Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Novara's Near Miss

As promised, here's that micro-review of the Novara Verita I fondled during a recent jaunt to the Minneapolis REI store.

The Verita fits into the category of "non-racy road bikes" -- fatter tires, fender capability, wider-range drivetrains, long-reach brakes, and a slightly more upright riding position. Back in the day, they'd be called sport-touring bikes, but nobody really uses that designation any more. The modern proto-non-racy-road-bike is probably the no-longer-made Rivendell Rambouillet (geez, don't ask me to pronounce it... I can barely spell it). Raleigh also has a nice-looking example (with fenders, even) in the Clubman. And if the rumor mill is to be believed, Surly finally wised up and reset the brake bridge/fork length on the Pacer for long-reach brakes in the 2012 model.

What I like about these bikes is that they offer the efficiency and -- let's face it -- flat-out fun of a drop-bar road bike without some of the tradeoffs that come from a one-trick-pony race bike. You can fender them up for wet days. They'll take fat rubber for rough roads (or heck, off-roading). In a pinch, you could probably rack them up for a spot of light touring. But all of this comes in a package that -- thanks to the caliper brakes -- doesn't stand out as terribly unusual at the weekly go-fast ride (assuming you have the motor for the weekly go-fast ride).

Novara's entry into this fray is pretty darn interesting. First up, you get the SRAM Apex drivetrain: a compact crank (50/34) with a crazy-wide cassette in the back (11-32). SRAM piles a lot of marketing hooey on this, but the core concept is cool... almost all the range of a triple without the hassles (and the derision of the guys -- always guys -- on that weekly go-fast ride) that a triple can bring. I've bodged together this kind of setup in the past, but for those who aren't comfortable with Frankenbikes, SRAM now has it in a "factory-approved" package.

Another good box ticked on the Verita is real Shimano calipers (a cheaper model, but real Shimano all the same). The Tektro equivalent would probably be cheaper (and look a little nicer), but I've done the side-by-side, and the Shimano will win on brake power. Those calipers (and the fact that their mounts are placed correctly) left plenty of air for fenders over the stock 700x28 Vittoria tires. Granted, those Vittorias are actually smaller than 28mm, but a good effort nonetheless.

So, you're saying, why is this bike a "near miss", Mister Critical? It's the aesthetics, of course! What else would someone with no aesthetic sense complain about? The "gold sand" color seems to be going for that retro-loving demographic, and Novara's gone for a lot of silver parts to match up with that. The catch is that SRAM only made that (previously raved about) Apex kit in black... which is kind of jarring, especially against the retro-style polished finish on the rims. The other aesthetic clunker? I know that short-and-shallow handlebars are all the rage right now, but they just look squashed and -- more importantly -- felt cramped. And bike company product managers, can we come to a little agreement? The diameter of a bike's handlebars should NOT be larger than the diameter of its top tube. I know 31.8mm is supposed to be the new standard, but it just looks bloated on a steel frame.

A couple theoretical haggles that may be unfair since the REI I visited didn't have my size, thus I couldn't really test ride... one, dang these things have steep seat tube angles. 73.5 in my size? 74 elsewhere in the range? Um, does that tri-bike come with aerobars? Mix that with the no-offset seatpost and you're gonna be living on the rivet.  And two, I had to wonder about ride comfort, since the seatstays looked like kielbasa sausages. Maybe they're super-thinwall and thus absorb more shock than first impressions would indicate, but I'd bet against it.

Okay, before I become Novara persona non grata, here's how I'd do it differently. One, yes, the SRAM drivetrain is a cool selling point... but if you're trying to catch the eye of that retro demo, go Shimano instead. Silver Tiagra compact crank (still 50/34), derailleurs, STI, and a 12-27 cassette (not as wide as the SRAM, but hey, 34-27 is still pretty stump-pulling). Two, ditch that stem/bar combo and commission a cheap copy of the classic-bend Nitto 115 (in a non-oversized clamp diameter, natch). And finally, assuming the frame jigs are already set for those steep seat tube angles, at least switch out the no-offset seatpost for something that will put the rider a little further back. Then, by golly, you'd have something. Or if you want to bypass the retro crowd entirely, stick with the SRAM bits, go black with the rest of the parts (and I'll even let you keep the short-and-shallow bars if you make them black), make that seatpost swap (in black), and paint it something more classic-racy (my vote is red). Then you'd have something different, but by golly, it would still be something.

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

I Have The Giggles (Danger: Potty-Mouth Ahead)

I try -- oh how I try -- to keep this establishment family-friendly. No cussin', no fightin', no drinkin', etc. But the postcard that our staff graphic design maven got for me from the folks (er, folk?) over at Power and Light Press gives me a serious case of the Beavis-and-Buttheads. Go buy something from them (er, her) so they (er, she) can keep making this stuff, okay?

