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Bicycle Touring Made Simple

. It was slower than normal that Thursday around the shop, but Tim was glad since he had a number of customized touring bikes to build up for the spring touring season. He was working alone at our friend’s bike shop and hoping that the walk-in traffic would be slow so he could concentrate on the bikes. As he tells it I was pulling off the freewheel of a fine touring bicycle to change the cogs and grease the hub when the front door opened. Oh great, I thought, looking up to see who it was. In walked a thin, older man with tough, leathery skin — the kind you get from working outdoors most of your life. It was hard to tell if he was 40 or 65. There was an ageless quality about him, maybe due to his close-cropped hair with that white-side wall, barber-college look that went well with his clean-shaven face. His clothes were long out of style and his well-worn dress coat looked out of place on that warm California day. But his clothes were clean and he looked like someone who had seen the good and the bad and given his best in return.

This guy must have the wrong shop, I thought, as he walked back toward the service area. Probably wants some directions, then I can get back to work. I gave the $400 touring machine a pat and said, “Hi, what can I do for you?”

“Do you have those baskets for the front of a bicycle?” he asked timidly.

Thinking it must be a gift for some one, I said, “Sure, the type that fits on the handlebars?”

“That’s it,” he replied. “The biggest you’ve got.”

With the stepladder I made my way to a high shelf in the corner of the store. I pulled down several of the bigger models. He looked them over carefully and chose the stronger of the two.

“Will there be anything else?” I asked.

He thought a minute, then said, “Yes, I guess I need a pump too.”

I showed him six or seven types that we had in stock explaining that only a couple really worked well, then quoted him the prices. Taking my advice he chose a Zefal pimp, then asked if I would mind mounting the basket and pump on his bike. Oh no, I thought. He must be one of the retired locals who needs his bike just to get around — it’s probably a wreck, he has all the time in the world and I have a hundred things to do today.

“Well, I’m kind of busy today and alone besides.” His face fell but recovered with a smile right away when I added, “But I guess I can find the time if you will bring the bike around back. Of course, there is a service charge,” I added. He looked like that might make a difference.

It didn’t and he soon arrived at the back door. In he came with a new, heavyweight 3-speed of undistinguished lineage with two suitcases, a beat-up flight bag and a gunny sack half full of something all tied to a rather doubtful rear rack. I couldn’t believe it. The entire load was tied with baling twine so I decided against unloading it to put it on the repair stand. When I tried to lift the bike I gasped in shock and surprise; no way was I going to get that thing off the ground. The bike itself must have weighed 45 pounds and the load must have been over 50 pounds.

“What on earth do you have in there?” I asked, steadying the bike with both hands.

“Just my things,” he shrugged.

“Well, if I am going to work on this you’ll have to unload all of this stuff.”

As he set to work I returned to the custom touring bike. The new owner would be riding the California coast next month and wanted it ready by that evening so he could start serious training with packs and panniers. We had spent a lot of time talking and the owner was anxious to have the best of every thing and everything just right for his trip.

When the old fellow finished un winding the cord and unloading his gear, he stood quietly waiting for me to get back to him. I finished changing the cogs on the touring bike to a good gear range of 28/96 that would be able to handle 1,000 miles of California coastal cycling. Satisfied, I turned to the 3- speed and was able to lift it onto the repair-stand. He watched as I mounted the basket and pump and seemed appreciative when I replaced the standard bolts with heavy-duty ones.

“Did you just get this bike?” I asked.

“Yes, just this morning,” he said. “I bought it at a shop about 30 miles up the coast.”

“Oh? Where are you heading?” I said, trying to conceal my surprise at this turn of events.

“Home,” he said as he walked out in the store area to look around some more.

He must be going to San Diego, I figured, the next town of any size down the coast. Still, it was 80 miles away and quite a jaunt for this setup. As I finished attaching the pump he put a water bottle down on the counter.

“Do you think you’ll need one?” I said. “There are places to get water all the way down the coast from here.”

“Oh, I’ll need it in the desert for sure,” he replied.

“The desert! There isn’t any desert from here to San Diego,” I told him.

“I’m not going to San Diego and there is plenty of desert between here and North Carolina.”

“ North Carolina?” I sputtered. “ You plan to ride from here to North Carolina?” I didn’t add “on this” but I think he caught my meaning.

“Sure, I paid almost $100 for this bike and it has three gears.” His smile was disarming.

“Yes, but I couldn’t think of what to say next. “Do you know what you are getting into?”

“Well, I’ve traveled the country quite a lot and I always thought I would like to cross it on a bicycle. So here I am with time on my hands and a long way from home and, well, it seems like a good way to get there, don’t you think?” He looked at me obviously expecting a reply.

“Maybe I had better check it over for you a little,” I said and quickly dodged back to the 3-speed.

“Don’t bother yourself with it,” he argued. “The man at the shop said it was in real good shape.”

“Well, I’ll just double-check every thing for you,” I said as I set to work adjusting the brakes and tightening as sorted nuts and bolts. I added oil to the rear hub and explained the importance of putting in a couple of drops every two weeks or so. To make sure he would, I gave him a sample can of oil from the last bike show I attended.

“Guess I should have a tire patch kit and maybe a couple of those stretchy cords you’ve got hanging over there,” he said.

I took the cords he indicated from behind a display of cross-country touring panniers. This guy really means it, I thought. He is going to try to pedal that tank 3,000 miles across the country. But then people thought Susan and I were crazy to try it with our two kids. Who am I to judge? However, we put months of planning into that trip; this guy started preparations this morning and he was leaving today.

“What about water?” I asked. “One bottle won’t be enough for the desert.”

“Oh, I know. I have two plastic milk cartons there in that gunny sack. That gives me a whole gallon extra. I just liked the size of this little bottle for sipping as I go along. Besides, I will be doing a lot of my desert riding at night. Do you have bike lights?”

A bike light was added to the mounting bill.

“Well, that’s about it,” he said as he looked around the shop full of the latest and best in touring equipment. “Can’t see anything else I need.”

The bill came to almost $30. Most people spend that much on a handlebar bag alone, but it seemed pretty high to both of us. I forgot to add the labor charge. He repacked his load, carefully putting the lighter, bulky things up front in his new basket. I grabbed a couple of spare tubes off the shelf and thrust them into his hand.

“A gift,” I said at his puzzled look. He asked me to write my name and ad dress for him so he could send me a card when he got home. I wrote them on the tube box. We shook hands and he pedaled rather shakily across the parking lot, adjusting to the new load arrangement as he winced at the glare of the afternoon sun.

Several months later I found a plain postcard in the mailbox. It said, “Thanks again. I made it OK.” It was postmarked North Carolina.

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