By Chip Coldwell
I have a well-deserved reputation for animosity toward fixed gear bicycles. Years ago, an old friend and Nobel Prize quality bicycle mechanic, Milton Trimitsis, tried to persuade me to try one. My refusal was usually accompanied by some snide remark about being a strong believer in mechanical advantage, to which he would always reply that I could have any mechanical advantage I wanted with a fixed gear bike. I just wouldn't have the prerogative of changing my mind down the road. Later on, my long time cycling partner Max Poletto built himself a fixed gear for winter commuting and once more I watched a good friend turn into a fixed-gear evangelist. Most (perhaps all excluding myself) of the members of the New England Section of the Veteran-Cycle Club have at least one and more likely several fixed-gears in their collections. On one V-CC ride I struggled to chase after Jack Demarest as he piloted a fixed gear over mountain bike trails in Foxboro with the grace and ease of a mountain goat. But still, nothing would persuade me to try riding without the ability to coast and change gears.
The first brevet in the 2006 Boston Series started at 7 a.m. from the parking lot of the civil air terminal at Hanscom Field in Bedford, Massachusetts, about twelve miles from my home in Somerville. Max Poletto and I have made it a habit to meet in Cambridge an hour before the brevet starts to cycle out to Hanscom Field. This policy of riding to the start and home from the finish has earned us a reputation of being especially hard-core randonneurs, but the reality is that it is the only practical thing for us to do since neither of us owns a car and the ride to the start usually only takes forty minutes or so (the ride home is considerably longer).
There was an enormous turnout for the 200K this year (2006), 111 riders. Tracey Ingle (one half—Bruce Ingle is the other half—of the husband- and-wife RBA team that do a stupendous job of putting on the Boston Brevet Series) was swamped with registering riders and handing out brevet cards. I managed to move through the line with about ten minutes to spare before the start. Imagine my horror when at that late moment I discovered that my rear wheel bearing has gone out.
This is a problem with a history. The rear hub on my sturdy English touring bike (frame by Bob Jackson, details at http://frank.harvard.edu/~coldwell/bob_jackson/) has been a source of trouble for the last three years. It's not a cheap hub; it was made by Phil Wood with sealed bearings and is designed to be "field serviceable" (if the tools you carry with you into the field include a freewheel puller, a 14- inch wrench and a bearing press). Normally, these hubs have a reputation for reliability. This one, however, is letting the side down.
The first sign of trouble came in August 2003 on a double century event that was appended to the end of the usual Boston Brevet Series to bridge the long gap between the last event in the traditional series and the Paris-Brest-Paris. During a long descent on route 169 in Connecticut with myself in the lead and Max following, the rear hub let out a puff of smoke (witnessed by Max) and then spilled its ball bearings on the road, forcing me to DNF the event. My theory, based on extensive post-mortems, is that the bearing retainer inside the sealed bearing cartridge gets bent somehow and starts dragging against the inside of the bearing, creating enough friction to ignite the lubricants. Once the lubricants are gone, the rest of the bearing follows soon after.
Within days I had brought the bike to see Milton Trimitsis, perhaps the most talented bike mechanic in the metro-Boston area. He gave me the bad news: he had seen this before with Phil Wood hubs, and once they start doing it, you lose a bearing every several hundred miles. The Paris-Brest- Paris is 750 miles, and there wasn't much time left before I was leaving for France. So Milton replaced both cartridge bearings and gave me a set of spares in case I needed them. In the event I did, as my bearing was shot again by the time I got to Carhaix on the outbound trip to Brest, and I had to have the mechanic at the controle install one of my spares (the French word for bearing is "roulement," by the way).
During the Paris-Brest, I met a Canadian bicycle mechanic who had also witnessed the same problem with Phil Wood hubs, and he recommended that I switch to a different brand of cartridge bearing, called "Enduromax," which does not use a bearing retainer. On my return to Boston I did just this, and things were working well again. Until the 2006 Boston 200K.
