I’ve been riding the Surly almost exclusively since building it up in February. It has seen roads, snow, and now mud. I explored town a bit yesterday and started in the Intervale. The Intervale has several paths that crisscross its 350 acres and I explored part of the ‘Cycle the City‘ route. The paths change from jeep trail to single track and dirt road crossing fields and cutting through several pockets of trees. It is relatively flat – but the mud and the muck at this time of year required some effort to negotiate. I started at Ethan Allen Homestead and road out and back to the south end, climbing Intervale Rd. to Riverside Dr. at the turn around. Riding fixed in the dirt was tons of fun… I think I had more control of the bike in the slick mud with the FG than with my mountain bike, and I learned quickly that trail obstacles can be much more challenging fixed – I struck my pedals several times crossing through and riding in large ruts and I opted to walk a few sections of washed out trail littered with downed tree branches. Not being able to freewheel I have a fear of tangling my feet as I pedal through and over obstacles. After the Intervale I took off for downtown to do a few hill repeats on Depot Street and watched as a snow squall moved across the lake.
This afternoon I wandered out on the Surly for my longest fixed gear ride to date. I covered approximately 32 miles with 2,100 feet of climbing from the New North End to South Burlington around about ‘Reverence’ – the whale tails sculpture off I89 – and Hinesburg.
Reverence is a sculpture created by Jim Sardonis in 1989. The sculpture depicts two tails of whales “diving” into a sea of grass and is meant to symbolize the fragility of the planet. The tails were made from 36 tons of African black granite and stand 12-13 feet tall.
Whales in Vermont
The Whale Tails are more than just fanciful. Fossils of marine invertebrates found in the Champlain Valley reveal that Vermont was underwater as well during the Paleozoic Era, more than 300 million years ago. the last glacier melted away about 12,500 years ago, and the sea poured in. This inland sea was inhabited by many of the animals that inhabit the North Atlantic today, including mollusks, sea urchins, squid, herring, cod, salmon, seals, and belugas. In 1849, while constructing a railroad, workmen uncovered the bones of a beluga whale in a swampy area in Charlotte, Vermont. The fossil beluga is housed in the Perkins Museum at the University of Vermont. By about 10,000 years ago, the Champlain Valley had risen above sea level. The Valley’s waters drained northward into the St. Lawrence River. This river flows north of Vermont, New Hampshire and Maine between the Atlantic Ocean and the Great Lakes. Over 20 fossils of ancient beluga whales have been found around Lake Champlain.
I had hoped to get close to the sculpture – I’ve been curious about it since I first ventured to Burlington more than 6 years ago. They reside just off of I89 in Williston – approaching by bike I rode through a business subdivision – Technology Park. They were far off in a deeply snow covered field near the interstate – so I’ll have to make another journey this summer to get a closer look. The sculpture has found itself into several art history books, as well as onto Roadside America, and onto the cover of Weird New England. Reverence is not as odd as the Free Stamp which caused quite a stir in my hometown of Cleveland – but the tails are a bit surreal and oddly out of place the first time you come upon them from the interstate. Silhouetted against the sky, they are a stark reminder that the only constant in this world is change.
Contemplating the sculpture in the winter landscape as I pedaled along I came upon several snowmobiles at a trail crossing. While I was out keeping myself relatively warm in my wool layers and minimal gear, riding along on a simple machine powered by my legs and lungs – the snow machine operators were bedecked in goggles, helmets, and heated thermal suits sitting atop complex, noisy machines requiring significant inputs of energy not only to move about – but to transport and maintain. I couldn’t help but feel sorry for them as they tore about atop their cloud emitting two stroke machines – insulated from the environment they were traversing – and the friends they were out enjoying it with. A simple twist of the wrist and the whine of the engine would rocket them over the road and up the trail. In contrast I pedaled in relative silence listening to the occasional winter bird and the hum of wheels on the pavement and the sound of my breathing. The only clouds I created were those of my breath in the cold air as I blended the gearing on my machine and the strength of my body to power me through the local topography. The contrast between us became even greater when I approached a gas station with a parking lot full of SUVs and pickup trucks with attached trailers for pulling their machines to and fro. The operation of these rigs and the structure of the society which makes them possible are jeopardizing the very thing they are designed to help people enjoy – the world of winter. Culturally reinfoced addiction is a complicated beast – we can all battle it in our own lives in different ways – being aware of mindless consumption, needless fossil fueled travel (for work and play), the convenience of a car to run into town, eyeing the next latest and greatest bit of bicycle gear, fresh strawberries during a Vermont winter, and on and on and on. Questions like these tend to put my mind in a swirl – the choices I make seem so small relative to all the ‘big’ news of the day – yet millions of these small choices make up the world we live in – and I find myself guilty beyond a reasonable doubt.
The whales that once swam in Vermont didn’t have much choice in how their environment was changing – as I doubt their lifestyle choices could have affected the recession of the great inland seas. We may be headed for the same fate – if we don’t figure out what people are for – and what we want to do with our lives in relation to this unique place we find ourselves in the universe.