It's going to be way down there below, in case you're reading at work and don't want naughty words popping up where your boss could see them.

So you've been warned. Scroll at your own risk.

I know it's making fun of me, since I tend to have strong (although not THAT strong) reactions to anything with a bike on it. Yet I can't look away.

(Aside to Tarik: There's also a mustache version. Methinks you need both, no? Or a specially-commissioned "Put a biker with a mustache on it..." version.)

Monday, August 29, 2011

Road Trip!

Our intrepid staff just returned from a fact-finding mission to Iowa's Norse northern neighbor, Minne-SOH-tah. Fact: There are a lot of lakes up there. We weren't quite intrepid enough to determine if there were 10,000, though.

Nothing terribly bikey to report during our trip up yonder. I did hit a couple of the larger (and more dull) sources of bikestuff during some downtime, as those were the locales that I could manage with my pathetic navigational skills (to update one of my dad's favorite sayings, I couldn't find my arse with both hands and a smartphone). During said journey, I came away mildly/partially impressed by the REI house-brand Novara Verita, so I'll give that a mini "eyeball review" in another post.

One mini-plug to throw in: At a family get-together, I did get to sit and chat with cousin-in-law Banning, the owner and namesake of Banning's Bikes in Fullerton, CA. I've never set a physical foot into Banning's joint, but I keep a drool-shield on the abovementioned smartphone in anticipation of the shop photos he occasionally puts up on the Facebooks. This ain't your grandpa's Schwinn shop in the corner of a hardware store. Stunning, stunning stuff. And you can tell he's one of those shop owners who still gets little-kid excited over bikes. In fact, the dude was up at the crack-o-dawn putting in miles on a borrowed bike while yours truly was in an (ahem) "recovery phase" (translation: Zzzzzzzz...) So if any of my half-dozen readers find themselves in Fullerton, Banning will treat you right. If he doesn't, report back to me -- I have some pull with his cousin, and I have it on good authority that she will bite him if provoked.

Monday, August 22, 2011

Don Pardo, Tell Him What He's Won

Congrats to loyal reader Scott of the Keystone State (or is that Keystone Commonwealth?) for completing the "Can Jason's Random Appearance As A Quasi-Extra In A Documentary Connect Him To Kevin Bacon?" quiz in record time and doing it by way of musicians in honor of the subject of the post that inspired it. Truly inspired work, my good man. Chapeau.

Of course, I didn't expect anyone to have an answer, so I had to frantically slap together this amazing prize package from the contents of my own stash:
I only had a six-month supply of Rice-a-Roni (and I'm saving that for the zombie apocalypse), so Scott will instead receive:
  • A lightly-used pair of Tektro cantilever/centerpull brake cable hangers in Grant Peterson-unapproved black, which he can use to either re-live the 90s halcyon days of boutique cable hangers or put on a set of vintage silver Mafac centerpulls to annoy Jan Heine.
  • An equally lightly used pair of Velox expanding rubber bar-end plugs, the only French component I've ever encountered that doesn't feature some bizarre non-standard dimension or reversed thread just for the sake of being contrary and annoying bike mechanics.
  • A stylish "I (Heart) Des Moines" rubber bracelet, which I totally dare him to wear until ten (yes, ten) people ask him, "Uh, dude, what the heck?"
But wait, there's more!

THE SUPER EXTRA BONUS GIFT, just for a) winning the contest with a musical entry, and b) admitting (off-blog) to being another member of the bass brotherhood: One autographed photo of yours truly, circa 1990, rockin' the bass guitar, a haircut somewhere between a Brian Bosworth flattop and a Mike Ditka mullet, what appears to be a sweater from the Fred Rogers collection, AND (look closely, you can just make it out) tight rolled jeans. Before the snark comes a'rollin' in, yes, I had a girlfriend at the time, and no, she was not from Canada.

Sorry, Scott, too late to withdraw your contest entry. This mind-blowing assortment of fabulosity is already on its way to you via the U.S. Postal Service. If that doesn't discourage people from taking me seriously when I invent these silly contests, I don't know what will.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

How To Test A Front Fender

You only need three things:
a. A bike with fenders (well, duh).
b. A cyclist with hairy legs.  
c. A rainy day.

The test protocol is as follows:
1. Allow c to go on long enough to produce puddles on the road.
2. Install b on a.
3. Instruct b to go for a ride.
4. At the conclusion of said ride, inspect the leg hair of b.
     (hey, nobody said science was pretty)

Is it just wet? That's just rain from above. Fender passes inspection.

Is it wet and (ee-yew) gritty? That's road schmutz that got past the fender. Fail.

You're welcome.

(Testing rear fenders involves the inspection of different anatomy, but as this is a family blog, I'll just leave it at that.)

Friday, August 19, 2011

Lead Guitar or Bass?

