Meet Oliver.


OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAEverything under the heavens has a name. Even inanimate objects, in the shapes they hold and the uses to which we have put them, are given to certain qualities that distinguish them from one another. The stones of the earth themselves have names, if you can see them clearly enough. And knowing something's name is key to knowing its soul. This was one of the beauties of man-made objects before industrialization took over. The craftsman invested  himself in his products to the degree that it had qualities and characteristics and a history making it as unique as any other individual. Who doesn't immediately recognize Excalibur, the storied sword of Arthur?

Vehicles, such as boats, automobiles, and yes, bicycles, are frequently named, more so than other things because they are closer to animate than inanimate, and their qualities are readily apparent to anyone who makes use of them. A sailor spending time at the helm of a boat will soon recognize how she carries herself through seas rough and slow differently from any other. And a cyclist can easily feel the wheels underneath him, and how they handle themselves carving a corner or sluicing down a hill in their own unique way.

We encapsulate those qualities that we see in our steeds, whether sail, pedal, or combustion powered, in the names we give them. As a result, every bicycle in my stable is named in its first few rides, as I get to know its personality.

It was a bit different for Oliver, the semi-retro baguette-and-wine bike whose build I have recounted in the previous few posts. Once the wheels were on and the saddle installed, and it began to look like a bicycle rather than a pile of shiny parts, I unconsciously began trying out names. From the frame geometry I chose and the parts I picked, I knew (or rather, hoped), that the bike would have certain features. I was seeking rather sedate handling, something that could gracefully move into a curve, but not necessarily bite it, and a measured response to my steering input, rather than the twitchiness of a sportier bike. I wanted a frame that had a little flex to it, a little liveliness without absorbing the energy of my pedal strokes.

Which brings me to an aspect of building this bike that I hadn't really thought of prior to getting there. As I installed the handlebars, and the saddle and the derailleurs, I began to wonder if I had made the right choices. Did I leave enough room in the cockpit? Plan on the correct handlebar height? Will the gear ratios work for my style of riding in these foothills of the Berkshires? When you purchase a bicycle from a shop, all of these decisions have been made for you, by people whose profession it is to make a well-riding bike. While I have a lot of miles under me, I'm no pro. And amateurs make mistakes. And maybe I had made a few.

Rider's view of the cockpit.

In the process of creating anything, whether it be a table, knife or bicycle, there comes a time when you commit yourself irrevocably to the design decisions you have made. It may be when you anneal the steel in forge and oil, or put saw blade to that irreplaceable piece of your father's cherry lumber. In the case of this bicycle, it was when I cut the steerer tube on the fork. The length of the steerer tube determines the height of the handlebars, and ultimately your comfort and the bike's handling, and cannot be changed without replacing the fork or implementing various undesirable kludges.

Thus I committed myself to the wisdom of the choices I had made, and hoped that my vision had not exceeded my skills. It has happened before.

I completed the final construction of the bike in that pleasant state of anticipation mixed with some anxiety that I had somehow, in some casual moment, ignored a crucial aspect of building and design that would send me, like Icarus, crashing into the deadly waters below. I combatted that fear by putting not one, but three coats of shellac on the grips.

Then it was all done and the bike sat on the stand for a few more days of anticipation while I waited for the seatpost collar to arrive by mail, something the post office seemed to have a bit of trouble doing. Postie brought it yesterday, so last night I fitted the collar on, and went off in the sub-freezing night on a shakedown cruise.

Ready for travel

And the assemblage of steel, sheet metal, nuts and bolts became a bike named Oliver. It is a fitting name; Oliver stems from Old German, and means "Elf Army." This is highly appropriate because my name -- Avery -- means "King of the Elves." Oliver is a comfortable, strong English name, fitting for a bike painted British Racing Green and kitted out with Brooks leather. Oliver was a retainer of King Charlemagne in the Song of Roland. Oliver's loyalty and bravery cannot be denied.

Thus it is with the bike Oliver. The handling is sure, he is responsive to the pedals, and over rough terrain (yes, that was me riding across the lawn of the First Congregational church at 10 p.m. last night), is smooth and controlled.  It is indeed the bike that I had envisioned.

And, as my daughter's boyfriend said, "It looks like it belongs in GQ!"

