25 April 2010

Just about a bike: Rock Lobster Singlespeed [UPDATED]

3.3:1 gain ratio, 44.9 gear inches
My old Rock Lobster is pretty damn cool if you ask me: a fillet-brazed steel frame built quite early in the career of one of the founders of our sport, Paul Sadoff, in Santa Cruz, California, way back in 1985, the year I graduated from high school. According to Paul, it's the sixth mountain bike he ever made, that's why it's stamped 06 on the bottom-bracket shell. 

For the record: I bought it back in 1995 from it's second owner, and have always run it as a singlespeed.

Because of its vintage it's got a few neat old-school features, like a braze-on behind the seat-collar for a Hite-Rite, and a couple braze-ins on the main triangle for a portage-strap. To accommodate the shoulder of the portager, the bottle cage mounts are both located on the down-tube.  Otherwise, in terms of design details and geometry, the bike is decades ahead of its time.

It's a blast to ride, though a bit of an ass-kicker, too, to be honest.  Nevertheless, to this day, I ride it a lot. It's about as simple and elemental as riding a mountain bike in the woods can possibly be. I think this is why I ride it as often as I do. Such experiences have always crumbled my cookie.

My buddy, Mark, who I bought the bike from in '95 got it about a year before that from guy named Michael, who was the original owner. Turns out Michael was a friend and neighbor of Paul's back when they both lived in Santa Cruz in the '80s.  Michael, who's now an NAU Geology prof and a semi-regular customer at the bike shop where I work in the summertime, once told me that Keith Bontrager himself cut-down, re-rolled, and laced the front wheel.  But other than Michael's compelling provenance, and the small "The Bicycle Trip" sticker on the rim, I have no real, substantial proof of that interesting little bit of history, which really is too bad.

When I first got this bike it was blue and the frame decals were peeling a bit at the corners.  It's still blue.  And the frame decals are still peeling.  But please don't assume I've let the bike languish.  I haven't.  For one thing, I took off the incredibly-huge original quill stem and substituted a new, custom-made, significantly shorter, and slightly taller Rock Lobster quill stem, chiefly so I could get a set of WTB/Nitto Dirt Drops into more-or-less the right place.  When I contacted Paul to order the stem (by telephone, ya see, 'cause this was in, like, the 1990s, back before teh internets tubes were invented) he was super nice about making sure I got the right stem for this bike ("It's gotta be fillet. Can't put a TIG'd stem on that bike.").  He even sent me a nice handwritten note along with the stem, all about when he built the bike and what kinds of tubes he used to make the frame... and also a few suggestions as to how I might choose to light it for formal museum-quality display.

I built a new rear wheel for it a couple years ago.  All by myself.  No, seriously.  I did.  I even put fancy anodized gold and blue spoke nipples on it... and I got the every-other nipple-color thing right... and I got the hub-logo direction thing right... and I got a whole bunch of other things right, too. 

The wheel I built is a Surly fixed-free flip-flop hub on a Mavic something-or-other hoop.  I've got it set-up with an easy-climbing 34x20 gear on both sides, which is a great singlespeed gear around these parts, but a fairly low fixed-gear gear for anywhere that isn't dead flat.  But still, sometimes I ride it fixed in the woods anyway.  Mostly, though, fixed off-road in Flagstaff is just stupid-hard and no fun, no matter what gear you're running.  So, really, I usually ride it as a singlespeed, and coast a lot and do bunnyhops and smile and have fun and stuff on downhills... and just talk-tough about how awesome riding fixed-gears on singletrack is. 
But, really, it's not.

Here are some other pictures of me having fun riding this bike:

  • In May 2010 I noticed a crack in the Rock Lobster's seat-tube.
  • In July 2010 I sent the frame back to Paul to be repaired.  
  • He returned it to me, fixed, in early September 2010.  He refused to accept payment for the repair.
  • I had it repainted in October 2010.
  • Since that time, I have replaced the old Suntour cranks with a much prettier set of Cook Bros. and installed a Thompson post instead of the well-worn Kalloy.  The portage-strap, which I made from a piece of an old back-pack (and for which, as noted above, there are braze-ins installed on the frame) comes and goes.
  • In September 2016, I replaced the dropbars with a stylie set of 28" wide chrome-plated genuine Nitto Bullmoose bars and a pair of super-giant old-school Shimano M762 brake levers. Cool!

  • In June 2019, I replaced the Bullmoose bars with a fairly generic 680mm matte black Answer Alumilite handlebar with a nice rise to it and some good sweep, too. Just for fun, at the same time, I also reinstalled the "the incredibly-huge [160mm!] original quill stem" which hasn't been on the bike since the day I bought it back in 1990-something.  Likewise, the super-giant Shimano M762 brake-levers were traded during this update for a period-correct pair of gently-used SS-5s, black with the plasti-dipped handles, natch.
  • In October 2020, I replaced the 160mm stem with a custom fillet 130mm Rock Lobster stem, put the Shimano M762 levers back on (again. They work much better with the BR-MT62 cantis) and reinstalled the Hite Rite. I also fashioned a new leather portage strap from an old belt and installed it using the original braze-ins on the top- and seat-tubes. 

18 April 2010

The wild telegraph poles of Dry Lake Hills [UPDATED]

I spent much of my childhood walking around in the woods looking down at my feet... wandering in the forest that surrounded our one-room family cabin near Walker, Arizona, in the heart of the Bradshaw Mountains south of the town of Prescott... looking for stuff. 

