Books On Bikes: Michael Wolff: Fire And Fury

  • Best enjoyed: On a long ride
  • Enjoyment rating (1-10) : 8
  • Distraction level (1-5) : 2

Thank goodness for this book. I feel so much better after reading it. Not because of the fears it confirmed for me, but because of the suspicions and fears it has laid to rest.

All that crazy alt-right stuff? That was Bannon. Trump barely cares about it, and now Bannon is persona-non-grata to the White House. The executive order banning travel? That was Bannon failing to understand government, wanting to cause hand-wringing amongst the left and make a personal splash. Which it did. The left ate it up. Was it a shot across the bow to signal a strong, rigorous follow-up? No. It was exactly what it looked like: Half-baked incompetence, from a man in a hurry.

All those unfilled positions in cabinets? That wasn’t the beginning of a big, determined, “disassemble the apparatus of the state” push. That was the fallout of the Trump campaign so thoroughly expecting to lose that they had no plans in place of any kind for a transition of power, then remaining so dysfunctional that they could not assemble a plan before day one. Or for months afterward. Can you imagine Trump sitting down, perhaps with a piece of paper and a pen, and saying “Okay, let’s make a plan?” And then sticking with it? You can’t. And for good reason.

It’s true that Trump does not, will not, read anything. Not one-page memos, not policy papers. At the most, a teleprompter. Lectures bore him. Presentations have to be slide shows, with splashy images, and no nuance. He cannot become even halfway informed about any complex subject on the presidential desk, and the people around him know this, and they spend all their time “managing” him. That might seem like a threat – he would be eminently exploitable – if he wasn’t thoroughly unpredictable and occasionally irrational.

I think Trump wanted the title, but not the job. He wanted to glad-hand and play golf, throw fits and fire people and lob insults, and have all cameras pointed at him all the time. That’s all. The rest is bean-counting crap that he’d rather avoid. Better if he had not been elected, but the silver lining is that any other Republican candidate would have given the Republican congress far more power. Instead, they have spent a year feuding and lobbing insults.

I’ve already turned my attention away from any media he generates, and almost all media about him. I’m convinced that this presidency will spin its wheels and get nothing done for four years, and when the door hits Trump’s butt on the way out, he will be abandoned to auditors and lawyers like a chicken bone to dogs. There is a lot of panic these days that Trump’s kind of politics and relationship with the media is a new normal, but I see him as a correction: He’s the shirt-ripping self-sabotaging one night stand that the nation is having, after our steady boyfriend Obama broke up with us and tried to pawn us off on his friend Hillary and we rejected her in an angry display of pique. We don’t want your boring old scraps! We want fire, and fury!!

And here it is.

This book made me laugh out loud a dozen times. It was brilliant stress relief, and had plenty of food for thought. Government is too established, and full of too many sane people, for one grumpy old man to tweet it apart, and I really don’t have to worry so much.

Trying

  • First you try to do anything
  • Then you get ready to do everything
  • Then you try everything
  • Then you try to do the right thing
  • Then you realize there’s more than one right thing, and you try to do the right right thing.
  • Then you try to make sure the thing stays done
  • Then you do whatever you want.
  • Then you do whatever you can remember
  • Then you do whatever you can
  • Then you don’t do much of anything
  • Then you’re done

Age, sickness, and the new normal

Just after Christmas I visited my father. I only had a handful of days before work started again, so the schedule was tight. I drove for nine straight hours into the Oregon mountains, through forbidding white walls of fog and lashings of rain, and spent the next two days with him and his wife in their cozy home, sharing stories and looking through photo albums, and tag-teaming crossword puzzles. He’s not as mobile as he used to be, but he sure can murder a crossword.

During the visit I realized that I had reached a strange milestone. Just a few weeks ago I celebrated my 42nd birthday, and now I was exactly half my father’s age. I pointed it out to him while I scanned the crossword clues.

“Congratulations,” he said dryly. “Feel any different?”

“Well, … starting to feel a bit old,” I said.

“Hah! Just you wait,” he said, and snatched the crossword back for another go.

Of course it was true. However old I felt, I had nothing on him. I could take all my aches and pains and multiply them by two – no, five – and throw in misbehaving bowels and Senior Moments, and I’m sure it still wouldn’t match the sheer annoyance of being 84. I would just have to wait. (And hope to make it that far.)

But on the 9-hour drive back out of Oregon, something happened that gave me a shot at real perspective: I came down with the flu. By the time I was back in Oakland I could tell it was going to be a really nasty one.

