Spring Evening

I had to work late today, which meant I rode home around 7:30 and saw a very different Northfield than I do when I ride home just after 5: slow strolling students on campus, lawn mowers and dog walkers and stray skateboarders, wide empty streets, a golden yellow haze over the fields
South

and just for mystery’s sake, a hot air balloon drifting east of town.

Mystery Balloon (photo by Rob Hardy)

Origins of the Buffalo (the Bike, not the Animal)

I dunno if that many bike riders name their bikes, but I know a few who do, and I have named my last three bikes. My first gravel bike, a Surly CrossCheck, never earned a name, but my blue Salsa Mukluk fatbike was "the Beast," because it was a beastly machine that could go anywhere and looked (I think) a little scary, with those big tires seeming to be giant black paws. My Salsa Vaya gravel bike is "Giddyup," because it’s got a lot of get up and go – which is true even if I don’t ride it enough.

My favorite bike, my silver Salsa Mukluk, is "the Buffalo," a name that took me a long time to choose – or which took a long time to choose the bike. Quite a few people have asked me about the name – including several strangers at the Almanzo last weekend who rode up next me and asked, "Is that the Buffalo? Are you Chris Tassava?"

Despite or because of the weirdness of having strangers recognize me and my bike, I thought maybe I should explain the name.

I bought the Mukluk from my friend Ben, who’d built it up for himself a few years before but hadn’t had time to really put it to use. He gave me a great deal on the bike, so I snapped it up. Riding the nameless bike for months after I bought it, I thought about its many wonderful qualities and waited for the right moniker to emerge. My daughters lobbied for "Beauty," partly as a complement to the Beast (though I no longer owned the Beast) and partly because they’re girls. Honestly, the bike is pretty. Dressed in its blue and gray frame bags for winter racing or bikepacking, the bike looks, I think, like it’s wearing a comfortable, functional uniform.
Fat Pursuit Setup

Without the bags, the bike shows off all of its unpainted silvery titanium – definitely the bike material that’s easiest on the eyes.
Before the Almanzo

Despite all that, "Beauty" didn’t fit. Not that one can’t define beauty in many ways, but to me, the bike was too burly and too aggressive-looking to be "Beauty." Then, on a long training ride last fall, with the bike dressed in its all bags and laden with most of my winter-racing gear, as I ground my way up a long, messy gravel climb, it hit me: "the Buffalo."

My mind was primed for this revelation. I’d just read an article somewhere about bison. Most people know about the bison’s near-eradication in the 19th century, and also know the bit about how Indians used "every part" of the bison, but the animal itself is as fascinating as its history. It’s the largest North American mammal, the only survivor of the megafauna that thrived tens of thousands of years ago but that were almost all killed off by humans when they migrated out of Asia.

The bison survived because of their unique physical characteristics. They’re massive, but their physiology enables them to thrive in a wide range of conditions – hot southwestern deserts, temperate grasslands, lowland forests, mountain valleys, Alaskan swamps – and of course, the dry, windy grasslands that run up the center of the continent, which was where I live and where I would largely be riding the bike. A bison is fast – able to run up to up to 25 miles an hour. A bison is nimble – able to jump over fences that are six feet high or ditches and holes longer than their body length. A bison is tough – able to move dozens of miles a day in the right conditions (not to mention to survive the white mans’ guns). And a bison is very pleasing to look at, in a wild way.

Buffalo, by Larry Smith (from Flickr)

My fatbike, too, is fast, nimble, tough, and above all adaptable – good on pavement, great on gravel, excellent on dirt, and of course phenomenal on snow. With those rationalizations in place, I just had to make sure the name was right "Buffalo" is a laden term, with pedants loving to point out that the American bison isn’t a "buffalo" like the water buffalo of Africa. (This is true, but also dumb, since the French explorers didn’t give the name to the weird humpbacked cattle they saw on the plains because they looked like water buffalo.)

