My stomach has been growling a lot lately on rides, especially the second half when the blood sugar is getting low. I’ve been forgetting to stuff a few dollars in my jersey pocket. It’s a good thing because having cash on board would make it too tempting to stop for a snack. The fish fry sign (above) was in front of a golf country club in South Lyon, Michigan.
When I rode through beautiful downtown South Lyon last Saturday, they were having a street fair. They were barbecuing ribs and selling all sorts of other healthy protein. Like a dog, I just rode through with my nose in the air and enjoyed the aroma of meat sizzling on a grill.
It has been two months since I left China, and I’ve received several e-mails from friends asking about my new life. I’ve experienced the usual culture shock – some of which I’ve described here – but my overall cycling life has been fantastic. All of the riding I’ve done so far has been in the Kansas City area (on the Kansas side) and Ann Arbor in southeastern Michigan. Here are the things I like:
Clean Air - It’s great to come home from a long ride and not feel like I’ve just emerged from a coal mine, with a sweaty layer of soot stuck to my face. It’s wonderful not to cough up a pound of lung butter on a ride. I’m still blown away by the amazing blue skies I’ve been seeing in the U.S. The beauty often overwhelms me so much that I have to pull off to the side of the road and just stare at the robin-egg blue sky. I know it sounds sappy and New Agey but it’s true. I still shudder when I think of the toxic air I had been breathing the past six years in Guangzhou and Hong Kong.
Shortly after I moved to Ann Arbor, I took my personal computer to a shop to get a part upgraded. It was the PC that I kept on a small desk in a nook in my dining room in Guangzhou. Waffles & Steel was born on the machine. Anyway, the computer store technician opened up the processor and said, “Dude, was this thing really working?” I looked inside and was horrified to see that it was covered in dusty black fuzz. The stuff was close to choking the PC’s cooling fan. It was all over the motherboard. Like an idiot, I forgot to take a picture or collect a sample. Now I’m wondering if my lungs are coated with the black fuzz! It might be psychological, but it feels like I’m recovering faster from hard rides. I don’t feel like I ran a marathon while chain smoking unfiltered cigarettes.
Civility - In China, the drivers all seemed to be competing to see who could screw me over the worst. Cyclists had no rights. We were on the road because we were willing to be killed by a car or cement truck. Drivers could (and would) cut us off at will. They would harass us by honking at us constantly. It was on the roads where the ruthless, selfish, dog-eat-dog side of contempory Chinese society was really on display. So far, during my rides in Kansas and Michigan, I’ve felt like drivers are competing to see who can be the nicest to me. Last month, I was dead tired near the end of a three-hour ride in the blistering early afternoon heat. I was cooling down, just spinning out the lactic acid in my legs a few kilometers from my parents’ home. I was climbing a hill at a casual pace when a lady in an SUV stopped at a stop sign at an intersection at the top of the incline. She was ready to turn into my path until she saw me. Although the driver was about 200 meters from me and had plenty of time to make her turn, she sat there waiting for me to crest the hill. I gestured to her to go ahead but she sat there smiling. So I had to get out of the saddle and sprint to the top of the hill so she wouldn’t have to wait too long. She nearly killed me with kindness. On another ride, I was on a country road with a bunch of rolling hills. I began to sense there were several cars behind me but they weren’t passing. I did a quick shoulder check and saw a huge black pickup truck with a gun rack. I started to worry that maybe the driver was a redneck who was getting ready to mess with me. But I looked back again and saw there were 3-4 cars driving slowly behind the pickup truck. I realized that they were just waiting to get over the hills so that they had a safe section of road to pass me. In China, the truck would roar up to me, honking its horn until I pulled off to the side. Or the cars would just gamble, take their chances passing me on a blind uphill and hope they wouldn’t have a head-on collision with vehicles coming over the hill. Just one more example. On Saturday, I pulled up to an intersection with a green light. A car caught me just before the intersection and was a half-car length in front of me when it signaled it was turning right. The driver then stopped and waited for me to go past before making the turn. In China, if a car was a millimeter in front of you, the driver felt he had the right to turn into your path and cut you off. During the past two months, I’ve only had three bad experiences – all of which were minor. Last week, a guy in an old beat-up Chevy came racing up to me from behind, honking his horn like an idiot. It kind of made me feel at home.
