Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Is Your Protection Wearing Protection?

Regular readers (and a couple irregular ones) will know that my big dream in starting and maintaining this blog (other than just having a place to listen to myself talk) was to someday be graced by gifts from the Schwag Gods. I imagined that once bicycle manufacturers saw my dazzling prose and my rapt audience of dozens, free carbon and titanium bits would come tumbling from the Great Brown Truck like manna from heaven.

So far, that hasn't really panned out. But I'm proud -- nay, thrilled -- nay again, ecstatic -- to announce that
The Cycle has finally dipped its toe into the Fountain of Schwag. Thanks to the generosity (and perhaps the questionable marketing savvy) of inventor/do-it-yourselfer Blake Mills from San Francisco, CA, I've spent the last week testing The Helmet Lock.

Okay, so what's a helmet lock? Pretty simple, really -- it's a twist of steel cable run in a figure eight through a too-big-to-fit-through-a-helmet-vent hunk of metal and crimped at the end, with the whole works coated in a plasticky/rubbery stuff to protect whatever it comes into contact with. (There's also a well-placed URL that can't be missed when the product's in use... a practice that I find distasteful when TrekSpecializedGiantCannondale do it to wretched excess, but it works in this application.) To whit...

(quarter not included)

The idea is that you shove the fat cable loop through a vent in your helmet from the inside out, run your bike lock through the loop, and the central metal hunk (a fat nut, actually) can't be pulled through the vent, preventing evil-doers from waltzing off with your helmet -- and taunting them Nelson Muntz-style with the name of the product that's just thwarted them: "Haw haw, you're a failed miscreant!"

I confess, I have never been one to lock up my helmet with my bike. I have an irrational fear that a drunk, a dog, or -- horror of horrors -- a drunk dog will mistake my crash protection as some kind of styrofoam public urinal and anoint it with a golden shower. But, in the interest of journalism, I've been putting The Helmet Lock through its paces for over a week now. Impressions...

  • It's easy to use. Blake provides handy instructions with all sorts of caveats about how challenging it can be to juggle your bike, your lock, and your Helmet Locked-helmet, but I found that he doth protest too much. Just run the loop through your lid, start your usual lockup routine, and sling the loop over your lock before you close it up. Maybe it's tougher with a cable lock, but with my U-lock, I thought it was a piece of cake -- and this is from someone who likes to choreograph his lockup like a triathlete going through a transition.
  • Choose your vent carefully. My "beater" commute helmet (a not-terribly-expensive Bell from a few years back) has a few vents that allow the fat nut to slide right through, defeating the purpose of The Helmet Lock pretty handily. Since an expensive helmet (presumably one you'd be more interested in protecting) probably has even bigger vents, this is definitely something to keep in mind. Still, there are at least a half-dozen vents on that same beater helmet that work just fine, so I imagine you'd be able to find a small enough vent on about any helmet you choose. For example, my "fancy" helmet (a newer and more expensive Giro) batted a thousand, preventing nut pull-through at every orifice (Yeesh, that sounds bad. Let's move on, shall we?)
  • People will ask you about it. If you hang with "utility" bikers (who don't carry their helmets around in custom hard cases and display them proudly on a spotlit tchotchke shelf), they'll be impressed. Nobody (myself included) realizes that helmet-wrangling is a problem until they see this simple, elegant solution. Then, they have that forehead-slapping "Why didn't I think of that?" moment.
  • Light, cheap, strong: Pick all three. Very few things in bikedom get to contradict the original "pick two" dictum from former-human-turned-Trek-brand Keith Bontrager. The Helmet Lock pulls it off. It's forgettably light in a bag or hanging off the bike somewhere but more than strong enough for the intended purpose (because how much is a thief going to work for a stinkin' -- in my case quite literally -- helmet, anyway?) And at $13 for one or $20 for two (because it's nice to share), I'd call it cheap... er, inexpensive.
The bottom line: If you don't like carting your helmet around with you but don't feel safe just hanging it off the bike, this little gidget is what you didn't know you were looking for. Someday, the helmet manufacturers will wise up and put some kind of integrated cable loop into their commuter lids (unlike the bizarre collection of accessories -- earmuffs?!? -- available on Bell's supposedly-commuter-marketed Metro) just for lockup purposes. Until that day comes, we can thank Blake for The Helmet Lock.

