This past Thursday the Blue Truck/Xtracycle was handed off to a new owner. This was nearly 28 years from when this 1987 Specialized Rockhopper Comp was passed to me. Here are the last three pictures I took of it as it sat outside my home waiting for it’s new owner to arrive:
It’s my second oldest bike I own. I still have my racing bike I bought new in 1977. But, the Rockhopper has the most miles ridden by me, by far, than any other bike I own or owned in the past. It is the bike I have ridden each year for 28 years. My old racing bike hasn’t been ridden in two and a half decades. The Rockhopper was my only working bike I owned and rode from 1991-2002, or 11 years.
The bike was purchased new by my older brother in 1987 or 1988. He was living in Homewood, Illinois. A south suburb of Chicago. He mountain bike raced on it for a couple of years. I believe he finished second in Illinois State Mountain Bike Championships one of those years. In 1990 he bought a bike shop in Crown Point Indiana. He had tried to sell it as a used bike in his shop. When it didn’t sell he brought it to Minnesota where I was living when he came for a weekend visit. When he left he asked me if I wanted to keep it. No charge. I said sure. I wasn’t a mountain biker and I hadn’t ridden a bike since I graduated college in 1985. 1985 to 1991 was the only period in my life I hadn’t ridden regularly since I started riding bikes at age four. I didn’t think I’d use a mountain bike. Little did I know that this bike would be my introduction back into the world of cycling.
I don’t have any pictures of this bike prior to 2006. And only a couple prior to it becoming the Xtracycle donor bike in 2007.
Back to 1991. At first the bike sat in a corner of the hallway of my small one bedroom apartment in North St Paul, Minnesota, an older suburb of St Paul. I didn’t know what to use it for at first. All I had ever ridden were road bikes. It felt very foreign to me. At some point I realized there was a paved recreational path on an old rail line across the highway from where I lived. It originated from just north of the State Capital building in St Paul and ran northeast out past my apartment and ended a few miles further northeast near the junction of 694 and Route 36. It was called the Gateway Trail. In 1991 it was only paved as far as 694. From there is was dirt, tree covered and used by local horse owners and dog walkers. I started to ride out to the unpaved section and riding that. Within a few miles of my apartment I could completely escape the city. It became countryside very quickly.
Fast forward to 1992. A personal vehicle crisis forced me to make my first true urban commute by bicycle (if you don’t count all the commuting by bicycle I did in high school and college). The car I was driving was a 1982 Toyota Corolla. It happened to blow a head gasket on a Friday and wouldn’t be usable for a week or more. I worked weekends as a Security Guard at a building on Hennipen Avenue in downtown Minneapolis. I needed to be there at 7 am Saturday morning. I opened the building on weekends. I had to be there. I had only moved to Minnesota in late 1990 and I didn’t have a network of friends I could call on to give me a ride. The weekend buses didn’t run early enough to get me from St Paul to Minneapolis. I was in a bind. I decided my only option was to ride the bike. I had no idea how long it would take me to get the 17 miles to Minneapolis or if I could ride the 17 miles back at the the end of the day. I packed a duffel bag which I threw over one shoulder and did the ride. I had a cheap battery operated headlight that didn’t really light up the road. But I did have one of the first LED rear blinkers made. That worked great. Somehow I made it there and back and then repeated it on Sunday. I wasn’t in shape. I’m not sure how I rode 68 miles in two days. Youth I guess.
I instantly fell in love with bike commuting. And in the process rediscovered my love for bicycling. Before the next weekend I had bought a cheap rear rack and some Schwinn branded saddle bag panniers to carry my stuff. I kept that weekend job until 1997. I rode most weekends during the three nicer seasons. However, I wasn’t yet a winter commuter. People may know the Twin Cities as a leader in bike commuting. This wasn’t so back in the early nineties. I rarely saw other bike commuters back then. Bike commuting in the Twin Cities is a relatively new thing.
In May of 1993 my weekday job was a working as a temp. I had a workman’s comp injury at one of the companies I was working for. I was told I could no longer do the manual labor work I had been doing. I essentially sat home for the next 6 months, Monday through Friday. I kept working the weekend job during that time. But I didn’t exactly sit at home. A physical therapist gave me the green light to ride a bike. With nothing to do I started heading out each morning on the Rockhopper. I would spend most of the day riding around the country roads of Washington County, and Stillwater, Minnesota. I’d return home in the evening. I averaged 50 miles a day over that six months. Workman’s comp was only paying me $142 a week. I didn’t have any money to spend on anything. So I rode my bike all day. It sucked having no money, but I have very fond memories of that summer on my bike. The funny thing is the bike still had the original knobby mountain bike tires on it. I averaged 50 miles a day, on pavement, with knobby tires. Can’t even imagine doing that now.
When I returned to work in the Fall of 1993 I started my new career in human services, working for a day program as a job coach. The agency I worked for was only a half mile from my apartment. I could walk to work. Ironically after all that summer riding a new physical therapist I was seeing told me riding a bike was probably one of the worst things I could have been doing for my injury. She told me to stop riding immediately. I followed her directions for the winter. I didn’t ride in the winter time anyway. By Spring my injury was better and started doing occasional recreational rides. However, my main form of exercise to get me out of the apartment became roller blading for the next two summers. The Gateway Trail had since been paved far out into Washington County. I did daily skates on the trail.
