2/20/12

Guest Post: Oddman's journey of 2000 miles is a matter of inches

I am currently on a train in the deepest,darkest jungles of Tibet, searching for enlightenment and a stick of spearmint gum. The wi-fi connection can best be described as "inter-mittens," which is also how I would describe a ball of yarn being played with by a kitty. As such, I've out-sourced my evening bloggery to long-time reader, Oddman (that's a pseudonym. His real name is John D. Ingcognito), but I will never out-source my gratitude to him for his time and effort. 

“It’s all about the gear inches!”
I first got back into cycling at age 53 with a Dahon Espresso, their basic full-size 21 speed. In a week, I told the dealer that I actually hated that bike - it was very narrow-geared (I found out later 36-86 gear inches), the front gears would never shift easily, and I hated the way my arms hurt leaning over and my neck hurt keeping it tilted up to see forward. (How can anybody see this as natural?)
The dealer was great, and swapped me into a Speed D7 - great bike, I learned to really enjoy the ease of use and “nimble” handling. Problem? Still too narrow a gear range - I was starting out up hill in 5th gear, so I upgraded to a Speed P8.
Ah, a perfect combination; big chainwheel, wide-range 8 speeds, and almost-upright seating. I kept this bike for a long time, had a wild wipeout, got some heart problems, and couldn’t ride anymore, so sold the bike.
After getting better through some experimental medical work, I returned to biking with an old, well-used Bike-E recumbent bike. I took a long winter to clean it up and get back into shape. At the same time, I also wanted a small folding bike to keep in my van for quick rides around the monuments. I picked up what turned out to be a rusted hulk of a Classic Dahon, but took it all apart, cleaned up acres of rust, and put it back together. It survived. I sold it and began a CL buying/fixing/selling spree, not ever making much money (even lost a bit), but it was great healing therapy, something to do while I was getting strong again. I learned to do a lot of minor repairs, (but could never get a front derailleur to shift as smooth and immediate as the Bike-E’s Sturmey Archer rear hub-nor could many bike shops) and made friends with good mechanics when I did the repairs wrong. I did find some honest, reliable, and competent mechanics in the area: 1 in Vienna, 1 in Springfield, and 1 in DC (or so I thought).
With changes in residences looming, I sold the best folder that I built up (The Silver Edition P8) and the recumbent and began exploring “big-wheel” bikes. I considered going the CL route with these, but really just wanted to ride this Spring/Summer, not constantly repair things. So, began looking into buying a new bike, with hot cash in my account.
One year later, I finally have one but not by the route expected.
What I learned from the few years of riding, and taking into account my medical condition, was: 
I’m a large person, and sadly, a small-wheeled folder just can’t take the strain;
I want gear inches to be as close to 35-95 as possible;
No aggravation of a front derailleur;
A riding position that keeps my head upright;
Looking for the $500 price point.
Why not another recumbent? My new digs in Sterling are right along the W&OD Trail, so I can ride into town and take Metro or MetroBus back home. I also want to use my bike for everyday use, never starting my van except to go to work (grocery shopping and such). The recumbent I really liked had no way to attach a rack and wouldn’t fit on Metro, so a “standard” big-wheel bike was the choice.

