The ongoing parade of new bike and gear reviews have, at times, had the ability to overwhelm the reviews written on those products we ought to remember. I began thinking about the cycling experiences that profoundly changed my perception of bicycles, shaping what I believed a bicycle could be, and the experiences one could enjoy on one.
I’ve assembled a series of vignettes of different experiences and recounted the bike I was riding at the time. Many of these moments have in common the fact that I was descending, but that isn’t the story for each of these experiences, which is why this is more than a compendium of going downhill.
1. Test ride, Miele Team
I bought a used Miele Team based on a single test ride. I wore Teva sandles and my mechanic’s apron, but by the time I made the second right turn on my brief (five minutes—tops) test ride, my brain was screaming ‘holy cow.’ Relative to the experiences I’d had on road bikes up to that time this was more lively and electric. It was as if I’d spent a lifetime eating tree bark and had just been introduced to M&Ms.
It’s still hard to say exactly what was so special about the bike, but I can share the following details. The frame was handbuilt by Miele’s expat builder, Giuseppe Ferrara (Miele was a Canadian company). It was equipped with Campy Super Record and that was my first ride on Super Record. The wheels were tubulars and though I was familiar with the ride of tuburlars, the wheels were lightweight and easy to accelerate. The bike was part of a limited run produced in 1984 identical to the bikes made for the Canadian National Team that competed at the ’84 Olympics in Los Angeles. Steve Bauer would go on to win a Silver Medal on just such a bike.
2. Mont Ventoux, Seven Cycles Axiom
In 2001, after riding the Seven for some four years, that I had an experience that was nearly religious. I was descending the north side of Mont Ventoux toward the town of Malaucene. There’s a long—5k—section of road that features only the slightest of bends and averages more than eight percent. During that drop, my speed never dropped below 51 mph. I know that you can go faster on a bike, that many people have gone a good deal faster on a bike. What I found remarkable on this ride was how calm the bike remained at this speed. Because I was at such a high speed for such a long time, I had time to think about the lethality of any screw-up I might commit, about how relaxed the bike was—specifically how the front end wasn’t getting loose—and how the bike’s relaxed demeanor allowed me to stay loose and even enjoy an existential meditation about cycling at armor piercing speeds.
As I began entering the sharper turns, switchbacks and even steeper drops, I was able to stay focused and enjoy the ride. It was a thrilling descent I would love to have repeated the moment I reached bottom.
3. Sierra, Moser Leader AX
Early every spring there is a road race in the western Sierra called the Pine Flat Road Race. In 1998 conditions were cold and wet. Cold to the tune of not quite 50 degrees at the start and wet on the order of light rain that became driving within the hour. That day I made the mistake of wearing knee warmers rather than using embrocation and the knee warmers soaked up enough water that they tried to scoot down my leg. The leg grippers ended up chafing my skin so badly I was raw to the point of bleeding at the end of the race. The howls from the shower caused my roommate to ask if I was okay.
Late in the race is a significant climb followed by a bombs-away descent. The bike I brought to race was the Moser Leader AX I was reviewing. It had an insanely low bottom bracket—26.2mm—and was built from a steep tube set that was as stiff as Al Gore. I made it over the top of the climb a few minutes off the leaders and with three riders hot on the chase. I picked off two riders on the descent which I conducted with no brakes in driving rain. I couldn’t see anyone chasing me by the time I reached the bottom.
4. Los Angeles, Merlin Extralight ‘Cross
I spent one season riding a Merlin Extralight ‘Cross bike in the Urban Cyclocross series. The tubing was not particularly large in diameter and the wall thickness was miniscule. There were times when riding the bike felt a bit like I was pedaling a hammock.
What I came to realize was that it was possible to become accustomed to riding an especially flexible frame without the experience being alarming. You simply get used to it. I’m sure Sean Kelly could share a thing or two about this experience. For all that its handling wasn’t, pedaling in the saddle over rough ground was noticeably less jarring than on the steel bike I’d been riding.
