Thursday, January 26, 2012

The Aesthetics of Hand-Built Bicycle Wheels

photo by Jonathan Neve
My friend Jonathan Neve is a mechanic at Greenstreet Cycles, an independently-owned shop in NoDo, the newly redeveloped swath of land just north of downtown Omaha.

Jonathan's probably 15 years younger than I am, and he seems to have embraced the DIY ethos that I find so inspiring in many folks his age. In this picture, he has assembled the materials he'll use to build a new wheel for a customer. (I stole the shot from his Facebook page. Let's hope he doesn't object)

He called the image "Respect the Process." That imperative sort of inspired me.

See, I have a lot of nice cycling gear: a fast carbon-fiber road bike, a fast aluminum time-trial bike, a steel cyclocross bike, and an aluminum mountain bike. Yesterday, I wrote an inane post about am absurdly expensive bike computer.

But until last summer, every piece of cycling equipment I owned had been mass-produced in Asia. I selected bikes and components and wheels for their value. I wanted the most bang for my buck, which is a pretty common desire among cash-strapped collegiate racers. I had a chance to buy a gorgeous Colnago CX-1, a carbon road bike hand-built in Italy, but I just couldn't justify writing that check when I could buy a Japanese Fuji that was almost as fast for half the money--even though it wasn't nearly as beautiful.

I just couldn't afford to make aesthetics a primary concern--although I did refuse to accept a red rasta-colored replacement for a warrantied frame. I wouldn't buy a fluorescent yellow bike, but I satisfied myself with plain-jane white. That's as aesthetically-conscious as I could afford to be.

I also couldn't afford to buy locally-made stuff. Almost the entire bike industry manufactures in Asia now. I believed that supporting my local bike shop in Davis was the best I could do--and their willingness to sponsor my collegiate team made shopping there just as easy as going to a national chain.

What I loved about the local bike shop were the relationships. Guys there knew my name. They knew me well enough to bust my balls about how poorly I'd done in a TT the night before. They knew the kinds of gear I liked, and they knew me well enough to talk me into something that I couldn't appreciate until after I'd ridden it for a few weeks.

But builders and manufacturers remained a distant mystery. I had no idea who designed or assembled the gear I bought. I met Gary Fisher, sure, but who the hell knew if he actually had anything to do with the bikes bearing his name? Who was "Fuji?" The bike said "Made in Taiwan." Hmm.

Some brands have a face or a name that serves as a sort of synecdochal stand-in for the larger company. I wouldn't know Mike Sinyard if he walked up and bit me, but I know his name and that he founded and runs Specialized. Lance Armstrong WAS Trek for years and years. Eddy Merckx is Eddy Merckx.

Yet the industry is regional, too. You see A LOT more Specialized bikes on the west coast, more Treks roll through in the Midwest, and Cannondale seemed to dominate the scene when I visited Philadelphia. That regionalism may be a legacy of these companies' corporate pasts; each is headquartered in that particular area. But almost none of their bikes are built there.

I moonlight at the Trek Bicycle Stores of Omaha, the inheritors of the shop where I bought my first real road bike the year before I left Omaha for graduate school. Contrary to some local perceptions, the Trek stores are locally owned, by Kent McNeil and Jay Thomas. Kent fit me on my first road bike in 2001. They have expanded into the Kansas City and St. Louis markets as well, and they now own VeloGear, an internet distribution site. They sponsored Mark Savery's remarkable quest for the podium at Cyclocross Master's World Championship. They are fierce and devoted advocates of cycling in their communities.  Working there made it possible for me to buy a Trek road bike, one that was actually designed AND manufactured in Wisconsin by guys I could go meet if I wanted to, guys my managers have met and looked in the eye.  

But I still enjoy stopping into Greenstreet every now and again. Jonathan isn't the only wheel-builder in town; Jake and Paul at the Trek Store also do a fine job with custom-built wheels. But what struck me about Jonathan's photo was its aesthetics. One of the guys who commented on it on Facebook called it "rideable art."

