So! Here I go! Finally found the time and ability to get some talk out of my riding friends to get some insight about bikes, I just straight out asked em a bunch a questions off a sheet I made. The conversation will continue later but this actually answers a lot and just sets up who some of the riders out there are. And now that I’m on that part of the topic, this is my buddy John Kinstler. He’s an installation designer at the Field Museum of Chicago.
So, when did you start riding? What do you remember most?
I think I first learned to ride when I was 4 or 5. We had just moved into our house in Jefferson Park from the apartment we were living in. The house was just down the block from family friends who had a lot of kids. All the kids were older than me and already knew how to ride. It was they and my dad who first taught me.
Tell me about your first bike. Did it have a name?
I don’t think I ever named a bike. I don’t know what the bike was that I first learned with, but soon after my parents got me a black Huffy with one of those extended seats. (I forget what they’re called.)
Was riding a necessity then? (I could not have made it to school without it)
I don’t think cycling was ever a necessity for me. The first school I went to was far enough away that my dad always drove me. The school was in the process of expanding while I was there and moved us around to different buildings and eventually got buses. (It’s funny, one of the first buildings we were in is now the Shambala Buddhist temple whatever up on Sheridan Road in Rogers Park. Which is just down the street from the beach I lifeguarded at years later.) Then I ended up going to the neighborhood Catholic school to which I started riding my bike. But none of the other kids rode their bikes so I wound up walking everyday. Even then bikes were for “kids” and decidedly not cool.
Tell me about your first “adult bike”. When did you get it?
I’m going to define “adult bike” as the first bike I intentionally saved money to buy for a particular reason. This was a Schwinn Predator for freestyling and riding half-pipes. I think I was like 12. This was the mid-80’s and freestyling was all the rage. Again we were motivated by the older kids who were doing it. These two in particular, Mark Murphy and I forget the other guy’s name, had a riding crew they called Windy City Freestyling Crew. I think. They rode these pink Haros and everyone asked them why pink to which they always responded “Because we’re fags.” (Homophobia was still very much acceptable and encouraged then.)
I remember they used to steal plywood and lumber from construction sites and build these ridiculously rickety half-pipes. No one who pretends to be a good parent nowadays would ever let their kids near one of these death traps much less even ride them. I lived off of Elston Ave across the way from the DMV. That corridor of Elston had a lot of commercial industry all along and tucked away between it and the Metra tracks. These businesses had huge parking lots that we got permission from to put our half-pipes and other ramps in. We hung out wherever those ramps were. (We had to move them around a lot.)
Eventually we all migrated to skateboards in addition to the bikes. Anyway, those older kids I mentioned were effing amazing. Mark especially. He got sponsored by Kool Aid I think to ride competitively. He could regularly get 10-15 foot airs on his half-pipe rides. We were all in awe of him. I remember it took me almost a year to work up the nerve to drop into the half-pipe on my bike. Needless to say, there were lots of broken arms and collar bones among us. I was lucky to have never gotten a broken bone. It sure wasn’t for lack of trying though. To this day, no breakages. I never had the nerve to get very high airs or do any tricks really. I mostly liked street level freestyling. My Predator had one of those stems that allowed the handle bars to rotate all the way around so I was able to do lots of fun stuff where I stood on the front pegs while swinging the rest of the bike around like you would keys on the end of chain. I can’t remember what we used to call all those different tricks. I haven’t even thought about most of this stuff for years until sitting down to answer these questions.
Did you become a “cyclist”? When was that? Was that a conscious decision? Did it just evolve into that?
After that bike got stolen, my parents bought me my first road bike. I forgot what it was. I want to say it was another Schwinn. It was a 12 speed. I think we were in high school by then and all the freestyling and skateboarding was starting to wane and our eyes were starting to drift towards cars. Road bikes were more “grown up” or whatever. Anyway, it was the next thing. I remember another friend was getting into racing and he really loved it. I sort of dipped my toe into that water, but I never really fell in love with it the way some do. We had started taking long rides along the North Branch trail up to the Botanic Gardens. 40 miles in a day was a big deal for us then.
That bike eventually got stolen too and I lost interest in bikes for the rest of high school. My parents would eventually buy me another one when I was a freshman in college. I managed to hang onto that one for another 10 years. I think it was a Trek mountain bike. Those had been becoming all the rage then, so I hopped onto that bandwagon with all the rest.
What was your first “bicycle”? (your first conscious choice to own a bike for more than a leisure toy)
This would probably be the Raleigh Gran Champion that I own now. But I would say that there wasn’t a momentous choice to become a serious cyclist. It was a long slow evolution contingent on needs and the milieu of many strung together moments. In ’98 I had moved to Oakland, CA to go to art school to become a glass sculptor. The car I had driven out there was a little Honda Civic CRX. Eventually it just died years later. The bike I had with me was the same my parents bought me in undergrad. Aaaand that got stolen. While I was in the mail room getting my mail. I couldn’t believe it. I left it just outside for a minute. Some fuck just knicked it and was gone. I didn’t even see anyone. It was there, then it wasn’t. Fuck I was furious.
