Monday, November 30, 2015

1975: My First Tandem

From my start with my first road bike in January of 1973, things happened very fast.  After just one full season, I had my eyes set on a bike upgrade, and in July of 1974 I went from steel wheels on an unknown tubing to alloy wheels and components on a cromoly, double-butted frame.  And then in June of 1975, I bought a tandem.

Ready to leave for Toledo, my brother Todd and I - 1976

I graduated high school in 1975, with no real plans except working and taking a few community college classes in the fall.  The only thing I was was looking forward too was another DALMAC, and that soon evolved into to riding with a some friends to Lansing for the start, and then riding back from Mackinaw City.  But that all came later.

As was local tradition, my high school graduation included an open house, and I accumulated a pretty large (for the `70’s) amount of cash, almost $200.  For an aspiring cook/dishwasher, that was a couple of weeks pay.  About that same time, at a meeting of my bike club at the time, the Jackson Freewheelers, I heard at about a used tandem.  It was already on its third owner, who had to let it go due to some health issues.  The bikes was being sold for $100, and the week after my open house, I made some calls, and it was mine. I borrowed Dad’s pickup truck to bring it home, and found a spot for it on the wall in my bedroom, resting on my rollers (another bicycle related acquisition).

It was a Gitane Interclub Men’s/Mixte tandem, with a frame built from no-name steel.  It was painted white with red lettering and some black pin-striping.  It had drop bars in front and flat bars for the rear, downtube shifters, and steel Suntour derailleurs.  The back of the tandem was only about 20 inches, and there was only about 21” between the seat tubes, making the fit very difficult for any adult with any height at all, for for anyone who wanted to lean over.  (I would only learn about the significance of the fit issues later).

The wheels had chrome steel rims and the rear wheel had a massive hub brake (I would learn it was actually intended for use on mopeds).  The steel cranks were cottered, meaning a pin through the crank arm wedged against a flat spot on the bottom bracket axle to hold them in place.  The tandem probably weighed at least 60 pounds.

I first had to learn how to keep a tandem running, from finding tandem length cables for the rear derailleurs and brakes, adjusting the timing chain tension with the eccentric on the front bottom bracket and learning how to keep it adjusted for riding.  It was a 10 speed (2x10, back in the dark ages).  And once I had it rolling, stopping it was a challenge to, since the dried out Mafac rubber brake pads (on Mafac cantilever brakes) had almost grab on the steel rims, and the drum brake, at best,  barely slowed the bike.

Next,  I had to figure out was who to ride it with.  I had been fascinated with tandems since encountering one on the 1974 DALMAC.  I was hoping it would be fun riding with other riders (specifically, girls!).  It turned out that finding other riders proved to be very challenging, due in part to the small nearby cycling community and my lack of transportation for the first few years I owned it.

Over the next 3 years, while it was ridden just a handful of times each year, I did have some memorable tandem outings.  One of my younger brothers joined me for a 50-mile ride to Toledo to visit our grandparent’s, with Mom driving us home.  I took a few non-riding friends out for random rides of 10 miles or so.  The longest ride came when a friend from my bike club and I rode it 60 miles on our club’s annual fall ride.

I moved to Lansing in 1978, and by the time I met Linda the following summer,  the tandem had not been ridden in 5 or 6 months, and had been partially disassembled for the move and for some cable replacements.  The end result was our first tandem ride was more memorable for all the things that went wrong, rather than the start of lifelong tandem love affair.

Walt of Walt's Bike Shop, adding a second set of cantilevers - 1981
A year later, Linda and I were both living in Missouri for her last year of college, and we began to ride the tandem in earnest that fall. I had spent the summer fixing up the tandem, and that fall, after I started working full-time at Walt’s Bike Shop, I was able to actually begin improving things.  I added better saddles for both us, and found new brake pads.  We were fortunate in that Linda even fit ok on the back for the short, 10-15 mile rides we were starting to enjoy.

