Buying a bicycle as a spiritual journey

I pedal quickly, practicing my spinning. The road has a gentle decline and the trees are a dingy orange-brown, typical of the early spring after the snow is gone but before the green buds begin to take over the landscape. I remind myself to take a deep breath, smell the fresh air, and experience the moment. It was early in day one of our three day trip to southern New York State to test ride and hopefully purchase bicycle for our Grand Adventure.

I had been rather anxious and stressed lately. I had not been sleeping well; my dreams filled with worry over all that still needs to be done before we can depart on our trip. A few days ago, a friend inquired about when my car would be for sale. That is when it began to really sink in. We are actually going to do this trip! Adding to the need to sell my car, I was at the end of a six-month contract. Once that finished, I would be working full-time at packing up the house and preparing for the trip.

A big area of concern for me was the lack of a decision regarding bicycles. At the best of times, I do not handle uncertainty well. That may be one of my greatest challenges on this trip, the uncertainty that is necessarily part of a long bicycle journey. Regarding bicycles, we liked the idea of riding on recumbents, but were not certain it was the right approach. We decided to make a pilgrimage to the BicycleMan in Alfred Station New York to try different types of recumbents and see if they were right.

On Wednesday, April 2, 2008 after work, we packed up the car and headed towards Alfred Station. Our plan was to drive most of the way there, spend the night in an inexpensive hotel, and then arrive at the store shortly after it opened on Thursday morning.

We arrived at the hotel after midnight. I was exhausted. I was both excited and afraid. I had grand expectations about the bicycle shopping experience. I was afraid that the experience would be negative and that we would not find the right bikes. I was afraid that my excitement was leading to unrealistic expectations, which in-turn, would lead to disappointment. At one point, I turned to Scott and told him “I need to remember to enjoy the experience.” I needed to put all my hopes and dreams of the future aside, and enjoy each day for what it was. I decided that I would take the one-day-at-a-time approach to this bicycle shopping experience.

Thursday began with bright sunshine and crisp air. It was hovering at around 8 degrees Celsius (about 45 degrees Fahrenheit). We arrived at the bike store at 10:30 am, after a 90 minute drive. After two cups of coffee, my brain was focused on finding restroom facilities!

The Bicycle Man store is in an old school-house on a busy street. We walked in the front door and were greeted by a shop packed full of recumbent bicycles. There were at least 60 different bikes, with many different designs. There were three wheeled tricycles (trikes) and two wheelers; bikes that were low to the ground and others that were higher up; long wheel-base bikes and short wheel-base bikes, and there were even a few tandem bikes too. There was definitely a wide variety. I scanned the room, looking for the one brand I was familiar with, and tried to make sense of the chaos of other bikes.

After a minute or two of looking around, Titus, one of the mechanics, appeared from the back of the store to greet us. We provided him with a brief summary of our trip and told him we had come to test ride bikes. I asked for advice on which bikes to try out. Scott also listed the specific bikes he had researched prior to coming. Scott had done a lot of research before coming and he had several email discussions with Peter about bikes to test ride. In addition to the bikes we had on our list, Titus recommended that we try out the Linear Limo 3.0 (Linear), which was manufactured at the store.

I asked about where we could test ride. Titus suggested the church parking lot across the street. He also said if we wanted a little longer stretch to ride, that there was a quiet side street about 200 yards down the road to the left. I was immediately concerned. We had come a long way (six hour drive) to test ride bikes. I was expecting to be able to take bikes on longer test rides. This did not align with my expectations. I reminded myself that this was just the first step, and I had to take it one step at a time, and just enjoy the experience.

After a quick trip up to the local service station (the Bicycle Man does not have running water, and the composting toilets were not yet open for the season), we headed out on our first test ride of the day. I had an HP Velotechnik StreetMachine (StreetMachine) and Scott had an Oracle Omega Tour (Omega). We necessarily started out on the church parking lot, as riding a short wheel-base recumbent can take a little while to learn. We quickly graduated to the side street which was just over 1 km long.

Once we completed riding the side street, I wanted to do a quick change over between bikes. I saw that the Omega and StreetMachine were very similar. I wanted to do an immediate comparison while the memory was still fresh. We returned to the bicycle shop and looked for assistance. There were other customers at the shop now, keeping both Peter (the Bicycle Man himself) and Titus busy. After standing around in the shop for awhile, the bikes were reset and we were ready for our second test ride. Titus came out of the shop and brought out a Linear for us to try as well.

