Thursday, October 6, 2011

In Praise of Limestone

How many hours and miles have I spent riding over the limestone above Mammoth Cave? Who can deny that this is a damn' reckless way to spend a life? It's time for some Auden on this here little blog. BTW, my favorite bit is this:

"But the really reckless were fetched
By an older colder voice, the oceanic whisper:
`I am the solitude that asks and promises nothing;
That is how I shall set you free. There is no love;
There are only the various envies, all of them sad.'"

I think I've been "really reckless" my whole life (and what cyclist is not?), but I never knew what to call it untill I read Auden.

In Praise Of Limestone

If it form the one landscape that we, the inconstant ones,
Are consistently homesick for, this is chiefly
Because it dissolves in water. Mark these rounded slopes
With their surface fragrance of thyme and, beneath,
A secret system of caves and conduits; hear the springs
That spurt out everywhere with a chuckle,
Each filling a private pool for its fish and carving
Its own little ravine whose cliffs entertain
The butterfly and the lizard; examine this region
Of short distances and definite places:
What could be more like Mother or a fitter background
For her son, the flirtatious male who lounges
Against a rock in the sunlight, never doubting
That for all his faults he is loved; whose works are but
Extensions of his power to charm? From weathered outcrop
To hill-top temple, from appearing waters to
Conspicuous fountains, from a wild to a formal vineyard,
Are ingenious but short steps that a child's wish
To receive more attention than his brothers, whether
By pleasing or teasing, can easily take.

Watch, then, the band of rivals as they climb up and down
Their steep stone gennels in twos and threes, at times
Arm in arm, but never, thank God, in step; or engaged
On the shady side of a square at midday in
Voluble discourse, knowing each other too well to think
There are any important secrets, unable
To conceive a god whose temper-tantrums are moral
And not to be pacified by a clever line
Or a good lay: for accustomed to a stone that responds,
They have never had to veil their faces in awe
Of a crater whose blazing fury could not be fixed;
Adjusted to the local needs of valleys
Where everything can be touched or reached by walking,
Their eyes have never looked into infinite space
Through the lattice-work of a nomad's comb; born lucky,
Their legs have never encountered the fungi
And insects of the jungle, the monstrous forms and lives
With which we have nothing, we like to hope, in common.
So, when one of them goes to the bad, the way his mind works
Remains incomprehensible: to become a pimp
Or deal in fake jewellery or ruin a fine tenor voice
For effects that bring down the house, could happen to all
But the best and the worst of us...
That is why, I suppose,
The best and worst never stayed here long but sought
Immoderate soils where the beauty was not so external,
The light less public and the meaning of life
Something more than a mad camp. `Come!' cried the granite wastes,
`How evasive is your humour, how accidental
Your kindest kiss, how permanent is death.' (Saints-to-be
Slipped away sighing.) `Come!' purred the clays and gravels,
`On our plains there is room for armies to drill; rivers
Wait to be tamed and slaves to construct you a tomb
In the grand manner: soft as the earth is mankind and both
Need to be altered.' (Intendant Caesars rose and
Left, slamming the door.) But the really reckless were fetched
By an older colder voice, the oceanic whisper:
`I am the solitude that asks and promises nothing;
That is how I shall set you free. There is no love;
There are only the various envies, all of them sad.'

They were right, my dear, all those voices were right
And still are; this land is not the sweet home that it looks,
Nor its peace the historical calm of a site
Where something was settled once and for all: A back ward
And dilapidated province, connected
To the big busy world by a tunnel, with a certain
Seedy appeal, is that all it is now? Not quite:
It has a worldy duty which in spite of itself
It does not neglect, but calls into question
All the Great Powers assume; it disturbs our rights. The poet,
Admired for his earnest habit of calling
The sun the sun, his mind Puzzle, is made uneasy
By these marble statues which so obviously doubt
His antimythological myth; and these gamins,
Pursuing the scientist down the tiled colonnade
With such lively offers, rebuke his concern for Nature's
Remotest aspects: I, too, am reproached, for what
And how much you know. Not to lose time, not to get caught,
Not to be left behind, not, please! to resemble
The beasts who repeat themselves, or a thing like water
Or stone whose conduct can be predicted, these
Are our common prayer, whose greatest comfort is music
Which can be made anywhere, is invisible,
And does not smell. In so far as we have to look forward
To death as a fact, no doubt we are right: But if
Sins can be forgiven, if bodies rise from the dead,
These modifications of matter into
Innocent athletes and gesticulating fountains,
Made solely for pleasure, make a further point:
The blessed will not care what angle they are regarded from,
Having nothing to hide. Dear, I know nothing of
Either, but when I try to imagine a faultless love
Or the life to come, what I hear is the murmur
Of underground streams, what I see is a limestone landscape.

