Jack Novara - A Dad's Bike Dream

1 comment by Igor Shteynbuk

Well into the afternoon we still had another 30 miles of pedaling ahead, with thunderstorms forecast to cross our route in the next couple of hours. My traveling companions were 15 years old, my son Sean and his best friend Will. They’d been growling for hours for something that wasn’t trail mix or Clif bars. I’d kept promising we could stop if we saw someplace to eat, but all we’d seen so far were convenience stores and a few sketchy taverns. Now, from across the interstate, the boys caught the unmistakable aroma of grilled meat and French fries—a Burger King! The rider in me said that now was not the time to stop—we should hammer out some fast miles and beat the storms. But the dad in me sensed mutiny in the air—or at least hunger and sullenness. And after all, this was supposed to be an adventure—not a death march. “All right,” I said. “But let’s make it quick!”

I think that when you’re a dad, some factor must be applied to your dreams-- perhaps calculated as Resources ÷ Responsibilities-- that reduces the dreams to an achievable scale. For some years I’d dreamed of building up a touring bike and then making an epic trek. The bike would be comfortable and capable, good for a hundred miles at a time and something I could fix right on the roadside if needed. And it would be beautiful, built of steel in classic proportions and kitted out in gleaming polished componentry. I would be very handsome on this bike, rolling with fit and like-minded riders against a backdrop of—what? The Pacific coast? The Alps? The Mongolian steppe? Well, after the Dad Dream Factor was applied, it turned out to be Utica, New York.

The first step was the bike. There are so many beautiful new bike options out there, classic touring machines with luscious paint jobs, and silver parts that catch the sun like gems. I’d been putting some cash aside and hoarding gift cards for some time, but no matter how many times I added it all up, the math just didn’t work. It was the Dad Dream factor again: no new bike for me. Oh well, off to Craigslist I went. But I was lucky and scored a 13-year old Novara Randonnee in good shape, steel-framed and with a 3x9 Tiagra drivetrain and cantilever brakes. The paint was a little scuffed, the rear wheel pretty badly out of true, and I didn’t love all the graphics. (Note to bike manufacturers: A classic, old-school steel frame is NOT enhanced by a sticker that says “Classic Old School Steel.”) But it had the right geometry and coyly curved front fork blades.

It was a full frame-up rebuild. I stripped off and cleaned every part that could be removed. To get the bike ready to roll, I built up a new dynamo wheelset with Sun CR-18 polished alloy rims and an Alfine dynamo hub up front. That part of the package was completed with a Busch and Mueller lighting set. The original(!) tires were old and scaly—they went away and I mounted Maxxis Refuse tires in 32mm. I had some polished Ritchey drop bars and a silver seat post in my parts bin, and I treated myself to a new Brooks B17 saddle, matched to Brooks microfiber bar tape.

The bike could ride now, but to make it beautiful I headed to Velo Orange, where they seem to know how to acknowledge new tech while still honoring what’s traditional and beautiful. They also are pretty respectful of the family budget. My first purchase was the hammered aluminum fenders and the front Rando rack (including the light bracket) with the stem-mounted decaleur. Then I began to change out the black cockpit components for polished silver. To match the new handlebar I needed a new polished stem, plus some polished spacers. And don’t forget the spacer that accepted a gleaming brass bell! And the polished front cable hanger! Down below I added silver MKS pedals, fitted with deep half clips. (It was the first time in years I’d ridden without toe clips or clipless pedals, and I’ve loved them more than I’d expected.) A pair of retro polished stainless bottle cages filled in the middle nicely.

The next change was purely aesthetic. Thanks to a V-O special and a little money left on the gift cards, I replaced a perfectly good Shimano Octalink crankset with the Grand Cru Triple. There was nothing at all wrong with the Octalink, except that it has an anodized silver finish. Not shiny enough! This meant changing to a UN300 square tapered bottom bracket, and just in case anyone is curious, I found that 124mm was not quite enough for my bike—I couldn’t access my small chainring. But 127mm dialed everything in perfectly. It was absolutely an indulgence and a budget stretch, but it rides flawlessly and is simply too beautiful to regret. 

(Note: To complete the black-to-polished transition, I later replaced the bike’s original black Tektro 720 brakes with a set of polished silver Tektro Oryx brakes from V-O—an easy installation and setup, and they work perfectly.)

The bike was now a head-turner, and it was a pleasure to ride. In Baltimore it sailed up and down the Jones Falls Trail, spun easily down to the Harbor. Along the C&D Canal an oncoming rider remarked on how the fenders caught the bright sunlight, and on the NCR Trail that headlight was brilliant when I’d lost a race with the sunset. A few riders even murmured politely over the bike on the Sunday morning group ride, which I took as high praise, considering that their first loyalties had to be to their own rides. All I needed now was the epic trip.

Enter the Dad Dream factor again. The Pacific and the Alps were out of reach and Mongolia was a non-starter. But to the north, the Empire State Trail beckoned with about 400 miles of New York State scenery between Buffalo and Albany. Who’s ready for an adventure? Well, it turned out that people are busy, and Buffalo is a seven hour drive, and work, and family, and so on. My daughter and older son were at work and college, so I finally suggested it to my younger son, who thought it over slightly longer than I’d have hoped, said, “OK, Sure.” Great! Or at least good. 