I'm looking forward to many enjoyable miles on this bicycle.


The wheel on the bike turns 'round and 'round...


Spokes-in-a-wheelThe wheel is an omnipresent, and oft ignored, symbol of both mankind's technological prowess and our spiritual paths. It was the wheel that unburdened our backs and first brought forth roads from footpaths. It was a broken wheel to which the Buddha compared the experience of life in his First Noble Truth. It is on the Wheel of Life that Pagans experience the unbroken cycle of seasons and of life. Wheel symbolism is present in virtually every religion. A hub waiting to become a wheel

So it should come as no surprise, then, that for both practical and inessential reasons, the ability to build a bicycle wheel is considered the pinnacle of the bicycle mechanic's skills. Indeed, at its heart, a bicycle is very little but wheels, and if you get that wrong, nothing else will go right, functionally or aesthetically. So it was with a bit of some pride that I built my first pair of wheels almost a decade ago, and tested their mettle successfully against the worst that the Scottish highlands could dish out. And building the wheels for my Soma Saga was something that I eagerly looked forward to.

The shimmering, silvery rims arrived not long after the Velo Orange hubs I had ordered. By using manufacturer's measurements and online spoke length calculators, I was able to determine the exact spoke lengths I needed, and within a few hours, 80 Sapim double-butted spokes were on their way to me.


I tackled the rear wheel first. Because of the cogs on the rear wheel, the wheel itself has to be built with the hub cocked off to one side, so that the chain lines up correctly and the propulsive force is transferred without lateral stress. I couldn't have asked for a better build, to be honest, and within a couple of hours, I had the spokes laced and the wheel trued to within a few thousandths of an inch.

A few days later, I began building the front, which should have been the easier task, as both sides are equal. But as I tried to connect the last few spokes to their respective nipples, I discovered that I had made a tactical error. You see, the calculated front spoke length I needed was 260.3 mm. The spokes were available only in even lengths, so I had my choice of 260 mm or 262 mm. I picked the nearer, albeit smaller, length. And wouldn't you know that the tiny 0.3 mm difference, as it added up among the 36 spokes, turned into such a great difference that the spokes proved insufficient.

I was set back on my heels a bit by this discovery, and proceeded to put the now-useless 260 mm spokes in the spare parts bin, in the forlorn hope that I might someday build a wheel requiring them. A week later, my new order of 262 mm spokes arrived, and I rebuilt the wheel.

This time, after getting the wheel entirely laced, I could not get the spokes to tighten evenly. Some got very tight, while others remained loose. I took the wheel apart, again, and rebuilt it. Same problem. I began to think that I had mixed up my spoke lengths.

Finally, after a restless Friday night, while an unstable, wobbly wheel churned its way through my dreams, I got up determined to uncover and fix the problem. At 7 in the morning, in my bathrobe, cup of coffee in hand, I stood in the basement shop and worked my way through the puzzle. And, like so many difficulties, the problem began at the beginning. I had begun lacing it wrong in the first set of spokes, and it was such a devilishly subtle error that I could not see it in the maze of a fully laced wheel.

The front wheel on the stand.

I rebuilt the wheel for a third time, and felt the spokes tension sweetly under my hands. Because, at a certain point, building a wheel transcends a simple matter of tightening things, and becomes an issue of gestalt. How the spoke tension feels as I squeeze them, the "pling" that the spoke makes when it is plucked. There are machines that make wheels, and the vast majority of wheels on bicycles today were laced and tightened entirely by machine, but there is a discernible, qualitative difference between a handmade wheel and one trued by blind automation. As I notched a quarter-turn here, and a 1/8th turn there, I watched the wobble slow and disappear, the rim movement sharpen up, and the wheel, made out of parts that by themselves could be crushed by the pressure of a single hand, become a unified whole capable of maintaining its integrity against hundreds of pounds of force.

Coffee cup empty, unshod feet turning cold against cement floor, I took the finished wheel off the truing stand and placed it on the new bike. And for the first time, I could see in my mind's eye, this bicycle rolling down the road, absorbing the bumps of Buddhist dharma, taking me from Beltane to Samhain and rolling me from the darkness of Yom Kippur to the lights of Hanukkah.

