Saturday, December 7, 2013

Tried & Liked 2013: Getting Underfoot

I can't remember if I got these in 2013, but I'm pretty sure this was my first full season on them, plus I never got around to a promised long-term review, and hey, it's my blog so I can make up the rules as I go:

I first tried the Crank Brothers Candy in a desperate attempt to find something that felt like my old crash-wrecked Time ATACs without the expense. After about 2,000 miles, I can now say that this pedal is a (qualified) success in that role.

The best thing about the Candy is its float and ease of entry/release. The "wire loop" retention (like Time's) allows my whole foot to move laterally in addition to the wide rotational float. For someone with wonky knees, it's heaven. I didn't know just how good it was until I recently tried Shimano SPDs again and felt like I'd been taped to the pedals, Dave Stohler-style. I think these may even be floatier than my old ATACs. On paper, they probably don't float as much as Speedplay Frogs, but since Frogs lack that lateral component, I actually prefer the Crank Bros.

The release is laughably easy, enough that these probably aren't for crazy aggressive riders. I've never popped out unintentionally, but I also don't go for flailing sprints or wacky offroad stunts. If you know you like a pedal that hangs on tight, these aren't for you, especially since there's no adjustment to the spring retention. It is what it is, and you aren't going to change it.

The knock on Crank Brothers pedals has always been durability, though. And while I haven't been able to kill the pedals themselves (which continue to spin like new despite a lot of miles in not-so-wonderful conditions), the "qualified" parenthetical above has to do with cleat wear. The cleats claim to be brass, but I suspect they're carved from butter (and this is Iowa, where we know butter sculpture). My Time cleats (also brass) lasted several years before they were even close to needing replacement, while I've been through two sets of "premium" Crank Brothers cleats in one season. I've also needed a set of Crank Brothers "shoe shields" (stainless plates that go between the cleat and your shoe) to keep my shoes from getting notched by the pedals, though it looks like those will outlast several more pairs of cleats.

Still, because of that lovely float, I'll keep putting up with the cleat expense. Sure, one pair of Candys and three sets of cleats would have bought me a new set of ATACs -- but keep in mind, like any good bike geek, I'm outfitting a fleet. If I don't clip in on the tandem, Quadzilla the Stokemonster will yank the pedals right out from under me. So, despite the cleats, I'm giving the Crank Brothers Candy 1 my coveted Hail to the Cheap award for bike stuff that punches above its weight class. If they can toughen up those cleats without making them more expensive, they could have an unqualified winner.

(The usual disclaimer: I buy my pedals with my own pennies, and was not plied with cash, free product, or sandwiches for this review. If you buy some via that Amazon link, I make a tiny cut. And as Steve of Peoria will likely mention in a comment, I'm exceedingly fickle about pedals, so I've probably contradicted myself on the topic multiple times throughout the life of this blog -- and will do so many more times. Which is to say this review is worth precisely what you paid for it.)

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

On Trickle-Down Technologies And Canaries In The Coal Mine

As a self-proclaimed Luddite, I set myself up to be ignored. A lot. "Oh, there goes Old Man Nunemaker again, blathering on about how back in the day, they only had 6-speed freewheels and thumbshifters and rigid forks. Somebody distract him with an episode of Matlock to shut him up."

And yes, I am guilty of wearing my sunglasses with the rose-colored lens of nostalgia. It's one of the hazards of being human. I forget that the motor powering the bike was a lot younger and a lot stronger back in the day, so maybe it wasn't the equipment of the late 80s and early 90s that made the riding so much fun.

Still, as the big players continue to escalate the arms race of more cogs crammed into a cassette, electronic controls, carbon everything, and disc-brake-only frames, I worry that the trickle-down "ride the same stuff as the pros!" mentality is going to leave the Luddites in the lurch. For those of us who don't  want to ride the same stuff as the pros, what choices will we have?

The N=N+1 race in rear cogs has been going on so long that I've learned to live with it. Plus, the big players have (for the most part) continued to support the "outdated" standards. I don't like 5- or 6-speed freewheels, but if I did, I could get them. 7- or 8-speed cassettes? Sure. Chains? No problem. But unfortunately, as the old standards become the stuff of department store junk, the shifters that go with them go as well. Want a really well made 7-speed shifter? Better hope somebody has new-old stock on eBay, because current production is probably made for a bicycle-shaped object from one of the dash-mart (K- or Wal-) stores.

What really gets my chamois in a twist, though, is the way electronic shifting and disc brakes may change the way frames are made as they trickle their way down from "pro-level" to "everybody else." Take discs. First, you have to add the caliper mounts. Ugly, sure, but tolerable. And maybe manufacturers will keep making frames with the option to mount other brake styles (though I kinda doubt it, since it would cost more). But having those disc caliper mounts means you also need to beef up your stays and forks to handle the load of a disc brake, which changes the way the bike feels, discs or no discs. As an admitted princess-and-the-pea rider, it's a tradeoff I'd rather not live with.

Electronic shifting could have the same impact. Lots of new (and high-end, admittedly) frames are now coming "optimized" for electronics: No cable stops or guides, just entry and exit ports for a little wire. Now, I don't know if electronics will ever get cheap enough to trickle down... but if they do, and if "electronic-specific" frames become the rule, what's left for those of us who don't want to rely on a battery to run our drivetrains?

