Scribbled Lines Inspire

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By Barry Gantenbein

With a forecast calling for heavy snow, I hung my commuter bike in the rafters of my garage late Saturday afternoon. I needed to shift the snowblower to the front of the garage for winter, and had reached almost all of bicycling goals this season, so my bike is now hanging on a pair of hooks.

The promised storm left Waukesha’s streets and sidewalks coated with a snow/sleet/wintery mix. With a week of subfreezing temperatures ahead, and the sun setting earlier each day, the dreaded combination of ice and darkness seems to have shut down my bicycle commuting season. Since crashing on the ice and sliding on my face for 50 feet several years ago, riding in the snow no longer seems worth the risk.

Just 30 miles short of my goal of 200 miles for the month of November, I had hopes of riding to work this week. But looking back, it should’ve been clear that was never going to happen. The last day that I rode to work, the Tuesday before Thanksgiving, I discovered an unexpected dusting of snow when I peeked out the window that morning to check the weather.

Patches of ice could be seen and avoided beneath the light layer of newly fallen snow, so I decided it was safe to make a quick 10-mile ride before work. It didn’t begin well. Facing a snow-covered, steep driveway, I started my commute by walking my bike to the street on the grass alongside the driveway. I didn’t want to fall before I left my own property. Roads weren’t bad, as long as I stuck to the pavement cleared of the dusting of snow by passing cars and trucks.

When I reached the New Berlin Recreation Trail, I began to question my decision to ride that day. Snow still covered the trail, but I could make out the darker patches of ice, so I figured that I’d be okay. Following the bike tracks of the only person other than me foolish enough to ride the trail that day helped me steer clear of any hidden ice.

I made it to work without falling, but as I put my bike away, I muttered the magic words that end every cycling season for me, “That was stupid.” Almost without fail, those are the words that I say as I hang my bike up for the season. This year wasn’t quite that dramatic, but my fate was sealed as soon as I spoke the words.

There is still hope of breaking the bike out on weekends, as long as roads are clear. I managed to get the bike out twice over the Thanksgiving holiday, and conditions were a little better each time that I rode. The day that I hung up my bike, I rode 20 miles on the New Berlin Recreation Trail, which was clear except for icy patches in spots shaded by trees.

For a two-mile stretch of the trail, inspirational messages had been chalked onto the asphalt. “You Can Do It!” “Go, Go, Go!” “Believe” and others were scrawled in a variety of pastel colors.

It reminded me of riding through Wisconsin’s Kettle Moraine region when I was in my twenties. For several summers, I regularly rode from West Bend to Mauthe Lake and back. At the spot where hills were stacked on top of each other, and my legs burned in an effort to reach the peak, someone had painted “Hills are all the fun” just where a cyclist’s eyes would see the words. It always made me laugh, and somehow helped me to keep going.

These scrawled lines had the same effect. I’ll keep going this winter as I search for days to sneak in a ride, clean my bikes for next season, and walk to keep in shape. You do the same.

Triple Zero Disaster

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By Barry Gantenbein

The temperature was 15 degrees Fahrenheit Tuesday morning when I left my house to ride my bike to work. Wearing two pairs of gloves, two jackets, and wool socks, I was plenty warm.

There was almost no wind, and roads were clear of the snow that had fallen the previous week. The commute was going well until I had to cross a six-lane highway about a half mile from my office. I had made it as far as a small island that separates the southbound lanes from northbound traffic, and was waiting for a break in the waves of car and trucks to complete my crossing, when the trouble started.

A couple of stragglers passed, and a 150-foot break in traffic opened. If I was quick, I could make it across before the next wave hit. I got up on the pedals and began to sprint. The swaying of the bike must have caused contact between the bike bag on my left side and the spokes of the rear wheel. I felt a shudder, and then heard the pop-pop-pop of the bag in the spokes. With traffic racing toward me at 45 mph, I powered the bike to the safety of the far side of the highway.

At curbside, I pried the twisted bag out of the rear wheel. I spun the wheel a couple of revolutions, and with a quick hand adjustment of the brakes, everything seemed fine. I continued onto work.

