Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Duty Cycle

I went looking for and found the sales receipt for the Kestrel today. Only took a few minutes. I found it folded into the Kestrel owner's manual I got with the bike; a generic bike manual with a Kestrel cover and a Kestrel-specific 8.5x11 sheet of paper folded into it. The back lists Schwinn as the Kestrel distributor.

The date on the slip was August 15, 1992. Nearly 18 years ago. So I was 25. I thought it was later than that -- that I'd bought it in '93 or '94. The slip says I also bought a pair of lycra gloves (I believe they were the Paramount PDG-branded gloves I finally threw away 4-5 years ago), and a Clif bar. I must have been hungry from the ride over to Landry's Westborough store from Framingham.

That day, I'd first dropped my Golf off for an amp/speaker/subwoofer installation, then taken the Shogun off the roof rack and ridden to Landry's in their original downtown Framingham location. I'd probably ridden an MS ride not long before, giving the hardware envy a good stir in the process. The Kestrel that caught my eye in that storefront was sexy, but too small for me to test-ride. Even so, it was enough to get me to ride out to Westborough to try one in the same size as my Shogun. I had no business chasing a car audio install with an extravagant bike purchase that day, but there really was no resisting after the test-ride. I haven't regretted the purchase for even a moment, since.

I've said all of this before, I know.

The bike cost me $1299.00, plus tax -- three times the cost of the Shogun just 2-3 years prior, and still a fair chunk of change, though no longer an unusual sum for a bicycle purchase. I'd talked them down from the mid-$1400's I think. The Bicycling Magazine sitting on the dining room table downstairs says you can buy a carbon fiber Jamis with Shimano's fancy new electronic shifting for $11000. That's nearly the price of a Honda Interceptor motorcycle, and with deference to Jamis and Shimano, that number just makes no sense at all to me.

I've probably spent more than that $1300 on components and accessories for it, since. A carbon fork, new wheelset, new derailleurs, new crankset, new bottom bracket, headset, a couple of saddles, a couple of sets of bottle cages, a couple of pumps, a couple of seat bags, bar tape, chains, cassettes, brake pads, tires, tubes and the like. Most of those dollars spent weren't strictly necessary, but they ultimately allowed me to build-up or upgrade other bikes in a fleet that grew and grew in recent years. Cross-pollination.

It's been an enormously satisfying ride, and I've enjoyed it, to say the least. But 18 years(!) is plenty of duty for a carbon frame. So today, I took the first small steps in decommissioning my baby, as has been my plan for sometime this summer. The blinky came off the seatpost mount. The under-seat wedge bag came off the saddle rails and now hangs under the Brooks on the Schwinn, carrying a spare tube and tools. I took the picture above, to record its final state of build.

At some point in the next few weeks, I'll break it down, clean and overhaul each of the components, and box them all up for someday. The parts that make it a Kestrel -- the frameset -- will be thoroughly washed and waxed, then wrapped and boxed. It may emerge to hang on a wall once I find my next home (it wouldn't look right in the house, here), but will otherwise stay retired. When someday arrives, I'll build up a new frameset using many of the components the Kestrel has worn.

But not today. Today, a steel-framed Motobecane nearly twice the Kestrel's age is officially my duty bike. Since its last ride, it's been fitted with a newer 7-speed wheelset (with virtually no miles since I had the Shogun's original 105 hubs laced to Velocity rims, years ago) and an early-'90's Shimano 600 rear derailleur. Le Mongre, as I call it, doesn't have the magical mix of stiffness, efficiency and comfort the Kestrel does, but it's an honest bike with honest handling, and I love to ride it, too.

It's obvious that the Motobecane isn't far from the end of its own rational duty cycle. But I'm in no rush to retire it, and will take my time to find the right bike to serve as my primary ride for my next 18/whatever-year stint. As in other parts of my life, now is a time to enjoy what I have, explore what I want and what I need, and look forward to the day it all comes together.

All for now,


Sunday, June 27, 2010

Old Flame

Today I spent a couple of hours getting my old Shogun Katana ready for a hand-off to a friend of mine who wants to do a triathlon, but doesn't have a road bike. As it appears here, the Shogun is very similar to the way it was when I first got it, which was in '89 or '90, as a leftover from '87 or '88 I think. Shogun was (maybe is, if they're still around) a low-to-mid-range maker, and this bike was pretty high up the ladder in their line-up, from what I have been able to find (not much).

It's a 12-speed club racer, wearing a hodgepodge of mostly Shimano components from the '80's and '90's; original, upgraded and in some cases cross-pollinated from other bikes. For example, the wheels are the mid-'80's 600 wheelset originally from Allyson's Bertoni, that pre-date but out-class most of the rest of the components (her Bertoni now wears a 7-speed wheelset using my Kestrel's original hubs laced to a set of Velocity Aerohead rims -- but that's a post for another day). The 105SC derailleurs are from the early '90's, and the rear was original to the Kestrel. The derailleur pulleys are Carmichael, I think -- aluminum with cartridge bearings at any rate, which shows you how obsessed I was with efficiency back in the day. The crankset (including Biopace rings!), shifters and brakeset are all the original Exage Sport parts, and they all work pretty well. The Exage Sport brake levers even have two nice little details that my later 105SC levers lack -- quick release buttons, and little rubber nubs on the lever faces that provide some texturing under the fingers. Nice! I believe the Exage Sport groupset was largely the same as the contemporary 105 6-speed components, much as RSX was the same as 105SC, but with a different finish. The headset is a lovely 600/Ultegra part from the late '90's. And so on.

The frame is of lugged steel, brazed in Japan. The tubes are Tange Infinity (double-butted chromoly), and the rear dropouts have both one set of eyelets and adjuster screws. The fork is unicrown, rather than lugged, but it suits the bike well, I think. It doesn't have any front eyelets for fenders, unfortunately, but the geometry and build are both pretty sporty, so fenders probably weren't part of what was envisioned for the bike, despite the rear eyelets. The lugs are all pretty plain, but a couple of other interesting details on the frame are a pump peg up on the head tube, and a chain hanger brazed inside the right seatstay. Plus there are noodles under the bottom bracket to guide the derailleur cables from the shifters, rearward, and cable guides for the rear brake cable housing situated on top of the top tube, which make the bike less painful to shoulder than if the cable ran underneath. It's also got dual bottle cage braze-ons. Pretty standard stuff, in all, but there were fewer corners cut with this frame than with my Motobecane. Maybe the bar had just moved in the decade-plus between their manufacture.

