Monday, April 30, 2012

Proper Thanks

If any of you want to thank me for my tireless advocacy of sanity and connection to ourselves and our planet through our bicycles... This would look painfully beautiful on my root beer brown Vaya.

I'm just sayin'.

Update: I've since found a brown I think would go even better -- though it's not leather, sob!

Sunday, April 29, 2012

New All-'rounders

There are some beautiful bikes being built out there under the "touring" rubric that might do very nicely the "all-'rounder/monstercross/Swiss Army bike" thing that my beloved Vaya does for me so very well.

The Brodie Elan

The Steelwool Rover
If you think you're a dyed-in-the-wool roadie (as I did), get on one of these do-all bikes with at least 32 mm tires and go ride some gravel or light singletrack. You'll see.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Bird's Nest Satori

Every April, I am stunned by Nature's prestidigitation.

What she does with the tiny seed-specks my wife pushes into in the chilly black soil of our garden seems nothing short of a miracle. Just a handful of days and a sprinkling of water later, there is life where there was none. It's surpising how a fragile stem and a couple of pebble-sized leaves can convey so directly the rock-hard durability of Life. It literally never quits.

This is a message I am very attuned to this Spring, after the death of my beloved father last Fall. I still ponder the whereabouts of the Life that was in him.

On the external wall by the window at my office, there is a metal conduit which accepts power and phone lines from the nearby utility pole on the sidewalk. Sticking out of that conduuit are tufts of straw and twig, and from within those tufts emerges the loudest and most constant peeping sound I've ever heard. There are baby sparrows in there, and they are hungry. More than hungry -- they're demanding nourishment to power their new physical presence on this planet. Their parents flit back and forth from the ground to the nest all day, every day, seeds and other tidbits in their beaks, trying to sate the little guys' appetites.

While I talk inside with parents worrying over their own children's more human, but no less urgent, cries of need, trees all around the neighborhood explode in a blur of white and pink petals.

Spring is certainly an easy lesson to take. From hardness, softness. From grey, technicolor.

November is a little harder. The shriveling, the fading, the drying-up. Finally, quiet and cold. I don't like it in the seasons, and I resist it fiercely in myself and my loved ones. I would have a one-way street, all growth and no decay.

And yet, as my body tires and creaks more than ever, my heart and mind expand. I am decaying and blossoming all at once.

Take that, November. And April, too.

Sunday, April 22, 2012

A Lovely Rainy Day in Four Images

A slice of heaven on Juggler Meadow Road, five miles from my door

A commuter train rockets by the Cushman Café

Waiting for a hot cup of tea to take the chill off the rainy day. Riding home, it was pouring and 48 degrees.

The cup of tea -- and the musicians, on break. The woman who belongs to the elbow on the right turns out to own a tri bike with a cow-print paint job and pink pedals.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

The Joy of Neighborhood Trails

This evening, as I got in the car after a long day in the office, it was a perfect 68 degrees and sunny out. Mrs. V is away for the week, and I was sorely tempted to ride.

But I promised her before she left I would get a small list of household chores done, so when I got home, I sadly, dutifully put on my work clothes and picked up the paint brush.

HA! If you believed that one, I've got an old radio show about aliens invading New Jersey that'll scare the peewaddins out of you!

Got home, jumped into some shorts, hopped on the Vaya and flew down to that network of neighborhood dirt trails I discovered last week. I can't stop thinking about them, even during the work day. They're just perfect for monster cross -- challenging but not super-technical, with some nice helpings of deep sand here and there to improve one's power numbers. You can do a little roller-coaster action, or stomp up stupid-steep ramps. Just enough roots and crap on the ground to keep my head up and make me feel tough when I roll right over 'em with my new 45 mm tires. (Heh – gotta pay my friend for those...)

Had just enough time to discover a few more short branches of trail. There's not much down there, all told – maybe you could put together a mile or two without repeating any segments – but it's so stinkin' fun, I don't care. Plus, I haven't seen it all yet -- every time I go, I have to turn back without exploring one or two more turns. Clearly, this is going to be my go-to short-ride for the Vaya. (Hope I don't get kicked off of it. No one's yelled at me yet, though I'm sure it's all private property; there're plenty of houses and barns visible.)