W.H. Auden

Monday, July 4, 2011


In the wake of controversies surrounding Armstrong and Contador--or can we even refer to the "wake" yet, since the messes are still unresolved?--I've come to the reluctant conclusion that the UCI and all other cycling authorities need to ban testing.

That's right, ban testing. It's not that I like the idea of riders doping. But the problem is, testing has apparently not had anything like the desired effect. Instead, testing has created a sort of shadow competition that means whoever has the best doctor or chemist to figure out how to beat the doping test has an advantage over other riders. This is not the sort of competition we want to see. So the authorities should simply get out of the business. They're not helping.

Saturday, June 18, 2011

Of single speeds and chain whips (sounds like leather vests or rubber underpants ought somehow to be involved, doesn't it?)

Despite the fact that I've climbed every steep hill in my riding area on my single-speed with the 18 tooth rear cog, I have aspired for some time to put on a 20- or possibly 22-tooth rear cog. I've got another single-speed with an 18-tooth cog which I will keep for when I'm feeling masochistic. Having never changed a cog before in my life (a major accomplishment last week was to replace a bottom bracket bearing in the same bike), I knew special tools (not the kind Congressmen like to photograph) would be involved. So I looked at the bike, looked at pictures on the Internet, and got lucky (no, not those pictures, and not that kind of lucky): I actually got the right freewheel tool the first time, without having to reorder anything. But then I came to terms with the fact that I needed a chain whip--another mysterious tool whose use I had never grasped until I needed one. Since the cog is self-tightening in riding use, and since it's the nature of the freewheel to spin freely the other direction, the chain whip holds the cog while you unscrew (using the freewheel tool) the ring that holds the cog in place. Chain whips are not that expensive, but I wanted the job done now, and the nearest shop that might sell me one is thirty miles away. So again to the Internet--where someone pointed out the not-until-then-at-least-not-to-me obvious, which is that you can wrap an old chain around the cog, clamp onto the old chain with Vise-Grips (or in my case, cheap Chinese locking plier knock-offs), and wallah, you have a serviceable chain whip. Which is the only useful bit of info in this post. The ring was on so tight that I had to use a lever on both the pliers and the wrench, but the job is done.

Friday, May 27, 2011

Of earthquakes and bikes

If there's a silver lining to the cloud of earthquakes and tsunamis in Japan, this might be it: more people are riding bikes there. What disaster will it take for us in this country to park our SUVs and make bike lanes?:

Naked bike ride

The headline proclaims "The 40 Best Pictures From The World Naked Bike Ride ‘09 (NSFW)." Personally, I'm skeptical. Looks like the choices were made in order to render the collection, if not not NSFW, then at least a little closer to being SFW than if it really had the best photos of naked and not-quite-naked people on bikes. You decide:

Monday, May 9, 2011

It's Alive! Or Ten Miles and a Six (er, er, What Comes After Six?)-Pack Later

Or, actually, It works!

A follow-up on the how-to-fix-a-flat-when-you-don't-have-anything-to-fix-a-flat-with stuff: Not only did the knot in the tube get me home the day before yesterday, but, two days later and no air added, it still has enough air to ride. This knot-in-the-leaky-tube thing is too cool to be true.

Saturday, May 7, 2011

Stranded's (Not Very) Big Ride, or How To Fix a Flat When You Don't Have Anything To Fix a Flat With

I went out early this morning, about 9:00 (which is early for me, on a Saturday, anyway; normally at that time I'm still trying to figure out whose underwear I have on, if I happen to have any on. But that's a story for another time.) I aspired to another 50-miler, but after 20 miles or so, I had a flat. The back one, of course. No problem--like any well-prepared cyclist, I put in a new tube, after having checked the tire for whatever may have caused the puncture. I found nothing and assumed that whatever caused the puncture had come and gone. An erroneous conclusion, it turned out.

