On the Road Again

Lots of days I feel as elderly as Willie Nelson looks, which is pretty much infinitely old.  After several years in which I rode about 3000 miles in the bike saddle, I got bushwhacked by prostate cancer in 2015.  Thanks to excellent care and medical technology I have survived and seem to be in a stable condition with my prostate-specific antibodies.  But the treatment sapped my strength and energy for a good while, and that evanescent but essential intensity of motivation to ride evaporated, even as I gained back a portion of my strength.  I rode 481 miles in 2016, 228 in ’17, 122 in ’18, once in 2019.  In 2020, not at all.  When ten years ago I would have jumped at the chance to ride on a sunny day in the low 40s or upper 30s, or in a windy cool overcast, or beating the heat with an early-morning jaunt in the steamy Virginia midsummer, more recently I have found every reason in the book not to venture out.

The trusty Jamis Coda Comp in younger days.

Bikes fell into disuse.  My weight crept above the safe threshold for riding my beloved Trek 2.1 without risking broken spokes. Tubes stiffened; chains rusted; dust gathered.  Last winter we pared our bike fleet from 6 to 3, keeping the Jamis Coda Comp, the Bianchi Squadra, and the Trek 2.1.  The Bianchi is mostly for archival reference, in all likelihood.  The Trek is the aspirational ride.  The Jamis, with its straight bars and huge 52-tooth big gear is the go-to potential ride I’m left with.

When the early spring crept over my windowsill this year, I felt the old call to the road.  Making the Jamis road-fit was an eye-opening experience.  In my local shop I felt like Rip van Winkle.  I needed brake pads and shifter cables.  But I also saw (1) a small collection of available bikes, (2) many e-bikes, and (3) almost no bikes under $10,000 with what I’d call thin tires.  In fact, there were almost no bikes in the “beginner” range at all.  Getting a starter bike under two or three grand is barely possible, and the bulk of those on the rack were north of 5 or 6K.  It seems that wider tires are now modish.  Virtually every road bike sported 23mm or even 21mm tires six years ago, but today 28mm is the fashionable minimum, and many a pricey ride has 32mm or 35mm road tires.  Trail bikes (“mountain bikes” in my time) have even fatter tires than that.  That makes my Jamis, with its 28mm size, modish rather than a cut below a “real” road bike.  I did discover that a wider selection is available online, and that it seems perfectly normal to deal with bike shops in San Francisco CA or Cambridge MA.  It also seems that the shortage in several sorts of manufactured goods from autos to stovetops applies to bikes as well, despite the fact that they have no chips in them.  And the deplorable trend of painting bikes matte black, or other very dark matte colors, which gives them all the visual charm of a stealth bomber, is still with us. Bikes are for fun times, people!

I’ve never been the world’s greatest bike mechanic, but I can handle the basics, and so I was able to get my bike back on the road.  I inflated the tires of all the bikes to about 3/4 maximum pressure about 3 months ago to see if they’d hold air, and they all did.  So recently I took the first step of reinflating the Jamis tires to full pressure, not without some trepidation, and waiting a day to see what would happen.  They held again!

Two things that take no mechanical skill whatsoever are cleaning and oiling the bike.  So I began by washing three years of grime off the the Jamis’ silvery skin, and oiling it up.  I had oiled it last time I rode, in 2019, and it had been stored inside, so it was not very rusty.  Before too long I’ll soak the chain and get it done right, but a thorough wiping of the drive train and a good solid reapplication of clean oil did the trick for now. 

Also I replaced the front brake shoes, noting in the process that the wheel was slightly out of true.  I can’t true wheels, but the variance is slight and the braking much firmer.  The rear brakes have a little life left, so I’ll just wait to do those later. 

But the big job was the shift cables.  I noticed that for some reason one of the two cables was badly rusted and frayed where they run under the bottom bracket in plastic grooves.  It must be that road moisture and sweat trickled primarily on one side, because the bad cable looked like it could snap any time, held as it was by so few of the cable strands.  I’ll humbly confess that I was just going to change the bad one, but somehow I cut the wrong cable while removing it, so I was forced to do the smart thing and begin with two equally new ones on this 16-year-old bike.  Installing these shift cables turned out to be easy; Shimano put together a nice, easy mechanism that allows the old cable to be extracted and the new one inserted straight through the shifter lever body and the cable sleeve without a hitch.

Adjusting the installed cables, however, is a much bigger challenge.  The tension has to be just right so that they pull or drop the chain just exactly one gear at a time.  The one on the 9-gear rear wheel cassette went fairly easily, but adjusting the derailleur on the chainring was much harder.  This is a 3-gear ring, 52/42/30, and even with the adjusting set screws, getting the amount of travel just right for all three, so that the chain doesn’t pop off the outside 52-tooth gear or the inside 30- tooth gear, was challenging to me.  I finally got it fairly well, and I now have the “feel” to know how to drop the chain on the gear I want every time, but it took me an inordinate amount of time to achieve that delicate balance correctly before my second ride. 

So what is it like to get back on the bike after, effectively, 2 ½ years?  I’ll discuss that in a couple of days.

Copyright: Arnold Bradford, 2021.