Friday, November 7, 2008


When I was a kid, I rode my bikes pretty much everywhere. And I don't just mean that I spent a lot of time on bikes. That's true, yes, but what I really mean is that I rode whatever bike I had at that time just about anywhere they'd roll, and most of them could roll just about anywhere.

The first bike I had that was really specialized in a specific direction was the Shogun. It was nearly unrideable on anything but paved roads. I think it originally came with 25mm wide tires -- hard to say, really. But as they wore or were damaged, they were replaced by tires even narrower. At one point I was running 700x20 Continental Grand Prix tires that non-cyclists would even take note of as being impressively narrow. But they were also fragile, harsh and made the off-road limitations of the Shogun even more pronounced. Good sense eventually got the better of me, and the last tires I installed were 28mm wide.

The tires weren't the only problem, of course. The geometry of that Shogun's frame (and that of the Kestrel that followed, for that matter) was laid out for responsive handling, not for stability. I won't claim expertse about bike geometry, but the angles of the head and seat tubes, along with the shapes of the fork blades (where they locate the wheel, relative to the head tube, essentially), has a lot to do with how a bike feels from the saddle and behaves underneath you. Look at a bike from the side, squatting down low. Notice how the seat tube angles back towards the rear? And likewise the head tube? In general, bikes with steeper angles tend to be twitchier, and bikes with shallower angles tend to be more stable. Or something. In any case the Shogun is a nimble bike, not a stable bike, and it's not particularly happy on gravel or grass, or anything sandy. The Kestrel is worse -- it just wants to crash on any of the above. A slight exaggeration, but even so, after riding these two for a few years, I pretty much forgot that it was even possible to ride road bikes across any of those types of terrain.

So where was I going with all that... right -- mountain bikes! Being a roadie, for a while I looked at mountain bikes with scorn. They were heavy, slow and clumsy, from what I could tell, and with such big tires! I'd see (and hear) them riding on the road, and I just knew the rider was working hard. And when I saw them at the MS rides I'd participate in, I just couldn't believe anyone would do that to themselves, riding one of those any distance on the road. I still can't, actually, but a lot of my other opinions have since been reshaped by experience.

Sometime in '94 or '95, I bought my Paramount. It was new, but was at least one season old; perhaps a few. I picked it up for between $400 and $450, if I recall, in a bike shop down in the Branford, CT area where a nearly lifelong friend lived at the time. They had a range of Paramount mountain bikes, and the cheapest of them was the one I picked -- a series 20. The PDG bikes were designed and spec'ed by the Paramount group, as I understand it, but built in Japan. The higher-end bikes were really nice, but even my lower-end model compares well with contemporaries. The frame and fork is made of Tange Prestige (heat treated butted chromoly) tubing, which gives a nice ring when you tap on it. The dropouts are forged, both on the fork and the rear triangle. The construction is tig-welded, which isn't as nice as lugged construction, but less labor intensive. It's a rigid bike dating before even suspension forks were common or affordable, and its geometry wouldn't readily accomodate a longer fork (suspension forks are longer). And finally, the details on the frame are pretty nice -- it has cable stops and cable-guiding noodles, a pulley to re-route the front derailleur cable from a top pull to a bottom pull, a chain peg, two bottle cages, and even rack eyelets on the dropouts and seat stays. It's a pretty fancy frame for a low-end model. The paint job is a pearlescent white, kind of like an old Lexus.

I honestly don't remember why I bought it, other than that whole toy acquisition thing. I really don't remember test riding it -- certainly not the same way I remember the first ride on the Shogun, or the first few strokes of the crank on the Kestrel. I think I may have taken it out into the parking lot and ridden it around there. Maybe dropped the front tire slowly over the curb and off the sidewalk, down into the parking lot. I probably swerved it around and got a sense for just how much I could move around on it, getting it around this thing or that. And I probably cruised over bark mulch and grass and other stuff around the perimiter of the lot, all without crashing. I don't remember first experiencing any of these things, but of course I know all of them well, today. Where my road bikes lock me into a handful of poses, facilitating a fast, smooth, efficient spin, my Paramount encourages me to get up out of the saddle and throw the bike around underneath me. It's a very different style of riding, and it's satisfying in very different ways.

For several seasons, the Paramount served me very well in its intended role. I rode it around the woods in Lincoln and Belmont, MA on a regular basis, and occasionally in some of the green spaces in Boston. But the place I worked it hardest was up in New Hampshire, where it would occasionally carry me through multi-hour Odysseys in the mountains. The friend I mentioned (Dan Collins -- now married and up in Calgary with a young family) had ended up with the same model Paramount, in black, perhaps a year after I bought mine, and we both still own them. Up outside of Laconia, Dan and I would ride through mud, alongside beaver ponds, over dirt singletrack, across mountain-top grass fields, and ocasionally over bare rock. Ascents were always a bear, and descents always a rush. We got lost, ran out of food and water, but had a great time in the process. And we managed not to get shot or even shot at by the deer hunters sharing those woods (no it wasn't smart, I agree).

