Of Husbanding The Will: Part II

By: Chris Harris May 17

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Of companions, then: they affect the will in certain ways. Exactly one year ago at this writing I unpacked my car at the Sherando Lake camping grounds. It was two o’clock in the afternoon, and I had prepared myself for a tough ride. Instead of one climb and one descent as was usual, I was going to try two climbs and descents with a ridge section, for ardor’s sake. Why not? The total mileage would be forty or forty-five miles of mostly singletrack. The hardwoods on the valley floor, mostly red maples and post oaks, drooped with pollen and tender foliage, and I thrilled at how restricted my view was of the forest on account of spring. I’m defeated when, in January, say, the setting sun blasts the forest, stripped of all its leaves; and though I can see for hundreds of yards all around me, I feel such acute isolation. I prefer the dense, insulated singletrack of summer.

The fireroad, whose numerical designation I now don’t recall, is typical Shenandoah: red and ochre clay, limestone, deep green laurel and pine, brittle needles on the trail surface and the smell of balsam and pollen everywhere. Though not hungry, I forced myself to eat one of the date and almond bars I had brought. I reminded myself not to drink too quickly, but to do so in mouthfuls, one every so often. I thought I might refill my bottles at a spring if I could find one. I recalled that two years before I was on a ride with a different friend, exploring a trail system miles and miles north called Wolf Ridge. After washing the sweat off our faces and arms in a ridge top spring so cold as to seem barely liquid, this friend found a patch of small vegetation—little, brilliant green leaves just tall enough to be visible above the loam. He plucked a leaf and started chewing. Wintergreen. I tore from the ground and chewed my own leaf, which tasted not like mint, but more like sap and camphor and menthol.

It is rare that when riding alone I stop and interact with the world. But as I chewed the last inch of my bar on the Sherando Lake fireroad, I thought that while I was resting I might look for wintergreen. I should halt for a moment and actually allow myself a bit of the romance with which I’m always plying my imagination back at my desk. Here is the world; I should do more than try to ride through it as quickly and purposefully as I can. So I searched a bit and found a plant I took for what my friend showed me (wintergreen looks remarkably like laurel seedlings, and shares its habitat with that plant). I pulled one up by its roots and took a bite. There was that unmistakable piquancy, spice and fume, and for a moment I forgot about riding altogether. I pulled out my camera, even though I had just taken a shot of my bike sitting in the arbor of pine and laurel, and documented my little primal scene.

I know now that I was more than a bit concerned that I would not physically be able to finish the ride I had planned for myself, though I did not then admit it. But at that moment on the trail I was feeling able, quite able, to finish the ride. So I rushed through Big Levels. It is not a beautiful trail, it must be said: at the beginning, a shattered school bus has been hollowed out and covered over with graffiti; and the trail itself, a washed out tear of double track, is exposed and battered, sagging with stagnant pond-sized puddles. Up there on the ridge top, though it was mid-May, the trees were still bare. It was an eerie reminder that winter was not far gone, maybe not completely.

Wagner is the perfect soundtrack for this kind of ride. There’s great texture to the music, great dynamic range, great cliffs and ravines, happiness and sadness. I take him along when I can give him three or four hours at a time, not less; on this ride I played Tristan und Isolde. By the time I reached the third act of my ride, the third of four, the sun was behind the ridge and I was struggling in the gloom on the eastern side. I reasoned that I could expend my reserves of energy climbing “Mills Creek,” a trail that gains over one thousand feet in less than a mile, and simply hang on, exhausted, down the singletrack descent to my car. I had an hour to ride roughly fifteen miles of trail—I would be in the dark a while, but what’s the matter with that? At the spot on Mills Creek where my wife and I found the rattlesnakes, I stopped to change the music. I chose Falstaff, and started singing Sir John’s and Bardolfo’s parts as loudly as I could. There was no audience. About halfway up the notorious Mills Creek switchbacks, I ran out of gear.