Now, if you'll excuse me, I think I just saw a tipsy Doberman headed toward the bike rack...

Monday, August 24, 2009

Apology To An Anonymous Mechanic

It was the early 90s, before I'd ever done a stint with a wrench in my hand. My headset had been loosening up badly ever since my hometown shop installed a new suspension fork. I hand-tightened the thing AGAIN (remember, kids, steerers had things called threads in those days) and rode it to one of the shops in the town where I was going to college.

The mechanic there correctly diagnosed that the steerer tube was cut too long. And he proposed the correct solution: Add a headset spacer to take up the slack.

But I was a perfectionist, and I absolutely could not believe that the incompetent mechanic at my hometown shop would foist such lousy work on me. I refused the headset spacer on principle and rode off with my headset clunking. Nose off, face spited.

Next time I was back home, I took the bike back to the shop where the fork was installed and pitched a minor hissy fit about the problem. The shop owner proposed the correct solution (again), a headset spacer. But I wasn't hearing it. So, to shut me up, the shop owner promised to have the steerer cut shorter.

Then, things turned uglier. That poor mechanic overdid it and took off
too much steerer. The shop owner -- dreading the second hissy fit that he was sure would follow -- ordered a new steerer and made the mechanic pay for it. Now that I think about it, he may have needed to order a whole new set of uppers: steerer, crown, and stanchions. Or maybe parts weren't available for that cheap fork and he needed to order a whole new fork. Whatever it cost, that mechanic (probably making $3.85 an hour) had to eat it.

All because I refused a headset spacer.

Dude, whoever you are and wherever you are now, I am
so sorry.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

From Our Marketing Department

I want to pause for a moment of (surprising) frankness and non-snarkitude from yours truly, Jason, everything-in-chief here at The Cycle.

I'm changing the ads on this blog, removing the Google-inserted spam that used to live over there to the right and replacing it with ads from the Amazon Associates program. In a nutshell, if I'm babbling about a bike product here that happens to be available from Amazon, the program lets me make a link to the Amazon listing for that product. If you follow my link and end up buying the product, I get a little kickback in Amazon bucks. Same goes with that little Amazon box over there -- if you see something neat in there and buy it via the link on this site, Amazon scratches my back a little.

A couple things that will NOT happen as a result of this change: One, I will NOT start blowing smoke and giving glowing reviews of products sold by Amazon in a misguided attempt to wet my beak. If I like it, you'll know it. If I don't like it, you'll know that too. Simple as that, and in the words of famous cyclist David Byrne, "same as it ever was." Two, I will NOT limit my reviews to stuff that's available from Amazon. It's a big cycling world out there, and I'm interested in a huge cross-section of it, from the established big boys and girls to the inspired garage tinkerers. If you ever think I'm breaking these rules, please call me on it. I spent years as a paid shill, so I have enough bad karma in that regard already.

As always, thanks for reading, thanks for commenting, and if you happen to click through a link, make a purchase, and send a couple bucks my way, thanks for that support too.

LimpStrong 3.0: Your Humble Narrator Gets Committed

October 17.

There, I said it. LimpStrong 3.0 will take place on October 17. If it doesn't happen, I submit myself to a public e-flogging.

New readers of
The Cycle may be sticking their fingers through their helmet vents for a good head-scratching right now. You do wear your helmet while reading, right? after all, my prose can get dizzying, which could lead to head injuries. To you, I submit my first-ever History Through Hyperlinks!