Five miles or so later, again came the sickening feeling of a mushy back tire. I pumped the tire up, went a quarter of a mile, pumped the tire up again, went another quarter of a mile, and realized all hope that the problem was a loose valve or some such easily fixed problem was in vain.

I didn't have another tube. I didn't have any patches. I didn't even have any of that disgusting slime stuff that never works, and anyhow, how do you get it into a Presta valve? Did I just claim I was a well-prepared cyclist?

The options didn't look attractive. Call for help? Unthinkable! Stuff the tire with grass? That's gotta take forever, and be a mushy ride into the bargain. Ride flat and ruin my tire, not to mention the wheel? No.

Once upon a time, I read an article in Bicycling magazine that said a last resort is to cut the tube in two at the site of the leak, tie a knot in both ends, air it up, and ride. At the time, it sounded kinda bogus--I mean, come on, a knot? How much air can that hold? And of course, I had no knife, but I did find the sliver of gravel that caused the leak by doing what I should have done the first time: I aired up the tube sans tire, spotted the leak, and knew exactly where to look in the tire. Sure enough, an almost microscopic bit of limestone, ready to ruin tubes I didn't have all day.

So I tied a very tight knot in the intact tube, with the leaky spot outside the loop, aired it up, and rode. Amazingly enough, it worked. A bit of a bumpy ride when the knot came round, but it sure beat the alternatives. I made it home, and managed to get 35 miles in. Not a bad ride.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

50!, Part II

Single-speed mountain bike, but on the highways (the proverbial roads less traveled near Mammoth Cave, Kentucky). Many hills. The picture says, if not a thousand words, at least fifty miles worth of words (however many that might be).

Monday, March 28, 2011


Frozen thumbs. That's why I'm not a pro rider: at the first sign of thumb freeze, I head for home, where I can put the extreme lack of warmth in my hands to good use by wrapping them around a couple of bottles of Guinness. Oh, well, to the victors go the spoils; to the rest of us, beer.

However, inspired by the True Grit 50 in St. George, Utah, (, I'm planning to oil the chain on my Fuji 29er tomorrow, air up the tires, and see how close to the big five-oh I can get. I've done a couple of 30-35 mile rides on my single speed so far this spring, but there's a vicious little hill that I don't really want to tackle again without gears. The Fuji has three in front and nine in back, and does a blazing four miles an hour on the lowest gear combination. Meanwhile, for inspiration, some bits from MTB Racing News (URL above):

"Even the mud could not prevent Cannondale rider Alex Grant from throwing down an impressive race. Veteran of countless endurance races, Grant has proven himself in the never-ending rain and slop of La Ruta as well as the crippling cold of Leadville.

[Alex] Grant used his profound technical riding skills to establish an early lead in the jaded-rocks and demanding descents of the Zen trail then used his experience and determination to carry on in the demanding conditions.

Grant finished the slightly shortened course in just over 4 hours. By then things had gotten so bad that officials had to shut the course down. Only 11 riders were able to finish before the course closure.

After the race Grant said, "It was pretty bad. I was so cold by the end that I had to walk the final climb even though it's a road. I had to use the palm of my hand to push the shift levers. Both my thumbs were frozen and didn't work anymore."

Grant was followed by Chris Holley (Trek 29er)."

Fifty miles, just over four hours. That's almost 12.5 m.p.h. Not bad for pushing a heavy mountain bike through unholy weather.

Saturday, March 26, 2011

Flax !?

This just in! Schwinn announces frame made of flax (mostly). No need to carry food on long rides. Just eat the bike.

Friday, March 11, 2011

Of bikes and ponies

Random question: why do the people who will correct you if you call your bike seat a seat, not a saddle, nevertheless refer to the part of the bike the seat stem fits into as the seat post? Shouldn't they call it the saddle post? and the saddle stem? Or perhaps "saddle post" sounds too much like something a Pony Express rider had to clean and feed before he went to bed. As everyone knows, bikes are not ponies. Or if you doubt it, you can take my word for it. I had a pony when I was a kid, and I can tell you it's much harder to change a flat on a pony than on a bike. Ponies don't come with quick releases. Not unless you're feeding them the wrong thing.

