Wednesday, December 22, 2010

This Old Bike, Extra-Festive Edition

First things first: Our ever-astute readership probably noticed that what was planned as a 12-day series of gift ideas was suddenly truncated to six. I'd like to say there's a good reason for that, but really, I just started getting bored with myself (join the club, right?) So we're moving on and forgetting that whole "12 Days" idea ever existed. We are at war with Eurasia, we have always been at war with Eurasia, we will always be at war with Eurasia...

Today, The Cycle is thrilled to present our first contribution from our roving band of crack photojournalists. Staff shutterbugs (and FOBs -- Friends Of Blog) Amy and Ross happened upon this vintage specimen at the Hancock House bed and breakfast in Dubuque, Iowa (a stay I'm sure they'll try to expense to The Cycle now that we've immortalized it):

First, major props on the props. Totally in keeping with the whole Winter Solstice thing. And then there's the brilliant homage to the BikeSnobNYC disembodied hand. Bravo!

Here we see the spoon brake (clearly, it's capability for "speed modulation" inspired a young Tullio Campagnolo), and a bag made to fit in the gap between the sweeping top and down tubes. I understand that Grant Petersen has a plaid one of these in development as soon as he can invent a cutesy name and backstory for it. Might I suggest the "Terwiliger Tweed 'Tweener"?

Snazzy cockpit setup. I really like the curve of that bar -- quite elegant.

Looks to be a bent-wood chainguard with some kind of rope lacing across it. Wood rims, too.

The wood theme carries over to the rear fender too. The rope lacing and lack of a corresponding front fender makes me think this one's just designed to keep a skirt (or kilt, for our Scottish male demographic) out of the wheel.

Show me... HEADBADGE! It says "J.T. Hancock, Iowa" -- which (per the Hancock House website linked above) was a "wholesale grocer and distributor." How that becomes a bicycle brand, I dunno. Maybe they had the clout to have a bike rebadged for their stores.

Finally, some leather. Yes, that's a saddle with a cutout from the turn of the LAST century, lest you think Georgena Terry invented them. Dig the snazzy weave across the cutout, too! I can't look at this without imagining some kind of old-timey snake oil sales pitch that went with it: "The Distinguished Doctor R. Minkow introduces his Revolutionary New Bicycle-Seat, guaranteed to provide Cooling Breezes across the Nether Regions, ensuring an Ideal Temperature for one's Delicate Humours and encouraging the Free Flow of said Delicate Humours, thus instilling Greater Vim and Vitality for the Cycler." Good thing we're too smart for that kind of hucksterism in the 21st century, right?

Anyway, major thanks again to Amy and Ross, bike-paparazzi extraordinaire, for capturing these shots and giving me something to write about. And, dear reader(s), if you've yet to celebrate your winter-centric holiday this month, have a safe and happy one.

Monday, December 20, 2010

The 12 6 Days of Festivus, Part 6

Socks. Yep, socks.

I know, I know. A holiday-themed thing that's now stretched out for six nights with no sign of stopping any time soon, and I'm recommending socks as a gift? Kinda giving away which holiday we celebrate here at The Cycle World Headquarters, right?

But hear me out: I'm talking about wool cycling socks. The O.G. of the modern sheep-derived bike sock (and the one that got me hooked) is from Smartwool:

When I was wrenching for my pal Bill circa 199ish, we had a few pairs of Cannondale-branded Smartwools in stock, and he simply would NOT shut up about these socks. In fact, I still remember his pitch: "You know how you have that one pair of socks that you like so much that you dig through the basket of clean laundry looking for them? That's what these are." So I finally gave in and bought a pair. And I'll be danged if he wasn't right... great temperature management, wicking, and none of that weird wet-plasticky feel you get from even the best synthetic socks.

Since that gateway drug, I've fed my addiction with more Smartwool, DeFeet, Sock Guy, Fox River (an Iowa company!), you name it. Yeah, I have a problem. And yeah, I do feel kind of silly getting this excited over socks. But what can I say? Wool socks are awesome.

(Our Design Director/Chief Knitwear Technician would like me to remind you that a competent knitter can make CUSTOM wool cycling socks. I'm ashamed to admit that I haven't taken her up on that offer yet... which is kind of like Sacha White's kid riding an off-the-shelf Trek instead of this amazing Vanilla.)

Sunday, December 19, 2010

The 12 6 Days of Festivus, Part 5

This one's a little riskier -- I think the cyclist on your list needs to be just a bit bike-geekier for today's gift to really be a winner. Either that, or your cyclist needs to be vulnerable to bike-geek tendencies... and you have to be prepared to live with the consequences of encouraging those tendencies.

I'm talking, of course, about a subscription to the best bicycle magazine in print today (ATMO, trademark R. Sachs), Jan Heine's Bicycle Quarterly. The genius of BQ is its ability to expose a piece of cycling history you may have never seen before: the French "constructeur" bikes of the mid-20th century. While race bikes were only starting their grinding evolution toward the one-trick ponies of today, builders like Herse and Singer were crafting fully-equipped, fully-integrated, surprisingly light bikes... fenders, lighting, racks, handmade components, the works. I confess, I was entirely ignorant of these builders and their bikes before BQ came along, and now I can't get enough of them.

Not content with just doing history, BQ then tries to figure out what it is about these bikes that makes them ride so darn well... and puts their hypotheses to the test with the most rigorous attempts at bicycle science I've seen to date. I may take issue with the results from time to time (don't get me started on "planing"), but I admire the attempt to bring some objectivity to the murk. You'll never swallow another boilerplate, regurgitated-press-release bike "review" (laterally stiff yet vertically compliant!) quite the same way after a taste of BQ.

(If your cyclist has been extra-good this year, think about popping for one of the gorgeous books from Bicycle Quarterly Press: The Golden Age of Handbuilt Bicycles or The Competition Bicycle - A Photographic History. I have the former, and I keep hoping to someday get off the naughty list and receive the latter... hint, hint.)

Saturday, December 18, 2010

The 12 6 Days Of Festivus, Part 4

It has suddenly dawned on me that perhaps twelve straight days of "BUY STUFF!" might not be the best use of my bloggy pulpit (it's like a bully pulpit except that no one actually pays attention to you when you're on it). So, for Day 4, I'd like to talk about some holiday ideas that even Charlie Brown himself might not brand with a "good grief!" 

First up, maybe you could donate to a local bicycle collective and/or co-op in the name of your bike-nerd friend and/or relation. They might even give you a card to present to your cyclist a la George Costanza and the Human Fund. Seeing as how this is usually a Des Moines-centric blog, I'll kick in a little plug here for the Des Moines Bike Collective. Which reminds me, I need to put my money where my blog is and bring a box o'parts down there sometime soon... 