But "the Bison" didn’t sound right, and "Tatanka" (the Lakota word for "bison") didn’t seem right coming from a white guy. Growing up, I’d always used the label "buffalo" for bison, which mattered to me because riding bikes – especially fatbikes – can be a pure, childlike pleasure. And "the Buffalo" just sounded right when I said it. The name fit all the more because I’d installed some weird curved handlebars that looked – from above and behind, which was my view of them – a little like a horned bovine head. Within a few hundred yards of gravel road, the nameless fatbike became the Buffalo, and the Buffalo has taken me to some cool places.

Descending into Montana

At the Almanzo 2015 (photo by Marty Larson)

American History Wax Museum

Today was the long-awaited, much-anticipated American History Wax Museum, the culminating event of a big historical project that third graders at my girls’ school work on for weeks each spring. (When Julia was in third grade, she was Abigail Adams.)

Vivi, who has a scientific rather than a historical bent, chose Albert Einstein for as her figure. She did some great research on Einstein (who was, it turns out, not that nice a guy), wrote up a great speech in his voice (and memorized most of it), did the requisite almost-life-sized drawing (over about a week of evenings and weekends), and today dressed up as him (or as a third-grader’s vision of him) for the Museum. She did a great job!
Albert Einstein

Parenting by Bike, part II

After last weekend’s outrageously fun and successful outing with Julia to the local MTB trails, I was eager to get back there with Genevieve – through probably not more eager than the girls themselves. I tried to delay the start of our ride as long as I could, so that it would take up a good chunk of the Saturday afternoon, but by 12:30 they couldn’t wait any longer.

Sunscreen, water bottles, helmets, and away we went. I marveled at how easily and quickly we zipped past the pool, which had been a distant, hard-to-reach destination even just last summer. (It’s not quite a mile away.) The girls being older, bigger, and excited-er was already paying off. A few minutes later, we arrived at the very nondescript start to the trails. Vivi was surprised to see a simple path in the woods (I think she was expecting something grander), but she gamely followed Julia onto the trail, who had been racing ahead of us throughout the ride over.

Taking up the third spot in our little group, I was initially worried that Vivi – who’s often only tolerates bike riding, and had only ever ridden on sidewalks and streets – would hate the tight, twisty dirt trail. Worry: unfounded! She rode carefully but steadily through the first set of corners, popped up off her seat to negotiate a few short rises, and even leaned into the early downhill corners. Not to say she was a natural, but she was pretty close. She wanted to chase down Julia, too, which helped a lot.

I hung back a few yards, at first calling out a few instructions but soon just enjoying the sight of the two of them – or at least G, since J was usually out of view up front – zooming through the trees. They both stopped to walk the two trickier log obstacles and to guide their bikes through one very tight spot that I can’t even ride, but they crushed everything else. I was so happy and proud of them!

Before I knew it, we were zooming around the baseball fields and racing down the flat two-track along the river, which they found a little boring. I was surprised by this, so we headed to some of the trickier trails in the back. Julia was excited to try a fairly steep dropoff, which she rode smoothly – and over and over:

Coming Off the Velodrome

As Julia tried a few other accessible pieces of elevated trail, though, Vivi started to have a hard time, perhaps due to seeing her sister ride stuff that she herself didn’t want to attempt, and perhaps also due to needing a snack. Hangry, she starting crying and yelling about how much she hated biking, and how the trails were boring and stupid.

Trying to curtail this ugliness, I urged them back along the trials to the start, where – as I had promised in the morning – we hit the convenience store for ice cream. After the sugary treats, some water from their very own bike bottles, and a few minutes of rest, Vivi was raring to go again. We hit all of the front stuff again and tried out some of the technical sections in back, including a twenty-foot section that includes a sharp left hand turn, an off-camber descent over some roots and loose dirt, and then a sharp righthand turn away from the river.

With enthusiasm still high but energy levels waning, we spent a long time practicing – "sessioning," as they say – a short but steep little drop that, ultimately, both girls mastered. Vivi spent a good five minutes nerving herself up to try it the first time, but once she did it once, she did it again and again – taking turns with Julia, who alternately encouraged her sister ("Come on, girl! You got this!") and hit the drop at higher and higher speeds.

https://vimeo.com/127379623

I wanted to the outing to end on a pretty high note like this one, so after a good number of attempts (and one little crash by the elder in which she bent her brake lever and scraped her legs – yes!), I turned them toward home again. Julia just had to see the Spine, an infamously tough obstacle that she heard about at school from her mom’s supervisor (what?!), so we checked that out. Though they couldn’t ride much of the obstacle, they were intrigued by the idea of learning how to do it over the course of the summer. Being a guy, I just had to show off for the cute girls, so I gave the Spine a go and surprised myself by cleaning it for the first time ever – right in front of the girls.