Admittedly, the picture isn't quite as bleak as I make it out to be. Between the interweb as a seemingly bottomless source of old and obscure parts and the increasing niche-ification of the sport cranking out kit to support all sorts of weirdos, I'm guessing the Luddites will do just fine. And even if the big boys stop making the frames we want, there are plenty of  small companies looking for unique markets, not to mention custom framebuilders more than happy to turn an idea into metal.

Now, if you'll excuse me, there are some darn kids on my lawn, and Matlock is about to start...

Monday, November 25, 2013

Tried & Liked 2013: Happy Tuchus, Happy Rider

With the year drawing to a close, it's time to scroll back through 2013 and compile my list of new stuff that I tried out and deemed lacking in suckitude.

Because I only try new saddles during years that end with a number, I put yet another new perch under my bum in 2013, the Terry Fly, in its less-expensive chromoly railway:

My first impression of the Fly (after setting it up level like I do with my other saddles) was a definitive "uh, no thank you." Without getting too graphic, let's just say that it almost immediately caused the (ahem) "condition" that it purports to cure. And lo, my nether regions were greatly displeased.

I am nothing if not stubborn, however, so I did a bit of reading on the Internets and learned that many folks get on better with the Fly if the nose is angled ever so slightly up. I did exactly that, and presto: Disappearing saddle. Seriously. I didn't give it a second thought from that day forward. Long rides, short rides, rides in Lycra, rides in baggy shorts, rides in jeans (JEANS, for Pete's sake!)... the saddle was simply a non-thing. I think that's why I haven't mentioned it here until now. I forgot about it.

The hole is weird, yes. And I have no idea if it's working any magic with the blood flow in the land down under. Frankly, I don't care. It's just comfortable.

(Interesting side note about the chromoly-rail model: The rails attach to little flexible "bridges" in the back rather than directly to the shell. It's hard to say whether that adds any comfort, though it should in theory. It does, however, provide a couple mounting points for the straps of a traditional saddlebag if you're so inclined.)

The Obligatory Disclaimer: I bought my saddle with pennies I saved from my paper route, and was not bribed or coerced to say nice things about it. If you go to that Amazon link and buy one, however, I'll make a cut on the deal. So there's that.

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Birthday Memories

Yep, the geezer behind this blogular endeavor turned over another digit on the ol' odometer of life last week, proving yet again that Indiana Jones was right: It's not the years, it's the mileage.

Dear Mum sent me a little birthday package that included an Xfire tail light with frickin' laser beams so I can make my own bike lane wherever I go (Mum worries about her little boy's safety, and can't resist the oddest of bicycle gadgetry gifts). I'll review it eventually, but it was the other gift in the package (something she "just happened to find while going through boxes") that made me even happier:

If this were just a bicycle belt buckle, meh. I'm not the sort who feels the need to collect random stuff that just happens to have bikes on it (insert nightmare vision of being crushed to death under an avalanche of bicycle knick-knacks here). But this belt buckle belonged to my late Grandpa N, who was an absolute biking fiend. Since I love the photo in that linked post, let's put it up again:

So the belt buckle: Not just any old bicycle knick-knack. He WORE that thing. Daily. He's probably wearing it in that photo. I don't think he was allowed to wear it to church, but if he wasn't in his Sunday clothes, that brass bicycle was probably keeping his pants up. My lousy photography doesn't show it, but the brass has the patina to back up my story. Sure, you can go to the hardware store and buy any number of faucets and light fixtures in brand-new, fake aged brass, but this is some AGED brass, with a little bit of blue-green in the crevices to show off its copper content (appropriate for a guy who made his living stringing copper wires).

I can't decide if I want to actually use it myself (adding my own patina, I suppose) or display it, but for now, I'm just happy to turn it over in my hands and remember the man who wore it.

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Seasonal Bike Disorder

Wish I could take credit for that title, but it comes courtesy of Dear Spouse/Chief Graphic Design Smartypants/Tandem Power Plant.

It's the condition that befalls me every autumn... days get shorter, temperatures get colder, and for some inexplicable reason, I get the urge to mess with the bike fleet. For the longest time, I thought it was just me (and so I kept this shameful condition to myself), but now blog-pal bikelovejones has also admitted to a case of Seasonal Bike Disorder.

So what causes it? Well, this is the season of post-industry trade show gadget lust. All the sparkly new stuff has been displayed at Interbike, and photos have trickled down through the bike media to everyday schlubs like me. But despite the amount of "here's some bike gadget I bought that I'm going to review to hear myself talk" that you see on this blog, I'm not much of a "must have new thing" gear-luster. If anything, I'm a curmudgeon who leans more toward "new thing evil! burn the witch!" I won't speak for bikelovejones, but I have to imagine that anyone still running a mechanical odometer isn't exactly prone to plunge blindly into this year's latest and greatest either.

Is it some urge to buy performance as the season winds down? Not really. I've long since given up on the idea of being fast, much less the idea that I can spend money to get fast. I was given this body and, more importantly, this almost-imperceptible level of motivation to "train." I'm as fast as I'm gonna get, and have zero desire to get any faster. Plus, my SBD (no, not Silent But Deadly... stay with me, Beavis) is just as likely to manifest itself in an urge to get rid of gear as it is to add to the collection. Heck, this year's oddball thought has been, "If I like the Raleigh so much for commuting, why exactly do I need the folding bike?"

