Monday, November 3, 2008

Waking Up to Coyote Ugly

Those of us who have been adults long enough to not have a future to dream about spend a lot of our lives in wistful, romanticized yearning for some simpler time, or a better time from our past.

I feel that way now and then about my early days of discovery in cycling.

From time to time, a new hobby or pursuit grabs me almost violently, and I immerse myself into it with frightening abandon and sheer, unregulated joy. I lose sight of reason and lose track of time when I get that way. And I lose control of my wallet, too.

Cycling did that to me when I rediscovered it in midlife. I couldn't stop yearning, learning, discovering and trying new stuff. Bike porn consumed my every waking moment. I had yet to discover that Performance's "sale" price would still be the same in next month's catalog, or that Bicycling Magazine recycles the same stupid articles every two years. If I had my way back then, I'd have 20 road bikes by now.

Things settled down a lot after I got my Bianchi 928 and upgraded it (wheelset, crankset, stem, bars, saddle) almost to the point where I couldn't justify spending any more. It's all the bike I'll ever deserve, and probably all I'll ever need until I get so inflexible that I'll need a custom Seven with a top tube that's as short as a head tube and a head tube as long as a top tube. Yea and verily, I have stopped lusting in my heart for titanium, and I no longer covet other men's carbon (except carbon that says Zipp on it).

It's liberating to finally accept that an $8,500 bike with full Dura-Ace isn't going to win you any more races than a sweet but affordable frame hung with Ultegra. But it's kinda deflating, too, when the Competitive Cyclist catalog loses its allure -- just like it was when the Victoria's Secret catalog did sometime after kids came along. I'm a little too ... uh, compliant, I guess.

Yet along came mountain biking and WHAM! I was erect again, leering at all those hot models! (Gary Fisher Hi-Fi, Trek Fuel, Santa Cruz Blur, Specialized Epic ...)

Mountain biking, like vampy young lasses in skimpy satin underwear, is best when it's idealized and just slightly (or entirely) out of reach. When it's real instead of fantasy, odds are it'll turn out mean and hurtful, and will disappoint you by leading you on with winnowy curves and blind corners -- then drop you like a rock, onto rocks, just when you think you're having fun.

In both cases, we either never see the crashes coming, or we deny that it'll happen YET AGAIN, because this particular ride is going to be sooo much better than the last one that broke our heart-slash-fibula. Eventually, and usually only after a lot of time and experience, we find something comfortable and realistic for the long term, settle into a nice singletrack rut and start enjoying it all and flowing along with it as it comes. Or so I'm told.

For better or worse, I found a hidden reservoir of youthful stupidity and irrational, neo-hormonal exuberance regarding mountain bikes.

It's as if I've time-warped back to my early days of road biking, when I was either riding, or spending money on riding, or reading about riding, or picking expert riders' brains. My work and my home life suffered. I was chasing after ghosts (lost or misspent youth, maybe?).

Lately I'm close to being there again -- at the point where I have a dangerously low level of knowledge and way too much enthusiasm, like a teenager in a hormone surge, or a hedge-fund manager in 2007. It's an intoxicating state, but a dangerous one.

I'm also kinda hedge-fundy in that I've spent way too much time lately poring over Craigslist, the PD classifieds and eBay for that stunningly undervalued MTB investment. I'm way overextended and on the cusp of a horrifyingly uncertain future. Yet here I am, spending half an hour a day in a far-flung fantasy. Maybe some old guy gets mad at his sponging Boomeranger for being too shiftless to get a real job, but not too broke to buy a Gary Fisher and, on this particular weekend, to go to OSU and get drunk and go to a football game. So pissed-off Dad decides to throw the sponge's bike up on Craigslist and has no idea that the bike he's offering for $200 is worth $2,000. In this fantasy, I wind up like someone who just bought a 1994 Toyota Camry with 3,000 miles for $1,000 from the proverbial "little old lady who only drove it to church on Sundays."

My obsessions and all of these negative-energy forces all converged a couple weeks ago.

That is, I bought a mountain bike. An absolute steal.

It is a used Schwinn S-20. Do a Google search, as I did when I saw that Craigslist ad, and you'll see that the Schwinn S-20 was a mid-range FS bike ($1,300-$1,800+) about a decade ago that got rave reviews -- often called "better than bikes costing a grand more," etc. Some veteran riders on posted reviews of it as recently as a few years ago saying they still love their old S-20 better than the full-suspension bikes they've bought since. "Climbs like a goat, descends like a downhill bike ..." Et cetera.

Maybe not today's state of the art. But I'm not, either. And here was one on Craigslist for $60. It had a coil spring, and the stock fork had been replaced with some piece of junk that didn't even fit. But it looked and sounded absolutely more than adequate for my purposes. Sounded sick, in fact. The more I read this baby's online praise, the more flushed I became. Some dumb fool is kicking a babe to the curb and not even realizing what he had?

Within an hour or so, I had talked the guy down from $60 to $50 and I was popping the wheels off to put the bike in my trunk. I felt giddy, but a bit guilty, at the thought that I'd just taken advantage of someone.

I don't know whether the seller felt the same way or not.

Now, I'm dumb about today's MTBs, much less those from a decade ago. So I didn't realize when I bought it that Schwinn has since turned the S-20 into a downmarket bike. Way, way down. Like, hole-all-the-way-down-to-China down (quite literally).

