December's only BLAHG

December's only BLAHG





I've been working on a kind of book for a while. It'll be illustrated--by Betsy Streeter, who also did all those Bicycle Sentences illustrations on IG--but. here in the Blahg, I'll just do it word-only, with some relevant photos of the events. The event in question, below, is King Leopold II of Belgium's late 1800s land-grab. Other BLAHG stuff follows. 

A rubber story 


Belgium’s King Leopold II was born in 1834 and must have had a messed up childhood, because he was messed up his whole life. At 18 he had an arranged marriage with Marie Henriette, 17, and the daughter of an Archduke and Duchess. The bride and groom were against the marriage, but gave in—he to his dad, she to her guardian. Aside from both being royalty and neither liking the other, they didn’t have much in common. She was refined, intelligent, outgoing. She liked music, singing, opera, horses (riding, breeding), monkeys (breeding), and was physically strong and outgoing. Leopold liked the military. He didn’t care about the arts or animals; and he was introverted and physically weak. 

Leopold really wanted a son and heir, but the couple had a daughter, another daughter, a son who died at 9, and then a third daughter—the last straw for Leopold. Soon after that, the couple lived apart and led separate lives, coming together only for pomp and circumstance. Leopold forced his daughters to marry men much older, and ultimately disinherited them. His failures at adulthood would continue.

 Now he was free to explore (and pay for) his sexual preferences: young virgins. Decades later, in 1899, his pendulum swung the other way, and he began a relationship with Carolyn Lacroix, a 16-year old French girl who’d been prostituted for years. 

 By the mid-1800s England, France, Germany, and Portugal had colonized most of the distant but accessible land, including the coast of Africa, Australia, most islands, and Brazil. 

Mention Brazil Rubber / Henry Wickham here?

Leopold was late to colonization so missed out on the African coast, which had trade advantages and was easier to colonize because it didn’t require an inland trek. But the Congo was still up for grabs, because to Europeans it was a dark and scary mystery, hard to travel through on foot. Leopold didn’t want it to be Belgian's, though. He was King, and wanted to own personally, all of Congo, and see what he could get out of it.

The Congo was 905,000 square miles—as big as the combined areas of three Texases, plus Pennsylvania and New York. It had as much geographical- and bio- and cultural-diversity as you’d expect of a gigantic mass of land that had been occupied for close to 300,000 years. It had bands of pygmies living in crude huts, and elephants and all the wild animals you associate with Africa. It had cannibalism, slavery and crime. There was also fine architecture, art, craft, music, fashion, religion, international trade, metalworking, industry, government, and two hundred different languages. The worldwide perception and reality of this “dark continent” didn’t match up, and Leopold used that, and religion, to his advantage. 

Leopold needed the support of the world’s major powers, so his pitch was philanthropic: To banish slavery, bring religion and industry to the Congo, and allow international free trade. Religious and business leaders were excited about that.

The Congolese weren’t stupid, just trusting, naive, and easily tricked. They signed treaties they couldn’t read. Leopold traded clothing, alcohol, and European knickknacks for land, and named it the Congo Free State, a reference to free trade he promised the also naive and trusting western world. In 1885 the United States was the first country to officially recognize The Congo Free State. With our endorsement, other countries followed. 

 The tusks were easy, rubber was the challenge, and rubber was the goal. The “age of rubber” had begun, driven by industrial needs of insulating under-the-ocean telegraph cables, gaskets and bumpers in machinery and trains, protecting delicate scientific instruments during transport, and, by the 1890s, bicycles. By the early 1900s, the biggest need would be car tires.

The best quality rubber came from one particular of many varieties of rubber trees, this one found the Amazon rain forest. British adventurist, opportunist, and amateur botanist Henry Alexander drew attention to the rubber-harvesting possibilities down there, and imperialists from many corners of the world sailed there, lived there, and terrorized the natives to help them harvest rubber. (Wickham himself wasn’t directly involved in human rights atrocities, but he’d brought rubber to the attention of those who were.)

Any discussion of rubber and history has to include the South American rain forests, because that is where the quest for rubber began and exploded.

Rubber is sap, drained from cuts in rubber trees and vines. Accessing the rubber required bringing equipment and machinery and boats through basically un-trudge-able rain forests, over high mountains, deep gorges, through clouds of disease-carrying insects, snakes, meat-eating mammals, heat, rain, and unaccommodating natives. Leopold hired professional explorers to navigate and map the land, and an army to enslave boys as young as five and all able-bodied men to get the rubber.

 Punishments for not meeting quotas included whipping with a chicotte, a rhinoceros hide whip, with edges that cut skin deeper than braided whip did. Women and children family members were kidnapped, held hostage, and were raped routinely, often in front of their husbands and fathers, until quotas were filled.  Leopold’s army was the Force Public. It was made up mostly of indentured soldiers who had to work off their debts or go to prison. The soldiers routinely slaughtered whole and partial villages, both as punishment for not meeting rubber quotas, and to show they were serious, and wouldn’t hesitate to kill more, even on a whim, if they didn’t bring enough rubber. The signature punishment, documented in hundreds of photographs, was shooting natives and amputating their hands to account for the bullet used. If the soldiers missed shots or wasted ammunition on animals, they’d cut off the hands of live natives.

