Paul Flemming

Writing on Two Wheels

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Ride along for cranked posts on cycling and cycles
A from-the-wheels-up view of rides, builds and fixes.

Tuesday, December 12, 2017

Tandemic times

The organizing idea around here is the wondrous perfection of the bicycle as machine, how its basic principles of geometry and mechanics and efficiency make it endlessly fascinating.

For immediate purposes, if you can stipulate the truth of this then the next bit must naturally follow: If a bicycle is X, a tandem is, by necessity, at least Xx2 or maybe it’s X2 or perhaps instead I mean X+1. Point being if bicycle is good, then tandem is good and then some.

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I find in the meanwhile since the Hugo Black project, of lessons learned preparation and patience pay in virtues both expected and unforeseen – similar truths attain to the tandem with the tantalizing possibility of more. This something more is in the machine itself as well as the reach of the experience it offers, a patch of ineffable possibility transcending the already exceptional travel through time and space offered by bicycles featuring a single saddle.

In part, I project. The ride in June pedaling with my son was terrific and positive and inextricably linked to this Santana tandem.

In greater degree, I think, I now see the expanding possibility because of how little familiar I am with the Santana and how meaningful it may prove to Change that.

I have never once torn the Santana down, never replaced the cables, never repacked the grease in the hubs or the bottom brackets (all four of these had sealed bearings and were service-free in theory), never switched out the brake pads, and never put on a new chain.

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I’ve owned this second-hand, meticulously maintained tandem for 20 years. It’s such a rock-solid reliable harmony of frame and components that I pedaled it over thousands of miles with four different stokers on the back saddle with nary a problem more serious than a flat tire. It’s a testament to Santana’s bulletproof design and component specs and the over-engineered substitute cranks and brakes and bottom brackets and expensive, handsome two-tone paint job the previous owner put on the rig. Phil Wood. Top-of-the-line power brakes, lighter *and* stronger chainrings and cranks. The wheels are laced up with four-cross 48s.

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I kept the Santana running. Cleaned the chain and cassette, fine-tuned the derailleurs over the long pull of cable from the bar ends all the way back and looping around the rear dropout. I wrenched around on the caliper brakes as well as the drum brake.

I put new tape on the bars an added a bell.

It’s going to be something to strip this down to the bones and understand intimately its workings. I’ll get to know the Choctawhatchee Chariot in all its details. If I do it right, it’s going to ride so much better.

Tue, December 12, 2017 | link          Comments

Sunday, October 29, 2017

Restoration rarity

Has a 1993 Bianchi Nyala ever been restored? I think not. It’s nearly a quarter century old. When does an object become vintage? At what age an antique? Is affected insincerity required, because this project is irony-free. There is no statement, only utility. There is no cool factor, only the convenience of materials on hand.

It’s not a fixie. It’s not an artwork. It’s not precious. It is useful. It is bulletproof. It is comfortable.

There is nothing wrong with that.

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All the stuff I bought was from Velo Orange. I think they’re selling value components, done right. I wonder, as I do about so many places, about the business model and how it works. I hope it’s making money for good people.

I got a new bottom bracket with sealed bearings for under $40. I estimate the spinning resistance of the axle is reduced by a third. It spins smoove indeed.


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New canti brakes that, as you would expect, came with new unhardened brake pads. The components themselves featured fine adjustments to center and dial-in the posts precisely and, thus, improving performance markedly. These changes of course meant replacement of the OEM parts, a good thing in that the originals were plastic-clad crap.

I do not understand the bicycle business now or then. I suspect Bianchi merely assembled the Nyala after speccing out the parts not on the basis of how it worked, but rather how it fit into a budget to deliver margins and sales volume called for in a project prospectus. I was kind of doing the same thing, without having to worry about profit, only containing costs as effectively as possible and a theoretical minimum standard to meet.

I think I made the right decisions.

The headset – the shiny chrome buffed to a mirrored surface and etched with top-drawer graphics – is the essence of smooth. It looks good and does good. And all for $28. A bargain makes the high-performance action seem even more exceptional.

