Grandfather’s Axe

Grandfather’s Axe

The crunch of finely ground dirt and gravel under my tires seems to amplify my sense of speed in the early-morning mist. That peculiar sound adds a sense of urgency, of pursuit. It is fitting given the way the path winds between some of the Revolutionary War’s most important sites in Minute Man National Historical Park.

It is a road for remembrance just after dawn. British and American flags sprout like spring buds from cracks in stone fences. This testament, while somber, is also a beautiful reminder of why a simple trip by bicycle can be imbued with so much more when you can lose yourself in your surroundings.

Such practiced reverie takes work. Yet I was regularly preoccupied during my first solo outings along Battle Road. It was not angst over how much history I have forgotten, something indeed worth worrying about, but because I kept asking myself if my bike’s carbon fork was up to even this mild unpaved path. Doubt in your bike is a terrible thing, be it during a 50 M.P.H. descent or a mellow morning spin.

I have a lot of history with my bike—a Litespeed Firenze bought the year before my oldest daughter was born on the other side of the country nearly nine years ago. When you have a bike for this long, it changes with the miles. It has to. With each ride you come to understand what you want from it and what its limits are. You add a longer 130 mm stem. A lighter handlebar. A Thomson seatpost. Fresh wheels. A black Selle Italia Turbomatic 4 saddle makes way for a white Fi’zi:k Aliante. Yet the bones, the titanium frame and carbon fork, were constant. They were the kind of reliable mates we want our kids to grow up and marry.

Or so I thought. A tear-down cleaning this summer revealed the fork was not the faithful partner I thought it was. What were once beautiful long, slender legs were ravaged by road acne and the kinds of scars you might get from a prison knife fight. Suburban singletrack and clip-on fenders in winter months had not been kind. I’d hardly noticed the change over the years.

I weighed watchful waiting, to borrow the medical term, because I was put off by the cost of a new carbon fork. I was as close to being able to get a new bike as I had been since I bought this one a decade ago yet the timing was just not quite right. Then on a ride I had an epiphany. What made the decision easy was thinking about the cost of a new Enve fork in terms of insurance co-pay payments. A catastrophic fork failure is pretty much guaranteed to result in Boston’s finest full white-coat experience, so from that perspective the upgrade economics suddenly made sense. The fork cost me about 10 co-pays. The matte-black Enve fork has stout, straight legs so exquisitely muscular I could not bear to put a zip-tied speed sensor on them. So now I ride without a computer.

The smile I had after my first ride with the new fork was shiny-red-bike-under-the-Christmas tree wide. This was indeed a new bike and I had a 6-year old’s grin. It climbed definitively better, especially out of the saddle. On my loop out to Battle Road, it handled the deep-woods rollers with a poise in the dirt that I did not think was possible.

Philosophers can debate for hours the question of is an object new or still the same when you replace its individual elements. “Grandfather’s axe” some call it, for if you replace the handle and head on your grandfather’s old axe is that the same tool he once used? This question is also dear to the cyclist, even those who have only experienced the joy of an upgrade to a more supple set of tires or a saddle that actually fits. As bike engineering becomes more refined and integrated frames become the norm, it will be a question with a different answer in 10 years time. It may not be possible to take a production carbon bike in 2024 and make the kind of transformative changes that I can today.

Now when I confidently ride down Battle Road I do feel I am riding a different bike than the one I walked out of a San Francisco bike shop with so long ago. I also can answer the philosopher’s question: it is the same bike. In fact, it is better.

Only time will tell whether I will say the same thing about my next bike.

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10 comments

  1. Shawn S.

    Yep, bike “part” failures do occur after a number of years…….On a long adventure ride in my neck of the Gorge area (Pacific NW) a few years back…., on a circa 1994 steel frame that had just over 60 thousand km’s on it…, on the beginning of a wonderful, long climb out of Stabler, WA…, I had a crankarm break on me…… Of course the crankset (Campagnolo New Record) was older then the frame…… Fortunately no injuries were inflicted other then the mindful thought of riding back 35 miles, pedaling with one leg, to where my truck was parked……. Ah but the early Fall weather was stupendous, and after a gradual 5 miles or so of downhill…., a very considerate outdoor adventuresome couple were kind enough to be going my way and offered me and my bike a ride…………Life was grand…

  2. Tom in Albany

    So, for me, it’s not grandfather’s axe if you change out the handle. That’s where he put it to work. The head, is probably something he sharpened who-knows-how-many-times. But, still, putting my hands where he gripped it is the allure.

