Bicycle Talk on Lake Washington Boulevard

July 22, 2017

“When did you buy that bike? Back in the eighties?”

“Earlier than that,” I responded. “Probably in 1973.”

I had seen the questioner when he and his six-year-old daughter were buying their drinks and snacks at the Starbucks where I was resting before assaulting the ridge up to my daughter’s house on Beacon Hill. They were sitting at an outside table eight or ten feet from my reconditioned, classic Mercian bicycle. While Anna was reading her book, her father, Jeff, had been looking closely at my bike.

I joined them at the table and we spent the next few minutes in bicycle talk. In response to his questions, I gave him a brief history of my life with the Mercian. He volunteered suggestions on how I could polish the Campy Record components so that they would glisten even more brightly. He filled in a few of the details of his racing in earlier years, primarily on criterium races. “I was always too stocky for road racing,” he explained.

“The bike that was on the other side of the rack,” he told me, “was a Pinarello Dogma carbon fiber bike.”

“Several years ago I saw one priced at $14,500, but I think they are more reasonably priced now,” I responded. “The man who’s riding it told me that he had to get back on the road so that he could make another circuit of Lake Washington. He’d already been around one time, which his wrist-mounted device registered at 48.9 miles.”

“I have to hurry,” he explained, “because I have to run this afternoon after finishing my trips around the lake.”

During these conversations, at least a dozen other cyclists, all dressed in serious Lycra cycling gear, stopped at the Starbucks. Several of them, I presumed, were also stopping at The Polka Dot Jersey, a bike shop one or two store fronts up the street. The sidewalk in front of the shop was a jumble of bikes, riders, and mechanics. Inside, the shop looked smaller than the Starbucks, and there was hardly room for even one more person to push through the open door to ask a question or make a purchase.

“One of our mechanics, who’s not here today, is an expert on classic bikes with old components,” a mechanic on the sidewalk told me. Chances are I’ll bike over to the Polka Dot Jersey in a few days to talk with the Campy expert.

These conversations took place in the Leschi neighborhood, on Lakeshore Boulevard, about three and a half miles from my daughter’s house on Beacon Hill, a former streetcar suburb south of downtown Seattle. Her house was built in 1908 and has been her home since 1981. During my visits these many years, I have explored bike routes over and around Beacon Hill and adjoining ridges.

For me and many others, Lake Washington Boulevard is a happy place to be. While some people frolic in the lakeshore parks, others are walking or running on the walkways near the street. And cyclists? This road, with its peaceful ambiance is a destination point. In a city with hard climbs, steep down hills, and constant traffic, we can enjoy few miles of hard, fast cycling and, friendly  bicycle talk over Starbucks coffee.

My classic bike comes home again

July 19, 2016
Mercian Bike in North Portland

Mercian Bike in North Portland

On July 8, I posted a blog announcing my decision to sell the classic Mercian bicycle that has been one of my loves for 43 years. The blog went online at 6:00 am just before I left for my 7:00 o’clock Friday breakfast with the Friendly Old Fellows from my church.

At 8:15, as I was leaving the restaurant, my Indianapolis son was on the phone. He had just read the blog and hoped that there still was time to get the bike back. “Dad, I can fix a place for it in my garage. Even if you don’t ride it any more, it needs to stay in the family.” Later in the day, one of his Indianapolis sisters echoed his sentiment. “If I had room at my place, I would have made the same offer.”

Their entreaties were enough to persuade me. Even a casual reading of last week’s blog shows that my heart was not in the decision to put the bike on consignment. I called the bike shop and reported my change of mind. They’ll do the repairs that it needs and I’ll pick it up in a few days.

One more factor enters into this discussion. As my family and many of my friends know, I plan to reestablish my home in Indianapolis. With the Mercian at my son’s home, I will be able to join him more easily in rides around his part of the northeastern fringe of Indianapolis. His principal bike is the Orange Co-Motion bike I used for a decade after putting the Mercian into semi-retirement. We’ll make a fine pair as we cruise around a nice part of the world on these fine bikes.