The sun set. The wind picked up. I could not see the trail two bodies’ length away, so I settled on taking the section of fireroad—the one on which I had my little sensual interlude with the wintergreen—in reverse, back to the Blue Ridge Parkway. The road was my only resort. Once on blacktop, everything I did felt so slow and ponderous. I couldn’t seem to go fast enough, even though I had my feet perched on the crown of my fork going flat out downhill, even though I was trembling from the cold, and even though I couldn’t see much of anything in the dark that had come on so startlingly quick. I refused to believe it. I called my wife with one signal bar showing, still roaring downhill. The cranks spun and flashed beneath me like blades in the glare from my phone.

I am ashamed to say that I stood in the middle of the Parkway when I saw approaching headlights. I stood and waved, but the car swerved passed me. An instant later it stopped. I ran to the passenger-side window and, exasperated, explained myself as calmly and politely as I could. The car was an ‘eighties vintage Buick or Chevrolet, and inside there was rubbish piled on the floor where a passenger would put his feet. The rear seats were stuffed full of indecipherable objects. The driver, softly illuminated by the red glow of the dashboard instruments, wore glasses—that’s all I can remember of him. He listened, now glancing at me, now at the road ahead, as I said that I could use a lift to the bottom of the ridge. He said that he couldn’t fit my bike in his car, so good luck. I must have panicked a bit. I must have broken my composure, because, though I didn’t say anything to him, he didn’t pull away. He didn’t speak either, but sighed. He sighed again and told me to get in. I stashed my bike in the woods near an overlook and clacked back to his car in my cleats. The car was perfumed by warm air from the heating vents that stank of many years of cigarette tar condensation, but the velour felt good on my back and backside.

“I didn’t want to pick you up because there was a murder on the parkway last week.”

I waited for some kind of punch line.

“You don’t look like a murderer, but you never know,” he said.

I wondered whether he was himself the killer, and was being ironic, having a game with me before he let on that I was about to be a victim. But he started talking about his personal history instead.

“I grew up in Afton, and every so often, there’s a murder or a suicide or something up here. I don’t live in Virginia anymore. I’m just down for a weekend with old friends, camping and fishing. It was random: a couple stopped at the overlook where you left your bike, and someone just shot them.”

I was relieved to be off the bike, not really listening to the guy from Afton wearing glasses. I decided I should want to have a conversation with this man, but really I wished the trip were over already and I was back in my car, alone.

“I have a nice house in Pennsylvania now, not as big as I could have here, but nice. I built a swing for my son. My wife’s a nurse.”

I kept it up, a façade, a decorum, with this person who had saved me a lot of trouble, trouble I had brought on myself. Perhaps I acted well enough that he didn’t notice I was tired, hungry and miserable. I wanted to call my wife, but I thought it would be rude to do so before the car ride was over. I nodded and nodded, affirming whatever he said as he spoke.

“I wanted to leave for a long time, ever since high school. The people here are fucking ignorant, rednecks. But now that I’ve been gone a while, I miss it. But only sometimes. The fishing’s not that good.”

He pulled into the lot where I had parked my car that afternoon, but not very far into it. I got out, thanked him and shut the door. He implored me not to ride on the Parkway in the dark again, which didn’t seem like absurd advice at that moment. I took my Sidis off and drove barefoot up the mountain to fetch my bike.


Of Husbanding The Will

By: Chris Harris May 2

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Part I

This subject I have dwelled on for some time and words, it romances us in various ways. The Spring Classics are now all but over, and with them goes the weeping and gnashing of teeth, the slip of water and minerals that polishes and wears us down, the swelling chest, the swaddling tights and jackets; and for all that, it’s still the best time of year for some cyclists I know. To ride a bicycle is always, in the end, a solitary and personal act. Ours are interior moments, peculiar to each. No one turns the cranks for me, and no one shares the feeling that my quadriceps are being pumped open with concrete at each revolution; no one is ashamed of me when I sit up and soft pedal awhile. And yet, therein is the sentiment and origin of this romance: I cannot escape the image of Narcissus or Eve, reflections, a fascination with one’s self. And we have much, much more to which we can look forward. We watch, imagine and enact what we see. I am talking about the Giro first, then that other race, the French one, and finally, the Iberian jaunt for which I usually can’t be bothered, so hot and sweaty is the East Coast late-summer.

