Stone Cold Truth at the Bike Shop

vintage bike shopBy Barry Gantenbein

Standing in line to have my bike repaired at a bike shop, the person in front of me told the mechanic that he was having problems staying in gear when he shifted from a larger gear to a smaller one. The mechanic responded, “Learn to ride in bigger gears.”

The customer stammered, “I’m working on that …” Then trailed off, and looked at the floor. The mechanic quickly spoke up, “I’ll make an adjustment that should help, but I’m not kidding about riding in bigger gears. It’ll make you a better rider.”

A couple of minutes later, the adjustment was complete. The customer slinked out of the shop, obviously stung by the conversation. He had come to the shop to have his bike repaired, not have riding criticized. When it was my turn to speak with the mechanic, I chose my words carefully. My bike was in pieces after a botched repair in my garage, so I had little to say if confronted by the mechanic. Mercifully, he offered no riding or maintenance tips.

Bike mechanics repair damages, but also work to prevent breakdowns. And sometimes riders’ bad habits make themselves known through mechanical problems with their bicycles. Mechanics often feel obligated to remedy the situation by providing a riding or maintenance tip to the bike owner. This isn’t always done nicely. In my experience, mechanics can be brutally honest.

When one of my bikes needed a new crank last year, I was told in no uncertain terms that I needed to do a better job of cleaning my bike. My negligence was directly responsible for the breakdown of my bike. Grit, which I should have cleaned from the chain, derailleurs and flywheel, caused the damage. It was painful to hear, but I knew that the mechanic was right. Just as I’m sure that the guy who was told that he needed to ride in larger gears knew that the mechanic spoke the truth.

It’s not always easy to hear the truth, especially when we are told that our actions are the source of our problems, but it can help us make great strides toward improving ourselves.

So, listen to your bike mechanic. He’s not trying to embarrass you, though he may do exactly that. He’s trying to keep your bike in good running condition. And he’s being painfully honest about what’s causing the problem.

Goodbye, Old Friend


By Barry Gantenbein

The cobwebs seemed to grow thicker each time that I looked at the old bike hanging from a pair of hooks in the rafters of my garage. It had been years since I rode the Jeunet, and with each passing year it became rustier and less likely that I’d ever ride it again.

It made me sad to think that the bike that had once been my most valuable possession was moldering in a dark corner of the garage, the chrome darkening with more rust each passing year. I became determined to resurrect the Jeunet. The only way to do this was to sell it. I had two other bikes that rode a lot better than the 40-year-old relic, so I had little incentive to take it down from the rafters.

The Jeunet had been a gift from my mom on my thirteenth birthday, and it had changed my life. It was the first multi-speed bike that I owned, and the bicycle that started my love of cycling.

After being used primarily for transportation in middle school and high school, the Jeunet inspired me to explore unknown trails and learn to ride for fun in college. But there’s a twist to the bike’s history that made it even more valuable to me. It had been stolen the first semester of my freshman year of college.

Like many other naïve freshmen living in Reuter Hall at the University of Wisconsin – La Crosse in the fall of 1979, I thought locking my bike to a cyclone fence behind the dorm would keep it safe. I learned I was wrong about a month after school started when I walked outside to find that my bike was gone. I spent some long hours scouring the campus the following week, searching unsuccessfully for my bike.

The next semester, I was reading the La Crosse Tribune when I noticed a story about a police sale of unclaimed bicycles that weekend. My roommate gave me a ride to the police storage facility, where to my great surprise, I found my bike. It was in pieces, and the front wheel missing, but my bike was mine once again.

The remnants were taken to a bike shop for reassembly, and the purchase of a Kryptonite lock. The bicycle was also stored in my dorm room, not outside. Lesson learned. I spent a lot of time on my bike that spring and the following year exploring La Crosse and the surrounding hills and valleys.