Art vs. product. "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction," if you will. Art, for me, retains the mark of its maker. Not of its builder, nor of its assembler or designer, but its maker. When one looks at a painting, one looks for a name. Without nomenclature, a painting is mere decoration. With a recognizable name, paint can transcend product.

The wheels Jonathan builds won't have his name on them. He neither designed nor made the rim, hub, spokes, nipples, or oil he's using to build them. Once they go out the door, they're product. They may be more beautiful than some factory-built wheels, but aside from their reliability, they have no inherent Jonathanness embedded within their form or shape. They lack what Heidegger might've called the "earth" from which they arose.

That's why I like actually going into a bike shop. Sometimes, you get to watch these sorts of things as they happen. And THAT'S what infuses the finished wheels with some essential remnant of Jonathan: the process. Watching him work. Looking him in the eye. The wheel becomes a metonymic reminder of a human relationship, even if that relationship only lasts as long as it takes to look someone in the eye. Looking the maker in the eye infuses a piece of gear he's made with an organicism, a vestigial humanity. It shortens a supply chain, and it supports a local business--but that's only half the battle. What really counts for me is that the piece of gear I'm riding has a life that I can trace not just from its delivery to me, but from a time before it even existed. The life arises from the process of construction, from a process I can witness. It's like watching a wheel being born, somehow. And that humanity imparts some soul into the wheel, some soul that maybe only I can see. But I can share it with others in narrative form. I can tell the story of the wheels being built or talk about the taste of the beer we drank while they were being trued.

The major premise of my dissertation is that 21st-century farmers markets and locavore diets are utilitarian manifestations of Wordsworthian poetics. Looking the farmer in the eye recreates an interpersonal exchange first promulgated by Wordsworth's poetry. The human interactions between consumer and farmer that happen at a farmers market bring the consumer one step closer to the "permanent beautiful forms of nature," to the rural scenes where the "essential passions of the heart" are far more "deeply interfused"---to where and how the food is grown. It scrapes away the industry and scale from the food, which makes it feel more human, somehow.

I like to think of my hand-made Trek and Jonathan's hand-built wheels within those same terms. They're human, because I could see them being made by human hands. That's a process that should be respected.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Quarq CinCo SRAM S975: first impressions

After a year spent fighting with my Powertap SL+, I've made the leap.

That's a snarky allusion to SRAM's ad copy from a few years ago, when they first introduced their road bike componentry. But it's true: I've traded in my Powertap for a crank-based powermeter built by SRAM.

Powermeters (for the three of you who don't know but are inexplicably still reading) measure the effort a cyclist expends. Unlike speed or heart rate, which can vary dramatically from day to day, power provides a constant frame of reference. A 15 mile-an-hour ride into a wind is much harder than 20 mph on a calm day, and the powermeter's ability to keep track of how many watts a rider has expended will reflect that increased effort.

I use one because I'm always trying to cut just a few hundred calories a day from my diet, and watts are much more accurate than heart rate when I try to calculate how much energy I've expended on the bike. If I eat too much (always a probability) I don't lose fat, but if I don't eat enough, I can't recover from training and I get sick.  But my hart rate varies A LOT with hydration, fatigue, temperature, etc, yielding wildly inaccurate measurements of how many calories I burn on a ride. Watts, again, provide a constant measure of energy expenditure.

Training with power also helps keep me honest. My ego often tries to convince me to chase my training partners up the hills, but since I'm supposed to be riding relatively easy right now, the powermeter's wattage display give me an excuse to ease off a bit and go slower. Luckily, my skinny friends are usually kind enough to wait.

Powermeters can be built into the hub of a bike's rear wheel or into its crank. Strain gauges measure how much force is being inflicted on the the chain. I have no idea how they work; my sense of physics is even worse than Bryan's. But as I pedal along, a computer on my handlebars tells me that I'm producing 200 watts as I roll along a flat trail, 300 as the road tilts upward, 450 as I climb a steep hill, or 1200 when I sprint as hard as I can without puking.