If you think I'm driving at some sort of point/grand revelation/enlightening epiphany here, I'm sorry to disappoint. It's only this year (after doing the bike thing for the entirety of my adult life and a good portion of my larval stage) that I even saw the pattern in myself. It make take a few more years (and a few more SBD cycles) before I figure it out.

Friday, October 18, 2013

Lighting Nerd Chronicles: A SafeRide In The Hand

Okay, so some nitty and/or gritty. Still no real-world riding review (haven't been out in the dark all that much), but some actual hands-on stuff.

My first impression of the Philips SafeRide as I opened the box was, "Gosh, that is a BIG light! And kinda heavy!" Imagine my surprise when I realized the (provided, rechargeable) batteries weren't even installed yet -- I was holding an almost empty shell.

But what a shell it is! All brushed aluminum (though also available in black), and seemingly tough enough to drive nails. The two halves are held together by a 3mm Allen-headed screw, and the manufacturer was even kind enough to provide the appropriate wrench for it in the package. Needing a tool to swap batteries could be a nuisance if you're going to run it all night and require a battery swap mid-ride, but for my normal commuting use (where I'll have time overnight to charge it up via the mini-USB port on the back), I don't mind. I've read reports from other users that it's no big whoop to replace that screw with a thumbscrew for tool-free access to the innards.

Up top, there's a blue charge status light that gradually gets smaller until you're out of juice (and pulses like a tiny Cylon during charging) and a rubberized on/off switch that's easy to operate while gloved. You can also see the illuminated edge of the lens at the top of the photo above, which provides some side lighting.

The bracket is equally beefy. If you've seen the old Planet Bike bracket (before they went to a ratcheting hose-clamp to accommodate 31.8mm bars), imagine that clamp on steroids:

The thumbscrew bolt and slotted clamp make it easy to move the bracket from bike to bike. I'm also a fan of the shim system -- the bare clamp is big enough for 31.8mm bars, then a couple sets of interlocking rubber shims bring it down to what I consider "normal" bar size. The "interlocking" part is what I like -- no losing a stack of loose rubber strips when you remove the clamp. The bracket also pivots left or right with an audible "click" (and more than a little force), so there's very little chance it could point off in the wrong direction of its own accord.

So I mentioned that this was a big, honkin' light, right? In fact, when I put it on my bars the first time, I thought, "Dang, that looks pretty clunky and massive." However, I'm giving it a pass, for four reasons:
  1. I'm pretty clunky and massive.
  2. Part of the size comes from the fact that it runs on four AA batteries, which passes my "even number of commonly available batteries" test for easy charging (assuming I ever run it on batteries that charge outside the light).
  3. The other part of the size comes from a really big lens, which passes my "doesn't look like a laser pointer to other vehicles" test.
  4. Pal Steve K. the Professional Electron Wrangler (who's so bad-arse, he makes his OWN lights) has hypothesized that all that aluminum functions as a heat sink to protect the LEDs.
However, being way too obsessive about such things, I did put my brain to work on alternate mounting solutions to get this thing a) centered, and b) a little lower on the bars. Take the clamps from an old set of Cinelli Spinaci aerobars (how did THOSE get in my parts box?) and a chunk of old handlebar, and voila! Homemade accessory bar!

I like this solution, but I think there could be an even more elegant one. See, it looks like the part of the clamp that actually attaches to the underside of the light is held on by two bolts:

My thinking is, an old front reflector bracket (the beefy steel kind) could be installed on the fork crown and bent so that the mounting holes are quasi-perpendicular to the ground. Then, remove the mounting bracket piece and use the bolts to mount to that bracket instead. Of course, it would require a really strong bracket so as not to fatigue, fail, and fall off; it would defeat the "easy to move among bikes" feature (flip side: also defeats the "easy to steal" bug); and I'd have to park the whole bike close enough to an outlet to charge the light with the included cord.

So, on perceived initial quality and meeting my arbitrary list of bike light features, we have a winner. Next up, I'll go play in the dark (which is getting easier and easier as the days get shorter) and report on what really matters: Does the darn thing work? 

Disclaimer again: The Cycle paid for this light like any other schlub off the street, and was not compensated in any way for this review, other than the pleasure I get from hearing myself babble on the Internet. And, as usual, if you follow that Amazon link in paragraph two and buy stuff, I get a tiny kickback.

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Lighting Nerd Chronicles: The Philips SafeRide In Theory

First, if you're saying, "What exactly is a Philips SafeRide?" don't feel bad. You won't find these things on the shelves of your typical bike shop. In fact, I've never seen one in a bike shop. I only found mine because I was tipped off to a good deal on (yes, again) Amazon. Now that I got mine, Jack, I'll also share:

Moving up the obligatory disclaimer to make it painfully obvious, because I'm feeling guilty about being too spammy: My SafeRide was a gift... from my lovely wife.And while she did allow me to marry her, I've done my best not to let that color my judgment in this review. If you follow that link to Amazon and buy something, I'll get a cut. Thanks, I feel better now.

