Monday, September 22, 2014

Revival, Restoration, and Rebirth: A Reflection

A recent post from Velouria, the author of a blog that I follow called Lovely Bicycle!, finally put to words something that had been nagging at the back of my mind for a while.  This past summer, when I was in the process of restoring my 1958 Raleigh Sports, a strange feeling came over me that still hasn't completely left since then.  To sum it up, my faithful, dependable 3-speed no longer quite felt like the good ol' bike that I knew and loved.  Not that I regret restoring the bike at all, but this experience, as well as Velouria's post, combined to teach me a little something about how simply setting out to erase the battle scars and rust from an old machine may get you a little more than you bargained for.

Memories of this bike before I had the chance to rescue it seem so distant, even though the earliest one is only about two years old.  The story really only started ten months ago and even then, it feels like ages since this bike was finally freed from its decades-old parking spot because so much has happened since then.

I remember the days when I used to come by and inspect the bike, looking at the details and wondering if I actually wanted it.  Close-up photos and hours of research finally brought me to the conclusion that the bike was indeed made in 1958.  At that point, it didn't seem alive to me.  It was just another good-looking hunk of metal to get my hands on.

Immediately after putting the new tires on

I was so amazed the day I got the bike when I spun the wheel and found out that the Dynohub generator and its incandescent light bulb still worked perfectly.  The smallest sign of life.  Fully reviving the bike meant putting new tires on it, which I waited seemingly ages for to finally arrive in the mail.  That, plus a bit of WD-40, was all it took to make the bike roadworthy since everything was still straight and solid.  At this point, I still had yet to learn how to adjust the three-speed hub, which would remain stuck in first gear until March.

Left: After riding from Central to North campus in January.  Right: Nikolai testing it out when he came to visit.  

I rode the bike throughout the winter, surprised that it tracked better in the snow than my mountain bike at home did due to its upright seating position, stable geometry, and weight.  I added personal touches of my own such as a rear cargo rack and Kool-stop salmon brake pads as my knowledge in the field of bikes increased.  It was during this time that the bike started becoming a part of me and on the occasional nights when I had to leave it on Central campus and ride the bus back up north to sleep, my mind was never quite free.

In Gallup Park right before the school year ended

The feeling I had while on the Raleigh in its barely-functioning-yet-still-very-alive state, I know now, was very different from the feeling I had even just before I restored it.  The associations one makes with inanimate objects seems to bring them to life and our relationships with them change with time as our lives progress.  Scratches and dings that things we love accumulate with time serve to tell a story.  In the first winter, the bike was my trustworthy friend, never once dumping me in the snow while at speed.  As the weather warmed up and I got the transmission working, it took on a second role as my companion with which to escape, willing to go wherever I wanted, whenever I wanted, at a very quick pace.  When it wasn't parked below me at whatever building I happened to be at, I felt like something was missing.

Up until the summer, I wasn't quite aware just how heavily the salty winter had taken a toll on the poor bike.  I photographed the bike in detail right before I restored it and compared the photos to some early ones and the difference was very noticeable, if not a little surprising.  For the entire summer semester, the feeling I had for my bike was that its ailing state was temporary, that healing would come soon.  Everything I was aware of and knew so well about my bike: the cracked paint, the rust spots, and the rattly steering just seemed "temporary,"

I got the strange feeling that something wasn't quite the same after I stripped the bike to its frame and stood up to look at it for the first time.  Maybe it was that for the first time in however many decades the bike saw action outside of the University of Michigan.  Maybe it was the fact that without the bulky, heavy wheels and fenders, the bike seemed powerless in my hands, no longer the hefty and unwieldy beast that I knew it as.  As I trimmed the thin, rusted tips off the fenders, I feel like I was leaving something behind, like part of my soul or a body part to be sent to the recycling center.  I wasn't quite aware of it then, but from this point on, my old Raleigh wouldn't feel the same to me ever again.

The day I finished the bike, I stepped back after turning the last bolt to admire my work.  It took fifteen days to get rid of "everything I was aware of," as mentioned above.  I concluded on the following test rides that the front fork was now tight, the rust was gone, and even the freewheel, which used to skip occasionally when under hard acceleration, turned smooth as butter now that most of the grime had been flushed out.  Essentially, the bike was perfect.

