Saturday, November 20, 2010

The Shop With No Name

(click for large view)

The hard boundaries of my personal bike world were instantly expanded recently in the process of doing a good deed for a local church, a deed which took me into a heretofore unexplored region of West Oakland. West Oakland is a legendary land not unlike the Wild West of old, complete with outlaws, gunfights, and goings on we right-thinking Alamedans dare not even ponder. We do not venture far from the safe haven there that is the BART station, and then quickly to our bikes and cars by day, and hyper-alert by night, but night in these parts is to be avoided if at all possible.

So I found myself driving a pickup truck west on 7th St., and I passed the establishment in the photo above, which that day, was sporting a lineup of welded art type bikes on the sidewalk. One in particular, a BMX kid's bike with a large metal frame box way out front of the handlebars, and a front wheel further beyond the box, was... just weirdly conceptual. And well made. The essential thing that struck me was that here was a bike shop in the Badlands, a bike shop with no name, just an old bike screwed vertically to the side of the building serving to announce its presence. I had to check this place out.

After unloading the pickup, I secured its steering wheel with the Club, and dared to walk the block back to the place with the art bikes. As I approached, my excitement grew...just what had I discovered here? After scanning the sidewalk bikes, I walked through the door into some kind of bicycle Purgatory.

This place was cave-like, colors muted by overpowering shades of gray, with bikes hanging from the ceiling, stacked against walls, laying on the floor. Three guys were holding forth inside, a skinny, bearded hipster with white framed glasses behind the counter, another guy behind him wire brushing a freewheel, hardened grease falling onto the floor, and another slightly grizzled guy attempting to patch a tube. There was little apparent order to this operation, but the randomness of the thing was intoxicating to me. Then, a really cool thing happened.

The shop lies in the shadow of the BART overhead tracks, and in this late afternoon, the sun was lighting the shop interior through plastic covered clear story windows. A dark yellowish light penetrated the gray shop area, unnoticed, until a BART train came rumbling by, and as it did, its form blocked the sun, casting a shadow on the building. The whole shop went almost black save one dim lightbulb hanging from a wire. Splinters of yellow light, the sun beaming between the BART cars, created a strobe effect on the windows. I have to tell you, it was surreal. David Lynch himself could not have thought of this cool noir effect, I was awed by it. Then the train passed and the yellowish light returned. THAT was performance art of the best kind, the kind that just happens when alternate realities collide.

I talked with the patch repair guy and it was his welded together workman BMX bike on the street. He claimed to be more of a fabricator than a mechanic. He was fixing the rear wheel of a fetching young lass, who's Schwinn Varsity's rear tire had seen too many miles, I mean, it was threadbare. He got her rolling again for 5 bucks. This is what these guys do...take discarded or recycled bike, cobble them together into rideable machines, sell them cheap. Do cheap repairs for the neighborhood. Make some food money. Some beer money. Trying to get by somehow. They are working, trying to move mostly crap bikes to people who can afford nothing better. They are under-the-radar Greens, providing alternative transportation without any government subsidies.

Upon departing, I noticed a sizable hipster (for lack of a better word) population in this part of town. My previous misconception was that it is all ghetto, all 'hood down here. Its more about struggling, disenfranchised, or starving artist types. My eyes have been opened.

What I do for my hobby, in my home workshop, is nothing different than what these guys are doing on 7th st. I came to the realization that I admire them because I've often thought about running a funky bike shop, but I always end up concluding there is no way that would ever work unless I won the lottery.

These guys didn't let that scenario stop them. So here's a toast to the urban underground bike shop, the outpost of East Bay bicycle civilization, the nihilist's counterpoint to commercial bike culture.
May they live long and prosper.

Ride On, My Friends.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Rethinking the Whole Dutch Bike Thing

Faster than a Dutch bike

Ok, I admit, my previous two posts read a little mushy, a little gushy, a little self congratulatory. That was the process of finding an authentic Dutch bike and then wrenching the Kaptein up to running condition speaking. I like the process, I do. The end result of living with it is a bit harsher. It is a rather blunt tool for the job.

After that last post, I set out to ride to Rockridge, the most outermost, northerly part of Oakland. I filled the tires to their max pressure of 70 psi to gain max efficiency. I put my items in the bag on the rear rack (I had removed the wire basket, it looked better on my Entropy bike) , filled the water bottle and set off. Not a block had passed under the rubber when I noticed the thump thump coming from the back end. I've felt this before when a tire starts de-laminating. I stopped and a quick look confirmed that the tube was about to burst out the sidewall. The aged, dried out tire had failed under pressure. Damn! This meant the dreaded rear tire change. I returned home and exchanged bikes, and rode my Miyata out to my meeting and back. Always a nice ride, there is that magic quality in my purple and yellow steed.

I ordered some Continental puncture resistant tires online and when they arrived I braced myself for the rear tire change. This particular process is a challenge, trust me. First remove the two halves of the chainguard, pry the chain out of each half. Disconnect the shift mechanism. Disconnect the rear brake cable and drum arm frame attachment. Remove the stay adjusters from both sides. Remove the axle nuts and catch the chainguard support when it falls off. Thats the easy part. Remove old tire, put new tire on. Put wheel back into stays, making sure brake support arm is in correct alignment. Make sure all washers are in correct positions. Stay lock keys must exit the rear of the stays, if they are put on backwards, the wheel must come off. Adjust the brakes. Adjust the shifting. Reinstall the chainguard, and align. The whole process takes at least an hour, and aligning the wheel after everything is completely together is difficult---two nuts on the stay adjuster bolts have to be tightened separately before the axle bolts are tightened. But I did it more quickly this second time around, and I was happy with the results, and was ready to ride. Ah, the feeling of new tires is happy times. By the way, I took the liberty of installing stop flat liners so I would not have to do this again for years. I hope they work.

The following week, I set out again for Rockridge, by way of Alameda Point first. The first thing that is most apparent when riding this bike is how slow it is. Its heavy. Almost 50 pounds with the U lock. It is smooth, and it cruises the flats nicely. However, when I got to Oakland and started the very gradual uphill to Rockridge, things got quite slower, and frankly, it was not fun.

My body, brain and kinesthetic pathways are set to road bikes, which are quick, light and nimble, with multiple gears to contend with the mildest slope to the gnarliest grades. My Miyata makes short, pleasant work of a 9 mile ride to Rockridge. On the Kaptein, it feels like a major expedition. The slightest uphill is felt and the gears are not right---low is too low and medium is too high, so an efficient cadence is hard to find. Then there are real hills to contend with. For instance, when I got to the block long, but major hump of a hill at the end of Grand Ave., I had to dismount and push the bike to the top, and even that was some work. What ignominy, I've never had to do that before on this hill. The feeling I had was of discontent, disgruntled that this bike is inefficient for what I want to do and where I want to go. Too heavy, too slow, too much work. Add to that the total pain in the butt which is changing a rear tire, or just fixing a rear flat, and the whole romance of the Dutch city bike looses its luster.

I've been told that Holland is flat. My town of Alameda is flat as well. The Kaptein is a fine bike for Alameda and Holland, or for short trips of just a few miles. Longer trips or trips that involve the pavement rising up ahead quickly reveal the shortcomings of this design and the heavy component mix. So, I am not sure what role the Dutch bike will play in my stable of rides. I may just keep it around as an unusual collectible. For the Miyata has shown its superiority in all ways save for getting my trousers caught in the chain. A small price to pay for speed.