Thursday, December 15, 2011

Functional Parts Lust

It's a cold day in December. I am sitting in a comfortable chair overlooking a quiet cul-de-sac. Raindrops fall from a gray sky and tap against my window.

You can spend a lot of money on bicycles. You can and you ought to if you feel like it. What you should not do is convince yourself that you need to spend much. What you should certainly not do is snub your nose at people who do not spend much. Above all, it should be noteworthy and commendable when a bicycle is assembled inexpensively. A mismatched hodgepodge of components can be almost artistic when everything still works in quiet harmony. Swap meet and garbage-rescued parts can be manipulated almost as an artistic medium. Be

I don't ride much while I'm not touring - I ride to work, to get groceries, or to go to a party. Philadelphia is good for that kind of riding. I fix other peoples' bicycles for a living and then ride home on a bicycle which is almost universally scoffed at. It might be my favorite bicycle, and it may have served me well for many years and thousands of miles - but an old Diamondback mountain bike with a high tensile steel frame simply does not get due respect. I didn't plan to make it my favorite bicycle. It just happened. Functional Dura Ace went into storage.

Up to this point, I've been reserved about making upgrades to the Diamondback - or the "Hoopty," as I now affectionately refer to it. The Hoopty has class. Until recently the parts have been upgraded tastefully. When I first decided that the Hoopty would be mine, I made three changes: I installed northroad handlebars, a friction thumb shifter, and some super cheap tires with an inverted tread. I went everywhere on the Hoopty and used it for everything. I proved to myself that riding a century is more about fitness than fanciness. As a mantra, you could still do worse. I was smarter back then.

The reason I fell in love with bicycles and still enjoy working on them is that a person can find deep personal enrichment from this nearly free activity. The ratio of cost to enjoyment makes this hobby the cheapest and most rewarding activity after meditation itself. If you can avoid the trap of parts-lust, then bicycling can be inexpensive indeed. Enlightenment can be sought on a long ride.

In practice and in my heart, I am a frugal mechanic and advocate who knows how to spend very little to keep my humble machine perfectly tuned and infinitely capable. If I am to be labeled as a certain sort of rider, then "retro grouch" hits close to the mark. I naturally gravitate toward 7 speed cassettes and would revert to 6 speed if better freewheels were inexpensive and the associated hub axles didn't always end up bent. I'm the kind of guy who likes thumb shifters.

Even a person like me is not immune to parts lust. Sometimes I get lost and daydream about how to blow my meager income on parts which don't make bicycling better. I have an itch to buy shiny illogical parts. I have a sickness. Rain taps against the window. I take the opportunity to scour the internet for good deals on fancy parts. I look at parts which are the close cycling equivalent of a four hundred dollar hammer. Oh, how I want them so. I can almost convince myself that I deserve these parts, and that somehow I should shut my eyes and buy them quickly. This is America! I scour eBay and Craigslist for lightly used equipment cast aside prematurely by wealthy fair-weather cyclists. I type key words and scroll for hours. I should be ashamed. I know better.

$160 is a great price for the hub I was ogling - especially since it was already laced to a lightly used Mavic rim. But exactly how perfect does a person need to get? The hub serves a simple function that many other hubs have no problem performing. Made in the U.S.A. is nice. Easy to rebuild is good. Being a used part even has the tempting scent of frugality - I'd be getting a deal! But I'm also the guy who has ridden thousands of miles on a hub that I bought at a swap meet for five bucks. So why did my heart beat a little faster when I saw a good deal on this hub? The hub isn't exactly out of my league - its that the league which needs this hub is in a hypothetical parallel universe. Does anybody actually need such a hub? I'm curious. How much would I be paying for function, and how much would I be rooked over a shiny anodized finish? I won't bother to do the math - fiscal sense is that far out the window.

It's fun to spend money. That's the best reason I can find to buy expensive bicycle parts, but in no way does that make me believe it's a good idea. I'm more impressed with bicycles that perform better than they look - because as a mechanic, I usually see the opposite. Working on fancy and finicky equipment is the bread and butter of most repair departments. "Sorry it was expensive last year... but it still needs to be replaced."

It's a simple fact that you can usually pay less and still get parts that last longer. A friend of mine actually does a cost-per-mile comparison before buying new parts. It's an approach which sometimes yields interesting results. (For example, Schwalbe Marathons are a logical choice on paper as well as pavement.)