But I am already out ahead of myself. As I get on with life (I am now thirty), I feel the animal in me wishing for spring in a way I never did as a younger man. I like the idea that I can once more do some spring cleaning. Has my fitness abandoned me from disuse? I can wrestle it back. Is that a painful exercise? Yes, and there are moments in which winter’s straw beard scours my cheeks and snow is on the tulip flutes, but each time I put on my heavy gloves I think, this is the last time for the year. March is the month for character building. April, in New York, is the month for further character building.

I can look back at the soggy-socked days, the numb-fingered days and the mucus-crusted days; I can wash the salt and sand off my bikes; I can replace what has been reduced and leveled; and what have I gained for my expense? The object demands much material and never repays in kind. We need analogy, we need metaphysics, unless we are to say that our muscles have grown and that is all. And all roads lead to New York City, which is to say, to the same subject, as my Original once wrote. It is repressive for me to calculate, even perfunctorily, what I have spent in keeping my steel, plastic and rubber fresh and intact only to do so again, and once again. I have taken to photographing some of my rides, especially those on the mountain bike—here perhaps, is some proof that I have ridden. The body can’t be relied on, for it has eleven speeds yesterday, ten this morning. We allow the will, the trope I have at hand with which to describe my impulse to ride, and we allow it much: it seeks that romance with the world, the feats the body is capable of performing, despite cost. I love to ride, but what do I love having ridden? I suppose it could be said we’re only as good as our next ride, a confusing and metaphysically difficult idea. That would be to say that life is all metaphysics: “life, as it is, in the intricate evasions of as.” We turn to sterner friends who say, “life only avails, not the having lived.” But in what measure?

Just before I turned twenty I moved to Charlottesville, Virginia. Those who wish to drink from the fount of Jefferson, I say the well has been corrupted; I once got thrown off the premises of Monticello because I had dared to ride in on the service road aboard my bicycle. I took my own tour, pretending not to notice the security guards who shepherded me out with their electric carts. I have no particular love for Jefferson’s politics, but it’s a shame to see the man’s ghost trotted out wherever and whenever the parlor trick’s convenient. In any case, Jefferson’s Virginia is the slipper fit to the Appalachian foothills, a region called the Piedmont. There is, however, no neighbor Val d’Aosta, no tartuffi bianchi, no Barolo—I have heard cabernet franc is passable there and one can strain a living out as a cheese maker with a few grass-fed heifers. There are the poor in large numbers, but they crust the edges of town or blight the city discretely here and there.

Do I digress too liberally? On a ride through Prospect Park a couple days ago, I had the good fortune to talk with an Italian who had lived and raced in Milan as a junior, and he related his experience climbing the Passo di Mortirolo, the Passo di Gavia, and another I can’t recall, all of them in a single stage. The conversation had started on the fear some cyclists have (and the fear the rest will surely one day acquire) of descending. The Gavia, this Italian said, was terrifying because of the breadth of the road and the absolute speed—over ninety kilometers-per-hour—one can reach, but it’s the single lane, tortured and twisted through fir forests, of the Mortirolo that makes me tense with adrenaline even as I type in my dressing robe. Speed is a relative quantity, and once I’ve been rolling at fifty miles-per-hour for a period, especially on a generous road, I’m at home as it were. I like a choice of lines, to change from one to another whether deliberately or obliquely. The narrows, the rock and hard place, the blind bend with oncoming traffic, the patch of mold and slime beneath the boughs that overhang the road just at the corner’s apex—they will devil you. It was only after I considered these two descents and chose the Gavia that the Italian mentioned an acquaintance of his who had rear-ended an ambulance on the alp and was killed instantly. It’s a crude irony, but the anecdote is against complacency, even when the road is wide, the vistas great.