When I transferred to the University of Wisconsin – Madison after my sophomore year, I became even more immersed in bicycling and began bicycle camping. One of my most memorable trips was a ride from Madison to La Crosse and back. The Jeunet also served as a commuter bike in college and after graduation, as I rode to a string of jobs in Madison and Milwaukee.

As my career advanced, and my wife and I acquired a car, bicycling was reserved for weekends and days when I didn’t work. As children joined the family, the Jeunet enjoyed a renaissance as the bike that I rode with the kids. Bicycling was one of our favorite activities.

The older the kids became, the less they rode with their dad. After they had their driver’s licenses, the family rides ended. As they became more independent, I had more time to get out on my own. The hour-long rides that I had taken with my children expanded into two hours or more. I purchased a new hybrid and then a road bike to better suit my needs. The Jeunet was banished to the rafters.

Anyone who has owned an old bike knows that they must be used, or they die. The Jeunet was dying, and it was up to me to save its life. I pulled it from the hooks, and cleaned the years of neglect from the old bike. Degreaser, a pile of old rags, and long hours in the garage cleaned the chain, derailleurs, freewheel and crank. Naval jelly removed much of the rust. I hosed it down, wiped it clean, and put as much air as I dared into the 10-year old tires. I then ran through the gears on a test ride around the neighborhood. It was ready to ride.

I took photos, and put the bike up for sale on Craig’s List. A few days later, the Jeunet was sold. Just before the new owner, a graphic artist in his mid-20s who planned to use it as a commuter bike, was to pick up the Jeunet, I ran a rag over the bike once last time and said goodbye to my old friend.

Just as I finished my farewell, the new owner and his girlfriend drove up to the house. I rolled the bike to him, and that was the last time that I touched the Jeunet. While he was on his test ride, I told his girlfriend the bike’s story. When he rode up the driveway, a big smile on his face indicating the ride went well, she called out, “This was a much-loved bike!” I could have cried, but simply pocketed the bills that he handed me, and said only, “Enjoy the bike.”

Nothing else needed to be said. The old Jeunet was somebody’s new bike, a person who would ride it and give it the attention that it needed. As I watched the Subaru containing my old bike pull out of the driveway, a smile creased by face.

Quest for Beer


By Barry Gantenbein

Before I opened the door, I knew the awful truth. The beer fridge was empty. I had unplugged the fridge when I grabbed the last beer, and it remained unplugged. No sense in cooling an empty refrigerator. But hope springs eternal when searching for stray beers, and the Packers were playing that night, so I thought I’d take a look. No luck.

From the time that the grass turns green through November, the dorm-sized fridge in my garage is usually stocked with beer. When the grill is sizzling in the backyard, it’s pretty nice to have cold beers only a few footsteps away. And when the Packers are playing, it’s always a good idea to have beer in the house.

That dark, empty space in the garage provided inspiration. Instead of driving a car to the store, I could ride my bike. When I was a college student, and recent grad without a car, I regularly strapped bungee cords to a bike rack to transport store purchases.

This was a great opportunity to increase my practical bicycling. By practical bicycling I mean riding for purposes other than pleasure or exercise, specifically tasks that would typically be accomplished driving a car. Bicycle commuting is one way that I do this, and cycling to stores is another that I am working to increase.

With panniers strapped securely to my bike rack, I pedaled to the store, and selected two 12-packs of Capital Amber. I slipped a pack into each of the bags to balance my load, and started for home.

I hadn’t carried such heavy, dense weight in my panniers since my bicycle-camping days, and wasn’t quite prepared for the load-shift when I pushed off and began pedaling. The weight threatened to drag the bike down on my first couple of strokes before I figured out how to balance the load. Steering the bike caused the weight to pitch downward, so I mostly pointed the bike in the direction that I wanted to go. No sharp turns on the ride home.

That said, anyone who can ride a bike can ride with fully loaded panniers. Because the bike handles differently, it requires a bit of practice. That’s why you’ll notice riders on bikes laden with gear, practicing before they leave on long trips.