But after what I thought would be some routine maintenance, we uncovered the tandems achilles heel. Overhauling the bottom brackets had required removing the factory cotter pins, and that became a running disaster.  Despite trying new cotter pins from multiple sources, I could not find a replacement cotter that would last for more than 20 miles of riding. Within the very first miles, we would start hearing squeaks, and finally one of the four crank arms, usually the front right,  would begin moving on its spindle. I would have to start soft-pedaling for the rest of the ride. On one longer ride, I had to set another pin to get us back to our apartments.  So after a handful of rides in the fall of 1980, the tandem was put up for the winter.

I did some research and found the only readily available crankset for a tandem and my budget was the French-made Specialites T.A. Tandem crankset. This was not sold as a set, I had to order it piecemeal, specifying all the parts; French threaded bottom bracket cups, 2 different length bottom bracket spindles, and the correct combinations of timing rings, drive rings, crank arms, and bolt sets to create a complete tandem crankset. Putting together that crankset order contributed to my reputation with my new co-workers as a tandem expert.

I put together and placed my order, and soon it all arrived, each set of parts sealed in plastic bags with the blue T.A. globe logo and french descriptions.  I carefully assembled the chainrings and crank arms, and we pulled the steel cranks for the last time.  I carefully packed the loose bearing bottom brackets with Phil Wood grease, and installed the cotterless crank arms. With pedals and chains in place, I adjusted the derailleurs for the triple crankset, which gave us our first “granny” gear, and this opened the door to new riding possibilities on the hills and valley’s around Columbia, Missouri.

So in the spring of 1981 we began our first set of longer rides, no longer limited by an impending crank failure. We packed a small picnic, and rode south from Columbia to Easley on the Missouri River, learning the patience for long granny climbs and the excitement of fast tandem descents.  With each ride, we began to realize that tandeming was our thing.

Yet at the same, we were learning that the Gitane was ill-suited for our tandem future.   The brakes squealed like a wounded animal when applied on any hill, and even with 3 brakes, there remained an uncertainty in my ability to stop the bike. To do away with the near useless hub brake, and to prepare for alloy wheels I was saving for, I worked with with Walt Garrard of Walt’s who brazed an additional set of cantilever brake bosses to the the mixte stays.

With our new confidence in the drivetrain, we could both began to pedal aggressively, and when we did the bike would sway and shimmy, to the point that Linda once asked “Can this bike break up?”.  And while the front sizing put me in a good position, we realized the the stoker compartment would never be comfortable for Linda on any longer rides.

By late spring our schedule was consumed with our impending wedding, along with Linda’s graduation and grad school plans. I already knew a custom builder, who had 14-month waiting list for his tandems, and I was researching brands like Jack Taylor and others.  I was going to a bike rally later in the summer and would look for more tandems then.   So I put the word out that the tandem was for sale, and a week later, I had an offer of $500!  Another rider was looking for a “kid-back” tandem to get his young kids riding, something the Gitane was perfect for.

So with a little bit of hesitation, in the spring of 1981,  we let the Gitane move on to owner number five.  We knew we had the tandem “bug”, but for now we had to focus on the next phase of our lives that was about to begin.  We knew another tandem would come along in a few years, after our lives had settled down.

Or so we thought.

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Monday, November 16, 2015

2015: The un-ridden tour

So after wrapping up my ride from Missouri to Indiana, the next next step in my connect the dots campaign was a ride to Michigan.  Effectively, I only needed to ride from the Ft. Wayne area to my childhood home in Brooklyn to connect those miles, however, I wanted start the ride from our driveway in Carmel.   My 40th high school reunion was coming up in 2015, and that would be the perfect timing.  Throughout the fall and winter, that next tour was in the back of my mind.
1979 -with Mom at the farm near Brooklyn, MI.

I thought about gear changes, a different bike (something more gravel friendly, probably the Trek 920), a few changes in electronics, and a schedule that was not quite as aggressive (60 to 75 miles per day).  I would have the vacation time, a plan for the new bike and confidence it would all fall into place.