I just can't believe how lucky I am to have even  a small network that's so fun and so close to my house -- maybe two miles, max.

As I rolled back, the sun was edging the tops of the trees, the breeze was warm-cool, birds sang their springtime hopefulness from the branches.

I will get to that brush clearing and cabinet painting this week... maybe if it rains...

Saturday, April 14, 2012

Monster Cross: A Primer

What do you get when you put fat, knobby tires and disc brakes on a bike with 700c wheels and drop handlebars?

Actually, no one seems to know for sure.

Some call it an "all-'rounder." Some call it a touring bike with fat tires. Some call it a 29er with drop bars. Most people don't know what to call it -- or why anyone would want to ride it.

One moniker seems to be gaining popularity, though. More and more folks agree: It's a monster cross bike.

It's actually not a brand-new idea. People have been outfitting their mountain bikes with drop bars, their 'cross bikes with tires too fat to be UCI-legal, and their touring bikes with rubber wide enough to handle towpaths, bridle paths and dirt roads, for a long time now. But I think the burst of productivity in bikes like my Salsa Vaya -- odd-looking bikes meant to do many things well, though no one thing perfectly -- has fed the flames. People are turning their Salsas, their Surlys, their Singulars, into monster cross bikes in droves, because these bikes are part of a new breed; not too proud to rock awkwardly-handsome, burly gear... geometry stable enough for dirt of all kinds... and frames built for enormous cassettes and long-throw derailleurs and even disc brakes (as on the Vaya).

They're not mountain bikes, but they handle almost any dirt you can throw at them. They're not pure road bikes, but they handle fine on tarmac.

Actually, there are as many opinions about what qualifies a bike as monster cross as there are people riding them (e.g., see comments on this early conversation about the genre). Some say the tires have to be larger than 35 mm (otherwise it qualifies for a genuine cyclocross bike) but no larger than 1.9 inches (or it's really a drop-bar 29er). Most agree that the drop bars are necessary, because part of the beauty of monster cross is the ability to settle in on hard-packed gravel, dirt, or even paved roads and get a little roleur action in, often on the way to one's next dirt segment.

In the last few years, the bike companies producing these weird new rides have further blurred the lines by generating a new style of handlebar, with short drops and widely-flared bottoms (for cranking up steep ramps or providing balance at low speeds). Get some history of that here. Some of them don't even look like drop bars -- or any bar I've seen before, though they're quite handsome, in that quirky way I like:

Singular Gryphon with Salsa Woodchipper bars (Photo: Guitar Ted,
 It seemed inevitable that races would start cropping up for this discipline, and indeed, they have. And if you do an image search for "monster cross bike," you'll see thousands of examples.

Niche or not, it's here. Maybe not to stay, but it's here.

*     *     *

When I bought my Salsa (from my terrific local shop Hampshire Bicycle Exchange), I chose Salsa's Bell Lap bars to finish it out -- a lightly flared number very, very comfortable on the hoods (see photo in blog title banner, above, for best view of the flare angle).  With its relaxed geometry and rough-road provenance, the Vaya is really a quintessential candidate for a monster cross bike.

However, it was disqualified because it came with the splendid Kenda Small Block Eights in 35 mm width. Widest tires I'd ever ridden. They looked monstrous enough to me to conquer anything I'd be dumb enough to try to ride over.

Time passed. I ventured tentatively from the gravel roads to trails and single track. I gained a scant few of the skills one needs to navigate trails which I would have difficulty walking up (or down) without a bike anywhere near me.

I got hungry. I tried more and more. And as the trails got harder, I got more curious as to what wider tires would do for me. I scouted out the supply on the Web. Sadly, there is a dearth of tires between 40 and 45 mm (the largest size most folks will put on a Vaya). Manufacturers haven't quite caught up with this trend yet, and don't see much margin in producing an "in-between" tire. A few enterprising souls are out there, though, and couple months ago, I read about one such company on Black Mountain Cycles' Web site: Vee Rubber, a lesser-known firm based in Thailand.

Then, just last week, Chris at Hampshire Bike let me know he was selling a lightly-used pair of Vee X-C-X 1.75s -- or 45 mm. He let me borrow them for a test ride.