5. Vercors, Eddy Merckx Alu Road
The Eddy Merckx Alu Road is far from my favorite bike. Out of the saddle, hands on the hoods, the bike was great fun. On rough roads, I got rattled like I was a maraca in the hands of Carlos Santana’s percussionist. It was despite this quality that I learned an important lesson: Trust the bike.
I was on an Erickson Cycle Tours trip through the Alps. We were on the southernmost portion of the trip, riding through a mountainous area that wasn’t technically the Alps. Just south of Grenoble is an area called the Vercors. Several thousand feet above Grenoble is the town of Villard de Lans, which has hosted the starts and finishes of several Tour de France stages. I was engaged in chasing James, a former Cat. 1 racer, and Stella, a Masters’ World Record Holder in speed skiing. She had managed to control a set of skis at better than 145 mph.
They would sprint down descents, accelerating toward switchbacks long after I thought braking was the reasonable choice. Unlike Formula 1, where they tell you not to let the driver ahead of you drive your car, I didn’t brake until I saw either Stella or James get closer to me. Very often I was braking after the braking bumps had begun. The sensation of braking so late was adrenal and I would arrive at the bottom of descents close on their wheels and with my heart rate knocking on my threshold. To this day I’m not sure I’ve descended with as much abandon.
6. Pyrenees, Serotta Ottrott
Reader lobbying encouraged Serotta to loan me an Ottrott for a review at Asphalt. I quickly grew to love the bike and valued its calm demeanor on twisty descents in Malibu and Palos Verdes. I attributed its character to a few important details. First, the bottom bracket was the lowest of any bike I’d ever ridden, some 26.0cm. The wheelbase was on the longish side relative to most bikes that size and then there was the fork. The Serotta F1 fork may not have been light and may have used intermediate modulus carbon fiber by the pound, but they managed to build a fork that felt so smooth you’d swear it featured suspension. My one and only criticism of that bike was its weight. My 58.5cm top tube frame weighed 3 lbs., 6 oz. By comparison, my all-ti Seven Cycles Axiom was built six years earlier and weighed 3 oz. less. If this bike had been even the slightest nick under 3 lbs., I would have called it the greatest frame of all time.
I called the folks at Serotta to see if they’d allow me to take it with me on a trip to the Pyrenees; they agreed. On descents that undulated, heaved, bumped and knocked, the Ottrot performed like a Swiss banker—with calm, unperturbed assurance. That’s not to say I didn’t encounter some descents that made me nervous. The west side of the Col de Marie Blanque made me wonder how bantamweight Spanish climbers on the ONCE team made it down that descent on aluminum Giants. I just couldn’t fathom how they managed, not without the benefit of daily training on a mechanical bull.
The Ottrott confirmed to me beyond doubt that bikes with lower bottom brackets perform better on descents. That’s not to say you can’t get downhill on a bike with a high-ish bottom bracket, such as that of the 27.2cm-high Specialized Tarmac, but if you want a bike that is as Braman bull relaxed and Olympic gymnast nimble, a bike with a low bottom bracket will give you what you seek. And so far as I know, Serotta is the only builder doing anything approximating production work with a bottom bracket that low.
It’s an interesting grab-bag of bikes. Some are favorites, some not, but each was memorable for one reason or another. I think most bikes give us teachable moments; it’s up to us to pay attention.
One of the greatest adventures of my newly minted career as a bicycle mechanic was when I was walked through my first overhaul. One Saturday just before New Year’s Eve, after we closed the shop up, the manager and I stayed behind, cranked up The Who and he began disassembling his Nuovo Record-equipped Cïocc.
Off came the wheels, then each of the cables and housing. Then he removed the brakes, the derailleurs, the cranks, and then the stem, headset and fork. Finally he disassembled the bottom bracket. As he removed each of the parts they went in the Safety-Kleen bath. He flicked a switch and left them to marinate. He coiled the cables before tossing them in the trash and he folded the chain on an old rag.
He showed me how to position the crank-bolt wrench so that you squeeze the wrench and crank arm toward each other to remove the crank bolts. But when he took the Park crank puller off the wall, a tool I had previously seen, but never used, the bicycle became as complicated as a Chinese puzzle, but with an entirely more thrilling solution.