Yet another tidbit of mundane trivia about yours truly: In a former life, lo those many years ago, I was something of a musician. Not trivial enough for you? Try this: When I was a mere teen, our pep band was selected to play at the Illinois State Basketball Tournament... the same year that the critically acclaimed documentary Hoop Dreams was shot at said tournament. So not only can I claim to have been part of a team that won (the chance to play music at) the Illinois State Basketball Championship, I was also a supporting actor (as in, I acted like I knew how to play the bass my hands were supporting) in an award-winning film. Any reader who can connect me to Kevin Bacon in six moves or less wins a prize. Seriously.

So what, says you, the exasperated reader, does any of this have to do with bicycles? I'm getting there, but you'll have to follow the digression rabbit a bit further down the hole. While I don't play nearly as much as I used to (in fact, i was axeless for the better part of 15 years), I do like to attend concerts -- which is sort of like a guy who never bikes but has every stage of the Giro on his DVR. And when I attend said concerts, I notice the following grotesque generalization:

Lead guitarists have a LOT of guitars. Bass players have one.

You've seen it too, right? The frantic roadies, scrambling to get set for Guitar Change #7, since, heaven forfend the lead slinger would have to play his solo on the BLUE Strat instead of the seemingly identical RED one... or even the OTHER blue one. Meanwhile, parked in the back next to the ride cymbal, the bass player is still thumping away on that same road-worn Precision for the whole dang show, and he'll thump away on it for the next show, and the next show, and the next show, until he finally just plays the frets off the thing and has to retire it.

So here's where we finally get to bikes, if you haven't dozed off already. My grotesque generalization (accurate or not) describes a type... and that type lives in the bike world too. You've got your lead guitar bikers, the ones who have a bike for dirt, a bike for gravel, a bike for asphalt, a bike for climbing, a bike for descending, a bike for riding to the store, a bike for riding to the coffee house, a bike for riding to work, a bike for racing, a bike for touring, blah blah blah blah blah. You know the guy... he's the two-wheeled Nigel Tufnel:

The biking Nigel probably even has a Campy Record bike that... you guessed it... goes to 11 (and no, I didn't write this post just to have an excuse to watch that clip and set up that joke).

But then there are the rare few  bike-folk who take the bass player's approach: One trusty (and probably rusty) axe that goes to ALL the gigs. You know that guy too. The one who always seems to have brought the knife to the gunfight (commuting on a race bike? off-roading a hybrid? knobby tires on asphalt?) yet he does just fine and has a great time doing it. While others go to the bike shop to drool and melt their credit cards on the latest and greatest, he's there to pick up some spare tubes and a random drivetrain part to replace something that's been worn to a nub. He's got The One, and he doesn't need another.

As a musician, I was a bass player -- literally and figuratively. As a cyclist... well, let's say that I'm a recovering lead guitarist.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

See The Tiny Car Eat The Tiny Bike!

In honor of the Iowa State Fair, I thought it was time for a bit of a carnival sideshow slideshow.

First up, the victim, dangerously close to this small but vicious garage predator:

Next, the beast, his jaw agape:

Alas, the beast has unhinged its fangs like a snake preparing to swallow an egg. Stare deep into this black maw if you dare:
All hope of escape is lost:

The interior view, artfully composed by our staff designer:

And finally, my equally artsy self-portrait reflected in the devourer, with the remains of the doomed prey still visible inside:

So there you have it. Honda Fit eats Xootr Swift (fully assembled, no fold required) for breakfast while still leaving room for two human passengers and a lot of luggage. Not a bad little trick... and, I confess, one I've taken advantage of a few times already in the short time we've had the Fit when I was too lazy/weather-wimpy to ride.

Sunday, August 7, 2011

Floppy Fender Fixed Fabulously

Quick follow-up for those who were on the edge of their seats waiting to hear if my Xootr Swift/Planet Bike fender conundrum was all better (sidenote to those people: good grief, get a life): Yup. See above.

As I said I would (because I meant what I said and I said what I meant, an elephant's faithful one hundred percent), I drilled out the rivets holding the fender bracket in place, drilled new (and crooked -- the charm of handmade) holes down where the bracket should have actually been installed in the first place, used nuts/bolts to secure the bracket down there, and taped over the old holes. Result? Rock-solid fenderage. No flop, flutter, or flaccidity. If you look close, it has the unmistakable style of what my straw-hatted and black-bumpered ancestors called "Mennonite Maintenance", but considering all the stuff those Mennonites could fix with string, spit and duct tape, I'll take that as a compliment.

The resulting fenders work as well as any plastic fenders I've used. Their length around the tiny wheels provides absolutely outstanding coverage, keeping road slime off the drivetrain in the front and curing the soaked sphincter issue I was getting from my old clip-on rear fender. It's a good thing.

