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Jan. 14, 2007

"We've already established what you are, ma'am. Now we're just haggling over the price."

George Bernard Shaw

If I've been quiet lately it's because I've spent the new year shopping for a new racing bike, and it's hard to type when you are wringing your hands.

Ellen chides me not just for wringing my hands over such things -- instead of wringing, I in fact wave my hands at my sides; we call them, lovingly, the "jazz hands of anxiety" -- but also for spending so much money on a new bike when I'm too cheap to hire a plumber to fix my toilet, which has had flushing problems for more than a year and whose solution has eluded me.

But that's easy to reconcile. I hope to spend 10 to 15 hours a week on any bike I get. I won't spend nearly that long on the toilet, knock on wood.

A person must keep his prorities in order.

Choosing the right bike is important, and not just in terms of finding the right mix of speed, comfort and value. It has to say something about you, and it must speak clearly and accurately.

When we all dress alike and conceal ourselves behind sunglasses, our bikes are our nametags. For the several years you ride a certain bike, it will define you, making you either a Trek man or an Orbea man or a Fuji man or an [obscure Italian manufacturer] man, a man made of either carbon or aluminum, steel or titanium. It shouldn't matter, but it does.

Then there's the route you take to buy it. To some, there is cachet in finding a good frame and building it up yourself, like Roy Hobbs and his mystical baseball bat. To others, the fun is the hunt, scouring the secondary markets of Craigslist, eBay and that friend of a friend who works for the cycling magazine.

I'm neither of these. I'm not a tinkerer, and I find value in supporting the local bike shops. So I limited my search to two or three shops that have done good things for me in the past. I wanted something already built up that I could test ride, and from a source I could hold accountable should anything go wrong.

Buying my first racing bike two years ago was easy. Back then I didn't know anybody or anything. I simply walked to the corner shop, stated my price range and rode three frames that fell within my boundary. The result was a Jamis Quest with Ultegra components. It was steel and I would eventually come to loathe its weight, but it has crashed well and proven to be an outstanding starter bike.

Now, however, I still don't know anything, but my boundary is a little higher, and I'm friends with dozens of bike snobs, each of whom has his own biases and each of whom is happy to tell me exactly what to do.

I received much counseling from one particular teammate, who loved carbon, and my Cat 1 co-worker, who thought I'd be a fool to ride anything but aluminum. "Don't ride anything," he would say, "that, when you crash, will make you cry."

Just when I was convinced I needed to go carbon I'd go to work and be swung in the other direction. Then I'd talk to my teammate again and be convinced that aluminum would on the first long ride rattle my arms right out of their joints.

It was an unnerving yo-yo, and I quickly tired of any sentence that began, "What you need to do is ..."

One bike I tried was a Cannondale Six13. Its frame was both aluminum and carbon, which would make everyone happy, maybe even me. It felt great and had great components. But even with a generous discount from the shop, it was a little bit out of my price range.

Then I found the same bike on eBay, new, for $1,000 less. I forwarded the link to Ed, just to see what he thought. I wanted to support a local shop, but $1,000 was a lot of money. It could hire a lot of plumbers. I like to support local bookstores, too, but like George Bernard Shaw's female conversation partner, I can't say no to Amazon, if the price is right.

That night I got a voice message from Ed. It was broken up but it sounded like he was giggling. It also sounded like he was telling me he'd just bid on the Six13 for me and hoped I didn't mind.

It was an audacious thing for him to do. A normal person would have been outraged, but somehow I felt relief. For the moment I no longer had to make any decision about which bike to get or from where. With 24 hours to go in the bidding, my fate was now in destiny's hands, exactly where I like it.

With an hour to go we were outbid, and I declined to make further offers of my own. I was willing to use eBay to save $1,000 over a local shop, but not $500. (What do you take me for, Mr. Shaw?)

I continued to wring my hands all week. Then on Friday I called my guy at Johnny Sprockets, the corner shop, to ask about the Specialized Tarmac I'd ridden and liked. I nervously told him that I'd found it at a rival shop for $300 less. Could he match the price?

He called me back the next morning. Since the other shop's bike was a different size, he couldn't match the price, but he could sex it up for me. And so he did: Dura Ace where there was Ultegra, Ultegra where there was 105, 200 grams where there were 220. These were exactly the sort of upgrades I was going to ask for anyhow and for which I was prepared to pay more.

Her name is Leslie.

She's two years old and is not going to turn any heads, but I'm not going to cry when I crash at Parkside and she splits in two. I couldn't be happier.

I will grant each of my advisers exactly one chance to criticize my purchase. If they bring it up further, I will politely tell them to kiss my hairy ass.

Speaking of which, I'm now going to try again to fix that toilet.

Photo taken: Jan. 14, 2007