Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Strange Things Afoot: The Search For Wide Shoes

This is why it sucks to be a paddle-footed cyclist.

The low-budget wide shoes I lucked into way back in ought-nine are starting to show their age, and -- knowing how tough it is to fit my mutant flippers -- I have started the Quest for Replacement Footwear. That quest started locally today, with trips to two local shops with my orthotics and a favorite pair of Smartwools in hand (and a very tolerant spouse in tow).

I tried some model from Giro and couldn't even cram my clodhopper in there sans orthotic. Granted, this was not Giro's wide model (the Privateer HV), but if a regular won't even come close, I have little to no hope for the wide.

Okay, so a little research led me to believe that Shimano makes a wide shoe, the MO87G -- and as luck would have it, a local shop stocks the wide. Nice try, fat foot. Even in the wide (clearly labeled WIDE on the tongue), the two Velcro straps barely made it over my vast expanse of forefoot, and the ratchet strap was clinging desperately to the last couple notches. The internal volume was tolerable in a  very thin sock, but come winter, I'd be hurting. Strike two.

And here's where things get weird: I'd read on the Internets (where everything can be trusted) that Specialized shoes are being made on a pretty wide last this year. So, with little hope in my heart, I tried a Comp MTB. The angels sang, my toes wiggled, and nothing got squooshed. But that's a $150 shoe, and I'm a cheapskate (which is why the Sidi Dominator Mega is notably absent from my footwear fashion show, despite rave reviews from just about anyone who's tried on a pair), so I tried the less-expensive Sport MTB. BZZZT. You lose, cheapskate. Torture-device narrow.

And now, home in the comfort of my jammies, I notice that there's even a wide(r) version of those darn-near-heavenly Specialized Comp MTBs listed on the Specialized site... as "out of stock." Which only means that if I can quiet the Cheapskate Within and go back for those regular-width ones, I'll always wonder if they could be just that much better (grumble, grumble, grumble...)

The moral of this excruciatingly dull tale: If you have normal feet, count your blessings.

Sunday, July 22, 2012

Battle Of The Bottles

A few weeks ago, I posted a not-entirely-favorable review of the Camelbak insulated water bottle (shown on the left). While I wasn't entirely enamoured of Camelbak's take on the concept, the continuing Tatooine-like conditions (apparently, I can't describe heat without a geeky Star Wars metaphor) gripping Iowa kept insisting that a way to keep water colder longer was a good idea.

Enter the Polar bottle, shown on the right. Polar's the grand-daddy of the insulated bottle... I remember selling these things way back before the turn of the century, though I never gave them much thought myself (some kind of retro-snobby "regular bottles are fine" sentiment, methinks). At first glance, the Polar seems to address some of the shortcomings I noted in my Camelbak review:
  • THE CAP: On the Camelbak bottle, there's a rubber membrane (the blue part) covered by a rubbery plastic cap (the clear part). The whole thing twists (at those silvery wings) to provide a total seal. The Polar bottle uses a more traditional cap, similar to standard Specialized water bottles... a soft rubber poppet that pulls in and out of a plastic valve to provide a seal. Both provide water when you want it and seal when you don't, but the Polar does it more simply.
  • CARE AND FEEDING: I still have no idea how to clean that clear part over the membrane on the Camelbak bottle and keep it free of gunk. The circumcised cap (ew, now I'll be stuck with that image every time I take a drink) on the Polar bottle, however, provides easy access to all drinking parts. Also, while Camelbak specifically says their bottle should not go in the dishwasher, Polar specifically says yes to the lazy-man's cleaning technique... a real bonus for this lazy man.
  • LEAKAGE: Sadly, both bottles fall prey to the dreaded threaded-cap spillage. The Polar seems to do it a little less than the Camelbak, but both will still provide an unprovoked frontal shower from time to time.
  • COUNTRY OF ORIGIN: Okay, full disclosure, I did not mention this in my original review of the Camelbak, simply because I'm not usually one to get my knickers in a huge twist over where products are produced (please, spare me the flames). However, for those who do twist their knickers over such things, the Camelbak is Chinese while the Polar's from the U. S. of A.
  • SQUEEZABILITY: I didn't mention this one either, but since Commenter Steve did in regards to his Polar, I'll mention it here. The double-wall construction of both bottles does make it tougher to squeeze out a drink with my desk-job-soft hands. Both share this trait in equal measure, and both can be suckled, so it's a push (I probably didn't notice since I'm used to entirely un-squeezable Kleen Kanteens).

