What to even say about 2021? Quite a bit, honestly, but I think it’s best summed up by three small anecdotes.
On January 9th 2021, I ordered a complete Shimano Ultegra R8000 groupset for a customer excited to build up a new frame. While most items weren’t slated to arrive until March, some wouldn’t be available until as late as June. By now, delays were the norm and there was nothing I could do to fix that, so I apologized for the inconvenience and promised him we’d get it done as soon as everything came in.
Fast forward to yesterday, December 15th… when Shimano finally shipped the crankset we’d been waiting on to complete the build. Eleven months later. During which time a brand new 12 speed Ultegra groupset had not only been announced… but was starting to arrive at shops.
A husky bald man with a goatee opens the door and walks into the bike shop. Despite two very visible signs stating that masks are required for entry, he isn’t wearing one. Living in Greensboro, North Carolina, this isn’t that uncommon, so I do what I usually do: reach for the box of disposable masks we have next to the register and say “Hey man, how’s it going today? Sorry, but with the mask mandate, we’re asking folks to wear masks inside, so I’ll give you this. I appreciate it.”
To which he snorts, shakes his head, and says “Nah. I’m good.” I shrug and watch as he swaggers through a defiantly slow circle back toward the door, and as he pushes it open to leave, he says, without turning around, “You should put “sheep” on your license plate.”
Then he walks outside, slides his Oakleys down over his eyes from atop his pink head, pulls a GoPro camera out of his pocket, and I shit you not, proceeds to film an honest to god MAGA rant in our parking lot. Then he gets into his white SUV with a BMC E-mountain bike tucked into a One-Up rack, and aggressively peels away. (If any of you good readers happen to come across the resulting video, we would love to see it.)
Through some minute and bizarre permutation of habits, I somehow created a Pavlovian response wherein when I hear a toilet flush, I pee a little.
That was 2021 in a nutshell.
I wonder what glories 2022 will bring?
To be sure, there were triumphs. Overall we were up. Service was booming, and despite delays and gaps, sales were actually decent. But it all seemed to come at the expense of very long days… and a marked degradation of interaction. If I’m being generous, I’ll say we’re all just feeling the fatigue of the past two years. If I’m being honest, I’ll say that kindness and respect only work with people who are receptive to or capable of it. And some people… some fucking people…
While I spread my time pretty equally among trail, gravel, and road, the kind of riding I gravitate toward the most is… alone. Preferably long distances. Far away from here.
It’s not that I like or desire my own company. It’s just that the very nature of my work is social, and as such, I am always talking to or being talked at. So when I have the chance to just… be quiet… I take it.
And while I do occasionally find fleeting moments of succor in a stretch of road or trail that I’ve ridden too many times to count… for the most part, that kind of thing makes me want to crawl out of my skin.
Which brings us to…
Compared to years past, I had precious few adventures in 2021. I managed to sneak away for a week in August to explore Vermont with my family. And I came unhinged one weekend in the mountains with my other life partner, Rich, at Pisgah Productions’ PMBAR.
But mostly, I just worked all day, six days a week; sneaking in early morning trainer rides and, if I was lucky, one long solo jaunt on Sundays. The shop staffing, schedule, and general level of busyness were such that driving long distances to races was out, and my usual bug-out van trips were on hiatus. But in October, Tyler hit me up with an opportunity to travel overseas. His wife Kristi couldn’t make it, so I’d be his plus one. I didn’t even know the dates or details of the trip before I said yes. I’d figure it out.
So in mid-November, I joined Tyler and Thomson Bike Tours for 8 days of eating, drinking, and riding gravel roads across southern Portugal. It was beyond incredible.
I also managed to pull off a long weekend in late October to drive the van up to Connecticut for the 5th Annual Nutmeg Nor’easter. The weather and fall foliage were primo. And the riding and company were impeccable. More here, and more to come (maybe).
This was not the year of any real volume of cool new bikes landing on my radar much less falling into my hands. And as a shop we were lucky to receive even a smattering of our staples. But a few bikes stood out.
One of them being Wilde Bikes’ Steel Earth Ship.
“Tell me about Wilde, Jeff.”
“Watts… Wilde is me trying my very best.”
I’ve known Jeff Frane for years. Mostly in his role as former head honcho and brainchild of All-City Cycles. We’d cross paths at numerous dealer events, and I’ve played with his dog, ridden in his van, gone Moccasin shopping, and drank an entire bottle of Early Times whiskey, thrown up in a trash can, and had a good old cry in his rented house at Saddledrive one year.
So I was hugely dismayed when he parted ways with long-time employer QBP, but knew he’d end up doing something cool in the wake of that. About a year ago, I started seeing shots of Wilde Bikes showing up in his Instagram feed. I was intrigued. I’d loved what Jeff had built with All-City and knew that, whatever this was, I’d probably like it. And sure enough…
A lightweight, made-in-the-USA steel all-road/gravel frame built for long, fast days. It’s like he read my mind (but then omitted the part about an easy way to convert it to singlespeed).
