The strange pull of cycling

November 19, 2014 § 18 Comments

I first saw the old elephant about three years ago. He was gray-headed and busting out at the seams as we flew past him on the Donut Ride. He’d gotten a good ten-minute head start but we overhauled him long before the first big climb. He huffed and puffed and mashed for about ten pedal strokes, trying to hang on before he was blown out the back.

As we passed him someone said, “Good job, Bill,” and then we were gone.

“Who’s that?” I asked.

“Oh, that’s Backintheday Bill,” the other rider said as he filled me in on Bill’s career as a top local pro and general two-wheeled wrecking ball.

“He looks terrible,” I said. “He’s gotta weigh over 250.”

“Yeah, I haven’t seen him in fifteen years, maybe more. His race weight was 140.” From that Saturday on I saw Bill every weekend and always said hello when we passed. Over time he stopped taking head starts and began rolling out with the group. And he was getting smaller.

At the beginning of the year I noticed that he was sticking with us up the first hard surge, and although he was still a pretty big fella, he was certainly under 200, and his kits didn’t look like they were about to unravel and kill someone with the force of the exploding seams. Now he’s visibly getting thinner by the month, and sticks with a much younger grupetto all the way over the first big climb. All of his kits are new because the old ones flat out don’t fit anymore.

Bill’s one of many, many riders who come and go and then come back. They leave for all the right reasons — racing is dumb, cycling is costly, pedaling is dangerous. Some leave for all the wrong reasons, too. My buddy J.C. had found Miss Right through cycling.

“Can you imagine anything better?” he had said. “A girlfriend who loves to bike?”

I didn’t say anything, because I could imagine a lot of things better, like a girlfriend who loves to cook, who earns seven figures, and who loves you to bike while she perfects her home brewing recipe. But I didn’t say anything except “Nope.”

They married and six months later she quit cycling. Then six more months later she told him to quit cycling. Then six more months later he was single again, and back, of course, on his bike.

Some dudes quit for spiritual enlightenment, like The Buddha. Tony used to be one of the most feared racers in SoCal. Then he started growing a big bushy beard, and worse, reading books, long books with hard words. They ruined him, of course, and one day he announced on Facebag that he was “done.” Now he’s a Buddhist adept, spreading love instead of dishing out the pain, but mark my words, he’ll be back. As nice as it is to make the world a better place, it’s even nicer to watch people crumble.

Sometimes when a guy sells his bikes and is “done” you’re kind of glad, but other times it’s a sinking feeling of genuine loss, like when Todd quit coming to the rides, then sold his bike, then vanished from view. Everybody loved Todd. He never had a bad word to say, he was one of the funniest guys alive, and he was always up for a beer. If you had a problem he’d give you the shirt off your back, even if what you really needed was a pair of trousers.

But as a cyclist, he was the guy who made your ride fun. You know how when someone pedals up and everyone kind of moans inwardly, as in “Why’d that buzzkill show up?” Todd was the opposite. Punctual-departure-Nazis would sit around for ten, fifteen minutes, gladly waiting for him even though he was always late and didn’t show up despite blood pacts the night before about “being there no matter what.” Todd was the brightest jewel in the crown of South Bay cycling fun, and then one day he was gone except for the occasional post on Facebag, which always made me sad.

Then yesterday Fireman texted me a photo. “Just finished our ride,” the message said, and next to the words was a picture of him and Todd draining a fermented recovery drink. There was a huge smile on Todd’s face, and I bet it was mostly from being back on his bike.

But his smile wasn’t nearly as big as mine.

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Take it SLO

November 15, 2014 § 6 Comments

I knew it was going to be a great weekend of ‘cross racing when we saw the straw drummer. Mike and I were standing in line at the Starbucks and an older dude was sitting at his table holding big green straws in each hand and a straw in the crook of each elbow.

With his earphones in, grooving to the beat, he drummed the air with his drinking straws, flipping them like drumsticks and catching them again in his elbow and mouth. He was skilled but clearly insane, just like a ‘cross racer. Unlike a ‘cross racer, however, it was before noon and he wasn’t obviously drunk.

As Mike pointed the RV north to San Luis Obispo, we took inventory. “Beer?” I asked.

“Six cases. So we’re covered for tonight.”

“Coffee?”

“Check.”

“Toilet paper?”