1. A silly idea takes root.

2. Apprehension sets in.

3. Apprehension turns to terror.

4. Our hero emerges triumphant.

5. Do I smell hubris?

6. No, just lactic acid... and success!

7. Again? Seriously?

In next year's history lesson, this post will be called "Dumb motivating goals that ain't ever gonna happen." What goals, you ask? Try these...

  • Maybe I will do this puppy on the fixed. Never mind that I have just about ZIP for fixed mileage this year and said fixed is hanging incomplete from the garage hooks right now, less than two months from the Big Day.
  • Or, maybe 100 miles isn't enough challenge. What about 200 kilometers? That's (fumbles through memory banks to find tiny snippet of the metric system taught to him on "Feigning Interest in European Things" day during his education in an American public school)... about 125 miles, no?
Or I might just drag my sorry self through 100 miles, eat everything in sight, and call it good. But mark my words, something will happen on October 17. You saw it here first.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

First-Ever Bike Review At The Cycle

That's right, folks, this blog has made the big time. We're reviewing a new bike today. Now, unlike a lot of bike-blog-reviewers, the big players don't just ship bikes to our World Headquarters and -- with a knowing wink -- tell us to "review" the things. No, here at The Cycle, we actually go out and BUY the bikes we review right off the showroom floor, thus guaranteeing an absolutely unbiased report of the bike's performance.

Our test steed is a superlight aluminum bike from REI -- not the usual stuff I ride, but it seemed like an interesting opportunity to get outside my comfort zone. Here's the bike in its stock form:

Anodizing? I know! Welcome back to mountain biking in the 1990s! I guess it must be lighter than a painted finish. It looked a little small for me, but I saddled up for the first test ride. And -- as expected -- it rode like every other lightweight aluminum bike in the world. Laterally stiff, vertically compliant, cornered like it was on rails, beefy bottom bracket transmitted my power to the pavement when the road turned up, yadda yadda yadda. Just read any bike review in Bicycling and you'll get the idea.

But race bikes aren't what we're all about here at
The Cycle. We value versatility. So I decided to see if I could fit a Fat Tire into the frame:

Surprisingly, it fit! But one Fat Tire didn't really change the ride much, so I tried a second. Sure enough, that was the magical combination. With two Fat Tires, I started to feel good on the bike. Really good. I wanted to chat with every cyclist I encountered -- in fact, I tried to hug a few. At the rest stops, I swear the Fat Tire-enhanced version of the bike even made me a better dancer.

Suddenly, it dawned on me -- a bike that was this great on Fat Tires
and made me so charming and attractive around large groups of cyclists was perfect for RAGBRAI. But with no provisions for racks, where would I carry my gear? Luckily, the manufacturer planned ahead and provided a trailer with the bike:

With the bike now loaded up for the long haul, I decided to test it with a few more Fat Tires. Unfortunately, that's where the handling started to degrade:

After another Fat Tire, the handling was so bad that I could barely hold the camera straight:

... until finally, it got so shaky that I crashed:

Still, a successful test, wouldn't you say? I think I'll clean up my road rash and call it a day now, since I feel like I could just pass out at any minute. Guess I must be bonking?

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Building The Perfect Beast

Editor's Note: Oh, who am I kidding? If this thing had an editor, the following post would have been up three days ago, and it would have been half as long.

If you're reading this blog for expert advice on riding fast, catching air, shredding singletrack, beating your buddies up the next big hill, or eating the right combination of nutrient-enhanced goops and bars to stave off the bonk, you are most definitely in the wrong place. However, I have used a bicycle to get to and from work since I started earning a paycheck... zoinks, 21 years ago? Holy, cow, my commuter self is legal to drink! So I do consider myself a quasi-expert on what someone needs to get to work on two wheels.

