Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Bicycle Diaries

I can’t really explain why, but I somehow like knowing that David Byrne—like many of us—has spent years traveling with bikes and sneaking them into hotel rooms to assemble them with hex wrenches. It’s one of those covert experiences that bike geeks have in common, regardless of wealth or fame.

And like the rest of us, Byrne knows that traveling by bicycle is far more enjoyable and liberating than driving a car. He has been riding in New York City since the 1970s, and routinely took a bike on tour back in the ’80s when he was traveling with the Talking Heads so that he could spend his days exploring new cities instead of getting wasted in his hotel room. He has been traveling with a bike ever since.

Along the way, he’s been a student of architecture, traffic, urban design, globalization, politics, art, music, human rights and any other subject that stimulated his mind. Eventually, he decided to put his observations down on paper, resulting in his latest book, Bicycle Diaries, which was recently sent to me by the folks at Viking, Byrne’s publisher. Viking is obviously marketing the book to cyclists, but it’s a curious strategy, because it’s only partially about riding bikes. It’s also about all the other topics that interest Byrne.

Byrne isn’t a cyclist in the conventional, hardcore, sense. He doesn’t go for Lycra, weird shoes or flashy jerseys. He just finds it more fun, healthy and sustainable to explore cities and zip around to parties and gallery openings by bike instead of in a car. And the guy gets around. He has pedaled through the funkiest sections of many American cities, and explored the likes of Istanbul, Manila, London, Buenos Aires and Berlin. Few bicyclists have his range of travel experiences.

It’s an unconventional book to market in the bike world, because it contains very little of the standard content of a book about riding—you won’t learn a thing here about eating, training, equipment, etc. Then again, it seems to be an unconventional book to market in any world. It’s something of a David Byrne manifesto. And that’s not a bad thing, if you’re curious about one of the most interesting minds in music.

If nothing else, I recommend reading Byrne’s chapter on New York, as well as the book’s epilogue, which contain the most detailed information on his bicycle advocacy and thoughts on what cities can become if people embrace the change that bicycles can bring.

It just might be enough to make you believe that everything doesn’t always have to be the same as it ever was.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Don't screw yourself

The weather dudes are predicting our first snow of the season tonight, so I just came up from the garage after installing the wheelset with studded tires. After I sat down with the ol’ laptop, I found one of the signs of early winter on Craiglist—homemade studs for sale on Craigslist. They’re typically made with screws from a hardware store, and almost always have only a tiny fraction of the number of studs they’d need to have any chance of working decently.

I understand the desire to attempt this hopeless stunt. I studded my own tires my first winter in Alaska. I spent most of a weekend sitting on a stool, twisting dozens of screws through a perfectly good set of knobby tires. I even did it by hand, because I didn’t have a power drill. I guess it’s just a stage that winter bikers have to go through in their early years. Doing it yourself seems frugal and self-reliant.

It’s goddamned stupid, is what it is.

Those tires sucked. I’m lucky I got through that first winter without sliding under the wheels of a car. And all the other homemade studded tires I’ve seen? They sucked, too. After a few years in Alaska, I “upgraded” to a pair of inexpensive—but manufactured—studded tires. In a way, they sucked even more, because I was fooled into thinking I could trust them. And I could, until about the fourth week, when sections of dry pavement had filed the soft studs into useless nubs that sent me slamming into the ground every time I hit glare ice. I'd had more than enough when I spent eight weeks with what was likely a broken elbow.

I finally broke down and invested in a pair of Nokian Extremes, thinking they’d be a bargain if they kept me out of the emergency room. Soon, I realized that riding on ice was fun instead of terrifying. Quality, long-lasting studs ... and a shit ton of ’em. Those suckers have nearly 300 knobs per tire, and every stinkin’ one has a stud in it. They make for a heavy tire that’s worth every gram.

Now I wince when I look at the homemade studded tires for sale on Craigslist, and feel bad for the people about to buy and try them.

I hope they survive their experiments, and later discover the wonders of Nokians and Schwalbes, instead of deciding that riding on ice is as maniacal as it looks.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

First place in Boston

Congratulations to Carl Battreall, whose documentary on Alaska winter biking — Fat Bike — just won first place at the Boston Bike Film Festival!

