Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Prehistoric Garmin?

With all the talk of cycle computers (or as my Pennsylvania pal Kenny used to call them, "confusers") in my last post, I did some digging through my old (er, "classic, vintage") files and found this image from my (now long-forgotten) Blast From the Past series, scanned from the 1984 premier issue of Cyclist magazine.
Now THAT is some high-tech stuff. I'll bet it can tell you your current speed, your trip distance, AND the current time, all in a package the size of a freebie-giveaway-with-contract smartphone.

Actually, this thing was probably a huge step forward from the cable-driven spoke-pinger speedometers of its time. As much as I disliked those, I wish I still had the one from my grandparents' 1967 tandem with its labelmaker-applied fifth digit added by my grandfather to indicate first 10,000 miles, then 20,000. Pretty impressive.

Kids, those are BRAKE cables in the photo, not badly-routed STI shift cables. Ask your grandparents about brake cables that didn't run under the bar tape. Not sure what to say about that helmet. Maybe he's on his way to a hockey game?

I do get warm fuzzies from the sight of those Spenco gloves, though. My late-dad LOVED that exact model with the crocheted back and the red/black/blue stripes. When they were discontinued, he rode his last pair until the palms split and the gel-snot squished out. Oh, man, it looks like they're available again (though not in that color). Now I feel like I need to get a pair just for nostalgia's sake.

Monday, December 26, 2011

Reflections On Ought-Eleven

First, let's get this out of the way: My mileage sucked. Like, to the point that I won't even admit the total in public. I can explain away some of that with the fact that I did lots of my commute (and therefore immediately post-work) miles on the folding bike that never quite seemed to get a cyclometer, and tandem miles were practically nil due to my stoker's knee injury, but even a generous estimate of those lost miles leaves me with a number that's hardly worth recording.

So with ought-twelve fast approaching, I find myself in a bit of a pickle. I've always been a compulsive mileage journaler, so much so that I've been spotted riding around the block to "top off" a ride that happened to end at something-point-nine miles. Sad, right? My thinking is that maybe it's time to break myself of that habit. Maybe it isn't healthy/necessary to measure the value of a year by the digits in a tiny journal. Maybe it's time to force myself to stop caring about the "how far?" and start focusing on the "how good?"

I'll still leave cyclometers on all the bikes (and might even finally get around to adding one to the folder), but those will be for tracking maintenance intervals and daily accomplishments, not accumulating incremental miles toward some arbitrary year-end goal. I don't know if that's going to result in more or less riding. I just hope that it will result in happier riding, riding that's focused on the ride rather than a tiny LCD screen. 

Friday, December 23, 2011

The Un-Bustable Bottle

If I plug Kleen Kanteens one more time, I'll probably get called out as a shill. Honestly, I buy these things with my own money, and I get no kickbacks from the Great Stainless Steel Water Bottle Cabal. I just find this product dang impressive.

To whit: This is an almost six-year-old Kleen Kanteen that goes back and forth to work with me each day. It's been through the dishwasher more times than I can count. I've dropped it off the bike several times. And just last week, it got away from me on a flight of concrete stairs, bounced/rolled its way down about a dozen steps, and came away with just these cute little dimples (and nary a leak) to show for it:
Crazy. I would photograph one of my six-year-old plastic water bottles for comparison, but those generally last a year before I have to condemn them to the recycling bin. 

Here's the cap of that same bottle. I can't say precisely how old it is since I swap the caps around my collection, but based on the fact that it's the older pre-carabiner-loop style, I'm going to say it has to be at least four years old.
There's a little scuffing on the lip (probably from that encounter with the concrete stairs), but other than that cosmetic damage, it works like new. No leaks, no cracking, no nothing.

Kleen Kanteens aren't perfect (they rattle in a bottle cage, the unsqueeze-ability can make drinking more of a challenge, and the pressure release valve sounds like an amorous porpoise), but as water bottles go, the value proposition can't be beat. If you're frantically searching for a last-minute Festivus gift for that bike geek on your list, you could do a lot worse.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

STI: Shifting My Own Paradigm

Forgive me for that post title. I'm a recovering graduate student.

The funny thing about my new bike is that if you look past the steel frame/fork, the retro paint job, and the Brooks saddle, it's actually the most modern bike I've owned in this century. For instance, it has the weird elephant-proboscis Shimano two-piece crank on an oversized hollow spindle where all my prior rides sported traditional crankarms on traditional square-taper spindles. Can I honestly say that I feel the dramatic leaping-forward burst of efficiency that this (reportedly) stiffer setup claims to provide? Uh, no. But of course, I have the horsepower of two heavily-sedated gerbils, so maybe I'm just not using the stuff to its potential.

Where I do notice a difference, however, is in the cockpit. This is my first STI-equipped bike ever (I dabbled in integrated road shifting in the 90s, but I was a Campy Ergo snob back then). Bear in mind that I only have about 50 miles on the stuff so far (which, for the record, is 9-speed Tiagra), but with that caveat, here are a few first impressions:
  • Dang, that is some light shifting action. With winter gloves on, I can hardly feel the clicks. So far, this is neither good nor bad, just a big change from the extremely tactile CLICK! CLICK! CLICK! of my previous 8-speed bar end shifters.
  • It's going to take me a while to warm up to the overall bulbosity of the lever bodies (and the big loops of exposed cable housing) from an aesthetic standpoint, but gosh, those chubby things do feel good under my hands.
  • Optical gear displays? Really? Pardon my snobbishness, but is this really need-to know information? The front shifter (a double) is on one of two rings, and it's right down there between my feet. Sure, the rear has nine choices, but chains in 2011 can pretty much run across all of them regardless of chainring choice. I guess I should be glad that they're now integrated into the lever rather than a blob grafted into the cable run.
  • Regarding that front shifter, I'm finding that a shift from the small ring to the big is usually a two-step affair... jam it all the way up, then tap the downshift to back off to the "trim" position. Sort of annoying but not awful. It does make me wish that Shimano would abandon front indexing once and for all, though -- a friction front STI would be heavenly.
  • I do, however, applaud Shimano for including easy-to-use reach adjusters with the levers, though (and I applaud the guys at Skunk River Cycles for recognizing that someone might want them included with their owner's manual instead of just tossing them out). These custom-fit rubbery shims pop into the space where the lever opens, making its "resting" position slightly closer to the bar -- a very simple, easy to use solution. I haven't tried them yet, but I plan to, having inherited my father's stumpy fingers.
Now, before my retro-Luddite buds (who -- almost to a person -- suggested that I swap these abominations out for downtube shifters immediately) move away from me on the Group W bench, I will say that I have some reservations about running a very complicated shifter that should probably come with a "no user serviceable parts inside" sticker. Still, retro pals, let's take an honest, objective look at STI for a second. It's been around for what, over 20 years now? It's been in some of the toughest professional races in the world (tended by professional mechanics, yes, but still). Even more compelling, it's trickled down to the ranks of amateur bike-abusers, cross-country tourists, RAGBRAI yahoos, you name it... yet I don't see the warranty boxes overflowing at the LBS.

I may just be justifying my purchase (guilty), and I may sing a different tune the day these things fail me in the middle of nowhere. But for now, I'm trying my darndedest to keep an open mind. We'll see when the mileage tally on these goes from 50 to 500... or 5,000.

