Reflections from the River

Outdoor gear guru

March 10, 2023 Bill Enyart

Gear Guru of the COBBC

I’ve had a backpacking, bicycling and anything outdoor gear guru for the past four decades. He is the self-acknowledged leader of the COBBC bicycling club, a group whose average age is well over seventy and whose membership thinks nothing of driving a thousand miles to ride bicycles and recumbent trikes hundreds of miles while sleeping in tents.

COBBC, by the way, stands for Cranky Old Bastards Bicycling Club. There are no dues, no application process and admission is solely in the discretion, or lack thereof, of the Great One, sometimes known as Dad for his even greater advanced age than other members. He’s not our Dad, it’s just one of the nicknames guys bestow upon each other.

We can refer to him henceforth as G.O. Short for Great One. Also short for General Officer as he is a retired Air National Guard Brigadier General.

G.O. has led me from seeking to acquire the lightest tents, lightest backpacks and warmest, lightest sleeping bags at the lowest possible price, to a life of seeking the fastest bicycle aging legs can propel. All, of course, at great expense. My basement is littered with backpacks, mountaineering stoves and multi-tools that I no longer use but cannot bear to part with.

The memories they bring back of scaling the fearsome slopes of Mount Washington, site of the worst weather in the world, despite its relatively modest height, to facing my fear of heights on Colorado fourteeners (that is mountains taller than fourteen-thousand feet) make that equipment too precious to dispose of.

Because we have a relatively large basement, which my wife seldom ventures into, the backpacking gear sits on the furnace room shelving waiting to be pulled back into use, as the bicycling gear threatens to crowd it out.  Spare inner tubes, helmets replaced with newer, brighter, lighter ones gather dust, as the charging cords for front lights, back lights, Garmin lights with radar detectors to alert a rider of approaching cars, overtake a tabletop once dedicated to a dual floppy disk drive computer.

The conversion from backpacker to bicyclist began slowly with the initial acquisition of a Trek hybrid bicycle costing a few hundred dollars. Then a used Cannondale mountain bike for commuting to my job. With retirement, the pace accelerated with a Specialized AWOL Elite touring rig equipped with fenders, racks and high-end panniers suitable for long-distance touring.

Lovely bike with its forgiving steel frame. But just not quite suitable to keep up with the carbon fiber road bikes I pushed myself to keep up with. 

Stopping by the local bike shop to pick up some minor part, tool or inexpensive bit, I made the mistake of slipping my leg over the crossbar of a carbon fiber Trek Domane 5.2. It took exactly one trip around the parking lot on that sub twenty-pound speed machine to pull out the gold card to make it mine.

G.O. taught me that the stock saddle would not do. My aging buttocks demanded an upgrade to a leather Brooks B-17, beloved by generations of aging cyclists. It’s reputation as “an old man’s saddle” was only confirmed for me when a twenty-something-year-old fellow rider on a four day five-hundre- mile ride in memory of American war lost veterans asked at the sight of my bike leaning against the wall of an Illinois National Guard armory stop, “Who’s riding that carbon fiber Trek with a Brooks leather saddle?!!” Evidently, he thought it so incongruous as to be worthy of comment. As for me, I was happy with the sweat softened leather polished by miles of Lycra bike short buffing.

Apparently, the young rider hadn’t noticed the G.O.’s high-end carbon fiber bike likewise equipped with a Brooks leather saddle, standing out amongst the artificial composite saddles found on all the other bikes.

It would be well and fine if the search for equipment better suited for long rides by, shall we say mature riders, ended there but alas the saga continues.

Our fearless leader, the G.O. hit his eightieth year, and with it a few health issues resulted in his transition to an electric assist bike. With it, he no longer complained about shortness of breath or lack of power or inability to keep pace with riders decades younger. 

Like our fearless leader, I underwent a few changes. A serious bicycle crash when a careless rider turned into my rear wheel resulted in a shoulder broken in two places, necessitating two surgeries with emplacement and removal of a stainless-steel plate and multiple screws to hold the shattered shoulder together. Not to mention two broken ribs and assorted cuts, bruises and contusions. 

Facing months of physical therapy to rehabilitate the shoulder, I demanded to know of the orthopedic surgeon when I could get back to riding. He gently suggested a transition to a recumbent bicycle to avoid stressing the damaged shoulder. 

His suggestion fit perfectly with a plan I’d been contemplating for months, switching to a recumbent trike. Two trike-riding friends with bad backs talked of how much less physical stress the recumbents placed on their bodies. Tired of aching wrists, painful shoulders and sore butts from the hunched over, drop handlebar riding I’d been doing for hours on end, sometimes over a hundred miles at a time, the doc gave me the perfect excuse to make the jump.

Researching trike after trike on the internet. I decided that I wanted one that folded for easier transport, and with an adjustable seat. 

Only two trikes met those requirements, an ICE Adventure and a Cat-trike 559. Living near St. Louis only one bike shop in the area carried many trikes. Alas, it had none in stock that met my requirements.