“Perservering through narrow-minded manufacturer decisions and nasty bikeshops.”
Beginning in January of 2011, I checked out a few bikes. First thinking that I wanted a “crank-forward” bike, to simulate the feel of a recumbent, I tried out 2 models, one from the dealer where one of my trusted mechanics worked. Nice bike, heavier than I thought, and discovered I had difficulty getting into a correct pedaling position.  A CF just wasn’t the same as a recumbent. Also, the front derailleur wouldn’t shift well and the chain wouldn’t stay on the front ring. I didn’t want to think I had a bad mechanic, (and no one yet has gotten a front indexed shifter to shift well enough to suit me), so I looked into the next CF bike, sold at a recreational sports shop. Nice bike, but with all the engineering supposedly designed in, I still needed the handlebars moved up and back 1 inch. Should have been easily done with a $15 quill stem; the store wouldn’t do it without my paying more. Six months later, they still had the unsold bike, and still wouldn’t replace the stem for me without an additional charge.
So, began looking into every bike and bike shop in the Va/Dc area - “Oh, the Horrors!” I found stores staffed with absolutely clueless sales persons - clueless about the bikes they sell and clueless about simple customer service. One store, I just wanted to look at saddles (knowing what my, ahem, wide-track backside required), and the salesperson began to explain to me how my choice would hurt - my dear, I just rode 400 miles on one just like it, and it fit great. This same store has a 2010 bike that would work just right, except again, would need a more upright threadless stem. They wouldn't change its $15 part for less than $50 dollars.
I looked at another bike, a leftover 2010 model that might have been OK except the stem again – the sales manager said it wouldn’t raise, so I didn’t even test ride it. I found out later that it had a quill stem, the ones I like, easily adjusted, and it could have fit but by then, the 2010 bike was sold.
I went into one store, merely stating my needs - the salesperson immediately directed me towards a $900 bike, saying that nothing else he sells would fit my parameters. Odd, because at another of their local stores, a great salesman immediately knew what would fit my needs, was going to order one in my size for me to try out, and 2 months later, never got back to me.
Oh yeah -probably a reliable store in Reston, but the manager said he won’t order a bike without a 20% downpayment even for a test ride, and tried to direct me to, yes, a quality bike, one that he had in stock, but it had that threadless stem problem, where the part had to be changed to get the bars at my needed position. The manager said that he would get my body to like a leaned-forward riding position. Yeah, right! Arrogance!
Finally discovered a bike from a shop that has a good reputation, but he had a price tag on it $30 higher than the manufacturers listed price. Not even worth arguing about.

“It’s all about the gear inches”
I found out that almost all manufacturers consider single-front chainwheels appropriate only for their “entry-level” models (entry level at $400-500!). OK, I could stand an entry level bike, but for some reason, the manufacturers think these bikes should be geared as to not go too fast, almost every one with gear inches from 38-85. I need a better “low gear” for hills and I regularly travel at mid-90s, so as not to “spin” too much. My heart doesn’t like me when I “stand” on the pedals to get up to speed or spin too fast, so, how about swapping out clusters? Oh NO, not without great additional cost.
Finally, I followed the words from a trusted advisor- buy the bike that fits best and then make it work. One, and only one, bike remaining fit perfectly, looked great, and the dealer worked with me to switch out enough parts to get the gear range I needed. Great, except it had a brake noise that after 3 attempts, wasn’t alleviated. At the time, I didn’t blame the shop, I think the bike had some defective parts, but I also learned that even from “upscale” manufacturers, their entry level bikes have lower quality minor parts that won’t allow a proper fix, even by the best mechanics. I later found out that every bike I test rode from their shop had brake squeal.
I found an old beater  to ride while waiting for the model  that worked could be ordered, I showed it to the mechanic, and he went into scare tactics, that it needed complete overhaul  before it could be even safe to ride (or how I heard his concerns), or all parts replaced. I decided to offer it to a friend, first doing all the repairs they suggested (new wheels and such). I rode it for 200 miles, and then left it for new-wheel adjustments. I picked it up, and on my first turn, the rear wheel fell off. It wasn’t the same since, making noises and riding poorly, and the shop said they couldn’t find anything wrong. During that visit, one of the owners berated me as trying to do a lot with a little – no, just that very few bikes fit my requirements, and they had one if only the sales manager knew his products.
I never gave it to my friend, had my trusted folder/recumbent dealer rebuild the rear wheel and sold it as a loss. The shop did give me some labor charges back, but still, I’m at a loss and still, not owning a new bike!
Finally, I discovered an exercise equipment chain that is going out of the bicycle business and selling off their 2011 stock of brand-name bikes (Jamis) at 55% off. I found a great basic bike, and let the above trusted dealer doing service and repairs, at my cost. Already I have had to have a spoke replaced, but the above professional wheel builder reset all spokes with proper tension.  
I probably spent twice as much this year on CL bikes and bad repairs as the bike that the sales manager was uninformed about, but I finally have a nice new bike that I can rely on. In trying out all these bikes, I still rode 2046 miles last year, and hope to do that much or more, but with less aggravation.
And since December, with a TFTS button on the front.

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