Choosing tires at the point where performance, price, and reliability intersect

Fixing a Flat Under the Light Rail Tracks

Fixing a Flat Under the Light Rail Tracks

For several years I have subscribed to Seattle based Bicycle Quarterly and have benefitted greatly from much of the work that writers in this journal discuss. I consistently ride on wider tires at lower pressure than I used for most of my cycling history.

After a long delay, I finally decided to try a set of Compass tires that the people in Seattle have developed and sell. My hesitation was based on my uneasiness about the reliability of these high-performance, light weight tires. I mounted a pair in January in time to ride them for a month with many miles on Amelia Island, Florida, a week of PAC Tour’s Desert Training Camp in southern Arizona, and another week of occasional riding around Tucson.

The tires mounted easily, felt good on my rides, and showed no wear during these winter rides. After I returned home, however, my experience changed. Repeated flats have let me down. They have occurred on regular training routes near my home, on a pleasure excursion in the Coast Range outside of Seaside, Oregon, at the 65-mile mark on the annual Ride Around Clark County, 20 miles from nowhere on the slopes of Mt. St. Helens on the annual Tour de Blast, and finally at an awkward place three miles from home on my regular commuting route from downtown Portland.

Half way through this series of flats, my confidence began to waver, but the tires do give a good ride. They show few blemishes from road debris that might lead to flats. The last let-down, however, persuaded me that despite the confidence in these tires exuded by the Bicycle Quarterly folks they don’t work for me.

I’m at Seaside again for a few days. The first thing I did upon arrival was replace these tires with a set of tried-and-true Continentals. I may even dare the ride up into the high country again while I’m here. As it has been throughout the years, I choose my tires at the point where performance, price, and reliability intersect. For now, I’m making the choice based on reliability. Next year, maybe, I’ll try again for performance (but probably not with Compass).

New life for an old bike

July 8, 2016

Mercian Full View

No tears were shed, though my eyes were misty, as I left Sellwood Cycle Repair. My 43-year-old Mercian Vincitore bicycle stayed behind. After a little fixing up and cleaning, it will be made available for purchase by someone who can appreciate its classic lines and fine feel on the road.

I first saw a Mercian frameset in the spring of 1973 at Chuck Sink’s bike shop in Marion, Indiana, and it was love at first sight. A few months later, the day before we started an automobile trip from Indianapolis to Portland to visit our families, my entry-level ten-speed disappeared from our garage. Before summer’s end, it would have to be replaced.

Already Portland was a premier location for adult cycling. In shops around the city, I saw examples of the best European imports. Action Sports in Beaverton (a farm village during my Portland boyhood but now a rapidly growing suburb) featured Mercian frame sets. Half a dozen were hanging on the wall, two of them my size. The plain King of Mercia model, for $125, was the sensible choice but the ornate Vincitore, for $150, was the one that caught my eye and set the juices running.

Mercian Steering TubeBrilliant metallic blue with white panels, Reynolds 531 steel tubing, and sleek lines were part of the appeal, but the gold-lined, intricate lugs were what set this bicycle frame apart from ordinary bikes. The price included bottom bracket, headset, and seat post by Campagnolo, the Italian company that manufactured the most highly prized components of the time.

With my wife’s consent, I went for the Vincitore. Entry-level wheels, drive train, brakes, and handlebars, mostly by Sun Tour, and a Brooks saddle, added another $125 to the cost. I had to borrow $200 from my mother to swing the deal.

A few days after the purchase my wife drove Mike (our cycling son) and me to Action Sports so that I could get the bike. I can still feel the excitement in my muscles that I experienced while riding this classy and performance-oriented bicycle back to Mother’s apartment. Nothing had ever felt the same.

During the next 30 years I rode the Mercian well over 100,000 miles. Some of them were done exactly 40 years ago in June and July of America’s Bicentennial Summer. Daughter Sharon, a recent college graduate, and I traveled self-contained across the country from Portland to Indianapolis, she on her orange Peugeot and I on my blue Mercian.

