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,


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