“They’ll have that at the race.”

Knowing that we were fully provisioned I relaxed as we powered up the 101. Three hours later we got to El Chorro Regional Park where they were setting up the course.

After being cooped up in the RV we were champing at the bit to ride. I kitted up and raced over the dirt wall behind our campsite. On the other side a nice fellow had just finished setting up his tent, which he had inconveniently placed immediately in front of my bike. Due to his poor placement, I was forced to ride over his tent.

He was kind of upset as we untangled his sleeping bag and camp stove from my derailleur, but I explained to him that if he had not put his tent in the way of my bike it wouldn’t have happened and plus now he had a new rear entrance to his tent which would improve airflow.

Mike and I rode for twenty minutes around the course then returned to camp, exhausted by the hard workout and ready for a big meal. Mike threw together an awesome mountain of pasta and meat sauce, sourdough slathered in butter, potato chips, Oreos, and beer.

As our campfire blazed and the temperature dropped, all the neighboring ‘crossers, thirsty and cold, gathered to the flames like moths. After nine hours all the beer was gone and the ‘crossers from Oakland were getting restless. I know this because the tall blonde was picking up the empties and draining the last drops of beer and Ebola spit from them.

When she finally reached for my beer I was afraid things would get ugly and then magically the SPY crew of Jim, Aden, and Vic showed up with six fresh cases. The natives all relaxed and the tall blonde took her hands off of my throat and we were all friends again.

Sometime much later the fire had died, the bottles were empty, and Mike was starting to look pretty cute. We climbed into the RV and were soon snoring the sleep of the dead.

There might be a better way to prep for a ‘cross race, but I don’t want to know what it is.

The ones who persevere

November 12, 2014 § 4 Comments

I respect people who’ve volunteered — yeah, volunteered — to work for the government, whether in its war corps, its Peace Corps, or its bureaucratic corps. The USA only works when good people enter the machinery and help it run smoother, cheaper, smarter, better.

In a broader sense, whether they’re working for the Air Force or the company that makes Air Jordan, I admire people who persevere. I was privileged to be part of Major Bob Frank’s retirement ceremony on Monday night. Bob served as a major, unrelated to Major Major Major Major, in the USAF. The only mistakes he made in his 20-year career were having an open mic at his retirement ceremony, and letting me speak.

Through a befuddled haze in which we drank every single bottle of IPA at the VFW Post in Redondo Beach (note to self: drinking all the beer in a VFW post indicates a drinking problem), it was a wonderful evening where Major Bob’s cycling friends could show their support for him by drinking the military attendees under the table. We are skinny, but we have a bigger substance abuse problem than they do.

The next morning, let’s just say that the 6:30 AM ride from Malaga Cove was “sparsely” attended, as in “three people showed up.” Bull, Dan K. and I rolled out at 6:30 sharp.

Dan K. is one of those people who has been transformed by cycling. He’s shed 60 or 70 pounds over the last couple of years. “I’ll ride along with you guys until I get dropped,” he said.

“Don’t worry,” said Bull. “It won’t be one of those rides.”

I wondered what he was talking about. With Bull it’s always one of those rides; he’s the guy who goes until he blows, recovers, and goes again. And again. And again. We descended and then climbed the Malaga wall back up to PV Drive. My legs were stone cold, and Bull pushed the pace. Dan K. kept the pace and Bull fell off. We regrouped and reloaded at the top, and Bull came pounding by again.

Going up the short climb at Lunada Bay, Dan K. punched it and Bull and I got kind of dizzy. Then we climbed the alleyway, fractured again, and regrouped in time to drop down by the seaside and climb the Millionaire’s Wall back up to Hawthorne and PV Drive. This time there was more fracturing than a North Dakota oil well, and with big gaps. Bull rolled up. We could see Dan K. toiling away behind us. We didn’t hammer, but we didn’t exactly wait for him, either.

He latched back on.

In Portuguese Bend things broke up again, and Dan K. caught up to us at the light on the other side of the Switchbacks. My legs ached; Bull’s did, too. Dan K. might have been tired, but he didn’t show it. We separated again, and Dan K. caught us again, this time in Redondo Beach, completing what was essentially a 1:15 time trial, and a very hilly one at that.

“Good job, man,” I said, gassed.