My body felt like it had been run over by a truck — one of those harvester trucks that creeps through an orchard in first gear while the farmers fill it with fruit. I could almost feel the way the tires had rolled up my chest, and pushed every joint of my body into the ground. I kept thinking that a few hours rest would make it stop, and I kept being wrong. Go for a bicycle ride? Forget it. Do a load of laundry? Forget it. Eat a hard-boiled egg and go lie down? Okay, let’s give that a try – but no promises.

(The most I managed to eat in a day was half a bowl of noodle soup. I set it down on the counter and wandered off, and the ants got the other half.)

For the next week, the limit of my mental capacity was playing video games and petting the cat. Forget working — even answering emails. I couldn’t read more than a few lines without forgetting where I was. Part of my brain was floating overhead in a balloon, doing its own thing, and there was no way it could participate in waking life. To keep the few appointments I had – one with a contractor, one with a mechanic – I clutched my phone like a spool of thread in a labyrinth, and set a dozen alarms.

I needed hot water bottles to stay warm, and it took every ounce of my concentration to avoid burning myself with the tea kettle. The act of filling them was usually so exhausting that all I could do afterwards was go back to bed, where I would sleep for two or three hours at a time and make hideous patches of sweat on the mattress. The week passed in a myopic, pointless haze. I might have felt depressed over the waste of time, if the feeling could ever get strong enough to displace the massive indifference that filled me like sticky tar in a railroad tie. Every ambition beyond mere existence was gone. In a way that was a blessing because if I tried to do anything ambitious, I’d probably cause an accident.

Partway through this ordeal, while laying semi-comatose in the bathtub, an idea occurred to me that was so alarming I had to say it out loud to the empty room just to get some distance from it:

“What if this is normal?”

What if the ambitious, lucid person I remembered being a week ago was just a shell, and I got so sick that it broke? What if I don’t just magically get that part of my personality back when I’m feeling better, and instead it’s in little pieces that I’ll never find? What if my brain’s been permanently cooked by fever, and my chance to do anything complicated with it is gone?

I felt panic, but even that feeling was weak. I couldn’t manage a strong feeling of any kind. My heart was already racing just from disease, so no change there. But as I shambled around the house, slowly recovering, the idea kept jumping out at me. My feeling of alarm grew in parallel to my recovering strength, and became a kind of motivation. “If I’m ever going to do big things,” I told myself, “I better do them while I have the ability – and the desire. I just hope I get them back…”

It was sobering to know I could so easily lose the ability. It was appalling to know that I could also lose the desire. … Not just for specific things, but for everything. Take my current state of health, and instead of corrupting it with the flu, corrupt it with time instead; add ten or twenty years … Where’s that line, between attempting something really ambitious and surviving it, and screwing it up and freezing to death over some dumb mistake or losing concentration at the wrong moment and getting mangled in a ditch? How long before I put a huge plan together and then have to tell myself, “No, I better just stay home,” and how long before that becomes my preference anyway?

I don’t want to wait and see.

As I worked on my recovery – cleaning the house, washing my sweaty laundry, hocking up the remains of the flu – I tried to reset my perspective.

42 isn’t old age. Well, it isn’t these days, at least. If I were living in 19th-century England, I’d probably be dead and buried by now, and have several sets of grandkids scratching around in the fields, but in this modern world I can probably go another 42 years, and retire to a cozy house in Oregon sometime in the middle of the century if that’s what appeals to me.

No, I can’t be in tip-top physical shape any more, but how much does that really matter? With the passage of time I’ve been exchanging that physical ability for improvisational skill and situational awareness. My position in this modern world depends on knowledge and connections – things older people accumulate – rather than my ability to dig trenches and chop trees all day. Plus, I’m better at distinguishing between stuff that will permanently injure me and stuff that will just be annoying. And I’m a lot less afraid of dealing with strangers.

Yes, I can do things. I just need the will.

My little pep-talk to myself dropped into the background as my flu symptoms vanished, and I was grateful to see my sense of ambition return. Old is definitely a state of mind, and I felt very lucky to leave that state behind. Maybe I’ll end up there some day just from sheer wear and tear. But dammit, not yet!!

Valoria II: Seats and fitting

I ride my recumbent a lot, and I ride it wrong.

When I’m not doing tight maneuvers, I rest my arms way up on the handlebars. That means I position the handlebars way closer than normal.