I’ve been missing the simplicity of the Redline 9.2.5 that I sold a while back. I rode it as a single speed machine commuting the mile to town when I lived in Putney, VT. It was a great grocery getter, office cruiser, and bike shop errand runner. I’ve been working on my old Trek – attempting to convert it into a winter go every where do everything bike. I’ve never really been happy with the the 520 so I decided to part with the bike – returning it to its orginal configuration with a few upgrades. It is currently posted for sale online. I’m using the proceeds to offset the cost of a simple, utility minded fun bike. I opted for a fixed gear / single speed machine – and unlike the Redline 9.2.5 which was a cheap impulse buy – I’ve thought about the details in how I want this bike to work, look, and feel.
I chose the Surly CrossCheck frame as the platform. I worked with Old Spokes Home here in Burlington to configure and outfit the bike. We set the rear wheel up with a Surly hub that has the Dingle Cog on one side and a single speed freewheel on the other. With the Dingle Cog I have two options to play with as I discover what gear ratios I feel comfortable spinning. The brakes are Cane Creek, front and rear hubs are 32 hole Surly, wheels are handbuilt on Salsa rims, stem, seatpost and pedals pieced together from my parts bin, and the saddle is the Brooks Swallow that moved from the IF when the An-atomica arrived. I’ve got a few more tweaks to work out on the fit – I’m trying to get it as close as I can to my distance machine.
It was COLD at 4 deg F with a windchill of -6, but it felt like -10. The limiting factor to my ride was my toes – I lost feeling in them about half way through.
There is one major rule when riding a fixed gear bike:
Never Stop Pedaling
The rear cog is fixed to the hub – as the cranks move so does the wheel. Unlike a freewheel bike there is no coasting – as the wheel moves the cranks move. This takes a bit of getting used to – and I debated using flat pedals or going clipless. I decided to go clipless to keep my feet firmly attached to my machine. I think this is the right choice for riding fixed – and time will tell as I gain more experience with the bike.
I tooled around the neighborhood until I felt confident and then headed to the lakefront bike path. The path was was packed snow and a bit of ice – I was a bit nervous about the conditions – I rode at a conservative pace – and the knobby cross tires worked well on the crunchy snow. I covered about 10 miles, including the hill I use for climbing repeats. The climb is short and sweet – nothing like the climbs in the Green Mountains – and it tops out at 8 or 9%. Climbing fixed was interesting – there is only 1 gear – so choosing your gear ratio is a compromise based on the terrain you plan to ride in. Too high a gear and you will struggle up climbs – too low a gear and you’ll spin out on the flats and descents. I had the bike set up in a modest gear, and riding fixed I felt better at the top of my training climb than when I hammer at a faster cadence on my geared bike. I certainly climbed slower than usual – but the bike has a ‘flywheel’ effect as the cranks keep on moving around as the bike moves forward. This felt like it gave me a bit more momentum – and I suspect I’ll be able to climb a gear or two higher fixed than on my geared machine.
I really like the way fixed riding feels – my legs moving in time with the bike – and with my limited experience I can see why many FG riders talk about feeling ‘one’ with their machine. I had some challenges moving over some of the rougher snow and ice on the bike path – I had to remember the rule of riding fixed and to keep the pedals moving when standing to float over obstacles! If you forget the bike gives you a reminder. Depending on what speed you are riding the reminder will be gentle or stern – as the wheels are spinning your legs are forced to move in time. This happened to me a few times today – adjusting my glasses, headlamp, and balaclava all found me slipping into autopilot and I stopped pedaling. The bike kicked back – a slightly unnerving event – but something I think will go away with experience. As you are one with the machine I found that you need to adjust riding habits. Reaching for a bottle – keep pedaling. Approaching traffic at an intersection – keep pedaling. Adjusting your jacket or helmet – keep pedaling. This also affects how you mount and dismount and stop for traffic.
The first time I needed to stop and restart was comical. I tried to time a stop at a lightly travelled intersection so that I would float up to the intersection with enough speed to get moving again – but not too much so that if I had to get out I could. As I did this another car entered the equation, and I lurched forward while squeezing the brakes. I did this 2 or 3 more times in about 15 feet as I figured out how to detach my foot from a pedal attached to a rotating crank. After this initial trial I found that getting my first foot out of the pedal was the easy bit – adjusting my speed and timing to remove the second foot was far more challenging. The leg just wanted to keep moving along with the bike – and you need to be moving to avoid falling over – so the timing of where in your pedal stroke you pull out your first foot and its relationship to speed and the location of the second foot seems critical. With time I’m sure this will become second nature – but at first not being able to coast up to a stop as you unclip is a very odd feeling. Getting in and out has me anxious to learn to track stand – I’ve always appreciated the value of it even on a geared bike (although I can’t do it for more than a few seconds unless the road is sloping just the right way) – on a FG it seems it will be easier – and a convenient skill to have for navigating stop and go city riding.
In all my first fixed ride was fun. My speed was way down – and my cadence felt way off – it could be the shorter cranks, the cold, or just getting used to a new bike. The 10 miles felt like 20, but I’m anxious to get back on the bike for another go of it. I’m not sure I’ll be ready for a long ride anytime soon – but I’m planning to ride part of my February century fixed – maybe up to 30 miles depending on which loop I choose – and how I feel tackling more challenging terrain.