When I bought my Powertap sl+ last year, what arrived was only a rear hub, to which my local mechanic laced a DT Swiss 415 rim, using 28 Sapim CX-Ray bladed spokes. I broke 4 spokes within the first few weeks of riding, and the wheel continually developed lateral wobbles. Then we rebuilt the wheel using stouter, straight-gauge spokes, but those eventually pulled out of the holes in the rim, causing it to crack.

I tried replacing the rim with a Stan's Alpha 340 tubeless rim, but that build was simply too flimsy for my sizeable, uhh, ego. It flexed from side to side under hard pedaling, so my friend Ryan and I made a Christmas present out of the wheel. The recipient is a 120-pound climber who loves it. The technology is great, but it's probably not the best choice for a 195-pound guy who's hard on wheels.

One of the reasons I originally bought a Powertap was its portability; I thought I would be able to easily move the wheel from my road to my cyclocross to my time-trial bike--but the wheel was too heavy to race on the road and too light to ride on cyclocross courses, so it ended up staying on my road bike only for training. I never used it in a road race, a time trial, or any gravel rides, so I robbed myself of the most valuable power data.

Ironically, my new Quarq Powermeter crankset is freakishly easy to move from bike to bike to bike. Because my Trek Madone uses Trek's BB90 press-fit bearings--and my 'cross and TT bikes use standard English outboard bottom bracket shells--I can simply loosen one bolt, remove the two-piece crank, slide it into the other bike, and re-tighten that same one bolt with a torque wrench. It literally takes less time than moving the old Powertap wheel from bike to bike. Since I run SRAM components on the road and 'cross bikes, the GXP bottom bracket on the 'cross bike is already compatible with the crank. I had to change the bottom bracket on my TT bike, but that was a $40.00 upgrade. Easy. So, rather than taking off the wheel and/or changing the tire for road training, road racing, or gravel riding, I just move the crank.

My old powertap wheel build would cost about $1100 to build today; they're discounted at many retail sites. The cost of a new Quarq is about $1700, but the crank's greater utility and (hopefully) reliability make the extra $600 easier to justify.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

My trainer put me to sleep

Yes, trainer workouts are boring as hell, but it was 7 degrees this morning and I was pressed for time. I didn't want to put on everything I own just to do some cadence intervals, (and maybe freeze my face off) so I rode the trainer.

I cued up an episode of  Rescue Me and went to work. But something weird happened. I remember every one of the intervals and the TV episode seems pretty fresh in my memory, but somehow I managed take the bike off the trainer, roll out the door, and do a loop over the front yard, across the street, and into the neighbor's back yard:

Anyone else ever experienced daytime trainer-induced sleep-pedaling?

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

The political aesthetics of Paula Deen, Anthony Bourdain, and local eating

According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human services, 25% of all Americans suffer from one of these chronic conditions:
  • Diabetes.
  • Heart disease.
  • Asthma.
  • Hypertension.
  • Mood disorders.
Treating these conditions accounts for just under half of the money spent on health care in the U.S Since health-care costs are swallowing an increasingly larger percentage of our GDP, I'd say this is a public, national issue.

Every one of these conditions is related to food and exercise. For example, only 20-30% of high blood pressure cases are related to genetic predispositions. The rest come from sedentary lifestyles and diets high in processed sugars, sodium, and animal fats.

Paul Deen, a popular celebrity cook, has just announced that she suffers from Type II diabetes. One of my friends was excoriated on Facebook yesterday for criticizing Deen's cooking, and Bryan's written a blog post about Deen's announcement.

Deen is famous for promoting recipes which use copious amounts of butter, salt, sugar, and other ingredients that can lead to some of the BIG Five health conditions. I'm sure following her recipes is healthier than eating at McDonald's every night, but still, she catches a lot of grief for promoting comfort and taste over health.

