Sunday, July 30, 2017

A bicycle built for me - Part 1 (the end of an era)

I've been a cycle-commuter since I was 16 years old.

Aside from one of my Uncle Colin's old 10-speed road bikes (back in the days when 10-speed meant a 5-sprocket cassette), my first bike was given to me by my dear parents - a reward for doing well in School Certificate.  And so it was, that in 1990, I traded in my half-hour walk to Rongotai College from Sidlaw Street in Strathmore for a 7 minute ride, aboard my sparkling new Avanti Ridge Rider.

After finishing at Rongotai in '91, the commute grew to 25 minutes or so, as I moved on to Victoria University overlooking Wellington city.  The Ridge Rider was pinched from varsity one day, and its replacement was a Milazo Team Issue, complete with elevated chain-stays (which didn't particularly offend me back then).  That too met an untimely demise - squashed by an SUV at Wellington airport, while I was down there checking out an old flying boat.  Ironically, the car was driven by a "Safety Officer".

Back to Burkes, and rides to and from university were then courtesy of an Extreme Release, which lasted for a few years.  It sustained a nasty dent in the top tube during a rare crash while commuting from a house-sitting gig in Khandallah, and the replacement frame was my second Ridge Rider.

Unlike the first iteration, by now I was using clipless pedals and 1.5" slick tyres, and had long since embraced the speed and efficiency of a push bike.

I met Mike Lowrie in 1997, and he suggested I might like to do some mountain biking on my mountain bike.  For a very short while, my commuter became a part-time mountain bike, but things inevitably broke, and wear-and-tear was much faster than when the bike was on road-only duties.  I cured that by buying a Diamond Back V-Link, and I had a dedicated commuter once more (and not a moment too soon).

Leap forward a few years, and one afternoon, browsing at Burkes, a Giant CRX caught my eye.  I don't recall the exact circumstances, and am not even sure I was looking for it.  But, it went home with me.  It must have been 2007 or so, and I was immediately smitten.

It was a road bike with mountain bike controls, a.k.a., a flat-bar roadie.  These had started popping up, but this one was different to others I'd seen.  For a mere $1500, it came with a carbon seat-post and fork, and even an ultegra rear-derailleur.  I was really lucky with the timing - I think Giant must have been trying to create a new market, and had really gone to town with the spec of this model.  The next year's versions either had much worse kit on them, or were twice the price.

The flat-bar concept didn't sit easy with those who'd been around bikes for a long time, but folk adjusted, as I'm sure we'll all adjust to e-bikes and whatever step-change comes next.  I was convinced though, and waxed-evangelical from time to time, about how these would take off.

After a few teething problems with the 50/36 crankset (which resulted in a modest upgrade at no cost), the CRX became my work-horse, but its versatility also started to shine through.

It happily dragged a Bob trailer between Gisborne and Whakatane airports, and lapped up the mostly-gravel road on the return trip between Te Araroa and the East Cape lighthouse.

January 2009, Tikitiki, just south of the East Cape

It went cyclocross racing, once.  Giant had made a few simple changes to its OCR frame - beefier seat-stays to cope with a carrier, but also clearance for a 35mm tyre front and rear.  The two of us made it through unscathed, but decided we wouldn't be going back!

August 2009, Hüttcross (before there was Hüttcross).  Photo:  Craig Madsen

As it turned out, it was even happy enough with a spot of gentle mountain-biking.  In late 2009, I flew to New Plymouth, and took the long (and high) way around the mountain to Stratford.   Simon met me there, and we rode together through to Taumarunui for a second night, and then to National Park via Fisher's Track before I jumped on the train back to Wellington.  Fisher's track is "Classic New Zealand" mountain-biking, but still mountain-biking of sorts.

November 2009, NP2NP, near the top of Fisher's Track
August 2010, deepest darkest Taranaki
And, I even won some road-racing prize-money on it, claiming second place in the B-grade King of the Mountains competition in a PNP 2-day-tour in the Wairarapa.  Organisers and racers alike didn't really know what to make of it.  I was allowed to keep the bar ends on for the TT (10km in 15 mins), but had to take them off for the road stages!  Thomas Boechenstein famously told me "your whole bike cost less than one of my wheels" after the first road stage, as we had parked our bikes against the same bit of wall in the Gladstone Hall.

Over the years I wore through a couple of pairs of wheels, countless sets of brake pads, chains, chain rings, cassettes, and tyres.  The bike had very few changes, though, with the only real upgrade being swapping out the shitty Tektro mini-V-brake levers with some nicer Avid ones.  And the thing kept on trucking,

By the end of 2015, I was doing a hell of a lot of extra riding on it, often between work and home via the Makara Loop a couple of times a week, and longer rides in the weekend.  I'd got some 11-23 9-speed cassettes super-cheap, and while these were fine for the direct route between home and university, it wasn't so good for general riding on, and while grovelling up the unsealed back-side of Admirals Hill in the 36-23 one weekend, I realised I needed to rejig things.