So anyway: What's the deal with the SafeRide, and why did I feel the need to get one rather than buying any number of perfectly good lights in ye olde LBS? The hook on this light is that it gets a stamp of approval under the German rules for road vehicles (StVZO for short, which, if I know my German heritage, is an abbreviation for a word of approximately 93 characters and 14 umlauts). "But Jason," you're asking, "why do I care, since I don't plan to ride my bike in Germany?" Here's why: The StVZO rules say that it's not nice to blind people with your headlights, whether you're a four-wheeled internally combusting engine or a two-wheeled, schnitzel-powered one. So a bicycle headlight meeting these rules has to have a defined top cutoff to keep the light on the road rather than in the retinas of an oncoming driver.

If you look at some of the beam shots in one of my old lighting posts, you can see what I'm talking about. Most bike lights (including all the other ones I've tested to date) have round reflectors, which shoot light out in a big cone. Some of that cone hits the ground, helping you. Some of it hits other people in the eyes, enraging them. And a lot of it just shoots up into the air for no good reason. The SafeRide (and other StVZO-approved lights) have shaped lenses that cut off the top of the beam like a car headlight, as shown in this recent photo from our lighting test bathroom... er, lab here at The Cycle:

"Big deal," you're saying. "I like blinding people." I get that. I'm as antisocial as the next fella (okay, maybe more antisocial). But what I don't like is all that light blasting up into the sky, wasting my batteries without doing me any good. An StVZO-approved light won't do that. It's putting all your photons down on the road where you need them.

So there you have it: An introduction to the obscure world of European traffic regulations. Sorry you asked? Next up will be some actual hands-on stuff about the SafeRide, I promise.

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

The Continued Quest For Enlightenment

Yup, it's that time of year again... time to pander to the bike lighting nerds! You know who you are. First up, the Knog Boomer, which has only one steady setting and about a dozen weird flashing patterns that probably spell out "hipster" in Morse code:

For fans of my "beam shots captured in a dark bathroom" series (which is gonna get a gallery show someday, I swear), one caveat -- my camera (a.k.a. my phone) has been through several purported "upgrades" since I last went on a headlight photography binge, so any comparisons between this post and previous lighting posts should be made at your own risk. Bad science? Probably. But still worth precisely what you paid for it.

Anyway, as you can see, ol' Knoggy puts out a fairly blue light, round beam, bit of a corona, and some odd shaded bits mid-beam. I've used this as my only commuting light a few times, and in a city setting with plenty of ambient light, it gets the job done. I wouldn't count on it as my only light source on a dark, unfamiliar trail, though.

What I really do like about the Knog (and its matching tail light) is the hipster-approved rubber strap mounting system that makes it easy to mount on handlebars, seatposts, fork blades, seatstays, helmets, and small pets. Thus, I've put both of them on my helmet, thusly:

Irony alert: I wasn't able to stretch them through the minimal vents on my hipster-approved skater-dude helmet (shown in my photo over there to the right), which is even more appropriate since hipsters love irony. So, as you can see, they're adorning my go-slightly-faster space alien helmet. The tail light is angled to mount on a seatpost, so I had to flip it over to keep it from pointing into space and annoying Martians.

Other nice things about these lights: Each one runs on two AAA batteries, which makes them a) easy to recharge, b) easy to replace, and b) not terribly heavy upon my melon. So, while they definitely fall into the "be seen" category rather than the "light up every pebble" category, I'm happy to have them up there as a supplement.

To what, you ask? Guess you'll have to read my next post.

Obligatory Disclaimer: I was given these lights -- not by Knog, but by my in-laws. And while they did allow me to marry their daughter, I've done my best to not let that color my judgement in this review. Oh, and if you follow that Amazon link and buy stuff, I eventually make a few pence on the deal.

Thursday, October 3, 2013

Kingdom Phylum Class Order Family Genus Species

Now that I've spewed my gravel-bike rant (and subsequently adjusted the dose on my medication), it's time to face facts. This gravel-bike thing is here to stay, at least for a couple seasons until everyone's bought one, the trend is played out, and the marketing machine finds something else (don't believe me? remember trendy hipsters on fixed gears? yeah, they're even hard to find in Des Moines now, and it takes trends about seven years to get here.)

Given the fact that we're stuck with the category, I'm going to tilt at just one more windmill. The name. Gravel bike? Really? Sure, it makes sense out here in the flyover, where we have miles upon miles of gravel within easy reach. But who needs a "gravel" bike in the civilized world where all the primitive pre-roads have been slathered over with asphalt?

So we need a new name. Guitar Ted is taking a swing at it with his open-source naming project, but I have a simpler solution. Let's just take back the perfectly good name these bikes had about 30 years ago. Y'see, sonny (grandpappy settles back in his rocking chair), back then, we rode these things called "road" bikes. They fit medium-width (say 32-35mm) tires. They had long wheelbases. They had low bottom brackets. Now, some folks'll tell you that's what you call a "sport-touring" bike, but I say phooey! We didn't call 'em "sport-touring" bikes! They were road bikes! Because we rode 'em on the road! Any old road we chose!

And then, along came the mountain bike. And the next thing you know, the road bike was gone. Oh, there were things that sorta looked like road bikes if you squinted real hard, but don't be fooled. Those were racing bikes. The "roads" they were good for went around in circles, with corner marshalls at every turn to sweep up even the tiniest pebble. Pretty soon, folks forgot what a real road bike looked like. And so these impostors, these racing bikes, these Indy cars with two wheels and pedals, muscled their way in and took over a perfectly good name.

