Semi-retirement for my Co-Motion bike

May 23, 2012

I bought my splendidly orange Co-Motion bicycle in 2000, and for twelve years it has been my principal bike. For reasons described below, it is moving from its Pacific Northwest home to enter semi-retirement in Indianapolis.

Co-Motion bicycles are designed and crafted in a small state-of-the-art factory in Eugene, Oregon, a college town grown large at the southern tip of the Willamette Valley. When I first toured Co-Motion’s craft shop, it was still located in what seemed like an overgrown garage in a small strip mall. It has since moved to a beautifully designed facility closer to the edge of town. In my mind, this local business is a must see location for visitors interested in fine bicycles.

I bought this bike so that I could take it on my travels: light weight steel tubing, aggressive geometry, Wound Up carbon fork, and S & S couplers. Set up to go, before adding pump and water bottles, it weighs right at twenty-two pounds. This includes an old man’s triple drive train with mountain bike cassette.

Later, I added a front bag and fancy wood fenders to deal with the Northwest’s rainy season (January 1 through December 31, every year).

On this bike I have traveled approximately 15,000 miles of ordinary cycling for transportation, recreation, and conditioning. Twice Co-Motion has taken me on Cycle Oregon, three times on PAC Tour’s Desert Camp (about 500 miles each week), and once on a two-week excursion from Albuquerque to the Grand Canyon and return. My one time to ride RAGBRAI was on Co-Motion, and this was the bicycle on which I traced my family’s pilgrimage through the Cumberland Gap to Southern Indiana thirty years after Abraham Lincoln’s family had made a similar journey.

On my first PAC Tour trip, however, I realized that Co-Motion is a younger person’s bike: short wheel base, stiff frame, unforgiving fork, tight clearances, which limit tire sizes I can use. The bicycle that had suited me so well in older middle-age would work less well as a bike on which to become an old man.

This winter I acquired my old man’s bike: a custom titanium work of art by Seattle’s veteran frame builder Bill Davidson. With its softer but still spirited riding qualities, it has been designed to allow me to keep on biking another decade or more.

The plan, however, is for Co-Motion to stay in the family. My Indianapolis son has a use for it as a companion to his main bicycle. “Besides, Dad,” he told me, “you’ll have a good bike here when you come to visit.” Later in the week, he’ll check it for size, and we’ll decide if it stays behind when I return home to my new Davidson and the classic Mercian, which I’ve ridden for forty years.

I’m writing this at the Starbucks on 14th and North Capitol Avenue near a daughter’s Indianapolis home. I can see the outlines of Methodist Hospital where my son started out his life fifty years ago come October.

Co-Motion is tethered near by on this bright, warm morning. We’ve had a fine life together, this bike and I, for the past twelve years. If all goes well in our mutual semi-retirement, we’ll enjoy another decade of togetherness.

Annie’s trip around the world in bloomers on a fixie

May 17, 2012

On June 25, 1894, Annie Cohen Kopchovsky began a solo bicycle trip around the world. She started her fifteen-month trip in Boston, wearing a floor length heavy skirt, riding a forty-two pound Columbia bicycle designed for women.

The first leg of the trip took her to Chicago where she exchanged her bike for a twenty-one pound Sterling man’s bike, with fixed gear and no brakes. She began the process of changing her attire, and in relatively short order had adopted mannish bloomers as her riding uniform.

Traveling back to Boston, on bicycle part of the time but mostly on the train, she embarked by ship for France where the adventures (real and imagined) became ever more exciting.

This expedition more than a century ago was marked by special conditions. The cyclist used a fictitious name—Annie Londonderry—and suppressed that she was Jewish, married, and mother of three young children whom she had left at home with her husband Max. Annie claimed that the ride was for the purpose of winning a wager that included the provision that she would begin with no money, earn her way, and accumulate at least $5,000 in the process. She started out with the clothes she had on at the time and a change of underwear.

Annie completed the trip in the allotted time and created a paper trail everywhere she traveled. She gave public lectures all along the way and was written up in newspapers and magazines around the world.

Annie was an inventive young woman whose imagination was never at a loss to tell a story that would captivate an audience and generate revenue for the next part of her expedition. Sometimes based on events that had actually happened, her narratives were wildly adventurous, with details changing from one telling to the next.