Without further ado, here is my handsome beast with a new, monstrous look:

Who could resist that rugged charm?

Plenty of clearance in front

Fat-tired bikes, you make the rockin' world go 'round
The test ride yesterday was a blast. I went out to that trail system near my house I told y'all about last week, and ended up going three times as far as I did the first and second rides there. With some hike-a-bike, I found a whole 'nother network of lovely, flowy stuff attached on the far side of the little mountain I started on. Oh boy oh boy oh BOY!

Suffice to say it was very different riding trails and single-track on fatter tires. (Duh...) I could have done same ride with my 35s, but I don't think it would have been as fun.

Now, they didn't help as much as I'd hoped in the piles of leaves on steep ramps. Note also that the lugs are pretty low-profile on this tire, so who knows what a more aggressive tire might have done. I'm a total newbie to MTB tires, and hope to find out more as I go. (Any suggestions in the comments section are welcome.) The Vees might be too mild for the stuff I'm trying these days, but I think at the low price I can nab them at, I might as well get started with them. I think they would do wonderful double-duty on steep gravel roads around here, with a few more pounds of air in 'em. (If I keep doing these washed-out, saw-toothed trails, though, I might just have to cave and get a full-on mountain bike. The Vaya doesn't feature MTB gearing, and I get pretty cooked, and lose traction a lot.)

The Salsa was already everything I love about cycling rolled into one bike. Now? A road bike, a trail bike, a gravel-grinder, and just about anything else I want. No one thing prefectly, but a lot of things well -- that just about describes me, I'd like to think.


Friday, April 13, 2012

Inspirational ≠ Insipid

  Inspirational writing can be annoying. It can sound like things a mother would tell her four-year-old child in a 1930s Frank Capra movie.  I suspect most inspirational writers don't live up to their own advice; if they do, they must be incredibly annoying people.

This week, I ran out of books to read (always a dicey time around our house), so I picked over my wife's picked-over bookshelves and found a little volume that surprised me: Live and Learn and Pass it On. Hundreds of people, age 5 to 95, were asked to make short statements about what they've learned in their lives.

The results are often earthy, funny, and inspiring. I sat down this morning to make a first pass at a list, just to see what it would look like. Given that life has been pretty stressful over the last year, it started out heavy on the "hard facts of life," but I got around to inserting some light in there, too.

Here, then, are some things that I've learned in 48 years of living, with no editing and in no particular order. The whole list took 15 minutes:

1.    I've learned that I know a lot less than I think I know, and the things I’m most certain about are sometimes plain wrong.

2.    I've learned that I know a lot more than I think I know. If something scares me, but I just start doing it, it works out.

3.    I’ve learned that most decisions and truths are relative (which is both comforting and disturbing). Make a move, don’t waste life worrying.

4.    I’ve learned that love is uncertain. But also a powerful sustaining force and bonding agent.

5.    I’ve learned that health is relative. You always have some, until you’re dead. Use it.

6.    I’ve learned that leisure is best taken in measure. Too much, and my mood slips downward.

7.    I’ve learned that a truly earnest politician is as rare as gold.

8.    I’ve learned that any company or work organization larger than 10 people has done things I won’t like.

9.    I’ve learned that the wonder and energy in a little child is a powerful tonic, and is very durable. It takes tons to disillusion a child.

10.    I’ve learned that the longer I live, the harder it is to keep that wonder alive. And the more important.

11.    I’ve learned that no one is all good. But some people are WAY more good than others.

12.    I’ve also learned that no one is all bad, with the same corollary.

13.    I’ve learned that life expresses itself in its purest form in Nature, and that time there is always well spent.

14.    I’ve learned that a lot of what happens to me – good or bad – is stuff I never thought would happen to me.

15.    Important corollary: I’ve learned that what I worry about rarely happens.

16.    I’ve learned that money is very important and helpful.

17.    I’ve learned that the most important things are my relationships, my health, a decent job, and having fun. Money isn't on that list.

18.    I may be learning that I will have more success – whatever that may mean – if I think I deserve more success.

19.    I’ve learned that unhappiness is tolerable even in overwhelming doses, and is always followed by happiness – sometimes in overwhelming doses.

