“Make it look shitty.” James Dowd latest screed on cycling in Gloucester

Here is my latest screed on cycling in Gloucester. I had the Big Mikes folks build me “The Ultimate Gloucester Bike.” 

Hope all is well!


James Dowd writes-

“Make it look shitty.”

For those of you who have been following my Fifty Shades of Grey-esque relationship with Gloucester cycling, above is the first instruction I gave to the crew over at Big Mike’s Bikes when I tasked them with building me a custom bike from scratch.

“I want even the most hard-up thief to pass it over in favor of fishing pre-scratched lotto tickets out of the trash. I want the bike to give the impression that the owner dug it out of a pile of dredging spoils from a particularly nasty canal.”

“Can it have surface rust?” Mike asked. I think this was just an attempt to gauge my seriousness in this somewhat odd request.

“Can it? CAN it have surface rust? Michael my good man, if it does not have surface rust we’re going to have to ship it to Hollywood in order to have the professional prop distressers who worked on the Statue of Liberty for The Planet of the Apes have a solid go at it, savvy?”

They savvied. Oh, and how did they both savvy. The whole point of the surface rust was a key component in my secret plan to create the Perfect Gloucester Bike™. A bike that would have the following characteristics:

1. It must not present an attractive theft target to the station-zombies who have already sullied two of my nicer-looking locked bikes left there during my work hours up the line.

2. It has to be durable enough to manage the series of shell-craters and trench networks that pass for roads in our beloved burgh. Prospect Street, part of my commute, currently feels like riding from Lens to Ypres somewhere around 1915.

3. At the same time it would have to be fast enough to outrun the enraged pitbulls and their cleaver-wielding owners, maneuverable enough to evade the erratic traffic during prime self-medication hours and must be an overall a good enough ride to make it all worth it.

“No problem,” said Mike and KT. “Really?” I asked. “Really,” they said. “Really really?” I asked…they both stared at me. Conclusion: the Big Mike’s Bikes crew are very sweet, but are not to be trifled with when bikes are the topic.


And ooh, dawg, were they right. The work of sheer brilliance you see depicted above and dubbed “Professor Farnsworth” is the ultimate stealth bike. It’s a vintage Raleigh Mountain Tour, an 80’s-era hybrid tour/mountain bike back from the day when manufactures weren’t quite so sure that Mountain biking was exactly going to catch on. It’s not surprising, the 80’s were a turbulent time; no one knew what the future was going to hold. The Bell System broke up (people under 40, look it up), Apple launched its Macintosh operating system in order to carve out a small niche for itself against technology titans Wang and Digital and the film Amadeus swept the nation and our hearts, kindling America’s burning passion for classical music and opera that persists to this day.


[Check out this sweet ad for the bike back from 1984. No helmet? Check. Mork Vest? Check. Cargo panniers full of hair teasing products? Double check.]

But the real magic in this bike is not the vintage frame. The magic is the work done in the secret underground laboratory miles below Big Mike’s World Headquarters on Maplewood (next to MacDonald’s). This is where the rubber really meets the hunks of crumbling sidewalk.

This crappy looking bike defies its outward appearance and sports all upgraded components: shifters, bearings, wheels, tires, fenders, reflectors, integral lighting and gear racks making it a sweet and practical ride for commuting and errands, the bulk of my in-town bicycling. But all put together in a way that doesn’t give off the “this bike cost more than a two year community college degree” vibe that one so frequently gets from some of the bikes you see rolling around the wealthier towns of the North Shore.

This solidly-built customized bike, work included, cost me substantially less than even a bottom-line new one offered at a place like Target . Indulge me for a sec while I tell you what you get when you buy a new “bike” at a discount retailer.

First, think about the quality of the other products you get from those places and how you use them. You get a $25 coffee maker from Target, the handle breaks off, makes a mess of your counter and you clean it up and get a new one. No biggie, you don’t expect much more and Hell, for 25 bucks you could buy a new one every six months. Whatevs. Or you get a beanbag chair for the kids and after a couple of weeks (and having been used in an especially active game called “Invasion of the Giant Space Marshmallow”) it starts leaking those little white Styrofoam balls, you vacuum them up and throw it out. Wasteful? Yes. But not much more of a hassle than that.

