Wednesday, May 30, 2018

Wrapping Up Another Year of Bike Commuting

I've reached the end of another school year and it's time for a look back to recap and assess my bike commuting numbers. Overall, this was a really successful year. I always start out the year by setting some goals - long-term, year-long, semester, and monthly goals - and this year I met or exceeded all of them, and managed to beat my personal records, too.

A foggy mid-May morning.
Back in August, I had thought reaching 100 days by the end of May would be a pretty good achievement for the year. If I was lucky and reached that goal a little early, then I'd set my sights on matching or beating my personal best of 111 days. Well, as it turned out, I reached 100 days by spring break at the end of March. I broke my record of 111 by mid-April. At the end of April, I calculated that I had a 75% bike-to-work average (down from a high of 90% at the end of November - but then, I always expected my average to fall during the winter, so 75% was still pretty terrific). At that point I made it my "final" goal for the year to keep my average at 75% or better through the end of school. Definitely "do-able" but not exactly a lock since I knew there were going to be several days in May when I'd have to drive to work whether I wanted to or not. With only a month left to go, there simply weren't enough days available to try to increase my average by more than a percentage point or two.

New personal record: 132 days.
So as of today, I have ridden to work 132 days for a bike-to-work average of 76.3%. At just over 28 miles per day, that works out to about 3722 miles, and I estimate that I've probably saved approximately 123 gallons of gas in that time.

Over the course of the past year, my best individual month was September when I rode 95% of the time. I only drove my car one day that whole month. The worst month, not surprisingly, was January - but even in that dead-of-winter month I still managed to average about 46% - or a little better than 2 days per week.

Since I started biking to work on a more or less "year round" basis 6 years ago, I have always had the long-term goal of commuting at least 50% by bike. There were a couple of years where I fell short of that, but by the end of last year I had managed to get my long-term average up to 50% (50.5 to be exact). With the personal record breaking numbers I pulled this year, my 6-year average is up to 54.7%. That works out to 16,300 miles that I did not put on my car.

Climbing a hill under bright sunshine with a shadowy
 riding companion on day 132.
I remember a couple of years ago thinking 111 days was going to be pretty hard to beat. Even last year, when we had the mildest winter I could ever recall, I "only" made it to 108. I have no idea if I can beat 132 - or if I can, how long it might take. Time will tell.

Type II Fun: The kind of fun that's only fun afterwards.

In all the years I'd been biking to work, the Greek goddess Pneumos (don't bother googling her) always seemed to have my back and I never punctured a tire. Well, even goddesses must sleep in occasionally because one frosty 20-degree morning in December I got my first flat tire while commuting to work. It was still dark outside, and I was on a hillside on an unlit back road about 5 miles from work. I feared I might not have time to repair it, and I dreaded the thought of even trying to do it in the dark on a 20-degree morning in December.

I got out my cell phone and tried calling work. At worst, I thought I should let them know I might be late and we'd need someone to cover my first class. At best, I hoped maybe somebody with a pickup or SUV might be able to come bail me out. Unfortunately I couldn't reach anyone. I was going to have to change a tire. In the dark. On a 20-degree morning in December.

The road I was on had no streetlights whatsoever, but about 100 yards ahead I saw a driveway with a little lantern light at the end of it. I hobbled on over to take advantage of what little light it could give me. Then I had to take off my nice, thick, warm gloves and set to work prying off the tire and changing the inner tube. Before putting in the new tube, like any experienced rider/mechanic knows, I checked the tire to make sure that whatever punctured it wasn't still poking through. I couldn't trust sight, so I ran my bare (but cold-numbed) fingers all through the inside of the tire and couldn't find anything. I put it all back together, pumped it up and I was off. Though I managed to change the tire in impressively fast time, I figured I only had about 15 minutes to get to work on time - so it became an all-out time trial to beat the bell.