Monday, December 19, 2011

My First Brooks: The Early Rides

During the recent fleet upheaval in our vast testing laboratory here at The Cycle, I found myself the new owner of my very first Brooks leather saddle (a vintage Belt leather saddle once passed through here briefly, but I didn't ride the thing long enough to form an opinion.) Now, those who know my Luddite retro-dork tendencies may find this to be a bit of a shock -- a Brooks seems so weirdly archaic that it's almost inconceivable that I've yet to try one. But there you have it. 

The new Raleigh, however, came box stock with a Brooks Swift. Being too lazy to go down to the testing laboratory and photograph it, I'll just plonk in some Spamazon:

Now, being a Luddite retro-dork, I tend to hang with more of the same, so I've heard (ad nauseum) tales of Brooks woe/joy for years. Thus, I carried all sorts of baggage into my first Brooks encounter... break-in times, proper saddle care unguents, setup techniques with spirit levels and protractors and whatnot, raincovers, blabbity blabbity blab. However, I decided to be contrary to even my contrarian pals. I brought the bike home, adjusted the saddle like I would adjust any saddle (it's shaped very much like several of my preferred non-leather saddles, so no big whoop there), eschewed the unguents, and just rode the darn thing.

The verdict after about 50 miles? Uh, folks, it's just a bike saddle. Not an ass-hatchet, and certainly not worthy of the almost pornographic pleasure-descriptions some folks use when discussing their beloved hunk of hide. As I described it on another one of those social mediums I haunt, while my butt and the saddle have begun negotiations, we're a long way from lasting peace in the region.

I fully intend to continue riding the hide to see if it does that magical conforming to the fingerprint-specific contours of my rump that Brooks-folks go on about, and I'll probably apply some of the magic Brooks juice from the little tin (since the bike shop convinced me I needed it, and what else am I going to do with it?) But unless I start feeling that joyous "you'll pry this saddle from my cold, dead cheeks" sensation (which would almost justify the boat-anchor girth... of the SADDLE, not my cheeks), I might dig out one of my tried-and-true "modern" saddles and sell the Brooks to an unsuspecting hipster.

Friday, December 9, 2011

Hey Mikey! He Likes It!

Just realized that in two posts, I've used up my monthly quota of exclamation points in titles. Bummer.

As the resident bike geek amongst the people who tolerate my non-virtual presence, I often volunteer to make sad bikes (and consequently, sad bikers) happier. The latest such project comes from Pal Mike of the Epic Beard. Mike's a former corporate drone who just up and decided to hop off the treadmill, go back to school, and become a teacher. And he likes to ride this to work:
 I only have "after" photos, so pretend it looks worse than this.

That right there is (I'm guessing) a mid-90s Trek 720, photographed (as required by Bike Photographer Law) in front of the garage door here at The Cycle World Headquarters. When it reached my door, it was suffering a host of maladies:
  • One almost-entirely-exploded Grip Shift -- which, if you remember 90s Grip Shift, wasn't exactly precision equipment in the first place.
  • Half its drivetrain (i.e., front derailleur and the second Grip Shift) missing.
  • One of those Shimano cranksets with the riveted/press-fit rings -- and the rivet/press-fit was failing, leading to some pretty wacky chainring wobble.
  • Wheels that hadn't seen trueness since the late-grunge era.
  • Brakes that, well, didn't.
  • General bearing sadness all around.

Underneath all that, though, is a pretty darn nice frame: U.S.-made, chromoly, brazeons all over, good tire clearance, not terribly heavy, and a fairly springy ride. If I didn't know that the 520 tourers of that era had level top tubes, I'd think they shared a frame -- the details look that good. It just got junked down with some of the low-end parts of the MTB Boom era, parts that probably did fine for a few years but couldn't hang for the long haul.

First up, I tried to see what I could do with a little simple tuning -- no major surgery. Once the hubs and headset were properly adjusted, they felt pretty good. The wheels trued up surprisingly well. The brakes were cheap low-profile cantilvers which -- unless I went all Sheldon on them -- were never going to be great. I did the best I could, put on some fresh pads, and called it good. The exploded Grip Shift, while quite awful, was still making a valiant effort to move the chain thanks to some carefully applied electrical tape (I didn't do it, but it did my Mennonite heritage proud to see it). In short, it rode.

At that point, I consulted with Mighty Mike, and we decided that a little drivetrain work could make a big difference. He'd been riding on one chainring for years and it didn't bother him, so we stuck with that. I chucked the lousy crankset, swapped in a single-ringer from my stash, ordered a fresh right-side shifter, cassette, and chain, and tah-dah!
I liked it, so I put a ring on it.

A bike from the 90s gets one of those trendy new 1xn drivetrains all the cyclocrossers are raving about. For the gear geeks, that's a 40-tooth BMX chainring driving a 7-speed 11-28 cassette... a range of 38"-98" on Mike's 700x32s. Good spread for an urban runabout. (Confession: I just happened to have the 40-tooth ring, so it isn't like I planned this.)

Oh, and a word on those tires: At some previous tuneup (perhaps with Electrical Tape Guy?), Mike's Bike had picked up a set of Serfas Tuono 700x32 slicks. Not a particularly fancy/expensive tire, but I was duly impressed during my (admittedly short and nowhere near scientific) test rides. They have some kind of puncture-resistant belt (which is supposedly the kiss of death when it comes to ride quality), but I found them plenty lively. They looked pretty true to size too, which could make the 700x38 a real sleeper hit amongst the go-fast tourist crowd.

So there you go, Mike. Hope it brings a smile to your beard.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Scandal! Fleet Shakeup At The Cycle World Headquarters!

I recently let on (in an actual quasi-public forum, i.e. one that -- unlike this one -- has more than four regular readers) that I was selling a bike. And not just any bike: My beloved, much-raved-about Bruce Gordon, which has graced the test fleet here at The Cycle for a solid decade.

The response was a strange mix of endearing and disturbing. It was like I'd started giving away all my worldly possessions. So, for the dear friends who now have me on Cyclist Suicide Watch, I thought it best to lay out the what-and-why of that decision here.

First, the what: The Bruce has moved on to a new and (I hope) happy home, and has been replaced by a 2011 Raleigh Clubman that looks a little something like this here:

(Thanks to the guys at Skunk River Cycles for hooking me up -- and no, they didn't give me a deal in exchange for the plug. They just earned it by doing a good job. But that's another post.)

So why, given my incessant, lovestruck ramblings about ol' Bruce, did I cast it out into the cold and take in this shiny green interloper? Well, first, I was just flat-out smitten with the thing. Classic British Racing Green? Check. All silver parts? Check. Painted-to-match fenders? Check. Swanky leather (and faux leather) accents? Check. Weird (some would say discordant, but po-tay-to/po-tah-to) mix of classic aesthetic touches with modernity (sloping top tube, threadless steerer) that for inexplicable reasons appeals to me in a big, bad way? Check. Oh, and did I mention my obsession with sidepull brakes and their lack of sticking-out bits and cable hanger doo-dads? (some would call it a fetish, but let's not go there...)

