Life on a Chain

If you’re like me, you probably have a bunch of bike parts stashed in the garage that you’ve been saving for whatever reason. This past weekend as I was sorting through the good, the bad and the ugly a “line” of sorts began to form in my mind. As I poked through the flotsam and jetsam of many years spent riding, I began to see it as clearly as buff singletrack on a bluebird day when the tailwind is howling and there is nothing but downhill back to the car. It was time to resurrect an old friend.

The idea first began when I opened the garage door and sunlight spilled into the darkness. The frame had been hanging on a hook like a side of beef in a meatlocker for a few years now after noticing a crack beginning to propagate in one of its chainstays following the 12 hours of Temecula a few years back. Metal fatigue and years of riding rigid had reared its ugly head. But as the garage door lifted, the sun glinted off its finish like a wink across the room.

I snatched the old frame from its perch and ran my fingers over its chainstay as if my touch might somehow heal its wound. Even a Surly must die eventually, I guess. Over the past few years I had slowly stripped it of parts until it was a bare ferrous latticework of bicycling DNA in a dead end branch of a family tree doomed to an ignominious end. Still, for some reason I clung to that frame. I gingerly placed it back on its hook and began to pull a few more bins off the shelves.

As I sorted through the old parts I thought of their whole until an odd 8 speed gripshifter here, a set of V-brakes there and various bits of old hardware were pitched into the trash. Not all nostalgia is good. Distracted for a second from my sorting, a stout, old pair of wheels in the corner rolled into my mental vision, one of the first sets I’d ever laced up by hand. I picked each wheel up by the ends of the axle and spun it, recalling the snow bike race in Wyoming for which I’d built them with the widest rims I could get my hands on at the time. They still spun true. I set them aside while I dove with renewed vigor into yet another bin of forgotten hardware.

Like an archeologist excavating a tomb, next to catch my eye were the belly of the beast themselves, the cranks. Ahhh, square taper how we have forsaken thee. As I reached to lift them from the bin, a remembrance of the first mail order parts I’d bought many eons ago as a starving college student danced lightly in my thoughts like the minor oxidation I brushed from their finish. Inspired, I continued to pick parts from the bin until the barest minimum of parts arrayed before me like a Neolithic tomb in the green fields of the Irish countryside… and when I say “barest of minimum” I mean it. The vision of the line I had seen would not allow for the luxury of coasting. This line was pure. Following an hour or so of toil in which the old parts had a chance to become reacquainted, standing before me was that most dastardly of restoration projects: the off road fixie.

Riding fixed off-road is like eating stinky cheese; it’s an acquired taste. In some ways it’s like learning to walk all over again. Going uphill is never the issue for me of course as singlespeeding has been in my blood for many years now. The sufferance of elevation gain doesn’t mean much until the next day when my muscles begin to sing their lyric poetry. However, once the climb is done and it’s time to let loose almost everything ingrained in muscle memory through years of practice must be unlearned. Gravity may indeed be a ride’s manacle, but when riding fixed on rough trails, you soon begin to realize that it is also its demonic charge (damn right I’m paraphrasing Big Audio Dynamite, anybody remember them?). When it’s time to head back down, you gotta restrain a big dog with a stout chain.

After having assembled such a beast I needed to ride it of course. I’m fortunate to have a few route options when it comes to riding my bike to work, so earlier today I giddily began the commute like one of those stupid little Disney dwarves. Chuckling to myself about how maybe Surly was Grumpy’s older, meaner brother with a history of substance abuse and run-ins with the law, I decided on the long way to work. A few miles of trails rolled by beneath the cover of oaks as I settled into the rhythmic fixie conversation. Damn the freewheels, full spin ahead.

Every ride on a fixie is an exercise in predestination. Whatever angle you set the crank when you begin sets a certain series of events into motion – it’s like solving differential equations. Depending on those initial conditions, your ride may vary from say… narrowly missing a trailside rock beneath your foot to smacking into one when you cross a creekbed. Argue your case for free will until you’re blue in the face if you like, riding offroad on a fixie you learn to live with your choices.  As with life, you learn by getting burned and next time I start this ride with my right foot at 11 o’clock instead of 2…

Continuing on from the creekbed the trail opened up and the conversation turned, as often happens with old friends, to the past. We crossed the gap of years between us in the closed loop of “what once was” rather than the open loop of new beginnings. This old frame of mine and I have been through so much over the years: races in Costa Rica, Colorado, Arizona, Utah, Wyoming, Maine, Vermont, New Jersey and of course, all parts of California. Over the years I’ve puked, bled and sweat on this frame: it’s marred finish of scrapes and dings can be cross referenced to a scar map of my body. So many training rides, from short violent intervals to multiday epics are written on the finish of its paint. All those doubts in the deepest of night, the despair of defeat, the rare triumphs, the joys and the pain. This frame and I are one and I intend to ride it until that chainstay severs. When it does, may it be on sunlit singletrack, and may I not fracture a clavicle.

Our ancient cranks spun the final miles into work on flat terrain accompanied by the contemplative whir of our knobbies on pavement. For now the beast slumbers chained to a rack in this non-descript industrial park as I set about the business of paying the bills.  But the ride home awaits and I doubt that any chain can contain this bike for long.

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