“Thanks for letting me tag along,” he said, not appearing to be very tired.

Funny thing, perseverance.

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Passing it on

November 11, 2014 § 26 Comments

One of the old-timers was complaining about one of the newcomers. “When’s he gonna learn how to ride a fuggin’ bike?”

In the old days, people learned to ride a bike through shouting and blunt curse trauma. Nowadays there are a few curmudgeons who still wield the lashing tongue as a method of instruction, but we are dwindling, and for good reason. For one, it’s a lousy method. For another, you get tired of hollering because the exponentially increasing number of new riders makes it impossible to holler at all of them.

Plus, no one pays attention. You’re just a grouchy old sourpuss with a hangover.

The Aged One grumbled a little more. “Fuggin’ punk pulls some of the stupidest shit on a bike I’ve ever seen. Whatever happened to ‘Show up, shape up, and shut up’,” he asked.

“Those days are gone,” I said.

“It’s a damned shame. We’ve all gotten too soft and considerate of the next guy’s feelings, even when he’s pulling some douchey move that could kill you.”

I wasn’t so sure. The good old days had their bad old side, too, and part of the bad side was a culture of exclusion. In order to be one of the gang, I seem to remember, you had to get yelled at a lot. The masochists and those who aspired to positions of sadism could stick it out, but many’s the happy cycling enthusiast who shrugged and walked away after getting screamed at or belittled.

The kinder, gentler pedagogy is visible in real life, too. A friend was telling me about his son, who had walked on to a Division 1 basketball team. After two years on the team the son sat down with his father. “Dad,” he said, “I’m thinking about quitting the team.”

This came as a pretty big shock to the dad, who had been at his son’s side for the entirety of his basketball career. “Why?” he asked.

“If I work even harder than I’ve been working for the next two years, and if the stars align, there’s a very, very small chance that I’ll see a few minutes of playing time. The guys I’m competing with are for the most part future players in the NBA. I’m good enough to be on the team, but I’m not that caliber. It’s a huge amount of work and I’m not sure I want to do it anymore, especially when I look at what it takes away from my studies. I mean, the real reason I wanted to go to college was to get an education.”

This of course is the point where the Old School Father would have given his son a talking to, something along the lines of “Quit being a fuggin’ candyass, dogdammit. Get out there and bust your ass, and don’t talk to me about quitting until your eligibility is up.” He would have loaded the speech up with some guilt and shame as well. “Do you know how disappointed your mother will be?” etc., etc.

But my friend, you know, instead of the reflexive harangue that I’ve seen parents use when their kids quit Little League, much less a Division 1 basketball career, he took a different tack, passing on what he’d learned over a lifetime of living and parenting to his child. “Don’t make any rash decisions,” he said, “but consider it carefully, and if you’re ready to walk away from it, then walk away.”

A couple of weeks later his son came into his study. “I’ve been thinking about what you said, dad, and I’m ready to quit. And also, dad … “

“Yes?”

“Thanks for loving me enough to let me do what I have to do.”

All this rattled through my mind as the Aged One finished his complaint about the newcomer. “Well,” I said to him, “look at it like this. You’ve got more experience than anyone else out here, right?”

“I suppose so.”

“And he’s still pretty ignorant, right?”

“You can say that again.”

“Well, what’s the use of our superior wisdom and experience if we don’t know how to pass on what we’ve learned?”

He nodded and was silent for a few minutes as we finished our coffee. Just then, newcomer rolled up, smiling the smile of the young, the strong, and the just-finished-a-killer-ride. He went into the coffee shop, got a cup and came back out.

The Aged One made some space for him to sit down. “Hey, man,” he said with a friendly smile. “Could I talk to you about something?”

“Sure. What’s up?”

I couldn’t stick around, work being work, so I got on my bike and rode off. But a week later I saw the two of them riding side by side, chatting animatedly, punctuating their conversation with laughs. The newcomer was also riding a very, very, very straight line.

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Cross face

November 10, 2014 § 5 Comments

It’s always a good idea to pre-ride the course if you can. I sneaked onto the dirt climb and liked it. It was long and not too steep, sure to wear people out who had to do six laps around the 1.7-mile circuit. I came to a whoopty, and rolled down and up the far side with no problem. Then there came a second whoopty, deeper and steeper. “No problem,” I confidently grinned to myself just as the front wheel smashed against the far side and came within inches of pitching me head-first into the wall.