I quickly recalled, as anybody who has carried beer on a bike knows, the load bounces. As a result, the beer must be allowed to settle before pouring a cold one. Not a big deal. By game time, the beers had chilled, cans could be opened without an explosion of foam, and I had gotten out on a bike on a day that I hadn’t planned on riding. And to top it off, the Packers won. A pretty good day.

Better Together

tour Friday afternoon, after a family vacation to Colorado and business travel had kept me off my bike for the better part of two weeks, and I was finally able to find some time to ride. All was right with the world: I was done working for the week, the sun was shining, and I was on my bike.

About a mile and a half from home, I felt the back wheel begin to wobble. I knew instantly that I had a flat tire. The tire was worn, and I had put off replacing it too long.

I got off the bike, began walking, and then decided that I should call my wife to let her know that I was going to be home later than planned. She asked where I was, and said she’d pick me up in the car. Thank you!

This was the second time in two days that my wife had rescued me. The day before, she picked me up at my office when a heavy downpour cancelled my ride home. I now pack a cell phone instead of the tools and patch kit that I used to carry wherever I rode. I call when I run into trouble, and my wife collects me and my banged-up bike.

After supper, I looked through my bike stuff in the garage, and found a tube that fit the tire. I had purchased a new tire in the spring, and was going to replace the back tire along with the tube. I’d ride like that the rest of the season, then rotate the back tire to the front and buy a new back tire next season.

It didn’t take long to replace the tube and tire, but when I tried to fill the tube with air, it wouldn’t take any. I pulled the tire off again. When I tried to fill the bare tube with air, I discovered a leak about three inches from the valve. At the same spot on the rim, the tape had shifted and exposed a nub of sharp metal where one of the spokes attached to the rim. I had found the source of my trouble.

The same thing had happened a couple of years earlier, and I knew that I needed to take it into the bike shop. I’m not much of a mechanic, and this required attention to detail that is above my level of expertise. I also decided that I’d have both tires replaced, instead of waiting until the end of the season.

I had noticed a bit of a shimmy in the front tire a week or so earlier, so decided that I’d have the wheels trued, too. The flat tire that I couldn’t fix had provided me with an opportunity for a much needed tune-up. And one that I couldn’t do myself.

I loaded my non-functioning bike into the car and made my way to the bike shop. After explaining what I wanted done, I was told it would probably be three days before the bike would be ready for pick up.

Two days later, the bike was ready. With a pair of new tires, it looked like a different bike. I couldn’t have been happier.

Until the next day. I reattached my panniers, loaded my lunch and sunglasses into one of the bags, and headed for work. That’s when I discovered the difference that truing the wheels makes in the performance of a bicycle. The bike rode better than it has in quite awhile.

And it wouldn’t have been possible without the help of others. My wife was kind enough to drive me home, saving me time and a long walk. The mechanic did a far better job repairing the bike than I’m capable of doing. Left on my own, I wouldn’t have had the time to get the bike to the store before it closed for the evening. I’d have been without my bike for at least another day. I might have been able to change the flat tire, but I’d have been riding on a mismatched set of tires, the wheels wouldn’t have been trued, and the bike wouldn’t have ridden nearly as well.

In cycling, as in life, we can’t do it alone. Sometimes we’re provided an unexpected, but welcome, ride back home. Other times, we’re the driver helping someone in a jam. Working together, we all do better.

Embrace the Rain

Thunderstorms had been passing through the area on and off most of the day, but I really didn’t begin watching the weather closely until an hour before I was scheduled to leave work. Heavy rains were expected shortly after I was done working, so the weather app on my phone was receiving a lot of attention.

“Did you ride your bike to work today,” a coworker asked just before I was going to leave. I said that I had, and he responded, “Looks like you should be okay.”

When I left home for my bicycle commute that day, I told my wife that I would be riding home that afternoon regardless of the weather. If it was storming, I’d wait it out at work. If the rain wasn’t too heavy, I’d ride in the rain.