So, you're asking (those of you who haven't dozed off yet, that is), how do they perform in the sauna? As luck would have it, I did two hours of suffering in the 100-something heat index today with both bottles. This is how much I care about you, dear reader. I suffer for my art.

Both bottles left the house filled with as many ice cubes as I could cram in, then topped  off with cold water. Both earn high marks for easy-ice-fillabilty, by the way... the wide mouths allow me to pack them with cubes straight from the fridge door ice dispenser. After an hour of riding in some pretty intense sunlight, both bottles, still had a few ice cubes left, and the water was still brain-freezingly cold in both. I did my best to alternate my drinks between the two, figuring that each drink probably introduced warm air into the bottle and accelerated warming (nothing scientific here, but I made an effort). After an hour and a half, both were free of ice, but the water I hadn't already sucked out was still refreshingly cool. At that point, I'd pretty much drained both and had to refill them from a not-incredibly-cold water fountain. Those refills were still tolerable at the two-hour mark but were slowly headed toward soup temperature.

(Verbose Parenthetical Aside: One more thing I hadn't noticed before today's test was the width of these bottles. I'd been running one insulated bottle only, and put it in my downtube cage. With either one in my seattube cage, I had to position the bottle very carefully to keep from grazing it with my calves. Those with less-fat calves or wider cranks might not notice, though. This "feature" was shared by both bottles, so it's a push. It may also be shared with conventional wide-mouth bottles, since I haven't run one of those in a seattube cage in years.)

The bottom line? If there was a difference in these bottles' ability to insulate, it was much too subtle for my heat-addled brain to detect. Both did a great job providing cold water long after the point where a conventional bottle (even one that started the day packed with ice) would have been delivering a steaming serving of broth. My preference is for the Polar just for its simplicity and dishwasherability, though it would be better with a bit more attention paid to leak-proofing the threaded connection.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Old Man, New Tech, Part 2: Cranky Guy Tries Compact Cranks

As with the first part of this Old Man series, I know that the compact double road crank is nothing terribly new -- even your geezerly narrator has been bodging them together on old mountain bike cranks since the early oughts. But my current road steed is the first I've ridden with an actual off-the-shelf compact road double, so I figured it was worth a more lengthy mention than the toss-off it got in the review linked above.

First, I should provide the ever-present disclaimer that gearing is a personal (and for some, damn near religious) choice, and that what works for me is influenced by the board-flat terrain of Iowa, my own substantial girth, and a pair of knees that have aged like a fine bottle of Boone's Farm. If you're a 20-something whippet with nothing to do all day but train, or if your area of the country has real geography, your needs are going to be different.

That said, I'm getting rather attached to the 34/50 double (with an 11-26, correction, make that a 12-26 nine-speed cluster out back). Coming off a touring bike with a 42-tooth big ring, I initially feared the "big meat" of a 50, but it turns out that 50 teeth puts my cruising gears right in the sweet spot of the cassette on a lighter road bike. As weird and gappy as it looks on paper, it plays well for me in practice.

Lest this be a one-sided (and even more dull than usual) review, there are some things to watch with a big-range compact twofer. While you can pretty much cross over the cassette with impunity on the big ring (a nice feature when you just need to power over a little rise without a front shift), the small ring is limited to the inside of the cassette. About halfway across, the chain will start to foul the ramps on the big ring, and pretty soon you're looking at an accidental (and noisy) front shift. Not fun.