So okay, the not-entirely-rational part of the new bike bug bit hard. But did it make sense? Well, in the last decade or so of my adult cycling life, my non-tandem riding has broken down into two simple categories: Pootling around town and going on long pavement-only country jaunts. The Gordon was meant to be the One Bike to Rule Them All, filling both duties, and it did so admirably. But c'mon... me? One bike? So along comes a motley cast of who-knows-how-many, all vying for some other niche of do-it-all-ness, all overlapping in one way or another. At night, I could hear them out there, arguing in the garage over who got to go to work with me the next day. It was sad.

My answer (at least for now -- with apologies to my wife, who probably just did a spit take) was to pick two very distinct specialists. Not specialized to the point of being utterly useless outside one very distinct discipline. Just two bikes tailored specifically to the two types of riding I do 99.9999% of the time. 'Round town riding in normal shoes? Grab the folding bike. Pretending to be fast? Strap on the shiny silver click-in shoes and grab the green machine. Now if I happen to get a wild hair to head off down the road after work, the folder will do that just fine. Or if I see an interesting stretch of gravel while I'm pretend-pacelining the Raleigh, I can swing it (carefully) on 700x28s and still have fender clearance to keep the sandstone schmutz off my bum.

Okay, my navel feels sufficiently gazed, and my concerned friends are (I hope) satisfied. I'll probably spend my off-season blogspace cataloging the bike from stem to stern and waxing poetic on each component. You've been warned.

Saturday, December 3, 2011

Balancing The Screed

After yesterday's post, I'm feeling kind of worried that I may come off as one of THOSE bike bloggers, the shrill, 100%-anti-car type. Not that there's anything WRONG with being anti-car, of course. Heck, good blog pal Kent P. is like the David Byrne of the Pacific Northwest, insofar as he doesn't own a car (and if reports are to be believed, when you ride with him, you may find yourself in another part of the world... and you may ask yourself, "how did I get here?")

But, for me, everything in moderation. So, to moderate myself, let me say that -- whether or not it kills my credibility as a bike blogger -- I happen to like my car. A lot. In fact, like a proud poppa, let me share a photo:
This was the day we brought him home from the pound... er, dealership. Isn't he the cutest little thing? Don'tchya just want to walk right up and hug him?

That happens to be a late-model Honda Fit with about 65k on the ticker (though 65k Honda miles is like 35k on just about anything else). I confess, when Honda brought these little buggers to the U.S. (it was sold overseas as the Jazz for years), they had me at hello. Advertising with a bike in the backseat and faux IKEA boxes in the hatch? Crap, you just drew a humiliatingly effective bullseye on my demo.

The real nail in my car-buying coffin, however, was our trip to Israel this year. There, I saw a whole world of what I like to call "shuttlecraft cars" (hey, I was a Star Trek nerd before I was a Waterloo, Wisconsin Trek nerd): baby-sized hatchbacks that sip petrol yet can swallow a payload like nobody's business. Seemed like that was the de facto auto style in Israel (from about a jillion different brands, some of which I'd never heard of), and nobody seemed to be suffering for their lack of Hummers/Escalades/Canyoneros. The bug bit hard, and the lease on our mini-Canyonero just happened to be expiring, so the next thing you know, that bundle of cuteness above was in our garage.

So, since I'm shilling (free) for Honda today, just what is it about this evil, carbon-footprinting beast that I find so appealing?
  • It is dang small, which (obviously) means more space in the garage for bicycles.
  • Fold the back seats up and my folding bike can fit like it was made to go there.
  • Fold the back seats down and my 59cm big-boy bike with fenders fits inside with room to spare.
  • The internets rumor mill says you can even get a tandem inside as long as your stoker doesn't mind sitting behind you during the car ride. Haven't tested that yet, but I plan to.
  • In terms of normal cargo, it holds as much as either of our last two mini-SUVs while absolutely DESTROYING them on gas mileage.
  • Did I mention mileage? 35mpg isn't going to win me any smugness points at a Prius convention, but it's nothing to sneeze at. I did see a handful of Jazz hybrids in Israel, so I'm crossing my fingers that a 50-plus mpg Fit could show up here someday.
  • It's stupid-reliable. I know how to fix bikes... cars, not so much.
  • Did I mention how freakin' cute it is?
Just to earn back a shred of cred, I will remind you, dear reader, that the ENTIRE staff here at The Cycle (all two of us, which -- coincidentally -- matches our readership most days) shares this one little car. So that's 0.5 cars per person (or more like 0.33, since this thing barely adds up to a whole car), which still makes us slightly suspect anti-car zealot freaks to most of the United States population.

Friday, December 2, 2011

Albatross Versus Elephant

One of the arguments against bike commuting that never quite makes sense to me is, "But you have all that extra stuff to deal with!" Have you heard that one? The helmet, the jacket, the lock, blah blah blah blah. And it's actually true -- bike commuting has its accessories. Here's my usual load for quasi-coldish weather:
Helmet (no pro- or anti-flame wars, please), a reflective band to keep my pants out of the chain, hat, gloves, light jacket, and a medium-sized man purse (er, messenger bag) that usually houses a few tools, my lunch, some coffee, and my glasses. The lock stays on the bike rack (per the advice of the late, great Sheldon Brown). Sometimes I'll have a water bottle too. If I'm feeling like a neatnik, I'll wad all the clothes up into the bag when I get off the bike and clip the helmet to a bag strap. If I'm feeling late and/or messy (which is most of the time), I just shove the wad of clothes into the helmet and carry it separately. The Great Corporate Overlord provides me with a narrow little locker where this all gets shoved during the day, until it's time to suit up again for the ride home.

Kind of a nuisance, no? Lots of junk to deal with? Lots of space taken up in a tiny cubicle cell? But the thing is, most of the people who tell me they'd hate to have to figure out what to do with all that stuff bring one of these to work instead:
By my rough calculations, that's about a zillion times more stuff (by weight or volume, take your pick) than what I carry. And those same people who tsk-tsk at the poor bastard on the bike who has to figure out what to do with his two cubic feet of bag usually do so as they're circling the block, looking (in vain) for a place to store their half ton of steel for the day.

Now if I could just get the Great Corporate Overlord to convert that parking space I'm not using into secured bike parking, I'd be in business...


Thursday, December 1, 2011

Bring It On

It's snowing tonight in Des Moines. But I'm ready:
 Yup, those are studded tires. In 406mm bead-seat diameter, a.k.a. BMX 20". You think studded bicycle tires are weird/obscure/rare? Try finding a set for your small-wheeled folding bike. But I got 'em.

I will rest easy and ride safe having read this:
Now I don't know the first thing about snow tire design. But I'm guessing that a guy named Jurgen must, right? I mean, the internets tell me he's probably of Scandinavian origin, and who knows more about snow than Scandinavians? (hush up, you Minnesotans, the Scandinavians of North America).

I am less enthused about this model name, though:
Granted, I know about as much about volcanoes as I do about snow tire design or Scandinavians, but as my almost-five-year-old nephew tells me, volcanoes are full of hot lava, and thus (one must assume) wholly incompatible with snow.

Tonight's snow is pretty wussy, nothing that inspires me to wrestle Jurgen's inappropriately named handiwork onto my rims for tomorrow's commute. But by golly, when the big one hits, I'll be ready.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Comfort Zones, or What Happens When You Assume

As a cyclist, I have some sacred cows. I admit it. I ride overbuilt steel forks because, well, using a wisp of gram-shaved carbon as the only line of defense between my face and the pavement isn't worth whatever miniscule weight/ride feel benefit it might confer. All my bikes have fenders because, well, I don't like having a wet butt.