As I was leaning against my bicycle that morning I noticed that there seemed to be a bit of wobble in the rear wheel. Sure enough, I could move the rim left and right by a few millimeters with my fingertips, a sure sign that the bearing was about ready to spill its guts. I had visions of being stranded in rural New Hampshire without a ride home. Bruce and Tracey Ingle had their hands full with 110 other riders and calling my wife wasn't going to get me more than sympathy because, as you recall, we don't own a car. So I turned around and handed my card to Bruce Ingle and told Max to go ahead without me. My expectation was that the bearing would have enough life left in it to get me home again.
Tracey was sending the riders out in waves because there were so many of us, and Max left with the first wave. I was moping around getting ready to ride home when I overheard Ray Coffey saying, "I'm looking at him right now." I turned around and saw Ray talking to Elton Pope-Lance who had cycled up from Sudbury to watch the start, but wasn't planning to do the ride himself (Elton had asked Ray if he had seen me at the start). I told Elton my sob story about the bearing, and without a pause he says, "Do you want to ride my bike?"
Elton's bike deserves some description. It was a gleaming white custom Rivendell beautifully appointed with Brooks leather handlebar tape, toeclip pedals, Brooks leather saddle and a Carradice saddlebag. All of Elton's bicycles are works of art, but this one was especially breathtaking. And, of course, it was a fixed gear. At this point I will simply pass the microphone to Elton to provide a fuller description of the machine:
Chip: When did you get it and how?
Elton: Bought it from my boss, Marc Elliott at Color Services in Needham (featured in Riv Reader #32, IFIRC). Marc was once a Cat 2 racer, more than a few years ago. I believe he rode for Ben Serotta at one point. He's also the guy I got my 1971 24" Raleigh International from and two others—a very sweet lugged steel 1986 Pinarello cross bike (now fixed) and the 1993 Bridgestone XO-1 I sold to Chuck Hughes. He ordered it from Grant as he was starting Rivendell but before it was "official." He now rides a 68cm Quickbeam and a 68cm Rambouillet. It was small for him.
Chip: Geez — that's a Maxian sized bike. He must be huge.
Elton: He is 6' 4.5". Not quite as lanky as Max P., but a big guy. A very powerful rider.
Actually, he reports that Grant didn't want to build it in the beginning. It was ordered before Rivendell was up and running. He is a friend of Grant's from his/Grant's Bridgestone days, though up until 2005, they had never actually met. He ordered the frame and Grant kept asking him to consider a geared bike. When Grant finally agreed to design the bike, he initially refused to paint the whole thing "tusk." He eventually relented (Marc can be very persuasive) and thus began the bike you rode. It is Waterford built, before Riv had proprietary lugs designed.
Bruce Ingle had shown up by now and saw what was happening. He knew that I had never ridden a fixed gear before (not more than 100 yards, anyway) so he gave me a 60-second crash course on fixie technique ("Remember: you can't stop pedaling."). I took the bike for a spin around the parking lot and fell over. I tried to make sure that I hit the pavement before the bike since it was so pretty I would hate myself if I dented it. Then I got back up into the saddle, Bruce stuffed my brevet card into a jersey pocket, and I headed out in the next wave of riders.
I started to advance forward through the pack as I fumbled with my cell phone trying to call Max on his so that I could let him know that I was back in the ride. The process was made much more difficult by my instinct to stop pedaling in order to concentrate on what I was doing with my phone...the fixed gear reminds you very quickly that you are not allowed to coast. I pass by a couple of other riders that I know (David Wilcox and Ray Coffey) and continue to advance forward hoping to catch up with Max before he leaves the first checkpoint at New Boston, New Hampshire.
The three things that I immediately discovered about Elton's fixed gear were:
- You can't stop pedaling.
- You only have one gear (48 x 18; 72-inches).
- It is a whole lot lighter than my Bob Jackson touring bike.
The second and third points above meant that I was going uphill considerably faster than I would have otherwise. I like to keep my cadence up above about 70 rpm to avoid "stalling": sometimes it is actually easier to go uphill faster with a high cadence than slowly with a sub-stall cadence. On Carlisle Road in Westford, MA I caught up with a group including Ted Lapinski and Melinda Lyon. I ride with them for a couple of miles, and then we start the climbs in Dunstable and I leave the group behind as I try to keep my cadence above stall. I'm starting to hope that I might catch up with Max after all.