He demonstrated how to hold the drive-side crank arm and use a Park Y-Allen to loosen the crank bolts. One sudden, firm twist broke the bolts free. I quickly learned the chainrings were tough to scrub clean.
With the frame stripped of everything save the headset cups, he washed down the frame and cleaned around the chainstay bridge, around the seatstays at the seat binder, at the head tube/down tube joint and behind the front derailleur braze-on.
We scrubbed the brakes and derailleurs down and used a rat-tail file to remove enough brake shoe material to remove any aluminum embedded in the brake shoes. They were placed on a clean rag to dry.
The quick releases received their own bath and then the non-drive-side locknut and cone were removed from each wheel’s axle. The ball bearings for the headset, each hub and the bottom bracket were placed in glass bowls, one for each size of bearing. After making sure the bearings were clean, we inspected them for scoring or any other sign of wear. Next, he took a rag, dipped it in the Safety-Kleen and then wiped shiny each of the bearing races and cones.
It was painstaking work, work for which only clear forethought and practiced technique could add speed. Satisfaction was proportional to effort.
We reassembled the wheels first; truing would happen the next weekend when he planned to glue on a new set tires. One finger-scoop-worth of Campy’s white lithium grease was applied to each race and then each bearing was placed like so many cherries into whipped cream.
When we spun the freewheel back on he showed me how to use the freewheel tool to tighten the freewheel onto the hub threads so that the rear derailleur adjustment wouldn’t be thrown off by trying to adjust the set screws relative to a not-yet fully tightened freewheel. It was fun to put my full weight into turning the wheel on the vise.
With the frame spun upside-down in the work stand, we finished off the headset and then re-inserted the fork and spun on the headset’s adjustable cup.
We reattached the derailleurs and brakes, and made sure to remount the front derailleur exactly where the clamp had made indentations on the braze-on. New cables ran from each lever. We cut new housing to match the lengths of the old spans. We only needed 4 and 5mm Allen wrenches and an 8mm box wrench. A quick stretch of the cables and then we tightened them once again.
A week later I decided I would overhaul my touring bike. When I realized that the hubs and bottom bracket used sealed bearings (which were pretty exotic for those days), I felt cheated; the experience was less thorough than I’d anticipated. It’s a bit like traveling to Paris with the expectation that you’ll get to speak French, only to have everyone there look at your shoes and speak to you in English.
A few months later I purchased a used Super Record-equipped Miele. The first thing I did was overhaul the bike and replace the brinelled headset with a Chris King—kind of ironic given my previous experience, but my time in shops had taught me that no headset was longer-lasting and less likely to brinell than the King.
As the years passed, overhauling my bike between Christmas and New Year’s became a tradition for me, much like the annual company New Year’s Eve party is for some folks, only this was a good deal more contemplative and peaceful.
These days I’ve see the overhaul as a metaphor for many aspects of my cycling life. Every year I break out the tape measure and goniometer and go over my fit with the help of friend who does fittings for a local shop. We break it down beginning with an examination of my flexibility and ending with a thorough examination of me on my bikes.
Last year, I overhauled my workspace in the garage, tossing out old crap, filling a box with stuff to sell on Craigslist and sorting the stuff I planned to keep. It was a catharsis, and because the adventure was novel as my first shave, it was exhilarating as well.
This winter I’m in the process of overhauling my fitness. An injury last year followed by the birth of my son left me adrift of my usual mileage; I was as unacquainted with my usual fitness as the incarcerated are with take-out. Getting me in my jeans was as difficult as passing a rich man through the eye of a needle.
So this winter I overhauled my riding routines. I’ve sworn off the fastest group rides that are a normal part of my riding week. I’m riding on my own more, and I’m wearing a heart rate monitor—not for the hard efforts; rather, to remind me just how easy easy is these days. It’s kind of a will-governor, if you will.
I always derived immense satisfaction from running through the gears one last time while the bike was still in the stand, checking the throw on the brake levers and then removing the bike to pump up the tires before a quick inspection spin. I’m not sure what this personal overhaul will yield, and it will be hard to say just what finished is as our lives are unfinished until departure. Until then, I will stick to the process. I know the process results in satisfaction.