20.    I’ve learned that two sunny, warm days in a row make me feel 19 again.

21.    I’ve learned that I have to do stupid, fun things to be able to be mature the rest of the time.

22. I've learned that I often can't remember the things I've learned when I most need them.

With that, I'm off to strap on the helmet and crash around recklessly in the woods. Please add your own tidbits in the comments section.

And get out there today -- time's a-wastin'.

Monday, April 9, 2012

A Different Kind of Easter Hunt

Easter brings rebirth to the Pioneer Valley.

Buds are tightly unfurling on local branches. Yards are blurring with colorful flowers. And Peeps, in all their sugary, chicky charm, have appeared in our kitchen. The winter felt long, even if abnormally warm. It's good to see life returning, riders out on the roads.

My first jaunt of the year on the Vaya today; I planned only to poke around little Lake Warner near our house in search of decent trails.

Old mill building converted to alluring home on the burbling dam at Lake Warner
No luck with rideable trails, but on the way back, climbing rustic Mt. Warner Road (my favorite neighborhood stretch) I noticed for the first time a wide trail starting at the side of the road, and no "Private Property" sign.

A camouflaged barn on rustic Mt. Warner Road
Ever on the lookout for trails near my house, and being on the very bike that was built for exploring such mysteries, I hung a right. Lo and behold... a network of trails stretched well into a secret patch of woods surviving quietly between farms and houses. Happy Easter to me!

I spied four ATVs trundling home on a far part of the trail as I entered, and, a few hundred yards later, an empty camp with six or so stumps set up in a sitting circle. Empty beer cans were strewn everywhere and overflowing a very large wooden box off to one side. I wondered if a mere cyclist on an effete (non-mountain) bike would be welcome on these trails. I didn't let the question stop me.

Further down the trail, I found a beautiful wreck of a pick-up truck.  I seized the photo opportunity.

Sculptural pick-up wreck...

...joined by sculptural dirt road bike

I poked around for half an hour or so, stringing together stretches that were rideable, though challenging on a bike more suited to gravel-road than single track. There was more trail, but I was expected at home. Hence, I made the obligatory "wrong turn on a new trail system as the sun was going down" on the way out. Got lost for 10 or 15 happy-scary minutes, pushing the bike through small forests of prickers and using the angle of the sun for navigation. There's no feeling quite as sweet as spotting the trail you rode in on after being lost.

You can bet I'll be returning soon to map out this little treasure. In the meantime, happy rebirth to y'all. May you feel new life in your life!

Sunday, April 1, 2012

The More Fool I (Tour of Flanders spoiler alert)

Ballan draws out Pozzato and Boonen for a decisive break on the Paterberg. (Photo from
Boy, was I an April Fool this year. I missed watching the Tour of Flanders -- my favorite spring race -- because I simply forgot to check the race calendar this week. I didn't even realize I missed it 'til the end of the day when I was checking headlines. Oh, the frustration!

Then I watched the recaps and read the articles, and thought, "Maybe it's just as well."

First, the directors deleted my favorite cobbled hill (everyone's favorite cobbled hill) from the course. Supposedly, this makes the race harder. Well and good, but it also robs it of classic Flandrian moments moments such as these from the previous two editions of this storied race. (Scroll down, once you're there.)

Next, there was Fabian Cancellara's sad, anticlimactic crash in the feed zone, which broke his collarbone and probably knocked him out for months. Seriously? In the food zone?

No Cancie-Boonen show-downs?? What can Flanders or Roubaix be without that feature? There is no joy in Mudville; mighty Cancie has crashed out. (Mudville -- get it? Roubaix? Yeah... I know.)

With all that, I did quite enjoy the very velodromic cat-and-mouse game that the three clear leaders of the day played with each other in the last kilometer, swerving from shoulder to shoulder, playing at sprints and being reeled in, marking, marking... and then, BOOM, they're off to the races! Very nice finish, indeed.

And I'll add that I have always rooted for Boonen in Flanders; it seems only natural for for a local strongman like him to take the top of the podium for a record third time.  I'm glad for him and his countrymen.

All's well that ended well, after all. And that will be my last Shakespeare reference of the day. (Did you catch the other one?)