An Ode to the Bicycle, or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the WalGoose
The first bike I remember was hand-me-down Schwinn Pixie in 1972. It had hard plastic tires. No pumping! No flats!
I probably got Butch’s Schwinn after I outgrew the Pixie. Then I got my first 10-speed in 1974, a shiny new Raleigh Record, serial #7 (my sister still has hers, lovingly restored by our dad). I was the first one in my class to have a ten speed. I wasn’t allowed to ride it to school, so a lot of kids didn’t believe me. That was third grade. Getting used to hand brakes was tricky at first. I crashed into a guy wire at the end of our cu-de-sac on Kirkwood Court, back-pedaling madly. But I got the hang of it.
I was eight. My family took a two week bike trip from Iowa City to Galena, Illinois and back, by way of Dubuque. We got our picture on the front page of the Preston Times. The reporter chased us down on the highway to get the interview and some photos. I remember being in some Mississippi River town with a levy and somebody singing American Pie. I had an idea what whisky was, but I wasn’t sure about rye. There was some kind of junk shop that had hermit crabs at the checkout. They weren’t for sale. And I didn’t have any way to get them home if they were. One of our stops was Maquoketa Caves, I think. Sue probably remembers. There was talk of impeaching Nixon. I remember seeing an editorial cartoon about it.
I also remember stopping at a small town general store with a house attached. You could see into the shopkeepers’ dining room. There was a big zucchini on the table. We also went to a parade where they threw candy. They didn’t do that at the only other parade I ever went to, the University of Iowa homecoming parade. And we met a dirt track motorcycle racer named Charlie Brown. He showed us the metal plate he wore on the bottom of his left boot. We went to see him race at the fair ground.
I got another 10-speed around high school time. A chocolate brown Raleigh something or other. It was a Christmas present too big to fit under the tree, so my old man put it in the shower to surprise me. My buddy Mark and I took a bike ride up to Wisconsin one summer, probably 1981 or 1982. Or maybe 1983. We didn’t make it to Baraboo or Wisconsin Dells, but we had a good time. One night we had to camp out in the yard of the Sheriff’s office in Dodgeville because the campground was full at Governor Dodge State Park. I think that’s as far as we got. We had old county maps that we photocopied at the library. We were lost more often than we knew where we were, probably. Mark bought a sausage in Wisconsin as a gift for somebody. When we rode across the Mississippi, I think it was the Bellvue Bridge, it fell off his bike rack and skipped overboard. “There’s nothing funny about sausage” became our catch phrase for senior year of high school. One of our last stops was Maquoketa Caves, I think. Mark might remember. Actually, I think we were going to stop there, but decided to keep riding, all the way home. I think we rode 150 miles that last day.
After high school, it seemed like there were always beat up 3-speeds around. I dragged one out to Oregon with me in the fall of ’89, tied to the top of the ’63 Step Van with some old rope. I rode it around some in Portland that winter, completely taken by the fact that I could ride my bike in the winter. With a sweatshirt on. And only get wet (not frostbitten). I bought my first cruiser in 1990 or so, at a yard sale down the street from my house on SE 26th and Sherman. It was a black cantilever frame, with 2-inch wide tires and decals and stickers all over it. I rode it until I had replaced almost every part on it. When I finally gave it away to somebody I worked with at the food co-op, the only original part was the front wheel. I’d changed everything else, including the frame, part-by-part as they wore out or broke. I used to ride it three miles to work from SE Taylor, across the Hawthorne Bridge, to John’s Landing, then home, then, if I was feeling good, up Mt. Tabor and back. One speed. I was in pretty good shape.
At some point, I’m thinking 1992 or ’93, I decided to make the move back into a geared bike. In the intervening years, they had gone from 10-speeds to 21. Some even had 24, I heard. Mountain bikes were starting to get popular, and my boss claimed to have been one of the originators of the sport (doubtful). He talked me into investing in one. I think I dropped $470 on mine, which I eventually converted into a cross bike with 1.5 inch slicks. I did a fair amount of bike-packing on it. When TriMet first introduced their bikes-on-buses program, I hurried to to Pioneer Courthouse Square to get one of the first permits. I would put my bike on the Estacada bus, take it to the end of the line, then ride up the Clackamas River and camp at Fish Creek or at Indian Henry or somewhere else around there. I also took that bike on the Pacific Coast Highway, from Cape Lookout to South Beach, then across the coast range to Corvallis and back up the valley to Portland.
I still have it, and it’s still my main city ride. It’s my sleek black beauty. I used to take it up to the Bicycle Repair Collective on SE Belmont to clean it and overhaul it when necessary. (I was really sad to hear the Bicycle Repair Collective closed down, when the owners decided it was time to retire.) It still has the original shifters, dérailleurs, brakes, stem, handlebars and front wheel. Probably the best $470 I ever spent on a vehicle.
Now, we recently started spending a lot of time at the beach, and I remember quite fondly taking my original Portland cruiser to Cannon Beach one summer weekend and riding it in the surf. That was fun. Really fun. So I thought I better pick up another cruiser. First I got a white one with pink wheels for Nancy (and Emmy!).