My buddy Wrench did, though.

I had stripped the rear D and shift/brake levers off, then took the bike and the kids over to Wrench's workshop a couple hours after I bought it. The junk fork on it didn't really work -- the guy gave me another fork with it, but it was threadless and the headset was threaded. So I went out to have Wrench put a cheap threadless headset on the bike. (The seller had also thrown in a stem and a pair of bars. So if he could put the headset on, I could build the thing back up.)

And I was pretty intrigued by my deal, so I excitedly asked Wrench if I could eventually upgrade what I thought was the late-20th-century 7-speed stuff I'd pulled off of the bike to 9-speed. He wasn't sure I was serious. He first looked at me like Mr. Spock -- raising one eyebrow out of curiosity about the workings of this inferior life form's brain. Then, un-Spocklike, he showed some emotion. In fact, he adopted the kind of pitiful compassion we usually reserve for the retarded.

"Look: It's 7-speed," Wrench said softly and apologeticallly. "It's got stickers that say 'Shimano-equipped.' And it's got a kickstand mount. It's a Wal-Mart bike. '"

No way, I told him in a weak line of defense. I read on line that Schwinn stopped making this bike in 2001, and that was way before they started selling in Wal-Mart. I granted that the bike might have been turned into junk by owners that stripped it mercilessly. But it couldn't be a Wal-Mart bike. Too old. Right?

A subsequent re-run of the Google search back at home found some links to the old S-20 that, unlike the reviews I'd seen earlier, actually had pictures. Alas: Radically different bike. And no one bothered -- anywhere on the vast Internet, that I could find -- to note that Schwinn has since bastardized that marque and I'm probably the only dumb bastard to get suckered by it. I was feeling worse about it with every passing minute, the way a fellow might when he wakes up and the girl next to him, stinking of stale booze and cigarettes, coarsely says, "It was fun. Now where's my $200?"

(She was a HOOKER? I know I was really wasted, but I thought she just really liked me!)

Maybe it was out of sympathy that Wrench installed the fork and overhauled the bottom bracket and wouldn't take any money from me.

But it is my project bike now. Wrench put in my new $25 headset and slapped the old (10 yrs?) Marzocchi Bomber Z2 fork on it. I added a new Shimano Acera (towpath-grade) rear derailleur. And I moved the shift-brake levers from my hybrid and ran new cables. It's junk, of course. But it'll do the job for now.

And most of the parts are compatible with my old hybrid -- right down to the derailleur hanger. So at worst, I wind up with a bunch of spare parts for a bike that I seriously abuse by riding in the snow etc. and rarely cleaning up.

So it wasn't a real bad mistake. In fact, the $115 I put into it probably saved me from spending seven times as much later that same day.

Here's how:

I went out to Performance to get a couple brake cables and housing ferrules for The Mighty Schwinn. There I saw -- and almost bought -- a bike so sweet that it hurt to walk away from it. (Please don't tell your buddies about it, because if there is any way I can come up w/ the money after X-mas -- selling a road bike, maybe, and the Mighty Schwinn -- I'd like the bike to still be there.)

It's a 2006 Iron Horse Azure -- about a $1,700 bike (MSRP of $2,100) -- that's been gathering dust -- yes, it literally has a coating of dust on it -- for so long that the dealer has cut the price in half. It only runs Deore and some unremarkable Manitou shocks front and rear. But it also has the dw-link suspension, and everything on it can be upgraded as needed. (The same frame, with X.0 or XTR hanging on it and better shock/forks, sells for $3,000 on up elsewhere.) Performance wants $899 for this one -- and I could get it for $809, or maybe even less.

I rode it around (albeit on a parking lot). It was like the first time I made out -- Terri Holzem, freshman year ... whew! I could hardly feel a thing when I hit the bumps, but I was still breathless.

Back to the bike: I turned square into 5" curbs -- sitting and standing, up and down -- just trying to feel it buck me, and it sucked everything up. And I jammed the pedals with as much torque as I could muster on flat ground and felt almost no pedal bob. It was just sweet. And sub-30 lbs.

I might not ever be able to spend $1,500 on a mountain bike, and couldn't even rationalize spending $500 -- I'll probably only ride the damn thing 20 or 40 times before I get crippled or bored. I've got no disposable income, and had spent all my meager birthday money (my racing age is now 47) on my other bike folly and a new-to-me pair of MTB shoes. And my friends at Bike Authority sponsor me and my team very generously; it would be a bit underhanded to go buy a new bike at another shop. Right?

Those are the things I told myself. Still, I had a hot model calling to me, offering herself to me, and I was all agog. It had to be a once-in-a-lifetime. And I had a credit card.

I walked away, though. I regretted it for half of the next few thousand minutes, but I knew it was best. Deal of a lifetime or not.

Then again, this is the 20th bike deal of a lifetime I've seen, in only the lifetime of a six-year-old. Hopefully, if I'm ever flush again, there will be another deal of a lifetime. I'll be 66 or so when my kids finish Catholic schools, and 70 when they're both done with college. But who knows? Maybe by that point I'll be into freeride and downhill instead of cross-country. I'm heading in the wrong direction already, after all.

- JN

1 comment:

Ray Huang said...

You thought you went to bed with Charlie's Angels Farrah Fawcett, but woke up with 2008 Farrah Fawcett. The hair color was the same, but very little else.