Internal Detours
Wednesday, February 22, 2006
  the call of the cog

Earlier today, the question being discussed on the iBOB newslist was, "are you addicted?" Not to controlled substances - to fixed-gear cycling. I started to respond to the thread, then I changed my mind. This is a better place for that story.

I'd been curious about fixed gear bikes since about 1984 or so. I was putting things together to move to Ohio to attend graduate school. I remember looking at my '63 Rudge Sports 3-speed and thinking about converting it. Graduate school turned out not to be what I needed, and in the course of figuring that out, I forgot about bikes for a while.

I didn't really think about fixed-gears again until I returned to cycling in 1997. In the course of reading Sheldon Brown's web pages about British club bikes, I read about fixed-gears on the road. I thought about it a while and ordered an 18T SunTour cog from Harris Cyclery.

My first fix was built on a battered Raleigh Lenton frameset I got from Jim Cunningham at CyclArt for cheap, paying more for shipping than for the frame itself. It had been repaired a long time ago, and had mismatched head lugs under incredibly worn layers of dull dark blue paint. The plain-gauge 531 tubing was a bit hefty, but built up with old tubular wheels and parts scavenged from a dead Raleigh Record, it was a light, nimble bike.

I eventually swapped most of the parts over to a dented Gitane Professionnal Super Corsa; from there they went to a Gitane Tour de France frameset briefly, before being fitted to a very early red Trek 620. The Trek was a bit small for me at 56 cm center to center, but it had a high bottom bracket that was ideal for use with the 170 mm Stronglight 93s I was using by that point.

Commuting and puttering around was about the limit of my fixed-gear riding - until I read about the new Bianchi Pista shown at the '99 Interbike. I looked at photos online, admired the flat black with Celeste accents finish, and took the plunge. It was my first (and to date, only) road bike that wasn't lugged. I kitted it out with Celeste bar tape, a Minoura handlebar mounted bottle cage and Shimano 105 sidepulls (the very first batch had drilled seat stay bridges).

I showed up for a club ride one Saturday aboard the bike and discovered I how versatile a fixed-gear can be in rolling terrain. I rode the bike a couple of times a week, putting about half of that year's mile on the Bianchi. Everything went well until the crash.

The stock pedals on the original Pistas were Wellgo copies of Look clipless units. They had never felt smooth, especially compared to the Looks I was using on the Bianchi road bike I was riding that year. I used the cleats that came with the pedals, but I never could dial in a good setting on them. It always required a brutal effort to unclip from them.

You can imagine my surprise when the left pedal spontaneously released on me on a Saturday club ride. My hands were nowhere near my brake levers. All of this happened at 25 mph on a normally mild descent. Unfortunately, my right foot was still quite firmly clipped in. The right pedal levered me up out of the saddle and began pitching me forward.

I hung on for three crank revolutions, enough time to think about how much it was going to hurt when I landed. It was about as bad as I expected. The left side of my body was pretty much completely road rashed; worse still, I broke two ribs when I initially landed on my back.

I sold the Pista - possibly foolishly, but the juju was all wrong, all of a sudden. I converted my hack fixed-gear back to gears. I started riding again, but not as much, and to this day I've never quite felt as fast or as strong as I did the week before the crash.

I convinced myself I didn't need or want a fixed-gear bike. They were just too dangerous and all that. They spooked me. In my heart of hearts, I knew that if I used toe clips and straps again, and not clipless pedals, I would be all right, but I wasn't willing to test that theory just yet.

Ten months after I went over the bars, I went to the 2001 Cirque du Cyclisme. I shared a table with Jeff Slotkin that year, and we took turns roaming the hall looking for bargains. I had already made several rounds through both rooms when I saw an old green frameset lying on its side. It was a circa 1965-70 Falcon San Remo frameset, it was Reynolds 531 throughout, it was cheap, and it was almost my size. I thought, "fixed-gear."

Then I bought it.
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