Here's the gauntlet I'm putting down: I'm going to call this everything-old-is-new-again breed of bikes exactly what we called them back in the day. They're ROAD bikes, people. When I see someone on one of those skinny-tired things, I'm going to call it what it is: a RACING bike. If that makes the owner feel stupid because he/she doesn't race, well, so be it. But this industry has already hyper-specialized itself enough. We don't need a new category. We just need to use the ones we already have correctly.

Saturday, September 21, 2013

Gravel Bikes: Whoop-Dee Frickin' Doo

It's the hot new thing! Haven't you heard? Bikes "optimized" for gravel riding!

Raleigh has one, the Tamland. Giant's falling all over themselves to insert as many gravel SKUs into their catalog, with both the Revolt and the bizarrely named Anyroad (and that's just on the men's side... women get the Invite -- which is like a Revolt with purple accents and a less testosteroney name). Kona has the Rove. Trek shows a tattooed dude grinding gravel on their Crossrip (pharmaceuticals not included, I presume). Specialized finally has a purpose for their too-heavy-to-cross-race Tricross. Salsa splits the already over-hyper-specialized market into the gravel riding Vaya and the gravel racing Warbird (and even has a gravel section of their website that invites the viewer to "gravel season", whatever the hell that is). And I'm sure as the Interbike coverage starts to trickle out of Las Vegas, more wannabe gravel-grovelers will enter the fray.

But take heed, dear consumer. You're dealing with a flat industry. The last "new" invention they came up with was the mountain bike, which gave us about a 15-year boom through the late 80s and 90s. Then there was some guy who (temporarily) "won" a bunch of Tours de France, which sold a crap-ton of road bikes through the first decade of this century. Today, though, those two cash cows are long dead. The marketers are desperate. They have families to feed. And so when they see something even vaguely trendy, they're going to jump on it. Thus, everything for the next few years is going to be about "gravel", even in places where there are no gravel roads. I predict you'll see "gravel-specific" gloves and "gravel-specific" helmets and "gravel-specific" innertubes and "gravel-specific" chain lubes and "gravel-specific" energy bars... and pretty much anything else with enough room on its packaging to include a picture like this:

So before you rush off to the bike shop, ask yourself... do I have any intention of riding on a gravel road? And if so, do I already have something in my fleet that will work just fine for that application? You'd be surprised just how many bikes are already "gravel bikes" despite the fact that they don't have a flashy website telling you all about their gravel bona fides and waxing poetic about the beauty of suffering in the sandstone slurry. Heck, you might even HAVE a gravel bike and didn't even know it! (see Iowa gravel nut Guitar Ted's various "gravel mutts" for proof and/or inspiration).

The irony, of course, is that by including "gravel bikes" in the title of this post and sprinkling the word "gravel" throughout like, well, rocks on a gravel road, I'm sure I'll get a TON of traffic. Hey, I never said I was above pandering to the next big thing, just that you should KNOW when someone's pandering...

Friday, September 20, 2013

How To Get More People Biking

Three words: Low bottom brackets.

Seriously. Let the rider get their foot on the ground more comfortably without leaving the saddle, and a ton of intimidation factor goes bye-bye.

Now, you can say that Electra got there ahead of me with their whole "flat foot technology" thing, but having owned and ridden a Townie, I think they overdid it a bit.

Sure, they got my foot on the ground (flat, even), but at what expense? My butt was back there in another zip code. If all I ever wanted to do was amble down the boardwalk to a Jack Johnson album, it would have been perfect. But if the road turned uphill at all, ugh. And even the downhills were terrifying. I didn't feel like I was riding it so much as I was sitting on the back of it and hanging on. For its purpose, and within the limitations of its design brief, it was fine. But it didn't feel like I want a bicycle to feel.

The a-ha moment for me was when my better half first tootled about on her Raleigh 20. She'd tried a few other single bikes (even the Townie) and just didn't feel confident on them. At speed, no problem -- this is a woman who can make a tandem go like a surface-to-air missile. But stops and starts were awkward at best. On the little Raleigh, though, she was a champ. Not because of the little wheels (my Swift folder also uses 20" wheels, and she hated it), but because of the "low end of normal" bottom bracket height. She had her full leg extension for pedaling, but could still step down without any gymnastics. That's all it took.

Lest you think this is just something for beginners, I have the low BB bug too. My Clubman has a claimed 75mm of drop (defined as the distance between the bottom bracket center and an imaginary line drawn between the axle centerlines), which is quite a bit by production bike standards. I don't know the drop on my Swift (it may be a "rise" thanks to the smaller wheels), but it definitely sits higher off the ground. In city riding, I only get off the Clubman's saddle if I know I'm going to be stopped for a while -- otherwise, I just put a foot down, because I can (despite the fact that I've upsized the stock 700x25 tires to 700x32s). On the Swift, no way. I feel like a teetering circus bear.

Are there downsides to low bottom brackets? Yes. If you pedal through corners on a low-BB bike, you're going to scrape a pedal, and you might crash. Simple solution: Don't pedal through corners! (Which is to say that low bottom brackets might not be so hot for fixed gears.) But for most folks, I think the benefits outweigh the risks.