The bike is too small for me (and that set me on the path for the Kestrel to be wrong-headedly undersized as well), so the 90-degree stem was added at some point to give me more room and higher bars, shortly after the Kestrel got a similar configuration. So it doesn't have a "traditional" road bike look in the handlebar area, but the rest is about as old-school as you can get -- save for the unicrown fork. I've always thought it a handsome bike. I'm not really a fan of the stripey decal near the top of the seat tube, but I do like the combination of a white rear triangle and a mostly blue front half. And it's a good blue -- not too navy and not too royal. The decals are under clearcoat, so the paintwork isn't super-cheap either.

Today's refit was pretty straightforward, and the bike is pretty much all set for my friend's training. The wheelset was swapped with the Motobecane, as I've mentioned I would, and the brake pads reset to line up with the braking surfaces of these rims. The shift from 7-speeds to 6 also entailed swapping the shifters that were on there for the bike's original 6-speed indexed shifters, and tweaking the derailleur travel a little. I also swapped the old cup and cone bottom bracket (113mm) for the 111mm Phil Wood cartridge unit that gave me knee pains on the Kestrel and Moto, pinching it in place with the British-threaded rings that had held it into the Kestrel. I haven't measured the Q to see if it will fit me well with these cranks (I bet it would), but this isn't a bike I plan to ride much, so I'm not worried about that. Narrowing the cranks meant also tweaking the front derailleur travel. And finally, I swapped all of the (original!) cables and housings for new stuff (housings in red), and rewrapped the bars in red cork wrap. I think the red accents look pretty good!

There are three things that could use some attention. First, the saddle is pretty much awful (too soft and oddly-shaped), and should be replaced with something red to further highlight the bars and cables. And the cheap tires are too triangular in cross-section, and a little dried out, and could stand to be replaced. Finally, the brake hoods are dingy and sticky with age, which is kind of gross. I'll see if my friend is worried about these once he's started using the bike, and figure out what to do about them, if anything.

At the time I got it, the bike showed me just how good a modern racing bike could be. It just worked so well! Shifting, braking and handling were all far, far better than the comparatively cheap and primitive Raleigh Rapide I'd depended on in my teenage years. The ride quality was awful, as I recall. But I have to temper that judgement by also acknowledging that I was riding around on an OEM saddle and ridiculously narrow 700x20 tires, back then, too. Don't ever do that to yourselves, folks.

When I hopped on the Katana today to try it out after the updates, I was still impressed by how good it is -- 20 years later! It's relatively light, all of the controls work really well (except the front shift lever, which is over-leveraged, pulling way too much cable per degree of travel), and it's plenty responsive -- snapping-to under power and stopping hard under braking. The handling is lovely -- less twitchy than the Kestrel, but with steering that's direct and responsive, and not at all "trucky" through the bars. As I said, the bike won't hold my friend back any.

But as it couldn't with me, the bike may not be able to hold his wandering eye. It's a good bike, needing no apologies. But neither is it especially sexy or remarkable. Even back when it was new, it was relatively humble, and in the days when I spent summers training for MS-150 rides brimming with more exotic and expensive bikes, my attention was drawn elsewhere. Hardware envy -- many a boy's curse. These days, racing bikes have 9, 10 or even 11 cogs out back, brifters, double-pivot calipers, oversized bottom brackets with external bearings, and fat, sculpted frames that few dreamed of when the Shogun was designed and made. The comparatively classic Katana was my primary ride for three seasons, I believe, and then I saw my first Kestrel at Landry's in Framingham. Its fate as a secondary/loaner bike was sealed perhaps an hour later, when my right leg gave the first stroke of my Kestrel's crank. It felt magic, by comparison to the Shogun. And in truth it still does, whether I feel I can trust its sculpted carbon curves or not (I don't).

Whether it held my attention back in the day or not, it's not a bike I've been able to let go of, either -- it's just too good. So I'm going to take my old Shogun for a workout/shake down ride before I hand it over. I do trust this bike's steel frame, and any problems I encounter with the components are sure to be minor adjustment sorts of things. The ride won't just be to shake any problems out -- it'll be to enjoy the simple and solid charms of an old flame, too.

All for now,


Updated 6/28:

Just got back from a quick shake-down ride. What a great bike that is! It feels a lot like the Motobecane, actually, except perhaps a litle more responsive. I can no-hands it, just as I can the Moto, too. And the tires felt just fine, triangular profile or not. The saddle isn't that bad once out there and on it for a while, which was a pleasant surprise. Between the 28mm tires and the current saddle, the ride quality was really very good -- not at all harsh like I remember it being. The toe clips did a nice job of keeping my feet on the pedals, which was nice, but they're a pain to get into. I should do something with clips for my bikes, because having my feet slip off is getting old. It's a nice bike.

As expected, I did have to make a couple of tweaks on the road. First, I had to trim the front derailleur cage a bit so it didn't rub on the inside in first gear. And second, I had to adjust the derailleur cable in back so it indexed properly in all gears without excess chain noise. I also noticed that the Hyperglide chain skips a bit over the old twist-tooth sprockets on downshifts, though upshifts are fine. It might need a new or different chain, because the same wheelset and freewheel didn't do that with a SRAM chain on the Motobecane (though shifts are possibly quicker with indexing, so who knows...).

An unexpected surprise is that I could see a lot less chainring deflection with the new bottom bracket, as I pedaled the bike -- hardly any, really. I suspect the old one might have been slightly bent, or otherwise out of kilter. In any case, the Phil Wood is a possibly stronger and definitely more finely made part, and the cranks run true on it.

In any case, it's ready to go, now, and I think it'll serve my friend well!

Saturday, June 26, 2010

It's not the bike, it's the...

My best-ever pace on my workout loop on the Kestrel is an average speed of 16.8 mph over the 24-odd miles. The loop starts at my house, and runs through downtown Southborough, following Rt 30 into Westborough center, then picking up 135 at the rotary. Then a right onto Spring Street takes me around the back side of Whitehall State Park, after which I get back onto 135 until downtown Hopkinton. Route 85 offers a screaming descent (nearly 50, if I push) north out of Hopkinton center, and takes me back to the village of Cordaville in Southborough, where I pick up back roads to get back to my house. It's a decent loop. Not too busy, though some of the roads aren't great and there are a couple of dicey intersections. I'd describe the terrain largely as rolling, though there are two hills that aren't much fun without a solid base of conditioning to draw from.

Today I averaged 16.7 on the Motobecane, over that same loop, which is for all intents and purposes smack-dab the same pace. Just by way of comparison:

  • They wear the same computer, and both were calibrated to their tires' measured circumference
  • They both wear 172.5 cranksets with very similar gearing (39/52 and 39/53)
  • They both have 13-26 clusters, though the Kestrel spreads that across eight cogs and the Motobecane makes do with six
  • Both wear 700c wheelsets, though the Kestrel has 23mm Vittoria Rubino Pros, while the Motobecane wears Panaracer Paselas in a 28mm width
  • The Kestrel is probably 3-4 pounds lighter, but my scale says I swing 1-2 pounds either way, any given day, and neither is what I'd call heavy (my Schwinn -- now that's a heavy bike)
  • Both are now well-tuned, with no brake drag, wheels that spin well, well-lubed chains and derailleur pulleys and the like

All things considered, the Kestrel probably should be a little faster, because it's lighter and generally leaner. And if I kept a rigorous log, I might find the difference in what I can get out of each bike to be more than that .1 mph I measured in the past week or so. But really we're talking about rounding errors, here, and I'm guessing that weather/wind and luck with traffic signals are probably as significant to my pace as which of the two bikes I plucked from the ceiling that day.