You see, bicycles are magic. As anyone who loves them can tell you, they not only take you from home to work or along fun loops of road. The bicycle is the ultimate freedom and the ultimate independence. I need no gas, no oil. I can pack everything I need on it, stow a few hand tools in my pocket, and I can go across the country or the world. The bicycle is the modern manifestation of the magic carpet of yore, taking you on adventures that you could have never imagined, while your spirit grows and soars.  And to take these journeys on a steed that you have conjured of your own magic? There can be no more fulfilling experience.

And it all begins with a perfectly round wheel, spinning in silence, along roads unimagined.




From pain and cane to freedom.


????????????????????????????????????????I am thrilled. Early last winter, a patient walked into my office -- barely. She had suffered from intractable back and leg pain for a year, and was, literally, days away from surgery. Her spinal stenosis was killing her. She shuffled with her back permanently bent 35 degrees from vertical. Straightening up was impossible as it would send jolts of pain down her legs. With her head forced downward, she couldn't see very far in front of her. All she could see was the ground and pain.

We had some great initial success. After her first visit, she cancelled her surgery. After a couple of months, she got rid of the walker. A little bit longer, and she didn't need a cane. Then she started standing upright, taking walks, and talking about getting off all of the pain medications she had been on.

Throughout her recovery and rehabilitation, she would comment on my trike, which I frequently ride to work in lieu of driving or walking. As it turned out, she had once been an avid cyclist, but her back problems had taken that away from her years ago. As she improved, I suggested the trike as a great way of regaining strength in her muscles without risking falling. She loved the idea, but never quite felt ready for it.

"Maybe one of these days," she would say. I could see in her eyes that she wasn't sure that day would ever come.

With a home rehabilitation plan in place and less need for my oversight and treatment, I discharged her from active care early this summer. Today, she came back to see me for a long-term follow-up.

She was doing well, she said. No pain medications for months, she wasn't in pain, and she couldn't believe the amount of energy that had returned since the heavy-duty painkillers had been eliminated from her system. I could see her eyes were bright, she had a liveliness to her step that hadn't been there before, and the color had returned to her face.

As I concluded the visit, she said there was one other thing I needed to know.

"I bought a trike," she said, grinning ear to ear. "It's pink."

I left the exam room with a huge smile of my own. It's patients like her who make this profession rewarding beyond words.

RANS Xstream review: Pretty fast for a slow guy.


Built for speed and long distances, the Xstream fulfills its promise. The RANS Xstream is a bike with a pedigree. Designed by one of recumbent cycling's pioneers, Randy Schlitter, the Xstream was a bicycle born, I suspect, with a single purpose: To, for once and for all, bury the myth that long wheelbase (LWB) recumbents are heavy, slow, and poor climbers.

I can state with a fair degree of certainty that Mr. Schlitter achieved his objectives.

Before I get into the meat of this review, however, permit me to note a few things. Though I knew of the Xstream through reputation, and had actually taken one out for a spin at Basically Bicycles prior to purchasing mine, there were few cogent reviews of this recumbent bicycle to be found on the internet. There is one review at, and a couple of "happy new buyer" notes on the cycling fora, but thorough reviews were notably absent.

I feel somewhat justified in taking on the task, as I have been riding recumbents almost exclusively since the mid-1980s, and in fact, my first recumbent bicycle was the first one designed and produced by RANS -- the RANS Stratus Model A. Though I'm no racer, I commute and tour on bikes, and have been known to complete a couple of 200k randos. I pretty much live on my bikes and I do my own wrenching. So, yes, I feel very comfortable around bikes in general, and recumbent bikes in particular.

My interest was drawn to the Xstream during the 2009 Ride Across America (RAAM). RAAM is a grueling, non-stop race beginning in southern California and grinding on, shedding the weak like Darwin on steroids, until the riders that are left reach Annapolis, MD. With many other recumbent bike riders, I watched with pleasure as the 4-man recumbent team, all riding the Xstream, crushed the competition and won their division by more than four hours, taking their steeds across the continent at an average speed exceeding 20 mph. Mr. Schlitter himself said that "The Xstream was designed for this race."