I look at giving to a co-op/collective as a little gift for everybody who rides a bike. After all, their mission is usually to get more bikes fixed up and into the hands of more people. More people on more bikes makes bikes seem more normal, thus life gets just a little bit better for everyone who has to play in traffic on two wheels. Our own collective has been instrumental in the new Des Moines B-cycle bike sharing program, regional trail maps, and valet bike parking at a variety of downtown events... all things that are dragging the city (sometimes kicking and screaming) toward more overall bike-friendliness.

If you don't have a collective or co-op in your neck of the woods, you can still get into the bikey charitable spirit if you just have a few bucks and some basic wrenching skills. Scavenge up some inexpensive kids' bikes at garage sales, Goodwill, or what have you, get them into good running condition with those basic wrenching skills, and pass them on to local charities that provide gifts for kids who would otherwise go without. Voila, you've just warmed the frigid cockles of your heart and possibly planted the seed for a future cyclist. The bikes don't have to be that wonderful or expensive to begin with -- think back to what you probably started riding on as a kid. They just need to be functional and safe*. See if your local bike shop will cut you a deal on some inexpensive kids' helmets and/or blinkie lights to go with the bikes while you're at it.

Don't have the bucks to buy the bikes in the first place? Call up those "gifts for kids" charities and offer to tune up any bikes they receive. Most probably don't have a bike nerd on staff and would be thrilled to have someone make their bikes safer. I know that when word got out one year that (like a chimpanzee) I could use basic tools, my velo-palace was overrun with all manner of Huffies and Magnas and Roadmasters (oh my!) Again, don't apply your most rigorous standards of snobbishness... just make the things go (and stop!) and make them safe*. For the cost of only your time, you get that cockle-warming, future-cyclist-creating vibe again.

That's my public service announcement, anyway. I'll be my usual crass and cantankerous self tomorrow, lest anyone accuse me of being quasi-human...

*Sometimes, you'll get one that just can't be made safe, no matter what you do. Best you can do is salvage any usable parts for the next one. Just beware -- the idea of "parts donor" bikes sounds great at first... until they've taken over your entire garage...

Friday, December 17, 2010

Stop The e-Presses, And Be Still My Beating Heart

Pardon the interruption in our critically-abstained "12 6 Days of Festivus" series, but this seemed worth it.

There's a readable (and -- dare I say? I dare! -- enjoyable) article in this month's Bicycling magazine (henceforth to be denoted by the juvenile-yet-appropriate abbreviation BM).


Only one, mind you, but it's there. I almost did a spit-take with my latte when I was flipping through a copy (without buying it, of course) at the Local Corporate Mega-Emporium of Books and The Same Mildly Tolerable Coffee You Can Buy Every Three Blocks.

It's The Great Mechanic Within by Eben Weiss. And now I don't feel so guilty about the latte-spit on that hard copy I didn't buy, since BM has apparently entered the late-20th century and started posting their content on the magical interwebs.

If you're even the least bit savvy with the Googles, you know that Weiss is the quasi-anonymous man behind BikeSnobNYC. I feared that his foray into paper-based writing (both in book form and as a -- choke -- "journalist" for the rag in question) would ruin him, but it would seem that exposure to BM has only made him stronger.

Do you ever wonder exactly what's wrong with that guy who spends his rainy afternoons (and heck, even some of the sunny ones) in the garage tightening and pinging spokes like a demented piano tuner? Read The Great Mechanic Within. Heck, if you are that guy (guilty), print a copy and hang it on your workbench.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

The 12 6 Days of Festivus, Part 3

So we've already hydrated your favorite cyclist and covered his/her noggin... next up, let's give a little something for the bike itself:

The Park "Rescue Wrench" is a simple little multi-pronged bolt tightener in the tradition of the dumbell wrenches of yore... except that it replaces most of the box-end fittings (that are only useful if your bike predates Pac Man Fever) with modern Allen wrenches. You get all the Allens you could want (3mm through 6mm plus an 8mm), 8mm/9mm/10mm box wrenches and a small flathead screwdriver. Slick. No Torx bits, though, in case you need those for your disc rotors (my large-diameter braking discs are called rims, so I worry not about such things.)

Trivial aside: Did you know that Allen wrenches weren't invented by a guy named Allen? Me neither! And it seems there's nobody named Bondhus either. Very disappointing. I'll continue to use Allen Bondhus as my "world-famous blogger checking into a hotel" pseudonym, though. It seems to work, since I've never been mobbed by adoring fans or pursued by paparazzi while using it. Brooks Ashtabula? Totally different story...

But back to the Rescue Wrench! Obviously, it's not a shop tool -- it's for roadside or trailside emergencies. Using some bits can be awkward as the others bump into (or scratch) parts around the bolt you're trying to move. The upside, though, is better-than-average leverage compared to a lot of Swiss-Army-style folding tools, and no pieces to loosen or lose. The sharp edges (especially on the screwdriver) can Swiss-cheese your tube if you let the tool rattle around loose in your bag, however. Mine rides in an old nylon tool wallet (also a Park product, though long-ago discontinued) with a few other essentials (more details on The Things I Carry post-Festivus) for just this reason.

So, bottom line, what a tool. But enough about me...

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

The 12 6 Days of Festivus, Part 2

File this review under, "Geez, that product looks so simple/dumb, I can't believe how well it works, and thus I am kicking myself for not inventing it." I give you... the Buff:

See, it even looks dumb in the Amazon ad! What is that, a black rectangle? Sweet, I'll totally drop thirteen bucks and change on that.

What you're actually seeing is a simple tube of thin, wicking polyester fabric, available in about a zillion colors/patterns, designed to be worn about the head/neck/face region. I was introduced to these things by pal and frequent blog-commenter Steve K. of Peoria after I'd lamented about my increasingly Pantani-esque melon and its vulnerability to STHVS: Sunburn Through Helmet Vent Syndrome. Steve said, in effect, "Get ye a Buff, oh chrome-domed one," and although I was initially skeptical, I did.

Lest you think I'm underdescribing the Buff, it really is just a fabric tube. Hot day? Pull one end over your dome, let the other hang down the back of your head covering your neck, and ride off happy. If it starts to feel sweat-soaked, swap the ends -- the one flapping around outside your helmet is probably dry. Slightly cooler weather? Double it back on itself and pull it down far enough to cover your ears. Either way, it's thin enough to fit under a helmet without even adjusting the straps. Oh, and just in case you need a snazzy cravat for a post-ride cocktail party, pull it down around  your neck and schmooze away, Mr. Fancy-Pants!

