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.

Thursday, September 1, 2011

Iced, To Go

At long last, I've found the crossover point between my crippling bicycle addiction and my crippling coffee addiction:

 The Great Convergence consists of:
  • An 18-ounce Kleen Kanteen water bottle, which you may know from such posts as The 12 6 Days of Festivus, Part 1.
  • A regular old neoprene can-insulator-cozy-thingie. Not an essential element of the Great Convergence, but nice to have. Keeps the bottle from rattling in your cage, if nothing else. Mine's from local convenience store chain and cyclist oasis Kum & Go (which has a corresponding immature rhyming nickname, but I'm trying to reclaim this place as a family blog after my potty-mouthedness earlier this week. If you figure it out, keep it to yourself.)
  • One packet of Starbucks Via instant iced coffee mix. Yes, I know, boo, hiss, Starbucks. Stay with me, fellow coffee snobs.

So here's the deal. You're out on a ride, and your energy's flagging. Dang, a little caffeine would just about do the trick right now. Luckily, you're carrying your water in an 18-ounce stainless steel bottle and you just happen to be packing one of those Starbucks packets. Pour one into the other (do I have to specify which way to pour, or can I trust you not to try to put 18 ounces of water into a packet the size of your thumb?), shake well, and chugalug. Instant cold energy. Even better, if you happen to be near one of those Kum & Go stores, pop in and hit them up for some ice. You're carrying an advertisement for them... how can they refuse?

Proponents of plastic bottles will no doubt let me know that there's nothing in this recipe that requires stainless steel... but I suspect that getting the coffee taste (and color) out of a plastic bottle could be a challenge. The Kleen Kanteens (as their name suggests) kleen up nicely post-coffee-portage. Thus, I recommend 'em over plastic in this application. 

Is it the world's greatest, most wonderfullest coffee? Nah. But it's surprisingly tolerable for being a) instant, b) Starbucks, and c) instant Starbucks. Plus, the cold Via packets have some sugar in them, so there's the tiniest simple-carbs kick on top of the caffeine. All things considered, it makes for an easy and tasty mid-ride pick-me-up.