In any case, I was plenty fast this morning, and the old mongrel felt solid, vibrant and responsive under my hands and feet. Different than the carbon-fiber Kestrel, of course, but not worse. The nearly identical pace between the two bikes is great illustration of that old adage, I think. And a great reason not to obsess about having the latest and greatest equipment.

In that spirit, and to try to spread the cycling bug a little wider, I've decided I'm not going to eBay the Shogun right now, after all. I just got it back from my brother-in-law, and I'm going to give it a quick once-over to get it ready for regular use, again. A friend is thinking about a triathlon, so I offered to lend him the bike that got me back into cycling. If he likes it, he can decide whether to spring for something fancier or stick with a classic lugged-steel racing bike. Based on my experience with the Motobecane, I know for certain the Shogun won't hold him back, any.

All for now,


Thursday, June 24, 2010


Juli got a flat yesterday.

Her Fuji has 24x1 tires, with presta tubes -- 520 bead diameter. Small racing tire size that graces the handful of available kids sporty bikes and those Terry bikes for petite women that have the big 700c rear and the little 24" front. They're narrow, high-pressure tires on small wheels, not kids 24" MTB or balloon tires -- high-pressure small dealies.

Yesterday the three of us were headed to Hopkinton State Park to rent a canoe, and naturally I wanted to ride there. It's only 4-5 miles each way, and I'm trying not to use the car as much as I can while I have the opportunity not to. Not just to be fit, but also to try to be conscious of what's possible without burning gasoline. I picked Ava up from school on the Schwinn and trailer bike on Tuesday, for example. She was grinning, and I got in a short workout.

As I was putting the bag full of towels and sandwiches into the Schwinn's basket, Juli started riding around the driveway. Things felt wrong to her and sounded wrong to us both -- lots of vibration. She immediately began angling for a new bike, since Ava just got a new-to-her little MTB of her own, but sadly (for her) it turned out to be just a flat rear tire.

I pulled the tire off and the source of the flat was immediately apparent -- there was an inch and a half of shiny, slender nail inside the tire, with no head. I'm guessing it was a broken nail from the re-siding job next door, that ended up in our driveway somehow.

The nail pierced the tube twice -- both out at the tread and in at the rim, in a diagonal path. I gave up on glued patch kits years ago, having gone to the sticker variety. Probably not a hot tip for this kind of flat, though. The outside patch held, but the inside patch didn't -- twice. I had to go buy a new tube, and we'll put it in this morning, then go for a ride later today. Yesterday was demo day for fixing a flat, and I showed Juli how to do it. Today will be hands-on day, which should be interesting.

Because she couldn't ride, we drove over to the park, and for all of my high-horsiness, I was grateful burning gas was an option. There were no lines yesterday, and the girls had a genuinely good time canoeing, as you can see above. We're planning to go over again on Friday -- this time in our bathing suits. There are a couple of little islands (former hilltops) in the reservoir to climb around on and swim from, so it should be a lot of fun. And from a workout perspective, I need to do more for my upper body, and get over there regularly. I'm a bit of a one-trick pony, with cycling making up most of my exercise hours, and it felt great to be paddling. I may even sign us up as members at the boat dock, so we can take a boat out any time this summer. Only members can use the day sailers, too, which would be fun.

All for now,


Updated 6/25:

Fix didn't work. The new tube went in just fine, and held air just fine. For about 45 seconds. But under pressure, the weakened spot on the Pasela's sidewall where the nail went in (didn't know it was a sidewall puncture) tore open in a V-shape about a quarter of an inch per side. Which in turn allowed 90PSI of freshly pumped air to blast its way through a $7 (plus tax) Specialized butyl tube, taking a fair bit of butyl with it on the way out, and leaving a 1/8" ragged hole (not a puncture -- a hole). Sounded like an air pistol shot, or maybe a .22 short, and looked like it had been shot. Anyway, the bike is sidelined until next week, when a new Panaracer Pasela and two new tubes should arrive via UPS. Those 520 tires and tubes are hard to find.

Monday, June 21, 2010

Fathers and Daughters

I always though that I was a father committed to cycling with his daughters. This guy beats me hands-down.

Picture is from Florence. Allyson and I were walking down Via Nazionale, I think it was, and this guy came along with his daughter, turning onto the sidestreet, here (which might have been Guelfa -- Allyson would be more trustworthy on that than me). He was somehow remaining upright, with her sitting this way and her bike laying across his front carrier, in case you couldn't quite make that out. I snapped it with my iPhone right after they stopped so that he could get a lick of her gelato cone. She was assessing the damage, I think, or perhaps just calculating her next move, as he started out again.

I didn't pay much attention to the bike in the moment, but if you look closely at it, it looks to have been designed to carry two children plus the rider. That thing in front of him holding her bike looks like a child seat set into a dedicated carrier that's part of the frame, and the frame seems designed to hold up her sissy bar perch as well. If the bike plus his cargo and passenger added up to less than 100 lbs, I'd be shocked.

I was a day late in posting this to make Father's Day, but it still seems appropriate...

Saturday, June 19, 2010

Mongrel in Blue

The small collection of parts I needed to up the Motobecane's game a little bit arrived this week, and I spent a few hours this morning putting it back together with these new pieces, having taken it apart to the extent needed earlier in the week. I had three express goals in this little refit of one of my favorite rides: make it work for my knees, make it safer and try to improve the looks a bit.

Knees: After a recent ride on Le Mongre, I noticed the same ache that I'd been feeling in my left knee when training on the Kestrel on rollers over the winter. Apart from the knee, the common element between those two bikes in their pain-inducing configuration was the Q-factor -- the distance between the outer faces of the crank arms, at the pedals. They wear a very similar crankset model (both 105SC in 172.5, one 7-spd and one 8-spd) and each in turn the very same 111mm Phil Wood bottom bracket. The Kestrel now has a cheap Shimano cartridge BB in 108, and it's been fine since I made that change. But not the Motobecane with the 111. Narrower Q, OK. That Q, ouch. Gotta fix it.