I should have some downsides here to give a veneer of critical balance, but I got nuthin. The Buff has one fairly simple job to do and does it well. I would say that it makes me look like a dork, but it's not really fair to blame the Buff for that particular pre-existing condition.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

The 12 6 Days of Festivus, Part 1

The biggest complaint I get this time of year from my non-bikey friends and relations when we hold the Airing of Grievances is that they don't know what a bike geek (like yours truly) would possibly want under the Festivus Pole. Seeing as how I only review stuff on this blog that I already own and use, I can't really help my friends and relations, but maybe I can do yours a favor. Thus begins my first Generic Nondenominational Holiday Cyclist Gift-Giving Guide! (And note that, as usual, if a link kicks you over to Amazon and you make a purchase, my beak gets ever-so-slightly wet, so thanks.) On the upside, my tastes are cheap (unlike Oprah), so my list of favorite things tends to run somewhat frugal.

You may not know it from the bug-eyed glasses and bizarre outfits, but most cyclists are human. And as humans, we're mostly water, so hydration is a big concern. Assuming your cyclist isn't one of those "bladder on the back" types, there's no better water bottle than a Kleen Kanteen. Most bike-types go with the 27 ounce size, but I recommend the 18 ounce -- it's a little smaller than a regular water bottle, but it's also the size most likely to fit a bog-standard water bottle cage. I'd also go with the plain stainless just because I don't know how well the painted finishes will hold up against said bottle cages. And no matter which size you choose, the Sport Cap is the way to go, since it's the only one that's "drink on the fly" compatible.

Now I can already hear the howls of protest: "You said these gifts were CHEAP! That's a 17 dollar water bottle, for Pete's sake!" Okay, okay, okay, guilty. But amortize it. Your basic plastic water bottle is what, four or five bucks? Use it for a few months, run it through the dishwasher a couple times, and I'm guessing you have a leaky, bashed-up hunk of recycling bin fodder. Do the same to a Kleen Kanteen and it will just say, "Is that all you got?" I bought my first KK four years ago and finally had to replace it this season after I accidentally dropped it off the bike onto concrete at 20 miles per hour... and it only picked up the tiniest pinhole dribble-leak from that incident.

Some minor quibbles about the Kleen Kanteen, lest I be accused of a one-sided review. First, since it's steel, good luck squeezing it to spray water over your head on a hot day (unless you have superhuman strength thanks to a regimen of -- ahem -- "supplements" that are banned by the UCI). Second, as the water comes out, air needs to go in -- a feat accomplished by a small valve in the top that sounds like an obscene phone call from a porpoise. And finally, a steel bottle on a hot day sweats more than... well, more than a fat bike blogger on a hot day.

(Oh, and my word-nerd quibble... Kleen Kanteen with two Ks? What is this, my hometown greasy spoon, the Kountry Kitchen? And the double-E in Kleen? I know, I know, cutesy branding is memorable branding, but it still makes my head hurt. Luckily, the logos wear off.)

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Been There, Done That, Buying The T-Shirt

I've touted the shirts from local shop Raygun before in one of my many "much love for Des Moines" posts, and now they've finally come out with one just for cyclists. 

Dang, now I think I gotta have one. So polite. So Midwestern. "Please don't run me over." Reprinted in mirror-image on the front in case the person happens to be running you over in reverse. 

If they'd just print that sucker in reflective ink, it would be PERFECT.

Friday, December 10, 2010

Bike-Shaped Objects: The Court Jester Has No Clothes

Pal Scott of fivetoedsloth has already beaten me to the punch regarding Ikea's bike-shaped object (BSO) giveaway (drat, I'm slower than a sloth!), but those bikes have me thinking.

First, I come to bury the BSO, not to praise it. As a bike person, I find these things pretty darn abhorrent, and what I've seen of Ikea's example is no different:


Just off the top of my head, I see two tons of one-piece crank, plastic pedals, a bizarrely over-designed frame (sorry, what was wrong with the double-diamond again?) and some pretty cheap parts. On the bright side, it doesn't have any cheap suspension to fail, so at least one tiny neuron in my Luddite brain is flashing out a happy signal. I certainly won't be wasting any of my precious garage space on one.

But, bike elitists of the world, let's take a good look at ourselves and our obsessions for a second. When you think about recreational pursuits other than biking (assuming you do), are the same ridiculously high standards applied?

I'll flay myself as an example. Every once in a great while, all common sense leaves my mind and I decide that maybe I should give running a chance. I know darn well that, like a bran muffin, this urge is going to pass (and like the bran muffin, the results won't smell so great). So do I go to the highly-touted local running shop Fitness Sports and get fitted for some high-quality (and pricy) pavement-pounders by a member of their experienced staff? Uh, no. I go to a generic big-box sporting goods store and buy the shoe equivalent of a Huffy. Now, the real runners out there will probably use the same arguments on me that I use on big-box bikers: The lousy shoes are contributing to the lousy experience, thus if I were to graduate up to real shoes, I might become (shudder) an enthusiastic runner. Still, knowing myself, I know the odds on that outcome versus "expensive shoes collect dust in closet", so I stick with my cheapies.

Example two in the self-flaying: Racquetball. Before I broke my leg and got even slower afoot (which didn't seem possible), I was a quasi-avid chaser of the small ball in the enclosed room. I have a darn fine racquet from an actual racquet store, but only because said store was a former employer (they sold bikes in the back), I could play a lot of high-end demo racquets for free, and I got employee pricing on the one I finally bought. But if I look at myself honestly, that racquet was a silly indulgence. My game was so lousy to begin with, I was never going to make those strings really sing. I could have walked into that same big-box sporting goods store, picked up the Magna of racquets, and got just as much enjoyment out of chasing the ball with it. 

Shoot... I started out ready to bury the Ikea bike, but now I think I might be defending the ugly bugger. After all, for most normal people (i.e., not me) the joy of bikes is turning the cranks (even if they're heavy one-piece junk) and feeling the wind on your face -- the rest is just navel-gazing and lug-licking. If the Ikea bike can give someone that rush, then more power to it.

Monday, December 6, 2010

The Cycle Is All Growed Up

That's a real, honest to gosh paid advertisement over there on the right. I know, big whoop, I have an ad. But it's more than that -- it's the first time in my life that I've been paid to write quasi-creatively. So, thanks to the good folks at, purveyors of wheeled, snowy and schleppy holidays, for their support of li'l ol' me and my prattle. 

More importantly, you may have noticed that The Cycle got a bit of a makeover last weekend. The new header and overall design tweakage is all thanks to Carla, Senior Art Director and All-Around Swell Spouse. Let us all heap our praise upon her... but don't mention the paid ad or she'll start expecting a salary. 

