Friday, September 26, 2008

My Baby

I'm a guy. So toys have been a big part of my life since, well... birth, I suppose. Over the years, I've bought myself many. And most of them I have quickly lost interest in.

One of the first toys I bought myself as an adult was the Shogun Katana I mentioned in my last post. When I bought it, I'd just started riding my old 10-speed Raleigh Rapide again, which my parents had given me in maybe 8th Grade. It was approaching 10 years old, and I hadn't exactly been gentle with it when it was my primary mode of transportation. I mentioned this to a Lotus co-worker, Rob Slapikoff, who worked part time in a bike shop. He spouted a bunch of stuff I didn't quite follow, except that the shop he worked at (the Bicycle Corner in Arlington, which was owned by a super guy, Mark O'Brien) was closing and liquidating a bunch of bikes. I took the Shogun for a quick ride a few days later.

Compared to the Raleigh, the 12-speed Shogun was a revelation. It weighed nothing, had brakes with amazing power and modulation, steering that leapt off center, wheels that were straight, and a level of efficiency I'd never known. Plus it was pretty -- royal blue and white with simple painted-on logos, not garish decals. I was hooked, and walked away with it for like $400 or so. Looking back, it still seems like an amazing deal.

The Shogun is a higher-end bike from a lower-end manufacturer. It was built in Japan, and it's got a lugged chromoly frame made of decent Tange Infinity double-butted tubing. It came with decent SR seatpost and stem, and an equally decent Shimano Exage Sport groupset (one rung down from 105, at the time). The wheels were an upgrade -- 105 6-speed hubs with anodized Araya rims. Not a perfect or expensive bike, but a damn sight nicer than anything I'd ridden before, and I rode it proudly for 3 seasons without really making changes to it. It carried me through three long charity rides, served as a platform for my first set of Look pedals, and later served as a learning tool as I dug into basic bicycle mechanics.

I mentioned the charity rides. One problem with those, if you've never been on one, is that there are usually a lot of very nice bikes there! And as much as I liked my Shogun, my eye had a tendency to wander in the presence of so many nice rides. Cannondales and Treks and Bianchis and brands I'd never heard of. And I pretty quickly got to thinking that Exage Sport components, though functional, didn't have as much cred as 105 or Ultegra stuff. A full-blown case of hardware envy ensued.

One summer afternoon in '92 or '93, I loaded the Shogun onto the VW's rack and drove from my place in Waltham to a car stereo place in Framingham to get some speakers and an amp put in. More hardware envy there -- some of my friends had since bought nicer cars, and since I couldn't do that, I kept pace through nice audio. I figured I'd take a ride while the car was being worked on, and ended up over at Landry's in downtown Framingham (this was not long before they closed that storefront).

Hardware envy on my mind, I asked a few questions about upgrading the components on the Shogun, whether the frameset was worth upgrading, etc. And after chatting for a few minutes, something caught my eye. It was red, as these things often are, and it was a bike. But it didn't look quite like any other bike I'd ever seen. It was absolutely stunning, was a brand I'd never heard of, and the price tag said something like $1499 on it, which was a lot of money for a bike at the time. That one was way too small for me, but the sales person helpfully mentioned that the Westborough store had one in my size, assembled and sitting on the showroom floor. So off I went.

Maybe an hour later, I swung a leg over a Kestrel 200SCi for the first time, clipped my right shoe into the Look-type pedal, and gave a the crank a half rotation while settling myself onto the saddle. And right away -- with that first stroke, I mean -- I knew.

The Kestrel felt as different from the Shogun as the Shogun had felt from the Raleigh. The shifting and braking provided by the full 105SC groupset were smoother, but those amounted to baby steps compared to the impact of the thing that had caught my eye in the first place -- the carbon fiber monocoque frame.

With that first test ride, and literally every single ride since, I've marveled at the Kestrel's combination of rigidity, efficiency and comfort. It feels like every ounce of power I put into the pedals is transmitted directly to the rear wheel without any of it being lost in flexing the frame. But at the same time, the bike absorbs shocks beautifuly -- it rides like it has it has suspension, compared to the Shogun.