The next big challenge on this ride is the four mile climb up New Boston road before the first checkpoint. It was on this ascent that I overtook Kris Kjellquist, Emily O'Brien and one other rider whose name I've forgotten (Jake Kassen may have been there, too, but I just don't remember anymore.) Kris and Emily were riding fixed gears, also. I later learned (from an advertisement in American Randonneur magazine) that Emily holds the womens' fixed-gear course record for the Furnace Brook 508. Kris and Emily seized the opportunity to evangelize just as soon as I told them that it was my first fixed gear ride. I wasn't doing too badly at that point, but I hadn't reached the descent on the other side of the summit on New Boston road.
Remember: rule number one is that you can't stop pedaling. That means that the long descents on the 200K course (which Pamela Blalock informs me was chosen to maximize tandem speeds going downhill—she designed the route and usually rides stoker) force you to either run at a VERY high cadence or ride the brakes or most likely both. I actually found the descent off New Boston Road much more difficult than the climb to the summit. As we were coming down that hill Emily asked me if I would be doing more fixed-gear rides in the future. It was the wrong moment to ask—I told her "probably not" but what I meant was "no way in hell."
We rolled into the checkpoint at New Boston just as the group Max was riding with was pulling out. I shouted his name and got his attention, then enjoyed the confused look on his face when he saw that I was back in the ride followed by a very confused look on his face when I pointed at the bicycle below me and shouted "fixed gear." They didn't stop to wait for me, which was just as well since there was no chance that I would have been able to keep up on the descents.
Elton's bike was only equipped with a single bottle cage, but the Carradice saddlebag had plenty of carrying capacity so I bought a liter of Evian water at the store in New Boston. I ate a little at the checkpoint and then headed out alone.
The next section of the ride from New Boston to Brookline, NH has another one of Pamela's massive descents at Mount Vernon, NH. I had to ride the brakes all the way down with my legs doing about 110 rpm. It was at this point that I noticed that the brakes on Elton's bike, which had a bit of a squeak in them when I started the ride, were now operating silently. I had worn the squeak right out of them.
Somewhere on route 31, before the left turn onto Adams Hill Road, after a bunch of up-and-down followed by a long steady up, I ran out of water. I still had the liter of Evian in the Carradice bag, so I stopped at the top of one of the intermediate ascents to refill the bottle in the cage. At this point, I was passed by a bunch of riders, including the group led by Melinda and Ted that I had passed way back in Westford, which now had Emily with them. Everyone knew my story and asked after my well-being, so I had a chance to explain several times that I was just refilling my water bottle. I got back under way after a few minutes and got to the checkpoint at Brookline while they were still there.
At that point, I realized how much the fixed-gear had been beating me up. My legs were a lot more sore than I expected them to be at that point in the ride. My cycling instincts were being turned upside-down because now I was dreading the downhills. I ended up lingering at the checkpoint longer than I should, then finally decided to get back on the road and get Elton his bike back.
The thing I remember most about the last leg of the ride was passing riders on the climbs, only to have them pass me again on the descents. This happened over and over again. The bike was so light that I could propel it uphill effortlessly, but payback time came on the other side.
At one point, a light rain started, and I remembered noticing a rain jacket in the Carradice saddlebag when I put the Evian water in there. I thought to myself, "Elton rocks." Fortunately, the rain stopped so I never put the jacket on, but those of you who ride without Carradice bags stuffed with Burley jackets should consider getting them. And while you're at it, get fenders 'cause I'm sick of riding in your rooster tails.
Elton and Max were waiting for me at the finish at Hanscom Field. Elton had ridden my Bob Jackson home to Sudbury, then drove back with my bike on his roof rack. I returned his bike to him, somewhat ashamed of how dirty it was after the ride. Max had received my phone message after getting to the finish — what can you expect from a guy who insists on using GSM?
Max, Emily and I then got back on our bicycles for the ride back into town. Emily stopped at Quad Bikes in Arlington and Max and I continued together until Cambridge. As we parted ways on Mass Ave Max said to me, "You can borrow my fixed-gear anytime you like, Chip."