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The shifter mounts – going for a cool $65 – are spendy relative to the other parts going on this bike. Compared to other options for shifting (apart from the no-cost alternative of keeping the untenably ugly, rusting, plastic-swaddled, stubby shifters tenured in the position). The mounts in combination with old Suntour shifters from the origin story of the Cloud Bike do have a certain cache of coolness, of street cred as both a hack as well as the standard vintage hipness.

Refurbished parts are now as clean as the day of manufacture. In addition, they are almost certainly more effectively lubricated. The chain and drivetrain are tuned to A#. Pitting on the cones and races of the hubs are less than ideal, but excessive grease and special combo tightening down to a just-wobbling looseness clamped down to true spinning with a tight quick-release squeeze.

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As it came together, I was taken by how this bicycle, these components, this machine was achieving its highest possible function. It may be heavy, but the spinning resistance is as low as it goes at each point. It may feature discredited “advances,” but the elliptical chainrings certainly do no harm and are a great conversation starter. It may not hew to fashion, but it strikes its own distinctive profile and stakes a claim to bespoke virtue.

It’s a high bred hybrid.

Sun, October 29, 2017 | link          Comments

Saturday, October 21, 2017

Transforming from hybrid to high-bred

I was 29 years old when I bought this 1993 Bianchi Nyala in a Memphis bike shop off Germantown Road in unincorporated Shelby County. I thought this bicycle was remarkable with a gearing range beyond any I’d ever known and exotic with an elliptical chainring that orbited around the axle in an ovoid hitch-a-loop while rolling along on the none-more-grunge knobby tires. The tires were a skosh beyond 2 inches wide and encapsulated fat tubes holding air at 60 psi.

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The machine seemed a wonder to me as I rode it around the west side of West Plains, circumnavigating the golf course and over to the Meek’s Lumber, across the truck route of the federal highway and up the hill on the other side past the old Brill place. Then perhaps back and across and out beyond to a paved county road lined by roadside mailboxes and circling back to the subdivision and the neighborhood and the house.

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There were 21 gears. The mechanical advantage ranged from the comfortable gain offered by a modest 48-tooth chainring to an equally mild 13-tooth small-end sprocket. The granny gear and big sprocket offered a negative ratio to spin up steep grades.

Another day and my ride was more direct – out and back straight away on my street and unwaveringly proceeding westward, the concrete of the neighborhood giving way to chip seal beyond the city limits and graded dirt and gravel of the still-further reaches of the road until it gave out and curved into County CC.

First I cranked up, then I blasted down a snow-and-ice covered access road to Kyle’s Landing on the Buffalo National Scenic River in January on this Bianchi. This was the day after I was crowned Citizen of the Year by the Chamber of Commerce. You could look it up.

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I discovered two friends who asked me to join them on their early morning rides. I did, and couldn’t keep pace, even with the addition of higher-pressure slicks. (In response, I bought a used road bike. Suddenly, I was able to hold my friends’ wheels. This was destined to become the Cloud Bike.)

For the most part, I stopped riding the Bianchi then. Infrequently I would drag it out to a trail and give the off-road thing yet another try only to once again be by turns bored, overmatched, scared, and frustrated only to hang the bike for another long dormancy. Alternatively, and largely alternately, I’d make a concerted effort to city bike or even commute. Sweat and pants legs and rain showers and darkness and the special awfulness of carrying and using a U-lock would inevitably intervene to persuade me of my folly. I’d give it up.

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Here is where we find each other in Ye Olde Bike Shoppe. Lyssa needed a bicycle. The Bianchi needed to gain performance and lose weight with a few required parts replacements. The headset races, for instance, were pitted and no amount of adjustment would make the turning of handlebars smooth. I believe my other choices, the discretionary decisions, realized the greatest cost-benefit ratio – a new bottom bracket with sealed bearings were a low-cost winner, to name one.

I spent just about the same dollars on replacements and upgrades as I did on the original bicycle. Other changes were small but delivered outsize aesthetic improvements. I think the brake cable yokes, for example, are big wins.

The color scheme and design continuity among components is poor. It weighs a wee bit.

It rides like a champ, spins like a mother, and is a looker as a novelty.

We’ll walk through the particulars next time.

Sat, October 21, 2017 | link          Comments

Sunday, October 15, 2017

Cooking up what's next

Our ride to Pensacola last summer was a smashing success. Things went precisely to plan. Contrary to my usual practice, I did not plan too much, did not reach beyond our grasp, did not overdo. We were lucky in weather, mechanics and traffic.

