Friday, February 22, 2013

Moving, Thinking

More riding home tonight, thinking about sitting, shifting my focus from my butt/pelvis to my back muscles, and using them to absorb shock...that seems to work.  It seems almost silly to be thinking so hard about my body and how it's sitting during the 1.5 mile ride home.  But in some ways, this is my cross to bear, fairly integral to how I interact with the world. 

From a young age, I was breathtaking clumsy in my movements, unable to coordinate sensory input with the movements of my rapidly lengthening extremities.  The doctors called it a deficit in fine and gross motor skills, prescribing years of occupational therapy to try to train into me skills that other children acquire unconsciously from a young age.  The OT helped, but my parents went beyond that, enrolling me in piano and tap dancing lessons to help further train my arms and legs, hands and feet to be able to move with some semblance of rhythm, fluidity, and coordination. 

It all worked, to the extent that I can move around fairly well without embarrassing myself too much, but I often get the sense that I'm wired differently than other people when it comes to moving my body through space.  I don't take to new sports or physical games quickly, especially ones that involve new motor skills.  Ball sports and gym class were always difficult for me, and never really held much interest anyways.  With the things that I had enough interest to stick with a long time, a basic level of functionality always came with much difficulty and repetition, until I had built up enough muscle memory to do the required movements more or less automatically.  If I don't have muscle memory yet for something, I need to take things slowly and pay extremely close attention to what I'm doing, or else things quickly snowball out of control.  Perhaps this is why I stick with the same active hobbies year after year--new things don't come easily to me. 

It makes sense that I took to road bicycling quickly, since on the whole it actually requires fairly little coordination and motor planning skills.  You plant your butt on the seat and your feet on the pedals, put your hands on the bars, and off you go.  The structure of the bicycle keeps everything in coordination.  Of course, being graceful, and developing the handling skills to change direction quickly, such as might be required for off-road riding, takes some time, but the fundamentals of moving a bicycle through space don't require that much coordination. 

So you'd think, after almost 11 years (!) of cycling regularly,  you'd think that I have most of the motor skills required for riding locked into muscle memory by now.  But as I'm learning with bike fit, part of it is setting up the bicycle so that the bicycle matches your contact points, but part of it is training your body to sit on that bicycle and match those contact points.  Of the last few years I've played around a lot with contact points, moving them up and down, forward and back, making them narrower or wider.  Each time, I throw my body for a new loop, and the adjustment process can take a long time.  During that more or less constant process, things which might be autonomic functions for other cyclists--like using your back muscles to absorb shock, for instance--are part of conscious thought for me.  I don't necessarily remember to do them if I'm not thinking about it.  Grace doesn't come easily, but is a process. 

As I think through this process, think about how to match the bicycle to my body and the body to my bicycle, I constantly hear voices.  I hear the voice of my mother, as I try to move too fast down the steep and rocky mountain trail that we're hiking together.  The voice of my piano teacher, as my fingers trip over themselves playing a particularly complicated few bars.  The voice of my tap dancing teacher, as I struggle to make my feet and my body match the rhythm of a step. As they reminded that clumsy little kid so many years before, it's about slowing down.  Taking things one step, one note, one beat at a time.  Think--really think--about where you're putting your hands, your feet, your fingers.  Watch your balance and your center of gravity.  Breathe. 

Friday, February 15, 2013

Learning how to sit on a bicycle

I was thinking about sitting as I rode home tonight; trying to feel the difference between sitting "back" more on my sit bones and rotating my pelvis a bit more forward, resting more on the middle of my pelvis.  It feels more secure--I rotate forward by my center of gravity is farther back, I'm bringing more of my back muscles into more natural alignment to support my torso, etc.  But is is kind of something I need to work at as I ride--it's not totally automatic how I plant my butt on the saddle.  There is some technique to it, that I learn.  Like I've always had to learn muscle memory for things--riding a bike, playing piano, tap dancing. 

It occurs to me that a way to gloss a lot of my thinking about bike fit, bike setup etc. is that I'm working at learning how to sit on the bicycle.  For one thing, I think this glosses my ideal of how the bike should fit and feel--it should be something that your are sitting on securely, as a piano player might sit on their bench or a worksman sits on a stool.  I'm not talking about a plush barcalounger or the heated massaging leather seats of a Mercedes S-Class, nor some kind of sinister exercise machine where you're forced into doing a pushup at the same time you're pedaling, but the secure seating of a person who is working at something.  

The gloss "learning to sit on a bicycle" also connotes for me Buddhist meditation, and the attention paid in certain practices like zazen to learning how to just sit.  Of course, some might take issue with my connection between bike fit and meditative practice, saying that bike fit is a process of trying to create comfort through material manipulation, while meditation has little to do with comfort (just ask those who do it for long periods) and everything with the spiritual, not material, practice of sitting.  But go with me here for a while.  Of course, meditation isn't "just sitting."  A great deal of attention is paid to the (material) form of the sitting body, the arrangement of the legs and hands, the relaxation and extension of muscles and tendons, the posture of the torso, and running through this all, an attention and mindfulness of breathing.  Meditation involves a great deal of mindfulness about the otherwise autonomic aspects of inhabiting a body. 