There would be a some variations on the route to consider.  One option was to go straight north (the Indiana USBR option), and along the way “touch” rides in Northern Indiana and southwest Michigan, plus enjoy an night’s camping near Lake Michigan.  Or there was the northeast route, following the Wabash to Ft. Wayne, then the across from Coldwater, riding near US 12, or maybe up the Indiana/Ohio border.

Whatever the route, I would end up home in Brooklyn.  From there my connected dots would go from my grandparents’ in Toledo (1975), to Lansing and DALMAC (`74, 75, 79, `08 & `09), and then from Detour Village (solo in `77 & `79) in the eastern UP, across the Soo into Canada (`79) and all the way to Green Bay, Wisconsin (Linda and I on the tandem, `83).  All told, I have over 20,000 “Michigan” miles, from the years before I left in 1980, and the biking trips since.
1983 - Leaving the farm, headed for the UP.

But one other important part of the trip, would be again ride up to the house and to see Mom. Before leaving home, my longest multi-day ride and many weekend had started from home.  I moved to Lansing in the fall 1978, and the following spring I had ridden home for a weekend, when this picture was taken, Mom and I, with my touring bike, in the front yard.

Mom had been the reliable enabler of all my early biking, starting with running me around to the few bike shops near home, where I purchased the limited gear I could afford.  She dropped me off at many of the first rides I attended before I could drive myself.  And most important of all, for signing off on me riding my first DALMAC adventure, even though I was little less responsible than I should have been in keeping touch while on the road.

This picture was just a few weeks before I met Linda, the summer that what would be the “peak” of my single bike touring.  That same summer I would ride a week-long trip in Michigan’s UP, a weekend trip with Linda, and another DALMAC. I was using my home-made front bags on a British made Karrimor rack, my Svea stove and cook kit, and my 1 & ½ man A-frame tent.  The only miracle fabric I wore was wool, and the chamois in cycling shorts was still leather.  My shoes for touring were canvas and rubber Beta Bikers, and I was still wearing tube socks. I had stopped packing jeans, but still rode with a rugby shirt.

I assume that Dad took the picture, and in looking back that is very special.  Dad had helped me get my first SLR camera in time for my `74 DALMAC. I used that same camera to shoot pictures for my high school yearbook (Dad had shot pictures for his high school yearbook with an Argus C3, which I used before my SLR). It was thanks to Dad, and others, that I usually shot slide film.  During the summer of 1979 I was shooting black and white for a number of projects, including photos for the early Michigan (Bicycle) League newsletter.   We lost Dad in 2012; he couldn’t take the picture, but I knew we could stage it, and I would make sure Mom had both the old and new pictures on her iPad.  She had thousands of picture of family and friends, and added new ones almost every day.

In any case, I went through winter thinking about the plan.  I contacted classmates about my high school reunion, learning the date was set in late August.  That was a tight schedule with with work, but with the late Labor Day, there was no conflict.  The last detail would be getting home by car, but that could wait until all the details were set.

But then some life got in the way.  In May, both Linda and my employment situation changed with little warning, and suddenly everything was up in the air.  We were on the emotional roller coaster of resumes, applications, interviews and rejection.  We both found peace in riding, but no firm plans could be made.  As days turned into weeks, and the the weeks into months, other plans and trips fell victim to the uncertainty.

And then in late July, the never expected call was the biggest blow of all.  A traffic accident took Mom from us too soon.  Thankfully my sister, her twin brother, and my sister’s daughter came away with minor physical injuries, but my entire family was shocked and saddened by news that came in such an unexpected way.  The one anchor for us all that just a few days before their 60th wedding anniversary, Mom and Dad were together again.

Another riding season now winds down, and the un-ridden tour falls into place as something delayed, but not lost.  A summer of tragedy, disappointments and change puts everything in perspective.  Across the years and miles, the memories will still connect, though not always along the path we had planned.