We’re not quite ready for the Passo This-or-That, not quite. Back, then, to Charlottesville. Drive East on route 64, clear Afton Mountain and the southern terminus of Skyline Drive, turn off the highway and head south, and from there, Sherando Lake is not far, perhaps twenty miles. It is a system of trails I have known for ten years now, one that I return to as often as I can. On most occasions my wife and I would go together, make a day of it and do some casual exploring, for I have only once attempted a tour of all the park’s arteries, a circuit I will discuss later. In most cases we would arrive late in the morning, the summer in full heat and bloom, and pick a route up the ridge and a trail back down, about fifteen or twenty miles in total. My wife likes to hit her cadence, whatever it is, and keep it up, while I prefer to find scenic and technical stretches of trail at which to stop for a photo. In the past, my wife has suffered from a condition that makes exercise painful for the first hour or so, and when riding together we often bickered as the grade increased. All the same I wanted to encourage and guide her since she kept the pain to herself and cranked the harder for it. We twice happened on timber rattlesnakes baking on the shale and loam trail surface, scaring us out of our concentration. My wife is not afraid of poisonous snakes. In truth I should not have condescended to hershe likes a rock garden as much as I do. I would be lying if I said that while I asked her if she were all right to keep riding I wasn’t simultaneously preparing to dismount the bike. “I’m fine, ride,” she’d say, and I’d have to keep on.

So often I’m alone. One Thanksgiving weekend I posted an open invitation on a local mountain biking forum to join me at Sherando for a holiday ride. No one showed, and, exasperated, I rode by myself. Remembering that afternoon, warm for late November, the sun brilliant and low, the leaves roaring under me as I descended—how foolish I now feel since I had not told anyone where I was going and for how long. And how absolutely stunning that on more than one occasion I have decided in what manner I would spend the night in the pines on one of Sherando’s frozen ridges. I’m ashamed to say that foresight does not have a vote in my senate when I’m dressed in my gear and I have but to get on the machine and start the effort. I may give second thought to riding alone because I prefer company, even bad company, to none at all if it’s mountain biking, though I’ve had companions so miserable or self-conscious that I try and keep them in earshot only and rarely stop.

I like a breakfast of words before I start writing, to have some mental company; this is not, from what I have gathered being among my contemporary writers, common. Montaigne said of Plutarch, “It vexes me that I am so greatly exposed to pillage by those who frequent him. I cannot be with him even a little without taking out a drumstick or a wing.” Here’s the greatness of the man and the reason I can’t be without him. And yet I feel no particular vexation; besides reading him in translation, his essays are so complete and human, so full of contradiction and halitosis, he is copious enough for all my misuse. He prefers the harmonic to the melodic, and I share that with him: “It is the inattentive reader who loses my subject, not I. Some word about it will always be found off in some corner, which will not fail to be sufficient, though it takes little room.” What is greater than “variation, and more so the more casual and accidental they seem”? Perhaps I emulate Plutarch twice removed, but I can feel myself applying Montaigne’s personal yoke of studying the Romans. I don’t want to study them. Besides I’ve just finished Chapman’s Homer, a monster child of the premodern and ancient. The monsieur from Aquitaine and black coffee for now, thanks.


NAHBS Part IV: Perfection In Paint

By: Chris Harris Mar 27

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I thought I recognized Joe Bell, or JB as he is known to his friends and colleagues in the craft, in a back corner of the show talking with Dave Hill of Victoria Cycles, and I waited as he finished what I imagined was an intimidating, professional dialogue. Joe is tall with parted gray hair, eyeglasses and large features. Next to him was a young man, his apprentice I assumed. As they left the Victoria booth, I gathered up what counterfeit journalistic courage I have (I am not a journalist to be sure), and excused myself for asking if he was in fact JB. I recall him countering, “Do I look like Joe Bell?” “You look a bit like Bruce Gordon,” I said. Joe laughed and said he sometimes gets mistaken for Gordon, another long timer in the California cosmos of hand built bicycles. I was taken aback by Joe’s tone—it would be a candid interview, then, despite my fears that Joe, who is by all accounts among the very best and most sought-after of painters, would be aloof or affected. He is not. His affectation, if he has one, is humorous and good-natured.