And, until last week, all my bikes had the bars cranked WAY up high. The main steed sports a stem that looks like it escaped from a box-store comfort bike. The tandem has a serious up-jutter mounted on top of a stem riser for good measure. And when I ordered my Swift Folder, I bought the biggest "size" (they're all the same size, but hang with me) just so I could get the crazy-tall stem extension. On top of that extension, I put a stem with some rise just because, well, I thought I should.

This all goes back (gulp -- am I this old?) 14 years, to my days as an angst-ridden graduate student in a creative writing program. Spent my days poring over student essays on "What I Think I Need To Write In Order To Make This Weirdo Pass Me" and my nights pounding away at "What I Think I Need To Write To Impress Professors And/Or Get A Book Deal" -- leaving precious little time for riding. I got chubby, and thus could no longer tolerate the riding position on my go-fast that had been honed over years of doing nothing but working in shops and riding when I wasn't working in shops.

Then I discovered (fanfare) the Nitto Technomic. Fetish object of Grant Petersen, gateway drug to recumbents, and savior of fat men with bad backs the world over:

So much quill, it's probably illegal in five states and indecent in seven more. But that quasi-phallic aluminum monstrosity let me get back on my racerboy bike with some modicum of comfort (the frame still only took 23mm tires at best, so there was a limit) and even got my corpulent arse through the Tour of the Scioto River Valley in '97 (clocking a personal best century time on the first day thanks to a friendly tailwind and an even friendlier tandem that let me sit in). I was sold, and my bars have stayed in the stratosphere ever since.

Until last week, that is. For reasons that escape me entirely, I got a weird itch to see just what it might feel like to get those bars a little lower. I started by moving the Swift's stem down on its extension -- which has maybe a half inch of range. Big whoop. So I got extra-crazy and flipped the stem over. Stepped back, braced myself, waited for lightning to strike... nothing.

But the ride? Transformed! A little weight on that little front wheel, and all traces of twitchiness went away (not that it was a twitchy bike to begin with). My hands weren't entirely pleased with having to support a bit more of my girth, but my lower back (where I fully expected punishment) sang hallelujah. The wonky disc (that likes to bulge out from time to time and send me into spasm just to remind me that I'm a geezer) found its happy place right away. And -- knock wood -- it appears to be staying there.

Obligatory disclaimer: I'm not a doctor, I don't play one on TV, and medical advice gleaned from a random blog is worth just about what you pay for it. I can't say that lowering (or raising) your bars or changing your saddle or trying different pedals or riding a recumbent or doing your favorite loop backwards is going to be some amazing revelation that will cure male pattern baldness, get you the big promotion, and make you the life of the party. I can say, however, that if you get too deep in your own rut (as I'm often wont to do), you close yourself off to the possibility that something better (or, heck, just something different and/or fun) might be out there. Give it a shot. You might like it.

Monday, October 24, 2011

Shoes: A Guest Review (Or, I'm Too Lazy To Write Yet Again)

Esteemed guest reviewer James Black (who you may remember from my praise-riddled introduction) has been kind enough to ride and review the Chrome Kursks that didn't quite fit my chubby dogs. Since the weather's gorgeous here in Iowa today, I'm turning this space over to James and heading out for a ride. Ah, the joys of being an editor -- especially when the source material doesn't need any editing.

If you like what you read below and also happen to dig architecture (Mr. Black's day job), he also puts out a darn fine blog on the subject called The Lower Modernisms.

Okay, the link juice is sprinkled, the sun is out, and my tires are aired up. James, make yourself at home, and help yourself to anything you find in the fridge.

Jason offered me a great opportunity here – he sends me free shoes and all I have to do is hijack his blog with a spew of my opinions? Having the correct size foot is a key that can open doors. Thanks, Jason, for giving me hipper feet for this brief episode in my life.

Knowing that positive reviews are both boring and harder to write, I endeavored to take my role as a critic seriously and find a way to complain about the failures of the Chrome Kursk. I wore this pair of size 9 1/2 Kursk sneakers most days for a month and offer this report: I grudgingly approve of the Kursk and acknowledge that they are pretty okay.

I am a little ambivalent about how they look. Although I am but 35 years of age, I have the tastes and preferences of an 80-year-old statesman and usually favor ugly, heavy, traditional shoes of leather. Looking down at these sneaks is like finding a child-man has taken over my lower body. The Chrome imagery probably appeals to these kids today, with the pseudo Czarist-Sovietskikh imagery reminiscent of the propaganda-styled work of successful sell-out Shepard Fairey of “OBEY” fame. I am a bit skeptical. Does the Chrome brand really have street credibility? I find this imagery a little contrived, but the red-on-black does have a winning graphic boldness. 
Three of my coworkers complimented me on my new sneakers, including one unexpected “nice dogs.” Usually I get no compliments on anything I wear, so I interpret this as evidence of how misaligned my taste is. 

Visually these shoes cut a profile more lithe- and long-looking than most sneaks, including the Vans and Converse that set the precedent for this type of shoe. They look sharp. They pair better with slimmer-cut trousers. 

I have moderately narrow feet and typically wear shoes in size 9 1/2 or 10. I tied these on and immediately felt that my smallest toe was constricted – the double-needle seam behind the rubber toe top lands right on my toe where the shoe bends when my foot flexes. Although otherwise the shoes fit very well, I feel that the toe box is both too narrow and not high enough. This sensation made walking rather uncomfortable, although not rising to the level of painful. Initial expectations were quite low. But surprise finale: Quite unexpectedly, after a few weeks something in the shoe has evidently yielded and they have become more comfortable and less pinchy.

Over the course of the month I walked about 60 miles in the Kursks, and rode about 120 miles on bicycles equipped with rat-trap pedals and toe clips and straps. While walking my initial three-mile trip to work, I experienced some rubbing at the top back of the heel, but this later went away. Keeping the laces tied nice and tight helped ameliorate the rubbing. The laces are too long, but the elastic “lace-keeper” does its job.
Aside from the aforementioned issues, the shoes worked well for the long walks – the stiffened sole did not impede walking, and the oval-shaped heel cutout fitted with gel insert seemed to perform as intended. My heel bottoms felt great after walking.

My longest bicycle ride while wearing these shoes was about 40 miles. In past personal experience, when riding in lightweight canvas Vans sneakers, the flexible soles allow a caged-style pedal to become torturously painful after about 20 miles of riding, so I needed to find out how the Kursk would hold up. They did fine, my feet grumbled about nothing other than Pinchy Toebox.

The sole rubber is very sticky – so sticky that they make it slightly difficult to slide one’s foot into the toe clip. This is probably a good feature for those that ride with no foot retention. Despite the stickiness, the soles show little wear after all the walking, just a slight rounding off at the back of the heel.
The uppers are made from a sandwich of durable, abrasion-resistant Cordura nylon on the outside, a lighter-weight canvas of unknown material on the inside, and some kind of padding or other material sandwiched between. This is quite a difference from the single-ply cotton canvas of traditional sneakers. Cotton canvas is breathable, stretchy, and water-absorbent; the Kursk uppers are none of these, and therefore not so comfortable. I didn’t get a chance to try them in the rain, but I expect they are pretty waterproof. I also found them uncomfortably warm on hot days and they made my feet feel clammy in a way that I don’t experience wearing leather shoes. This may be more satisfactory in colder climates than my own Los Angeles.