There's another aspect to this story that transcends the "eat veggies / lean meats" vs. "enjoy your bacon and pie" debate. It's ideological. Paula Deen's brand exemplifies and perpetuates conservative values: she's southern, domestically feminine, explicitly spiritual, and visually traditional. If ideology is externalized in food, then folks who denigrate her cooking sound, to her supporters, as if they're condemning the political and familial culture she represents. Which many of them are. Her brand of plasticized "y'alls!" makes her unwatchable, in my opinion. Plus, I'm always alarmed by ardent calls for a return to more "traditional" cultural motifs, since the concomitant political analogues to those cultural mores are often racism and sexism.

I thought about that a lot when I heard about Deen's diabetes announcement. A few months ago, she and fellow food personality Anthony Bourdain exchanged some testy remarks about the health of her food. Bourdain markets himself as worldly, urbane, cosmopolitan, and multicultural--a polar opposite of Deen's down-home regionalism. It was hard not to hear overtones of sexism and urban condescension in his criticism of Deen's food. When they got into their spat, internet commentary on the story was vitriolic, displaying a level of hatred usually reserved for arguments about monetary or religion.

The pro-Deen camp tends to associate diet and health as personal choices, which they certainly are. Yet those private choices can lead to a public obesity crisis, one which afflicts all of us with higher insurance premiums and increased health-care costs.

Bourdain's aesthetic encourages a global view, one based on travel and immersion within exotic cultures. It reminds me of the sublimity that Romantic poet and writer Thomas De Quincey experiences as he struggles to "eat" the spatial and temporal immensities of China and India. Deen, on the other hand, is much more like Mary Robinson in outlook: insular, local, artisanal. She's down-home.

My dissertation project tries to show the ways in which the contemporary locavore diet is both global and local--and Romantic in its aesthetics. Locavores argue that eating food grown locally and in-season is a more environmentally responsible way to live. It's a radical "f-you!" to Big Ag and industrialized food processing, systems which depend on huge expenditures of fossil fuels and polluting chemicals. Big Ag, locovores claim, also leads to the displacement of family farmers and results in mono-cultural food desserts.  And local eating is also theoretically healthier, since local and artisanal food eliminates processed sugars and trans fats.

But isn't eating regionally what Paul Deen preaches? Isn't Bourdain's global aesthetic explicitly anti-locavore?

I'm trying to deconstruct these kinds of binaries, and I'm hoping to show that returning to small-scale, local, diversified food production and distribution is actually a radical populist endeavor, not a reactionary elitist one. (Rescuing Wordsworth from claims of conservatism is part of the fight, as well) Localism isn't conservative--it's anti-corporate. And Bourdain's cosmopolitanism, at its heart, advocates regional eating, as well--but it encourages actually traveling to the region rather than engaging in cultural imperialism by bringing the region back home with you.

Deen argued yesterday that her cooking shows are entertainment, not self-help. She claims she always preached moderation: make my butter cookies, y'all,  but eat just a few of them, not the whole cotton-pickin' box! She escapes culpability for contributing to our national obesity epidemic by resorting to the tried-and-true conservative defense of personal accountability: I'm not to blame--I didn't make y'all eat all that bacon! Yet she's also exploiting her diabetes by signing a lucrative endorsement deal for a drug she uses to treat her disease. Not many of her fat-swilling fans will be able to follow suit.

I'm reading Milton this week, always an anti-climactic affair; one knows that Eve is going to eat the apple and f*ck it up for the rest of us. Yet her reasons for doing so are newly relevant to me in the aftermath of the Deen announcement. In Paradise Lost, God knows that Adam and Eve are going to fall from grace by eating the forbidden fruit from the Tree of Knowledge. God makes man "free to fall." Deen's right: no one put a gun to our collective heads and said "Eat this butter!" Conservatives lambast the First Lady for trying to encourage a healthier alternative, but she's also not putting a gun to anybody's head and forcing them to eat their veggies.

Our choices make us who we are, but for a cultural critic like me, ideology is externalized in food. Taken collectively, our private food choices have public consequences, and some of them are pretty damn scary. Paula Deen is free to promulgate whatever kind of food and culture she wants--but a few good folks should be able to critique that message without being called food fascists. Or bitches.