And our conversation was off without me knowing it. I asked how he decided from which builders he would take frames. “They’re the ones who called,” he said. It was becoming clear that I was quite confused in my assumptions. If it is as simple as making a call, why were so few frame builders taking advantage of Joe’s expertise? He’s expensive, that’s why, and though he does retain an assistant (Nick, who does all of the work of preparation before Joe paints), he can only paint frames for so many hours during the day, or in Joe’s case, night—he mentioned he keeps strange hours in his shop, often working late into the night, which is a benefit of being his own boss. His queue has become deep over the years, and consequently, one has to wait and one has to pay for the JB decal on the non-drive side chainstay.

I approached Joe with my little notecard-sized press badge hanging like a talisman from my neck, knowing I could play it nonchalant if Joe didn’t want to be bothered; but it was my intent to meet the man and discover a bit about his personality. If I were sent away, it would be as a pressman, not a foolish, embarrassed admirer. But that is what I am: custom bikes and their aesthetic and functional minutia are what I think about most of the day. And there is no NAHBS without paint. The builders, the ones with the heroic tools of the trade, the ones who partake, even if only approximately, of the machinist tradition in this country, the ones whose names or brands emblazon every gleaming frame at the show, they are the ones who get the awards. Save one. There is a single award given every year for “Best Paint.” But paint is hard to learn, Joe said, after the jokes and false modesty. “It’s harder than frame building.” He described the lack of opportunities for education and the difficulty someone would have trying to start painting. As a craft, the kind of painting that Joe does is much more exacting, much more laborious than the sculptural frame building one. He said that a builder brings a frame to ninety percent and the painter takes care of the rest. It was clear as he spoke that he did not mean that a builder does nine tenths of the work; rather, the painter sauces the dish, gives it character and vitality, and that last ten percent is the most difficult of the whole process.

For all the vats of chemical flux and bottles of acetylene, for all the speck free, back-purged tubes, nothing compares to the toxic hazards and the weird bulb-lit rooms of the painter. I asked Joe if he was superstitious, and while he said that he wasn’t, he mentioned some “psychological” quirks associated with his craft. Spraying Imron day after day in a booth, determined to uphold one’s standard that many have called perfection—that must either amplify one’s sense of humor or pique one’s anxiety. I got the impression that Joe responds with equal parts irony and sincerity when it comes to the challenges of work. “Lack of ambition has kept me where I am,” he said, only half kidding, I think. Yet, it must be a kind of superficial, Wall Street ambition that he lacks. If being good at painting bicycle frames is a modest success, Joe seems perfectly satisfied with it. He mentioned his “twenty-five years of attrition;”and it’s undeniable that Joe feels rewarded for his hard work, even though he prefers jocularity when it comes to discussions about himself. “We’re honored” to work with builders, he said, as I shot a photo of him and Nick. It was, I think, a moment of complete sincerity on his part.