Thursday, September 19, 2013

When Weight Weenieism Gets Dumb

Had a bit of an issue on ye olde tandem recently:

See the cracks right near the end of the cutout? The top one goes all the way through, and the bottom one is halfway across. In other words, this seatpost clamp isn't going to clamp a seatpost, no way, no how.

This is a Cannondale clamp, circa 1999-2000, although I can't say whether they manufactured these in-house or just bought them. A lot of their Coda-branded bits of that era were just bought and relabeled (for example, their Coda brakes were just Tektros), so my guess is that this wasn't Hecho en Bedford.

Regardless, this is a case where the cheap/light/strong triangle (where the designer is tasked to "pick two") has big "cheap" and "light" sides, but maybe not so much on the "strong" side. I saw plenty of these clamps fail back in the day, though the torque required to make them hold usually stripped the threads long before the clamp itself broke loose as seen in this example.

To me, this is a case of exceedingly dumb weight savings. How many grams are you really going to shave out of a seatpost clamp? Sure, the counterargument is that if you shave those few grams out of every part, then the savings really add up. But if you've pushed the envelope a tiny bit too far on this one simple part with one simple task, it fails, and you're kinda stuck (unless you like riding standing up all the time).

A short digression for a couple curiosities: The tandem was creaking before this thing failed, so I wonder if it was starting to crack before it blew up completely. To find out, I'd need to break it all the way through to see if the inside of the crack has the telltale polished surface of metal that's been rubbing together for a while. Also, the stamped size on it is 32.0, while the calipers tell me the seat tube is 31.8mm. I couldn't get a good reading on the busted clamp to know if it was actually oversized, but I have to wonder if tightening down a clamp that's 0.2mm too big could fatigue it and eventually cause it to crack.  

That's head-scratching theoretical stuff for another day, though, since I decided to replace the busted clamp with a big honkin' honest-to-goodness 31.8mm Surly Constrictor:

Lots more meat on that baby. And a bigger bolt to generate a load of seatpost-crushing torque. Heavier? Well, sure. But if it keeps the bike on the road, who cares?

And since the tandem featured those dumb Cannondale clamps front and rear, I splurged and got one for the missus too:

Thursday, August 29, 2013

Little Wheels Keep On Turnin'

For fans of our Tiny-Wheel Weird Bikes Series, Pal Steve from Peoria called my wandering attention to this:

(Those spin and zoom buttons don't do anything, by the way -- they were just stowaways in my screen capture. But if you want to look real close and/or make the bike dance for you, just go to the original page on the Raleigh UK site.)

It looks -- to my inexpert eye -- like Raleigh UK brought back the design of the non-folding version of the Raleigh Twenty, gave it modern alloy wheels, and added cantilever/V-brake posts. Having tried to stop my wife's Twenty with the stock long-reach calipers and chromed steel rims, I can say with some authority that this is a much-needed and much appreciated upgrade.

I'm guessing but can't confirm that they also ditched the weird bottom bracket threading of the original Twenty and put a real headset in there -- two things that have always been the bane of Twenty hot-rodders. Props for the properly-placed pump behind the seat tube, too. And c'mon, is there anything cooler than handlebar streamers? Raleigh USA, the gauntlet is down -- where are our modernized Twenties with stars and streamers? Why does the home team get all the fun stuff?

Of course, I have no clue what Red or Dead is, because I'm an old, out-of-touch fogey. Maybe it's a British thing.

(Aside to my Peoria readership from the Friday Night Ride: Yes, he really is THAT Steve. But don't make him all self-conscious about his fame. No autographs! Tee hee...)

Thursday, August 22, 2013

If I Had A Hammer... I'd Have A Chain Tool

File under "low-budget shade tree mechanicking..."

Remember how I was about to install a new chain on the green machine? And how I was lauding the magical no-tools-needed master link that so many modern chains now include, save for stupid Shimano? Well, the new chain is on, and I discovered yet another reason that master links rock.

When you use master links, the only time you need an olde fashioned chain toole is when you have to shorten a new chain to the correct length. That's it. So I measured up my new chain against the old one, pulled my trusty Park CT-5 Mini Chain Brute (which is now going on probably 20 years old), and discovered -- DOH! -- that the pin was bent. Some clumsy, ham-fisted gorilla (a.k.a. me) must have wrecked it and stuck it back in my toolkit without mentioning anything to the shop purchasing manager (a.k.a. me). I searched for a replacement pin, but no dice. Tried to bend it back, but hardened steel doesn't really like to bend multiple times, so it snapped. And thus, I was screwed. Up the creek without a chain tool.

In times like these, I ask myself WWSD -- What would Sheldon (a.k.a. the late, great Sheldon Brown, patron saint of bicycle mechanics) do? The bike shops were closed, so I couldn't just buy a new pin and be done with it. Sure, I could put out a call on the social mediums for a local pal who'd loan me a chain tool if I put down a bubbly malt beverage as collateral. But instead, I pondered the problem at hand, hoping that my innate stubbornness (let's just call it "ingenuity" instead) could somehow win out.

