Thursday, March 24, 2005

The Bluebird: Day One

The Bluebird came out fighting today. A trial by fire… and ice. She’s a great bike. Rides well. I’m not quite certain what makes a bike a good ride. So as I’m building her, I can’t help but worry: what if she’s not a good bike?

One test of a well riding bike is: can you take your hands off the handlebars. I’ve never been too comfortable with no-hands riding, but it’s still a good test. A bike should stay straight and true. The Bluebird does.

The Bluebird passed the test with flying colors. Light, fast, frisky, and eager to please. She came back home in pieces, but that wasn’t the bike’s fault. I had to take off the front wheel and the handlebars to fit in the back seat of Katie’s car coming back from nice drinks with Deb and Joel in Greenpoint. I have nothing to prove. I rode to school and back to Greenpoint. And even I, very rarely, say, “yes, thanks, I will take you up on that ride.” It’s nasty out.

The funny thing is that the last time I rode my bike in such bad weather was the last time I was Greenpoint with Deb and Joel (they were getting married). Maybe that's why I try and stay in Queens.

Given the weather here, I wouldn’t have ridden to work. But I had to scout out a meeting place for a meeting I have tomorrow in midtown. So I rode her to work. It was hailing. I don’t mind cold, and rain, or most weather. But hail sucks. It hits your face and hurts. But the bike itself was great.

The hail today wasn't constant, but it’s there. Hail hits your face like little cold pinpricks. Did I mention it hurts? You have to put your head down to let the bike helmet take the harsh blows. The hail was bad for a few blocks right when I left school and then again going across the bridge. But leaving the hail aside, the traction was fine.

Bikes are surprisingly good in weather even when driving seem precarious. Whatever physics keeps a bike upright takes you right through snow and over ice. I learned about that in physics in high school. It all seems hazy now, but that spinning wheel works some magic.

My foul-weather riding gear consists of: a brimmed helmet or hat (so you can lower your head and not get rain or hail in your eyes), cheap Dutch rain pants over blue jeans, normal shoes, wool socks, some rain resistant jacket, and gloves that have an outer waterproof cover. It’s really not that much. And glasses aren’t good to wear when it’s raining.

The gear ratio on the bike seems pretty damn good, if I do say so myself. I had to choose the number of teeth on the front and rear cogs. It matters. I tried to figure it out:
1) based on the bikes I have and knowing that fifth gear on the Shimano Nexus is the "natural" gear.
2) based on Sheldon Brown's concept of gain ratio. I tried to make the gear range as close as possible to the gear range on my trusty old well-loved great-in-the-city 14-speed bianchi road bike.
Still, I didn’t have much confidence in my figuring. But I guess I figured it out pretty well.

I have strong legs, but first gear seems plenty low enough for all of New York’s need. And 8th gear allows you to peddle hard while going downhill on the Queensboro bridge. So that seems perfect. And she’s got full fenders, so biking through rain, snow, and hail with accumulating slush on the ground wasn’t so bad.

The difference between winter here and, say, in Chicago is that in Chicago, winter comes and stays. In late December and January and February, Chicago has winter. There’s no denying it. People put on hats and snow is on the ground and it’s cold. Brutally cold for a few weeks. But in New York, winter comes in week or two bursts. And then people bitch about winter weather because they never accept it. Because winter never sets on New York so that the only hope for salvation is Spring.

The past couple of weeks here have been seasonally beautiful weather. But today we have entered a period of Amsterdam-like miserableness. Oh well.

But the Bluebird was great today. I rode with extra tools (10mm wrench for the brakes, adjustable wrench, spoke wrench, allen wrench set). I expected some parts I forgot to tighten to fly off. But all seemed in order. No funny sounds. The wheels stayed true.

It's always wise when you make repairs to bring the tools for that repair with you for the first ride. But I didn't bring flat-tire changing tools. There's no point, given this bike’s rear wheel. It's a bitch to remove. The Bluebird isn't a change-the-flat on-the-fly bike. But Zora's isn't going to change a flat on the way home. So it doesn't matter. If you get a flat, take the subway. That's why we live in New York.

It was slow riding, though. Braking power was minimal because of the wetness. But that only makes me want to hook up that weather-proof rear roller brake even more.

The bike itself was a dream: sporty and fun, just like I was hoping. The handlebars have no grips and are just wrapped with a thin layer of electrical tape, but this weather demands gloves, so it wasn’t so bad.

And I cleaned up the living room and put away all the tools and took out all the trash.

Tomorrow I’ll put the bike back together and eagerly await Zora’s return.

Here's the bike. She's got a lock, a light, and even a bell!

It is March 23, 2005. About three months after I starting thinking about this project and about three weeks after I actually started buying parts.


Ken Stagg said...


I didn't find an email in the guestbook entry you left but I had to let you know how much I like what you've done with this bike! And the story of the build up is a delight. I hope you don't mind if I point one of the lists that I belong to over here - they'll love it :-)

Fotaq said...

Please do pass the link along. I hope this story can inspire somebody else to build a bike. Or at least amuse people who already have.

p.s. I try to leave my e-mail off websites as a mild form of spam prevention. So thanks for leaving a comment

JimG said...

Yay for the bluebird of happiness!

Have you considered a helmet with clear plastic facemask for hail riding? Like a hockey helmet, maybe. Not that there's that much hail in NYC.

Fotaq said...

Jimg, you're always a man with ideas... Jan in Amsterdam used to have some full-faced mask that flipped up and down and seemed like a light-weight welders mask, except it was clear. It would have been perfect (undoubtedly adding to my uber-cool image).