Borrowing someone else’s bike is like borrowing someone’s shoes. Even if it’s the right size, even if it’s your style, hell, even if it’s supposedly identical to yours, you get a few hundred yards down the road and find yourself thinking, “What the hell happened to this thing?
What kind of weird, malformed freak would want to ride it? What did he do to it to get it this way? Was it abducted by aliens, and then returned ‘a bit odd’?”
I think my bikes are set up normally. Correctly. That my brake levers are at the angle any right-thinking person would want. That the bar tape is of the sort that anyone with any sense would select, and is applied properly with the right degree of overlap and, of course, winding from the bar-end to centre. All of this is obvious.
But apparently only to me. That no one else can work it out suggests that cycling does something deleterious to the IQ of the participant. (Either I’m immune, or I started really smart.)
I have my brakes set up so that they stop me smartly, without a noise like a cat being fed into a blender, and with the correct – that word again – amount of lever throw. The gears, likewise, function as designed, perhaps because they have not been installed by the travelling team of ADHD-afflicted chimpanzee mechanics who apparently do everyone else’s.
And saddles. I don’t want to be overly personal, but I’ve sat on some borrowed bikes that would only conceivably be regarded as comfortable by some sort of three-buttocked freak.
The problem is, of course, that our overly Victorian social mores mean that you put a friendship under some strain if you hand someone their best bike back to them with the words, “What is this piece of crap? Fetch me one that works, numb nuts!”
In fact, you have to set the bar for politeness even lower than that. As you noodle along with your friend, you have to dish out compliments like, “This rides nicely,” even as your backside is being abraded by a ride quality that closely resembles that of a runaway pneumatic drill.
Or, “Your deeply stupid choice of groupset actually feels all right on this,” while the chain skips about the cassette every time you apply any more torque than would be required to wring its owner’s scrawny little neck.
It is, of course, possible to fix quite a lot of the flaws. If, like me, you carry your emergency Allen keys, some cables, and a fresh chain wherever you go, you can make most things work. It’s a pain if you’re on holiday, or short of time on a business trip, but it’s worth it.
The well-mannered agony of having to diligently put it all wrong again before you go home is, however, almost unbearable. To toe the brake blocks out till they screech, and to tighten the cables so that the blocks can once again scuff the freshly untrued wheel like a little drum machine.
To re-muff the indexing, so that every gear sounds like a train clattering over a set of points. All so that you can (he grits his teeth) return it exactly the way you found it.
In an odd irony, I actually managed to lend myself a bike a few weeks ago. It was one I’d used about 10 years ago, which was left maturing up in my parents’ loft. When I was home at Christmas, I fished it out, lubed it up, and discovered the brakes were dodgy, the gears maladjusted, the saddle a thousand agonies, and so on.
It’s curious how what’s ‘right’ changes so much over time. And it’s amazing that I have always managed to gauge the zeitgeist perfectly.
Acts of cycling stupidity
I borrowed a bike last week – which is what prompted the main column this week. The owner had longer legs than me, so I had to put the saddle down. Lacking any means of measuring it, I gave it my best guess.
I rode round the block, reckoned I’d got it about right, and tweaked it down 3-4mm. Round the block. Back up about 2mm. Round the block, and down about 1mm. Halfway though the proper ride, I stopped and put it back up 2mm.
When I finally had the chance to measure it, it was about 40mm too low.
How to… Be nervous
You know the feeling. A big event coming. Something you’ve been thinking about for months is finally here. Your chance to show what you can do, and to have all that hard work pay off.
It’s best to talk about it a lot to your friends and family. Tell them, repeatedly, how important this is, and how you hope you ride well and achieve a satisfactory result. Ask them if they think you’ll do all right. Ask them several times, in case they were just being polite first time.
Pace about the place. This relaxes you, and has a soothing effect on everyone else as well. You may find people encourage you to pace up and down (or perhaps just ‘away’) as the big day nears.
When you go to bed the night before, be sure to think over in your mind, again and again and again, all the ways in which everything might go wrong the following day.
This will make sure you’re ready when they do. Then think about how much hard work you’ve put into this, and how disappointed you’ll be if it does all go wrong. Then go back to thinking about how it might go wrong.
Repeat this cycle till you fall asleep or dawn breaks, whichever comes first. When you get to the event, you’ll want to go to the loo. A lot. It might be best if you just lock yourself in there till the start. No one will mind. If you do leave, for any reason, take the loo roll with you, just in case. No one will mind this either.
This article was first published in the January 24 issue of Cycling Weekly. You can also read our magazines on Zinio, download from the Apple store and also through Kindle Fire.