Sunday is the day we revisit “A Sunday in Hell,” which in my mind is the best cycling film ever made.
Our weekly series meets up with the riders as the Paris-Roubaix classic has just begun and the riders are spinning through the city of Chantilly. The camera finds Eddy Merckx in the peloton and starts following him as he works his way closer to the front while the race is still in its neutral zone. When he passes one of his Molteni teammates, he whistles at him. It’s a gentle warbling sound, like one made by a delicate little songbird, not by a beast of a man who was such a ruthless competitor that he was nicknamed “The Cannibal.”
The narrator says, “It’s beautiful weather but cold at this time of the morning, and the riders are wearing special arm warmers and leggings to keep warm.”
The funny thing is that Eddy seems to be the only one who’s all bundled up, as if he’s ready to ride through Siberia. He’s wearing a long-sleeve jersey or maybe they’re arm warmers. It’s hard to tell. He also has tights or leg warmers. On his feet, he’s wearing ridiculously thick rag-wool booties that reach the bottom of his calves. His garb really makes him stand out, but it also shows his age. The older you get, the more sensitive you are to the cold. Eddy is getting old and he’ll show it more later in the race.
The search for a commuter bike continues. Actually, I’m starting over.
I came close to buying a couple rigs from the last list. The LeMond titanium frame nearly had me seduced, and the seller was a cool guy who seems really devoted to cycling. But I just didn’t want to sink all the extra money into it to build up the frame. I just had to blow $1,000 on light fixtures, and I might have a costly plumbing job ahead of me.
I was also close to buying the Gitane touring bike and started fantasizing about loading it up and riding to Quebec next summer. But I’m too worried about the Huret components. I never want to rely on parts made by a defunct European brand. The seller, who is also a cool bike fanatic, said there’s plenty of old Huret spare parts floating around in the cycling world, and I believe him. But still, I’m uneasy about rolling with defunct gear.
So I’m back to monitoring Craigslist again. Here are three possibilities:
1. A classic Dutch bicycle from Gazelle
Pros: This is exactly what I had in mind when I started my search. A simple machine with some Old World flare. The Dutchophile in me has always wanted to own one. It has fenders and a sturdy rack on the back. The price is right at $175. It would look really cool with milk white tires.
Cons: The seller didn’t list the bike’s size, so I’m not sure it will fit me. It looks plenty big, though. The seller also didn’t provide a phone number and isn’t answering my e-mails. It might be sold.
2. A Novara Randnee touring bike
Pros: Now, this is a bike that could get me to Quebec! It has cantilever brakes, so maybe I could sneak it into a ‘cross race. The Shimano components would be easy to fix or replace on the road if disaster strikes.
Cons: The $455 price is a tad high, and the 57 cm frame is a bit small for me. It’s also an entry-level bike and I generally avoid entry-level gear.
3. A Gary Fisher Aquila
Pros: Rugged and reliable. Snow or sleet won’t stop this machine. I’d never have to worry about the weather. Powering up the 3 km climb on my trip home won’t be a problem with the gearing. The $375 price fits the top end of my budget. The frame size seems about right. The simple black color is cool and practical.
Cons: If my friends knew I was riding this, would they all be asking me, “Hey, I thought you said mountain bikes were for wankers unserious people.” I guess I would have to answer: “No, you misheard me. I was talking about FOLDING BIKES!” The ad says, “Could use minor rear derailleur adjustment.” This might mean: “I bent the derailleur hanger and you’ll have to spend $50 replacing it.”
After my last post, I received some great suggestions and advice. Many thanks and please keep them coming.
