It's cold here in Minnesota- spring just hasn't gotten around to happening yet. Minnesota can be an unfortunate state for people with highly weather- dependent sports interests... especially on this particular June Saturday.
My club (L'Equipe Lanterne Rouge) has its regular ride on Saturdays at 1:00 PM, starting at a school in Oakdale MN. We decided to venture north into Washington County in order to ride into the wind, thus having it at our backs for the return. We planned on a 35 mile ride since it's still early spring/late winter for all intents and purposes. Little did we know that the cycling gods would see fit to throw a monkey wrench into our plans (actually an Allen wrench... more on that later).
The first omen was that my ride showed up with a Schrader-valve suitable floor pump because one of the tires leaks in his car. (Yes, we were driving to the ride like good little urbanites fleeing the hostile city for more bucolic roads). We piled three men plus bikes into a Toyota and took off. Arriving at the school, we met another team-mate and hit the road. Omen number two: the guy who actually knows the roads well was working and couldn't ride.
In order to bypass crossing several busy highways, we took a bike path for the first two miles. There were intermittent 5-7" deep patches of recalcitrant snow and ice across the trail every couple hundred yards. Everyone went down at one point (or two or three) or another. I should mention that I was riding my moderne non-versatile Bianchi with Chorus Ergo-stuff, since I discovered a broken axle on my 1979 Raleigh Super Course (six-speed is not a good thing with a freewheel hub and a 200 lb rider- I go through at least one axle every two years). It's germaine to the story since the Chorus crankset is held on by a 7 mm Allen bolt in one of those self extractor thingies.
About 10 miles into the ride, we go past the Withrow Ballroom, the Keystone Bar and Bub's (not his real name- he's also germaine) Welding and Implement Repair. This is in Withrow MN, a wide spot in the road if ever there was one. Another mile later my left foot feels funny and I discover my left crank arm is wobbling. No worries- I call the team to a halt and whip out my Park wonder-multi-tool, with about 6 sizes of Allen heads plus three sizes of sockets and a screwdriver to boot. "Only tool I need on a ride, thinks I." Seldom have I ever been so wrong.
There's no 7 mm Allen head. 3,4,5,6,8- yes, all of those. I come to a horrible realization: Park Tools' designers all ride Shimano-equipped bikes. I have no way to fix my crank arm and I'm about 15 miles from anywhere likely to have a 7 mm Allen wrench.
Mark K suggests Bub's Welding & Etc. We go there, myself gingerly pedaling with one leg. After 5 or 6 attempts, we finally attract Bub's attention. He's got the country station blasting and himself is barely to be seen in the guts of a huge obscure agricultural "implement" (an inadequate word, I must say). This thing fills the shop right to the rafters, settling into the dirt floor among welding equipment, even more obscure tools and the frequently-seen partially nekkid girly calendar from the Rigid Tool Company (I'm not making this up). Bub finally asks us what the hell we want, so we politely ask if he has a a 7 mm Allen wrench we can borrow. He sticks his head out from the bowels of the baler or cow flinger or whatever the heck it is and replies, through a sly grin, "Ain't got no milli- meters."
He stares at us and then briefly disappears, only to be seen on the far side of the machine. To his credit, Bub scrounges around in about ten different boxes and comes up with a 1/4" Allen wrench. By wedging it into the axle bolt I can sort of snug it down- but I could do that with the Park wonder-tool, too and it didn't work then. The whole time, Bub is looking at four men in tights from under his quizzical eyebrows- no doubt making sure he has all the details with which to regale his buddies at the Keystone after quitting time... it's 38 degrees, windy and snow has begun to fall intermittently. Maybe he has a point there, after all. We thank him, he tips his baseball cap and we're on our way.
We decide to go in search of a 7 mm wrench, figuring we can find one at the Standard station in Marine-on-St. Croix or at the bike shop in Stillwater. We leave Bub's and head down County 7; after several winding miles we take a left and shortly find ourselves wheeling by.... Bub's Welding & Etc. Bub doesn't appear to see us so we keep going. The miles pass and the crank arm begins to wobble. I stop, tighten it as best I can, and go on. This process is repeated as I ponder on the defects of modern technology, the lack of appropriate standardization in the bicycle industry, the perfidy on the Park Tool Company (and the poor taste of its designers in neglecting to make their tool Campy-sympatico)- and the fact that northern Washington County is a virtual wasteland for a man in need of a 7 mm Allen wrench.
Finally, after a beautiful winding downhill which had been preceded by many miles of beautiful countryside, all of which I was too preoccupied to notice, we roll into Marine-on-St. Croix. I find a single Standard guy, who tries (although his name is also "Bub") to find a 7 mm Allen. I am near despair when he says "Jeez, it looks like we don't have one." He idly begins looking at a set of Allens for a socket wrench when he finds the blessed proper size. Hallelujah! Praise be to Standard stations which are also the only garage in town!