Patterns emerge. People I talked with in Austin began to say similar things and reveal like backgrounds. The builders working with steel form a sort of fraternity whose motto might be something like “precision in art.” And yet I found that it’s the painters who truly can’t tolerate a sloppy shoreline or ugly combination of paint colors. And so it must be said that despite Joe Bell’s reputation for outspokenness and bohemian nonchalance, the work speaks otherwise. Jason Sanchez, who is also tall, speaks so softly at times I had to lean in close to him to hear, as if we were in a gallery. He usually has a couple days growth of gray and blonde stubble on his face, and at the show, he looked a little uncomfortable in his sweater over an Oxford—a little like a kid at some function whose formality is unfortunate but necessary. I had met him earlier in the month at his workshop, a mortuary house converted into retail and commercial spaces. I was there to have a look at my new frame, freshly painted and glossy emerald under the powerful fluorescent lights. As Jason loosened the nut of his fixture and took the frame from is booth, he explained the process of masking the three “Ellis” logos, each of which were a combination of gray and burnt orange on the green field. Jason shares with Joe what he calls a “character flaw:” a dogged urge for perfection. He often speaks quickly and with disregard for his listener’s lack of knowledge, and so there were many times during which I could not perfectly understand the details. I like this type of conversation because I am not condescended to, even if I can’t fully appreciate every point.

And like Joe, Jason has a tremendous sense of humor that nevertheless does not become obnoxious. He can be very sincere, even serious, when called for. When I asked him how he came to painting, he described an interval of his life punctuated by difficulties. In ’92 he was rear-ended in a’66 Volkswagen Kombi bus, and decided that he should repair and repaint the damaged car himself; shortly thereafter, the health food restaurant where he was cooking burned down, and he was left without anything to do. And so he developed his do-it-yourself ethos. He got some training in BASF finishes (and some probably much-needed structure), and he then went into the automotive paint industry. But having talked with him, it’s obvious to me if not to himself that Jason is a solitary craftsman, and I can’t really imagine him working in an automotive shop. Scattered around his workshop are half-finished fine arts projects, and posted on the walls and on the two massive doors that once opened on the building’s crematorium are silk screens and old advertisements. The artistic curios meant to me that Jason needs freedom and the privilege of choosing his own direction that comes from working on one’s own. Like Joe, he takes his time and charges what he must to make the job worth his while. His tradesman’s education gave to him, he said, the idea that there is a right way to paint according to the media one is using, and then there are all the other wrong ways. And “you can know the right way to do something, but can’t do it during the week,” and so you never improve. It’s a mixture of artistic talent and curiosity with observance of rules and continual work.

When I asked Jason which of the bikes in the Ellis Cycles booth most showcased his work—Jason paints only Ellis frames at the moment, though he is interested in working with other builders—he couldn’t decide. It seems he, like the best artists I know of in any genre or medium, likes the still-wet frame best. Without moving from where he stood in the middle of the booth, he pointed at the gorgeous randonneuse that would go on to win “Best Road Bike” honors; he described the way he masked the stainless headtube lugs using language that was both technical and spiked with neologisms of his own coinage—I remember him calling the fringe-like layer of paint that overhangs the tape “falafel.” Imaginative and strenuous both, then, like any good artist or craftsman: “If I shovel a sidewalk, it has to have a sculpted edge,” he said; “I have to round the edge of snow before I can stop.”

Jason then embarked on another metaphor for the way he works: he recalled those wonderful Hubble deep space images, the ones with multiform, multi-thousand galaxies that range in appearance from spirals and discs to pinpoints of star-like light. He said that he enjoys finding pattern and definite shape from what seems like chaos. I imagined him cutting a nice, dark channel in the two feet of snow that had recently fallen on Milwaukee, its walls perfectly vertical, the edges beveled, taking maybe an entire afternoon to do it and not noticing. The thought made me want to drop in on Joe to perhaps witness what else he shares with Jason. As Jason finished his masking disquisition, and with my interview with Joe Bell still fresh in my mind, I asked Jason why he didn’t have some kind of decal or painted-on logo indicating that he had painted the Ellis bikes. He said that he didn’t want his name anywhere on a painted frame (he has recently begun to media-blast his name on the steerer of the frames he finishes, hiding his mark in the headtube), but that the work should and does speak for itself. A Sanchez-painted frame has about it a subtlety that, with close and careful observation, reveals a perfectionist’s attention to the minutest detail. And he echoed Joe’s comment about being honored: “The bike deserves it,” Jason said.


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