Sunday, September 2, 2012

The Towpath Scorcher: my Country Road Bob

I've owned any number of bikes over the years, but probably my favorite has been the Van Dessel “Country Road Bob” in its various incarnations. I got the frame used from a local racer seven or eight years ago, and had actually had it off the road for nearly a year, as some parts were worn out and others got scavenged to build up my Cannondale road bike, but recently acquired some new wheels, cranks and bars to build it up again. 
Not a bike for the shy.

Van Dessel, for those not familiar with the company, Van Dessel is a small company based in Mendham, NJ that designs and distributes some unique – and uniquely named – performance bicycles. Most of their bicycles, such as the “Gin & Trombones” (cyclocross), “Drag Strip Courage” (track) and “All Systems Go” (time trial) are pretty race-oriented, but they've always had one or two models like the now-discontinued “Country Road Bob” and it's spiritual successor, the “Whisky Tango Foxtrot” that were a bit weird, but extremely versatile.
The Bob I have, a 2002 model, is a singlespeed-only frame, with horizontal track-style rear drop outs (“fork ends” for the purists), and features a moderately zippy cyclocross geometry, carbon fork and a very distinctive look brought about by a curved tubeset and bold green paint job. 
A 3-inch drop from saddle to bars makes for a  nice sporty ride. .

The joy of the bike, other than it's “look at me” style, is that it's such a great go-anywhere, do-anything machine. I've normally had it set up as a fixed gear, and formerly had road bars on it, but would use it for everything from commuting and sporty pavement riding to cruises down the D&R Towpath to some light singletrack (sometimes I'd flip the wheel around to use it as a freewheeling singlespeed for my off-road jaunts, but more often I'd just keep it on the fixed side).
Not long ago, I was given the gift of a Surly “Open Bar” handlebar, which is a nice wide steel handlebar with about a 50-degree sweep, which is designed with singlespeed bikes in mind. I also acquired a set of fixed/singlespeed wheels and a few other bits and pieces, so I decided it was time to get the Bob back together. 
The curved parts of the bar also make for a surprisingly comfortable secondary hand position.

One of the less-ideal things about the old build, with dropped handlebars, was that it relied on centerpull cantilever brakes, rather than mountain-bike style linear pull brakes. The rear brake, in particular, with its long continuous cable housing and too-low cable stop never quite had the stopping power a big guy like me was looking for. When riding fixed this wasn't a problem, but when the bike was set up with a freewheel, I never felt confident in the brakes when riding at speed.
The new build uses mountain-bike style levers and a set of Promax linear-pulls, which offer much better stopping power.
The swept handlebars and curvy tubes put me in mind of the path racers ridden by turn-of-the-century “scorchers,” as aggressive cyclists were known back then, so I decided to run with it and put on a leather saddle and cork grips. 
Cork grips after a quick dunk into Bullseye Shellac

The saddle is a Velo Orange “Mod 1,” which the company is selling at a discount. I have a black version of this saddle on my road bike, and not only do I find it extremely comfortable for long rides at moderate effort, it has saddlebag loops which allow me to hang traditional-style saddlebags of various sizes on the back, rather than mounting a rack and panniers or trunk bag. For daily riding I just use a small tool bag, but for long commutes, day trips or touring I can add on my Carradice bag. I find that on bikes with sportier geometry, not only does a Carradice-style saddlebag look better but by putting the weight closer to rider rather than on the wheel, the handling is less affected. 
A Minnehaha saddle bag makes the perfect tool bag for day-to-day rides, a Carradice College bag works for bigger loads.

I went with a honey-brown saddle this time, purely because I thought it looked cool, and shellacked the grips to waterproof them and make them match the saddle better (again, rubber grips work just as well, I just think the cork is comfortable and looks cool). 
32mm tires roll over most stuff with no problem

42x17 gearing and 700x32c tires give me just shy of a 67-inch gear ratio, which gives me an on-pavement cruising speed comfortably in the high teens but still leaves me the leverage to get up hills and ride light off road. Right now the as-yet-unused freewheel side of the hub is also a 17-tooth, but I may find a slightly larger cog to give myself a better bail-out gear.
Fixed on one side and a short freehub on the other, with hard-to-find 135mm hub spacing. The wheelset came from a Marin singlespeed.