During those years, I've seen plenty of companies try -- and fail -- to come up with the "ultimate" mass-appeal commuter bike.
The reason? Simple. In the same way that everyone's family is dysfunctional in its own special way, every commute offers up a unique set of challenges. I offer these excerpts from my own sordid history as a bicycle commuter as proof:

Summer Custodian, age 16
DISTANCE/CONDITIONS: Approx. 2 miles, flat, asphalt.
SPECIAL CONSIDERATIONS: Usually wearing work boots half-dissolved by cleaning fluids.

College Student, age 18-[REDACTED]
DISTANCE/CONDITIONS: Varied, multi-surface, campus with some short, nasty hills.
SPECIAL CONSIDERATIONS: Usually wearing work boots not dissolved by chemicals, cut-off jeans and de-sleeved flannel shirts -- it was a grunge thing. Let's move on, shall we?

Warm Body Teaching Freshman Comp, age 25
DISTANCE/CONDITIONS: 2 miles, city streets, exceedingly hostile drivers (aside to Columbus, OH motorists: What exactly is your damage?)
SPECIAL CONSIDERATIONS: Schlepping boat-loads of books, student papers, and everything else that wouldn't fit in the office I shared with a dozen other migrant academic laborers.

Bicycle Mechanic, age 27
DISTANCE/CONDITIONS: 22 miles, rural roads, hills that made me cry and my knees creak.
SPECIAL CONSIDERATIONS: When you work in a bike shop, your bike CANNOT be dorky, unless you like ridicule from your coworkers and wary sideways glances from your customers.

Corporate Cube Monkey, present day
DISTANCE/CONDITIONS: 2 miles on the short way, 9 on the long way, everything from trails to urban (yes, "for Des Moines") traffic.
SPECIAL CONSIDERATIONS: Nearby cube-drones would prefer that I don't stink.

So as you can see, finding a bike optimized for one or two of these commutes is no problem. Finding one that can do all of them? Good luck.
I do think, however, that there are some general criteria that you should keep in mind when you're choosing a commuter bike or optimizing one of your current rides for the trip to and from work.

RELIABILITY: Do not -- I repeat, do NOT -- ride some fragile and/or crappy bike, break down on the way to work, and tell your boss that you're late because your bike broke. You just make the rest of us look like schmucks, and frankly, I do that just fine on my own. Get wheels with lots of spokes and some tough tires. A commute is not the place for your super-light seven-spoke wheels and sausage-casing-thin race tires. Sure, the thick-treaded, Kevlar-belted things may ride rough and 36 spokes per wheel add a couple ounces, but they spare you that roadside flat fix or spoke replacement at 7:53 when you have that big 8:00 meeting.

VISIBILITY: If it's too pretty to slather with reflective tape, it's probably not the bike you want to commute on. Ditto on all the blinkies you can fit on the thing (I like the extra-annoying Planet Bike Superflash. Don't let drivers use the bogus "I didn't see you" excuse. If anything, they should have to use the "My retinas were burned out by some kind of unidentified low-flying orb of dazzling light" excuse.

LOAD-CARRYING CAPACITY: This one's a toss-up. If you like carrying your stuff on your person (in a messenger bag or backpack), then the ability to schlep on the bike might not be a huge selling point. But, if you want the load on the mule instead of on you, make sure it can handle it. I can't speak to loading the front of the bike (see Bicycle Quarterly for that), but rear loads need a couple things. First, look for rack eyelets on the seatstays and dropouts. You can bodge with clamps, but bolt-ons are more reliable. Second, check the length of the bike's chainstays. If you're using panniers on your rack, you want to make sure that they sit far enough back that you won't kick them. And get a real rack! Don't even think about using one of those diving board things that clamp to a seatpost. They're the faux-hawk of luggage carrying: Grow the real thing or shave that ridiculous abomination off.

SCHMUTZ-DEFLECTORS: Whether you ride in your civilian duds or full kit, fenders are a happy addition to any commuting steed. Maybe you have a shower at work, but does your bike? All that crud on drivetrain and brakes will eventually count against you on the reliability factor mentioned above. Plus, it's one more surface to slather with reflective tape! Double bonus: If your bike actually has room for full fenders, it probably has room for those wide tires I mentioned above. If not, clip-ons are a tolerable substitute.

