Posts Tagged 'consumerism'

Choice-rich riding

Tonight’s bike commute home from Chapel Hill to Saxapahaw was decidedly a perfect summer evening ride, and I found myself prolonging it as long as possible. My bike tires left tracks through the yellow loblolly pine pollen coating the road, sweet wisteria filled the nose, and the growing shadows of evening cooled the air from the afternoon highs of around 90F. It felt so good to be out on a bike, I couldn’t go home slow enough. The area of North Carolina where I live is road-rich: I can take numerous routes of varying length home, and it’s easy to turn down one quiet farm road then another and add on a few more bucolic miles before calling it a day. The farm roads were so empty of car traffic this evening that I barely saw a dozen cars over the course of my last 12 miles. Not long after I got home, the sun set and bats came out to feed on the newly hatched insects over the Haw River.

My tandem partner-cum-bride-to-be had to drive to another city tonight for an evening engagement, leaving me to decide whether to take our other car (which I call the “bachelor wagon” since it’s from the my good old days, and it’s standard transmission makes it undriveable by my fiancee) or whether to ride my bicycle home from work instead. The big decision was which bike to take.

It was wonderful to have the choice to ride my bicycle home tonight – longer days and warmer temps make this a regular part of my life once again. I’m also lucky to have the benefit of so many quiet country roads. North Carolina is known for having just about the highest amount of road miles per capita in the U.S. It helps to know which roads most auto traffic takes, but there are plenty of highways that siffon off most cars, leaving the country roads relatively unmolested, although the lanes on these roads are notoriously narrow at 10ft with no shoulder, and make for a tight squeeze when a couple vehicles need to pass by. In my earlier, more righteous days, I would on occasion take up the cause of anti-road building, and there’s many reasons to follow that discussion. But frankly, as a bicyclist, I’m reaping the benefits of North Carolina’s road building policy: I haven’t researched its history, but what I know is there are vast numbers of short, quiet farm roads lacing the countryside here.

Much is being said in the biking/sustainable living media right now about Americans desiring more options for transportation. The advocacy group Transportation For America released the results of a survey showing a majority of us want to spend less time in cars and want more options for getting around. USDOT Secretary Ray LaHood even seems excited about this, and appears to be driving federal policy away from the traditional exclusive focus on, well, driving.

While this is all good, I have to say that the choice is already there for any of us to make every day. It’s an easier choice for me to make, and if you’re reading this blog, chances are it’s an easier choice for you to make, too. I consciously decided long ago that bicycling would be an integral part of my lifestyle. Experience breeds confidence on the road, mixed with the fitness that regular riding provides makes bicycling not just an easy choice, but a pleasureable, relaxing, and exhilarating one (yes, I think something can be both exhilarating and relaxing at the same time – my ride home tonight was just that). And by now in my early-middle-age/late-adolescence, I have more bicycles to choose from than hours in the day I can ride. But all it takes is one bicycle in the “stable” to have the choice.

Lately, my “steed” of choice has been my 10-year-old indefatigable Co-Motion Americano touring bike. It’s funny what so many options, or choice, can do to how you perceive circumstances and make decisions. In the case of choosing which bicycle to ride, how I view the Americano changed drastically when I acquired my CoMo Espresso, a light, fast racing bike. Where I once had only the Americano as my road bike, and on it I bike-toured across North America fully-loaded a few times – truly, this is a comfortable, capable, do-anything, go-anywhere bicycle, a real road warrior – the Espresso became my default bike for long (unloaded) road rides. The Americano became relegated this past season to my around-town commuter, ferrying me and a pannier full of lunch the three miles from the park-and-ride to my office, and the three miles back. If I was going to take the long ride into town from Saxapahaw, I would automatically choose the Espresso, thinking it to be the more capable long-distance commuter – sportier, faster, more comfortable.

The other week, wanting to ride a bicycle into work the long way but needing to take a bunch of stuff, I grudgingly made the decision to load up the Americano out of necessity and putter my way into town. Grudgingly? Putter? What the hell was I thinking? And, where had all my past experience with the Americano gone when it came to making this decision? Of course the touring bike was more than capable, and probably more comfortable, for the long distance ride. While the Espresso does have sportier handling, and while over many miles I do average slightly higher speeds, it doesn’t really make much difference over 20-25 miles, and is certainly not more comfortable over long distances than the Americano. They’re both undeniably great bikes, and both have unique qualities. Furthermore, their points of difference really only matter to us small minority of people who are bike geeks, own too many bikes (and are willing to pay as much for them as for a good used car), and therefore have to make to make the “tough” decision about which to ride.