That couldn’t be topped (at least today), so we headed home from there. The girls literally rode away from me when we passed through the front singletrack section for the last time. I had to work very hard to get close enough to snap a photo!

Heading Home

By the time we rolled into our garage fifteen minutes later, we’d been out in the fresh air for nearly four hours, and spent a solid 2:30 riding. The girls were exhausted, ravenous, and dirty, but after resting, eating, and bathing, they both told me that they were eager to go back next weekend. I can’t wait. I don’t think I’m going to get tired of riding bikes with them anytime soon.

Listen, Don’t Fix

I don’t know what the hell is wrong with me, but I’m more and more susceptible to being inspired or at least informed by quotes on the internet.

This week’s example comes through my wonderful coworker Dee from the thinker and speaker Parker Palmer, which she shared with me in the course of a conversation about raising kids – a topic on which Dee has a deep well of wisdom.

In the face of our deepest questions… our habit of advising each other reveals its shadow side. If the shadow could speak its logic, I think it would say something like this: “If you take my advice, you will surely solve your problem, If you take my advice but fail to solve your problem, you did not try hard enough. If you fail to take my advice I did the best I could so I am covered. No matter how things come out, I no longer need to worry about you or your vexing problem.”

The shadow behind the “fixes” we offer for issues that we cannot fix is, ironically, the desire to hold each other at bay. It is a strategy for abandoning each other while appearing to be concerned. Perhaps this explains why one of the most common laments of our time is that no one really sees me, hears me, or understands me. How can we understand another when instead of listening deeply, we rush to repair that person in order to escape further involvement? The sense of isolation and invisibility that marks so many lives is not least the lives of young people, whom we constantly try to fix. It is due in part to a mode of “helping” that allows us to dismiss each other.

When you speak to me about your deepest questions, you do not want to be fixed or saved; you want to be seen and heard, to have your truth acknowledged and honored…so the best service I can render when you speak to me about such a struggle is to hold you faithfully in a space where you can listen to your inner teacher.

(The emphases are mine.)

Parenting by Bike

I’ve been a parent for almost 11 years now, but I’m still surprised at how big, important moments come out of nowhere. Sure, a lot of big, important moments are carefully scheduled (somehow, my calendar shows me attending Julia’s fifth-grade graduation ceremony on Tuesday!), but many aren’t. This morning, for instance, I casually mentioned the idea of going with one or both girls over to the new singletrack bike trails at Sechler Park, a short but challenging few miles of track that Cannon River Offroad Cycling and Trails, our local MTB club, built last year.

Having spent hours and hours on the trails in the fall, over the winter, and now this spring, I’ve cut my crashing down from “constant” to “occasional,” which led me to think that the girls might be able to handle many of the trails – especially the “front” section nearest town and the doubletrack “road” along the river in the back.

Vivi was busy today with her BFF, but lo and behold, Julia got very excited by the idea, and so off we went. She was stoked to have a real water bottle in the cage of her new (to her) bike and to wear a pair of my bike gloves. I could barely keep in front of her on the couple-mile ride through town to the trails. When we arrived at the trailhead, I gave her a few pointers, reassured her that she could and should walk any sections that seemed too tricky, and told her I was so happy that she’d even been interested in coming out. I left unsaid that I was bubbling over with excitement at having one of my kids sharing one of my favorite activities with me.

Then we hit the trails. Though the first stretch of trails – from the trailhead to the baseball fields in the middle of Sechler – is almost entirely flat, the track is very tight, with many sharp corners, innumerable spots where there trees are just slightly wider than a rider’s elbows, and a good number of technical features like log bumps and bridges. I am myself the furthest thing from smooth on this section, but I can ride it pretty cleanly now.