Unsurprisingly, the RAAM win pumped sales of this bike. Oddly, though, after the initial buzz, talk about the Xstream died down considerably.  Though I was favorably impressed by my brief test ride at the time, the performance of this bike was matched by the price tag, and I never could justify the expense. And so the thing sat, at least until this spring, when, with a nudge from a friend, I stumbled on a great deal from a rider who couldn't make the Xstream work for him after his back surgery. He had only ridden the bike around the block a few times, so for all intents and purposes, it was a brand-new bike at a garage sale price. I jumped at the chance.

My Xstream sports a cool gray aluminum frame. Handlebar and stem were stock RANS. Up front is a  RANS Apex 165mm compact double (50/34) and Ultegra derailleur. A SRAM 970 chain drives a SRAM 971 cassette (11-34) through an X-9 rear derailleur. That gives a gearing range of approx. 26-118 gear inches. On the bars are SRAM X-9 twist shifters and Avid 7 Speed Dial brake levers. Wheels are Avid XM317 (559) turning on Deore hubs. Continental Sport Contact tires complete the package. Brakes are Avid 7 Single Digit linear-pull  and the cables and housings are by Alligator.

The front brake is worthy of comment as brake interference with the crankset is a chronic problem with the Xstream. The front calipers are specced with KwickStop low profile pads. These allow the calipers to run in a slightly more closed position. Using a Travel Agent instead of a noodle narrowed the profile more.

I was initially concerned with the gearing. For starters, I have never had a recumbent with less than triple chainrings, and I was worried that the slightly higher low end of the compact double would be insufficient for this slow old guy who lives in the foothills of the Berkshire mountain range. I was also concerned about the slightly higher bottom bracket than what I am used to. I'm at the short end of normal height, and the leg drop required by a high racer recumbent is thoroughly out of my league. With fingers crossed, I hoped I would adapt.

After 300 miles on the Xstream, including the omnipresent hills as well as rolling terrain and flats, and with a couple of metric centuries under my belt, I think I have a handle on this bike. It's worthy to note that during this 300 miles, I set two personal bests, not an easy feat for a man who has been riding for 38 years.


Getting the Xstream dialed in is not a task for the impatient. Seat angle affects longitudinal seat position, which in turn affects handlebar height and stem distance, as well as handlebar get the idea. That, coupled with the fact that knee interference with cornering is a very real consequence of poor setup on the Xstream had me riding with bloodied left knee and allen wrench gripped tightly in the right hand for the first 50 miles or so. Interestingly, it was at about mile 100 that I finally hit the sweet spot. I popped over a friendly New England pothole, which torqued the handlebars down ever so slightly, and voilà, it all clicked into place. I tightened up the nuts a squidge and let it be.

Though the frame accommodates a wide range of heights and X-seams, I'm a touch shorter than average height. I found that to keep the handlebars correctly place for my north-of-normal seat position, I had to cut away a good 3 inches of stem.

The Xstream also suffers from the RANS shifting seat clamp problem, so that the seat imperceptibly slides backwards under heavy pedal pressure until, after 30 miles or so, you realize that you are stretching a bit too much to reach the pedals. This is a well-known problem with the RANS clamp, and there are various ways to fix it -- the easiest being a piece of innertube situated between clamp and frame.

Surprisingly, I found that I was very comfortable with a fairly extreme reclined position on the Hoagie seat. On my other recumbents, with more standard mesh seats, a highly reclined position makes my neck very sore after 10 or so miles. It was nice to find that the intersection of aero and comfort exists.


That long wheelbase builds in a lot of suspension, so even with the fairly tight Conti tires, the Xstream runs sweetly on the chipseal and over the potholes of my riding range. Not once did I feel my teeth chattering as it has on other bikes. The LWB design also makes for very stable high-speed handling, and for the first time on a 'bent, I really felt like I was carving the curves at 60 kph.

At the other end of the scale, like any other LWB, the Xstream is not a fan of low speeds. Keeping a line at 9 kph is dicey, though it can be done, and I didn't really feel that I would be easily toppled until I dropped below 7 kph. I had read about people's complaints of the Xstream's low speed handling, but frankly, this is pretty typical for a LWB. If you want to go that slow up the hills, get a trike.

At any speed, though, the Xstream requires your attention. This is a thoroughbred you're riding here, not your typical stable nag, and it's not going to let you get away with sloppy handling. And there's no chance of a low-speed sharp turn. This bike is designed for the open road, not city traffic.