My goal this year is to ride as many of my bikes as possible each week. It’s not like I have that many. Naturally, I ride the tandem as often as possible with my honey. I hit the great mountain bike trails in Chapel Hill each week they’re not too muddy to ride. And that leaves me with the awful struggle, the over-privileged decision, I have between two too-sweet road bikes.


Tandem gems from Raleigh

For some reason, it’s not easy for us to get over to Raleigh. On the weekends, it seems we’re either bunkering up in the vicinity of Saxapahaw to enjoy great bike rides, and goat burgers from the General Store, or we’re escaping very far away, like last week’s trip to the Bay area. Raleigh, the dominant city in the region, seems to exist an uninteresting nomansland between near and far. It doesn’t have much to offer that Orange and Alamance Counties don’t already have, so if we’re going to make the effort to get over there, we may as well head straight to RDU and fly away.

Unless we’re talking tandems. There’s no shortage of great bicycle shops and experts in North Carolina – probably a testament to the diverse and extensive conditions for riding across the state – any state that can claim “mountains to the sea” deserves a leg up over the top tube. However, Raleigh seems to be the locus for tandem riding. Raleigh is home to the southern cuisine-themed riding club GRITS (Greater Raleigh Intrepid Tandem Society). The focus for the locus is All Star Bikes at Quail Corners. I’m still re-acquainting myself with my re-adopted state of NC, and while researching dealers to find the kind of high-end tandem we’re looking for for our wedding registry, I found out that All Star Bikes is the closest by a long shot. A trip to Raleigh finally seemed necessary.

The store location in a non-descript suburban strip mall in the uneasy mishmash of business and neighborhood developments of fast-growing north Raleigh is more a comment on the realities of Raleigh city planning than the shop itself. While there, we got to chat with their expert wrench Terry, and long-time sales guys Jeff and Neil. They sell Santana and Co-Motion, which is exactly what you’re hoping for when you’re looking for the highest quality production tandems.

We got to test ride a Co-Motion Speedster, which is only the exact tandem make and model I’ve pinned my dreams on since my first ride on a tandem (a Co-Motion Big Al) back in 2000. The differences between the good ol’ Burley Duet and the Speedster are just about night and day. First the similarities: they’re both steel; both handmade in Eugene, OR; both are tandems. There the similarities basically end. I’ve always enjoyed the functionality, serviceability, and smart details of the Burley. It’s handling is predictable, and even though on the chubby side, I’ve often felt its weight lends it an impressive gravity – when the road starts to point downhill, the momentum it generates makes it feel like a muscular train steaming across the vast expanses of the continent. What I didn’t realize is that I could feel the same confidence in a tandem, and still feel nimbleness similar to a quality single bike.

This is so with the CoMo Speedster. We got to test ride the tandem along residential streets that actually offered a couple of decent hills by which to gain a sense of its climbing prowess and the feel as it picked up speed downhill. We also got the blah attention-demanding surburban experience of dodging cars exiting driveways and sucking exhaust and debris belched from noxious leaf-blowers. The CoMo handled these challenges and grievances as easily as Gatsby navigates a cocktail party. The Speedster seriously is about 15lbs skinnier than the Duet, but gives nothing up in rigidity or surety. The handling is much sportier, turning with the ease of a Panamian drug-running boat, as opposed to a container ship turning miles in advance of an iceberg. Sure, components that are 15 years newer are also a nice upgrade, but the real advancement is the slick handling and smooth riding. A high performance machine, the steel Speedster is also ready for self-supported touring, with all the right rack and fender mounts. Alas, the only thing missing is a pump peg.

