Sunday, October 19, 2008

Meet the fleet, pt. 1

In 2000 I knew next to nothing about about bicycles, but that didn't stop me from buying my first road bike, a 1990s steel LeMond Tourmalet that remains my primary bicycle today.

I imagine I seemed easy prey to the salesman. I didn't ask about frame materials because I didn't know or care what bikes were made of; I had never before used clip or clipless pedals; I showed up to test ride wearing a T-shirt, gym shorts and sneakers. My only concerns about a bike were that it was within my college-student price range and that it was comfortable. It turns out this was a brilliant strategy, although in its execution I was rather lucky.


Eight years at the receiving end of an abusive relationship will take its toll on anyone, and my bicycle was no exception as it suffered under my ignorant and neglectful ownership. It took me a few years to learn that chains require lubrication applied on a regular basis. It took me a few more years to learn that WD-40 is an inappropriate chain lube. And it took me yet another year to learn that removing lube is more important than adding it. The first time I degreased my drive chain I was surprised to find that the chain and cassette were chrome colored and not the grimy black they had been for as long as I could remember. This is no exaggeration.

This summer I became much more active in group riding, and it became quite clear my bike was in need of an overhaul. The shifters were gunky and some days would not downshift[*]. The eight-year-old brake pads gripped the rims as if they had arthritis. The frame was pocked with rust spots where the paint had chipped. The handlebar tape was eaten through in several places. Another rider once told me that if Greg LeMond ever saw my bike he would cry. I took my bike in for an overhaul.

A bicycle overhaul is where everything is removed from the frame and components needing replacement are replaced and then everything is put back on. Usually the bar tape, shifter and brake cables, and brake pads are replaced. In my case I also had the shifters replaced along with the entire drive chain -- chain, cassette, derailleurs, chainrings and cranks. I also had the frame and fork powder coated to protect against rust. My bike was reborn[**], and I as an owner was reborn. It would be different now; I was a changed man. I would love and cherish my bike and never again do anything to hurt it.

Here's a photo taken just after the overhaul. It's unfortunate that I don't have a photo from before the overhaul for comparison, when the bicycle was red and plastered with logos and chain grease.


The overhaul did indeed change things. My bike rode like new. Shifting was so smooth with the upgrade to Shimano 105 shifters, and the new double chain ring with ten speed cassette was much better suited for my style of riding than the original triple and nine speed. And I changed. I kept my bike clean and in good working order like I promised. We were again a happy couple.

Photo on the left: The front crankset is a compact 36-50. The rear cassette is a 12-13-14-15-16-17-19-21-23-25. I like the compact and it suits my fast cadence, but I'm not as happy with the cassette. I'd prefer more range and less granularity. Specifically I'd like to have an 11 tooth.

But after my initial joy following the overhaul I began questioning if this really was the right bike for me. While my pre-overhaul dissatisfaction with the bike lay in its mechanical problems and embarrassing looks, I now began to focus my attention on its ergonomics. Is the bike really a good fit? Or did the salesman push me out the door with a quick sale and a happy commission? I had to find out, and that's when I decided to do a bike fitting.

A bike fitting is a process in which one pays a lot of money to have an expert determine the optimal placement of the seat, handlebars and cleats. For the pros it involves spending time with the power meter wringing out each last watt trying subtle changes in position. For us enthusiasts it involves taking body measurements and making the changes according to some magic formula.

I did the fitting and with surprising results. The immediate surprise was just how incorrectly by bike was set up; my seat was several cm both too low and too far forward, and even my cleats were incorrectly positioned. I didn't expect such radical changes from the fitting because I haven't ridden in any pain or discomfort in two years, but any suspicion of mine about the fitting and the changes was relieved when riding home. My position on the bike felt even better; it felt neutral. I felt powerful both in a full crouch and in an upright posture, which is something I've never experienced.

The main surprise from the fitting was that my bike is indeed the right size. I fit a 58cm frame. The only problem with my bike is that the handlebar stem -- size 120mm -- is a tad too long, and I've ordered a 110mm replacement. I don't credit the bike's salesman with the fit, though; proper credit goes to my parents for giving me a body of typical dimensions. I'm that guy for whom the sizing charts were written. Six-foot-one with a thirty-four inch inseam? Here, ride this.


So this is the right bike for me. I love this bike. I think it's one the most beautiful road bikes here in Valley: a lovely duality of old-fashioned looks with pragmatic speed. I receive a lot of compliments for it from other cyclists, especially because without the logos most aren't really sure what they're looking at. It's steel. Yes, I just rocketed up that hill faster than you, and I'm riding a bike that has a soul.[***]


Here are two more photographs taken by Coworker Lee just after the overhaul.

Here's the from-the-behind shot. Notice that the right side of the handlebar is bent inwards. I don't remember exactly when or how this happened; it may have been that one time I tried to cut a fast turn into my apartment complex's driveway riding two flats. I won't try that again.

And here's me standing in happy appreciation of my beautiful machine.


[*] This once happened on a group ride to South Mountain. I would have had to mash my way up the mountain in high gear but the rear shifter began working just before entering the park -- not that downshifting helped me much that day.

[**] This raises the question as to how much can be replaced on a bike before the bike becomes a different bike. The only original parts on my bike are the frame, seat post, wheels, brakes, handlebars, handlebar stem, and bottle cages. I just ordered a new handlebar stem and will probably be replacing the wheels sometime in the next year or so. Is my bike still a LeMond Tourmalet? Or is it just a green bicycle?

[***] Or, sometimes: yes, you climbed faster than me, but hey, I'm riding steel.

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