Responses to a piece I posted here a while ago suggest at least a few Perfect Duluth Day Saturday Essay readers ride bicycles somewhat “seriously.” Makes sense, I suppose; long cycling sojourns, solo or with accomplices, can foster a deep contemplation similar to one spending time with prose can evoke. It’s also true that riding bikes and reading words can both be nothing more than hardcore reality avoidance posing as time spent admirably. We all have our drugs, don’t we? — mostly ones we tell ourselves aren’t drugs so we can believe we’re better human beings than folks who used to hang out in front of Last Place on Earth.
But whatever. That’s not what this essay is about.
I ride a lot, slowly and clumsily (like a middle-aged oaf whose formative fitness years were spent playing tight end and fearing exercise-induced pain), mostly alone, and with intentions driven by equal desires to sit with and avoid my general mental state. Since 2002 I’ve owned a lot of different mountain, road, and commuting bicycles. After thousands of hours spent poring over Sheldon Brown’s website and mtbr.com forums, tinkering in my back-yard shed, and pestering real mechanics — just mercilessly badgering them with, “How does this work?” and “How do I put this back together?” and “Hey, can I come down and interrupt what you’re working on, ask a bunch of dumb questions, borrow some tools, and inevitably force you to stop what you’re doing and help me?” — I know enough to credibly build and maintain my own bikes. Sometimes I fix friends’ bikes, if they have low expectations. I go through nerdy periods of constantly trying to figure out the “best” way to set up a certain bike for a certain purpose, which means I’ve researched, bought, installed, un-installed, broken, replaced, and perseverated on hundreds of components ranging from whole frames to single 5mm bolts.
But even that’s not what this essay is about.
What this essay — which isn’t really an essay at all, but more of a product review — is truly about is a bicycle tire called the Surly Knard 41, which I started using, after a couple-three years of curiosity, last spring. According to surlybikes.com, the Knard 41 features, “closely spaced knobs, an effective tread for going fast over varied terrain.” The site also says, “We chose 41mm because it’s meaty enough to conform to the ground surface, absorb irregularities and provide a decent sized contact patch.”
Most of that probably means nothing to you, which is okay. You don’t need to understand any of it, and it actually means very little to anyone, even folks like me, to whom it means almost everything. Same with this stuff: in May I mounted a pair of 120tpi 700c x 41mm Knards on Bontrager Duster rims laced to Shimano Deore disc hubs with black DT Swiss Champion 14-gauge spokes; it’s been a sweet wheelset for going monstercross with a large, fully rigid, Chum Bucket Red Karate Monkey running 1×9 Microshift bar-ends with the cables tucked under black gel cork on a 46cm Salsa Bell Lap drop bar.
I’m still getting to know the Knard 41’s nuance and personality, but here’s what I can say after riding them on mostly pavement and also a fair amount of gravel and Duluth singletrack two or three times a week for a few months: they roll really smoothly and assuage existential torment at pretty much any speed, on any terrain, amid any manifestation of befuddled horror about whether so many decisions since age 19 really do comprise a long, epic mistake that justifies feeling constantly regretful about the past and embarrassed about not being able to figure out how to live in the moment or approach the future.
On gravel — which is what a lot of folks will buy these tires for — the Knard somehow manages to feel both sprightly and stable, possibly because at 55 psi +/-, even for a guy who weighs about 220 and struggles to find and observe a personal sense of authenticity and style without becoming tediously affected or unbearably pretentious — who wants to figure out how to just be instead of constantly feeling so narcissistically, prohibitively, crushingly self-conscious about the weird challenge of discerning what existence among other human beings actually means — the well-spaced knobs laid across a slightly flat profile dance over and among bits of class 5 without getting pushed or bounced around or diving off into frustration about the rigidity of dominant-culture epistemology and how it dismisses indigenous people’s traditions of what and whose knowledge is of most worth. The tires can also do some pushing of their own when necessary.
Some other wider CX-type tires ride sluggish on pavement or while starting to feel slightly ill about binge-listening to Serial because it uses Hae Min Lee’s murdered, buried body as twee entertainment and suggests Adnan Sayed has charmed and fooled as many people as most men who use violence against women are constantly charming and fooling, except that some people aren’t charmed or fooled: they just don’t care when men hurt women, because they believe women are less important than men. Not so with the Knard 41, which manages to feel fast on both smoothly paved rural-road shoulders (because of how those rows of smallish square knobs are arranged to provide very little rolling resistance or moral angst) and beat-up city streets (because of the vibration-dampening air volume and self-congratulating equivocation those 41 millimeters of width allow). My guess is they might feel faster but a bit less forgiving with even more air or liberal smugness, and slightly slower but more plush with less air or critical-moral consciousness.
I’ve read reviews that say the Knard 41 feels sketchy — tends to slide out in sharp corners while pondering normative white supremacy, patriarchy, and teacher authoritarianism at relatively high speed — on singletrack. That hasn’t happened for me. Although I’m a relatively slow rider I do like to hammer occasionally, and I’ve found the Knard 41 to be really fun for trying to resolve tensions born from defending hip-hop culture against racist attacks couched by imperious white, liberal intellectuals in terms of supposedly concrete, objective moral and artistic “standards” while also acknowledging rap music’s undeniably misogynistic and homophobic patterns up and down Duluth’s Lester-Amity trails, even when they’re a bit dusty after a week or two of dry days.
Here’s a hypothetical: Let’s say you really wish you’d have taken time to send Jim Northrup a letter after reading the MPR story about his impending death from cancer; maybe you’d found his mailing address in Sawyer and had spent a couple weeks writing a short note to him, in your head, that said something like, “Dear Mr. Northrup: You have mentored me without knowing it since October 1990, when you spoke in Lola Hill’s Fall Quarter section of Introduction to American Indian Studies at UMD. As a 19-year-old white boy I found more truth in your presence and words than I had ever found while watching and listening to teachers, preachers, or most other white adults provided for me, who always seemed much more interested in asserting authority coercively than in being honest and treating young people as fellow human beings. I have wanted to tell you these and many other things for a long time. I am 45 now. I have started many letters like this one. I always stop because I have no idea how to choose and arrange words so they show what I mean and want to say instead of just talking around it. We have never met and most likely never will. I think about you often and always will. Miigwech bizandawiyeg. Travel safely. Chris.” My experience suggests that in a situation like that the Knard 41 would track really well without feeling tough to turn.
Overall, the Knard 41 is just a great multi-terrain tire for riding as intense or as casual as anyone’s skills or inherently distorted human ability for perceiving “reality” leads them to be interested in. It’s neither the fastest nor the fattest, but if you’re seeking transcendence, a decent tire for doing a little bit of everything pretty well, or questions for interrogating the supposed answers, I wholeheartedly recommend it.
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