Hey bud. You did good.
While I typically get to mess around on at least one full-suspension MTB every year, this go-round I got nothing. But if a Santa Cruz Blur, size large came my way, I wouldn’t be mad.
Look… I’m down. Without question, I would love to see every car on the road replaced with an E-Bike. The ability to commute by bike to work in the summer without requiring a change of clothes and shower is a game-changer. And I understand their use at bike parks to maximize time spent going down. And I’m all about ways to provide adaptive accessibility to cycling.
But I admit, I struggle with providing an easy out for able-bodied people just looking for a way to expend less energy when they ride the local trails. For me, an intrinsic part of the strange joy of riding a bike is the physical challenge. Take that away and I’m just cruising around on a quiet moped. And while I have no doubt that would be fun, and get that it’s some people’s thing… it’s just not mine. I’d rather climb a hill three times than descend it once.
Years ago, my friend Chris from Loose Nuts and I were discussing our brands and inventory, and he recommended that I bring in Compass tires. I was hesitant, for a few reasons. One: I live in Greensboro, NC, not Atlanta, GA, and at the time, even our wide selection of Panaracer Gravel Kings was a spicy meatball for this town. Two: I had (have) arbitrary but specific ideas about how I merchandise in the shop, and a plastic sack didn’t really mesh. Three: I was wary of Jan Heine. Was that fair? I don’t know. I mean, we all loved reading Bicycle Quarterly, and I’d never actually met him. But I was wary.
Despite that, not long after the name change to Rene Herse, we brought them in. Mostly road tires at first, to live that “supple life,” but to flesh out an order one time, I added a pair of Steilacooms. They hung on the wall for a month or two before I decided to go ahead and throw them on my own bike; because in general, I like to ride what we sell and sell what we ride.
I noticed it almost immediately: They rode really well. Like… really well. Which I honestly hadn’t expected. To look at them, you’d have doubts. Chunky, aggressive knobs arranged in what looks to be “baby’s first tire design.” But damn if it doesn’t work. The height and spacing of the knobs is such that the tires strike an amazing balance of great traction on dirt roads and confoundingly fast-rolling on pavement. I’m a convert.
Sorry for doubting you, Jan.
You mean outside of whatever you can get your hands on?
SRAM Apex 1: Seriously. SRAM. Apex. 1. Mechanical. Sure, the leapfrog action of Sram can take a moment to get used to. And you will definitely mis-shift when you’re climbing a steep hill and searching for that one more gear. But it’s accessible. It’s comfortable. And it’s affordable. And I have absolutely no shame in building out some of my own bikes with it.
Maybe upgrade your crankset to a White Industries G30 and pair it with some TRP Spyre brake calipers or better yet, grab yourself some forever Paul’s Klampers and you’ve got everything you ever need.
The Brooks Cambium has always been instantly comfortable for me, and I have some iteration on almost every bike I own, with two noted exceptions:
My mountain bike, on which I have an Ergon SM Pro, and my rust-covered, eye-twitch-inducing Raleigh International, (which I use exclusively to binge watch Parts Unknown while crying my way through a perpetual Trainer Road “build” phase on my Wahoo Kickr,).
In the spirit of inquiry, I decided to transition from an Ergon SR Pro to the relatively new Fizik Argo Tempo. It’s part of the new saddle paradigm of short and wide that numerous companies seem to be unveiling, and it has worked amazingly well. The 150mm width seemed ridiculous in theory, but worked in practice. The cutout, while conspicuous, doesn’t have that “prolapsed” feeling that some do. And considering I remain seated for the duration of most trainer rides, I’ve been impressed by the long-term comfort. So…
Ornot: Much to their likely chagrin, I love Ornot. The design. The fit. The mix and match tops and bottoms. The materials. The accessories. And they’ve only gotten better. It’s not always flattering on me. But then… few things are.
Hand Up Jorts: I don’t think I’ve worn a pair of shorts that weren’t cut offs in over fifteen years. Usually old pairs of Dickies or Levis ready to shuffle off their mortal coil as pants.
And maybe once upon a time I had strong opinions about buying pre-made cut-offs, (the kind of strong opinions that apply to denim vests from Hot Topic), but times change, and you realize some things matter and some just don’t. And, well damn, they fit great. But while I absolutely ride my bike in them, they aren’t my number one choice of riding short, simply because the crotch isn’t reinforced and you stand to wear them out quicker than you would like. But as my first choice for casual everyday jorts? Totally.
Similar to my steel gravel bike problem, I have a bit of an issue with bags. In that I like to hoard them. Handlebar bags are a particular weakness, made even more difficult by the fact that there are so many exceptional companies making them. But here are a few.