(Boring technology sidenote: A couple readers have reported a wacky post-redesign scroll-wheel glitch with Internet Exploder 7. I do too much cross-browser testing in my real job to pay it a ton of heed here, but if you see the problem and drop me a comment with OS/browser information, I'll see what I can do. I can report that we test okie-dokie on Exploder 8, Safari, and a couple different flavors of Firefox.)

Saturday, December 4, 2010

Weight Weenieism, Charlie Cunningham-Style

A sickness has befallen our intrepid staff here at The Cycle, so I'm lazy-blogging today. Instead of writing something (attempting to be) cool myself, I'll point my loyal reader(s) to this post about a nifty Charlie Cunningham-modifed bike on the Black Mountain Cycles shop blog. I know absolutely ZERO about this shop (a friend pointed me to the link) but based on what I've read, they're on my must-visit-someday list.

Since I weigh approximately 1.0 Mag (where Mag is a unit of measure equal to the weight of notably large, bald and Swedish retired pro cyclist Magnus Backstedt), weight weenieism isn't really my thing. However, my obsession with retro mountain bikes makes me a major fanboy for all things Charlie Cunningham. The bike in question is a Cunningham-modified road bike, but it shows the genius-bordering-on-madness approach he brings to all things bikes. Who would graft a Campy downtube shifter into the end of the handlebar instead of just using a Campy bar-end, machine a cable stop on the lower headlug, run the bare cable straight from there (through another machined cable guide on the seat tube) back to the rear derailleur? Charlie Cunningham, that's who.

Some of the mods look a little homemade (since they are), but I find a lot of weird charm in that. It shows me a mind at work, and a set of hands turning that mind's ideas into metal. The simple (and probably quite light) chainguide even has my mental gears turning, wondering if I can craft something similar from hardware store bits for my own single-ring bikes. Yes, I could just order up the store-bought Pauls version, but where's the fun in that?

For other Charlie Cunningham fans (or those who haven't discovered him yet but want to), check out the extensive interviews in Bicycle Quarterly volume 8, number 1 and Rivendell Reader #27 (Summer 2002).

Minor disclaimer: Your humble narrator also shares blogspace with Charlie Cunningham's wife Jacquie Phelan (a.k.a. Alice B. Toeclips), an early mountain bike legend in her own right, over at Veloquent. i don't get any benefit from plugging these folks, though, other than the giddy fanboy happiness I get from writing alongside the esteemed Ms. Toeclips.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Fall Down Go Boom

Just caught an article in The New York Times (yeah, an Iowan who reads stuff in The Times... and I usually read it via the iPhone app just to lock down my status as a left-leaning, latte-sipping, over-educated snobista) called "Fell Off My Bike, and Vowed Never to Get Back On".

Maybe this proves just how sick I am, but I'm having a hard time wrapping my brain around the argument. One accident and people decide to stop riding? Huh?

I see the point that riding injuries are usually random and traumatic. Thanks to well-chosen saddles, bars, pedals and shoes, I've managed to avoid the sort of long-term repetitive stress-type injuries that seem to plague runners (in my case, running also causes emotional scars, but let's not go there). When you get hurt biking, it's usually because a) you hit something (a tree, a wall, the ground, a wayward cow) or b) something hit you (a car, another rider, a meteorite, a wayward cow). Those hits feel like the ultimate expression of entropy, forces of chaos beyond your control that slap you upside the head with a quick mortality reminder.

Still, in the two times (frantically knocking wood to keep that number low) I've suffered what I consider a major crash injury, the thought of choosing to never ride again never passed through my brain-space. The first big bang was in grad school... I was taking advantage of an unseasonably warm winter day, overcooked a corner, hit some wet leaves, and the next thing I knew, I was spitting two front teeth into the weeds. The result was a face full of (temporary) scrapes and two (permanent) fake teeth. Yet even as I bled, I contemplated whether or not the bike was in good enough condition to get me to the emergency room.

The second big smack was a bit more serious... overcooked corner (see a trend?), hit a patch of slimy mud, and all of a sudden, I'm on the trail with one leg turned 90 degrees in a direction it was never designed to go. The result? A titanium-reinforced femur, a long recovery, and a pretty bitchin' scar. There were plenty of moments during that long recovery that I wondered if I would ever be able to ride again, but I can't recall one time where I thought, "Dang, this stuff is dangerous. I should give it up." Instead, my thoughts turned to just how I was going to accommodate my injury and keep going. Mixte frame so I could get my bum leg over? Recumbent? Even when I couldn't walk, I told myself that I was going to get back up on that horse somehow.

I won't pretend that these crashes didn't change my riding style... I'm a little more alert, a little more cautious, and I corner like a grandmother on a tricycle. And maybe the fact that both my smackdowns were more-or-less self-inflicted has something to do with my stubborn persistence -- it was my stupidity, not a random or hostile driver running me down. Still, as long as modern medicine can keep fitting me with aftermarket parts, I can't see myself getting off the bike willingly.

Besides, a few more years of this, and I might be totally bionic! (insert Six Million Dollar Man sound effect...)

Sunday, November 28, 2010

The Adjustable Wrench Incident: A Defense, Of Sorts

I'm feeling the scorn from afar after admitting to a "rag on a wrench" repair in my last post. Don't deny it! You're scorning me! You think I can't sense that? 

Here's the story: I crashed and broke my leg a few years ago. Serious wishbone-style split up most of the length of my right femur. Surgically fixed with a titanium rod, long recovery, the works. Ouch, right? The bike fared much better, with only some mangled handlebar tape, a paint scrape, and a bent derailleur hanger to show for it.

But here's the problem: I'm more than a little OCD. The thought of that bike sitting in the garage with a bent derailleur hanger while I laid around in bed got on my nerves. Maybe (armchair psychology) I needed to fix it since I couldn't fix myself. Or maybe I'm just a freak. Either way, once I was up on crutches, that stinking derailleur hanger became my mental White Whale. 

So one night, with my better half (and dedicated caregiver) out of the house for a rare night of not-dealing-with-a-whiny-200-pound-baby fun, I propped myself up and made my way gingerly to the garage. I have no idea how I got the bike off the hooks and up on the workstand, though I'm sure it was ugly. Took off the rear derailleur, wrapped a rag around the hanger, snugged the adjustable wrench over that, and gave a bit of gentle cold-setting -- that's mechanic talk for "I bent it." With no real gauge, I just eyeballed off the dropout and cogs and trusted the floating pulley in my derailleur to make up for the lack of laser-like precision.

At some point in the process, I remember then-neighbor Steve F. sticking his head out his back door, taking one look, and saying, "You're sick!" He was right, but the bike has shifted great ever since, and I slept very well that night. Of course, I was on Vicodin at the time...

