Representation of my first bike
Representation of my bike

1. My first bike was a small, red, BMX-style bike with one gear and a coaster brake that I would hammer on at top speed, producing spectacular (and perfectly controlled) skid stops. I started on it with training wheels and moved on to making jumps at the bottom of my driveway out of logs and plywood, hurting myself on a few occasions. I wish I could do skid stops like that now.

2. My second bike was a 1984 Raleigh Marathon 12-speed road bike (catalog pages: 1 | 2) hand-me-down from my older brother. I never rode it much (maybe because I couldn't do sweet skid stops on it) except when my family would go to the Poconos where it would be my means of getting between our house and the arts center and everywhere else.

Update: in early-2012, I shipped this bike from my parents' house to the west coast to replace Jess' stolen Jamis Commuter 3.0. I swapped the bars for upright ones, put on fenders and a rack, and gave it a tune-up. It fits her pretty well. New life for a classy bike with a long family history!

[closeup 1] [closeup 2]

3. My first adult bike came September of my sophomore year of college, 1999. I had drawn housing that seemed eons away from campus, so I figured I would get a bike. I went to the nearest bike shop, ATA Cycle, then in its location slightly closer to Harvard Square, and paid $250 for a used Raleigh M-30 rigid fork mountain bike. Little did I know how influential this bike would be on my life.

I found that I could finish eating my breakfast in the dining hall at 10am, hammer on my bike to the Science Center, and be in class before it started at 10:07. It was easy to bike home for lunch mid-day. I could do errands, go to Glee Club rehearsal, and even go to games at Fenway Park and movies in Boston. In my mad life of rushing from one thing to the next, my bike was the fastest way to get around, faster than a car would be, faster than the subway or the bus. And it was a thrilling ride.

I was still riding this bike when I started volunteering at Bikes Not Bombs the Fall after I graduated college in 2002. On volunteer nights, I would stay after and get Liat Hoffman to show me how to fix or overhaul one part of my bike. I learned a lot from those sessions, started getting more excited about bikes and fixing them, and then in the Winter of 2002-2003 started planning to open a bike shop on Harvard's campus.

In the Winter of 2003-2004, I decided it was time for a new bike, and that's when I built my Trek fixed gear. I donated my old friend to Quad Bikes, replaced the entire drivetrain and the rear wheel, refurbished the rest of it, and put it up for sale. A few days later, a guy named Jim Gray wandered into the shop and purchased my old bike. I wasn't going to sell it to someone who I thought would misuse it. It turned out that Jim was the new associate vice president of Harvard Real Estate! In retrospect, this was a good sell, because Jim is a good person and has done great work for Harvard Real Estate.

4. My friend Steve and I decided to do a cycling trip in the Netherlands, northern Germany, Denmark, and Norway the summer after graduating college in 2002. We would end in Stavanger, Norway, where Steve was going to spend the next year working at the International School with my other friend Dennis. I decided to purchase a new Raleigh C-30 hybrid for about $280, ship it over with me, use it on our 1000-km trip, and then sell it to Dennis for his use in Norway. This ended up working well from my perspective, though I don't know what Dennis did with the bike when he moved back to the States.

5. In 2003, I got a job for the summer leading two cycling, camping, and public service trips for the Becket Chimney Corners YMCA. In April of that year, I purchased a donated 64cm beautiful red Raleigh touring bike, probably from the late-60s or early-70s, from Bikes Not Bombs for $100. Carl sold me the bike in its donated state, so I had a fun project ahead of me to fix it up. I replaced the beautiful Suntour downtube shifters with bar-end shifters, overhauled the bottom bracket, headset, and hubs, and prepared it for loaded touring. It was my first my first serious bike fixing project and the beginning of my mechanic training for Quad Bikes.

That summer, a mechanic commented on the fact that the bike's fork looked bent back slightly, which brought me to notice jitters in the handlebars when traveling at high speeds. After my summer trips, I removed the fork and put it in a fork jig at Bikes Not Bombs to measure and bend it back into shape, but this didn't improve things much.

The next summer, I shipped the bike to Portland, Oregon for a trip with Steve along the coastal bike route to San Francisco. Once in San Francisco, I decided I wouldn't be needing a touring bike for a while, so I tried to sell it on craigslist during the 5 days I was there. I figured that there, in the homeland of craigslist, I was bound to get lots of offers for my classic touring bike ready for touring. But no luck. I was able to sell my panniers, racks, pump, and lock, but I had pay $100 to ship the bike back to Cambridge, MA where I would again donate it to the shop, refurbish it, and sell it to a very tall French man.

