Back to the future
My journey riding upright bikes, then tandems & uprights again
"Each of us is an experiment of one." - Dr. George Sheehan
I have gone back to the future. My trip in time does not exactly follow the plot of the 1985 Michael J. Fox blockbuster film or the two sequels that followed, because my time machine is a bicycle, not a plutonium-powered DeLorean. Regardless, I am back in time and that is my future.
It's complicated, so let me explain. There is an old saw that we start life in diapers and end life in diapers. Put another way, we begin on our back and become erect. Then, as life nears its inevitable end, we slowly slip back to the horizontal. Horizontal is obviously the classic desirable demeanor for casket insertion and grave.
So it often is with bicycling. After we learn how to walk and run, we begin bicycling erect on a tricycle or bicycle with training wheels. After trike or training wheels are discarded, we cycle erect through most of our life. As time progresses and we age, problems inevitably crop up. We can experience discomfort and pain in the shoulders, back and arms. Some of that pain is due to conditions like arthritis. And many of us shift to horizontal cycling - recumbents - to deal with it.
Like many others, after discomfort developed in my shoulders and arms while bicycling a dozen or so years ago, I took that trip from riding an upright single bike and tandem to pedaling a recumbent single and tandem. Yes, those horizontal bikes were instantly more comfortable. Yes, aches went away. They were lawn chairs on wheels that you could pedal to a scenic vista, put two feet down, and just sit there and enjoy the view.
But I guess I was not really ready to languish horizontally in a lawn chair in anticipation of a visit from the Grim Reaper. So I did something that ended my sojourn into the world of the horizontals and, as a result, have now returned to the future in the universe of the erect. And I learned a few things along the way.
Back to the past
For years I lived in the upright bicycle world. Day rides, commuting to and from work, tours, triathlons. I was competitive in my age group and have lots of swag to show for it. Then the aches and pains in my back and arm propelled me into the incumbent world. I mothballed my principle uprights, a vintage Bianchi racing bike and a Santana tandem and found comfort in a Goldrush single and RANS tandem, both recumbents.
As I said, the discomforts went away. And the recumbents did open new vistas. Because of the lower profile and better wind resistance, they sped down hills. I captained the RANS to more than 50 mph on a downhill, and it was as stable as driving a semi. I completed a pleasurable 600-mile-plus, self-contained trip on the Goldrush from Wisconsin through upper Michigan and back.
But something went missing in my horizontal experience. I found I could beat the pants off most upright riders when streaking downhill, but they would inevitably catch me as I struggled up the next rise. Tinkering with gears didn't do much to alleviate that problem. On hills - and there are a lot of them in the unglaciated area of Southwest Wisconsin where I live - recumbents are slow and difficult.
And there was a constant issue of balance. On an upright bike I could do a track stand to wait for a signal to change or traffic to pass and never put my foot on the ground. I found you can't do that on a recumbent because you are too close to the ground and immobilized. Try a track stand on a recumbent and you'll end on the pavement on your side. In fact, recumbent riding sort of reminded me of a character on the old T.V. show "Laugh In." A character furiously pedaled his trike and repeatedly tumbled over to the amusement of the audience.
Upright & steel
What to do? Experiment, as the sage Dr. Sheehan suggested. So I decided to take another look at upright riding and see if I could identify the problem. Following a fitting at Williamson Bicycle Works in Madison, Wisconsin, I had a custom upright tandem built by Co-Motion. It cost me more than some cars I have owned, but the result was a bicycle that is light (with a 22-pound frame) and very fast. And in riding it, the aches of the past remain history.
Next came the single. I pulled my revered 1980 Bianchi racer out of storage, scrapped the 24-speed Campy triple ultra-high gearing I had used in triathlon competitions in favor of a much simpler Shimano double. Incredibly, that gave me a higher high and a lower low than before, with less to shift in between. I made some changes in the stem and seat for a better fit. The bike now sports new paint and decals, too.
As with the tandem, the end result was great cycling with the absence of any aches or pains. I returned to the days of doing track stands and using my upper body to pull up on the bars to help power down the pedals to attack hills. I realized that the feeling of a steel frame flexing and working with my body in motion was part of what I had missed during my foray into the world of recumbents.
"Bill, you're riding steel!" a friend exclaimed on a ride. That seemed odd to him in an era now dominated by aluminum and carbon, but I found that while those materials do have their applications (that's another story altogether), for me it is steel that is real.
In my experiment of one, during which I went back to the future by returning to vertical riding, I learned a couple of important lessons. Proving, I guess, you can teach old dogs new tricks.
First lesson was that proper bike fit is critical, particularly as you age and become less tolerant of imbalances and stresses during exercise. We humans come in lots of shapes and sizes. Not everything is equal and things can change over time. Never just buy anything off the floor. Insist that it is fitted to you. Buying a bike is a lot like purchasing a running shoe. It's got to fit well or the blisters that result will plague you.
Second was a personal realization that I had perhaps bought into a sort of conventional wisdom that going from vertical to horizontal in bicycling was just a natural evolution made necessary by aging and the way we think life goes. As I slipped back into my future, I learned that is not really wisdom after all.
Bill Hauda is a bicyclist, veteran of some 50 marathons, including 13 in Boston; a former competitive triathlete; founder and first president of the Bicycle Federation of Wisconsin; currently a BFW board member; and former director of Wisconsin's two major cross-state bicycle tours, GRABAAWR and SAGBRAW.
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