 Since I've got good brakes and don't need to rely on back-pedaling to help me stop anymore, I no longer feel the need to ride it with clipless pedals, so I have a pair of big, grippy Shimano BMX pedals to keep my sneakers from sliding off. 
Truvativ cranks do the job with just fine.

I've had it on a bunch of short rides and one 30-mile towpath jaunt, and it rides wonderfully. I intend to do a bit of light touring with it this fall, and look forward to seeing where my favorite bike takes me.
Where are we headed today?


Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Independence Day Musings: A Christian Nation?

As we celebrate the publication of that all-important American document, The Declaration of Independence, I can't help but also think of our current political climate, and some of the language that gets thrown around by various pretenders and pundits.
One phrase that always catches my attention is "a Christian Nation," as in "the United States was founded as a Christian nation, therefore, what you're doing is unAmerican."

The irony of using Christianity, whose fundamental texts call for peace and tolerance, to justify bigotry has been much written of elsewhere, and I won't go into that in detail here. Instead, I'd like to think about whether or not the U.S. was indeed founded on some sort of Christian principle, and what that means to us in the 21st Century.

The signers of the Declaration of Independence were, indeed,  "Christian" men. While some were more traditional in their beliefs than others, all but one (Charles Carroll, a Roman Catholic) were aristocratic Anglo-Protestants. The language of the Declaration and the Constitution do contain references to God and The Creator, as was co mmon in formal documents of the day.

But looking at the content of both the Declaration and the Constitution, one would be hard pressed to find any justification for favoring one religion to exclusion of all others, in fact, the Constitution and the Bill of Rights explicitly forbid the government from doing so in several places, saying there can be no religious test for serving in office, and prohibiting the government from either endorsing or supressing any particular faith.

But what about intent? As I pointed out, the Framers were all Christian men, didn't they intend Christianity to dominate?

Well, first off, there has been entirely too much fetishisation of the "intent of the Framers" lately. While they were bright, courageous and well-educated men, they were just as fallible as any other bunch of mere mortals. In fact, one of the smartest thing they did was to leave a flexible set of laws that could be adapted to fit the changing needs of future generations and changed to correct their own oversights.

I would argue that, if anything, the United States was founded as a "pragmatic" nation more than a nation of any particular faith. And yet, there is in the Declaration a particularly Christian sentiment, included in one of the most famous sentences ever set to paper:

"We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness."

Most of recorded history, and much practial observation would serve to contradict this statement. Men (in the general sense of human beings) are NOT equal, some are born wealthy, some poor, some healthy, some sick, some have far more influence over the world around them than others. Many cultures, including that of the founding fathers, felt it was perfectly acceptable to hold other human beings as property.

Yet there in that one sentence, was stated the belief that in spite of all evidence to the contrary, there is something inherent to each human life that is of equal value to every other human life on the planet. That all all of us are, in some intangible way, of the same importance.

In this we see reflected the Christian teaching that the poor and the powerless are just as valued as kings and princes. It's a powerful (and sadly, often ignored) concept that is at the heart of the democratic ideal.

Unfortunately, this sense that all of us are equal usually falls by the wayside in the practial functioning of government, but maybe it's worth reminding ourselves of it from time to time.

And perhaps, more importantly, it directly contradicts the meaning of the small-minded  ones who so often throw out the "Christian Nation" flag to justify their own petty prejudices. If our Founding Fathers intended this to be a nation of Christian ideals, then the foremost ideal in their mind was that we are all brothers and sisters, regardless of the superficial distinctions of faith, lifestyle and circumstances.

Happy Fourth!