Required disclaimer: We're talking about a STEEL bike with a STEEL derailleur hanger here. Steel is a remarkably forgiving material in this situation (though I still wouldn't bend it back and forth a lot). If you have an aluminum hanger, you should hope that it's one of those replaceable bolt-on jobs (though -- whispering -- I've "cold-set" those in my day too). If you have a titanium or carbon hanger, shoot, I don't know what to tell you, other than "if you can afford those, you can afford the right tool for the job and/or a trained professional to use it."

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Flip-Flops On Shops

The comments of virtual pal bikelovejones (of the eponymous blog) on my last post got me thinking, as usual. I've visited the shop where BLJ turns a wrench, and if it weren't in a different time zone, it would be my bike shop. Sadly, until they open a Citybikes Way-East, I'm out of luck.

Still, even if you can fix your own stuff and you aren't riding the latest carbon fiber zillion-speed, there are plenty of good reasons to cross the threshold of the local bike shop. Here are mine, in no particular order: 

SOME FIXES ARE BEYOND MERE HOME-WRENCHING MORTALS: I don't have bottom bracket taps. There, I said it. Nor do I have dropout alignment tools. Derailleur hanger alignment tool? Um, does an adjustable wrench with a rag over the jaws (guilty) count? I don't have a headset cup press. Would I like one? Sure. But a $150 tool (because I'm way too snobby for the $70 "home mechanic" model, much less the homebrewed "five bucks at the hardware store" variety) that I'll use once every other year just doesn't make sense. So on the rare occasion that I need more tool than I've got in my personal stash, sure, I'll hand my baby over to the folks who have the correct widgets (though I'm still annoyed at the shop monkey who once mangled the cups on my otherwise perfectly good Dura Ace headset...) 

I CAN'T BUILD WHEELS: Jeez, it's Lame Ex-Mechanic Confessional Night here at The Cycle. Okay, I've read the late, great Sheldon Brown. I've even read The Bible According To Jobst "I'm Much, Much Smarter Than You" Brandt. And with the help of my friend/ex-boss Bill (an outstanding wheelbuilder), I've laced up a few hoops in my day and done fine. Still, I've never had to build with enough frequency that I'd consider myself even average. Being a snob (again) and somewhat paranoid about the mechanical condition of my stuff, that's not good enough -- so I put the spoke wrench down and let the pros lace up my rolling stock when it has to be built from scratch. 

I HAVE WEIRD FEET AND A WEIRD HEAD: Okay, let's not turn this into THAT kind of blog. Suffice to say, mail order shoes or helmets would have to be crazy-arse-cheap before I'd even consider taking the risk (my current mail-order-catalog-house-brand wide shoes being the notable exception that proves the rule). And folks, trying on a pair of shoes or a helmet at the shop just to get the size so you can order them online? Way lame. May karma smite you with a recurring flat. 

SHIPPING SUNDRIES IS SILLY: Bar tape. Brake cables. Lube and other cycle-unguents. Tubes, for Pete's sake (though I'll continue to make an exception for brake pads, at least until someone local comes to their senses and stocks a lot of Kool Stop). Maybe I'll throw some rim tape on top of an online order just to get over a free shipping hump, but bypassing a shop for this kind of thing on a regular basis makes no sense. How much can you really save on a $3 cable, anyway? And unless the pricing models have changed since I was a shop lackey, the shop makes the best markup on these dinky little things too, so you're helping them out at the same time. 

NEW BIKE STUFF IS JUST COOL: Wow, yet another confession from the retro-grouch on the steel bike heavy enough to have its own gravitational field. But yes, I like fondling the carbon fiber zillion-speeds. I won't ever subject one to my carbon-splintering girth, but who doesn't love the "gee whiz" factor of a bike you can pick up with your pinkie? In my shop days, I used to show those bikes to EVERYONE (even the "just looking" crowd) so I could share that "I KNOW! RIGHT?" moment when they almost tossed the bike in the air expecting it to be heavier. Awesome.

So, there you have it, bikelovejones and my other loyal reader(s). Even the worst bike shop (and there are some pretty lame ones out there) still gets a little pre-Thanksgiving love from the Head Turkey here at The Cycle.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

The Bike Shop And The Bell Curve

The travesty of my last post is finally fixed -- a shiny new bar-end shifter now graces the right end of my bars. On a 1x8 setup, the slight asymmetry is admittedly a little weird, but it sure beats that Dremeled debacle I was sporting before. Plus, there's just nothing quite like the snick-snick-snick of an upper-tier Shimano index shifter/derailleur combo hooked up with a new, lubed cable. Heaven.

The process of acquiring this shifter has me thinking about the state of bike shops today, though. I wanted to buy the thing locally just to make my life easier: drive to the shop, pick it up, slap it on and go. Problem is, 8-speeds (and bar-end shifters, for that matter) are all but defunct on new-from-the-box bikes... and the bread-and-butter of most local shops seems to be new-from-the-box bikes and the stuff to make them go. There just isn't a compelling reason to waste inventory on stuff that the "cutting edge today, obsolete next week" bike industry has cast aside.

I called and/or stopped in to a few of the closest locals, but no luck. To their credit, they all offered to order the shifters, but having been in the business, I know that we're in the off-season, which means that the orders don't actually get called in to the distributor until the shop accumulates enough backlog to make it worthwhile. If you're lucky, you get your part in a week, assuming the shop remembers to call you (yeah, I screwed that up a few times in my shop days) or hasn't lost the scrap of paper with your number on it (ditto). Plus, the price I was quoted was on the high end of the MSRP, probably reflecting the nuisance factor of a special order part in the off-season (and rightfully so, I should add).

I went home and did some browsing on this magic tube-based technology thing called The Internets (it's apparently new). I found my ridiculously archaic 8-speed shifters in a matter of seconds, placed my order, and had them in hand just over 24 hours later... for LESS than the shop special order would have cost, even taking into account the shipping costs. Bike shops, I love ya, but I don't know how you're going to compete with that.

So is the bike shop just reserved for the fat part of the bell curve these days? The shopper who just wants what's new and would rather junk an old bike than fix it? What becomes of the rest of us, the "shadow bike world" of retro-grouches, duct-tapers, and people who keep getting by on stuff from last season (or in my case, the last century)?

I guess I should be glad that we have this magic tube-interwebs thing, but every once in a while, I think (okay, whine) to myself, "Where's MY bike shop?"

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Winning Ugly

I'm not proud of this hack. In fact, I'm only documenting it here in the hopes that going public will shame me into never trying such a thing again.