Annie’s casual attitude toward truth extended to describing how she traveled. Clearly, she cycled many miles, much of the time alone, often over terrain that would challenge even strong cyclists of our own time. Most of her Asian miles, however, were with her bicycle, not on it, the two of them covering the miles on steamships.

Many of her American miles from San Francisco to Chicago were by train. With increasing frequency, American journalists referred to her as a fraud. “Lovable rogue” is a better term, says Annie’s great grandnephew, Peter Zheutlin, who tells her story. She was “a clever young woman who capitalized brilliantly on the major social issues of her day.” She was one of the cycling pioneers, says Zheutlin, described by Irving A Leonard:

Theirs were the glow and throb and the innocent ardor of the authentic adventurer, of the true traveler who subjects himself to the conditions of the strange places and languages through which he passes, unlike the tourist who merely transfers his accustomed style of life to a different setting. These pedaling wanderers were romantic heroes of the era, wholly depending, as they did, upon their own physical resources during long stretches of time and space.

Zheutlin is a free lance journalist whose work appears in major newspapers and magazines. He first heard about Annie from a complete stranger rather than from family sources and embarked on his four-year research project when he took up cycling as part of his recuperation from cancer.

He tells his story truthfully, including Annie’s awkward relation with her family, but he also writes gently and with love. I’m inclined to agree with him in his assessment of his great grand aunt’s achievement:

What Annie accomplished with her bicycle in 1894-95 was a tour de force of moxie, self-promotion, and athleticism. Though she was a skilled raconteur and gifted self-promoter with a penchant for embellishment and tall tales, she was also, as the evidence shows, an accomplished cyclist who covered thousands of miles by bicycle during her journey.    

Zheutlin points out that “traveling around the world as she did was utterly unconventional for a woman of her day.” Even today, I might add, this kind of travel is still beyond the limits for most of us—women or men.

Note: Around the World on Two Wheels was published by Citadel Press in 2007. Although I skipped through some of the details of the travel narrative, I finished the book with high esteem for Annie and appreciation for the Zheutlin’s account of her journey. I strongly recommend his appendix and afterword (pp. 142-160) in which he discusses Annie’s exploits and fills in some of the details of his research and her post-trip life.

Steve Jobs and Joseph Smith: Masters at Reality Distortion

May 14, 2012

Joseph Smith and Steve Jobs are alike in two remarkable ways. So I have concluded as a result of reading biographies of these two men during the past few weeks.

Of Joseph Smith, founder of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, Fawn McKay Brodie writes: “The source of his power lay not in his doctrine but in his person, and the rare quality of his genius was due not to his reason but to his imagination. He was a mythmaker of prodigious talent” (p. ix).

Not only Brodie, with her skepticism, but more sympathetic biographers such as Jan Shipps and Richard L. Bushman describe Smith’s uncanny ability to captivate people and energize them to do things they could never have imagined doing. He was a prophet whose mesmerizing ability puts him in the ranks of only a few religious leaders who have transformed reality for all who came within his spell.

Describing Steve Jobs, founder of Apple Computer Company, biographer Walter Isaacson uses the phrase “reality distortion field” to explain his ability to motivate people to accomplish design and engineering tasks they claimed were impossible. Issacson quotes Andy Hertzfeld’s description of Jobs’ power. “The reality distortion field was a confounding mélange of a charismatic rhetorical style, indomitable will, and eagerness to bend any fact to fit the purpose at hand” (p. 118).

The impression I receive from Isaacson’s account is that this aspect of Jobs’ character was partly a studied and practiced form of dealing with people in order to bend them to his will. But there was another aspect, a vision, a sense of purpose that transcended ordinary activities, which drove him and everyone around him to make reality conform to their purposes.

Of course, Smith and Jobs lived in eras that differed widely and there was virtually nothing about their life stories that is common to both. It is hard even to think of Smith’s religion and Jobs’ business world at the same time. One was a prophet to adopt the word that Brodie and Shipps use to describe Smith, and the other, to use the word that Isaacson settles upon in his chapter on Jobs’ legacy, was a genius.

Jobs and Smith are alike in a second way: each one created an institution that embodies the spirit and major characteristics of its founder and moves these qualities forward in time. “The continuation of the incarnation” is a phrase sometimes used in theological literature to describe the Church that emerged during the latter part of the first century.