I had no choice. My wife needed a car to take her mom to a doctor’s appointment at the same time that I quit work for the day. Our other car had been loaned to friends whose car was in the repair shop. I had no choice but to ride, but on a summer day that’s an easy chore. Even in the rain.

Before riding to work, I made sure that my rain suit was in my panniers. I didn’t need to make any other preparations. The temperature was forecast to be in the upper 70s, so I didn’t need a jacket or any other protective clothes.

Skies were overcast for the morning ride, but the rain held off until after I reached the office. The ride home, light rain began falling about two minutes after I left. No big deal. I was wearing my rain suit, and I rode straight home instead of going for a longer ride as I sometimes do. I kept a nice steady pace, and made it home without problem. The tops of my shoes were wet, but other than that I was dry.

I have learned a bit about riding in the rain over the years, and with some adjustments it can be done pretty easily. My education in riding in the rain is hard-earned. Multiple crashes have helped me to understand that it is important to take it easy. No not rush and do not to lean into turns. I ruined the pants of my first rain suit doing this.

Late to work, I pedaled hard into a right turn. As I leaned into the turn, the rear wheel came out from beneath me. I skidded 30 feet on the asphalt, and a 90-degree hook left me on the ground staring at oncoming traffic. I threw my bike into the parking lane, and scrambled out of the roadway, my right pant leg shredded from hip to knee. I’d like to say that I learned my lesson from the crash, but I can remember at least one other similar incident. Eventually, I did learn.

Lesson One: Ride as upright as possible to prevent the wheels from going out from beneath you. Imagine that your back is a steel rod, and you want to keep it as perpendicular to the road as possible. Most importantly, don’t lean into turns.

Lesson Two: Bike brakes don’t work very well in the rain. Brakes rely on friction to slow the wheels of your bicycle. Slick with rain water, there is little friction between your brake pads and your wheel rims. Because your brakes don’t work well in the rain, don’t ride as fast as you usually do. Also, think ahead and be cautious so that you don’t have to brake suddenly to stop.

Lesson Three: You are going to get wet. There is no way around it. Riding fast doesn’t keep you dry, it just makes it more likely that you will crash. Embrace the rain. Ride slower than usual, and don’t worry about wet clothes. In warm weather, getting wet is not a big deal. In cold rain, think how good it will feel to strip out of your wet clothes.

If you’re riding home, there are towels to dry your body, and a drier or clothes line for your clothes. If you are riding to work or anywhere else, pack dry clothes in plastic bags to change into when you arrive.

So, take it easy in the rain, and you’ll (probably) make it to your destination unscathed.

Sunday in the Park


Silhouettes of bicyclists captured my attention as I entered a wooded area of the Oak Leaf Trail in suburban Milwaukee. When my eyes adjusted to the darkness of the shade, I could see a group of 20 to 30 young men on BMX bikes. As I slowed, I heard a call, “Biker coming through.”
The BMX crowd cleared enough space for me to coast through the gathering in a wide spot along the path, maybe 10 feet of asphalt pavement on either side of the trail. I had slowed almost to a stop when I saw a rider approaching a homemade bar and two standards. As he became airborne, he somehow pulled the bike frame toward his midsection, and amazingly jumped over the bar on his bike.
“What are we at, 36 inches?” a call shot out. “Thirty-five” was the response. I grabbed a spot at the end of the line of riders that hugged the sides of the clearing, and watched as another cyclist rode toward the high jump. With an approach of no more than 30 feet, and without the benefit of a ramp to increase his speed, he cleared the bar without knocking it from the standards.
I grinned and nodded at the riders in line. “Righties, you’re up,” the young man who seemed in charge of the event called out. As the BMX bikes shuffled into position for the next phase of the competition, I pedaled away. There was more to see down the path.
It was Sunday afternoon, and I was exploring the Oak Leaf Trail. The 100-plus mile trail encircles Milwaukee County, and was largely unknown to me until that day. I hooked up with the trail in Greenfield Park and headed southeast toward Hales Corners. It was my first serious ride on the trail.
Construction is closing sections of my usual rides along the Glacial Drumlin Trail and the New Berlin Recreation Trail, so I was searching for new riding experiences. A Friday evening conversation with a friend, spurred my interest in the Oak Leaf Trail. I poked around the trail on Saturday, and was determined to explore it at length on Sunday.
The section of the Oak Leaf Trail that I rode winds along the Root River Parkway, through woods, wetlands, open fields, parks, under freeways, and intersects busy city streets.
I had never traveled more than a couple of miles along the trail, so it was all new to me. Besides the BMX high jump, I also passed by a disc golf course and a group in a park playing Capture the Flag with Nerf guns.
Curious to see what was around the next bend, I rode more than 30 miles that afternoon. When I had crossed enough highways, and passed through enough Y-intersections that I became concerned that I might not be able to find my way back, I turned around to retrace my path and experience the wonder of a newly discovered trail all over again.