Saturday, August 6, 2011

Hail To The Cheap: VP-565 Pedals

I have a terrible weakness for contact points, especially pedals and handlebars (I go through intense saddle searches from time to time but tend to find a winner and -- like Potsie -- just sit on it). In the non-clipless pedal arena, though, I think I've found a winner, and it fits my ever-increasing category of "very cheap things that work surprisingly well": the VP-565 BMX/platform pedal.

I bought some 565s after breaking my leg, when I was in a "very wary of clipless" phase. I think they were all of fifteen bucks tops -- cheap enough for an experiment (Googling turns them up for ten Canadian bucks, which -- at current exchange rates -- is three chickens and a goat, as the U.S. economy heads toward a feudal barter system). They have kinda heavy aluminum bodies, not the nicest steel spindles, cast pins (whereas nicer BMX pedals will have screw-in replaceable ones) and some not-terribly-smooth cup and cone bearings. But again, $10 Canadian bucks/three chickens and a goat, so whaddya want? 

As I grew more attached to these pedals you don't attach to, I started to give in to the all-too-common fallacy in cycling: If you spend more, you'll be happier. Thus, I popped for the much-pricier Wellgo MG-1: shockingly light magnesium bodies for their size, screw-in replaceable pins, swanky chromoly spindles, and buttery smooth cartridge bearings. And if you actually followed my links and compared them to the photo above, I think you can deduce the results. Yep, that's the humble, cheap 565 actually mounted on a bike while the swanktacular MG-1 looks up enviously from the garage floor, enjoying a tantalizing moment near a bike before going back to the depths of the parts boxes. 

I wish I could explain it. By all rational means of comparison, the MG-1 absolutely kills the 565. But when I put my fat foot down, I want a 565 under it. Something about the shape of the body and the way those cheap cast pins interfaces with my shoes is just heaven underfoot. The MG-1 is good, don't get me wrong, but it's not perfect. I have to think about keeping my foot on it (even in dry conditions), whereas the 565 just sticks, come rain or come shine. It even comes with reflectors -- which, I admit, are dorky, but the next time you're following a cyclist at night who happens to have pedal reflectors, try to ignore them. I bet you can't. Someday when I'm feeling extra-bored, I'll open them up and load them with grease to see if I can smooth them out, but the wattage I'm losing to bearing drag is so miniscule compared to what it takes to move my corpulent arse through the air, I doubt I'll notice a difference.

In a nutshell, happy feet. I've got those happy feet. Anybody want to buy some really expensive, lightly used BMX pedals?

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Some Assembly Required

When I was a youngster, my sister and I shared what may have been the most amazing toy imaginable. We had a huge, hard-side suitcase absolutely FILLED with LEGOs. And yes, before the pedants pounce, I know that LEGO is a brand and thus should be used as an adjective, as in "LEGO-brand plasticky stick-together building block toystuffs." My only homage to the brand (because it was such a killer toy of my childhood) will be the use of all-caps. That should also quiet the compulsive copyeditor within, too.

Okay, digression boy, so that suitcase full of LEGOs. First, to digress again, that sound... talk about sense memory. Pounds of plastic blocks clattering around in a vintage suitcase. Just thinking about it gives me shakes of joy. Sifting through that multicolored madness  was pleasure-center overload to the nth degree.

The best thing, though, was the process. You'd get a brand new set that the crazed Danish geniuses (Trivia: LEGO comes from the Danish "leg godt", "play well." Thank you Internets.) had designed to build into a car or a plane or something. You follow the instructions, build the car or plane or thing, and then you get to play with that thing. Awesome, right? But it gets better! You get bored with the car or the plane or the thing and dig into your suitcase to customize it. Pretty soon, your plane has four wings or your car has rocket engines... and you get to play with your customized thing. Awesome squared. Finally, in phase 3, you get bored with your customized car or plane or thing, totally disassemble it, and toss the parts into your suitcase... to be reassembled into something entirely new and different. Too awesome for words.

As I think this through, I realize that everything I ever learned about being a bike mechanic, I learned elbow-deep in that suitcase of LEGOs. Obviously, since my kid sister was also elbow-deep in that thing, I had to learn how to cooperate and share. Think that's not a bike mechanic skill? Try working in a shop with three other grease monkeys all using a limited number of tools. But more importantly, LEGOs taught me to appreciate the creative process. Sure, you can start with a box-stock bike, and you'll have fun with that for a while. But what do you do when you get bored? Go to the suitcase! Tweak the gears! Change the contact points! Add a squeaky horn! Knobby tires! Four wings! Rocket engines! And eventually, you'll get bored enough to make it a parts bike, a.k.a. suitcase fodder for the next amazing creation.

I know some bike-folks think it's silly to spend time in the garage that could be spent out riding the bikes. Not me. That's my play time. Leg godt, indeed.