Then I got blue one for me. Craig’s list specials.
Then I saw something at Fred Meyer that stuck in my head. A bike with massive 4-inch wide tires. It was branded as a Mongoose Brutus, and despite some dorky paint and graphics, it just looked cool. And knowing what little I know about physics, I deduced that those tires would be just the ticket for our soft sand. But the price… $279 on sale. So I just filed that away in my mind, and probably started googling fat bikes while waiting for builds to finish at work.
What I discovered was that this same bike, with different paint and graphics, was being sold as a Mongoose Beast at Walmart for $200 (delivered), and there’s a whole subculture of people buying these things and modifying them in some pretty cool ways. (They’re also sold at Target as the Dozer, with probably the worst color scheme of all.) It turns out they’re all basically the same cheap Chinese-made bike, and most bike geeks agree, a couple Franklins is a pretty cheap entrée into the fat bike world (light-weight geared fatties start around ten times that).
Opinions on the Walmart Fattie (a.k.a. the WalGoose) vary widely from utter disdain to sheer glee. In fact, there is apparently some serious disdain for fat bikes in general in the mountain bike community. My sister, the mountain bike racer and coach, calls them “fad” bikes, and says there’s always some fat guy showing up with a fat bike for races, ready to start drinking beer. “What’s the point?” she asks, and rightly so. For the races, it’s hard to see any point carrying that much extra weight. (And talk about weight; the Beast weighs in at just under 50 pounds.)
But for sand or snow, there is definitely a point. We don’t get much snow, but I’ve got miles of sand to ride on, and I won’t be deterred by the righteous, multi-thousand dollar indignation of the serious gear heads. I decided to make one of these beasts mine. I picked red (they also come in green and blue), and this is how it looked out of the box.
The first thing I should have done was pack the bearings. They come with very little grease, and they are clamped down tight. (I did loosen the headset a little when I put it together.)
But the first thing I actually did was strip off the department store decals — they peel right off — and apply a little of my own branding. I toyed with names a bit before coming up with Land Shark, a ’70s Saturday Night Live reference. I also considered “Beach Whale.” If I get another one, I’ll go with blue and call it that.
(This was before I knew there was a high-end bike manufacturer in Oregon called Land Shark, but I don’t think anybody’s going to mistake this tank for a carbon fiber road bike.)
The other first thing I did was take it for a ride on the beach (because of course I did) where I confirmed the still other first thing everybody says: You need to change the gearing. These things are geared way too high considering their weight alone, not to mention the extra rolling resistance of sand. The stock gearing of a 32-tooth crank and an 18-tooth cog was actually okay for dry pavement. (It turns out they had been shipping them with a 36-tooth crank, which would make it basically impossible to ride on any kind of incline.) So, anyway, the third first thing I did was put a 22-tooth cog on the back. It’s really easy to do, and only required crescent wrenches to remove the rear wheel, and a little screw driver to remove the springy thing that holds the cog in place. The stock chain is too short with these four extra teeth, so I picked up a chain at Fred Meyer and added two or three links from that. I already had a chain tool; you’ll need one if you don’t have one.
This made riding much easier. Or at least possible. It’s still a lot of work, especially on the coarser sand.
I eventually got around to pulling the bottom bracket apart and cleaning the bearings out and re-packing them. These are not sealed bearings, so the only tools you need to get the bottom bracket open are a big crescent wrench and a crank puller. I really should have done this first, at least before getting hit by a few waves. Yeah, the bearings were pretty trashed, but I cleaned them up and packed the hell out of them.
By now, I was able to actually ride this thing for a while, and the stock seat was making my ass pretty sore. So I picked up a cruiser seat at Freddies. Not the kind with springs; these jumbo tires running on five pounds of pressure (yes, five pounds) are all the suspension I need. It was worth it. I also wanted to ditch the narrow BMX handle bars (funny, the bike looks like a giant BMX bike out of the box, but that’s not the look or feel I wanted.) I got some cruiser bars, which give me a more upright, laid-back posture for cruising. (If you’re following along at home, keep in mind that the little BMX stem has a 22.2 mm handlebar clamp, and you’ll have to get some kind of whack stem adapter to go with standard MTB bars. I went with cruiser bars, and you can find them with 22.2 mm mounts pretty easily.) I took off the flimsy chain guard, and this is what I get: my Land Shark.
That’s the ticket!
Some guys are going all crazy trying to shed pounds off these beasts, drilling out the rims, changing seat post, saddle, stem, all that. But honestly, I can probably lose ten pounds off my arse more easily than all that, and for a lot less moolah. As it is, I’m into this thing for under three bills, and having a blast. It might just be my favorite bike yet.
Another thing everybody will tell you about these things is that you cannot go for a ride in public without getting comments from just about everybody. Kids are the funniest. I’ve had kids spluttering, trying to get the attention of their siblings. “Alex, look at the size of that guy the tires he has! ALEX! LOOK!” I wish I had videos of this. It would make a funny mash-up.
Here’s a small taste of what it’s like to ride on the beach, at a time when the only gawkers were sea birds. (I’m riding one-handed and filming with my phone, which is why it looks a little wobbly at first).