23 years later, in the spring of 1999, I rode my Mercian on a solo, motel-at-night trip from San Diego to St. Augustine, averaging 86 miles a day. During these years I commuted to the campus where I taught, regardless of weather except when the roads were slick, and most of those miles were on the Mercian. Countless training rides, day trips, invitational century rides, week-long (and longer) road trips piled up year after year.

Components have been upgraded several times, and twice the frame has been repainted, in authentic colors and genuine decals. The rear dropouts were spread to accommodate modern cassettes. Despite these changes, this fine old bike, that still catches the eye in bike shops and on rides, is much the same as it has always been.

That’s the problem, because I have changed. With advancing years, I’m not as limber as I used to be and I need a softer ride, although on a bike still designed for long, hard, fast miles. In recent years, I have bought two bicycles that accommodate my current stage in life. One is set up for winter and city riding, with fenders, generator lights, and capabilities to carry things like books and groceries. The other is custom designed and built so that it accommodates my current needs and can be adapted to the gradual changes that will come during the next few years.

I have thought seriously of keeping this bicycle as a remembrance of times past, but space and the cold light of reason do not allow. As I downsize in order to fit into a smaller living space, I’m turning my Mercian free to find someone who can restore it to more active life.

The crew at Sellwood Cycle think they can find a new owner. After making it showroom ready, they’ll post photos online and one of these days—maybe even before the winter rains return—someone younger and nimbler than I will fall in love with this bicycle, which was for so many years the two-wheeled love of my life. (By the way, a new Mercian Vincitore frameset costs about $1,500 plus VAT and shipping.)


Riding the Portland (Metric) Century

August 20, 2013
Portland Century Map

Portland Century Map

I almost didn’t do the ride. My night-before jitters were intensified when I studied the route that was posted online. It was as bad as a Google Maps bike route: two tenths of a mile this way, a few hundred yards that way, maybe half a mile on a road going straight.

To make sense of the route, I studied a cycling map of Washington County through which much of the ride would take us. Some of the twisting seemed reasonable, but the Century’s posted route appeared to be even more complicated. One thing was clear: the small bag on my classic Mercian bicycle didn’t have adequate display space for the map and route list I would need.

After deciding that I would take my new Davidson with the large bag, and my good (and heavy) lock in case I got lost and had to put in the miles on my own, I went to bed, hoping that I could sleep. Three or four times I woke up with anxiety dreams, and at 5:00 I got up in order to leave home at 6:00 to ride down to the start at Portland State University.

Start at PSUIn the late 1940s, I ran cross country on Lincoln High School’s team: up and down through the South Park Blocks that now are the heart of the PSU campus. Registration lines, bike parking facilities, and food tables (with Starbucks coffee) were all set up. Cyclists everywhere. Bright music in the air.

One of the staff assured me that the route was well marked with bright pink Ps and arrows pointing the direction we should go. The first eight miles were simple and familiar, since I’ve been traveling on them for most of my life.

As soon as I started, I began to relax. Being on the bike helped, but from the beginning the pink Ps pointed the way—Broadway to Terwilliger Boulevard, to Barbur past the Fred Meyer store, up the hill to the new Safeway, and then westward on Multnomah Boulevard.

Still Green OregonAt SW 71st Avenue, the twisting and turning started. We worked our way around the edges of Tigard and Beaverton, and through the middle of the retirement communities of Summerfield and King City. On SW Beef Bend Road, we slipped past the urban growth boundary into the luscious agricultural region of the Willamette Valley. A few fields were still green, but more had recently been combined to harvest this year’s wheat crop, and vineyards were all around. Along the way, farms offered peaches, blue berries, and other produce for sale.

I could always see riders up ahead. They and the pink Ps were such good guides that I didn’t need a map—not even once. The little bag on the Mercian bike would have been all that I needed!