Now lets think about the failure event that occurs on a cheap bike. It won’t fail sitting in your garage, oh no. It will fail when you’re trying to pull a Millennium-Falcon-in-the-asteroids maneuver that is the essence of Gloucester cycling. That won’t be a mess that will just clean up with a dust-buster and a sponge…unless you head-on one of those diesel freezer-haulers cranking around the wrong side of the blind corner on East Main. Ironically, in that case those are the exact tools the Fire Department guys will use to get the bulk of your remains into a consolidated container.

The point is we’re at a weird phase in the economy. “New” things at the lower and increasingly middle price points are frequently much, much crappier than older products that have been expertly rehabbed. This is just a fact of how things are made and sold now.

The good news with bikes is that there are a ton of great ones still around just waiting for someone to apply a little TLC and get them back on the road. Unlike mine, most of them don’t look like they spent the past few years locked to the mainmast of the Hesperus. And doing all this, in the end, leaves you with a much better bike for less money. Win, win.

As for me, I also need it to look shitty seeing as the Big Mike’s crew flat-out refused to build and install the first proposal I brought to them: a remote self-destruct mechanism for my nice mountain bike, centered around stuffing enough Czech-made Semtex plastic explosives down into the frame to disintegrate the thief down to purely elemental particles. So, failing that, (“explosives permits” they said. Bah!), this is a pretty solid plan B.

19 thoughts on ““Make it look shitty.” James Dowd latest screed on cycling in Gloucester

  1. Let’s not forget you pooh-poohed the suggestion of “mouse traps duct taped all over the frame.” I STILL THINK IT WAS A GOOD IDEA.

    Thanks for the write-up, it was a fun bike to build! In the original bag, we found a tidal calendar for 1993. That bike’s a trooper!


  2. It’s brilliant writing all right … but is the new bike really shitty enough? It looks kind of appealing to me ( no, I’m past the age of riding — let alone stealing — bicycles).


  3. The rest of it was funny but I wet my pants with the photo of the hair and:

    [Check out this sweet ad for the bike back from 1984. No helmet? Check. Mork Vest? Check. Cargo panniers full of hair teasing products? Double check.]


  4. I think you’ve created a new genre of bike racing. I will dust off my 1985 GT Terra Mt. Bike which technically is a hybrid because the treads are worn down to street tires. We’ll run through your commuter route avoiding the shell craters and through the gauntlet of pitbulls. The last 1/4 mile you’ll need to balance a cup of coffee, buy a paper, lock your bike and attempt to log into the MBTA wi-fi.


  5. Someone stole my Columbia playbike when I was a kid then sent me a photo of it hanging from a tree branch all mangled.


  6. I think Jim’s bike will be on the must have list by a bike thief who has read Jim’s raves about the sleeper. Why not balloon tires for Gloucester roads? An old 3 speed Schwinn with a coaster brake…or has this item been museum bound for a few years?


    1. Also a great idea! I am usually riding an old Raleigh 3 speed, but I stay away from the old coaster brake models because the brake is prone to failure in between shifts- which means you lose your brake if your shift cable breaks or goes out of adjustment. Scary! And steel rims arent the best thing in the world for wet-weather rim braking, but I do get by with upgraded brakes.

      TBH, though, most old mountain bikes are simply cruisers with more gears. The first generation of mountain bikes, called klunkers, were exactly that. My winter bike is a similar vintage mountain bike with a modern single speed coaster brake and alloy wheelset.


  7. Five stars for the writing. Four point nine for the strategy. You’ll be sleepin’ easier if Lowly Thieves Local gets taught a lesson. Plan A employing the Semtex plastic explosives was extremely appealing, though overly messy. Could you go back to Mike’s and commission him to assemble a spiffy looking job that would self-destruct when activated by the vibrations emitted from an overtaking fish truck? Mike just needs to use the design criteria described here — with revised quality standards for the components.


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