The best way to handle the Xstream, I found, is with a combination of attention and relaxation. Actually, 38 Special put it better than I.


What the Xstream gives in spades, however, is speed. This bike simply leaps at the hills, begging me with its efficient power transfer to bound up them. Once I learned to respond to the Xstream's clarion call, my concern for the lack of an extra-strength granny gear disappeared. Because, quite frankly, it won't let me go slow up the hills, and I don't need the lower gear inches.

This is really the first bike that I found I could appreciably accelerate up hills. It has been a unique experience for me, passing other riders like they were standing still in the middle of a climb. More often than not, in my experience, it has been the other way around, but the Xstream puts the power to the wheel very expeditiously, even when I am deeply reclined, a position traditionally weak for climbing.

The Xstream also wants its own head on the downhills. Because of the extremely aero position I can achieve, my downhill runs have increased by several kph, without me even trying. Since the bicycle feels like its running on rails, I can also corner with greater assurance, and I can lean into a curve at 57+ kph. On rolling hills this is a killer combination, allowing me to outdistance far stronger engines, because I don't even feel the hill until I'm halfway up it, and can relatively easily maintain speed over the crests. On the flats, I've found that I can maintain an average speed of 30 kph comfortably. Let's face it, that's pretty fast for a slow guy.

The brakes work as you would expect from a pair of reasonable Avid V-brakes. They have more than sufficient stopping power, and I've experienced no fade on longer descents.

The Whole Package


What all of this translates into is the perfect long-distance bike. Both centuries I've ridden on the Xstream have been fast pleasures, in one case setting a long-distance personal best. I can hop on the bike with the intent of rolling for miles and not be dissatisfied.

At the same time, I think I understand better the more recent silence on the part of Xstream owners. The Xstream is a demanding ride. It's not a commuter, it's not an around-town bike, it's not a mosey-down-the-bike-path bike. It is a get on, go fast and go far bike, which isn't everybody's cup of tea.  You aren't going to get away with napping in the saddle on an Xstream, and that makes for a lively and fun ride.

Perhaps the best way I can describe it is that riding the Xstream is like riding a stallion. You have to pay attention and realize that while your steed will demand much of you, it will deliver so much more performance than any other kind of ride.

For me, the Xstream filled a perfect niche in my stable. I have the all-rounder, the tourer, the utility bike and the French country bike that carries wine and baguette to the picnic. What I needed was a bike built for eating miles on the open road, a bike that challenges me to greater performance with performance of its own. The Xstream is all that and more.

Note: There have been some design changes on the Xstream since my model came out. Nothing radical, but you can see the latest specs at the RANS website.

It's in the Bag.

Cycling -- at least the way I do it -- is all about the bags. Rarely do I take off on a jaunt when I don't feel the need to carry a few extra things. Think of your car. Who would use a car lacking a glove box or a trunk? Nobody, of course. Even if you don't treat your vehicle as a beast of burden, that storage space is a necessity for just your normal motoring activities.

When you use your bicycle as your primary form of transportation, the same rules apply. You still need a glove box. You still need a trunk.

So when I completed the transformation of a 1974 Fuji Sport 10 into a retro/commuting/tweed & vest bicycle, I still needed a couple of finishing touches. I needed some place to keep the detritus of daily life; my wallet, my keys, my phone, a jacket, a multitool; a tablet or netbook, and the odd bottle of wine or baguette that is the primary task for which such a bike is created.

My current pannier/briefcase, an Axiom Legacy, was certainly up to the task functionally -- after all, it weathered the winter of 2010 on the side of the trike with nary a complaint. But the briefcase's 21st-century materials and styling was all out of place on a bike with pretensions to the Golden Age of cycling.

Recalling the testimonials of my UK friends, I next looked at Carradice -- a company that brings cotton canvas and a stiff upper lip to the damp, streaky, misty fog that the British sportingly call "weather." And while Carradice certainly had both the style and the quality I sought, I recalled warnings about it's eccentrically English supply chain, which seems to consist of "we'll get it to you when we send it, and thank you ever so much for your order."

In fact, not a single US dealer could be found which actually had any of the bags in question in stock.