Over the years it's been pretty heavily reworked. Where it originally came with an alloy fork, the fork is now a Kestrel EMS unit held in by an Ultegra headset. It's been upgraded from a 7- to an 8-speed drivetrain, including 105SC hubs, and Ultegra derailleurs and shifters. The wheelset was built up with Velocity rims. The crankset has been replaced with a later 105SC unit, mostly for cosmetic reasons, along with a Phil bottom bracket. And I put my Look pedals on it, in place of the 105 Look-type pedals it came with. It's received a new stem so that it still fits me, even though I'm 15 years older and more interested in comfort than I used to be. It's had Profile Airstryke aerobars mounted and eventually removed (they scared the bejeezus out of me, and I never used them), is on its second pump, second set of bottle cages, third saddle, third computer and third wrapping of handlebar tape. I guess, looking at this list, all that's original are the bars, seatpost, cable housings, brake calipers and levers, and of course that magical frame. But most of the parts that came off are still in service, either in my fleet or elsewhere.

That first ride wasn't very long, but again, I knew right away that it was something special. Despite the fact that my credit card was already having a big day with the Volkswagen's stereo upgrade, I plunked it down again for the Kestrel, with only a hint of hesitation. And I've never regretted it. The Kestrel is the only toy I've ever bought myself that's had any staying power. The only one that still makes me smile every time I use it, particularly after such a long run. I walk into bike shops today, and carbon bikes are everywhere. But I've never even swung a leg over one. I just can't see my way to buying something that will compete with my baby for attention.

All for now,


Friday, September 19, 2008


Bicycles are magic.

This topic has been often explored by writers, both in explicit discussion of the subject and by weaving bicycles through a storyline. Three examples pop immediately to mind: Stephen King's novel It, Stephen Spielberg's movie E.T., and a recent Bicycling Magazine article I can't put my hands on right now.

That a collection of carefully arranged tubes married to a pair of spindly wheels can stay upright and in motion while supporting a person defies common sense. Certainly for kids trying to first master the art of staying upright and in motion, and probably for most adults, if asked to explain how it all works. But of course the real magic lies beyond the physics. A bike is the first tool many of us have access to which allows us to reach beyond the limits of our bodies. We can ride faster and range farther with a bike than we can run or walk. Even if those qualities aren't obvious to a kid, their effect imparts a degree of freedom and control that's pretty scarce in most kids' lives. And they can remain a powerful enabler through adulthood (and do, for millions). Even if as an adult you read this and can't really see the magic, I suspect you did back when you were 6 or 7. At any rate, they felt, and still feel, like magic to me.

I wanted to introduce some bikes in this post. I just put in a 90-mile weekend, riding to Tully Lake campground in Royalston, MA. I spent maybe four and a half hours getting out there on Saturday, with an hour or so less than that actually in the saddle. It was slow going, and I'm pretty sure I spent a lot of that time climbing. At a minimum, the terrain shifted from rolling to hilly as I headed west. Sunday was a 48-mile day, starting with a little tour around the area of the Tully Dam. The ride time home was 20 minutes shorter, at 3 hours 10 minutes, which makes the elevation change theory seem that much more likely. I overpacked, bringing a tent, a bunch of fleece blankets to fend off the cold, a stove, some clothes, shower gear and more, all dragged around by leg power.

This (and a similar tour of Martha's Vineyard years ago) is about as close to loaded touring as I've ever gotten. But even in that small set of experiences, bike touring seems to bring out good stuff in people. Even in frosty Massachusetts, people in small towns you ride through will stop and talk to you about your ride, and share a thing or two about their own bike experiences. Especially if you take off your sunglasses and helmet and look like a regular person for a few minutes. That alone is almost magic.

My ride for this trip was my all-rounder: a 1972 Schwinn Sports Tourer (sort of). It came into my possession as a frameset with a seat clamp, bottom bracket and headset last winter, and I spent the spring building it up with a relatively modern mix of components. I'll be spending a fair amount of time in this blog talking about my orange Schwinn, so I won't spend too much time on it now, except to say that I just love this bike.