Also, the compact double is NOT the gearing for gearchart nerds (I say this with love, having been a gearchart nerd for many years). It doesn't really shift in a logical "next biggest gear is right here" progression. The 34 is a stump-puller/hill-climber/get-the-wide-load-moving-from-a-stop gear, and once things are in motion, it's 50 time. If you're the sort of rider who wants to be able to go from your 70" gear to your 71" with one artfully-executed double-shift of your half-step-plus-granny (kids, that's how touring bikes used to be geared -- I can't explain it, so you'll have to look it up, perhaps by asking your granny), look elsewhere.

One last quibble -- a 16-tooth jump between chainrings is HUGE. I don't mind it as a downshift, since when I'm reaching for that 34, I expect (and usually want in a bad way) a very small gear. The jump up from 34 to 50 can be a shock to the system, though. I have to force myself to really get a hamster-spin going before I reach for the big stuff, lest I find myself grinding knee cartilage in a way-too-tall gear after the shift.

I'd also like to amend my quibble from the first part of the Old Man series regarding front derailleur trim on this particular crank. For reasons I can't explain, I don't really need to do that "up then down" shift and trim sequence I described any more. My guess is that cable stretch has taken just a skidge of travel out of the initial shift, so it positions in a non-rubbing spot and doesn't need a trim. Regardless, it's working just fine, and forcing me to rethink some of my grouchy Luddite tendencies regarding indexed front shifting.

Saturday, July 14, 2012

Hail To The Cheap: A Preliminary Crank Brothers Candy 1 Review

I haven't done much with my Hail To The Cheap series lately, so I thought it was time to talk pedals. After my recent close encounter with bike ninjas, I found that one of my trusted Time ATACs had been rudely shoved up on its spindle, preventing it from spinning at all. I was able to gently adjust it back into something approximating usability (read: "whack it with a hammer"), but it was clear that the innards were pretty toasted. Not bad for a set of pedals I bought used for ten bucks (now THAT'S cheap) with who-knows-how-many miles on them already, then proceeded to add maybe 10,000 miles of my own.

So, with a set of ATAC cleats already on my shoes, I figured I'd just buy another set. Only found the super-top-end ones locally (and remember, I'm cheap), had some shipping challenges with a non-local vendor, and, in quasi-desperation, finally wound up grabbing the entry-level model of the redesigned Crank Brothers Candy (shown above) as a stopgap. I figured they'd hold me until I got what I really wanted. (For those looking for continuity errors, I did remove my ATAC cleats and install the Crank Brothers, since -- obviously -- they aren't cross-compatible.)

About 800 miles later, I have to say I'm more than a little impressed. The float on the Candys is actually floatier (that's a technical term) than my old ATACs, a pedal known for being chock full of knee friendliness. The (non-adjustable) release tension is very soft on the entry-level model (maybe a bit too soft for hardcore flailers/mad-air-catchers), but I haven't released accidentally yet. Click-in is as easy as pie, probably thanks to those soft springs. They seem to have decent support for my wide dogs (even though the bodies are just plastic and fairly small), the bearings spin nicely, and -- for those who care -- the pedals are pretty darn light. I'm not a fan of the "no wrench flats" style of spindle that requires installation with a hex wrench from the backside, but that's pretty quibbly. And the black finish (paint, methinks) on the spring is wearing off, but again, just aesthetic nit-pickery there.

If I have any concerns about these pedals, it's how they will hold up long-term. Earlier generations of Crank Brothers clipless pedals didn't exactly have a reputation for robustness, and while the nicer current models (Candy 2 and up) boast a laundry list of toughening-up features, the basic ones lack a lot of those features. I'll report back on how they're doing as the miles start to pile up, especially into the Fall as those miles get sloppier.

All in all, though, I'd recommend the Crank Brothers Candy 1 as a good entry-level pedal, perfect for someone new to cliplessness. Even as a non-newbie, I actually prefer their float and entry/release over that of the ubiquitous entry-level Shimano SPDs. (Aside: I find cheap SPDs to be the Budweiser of cliplessness: Available everywhere, gets the job done, but otherwise not worth mentioning.)