I finished my search where I should have started it, specifically on Etsy, and even more specifically at Anhaica Bag Works. Anhaica, which takes its name from the capital of the Appalachee tribe (today known as Tallahasee, Florida), is the home of a cycling needlewoman who combines her experience on bicycles with considerable skills as a seamstress and designer, using waxed canvas to create waterproof bags of considerable durability.

My first purchase from Marina, Anhaica Bags' proprietress, was a custom handlebar bag with pockets for all of the essentials of a Modern Man. Over a few email messages, Marina and I discussed what I would be using it for, what I would be putting in it, and  the size and type of pockets I would need. Marina had the bag finished and mailed to me in less time than it takes Carradice to return an email, and within four days of use it easily replaced my briefcase. By the second week, it had become indispensable, even on the rare occasions that I hop into a car. By the third week, it had become, God help me, a man purse. I don't leave home without it.

I was so impressed with the workmanship of the handlebar bag that I ordered a rack bag to replace my aged Nashbar rack bag, which was developing holes and looking a little too rickety for the 200 miles I was planning to pedal over my upcoming holiday. Again, I looked to Carradice for inspiration (well, mostly dimensions), and asked Marina to make me something like that. Once again, in record time, I had a canvas rack trunk which matched the handlebar bag and which used re-purposed lightweight coroplast to give it shape. It consisted of a single compartment with a rear pocket on the outside. Like the handlebar bag, it was strapped and closed with durable webbing and strong plastic buckles.

My multi-century vacation is now a note in my journal and pictures on my PC, and I've logged a hundred more miles in about-town riding, and all I can say is that the bags produced by Anhaica Bags simply rock. I had no idea that a rack bag, made so simply, could be so unbelievably useful. The two quick-release buckles make accessing the bag a snap, especially compared to the drill I had to go through with my old rack bag: (1) Fold back the weatherproof flap (2) unzip the bag expander by mistake (3) re-zip the expander (4) find the zipper pulls for the real opening (5) open the bag (6) reach in blindly as the flap falls back get the idea.

With my Anhaica Bags rack bag, all I do is unclip the buckles, flip open the top, and I have full and unfettered access to the entire contents, organized just the way I want it. There is one large pocket in back for tools and a spare tube, and that's it. Opening and closing it was so simple that, while I was touring, I regularly had to stop and double check that I'd actually closed the lid -- it was that simple.

Oh, yeah. What about the weatherproofness of these bags? If you are used to high-tech fabrics like Gore-Tex, the quaint simplicity of waxed canvas might strike you as somewhat backward and unreliable. Let me be the first to tell you that it is not. As luck would have it, the first day I used each bag, I got caught in severe downpours. When I got back home, I found my contents inside utterly dry. I mean bone dry. Marina makes her own waxed canvas, and strategic flaps and design creates a bag that is as waterproof as I could wish for, while avoiding the mold-inducing hermetic sealing of, say, Ortlieb bags.

I know I'm beginning to sound like a shill for Anhaica, but if I do, it is only because I am so enormously impressed by the level of skill that went into the construction of these cycling bags. As I mentioned before, Marina is a cyclist herself, and her knowledge of how to design and make a bag comes from day-in-day-out experience; the kind of experience that you will rarely see reflected in a mass-market product. And if you are worried about the responsiveness of a single-proprietor business, you needn't. At one point, I mangled one of the pockets on the handlebar bag, and I emailed Marina about getting it repaired. She returned my email the same day, while she was on vacation, and had the repaired bag in the mail to me the day after she got it. Service? Yeah, she's got it.

Anhaica offers other bags besides the rack and handlebar bags I bought. She has tool rolls (and will whip up a custom one for you), backpacks, and hip packs, from a variety of materials. Frankly, I'm thinking about trying to talk her into making a set of panniers for me.

Marina's products are not something you come across often these days, being the product of the experience and skill of a single person who obviously takes great pride in her work. The durability is built in the cloth and the stitching, and the attention to detail makes these bags suitably handsome for any bike, not just my moustachioed retro bike. If you are considering adding bags to your bike, I strongly recommend that you check out Anhaica Bags on Etsy.

Dr. Avery Jenkins is a chiropractic physician specializing in the treatment of people with chronic disorders. He can be reached at or by calling 860-567-5727.