In addition to fixing bicycles for a living, I am also a long distance bicycle tourist. I proudly excel at traveling thousands of miles on sturdy equipment which gets little fanfare, but also never breaks down. I'm proud, but sometimes I slip. My recent foray into Chris King territory should have smacked me back into place. Though I recognized the irony, I decided to install a GripNut headset on my 1997 Diamondback Outlook. I already had the headset. (As a mechanic, that sort of thing just comes your way sometimes.) With tongue firmly planted in cheek, I knocked out the perfectly good Tange headset and pressed the King into place. It looked good, and I was appropriately amused. The honeymoon ended abruptly when I found that the King headset refused to take a proper adjustment. The tech help on Chris King's website did an excellent job of putting me back in my place. The installation FAQs pointed out that if the headset didn't function perfectly, then either 1) your frame sucks, or 2) you are an idiot. They got me there. My frame definitely "sucks" based on currently accepted industry standards. As for me? I was caught red-handed trying to install a Chris King headset in an old Hi-Tensile mountain bike frame. Personally, I thought it ought to work, but being an idiot is a tough charge to defend myself against in this case.

So here I am a month later. I'm still riding around on a hi-ten Diamondback with a loose Chris King headset. I haven't learned. I pray that God keeps me poor enough to postpone the scorn associated with sliding a Thomson seatpost into my unworthy frame. I started slipping down this slope the second I installed v-brakes. They were affordable, but my new course was set. My new shifters are a little too fancy for comfort. I ought to be institutionalized. Maybe Rapha should make a straight jacket.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

1997 Diamondback Outlook.

From simple to sexy, this great bicycle is my best, and it has seen many upgrades. I purchased it in 2006 for $20 in clean original shape. I swapped the handlebars out in favor of some Northroads from a Raleigh 3 speed, and I put on a friction shifter to work the rear derailer. I removed the front derailer. I changed the tires to some cheap IRC slicks, and rode the bicycle just like that for a long time.

The 1997 Diamondback Outlook, later known as 'Tall Cool,' was the bicycle that I parked outside in Philadelphia so I wouldn't need to take my 'better' bicycle up and down a set of stairs just to run a short errand. Tall Cool stayed parked on the corner of 46th and Locust for many months.

I added a rack and used hose clamps to securely attach a milk crate. After that, Tall Cool seemed to have a foot in the door, and became my main bicycle in that sneaky manner. At one point, I chose TC for a long summer trip to the beach. We went 120 miles in a day just with the milk crate setup and bulky tires. The inverted tread of the tires hummed across smooth pavement, and the cheap stock saddle did not feel good at the end of the ride. But TC proved itself to me that day.

Major upgrades in components came after recovering this bicycle months after it was stolen. Someone took off on the bike when I left it leaning on a wall for a minute to change clothes in my van in Key West. I used my status as bicycle shop employee to order new parts for what I thought would be a replacement bicycle. I bought a similar Diamondback frame on eBay, and equipped it with many nice parts. Soon after completing that build, I saw my beloved 1997 Outlook parked outside a grocery store unlocked. I hopped on and stole it right back!

I was overjoyed at recovering my bicycle. I took it right to the shop where I worked, and soon replaced all the parts with newer "better" components.

The next summer I went on a bicycle tour from Philadelphia to Bangor, Maine. Then I took a bus to Montreal and continued to ride along the Petite Train Du Norde, a beautiful rail-trail conversion that took three days to traverse. The trip took me one beautiful month to complete. I met wonderful people and camped wherever I found some trees at night.

Back in Philadelphia one drunk night, I crashed Tall Cool into a tall curb and bent the fork back considerably. I took a ride home in a friend's car and TC sat unused for quite some time. Back in Key West for another season, I met friends and had a need to ride the bicycle again. I had my father drop it off at a bicycle shop to be shipped down. Upon arrival, I rediscovered just how bent the fork really was. Ouch.

I went to Tightwad Bicycles off Duval St. and spied a black Diamond Back Outlook of the same exact dimensions. The bicycle was tucked amongst dusty-sexy mannequin legs and many doobies from marijuana cigarettes. The fork was a nicer Tange model with tapered fork blades. The bicycle was most likely the 1995 Diamond Back Outlook model. I paid $120 and took the new Outlook to where I was staying. I swapped the black fork onto Tall Cool, and everything in life was perfect again.