The Bradshaws had been mining country back in the old-days, long before my time there, beginning in the 1860s. And the remains of hundreds of mining operations, deep shafts and dark adits, gigantic mountains of poisonous yellow tailings (some now successfully reclaimed), trackless rail-beds, winding narrow roads, and old abandoned homesteads and their correspondent piles of broken stoneware, glass, and rusting metal were all abundant features on the landscape near our cabin.  Our place itself was part of an historic mining claim, and subsequently, while we owned the deed to the land for some 40 years, we never did possess the actual mineral rights.

I brought a lot of stuff back from my early wandering excursions around our cabin... cans, crocks, tools, and the like... and put it all under the front stoop, where it continued to rust and moulder, just as it had been elsewhere.  But it seemed the right thing to do at the time... to bring these curiously old things back with me and give them a new place... where they could regain some kind of utility, perhaps... if only as a young boy's novelty.

When I was in fourth grade I got my first motorcycle.  On it I was able to wander much further... Typically alone, but occasionally with my brothers in-tow, I was able to follow old roads and rail-beds much farther, was able to ride up and down way more and bigger mine tailings, was able to throttle aimlessly for hours at a time through what seemed to me to be a nearly endless woodland.  My objective was still to explore old mining operations, but now I brought much less back with me.  More and more, my compulsion grew toward simply finding things, not necessarily to retrieving or possessing them... just being out, nowhere, finding old places and old things... seeing them as they were left in-place so long ago... that was enough.

I'm still compelled like this.  But when I first moved to Flagstaff, I was puzzled.  The woods around here aren't like the woods around Prescott.  The woods here give up their secrets much more slowly, and often only after both figurative and literal layers of duff and detritus are carefully cleared away.  Here human history has taken a different path than it did further south.  Rather than the Bradshaw's granite rocks marbled with veins of silver and gold, the mountains near Flagstaff are volcanic... so there's almost no history of mineral extraction in the region.  Instead of miners, native people, first... then much later sheep herders and foresters... settled this country.  Like all people, they left a mark on the landscape.  But to an eye trained to see mines and tailings and abandoned roadbeds, learning to spot sheep camps, and potsherd, and tree blazes, required a lot of relearning.

I'm still learning.  After years of wandering around in these woods, I'm getting a little better at identifying old stuff.  Today, for instance, while I was out riding, I was forced, due to snow, to stop my ascent at the West Elden climbing area, just a little below the junction of Lower Brookbank and Middle Oldham trails.  As it happened, I stopped near an old telegraph pole (see E, below) that I've noticed, while riding past it, many times over the years. It looks just like a tree at first glance, but it's been shaved of its bark, hewn at a a sharp angle at the top, and has a couple large bolt holes drilled into it.  Easy to miss, but definitely not just a stump.

Thanks to excellent regional historians like Platt Cline and Donna Ashworth, I'm aware that the Upper Oldham trail... and thus probably some of the lower sections of the Elden Lookout Road, too... was part of a mule-skinners supply route for the fire tower at the top of Mount Elden in the days before the road was built.  I've always assumed that this pole followed the original alignment of the mule trail and functioned, long ago, as a communication line, and perhaps also as a power line for folks staffing the tower.

Before today, I was also aware of a second, much taller pole located some distance below this point, down on the Rocky Ridge trail.  This pole is easy to miss too, being, well,  also rather tree-like.  But it's definitely not a tree either.

So, today, rather than leave the trail, hike through the snow, and continue to ascend on the freshly graded road... something I will have plenty of opportunities to do as the season progresses... I decided to head back down, but through the trees instead, not on the trail, heading toward the other pole, to see how many more poles I could locate between them.  Following an almost straight line, crossing the road at one point, I was able to find 5 poles in all.  I took pictures of them, as some kind of proof, I guess, with my lame-but-undeniably-handy phone camera.  Five old poles and a fine sense of personal satisfaction. Just another Sunday in the woods.


Where the poles go in either direction above or below points A and E, I don't know. A task for another day.

UPDATE Feb. 2015: The wild telegraph poles of Dry Lake Hills (part two)

10 April 2010

What Josh Saw

My friend and Absolute Bikes coworker, Josh Kelly, of Josh Kelly Racing Inc. fame, took this picture about a week ago up on Mount Elden somewhere near the summit.  I've been riding locally a lot more regularly lately (home through the woods after work, most Saturdays, sundry Sundays, you know...), but I haven't been up that high yet this season. Not because I haven't wanted to ride up the Lookout Road, but because I simply haven't been able to find the couple hours needed to make the round trip.  Maybe tomorrow I'll head up... Hate to think I might miss out on seeing these 8-foot snowbanks for myself. [UPDATE 12 April: I never did make it up the mountain this weekend... rode out-and-back on a nearly bone-dry Rocky Ridge on Sunday instead... but another pal, Chris rode up and he got an equally impressive picture of the Mt. Elden snowbanks.]

In other news: Got a small article about Mount Elden in the current issue of Mountain Gazette, #166.  It's the same piece I submitted to them not quite a year ago that they didn't pick up at the time.  Nevertheless, the editor was kind enough to actually hang on to it and, for whatever it's worth, he decided to run it in this season's annual pedaling issue.  I'm a genuine fan of Mountain Gazette.  It's a great, readable, interesting magazine whose writers and photographers never fail to captivate me.  As proof of my convictions: I've got two of their old covers matted and framed in my house (see below)... not because I was in either of those issues... this is the first time they've published me... but because they're just such awesome, evocative images.  I'm seriously thrilled to finally be able to say I've been a part of their magazine.

MG #125 MG #118
May your trails be crooked, winding, lonesome, dangerous, leading to the most amazing view. -- Ed Abbey