Safety: I also rode with a group not long ago, after many years' hiatus, and plan to again tomorrow, assuming anyone else cares to show up at 8:00 on Father's Day. In a group, there's one thing you need plenty of, and that's brakes. They have to work well, respond quickly and your levers have to fall to hand right away, or you might smack into someone who slows unexpectedly to avoid something you can't yet see. The brakes on the Moto were lacking in lever placement, lever feel and effort, and power. Also in the safety category, I was riding, as it turns out, a youth handlebar stem (and a skosh beyond its maximum height at that), and old tires starting to fray a bit in the sidewalls.

Looks: When I first finished rebuilding the Motobecane, it was quite pretty. But through no fault of its own, the attractive original fork had to be replaced, and the one I found to replace it is a different color -- blue. A late-1970's Ford medium metallic blue, if there ever was one (my first car was a '77 Granada, in what my memory insists is about the same color). The rest is a champagney metallic tan-gold, with decals and panels in burgundy and gold lug outlining. So it really doesn't match well at all, and I've said before and will again that it's an ugly bike, now. I'd last built it with red cables, and had thought about red bar tape for this redo. And if the original fork was still fitted (long gone) I'd probably have stuck with that plan. But since I had to redo the bars and cables anyway, I figured I'd take a whack at improving the bike's color scheme as well.

So what did I replace? All kinds of stuff, and I should add that the Motobecane now wears some of the priciest examples of components of a kind that I own:

Bottom Bracket: The Phil Wood Swiss-threaded rings now pinch in-place a 108mm Phil Wood bottom bracket, which should drop the Q below 150mm -- I'm guessing 147 or 148. In addition, the cranks are snugged down with a little more torque than I'd done previously. This is the nicest, most expensive BB setup in my fleet.

Tires: The Continentals are gone. They worked fine, but were very old and starting to lose threads. Seriously, I think they were 10 years old. Maybe 12. They've been replaced by Panaracer Paselas in a 700x28, and with a black sidewall. They look different -- fine, but I think I prefer contrasting sidewalls on old bikes. But on the "I care" scale, this is way down the list. The tires feel a little more harsh, too, but that's probably just air pressure. In other wheel-related news, the fenders are gone from the fork and stays, too. I thought about a 7-speed freewheel, but I'm not going to do that. I might instead swap the wheelset with the one on my old Shogun at my brother-in-law's house. I might actually reclaim that bike and sell it off, because he's adamant that he's never going to use it. Might as well get it out of his way, then.

Handlebars and stem: The handlebars are the classic Nitto 115, which has a 25.4 clamp area. The Nitto Young stem is gone, and has been replaced with a forged Nitto Technomic Deluxe. The Technomic has a 26.0 clamp area, so I've also got a Nitto stainless steel shim in there. The stem looks almost exactly like the old one, from the saddle (same reach and a very similar shape), but has a much more elegant nut situation for the bar clamp, and has a much longer quill. I've raised the bars only a few mm, but the stem is not even close to overextended at that height. I had a recollection that the steerer tube on this fork was tight, but that wasn't the case -- slipped in perfectly. This is the nicest stem in my fleet, too.

Brakes: I swapped the original Suntour Superbe non-aero brake levers for a set of nicely sculpted Tektro levers. I can actually slow the bike now from atop the hoods, and reach the levers without worry from the drops. The level of effort is far lower, and the levers feel far better under my fingers. The lever bodies and hoods aren't shaped the way I'd prefer, but they're not offensive underhand. If I were to do it again, I might look for a NOS set of Shimano aero levers, to match the feel of the brake bodies on my two other road bikes (both of which wear mid-'90's 105 SC levers).

The old Superbe sidepulls don't bite as hard as a new double pivot brake, but they've got the reach I needed to run a 700c wheelset on what was a 27" bike in this market, and they will still lock a tire, which is plenty of bite. When I was looking the brakes over, I found a couple of things in need of adjustment, too. First, I found that the pivot nuts weren't snug enough, and there was a fair amount of flex in the calipers that resulted from that looseness. I tightened the nuts down, and that cleaned up a bunch of sponginess in the brakes. Then I adjusted the front brake so that it didn't drag on the right side of the front rim, which it was, just a little. And finally, noticed that the left-side rear pad was toed out, rather than in. I don't remember noticing this previously, but it needed fixing. A little leverage with a wrench on the brake pad flat twisted the caliper arm a few degrees, and put it right.

Cables: I had to remove and reinstall the brake cables anyway, so I bought a blue brake cable kit from Velo Orange. And to match, I also changed the rear derailleur cable and the snippet of housing heading into the rear derailleur. These kits are cheap, they fit, and they're perfectly nice parts. Most of the time, LBS's have either bulk cable housing you have to cut to fit, or expensive sealed cable kits. The V-O kits are the easiest, most sensible option I've seen in years. Lots of colors, too, and they even have braided stainless steel under clear plastic.

Derailleurs: I didn't replace anything, but I came "this" close to swapping the rear derailleur for an Ultegra unit I have. But that would have resulted in mismatching the only matching components left on the bike (front and rear are both Suntour Cyclone II's). And more importantly, I didn't want to mess around with opening and shortening the chain to make the swap. So I just adjusted the front derailleur travel stops to match the crank's move inboard, and called it good.

Bar Tape: With the brake levers and cables swapped, I needed to re-cover the naked aluminum bars. I chose a mostly solid blue bar wrap -- Bontrager gel wrap -- which is the only blue tape Landry's had on the hang rack in their Westborough store. In truth, I'm not thrilled with it. It seems like very tough stuff -- hard to cut with a utility knife -- but it's a little too spongy, almost like those old foam 2-piece bar covers from the '70's, and feels plasticky under the fingers. It's also a slightly lighter shade of blue than I wanted. I'll see how it holds up, but at some point I may end up rewrapping with Cinelli cork wrap, which feels better and I'm pretty sure comes in a slightly darker shade of blue.

Cable ties: There are various cable ties on the bike, for the purpose of securing the different sensors and magnets of the Blackburn Delphi 3.0 computer, an example of which can be found on all four of my active-duty bikes. Most of the ties are now blue, rather than faded neon pink, but I ran out, and need to get a few more at Home Depot.

In its new, bluer configuration, the bike works great. I took it for a short shakedown ride to a nearby State Park this afternoon. I had every intention of parking it there for an hour or two, and renting a kayak to get a little upper body exercise and enjoy what was a beautiful day. But the place was a zoo, I got there too late (having cut the grass yesterday, too), and the wind was up. A sailboat would have been fun, but that would have taken even longer to get into.

I should say that I was sloooow, on that ride. My head was suffering mightily from a cold I'm fighting and the effects of stirring allergens into the air with the mower. Plus I probably needed more recovery time from my ride on Friday, which (on the Kestrel) showed my personal-best average speed on my training route. Then there's the brake drag I corrected after that ride, the new and tight bottom bracket, and the new tires -- all of which could affect my average speed (albeit only marginally). But the knee feels fine, which is good.

