The zen of pedalling
I know it goes without saying but there is definitely something Zen about bicycling. Particularly after a change in one's lifestyle.
Once again I found myself on the short end of an employment issue -- a layoff to be exact. This is not my first layoff, that one happened 17 years earlier when I was running the media department of a teaching hospital. Isn't it funny how layoffs always seem to affect the laid-off employee and the services they provided but never seem to touch the people at the top who bring organizations to the brink of disaster?
Well, in any event, this isn't about layoffs, this is about the Zen of bicycles. Originally I thought about calling this article Zen and the Art of Bicycle Maintenance but that really would be a direct ripoff of Robert Pirsig's famous book, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance -- which is more a story about the metaphysics of quality than it is about motorcycle maintenance.
So, in my mind, if riding a bicycle is a Zen-type of experience then at least, for me, the true path to enlightenment comes through the journey of rebuilding older, neglected bicycles. In particular, the old British bicycles from the 1960's and 1970's. In a way, the discarding of old things in this country, whether they deserve it or not, seems to be a disturbing pattern of American life. The bicycle is no good because it's older, heavier and only possesses three speeds; much the same way the worker lacks value when they become older, heavier and more expensive. So we pitch out the old reliables for something shiny and brand new because, after all, the newer and shinier it is, the better it runs -- or maybe it's really the better to impress all the "right" people.
However, I digress. This is about achieving enlightenment, or at least searching for it, through rebuilding old bicycles. In the past I've managed to rebuild a few older bicycles; two Raleighs, an Armstrong, a Hercules, a Colbert chain driven tricycle, a Cleveland Welding Company (precursor to Roadmaster), a J.C. Higgins and a Nishiki touring bike (that one was for my 12-year-old son who regularly joins me in rides around our countryside).
I even tackled a Sturmey Archer 3speed hub, an experience I will never forget. Shortly after tearing apart the dirt and grease encrusted hub I realized it was more complicated than I had expected, and I had neglected to diagram the assembly. Fortunately the local bicycle shop was able to find an exploded view to help with re-assembly. My latest challenge has been a mid-1970's five-speed Raleigh Sprite I picked up from the Volunteers of American for a mere $10.00. I purchased the bike three months before my recent layoff and it sat in my barn until I suddenly found myself with a great deal of spare time.
So I set about rebuilding another bicycle and the journey began.
Usually when I get into these older bicycles I find, as many of you have likely found too, a whole nest of problems. They range from broken pieces to corroded fittings to odd nuts and bolts and pieces; cobbled together from other bikes and forced to fit together. This bike would prove to be different. The cups and cones sparkled after I cleaned them, and the plating was still entirely intact. Even the cotter pins in the crank set came out with very little effort although, I must confess, I was using my new cotter pin press purchased from Bikesmith Design. If you constantly find yourself banging away at crank cotter pins I highly recommend investing in the press, it was the best $50.00 I spent in a long time.
Within a half day I had the bike apart, cleaned up and almost nearly reassembled. All I needed was a new set of tires and tubes, a few quick adjustments and I was reading to roll. I put the wheels back on, the front first and then the back, and gave them a spin to check their movement and alignment. It was then I noticed a problem with the back wheel, it seemed to make a jump left then right on every rotation. The rear rim had been ever so slightly crushed inward and the damage had missed my inspection at purchase. Fixing the wheel was beyond my abilities so I needed to find a cheap alternative.
This is where I began to feel a bit of enlightenment begin to wash over me. Here was this bike, impeccable and in great shape. Everything was working as well, if not better than brand new (okay, maybe I exaggerate a bit there). Still, it was a 30-year-old bicycle I had purchased for $10.00 and it required very little work. Instead of focusing on the one small problem I continued to marvel at my good fortune in finding a bicycle that was still in such immaculate condition.
Maybe even closer to the enlightenment was the realization that I found joy in the simplest of projects on one of the simplest of machines. For the last four years I hated my job. The management was mediocre at best, uninspiring, lethargic and lacking in leadership. Like a shiny new bicycle from a big box store my old office was all about image and flash. But the old bicycle is different. It's all about stability, quality and experience.
The solution to my rear wheel problem was as simple as the bicycle itself. I went back to the Volunteers of America and made another $10.00 donation on another good bicycle that I parted out, including a good rear wheel. The frame from the parts bike was donated to bicycle coop (along with other parts I had been holding onto) and the bent wheel was recycled. The circle of reduce, reuse and recycle. Okay, some purists might claim that I was mixing parts and could destroy what little value the old bicycle had but that wasn't my goal. My goal was to recycle a bike to ride for exercise and enjoyment.
When I was first laid off 17 years earlier my wife asked me what I thought I might do next. I don't know, I said. Maybe I'll spend the summer riding my bicycle and figure it out. That was on a Friday evening and she thought it was a good idea. By the following Monday I had another job and almost did no riding that summer. Now after years of pursuing two masters degrees and jobs I really didn't like, my wife finally confronted me about the summer of 1990 and told me the one mistake I made was not spending the summer on my bicycle as I planned.
This time is different. In my latest journey I've rebuilt the bike and logged in a great many miles in just two months. I haven't achieved total enlightenment yet, and I haven't figured out my next move but I'm closer now than I was 17 years ago. The Zen of peddling has set me upon the new path.