IndieAK Films: Convincing the world we're nuts, but having a damn good time.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

A high-class crowd

A few weeks ago, someone in Southern California found this blog after Googling “bicycling is an overpriced yuppie sport.”

I thought that was a pretty strange way to get here, considering this blog is—I’m reasonably certain—pro-bike.

Then I remembered walking across a tiny street between the beach and my hotel in Santa Barbara last October and hearing the buzz of tires on pavement behind me. I turned around to see a pack of about 20 roadies wearing color-coordinated kits and pedaling very high-end bikes.

The collective value of that group’s gear could have paid for a nice house in many parts of the country. Style matters in a town like Santa Barbara—I don’t think I saw a simple pair of black, logo-free Lycra shorts the entire three days I was there. And all the fancy bikes, when they weren’t being ridden, seemed to be on the roof racks of shiny new cars that couldn’t be touched for less than $45K.

So I suppose that in SoCal, if you’re a working-class stiff who commutes on a freeway and lives from paycheck to paycheck, seeing a few scenes like that might make it easy to view cycling as an overpriced yuppie sport. That’s a shame.

As another Frigid Bits season gets under way, I find myself wishing that the person who typed that search phrase into Google a few weeks ago could do a night ride and then stand around the burn barrel with a bunch of Alaska winter mountain bikers.

Yeah, there are usually some pretty expensive fat bikes scattered around, but they’re more likely to be in the beds of battered pickups than on the roofs of European sedans. The riders wear fleece and ripped Carhartts, and instead of looking down their noses when someone rides up on a Frankenbike, they check it out and respect the rider for making it work.

When the flames are rising and the snow is falling in a dark parking lot on a Saturday night in January, those are the people who prove that this ain’t no overpriced yuppie sport.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Bend over the check-in counter

Can't remember why I do it, Oh, maybe I can.
An honest man these days is hard to find.
I only know we're living in an unforgiving land.

And a little lie can buy some real big piece of mind.

—Randy Newman, “Big Hat, No Cattle”

I’ve long believed that the people who set airline baggage fees are on the same rung of the evolutionary ladder as used-car salesmen. In other words, at the low end of multicellular organisms.

For years, cyclists have taken it in the shorts when flying with their bikes. Anything in a box the same size and weight as a bike flies for a lower charge, as long as it’s declared as anything but a bike. Skis, golf clubs, you name it, they all cost less.

The fee for traveling with a bike can be outrageous. On Delta airlines, it’s $175 each way on domestic flights. Hell, that’s higher than the cost of a seat on some domestic flights. That’s wrong. I’d even say immoral.

That’s why I’ve never had a problem with lying about the contents of my cargo. I’ve often seen the baggage fee for my hard case drop by 50 to 75 percent simply because I told a counter agent it wasn't a bike. The size and weight didn’t change, but the charge did.

On our recent trip to Moab, one of the guys in our group paid $350 in roundtrip fees for his bike. Another guy in our group—me—paid $125. Why? Because my case is designed in such a way that it wouldn’t necessarily have to be carrying a bike, and I have no moral problem with declaring the contents as being something that flies for less.

I don't understand why the bike community continues to accept such discrimination. Huge numbers of people have taken up cycling in recent years. I’ve read magazine articles calling it “the new golf,” meaning group rides are where big business deals are often struck. The “Lance Effect” has pulled in everyone from laborers to Wall Street titans, and you know plenty of lawyers are in the mix.

So what I want to know is, why hasn’t one of them led the charge for a class-action suit demanding fair fees from the airlines? Hell, I was invited to join a class-action suit against Apple because one version of the iPod Nano worked just fine but scratched too easily! And yet nobody's decided to sue over egregious and discriminatory charges for bike boxes?

C'mon, all you lawyers. I'm startin' to lose respect for ya. It's time to stand up for fairness.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Baby's got back

The latest Fatback is so stylish
it inspired this ad that might never
see the light of day, but should.

That new titanium Fatback
is a hot-looking machine.
It's nice to see some real style
coming to snow bikes.

I don't suppose I could persuade
my mother-in-law to buy me one for Christmas ...