A nice red blob oozed out of my ankle as I came out the other side, hands shaking from the nearly catastrophic falling-off-bicycle-incident.

The far side of the course had been designed to take into account each of my many inner fears. The first was a long patch of soft, downhill sand chopped in half by a gravel pit. I sailed over it, wildly veering from tape to tape but staying upright. Then the course took a hard right through a deep sand trench that dropped you off into a thick layer of mud. Beyond the mud lay the lakeshore, where a wrong turn would result in a bath. I thought about the warning signs posted alongside the lake: “No fishing! Fish Contain Mercury and Heavy Metals!”

After the mud trap there was a soft, nasty sand pit that went on for a hundred yards or so followed by two small barriers where sadists with cameras gleefully awaited my arrival. Over the barriers, you could remount if you were in your XXXXS gear, or push through more knee-deep sand to firmer ground. Oh, and there was a flyover.

Some people get nervous before races because they don’t know what awaits them. I never get nervous before a ‘cross race because I know exactly what awaits. Pain, a few bad turns, and then a solo slog in last place for 45 minutes. As I stood at the start line thinking about exactly where my first difficulty would separate me from the herd, a weird thing happened during call-ups.

“Seth Davidson,” the ref said. I looked around to see who else in the 45+ A ‘cross race could possibly be named “Seth Davidson.” No one ventured up to the front row, so I shambled up, proving that merely by appearing on race day and pinning on number miracles can happen. Whoever was behind me was going to have a serious clogstacle to overcome.

The race started and I quickly gravitated to the back, then the far back, then off the back. At the sandy barriers I’d caught the tail of the main field, which mostly consisted of a giant sausage squeezed into a too-tiny patch of lycra. The giant sausage waddled over the barriers and I hopped past him, which is where my problems began.

I tried to get back on my bike but the sand was too soft to pedal, which kind of made sense since I’d parked in the deepest section of the sand trap rather than over on the edge, where it was firmer. After providing several dozen amusing photo ops for the camera folks, most of whom have by now posted clever and amusing memes on Facebook such as “Exhorts Others to Race: Stands Forlorn in Sand,” I made the bike move. By this time the peloton had relocated to a different county. I was about to get depressed until I powered by the SPY support team headed by Tait, which had already prepared a can of quality beer for me as a hand-up.

On the hill I overtook giant sausage, who appeared close to bursting out of his skin. For a very long time I rode by myself, with sad-faced onlookers viewing me with pity, or contempt, or both. Even my friends were too embarrassed to shout,with the exception of the SPY Beer Squad. With each partial can of high octane fermented recovery drink, I felt better and better, or at least less and less fearful. Each time I came through the mud and sand and gravel pit I picked up a few seconds until another hapless sod, someone so slow and inept and devoid of ability came within my sights. We traded pulls until the barriers, at which time I heard a whirring sound.

Glancing back it was Phil Tinstman, who had started two minutes earlier in the 35+ race and had now lapped me on a 2-mile course in less than forty minutes. The beautiful thing about this was that getting lapped meant that I’d have one less lap to ride around this course from hell.

After the race I staggered over to the SPY tent, where Sam Ames was washing away huge clots of blot mixed with gravel and sand by pouring cold beer over the open wound. “That’s a waste of good blood,” I said. Then, collapsing into the beanbag chair, Todd Parks wandered over and blamed me for his terrible start. “I thought you were going to take me out!” he said.

“The fact that you were behind me speaks for itself,” I said.

Phil, who didn’t look like he’d ridden his bike yet en route to his state title, chatted with some of his peers, not that he has any. “Once I had a big enough gap, I pulled the plug,” he said. “No sense in killing myself before the pro race.”

I thought about that as a kind of reverse strategy, you know, pulling the plug once everyone had ridden off to Mexico, and saving myself for the beer competition afterwards. “It’s an old Paolinetti tactic,” Phil added. “It’s okay if you win by just enough.”

“Hmmm,” I thought, “there’s wisdom there. Maybe if you’re losing, it’s okay if you lose by a few laps, too, rather than immolate yourself to only lose by, say, a few minutes.” Then I thought about giant sausage dude and how he’d cunningly sat up once I passed him. “Wise, wise man.”