I did make it - but noticed in the last half mile or so that my back tire was getting a little soft again. Obviously, despite my check, whatever punctured it was still in there. It held up well enough to get me to work though, and I walked in as the bells were ringing. No time for coffee. No time to change clothes. I taught my first class of the day in biking clothes. Sweaty biking clothes. I later spent my lunch break patching not one, but two inner tubes. You see, I always pack one spare tube plus a patch kit in case of the dreaded double-flat. This was one of those times when that bit of anal retentive overkill paid off. By the way, it took a lot of effort, but I eventually discovered that I had a tiny little shard of glass stuck deep in the tire - invisible to the eye and impossible to feel - but with each revolution of the wheel it would poke out from its hiding place for a moment then hide itself away again, eventually working its way through my tube. Sheesh.

Okay - on second thought - that story doesn't even qualify as Type II fun. Well, maybe the frantic race to beat the clock qualifies. The rest of it just sucked.

Wednesday, May 23, 2018

A Tour of the Cave

Regular readers know well that I'm a full-time teacher, and right now I'm wrapping up my 25th year on the job. The last 14 have been spent in the same classroom, which has been dubbed "The Cave" - partly because it is tucked into a weird nook in the building's lower level where my window looks out at a brick wall so we get no natural light - and partly because it is decked out like the "man cave" that I would have in my house if I was the kind of person who could have such a thing in his home.

With the summer break just a week away, I'm getting ready to start taking some things down to be packed away, and the real treasures will be taken home. Before dismantling everything, I snapped some pictures that readers might enjoy seeing. Not surprisingly (or maybe it would be surprising?) many things in the room reflect the same interests that are covered in this blog.

Ready for a tour?
As you enter the room, the first thing on the left side wall is this pretty red Mercian Strada Speciale. This bike was featured here in The Retrogrouch back in 2014. If you look at the wall above and behind the bike, you'll see vintage cycling posters (well, reproductions, actually) for Cycles Liberator, Cleveland, and Klein ("It could change your priorities").

Just a little farther down on the same wall, there is my green and red Mercian 753, featured here on the blog in 2017. Parked down below it is my non-retrogrouchy commuter bike, which I won't describe here (it serves its purpose well, but visually it's an abomination). On the wall behind the Mercian, you can see a '70s vintage Bell Biker helmet and a poster for the movie Breaking Away.

On the back wall is my coppertone '73 Mercian Superlight, featured on the blog way back in 2013. Hanging on the wall behind the bike is a poster of Eddy Merckx breaking the Hour Record (the poster was from Windsor Cycles, which was a sponsor of Merckx's effort and stuck their name onto his specially built Colnago - which reportedly pissed off Ernesto immensely). Yes, there is an old refrigerator door hanging on the wall too. We use it as a bulletin board. Look closely, and you might see an old leather hairnet helmet.
This is the only wall that doesn't have a bike on it. But there are more vintage posters - for Fernand Clement bicycles, Peugeot, and Clement tires (that black and white Clement poster is a classic - like something out of a Felini film). Below those is a poster for Eroica California, and a reproduction of the poster for the magazine Two Wheel Trip, featured in the blog back in 2014.

Up in the front corner of the room, above the cabinets and my desk, are a 1970 Schwinn Orange Krate, and a 1980s Mercian Professional track bike, featured here back in 2016. Sharp-eyed viewers will spot a poster for Cycles Titania, and if you're really sharp, you might see an old neon sign for Raleigh Cycles.
On this white board, I keep a tally of all the days that I ride to work. As of today, I'm up to 130 - a personal record. My previous best had been 111. With 130, I'm guaranteed to finish the school year with at least a 75% bike-to-work average.

Coming full circle around, and back to the door, there is this sign that used to hang in an old bike shop that I frequented as a bike-obsessed teenager. Al's Bike Shop closed some time about 20 years ago, but I got the old sign and a bunch of tools before the remainder of the shop was auctioned off.

There is obviously a lot of stuff on the walls and around the room. Posters and the like will just continue to hang where they are, while small items get dusted and boxed up for the summer. All the bikes will be taken home where they can be ridden. It's worth mentioning that the bikes that hang on the walls in my classroom sometimes change -- I'll occasionally swap out one bike from my collection for another to keep things fresh. But I enjoy having the bikes up where I can see them throughout the year, even if they aren't being ridden regularly during the school year.

Hope you enjoyed the tour!