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So why push it?

Because I can. 

There's a long stretch of focused, concentrated effort ahead at work, but at the end is the promise of spring break in mid-March. It got me plotting for something to focus on.

Avery and I pedaled the Old Spanish Trail at the end of June, a fake name used as marketing to sell a contrived route -- though its false claims to an explorers' provenance does not diminish its actual historic standing as a harbinger of interstate auto traffic.

Now I turn my eyes to another expedition, this one with more legitimate claims to an historical legacy that reaches back beyond the internal combustion engine. Traveling the Natchez Trace Parkway's run through Mississippi has plenty to recommend it, not least the fact it represents, as conceived, a ridiculous overreach and almost certainly impossible to repeat the good fortune of this year's trek.

Why not?

Sun, October 15, 2017 | link          Comments

Thursday, August 10, 2017

Wahoo Tour Day Four: By the Seashore

Day 4 opens with the promise of a shorter, cooler, flatter day than those before. Not mentioned, but just as true, our final day of riding  is destined to be more dangerous, more terrifying, and more beautiful than we could fathom while fueling up at the Waffle House steps away from our bed in Milton By The Interstate.

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We track back to shoot down Santa Rosa County with Escambia Bay to our right and Eglin AFB to our left. Road construction starts. The shoulder is narrow, closer to sand and orange barrels. At a bridge over our second crossing of the Yellow River (our first the day before) the shoulder disappears. We pass over swiftly and, by luck, without same-direction traffic. As we climb out of the drainage on the other side and with the pretense of a shoulder we are successively and successfully passed by dump trucks, oversized loads and various pickups showing a distinct lack of interest to share the road.

We do arrive at the shore, within sight and smell of the Gulf, turn right and gird for the assault on the Navarre Beach Causeway, a misnomer for the high span across the protected water of the bay.

Despite a game if ill-considered attempt, the walkway is too narrow to pedal across. As soon as I rub to a halt I should back it up and ride and over in the roadway but this I fail to do. Instead the narrow path becomes a catwalk of metal grillwork, disconcertingly clanky and all to easy to see-through to the whitecaps below ever-retreating as the height and anxiety both grow in lockstep.

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But over I get, and the reward is a distant horizon of beautiful dunes and surf to focus on and make my way across aided by a distraction of distinction. I shake the stress out of my fingertips and down Gatorade at the island Tom Thumb, prelude to the delight on its way.

Here we are on the final map of our adventure with benefit of cloud cover, stiff tailwind, and jade green waves. Dunes to our right. Breaking surf to our left. Straight on through the Gulf Islands National Seashore on Santa Rosa Island, a fascinating anomaly to fee-simple property ownership and, within memory and my own witness, overswept by the surge of Hurricane Ivan, a storm that left sand taller than I across the roadway on our current track.

On into Pensacola Beach and past familiar iconic sites from Palafox towers to spaceships to beach ball water towers. The sun burns through cloud cover. Traffic amasses at speed.

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I propose a sprint to the end and Avery agrees. Two lanes-full of vehicles speed by. We pedal up and over Santa Rosa Sound to the isthmus of Gulf Breeze, back into Santa Rosa County, and then over Three-Mile.

Our ride ends with a cruise along Bayfront Parkway and into resurgent downtown and still further to our final courthouse.

Avery and I pedal 213 miles. We have no mechanical problems, not even a flat tire. We have no physical problems besides sore bums. I do not bonk once. We take our time and do as we wish. The weather is perfect for time of year and location on planet. We get better along the way. We learn more about the world immediately surrounding us in these four days than many of its residents and virtually all of its visitors ever do. We understand the sadness of the closed business, weeds growing up through cracks of a disused parking lot. We share the joy of a family restaurant in a country town and feel in our bones the hard work and long hours these ventures require. Pine resin and tannin mix with heat and salt to waft through honey-bright yellow light of high summer. We know the plants in bloom, know the weight of the air we roll through.

There is no sense denying the treacly truth, either: It is an adventure both of us will remember and talk about the rest of our lives. Until the next one.
Thu, August 10, 2017 | link          Comments

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