The second test ride did not go well for me. I got the bike to the church parking lot only to discover that the chain was so long that it was getting caught against itself at the back. I had to walk the bike back over to the shop to see if it could get reset. I caught Peter’s attention briefly and he recommended that I only use certain gears. I decided that rather than taking such a restricted ride, I would try out the Linear. So, our second test ride of the day was Scott on the StreetMachine and me on the Linear.

We did a third test ride, with me on a RANS Rocket before stopping for a late lunch. I felt like we were spending too much time standing around in the shop and not enough time actually riding bikes. I felt that we had a lot of ground to cover and not a lot of time in which to do it. I was afraid that we would not find bikes in the next two-and-a-half days and that we would return home without having resolved which bikes we would ride on our trip.

At lunch I shared with Scott my concerns and my desire for a strategy for after lunch. We were aware that the weather for Friday was not favorable for test riding, so we needed to make a preliminary decision that day. We decided that after lunch, we would focus on trying the bikes that were on the list Scott had put together.

I reminded myself constantly to let Scott take the lead in this decision making process. He takes a lot more time to make decisions, carefully researching and thinking through the alternatives. I am more impulsive and not always happy with the results. So, I tried my best to let this decision occur at Scott’s pace not mine.

After lunch we returned to the shop. There was a delay before we picked up some different bikes to ride. Titus asked us which bikes we wanted to ride. I was looking for advice on what we should try out, but to me, he did not appear confident in his recommendations. I did not feel that he really understood what type of bike would be best for our tour. It became clear later that Peter was the best one to answer a lot of our questions about the different types of bikes. Titus helped us a lot in setting up bikes for us, but he didn’t have the same background on the different bikes (and the various trade-offs for each bike).

I was feeling the time pressure again, and wanted direction from the experts at Bicycle Man. I did not feel like I had the time to just randomly try bikes, rather, I wanted my test riding to be more structured. So, in the end, we used Scott and Peter’s list to determine which bikes we would try out.

We did three more test rides after lunch. During one of these rides, I paused a moment to take a deep breath. I reminded myself again to enjoy the experience. In that way, bicycle shopping is like sex. If you spend all our time worrying about the final goal, you miss out on the joy of the experience. If you instead, spend your time focusing on enjoying the entire experience, when you reach your goal you are much more satisfied.

In one of our between ride breaks at the shop, we met Bryan, the editor of ‘Bent Online. Bryan mentioned that the Oracle Omega City (City) was a smaller version of the Oracle Omega Tour and that it might be easier for me to try. Scott really wanted me to try an Oracle Omega, so we setup the City to fit me. I took it out to the parking lot for a short spin. It didn’t work for me, I couldn’t reach the handle bars. I also found the seat to be uncomfortable and the built-in headrest banged against my helmet.

Near the end of the day, we concluded that we preferred under-seat steering, and had a short list of two bikes: the StreetMachine and the Linear. Our next step was to take the two finalist bikes out on a more challenging test ride. We wanted to try the bikes out on dirt roads and hills. We were thinking of the more rigorous ride for Friday, but Peter encouraged us to take the bikes out Thursday evening to avoid riding in the rain on Friday. He directed us to a hilly gravel back road and let us take the bikes out just as the shop was closing. We were to return them to his front porch (next door to the shop) before dark.

Our final test ride proved to be a challenge. The hill was rather steep, and I was surprised at how difficult it was to ride the bike up it. Part of the challenge was that you were riding slowly, which meant that it was much more difficult to balance. I actually fell over when trying to start the StreetMachine when going uphill. The good news is, the fall was not nearly as traumatic as a fall off my diamond frame bike. It was much easier to “roll” while falling, which significantly reduced the impact on my poor body!

The down hills were interesting too. I found that the Linear (with its long wheel base and no suspension), would cause a vibration on the washboard that made my eyes go fuzzy. The Streetmachine with its full suspension could bounce over the washboard comfortably, but when the frequency was just right you would bounce too much and start to lose control. Fortunately, this was easily solved by applying the brakes slightly, so that you didn’t hit that resonance speed.

The end of day ride was delightful. Although the Linear was a nice ride, we both preferred the feel and maneuverability of the StreetMachine. From my perspective, we had made a decision!

Friday morning we awoke to a lot of rain. We lazed around in bed for a while before dragging ourselves up and preparing for another day. Since it was raining, we were not going to be riding; however, it was a great opportunity to hang around the bike shop and get our many questions answered.