The 12-year-old bar-end shifter on my main ride finally crapped out. Wouldn't shift worth a darn. And before the chorus of Rivendellian Luddites (Luggites?) chimes in with, "Just switch it to friction mode," that wasn't working either. Each shift wavered between pure indexing, pure friction, and some mutant hybrid of both. I couldn't find a gear to save my life. The thing had done its time and was telling me to let go.

Now, your average biker-guy will either a) use that as an excuse to buy a new bike, or b) purchase/order the correct replacement part and move on with life. I chose neither.

NO, because ordering the CORRECT replacement part is too EASY. Instead, I picked up a 3x8 set of RapidFire Plus shifters (because I'm still in the dark ages of 8-speed rear cassettes... pity me) from a bike shop clearance pile and figured, "I'll make THESE work instead!" Besides, they were so cheap, it was like buying the cables in the kit and getting the shifters for free. How could I go wrong?

Time to go into Sheldon Brown mode (may he ride in peace). Handlebars have a few different diameters. Your standard road bar is going to be 23.8mm diameter at the ends and either 25.4mm, 26.0mm or (heaven forfend) 31.8mm in the center. Your standard flat bar is going to be 22.2mm at the ends and 25.4mm or (again with the fatties?) 31.8mm in the center. So something designed for a flat bar (like, say, for instance, a RapidFire Plus shifter) will fit a 22.2mm diameter. And yet I left the store with every intention of jamming said 22.2mm diameter shifter onto a 23.8mm diameter road bar. In my defense, I was an English major.

My (soon to be proven faulty) hypothesis was that the clamp seemed to have enough material to do a bit of low-budget Dremel machine work, thus giving me the World's Only Drop-Bar Bike With RapidFire Plus (WODBBWRFP). So when I got home, I fired up said Dremel and set to work hogging out some aluminum. And it WORKED! Until I tried to tighten the now-23.8mm clamp over the 23.8mm bars and snapped it like the pop-can-thin aluminum that it was. Ugh. Good thing I got those cables in the kit, because this cheap shifter just became an expensive paperweight.

But, being unable to accept failure (and with the Dremel still warm), I had a bit of a break from reality. Next thing you know, most of the clamp had been "machined" away (along with the gear indicator), and I was digging through the parts boxes, cackling like a maniac. A few bolts, a rubber shim, and an old reflector bracket later, and voila!

Do not try this at home. No, really. 

That's right, baby. You're seeing the WODBBWRFP in its natural habitat! You can identify the beast by the following distinctive characteristics:
  • It's ugly as sin.
  • The shifter isn't particularly stable on the bars.
  • The guts of the shifter are probably doomed to premature failure since a major chunk of the dustcover had to be surgically removed.
  • Honestly, the shifter was pretty much crap to begin with since Shimano has knocked 8-speeds down into their lowest component castes*.
But dammit, the thing shifts for now. And can you say you've ever seen anything like it? Here, take in the glory of the WODBBWRFP from the front:

The horror... the horror...

Now, if you'll excuse me, I need to order some bar-end shifters. Fast.

*That would be Shimano Altus, which -- in a bizarre alternative universe where advertising couldn't lie -- would be marketed with one of the following slogans:
  • Altus: Disappointing Cheapskates On Mountain-Bike-Shaped Objects (MBSOs) Since the Early 90s.
  • Altus: Just Like Tourney, Except You Can't Buy It At Wal-Mart. 
  • Altus: If This Were A Road Group, It Would Just Get A Number Instead Of A Made-Up Name. 
  • Altus: Because Alivio Sounds Vaguely Dirty.

Sunday, October 31, 2010

Lights Out, Wax On

I've actually started to bore myself with all the light reviews, so I thought I'd move on to something even more dull-yet-contentious: chain maintenance. One of the older ways to clean and lube a chain is by dipping it in melted paraffin wax. Now, there's all sorts of back-and-forth in the Interwebs jabber-space about the effectiveness of wax as a lube, and I do not want to go too far down that path. I'm just presenting this as a "how to" in case anyone wants to give it a whirl and see if it works for them.

The first thing you need is a dirty chain and the mechanical aptitude to get it off your bike:

Next post: How to clean a filthy bike, apparently.

 Easy enough, right? You probably have one of those in your possession already, or else you would have moved on to another blog by now. Note that mine has a shiny SRAM Powerlink in it that lets me take the chain off by hand -- a nicety but not a necessity. Just get that chain off of there however you need to.

The next thing you'll need is a slow-cooker (more common branded moniker: Crock Pot) and some paraffin wax:
I'm melting! Melting... melting...  

I would strongly, strongly suggest that your cooker be 100% dedicated to chain maintenance and not (repeat, NOT) reused for foodstuffs. If the crust of dirty wax blobs on mine doesn't convince you of that, I'm not sure what will. You don't need a huge one -- 1 quart is plenty, and those tend to go on sale cheap around back-to-college time (I think I got mine for $10). They're also plentiful at thrift stores. If you research chain waxing (because if you've read this far, I suspect you're a big nerd like me), you'll hear all about double boilers, cans you melt on the stove, yadda yadda yadda. Don't bother. Why risk waxing your stove, setting your kitchen on fire, making a mess, or enraging someone who lives with you? Just get a cheap slow cooker and be done with it.

As for wax, I get mine at the local grocery store (in the canning section) for around $3 a pound. Not bad compared to the nutty prices those little 4 oz. bottles of magic chain goo cost at the bike shop, right? Paraffin is also available at beauty supply stores (apparently, people dunk their hands in it), but you pay a premium for the same stuff.

So, you have your pot, you have your wax, you have your dirty chain. You'll also want some stirring/grabbing gear -- I use an old spoke and a pair of Vice Grips that can be set to gingerly hold the chain without squeezing or marring it. You'll also want a bit of safety gear... at least little eye protection and a pair of work gloves. Call me cautious, but being scalded and/or blinded by hot wax isn't my idea of a good time.

Now, let's wax! Step 1, throw wax in pot as shown above. Step 2, turn pot on HIGH. Step 3, put chain in pot:
Chain chain chain, chain of fools...

I've let the wax get completely melted before dunking the chain, but it's not necessary to wait. I've also threaded my old spoke through the side plates and roller of one of the opened chain links (the spoke head won't pull through)  so it will be easier to fish the chain out later. Step 4 is to wait for the wax to melt and let the chain soak.

Exciting stuff, huh?

Having fun yet?

You can go stir it around with the spoke if you want.

Thrilling, I know.

Look at the bright side: You now have a new simile for boredom to go along with "like watching paint dry" and "like watching grass grow."