6. In the Winter of 2003-2004, I decided to finally part with my trusty Raleigh M-30 mountain bike and build myself my first bike from scratch. I had read and heard a lot of hype about fixed gear bikes, so I decided to try one out from a nice 1970s Trek road frame. I built both wheels which held up well on the pothole-filled streets of the greater Boston area. I started with drop handlebars and a single front brake but later moved to a much taller Nitto stem, flat bars with fairly comfy Topeak Ergon grips that JC gave me and added a rear brake for faster stopping in the rain. After I sold my Raleigh touring bike in September 2004, I was a one-bike, one-gear (and one-brake, at least for a while) man for almost one year.

Soon after I built my Cross-Check (see next), I sold this bike through Quad Bikes, again becoming a one-bike man (I'm holding out as long as I can from becoming a bike pack rat). Trying a fixed gear was a great experience, but it took a toll on my knees and let's face it -- the freewheel is a great invention.

7. In August 2005, after months of planning, I decided it was finally time to treat myself to a new bike. New frame, all new parts, and nice parts at that. I built a Surly Cross Check with drop handlebars, a Shimano Nexus internally-geared 7-speed hub, and a Brooks B-17 leather saddle. I was particularly happy with the shifter placement, accessible from both the brake hoods and the flats of the handlebar. The bike required little maintenance, was quite versatile, and was rock solid. Here's a web page I made when I built it.

I had some initial problems with brake squeal on the front brake (Avid Shorty 6 cantilever), and tried everything from pad toeing to different kinds of pads, and finally replaced the stupid thing with a linear pull brake.

At the end of 2007, as I prepared to move from Boston to San Francisco, I was going through a strong purge phase and decided to sell my only bike. Overall, I was happy with it, but there were a few small things that I didn't like: I wanted the 8-speed Shimano internally geared hub instead of the older technology 7-speed, something about the frame geometry wasn't quite right, and the front brake was never optimal. I feel I'm still figuring out what the right bike is for me, and each time I get a bike, I understand more. Here are some photos of the bike when I sold it, complete with fenders and rack: 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 . The buyer seems happy with it as his commuter.

8. When I arrived in San Francisco in July 2008, I bought a 2008 Jamis Commuter 3.0. Originally brought to my attention by Sheldon Brown, here's what I like about it:

  • internally-geared hub - Shimano Nexus 8 with convenient rapid-fire shifter
  • caliper brakes - easy to adjust and replacement pads are cheap
  • swept-back handlebars - comfortable, upright riding position
  • decent fenders
  • rigid fork - front suspension is unnecessary and a lot of extra weight
  • threaded headset - easier to have high handlebars

In general, I'm very happy with it so far, especially given the very economical price of $550. The bike's weaker points:

  • adjustable stem - prone to creaking
  • suspension seatpost - extra weight and doesn't do much
  • huge, heavy saddle

To customize the bike, I've added new clip / flat pedals, a rear rack, a locking front skewer, a computer, lights, and my old Brooks B-17 saddle. The black blob on the front spokes is a MonkeyLectric light, providing a fun combination of safety and style.

The eight gears are pretty much good enough for the hills of San Francisco, though I did replace the 42-tooth chainring with a 38.

Photo on the right: during a two-day, 80-mile bike trip from San Francisco to Santa Cruz.

9. After two years living in San Francisco with only my 8-speed Jamis Commuter, it was time for a touring bike. I was moving to the East Bay, and there was a lot of beautiful, and hilly, biking to do over there. I had pushed my Jamis to the limits, taking it off road and on some long rides -- once up Mt Diablo loaded with camping gear.

I almost splurged on a Rivendell, but decided in the end on a Surly Long Haul Trucker, especially since I was volunteering at the Bike Kitchen, so I could buy the frame and parts at cost.

I started with drop bars with brifters, but quickly changed to swept back / upright bars (Surly Open Bar). I still had the Topeak Ergon grips from my old fixie, so I slapped them on there. The bars are a little wide for my taste, so they might get changed to the Nitto Albatross with bar-end shifters (a Rivendell standard).

I really like the strength of the linear pull brakes and how safe I feel on long decents with them and the upright handlebars. I've still got my Brooks saddle, and I've put on my old Jandd handlebar bag that's still going strong.

Spreadsheet of parts which cost about $1100 after tax. More photos: 1 | 2