Monday, November 2, 2015

2014: Wrapping up - Day 6

(Day 6, the final day,  of my 2014 Connect the Dots Tour)
Tent packed, finishing loading up.

I woke up without an alarm in the pre-dawn twilight. I had heard a brief, light rain overnight, but it was hard to tell with the dampness of the heavily wooded campground. With the picnic table so wet, I finally had a reason to open up my sling chair to use while I ate breakfast.

I broke camp and packed, but didn’t change into riding clothes. I decided to get the shower I had missed night before, riding by the showers on the way out. Freshened up and dressed for the road, I started the day, the first mile under the cover of the trees, and finally out into the surrounding farmland. I expected to ride about 60 miles today, and figured I would connect with Linda around 5 pm.

Short lived company on my final day.
I was starting out under yet another day of overcast, with temps around 60. Riding along, I noticed something I hadn’t seen in almost a week, my shadow! The sun was making a rare appearance through scattered breaks in the clouds. It was a great start to the day, but it was very short lived, as the clouds closed in again after just a few miles.

I was headed straight north for a 5 mile stretch, and then turned east on US-36. At Hume I stopped for two bottles of Gatorade and ice for my Camelbak, along with a muffin for second breakfast. Next came Chrisman, followed by Scotland, my last town in Illinois. I was enjoying the good run on the smooth, wide road, with very light traffic in either direction. It was flat terrain, and for awhile I was counting the miles between trees and landmarks on the horizon.

Back home again!
It wasn’t long after Scotland that the Indiana state line rolled into view. This was the third state for the trip, and it meant that connecting the dots was almost complete. I stopped for a picture, of course. The first Indiana town was Dana, and here I turned heading toward the Wabash valley, and my rendezvous with Linda.

I have many riding connections with the Wabash River. While living in West Lafayette during the `80’s, we frequently rode in the valley, eventually riding all the way from Huntington to the Ohio River. I have also crossed the Wabash near Terra Haute while riding RAIN. Covington would be my physical intersection, and that was where I was due to mean Linda.

One surprise for my day was that while I had been on the road since a little after 8:00 am, Linda had been driving since before 7! This meant she was going to be getting to Covington before I would arrive, So rather than a relaxed ride with a wait at the end, I now had to pick up the pace up so Linda would not be waiting for me.

Crossing the Wabash south of Covington, IN.
After leaving Dana, headed north, I was riding the wide shoulder on 4-lane SR-63. While a little noisy, I had 6 feet of pavement to myself with the light traffic moving over most of the time. I continued on this route for about 15 miles, making good time, then headed east to cross the river. With that crossing, I finally connected the dots, hitting one of the Wabash River Run routes south of Covington. I had mapped and marked many parts of this ride almost 30 years before.

I had not stopped for food since 10 am, and was grazing through the last of my fresh fruit and Clif bars as I rode. I heard from Linda while about a half dozen miles south of town. She was parking the car on the town square and going for a walk. I was soon climbing the short bluff out of the valley to enter town, crossing over I-74 along the way. I came up the center of town and recognized a corner from the Wabash River Ride a couple of summers before. I found our Caravan on the town square, and then rode a couple blocks up the street to meet Linda on her walk. We snapped a picture, and I loaded my bike for the drive home.

I had finished my last day with a little over 65 miles. In 6 days on the road, I had ridden 460 miles, averaging almost 80 miles day. My longest day day had been 104, my shortest 45. I had camped 4 nights, with 1 motel night. I had only had 1 day of rain, but it had rained the entire day.

So now I could connect all my riding from Richmond, Indiana to Omaha, Nebraska and dozens, if not hundreds of cities and towns in between, all in a period of 30 years of cycling. My experience and choices had paid off in a number of ways, and I had learned some things to change for the next ride.
6 days and 460 miles - Covington, IN

What was next? While Linda napped on the drive home, I began the plan for next summer (2015). I only had to connect Ft. Wayne to my home in the family farm in Brooklyn, Michigan to connect the next set of dots, my early years of riding while growing up in Michigan.