If you sit on it, it's a seat. One syllable, like one speed, is usually enough.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

The geriatric chicken, or why I hate cars (but drive one anyway)

Yesterday, I started to rescue a geriatric chicken. Why the chicken needs rescuing is a whole other story. Suffice it to say, she’s too old to lay eggs, and yes, I’m one of THOSE types who don’t like to see animals suffer, not even geriatric chickens. Who knows, in my next life I might be a chicken; so I went in my car to fetch her. Along the way, I stopped to look at a used truck for sale, since, while I have no problem with geriatric trucks suffering, I thought one might be useful for hauling my bikes around in—which is one reason I hate cars (and trucks): if there were fewer of them to contend with, I could ride my bike instead of hauling it to more places without fear of mortal danger. However, as the saying goes, if you can’t beat ‘em. . . .

Anyway, my car refused to budge after I determined the truck was too geriatric for even my taste. Fortunately, a nearby auto mechanic was ready to render assistance, or some semblance thereof. Precisely, he managed to remove the faulty starter motor yesterday, but has yet to install a new one, to my knowledge. After hitching a ride home, I discovered to my dismay that I had left the keys in the car, including the keys to the garage where the bike I would prefer to ride back to the mechanic is stored. This assumes, of course, that I should be so fortunate as to receive a phone call to the effect that my car is repaired. Like any good bike nut, I have several other bikes, but my good floor pump is in the trunk of the car in question, stored there, ironically, to keep me from not having it whensoever I might need it. So I jimmied the door to the storage shed with an expired credit card, where yet another cache of bikes is stored, and one of them appears to have enough air in the tires to get me where (I hope) I’m going.

Which brings me to the other reason I hate cars: for the cost of one year’s insurance payment on the car (not to mention gas, oil, tires, and starter motors), I can buy two or three bikes of ordinary vintage that will get me where I need to go. Repairs can, if I am sufficiently motivated, be effected at home, or obviated by buying another bike of ordinary vintage. Damn’ you, Henry Ford!

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Why I love cycling computers

As Bike Snob often points out, most of us use our cycling computers to keep track of information that catalogs our mediocrity and has less relevance to the ultimate meaning of life than the pulsations of the supernova remnant at the heart of the Crab Nebula. Okay, I made that last bit up: as far as I know, Snob has never mentioned the Crab Nebula, which is what astronomers fear they will come to resemble if they visit Las Vegas and frequent an unlicensed brothel. However, as cycling is for me an activity done largely to justify my existence to myself, to unstrand my dopamine receptors, and to burn the calories contained in my daily indulgence of Twinkies washed down by unholy quantities of Guinness, the numbers that rack up on my computer have a direct bearing on how much pleasure I can find in the ultimate meaninglessness of life.

Then too, there’s the fact that I hate math. It would be possible, as Tim Krabbe points out in The Rider, to calculate the distance one rides by keeping track of the numbers of cranks and rotations of the wheels and then working some arcane math problems that in the Middle Ages would have exponentially increased one’s risk of being burned at the stake for witchcraft. Actually, in the Middle Ages, the math might have been impossible, as Newton and Leibniz had yet to invent calculus. However, disregarding anachronism, it turns out that my feelings about math are neatly summarized by a character in Don DeLillo’s Ratner’s Star:

“‘So you do mathematics?”
“‘I’m the one.”
“‘The very word strikes fear into my heart,” Evinrude said.
“‘It goes back to early schooling. The muffled terror of those gray mornings getting out of bed and going to school and opening up a mathematics textbook with its strange language and letters for numbers and theorems to memorize . . . math struck terror. Everything about it. The sound of the words. The diagrams and formulas. The look of the book. Sometimes I find it hard to believe that humans actually do mathematics, considering what’s involved. It’s like a branch of learning in outer space.’”

So there you have it. If for no other reason, humankind’s ventures into outer space before many of us were born were worthwhile just for the simple reason that they encouraged advances in miniature electronics that led to powerful microcomputers that can be manufactured at ridiculously low cost in China and shipped to this country and mounted on my bike handlebars to tell me how many bottles of “Irish” beer manufactured in Canada I can consume and still fit into my cycling shorts. Three cheers for the military-industrial complex!