So, the 800-mile review: Two big toes up, and I haven't missed my ATACs yet. We'll see how they do over the next 800 miles.

(Obligatory Disclaimer: As always, if you hit that Spamazon link and buy something, I supposedly get some money back. Also, Crank Brothers didn't provide any product for this review -- I paid for the pedals with my own grubby greenbacks. There, I feel much better.)

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Basic Netiquette for Bike Shops

This is an intervention for the bike shops out there who exist on the web -- and I'm not talking "Google can find you" existence. I mean, you have a site, and that site has some kind of electronic contact mechanism. Basically, an "e-mail us" link. If you have a site that invites electronic feedback from your customers, ANSWER IT.

Seems pretty simple, right? But I can't tell you how many questions I've sent to a bike shop's e-mail address that apparently went down a very deep well, never to be heard from again. The argument I've heard from shop folks is that e-mail takes up too much time for too little return. And sure, many of those messages won't lead to a sale. But when someone walks through the door of your brick-and-mortar store, do you just sit in the back until they leave under the assumption that they were probably just looking around and didn't want to buy anything? I doubt it.

My own fleet is a case study in how a responsive web presence can make for a happy customer. The tandem was a previous year's leftover on the "closeouts" page at Williamson Bicycle Works in Madison, WI. My stoker and I were in the market, and just happened to be planning a trip to Madison, so I pinged the shop to set up a test ride. Got a very quick and helpful response from someone at the shop, and a few weeks later, we owned a tandem -- and Williamson said goodbye to a bike that might have languished for years.

My recent Raleigh Clubman purchase was another great example. I knew I wanted the 2011 model (for freakishly compulsive/bike geekish reasons I won't bore you with now), so I sent a message to a Des Moines Raleigh dealer (who shall remain nameless, for reasons you'll learn shortly) and Skunk River Cycles up in Ames. The Skunk River guys got back to me right away, did some legwork with Raleigh to track down exactly the bike I was looking for, invited me up for a test ride of some others they had in stock, and as a result, made a sale and a customer for life. That Des Moines shop? I'm still waiting for their e-mail. At some point, I'm going to ride the Clubman to their store and pull the Pretty Woman on them: "You work on commission, right?"

Now, I can hear shop people in my audience of three saying, "Geez, Jason, you e-mail shops in your own town? Pick up the dang phone already!" The thing is, I'm a bit of a nocturnal shopper. I'm usually working  or riding during the hours that bike shops are open, so the web lets me figure this stuff out (and -- hopefully -- get some questions answered) when it's convenient for me. Then I can decide if it's worth it to make the trip to the shop on the weekend.

Lest you bike shop customers out there think you're off the hook for good netiquette, here's a simple rule for you to live by as well: If you try it there, buy it there. Don't go to the shop, use their staff and inventory to figure out that you wear a size 44 shoe, and go home to order that same size 44 for five bucks cheaper online. if your shop goes to the trouble of stocking something you need, get it from them (unless their prices are absolutely bat-feces insane compared to the rest of the world, but I kinda doubt they'd still be in business if that were the case). And if they give you good advice (sadly, a rare commodity in a lot of shops), reward them with a purchase -- maybe not today, but soon.

Saturday, July 7, 2012

The Camelbak Bottle: A Triumph Of Engineering Over Common Sense

I mean no offense to engineers. After all, some of my best friends are engineers (hi, Steve!) But after a few weeks of use, I'm convinced that Camelbak's attempt at a water bottle is an shining example of a very complex solution applied to the very simple problem of putting water down your gullet.