This is when I really noticed that something was indeed different, aside from the obvious appearance of the bike.  I was proud of my work and satisfied with how it turned out but somehow, I wasn't as happy as I thought I'd be.  For one thing, it no longer felt like my "trusty ol' bike." There's a special feeling that operating an original, unrestored piece of history has and after I refreshed everything, it felt like it was pretty much new.  Just like how you can only brag about your high mileage car if you're running the original engine, chassis, and what not, I felt like I had lost the sense of pride of owning and operating a survivor as such even though I didn't buy new parts.  My friends see the bike differently, too: instead of "the old thing that sounds like it's about to fall apart," they think of it as "the bike that Jay rebuilt."  This was the end of an era; almost all traces of the past life had been smoothed over.  The bike had been reborn.

Even walking up to it wasn't the same anymore.  I used to approach my bike, see the rust-stained tail sticking out from the rack, and have a slight rush of joy that it was there waiting for me and ready to go.  The feeling is different now, after everything that has happened since June.  The feeling that comes to my mind is a sort of relief that the bike is still here (because the green '68 was stolen in July), and then concern about paint chips to come because my new finish isn't as strong as the original paint was.  I touch up the paint chips that do happen but I know that one day, the tube will run out and I'll have to give up.  Strangely enough, it's kind of reassuring.  Seeing the bike in such perfect shape is a bit uncomfortable for me for reasons I can't quite put into words.  Maybe it's the guilt for wiping the history books clean and that I can't wait to rewrite them.

My feelings for the bike are now more practical than emotional.  After having touched every small part, it feels more like a machine to me and less like an entity.  I used to allow my bike to help me up every hill, but now I think about its weight and wonder if I want to haul it up there one more time.  The old incandescent light bulb, which I accidentally fried, didn't provide much usable light and was more of a "cool factor." It was the eye that only the bike could see with which I allowed to guide me wherever it felt like.  The new LED bulb gives just barely enough light to see by below 10 mph, but the fact that it's almost bright enough makes me want to add another one to actually light my path.

I still wonder what the bike's previous life was like, or should I say, life before me.  Although I feel like the bike has been reborn, traces of the old life are visible upon scrutiny such as the dents in the headlight bucket which still mystify me. The paint used to be pretty scratched up despite the frame being straight, which I guess are signs that indicate harsh abuse in the old life and it's a testament to how durable these old roadsters are.  The fork is still very slightly bent back.  I know nothing about the previous owner(s) of the bike except that the one before me cared little enough to abandon it outside for more than a decade.  Could it be that a mother or grandmother who loved it for years passed it down to a college kid who didn't cherish it as much? Maybe it was sold through a garage sale at one time, changing hands in exchange for a piece of paper with "10" written on it. It's likely that many of these bikes outlived the dreams that their owners had for them, tossed aside because they looked ratty even though they were far from being dead.  My bike did accumulate a fairly high number of miles though, indicated by a few small pits in the wheel bearing races.  I wonder where it has carried its previous riders.

Long exposure photo with the Dynohub and headlight

I ended my studies a bit early last night and went for a short bike ride to nowhere after the rain stopped.  As I floated over a small hill and eased my way down in the wet, I was hit with a bit of nostalgia.  I'm not sure what it was: maybe it was the lack of a helmet and the cold night air blowing through my hair, or the fact that I was cruising slowly through a wet night in first gear and unable to see that the bike was so rust-free. Whatever it was, something reminded me of the early days of companionship between the old Raleigh and I.  Just like on our rides in the past, I allowed the bike to sort of decide where we'd go, turning wherever it felt right.

I've been riding the Ross a little more these days because it's less energy-intensive to get up hills, but the 3-speed does something that the road bike doesn't do.  At about 9-12 mph on flat ground, the Raleigh simply glides.  I don't feel it in my legs but sure enough, the bike wants to do nothing but go, seemingly to no end (insert weak-brakes joke here).  On the road bike, although it's easier to pedal, I'm very aware of the fact that I'm pedaling and the fact that I would like to stop doing so.  Anyway, as we finally circled our way back to the apartment last night, a familiar feeling of dread came over me.  I was reluctant to get off and park the Raleigh so I made an extra lap around the driveway as usual and then looked back as I walked away. Just like the old days, I felt like I was sharing a last sentence with a good friend before agreeing that it was time to say good night.  We have long lives ahead of us that will be full of change, but that's one thing between us that will always be the same.