Okay, so once your wax is completely melted and covering the whole chain, leave it in there for a while to cook all the gunk out of the nooks and crannies. Stir every once in a while if you're the sort of person who feels like you need to participate. I usually leave mine in for 30 minutes to an hour.

Next, the delicate extraction operation. Got your gloves and eye protection on? Good.
The clock radio doesn't lie: Time stops while waxing. 

Carefully lift the chain out with a combination of your old spoke and some sort of mechanical grabbing device (pliers, tongs, whatever) letting the excess wax drip back into the pot (or if you're a slob like me, all over the sides of the pot and the workbench). Let it cool until you can just touch it without going "OW OW OW OW OW" and reinstall it on the bike. If you let it get really cool, the wax hardens and makes the chain tough to thread through the derailleur. Spin the cranks a few times, wipe off any excess drips/flakes with a rag, and you've done Mr. Miyagi proud:
You'd think someone could have cleaned the bike 
while waiting for the wax to melt... 

Turn off your pot and call it good. Once the wax re-hardens, you can pop it out of the pot and scrape the gunky layer off the bottom of the wax cake if you want. I find that it doesn't tend to re-deposit on subsequent waxings (you can use the same pot of wax again and again and again), so I don't usually bother. At some point, I intend to get fancy and add a mesh screen/basket to my pot so the chain isn't sitting in that settled gunk, but I haven't been that motivated yet.

Some notes on wax as a lubricant, since I'm sure I'll hear about it:
  • It's lousy in wet conditions. Washes off quick and provides no rust protection. I generally switch to something wetter (and dirtier, unfortunately) in the winter.
  • Your chain will probably get noiser faster. A couple hundred miles is when mine starts to sound bad. The wax still seems to be working, it's just not damping chain noise the way a gooey lube would.
  • There is nothing cleaner than a waxed chain. Nothing. I don't care what the magic chain goo salesmen tell you. A chain that's seen only wax can be grabbed bare-handed without leaving a mark. This is great for bikes that get thrown into cars or live inside apartments/houses, especially if those cars/apartments/houses don't belong to you.
And finally, a chain waxing haiku, just because I wanted to use the pun "waxing poetic":

Melted paraffin
swirls in waxy rivulets
cleansing my chain links. 

You're welcome.   :-)

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Lighting Up The Phone Lines

The flood of responses (both on-blog and off) to my last post would seem to indicate that a) more people read this thing than just my wife, and b) those people are more interested in bike lights than my wife is. So, I'll pander one more time at the risk of boring my better half. Sorry, honey!

Several people mentioned that either they don't have a Costco near them or their Costco doesn't have the light that received such high praise. I don't see it on the Costco website either, but a helpful reader from the Internet BOB list found what appears to be the same light with slightly different cosmetics. I can't say for sure if it's the same, and I can't vouch for the site, but there you have it. And, to sprinkle some link juice on that helpful reader, he's the brains behind the Bicycle Geometry Project, a database of road bike geometries over the years. Had a bike you loved and want to compare it to a different bike? The BGP might be able to help. Just want to geek out on bike geometries? The BGP can definitely help.

It seems like everyone has a favorite light, and as the suggestions rolled in, it dawned on me that I hadn't really put down my criteria for these tests before I started. So in no particular order, here's what I find important in a light:
  • Self-containment: I've done the "lamp on bars, long wire to separate battery pack the size of a cinderblock" thing. Not going back to that.
  • Replaceable batteries: No rechargeable battery lasts forever. When it's finally used up its charge cycles, I want to be able to buy a replacement at a regular old store and pop it in there without firing up the soldering iron.
  • Common battery size: This goes along with "regular old store" above. No weird cell sizes, please. If the corner convenience store doesn't have it, I don't want it in my light (a lesson I recently re-learned... more later).
  • As long as I'm griping about batteries, use an even number please: So many lights use three cells (usually AAAs). It's not a deal-breaker, but my charger holds four. Add in two for my tail light, and I have to run two cycles to get everything juiced up. It's why I keep trying to love the 2 AA-powered offerings from Planet Bike.
  • Less than $100... much less, if possible: The emitters in these things seem to be leapfrogging each other in output every few years. Unless you're going to offer me an LED upgrade at a reduced price (and I know some companies do), I don't want to drop large coin on almost certain obsolescence. Even my test lights have to be cheap since I'm buying them with my own bucks (though any manufacturer who wants to ship a megabuck, megalumen kit my way for a test is more than welcome).
  • Reliability: No connections that jiggle loose, switches that fail, mounting brackets that crack, seals that let in water and short-circuit the electronics, etc. A metal case  is preferred, since I ride in temps that aren't always plastic-friendly. Bottom line, I want to know that as long as I have juice, I have light.
  • Decent run time: I don't ride all night, and I don't intend to start. Just give me a few predictable days of commuting (2-3 hours of darkness) at full oomph and we'll do fine.
Having said all that, here's an update on the winner from my last post. With universe-defying casual hubris, I said, "The Achilles' heel on this may be run time... I haven't used it for enough consecutive days to know for sure." I can now say that yes, run time is something to be aware of with the Formerly Perfect 2 for $20 Light (FP2F20L) -- not a tragic flaw, mind you, just something to keep in mind. Yesterday morning, about 15 minutes into my commute, the low-battery light started flashing. "No worries," I thought. "I'll just switch to low power to save what I have left." About thirty seconds later, I was in total "who flipped the switch?" darkness. "No worries," I thought. "The moon is out, so I can still see the trail... the trail that suddenly feels very soft under my tires... I wonder why the surface would have changed like... OH CRAP! I'M NOT ON THE TRAIL! I'M IN THE VERY DARK WOODS! AND I KNOW THERE'S A CREEK AROUND HERE SOMEWHERE!"

I did manage to bring the vehicle to a stop without becoming an unintentional duathlete, and I was able to ride very gingerly to a convenience store just a couple blocks off the trail for some fresh AAAs (see "common battery size" above) -- and in the light's defense, those rechargeables had been running on high for just under two hours total when they gave out. Still, the "low battery light" that I was so happy to have? Not much of a feature, really. It would be like a low fuel light in your car that came on right when the engine started to sputter on fumes.

This little hiccup gave me pause, but it hasn't changed my overall assessment of the FP2F20L all that much. It still beats all challengers in my stash for brightness and beam pattern. It would be nice to get more time on a charge, and I'd rather run 2 AAs instead of 3 AAAs, but I'll manage... and not just because I don't want to futz with those hose clamps again.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

A Dark Horse In My Light Comparison

I forgot that I have one more small LED headlight kicking around my garage that wasn't included in the last test, so here's one more installment in the Great Lumen Shootout. After this one, I have to stop, since I'm boring my wife (a.k.a. 33-50% of my readership).