I’ve been put on probation for failing to mention (not realizing, actually) that yesterday was National Waffle Day in America. However, International Waffle Day, which originated in Sweden, is celebrated on March 25 – exactly nine months before Christmas. The Swedes mark the beginning of spring, which is usually a time for women to stop doing wintry things like wood chopping and knitting and focus on delightful spring things, like making waffles. Don’t ask me why they equate spring with waffles. I’m shamelessly cribbing all this from the Mr. Breakfast website. The Americans celebrate National Waffle Day on August 24 – coincidentally the birthday of Roger De Vlaeminck and me – because it’s the day Cornelius Swarthout of Troy, New York, received his patent for a “device to bake waffles” in 1869.
(Many thanks to my old Guangzhou riding buddy Malcolm for pointing this out.)
Today is the birthday of Belgian cycling great Roger De Vlaeminck and another cyclist of far lesser talents whose name should never be mentioned in the same sentence with the man nicknamed “The Gypsy” and “Monsieur Paris-Roubaix.” The rest of this day will be spent on a long celebratory ride.
Saturday’s ride was a 60-kilometer round trip from Ann Arbor to South Lyon. I rode most of it with a huge grin on my face. The road was mostly flat with some mild undulations. It took me past farm fields, red barns, rural mansion ranchettes and plenty of funky signs and street art. There was some mechanical drama and nasty weather on the later half of the ride. Overall, it was just the kind of mellow, mind-clearing outing that I needed.
I wanted to stop at the German Park to fill my bottles with hefeweizen and grab a brat or two for the road. It’s just a few kilometers from my home, and on Saturdays they have a German-style picnic. Admission is $5. I plan to take the family next weekend.
The German Park’s gates are guarded by these jolly axe-wielding German gnomes. I wonder if they could beat a Belgian gnome in a bike race.
Last week, I went for an after-work ride and passed this place just after they had fired up the BBQ pit. The air was full of the sugary, smokey, savory smell of BBQ that drove me insane and nearly knocked me off my bike. It appeals to our most primal tastes and appetites. There’s an outdoor dining section, and a bunch of people were already digging into an early dinner. If I had any money on me, I would have ditched the ride and ordered some food.
I’m a huge sucker for painted plywood sides on country roads. Nice detail: the eyelashes on the pig. I also liked the way they painted the flames. They almost look real!
Barbecue. Weddings. Toy soldiers. China. Much more! I can’t figure out the name of the “chef de cuisine.” Where might he be from? I’m also not an expert on scary-looking bird logos. Is this German or Russian or something else?
Michiganers love big barns. They take good care of them, too. I guess the winters are so harsh that the barns have to be big enough to house every head of livestock.
Homegrown fast-food joints are cool, especially ones that are more famous for their root beer than anything else.
Welcome to quaint little downtown South Lyon, near the turnaround point of my ride.
Tuscan food in southern Michigan. I’ll probably stop here for a cup of coffee on chilly autumn rides.
Another cool manhole for my collection.
The Spiderman motif seemed unusually popular. There was a pawn shop that used it, too. They didn’t use Bob the Builder, though.
The shopowner offered to sell me the Pee Wee Herman-style cruiser bike for $60.
A great country allows its citizens to take to the skies. Not possible in China for most folks.
Cider and donuts – two important building blocks of the food pyramid. Fruits and breads.
If you can’t think of a cute or clever name for a road, just call it what it is. I like this no nonsense rural approach.
When life looks like easy street there is danger at your door. My bike tire goes flat just after the turnaround point. Luckily, I have a nice place to fix it as rain starts falling.
A fragment that looks like piano wire pierces my Specialized Armadillo Roubaix tire. They’re fantastic tires, but they’re no match for something like this. A simple repair becomes complex when I realize my spare tubes are the crappy tubes I bought at Decathlon in Guangzhou. The stems are ridiculously short, and my Topeak hand pump can’t grab onto them tight enough to inflate the tube. I spend 20 minutes wrestling with them before I walk the bike two blocks down the road to South Lyon Cycle & Sports.