Tuesday, May 8, 2018

Michigan Steelhead Ride II - Riding the Spine

Some readers might recall last Spring I took part in an early season vintage bike ride in Michigan, dubbed the Steelhead Ride (after the steelhead trout). This past weekend my friend Jim T., who organized the ride last year, had a "sequel" ride of sorts that followed the White Pine trail in Western Michigan - a trail some of the locals call "The Spine." I was happy to have the opportunity to make the trip from Akron to Grand Rapids so I could join in the fun again.

The White Pine Trail is a converted Rail-to-Trail that runs over 90 miles north and south through Western Michigan - from Grand Rapids to Cadillac. Though the majority of the trail is paved, there are sections of it that are dirt and gravel, and a little bit of a challenge on skinny road tires. Riders were encouraged to choose their bikes and tires accordingly. The route was chosen so that we'd get a full metric century - 62 miles - though in the end, most of us finished up with around 64 miles.

Having about a 5-hour drive from Akron to Western Michigan, Jim was kind enough to let me stay at his home for the weekend. The hospitality was excellent. I left right from work on Friday and arrived around 8 pm, where I found his wife, Maureen, had a bowl of spicy chili and a beer waiting for me. That was a great welcome.

Although Thursday and Friday had seen a lot of rain and strong winds, Saturday morning we got up to find ideal riding weather. Whoever had suggested moving the ride from April to the first weekend of May made a good call. We had brilliant sunshine throughout the day, with temperatures starting out around 60 in the morning, and ending up in the high 70s by the afternoon.

Our group gathered and headed out from Jim's house, which is just a few miles of road riding from the trail. The ride took us through the quaint and picturesque little town of Rockford, which has numerous shops, restaurants, and watering holes. It was a bustling place, and we saw a lot of groups such as wedding parties taking pictures by the riverside and its waterfall. We also passed through a few sleepy little villages, including Howard City where we stopped for lunch.

That looks like Gordy V. (on the right) and Marc I. on one of the paved stretches of the path. There's somebody behind Marc, but I can't tell who it is (unless Marc has a third arm I hadn't noticed before).
Tim, Steve, and Jason P. (from front to back)

Nice picture of the group on the trail. Tim Potter is apparently way better at taking pictures while riding than I am. (thanks, Tim)
Sand Lake is a sleepy little town. I understand they have a pretty nice 4th of July festival, though.
Howard City is dead quiet on a Saturday afternoon. I was standing in the middle of the main intersection when I took this. I didn't have to hurry.
After lunch in Howard City. The Pizza Cafe had good sandwiches and a friendly waitress. Not another soul entered the place the whole time we were there. The pizza place and the bowling alley across the street were the only places that were open. (photo from Tim Potter - or more accurately from the gregarious Harley rider we met there in town who used Tim's phone)
That's Skip M., Tim, and Mark A. (from left to right) on the gravel. 

And Marc on his Hunqapillar, and ride organizer Jim on his green Colnago.
Unfortunately I didn't get great pictures of all the bikes on the ride (sorry - I hope nobody feels slighted), but here are a few pics that came out pretty good.
Skip had this '60s vintage Peugeot PX-10 in the classic white/black (photo from Tim Potter).

Gordy brought this P G Wells - a framebuilder I'm not familiar with, but I believe he was a custom builder in Michigan (photo from Tim Potter).

Jason had this '80s vintage Miyata. Its red paint absolutely gleamed in the sun. He had some cool drillium chainrings on it, too.

Steve brought this great old Pogliaghi. We were all admiring the metallic orange paint with yellow accents.

Tim had this Louison Bobet which he had converted over to 650b. The burnt orange paint with cream panel and bands, and fantastic pinstriping made this one another favorite on the ride. This really got me thinking I need to find a nice old French bike and do something similar.

Marc (of the Simply Cycle blog) brought his Rivendell Hunqapillar. With those tires, Marc was probably thinking "Gravel? What gravel"?
I chose to ride my green and white Mercian with the barber pole paint scheme. If there had been any threat of rain, I might have taken my Rivendell because it's equipped with fenders. Given that there would be sections of gravel, I installed the fattest tires I could fit into the Mercian. It turns out that the frame was only built to accommodate 25mm tires, though it can handle 28 without any trouble. I decided even 28mm wasn't going to be enough. On a whim, I took some 32mm Paselas off another bike just to see if they'd fit. They did. I had no more than 1/8 inch on either side of the rear tire between the chainstays, and less than that under the rear brake. I also had no more than 1/8 inch of clearance under the front brake. All in all, had there been mud, it could have been a problem - but with the trail dry under full sunshine, it worked out fine. On the gravel sections I felt great and the tire volume really kept the vibration to a minimum.