It underwent the resulting major upgrade in April of 2016.  The most radical change was swapping out the flat bar for a lovely Ritchey handlebar with shallow and slightly flared drops.  The 9-speed drive train was replaced by 11-speed, with a nice long-cage rear derailleur to cope with an 11-32 cassette.  Aside from the gear ratio, the big performance boost was via some sweet TRP mini-V-brakes which were designed to work with the Shimano STI shifters.  (I did kick myself for not doing that much, much sooner.)

By the time that overhaul was done, not much remained from the original bike - frame, fork, seat post, and of course the seat clamp.  It was still my familiar friend, but the transformation marked the beginning of the final chapter.

And, it was a good finale.

With an ascent of Mauna Kea in mind, largely due to a 7km gravel section near the top, the CRX also got the nod for an Everest ride on Raroa Road in Aro Valley, all 96 laps of it.

May 2016, a couple of hours short of an Everest.  Photo:  Oli Brooke-White

It made the trip to Hawaii a couple of months later, and while I struggled to keep on top of the granny gear 4000m above sea level, that had hardly been the bike's fault.  In the few days before the 70km climb from sea level in Hilo to the summit of Mauna Kea, exploring Maui with Sarah had been some of the nicest days I'd ever had on any bike.

June 2016, Mauna Kea.  Photo:  Sarah Tumen

My poor Colnago, which had served me so well on Le Cycle-Tour de France, had begun feeling increasingly foreign, and was no longer ever my first pick for a weekend ride.  This, despite it being "the template" for every set up since that epic trip.

32mm Continental Gatorskins had become my tyres of choice, and my Longest Day project had been an attempt to ride all of the roads around Carterton.  An unseasonably cold day had run my enthusiasm dry by dinner time, and I ended up splitting the 420-odd kilometre ride into two chunks.  Roughly a quarter of that had been on gravel, and I'd had no punctures or spills.

December 2016.  Facilitating, like it's always done

The CRX had become my favourite bike.  Given its very humble beginnings, and not to mention the competition in the garage, it was a strange situation.

But, it wasn't perfect.

As the summer of 2016/17 turned into autumn, I began dreading another winter running rim brakes.  And, I was starting to get nervous about the hammering my 10-year-old bike was getting.  I joked to Diggle at Capital that one day I'd pedal too hard and the bottom bracket would fall out.  He replied, with an unnervingly straight face:  "more likely the head tube will snap off...".

Gravel-grinding is well and truly a thing these days - a fact that must be somewhat bemusing to ol' timers who probably would have simply called it "riding" back in the day - but, for each off-the-shelf solution, there were small problems that seemed insurmountable.  As exciting as it is to be comtemplating a new bike, replacing the CRX was not something I was particularly looking forward to doing.  I wanted the same geometry and tyre clearance, but with disc-brakes, and mudguard mounts both front and rear.

To be honest, I didn't look that hard, largely because I wasn't exactly sure how to look.  I didn't want the bike to feel any different - I really just wanted the same bike, but newer, and with disks, and how the hell to put that into google?

I comtemplated buying a newer CRX for a donor-frame.  And, spent a few evenings looking at Singular and Ritchey offerings.  The only thing that got serious consideration was a boutique carbon frame that was built around both a 42mm 700C tyre, and a 650B wheel running 2.1" MTB tyres.  But, the colour options and the price were hideous.   And, I realised the only time I'd want to switch wheels was during a ride, and that wasn't likely to be possible.

Thinking about all the things I didn't like about that bike helped clarify the things I did want.  In fact, the solution had been hiding in plain sight all along.

About two months later, I rode my CRX for the very last time.  It wasn't pre-meditated, but the last ride was out in the Makara countryside, and I poked my nose down to the six road-ends between Karori and Johnsonville.  It really was the end, for this trusty mount.   It wasn't until I was nearly home that the symbolism of the route choice dawned on me.

Since its purchase, I've bought no less than ten bicycles, and perhaps with the exception of my Raleigh single-speed, this was the cheapest.  It was also the most used, clocking up well in excess of 50,000 kilometres, at a rough guess.

And, I realised, it was my most loved.  I loved it not despite its price, but partly because of it.  There's something special about being on a bicycle - any bicycle.  And this is the one I'd been on more than any other.  I'd never crashed it, and had only ever ridden it the way I wanted to at the time.  Sometimes hard, but mostly not, and I certainly didn't have a catalogue of horrors associated with it that racing bikes and routes can be burdened by - just good times.  It had made my life easier, and better, and had been (almost) perfectly suited to the task for which it was used.

But, its time had come.

Last known sighting:   3 June 2017.