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.