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.