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Just don’t call it “little”

November 7, 2014 § 18 Comments

We were sitting around the fire after a wonderful dinner with friends and so naturally the talk turned to Mrs. Wankmeister’s underwear. “I’m using onna underpants that are sometimes the old and sometimes the new,” she said. “The old ones is onna classic type.”

My buddy’s wife asked what exactly was a “classic type.”

“That’s a underpants onna ain’t got any holes,” said Mrs. WM. “But I hate onna throwin’ away old underpants unless they have a big holes,” she added. “For ten years wearin’ onna old underpants is okay because they are softer.”

“Speaking of underpants,” I said, “that reminds me of that ride I once did with Tom Malone.”

“Oh,” said Mrs. WM, “thatsa funny story onna his o-chin-chin.”

“What happened?” asked my buddy’s wife.

“Well,” I said, “it was like this. I was living in Utsunomiya and Tom was living in Ujiie-machi. I called him up the night before and said, ‘Dude, let’s ride tomorrow,’ and he was like, ‘Cool, meet you at seven out by Inokashira Park.’ The next morning I put my bike in the car and drove out to the park; it was cold as hell. I had brought my warmest clothing — it was 40 degrees and getting colder by the hour. Wool Santini hat, glove liner, heavy over gloves, wool socks, neoprene booties, thick winter tights, heavy under-layer, jersey, wool arm warmers, wool sweater, and outer Santini jacket. I knew it was going to be a brutal ride.

“When I got to the park Tom hopped out of his car wearing a pair of shorts, a light pair of spring gloves, a helmet, Lycra arm warmers, and a short-sleeve jersey. ‘Dude,’ I said, ‘you’re gonna freeze your ass off.’

“‘No problem,’ he said, ‘I’ll be fine.’

“So we started out and after half an hour he was frozen to the core. ‘You okay?’ I asked. ‘You look pretty bad.’

“‘Nah,’ he said, ‘I’ll be fine.’

“We pedaled on for another half an hour and even I was getting cold, even though I was bundled up like a polar bear. Pretty soon Tom’s head started to droop. Then he started to moan. ‘You okay?’ I asked.

“‘No,’ he said. Then he moaned some more, and I mean it was an agonizing moan, like someone whose hand is slowly being fed into a meatgrinder. After a couple of minutes he stopped pedaling and fell off his bike into a ditch. ‘Dude!’ I said, being pretty afraid. ‘What’s wrong?’

“‘Mr. Business,’ he moaned. ‘Mr. Business is frozen!’

“I looked around for Mr. Business but there was nobody on the road but us, then I realized he had his hands jammed down his shorts and was rubbing like a madman. ‘Shit, dude,’ I said, ‘is it frozen?’

“‘Aaaaaagh!’ he screamed. ‘Mr. Bizzzzznesssssss!’ I had seen people freeze the ends of their noses, their fingers, and their toes before, but I’d never seen anyone freeze that, and as he tried to rub in some heat I wondered what to do. ‘I’m your pal, Tom,’ I said, considering the various ways I might assist him, ‘but there are limits to our friendship.’ Then it occurred to me to offer him my wool Santini cap. He desperately grabbed and wrapped it around Mr. Business. ‘Dude,’ I said, ‘no need to worry about giving it back.’

“We pedaled back to the car and the Business came back to life and I drove home and told Mrs. Wankmeister about it. She thought it was pretty funny.”

“Yes,” Mrs. Wankmeister said, “but then I got worried onna Seth’s chin-chin because he’s always out riding onna cold days and what if he’s onna frozen too and no one’s gonna stick his hands and hats and warmin’ onna his chin-chin? So I made you onna that cover.”

“What?” said my buddy’s wife.

Mrs. WM looked at her. “He had onna old wool socks and I cut one up for makin’ a little foldy-over-cover for him puttin’ onna his chin-chin for warmin’.”

“A little wool cover, huh?” my buddy said, grinning. “How little was it?”

Mrs. WM paused and looked at my face, but she apparently couldn’t see me mouth the word “enormous” in the darkness. “Oh, it wasn’t onna too little, just a medium little.”

