Cycling Special, March 1999
Live to Ride
The dedicated biker's dream? Simple: a sweet bike, supple skills, and a very cool place to deploy them.
By Florence Williams
"Between the Idea / and the Reality ... Falls the Shadow."
Well thank you very much for trying to bring us all down, Mr. T.S. Eliot ù but it doesn't have to be that way. Cheer up, Tom! That's why bikes, those fleet shadow-catchers, were invented in the first place. The problem is, though freewheeling kids and Tour de France domestiques may have no trouble finding ways and means to spin to their hearts' content, most of us have to admit that we never get quite enough of the magic-carpet miles we dream about.
In the following paragraphs, you'll meet some members of that clever tribe of cyclists who've closed the gap between the idea (let's ride!) and the reality (gotta make a living). They're bicycling evangelists with bright, can-do schemes and innovative pedal-power lifestyles ù or in one case, just a guy whose wish-fulfillment took him all the way to Patagonia. They're happy to share their windburned wisdom, bombproof advice, and hype-free lowdown on equipment and modus operandi. And if they won't take no riding for an answer, why should you?
The Guide: Moose Always Have the Right of Way
"I've been treed by moose," says Billy "Kooch" Koitzsch, who, as the son of a paratrooper-cum-winter survival trainer, can handle just about every backcountry scenario imaginable. "When you see a moose and he puts his head down to charge, lift up your bike as high as you can and throw the thing at him. It hurts a lot being smacked by a bike."
Since the NORBA expert-class mountain-bike racer took up winter endurance riding, he's placed in the top 10 in four out of four 100-mile-plus Iditabikes. In 1997 he took third in the first 320-mile Iditasport Extreme, consuming four pounds of moose meat, eight sticks of butter, 45 peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwiches, and dozens of gallons of Pedialyte-spiked water in the six-day race.
A 26-year-old former skateboard punk who still sports a lip plug and the occasional dye job ("since way before Dennis Rodman"), Kooch has, over the years, spiral-fractured an ankle bone, hyperextended both legs, dislocated a shoulder, and lost half a toe to frostbite. And he's got an atriofibrilating heart. Now he's beefing up his side business, Arctic Cycles Alaska, outfitting Iditabike racers and teaching snow biking. "Winter cycling is weird, like riding on a bunch of marshmallows," he says. "But you get used to it. I have no doubt it's the next big wave."
The Rig: A '96 Klein Attitude aluminum mountain bike with a suspension stem. "I'm not a fan of shocks," Kooch says. "At 28 below, they don't work." He uses customized two-inch-wide Snow Cat wheels (designed by his buddies at All Weather Sports in Fairbanks, 907-474-8184), ground down and drilled out so they're plenty light. His tires are Kevlar-beaded to save on rotational weight, and he just barely inflates them ù three (yes, three) pounds of pressure up front and five in the rear ù to increase traction on snow.
To stay light in powder, he pares down his multiday survival kit and stows the load (between 20 and 40 pounds) in an extra-large custom seatpost pack. He carries his water supply close to his body in two 100-ounce bladders and moves his titanium-railed seat forward to center his weight. Even so, he and bike typically sink four to six inches in soft snow.
In subzero conditions, he lubes all bearing surfaces with synthetic grease and uses pricey Gore-Tex-lined Ride On cables. He makes his own fleece-lined hand muffs that also protect his big-grip shifters, brake levers, and bar ends. The whole setup, he says, is good to 50 below. Beyond that, your bike freezes anyway. So do you.
Road Wise: Keep a loose grip in hard, bumpy snow. "My first Iditabike was 40 below, and the trail was rough," says Kooch. "My palms swelled up an inch."
Dream Ride: The true Iditarod, from Wasilla to Nome. Too marshy to ride in summer, it traverses 1,092 miles of heavy underbrush and frozen lakes. "That's a lot of peanut butter," says Kooch, who wants to beat the 20-day record.
- Lean forward on snow. Most people want to lean back, like on skis in powder. Don't do it, or you'll fight the bike. You want to hover, not sink.
- Don't be a cold-weather wuss. "Thirty below is ideal for snow conditions. The ground is hard enough that you can air up your tires and fly." When your feet go numb, push the bike and run for a while.
While no outfitter runs full-on Iditarod trips, Alaskan All Seasons Cycling does offer snow-biking tours with overnights in the White Mountains ($75 a day; 907-457-1498). Or go with Kooch: His Arctic Cycles Alaska runs two-day clinics ($200; 907-677-7621) near Big Lake.
The Messenger: It's Not About Rebellion. Well, OK, Maybe a Little.
