Friday, April 11, 2008

Long Live the Scorcher (the bike AND the cyclist)

Above: The ultimate Rough Rider, and a Scorcher, Major Taylor
Above: One of Major Taylor's bikes
Above: a 1993 Ibis Scorcher

A hundred years ago, cyclists weren't sissies like today. With only one gear, no coasting, and not even one brake, not to mention no suspension or paved roads, they rode better than most do today. A few examples: In 1897, John George of Philadelphia rode 32,479 miles and John Noble rode 253 centuries in one year! The Ibis Scorcher takes its name frome the renegade, rules-be-damned cyclists (proto-mountain bikers?) of this era that were scorned by pedestrians and "traditional cyclists" alike. The scorchers, while held in low regard, however, were immortalized in poetry:

I am the scorcher!
Please observe
The curve
That appertains to my spine!
With head ducked low
I go
Over man and beast, and woe
Unto the thing
That fails to scamper when I ting-a-ling!
Let people jaw
And go to law
To try to check my gait,
If that's their game!
I hate
To kill folks
But I will do it, just the same.
I guess
They clear the tracks for me;
Because, you see,
I am the Scorcher, full of zeal,
And just the thing I look like on the wheel.

Ibis Scorcher: More Bike Than You'll Ever Need!
By Chris Kostman

I have to admit I was skeptical as I drove up to Sebastopol to pick up this bike. Was this single speed, fixed gear bike with but one brake just a glorified beach cruiser? Considering the $975 price tag and that I'd once read that "this type of bike is for people who are far hipper than people currently are," I wondered whether this was just some here today, gone tomorrow, trendoid bike for the fredly wanna-be's with cash to burn. But I kept an open mind, remembering that Scot Nicol and the gang at Ibis have never given us a bum steer.

Upon arrival, I was given two choices: a "small, medium, or large" size bike and a color choice of "black, black, or perhaps black." I easily opted for the medium, but agonized over the color, finally choosing black. That decided, it was off to the parking lot for a riding lesson from Wes Williams, the guru behind this bike as well as Ibis' jewel-like titanium stems and "the chopper from hell."

The bike fit much like the clunkers I'd ridden while living and working in Pakistan as an archaeologist at the Indus Valley site of Harappa. But that made sense as those bikes were also based on a turn-of-the-century design. The difference with this bike is that only 100 will be made, by hand, and that it's got a fixed-gear.

Wes and I played follow the leader as he led me in laps around the parking lot, diving in and out of S-curve after S-curve, cutting the apex off of each corner so that the pedals wouldn't hit pavement. Unweighting the back wheel in order to forcibly lock it up and launch into a skid came relatively easily, thankfully, since Wes noted that "my life would depend on it."

Back home, it seemed weird to don a complete set of cycling duds and hit the road on a bike that seemed to lack everything that makes up "a real bike." But a real bike it had to be, I reasoned with myself, as I hit the road with my friend Russ Gelardi, a 48 year old lithographer and charter member of the Marin County Fat Heads. Russ and I noted that that the Ibis-made Crescent Moon handlebars, which form a droopy arc reminiscent of a turn of the century moustache, put me in a position so upright that I could do two very important things: see and be seen. The Scorcher may have a 100 year old design, but its attitude and style are timeless. I felt like a stud riding this retrobike and Russ at least admitted that I didn't look funny.

It's a slow grind up Broadway and Tunnel Approach and into the hills above Berkeley, forcing two riding options. With a single 70 inch gear to use, I'd either have to stand up and hammer, or stay seated, ride at a more normal pace, and turn the cranks over at an excrutiatingly slow rate. I opted for the latter, a climbing style closely akin to doing leg presses, one leg at a time. Counting my revs, Russ noted my cadence was 35 as we headed into the hills. My heartrate cruised along at 160 bpm, high but far below my max of 212, and my legs agreed that I was definitely getting a great muscle workout. I kept repeating the Ibis mantra, "derailleurs are for failures," in my head as the grade got steeper.

Later, descending Redwood Road, I wound the Scorcher out for all it's worth, reeling in a couple of riders. Pegging 35 and my feet going round so fast that I thought I might bounce right off of the bike, Russ and I dusted the other two. Later we'd use an equation to calculate that I'd be spinning at 173 rpms. One thing's for sure: I've never gotten such a workout nor gasped for air like that on a downhill! My heart must have been pegging 190.

Despite my soapboxing, Russ won't ride trails on his skinny tyres, so we split up as I headed into Redwood Park for a little dirt action. I just barely cleaned the first major climb, turning over the pedals at about 20 rpm's, and wishing I had less than 60 traction-robbing pounds of air in the 700X41C Specialized Nimbus tyes. Bombing downhill, some important obervations surfaced, like the fact that a fixed-gear means that I can't coast when going over bumps and that I can't coast when jumping and getting air! This put a new twist on things, to put it mildly! Avoiding contact with boulders, tree stumps, and other deadly objects ain't that easy when your feet are going round like an airborne Carl Lewis doing the long jump!

Still, the prospect of tackling the world with a fixed-gear bike was getting to be more awesome and somehow more appealing, I thought to myself as I wound past hikers, equestrians, and recreational trail bikers. The bike is unusual looking, so most everyone looked at me like I was kinda wierd, reminding me of when I'm off-road on my Ibis Uncle Fester tandem or my Bridgestone road bike.

The next day, those 30 miles felt more like 130 miles at racing intensity! Talk about more bang for your buck, literally. Hooked and humbled, I realized that the Scorcher is just what I need to improve my form, spin, power, leg speed, and talent. And now since that fateful ride, that collision with 100 year old technology, or lack thereof, I won't ride anything else for my daily 10 to 20 miles of "town biking," nor will I miss at least one weekly "real ride" over hill and trail on it. There's just too much to be learned.

Orignally published in Bicycle Guide, November/December 1993.

For info on Major Taylor, visit the Major Taylor Association. Click here.

Read an extensive report on the Scorcher, including interviews with Scot Nicol, Wes Williams, and builder Jay Sexton at the website, a now-defunct site which chronicled the unique sport of fixed gear off-road cycling. Click here.

Get a brand new Scorcher from Wes Williams' Willits Brand Bicycles. Click here (and see below).

1 comment:

Jeremy said...

Hey Chris-

thanks for posting your story on the Scorcher; I first read it on some other website over 4 years ago when I was first getting in to fixed gears (and had just moved to berkeley, ironically) and hadn't seen it since. Reading it made me remember pleasantly remember how many fixed miles (both on- and off-road) i've pedaled since then.

-jeremy in san francisco