I think the same things could be said to be true of bike fit.  While it certainly results in making a bike more comfortable and avoiding pain, especially in the the arms and back, bicycling--especially spirited riding--accepts the effort and sometimes pain of using your body to propel yourself forward.  If you can give up the notion that bike fit is about maximizing your potential and making yourself go faster, in my mind it becomes the pursuit of being able to be settled on the bike, achieve a type of spiritual stability, with, again, a focus on breath.  Riding a bike up a hill is always going to be hard, but if you have found a good way to sit, all you need to do is focus on the rhythm of breathing and pedaling. 

Of course, the physical practice of sitting in meditation involves little more than the body and maybe a small stool or pillow, so practicing sitting need not involve any material attachment or possessions, while learning how to sit on the bicycle involves not just the body but also changing the material dimensions of the bicycle, changing pedals, shoes, handlebars, or seats, and thus involves material and often financial investment.  If you can get beyond the simplistic thought that one change, one new component or even a new bicycle will be the "answer," however, you start to see how bike fit can be about developing meaningful connections between the external and internal worlds.  It requires a great deal of learning to listen to the body, mindfulness about how it is arranged, feeling how small changes of posture can affect the way that energy flows through the body.

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

The Idea of the "All-Rounder" Bar

I discovered the Origin-8 "Adventure Touring" bar while flipping through a catalog at work yesterday.  I immediately started building a bike around them in my head.  To be fair to myself though, they do look pretty cool.  I've been liking the swept flat bars on the Quickbeam, feel like they give that "upright yet speedy" thing on that bike that I was searching for, and now seem to have found.  But being a well-heeled touring cyclist, I'm naturally wary of putting flat bars on a bike that I'm going to ride more than a few miles  "But, but, I need multiple hand positions!!!" my mind says.  Never mind the endurance mountain bikers that do this kind of stuff on flat or riser bars.  I'm not riding as long as them.
Grant Petersen's famous illustration of Moustache bar hand positions from the 1993 Bridgestone Catalog
This is why I think I've always found the Nitto Moustache bar intriguing.  I keep coming back to this idea of the all-rounder and the all-rounder bar, as a basically level and flat bar...i.e. not a drop bar, that can allow good hand and body positions for urban, road, and off-road riding.  Something that is comfortable enough, and has enough variety, for longer rides.

Me riding Midge bars in the Olympic Mountains

I was attracted to flared drop bars, and rode the On-One Midge for a long time, I think, in theory because they in their very description were all-rounder bars, drop bars that could be used offroad.  But they are something different it turns out, and while I now have the tools to fit them correctly (I probably had the reach right on the last iteration of the trek, but not the balance), they aren't really what I'm looking for.   Is it just aesthetics?  No, it's a fit thing too----flared drops need a very specialized reach setup, something that won't work for me on a lot of bikes.

An old Peugeot "PX-3" of Sheldon Brown's, with what he describes as "GB All Rounder handlebars"

I keep coming back to the IDEA of all-rounder bars as what I'm looking for...the ideal handlebar I'm searching for, for the to-be-built custom, whatever it may be.  They are flat so they don't need tons of rise to be comfortable for me.  They are swept back in the primary (braking) grip area so the reach is manageable for me with ~60cm top tubes and level 100-120mm stems.

Writing this now, I look on my last couple of years of hard-core roadie-dom a bit more generously.  Yes, I was a bit more "serious" about it, but being "serious" about it allowed me a couple of things to focus on: first off, it got me off of the flared drop kick, which was making things more complicated fit-and-aesthetics wise, and it allowed me to focus on normal-ish drop bars, just getting fit right on them as a starting point.  Secondly, it allowed me "get serious" about bike fit, and delve into the subject more deeply, which I think overall has had positive consequences.  So taking the Casseroll "seriously" as a road bike was a way to teach myself some things.  And now, I feel like I'm getting a handle on those things, so naturally my mind is wandering on to the next things.  I guess this is what learning feels like. 

Monday, February 11, 2013

Broadening Genres

Preface: As you can probably tell, I haven't been really good about getting in the habit of writing material for this blog, and in general my writing hasn't really been that active for the last few months.  So, towards getting myself back in the habit of writing, I've decided to try to write everyday for the next forty days, and towards that end I've dusted off my dormant 750words account.  As befits everyday writing, I'm trying to turn off my self-editing instincts, and just focus on the flow of writing.  Think Jack Kerouac, on a bike.  I'm gonna post some of the pieces up here.  The writing won't be quite as technical or descriptive as some of my previous posts, and certainly will be less polished, but they will be a pretty close embodiment of the things I'm thinking about these days.  Hope you enjoy, and any comments will be much appreciated! 