A year ago she was doing cancer research in a university lab. "It was a good job," says Ingrid Spies, 24, "but I was, like, you know, what I really want to be is a bike messenger." So she ditched the test tubes for the applied science of pothole-jumping, bus-dodging, and alley-sprinting. She rides 50 stop-and-start miles a day on the job ù enough to stay in shape for her hobby, cyclocross. (She took 15th in this winter's nationals.)
Messengering is one of the planet's most hazardous jobs, and in Seattle it's one of the wettest. "It can be so-o-o miserable," she says, "and I get cold easily." During a rainy spell last winter, in fact, Spies contracted trench foot. This year's warming strategy involves frequent refueling stops at ù where else? ù Starbucks, where she pours a single tall nonfat vanilla latte into her water bottle.
Cold and miserable or not, Spies may be an anomaly: a friendly bike messenger. She feels sorry for bike cops ("They sit around a lot. They must get cold.") and goes out of her way not to piss off drivers. She did sideswipe a car once with a big roll of drafting paper, but, she says, "I just smiled a lot. It's better than giving someone the finger."
The Rig: Spies gets around on a used 21-pound Redline cyclocross bike (800-283-2453) with TIG-welded, butted aluminum tubing and a major amount of rainproofing: 10-40 Pennzoil motor oil (Redline prefers Finish Line Teflon-based oil) on the chain, full fenders, and custom-made mud flaps "so that absolutely no splash gets on me." (A friend made the mud flaps from plastic cat-litter jugs.) For quick dismounts and bunny-hops, Spies set up an extra rear brake on the top of her road-bike bars. She's got bar-end shifters for winter-numb hands and 35C knobby tires and clincher rims for better curb-bashing. She uses an extra-toothy rear cogset and a wide 3:1 gear ratio to power around Seattle's flats and steeps. In the rainy season, Spies lubes her chain twice a week. "I'm a freak," she says, "when it comes to maintaining the bike."
Road Wise: Watch for city buses and delivery trucks. "I have a friend who's been hit twice by a metro bus," says Spies. "They really can't see very well."
Dream Ride: The Silk Road, from central China to the Karakoram Range. But since that's more than 2,000 miles, Spies might just pick up the ideal bike leg, the Karakoram Highway heading over 15,518-foot Khunjerab Pass. From there it's a downhill coast through the Hunza Valley into Pakistan. "That'd be awesome," she says.
- Stay visible. "I try to make eye contact with drivers," says Spies. "I'll tap on their rear window if I think they don't see me."
- Fight the wet. Spies's mantra: "Gotta keep the core warm!" She layers like an onion: four polyester cycling jerseys, two nylon vests, a Gore-Tex jacket, and nylon-spandex arm warmers, leg warmers, and tights. After the trench-foot episode, she added neoprene booties and gloves. To keep her knees loose in the cold, she stuffs shoulder pads harvested from a blouse under her leg warmers. Got that, boys?
Go during the dry season, May and June, to avoid mudslides, and bring your mountain bike: Singletrack once open only to trekkers is now fair game (though, if you're on your own, permits are required). Islamabad-based Karakoram Explorers offers a 14-day trip ($980; phone 011-92-51-441258, fax 011-92-51-442127) from the pass 180 miles down to the Pakistani market town of Gilgit.
The Commuter: Neither Rain, Nor Sleet, Nor Busted Hip ...
Every day, rain or shine, for the last two decades, Mason Sinclair has pedaled seven-and-a-half miles to his job as a Nashville water-quality biologist. It's a puddle-flat route, down arterial highways, quiet streets, and over the Cumberland River. He takes it slow, checking up on the morning activities of a pair of nesting kingfishers through his binoculars. "In a car," he says, "you can't just stop to watch birds."
Usually the ride is uneventful, except for an exploding flat in 1984. ("We have no recycling policy! There's glass everywhere!") The crash broke his hip, but it didn't bench him; since then, he's ridden some 30,000 miles. Although Sinclair keeps a garage menagerie of some 16 bikes ù from a mustache-handlebarred Bridgestone to trash-heap orphans ù he likes the workout of his $3 one-speed Schwinn Typhoon, a 45-pound pig if there ever was one. "That's why they call it a bomber," says the 71-year-old. "It makes me nostalgic for my childhood."
A former part-time Church of Christ minister, Sinclair channels his vestigial fervor into a homespun 'zine called The Wire Donkey ($12 a year; contact email@example.com), preaching to 45 loyal subscribers about commuter lanes (dislikes them) and fancy equipment (dislikes it, makes his own). "I'm on a bit of a crusade," says St. Clair, as some of his disciples call him. "Bicycling fills a niche in your life. Inactivity is a disease."