To get the same setup on my new bike, I had to get a longer steering riser tube. After much discussion with Zach, we concluded that the easiest thing to do was ask Bacchetta to send us a riser tube meant for their Bella long-wheelbase bike. That worked beautifully except it was too long. So, it was time for another crude do-it-yourself adventure:

Marking how much I need to saw off.

This is a pipe cutting tool. You stick it on a pipe and spin it around. Pretty smart design!

Bacchetta’s handlebars are now really wide, like most other recumbent designs. It’s like steering a plow. Does this mean I have to get used to them?

Nah. I can just swap handlebars.

New bike in front, old bike in back. The alignment is almost the same. Now to swap the handlebars…

New bike, old handlebars. To keep the new shifters and brakes I had to swap them between bars, which meant removing the bar grips. They are very sticky. I’m still struggling with the one on the right!

Bacchetta’s seats no longer include the eyelets for directly attaching an under-seat rack. Does this mean I have to give mine up?

Nah. I can just swap seats and keep using my old one.

New seat on the left, old seat on the right.

Look at that crusty old thing! But it’s so comfortable…

The bolts connecting the support struts to the seat of a Bacchetta recumbent, after 20 years of use.

Top set: 20 years old. Bottom set: brand-new.

While I’m moving parts around, I might as well replace that worn out seat clamp on the old bike with a nice new one…

20-year-old seat clamp on the left, brand new seat clamp on the right.

I can’t transfer the stickers from my old frame, but I can put equivalents on the new one:

Chococat in the lead!

Doin’ a lot of work on this bike… Things are starting to get messy!

You know what? I’m putting my arms on the same bars, and putting my butt on the same seat, so I’m basically riding the same bike. This bike isn’t “Valoria II”, it’s still just “Valoria”, but fancier.

That’s cool.

Valoria II: Rear rack

Me:
Is the Bacchetta “universal rear rack” suitable for touring?
Zach:
It is a relatively lightweight bolt together rack with a lot of adjustability. So not ideal for loaded touring but people have used it for that purpose. The weight rating is 25 kg.

It’s a pretty snazzy, minimalist-looking rack. (By the way, I found what looks like the generic version of it for about half as much money.) It took a very long time to assemble and position properly since I wanted it as high as possible off the ground. It also has some flex to it, which might not be a good thing. They say you want a rack to be as stiff as possible.

Could I really rely on this skinny little thing to carry 50 pounds over bumpy roads?

I went in search of other options. It was going to be an especially difficult search because of the weird positioning of the rack mount points on my 2016 Giro frame. They were sandwiched between the mounts for the seat struts and the disc brakes:

That is not much room to work with. The fact that I had to use spacers to fit Bacchetta’s own rack is an embarrassment. Would any other rack have struts narrow enough to fit without spacers? Is the distance between the rack arms going to be a problem?

Surly Rear Rack

(1260 grams, rated for 36kg)

Pros:
  • Strong
  • Has a handle
  • Adjustable height
  • Thin struts at mount points
Cons:
  • U.S.-style light mount
  • Very heavy

This was my go-to choice, except for the weight. I’ve always toured with an aluminum rack and found them plenty dependable. Heck, my frame is aluminum now. Moving to a steel rack seems kind of backwards.

Axiom Journey

(700 grams, rated for 70kg)

Pros:
  • Suspiciously high load rating
  • Good fit angle
Cons:
  • Crappy U.S.-style light mount
  • Handle is blocked

This was my second choice, except I would be giving up the handle. It’s hard to overstate how useful a rack handle is for moving the Giro around in tight spaces. Also, the light mount on this rack is a total afterthought, and their load rating seems really out of wack. Did they actually test that?

Topeak Uni Super Tourist DX

(875 grams, rated for 30kg)

Pros:
  • Nice handle
  • Adjustable height
  • Good secondary bar placement
Cons:
  • Not quite European-style light mount (RedLite only)
  • Stupid proprietary mounting strip along the top

This would have been perfect except for that mounting plate. I wish Topeak would sell a good rack without that plate, but they apparently want to compel you to use only their bags.

Topeak Uni Explorer

(782 grams, rated for 30kg)

Pros:
  • Nice handle
  • Adjustable height
Cons:
  • Not quite European-style light mount
  • Stupid mounting strip

A lighter option than the Super Tourist model with just as much capacity, but I’m still bothered by that mounting plate.