This is what I'm saying: in truth, and financially, life-wise, I really only want one or two, three at the most bikes.  I want a fixed gear.  I want a bike that I take out for fun rides in the hills, probably pavement and dirt equally (this is the one that I'm focusing on right now).  And, maybe I want a bike I can take on occasional week-long-ish tours with a good camping load, maybe even carry some stuff for my wife if she's coming with me. 

But the second bike of this list--the one that I ride mostly for fun, taking it out in the mornings or evenings of days I work, or for longer rides on free weekend days, I feel like I want it to be a representation of me, something that emerges naturally out of a variety of bicycles, components, riding experiences.  My riding activity doesn't fit well into the traditional genres of bicycle design, and in any case I'm too much of a contrarian to use the "traditional" type of bike for any given purpose.  If it's going to be the bike that I ride mainly for fun, than it has to be something that I've found to be fun, on the types of ride that I've found to be fun.  It has to emerge out of experience, from a variety of things.

I think what I'm trying to say about the Casseroll is this: I think that I've been a bit too focused on its genre and what it says about what my riding "should be," what the setup of the bike "should be."  Somewhere a while back (2007?) I decided that a nice steel road bike with long reach brakes would be the ideal bike, that if I were going to start spending money beyond beater fixed gears and the Trek, that this is what I should spend money on.  And so this is what, mentally, identity-wise, I invested in.  Riding distance.  Riding road bikes offroad.  It has allowed me to keep one foot in mainstream roadie culture and one foot in the Rivendell aesthetic and sensibility, with curiousness towards Rando riding and style.  And that's what I've pursued--road riding, with the occasional foray onto a dirt road.  I trained and did a distance ride last year, and have been considering doing the same type of thing this year. 

Part of the frame of reference that it's given me is more subconcious, it's the way that I judge my riding and the performance of my bicycles.  Namely, the ability to cover distance comfortably.  Rides were judged subconsciously by mileage, leading to many years of never really being satisfied by my riding because it was never "long enough."  Bike performance was also judged by this metric, leading to my experiments in bike fit, which I feel like I'm finally really getting a handle on.  But feeling like I'm getting close with the Casseroll in terms of these metrics (I could probably ride a century comfortably on it), I'm still left seeking something 

So I feel like it might be time not to focus too much on refining the Casseroll further or even replacing it with a more idealized bike of the same genre, but rather to broaden genres and think a bit more about where fun really comes from in bike riding for me, and to focus on that for a while.  When I think about rides that have been really memorable over the past couple of years, certainly the long ones stick out, but the other fun ones include more rambling and exploring.  Riding in Tilden during my summer of depression.  Rambling around the Fullerton loop trail on the Takara, Christmas Eve of 2011.  Exploring the Lomas Cantadas--El Toyonal--Wildcat connection.  Climbing Hill 88 in the Marin Headlands at sunset and then bombing back down, during the STS retreat last june. 

So broadening the genre, judging things on just having fun, making memories, seeing beautiful things.  I think this is the next step in the "everyday riding" realization I had last year.  Truthfully, doing the same road loops week after week, no matter where I was living--Sacramento or Berkeley--can get old quick.  Riding everyday, what are the types of rides that I keep wanting to do?  I don't feel like I have a good handle on this yet. 

Finding out where that dirt trail actually leads.  But it's not mountain biking, because I want to ride up to the road to get there.  And keeping going when the road ends.  There's probably a fair bit of hike-a-biking involved, so keeping the bike light is probably a good idea.  Flat pedals too--i'm really liking that setup, with power grips, on the Quickbeam. 

Not having a clear sense of where the fun lies, I'm not sure I want to spend a lot of money on any particular vision of riding right now.  Instead, I think it's about creating variety in the bikes I have now, and seeing which ones naturally get ridden more, emerge as the thing I want to have fun on.  So: I think the Quickbeam and Casseroll are pretty close to their ideals.  I'll probably put fatter, but still light, tires (Jack Brown Greens?) on the Casseroll once spring instantiates itself around here and I can take the fenders off.  I'll probably also put the 22t freewheel on the Quickbeam so I'll have a much lower gear for hilly rambling, something which the current setup doesn't really do that well. 

I think there's a lot to be learned from the Trek in these new proceedings, as well.  I think it would be good to re-create something with a Midge Bar setup, since I always like that setup and it seems like it would be good for rambling.  But, I also have crazy ideas involving the Bullmoose bars that were originally on the Quickbeam and the Soma Quill-inator.  It'll probably get flat pedals. 

But of course, as I write this, there is a new, idealized bike forming itself in my brain.  An A. Homer Hilsen with a fit pretty close to what the Quickbeam has now, including flat bars with some sweep--maybe Jitensha bars or the VO Postino bars, for whose moniker I am responsible.  Built up light, with a fairly lighweight wheelset, and maybe just a Mark's Rack in front for the Trunk Sack.  Triple crankset, flat pedals. 

So my brain works as I work out these words on the page.  

Abridged Bibliography:

Matt Chester, "Isolation for Revelation," 5mod blog: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3

J√łtul's Quinetucket Traditions from Jamie Murrett on Vimeo.