The Rig: Not quite your everyday clunker. Sinclair replaced the 48-tooth front chainring with a 34-tooth granny ring. He had a friend paint the bike an appropriately classic shade of cherry red. Streamlining the weight was a lost cause, so he salvaged and added fenders and a chainguard and installed a rack for his signature single pannier. He uses vintage pedals (nostalgia factor), slick tires, and a Brooks saddle to fine-tune the comfort level. To remain visible at night, he designed a bouncing headlight by attaching a xenon bulb (takes seven-volt rechargeables) in a standard case to his handlebars with a coat hanger and UV-proof utility nylon zip ties. ("They're cheap, you can nip them off, and they don't scratch the handlebars.") Instead of a repair kit, he keeps a cell phone with the binoculars. "My wife can always come get me in the van," he explains.
Road Wise: Sinclair's biggest threat isn't traffic, but Canis familiaris. "You can hear their toenails scratching the asphalt as they come for you," he says. Stay alert, he advises; then yell and scream.
Dream Ride: Along Austria's Danube River, from Passau, Germany, to the Slovakian border. Sinclair would cycle through Linz, famous for his favorite dish, veal palatschinke, and on to Vienna, where he'd sample some Sacher torte. The route is just the way he likes it: flat.
- Be creative. To survive the stifling Tennessee heat, Sinclair stuffs a damp washcloth under his helmet and wears an extra-long visor he constructed out of a milk carton. "Those manufacturers don't have a clue," he says. "Give me a glue gun and some Velcro and I can make anything!"
- Super-pump your air pressure for better handling. "Most people don't realize they're pedaling around with underinflated tires," says Sinclair. "You can go above the recommended pressure, depending on your weight."
- And another thing: Forget the fancy arm signals ù drivers don't know them. "Use your right arm if you want to make a right."
Euro-Bike Tours offers two-week trips ($3,295; 800-321-6060) in June and September that hug the river from Enns, Austria, to Budapest. Breakaway Adventures will arrange unescorted seven-day inn-to-inn trips ($1,262; 800-567-6286) on the Danube bike path from Passau to Vienna from April through October.
The Racer: You Mean People Get Paid for This?
"If there's one word that describes me, it's focus," says Heidi Armstrong (no relation to Lance). "Sometimes, when I'm concentrating on riding really hard, I'll start drooling. I don't even notice. And then I slow down, and I'm like, 'Oh my gosh, I'm drooling!'" However messy, the effort pays off: Already an accomplished amateur road and cyclocross racer, Armstrong jumped to expert rank in mountain biking last year, a notch below pro. She's only 25.
"When I can't ride for a day, I'm edgy," says Armstrong, a lanky native Texan with the intense ebullience of a Lyle Lovett on Jolt. She logs 200 hilly miles per week on her road bike, or 10,400 miles a year. She loves the hard training rides, loves her sleek custom road bike, loves picking her way through a race course. "I'm like a child when I ride," she says, "hooting and hollering and laughing ù it's cathartic."
So would Armstrong, a general contractor, ever turn pro? "If I were paid to ride," she answers, "and I had no worries other than to ride my bike, I'd be very, very happy."
The Rig: A 20.5-pound racer custom-made by Eugene, Oregon-based Co-Motion Cycles (541-342-4583; www.co-motion.com). Armstrong swears by a custom frame; at 5-foot-11, with long legs and a short torso, she was stranded between a 56 and a 58 ù the standard two-centimeter increments. Now she's got a TIG-welded steel alloy 57 with a handmade straight-blade fork, classic angles, and a bold auto-grade paint job that she's pretty proud of. She keeps the bike race-ready ù no racks, no reflectors, no extra weight, just some cork tape on the bars. For her daily training rides on potholed and cattle-guarded roads, Armstrong uses Michelin clincher tires and sturdy Mavic rims with straight-gauge spokes. For racing, she switches out to lighter-spoked Mavic tubulars for less rolling resistance. She likes her leather saddle on the old-fashioned side: flat, a bit wide, and lightly padded, the result of some serious bargain-hunting. As far as she's concerned, those newfangled cutout saddles don't make the grade.
Road Wise: Repeat three times: bike fit, bike fit, bike fit. "The bike should feel like part of you, an extension of your body," says Armstrong. The seat height should maximize power but not strain your knees, and, warns our saddle connoisseur, "You should try every seat you can find."