Though the verdict isn't yet in on how fast the Motobecane will be in this new setup, thus far the refit seems successful. It's still a mongrel, looks-wise, but a less clashy mongrel. And while the refit wasn't cheap, fixing knee problems and improving the safety of the bike are worth the investment. I'm going to use the bike on that Father's Day ride, which should give me a good sense of how it will perform as my primary ride.

Happy Father's Day!

All for now,


Updated Father's Day:

It was just me, out there this morning, but that isn't surprising, given the date and the fact that most of the invitees are Dads. The bike felt great, but my average speed was off a half mph from Friday.

Out and about, I could tell I was down two sprockets in back vs. the Kestrel, and tighter gear spacing might help keep my cadence more conistent and my pace up. Rear shifting is pretty sluggish, too. Not sure if that's the derailleur, the shifters or the relatively widely-set 6-speed cluster (a 7-speed smooshes 7 cogs into the same width as a 6-speed). Probably a combination of all three.

Back at the barn, with the bike suspended from the ceiling by just its front wheel, I noticed that the rear brake was dragging just a touch, and the (very old Shimano 600) freewheel sounded gritty. The combination made the wheel spin down to a stop relatively quickly. These were easy fixes, for whatever impact they may have had on my average speed.

Anyway, the bike feels good, and won't be hard to make better with a few more tweaks. I'd start by swapping the wheelset as described earlier. That will allow me to tighten the gear spacing, while keeping the same upper and lower limits, without laying out any more money on the bike. I have a 13-26 cassette out in the barn (the freewheel is 13-26, too, but a 6-speeder), lightly used on the Kestrel before I made it an 8-speed bike. And then I'll have to think about what type of shifters to use and where to mount them. I'll use that 600 derailleur either way.

Is any bike ever really done?

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

A Blinky on a Basket

I've gotten the Schwinn back into its errand guise, post-trip. That means that the seatpost has the trailer bike hitch back on, and the Wald basket I use to lug groceries around is back on the rear rack. It's just cable-tied on there, and as long as I'm not carrying a case of beer (I don't), that's probably fine.

One thing about this configuration is that putting a blinky light on the back isn't easy. The rack doesn't have anywhere to hold it. The bike doesn't have an empty set of rack eyelets to hold a mount. There's no saddlebag to hang one from, because the trailer bike mount interferes. Yes, the basket wires can accept a blinky clip, but neither securely nor silently.

After cutting a blinky slot in a Sackville Saddlesack XS the other day, I stood there in the barn, looking up at the basket-wearing Schwinn, suspended upside down from the ceiling, wondering how to get a blinky on there. Then, I had an idea -- secure a leather strap to the basket! I'm sure this has been done before, and more neatly, but here's what I did:

I measured 6 wires worth of space on the basket, which worked out to about 7 inches. I cut up a close-out leather belt from TJ Maxx with an X-Acto knife. Then I notched the back side of the belt about an inch from each end, across its width, in order to allow the thick leather to fold more readily, after which I folded the resulting "ends" back behind the rest of the strap. Next, I quickly drilled a hole through both layers of leather, to accept a bolt. Finally, I installed it on the basket by wrapping the ends around a wire, and bolting the ends in place using brass hardware (#6 machine screws, finishing washers, nuts and flat washers). And voila -- the result, as shown!

The blinky strap rides on top of the center reinforcing wire, as you can see, and is three wire-gaps wide. The outer two gaps frame the bolts and flaps. Within the inner gap sits the blinky, clear of the bolts. And the two wires framing that gap seem to keep the blinky more or less centered on the strap.

It works great in the driveway. I'll let you know how it holds up in practice. Maiden run for groceries tomorow, if the weather is still good. Chief short-term concern is that the blinky itself may be loud, vibrating away back there against the basket wires. We'll see.

All for now,


Updated: 6/16 -- I rode to the store, as I mentioned I was going to. I could hear the blinky back there; a light tapping triggered by road imperfections. But it was hard to discern against a backdrop of other bicycle sounds -- rustling plastic fenders, the hiss of the chain wrapping its way through the derailleur pulleys and around the rear sprockets, the staccato clicking of the chain rubbing against the front derailleur cage as the bent outer ring wobbles through its orbit, etc. So I'm declaring the mount a success, here.

Friday, June 11, 2010

Growth Spurts and Swap-Outs

As I'm putting together a pile of parts for making the Motobecane a more user-friendly choice for daily use, I've been sorting through my parts boxes, earmarking parts for different bikes and projects. I have a lot of parts left over that really need to be offloaded, but I've got a bunch of projects in mind, too.

For example, Juliana's Fuji is starting to look like a great fit for her as she rides, which means it will be too small before long. The seatpost isn't down on the clamp, now, and if anything the shortened Velo-Orange Belleville bars are crowding her knees a bit. So I'm planning to swap out the pulled-back bars, short stem and all of the hand controls with a more traditional road setup for next season. That will give her more room in the cockpit, and should allow for her getting one more year out of the bike, and teach her how to use more typical road bike shifters. I have most of the parts I need for that (save for shifters), so it's just a matter of making the time to execute the changes later this summer or over the winter, depending on her growth rate. Her mountain bike, in the mean time, which is at her mother's place, is already too small, and we're going to try her out on her mother's old (but small -- my ex is petite) Gary Fisher MTB as a bike for her to use over there.

At the same time, Ava has gotten too tall for her two little 16" BMX-style bikes. She can ride around like a champ, now, but her legs don't extend enough at the maximum saddle height to give her any power. A shame, really, that she went from being timid on the bike to perfectly capable in such a late and short window. But the bikes are in good shape, and I should be able to recover some cash from them. Maybe this weekend, I need to fit her to her sister's too-small mountain bike, and then find something for her to use here at the house, apart from the trailer bike.

Anyway, in going through parts and thinking about the Fuji's next build state, I meandered onto the question of what the best state of build for the Schwinn might be. It's built as a touring bike today, with narrow Belleri drop bars with a randonneuring bend (swept back tops, and a slight flare to the drops). But in truth it's not laid out as a real touring bike. The tubes are stout, sure, but the chain stays are short enough that I get heel strike with panniers, and the bike shimmies if I load up my handlebar bag at all (not that I should be carrying big loads up there). Also, the quill of the handlebar stem I have is short, and can't be raised high enough to make riding on the drops comfortable for any sort of distance. Ironically, that short stem means that my touring bike has the lowest bars, relative to the saddle, of the three road bikes I'm riding -- the opposite of what's most comfortable.