All battened down, the rest of L'Equipe Lanterne Rouge makes me suffer all the way home for not carrying a 7 mm Allen wrench of my very own. On the way back we take a wrong turn and go by... Bub's. Eight miles later I call for a right turn, which is overridden by one of the club members who gently points out that it's the road back to Withrow and Bub's, and he's seen enough of that for one day. Everyone else reckons they feel the same, so we go left and chase into the tailwind for 6 miles instead. Finally we're back on familiar roads, so we are able to get home, 49 miles in all, with no further incidents.
I put a 7 mm Allen wrench into my seatpack as soon as I got home.
In the spring of 1995, I decided to try riding a fixed gear. There were two reasons for this: the first was Jeff Pierce's story in Bicycle Guide about his winter's "vacation" messengering in New York; the second was an article by George Mount on the value of fixed gear training in the spring. George recommended a 39 x 16 gearing, so I went off to the bike shop to have a look-see.
I found a 3/32" Suntour 16T cog, beautiful in it's simplicity: black, stark with small machining lines concentrically around the face of the cog. It felt right. I took the freewheel off the rear wheel of my winter road bike, an old Raleigh Super Course. It threaded down just fine; but left no room for the English BB lockring I had purchased for an extra measure of security. I snugged it down with a chain whip as tight as I could. At first I ran the chain through the derailleur, thinking this would take up the slack and that I wouldn't have to shorten the chain. Uhh, wrong! The first attempt to let the wheel spin freely wrapped the derailleur right up to the chainstay. So, the derailleurs came off, followed by the shift levers. And then... it was cool. A bike in stark simplicity: frame and wheels (I overlooked the brakes, saddle, handlebars, etc., for the time being). A bike without derailleurs becomes an elegant kinetic sculpture.
I took my bike, on the first Friday in March, with me to work in Osseo, Minnesota. It was a balmy 40 degree March day for my first fixed gear ride. It was also my first-ever ride in the Osseo area, which I had mapped out on a local bicycling map. After work, I changed into my cycling clothes- lots of wool in honor of the Tour de France veterans who rode epics in the valleys and mountains on fixed-gear machines. The bike came out of the car and I was ready to go (with puzzled looks from some bystanders who clearly thought I was in need of mental health services). I got on the saddle and put my left foot onto the toe clip and cinched down the strap. I thrust the pedal down and coasted to put my other foot in. Uhh, well, you know what happened next. My butt was about two feet off of the saddle before it sunk in that I had to pedal and try to get my foot into the toe clip at the same time. After about 50 yards of futile efforts, I turned around and rode back to the car. Steadying myself with a hand on the fender, I put both feet into the pedals and took off. Success! I was a fixed gear rider!
It felt odd, but I managed to get into something of a smoother pedal stroke in a half a mile or so. I did well until I came to the first stoplight. Panic flooded me as I realized I was going to have to come to a stop! I nearly fell over trying to get my foot out of the pedal (I hadn't ridden in toe clips for a year or two). Then I had to hop-drag the bike over to the stoplight so I could hold myself up with it and get both feet back into the pedals.
This scenario repeated at every stoplight, although I got better at remembering to plan ahead and pick out a support spot at each. I also had to stop at each major intersection to review my map and check my course. What with this, my early season "fitness" and a single gear ratio, I progressed rather slowly around the 30 mile route I had planned. Due to the residual snow cover and soft gravel secondary roads, there was no option but to stick to the route I had chosen- no shortcuts.
It began to get dark... and colder. And darker. And colder. Despite the constant movement, my feet went numb and I began to critically reassess my general level of intelligence. I rode mile after mile, pausing at every cross street looking for the one my map said led to my car and home. Each street was a disappointment. I rode through the winter's dusk in more-or- less rural Minnesota, searching. Finally, convinced I was miles off course, I stopped and knocked on a door. I showed the householder my map, who said "Oh, that street (the one I was searching for) has a different name now. It's about twomiles back the way you came." He looked at my frost covered beard and hat, my strange attire and offered me a ride back to my car. I gladly accepted, rather than face the fixed gear beast leaning against his front porch.
As he drove me through the night back to my car, though, I couldn't wait for another chance to try it again.
Having survived learning to ride a fixed gear, and having even become a devotee of this simplest expression of the bicycle, I decided that it was time to try track riding. The catalyst for this decision was an invitation from a friend to try the National Sports Center Velodrome in Blaine, Minnesota. On Wednesdays, said he, the 'drome allows riders to try it out using their road bikes.
I mentioned this to several of my club mates (L'Equipe Lanterne Rouge, named after the last placed rider in the Tour de France). Many were excited by the proposition and wanted to try riding the banks too. I called Bob Williams, the 'drome's director. He informed me that the road bike program had been cancelled for lack of interest, but that we could still come out as a group and try the track on the rental bikes owned by the velodrome. The date was set for the end of July.
Four L'Equipiers and two friends showed up at the NSC on July 31. Bob was, shall we say, ready for us. Our first step in becoming track riders was filling out release forms and information for the track database. Ominously, each form asked for our health insurance information and emergency contacts. My handwriting became noticeably less legible as we sat in the grandstands, filling out the forms and watching riders rip the 200 meters in 11.5 seconds. One guy was flying around the oval on his pursuit bike. In addition to working with us, Bob was keeping a sharp eye on the rest of the riders at the 'drome. From the bleachers, the view into the velodrome was like looking into a giant barrel with the riders stuck horizontally to the staves as if by magic.