There was a brief silence as we waited for the paramedics to come and assist with my pal and his wife, who appeared to be choking to death from laughter. Eventually Mrs. WM steered the conversation over to the subject of pajama bottoms and how my one pair had giant holes in them and no elastic and were held up by twisting a big rubber band around the bunched up waistline. “I got something for you,” said my buddy. He went inside and came back out with a big pair of thermal pajama bottoms that had a working drawstring. I’d had a few beers, so I put them around my neck and eventually we went home.

That evening I tried on the PJ’s and they were a perfect fit, especially where it matters most. “Those onna be good PJ’s for you,” said Mrs. WM. “They gotta good fit on your hanging space.”

“Yeah,” I agreed, “but could I make a request?”

“Oh sure,” she said.

“The next time you’re explaining to a crowd of people something — anything — related to that … “

“Uh-huh?”

“Could you try not to use the words ‘little’?”

“Itsa bad words,” she agreed. “Cutesy is onna better, right?”

I sighed. “Right.”

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Look before you wipe

November 5, 2014 § 23 Comments

Generally, bike maintenance is a sign of weakness. Anyone who has enough time to work on his own bike is clearly not training hard enough. The only thing worse than a well-maintained bike is a clean one. Clean bikes are much worse than perfectly functioning ones, because they prove not only that you weren’t out training at 8:00 PM, but rather than rub down your S.O. you preferred to rub down your ride.

When we hit the descent down Yerba Buena yesterday on the Nosco Ride, I noticed that my front wheel was out of true. It was kind of a bummer, because these were practically new Mavic Open Pro 32-whole aluminum rims and they only had about 32,000 miles on them, including two BWR’s and hundreds of off-road miles. It really angered me because I specifically bought these rims because of their supposed durability. I hate it when I pay good money for a product and they fall to shit when they’re still pretty much fresh out of the box.

Of course, in addition to the crime of bike maintenance there is the greater evil of stopping a ride en route to jiggle with a mechanical. Are the wheels still rolling? Are you still seated on the bike? Air in the tires? Then it can wait for later, and don’t whine to me about your derailleur having fallen off. Back in the day they didn’t even have derailleurs, and it was good enough for them.

The wheel wobble got pretty bad, so I went to my next mid-ride diagnostic test: How likely am I to die? If death probability > 50%, I will usually take it to the shop the next day. If death probability < 50%, we can wait until it breaks, which it probably won’t any time soon or at least until the ride finishes.

I sort of kept an eye on the wobble as I hurtled down the next 50-mph descent on Mulholland. Funny how when a wheel’s not running true it looks like it’s about to fall apart, but doesn’t. So I used my final diagnostic test: Is the rim hitting the brake pad? No? Pedal harder. Yes? Reach down and open the little brake-opener-thingy, then pedal harder.

On the final descent down Latigo and the full-gas run-in to Dos Vientos Community Park, the stupid wheel took on a life of its own. It was flappier than an old breast. This is when you need to hunker down and really hammer. All of those rim, hub, and spoke parts are made of steel and aluminum and hard stuff and they are made to last, plus it’s all practically new and, if it does break, it’s probably under warranty maybe.

Of course everything ended perfectly fine. I have been doing this a long time and know how to deal with mechanicals. In a few weeks I planned to take it into the shop, where they’d try to adjust the spoke tension and say some crap like, “The nipples are corroded from being left outdoors and never maintained and the wheel can’t be trued and you need a new wheel.” I knew the drill.

The next day I put the bike up on the repair stand. I have a repair stand so that when my friends come over and drink all my beer they can look out on the balcony and see that there is the potential for bike repair and take their minds off the poisonous homebrew they’re drinking. With an old pair of underwear I wiped down the bike, and when I got to wiping the front hub, this is what I saw (note stylishly retro faux-rust on the quick release which is very pro):

Duct tape and some bondo and Fireman says I'll be good to go.

Duct tape and some bondo and Fireman says I’ll be good to go.

Of course this is nothing major and I’ve already called my pal Fireman, who can fix anything. He says that he can make it as good as new, and if not it’s probably a warranty issue since the hubs have only been in use since 2009. They’ve only had two sets of wheels built on them, have been overhauled a mere three times, and have less than 75,000 miles on them, so if Chris King doesn’t want to warranty them and cover the cost to have the wheels rebuilt I should probably sue them in small claims court for products liability, fraud, breach of implied warranty, defamation, and violation of my civil rights.

Anyway … anybody out there have a spare front wheel?

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