Topeak Explorer

(625 grams, rated for 30kg)

Pros:
  • Nice handle
  • No-frills design
  • Best weight-to-capacity ratio of Topeak racks
Cons:
  • Not quite European-style light mount
  • Stupid mounting strip

A even lighter rack, without the height-adjustment hardware. I would have gone with this except I stubbornly kept looking and found a better option.

Blackburn EX-1 Rack

(535 grams, rated for 18.2kg)

Pros:
  • Has a handle
  • Minimalist design
Cons:
  • No light mount
  • Low maximum load does not inspire confidence

I really liked the look of this one but the weight capacity was just too low.

Blackburn Outpost Fat Bike Rear Rack

(1105 grams, rated for 31kg)

Pros:
  • Has a handle
  • Adjustable height
  • Secondary mount bars
Cons:
  • U.S.-style light mount

This is Blackburn’s more upscale offering. I had an idea that the articulated mounting arms would fit inside that narrow gap around the mount points on the Giro … but when I got a closer look they were too thick. Mounting this rack would require spacers just like the rest.

Ortlieb Bike Rack R2

(640 grams, rated for 30kg)

Pros:
  • Has a handle
  • European-style light mount. Finally!
Cons:
  • Large amount of material around mount points

Interesting to see what Ortlieb wants to contribute to the rack market. Looks like they just want to make something that has their QL3 mounting system directly integrated. Good for them. Unfortunately the amount of reinforcement around the mount points makes them too big to fit on my frame without long spacers – long enough to widen the rack all the way beyond the top of the bolts that hold my seat struts in place. That’s an awful lot of extra strain on a rack.

When considering the Tubus racks I found this photo from The Touring Store very helpful:

Tubus Carry Titanium Rack

(470 grams, rated for 30kg)

Pros:
  • VERY light
  • European-style light mount
  • Good lower rail placement
Cons:
  • No handle
  • Top rails are not very long
  • Expensive as hell

The base weight of this fancy rack is astonishingly low, but once you add in the mounting hardware it moves up and becomes merely impressive. Tubus has discontinued this rack but you can still find it around. I think it’s mostly good for bragging rights. The weight difference between this and an aluminum rack with the same capacity is less than the weight of a good-sized sandwich.

Tubus Logo Titan Rear Rack

(390 grams, rated for 30kg)

Pros:
  • VERY light
  • European-style light mount
  • Good lower rail placement
Cons:
  • Handle is narrow and hard to reach
  • Expensive as hell

Even lighter than the Tubus Carry, this was the flagship Tubus rack for a while, and it’s easy to see why. Titanium is a very sexy material and the rack design is almost perfect. Sadly, Tubus discontinued it. I would track one of these down and use it except there is a slightly better, and more road-tested option…

Tubus Cargo Evo

(530 grams, rated for 40kg)

Pros:
  • Has a good handle
  • European-style light mount
  • Good weight-to-capacity ratio
Cons:
  • No secondary mounting rail

This is a newer revision of the same rack I have on my Bridgestone upright bike. It has two differences: A better shape for the mount points, and a carrying handle. 40 kilograms of load capacity (88 pounds) is plenty, and the frame design is very stiff. It’s also much lighter than the Surly, and doesn’t need an adapter to mount a European-style tail light.

The Tubus Cargo is my choice.

The space between the rack mounting holes on the Giro frame, including the thickness of the frame itself, is exactly 150mm. That happens to be in the middle of the width tolerance for the Tubus Cargo:

This means I can put spacers on either side – up to a centimeter each – without compromising the rack.

Also, notice the way the mount points project inward, like the ends of a clamp. That gives me plenty of clearance around the bolt heads that stick out on the seat struts.

This is important because the rack ends are pretty wide:

If I didn’t have that extra space, I’d run into those bolts for sure.

A picture is worth a thousand words, so here’s a gallery showing how it turned out:

Aluminum spacerThe aluminum spacer I used – visible in the fourth photo – came from Amazon. I know I paid too much for them but it was just too convenient to throw them in with some household goods in another order.

It only took a few test rides to know that I was dealing with a much, much better rack than the standard Bacchetta one. After a few months, during which I loaded it up with a huge pile of gear and sailed around Oakland for hours at a time, I was convinced that I’d made the right choice. The handle was perfect, the weight was low, the capacity was high, and the brake light mounted easily.

In the meantime, the Tubus rack that I’d put on my upright bike nearly ten years ago continued to be a workhorse. Just last week I used it to transport a truck battery across town.