This isn't a bike-specific light; it's actually a Cree LED flashlight I got at Costco -- a store that turns me immediately into Navin Johnson of The Jerk: "And that's the only thing I need is this. I don't need this or this. Just this ashtray... and this paddle game. The ashtray and the paddle game and that's all I need... and this remote control. The ashtray, the paddle game, and the remote control, and that's all I need..."

Okay, where was I? Oh yeah, lights. So in a Navin-esque fit, I got a two-pack of these things at Costco (batteries included!) for something like twenty bucks. The cases are aluminum (unlike the plastic cases on most bike-specific lights), and the electronics provide two light levels plus a strobe. The button on the back of the case also doubles as a low-battery light, flashing red when power drops, a feature that none of my bike-specific LEDs share. Here are the low and high beams using the same test protocol as my last light showdown for quasi-consistency:

Low beam: Everybody's got a little light under the sun...

High beam: Under the sun... under the sun... under the sun

As you can see, we're still looking at a pretty focused spot beam, but the useful corona on this thing absolutely destroys even the high-setting 2w Planet Bike Blaze. See that "ring of Saturn" outside the main spot? That's at about the 1/3 point of the total diameter of the beam (which I couldn't capture because I couldn't back up far enough in our test lab without running into a wall), and while the perimeter obviously doesn't have the intensity of the inner blast, it's more than enough to light the sides of a trail, a tough corner, or an upcoming street sign.

Out on the commute, this light has come as close as anything I've seen in the self-contained, battery-powered LED space (short of some of Steve K's homebrewed retina-blasters) to a true "see and be seen" headlight. While the symmetrical, round beam probably wastes a lot of light, that LED/reflector combination is still putting out more than enough to ride my usual curvy trail at daylight speeds. At $20 for TWO of them (compared to $60 for one Planet Bike 2w Blaze), I am impressed bordering on stunned.

Of course, there are a couple downsides. First, it takes three AAA batteries. Ugh. Odd number, and a slightly less-ubiquitious size. Second is the big issue that all non-bike-specific lights share: How do you attach it to a bike? I started with a TwoFish flashlight holder but found that it let the light jiggle way too much on bumpy roads. The slighly-less-elegant-but-perfectly-functional solution? Two stainless steel hose clamps linked together at 90 degrees with some rubber shims for padding. One goes around the handlebar, the other goes around the headlight, and voila. Rock solid, albeit another bodged-together homage to my (ahem) "frugal" Mennonite heritage.

The Achilles' heel on this may be run time... I haven't used it for enough consecutive days to know for sure. I'll know soon enough, though, since the days keep getting shorter but don't seem to be getting all that much colder. 

THIS JUST IN: Don't miss my follow-up post where I learn the answer to that "run time" question (cue dramatic soap opera organ music...)

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Beam (Pattern) Me Up, Scotty

I got my warranty-replacement 2-watt Blaze headlight back from Planet Bike (the one mentioned in my previous quasi-aborted review), so with the days getting shorter, here's my take on all the Planet Bike LEDs in my collection. Note that while I have an embarrassing pile of stuff from Planet Bike, The Cycle has no connection to the PB folks -- I just happen to like their stuff most of the time.

First, let's address that warranty issue. The case on my original 2w Blaze didn't lock together very well, causing it to jiggle open on my bumpy commute. The replacement light? Same issue. I tried putting in a fatter rubber o-ring from the hardware store, no dice. So, in keeping with my Mennonite heritage (who separated from the Amish when they were told that duct tape was too flashy), I just ran a stripe of black electrical tape around the case:

It prevents the jiggle issue, probably seals the case against water a little better, covers the silver ring (giving the whole thing a stealthy Darth Vader-esque vibe), doesn't inhibit the button at all, and only provides a mild nuisance when swapping batteries. Problem solved.

On to the review! I know that the money shot for light fetishists (and you know who you are) is the "beam pattern in a dark room." So in the interest of science, I set up my 1/2-watt Blaze, my 1-watt Super Spot, and my 2-watt Blaze in the Lighting Test Lab (a.k.a. "a bathroom with the lights off") here at The Cycle World Headquarters and snapped the following photos using my phone-cam (since I'm not smart enough to turn off the flash on my real camera). All lights were sitting on the same spot on the counter aimed at the white plastic shower wall approx. 6' away, and all batteries were fresh Sanyo Eneloop rechargeables. I'm also not smart enough to do any Photoshoppery on these, so what you're seeing is raw from the camera.

Planet Bike 1/2-Watt Blaze

The half-watt is definitely a "be-seener." Very tight, round spot, not much spillover, and the tint is a little more bluish than the photo would indicate. It'll get you home in a pinch, but you can outrrun it without much effort.

Planet Bike 1-Watt SuperSpot

This is one of Planet Bike's older LEDs (based on one of their halogen models) and it shows in the beam -- lots of striped spill to the sides, definitely brighter spot (albeit more diffused) than the 1/2-watt Blaze, but probably still in the "be-seen" category. I've relied on one of these for years, though. I'm convinced the scatter is more likely to catch the attention of motorists coming at you from an angle. It runs on four AAs (instead of two for the Blaze series) which is sort of a nuisance. Weird quibble, I have no idea why this is called the "SuperSpot" when it has the least spot-like beam of all the PB lights I've tried. Planet Bike, I suggest you fire the copywriter (and hire me instead!)

Planet Bike 2-Watt Blaze, Low Setting

The 2-watt Blaze on low definitely outshines (literally!) the two lower-powered lights. We're back to the intense, round spot beam of the 1/2-watt Blaze, but it does spill over a little bit more (not to the extent of the SuperSpot, though).

 Planet Bike 2-Watt Blaze, High Setting

The difference between the 2-watt on low versus high is pretty subtle -- same beam (obviously), and it does kick up the lumens a notch, but if you're outrunning the low setting, the high isn't going to make much difference.

In general, I think the battery-powered "be-seen" LED lights are advancing nicely, but they're still not up to the task of fast, curvy trails in the dark -- not that many lights are. It's a tough balancing act with all of these to aim them in such a way that you get a good beam spread at the right distance in front of your wheel without shooting a lot of lumens up into space. One trick is to mount them low on a fork blade (tips on that in a later post). I'll leave it to smarter folks (Steve K?) to explain why this helps. I just know that in my experience, the low lights provide better contrast for my lousy eyes.

By the way, Planet Bike also has a light comparison tool on their site, although it doesn't include the (presumably discontinued) 1-watt SuperSpot or a high-versus-low on the 2-watt Blaze. Their shot of the 1/2-watt Blaze looks more true- and blue-to-life than my bathroom wall photo, though.

So there you have it. Feeling enlightened?