Back at the shop, we absorbed some good tips from Neil, a dedicated tandem-rider (owning a carbon Calfee), veteran racer, and salesman for 25 years. Here’s some new things we’re thinking about:
-Cornering technique: the stoker should slightly elevate off the saddle, lean into the turn, and keep weight on the lowered pedal on the outside of the turn (the pedal opposite the turn) to achieve the lowest center of gravity. Our first experience with this is that this move has to be smooth, natural, and unconscious, as the concerted effort by the stoker to force weight down on the pedal is more upsetting than we usually experience.
-Disc brakes versus drum brake on the tandem: disc brakes offer an upgrade in stopping power over rim brakes, but when it comes to long, steep downhills, they’ll fade out. I’m thinking rim brakes are the most sensible to run, adding a drum brake set up to drag with a friction shifter for the rides in the mountains.
-Contrary to popular thought, it doesn’t matter whether the heavier person is in the front (usually considered best practice) or the rear. I was thinking it makes sense to have the heavier person up front since that’s the fulcrum of steering. But our whippy salesperson Neil, who’s “130lbs soaking wet” claimed to have no problem riding with a 300lb stoker. As long as the stoker is a smooth pedaler and leans with the captain, it doesn’t matter at all.
-There’s two ways to start off on a tandem. This is news to me, since I have always done this by having the stoker mount the rear and push off and start pedaling at the same time as me. The other technique, supposedly to be used for less experienced stokers, is to have the stoker sit on the rear with both feet on the pedals while the captain balances the weight up front and pushes off himself when ready to go. Even though the later is supposedly good for inexperienced riders, I can’t imagine doing it like that. Stopping at a stop light and balancing the stoker who doesn’t put a leg down seems unlikely to me. Of course, on tandem, you do just about all you can to avoid ever having to stop and put a leg down.
-Take “butt breaks.” Who doesn’t like the sound of that?
-Cut-up old inner tubes are better than bungees cords.

The field trip to Raleigh was eye-opening for lots of reasons. Not the least of which, of course, is that we have identified the bike dealer for our dreamed-of wedding tandem. We also got some good tips on rides around North Carolina. As great as Saxapahaw is, it’s good to get out from time to time.

A bike for every occasion

It’s been a little while since a blog post, mainly because the bicycle riding, especially the tandem riding, has been a bit sparse lately. The concurrence of rainy weather, illness, odd work hours, and packed weekends has had an adverse affect on the long bike commute and on weekend rides through the countryside. But we’re healthy again, the schedule is clearing up, and we have a century ride booked for this weekend, so it’s time to get back on the bicycle (and back on the blogocycle).

The century ride is Durham’s Habitat for Humanity Halloween benefit ride. One thing that makes this ride special, other than raising money to raise a roof, is that my fiancee/stoker and I did this together last year, and it was then that we realized that we needed to ride together for the rest of our lives. Last year: single bikes, this year: tandem, next year: wedding rings + tandem.

Speaking of weddings, what kept us off the bike and driving in cars all this past weekend was two separate weddings. Weddings give you a chance to have reunions with friends and families, meet new folks, and make a lot of small talk about whatever’s at the tip of your tongue. For me, that means talking a lot about bikes. It also means getting a lot of funny reactions. I’m still surprised at how many people think that lycra cycling shorts are silly, pretentious affectations and don’t realize how functional they are (I can’t tell you how conversation turns to lycra shorts at a wedding, but somehow it does. Thank the open bar, perhaps).

I also forget that for people who don’t own one bike, their eyes will bug out when I casually mention that we have seven bikes between us. This sort of comment usually comes when people ask about where we live and I describe our house as “comfortable old mill house that has just enough room for us and the dog, and all of our bikes.” I don’t think about why I have so many bikes (I am more the culprit than my honey) until I get into these conversations and have to explain.

It just happens that one bike leads to another. I acquire one bike, use it for everything, then acquire another for a slightly more specialized purpose, and never get rid of the old bikes. I don’t feel as though I’m acquisitive, as it’s taken years for me to collect my bikes, but now I seriously do have a bike for every occasion.

For many years, I only had a mountain bike – my trusty steel Stumpjumper that I got in ’94 when I was a junior in high school. I used it for everything: trial riding, daily transportation, long road rides, even raced a triathalon on it with slick tires. Then I got into touring in 2000, which is when I purchased the Co-Motion Americano, which has now taken me cross-country on fully loaded tours a few times, and makes a perfect commuter bike. Then, there’s the Co-Motion Co-pilot which I got when I decided I’d been biking slowly long enough and could reasonably afford a speedy racing bike, and travel enough that I wanted couplers. Oh yeah, and I got the tandem because I’d always wanted one of those, too, and now I have a great partner to ride it with. Spaced out over time, it doesn’t seem like I’ve bought a lot of bikes, but describing the bikes hanging around in various places in my house to people makes it seem like I live in a bike jungle.