There are plenty of solutions to these issues. I can lighten up the bar bag, or move the front load lower to fix the shimmy. And I can troll for a taller stem with the old American steerer spec (21.1mm) that will thread a drop bar through the clamp. I have an aluminum gooseneck stem that I bought for the initial build that I had planned to use, but it won't take a drop bar because the clamp is too fat to allow the curves to slip past. And switching the stem also means un-twining and unwrapping, then redoing, the Brooks leather handlebar tape on that bike. And I'd rather not do that again (recalling the blistered knuckles on both pinkies from the last time).

Looking through my parts boxes, I have most everything I need (save grips and maybe a nicer set of brake levers) to turn the Schwinn into an upright English-style tourist bike. I've got the bars, the stem, and a set of shifters to clamp onto the stem. The stem shifters are clumsy-looking Suntour Power Shifters, which are ratcheting shifters like the Suntour bar-end and thumb shifters. Retrofriction shifters give you a nice little zing of feedback as you shift, with fine little ratcheting clicks intended to equalize shifting effort in both directions. Anyway, they won't win me any contests for chicness, but I'm guessing they'll feel and work just fine, and their placement on the stem will hopefully prove to be a decent ergonomic match for an upright bike. It's an interesting thought. And with that change in configuration, I'd gain enough space up front to mount a real rack to support a basket. I can' t fit a basket up front today with the drop bars, or support one with the now-trashed Mafac racklet. But having a Wald wire basket sitting on a sturdy rack would facilitate much larger grocery excursions than the bike can currently handle (however much that matters).

The plan would be to simply undo the cables and take the whole bar, cable and control setup off the bike as a unit, making it a relatively painless swap back to the original configuration if I don't like it, or decide to give it all up and embark on a global excursion. Same thing with the Fuji, by the way -- two bar and control setups, with maybe an hour's worth of work to change the bike back over.

If I think about my time on that bike on my recent two-day tour in Italy, I really rode on top of the bars the whole time. I was on the brake hoods for shallow descents, of course, but only down on the drops for fast downhills that called for more braking power and a more certain grip on the bars under braking. And in truth, bending way over with that short stem and threading my fingers past bar-end shifter cables to get to the brake levers gave me more than I'd like to have to think about when riding -- all of the controls on a bike should require no thought at all to operate.

In any case, it's something for me to noodle on, and I may very well give that configuration a shot, just for grins. I'm not a distance tourer, and I don't think the bike's value for a typical training loop in the wet (it has fenders) would be too heavily compromised. It may prove just that much more versatile.

All for now,


Thursday, June 10, 2010

Fine Tuning Le Mongre

I mentioned a few posts ago that my Motobecane Grand Touring is in all likelihood going to serve as my main ride for a bit, as I'm planning to retire the Kestrel out of concern for its structural integrity. To get there, though, I need to fine tune the Motobecane, as there are a few things I'm just not happy with, right now.

Most importantly, the bottom bracket is too wide. Where I can ride the Kestrel and Schwinn without any knee ache, that's not the case with the Motobecane. After a twenty or twenty five mile loop, my left knee isn't quite screaming, but I know I wasn't kind to it. So I need to get a narrower bottom bracket, to get the outer crank faces a few millimeters closer together, as they are on both of my other bikes. I've ordered a Phil Wood replacement for the one that's in there now. That one will go on eBay with a bunch of others (cup-and-cone and cartridge alike) that I don't have any use for anymore.

The second most important issue is that the brake levers are too stiff. I wouldn't be at all comfortable on that bike in group rides with the brakes the way they are -- I can't actuate them well from the hoods, and the way the bodies are shaped, I have a hard time reaching the levers from the drops. And though I don't go on many group rides, I think you'd agree that having confidence in my brakes is still pretty important. My hope is that this is mostly just about the levers, and not so much about the brake calipers themselves. I've got a set of Tektro aero levers tee'd up to replace them, and am hopeful that they'll fit better, give me more accessibility to the levers, and move more easily than the antique Suntour Superbe levers that are on there. The Tektros are basically copies of non-Ergopower Campy levers, and they're fantastic levers. I've put them on a couple of other builds, but never one of my own. My turn to enjoy them! If that doesn't do it, I'll be in the market for a set of mid-reach calipers, and there are several good choices out there these days.

Third, the stem needs to be changed out. The one on there is, I recently realized, a Nitto Young stem -- Young as in youths. It's the right size in terms of reach, but at the right bar height, I'm just past the maximum safe height line. Couple being just over that limit with the fact that it wasn't made for adult men, and it's enough to raise my left eyebrow a bit. It's a Nitto, so it's stronger than it needs to be for kids, but I'm not so sure it's as strong as it needs to be for me. A Nitto Technomic is on the way. Forged, long in the quill (so at the same height there will be plenty of quill still stuck in the steerer tube) and generally bulletproof. The one I bought is also 90mm, so the fit won't change, just the strength. I seem to recall the steerer of the blue fork being a little undersized (not French, but snug, just the same), so fingers crossed, with respect to fit. I may have to scrub the steerer out a bit with a wire brush to get some crud out of the way, but hopefully it all just won't be a problem.

Since the bar tape has to come off anyway, I'm going to redo the bars in blue, rather than black. Same tape -- Cinelli cork wrap, just trying to match the fork. And since I'll have to mess with most of the cables as well, I'll swap the housing out for blue, too.

And since I broke a front fender stay on a ride the other day (the break-away clip broke, and no longer grabbed the fender), I'm going to be stripping it of fenders, too. I put them on so the Moto could be a wet-road bike, but I'll worry about fenders when I get myself a nice frameset to replace the Kestrel as my main ride someday. In the mean time I can use the (fender equipped) Schwinn for wet-road duty for now. Taking off the dull-black fenders will also lift the bike's color a little, I think, so it may look better for that change as well.

Speaking of wet roads, it needs new tires, too, so I've got a set of blackwall Panaracer Pasela's ready to be loaded up. The (snug) Continentals will be a PITA to get off the rims, so I'm not looking forward to the swap, but once they're off, I'll never have to deal with them again!

What else? I've thought about a 7-speed freewheel and new (retrofriction) shifters, but neither of them is strictly necessary, and neither is particularly a priority. What is a priority is getting the bike comfortable and safe for fast group rides -- fast rides period. I think all of this will do just that, and it won't take me more than a couple of hours to do the refit. Then I'll have a bunch of stuff to put on eBay or into my parts box, too.

I may go after a chrome fork at some point, but having ridden the bike hard a few times this summer, the fork feels stiff and strong, and the handling is good. So I'm not going to worry about it for now, and risk making it handle badly. The bike will stay ugly, between the champagne frame and blue fork, but with blue accents instead of red, it won't be as bad, I think. But if it is, I'll wear the ugly-bike badge proudly, rather than trying to make it pretty. And given its age, I'll keep the speeds down -- no 45-mph blasts out of Hopkinton center on this one. Whatever its limitations, it is what it is, and I love the way it feels. It doesn't need to be perfect. It just needs to work well!