Fast forward to 1998, I had been dating Susan for a year. We decided to merge our two households, and our pets, into one household. We found a nice private apartment in the St Paul Grand Avenue neighborhood just off of St Clair and Lexington Ave. It had originally been a servants quarters off the side of a large home. I once again had a decent commute. I didn’t care for the highway driving. I spent 5 years after college commuting on Chicago expressways. I didn’t like returning to that. I still worked out in North St Paul. I started using the bus system and in nicer weather bike commuting. I discovered if I used the Gateway Trail, more than half my commute was on a tree lined rail trail. The other half took me across the State Capital grounds, up Cathedral Hill and through the historic mansions of Summit Avenue. Again, I fell in love with my bicycle commute.I spent weekends exploring the many off street trails of St Paul and Minneapolis. It was amazing how far you could go around the cities and only had to minimally use streets. There was bike trails along both sides of the Mississippi River. Minnehaha Creek Trails could connect you from the Mississippi River to the Minneapolis lakes and all the trail systems around those. From Minnehaha Park you could connect to Fort Snelling State Park by trails. I never realized urban riding could be so enjoyable.
In early 2001 Susan and I quit our jobs, got out of our lease, put all our belongings in storage, including the Rockhopper, and spent 6 months thru-hiking the Appalachian Trail. Fourteen states and 2168.1 miles later, we returned to Minnesota. But rather than return to the cities we went north and landed in Duluth. We both managed to get jobs. Mine was a 4 mile commute. After spending 6 months walking over 2,000 miles, I continued to walk. A four mile walk to work was nothing. I found myself walking and sometimes taking the Rockhopper to work. I didn’t miss driving while I was on the trail. I preferred being out in the fresh air everyday, even after I returned to the real world. My truck sat idle most of the time. I really liked my truck. I just didn’t use it very often.
In July of 2002 I came to the realization I was spending money on regular maintenance, insurance, and registration on a vehicle I rarely used. It was a very hard decision, my truck was (and still is) my favorite vehicle I’ve ever owned. But I made the decision to sell it and see if we could live with one vehicle for the next year. That one year ended up turning into 15 years. Susan worked for a local Hospice. She did home visits covering a 50 mile radius from Duluth. The one car we had left would be for her use. I would need to get around in other ways.
Toyota trucks are always in great demand. It sold very quickly, just days after I put a For Sale sign on it. I didn’t even have a chance to list it or advertise it before it sold. It sold with just a For Sale sign in the window. This was a bit of a problem. I had a part time job one day every weekend that I had to get to. Why is that a problem? It’s because the job was in Two Harbors, Minnesota. Exactly 33 miles one way from my house. It was like the security job all over again. Sure, Susan said I could take the car, but that would leave her without her one mode of transportation one day every weekend. I was determined to get around without a car. That was part of my experiment. I decided to pack up the bicycle and ride. I was in good shape for walking and for riding short distances. But I had no idea if I had the endurance built up to ride a 66 mile round trip bike commute, and work an 8 hour shift in the middle. I struggled through that first long distance commute. I soon made it a routine. I ended up doing that commute every summer, one day every weekend from May to October, for the next three years.
After the first couple of long commutes I decided I needed a drop bar bike to do this ride. The route took me up the windy shore of Lake Superior. Depending on the weather I could have a strong headwind for an entire 33 mile distance going to or from work. Some days it seemed like I had a headwind going both directions. I hadn’t bought a new bike since 1979. I didn’t know what to buy. I rode the Rockhopper into a small neighborhood shop in Duluth a block from where I worked. It was called Boreal Bike Works. I told Bryn, the owner, I was looking for a good drop bar commuting bike. Maybe something used. He looked at the Rockhopper and said I wouldn’t be able to find anything better than that. He said he could convert it to drop bars for me, put some road tires on it and it’d work great. I took him up on it. And it did work great.
In the winter of 2003-2004, I was determined to ride through my first winter. I bought a pair of 26 inch studded tires from Bike Nashbar (they were Kenda tires branded Bike Nashbar) and my first winter commuting bike was born.
In the fall of 2005 I bought my first new bike for commuting. I bought a Surly Cross Check. I asked Bryn to set it up for me as a fixed gear. I didn’t like all the maintenance and cleaning required to keep the Rockhopper running during the winter. I wanted to retire it from winter riding. I thought a fixed gear drive train was the answer. And it would have been if I didn’t need to get up the Duluth hills. It was fine in the summer. But when the road was snow or ice covered I couldn’t get up the hills with the fixed gear. The Rockhopper was called back into winter duty for one more winter. The picture above is one of it’s last winter commutes. My solution for the next winter was to put a Nexus 8 speed Internally Geared Hub on the Cross Check. That solved my winter issues and the Rockhopper never had to see winter again.
After the winter of 2005-2006 the Rockhopper didn’t get much use. That is until the summer of 2007.
Part Two will be about the birth of the Blue Truck/Xtracycle.