All I needed was to drive a pin out of the chain at the correct location without damaging the portion of the chain I hoped to use on the bike. And what's good for driving things? A hammer, of course! So I put the chain in my vice, closing the jaws on the outer plates of the stub of chain I hoped to remove, and laid the "good" end of the chain on the bench to keep it from falling on the floor if this hack succeeded. Found a nail that was just slightly smaller than a chain pin, placed it on the pin I needed to remove, and pounded away. And it worked! The long end of the chain was freed with no damage, and I was ready to install it on the bike with the master link as planned.

I went out and bought replacement pins the following day, so now my CT-5 is as good as new (the pins come in a two-pack, so I even taped the spare to the tool just in case). But it's good to know that in a pinch, a bit of brute force applied strategically can get the job done.

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Recumbent Riders: The Happiest Cyclists?

On a tandem ride the other day, my astute stoker pointed out that of all the other bikers we encounter, it seems like recumbent riders always look the happiest. We have other theories about the mental state of our fellow trail users (most notably that runners seem to be in a constant state of searing pain, just based on their expressions), but this was the first time one of us had observed a tribal mindset within our own wheeled brethren.

My flip answer was, "You know that pain you're feeling in your ass right now? Recumbent riders don't have that." Doesn't seem like an awful theory, really. Even the most comfortable upright bike is going to eventually do a number on your contact points. Take away that pain (even if it's just a small, nagging one) and you're much more likely to smile.

But on further reflection, I think there's more to it than just pain relief. As any recumbent zealot will remind you, sit-down bikes were banned from competition by the UCI in 1934, and have been riding around on the fringes of the sport ever since. That means everyone you see on a recumbent today has at some point walked into a bike shop, taken a look at the rows of "normal" upright bikes that everyone else rides, and said, "Nope, not interested. I want that weird one over there." Maybe it's just for the comfort, maybe they can't ride an upright any more, or maybe it's an innate desire to be different. Who knows? But that person made a choice to get outside the mainstream, judgment be damned. That has to be pretty liberating, don't you think? Suddenly, the "rules" of the "regular biking world" don't apply. Maybe that's why so many of them have those orange flags -- it's the recumbent rider letting his or her freak flag fly.

I know I have a couple Steves among my regular readers who have 'bents in their fleets, so I'm hoping they can enlighten me on this one -- or tell me I'm full of hot air. Maybe they can also explain why recumbent riders are required to grow beards.

Sunday, August 18, 2013

Princess And The Pea Credentials: Revoked

After many, many years of riding and many, many hours of constant, relentless -- nay, obsessive -- futzing with my bikes, I like to think that I'm pretty sensitive to bike setup. You scoot my saddle forward a few millimeters, I'm gonna know it. Drop my handlebars by the width of one skinny spacer, I'll figure it out. I'm the Rain Man of contact points: "Yeah, this is definitely not my saddle height. Definitely. K-Mart bikes suck." 

Or at least I thought so. See, the two-seater in our fleet has been suffering some bottom bracket maladies lately, so I needed to pull the crankarms to get an accurate spindle length measurement for a replacement. In doing so, I also wanted to check the model number on the crankarm to make sure I was getting the right bottom bracket (it's the now-obsolete Octalink, and those came in two flavors). But what's this? A 170mm non-drive/timing side arm on the front end and a 175mm in the back? Cue confused Scooby Doo noise.

So I checked the drive side: 175mm on the front end, 170 on the back. In other words, the timing cranks had been mixed up. Now in all the times I've pulled the cranks on this bike, I've left the pedals on, and my stoker rides toeclips while I ride clipless -- which is to say that the chances are slim-to-none that I was the one who swapped the arms. I'm guessing it came straight from the Cannondale factory that way. Or maybe it was put together at the shop that way -- I don't know how much assembly was done at the factory and how much was left for the dealer on tandems. Either way, big oops.

That means that for almost ten years and countless thousands of miles, I've been riding a 175 on my right side and a 170 on my left, while Carla's been turning a 170 on the right and a 175 on the left. Never noticed. Neither of us suspected a thing. And now that I've swapped them back to their rightful locations? Can't tell the difference. Not even a placebo effect.

If there's a moral to this story, I don't know what it is. But I can tell you that the next time I feel the urge to stop mid-ride and move my saddle up or down a fraction of a millimeter, I think I'll just tell myself to get over it.

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Working On The Chain Gang

I promised that I wouldn't review a chain, and I'm keeping that promise -- there's a lower limit of "boring" that even I won't cross. But with a chain on the way out and another one on the way in, I thought it might be a nice time to review the basics of chain replacement.

First, a pet peeve from years in ye olde bike shoppe. Chains do not stretch. They get longer, yes, but that increase in length is not "stretch" caused by the massive power output of your trunk-like thighs -- unless you were sent here from Krypton by your father Jor-El. So if that isn't "stretch", how is it getting longer? Remember that each connection between those hundred-and-some links is a mechanical one, two metal surfaces rotating against each other. Unless you have a full chaincase, those mechanical connections are exposed to dirt, sand, grit, sweat, rain, and any number of other gross things. Grit plus moisture equals grinding paste, wearing away the tiniest amount of metal with each rotation. On one link, it doesn't make much difference, but over 100-plus links and some time, it adds up.

