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Bill  On The Road

 by: Bill Oetinger  12/1/2022

Out With the Old, In With the New

On September 2, I had a more-or-less head-on collision with a US Postal Service delivery truck. We ran into each other—literally—around a blind corner on a narrow road in the hills above Kenwood. Neither of us was going all that fast but the combined closing speed was still 30-40 mph. “More-or-less” means I managed to swerve away from a direct head-on and hit the truck on its front left corner…what we might call a glancing blow but still a heavy impact. The fact that it wasn’t a full-frontal splat, right between the headlights, is probably why I’m still here to write this column.

USPSHowever severe the impact, it wasn’t much fun. Broken left collarbone, several broken ribs, a severe bone contusion on the point of the left shoulder, a chipped bone in the left elbow, minor spinal damage. (Can any spinal damage be called “minor”?) The driver called 911. The Kenwood Fire Dept arrived first, then an ambulance, and off I went to the emergency room. Not what I had expected to be doing that day. And almost three months off the bike, recovering, was not what I expected to be doing this Fall.

In around 300,000 miles of cycling, I’ve only had two other crashes that ended up in the ER, one in 2005 and one in 2012. In both of those crashes, I took a pounding but my bike escaped almost completely unscathed. This time around, the bike and I both took a pounding. I’m now pretty well recovered but the bike was mortally wounded. After an extensive examination by the mechanics at the Trek Store in Santa Rosa, it was declared DOA…too damaged to be repaired.

So…time for a new bike! Which is the main point of this column.

I don’t buy new bikes all that often. I owned three steel bikes over the course of 27 years before I bought a Merlin in 1993, enchanted with the titanium. Twelve years later, in 2005, I bought a Trek Madone, moving on to carbon fiber. And now, almost 18 years after that, I have purchased another Trek, a Domane. (Madone…Domane: is it just coincidence those two names are anagrammatic?) This one is even the same shade of blue as the last one. But that’s where the similarity ends. Okay, they’re both carbon fiber road bikes. That much is the same. But over the 17-plus years since I jumped on that Madone, the technology has moved along, just a bit.

TrekI don’t think of myself as a luddite, nor even old-school. I don’t object to innovation. My Merlin was cutting-edge when I got it in ’93. My Madone was so advanced in 2005…as state-of-the-art as a bike could be. But I’m not a tech-weenie, gushing over every new thing. Once I find a bike I like, I settle in with it and cease to be interested in what’s shakin’ out in the marketplace. I don’t read bike reviews, in print or on-line. I let all that go and just ride…and the world moves on without me.

So when I wandered onto the showroom floor at the Trek Store and threw myself on the mercies of my old and trusted friend, Phil, the inventory manager, I was in for a shock. The shock was actually three-fold: braking; shifting, tires.

The brakes maybe weren’t that surprising. I’ve been seeing disc brakes on bikes for years. They were one element that had me thinking about a new bike for a while lately. But that alone had not yet been enough to budge me off my status quo. It took a crash and a trashed bike to do that. Now that I’m using the brakes, I am a convert. They work great. No cables to wear out and no hot-rim or wet-rim issues. Taking off the wheels around the disc brakes is a minor pain, as is having to be careful not to damage the discs or the calipers. All my cycling life, one thing has been consistent: if I have to lay my bike down on the ground, I put the left side down so the derailleurs on the right side are up and unlikely to be damaged. A no-brainer, right? Now the discs and their fussy little calipers are on the left side. So which side goes down?

I went with electronic shifting. At first I was leery of it, worried about the prospect of having the battery die halfway through a ride. It could happen but you’d have to be a complete knucklehead to get to that place. It’s not like riding an e-bike where you’re using gobs of power almost constantly to move the bike along. The only time the power is on is when you shift, and that’s just a tiny, one-second blip of juice. Phil says people riding 100-150 miles a week are going three months between charges. Top it up on the first of every month or something like that and don’t worry about it. I like the idea that I can go on a one-week, 500-mile tour and not have to worry about charging the bike all week. And, again, no cables to wear out and break in some inconvenient nowhere. 

The shifting action takes some getting used to, but in a good way. It’s so quick and precise and the taps on the paddles are so light I sometimes wonder if I’ve actually shifted. And with 11 cogs, the increments are so tiny it can be hard to tell. I’m getting a feel for it. Soon enough, cable-activated shifting will seem hopelessly klunky.

The biggest surprise was tires. I totally missed the memo on new tire technology…the bigger tires running at lower pressure. When did that happen? Back in my hammerhead days, I ran rock-hard 23s. For years I’ve been on Gatorskin 25s at around 100 psi, which I figured was my old man’s concession to comfort and durability. I was aware of the current thinking about running tires a little softer. But I didn’t realize how far along that path new bikes had traveled. 

And then there’s the question of tubes vs tubeless (with sealant). I read up on the pros and cons of each system. Tubes I know about. There are a lot of good things about the tubeless tires but some not-so-good things too. I decided I would go with 28s with tubes. (With these rims and tires, you can do either tubeless or tubes.) Okay, I admit it: I was maybe being a little old-school about all the new stuff.

But the bike I ordered came with tubeless 32s at 60 psi. 32s? Geez, it looks like a paperboy bike! Not what I thought I wanted. I could have spent some extra money and swapped those out. But hey, if the smart kids at Trek think tubeless 32s are the way to go, who am I to differ? I know zilch about these new technologies. I decided to go with what they specced and see how it all works. Either I’ll like it or I’ll switch to 28s—with or without tubes—when these tires wear out.

GHAnd then guess what: on my very first ride, I picked up a goathead thorn in my rear tire. I could hear it thumping along back there for a few yards before I stopped. When I pulled it out, the tiny hole sealed right up, just like it’s supposed to do, with little or no loss of pressure. With a tube, I would have been out there on a cold November afternoon, swapping out the tube…never one of my favorite chores. So round one to the tubeless tires! I still found a place on the swoopy new frame to mount a mini-pump…just in case.

There’s an old witticism that the bicycle is the last invention the average person could understand. That may not be the case anymore. Back a few years—quite a few years—I used to do all the work on my bikes. If you owned a bike, you worked on it. You did the maintenance that kept it happy. The bike was simple, analog technology even a halfwit could understand. The work was fun and satisfying. But my expertise as a mechanic hit a brick wall about the time they put the shifters in the brake hoods. And now? Hydraulic-driven disc brakes? Electronic, cable-less shifting? Tubeless tires filled with voodoo gumbo? I have no idea how to tinker with any of that and I would probably make things worse if I tried. All this clever innovation is neat but it comes at a cost, both financial and practical. This is of course true as well with our cars, our computers, our smart phones, our home appliances, how we listen to music or watch a movie, how we heat and power our homes. It is arguably a cleaner, greener, more efficient world, but we are now inextricably entangled with technology that most of us can’t hope to understand.

The bike and I are getting acquainted. It will take a while to find our comfort zone but we’re getting there. It may in fact be possible to teach an old dog new tricks. I had this happy little fantasy that the new bike would immediately improve my performance by 10 or 15%…that I could turn back the clock and be a little bit younger again. So far, that hasn’t happened. Some of that may be because I’m still healing up my injuries and still getting my fitness back after a long lay-off. But most of it is being 75 friggin’ years old. That clock is not getting turned back. But over this winter and into the new year, this time of promise and new beginnings, I hope the new bike and the old me will, if not turn back the clock, at least slow it down a little.

Bill can be reached at srccride@sonic.net

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