I’m still riding that fully-rigid gray-green steel Stumpjumper. Gone are the long worn-out umma-gumma tires (weird) and the matching gray saddle and grips (actually kind of attractive), but it’s been easy to maintain. Never replaced it with an aluminum bike or any sort of suspension or carbon or yadda yadda, though wouldn’t it be nice someday… Once, I was home from college in the summer when this bike was about 4 years old, and I ran into an old classmate of mine on the trails. He was racing mtn bikes at UVM or wherever and was like, “‘sup guy [that’s a Maine thing I guess, calling people ‘guy’], still ridin’ that stumpie? why don’tcha get a new bike already.”

Well, guy, it’s 15 years old now and still does the job. In fact, it might be doing more of the job now, as my 20-mile tandem commute is getting phased out for the winter season by the park-n-ride option: park the car on the outskirts of town, then have a nice 15-minute leg stretcher into the office. Yesterday, I decided to “innovate” this ride usually undertaken on the touring/commuter bike. I chose the old stumpjumper, and followed my typical route through Carrboro’s streets. I realized the stumpjumper would enable me to take a short off-road dirt path to avoid the sketchy part of Estes Dr (a narrow stretch of heavily-traveled road devoid of any bicycle facilities save a flaccid share-the-road sign though it’s the only northern connector between Carrboro and Chapel Hill; and it’s the site of the only place I’ve ever been hit by a car):

Not only did the trail take me off the road, it inspired me to detour fully on trails on the way back to my car after work – a two-hour trail odyssey of some of the finest miles of tight, twisty single track in the southeast. While the 20-mile ride home is a great way to slowly let the stresses of the day fade away as the scenery of cow pastures and corn fields rolled past, the constant attention-demanding trails and psychedelic fall leaf colors in the woods makes work feel like the office never happened. This might have to be my new winter bike route.

Something old, something new

Between the two of us, my partner and I don’t consume much. Except for rent and utilities, by far our greatest expenditure is on food. There’s just not much else out there necessary or interesting to buy. This does not mean that I don’t have a deeply inculcated consumer impulse. I get fixated on acquiring certain possessions, thinking it will somehow make my life better, or fill in a hole where I feel like I’m lacking – and as such, the advertisers have done their job.

It makes sense that I would feel the need to acquire new stuff, or at least stuff new to me. But it’s not the marketing of specific products that makes me want to buy and obtain, rather it’s that the culture of marketing seems to have fostered my acquisitive nature. How do I know this? Well, the thing I’m preparing to purchase, though still wrestling with the decision in my mind and with my partner, is a new tandem, as I’ve mentioned here before in the context of it being our wedding registry. When was the last time you saw a tandem advertised? Of course if you’re reading this and you’re not one of my personal friends whose arm I’ve twisted to read my blog, you may in fact be interested in bikes, and maybe even interested in tandems specifically, and therefore are exposed to bicycle advertisements. However, I definitely am interested in tandems, but I don’t recall being exposed to any tandem advertisements recently.

The bike industry is not shy in advertising, and it is quite relentless in releasing new product lines each year that are slight modifications, often mere cosmetic/style changes from the previous seasons, in order to get people to replace the old with the new. This marketing I am definitely exposed to, even if it’s not specifically selling tandems.

Tangentially, the style of the street feeds into the consumer impulse, that is, the culture sells itself. When I lived in Chicago, I wanted to ride around on a fixed gear “urban” bike, as was the fashion – and I did, too, and then I sold that bike when I moved back to the country (though I’ve seen single speeds and fixed gears doing long rural rides down here in the NC hills, even centuries, it just doesn’t seem like it would be that fun or useful to me). Sure, I appreciated the simplicity of having less moving parts to keep clean and functional in the dirty city of the long winter, but in the end, nothing is more functional than my touring bike with full fenders and racks.