At the first split, where the 50-milers headed back toward the city and the 70- and 100-milers kept going, I found myself surrounded by many more cyclists than had been the case earlier in the ride. Most of them were riding in clusters that were ready to push up the pace. Finding one group going a little faster than my comfort zone, I fell in behind.

The gal just ahead, who was riding in her husband’s slipstream, said it was OK to tag along. The next 20 miles rolled along on long stretches of well-traveled country roads, on the edge of Sherwood, through Scholls, and around Hillsboro.

After the 100-milers split away to wander around Forest Grove, the rest of us turned back toward the city on West Union Road. Crossing the urban growth boundary, we had to share the road with ever-denser traffic, except for jaunts through residential enclaves and bike trails. I finished my 68.5-mile metric century in five hours of elapsed time, with an on-the-bike average of 14.01 miles per hour.

The “gourmet dinner”—grilled chicken breast, sirloin steak, grilled asparagus, and cake—was a fine conclusion to the morning’s swift ride. The canopy of ancient trees in the Park Blocks provided shade from the bright summer’s sun and the temperature that had not yet broken out of the 70s.

The music accompanying my feast was just right, not so very loud but with a bounce, a fine sound for a tired octogenarian with tastes for the old-timey. If only I had done the ride on my Mercian!

Old man on an old bike: Doing the Portland Century

August 14, 2013
Ready to Ride

Ready to Ride

I’ve spent the summer building up strength for the Portland Century, one of the premier bicycle tours in this part of the country. It takes place August 18 and this year follows a new route. Starting at Portland State University in the city’s cultural district, cyclists will ride through the southwestern hinterlands, as far away as Forest Grove.

My plan is to bike the ten miles from home to the start, do the 70-mile version, and then bike back home again. Ninety miles is close enough to the full century to satisfy my desires for a day on the road. The elevation gain of 3,947 feet will add to the feeling that there’s been plenty of good cycling.

I’ve decided to use my 40-year-old Mercian bicycle for the day’s event. It’s a classic English hand-built bicycle, with ornate lugs and beautiful workmanship throughout. The paint scrapes and a few other signs indicate that this machine has had a vigorous life. Twice, it has carried me across the United States, and there have been many other shorter journeys with just the two of us.

Since the Mercian has been languishing in my condo storage area for several months, it’s taking a little effort to get it back into good running order. The tires are fine and everything seems to be working. Later this week, I’ll take it into the shop to have the gears adjusted. The obsolete Campy racing triple with eight-speed cassette has never shifted very well, but I can climb almost anything I come to.

Today, Michael at the bike shop figured out a way to mount a lightweight handlebar bag and he supplied the battery to reenergize an old Cateye wireless computer. Although I feel more road buzz on the Mercian than I do while riding my year-old Davidson titanium, I feel alive on the old bike and look forward to spending a day riding it through a part of the country that I’ve loved since we first came here more than 70 years ago.

Why ride this old bicycle when I have a new bicycle of modern design? Here are some reasons:

Beautiful LugsFor old times sake! We’ve traveled 100,000 miles together, and I hope that we can keep going a while longer.

To show that classic designs and traditional lightweight steel frames are viable ways of building bikes. Although carbon fiber seems to dominate the bicycle shops today, high quality steel bikes continue to provide fine rides. With a little care, these bicycles will last a lifetime.

To help make up my mind whether to have this bicycle restored and equipped to accommodate my aging capabilities. Because the Mercian was modified several years ago, it will never be like it was when I bought it new. It can, however, be retrofitted with components that will be similar to those of early years, and new paint can make it beautiful again.

I don’t intend to hang it on the wall as sculpture, however. If I spend money on the old Mercian, the reason will be to extend its life as a bicycle for serious touring.

There’s little to do about the fact that the bicycle rider has white hair, flabby muscles, and an unsteady walking gait. The Mercian, however, can be made to look and act as though it were young again.

Mercian Bicycle