Due partly to the time of year, and to the fact that they’ve restarted their custom program, my current go-to bag is the Swift Industries Peregrine.
From quick trips to the liquor store to riding 50 dark miles over to Chapel Hill to see Daikaiju set things on fire with my friend Casey, to getting lost on 100 miles of dirt roads in Francis Marion Forest… it holds everything I need it to: Bottles of bourbon, changes of clothes, locks, hammocks, bottles of gin, jackets, sleeping bags, snacks, bottles of rye. It does require a front rack and decaleur of some kind, but that’s what steel forks are for.
Honorable mention includes the Road Runner Jammer, a great rackless alternative that will expand to fit almost everything I just mentioned.
And the Ornot Handlebar Bags Mini, which are the perfect summer bag.
KIND OF BIKE RELATED
Superfeet insoles. While I am undoubtedly feeling some elements of my age (acute hearing loss, vision degradation, a dwindling willingness to gamble with flatulence) most of my joints and limbs are fairing pretty well. Never mind that I had tennis elbow for almost 7 months this year (despite not playing tennis.).
But I stand up on a concrete floor a minimum of 8 hours a day. And that takes its toll. So to help myself out and still maintain my well-deserved outward appearance as a super-cool-guy, I have a pair of Superfeet insoles in pretty much every shoe I own.
Because I wasn’t doing much in the way of racing in 2021, I didn’t get to play with nutrition the way I typically do. But because I opted out of a 2019 and 2020 Editor’s Choice, I get to pretend that two years haven’t passed and tell you about what I would have told you if I had.
Untapped Maple Ginger. It was first introduced at Ted King’s Rooted Vermont in 2019, filling my bottles with mystery liquid at a rest stop and then getting a surprise a few miles down the road. I don’t know what I was expecting, but it wasn’t that. But I liked it. It reminded me of Master Cleanse.
What is Master Cleanse and how does it taste, you ask? Hmmm. A lot of you apparently didn’t work at health food co-ops throughout your twenties and occasionally partake in a liquid diet created by a man with no nutritional background which consisted exclusively of drinking fresh-squeezed lemonade combined with maple syrup and cayenne pepper for upwards of months at a time until you finally pooped out the elusive “rope”… and it shows.
You know. Like that.
Runner up: Skratch Crispy Rice Cakes.
Particularly Strawberry Mallow. Best enjoyed when the temperature is somewhere between the mid 50’s and low 80’s, lest you perhaps crack a tooth or it gets too melty and crumbles into oblivion. Delicious and easy to digest, and despite being likened by one friend to “eating a playground,” they’re a ride staple for me these days.
Just when it seemed like everything was played out and social media was finally, mercifully dead… one account shone through the darkness and made me feel something again. @bikepackingsucks – A much-needed departure from the noise of too many accounts DSLRing their perfect rides in gloaming sunsets, and every other person you know announcing, for the third time, that they’re “taking a break from this platform for their mental health.”
The posts can be sporadic, but when they arrive, even my perpetual Sartrean nausea is abated.
NON BIKE RELATED:
I have to thank my friend Jimbo (Time In) Malta for alerting me to Martin Sorrendeguy’s newest band, Canal Irreal. Having been in a musical rut at the shop that always seemed to morph back into the Wipers or Protomartyr, I needed something more primal and raw. This was it. Everyone in Greensboro remembers where they were the day Los Crudos played the Dick St. House in ’95. And if you weren’t there, you still felt the shockwave. This was a much-needed return to that energy.
Without a doubt, my number one top pick for 2021 is the current dialogue regarding the direction of cycling.
Dialogue covering very vast and nuanced ground as wide-ranging as representation of BIPOC riders, to how we treat Trans racers, to the very land we ride on, and who it rightfully belongs to.
And to be fair, this dialogue has always been happening, it’s just… too many of us weren’t paying the attention we should have been. And apropos to cycling, some of the voices and ideas are challenging and uncomfortable. And that’s good. Because as much as I yearn to romanticize riding a bike and what it means to me… the very act is almost the epitome of absurd. Compared to harnessing clean energy sources, or engineering the very programs we use to communicate day to day, or coming up with ways to effectively handle the massive effluence of human waste accumulating every second… balancing on two wheels is among the dumber tricks we’ve ever come up with. Fun, freeing, beautiful, and sometimes life-changing… but still often very selfish. And dumb.
So when people try to avoid heavy conversations by saying trite dismissive shit about “woke culture” or about keeping politics out of bikes or even saving women’s sports, I have to shake my head. Because we’re talking about bigger things here. About what it means to be human, and how we treat each other. About how we continue to evolve and grow as a community and species, especially in trying times. And remaining entrenched in the ultimately senseless myopia of how hard you or anyone else can ride a bike in a circle in the grass… just seems like stagnation. Let’s get talking.