All for now,


Wednesday, June 2, 2010


My trip to Italy really had three parts. The first and last parts were mine. The first was the trip over through the bike ride from Siena to Florence. The last was a solo day I spent in Lucca and Florence, plus the travel day, home. Both blocks gave me good "head" time -- so, very much my time.

In the middle were three days spent in and around Florence with Allyson. And really, those three days weren't my trip, they were our trip. If you were to ask, I'd struggle to define our relationship right now. But I'm not sure it needs a traditional label, and as far as that goes, it's been a highly evolutionary relationship anyway, and any given label probably wouldn't stick for long. Labels aside, we're good together -- seemingly any way we're together -- and that's really what matters.

What I wanted most from the three days was to reconnect -- spend time exploring the city, sure. But get some face time, talk, and generally just see how being together felt after the past several months apart. Months in which I've been hit with a lot of change and turmoil. It's been hard not to have her nearby during all of that, and in truth the ongoing shifts in our relationship have been part of that uncertainty. In any case, I really wanted the time.

We didn't overplan the days' activites. If anything we probably under-scheduled. But we did have some cool stuff on the agenda. First, Allyson had suggested we sign up for a cooking class. I'd seen the same class during my search, but it didn't really fall inside the range of stuff I was thinking about (museums, churches and bikes), and moved right on past. But Allyson wasn't so encumbered, and when she saw it, she suggested we do it. I love to cook, and once she floated the idea, it resonated for some reason. Funny, that.

Second, I wanted to get into either the Uffizi or the Academia to see some art. I'd been to both my last trip to Florence, but that was 15 years ago, so it had been a while. My memory of the Academia is that it was basically full of those panels of "Madonna with Saints and Child" or "Christ with Saints and Pope" or other combinations of Jesus, his mother, and/or various historical Christian/Catholic figures. With all due respect, there are only so many of those a guy can look at before they all just blur together into one big gold-leafed, uhh... blur. Of course David is at the Academia, and that's one incredible piece of art. We'd figure out which to do as we went.

Third, I wanted to get into the Duomo this time, as I didn't have time last time I was there. Beyond that I was pretty much open to just exploring.

When I picked her up at the airport Thursday evening, Allyson didn't profess much of an agenda beyond the cooking class, having gelato, and spending time connecting (all good in my book). So we pretty much winged it (wung it?) from there. As it was, things worked out pretty well without overplanning. I think we'd agree that next time we should plan a few more things like the cooking class in advance, and I'd assent to the bus tour without argument (dumb of me to decline), but I'm not sure much else would need to change.

We had never never really traveled together, and there's always the chance of disaster when you first spend that kind of time with someone. There are anxious travelers, obnoxious travelers, complaining travelers, overscheduling travelers, clueless travelers... all sorts. And your travel style doesn't necessarily come out until you travel. I like to have a plan, but I don't like being shackled to one. And I don't like to stand out when I travel -- if there's a dramatic scene to be made, I want no part of it. We turned out to be pretty complementary on this front, which really isn't a surprise. And as a bonus, Allyson has a much better sense of location and direction than I do, and I eventually figured out she was always right about where we were and which direction we should go and ceded navigation responsibilities, to mutual benefit, and hopefully to her satisfaction as well.

Just some highlights of our few days in Florence:
Climbing the bell tower at the Duomo
Tuscan churches and cathedrals often seem to be skinned with white marble, accented with dark green, black, and/or pink marble. The most recognizable of these is the Duomo in Florence, which is really stunning. It's in the process of being cleaned, and the clean sections in particular are just gorgeous, shining brightly in the sun. At the time it was built, the dome was the biggest ever attempted, covering a larger space than any other. In any case, its a beautiful building, with quite a roof. Unfortunately, it's difficult to photograph, because the turret-like baptistry was plopped right in front of it, just about where you'd need to stand to take a picture of the whole thing from head-on. At least with my little digital snap-shooter -- a wider-angle lens might work better.

When we got to the Duomo on Friday morning after breakfast, there was already a hefty line to get in the building. So we sort of made our way around the outside, snapping photos and ooh-ing and aah-ing. One of us (can't remember which) noticed that you could climb up the tower, too. No line, either -- sweet! Lots of steps, though -- 414 each way, and pretty narrow. But well worth the climb, because the views from the top level were fantastic.

Cooking and Food
For me, there are no two countries that say "food" more than Italy and France. And in hindsight, the idea of taking a cooking class in Italy really borders on brilliant.

We signed up for a cooking class through The Accidental Tourist. They offer several different packages, including wine and olive oil tasting, but we just went with the cooking class, followed by a multi-course lunch. We were picked up at a little park across the Arno from the city center, and driven by our lively host out into the countryside, up into the hills and down twisty dirt roads to our destination -- a centuries-old stone farmhouse where flour, eggs, cheese, herbs and hand-crank pasta machines awaited. Wine, too -- always wine.

Making pasta by hand was a new experience for me. I have a Simac pasta machine that I pilfered from my mother when I moved into my first apartment. She'd literally never used it (a gift from my father, when what she really wanted was a hand-cranked one), which I thought was just a shame, really. I've put it to good use since, and I've got experience with pasta dough consitency and texture that served me well in the class. But I've never made the dough by hand, or used a hand-crank machine to stretch and shape the noodles -- they've just always squirted out like a Play-Doh pumper, after two minutes of machine kneading, well-formed in the desired shape.

Not here! Here, we had to pour a cup of Semola pasta flour (coarser than Semolina, said our instructor, Steve) onto a plastic-coated table cloth. Then make a donut shape out of it, break the egg into the hole, and pop the yolk. From there, it became all about mixing the egg up with our index finger, while slowly working in more and more flower, until pretty soon we were working with a ball of dough. As we kneaded, Steve coached us through getting the right consistency -- not too dry, and not too sticky -- in prep for running the dough through the machines. This was tricky because you needed to knead it well to mix in enough flour to dry out the center of the ball, or it'd all be too sticky, and you couldn't tell by looking at the outside alone how sticky it was inside the ball.

Once it was ready, we set it aside and Steve added the ingredients for some ravioli filling to a bowl. Simple stuff -- Ricotta, parm, chopped spinach and a little nutmeg. I mixed the filling for Steve while he ran upstairs to get something. And I must say, I mixed like few before me could possibly have mixed. It was outstanding. Seriously.

In the process of making the filling, I was introduced to a MicroPlane. I'd never seen one of these magnificent graters before, though Allyson informed me that Rachel Ray has one. I was absolutely taken by the speed and ease with which it dismantled a block of Parm, plus the fine, delicate texture of the resulting shavings. Good stuff, and I had to have one. And now do -- thrice used already, once to make ravioli. Oh! There was a mezzaluna knife, too. My mother has one of these, but I never knew it was for chopping spinach and the like. So now I have one of those, too. It's just a cheap little one from Bed, Bath & Beyond, but it works. I'll find a bigger, nicer one someday, maybe.