Somehow, this was the only picture I got of my own bike.
Can't get any tighter fitting than that.

We encountered this little guy towards the end of our ride. He'd been riding with his parents, then when our group approached, he took off like a solo breakaway. His little bike probably only had 12" wheels, but he was making the most of them.

The White Pine trail is quite flat for most of its length, but I think Jim knows that I come from an area known for more hills (I've said repeatedly that it isn't a proper ride without a good hill climb) - so I think it was at least partly on my account that he worked at least one solid hill into the ride. In the last few miles of the route, there was a pretty steep road that crossed the trail. Some opted to skip the hill, but about half gave it a shot. We rode down to the bottom, then turned around to take it to the top. I'm guessing it was at least 15% grade in the steeper sections. Made me feel right at home.

We got back to Jim's late that afternoon where a big pot of sloppy joes, potato salad, watermelon, and beer were waiting for us - once again, courtesy of Maureen. It was a great way to end the ride. The gang hung out for a while afterwards with most of the conversation being bike related, with occasional dips into the serious (like solemn rides of silence) and occasionally to the absurd (like unconventional wart removal methods).

Although 5 hours is a long way to drive for a bike ride, it was great to get together with friends and make some new ones. All told, it was an excellent weekend visit. Jim's already giving thought to hosting a ride for next year with another route. If I have a suggestion, it might be to explore some of the (many) dirt and gravel roads that seem to abound in the mitten state.

Thursday, May 3, 2018

Ben Lawee Designed

If you were riding good lightweight multi-speed bikes (or ten-speeds, as we called them) back in the 1970s or '80s, there's a good chance that a guy named Ben Lawee had some connection to the bike you were riding. Lawee was an importer of a lot of popular brands from the bike boom of the '70s, up through the early '90s, and he took an active role in designing or spec'ing many of the bikes he sold. He had a good eye for quality and a good read on the marketplace.

According to several sources, Lawee was born in Iraq in 1926 and took a cargo ship to the US while still in his teens. He went to Columbia University in New York before moving to the West Coast as a sales representative for Joannou Cycles. That was Lawee's introduction to the bike business, and in 1959 he bought the Jones Bicycle Shop in Long Beach from its founder and namesake, Frank Jones. That shop had originally opened in 1910, and Lawee expanded the single shop into a multi-store chain. Though eventually sold off to other owners, the last of the Jones shops just closed in April of this year.

Some say that Lawee wasn't satisfied with the quality of bikes that were coming into the shop, so he got into the business of importing them himself. He imported Legnanos and Bianchis from Italy, Raleighs from Britain, and Motobecanes from France. His influence was probably greatest with Motobecane, for which he was the US distributor. Lawee helped make Motobecane one of the best production bikes coming out of France in the '70s. In a recent thread on the Classic Rendezvous group, many people who were in the bike biz back in that decade remember that the quality of Motobecanes -  brazing, alignment, paint, and component choices - was generally a step above the competition, and that probably had something to do with Lawee's influence. I recall reading in the blog from Velo Orange that Motobecanes were also a favorite of that company's founder, Chris Kulczycki. Many vintage cycling fans have fond memories of the brand's black, red, and gold color scheme, which is generally considered a true classic look. Under Lawee's guidance, Motobecane was also one of the early adopters of Japanese components which generally worked better than the more traditional European-sourced parts from the same period.

Motobecane Grand Record image from the '73 catalog. The bike came with a mix of French parts and Campagnolo derailleurs. The black and red with gold accents was (and still is) a great look. They also had the Grand Jubilee (with Huret Jubilee derailleurs) that came in almost the reverse scheme - flamboyant red with black panels, and the gold accents.

