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The Ship of Theseus

photos by Lovely Bicycle

I was at this party over the past weekend. It was a kickoff for the new 2012 randonneuring season, and the cafe was teeming with old hands and new aspirants. I caught up with Jake and Emily, and Mike from last year's 400k. Together and along with various others, our conversation had a sort of back to school feel, but with an extra layer of understated badassery.

"So, what are you planning on doing this year?"

"oh, I don't know. I was considering a 1000k in (the Blue Mountains of) North Carolina."

"I might take it easy, maybe just do this series of 100 mile mountain bike races (in the Rockies. at 9000 ft above sea level)."

you know. the usual.

Our bikes were being put on display in the cafe as part of the party, and I finally got to meet V from Lovely Bicycle for the first time, as she was taking photos of us. We'd been corresponding virtually for a few years now, and I still smile when I remember how she first started out exploring the world of Dutch and city bikes, and then got that Rivendell that prompted her to dreaming about distance stuff. I've liked following her evolution as a cyclist even if through the remove of a blog.

Somebody wound up asking me about my bike and I had to describe how it was a bit like the Ship of Theseus. The front wheel's been replaced, the drivetrain is on its third iteration, and even the paint is new. Some of it has just been a consequence of wear and tear, and the way how given enough time and distance, everything breaks down. But the other reason was that last summer, I was hit by a car.

I still remember that the day was bright and sunny, and I will always wonder if that would have pre-ordained the accident. The driver was coming from the opposite direction. I imagine that he was driving home and had made this turn a hundred times before, which is why he was more interested in the sight of a nearby construction crew, and not looking at where he was going when he turned his wheel to make a left off Broadway and didn't see that I was right in front of him.

He realized his mistake quickly enough to brake but not quickly enough to avoid hitting me on my left side. I wasn't run over, but it was still enough to sprain my ankle and send me falling to pavement. I had also reinjured the left knee that I had crashed on a couple of times before, and it's been starting look like more scar tissue than skin.

The bike was more or less intact, but the front wheel was tacoed, the handlebars bent and when I had it diagnosed at a bike shop a few days later, I was told that the frame had been bent by the crash and needed to be set back in place.

I called Mike, the bike's original builder and told him about what happened. I knew that he was a busy person and a one man shop, and if his backlog was so high that he couldn't take on repair work, it was totally understandable, but it was a bike that he made, and I wanted him to give him first refusal. He said that he'd take it on.

It had started off as a simple frame realignment, but as he looked at it, he kept on finding problems. Bent cranks, dented pedals, handlebars compromised, the list kept going. We decided that we might as well take the opportunity to replace what was needed, tack on a renovation of the front geometry that we had idly been dreaming about, and give it a fresh start. That even meant a new powdercoat to address all of the dings and scratches that it had taken over the years. That meant a new front rack and dynamo lights. That meant a lot of things.

In the end, it took two months to sort out everything with the bike, and by that time, my summer was gone and all of these plans to run brevets in Vermont or do a bike tour down to New York went with it.

Still, time heals many things and now, as I was contemplating a new summer of adventures, prior to the party I opted to join a season-opening ride with some old randonneuring friends. With the exception of an occasional long daylight jaunt here or there, it's been a while since I've done anything really challenging and so a part of me was nervous about the passage of time. How much strength had vanished after my lost summer? How was my knee injury doing? What was the bike going to be like?

In the end, the knee was fine, and my fitness wasn't great, but it wasn't as bad as it would've been if I didn't spend the winter swimming. The day was long, marked by a light cold rain, and a persistent chilly headwind. It was also welcome to quiet roads curving between trees, and the continuous sense of being lost in one's backyard, discovering some new secret pocket of the world lurking nearby.

And the bike? The only thing that's persisted through the years has been the rear wheel and the seven tubes of steel that make up the frame. Those will always be its heart. The fork is different, and the front rack is new. The front wheel is fresh, as are the stem and handlebars. Some of that has given it a slightly different character, but this past weekend, as the bike and I dove through fast descents, and glided through tight, twisting turns through the back country of Groton, I could feel a deep, familiar joy. Like running into an old friend on the street, and laughing easily at their jokes like no time has ever passed by.

1For legend has it that while Theseus was lost in the labyrinth to kill the minotaur, the crew of his ship preserved their vessel while they waited, replacing the rotten wood with new until, by the time Theseus left Crete, every piece of wood had been replaced, but it was still considered the same ship. If you were not a Plato fan, the simpler equivalent was George Washington's axe, which supposedly had its blade replaced three times and its handle replaced twice, but it was still the same axe


Did you get the driver that hit you to pay for the damage or did he hit and run?
oh, the driver's insurance definitely compensated me for the work (as well as the ambulance and emergency room bills). It took a while to settle out (I only got my cheque in January) , and it was a bit of paperwork, but justice was done in the end.


shipwrights disease

Hmm, I wonder if the Theseus legend is the origin of the phrase "shipwright's disease"
I bet you're glad you had a steel bike instead of something that can't be bent back into place


Sorry to hear about your accident, glad you are ok.

I noticed you had a philippines patch on your rear bag, on one of Constances photos. I have the same patch! If I ever make a bag for myself, I'll sew it on the front pocket flap.

Re: Sorry to hear about your accident, glad you are ok.

Hi Ely -- I had the patch sewn on when I took the bike to Paris-Brest-Paris, and it was certainly good for getting comments in pacelines. The Carradice bag, at this point, has seen better days; and I am occasionally tempted with replacing it with one of the current generation saddlebags that you or Swift or Acorn are making. However, the patch makes it hard to discard.