After 60 miles of walking and a month of usage, the only real sign of wear is a delamination of the piping that joins the sole to the upper where the forefoot bends, as you can see in the picture. That will probably get worse, but then I will have more street cred when my shoes show some beausage*.

On the whole, I like them okay and will continue to wear them, but they would need a bigger toebox for me to call them comfortable and offer unqualified praise. Chrome, please listen to the clamor of the broadfooted masses and offer these sneakers in a wider fit at the forefoot. 

*Exposition from your friendly neighborhood editor here: "Beausage" is a term coined by Grant Petersen of Rivendell Bicycle Works. It combines the words "beauty" and "usage" to describe the type of worn-in beauty that comes from using an object for its intended purpose. Being a bit of a linguistic retrogrouch, I'd grumble that Petersen could have just stuck with "patina" and spared us a clumsy French-sounding neologism, but as a good host, I'll leave it in my guest's text and keep my whining down here in a small footnote.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Medium-Rare, Please

Jeez, in all my shoe prattle, I totally missed the opportunity to introduce the replacements for my beloved (and be-shredded) VP-565 pedals.

I give you... THE SHIN-BURGER 9000!

In case the watermark doesn't give it away, I horked that image from, which is my preferred Interwebs vendor for all things small-wheeled, gnarly and rad. Yes, a fat geezer does sometimes order from a BMX shop. I gotta get my flat-brimmed caps from somewhere, don't I?

Okay, so the real name of that pedal isn't the Shin-Burger 9000. It's the much less compelling Wellgo MG-4A. But as you can see by the beckoning, fang-like Pins of Gore, it really deserves a grisly moniker. I have no idea why I had a pair of these kicking around my parts boxes. Frankly, they scare me. If -- through some bizarre flailing -- your foot gets loose from these babies, just hit the eject button, get yourself well clear of the vehicle, and abort the mission. Otherwise, they will draw blood. A lot of it. From you, from innocent bystanders, from a stone, you name it.

By the way, the definition of marital trust? I used to have these on my end of the tandem, where it was my (lovely, wonderful) spouse who held the power of life and death at every stop. If she'd ever spun those things backwards when my stance wasn't quite wide enough, I would have needed a Camelbak full of A-positive.

On the upside, MG-4As (a.k.a. Shin-Burger 9000s) are pretty cheap (like $20), freakishly, you-canna-change-the-laws-of-physics-Jim light, and (at least on mine) the bearings spin like they came out of some Campagnolo Skunk Works laboratory.

So, there you have it: Good pedals, though not for hemophiliacs or the faint of heart.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

More Shoes Reviews For Youse

Alas, the original plan to torture test my entire Imelda Marcos of Cycling closet on the same route/bike setup was thrown into disarray when I recently pulled my unintentionally wicked BMX stunt and ground the nubbins from one of my test pedals.

Luckily, I'd put a pretty decent test interval into these before I went all EXTREME:
Can we just pretend the photo quality is the result of a hastily grabbed "spy shot"? 

Those are Keen Coronados, not to be confused with the (supposedly) bike-specific Coronado Cruiser.  Can you tell the difference, other than a $20 "bikers are gullible" MSRP bump on the Cruisers? Yeah, me neither. And I've actually put both on my chubby little feet.

Now, this is not the first time I've raved about Keens, as I am mightily wide of foot. Their sandals are my go-to "flat pedals of summer" shoes, and these Coronados are quickly stepping up (hah! see, a shoe pun!) as a worthy winter alternative. They are, like most (bitter rant on why I can't say "all" forthcoming) things Keen, as wide as the day is long. Putting my 4Es into these babies is the foot-equivalent of napping solo on a California King bed. I could probably add a sixth toe in there (assuming my buddy Walter can get me one) and still not feel cramped.

But how, blabbermouth, do they work on the bike, I can hear you asking. Just hunky and dory. You may recall that in the post that kicked off this self-indulgent shoe-gazing, I griped about the plasticky coating on the sole of new Converse Chuck Taylors. Keen has some of that (the lighter grayish area around the perimeter), but the darker spots on the heel and under the ball of the foot (right where it counts for pedaling) are good ol' fashioned rubbery rubber that grabs a pedal and hangs on tight, wet or dry. Not quite as "krazy glue" grabby as the Chrome Kursk, but plenty grabby for typical urban maneuvers. And although there's nothing bike-specific about these soles, they're still plenty stiff for a chubby middle-aged man to do a laughable quasi-sprint. The uppers are a hemp-ish fabric that does zilch for weather resistance but seems to breathe well and has held up quite nicely on the mean streets (and in the mean cubicles) of downtown Des Moines.

Downsides? Well, obviously, if you don't have a wide foot, these probably aren't for you. And while you can tell that they've kinda-sorta been inspired by the iconic Chuck, they still... well... how to say this nicely... look like Keens. Hey, I won't lie. That big ol' clown-shoe toe bumper is an acquired taste. I'm guessing it doesn't play well with toeclips either, though that was not part of my test protocol. Oh, and those dang eyelets are aluminum again. Can you tell I have some serious emotional issues when it comes to aluminum oxide schmutz on my socks?

In the great balancing act between comfort, cost, looks, and durability, though, these hit the happy spot for my feet, my ego, and my wallet... and despite my one little bit of Keen bitterness (it's still coming), I'll probably buy another pair when I finally kill these.

Okay, so the bitterness: A few years ago, Keen decided to get into the dedicated bike shoe (as in, "bolt cleats to 'em and clip in") business and introduced the Commuter sandal. And, having been a gigantic fanboy of the Newport H2 upon which said Commuter SEEMED to be based, I simply HAD to have a pair. But, dad-gummit, gol-durnit, and a dozen other angry Yosemite Sam-isms, those Keen keenuckleheads made the Commuter NARROW. Uh, what's the one defining characteristic of a Keen shoe or sandal? It's WIDE. And what's wrong with just about every bike shoe ever made? They're NARROW. So why on earth would you a) pass up the woefully under-served fat-footed cyclist demographic AND b) annoy the snot out of loyal Keen biker-customers who were just waiting for you to dip a big clown-shoe toe bumper into the bike shoe market?

I'm getting over it. Slowly. But Keen, if you're listening, you might be able to appease me by making a REAL Keen bike shoe (width: California King) and sending me a pair of size 10s to test. Just sayin' is all.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Tektro Brake Levers: A Love-Hate Relationship, Defined

First, some history: In The Beginning, there was the first-generation Campagnolo Ergopower lever. It was fat. The top was flat. And it was good.

 (I horked this image from here.)

These things were so stinkin' comfortable that I recall twisted tales of retro-grouches who would gut the shifting mechanisms just to be able to pair the ergonomics of the Campy brake lever with whatever antiquated shifting system the grouch in question preferred (usually a whittled stick twined to the top tube used to poke the chain from one cog to the next).

Since retro-grouches didn't (and don't) pay the bills at Campy World Headquarters, nobody said, "Hey, let's pre-gut these things and overcharge for them!" Instead, it took the more downmarket-minded folks at Tektro to see (and grab) an opportunity with their R200 levers:
(Thanks for the pic, Harris Cyclery.)

