes in the winter, as that is where all the slippery stuff collects. Instead I take the side roads that cars tend to avoid because they (the roads, not the cars) are slow. Since roads are crowned, as snow melts (from salt or the heat of car tires), it runs toward the edges, then refreezes. Particularly bad are roads where the middle gets full sun and the edge is in shade (think urban streets with buildings close to the street).
In the winter, simpler is better, so my current bike has no derailleurs. It has a three-speed hub (like the English three-speeds of my youth). It has hydraulic disc brakes which work better when wet, icy, or gritty. Brakes on the wheel rims take more time to dry when you apply them, plus the grit from sand and salt wears the rims quickly. Wheels last almost forever on bikes you ride in good weather (assuming you take care of them in other ways). Winter bikes go through rims in a couple of winters. And no chain, as keeping a chain clean and lubricated is an essential but messy and time-consuming winter chore. To clean the belt, I park the bike over the floor drain in the basement, fill a bucket with water, and pour it slowly over the belt, rotating the cranks so the whole belt gets rinsed.
Really, anybody can ride a bike in the winter. It is not a big deal. If you are warm for the first two blocks you are overdressed. You’ll start cold and heat up quickly. I found that, when I drove to work one below zero day last winter, I arrived feeling colder than when I ride my bike. The car never really heated up fully.
My first cycling memory is from the winter of 1956. I was three years old and we were building an attached garage to the house we’d lived in for a couple of years. I can remember riding my trike on the new concrete slab in a partially-framed garage, bundled against the winter cold.
Fast-forward to the spring of 1958. I was five. I was the proud owner of a two-toned green-and-cream Columbia bike, 20” wheels, single-speed with coaster brake; a hand-me down from my cousin in Milwaukee. Left is a reasonable facsimile of that bike. Sorry, I have no actual pictures of that or my old trike.
Riding a bike is a lot like reading or learning a foreign language. You can imagine you’re doing it before you can really do it. Once you actually learn, you realize you’d been deluding yourself.
When I first learned to read, I fooled myself by reciting books I’d memorized, even knowing when to turn the pages. One day I actually learned to read and that was a totally new experience.
When I first learned to speak Spanish, I thought I was speaking Spanish, but I was really translating other people’s words into English in my head, formulating responses in English, then translating them to speak. It is slow and cumbersome and doesn’t work in the real world. The day I began to think and dream in Spanish was the day I realized I’d been deluding myself.
Riding with training wheels is a lot like that. I could pretend I was riding a bike but I was always riding at a slight angle so the rear wheel and one training wheel were touching the pavement. When the training wheels came off, I realized I couldn’t really ride.
The day I actually rode started at the top of a slight incline in front of our house. My dad had his hand on the back of my saddle and ran along beside me. When I got to the Iverson house, I thought I was really riding. I yelled to my dad but he didn’t answer. I yelled again. In front of the Benisch house I turned to yell again and he wasn’t there. I crashed into the ditch. When I picked myself up, I realized he was back in front of the Van Epps house. I was like the cartoon character who runs off a cliff and doesn’t fall until he looks down and realizes what he has done. (The clip is not the best example but the best I could find today.)
It would be nice to say that I rode off and never looked back, but that crash spooked me and it was still a struggle before I really learned to ride; but I now knew what riding was.
The bike gave me a new freedom. My dad was infamous in our neighborhood. When it was time to come home he whistled, an ear-piercing sound that involved his thumb and middle finger in his mouth and a distinct three-note sound heard for blocks. When he whistled, we ran. I remember playing baseball in a friend’s backyard and being at bat. At the whistle I dropped the bat and ran home. My friends thought I should finish my at-bat. I knew better. But on the bike, I could get beyond earshot. I could ride to places where I could honestly say I didn’t hear him. That was not always considered a legitimate excuse.
I rode a variety of bikes after I outgrew the two-toned Columbia. None was actually my bike. My sisters both got new bikes. My older sister had a single speed 26” wheel Royce Union; a beautiful, lightweight, dark blue, lugged steel frame; cottered cranks, single speed with coaster brake. My other sister had a powder blue 24” wheeled bike, Montgomery Ward, if memory serves. My brothers had various black English 3-speeds. I rode them all whenever someone else wasn’t riding them.
We also had a Schwinn Twinn single-speed tandem. It was particularly fun to ride from the rear (standing on the pedals so I could reach the front handlebar) and watch people stare, especially when I changed from back to front while riding or when someone told me I wasn’t supposed to ride like that. Plus I could pick up a friend to go for a ride.
The next bike that was my very own was a Western Flyer by Western Auto. I took over a newspaper route when I was 12 and the previous owner of the route sold me his bike. It was black and cream with huge front and rear baskets. It was the bike that taught me not to dismantle a coaster brake and how not to true a wheel.
Once I sold that bike (along with the paper route), it was back to the various black English 3-speeds. The first new bike of my life came in the spring of 1974. I had just turned 21. I was recovering from ankle surgery and being mobile was very important.