After that I had started walking everywhere and eventually a guy I had been blowing glass with took pity on me and gave me some old road bike of his that I had to fix up. During this time bikes were purely utilitarian to me. They were a means to avoid drinking and driving and getting to work (I wound up working for a glass sculptor whose studio was only a mile from my studio). I never rode for any particular love of it. I never raced, I never downhilled, I never did anything you might consider fun with a bike. To be honest, I never understood why people got so hot and bothered by riding. I just kind of thought it was lame.
However, during this time my political activism and my environmentalism were developing apace. It wouldn’t be until I moved back to Chicago when they would converge on cycling. I think part of the slow move was the fact that so many of my friends weren’t that into cycling either. There were two who were pretty serious about it, but they were by no means characteristic of the people I socialized with. I also never had the money to get serious about it. Indeed every bike had owned had been stolen so I never wanted to get too attached to any bike nor spend much money on them. I then started dating a woman who was a serious cyclist. This was just before I moved back to Chicago. She had even written and done marketing for a magazine called Dirt Rag. She definitely put me on track to become quite a bit more serious about it. Just before moving back I bought a Kona Smoke, which was more of an urban bicycle. After I moved back, that one got stolen. Right out of the secure garage in my mom’s condo. Goddamnit.
These days, I’m still not really into racing culture, but I have developed fully into a bicycle lover, very much desirous of owning and riding pretty new bikes. So much so, that I even want to start building them for myself! I would actually really like to move toward design and building pedal powered contraptions of all kinds in the vein of the guys from the Fun Bike Unicorn Club. Definitely want to get all steampunk with it. And fire. Definitely pedal powered fire cannons.
How many bikes do you own?
The Raleigh I have now is a sweet looking bike. It’s a ’64 that was built at the old AMF factory here in the states. Sweet looking. Not sweet maintaining. Every fucking problem you can have with bike, I had twice that many with this bike. I’ve basically updated and modernized it completely based purely on the contingent need to. I had gotten so furious with it that I bought another one just so I wouldn’t have to deal with that thing anymore. This was my first foray into single speeds, which I had never thought I would like until riding one for the first time. Loved it! Totally hooked. Anyway, the one I got was a thing some dude out in Elgin had assembled from spare parts. It was orange, which was part of the attraction. Anyway, it was poorly made and I wound up spending way more than I would have spent on a new bike fixing it up. Then that one got stolen.
I really want to beat a bike thief to death.
Then I bought a sweet SE Draft Lite last summer. Got it all fixed up and loved it. I had just bought clipless pedals and shoes to match aaaaaand that one got stolen.
I seriously want to find a bike thief to murder. Not just murder, torture. Horribly. I want pay back for every goddamn bike that has ever been stolen. I want to round them all up and slowly peel their skins from their bodies and put their heads on pikes on full public display.
So now I’m back down to the Raleigh, which I dread riding again. Fuck I hate that bike.
How many are actually ride-able?
Of those, how many do you ride? (I own six bikes currently, of those two are in pieces, of the remaining four I really ride only two regularly.)
Why is it that you ride now? Is it for transportation or leisure? Do those two reasons ever combine for you?
I ride now because we’re killing the planet with our driving. Cars are a luxury we are long past able to afford. We have become a fat bodied culture of lazy asses. Cycling solves many problems all at once: health, climate change, traffic congestion, poor air quality, the acidification of the oceans, perpetual war abroad, personal sanity, safer streets. Seriously, what can’t these things do?
And yes, leisure too. And commuting. I had been commuting over 13 miles each way to work everyday even through winter. It’s awesome. I love it. Even in the shitty weather I am measurably happier and more enthusiastic on any number of levels because of all my cycling.
Recently I’ve taken to hopping on Metra and riding out to Crystal Lake with bike in tow. When I get there I hop on a trail and ride up to Wisconsin. From there Wisconsin back roads up to Lake Geneva and back down to Harvard to get the train home. That’s one example. I love to get out on exhaustingly long rides. Previously, friends and I would ride out to local breweries: Three Floyds and Two Brothers were popular rides. Long ride, beers and burgers, long ride. Completely kick ass.
When you commute, what do you carry?
Pannier. I have an Ortlieb bag that looks like any shoulder bag you’d take to the office. It has pockets for tools and other bits and pieces. I also carry flat tire tools and repair kit. I can’t wear backpacks anymore. My commutes are so long that I sweat profusely, thereby nearly ruining any bag and it’s contents. Hell I sweat just thinking about sweating.
How do you carry it? On your back? In a bag on a rack? Trailer?
What has been your longest ride?
I very much like to do centuries now. So maybe 110 or so. I would eventually like to get a randonneuring bike and really start doing some long rides.
What was your most enjoyable ride? Why?
My ex-girlfriend and I rode up the Berkeley hills and out into the East Bay hills for a long day ride. My first really big hard ride. Sex and drinking were involved. That was a pretty good one.
Do you ride with others? How often? What kind of rides are these?