Now for the logistics: We could take the train to Buffalo and haul our own camping gear from place to place, but that seemed a lot to ask for my son’s first tour. We could take the car and my wife could carry our gear, but she wasn’t keen on driving around alone for eight days. Hmm. Then I hit on the idea of inviting her best friend along with her kids, including her son Will, who ran track and was my son’s best friend. The two boys and I would ride, and the moms would drive from town to town, arriving early enough to do something fun with Will’s brother and sister. I pitched the idea hard. The word “wineries” was used more than once. Finally it was agreed, and my epic trip became 8 days of minivan camping with four kids. Still, it was a victory and an adventure, and I embraced it.

And this is how I came to be at the east end of Utica, New York on an overcast day in June of 2023, with two very hungry teenagers in tow. To redeem the situation somewhat I’ll mention here that we were lucky this week, because an unusual wind pattern from the east sent clouds of Canadian wildfire smoke westward over the Great Lakes, where it then swung south and circled back to settle on New York City, Philadelphia and Baltimore like a biblical plague. So we had a bit of a headwind all week and the threat of coastal storms, but that beats emphysema any day. Still, a headwind burns calories, and you can bet those boys did some motivated pedaling as we passed through the parking lot of a Big Lots discount store on the way to that Burger King. Now how’s that for epic?

I gave the boys some money and told them I’d wait by the bikes while they went in for food. And I reminded them in my dad voice that with weather ahead there was no time to lose. But of course once inside the only voice they heard was their own growling stomachs, and instead of just enough calories to keep them going, they came out carrying bags heavy with burgers and fries. (They also came out with very little change.) While they murdered their Whoppers, I pulled up the weather radar on my phone again and saw a storm cell sweeping up from the southeast. It was going to be close, but I thought we could be OK--as long as we got away quickly. 


And then she appeared, a dark-haired woman leaving the Burger King who saw me fastening my helmet strap and strode right up to me. “Hey!” she said. “You look fit. I’ve been thinking of starting an exercise program, but I’ve got this thing with my back. What do you think I should do?” I don’t know if this happens to other men. Maybe it has something to do with being in dad mode, some pheromone cloud wafting toward people who have questions. I’ve had it happen in the office supply store, the home improvement center, even simply waiting to cross a street. A car whips over to the curb, the window rolls down, and someone asks “Do you know how to get to 12 north Eutaw Street?” It’s true that I often know the answer, but how did they know I’d know? And more to the point, when the weather’s closing in, how can I get away quickly?

I spent as much time with her as I thought politeness required, most of it repeating that there are people she could certainly check with—doctors, trainers, therapists. (I especially thought the therapist was a good idea.) How much time did I give her? Couldn’t have been five minutes. And then we were back on the bikes, past the Big Lots, over the interstate and back onto the trail. But a mile down the road the sky turned dark and thunder was rumbling. We pulled up and I checked the map. Just ahead the trail climbed up onto a road and crossed a bridge to the south side of the Mohawk River. That bridge was the only shelter I could see for miles. I told the boys to pedal as fast as their Whopper-laden selves could go and we lit out for the bridge. And as we pedaled I fell headlong into anxious dad mode at the thought of leading the boys into a thrashing storm, regretting every second of that lost five minutes, and furious at myself for being a polite fool. 

We almost made it. Halfway across the bridge we rode into the front edge of that storm like a wall. There was a single gust of wind, a few heavy drops, and then the sky exploded in sheets of rain. The wind pushed us around like a schoolyard bully and the thunder boomed and echoed all around. I called out in my loudest dad voice, “Pedal!” and we charged, heads down, across that bridge. At the far end we nicked around a construction gate and bounced down a rough gravel drive that was running with water like a stream bed. We pulled up under the west edge of the bridge, because even though the road above was two lanes wide with broad shoulders, the wind drove the rain almost all the way under, leaving a strip only about eight feet wide that was dry. Or mostly dry, anyway. Outside, the lightning flashed and the thunder cracked in the same loud instant. I looked again at the weather radar to see how long it might last. In the middle of a deep red blotch, a spot of purple showed the heart of the storm. It was directly over us.

I took stock. Will seemed OK, if a bit wild-eyed. Sean was shaking his head at the utter absurdity of it all and laughing, saying, “This is so crazy! No one will believe it!” I learned something about my son that day. Every man faces absurdity in his own way: Some rage, some falter, some laugh. My son laughs. Good to know.

I tried to restore some calm. “Well, guys, as a wise man once said about bike touring: Sometimes it rains.”

After a pause my son said, “Wait a minute. You’re the one who said that!”

Doesn’t mean it wasn’t wise, son.

I wonder if there’s some factor the boys will apply when they tell that story to their friends, some multiplier they’ll use when talking about the howl of the wind, the buckets of rain, the crashing thunder. It would be exciting enough if they told it straight up, as it really was. 

The storm passed quickly and we got on the road again. Not two miles later the roads were dry—the storm had not touched them. We were that close—those five minutes at Burger King might have been enough, might have spared us a soaking. By the time we met up with the moms a couple of hours later we were dry, and when they asked how the day had gone, the boys both shrugged and said, “It was OK.” Of course they came out with the whole story quickly enough, and pretty much straight up, exactly as it had happened. 

It’s true that this was not the epic trip I might have dreamed of, though I suspect that hunkering under a bridge in a rainstorm looks pretty much the same all over the world. Still, to grab a couple of bikes, one of them classically beautiful, and to share an adventure with my son that challenges him, but in the end leaves him safe and with stories to tell? Well, straight up, that’s about as good as a dad dream gets. 

1 comment

  • Ed

    Hi Jack. Great article and fun read. (Only got lost in the middle with the techy bike stuff!) That was a real adventure. 😳

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