The components our bikes came with were Suntour XC Ltd. These were perfectly serviceable, and are actually very nice bits, with lots of aluminum and a nice level of finish. The drivetrain didn't work as well as the later Shimano LX/XT components that adorn the bike these days, but they give away nothing in appearance and finish. And many of the components are still on the bike, working perfectly well -- the crankset, the front derailleur, the front hub and skewer and the cantilever brakes. On mine, the shifters, brake levers, rear derailleur and rear hub have all been swapped for Shimano stuff. I'm not really sure what Dan has on his these days, but I'm pretty sure it's a similar mix of original and replacement bits.

For my bike, the changes were really prompted by an impulse purchase of a Trek 950 mountain bike in 1996, along with a desire to ride to work from time to time. The Trek is a slightly more compact bke, and it's a bit more comfortable to ride in the woods, because you're not so far stretched out (the Paramount was a little extreme that way). And though the Trek is not a fancy or high-end bike, it's by no means junk. In any case, in adding the Trek to the stable, I was able to repurpose the Paramount as a commuting bike, by adding a different stem, road handlebars, road brake levers, slick tires, bar end shifters and a rack. I had to cobble up some inline cable adjusters in the process, so that I could adjust brake cable tension as the cables stretched and pads wore. A couple of years after this, these became readily available commercial items, but at the time they seemed to be nowhere to be found.

I rode the twelve miles to work from Waltham to Cambridge maybe twenty times during the year after I repurposed the Paramount. I know that's a feeble stat for many folks, but hey, it's a start. I also took that bike on a couple of light touring rides, where it and I served as the cargo mule. Unfortunately, we ultimately moved out to the suburbs, out of practical range of a bike commute, and my wife and I carpooled into town instead. I've worked in two other companies since, each progressively further away from the house, and the practicality of commuting by bike just hasn't been there.

In truth, the Paramount was just OK for this role anyway. The rear triangle is too short for bags to fit comfortably, and my heels rubbed the panniers. And with the saddle high enough for road riding, the riding position is too far back on the bike. This unloads the front tire and makes for dodgy climbing stability. But the bike looked good and steered well, and I really I liked the idea of having it in that configuration. It seemed like an ideal bike to give to my Dad when he expressed an interest in riding, since it was geared so widely. But unfortunately it sat out in his woodshed unused.

Three seasons ago, I started riding again and bought the Trek trailer bike you've seen before to take my older daughter Juliana along with me. The Shogun and Kestrel were completely unsuited to tow duty. Kids move around a lot, and the trailer bike mounting system translates those wiggles and weight shifts into a lot of wobble on the bike. Wobble doesn't translate well on a twitchy bike that wants to crash on unpaved surfaces, and riding that way was really pretty unpleasant. And though I tried my Trek a few times, it wasn't really right either -- too inefficient and not enough positions for long road rides.

Since I wasn't doing any mountain biking at all, I dropped the Trek off at my folks' house for my Dad, and collected the Paramount, still in commuter guise. And it was a great bike for that purpose, except that the brakes didn't feel quite secure enough (because of those cobbled together adjusters, which always flexed a bit). Since it was a mountain bike, Juli could wiggle without introducing too much wobble, and even if I was deflected off course, the bike would just roll over whatever was in its new path, rather than crash. Good stuff!

Then this year, I built up my 1972 Schwinn Sports Tourer and tried it out with the trailer bike. It worked really well, actually. More efficient than the Paramount, nearly as stable (and more stable on climbs), and suddenly my remaining need for a repurposed mountain bike vanished. And the Schwinn even reminded me that not only mountain bikes can be ridden off road, but that's another posting for another day.

I didn't have a mountain bike on hand anymore, so the Paramount began its transformation back into a mountain bike. It's got mountain bars, brake levers and shifters on it again, but I need to take the racks off and swap the road tires to true knobbies to complete the transformation.

I brought the Paramount with me to the apartment, with every intention of using it to go to the supermarket up the road, but that didn't work out. The fork popped out of the rack when I pulled into the driveway of the apartment on my first trip over here, and bent one of the forged tips. I found a replacement fork on eBay (and it's a nice one -- a Tange fork with investment cast dropouts), but haven't had the time to install the fork, yet -- two months on. This month, I'm telling myself again, now that it's November.

I suppose the inactivity isn't surprising. With the arrival of fall has come a need to tinker with tractors, and I've somehow had less time to play living in the apartment than I had living at the house. Besides, in a sense, the apartment itself is an escape, and I've needed to escape into tinkering to a lesser degree. The trial period of our separation is winding down, though, and it's time for me to figure out what to do about all this escaping.

All for now,


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