One of the style movements within bike culture is that of “vintage” bikes. The Let’s Go Ride a Bike blog is sort of in the middle of exploring the style and utility of vintage bikes. Like diving through bins in used clothing stores, the appreciation of and search for high quality and attractive older bikes is nothing new. Steel Bridgestones that have now spawned the community around Rivendell became vintage collectors’ pieces the year they went off the US market in 1994 – it was primed to do this since their chief marketing director Grant Peterson was already resisting new trends and embracing vintage design. Acquiring vintage bikes is in a sense more noble than simply expressing a fashion – it’s a culturally couth way of consuming and recycling at the same time. It prevents all that imported metal and rubber and plastic from ending up in land fills, preserves some historic design, and reminds us how little has actually changed about bikes. Some people choose the vintage route for the practicality and longevity of some older designs, as well as the cost savings. Then there’s the style aspect.

What I’m wrestling with is my desire, a huge lust, that I’ve been harboring since I first rode a Co-Motion Big Al back in 2000: that I must a shiny, new, top-end tandem. I sicken myself a little when I think about it. I’ve picked up the magazine Bicycling the past few months after a hiatus of many years, and I’m surprised by what I see. Besides absolutely horrendous writing (like this misogynistic and rival-baiting masquerade of journalism), what really turns me off are the short bicycle reviews where they give a flaccid description of a new bike, some snappy but useless pros and cons. It’s not these elements of the reviews that bother me. Rather, it’s that when they review the latest carbon contraption, they don’t bat an eye at the price tags of these bikes. $10K-20K! The reviewers don’t even comment on it. I think if you’re looking at a bike that retails for $20 grand, the first thing one should ask is not how compliant the seat stays are under the force of a professional racer’s acceleration, but whether the performance and new trinkets really add that much value to your life. And, that distaste forces me to ask myself just that about a spendy new tandem.

As it stands, my honey and I have a very capable, “vintage” rig. A 1991 Burley Duet, considered a fine standard of the “entry-level” tandem market at the time. The stout steel frame handles extremely predictably, is remarkably stable at low and high speeds, absorbs the road but has no noodle feeling whatsoever, has sensible, durable components (48-spoke wheels!), smart design features (I love the pump peg, and the drum brake, but we can debate whether it really is a good idea to to have the right hand brake actuate both the front and rear rim brakes, while the left operates the drum brake, or whether it’s not). It’s heavy, probably around 45lbs, but it could probably survive a short military engagement. Every time I get excitedly talking about acquiring a new tandem, and then the talk comes around to the cost, H reminds me of how dependable and comfortable the Burley is, and then I’m back to convincing her and myself why I would want to lay out months of income for a new one.

There are a few reasons I’d like a new tandem that involve the bicycle itself. First, a new tandem would allow us to get fitted properly together (though the Burley feels fine as is). Second, we could get it spec’ed with the latest, yet still practical components. A new Co-Motion, even a steel one, would weigh about 15 pounds less – this may be the greatest reason. I’d also like a tandem with traveler couplers. I already ride a Co-Motion Co-Pilot (which I actually bought used with great success/luck on eBay) and have flown with it on numerous occasions. The couplers on the tandem have the added benefit of being able to break it down if you really really have to in a pinch in order to fit it in a car or some other space not normally equipped to handle its size.

Perhaps the most compelling reason to get a new tandem is the romantic notion that a new tandem would be ours and only ours, and would achieve some sort of metaphorical status in our relationship – an active tool and symbol of the work we’re be putting in together toward our continued happiness. On the other hand, the tandem is just an object, so I wonder if somehow, insidiously, my deeply-rooted consumer nature (which, to her credit, my honey does not share with me) is adopting these tones of symbolic grandeur to justify its base motive. And to what end? Sarah Goodyear, an editor of Streetsblog recently reminded me of an apt tandem adage: “No matter which way you’re going in your relationship, you’ll get there faster on a tandem.” This goes both ways.

The other morning, as we were tandem commuting to work, my honey and I got to debating whether we really need a new tandem. I went on about tech (wouldn’t disk brakes be great?), about lower weight (we’d shoot up hills!), about the couplers, about being able to choose a shiny new color rather than this dull blue. She was basically unaffected by any of these arguments. Then, as we were finishing the commute in Chapel Hill, a single older woman on a bicycle caught up with us and was enthused that we were riding a tandem. What she was really excited to talk about was that she and her husband had recently acquired a brand-spanking new Co-Motion (with couplers, no less!) and that it was the best ride ever. When she rode off, my honey tried to think of how I might have planted that woman, like, I somehow paid her off to bike up to us right then like some tandem marketing angel. Of course I could not have, but it also might have worked.