The brewery rides I mentioned. I also did a century with a guy who runs an annual Chicago Perimeter ride century. Big group, but too slow. Also there’s another group called British Bicycles of Chicago who run Tweed Rides. People in full British Tweed regalia riding old British bikes. Quite a scene.
Have you ever entered a cycling race? How did you do? Did you enjoy it? Would you do it again?
Never. Don’t have any immediate desire either. Don’t really know why. For the moment just not into it.
When you ride, do you think clearer? (I do) When you are still, sleeping, daydreaming, have you dreamt of riding? (I have) What about that dream, about riding, did you feel (mentally experience) most?
Definitely clearer headed. Don’t dream much I don’t think.
Your bike now. What is it?
Why did you purchase that?
I really dig that old timey look. Again, it’s a really sweet looking bike.
Do you ride it the way it was intended? (i.e. if you own a mountain bike, do you ride trails and heavy single track.)
I think so. I’ve read that it was intended to be a working man’s commute bike way back. It wasn’t the club or sportster model, but it might been intended as a more affordable alternative to the higher end models.
Why do you ride that bike in that manner?
After my Kona was stolen I wanted to find a cheap bike that still looked cool that would hold up to the wear and tear I would be putting it through. This was definitely the wrong choice. It couldn’t handle my riding for shit. I think most bikes probably couldn’t. But that SE did. Fuck I really liked that bike.
Have you ever had to change your bike to fit your needs? How? Was it accessories? Was it hardware?
Definitely. The realities of bike manufacturing is they need to get the price down so they cut corners on pretty vital accessories. This business decision works for most cyclists in that most people don’t ride that often or very far.
So, the first thing I change is the seat. Stock seats universally suck ass. I love me a beautiful Brooks saddle. But thieves have taken to stealing those as well. I forgot the one I had on the SE, but I got it at REI and it was one of the nicest feeling saddles I have ever had the pleasure of befouling with my ass.
Then goes the handle bars and grips. Stock riser bars are too high and wide for my tastes. I like a really narrow grip width and lower more aggressive cycling posture. Then the grips. When I first moved back to Chicago I was commuting to school about 11 miles each way and I was starting to lose circulation in my hands. I was also having problems with my shoulders. It was becoming impossible to continue to ride anymore. Then I discovered the winged grips. Problem solved. Instantaneously.
When it comes to a commute bike I now put fenders and racks on them. Fenders simply keep you from getting filthy while riding. They’re also a nice courtesy to other riders so your not kicking shit up at them. I think every bike ought to have them. The rack for bags and other carrying needs.
Is your main bike the way you want it? What would you change? Can it be changed?
The Raleigh is now there. It still will need to have the wheels rebuilt to have them modernized as they are chrome-plated steel and are almost impossible to stop in the rain. And they’re heavy. But given the money I’ve already spent on that thing, it aggrieves me to think about spending another dime.
About your regular ride, is it commuting? Is it leisure?
What pace is it at?
Break neck fast. I can never ride fast enough. I ride as fast as I can without actually having a heart attack. I love it.
What are the roads like?
I’ve changed my route several times over the years. The first time was because Elston kept giving me flat tires. Then I decided to include more Lake Front Path in the ride. So now I ride straight East to the LFP and take that all the way into work. Whenever I ride city streets, I look for the roads with least traffic lights, the least traffic. I found many wonderfully easy and fast routes through the city and have greatly reduced my interaction with drivers as a result, thus making me immeasurably happier and alive.
Do you deal with traffic? (Both of the two wheeled and four wheeled variety.)
Not much 4 wheeled anymore. Cycling traffic is a bit chaotic these days, but I’m as sure as I can be that would quickly self regulate with the building of curbed bike lanes, Euro style.
How long is it?
How do you feel at the end of the ride?
Tired and awesome.
Have you ever slid the front end out from underneath you while riding?
I did once when I was still new to riding on ice. But never since then.
Have you ever lost all balance and crashed?
Do you ride no handed? If not do you wish you could? If you do do you limit where you do?
I can ride no handed anytime anyplace. I will mostly only do it on a quiet open road though, or if I need to put on or take off gloves. Riding upright no handed, gently rolling along is a pretty amazing sensation.
Do you always have a set method of packing for your ride? Do you always carry the same stuff? Do things fluctuate more?
Pretty much. Very little fluctuation in what I need. Water, food, tools. Really as little as I can get away with.
If you commute, do you change clothes after the ride? Do you need to? Is that aggravating? Do you wish you didn’t have to?
My feeling is that 5 miles is the break point for determining riding clothes. Less than that regular clothes are more or less fine. More than that and regular clothes becoming too problematic in that they don’t move properly and they wear out pretty quickly. They also don’t wick sweat away from your skin causing excessive sweating. So yeah, I have to. Luckily we have showers at work. Commuting would be practically impossible without being able to shower and change clothes.
If you could change anything about your bike, no expense spared, no idea impossible what would it be?
Lighter and faster. Otherwise a fire cannon and riding carriage. Maybe a DJ booth. And a bar.
Thanks Man, you put a whole lot more questions in my head. I’ll be getting back to ya, we’ll punch up some of this and roll it out a bit more.