THE FUN FACTOR: This one trips up a lot of people. They read glowing praise for some Dutch-inspired, bolt-upright roadster and its wonderful practicality without looking deep into their cycle-souls to think about what they actually like to ride. Do you want to sit straighter than Grant Petersen in a back brace? Does that look cool to you? Do you find it enjoyable to ride like that? Then heck yes, go for the roadster. But if your cycle-self yearns to feel racy, admit it to yourself and figure out a way to commutify your go-fast. If you dread getting on the bike -- no matter how "practical" it might be -- you won't keep commuting. So if your bike violates everything I've said above but you really can't wait to sling a leg over it in the morning, that's the perfect commute bike for you.

Saturday, August 1, 2009

On The Road, Don'tchya Know

The Cycle is coming to you LIVE from the great state of Minnesota this weekend. Our road reports were almost thwarted by a dearth of wi-fi: none at the hotel, none at Caribou Coffee stop #1, and Caribou Coffee stop #2 was closed. I felt kind of like an addict frantically searching for my fix. Thankfully, Caribou Coffee stop #3 had the goods, and although it will close in a bit, the (long-ago closed) Bruegger's next door is absolutely bleeding signal. I figure they throw me out of here, I'll sit in the car and latch on to that baby like a vampire on a bottle of True Blood.

This is as close as I get to gritty battlefield reporting, sorry.

So, bikely stuff I've visited up here? This morning featured a visit to local cool co-op shop The Hub near the U. of M. I usually make it to The Hub only because it sits near a yarn shop where my lovely wife can find fibrous entertainment. My favorite sighting at The Hub today was the lineup of Civia transportation bikes created by uber-distributor Quality Bicycle Products. When these things hit the interwebs, I kind of pooh-poohed them as over-spec'ed and over-priced novelty items. Now having seen them in person, I am duly impressed. Sure, they're pricy, but they really are well set up for "real" cycling on the street -- and the matte paint jobs with long matched fenders are simultaneously modern and elegant. Will they sell worth a darn? I don't know. I don't know any commuters who put $2k into their daily beater (although that's probably a reasonable replacement cost on mine). But I applaud QBP for giving it a shot and coming up with some sweet rides.

My only other vaguely bikey stop has been REI, since I feel obligated to pop in now that I bit the bullet and became a member. That's how they get you, see? Dropped a whopping four bucks on a supposedly new-and-improved Kleen Kanteen sport cap that claims 3x more water flow. We'll see when I get back to Des Moines and pop it on one of my well-used KKs.

I also fondled the Novara Buzz Road, an interesting take on the all-rounder concept: aluminum frame/fork, lots of gears, STI on Wilderness Trail Bikes flared drops, and -- get this -- mechanical disc brakes. It's an odd duck to be sure, but for the right person (like me), it sort of makes sense. All the aluminum resists rust, while the discs keep the braking surface up out of the crud on an all-weather commuter. I was disappointed to see that the rear disc mount is positioned on the seatstay, making rear rack installation more hassle than necessary. I would have preferred more tire clearance too, and my very rudimentary "hoist it off the rack and put it back" weighing registered that it was a bit tank-ish. Like the Civias, I don't know if these oddballs will sell, but they're certainly not the cookie-cutter stuff you see at your typical TrekSpecializedCannondaleGiant store these days.

(My other favorite Novara? The Buzz V -- only because it's a set of knobby tires away from being a sweet retro-ish all-rigid mountain bike. What can I say? I have a soft spot for those... in my head.)

Inspired by these visits, I have commuting equipment on the brain, so assuming I can continue to suckle at the teat of free wireless, I'll fire off a few thoughts on a) what makes a good commuting bike, and b) how to carry your junk on said commuting bike in the next few posts. Please try to contain your excitement...