First things first: If you're a student of the History of Hydration, you know that Camelbak made their vast fortunes on the idea that water should be carried upon one's back rather than in a frame-mounted bottle. When 'baks first hit the scene (in the halcyon early days of mountain biking), there was much talk of how nasty stuff could get on your bottle, find its way into your digestive tract, and raise a ruckus in there. So you would think that when Camelbak went to bottles, they'd make sure that it would be easy to clean the nasties off. But no. The cap (over)design has an always-open hole over the seal/membrane thingy that seems like a luxury condominum for bacteria. And the bottle isn't dishwasher-compliant, so the chances a slob like me will keep it clean go down exponentially.

All this would be forgivable if the bottle addressed one of the biggest engineering challenges of water bottle-dom: Leakage. The drinking portion of the cap discussed above does an amazing job of that. Water's only coming out of there when you want it to come out of there. But, water being water, it finds the path of least resistance, which in this case would be the threaded junction between the body of the bottle and the cap, with predictable results:

So, while I had high hopes for this bottle (especially after Bicycle Quarterly recently gave it a glowing review), I'm going back to my tried and true Kleen Kanteens. Sure, they aren't insulated, they rattle in a cage, and the valve makes me sound like Perry the Platypus, but I can throw them in the dishwasher (caps and all) and drink from them without getting a bonus shower.

AMENDED REVIEW: I gave the camel-bottle one more test today in our ridiculous Dagobah-esque climate (uh, heat index of 110F?) -- the conditions that motivated me to try an insulated bottle in the first place -- and would like to soften my review a bit as a result. I used this bottle alongside a standard Specialized bottle (both filled with ice and water), and after an hour, the water in the Specialized bottle was approximately the temperature of a bowl of chicken broth. The Camelbak bottle? Still refreshingly cool, with a couple fragments of ice left. Of course, it was even more refreshing when the stupid thing leaked (as usual) its still-chilled contents down the front of my sweat-soaked shirt. So the insulation works and earns the coveted "things that don't suck" keyword, while the cap gets to keep its original "things that suck."

Monday, July 2, 2012

Would You Quit?

This is not a story about the Affordable Care Act, or health insurance, or politics, or the Supreme Court, or the presidential election. Regular readers know that I keep this space as apolitical as humanly possible because that sort of thing just isn't in my wheelhouse.

This is a story about my good friend Amy, who -- thanks to a terrifying health scare -- has become a spokesperson for the Affordable Care Act. I want to tell my friend Amy's story, but nobody tells it as well as Amy does. Thus, the gentleman yields the floor:

So there's your backstory. On to the question at hand.

Better Half and I went to dinner with Amy and her husband Ross not long ago, and the pressing question on Amy's mind for me that night was, what if your doctors said you should no longer do what you love to do? I bounced it around, a brain-twisting hypothetical for me -- but it's a reality for my friend. After all, once you've done time in a medically-induced coma, all systems going dark thanks to the fungal infection you picked up falling out of your kayak into a lake, the medical staff that (somehow, miraculously) brought you back amongst the world of the living isn't keen on seeing you paddle out again. They'd rather you handle their handiwork with extreme caution.

I tried, really tried, to put good brain cells against that question, but I'm not sure you can get there unless you've been there. Sure, I broke my femur once, the major connecting rod to one of the pistons in my two-cylinder engine. And while there were moments in my recovery when I wondered if I really could ride again, my supremely arrogant surgeon (I kid because I love, Dr. T) seemed never to doubt that I'd turn pedals, and soon. And he was right. I never had to face that stark wall of "AGAINST MEDICAL ADVICE". I got my aftermarket hardware, sat out part of one biking season, and popped right back up, a well-insured Weeble with only a bitchin' scar and some 'splainin' to do at airport security to show for it.

But Amy really has to decide. To do the thing she loves, literally risking death to go out on the water, or to put it aside and spend the rest of her life on the shore. It's easy to have the flip answer, the swaggering, "Hell no! I wouldn't quit!" Think that through again, though. Think about someone you care about, who cares about you. You don't have to live with the consequences, but that person does. Has to go through the rest of their life wondering why they didn't try harder to stop you.

I could turn this one over in my head for years and not have an answer. I guess I'll just be happy with the fact that I still have my good friend Amy around to ask the question.