Not only were the R200s every bit as comfortable as the Campys, they also stole (er, "paid homage to") their Italian counterpart's quick-release button, allowing the rider to open the brake wide to get a fat tire out. And -- very much UNLIKE just about anything Campy -- the Tektros were (and are) cheap, cheap, cheap, like twenty bucks a pair. Of course, if you're the sort of rider who thinks that brand-name canned beans taste better than the ones from the can that just says "beans", you can pay more for the Cane Creek version with some lizards on the hoods and a bit of silk-screened prestige.

Now, Campy folks are not stupid. Eventually, they did come out with their pre-gutted version, but of course, it was made of carbon with the cremated remains of Fausto Coppi in the resin and thus cost two-hundred friggin' U.S. dollars. Yes, seriously. That's a BRAKE lever with NO shifting mechanism. Here, I'll prove it with an Amazon link, since I'm sure you're just itching to buy a pair and keep this blog in the black for a few years:

Okay, so the Tektros. Cheap, comfy, ideal for retro-grouchery, so you're wondering where the "hate" is in the love-hate relationship, right? Well, let's just say that I've had some issues with design and quality control that would lead me to believe there's a catch to the $20 price point.

First, the quality control: These are not the most precise bits of bicycle engineering you'll ever hold in your hand. They'll rattle a bit when installed. And it's kind of luck of the draw whether you'll get a pair with the value-added feature of PPM: Perpetual Pivot Migration. Basically, the pin that the lever turns on will back itself out of the lever just the tiniest bit every time you brake. But if this were the only downside, I'd just keep pushing that pivot back in, delete the "hate" from the relationship and make these bad boys a Hail to the Cheap award winner.

The real crushing flaw of these levers is under the skin. The cable path runs directly in front of the clamp bolt, making it a real bear to tighten these things on the bars with a cable installed. And -- even worse -- it's very easy for a klutzy mechanic (namely, yours truly) to get access to that bolt from a slight angle (working around the cable) and accidentally cross-thread the bolt into the clamp nut. Once you've done that, I hope you like the position of the lever on the bar, because it's now permanent. When you try to loosen the bolt, it will just spin the nut in the clamp. Swear all you want (believe me, I tried), but you're not getting that lever off the bars. The only fix i've found once you've made the fatal error is to a) Dremel (VERY GENTLY!) through the clamp without nicking your handlebars to free the lever from the bars, b) drill out the bolt/nut interface (without gouging yourself on the sharp edges of the Dremel-cut clamp band) to free the clamp from the lever body, and c) replace all that shredded hardware with a bolt/clamp from a donor lever. I'm ashamed to admit that, lacking in parts donors, I now have a couple clampless Tektro levers rattling around my parts box after being surgically removed from bars after a ham-fisted cross-threading.

So, alas, while cheap and almost ridiculously comfy, the Tektro lever is not for the rider who likes Swiss precision or the mechanic who likes to futz. When this blog makes its first bazillion, maybe I'll drop the coin on those Campys (or -- hint, hint -- maybe Campy wants to send me a review pair?) In the meantime, I'll just keep pushing pivots and wrenching with EXTREME caution.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Nocturnal Predator Ride Report

Had a close encounter of the skunk variety on last night's ride -- luckily, I'd just turned on my headlight, which a) allowed me to see him in plenty of time, and b) spooked him off (I came to a dead stop and used the light to chase him out of my path from a very-safe distance). Not much else to say about it, but it did remind me of this oldie-but-an-oldie (circa ought-four) from my days of frequent posting to the iBOB retro-grouchery club. Translation: "I'm too lazy to write something new." (Attempt to) enjoy!

Went for my first night ride of the fall on Saturday, armed with LEDs front and rear. Was struck by how unusual my usual rail-trail could seem simply because of the darkness: Strange noises in the woods, pockets of especially warm or cold air, odd intrusions of light ("What's that green glow? Oh, a Mountain Dew vending machine on the golf course. Is that lightning? No, strobe lights from the airport.")

As I cleared the light pollution of the city, I clicked off all but the bare minimum candlepower to enjoy the stars. Whizzing along, I started to feel like I'd make a pretty bad-ass nocturnal predator... practically silent, fast, able to navigate on sound, instinct and the faint glow of a couple LEDs. That is, until I happened upon a family of five raccoons on the trail.

There was a narrow line between the ringed tails and black masks, and just enough reaction time for me to pick it out. Unfortunately, no sooner did I see it and commit myself than my furry friends saw me and scattered. I'm more than a little glad that I couldn't see what happened... between the angry chattering, the feeling of something being struck hard by my left pedal, something else hitting the right side of my back wheel hard enough to knock it off line, and my little-girl shriek (so much for the bad-ass nocturnal predator), I'm sure it was an ugly scene. I flashed briefly on an image of me going down and being swarmed by pissed-off raccoons, but managed to keep everything upright. By the time I skidded to a halt, turned around, and fired up all my lights, they were gone. No sign of blood, which, combined with the fact that they were all able to skeedaddle, I took as a good sign that I didn't inflict a mortal wound.

Moral: Just because you can ride fast in the dark doesn't mean you should. And maybe one of those wheel-driven bells that runs all the time would be a good idea...

Thursday, October 6, 2011

The Daily Grind

Had a close encounter of the vehicular kind this morning, though it was -- of all things -- a motorcycle. Thankfully, the only harm done (other than to my fragile psyche) was the ground-up pedal you see above. Those silver circles on the right side used to be three-dimensional cast traction pins, but they've been ground flush to the pedal body. The pedal reflector is pretty shredded, and the right side of the body lost a bit of paint for good measure. I was ready to just live with a slightly less grippy pedal, but the weird wobble underfoot on the homeward commute tells me that I bent the spindle pretty badly too. I could save it with some heroic measures, but they were $15 pedals to begin with (the humble VP-565, which you may know from such posts as Chapter 1 of my Hail to the Cheap series). Methinks they're recycling fodder now, the Viking funeral of bike parts.

My amateur CSI reconstruction of the near-accident scene? I was making a fast downhill left turn with a green turn arrow in my favor when Mr. Moto (in the stopped oncoming lane) decided he could make a right on red... thus, two bodies on two-wheeled vehicles were about to occupy the same little nook of the time/space continuum. What follows is pure conjecture, as I was running on instinct and adrenaline (with the blessing of a predictable bike underfoot), but I think I straightened the bike up a little so I could grab lots of brake without sliding out. That allowed me to (just) slip behind the moto, but my line through the curve was thrown WAY off, so I stuffed my outside pedal into the curb before I could get back on track. I'm sure the resulting grind of metal on concrete (which seemed to last for days) would have gotten me mad props (really, old man? mad props?) from the BMX set, though. How I rode out the other side of all that without tasting pavement is a mystery to me.

So, the moral? Two wheels aren't ALWAYS good. But when two wheels and two wheels meet at high speed and close proximity, the resulting four wheels are DEFINITELY bad.

Saturday, October 1, 2011

Unexpected Elegance

I was reminded the other night of one of my favorite things about cycling compared to other sports. I was driving to the store and came up behind a guy on a bike. Initially, I was kind of annoyed -- he was a classic cycle ninja, riding after dark in dark clothes with no lights, his spinning pedal reflectors the only obvious indication that he was there. 