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

School of Rock

Ever since an infamous ride after a bunch of fresh snow fell on Blue Dot trail a couple of winters ago, the people who were there that night have enjoyed quoting The Grouch’s summation of the event: "It was a great ride until it started to suck ass."

As I review my recent trip to Utah and Colorado, I find myself wanting to paraphrase: I sucked ass until it turned into a great ride.

There’s just no sugarcoating it. I stunk up the joint for a couple of days. I didn’t remember how to trust good traction. I couldn’t regain the feel of shifting weight and lifting wheels as we rode over technical features. Worst of all, I was gutless until those skills slowly started to return. A couple of nasty crashes over the past couple of years made me too conservative.

I’m still not sure where the line lies between wimpy and wise, but I think I was on the wrong side of it. As the Monkee later put it, I was a contender for the Golden Binky Award.

The Golden Binky isn’t funny unless somebody else is winning it.

It wasn’t until the third day of riding—on Sovereign, my new favorite Moab trail, by the way—that I felt competent. I felt a little better each day for the rest of the week.

All I can do now is store the memories away and hope I can retain some of my sharpened skills for next summer. Our technical features are different in Alaska. Damp roots and rocks are pretty much the opposite of slickrock (which is anything but slick).

Ultimately, any bike trip is really about the company you keep and the fun you have. In that sense, I had a week of epic good times. But anyone who doesn’t try to learn from riding new terrain is a fool, and the Moab/Fruita region is like a college of mountain biking.

I hate being in remedial classes.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Tater tot

Hangin' with the famous Tater in downtown Fruita

One of the high points of Fruita was meeting Tater, the guy who hangs out downtown and greets visitors at Aspen Street Coffee and Over the Edge Sports. He has been called Fruita's unofficial mayor, and he just might be officially the town's nicest guy.

He'll shake your hand repeatedly, give you a hug or three, and he loves to talk about getting craaazy. Have your picture taken with him, and he'll probably give you a kiss on the cheek afterward, even if you're a guy.

He's a local institution. The good kind. He's pure, unadulterated kindness, and he has enough good taste to hate the Beatles. He's an oversize personality in an undersize package.

And he's a reminder of what I love about Fruita: It's a small town. The trails may be world-class, but it's still a quiet place where a guy like Tater can safely ride to his favorite spots and greet many of the visitors. It's the kind of town where a coffee shop will let him hang out, and the bike shop will fix his flat tires.

In Moab, you can reasonably assume that most people you see on a downtown sidewalk are tourists. In Fruita, you know it's pretty obvious that you're the tourist.

When I grabbed breakfast at Pancho's Villa a couple of mornings last week, I was the lone mountain biker in a joint full of cowboy hats, fertilizer caps, and locals who all knew the waitress had only four more days to work before she retired and left town. And I'm not positive, but I think she was the same person who served me breakfast when I was there five years ago.

I liked the trails and the town even more on this trip. I hope it won't be another five years before I return to the land of Mike the Headless Chicken. I hope the town is still unspoiled when I go back. And I hope Tater will still be there to call me "ringman."

Sunday, October 11, 2009

As good as it gets

An epic vacation is winding down. It's time
to face the tortuous flight home after
seven straight days of riding in some of the
most incredible mountain-biking terrain
in the world: Moab, UT, and Fruita, CO.
I'll sort all this shit out in later posts after I have time
to digest everything. For now, the pics can do the talking.

Harter on the slickrock at Bartlett Wash

Jules descends Porcupine Rim singletrack

The Bike Monkee on Sovereign

Heather on Handcuffs

And Jules sums up the whole experience

Friday, October 09, 2009

Vacation Fingers

Bicycles & Icicles is almost ready to return.

In the meantime, I have a puzzle to
keep you briefly entertained: Find
the Fabulous Flipoff in this latest
entry to the Famous Finger Gallery.

Thursday, October 01, 2009

Gone missing

(Thanks to Bokor Fan for the photo)

Big shit be happenin' at the
Bicycles & Icicles World Headquarters.

Good shit. Epic shit. The kind that leaves
me no time for this shit. The blog
is on hiatus for a few days.