Jesus was gone. The people of the way, who were first called Christians at Antioch, maintained a vivid embodiment of what he had said and done.

Joseph Smith was martyred long before his Mormon experiment had been finished, but the church, the religious movement, that he had sired and inspired, continued on and continues to offer his vision and system to the world.

And Jobs? Although he was driven by powerful design principles to create remarkable products, a closely parallel passion was to create a great company. Some of his heroes were business leaders who had done just that, and he ardently desired that his company would sustain the electronic revolution that he had willed into being.

We know, of course, that Smith’s church, designed and perpetuated by Brigham Young, continues as a worldwide movement. Whether Jobs’ company will continue remains to be seen.

Reading the biography of Steve Jobs is helping me understand the achievement of Joseph Smith, while reading biographies of Smith assists me in my efforts to understand the computer genius of Cupertino.

Again Isaacson quotes Hertzfield who gives this assessment of Steve Jobs: “He thinks there are a few people who are special—people like Einstein and Gandhi and the gurus he met in India—and he’s one of them.” Isaacson continues by saying that although Jobs had never studied Nietzsche, “the philosopher’s concept of the will to power and the special nature of the Überman came naturally to him: ‘The spirit now wills his own will, and he who had been lost to the world now conquers the world’” (119). Much the same, it seems to me, can be said of the prophet from Nauvoo.

I readily acknowledge that there were serious flaws in the character and life that each of these men lived. Many aspects of Mormon historiography, theology, and ecclesial ethics are troublesome to me and I continue to live outside of the LDS orbit. Although I do use Mac computers and appreciate their skilled blending of art and technology, I find Jobs, as Isaacson describes him, to be a deeply flawed human being. There are aspects of Apple’s passion to control that frustrate me greatly.

Even so the prophet and the genius stand side by side as dramatic exemplars of muses with unusual power. With these muses, they have changed the world.

If it weren’t for people, freeways would be fine!

May 10, 2012

 Wherever they’re built, new highways disrupt currently existing patterns, both of nature and human society. This is especially true in urban center because of the density of population, value of existing properties, and complexity of the infrastructure.

Recognizing this fact, Earl Swift (photo on the left) entitles the last section of his book “The Human Obstacle.” Although he describes the nationwide challenge of routing freeways through cities, he uses Baltimore as his principal example of inevitable conflict with many innocent people bearing the burden.

Regardless of the benefits that urban freeways bring to a city as a whole, these massive thoroughfares carry a heavy human price. It is not at all clear in Baltimore or any of the other cities discussed in The Big Roads that the benefits equal or outweigh the negatives.

Every time I drive along I-5 through Vancouver and Portland, I brood over this dilemma. And I find myself inclined to abandon this vehicular sewer (except for the interstate bridges over the Columbia River, which are the only way to get across) in favor of the old arterials: Interstate Avenue (once U. S. 99W) and Martin Luther King, Jr., Boulevard (U.S. 99E).

As he concludes his book, Swift offers additional observations to my dark meditations. One of them is the fact that this largest public work in American history is rapidly falling apart because of heavy use and old age. Just one aspect of the problem is that most bridges in the freeway system are less than a decade away from reaching their expected useful life of fifty years.

Swift cites estimates that it will take $225 billion a year for fifty years to renew the freeway system—and this at a time when for several reasons the revenue base is shrinking.

Throughout his book, Swift describes the way that these new highways cause old travel-oriented, once-thriving local communities to dry up. America is littered with the ghosts of these places of human habitation whose lifeblood the freeways have sucked up.

What do we get in return? Faster travel times and lower accident rates, both desirable factors. But we also get a uniform and bland experience in sameness. Travelers can get on the freeway in Connecticut and get off in California and nothing changes—the same gas stations, motels, and restaurants serve us all along the way.

“The interstates,” Swift tells us, “take a distillation of the broad American culture—a one-size-fits-all, lowest-common-denominator reading of who we are and what we want—wherever they go.”

The pressures upon the freeway system actually make it possible to believe that segments of it may actually be abandoned, leaving the nation with a massive white elephant. More hopeful is the possibility that we will become more inventive in coming years with respect to transportation policy, highway design, and public financing.