I was about to make a right turn, so I slowed down -- didn't want the bad karma of "pass followed by immediate right." And, being a bike nerd, I watched him while I waited. He was a college kid (sheesh, old man, people in college are now "kids"?) on an old ten-speed, sneakers without socks, long baggy basketball shorts, t-shirt, backpack. Built kind of like my dad... heavy-set, stumpy little legs, long torso. Nothing about this guy screamed "athlete" at me, let alone "cyclist."

But here's the thing: This guy had the smoothest, most elegant, most effortless looking pedal stroke I'd seen in a long time. He wasn't moving all that fast, but talk about making circles. I think the French word for it is "souplesse." It was a master class in turning pedals. 

That, to me, is what makes cycling great. So many other sports have terribly high barriers to elegant entry. When I go running, it looks like I'm having a seizure in (very) slow motion. Swimming for me is a frantic exercise in not drowning. Combine me with pretty much any sport involving a ball or a stick and you'll get a laughable demonstration of just how uncoordinated the human body can be. I was quasi-decent in football as an offensive lineman when I just had to take a couple steps and  run into someone, but if I had to pull and deliver a lead block on a sweep? Forget about it.

On a bike, however, just about anyone can give the impression that they know what they're doing. My dad -- whose genes are primarily responsible for the comedy of errors described above -- could do a cowboy-mount into clipless pedals that was like fat-man bicycle ballet. When I sprint through downtown and catch a glimpse of my reflection in the plate glass windows, I think, "geez, THAT guy looks good on a bike." My grandparents could handle a two-ton Schwinn tandem like they were of one mind. None of us were "taught" by experienced cyclists. We just rode a lot, and -- I suspect -- some of the elegance of the machine rubbed off.

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Guest Reviewer: Found!

After an exhaustive cross-country search filled with wacky, madcap adventures, I have finally found a new home (and a new reviewer) for those Chrome Kurks that simply refused to fit on my mutant flippers. The shoes are now WAY over on the Left Coast with one James Black, no doubt being exhaustively tested as we speak. 

Since I know the reader(s) of this blogbabble are a highly refined and selective bunch, let's lay down Mr. Black's bona fides:
  • One, like myself, he's a long-time member of the Internet-BOB list, a cantankerous collection of bike geekery if ever there was one, and one of the few groups that passes the Groucho Marx Paradox, insofar as it will have me as a member yet I still want to be a part of it.
  • Two, the dude a-rides. 'Nuff said.
  • Three, he's the curator of one of the coolest Swift folding bikes I've seen in pixels. In fact, his Swift was in no small part responsible for me popping for my own tiny-wheeled bundle of fun.
  • Four, he has a wool cycling cap named after him. Do you have a wool cycling cap named after you? I didn't think so. (Pipe down back there, Mr. Kucharik.)
  • Five, he designed his own cargo bike and had it built. Yes, seriously.
I'm going to shut up now, since I'm starting to convince myself that my guest reviewer is more qualified to write my blog than I am. But watch this space, since James will be putting the Kursks to the test and providing his thoughts. And James, as we like to say here in Iowa, wave the next time you fly over.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Don't Snooze! It's Shoes Reviews, Part 2s!

Full disclosure: Somehow, the people at Chrome got the impression that I was actually a legitimate blogger, and I wound up on their PR person's mailing list. So when I started this crazy multi-shoe shootout, I dropped said PR person a line and said hey, could you comp me some shoes? (in a Bill Murray/Caddyshack "How about a little somethin', you know, for the effort?" voice). And I'll be danged if they didn't send me these Kursks, gratis:
Unfortunately, my mutant feet are going to prevent me from completing my full, rigorous "to-the-death" testing protocol on these, but as the slight sole-schmutz indicates, I did put some miles on them. I'm going to seek out a guest reviewer/guest blogger who'll fit them better (how very Cinderfella, no?) for a more complete abusing.

So, my wordy mini-review. First, the look: It's pretty obvious that these were meant to ape (and improve on) the iconic Converse Chuck Taylor. Same basic sneaker style, updated with different materials and a bit of Chrome hipster/skater/way-too-cool-for-old-fart-Iowa-bloggers aesthetic. I asked for something "subtle" (since I intended to wear them in a corporate cube) and got the Knight Rider colorway shown above -- not bad. There's also an all-black Darth Vader colorway, plus brown, grey, red, blue, green, and (gulp) pink. They're a little logo'ed out, but nowhere near the NASCAR-feet look of a full-blown cycling shoe.

As for the fit: The Chrome-folk suggested a 9.5 when I told them I wear a Converse 10, and that should have been a direct hit. Lay the soles of the 9.5 against my battered Chuck 10s, and it's a darn good match. The catch, though, is that a) I wear those wacky custom orthotics, and b) I have feet the width of shoeboxes. In cotton Converse, no biggie... they start out snug, but the canvas gives until they're molded to my flippers. The Cordura in the Chromes, while probably insanely tough, doesn't seem to want to mold. And the super-cushy insole (which way outclasses the Converse) is NOT orthotic or wide-foot friendly. It definitely eats up some of the shoe's already limited volume.

So I busted out my thinnest wool socks and set to work. With the stock insoles, the balls of my feet felt pretty crunched. Take 'em out, plenty of space -- but no support. Add the orthotics? Crazy squeaky plastic-on-plastic contact. So I ended up using some cheap over-the-counter foam orthotics to get some support without taking up too much space.

Out on the road (finally!) I was pretty darn impressed. The sole is crazy grippy right out of the box, to the point where moving my foot on the pinned pedal meant lifting it up and putting it back down where I wanted it. The Chromes also feel noticeably lighter than Chucks while providing comparable cushioning. I'm no weight weenie, but I do like the feel of a light shoe when I have to spin it around a few thousand times. And one more tiny happy detail -- the eyelets are made out of something (maybe stainless steel?) that doesn't leave black marks on your socks. The aglets (yeah, it's a real word -- now you actually learned something from this blog) are big and made of the same stuff, which led to one nit-pick: They make a RACKET against the shoe, your chainring, and anything else that happens to be nearby when you're spinning. Definitely double-knot those laces to keep the ends short.

Still, as much as I wanted to love these, after a week of short commutes and a couple longer rides, I had to admit to myself that they didn't fit. Even just tooling around town, I got the telltale hot spot under the ball of my foot that told me my way-wide forefoot was being squashed together. Drat.

So, to summarize: Nice materials, seemingly quality construction (though I obviously didn't pummel them enough to know for sure), but not for me until they come in Wide. Hopefully, my search for a guest reviewer will find a narrow-footed tester who can really give them a going-over and report back on the long-term value proposition. They are 2x the price of Chucks (at $70 MSRP) -- a lot for made-in-China sneakers, admittedly -- but if the nicer materials can double up the lifespan, it could be a good trade.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

A Musical (Yet Vaguely Topical) Interlude

Seeing as I haven't completed my rigorous testing protocol on the next victim... er, test subject in my shoe-shootout, I believe I'll wander off on a tangent.

Y'see, as I alluded in a recent post, I used to make vaguely musical noise on a variety of low-frequency, four-string devices. As a tyke, in fact, I was kinda good at it -- until I decided I was too good to practice, got passed by the kids who did practice, got discouraged, and gave it up (my sister, on the other hand, continued to clarinet her lips off, and now has dueling gigs as a real music teacher/working musician to show for it).