(This is all gross, no doubt. But Leopold’s regime for rubber is widely regarded as unsurpassed brutality among all the wars and holocausts of the world, and it’s not enough to know only that people were mistreated.)

Starting around 1892, after Dunlop’s pneumatic tires became widely available and the demand for rubber bicycle tires surged, more than half of the Congo’s rubber came to the United States, to make bicycle tires. 

 Over time, missionaries, writers, and good people who’d been made aware of the crimes spread the bad news to rest of Europe and the U.S. This was the world’s first real, organized, effective human rights movement, and its leaders—two Black guys, William Sheppard and George Washington Williams, and two white guys, Roger Casement and Edmund D. Morel, risked their lives and reputations to get the word out. Leopold and Belgium had a full-time propaganda machine refuting the claims, but thanks to eye-witness testimonies and hundreds of photographs of amputated hands, the truth was out and the world was outraged.

Most estimates are that Leopold’s army killed about 10 million Congolese, and he’d made about $1.1 billion. Despite meticulous documentation and photographic proof, there are still Congo holocaust deniers.

By 1908 he was 74 years old, and Leopold had made enough money and built enough posh homes and palaces in Belgium to secure his legacy. His health was declining and didn’t want the criticism. Five days before he died he married Ms. Lacroix and left her millions in cash and assets. Belgium got the rest, his daughters got nothing. From 1909 to 1960 the former Congo Free State became the Belgian Congo. Its government changed and it was renamed Zaire in 1971 (thru 1997).  Now it’s the Democratic Republic of Congo and still suffers from corruption, civil wars and human rights violations.

 Eventually other countries with suitable climate started growing their own rubber farms from seeds smuggled from the Amazon. This modern rubber is more humanely harvested, and is now used mostly for car tires. The Congo still suffers from wars, a corruption, and human rights abuses, but rubber is harvested more humanely now, and in any case, most bicycle and car rubber is now synthetic (butyl). It’s not the fault of the U.S. or of bicycles, and it shouldn’t make you feel guilty about your rubber tires. It’s just part of the story.


 Here's a 3D plastic print of a dropout we're working on for the upcoming, world-beating Roaduno.

Sheldon didn't like these being called dropouts. He liked "track ends," kind of the Japanese way, and technically more accurate, because the wheel didn't actually dropOUT of them when you released it. They'd catch the wheel. But for purposes of communication, to keep things rolling off the tongue and all, they'll always be track dropouts to us, no oxymoron there, and these have a hanger for a chain tensioner or derailer. 


 It's a scientifically well-known fact that it's slightly better, but just by a hair and I wouldn't worry about it if you don't, to dust your inner tubes with chalk/talc before use, to keep heat and time and use from making the inner tube stick to the rim on the inside. You want it to slide and extract easily if you need to remove it to patch a puncture. I've read but not verified that sliding inner tubes reduce rolling resistance, but if the main thing keeping you off the winner's podium is unchalked tubes, then by all means insist on them.

But, in our endless pursuit of maximal grooviness and having fun with tiny things, we now have a supply of pure, 300 million year old natural chalk, composed of crushed cocoliths.


I found this chunk and several more like it off of Hwy 299 in Northern California, where Ford F-150s were passing within fifteen feet of them all day long. This will be the chalk we use to chalk your tubes on bikes we assemble here. I doubt it has any carcinomatic chemicals. It is not vegan.

No bad chemicals there, just crushed animal shells. Is there a vegan alive who'd object to this?


This is Antonio, our bikepacker about to become something else, with a Sam and a rare rear derailer, here:

It's a RapidRise hybrid he made out of two different Nexave models. He liked the pulleys and cage of one, and the body of the other, so he used a tiny hex wrench to loosen and tighten and swap. I think most people, meaning mainly me, would be reluctant to risk wrecking one by undoing a bold Shimano never wants normal people to touch, but Antonio never cares, he just dives in.


Here's a new-improved adjustable seat post, an IRD. I believe these are available in both 26.8 and 27.2. Our bikes have shallow seat tube angles and don't benefit hugely by them, but we sell them anyway, for bikes with normal (we's say too steep) seat tube angles of 73-degrees or more.


 racing eBike news, hmm.

 Seriously, eBike racing on trails and roads will be huge, and then for the first time the bike makers will legitimately be able to hoard some of the credit in the victory. To me, it's always seemed fishy when they did that with normal bikes. In a normal bike race, if a bike has some kind of technological advantage, it should be banned, right? I mean, since it's supposed to be a who's faster event, not a what's faster.


 What I really really want to do is go to Labrador and fish for brook trout.


Or fish for brook trout anywhere, or any kind of trout, anywhere.

But. I'm preparing for bass and bluegills, too. I've got a little fly-tying set up here, and I try to get in two flies a day, at about nine minutes each.










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