Over a week ago on the ride out to Winters I took my travel bike, which I hadn’t ridden since summer of 2019, the last time I did a bike tour. I did so because it has low gears, not that I would normally need them for this ride, but I’m in dire shape these days. I did a short shakedown ride with it a couple of days before going to Winters just to make sure it worked. It seemed fine but I did take note that it was shod with 23 mm width tires. (Since the front shifter failed on Sunday, obviously I did too cursory of an inspection.)
If you’re either new to cycling or a complete wheel geek, your reaction is either puzzlement—“You mean there’s a tire narrower than 28?”—or a combination of horror, disdain, and disbelief—“Dude, are you like friggin’ stupid or just old and outdated??” Perhaps a little of both, I’d say. Oldsters may recall that back in the day we were all riding 19 or 20 mm clincher tires. In fact when I got this bike in 2000 for an overseas bike trip, I got rid of the 25 mm tires that came with it and replaced them with 20 mm tires—yes, for touring albeit of the credit card variety. That admission certainly takes at least 20 points off my IQ—call me stupid but don’t call me ugly! We all used to think that if you wanted to go fast, you needed to go narrow and pump those suckers up to 110 lbs. of pressure. A friend and longtime road cyclist to this day still rides his skinny Vredestein tires pumped up to an unbelievable 130 lbs because that’s the max pressure on the sidewall. It never occurred to me that I’d need anything bigger and I wanted to go fast. (Yes, I admit I didn’t understand the meaning of ‘bike tour’.)
Of course when you’re touring in another country you do occasionally get lost, and guess what? You end up unexpectedly on dirt and unpaved roads. A lot of swearing took place accompanied by the dire fear of flatting in the middle of nowhere. Despite being an unnaturally pessimistic sort, ie, “Shit always happens!”, I kept riding those 20 mm tires up until about 2010 when I switched over to what seemed like ridiculously wide 23 mm tires “just to be safe”.
Since that time my eyes have been opened a bit. I live in a city that a few years ago had one of the worst pavement indices in the Bay Area. The pavement index is a measure of how crappy or good your roads are. And Bay Area roads haven’t been getting any better to wit Sonoma county roads, which often seem to aspire to Planet of the Apes quality. So riding on 20 or 23 mm tires is just asking to have your teeth rattled, hands go numb (and other body parts as well), and become intimately familar with snake bite flats. I’ve since moved on to wide rims and wide tires and they’ve spoiled me. I’m getting older (some say the ‘getting’ part is self-flattery or denial) and since I’m no longer on intimate terms with my friend Speed—he’s moved on to younger fare since he’s a chicken hawk at heart—I’m getting to know my new BFF, Comfort.
That’s a long way of saying Sunday was painful riding county roads with narrow tires. I had enough travails fighting the wind and trying to stay upright that day and then I deliberately ride tires that are guaranteed to hurt. What was I thinking?
But here’s the irony: those wheels are still awesome. The next day I rode it in the East Bay to try to figure out what was going on with the wonky front shifter. Riding on smooth pavement those wheels really sing! They’re narrow and cut into the wind easily and they’re very light so they spin up like a top. Until you hit old, deformed asphalt. So despite having moved on to Big Butt tires, I still lust for anorectic, whippet-like hoops. But it’s getting harder and harder to find places where I can really enjoy them. Not only can wider tires be more comfortable but you can roll over a lot more incongruities in the road rather than have to roll around them.
Riding on 23 mm tires once again was hardly like Proust’s madeleine. It may have brought back fond memories of another time but any reverie was quickly dispatched by the beating my body was being subjected to.