On her first try, Julia rode these trails pretty much as cleanly as I do after hours of practice – railing the corners, riding easily over some low obstacles, crossing the bridges without a thought, and intuitively pedaling hard up some steep bits. She did, wisely, dismount for some of the bigger obstacles, but she handled everything else with aplomb – and maybe a few shrieks.

After negotiating the front section, we rode the doubletrack out to the far end of the park, rested for a bit (and talked about how old she’ll have to be to ride in the 100-mile Almanzo gravel race), and then headed back to the start. After a quick break for fizzy water and granola bars from the gas station, we did the whole route a second time. She crushed it again:

Crushing the Singletrack
Crushing the Singletrack

More than once, I was riding ahead of her at a reasonably quick pace, turned to see where she was, and found her right on my wheel, looking for all the world like she was about to make a pass and drop me like a brick. As we neared the end of our second circuit, I sped up so I could get a picture of her hitting the bridge near the trailhead. I rode away fast, but still barely had time to dig out my phone before she cruised through the trees, effortlessly glided up the ramp onto the bridge, rolled over the bouncy little span, dropped back onto the dirt, and whipped past me.

Crossing the Bridge
Crossing the Bridge

It was just a bike ride, but it felt like a big, important bike ride. I can’t wait to take her back there again soon, and to take Vivi along, too.

Great Plains: Americas Lingering Wild

I just finished reading this amazing book – Great Plains: Americas Lingering Wild.
Forsberg, Great Plans

The Nebraska-based photographer Michael Forsberg thought up the idea for the book and filled it with dozens and dozens of exceptional shots of prairies from Minnesota to Montana, North Dakota to New Mexico – plants, animals, people, and especially the land itself.

Buffalo at the Buffalo Gap

Forsberg’s photographs are complemented by short essays by geographer Davis Wishart and natural historian Dan O’Brien, whose eloquence and erudition complement Forsberg’s artistry. Loss is an explicit theme in O’Brien’s writing, an implicit one in Wishart’s – the decline and death of countless plant and animal species, the near-extermination of the grassland’s original Native inhabitants, the continuing erosion (literal and figurative) of all three kinds of prairie…

Yet as O’Brien comes to realize through his work with Forsberg, denizens of the plains do have some reasons for optimism. Arguably, we are now experiencing a moment when more people than ever before are interested in "saving" the prairies as ecosystems, as homes for myriad living creatures, and as colossally beautiful places. Reading this book makes me – an immigrant to the prairie – want to do more to save it and expand it and love it.

Driving the Ice Cream Truck

Ice Cream Truck on the Hill
Ice Cream Truck on the Hill

I had to leave the Buffalo at the shop for a week while a defective part was replaced, which would have sucked except that a) the part was warrantied, and Tom, my LBS guy, only charged me for the labor needed to install the new part, and b) Tom let me use his shop bike, a Surly Ice Cream Truck, while the Buffalo was fixed.

The Ice Cream Truck is a wonderfully crazy machine: trail-ready frame geometry, candy-blue paint, and most importantly, massive 5″ tires. The ICT was loud and slow on pavement and sidewalks, but on any other surface – grass, dirt, sand, gravel – the bike took off. It was a rocket on straightaways, but really showed off in corners and on sharp ups and downs. Riding this thing, I easily railed tight, loose corners in the local singletrack park and rolled joyfully up and down steep banks – technical stuff that I could not handle on the Buffalo. For the first time, I could see how frame size and geometry could really make a difference in riding experience – a fact that I knew, but had never really experienced.

Ice Cream Truck at the Construction Site
Ice Cream Truck at the Construction Site

In short, I had a blast riding this bike. I was almost (almost) sad to give it up on Friday when the Buffalo was fixed, but I was also eager to take the Mukluk – with its expedition geometry – back to the singletrack to see if any of my new skills translated to the bigger, less nimble bike.

Science Rocks!

Julia’s fifth-grade classes are doing their “Science Rocks” musical this week: a set of songs about science, accompanied by some dialogue, a few short skits, and even a little dancing.

Julia at Science Rocks
Julia at Science Rocks

I went to see the big show on Wednesday morning, and found the whole production very entertaining and educational. The kids were really into it, which was funny and inspiring in its own right. Dedicating hours and hours to songs about the elements and genetics? Brilliant!