A friendly mechanic let me borrow a Shrader valve stem that screwed on to my Presta stem, extending it so a pump could inflate the tube.
A monster truck! God bless America. It’s always great to see someone who has a hobby that’s 100 times more expensive and ridiculous than mine.
The skies were overcast the entire ride and a hard rain fell for the last 30 minutes of the outing. It was my first rain ride of the summer and I welcomed the change.
We like to think about Hell on Sundays at Waffles & Steel. Not the fiery place for evildoers. But the cobbles and heroism well documented in our favorite cycling movie, Jorgen Leth’s masterpiece, “A Sunday in Hell.” We’ll pick up the action from last week:
The camera lingers over a crowd lining the streets, cheering the riders as they spin by at the start of the race. Some fans are snapping pictures. There’s a tiny old lady in a black overcoat with her head covered with a scarf. She claps rhythmically with glee. How many of these races has she seen? A boy in a white cycling cap stands by his father, who’s decked out in a blue zip-up warm-up jacket that was so fashionable in the 70s. Team cars roar by, their roofs and trunk doors loaded with bikes and wheels. Their horns are blaring: “Bee da bee da beep da bee da beep!”
Then, a jolting change of scenery. The camera leaves the crowded streets of Chantilly, and we suddenly find ourselves looking at the empty stands and banked track in Roubaix, where the race will climax with a thrilling finish. The narrator says, “At the municipal stadium in Roubaix, preparations are already being made to receive the race, still over seven hours away.”
With a cigarette dangling from his mouth, a man in a white painter’s jumpsuit and black shoes is painting “BNP” on the track, using an old brush to push the white paint over a stencil in a perfunctory manner. The narrator says, “BNP stands for Bank National de Paris, the principal sponsor of this year’s race.” I like how they waited until almost the last minute to put the bank’s logo on the track. The paint barely has enough time to dry. The scene makes me nostalgic for the days when sports weren’t so commercialized.
The camera cuts back to the peloton. The narrator says, “The field is neutralized through the streets of Chantilly until it reaches the official starting line, then it’s a free-for-all outside of town.” Next week, the “free-for-all” finally begins!
We’re going to try to be a one-car family. My wife will drive the car, and I’ll get around on bike. I don’t want to use my two road bikes because I know they’ll either end up trashed or stolen. So I’m in the market for something that will be inexpensive but reliable. It also needs to be good in all weather conditions. I’ll use it for riding to classes and running errands. Here are some of my options:
A. Entry-level new cyclocross bike for $900 or so.
Pros: I’ve always wanted to try ‘cross, and I would be killing two birds with one stone with the bike. It would be fast and fun to ride, and it would do well in the snow and other hostile conditions.
Cons: I’ve just spent a bunch of money on my new Moots this summer and I hate to shell out so much more for another new bike. Bad for my finances and marriage. If I liked ‘cross, I’d immediately start lusting for a better bike. The bike snob within me generally dislikes entry-level stuff.
B. Used ‘cross bike.
Pro: I could get a decent rig at a great price.
Cons: I might have to replace components soon, and I don’t need the extra headache and expense. Also, I’ve put an ad on Craigslist and no one is responding.
C. A new city bike.
Pros: It would be easy to maintain, basically a worry-free, bomb-proof reliable ride. Kona has a good one called the “Bike,” and my local REI store has a comparable rig. They cost between $450-$600.
Cons: I’m still not sure if I want to spend that much money. It would be nice to keep the cash in my special savings fund for carbon race wheels.
D. Used vintage cruiser for $80.
Pros: The price is right. It would be a steel workhorse that would serve me well. I might even have money left over to buy a decent used cross bike.
Cons: After spending so much time zipping around in a Ferrari, would it be a huge letdown to drive a Ford Taurus? It would certainly be hard to impress the ladies with this machine.