Bob took us down into the infield to the warmup track, leading us across what seemed like an amazingly steep straightaway. Quizzing us, he found out that three of us had never ridden fixed gears before. After some instruction regarding the peculiarities of the fixed gear, we did a dozen parade laps on the warmup track until all of us started to get the hang of it and everyone stopped trying to coast the corners. We also practiced the countersteering technique required to keep the right pedal off of the boards in the 43 degree banked turns.
While Bob talked, it was hard not to stare at the track. Built of exotic wood, it shimmered in the sun on the first turn. From the infield, the velodrome looked more like the Wall of Death than something you could ride your bicycle on. The NSC Velodrome is 250 meters around and 7 meters wide, a twin of the track built for the Olympics in Spain in 1992. It was described as the "second fastest track in the country." National teams from several countries have come there to train since it was built six years ago. The straightaways bank at a 13 degree angle, pitching 30 more degrees into and out of the turns. At the top of the turns, a rider is one and a half stories above the infield and looks very small. For the rider up at the top, people on the infield look even smaller. "Uptrack" and "downtrack" took on very concrete meanings and the word "stick" (as in "stick to your line while I pass you") became an important addition to our vocabularies. We got a quick lesson in the geography of a velodrome, including the blue-painted boards and the pole, sprinter's and stayer's lines.
Suddenly, it was time to ride. Bob placed his bike on the Cote d'Azur and we lined up (perhaps with a little trepidation) behind him. We rode four laps in formation on the blue band, then Bob inched up onto the pole line. We followed in a rather rag-tag fashion, fighting gravity to stay on the banking and not drop off back onto the azure boards. It took a few laps, but eventually all of us were riding proudly on the shimmering gray timbers. The amazing silence of track bikes began to be noticeable, along with the song of cotton tubulars on wood. Bob inched up to the sprinter's line, slowly bringing the speed up to, oh, all of 18 mph. The kilometers inched by, measured in 250 meter segments. Slowly, I began to be able to breathe and to release the death grip I had on the bars. Still intimidated by the fact that I had NO BRAKES, I quickly passed the rider in front of me to sit on Bob's wheel and watch how he held his line. After about 10 laps, Bob dropped off onto the track's blue apron to watch, pacing us and offering bits of advice. We began to not have to stare fixedly at the wheels in front of us and could widen our fields of vision. I was even able to sneak a look down through the turns, noticing how quickly I gained altitude in the turns. For every foot farther to the outside of the track, I was a foot higher above the infield. I shuddered when I looked uptrack to the top of the banking, half expecting it to be lost in the clouds.
After about 15 laps, after several of us got comfortable enough to be able to talk, Bob waved us off the track and gave us instructions about drafting on the boards. We practiced that for about 20 laps, slowly picking up speed until gravity no longer threatened to snatch us off the banking. I began to notice the centripital force on my hands in the turns and had to remind myself to cant the bike over to the left in each turn. I started to feel the rush of the velodrome, as each lap we climbed a little higher in the turns. Up on the stayer's line it felt eerie, surreal, to pass a rider and have to look down at him. Up high, the acceleration off of each turn into the straights gave a lightness, a snap that was exhilarating. I realized I was grinning like a madman. This was fun!
Bob waved us off the track to coach us on the next skill. As I got off the bike I realized my legs were trembling from pushing the 83 inch gear for close to an hour. The rest was welcome as Bob walked us through accomplishing a paceline. We were used to riding pacelines on the road as a team, so it was fairly easy to adapt to the idea on the track. Instead of pulling off into the wind, you pull off uptrack. Bob took us out and coached us through one lap rotations for about 10 laps. Once he thought we had it, he turned us loose. Now the real fun began! The pace rose steadily until my cranks seemed to float at 90 rpm (about 22 mph). The track seemed to push up at me through the turns and to release me down the straights- whoosh!- into another turn. It was better to power through the turns and float on the short straights, partly because it was easier and partly because I found I tended to gain rapidly on my lighter companions coming out of the turns. Taking the lead every sixth lap, I'd cross the finish line, look to the right and ease over about 4 boards (amazingly, it's possible to count boards at 22 mph). Looking again to the right, I'd keep going straight into the turn and up to the stayer's line. The others would file by below (much below me, it seemed) and I'd drop out of the turn onto the rear rider's wheel. I kept running past him, however, and rode most of the straights next to him until my timing improved. Everyone was feeling good, laughing and encouraging each other. Laps zipped by until riders started dropping off the pace and we all pulled in for a drink and a chat with Bob.
Dusk was starting to gather, so we did some cool down laps and then packed the bikes back to the storage area. Everyone was elated by the experience and most wanted to enroll in the track class starting in September. There's something seductive and hypnotic about the velodrome, about the rhythm of the rise and fall of the banking, the whisper of wood against cotton and rubber, the stark simplicity of a track machine.
We'll be back, some of us. That sound...