After winding my way through Greenfield Park, I was back in familiar territory. The New Berlin Recreation Trail was wider and straighter than much of the path that I had followed earlier, so I was able to ride a bit faster. But it wasn’t nearly as interesting as the new trail. I knew that I’d be back to pick up the path, and it would be soon.



Two Riders, One Bike


Angry shouting broke the quiet of Sunday morning. It was my brother and I blaming each other for crashing the bike that we shared onto a neighbor’s newly seeded front lawn. Our arguing attracted the attention of the homeowner, who shouted, “Get the hell out of my yard!”
We scrambled onto our stingray, and pedaled home at top speed, or at least as fast as two guys sharing a banana seat can ride.
Sometime during grade school, maybe second or third grade, my parents made an offer to me and my brother, who is one year and one day younger than I am. If we came up with $25, they would cover the rest of the cost of a new bicycle, which my brother and I would co-own.
Raking leaves, washing dishes, vacuuming, and returning bottles to the neighborhood grocery store for deposit money, we managed to scrape together $25 toward the purchase of an Executive-brand stingray. We were beside ourselves with joy as my dad assembled the bike. Shortly after that, the trouble began.
Deciding who gets to ride is the stumbling block with bicycle co-ownership, especially when the owners are younger than the age of 10. We both wanted to ride the bike all the time, but never more than when the other owner wanted to ride. With the Executive’s high-rise handlebars and a banana seat, we could both ride at the same time. But it wasn’t easy.
We both fit on the banana seat easily enough. I was taller, so I sat at the back of the seat, with my brother in front of me. His feet were on top of mine on the pedals. We placed our hands side by side on the handlebar grips, and away we’d go. We were a bit shaky at first, but once we found our rhythm, we could really fly. We had two sets of legs pumping the pedals. Imagine a compact, lightweight tandem, but ridden by two brothers who didn’t always get along very well.
We were pretty good going straight, and when we both agreed where we wanted to ride. Intersections were always an adventure, with shouts of “Turn!” and “Go straight!” competing against each other. When we couldn’t agree which way to go, a common experience, it was very easy to lose control of the bike. When one rider wanted to go straight, and the other wanted to turn, the resulting hand-fighting could easily steer the stingray onto a newly seeded lawn.
The all-too-common crashes took their toll on the bike. With its scraped handlebars, scratched paint, and dented pedals, the Executive lost its luster. The shared rides became less frequent and solo rides more common. Also, as we grew it became tougher to physically fit two riders on the stingray.
I don’t think we rode it for more than two or three years. The Executive had a brief second life as a BMX bike several years later. One summer racing up and down the hills and around the sharp curves on the dirt trail that we called Baja, and the Executive was laid to rest in the attic above the garage of our family home.
I haven’t seen the bike since we buried it in the attic of a house that hasn’t been my home for more than 35 years. But every time I see a sprinkler watering a newly seeded front lawn, I remember the scraped knees, busted knuckles, and good times that I had riding with my brother. Long live the Executive!