I heard a story once about John Coltrane that I’ve always loved. I don’t remember where it’s from, so take this with a grain of salt, but the story was that Coltrane spent his whole life looking for the right saxophone mouthpiece. He had this sound in his head, and he was always looking for the mouthpiece that would make it.
I’m probably stretching the metaphor to the breaking point when I compare Coltrane to my riding buddy Jaime and his endless search for the perfect bicycle wheels. But it is a point of endless fascination. We have been riding together for five years, and during that time Jaime has never stopped buying, selling, shopping, trading up, talking to wheel makers. Yeah, Jaime really seeks out and talks to people who make bicycle wheels. Jaime can tell you, for example, about the guy who makes racing disk wheels out of kevlar, and is having a hard time getting the raw materials because of the military demand for kevlar body armor.
To a non-cyclist, this might sound bizarre, but wheels really matter when you’re trying to go fast on a bicycle. At high speeds, most of the workload is spent to overcome wind resistance, and spoked wheels cutting through air are like egg beaters. Weight matters too, because you’ve got to get all that mass turning, and keep it turning. But the wind resistance is the biggest issue with wheels.
When I rode up to Jaime’s house today, he was busy helping Cable, another one of our little riding party, to a spare set of wheels from the garage. They had bladed spokes and a deep rim, both of which cut down on the wind resistance. It was just a question of making sure the gear cluster would work with the shifters on Cable’s bike.
It’s past racing season, more or less, which is a good thing for me because Jaime has gotten so fast in the last year or two that, when he’s on the runup to a race, the rides have gotten just flat too fast for me. Jaime just finished a race last weekend, which means his legs were trashed and I had a chance, which was great, because I really love riding with him. And he promised to leave his bike in a “39-16” for the whole ride.
39-16 is a gear ratio: the 39 is the number of teet on the front chain ring, and the 16 is the number on the back. The details are unimportant. The practical implication of staying in a 39-16 is that, if you want to go faster, you have to spin faster, rather than keeping your cadence the same and shifting into a smaller gear on the back.
The result can be pretty amusing to watch when you’re going down a modest hill, or have a tailwind. You quickly spin out, and you end up spinning your legs wildly, your hips rocking, trying to get some leverage to push on the pedals. But it’s a good discipline to practice, because it forces you to really think about your pedaling, and helps develop a nice even pedal stroke.
It was a nice wander (kmz file of it here, for you curious Google Earthers), to the north end of town on Tramway, then west down the hill to the balloon park where Steve was running in the doggie dash, then out into Corrales and down along the river. 39-16 guarantees you don’t end up hammering too hard, no matter how insane your wheels are. It was fun.