It’s likely to be a long wait. In the meantime, I’m going to revel in the old ways, cycling through town and country on humankind’s “most benevolent of machines.”

Carl Graham Fisher, bicyclist and good roads pioneer

May 3, 2012

Big Roads, by Earl Swift (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2011)

During my years as a cyclist in Indiana, I prized a republished, large-format atlas of the state’s road system as it existed in 1868. With a yellow highlighter, I gradually marked the roads still existing a century later when I cycled over them for the first time. Over the years, many miles of Indiana’s old roads turned yellow. When we moved from the state in 1995, I gave the atlas to my neighbors who had joined me on some of those miles.

In the Atlas, these roads are solid black lines, which suggest a sturdiness that they, in fact, did not possess. This is Earl Swift’s description of roads in the late 1800s (reported in his book The Big Roads):

The routes out of most any town in America were “wholly unclassable, almost impassable, scarcely jackassable,” as folks said then—especially when spring and fall rains transformed the simple dirt tracks into a heavy muck, more glue than earth. In Indiana, as elsewhere, people braved them to the train and back, or to roll their harvest from their farms to the nearest grain elevator. For any trip beyond that, they went by rail.

These were the roads which Carl Graham Fisher, born in Greensburg, Indiana, in 1874, encountered in his growing up years. At the age of twelve and living in Indianapolis, Carl quit school and went to work. Five years later, using money he’d saved up in that short time, he opened a shop to repair bicycles—both the high-wheel ordinaries that were on their way out and the new-fangled safety bikes that would soon dominate the trade.

Swift describes Fisher’s daredevil showmanship and aggressive entrepreneurial methods. “He built a bike so big he had to mount it from a second-floor window, then rode it through the city’s streets. Indianapolis ate it up.”

This sixth-grade dropout, as Swift describes him, decided that he would have the biggest bike shop in town and persuaded a bike maker from Columbus, Ohio, to bankroll him $50,000 to establish it. Fisher became the central figure in the “city’s cycling fraternity.”

In 1880, early in the bicycle craze, a national organization for cyclists had been organized with the name The League of American Wheelmen and by the time Fisher opened his big store it had enrolled 100,000 members. In 1892, the League established a magazine entitled Good Roads which, says Swift, became a national advocate for improving traveling conditions. The Good Roads Movement which resulted was so strong that politicians could not ignore it.

In 1893, a national Office of Road Inquiry was opened under the leadership of General Roy Stone. The transformation of America’s roads began to move forward.

Meantime, Carl Fisher had to figure out new ways to keep busy. His interests moved in two directions: the quarter-mile wooden oval for bike racing that his friend Arthur Newby built north of downtown Indianapolis and “carriages and bikes fitted with lightweight gasoline engines.”

In 1900, Fisher and his bike-racing buddy Barney Oldfield visited the nation’s first auto show in New York. Soon after returning home, he closed his bike shop and opened one of the nation’s first car dealerships, the Fisher Auto Company.

All of the reasons why cyclists wanted good roads were also important to motorists. Despite the widespread interest, however, progress was slow, partly because the federal government was doing little and, as Swift writes, the real work was left to the states.

Fisher’s comment: “The highways of America are built chiefly of politics, whereas the proper material is crushed rock or cement.” He was convinced that industry had to take the lead.

So in the late summer of 1912, Carl Fisher began talking up a new project, a transcontinental highway, a rock road stretching across a dozen states or more, from New York to California. A highway built to a standard unseen in the United States–dry, smooth, safe, not just passable but comfortable in the rainy seasons. A road built for the automobile. For the future (31).

Fundamental decisions were still to be made–about government and industry; local, state, and federal responsibilities; routes; nearly every aspect of roadway design and construction. Fisher’s interest moved past roads to other, grander projects: Prest-O-Lite lighting systems for automobiles, the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, the east-west Lincoln Highway and the north-south Dixie Highway, and the development of Miami Beach.

My regard for Carl Graham Fisher, however, remains focused on his initial contribution to cycling and good roads–some of which have become prized routes for modern-day cyclists like me. Although Earl Swift portrays many other heroes in the history of American roads, Carl Graham Fisher, the kid from Greensburg, Indiana, is my favorite.

Note: A variant of Fisher’s story, also written by Earl Swift, can be read at this link. The portrait of Fisher is from the Library of Congress and appears frequently.