I drooled over a silver Masi, Campagnolo-equipped;
but I bought a Motobecane Grand Jubile, red with black trim and gold pinstriping. It was on that bike that I did my first loaded tours, camping with my friend Al. On our first tour we spotted some wild asparagus growing in a roadside ditch. Fresh asparagus for dinner sold me on bike touring instead of motorcycle touring. (Another reasonable facsimile, thanks to Google image search.)
When I was in my early 30s I had a neighbor who was in law school. He told me that, upon graduation, he was going to cross the country by bike and invited me to join him. I had a job I wanted to keep so I turned him down. He made the trip without me. But someday, I thought…
In October of 1989, a few days before the Loma Prieta earthquake, my beloved Motobecane was stolen from my office in San Francisco. I later found out who stole it but it was too late to do anything about it or prove it. I embarked on a serious bike-buying mission and, on my 37th birthday, bought myself two new bikes – a 55 cm Davidson road bike and a 56 cm Bruce Gordon touring bike.
The Davidson is Shimano 600-equipped (the name changed to Ultegra the next year). It included a tied and soldered rear wheel, which is still true after 28 years. The wheels were built by Vance Sprock at Cupertino Bike Shop. Bill Davidson is still building bikes in a small shop in Seattle. http://davidsonbicycles.com
The Bruce Gordon is Shimano Deore XT-equipped, with Bruce’s own steel racks and half-step plus granny gearing with bar-end shifters. (For explanations of half-step plus granny and a host of other fascinating topics, see http://sheldonbrown.com) It was to take me on that US tour. As of this writing, Bruce is having a retirement sale in his shop in Petaluma, CA. By the time you read this, he may be out of business, or you may be able to buy a fully-equipped frame building shop. http://www.bgcycles.com.
It is now 28 years later. The tour is going to be for my 65th birthday. The bikes are getting a little old to trust on a coast-to-coast trip. I’m getting a little old to want to do a self-contained tour. That means it is time for a new bike again. If you remember back to that Masi in 1974, my other dream (besides the US tour) was for an all-Italian bike. That was the dream of a lot of riders of a certain age. Most bikes are now built in China, most parts come from the Japanese industrial giant Shimano, and Campagnolo, once the gold standard in bicycle components, has been reduced to a small niche marketer.
Since I don’t plan to carry a lot of weight (this being a supported tour) and I probably won’t buy another new bike after this one, I have joined the 21st century with a Wilier Triestina Zero.7, Campagnolo Super Record-equipped. Wilier is an Italian company founded in 1906. The name is an acronym (in Italian) for “long live a free and redeemed Italy”. (Though the name predates the acronym by 42 years; don’t ask me to explain that.) It is my first carbon fiber bike and probably weighs about half as much as the Bruce Gordon. This is the mount that will take me across the country. I had Yellow Jersey Bicycles in Arlington WI build me a new set of wheels, so I won’t actually ride across the country on the carbon fiber wheels in the picture. Pictures of the bike as equipped for the tour will come once I’m on the road.
Yellow Jersey, by the way, began life as a co-operative, without a building, in Madison . They ordered bikes through a co-op in Chicago. The bikes were delivered to Whole Earth Co-op, and Yellow Jersey called members (especially those who had ordered bikes) to come and help assemble them when shipments arrived. They later had a series of storefronts and ultimately the co-op’s assets were sold to some of the employees. The proceeds funded the Dane County Bicycle Association, a local advocacy group. Yellow Jersey is now owned by Andy Muzi, one of those employees. He has been with Yellow Jersey since the beginning of the co-op, or close to it. A few years ago he closed the store in Madison and moved to the small town of Arlington. Drop in for a visit!
Yellow Jersey water bottle. Don’t make me explain the logo. Wisconsin law forbids the use of the word “co-op” by any entity that is not incorporated as such. When Yellow Jersey was sold, they ground the word off of the existing stock of bottles so they could still sell them.
I once received a sweepstakes notice from Oscar Mayer that told me, “You may already be a weiner”. Likewise, you may already be half-fast and not yet know it. On large group rides, there tend to be people of varying abilities and interests. If you tend to hang out near the front of the group, you may be half-fast. If the training group of racers passes you and you latch onto the back for a while, you’re probably half-fast. If you think about latching on but think better of it, or base your decision on how far you have left to ride, you’re probably half-fast. If you used to try to latch on but now realize you are too old and out of shape, you may be half-fast.
If you sometimes ride fast and sometimes ride slow and daydream (or watch the scenery), you may be half-fast. If you have one bike that you use for everything, you may be half-fast. If you have multiple bikes for multiple purposes, you also may be half-fast.
If you ride a bike that was designed for people who ride a lot faster than you do (and get paid for it), you’re probably half-fast (unless you wear the team kit of the team that rides the same bike you do, in which case you’re something else all together). If you get paid to ride (and to wear lots of advertising), you’re probably not half-fast. If, on the other hand, your bike is old enough to buy you a beer, you may also be half-fast. If you rehydrate and replace lost carbohydrates post-ride like the guy on the left, you’re probably half-fast. Join the club.