Luckily I had a trip on tap to drive to Cleveland, Ohio, to pick up a newly purchased kayak trailer…that’s for another story, beginning kayaking post seventy. With that trip in mind, I began researching trike dealers on the way. Having found one in Indianapolis and another near Columbus, Ohio, I plotted my route to stop at each to test ride trikes. According to the internet website, the one near Columbus has a used ICE Adventure in stock. Once again pulling out the gold card, I called and made a deposit to hold it until I could get there to test drive it.

Seeking a companion for the eight-hour, five-hundred-sixty-five-mile drive from Belleville, Illinois, to Cleveland, who should I call but the gear guru himself. The G.O. Understanding perfectly the need for a new kayak trailer, although he does not kayak, and always up for assisting a fellow cyclist in search of new equipment, G.O. immediately agreed to act as co-driver.

Stopping in Indianapolis, I lowered myself into a Bacchetta 2.0 carbon fiber racing trike. It felt like strapping on a jet fighter. Ripping around the parking lot, the right rear wheel coming off the ground as I powered through a turn, it seemed a little too flyaway. And besides, it didn’t fold nor did the seat adjust.

Ok, on to Ohio. Stopping in and riding the ICE Adventure, it felt much more stable and met my requirements. But, alas, it had a twenty-inch rear wheel, to match the front ones. I wanted the twenty-six-inch rear wheel. It just looked sexier than the twenty inch and I thought it would be faster.

I told the dealer I wanted a twenty-six and not a twenty. “I’ve got one coming in this afternoon but I’ll have to get it put together,” he said. “Can you have it ready to go by ten o’clock tomorrow morning?” came my reply. Wanting the sale, he, of course, said he could. 

After picking up the trailer and a night in a Cleveland hotel, we arrived back at the appointed hour. The trike was, of course, still in pieces. Two hours later we folded it up and slid it into the back of my Jeep.

After riding a carbon fiber Trek, riding the Adventure, which weighed nearly twice as much, felt like going from an Italian two-seater sports car to a diesel Mercedes sedan. Much more stable and comfortable but a whole lot slower. The engine was the same two legs, but the increased weight and adapting to peddling while seated as compared to standing and powering down on the pedals, made those two legs seem much less powerful.

After a year of loving the comfort but missing the speed a new love flashed into my life. The lure of an ICE VTX World Champion edition flickered across my Facebook feed. I could have been a big brownie coming up out of the water to hit that fly. 

I began calculating the length of the drive to the Wisconsin bike shop that had it. Hmmm, five hundred miles. Eight hours. An overnight in a hotel. Yeah, G.O. would likely go with me. 

Phone call to the shop. “Oh, we’ll ship it to you. And we see you’re a veteran, so you get a veteran’s discount.” Hmmm, calculations. Let’s see I can sell a couple of other bikes hanging around and I can sell the Adventure, that should cover most of the cost. “I’ll take it.”

Ten days later a semi pulls up in front of the house. The driver jumps out to pull a cardboard box the size of a Volkswagen off the trailer. I offered to give him a hand. “Nah, I got it,” the beer barrel-sized driver said. He carried it through the wrought iron gates to lower it to the ground near the garage.

I thought, “wow, he’s strong!” Moments later when I went to move the box to open it up, I realized how light it was.

Like the Bacchetta, getting into the VTX is like strapping on a jet fighter. And I've flown in an F16B. Every time I settle into the nearly prone seat, I look for the seatbelt. There is none, although with the speed its capable of and with its proximity to the ground it feels like one is necessary.

A couple of the spare bikes were sold but I just couldn’t part with the Adventure. It moved to the back of the garage while the electric shifted black fighter jet moved to the fore. It’s not that I loved the Adventure less, but I confess I wrote poetry to the need for speed and the VTX.

As a year passed and I retrained those leg muscles I found that the VTX wasn’t just as fast as the diamond frame upright carbon fiber, it was even faster. There’s a reason it’s called the world champion edition I would frequently think while screaming down the modest Illinois hills.

Of course, it’s harder to get out of. It’s not as comfortable. It doesn’t fold. The seat doesn’t adjust. But Lord it’s fast. 

But it’s not a gravel rider. We’ve got gravel rides here in 
 Southern Illinois. Just across the Mississippi River, we’ve got the limestone crushed rock of the KATY Trail. Rides I can’t or won’t take the skinny tired speedster VTX on. After pedaling that speedster uphill faster than friends on a standard bike, I don’t want to go back to grunting and panting as I lumber up hilly gravel covered roads on the forty-pound Adventure.

Once again, it’s G.O. to the rescue. Electrify it. Sure, it’s a little expensive, but it’s a whole lot cheaper than buying a new factory equipped ICE with an e-motor. 

Calling the St. Louis bike shop… no five-hundred-mile drive this time!... “Yeah, we can get a Bafang 750 watt motor. Yeah, we can put it on. How long will it take, you ask? Oh, we can have the parts in a couple weeks, then a couple days to put it on.” That was last August. “Do it,” I said. Two weeks turned into five months. I got the trike in January.

Now, the hills I used to dread on the Adventure slip past with a click of the Bafang’s power button. The headwinds that could slow me to a crawl aren’t even a nuisance. That knee that used to talk to me after a day of riding hills remains quiet. 

Once again, the G.O. Gear Guru, COB that he is, has the right answer. Life is good.

©William L. Enyart

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