Friday, April 27, 2012

It Takes a Village (To Re-Build a Bike)

To begin at the beginning, at PBP last August I came upon Drew Buck on Monday afternoon somewhere between Quedillac and Loudeac. We rode together for a few minutes, chatting away about the crazy 1900 French bike he was riding that was about 10cm too big for him, when a thought struck me. “Drew,” I said, “you need to come to Iowa with me next summer and ride RAGBRAI.” I think I said something like, “You will absolutely own that ride, and it’s the best way ever to see Small Town America.” Drew asked a few questions and seemed interested. He then asked me to email him with the details when I returned home and he’d consider it. He and his wife Jan were already planning a trip to the US in 2012 to see their daughter.

Dutifully I sent the email after tracking down his address. A couple of weeks passed and I didn’t hear from him and then lo and behold, an email popped into my inbox from Drew. He was in! We wrote back and forth for the next couple of days talking about logistics and timing while I made sure we had space on Team Skunk for a crazy Englishman. After another week, all was on go.

Visualizing what the ride would be like with Drew, something kept gnawing at me that just didn’t seem right. The juxtaposition of Drew on an ancient bike, and me on my modern fixed-gear, the one I’d built up for RAGBRAI last summer, just didn’t fit together. So I decided I needed to borrow or find and old bike to ride with him. I emailed the NC Randon listserve asking if anyone had an “old English 3-Speed” they’d be willing to part with for not too dear a sum. Instantly Mike Dayton wrote back and said he had me covered. Later that week we met for lunch and Mike showed me no less than 5 bikes from his personal museum that fit the bill. When I spied the black beauty with the unique top tube shifter, my search was over. And she certainly fit the bill for old—a 1951 Raleigh Tourist. Lots of the original parts were missing, but I could instantly see her potential. Sometime before, Mike had her powdercoated so the paint was in great shape. And the drive train was original. New bars, levers, chain, etc. and she’d be good as new.

Fiona -- Before

I brought the bike home but I knew I wouldn’t really think she mine until I named her. A Facebook friend, Bill Watts who I had also met at PBP, suggested "Fiona" to my post about needing a “decidedly English woman’s name” for my “new” bike. Several other suggestions followed from other friends, but Fiona stuck.

Gilbert Anderson also wrote with a couple of Raleighs of a newer vintage, but my mind was set on Fiona. Gilbert and North Road Bicycle Imports, though, might be a good source for vintage parts to restore her. So Beth and I drove up to Yanceyville on a Saturday.

Gilbert, of course, immediately launched into the conversation we, make that HE, hadn’t finished when I was there two years ago. After several hours of talking and searching for parts and more talking, and test fitting, and talking, and a growing stack of parts, and more talking, and a smoking calculator, and more talking, finally Gilbert finished his phone call. He took his first look at Fiona and after more talking, etc. parts, etc. another smoking calculator, etc., and finally more talking he pronounced, “Yeah, I think I can fix her up for you. Leave her with me and I’ll send you an estimate.”

Weeks passed without much word from Gilbert. The estimate wasn’t forth coming, but then again he had blown up his calculator when I was there before. A gentle email nudged him in the right direction and his number popped up on my cell phone a few days later (never a good sign when you recognize your bike mechanic’s cell number). “Are you sitting down?” (also not a good sign) he asked. “I’ve got this great Pashley that you could buy new for just a few hundred dollars more.” I laughed but he didn’t – he wasn’t kidding. So we talked about what we could leave off my dream list and got the price down to a level that wouldn’t break my bank or my marriage, at least I thought so, but maybe you should ask Beth, hmmmmm?

More time passed and I assumed he was working on the bike. At some point he asked me for a hard deadline—when did I really have to have the bike, oh, and a deposit might make him work a little faster (which fit right in-line with advice I’d gotten from Chet Buell). Well, honestly, I didn’t have to have her before the beginning of July, but I did want to ride her some to get used to the feel and make the necessary tweaks to make her fit well. We settled on Sunday, April 22nd with Gilbert saying he might have it ready before that—yeah right.

Sunday the 22nd arrived with a blustery cold rain. Not a good day to ride a bike so when Gilbert called and said she wouldn’t be ready, I wasn’t upset or surprised. “But she’ll be ready tomorrow for sure, if I can just find some uninterrupted time to work on her.” Monday came and a call from Gilbert in the afternoon at least proved that he’d been working on her and had spent some time dealing with a frozen seatpost. Still not ready. Tuesday and Wednesday ditto, but “I’m absolutely positive she’ll be ready Thursday after you get off work. But just give me a call before you leave to be on the safe-side.”

Thursday afternoon my phone rang again and, by then I had memorized the sound of Gilbert’s ring. But good news this time—he was putting on the finishing touches and I could come collect her around 6! Beth and I left work and made the hour drive to Yanceyville on a really pleasant evening. We rounded the Courthouse Square and there she sat in front of the shop, positively gleaming in the late afternoon sunlight. She is a real beauty, and although I still don’t know what the final cost will be (maybe I need to buy Gilbert a calculator and mail it to him) she'll be worth every penny. Gilbert, Mike, me, and even Beth are all very pleased with how she turned out. I hope you are too. All kidding aside, Gilbert did a a beautiful job, she rides straight and true, the shifting is perfect, and I think she's beautiful. The whole process has been total fun, but as Gilbert said, "Old bikes aren't for wimps!"

Of course the final test will be how she performs on the not-as-flat-as-you-might-think roads of Iowa. But one thing is for sure, I’m going to have a blast and it’s going to be great fun riding in style with Drew.

After--Looking like she just rolled off the show-room floor.


skiffrun said...

I've always been a bit leery of people that named their cars, and by extension, their bikes. I'll make an exception in your case.

Looks sweet.

MickAlex said...

Beautiful bike Jerry, brings back memories, she will be fun at RAGBRAI!