Dream Ride: Wandering the back roads of Provence. Opposed to the very idea of cycling with panniers ("weight compromises handling"), Armstrong would take day rides from a well-situated hotel surrounded by lots of topography. "Parts of Provence are extremely hilly, even semimountainous," she says, "so I wouldn't lose any conditioning."
- Up your comfort factor. "Invest in really good clothing," says Armstrong, who learned the hard way. "No one ever told me not to wear underwear under my biking shorts," she says. "I finally figured it out."
- Don't forget the gym. Recently, she and her racer boyfriend noticed they were both doing leg curls with 70 pounds. "I was, like, 'Oh my God, am I an alien?' And he said, 'Well, sort of.'"
- Be safe. "If it's too dark outside to ride, work out instead," Armstrong cautions. "Life's too short."
La Corsa Tours offers a nine-day ride for serious cyclists each summer ($2,250; 800-522-6772), and Randonn‰e Tours Ltd. arranges eight-day self-guided trips ($1,135-$1,330; 800-465-6488). Or rent decent-quality VTTs (velos tout-terrain) by the day or week. Base yourself in laid-back Digne, or hit the Vaucluse region and explore the Lub‰ron Range just south of Apt.
The Chef: My Shopping Cart Hauls Ass
Three times a week, Peter Hoffman pedals from his brownstone in Manhattan's Chelsea neighborhood to the Union Square farmer's market, where he picks up a couple hundred pounds of whatever looks good and cycles it all down to SoHo, to his chic Mediterranean-influenced restaurant, Savoy. His bike's central cargo hold is also how he rickshas his five-year-old to kindergarten, and how he shuttles wine from home to work. Usually the system works just fine. "But I did once dump a case of California cabernet in an intersection," admits the 42-year-old chef.
Hoffman likes the exercise of riding five to ten miles a day, but what he loves is this: no taxis, no subways, no parking hassles. "I like showing people that you can get around without motors," says Hoffman, who's been biking around Manhattan for 15 years, four of them on the Long Haul. "People see this bike and it tends to make them friendly."
He rides year-round, in all weather, his payload the ripest fruits and veggies of the moment: Hoffman tailors Savoy's menu to what's in season, what's regionally grown, and of course, what's schleppable. His last find, a load of "superb" quinces that became chutney for grilled veal, nearly wiped out his legs. "Fall's the killer," he says, "all those apples and pumpkins and parsnips."
The Rig: The Long Haul, custom-made in Oregon by Jan VanderTuin of Eugene's Human Powered Machines (800-343-5568) and built by at-risk schoolkids. Inspired by a 1920s Danish design, VanderTuin stretched the wheelbase to 73 inches and added a powerful spring-activated double-sided kickstand, drum brakes, and 21 gears. The front wheel is 20 inches in diameter; the rear, 26. He constructed the one-size-fits-all frame out of straight-gauge chrome-moly steel tubing. The unlikely velocipede weighs 50 pounds with the rack and can carry upward of 300 pounds. "The bike has such a low center of gravity," says Hoffman, "that it handles the weight easily."
Hoffman had VanderTuin base the dimensions of the custom cargo bin on a crate of apples and the plastic containers used for shipping fragile greens. The carrier is fabric-lined, so his two kids ù and even his wife ù can get cozy in the hold.
Road Wise: Command the space you need. "Riding in lower Manhattan is not exactly a stroll down a country lane," says Hoffman. "Be assertive without hogging the whole road."
Dream Ride: Six weeks around Thailand, on the Long Haul of course, learning local cuisines: gang tai pla fish dishes on the coast, teas in the highlands, and the spicy Thai peppers known as phuk khu nuu or "mouse shit pepper," for their oblong-pellet shape.
- Obey the law. Hoffman proudly states that the Long Haul has never received a parking citation, though he did get ticketed once for riding on a park sidewalk.
- Watch your back. Hoffman's seat has been stolen "a bunch of times," and someone recently slashed his tires. He uses multiple locks, a Kryptonite U-lock for the front wheel and a hardened-steel chain for the frame. He's rigged up a permanent anchor for the saddle by running a bicycle drive chain from the seat down to the rear stays. "It's one of those New York survival tricks," he says.
- Finally, ditch the PowerBars for finer-grade fuel, like hearty pumpkin stew from Savoy: Cook white beans and pumpkin chunks until the beans are tender, and add chorizo. Sprinkle with saut‰ed broccoli rabe and eat.
Backroads offers an eight-day inn-to-inn mountain-bike trip ($1,998; 800-462-2848) through the Golden Triangle. The dry season is from December through February, and spots are still open for the millennium.
Photographs by Charles Mason, Rex Rystedt, Norman Jean Roy, Wyatt McSpadden, and Richard Corman