I love all my bikes, of course. I have two others I call mine, and am caretaker for a much larger herd than that. My baby is a Kestrel 200SCi, purchased new in 1992, I think it was. The steering can be a little darty, but the ride and power transmission qualities are remarkable. My utility bike is an early 1990's Paramount Series 20 mountain bike. It was also bought new, and is currently in a mountain touring state of build, but it's also been a commuter and a naked mountain bike.

I watch over a Shogun Katana that was my first adult bike purchase, and which now sits unused by my brother in law (which is really a shame, if you're reading this, Mike). It has sharp reflexes and is a nice royal blue and white, but the ride is admittedly a bit harsh. I also manage a Trek 950 mountain bike that I bought lightly used years ago. It's a more modern mountain bike than my Paramount, but still unsuspended, and it served as my MTB while the Paramount was handing commuter duties maybe a dozen years ago. It now sits unused in my parents' den, ostensibly there for my dad to occasionally swing a leg over.

What else... My wife has two: A Taiwanese Bianchi that has been rebuilt a couple of times, first with a 105SC triple/8-spd groupset, and then around a 650B wheelset in an effort to make it more approachable for her. That seems to have worked, as she used it more this summer than in recent memory. And there's a great up-side there, in that it's now a very classy- and classic-looking ride. She also has a Gary Fisher MTB that's nice enough, but not very noteworthy beyond the frosty purple paint.

My kids have cool rides, too. I bought and then rebuilt a Trek Mountain Train trailer bike, which you can see paired up with the Schwinn, above. Off came the MTB bars and low end components, and on went a decent set of road components that few would be embarrassed by. Actually, looking at that picture, I am struck by how obsolete it is, only 5-6 months after it was shot. Both bikes have evolved quite a bit since. Finally, my older daughter (7) and I spent some time over the summer rebuilding a Fuji kids' racing bike for her. And I'm sure I can come up with something else to keep me busy this winter. Plenty of magic and plenty of stories in this stable.

All for now,


Tuesday, September 16, 2008


When I was four, my dad was assigned to a project in Milan. He worked for Honeywell's computer business, back when computers were very large, very slow and very mysterious. We stayed in Italy until I was just about seven, and then came home. My seventh birthday was spent in England, during a week-long stopover on the way back to the US. We spent the week visiting one of my father's Honeywell buddies (friends to this day) and his late wife, and doing the tourist thing around London.

I can't honestly say I remember a lot about living in Italy. I have many snapshot sorts of memories, which we can all probably relate to -- the mural in my parents' dining room (this was the early 1970's, keep in mind), the marble floors in the apartment that once split my lip wide open, the balcony overlooking the broad boulevard in front of my parents' building, the pigeons at Il Duomo, my little French girlfriend, Michelle, and so on.

I went back to Milan in the mid-1990's, and while I can't say whether Michelle was actually as cute as I remember her being, I can say with confidence that the broad boulevard across which I'd once thrown paper airplanes from one of our windows was actually just a little city street not wide enough for two cars to pass without one pulling onto the curb. At least not in modern cars -- in 1972 a pair of Fiat Cinquecentos or 126's could possibly have pulled it off.

Many of us have had this sort of experience, and I only mention it to provide some context and a bit of a disclaimer. Time and perspective collude against memory, so I can't really vouch for the experiences I'm going to share in this post. The images are cloudy and the soundtracks are gone. But because of what they are and how they stand out in my mind from so many other things, I choose to believe that they happened largely this way:

  • Sitting on a school bus -- red and white mini-buses in Milan, then. Passing a green Fiat Cinquecento parked on the side of the street. Noting the number plate, and seeing the same car, with the same plate, parked elsewhere on the same trip to school.
  • Sitting in the back of my parents' Opel Record station wagon, driving down the autostrada in the rain. Driver's side, behind my dad. A red Ferrari blasts by in the rain, leaving us in a swirl of spray, with four round, red taillights reaching back to us.
  • In the car again, same seat, I think. Idling in line to board a car ferry. In front of us is a Lamborghini Miura in black. As I said, the soundtrack is gone, but my father recalls it being all noise; snorting and spitting, and I wish the sound was there. I imagine it unhappy to be waiting in line.
  • My father's friend showing up at our apartment in an early Datsun Z car. I honestly don't know if they were called 240Z's in Italy, but that's not really important. It was new, and looked exotic, and who really knew enough about Japanese cars at that point to say otherwise, anyway?
  • A blue Mustang Mach 1 making its way through the traffic in Milan. Comparatively huge and muscular and unmistakably speaking of home to a car-crazy American kid.
  • Riding a bike without training wheels for the first time. Dad running behind, holding the saddle and stooped over. Calling/laughing to him to not let me go as I built up speed, only to find that he already had.
  • Sitting in the back-back of the Opel on the way back to the apartment that day -- sitting back with the bikes. Watching a wasp of some sort land on my foot and crawl down into my shoe. With predictable results.
  • Crashing lightly into a barrier still later that day, trying to show off my new-found cycling skills to the building manager.
  • Riding in Milan's bike park. An oval, complete with a traffic signal, just like the grown-ups had for their cars.
  • Now back in the US, being chided by my father for not putting all my outdoor toys back in the woodshed. Protesting that I had, and emerging from the house to find a new Ross (green with a banana seat) waiting in the front yard.
  • Lashing my Radio Flyer to my father's Gravely model L and riding it around the yard while I cut the grass. A home-made sulky. Or perhaps more clearly, hopping out of the wagon and chasing the tractor down as it headed for the woods, once the brown twine did what someone with a little more experience might naturally expect it to.

There's a lot more formative stuff locked up in my head, of course. But it's interesting how the experiences that lie at the roots of your passions, hobbies and interests stick with you. And form a foundation to build on.

All for now,


Friday, September 12, 2008

Getting things turning

As I imagine it is for many, this blog is a sort of personal experiment. A way for me to share stuff that might be of interest to others out in the world, sure. But also a way for me to explore writing a bit, and perhaps to learn a little bit about social media and web technologies.

Who am I? I'm a software guy. Thirteen of the past fourteen years I've spent in product management, at different levels at large and small software companies. I'm very good at the PM thing, perhaps because I'm a frustrated engineer. I'm also a great coach for folks with as much passion for the job as I have. The past year or so I've been running a product line for my employer of five years, and am now branching out a bit into partner/alliance management for the company. But this blog isn't about that third of my life.

When I'm not working, I have a lot of other stuff going on. Until recently I lived in an antique victorian home in Massachusetts with my family. Today I live in an antique victorian apartment in Massachusetts, mostly by myself, but with my young daughters visiting a couple of nights a week, on average. The house is great, but it sponges up time to an astonishing degree. But this blog isn't about my house or family either. Though they'll probably make guest appearances here and there.

This blog is about the other third of my life. The third I've filled with things that not long ago I described as defining who I am. In hindsight that seems a little shallow and silly, but the point is that these are things I've spent a lot of time exploring, fooling around with and making good use of. The list is sort of long, but the list of categories is short: Bicycles, tractors and maybe cars. I'll stick with gearhead kinds of things here. Probably.

You might notice that all three of these things are machines -- sort of transportational/ recreational machines. Made of metal and with a fair number of moving parts. Good stuff, in other words -- at least to a gearhead. All three of the categories have gears, of course, though with bikes I suppose they're technically sprockets, not gears. That's the "Gears" part of the blog title. The "Bronze" part has a couple of meanings. First there's a literal meaning, in that the tractors I poke around with are Gravelys. Gravely tractors (the more common varieties, anyway) have a big honkin' bronze gear driving the wheels, and some of their accessories have similar, smaller gears.

These bronze gears are very cool when you take them out and look at them. And they have other neat properties -- they have a nice, clear ring to them when struck, magnets will stick to them, and they have interesting machining and wear marks on them. Interesting if you're a gearhead, at least.

Then there's the non-literal meaning, which is a bit of a stretch, I'll admit. As you'll see as I move through this experiment, I tend to lean towards older stuff as toys. I can enjoy and appreciate more modern stuff, too, but I tend to just enjoy those things as is and spend less time tinkering with them. Old stuff -- bronze age. Well, I said it was a stretch...

In any case, I expect I'll devote most of my time up here describing things I've done with my bikes and tractors, and again maybe my cars. I'll try to take pictures, and try to focus on stuff that might be useful to others.

All for now,