But recently, I got the bug to play again, so I popped into the local guitar shops and found some interesting (to me, at least) parallels to another shop world where I've spent way too much time, namely, the bike shop. To whit: 

THEY DON'T MAKE 'EM HERE ANY MORE: Now, that isn't entirely true in either the bike or the guitar shop. You can get a Wisconsin-made Trek in one, and a California-made Fender in the other. But it would seem that the majority of the attainable instruments in either place (read: "the ones with a price tag that a hack like myself can justify") are coming from over the pond. So I pulled down a $350 made-in-China Squier P-bass (which at least wears its made-in-China-ness proudly, under the lacquer rather than on a cheesy and easily removed sticker), started plonking, and discovered... 

THE CHEAP (or at least midrange) ONES ARE GETTING BETTER: Don't get me wrong... you'll find some really low-end stuff in both places that barely passes for a toy. But take the escalator up just one floor from the bargain basement and you'll get something pretty rideable/playable. The snobs will snub your Deore drivetrain, but it won't slow you down. Same with that Squier... there was a time I would have snorted at it as a kid's bass, but when I made horrible sounds with it (and believe me, I did), I couldn't blame the bass. 

A GOOD SHOP MAKES ALL THE DIFFERENCE: Being a vaguely savvy shopper, I played the same bass at two different shops (one local/independent, one national chain, though I'd hesitate to make a generalization based on that). The big-box-bass felt like they'd just pulled the thing off the truck and hung it on the wall. At the local joint, even my ham-fists could tell that someone had taken the time to set the instrument up. It felt better in my hands and sounded better even before I plugged it in. Same thing happens at the bike shop... even a top-of-the-line bike will feel like a dog if it hasn't been set up by someone who knows what they're doing, and even a humble midrange ride can fly when it's properly prepped.

Okay, enough with the almost-serious parallels. How about some weird ones? 

THE RETRO MARKETING GIMMICK RULES: Did I mention that the Squier I was so enamoured with happened to be a knockoff of a '50s Fender "tele-bass" Precision? A cheap copy, sure, nothing like the original, sure, but dang, the look had me reaching for my wallet before my brain could register what was happening. In the bike shop, see "every stinkin' Raleigh model designed to ape the vintage Frenchy stuff that's all the rage at the handbuilt bike shows these days." 

BEWARE THE CTM: That's "Crap-Talking Male". You know the guy. Looks like he's never even SEEN a bike, much less pedaled one, but wants to tell you all about how back-in-the-day he had this all-Campy Colnago, used to race it, ya know, boy, those were the days... (cut to time-lapse of clock hands spinning) ... of course, we rode tubulars then, these kids now wouldn't know how to mount a tubular to save their lives, but what a sweet ride... (more clock hands spinning). Every bike shop's got one, and every bike shop employee learns to run at the sight of his car. And guess what? The guitar shop has 'em too... except (gasp, shudder) in the guitar shop, I'm the CTM. Yeah, started on upright, man, that's how you build hand strength, high action and a neck like a baseball bat (clock spinning) then had this gorgeous sunburst '62 Jazz reissue, tone that wouldn't quit, super-fast (clock spinning) but tough times, had to pawn the Jazz, yeah, sucks (clock spinning) so starting to play again, thinking maybe I like the nut width and fingerboard radius on that Precision...

It's funny, whenever I go back to that shop, the whole staff is busy doing inventory in the back room. Go figure.

Saturday, September 10, 2011

The Great 2011 Sneaker Shootout, Part 1

I'm lucky enough to have the stereotypical "IT guy" dress code at my day job, despite the fact that I'm just an IT guy wannabe. Combine that with a very short commute between The Cycle World Headquarters and the corporate Borg cube, and I'm fast becoming a real snob when it comes to biking-compatible sneakers. With the collection of aging-hipster-slacker-footwear growing at an embarrassing rate, I figured it was time for an EPIC SHOE REVIEW in MULTIPLE PARTS! (tah-dah!)

Some baseline information before I begin: All shoes are being tested on the budget VP platform pedals I raved about recently, mounted on the Swift folder I refuse to shut up about. The test protocol is "ride a short distance in the quasi-urban jungle of Des Moines, IA, do a desk job all day (with the occasional walking jaunts around the downtown Des Moines human ant farm/skywalk system), then hop back on the bike for the ride home." This is not a test of normal looking shoes that work with clipless pedals -- I feel astonishingly dumb using clipless for my around-town bike. It's just a side-by-side comparison of regular old sneakers (some made for biking, some not) as used on the bike.

One other bit of weirdness that will make this test far from useful for normal humans: I usually wear custom podiatrist-crafted orthotics in my shoes (one benefit of dating a podiatrist's daughter in a previous life), so the fact that most of these sneakers have ZERO support (and aren't supremely stiff) makes little difference to me. You could replicate these results with your own orthotics (our staff graphic designer likes SOLE footbeds). I also have mutant-wide feet, so your results may vary. You've been warned.

The benchmark sneaker that everyone knows is (of course) the Converse Chuck Taylor. I don't even have to provide a link. Fashion icon, been around since dirt was new (my DAD wore them in GRADE SCHOOL, for Pete's sake), freaking ubiquitous. Here's my last pair, at the end of their run as a test shoe:
Bias alert: I love these things. But as a daily commuter shoe, they are far from perfect in their current incarnation. The aluminum eyelets (while iconic) will leave black aluminum oxide schmutz on light-colored socks, and seem to let the laces loosen up a bit over time. The more damning criticism of Mr. Taylor, though, is in the sole. The old (U.S.-made) Chuck had a very soft, grippy sole compound right out of the box. The new (Chinese-made) sole  has a plasticky "skin" over the rubber (not unlike what you'd find on overcooked pudding) that has next-to-zero grip in the dry and less-than-zero grip in the rain. My suspicion is that this is a layer of mold-release compound that keeps the sole from sticking to its mold in the factory. You have to wear these things on concrete for a while to scuff through that before they're really ideal for pedals.

The other issue that knocked Chuck down in my test protocol is the failure mode shown here:
 See that little gap? That's the spot where repeated flex (combined with the insane width of my feet) opens up the connection between the sole and the upper. In its early stages, it just makes a little opening to let in (more) rain. Over time, it becomes a terminal condition. These haven't reached full-blowout failure yet, but they're headed there. 

But I keep coming back to Chas for one simple reason: They feel good. Despite looking painfully narrow, my wide dogs love 'em. The cotton canvas (which, warning, does NOTHING to keep out weather) forms itself to the bizarre shape of my feet like nothing else. A worn-in pair of these is like socks with soles. Still, since this was a test shoe I bought with my own cash, I wish they lasted longer and cost less. Grumpy old man mode: I remember when the U.S.-made ones were $30. Now, suggested retail on the Chinese-made ones is something like $45 (though they can be had for as cheap as $25 if you do some hunting and can live with last year's colors -- which would indicate to me that they've become a fashion item rather than a functional shoe, thus answering the question of why they cost so much for so little durability). 

Oh, one other upside (geez, I'm in a rambling state of mind today)... when these get dirty, you can throw them in the washing machine (but not the dryer, obviously). Not sure if this is manufacturer-recommended (or if it's contributing to a shortened lifespan), but it does help keep them compliant with a corporate-extra-casual dress code after a particularly messy ride.