Monday, April 04, 2005

"Yo, fixie!"

On Sunday, my son Jordan and I went to a Freewheel training ride in Tulsa. For those of you who don’t know, Freewheel is an annual week-long ride across Oklahoma in June. Several local clubs host training rides that increase in length each week. Yesterday’s was 15 miles. Jordan hasn’t been on the bike much this year, so I thought one of these early rides would do him good. He’d started the day with a slightly sore throat, but he wanted to do the ride.

In the parking lot, I saw a guy on a nice old Schwinn track bike. Hence the “Yo, fixie!” title up at the top. The owner, Sam, bought it back in the 60s and rode it on the streets of Detroit ‘old school’ style. No brakes. He wore a pair of heavy welders gloves that could be used to slow the bike by grabbing onto a wheel. The bike was gorgeous with those ornately carved lugs, but it was obviously well used. The decals were mostly gone, worn away over years of use. The chrome frame was pristine. I suspect Sam had a big pair of chrome ones too!

I told Sam that I rode a track bike on the street in Pittsburgh, but I never had the courage to go brakeless on those hills. I still don’t. Yesterday, for instance, I rode my ancient Pennine that will be my time trial bike next weekend. It has a brake on the front wheel, and the gearing is 47x18, for now. That may change depending on the wind conditions.

The group ride was fun. I saw a few people I know. The recumbent crowd was well represented, and of course there had to be one guy with his helmet on backward. Most of the route was cross-wind and this was welcome due to the stiff south wind. The down-wind sections were fast and fun! But the return to the parking lot would be right into the teeth of the wind, a hard, slow grind.

At roughly the half-way point, there’s a hill that the main group avoided. It’s a 7% grade and probably less than a quarter mile long. Jordan wanted to go up, so I followed. Normally he scoots right up a hill. He’s a far better (and far lighter!) climber, but he wasn’t feeling well. I scorched by him, flogging as hard as I could on the fixed gear. I ran out of ‘oomph’ just short of the top, but I had enough of a lead to stay ahead of Jordan.

He’s fourteen and weighs 155. When I told him I graduated from high school weighing 160, then showed him my senior picture complete with big, black geek glasses (favorite classes: physics and electronics - go figure!), he laughed long and hard!

A few miles further, the Yard Dogs From Hell put in an appearance, but it was a half-hearted attempt. We were well back in the stream of riders and the dogs were tired. Sometimes it pays to be off the front. Still, I put Jordan in front of me knowing the dogs would go for the last rider. They chased a little, but lost interest quickly.

I could see that Jordan was flagging as we did the long crosswind section, and on the final mile or so into the wind, he had great difficulty. I had him sit on my wheel as we ground along, and he did well up until the last hundred yards. He’d run out of ‘oomph’ too. Later that night he’d be coughing, his voice reduced to a whisper. I feel bad about taking him out, but at the same time, I’m proud of him for soldiering on when he was getting tired and sick. It’s always a joy to ride with my kids. Jordan and I share a lot of trash talking over hill climbs and sprints. It’s a guy thing, and he gives as good as he gets.

But to return to Sam’s brakeless Schwinn. The brake specification in Oklahoma law was changed to “Every bicycle shall be equipped with a brake or brakes which will enable its driver to stop the bicycle within twenty-five (25) feet from a speed of ten (10) miles per hour on dry, level, clean pavement.” This is an improvement over the old law that required a braked wheel be capable of skidding, but it may be open to interpretation regarding brakeless fixed gears. Clearly, Sam’s gloves could be considered a kind of brake, and equally clearly his legs are another form of brake. But I wouldn’t want to be in a situation where I had to make that argument in front of a judge.

I prefer two independent braking systems because I’m a firm believer in both Murphy’s Law and the Principle of Redundancy Principle. Murphy would have us believe that a single brake cable would fail while descending a steep hill, in the rain, on cobblestones, and a cleat would pop out of the pedal at the same time. Actually, I think that’s my worst case scenario for riding a fixed gear! It’s very difficult to clip in when the pedals are turning rapidly. Rough surfaces make it even more difficult.


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