midnight test pilot
I found what I wrote immediately after my first fixed-gear ride after my crash. Reading it now, nearly five years later, I think it still says it all. Oddly enough, scans of the photos I took of that bike turned up this week. Here it is ...
It was, of course, a few minutes past midnight when I finished building up the Falcon. I had to replace the tube in the front tire. I seem to have very bad luck with tubes these days. In the course of that, I broke another of those plastic tire tools. Plastic tire tools are not a case of plastic improving something, if you were wondering.
I stood and took stock of what I had assembled. I had started with a late 60s Falcon San Remo frameset, full 531 double-butted Reynolds tubeset, in somewhat timeworn but quite attractive flamboyant green enamel. It had cost me a whopping $45 at the Cirque du Cyclisme, including the Campy Record headset with a scratched but functional locknut and serviceable cones and races. The wheels were my good old Maillard track hub that I re-laced to a used rim, a Maillard front hub laced to its mate. The Continental 28mm tires provided a little more ground clearance and a smoother ride on bad surfaces – the fact that they were barely used and free didn’t hurt. A Nitto Technomic Deluxe stem got my bars high enough for my taste and held Nitto 42cm Maes bend bars - complete with the cool Japanese "ding-ding!" bell that my cats hate. I wrapped them with red Tressostar cloth bar tape, and the bike suddenly looked right. Old SunTour Superbe non-aero levers with Shimano hoods operated Universal Super 68 sidepull brakes, and I felt vaguely Italian every time I stopped. Intellectually, I know a single brake is sufficient on a fix – but some days I join the belt-and-suspenders crowd, and brakes bring out those tendencies in me.
The crankset was the Stronglight 93 I modified a couple of years back on Brother Dave's drill press for fixed-gear use, complete with the track bottom bracket I assembled from bits scavenged from different sources. The black Brooks saddle with the scars from the last time I rode a fixie was fitted to a seatpost I picked up at the Anderson jockey lot. For pedals, I fitted a set of the ancient French Lyotard Berthet platforms, one of the most brilliant designs in history. Those came from the back room of a shop in Greenville. All in all, way cool, and better still when finished with a Minoura handlebar mount bottle cage adapter.
I pumped up the tires, locked up my apartment and stuck my keys in the waistband of my patched cycle shorts. Throwing my right leg over the top tube, I reached down and cinched the toestrap tight on my foot - once moving, NEVER put your hand near a fixed-gear drivetrain, unless you think you have too many fingers. Then I was pushing off, and finding the left pedal on the fly, snagging the toestrap and cinching it on the second crank revolution, once more loving Marcel Berthet for the pedals that bear his name.
I stepped firmly on my fear – I had broken two ribs last year on a fixed-gear when a clipless pedal released at 25 mph. “Clips and straps,” I muttered, reminding myself to stick with things I can readily inspect for safety. Sheldon notes that bad things ensue when
a foot is suddenly released, and I am exhibit A. It was nearly a year since I had been on a bike that doesn’t coast. I’d put in well over 1,000 km last year on fixed-gears, though, and I was surprised at how quickly it all came back to me.
I rode down to the end of the street and turned into the church parking lot I call the local velodrome, riding slowly at first, then with more confidence. The concrete divider that juts in two directions creates a big letter L; I rode around its perimeter. The end closest to the church calls for a very sharp turn, which is ideal for testing pedal clearance on bikes that don't coast. The Falcon passed with flying colors, tracking straight and smooth. On the long straightaway at the bottom I found that if I have enough speed it tracks perfectly when ridden no-hands.
After a few minutes of this, riding and testing the bike's capabilities, the temptation grew too strong. I pulled back out onto the street and rolled down to the intersection. I almost managed a perfect track stand without ever touching my brakes. No traffic was anywhere on the block, and I rolled across and went down the hill on Jennings, my hands finding the drops. The first time I rode down that hill on a fixie, nearly four years ago, I had a split second of near panic; tonight it is smooth, silent gliding. I balanced my legs turning the cranks with the cranks turning my legs to a nicety, slowing gently for the stop sign at the bottom of the hill. The coast was clear, and I went on out to where the street dead-ends. I marveled at how much I've missed the exquisite slow speed handling of fixies as I turned around and started back.
I turned right onto a side street and went up to Cothran, testing how well I can storm the climb. I was out of the saddle in an instant, and found I had set the bars just right for holding onto the hoods but could also do a standing climb on the drops as well. Then a left onto Cothran itself, and I slipped past all the houses with the lights off, and a left now, onto the street that returns me to Jennings. Silently, so silently the dogs don't hear me pass, I rolled along. I used the quieter rear brake to scrub off some speed, then letting my legs kick in and resist my movement, bringing the bike to a standstill at the stop sign. All was clear, and I took a leisurely spin around the area, trying out handling tricks, learning how the bike behaves when ridden no-hands, hearing the tires on the pavement.
Finally, it was time to
go home. I made the transition from street to sidewalk at the little ramped area, my left hand reaching down to expertly flick the little tab on my left toeclip in a movement I learned a quarter of a century ago; a movement like love, involuntary and essential as breathing itself. I gently squeezed the brakes as I lifted out of the saddle and brought my foot down, my wheel less than a foot from the bottom step. Life would be perfect if my sweetie was waiting on the stairs with a cool drink in her hands, saying, "I take it you enjoyed your ride." As it is, life is pretty damned good as I stand over the Falcon for a moment, breathing the cool night air, a midnight test pilot, a fixed-gear rider, a two-wheeled centaur once again.