The real lust-worthy machine was the Team Champion - all orange like the bikes used by the Motobecane Bic team. The catalog makes sure to point out that Luis Ocana won the Tour de France on a bike like this, but it's generally accepted that Ocana's bike was built by someone else and only painted/decalled for the sponsor. The rest of team probably rode actual Motobecane-built bikes though. These were truly limited production and had really nice hand-built details (catalog image from

Early in the 1970s, Lawee created a new brand - Italvega (the name could be translated to something like "Italian star," but the catalogs said "The brightest star of Italy"). The frames were built in Padua, Italy by the Torresini shop, with components picked by Lawee. Torresini was the same shop that built the Torpado brand (that name roughly comes from abbreviating TOResini PADua). Italvegas have a fairly small but devoted following, as the bikes were nicely made and equipped, but most models generally don't command super high values in the vintage market, so they can be great bargains.

Scan from the 1976 Italvega catalog. The top-of-the-line Superlight was all Columbus tubing and Campagnolo and Cinelli components. Many of the components, such as the crankset and the brakes, were drilled out -- drillium right from the factory (photo from It's worth pointing out that Torpado also offered a model called the Superlight that was similar - but Lawee's Italvega version was distinguished from the Torpado by going much farther with the drillium.

There is a great set of pictures of this model on the ClassicRendezvous site.
Just like Eddy. I personally get a little squeamish about drilling brake calipers, though these holes were rather small (but they had to count them all. Now they know how many holes it takes to fill the Albert Hall).

By the end of the '70s, Lawee moved his Italvega production to Japan, and at that point the name was changed to Univega. Most Univegas were built by Miyata, at least through the earlier half of the 1980s, but specifications were generally picked by Lawee to distinguish them somewhat from Miyata models. Some time in the mid '80s production started to move to Taiwan, but the earlier Miyata-built bikes are generally more desirable.

Early on, the Univega line was still very similar to the Italvega lineup, even keeping many of the same model names. Over time they started to diverge more. In this 1984 catalog, you can see the Specialissima - an Italian-sounding name on a Japanese grand touring bicycle that was pretty similar overall to the Miyata 1000. Nice bikes, if you can find them today.
Ben Lawee's impact on mountain biking often gets overlooked, but he truly deserves a share of the honors for introducing inexpensive (under $1000) production mountain bikes. Along with Specialized's Mike Sinyard, Lawee saw the appeal and market potential of mountain bikes fairly early on. In the same year that Specialized introduced the original Stumpjumper (priced around $850), Univega introduced the Alpina Sport (priced around $650, maybe less).

This near-mint original condition Alpina Sport was spotted on eBay earlier this year (seller "thoures"). Like the Stumpjumper, it spawned a whole range of mountain bike models, and a lot of competition.
Although Italvega production moved to Asia and became Univega, Lawee took another stab at Italian-built bikes with the Bertoni brand beginning around 1980. It's a little unclear what shop actually built the frames. I've read posts on some of the forums online that the Bertoni bicycles were built by Bianchi, but I don't necessarily believe that is true. Build details on most Bertonis that I've seen - such as the seat-stay/seat-cluster area - don't match up at all with Bianchis from that era. More than likely, those claims stem from the fact that Lawee had previously been a Bianchi importer. I'd say it's possible that the bikes were sourced from a couple of different contract-building shops, depending on the year or the model. BMZ/Biemmezeta is one such shop that comes to mind. Billato is another possibility - but in any case, I'm just taking some guesses. At least one model was almost identical to one from Daccordi, while another had an aluminum frame that was pretty clearly built by the same shop that built Vitus aluminum frames (which were marketed under numerous brand names).

Bertoni bicycles mostly had Columbus tubing and investment cast short-point lugs. Rounded seat-stay tops (on most models) joined at the rear quarters of the seat lug. They were a little lighter on flash (no drillium) than the Italvegas, but things like chrome forks and chainstays were available. Like most Lawee designed/spec'd bikes, they offered good bang for the buck.
So, how does this story end?

Ben Lawee retired from the bike business in 1996 at age 70 when he sold Univega to Derby Cycles, the parent company that also owns Raleigh. As far as I can find, the brand is no longer available in the U.S., but it is still active in Europe and the U.K. The current Univega website mentions Lawee in their "History" page, but they incorrectly claim that he started Univega in the early '70s without mentioning that the brand actually started out as Italvega. Lawee died from stomach cancer in 2002, but his influence on the bike industry is worth remembering.