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.