I made it to the office, and was stashing my bike in a back room when I noticed a dime-sized tear in the corner of the panniers. When I inspected it more closely, I saw a bit of whiteness on the interior. Salt from the road? When I touched it, the leaking bit of whiteness was slick. Instantly, I knew that it was the Triple Zero Nonfat Yogurt that I had packed for my mid-morning snack.

Zipping open the bleeding side of my panniers, I grabbed the plastic grocery bag that held my lunch. The corner where the yogurt had been looked like it had been chewed open by a hungry rat. When I put my hand beneath my lunch bag to remove it, I immediately felt the sticky wetness that coated the inside of my panniers

I walked to the break room to rinse the contents of my lunch bag, and grabbed some paper towels and wipes to clean up the Triple Zero explosion. My keys and sunglasses case seemed to have taken the worst of it, coated like bushes after a heavy snowfall. I got the bag reasonably clean, and then started my workday.

When I returned for a closer inspection during my mid-morning break, I discovered that yogurt had splattered on the underside of my bike and panniers. That meant more wipes and more wet paper towels. As I turned the rear wheel to clean the spokes, I noticed the rim rubbing against the brake pads, and did what I could to fix it. The chain guard looked kind of funky, and I realized that two of the four screws that held it in place had snapped off.

I could limp home, but the damage was greater than I initially thought, and a visit to the bike shop was necessary. After dinner, I cleaned the bike again and put it into the car for the drive to the bike shop. I told the story to the mechanic, and 15 minutes later he had trued the back wheel, adjusted the brakes, and just to be nice, tightened a loose headset.

Wednesday morning, I wiped my panniers one final time, put the bags back on my bike, inflated the tires to 80 psi, and lubed the chain. Riding to work, I realized that my erratic riding caused the accident. The swaying of the bike as I raced across the highway made the panniers fly into the spokes. If I had exercised greater control, I wouldn’t have a hole in my bike bag. The upside of the yogurt blast, my commuter bike is in great shape for the few weeks of riding that remain until winter’s darkness, snow, and ice end my cycling season.

Turkey Trot

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By Barry Gantenbein

As I neared a small creek that crossed beneath the New Berlin Trail, a wild turkey darted across my path and scurried down an embankment toward the water. Knowing that when there’s one bird, there are two, I tapped my bicycle’s brakes and began searching for the second turkey.

Slowing almost to a stop, I noticed a female turkey (smaller and not as brightly colored as the first) straight ahead on the path. She looked at me, and then started to run away from me in a halting manner down the center of the trail.

I followed slowly, not wanting to get too close. I rang my bell a couple of times, then called out, “Hey, turkey, turkey, turkey! Hey, turkey, turkey, turkey!” I wanted to let the bird know that I was heading in that direction, but didn’t want to invade its space. After trotting down the trail about 40 feet, the hen finally ran into the tree line and disappeared into some bushes.

I’ve had several encounters with wild turkeys on the New Berlin Trail this bicycling season, and they were all pretty similar. The birds don’t seem particularly aggressive toward cyclists, but don’t act as if they are in a great hurry to leave the trail.

A couple of years ago on a crisp, fall morning at almost the same spot where I met the wild turkeys, I was confronted by an eight-point buck. Just like the turkey, he was on the trail when we met. Unlike the bird, he stood his ground as I approached. He cocked his head and exhaled a great plume of hot breath visible in the cold morning air when he noticed me.

As he eyed me, I slowed to give him time to make a move. When I was within 50 feet, and feeling very apprehensive, he suddenly bolted down an embankment and disappeared into a sea of cattails. I was close enough that I could hear him crashing through the dried reeds for several long seconds. Only when I was sure that he wasn’t going to dart back onto the trail did I continue riding.

What I’ve learned from these and other encounters with wild animals while bicycling, it’s best to approach them slowly until they react to your presence. Animals have a fight-or-flight response when they perceive potential danger. Best to keep your distance, and leave them an out.

Fall, especially after fallen leaves have been blown off the bike path, is a great time to ride. Scenery is beautiful, there are no worries about overheating and fewer other riders, but animals are on the move and are commonly encountered on trails. Give them their space, and enjoy the ride.

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

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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

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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.