E. A used Lemond Ti bike.
Pros: I’ve always wanted to own a Lemond bike! When will I ever find a used titanium model in my size for $800, maybe less if I can bargain successfully? I could build it up with some entry-level SRAM or Shimano components, and it could serve as my commuter rig and my rain bike. I’ll hate myself later if I pass on this opportunity.
Cons: I’m not sure if I want to spend $1000+ building up another bike. I also don’t have the time for it. Also, the seller hasn’t responded to my e-mail. It might be sold already.
F. A vintage Gitane touring bike for $250.
Pros: Wow, a real conversation piece. It would be comfortable, classy. I could hang racks on it for hauling groceries. The gearing would be easy on my legs. The price is right. It looks like someone really loved this bike.
Cons: The bike has Huret components. I’m having a hard enough time finding spare Campagnolo parts. How hard would it be to service Huret machinery? What if the rear derailleur broke down tomorrow? Would I need to replace the entire group?
As always, I welcome advice and suggestions from everyone!
I was spreading out my pathetic collection of cycling tools on my new workbench the other day when I got to thinking about how cycling requires a lot of space. Not just on the road. It demands a lot of space in your home. You can say this about all sports. But it’s especially true of cycling. That’s why I’m really going to love living in my own house.
For the past 12 years, I’ve been living in apartments in New York, Taipei, Hong Kong and Guangzhou. The last one in Guangzhou was a decent size for a family of four – as long as no one was obsessed with cycling. I had to park my two bikes in our small entry way, something my wife constantly grumped about. My repair space included half a shelf in our tiny pantry, where I had enough room to keep a small tool box and a plastic basin full of old bits- stems, seatbosts, pedals and a mangled cookies-and-cream Powerbar I got at the breakfast buffet at the Beijing Olympics. Mechanical work would be done outside on the deck’s cold cement.
For awhile, I handwashed my clothes in the sink, but my family forced me to stop. My daughters simply wouldn’t use the bathroom if there were a pair of bib knicks soaking in the sink. I would tell them to just spit in the toilet when they needed to brush their teeth, but the little princesses wouldn’t have any of that! So I bought a couple plastic basins and used them for washing. But they constantly needed to be moved when my flatmates needed to shower. In the warmer months, I could hang my kit to dry on the deck. But in the winter, our shower rods would be full of arm warmers, jackets, bibs, leg warmers and undergarments. When the ladies needed to shower, the clothes would end up on the floor.
My cycling addiction required extreme organization, juggling, diplomacy, apologies and promises to do a better job controlling the constant creep.
Now I have a house again. Things couldn’t be more different. In my half-finished basement, I have a long wooden workbench that has more space than I know what to do with. I can finally pursue my dream of collecting a real tool set with an actual repair stand. I’m extremely tempted to buy a mini fridge that would be stocked with micro brews that I could pop open when ever I needed to lube my brain to solve some kind of mechanical mystery. But the environmentalist inside me can’t justify the extra energy consumption.
There’s also plenty of room for a pain cave, where I’ll set up my rollers in front of a TV for those long indoor rides during the long Michigan winter. The finished side of my basement has a small enclosed office space, which I’m converting into a bike room. My wife has yet to discover this, and the project might have to be aborted. But so far, I’ve filled up the room’s small closet with my jerseys and other apparel. The basement also has a large washer, dryer and wet sink that will be perfect for handwashing my kit. There’s plenty of space in the garage to store the bikes, and during the winter, I imagine I’ll move them to the basement.
The only drawback to home ownership is that a house seemed to demand a lot of attention. The other day I was attacking my overgrown shrubs with extreme prejudice. The project was supposed to last two hours, and I was going to transition to a bike ride at 4 p.m. But when 4 rolled around, I was only half done, so I pushed the ride back to 5… I ended up hanging my clippers and handsaw at 6:30. The ride never happened. But it was a small price to pay for the space.