We spent most of the day hanging out at the shop. I reminded myself to relax and just enjoy the experience. Peter, Keith (the service manager), Bryan, and Titus were all there. We spent the day chatting about a variety of things. Stories were shared about bicycle touring and totally unrelated topics like computers and military service. Throughout the day, I found myself discovering new questions and receiving great advice. I don’t think I would have learned nearly as much if I didn’t spend the time hanging out. Peter was interrupted every time the phone rang. Often the questions asked by the caller prompted a series of questions from us, or story from one of the guys at the shop.

Near the end of the day, we reviewed the price sheet for the StreetMachine. The weather report called for beautiful weather on Saturday, so we planned to go on a longer ride. Peter warned us that the shop would be busy on a beautiful Saturday. Keith drew us a map of a route that was about 45 km long, that involved rolling hills , a long gentle climb and a steep downhill. At 6pm we were kicked out of the shop as it closed for the night.

That evening, Scott spent a lot of time debating. He didn’t think I had given the City a fair try on Thursday. In discussions with Peter and Bryan on Friday, he saw that the handlebars could be raised several inches from where they were, so he thought the bike could be adjusted to fit me better. Scott found the Omega’s ride to be comparable to the StreetMachine, the Omega was much less expensive, and it was made in Canada. I think the latter influenced his opinion more than he would admit.

On Saturday morning, I agreed to give the City a try. If I could make it fit, we would try both the Omega and the StreetMachine on a longer ride. I was still hesitant and a little frustrated. I had thought we had made a decision, and I really didn’t want to waste time test riding something that I didn’t like. However, I reminded myself that this is about being certain, and if Scott had doubts, I had to ensure they were addressed. So, I agreed to give it a try.

My second City test ride was longer than the first. I did ride it the full length of the side road. The handle bars were raised as high as they would go. I found I could reach them much better, but a slight stretch was still necessary to grasp them fully. With the seat adjusted to my body, it still didn’t fit as well as the StreetMachine. Also the headrest was still very uncomfortable with my helmet on. The headrest could be chopped off, but the other problems were harder to fix. Perhaps the bike could be made work for me, but I really felt that it was a compromise. I didn’t want to compromise when I knew there was another bike that fit better. We decided to give up on the Omega and go back to the StreetMachine.

When we got back from our test ride, several other customers had arrived and the shop was starting to feel chaotic. Scott and I setup the two StreetMachines and took off for the 45 km ride that Keith had recommended. Scott setup his bike with a pannier full of bricks, so that he could feel how the bike rode with a load.

The long ride was glorious. The rolling side road had almost no traffic. The rolling hills provided me with an opportunity to discover how a correctly-adjusted seat back could be used for increase power when climbing hills. Riding down the hills was exhilarating. I love the feel of the wind on my face, especially when the air is fresh and free of pollution. When the side road ended we joined along a busy stretch of highway, which had a good shoulder. Although the road was not nice, it provided a level of confidence that we could ride on busier roads.

Then there was the big climb. The hills seemed to be going up forever. At one point, Scott got a little bit too close the soft shoulder and fell over. Fortunately, it was not a far fall and he was not hurt. We continued on the climb, for what seemed like forever (about 8 km). Once we reached the top, the trip down was an adrenaline rush. It was all downhill with many different turns in the road. I was glad that we did not climb in that direction, as the downhill was much steeper than the uphill. Forty-five minutes of climbing was reduced to less than 10 minutes of downhill.

When we returned, the shop was even more chaotic than when we left. Titus had left for the day, and Peter was the only person in the store. There were at least five different customers trying out a range of bicycles, and Peter was being pulled in many directions at once. We chatted with several of the customers and shared our experiences, limited as they were.

Scott spent some time with a lady who had a stroke two years ago and was back on a bicycle for the first time. He helped adjust her handlebars to get better control. She was struggling with turning but having a grand time enjoying the experience. Scott also had difficulty turning with the new recumbent he was trying, so he was able to share that learning to turn wasn’t necessarily easy on a new bike. He said later that the glow on the lady’s face was one of the highlights of the weekend for him.

At the end of the day, we agreed that the StreetMachine was the right choice for us at this time. We would figure out the details over the weekend and place the order on Monday, which coincidentally was the seventh anniversary of our engagementJ.

I am really glad we went and I am really glad we spent three days there. I am also glad that the weather was awful the second day. The time we spent hanging around the shop allowed us to get to know the people there much better than we would have if it was busy or if we were out riding the whole time.

Bicycling shopping provided a short insight into one of the lessons our trip will bring us; the need to slow down and enjoy the experience. We will need to remind ourselves to for live for the day. The past and the future are there, but they are not today, so do not regret the past or worry about the future. I have spent too much time anticipating and imagining this trip. I need to let go of my imagined trip so I can enjoy the actual one as it happens.

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