Once the filling was done, we divided our dough balls in half, and ran the halves through the machines repeatedly, making them thinner and longer with each pass. They ended up maybe a yard long and six inches wide. My second one was really good, and as you can tell I was definitely feeling good about being good at this stuff. The first ribbon was turned into ravioli shells, and the other was turned into fettucini. We filled and folded the shells (the half-moon variety of ravioli, not the square kind) and used a pastry wheel or a fork to cut and/or crimp the edges. I have a pastry wheel, now, too -- also used once so far, and principally by Juliana at that.

All of the resulting pasta went upstairs to be prepared, and after Steve snapped photos for us, we made our way first to the sinks to clean up our hands, then upstairs to eat. The food was fantastic, and the pasta we'd made was only two of the five courses. The ravioli was prepared with sage, butter and parm, and the linguini with olive oil, fresh tomatoes, and I forget what else. There was a pizza course, and a mushroom and artichoke frittata (about as eggy as I'll venture), and gelato -- it was all just so good!

At one point during lunch, Allyson leaned over and asked me what I thought Steve's accent said about where he was from. I guessed he was an expat Brit, but it turned out I was pretty far off. He's originally from North Carolina, and as he tells it, he once met a girl in Florence (also from NC) and he decided to stay. They're no longer together, but they're apparently both still there. I can't blame them, really -- it's a fabulous city just brimming with life. Anyway, he seemed like an interesting guy, and it struck me that he has a fun job. The class was a great idea, and a great experience, and it's one I'd like to repeat in other places in the future. Like in multiple regions of France, and other places in Italy. Someday.

That was really just one of many great meals we had there. I'll skip details of what we ate and where, but really, all of the food, save for the free stuff at the hotel buffet, was very good. Breakfasts, lunches and dinners all had something to remember, and even in cases where what I got wasn't quite what I expected, I wasn't disappointed. And yes, the gelato, invented in Florence, was spectacular.

The Boboli Gardens
This was a bit of a letdown. The Palazzo Pitti is sort of the Florentine version of the Louvre, except it's smaller and sits at the base of a hill. It's a palace built by the Medicis, and it's got gardens up and behind it for which a bready, supermarket pizza shell was named. I just made that up, but it might be true.

In fairness, we didn't see all of the gardens, it seems -- there was a bunch of stuff we somehow missed off to the East side -- but even so, I'd probably skip this next time. I mostly wanted to walk around outside in a nicely manicured floral setting, but it was hot and not shady and not so floral or manicured. Not that it was bad -- the views were great and there were some romantic nooks where you just knew a dalliance (or a hundred) had transpired. It just wasn't quite what I expected.

There was this cool work of art though -- the Medici Grottos. This was a fountain of sorts, built as an open-front building, and decked out like a cave, with sculpture worked into what looked like stalactites and stalagmites and other limestone formations. It was really the most interesting part of the gardens, not counting the views of the city.

The Uffizi
The Uffizi is also sort of like Florence's version of the Louvre, except that it's not a former palace that's been turned into a fabulous art museum, it's the former city offices. And again, smaller. It's a cool old building with great ceilings and is a much more manageable size than the Louvre. The Uffizi can be appreciated in a matter of hours, whereas I think most people (myself at least) ought to spread the Louvre out over several days, because it's very hard to appreciate that much great art all at once without getting jaded, bored or just overwhelmed.

The big deal at the Uffizi for me was the collection of Botticelli's. Of those, the two I liked best were Spring and The Birth of Venus. But Pallas and the Centaur is neat, too. All of his women look about six months pregnant, which you may know -- Google those works, and you'll see what I mean. Somehow that makes the work more fun to me, though I'm not sure what that says about me, now that I've written that down.

We also got there the day they opened the Caravaggio and Caravaggisti exhibit, which was a cool surprise, since neither of us had known anything about a special exhibit. The opening Caravaggio is the recognizable painting of Medusa's severed head. I never realized this painting is on a parade shield, rather than a canvas. But there it was -- the parade shield, sitting in a glass case. That shield sort of tees up more of his work, plus those of men and women who picked up his very realistic and softly-lit style from there. Biblical Judith makes several appearances, along with Holofernes and/or his head, including in Caravaggio's version.

I'm no Art History major, and there's plenty more in there to see, of course. But those are the parts I enjoyed most, and the two Botticellis left enough of an impression for me to pick up the postcards in the gift shop at the end.

What would Italy be without shopping? I needed a belt, since I forgot mine at home, and since I've lost a bunch of weight, and haven't been able to really keep up with my falling waist size in buying new clothes. On that note, Allyson gave me a good talking-to about that while we were there -- arms crossed, sitting back in her chair, etc. Must have had an impact, because I seem to have leveled off, since I got back (lighter than when I left), and have added a pound or two back since. We'll see what happens over the summer.

In any case, I needed a belt. Plus some sunglasses, since I broke mine in the car on the ride to the airport, at home. And wine and olive oil, of course. Plus gifts for the girls. I ended up getting a small red leather (very nice, too) purse for Ava, a very cute shirt for Juli, and simple glass-pendant necklaces and hard candy for both. I considered, but passed on, both a hat and a wallet. Allyson picked up a bunch of stuff, too, but was most focused on finding a red leather bag. Florence is definitely the place for leather bags, and she was wildly successful at finding one worth buying, in the same red leather as the one I bought Ava.

None of this was extravagant stuff, except maybe my Ray-Ban's, and most everything seemed haggle-ready at the shops we went into. Certainly at the open air market, they started you off with a discount, with plenty of additional room to fall as the day progressed. And the prices rose like the sun to their original levels the next day, to repeat the cycle again. It may have been this way for centuries -- who knows?

But I wasn't really there for the food or the shopping or the art or architecture. All of those made the venue fantastic, but I was there to connect. And happily, we did. Allyson and I have a really good dynamic -- a dynamic I've missed in the six months since she left, and missed even more after I dropped her at her gate at the Florence airport. As I said earlier, labels are hard to apply right now, and it's hard to see precisely where our relationship is headed, how it will evolve, and what parts of it will survive and/or thrive. It's even hard to predict where she'll end up, now that she's tasted living abroad and has easy access to all these fabulous destinations. Or where I'll end up, as I make my way through my divorce, the sale of my house, and the re-establishment of my career. The re-establishment of my life, in a sense, though I understand now more than ever that you don't ever really start over the way you might initially think.

What I can say is that it felt good to be there. And to be there with her. I'm hopeful -- I trust -- that as we continue to build separate lives on two continents, we'll stay connected. So that when we emerge on the other side, we'll have a pair of solid foundations upon which to build something new.

All for now,