    For the bike, I’ve changed the wheelset, replaced the transmission, and the seat (trashed the original one). The frame, fork, cranks, brakes, stem, and seatpost are really all that is left of my original ’99 Serotta CTi. The parts that don’t really move and rarely die in a crash. Is it the same bike, probably. I’m not the same rider though, that I was in ’99 so, is it still applicable?

  3. tj

    My grandfathers axe was/is also a Litespeed, in my case a titanium Classic, circa 2000 ,( round tubes, level top tube, like a proper bike should have) bought when family resources finally made a new bike purchase ok. It was supposed to be my “ten year bike” when new. So far its had 3 groupos , more than a few new saddles and 3 or 4 crash preempting bar/ stem changes. The fork change is now underway after reading your cost/benefit analysis. ( Also because I seem to need a higher handlebar than I used to.) The original plan was to get an “all day” bike and venture into the fondo/century scene a decade (or two) after my initial racing career had fizzled out. Low and behold, the racing bug bit again as a master aged rider and the century/fondo thing never did happen. The bike, however , performed in all types of races. In spite of lighter, more aggressive, shop team bikes taking a brief hold of my attention, I kept coming back to the Classic, albeit with the parts recycled from the latest race bikes. No problem in crits, climbs or gravel roading. Now all I am debating is if converting it to a travel bike with sns couplings is worth the cost for an assault on alp d’huez when the bike is 15 or so years young. It carried me up in under an hour, back in the day. Hopefully it will again.


    1. Author
      August Cole

      Tom in Albany – That’s the crux of it: we probably change more than our bikes do over a defined period of time. Were it only possible to upgrade/replace as easily… some day perhaps, and maybe even Shimano will offer lumbar discs and patellar joints!
      Tj – A proper bike indeed. I expect a new carbon fork will change the ride for the better, particularly if you’re racing in a pack.

  4. Pat O'Brien

    I enjoyed that piece. I think the head of the axe is like the frame of the bike; it is the soul. Since I have put on used parts on new frames on 3 bikes in the garage, I have to pay more attention to the wear on those old parts. But, the new frames made all 3 of them like brand new bikes when we rode them.

  5. Ron

    Great piece! I have a new job, and thus, some new income. Time for a new bike! Nah, not really. I’m happy with the road bikes I already own. Plus, I’m commuting daily and with more work, just not able to fit in that many long road rides right now. Oh well, change is good, so is a seriously incredible kick to my bank account. Keeping the spouse happy makes long rides easier to fit in:) My life is about to undergo a huge change, so I think the bikes can remain in their current, rather nice stage.

    And, great reasoning on the fork! I just had my MagicShine headlight die (bad connections, it comes and goes, not cool on long, fall country rides) and it seems the company has gone bust too.

    I’m looking at the Lezyne MegaDrive. Not cheap. Than a pal said…yeah, but can you put a price on not getting run over by a cager? Or, not ending up 50km from home, under the moon, and without a light?

    Not so expensive when you look at it like that.

  6. brucew

    My four-seasons all-conditions commuter is very much a grandfather’s axe bike. A 2006 model purchased NOS in autumn 2007, other than the frame itself, the only parts remaining from the original purchase are the left STI lever, front brake caliper and the bottle cage bolts. Everything else has been replaced at least once. Some things broke, others wore out, and some were changed for fit and personal preference.

    My other two bikes were purchased frameset-only, and originally hung with bits from the spare parts bin. After deciding they were keepers, over time the second-hand parts have been replaced with either new (on one bike) or newer second-hand (the other) parts.

  7. Pingback: Grandfather’s axe | August Cole

  8. August III

    “Grandfather’s axe”, indeed. Not only your title, but the deep feeling in your writing brought back the wonderful memories I had as a young boy actually learning the value of a well maintained axe. You see, my grandfather, too, was a firefighter. And, he taught me the lessons of maintainance, sanding off the rust and oiling the head, smoothing the handle. He taught me to care for my things, especially those upon which life may one day depend. With only two parts, the sole advance was the advent of fiberglass handles.

    As I sit with my grandsons, telling them the stories of my Pop, describing for them my lessons on life and the job, I am certain to think back and remember this moment when your article so unexpectedly took me back to a wonderful place in time. Thanks for sharing your eloquence.

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