So now you have a chain that has just a little too much space between its pins. Run that over your cogs and chainrings long enough (adding some more of that gritty paste) and pretty soon, those parts start to wear to match the new spacing of the chain. The worst part? You might not notice. Since they're all wearing together, those parts can continue to work in harmony long after they've passed their expiration date. Only when you think, "I'm too lazy to clean that chain, so I'll just replace it," does the awful truth reveal itself. Your new chain has factory-spec spacing between the pins, but your cogs and chainrings are expecting their old buddy, Worn-Out Chain. Your drivetrain's now on a ride to Skip City, and your bike shop just made some money on your new cassette and chainrings to go with that new chain. That was, hands-down, my LEAST favorite conversation to have with a customer back when I was a shop wrench -- it always sounded like one of those "bad mechanic" horror stories: "So I buy this $15 chain, and the guy tries to tell me it won't work without buying $75 worth of new parts! Can you believe it?"

Fear not, though! All these woes are preventable, and they shouldn't cost you one cent (assuming you aren't already in the express lane headed toward Skip City). How? Grab a ruler that you don't mind getting dirty. Measure 12 links of your chain under a little tension. If the pin on that 12th link lands smack on the inch line, your chain is new, so why are you measuring it? If it's past the inch but not to the 1/16th mark, you're still okay. At an inch and 1/16th, get a new chain, but the rest of your drivetrain should still be fine. Out around an inch and 1/8th? Uh, sorry dude. There's a great coffee shop in Skip City, though. 

(Note that, like most things bicycle, the late, great Sheldon Brown does a better job explaining much of this -- with great photos, no less -- in his article on chain maintenance. I learned it in the trenches, but if you don't have a few years to kill and a penchant for greasy aprons, you could do a lot worse than to study the Gospel According to Sheldon.)

If you don't have a ruler, hate fractions, or just feel an uncontrollable urge to own more bike tools, there are lots of nifty gadgets to accomplish the same thing. I use the basic Park model for its stupid-simplicity: If only one side fits, I order a new chain. If both sides fit, I curse my inability to take my own advice. The old shop model I used in the 90s was even stupid-simpler: Stick it on the chain and turn a dial. If you see green, all's good. If you see red, you're screwed (the new fancy model expects mechanics to read numbers, which not all of us can do).

Final chain rant, then I hope I've sufficiently cured your insomnia: Whatever brand of chain you like, and however many speeds you spin, I can't say enough nice things about modern master links. I've dealt with SRAM, KMC, and Wipperman, and I like 'em all. I still carry a chain tool as a security blanket (you can't shorten a chain to make an emergency singlespeed without one), but (knock wood) I can't remember the last time I used it. A pox on Shimano and their stupid one-use-only, can't-be-installed-without-a-tool pins! I stopped using their chains specifically because of those things, and if I had to use one again as part of some lucrative sponsorship deal for fat commuters, I'd conveniently "lose" the pin and rejoin the chain with someone else's master link.

Everyone paranoid and looking for a ruler now? Then my work here is done.

Sunday, August 4, 2013

Gone Gravellin'

I did some gravel exploring on the route suggested by Trans-Iowa Steve last weekend, and it was a hoot. Photographic evidence:

Anyone who tells you that Iowa isn't scenic either hasn't been here, or has pants aflame due to the falsehoods they speak. The sort of view pictured above is what I missed most when we lived in Pennsylvania. Not saying Pennsylvania isn't a beautiful state, mind you. The terrain (at least on the western side of the state where we lived) just doesn't provide these massive spans of horizon. If you grew up on the plains like I did, anything else feels a little claustrophobic.

I was surprised to find some stretches that were not quite so vast and had a bit of tree cover. The spot shown above looked like an ideal area to camp out on an overnighter tour. Not sure how the owner (or any territorial dogs he/she might have) would feel about that, though.

Finally, just to ensure that I was getting the full gravel experience, I ventured down what the Iowa DOT calls a "minimum maintenance road", commonly called a "B-road". They aren't technically gravel, just packed dirt. This one was hillier than it looked in the photo, but nothing I couldn't grunt out in a 34x26. Since we're in the midst of a drought, the surface was perfectly acceptable (nay, even enjoyable) on 700x32 road rubber. Put a little moisture on this thing and things would get dicey fast. I'm now kicking myself for all the times I've taken those "enter at your own risk" signs seriously and bypassed these fun little dirt sections.

So, after a couple experiments in gravel, do I see myself becoming a full-on zealot? Probably not. I'm just lazy enough to still enjoy going fast on a smooth surface with minimal resistance. But now that I know my bike and my body can take whatever Iowa can dish out (at least if conditions are dry), my world has opened up a little bit. From now on, when I see dirty diversions like the ones shown above, I'll definitely give them a try.

Thursday, August 1, 2013

The Cycle Takes Requests?

Oh, sure, why not? Pal Scott (a.k.a. the fivetoedsloth) wanted to see a full shot of the ol' Clubman with its new fenders installed, so I ended tonight's commute with a long-standing Craigslist tradition: cell-phone photography of a bike leaned against a garage door.

There you go, Scott. Just don't tell my mom that I've become one of those people who takes pictures requested by random men on the Internet.

For the rest of youse, I cashed in my ill-gotten Amazon gains on a new chain (which I will not be reviewing, because, c'mon, how do you review a chain?) and BikeSnobNYC's latest book (which I will be reviewing). Just waiting on Brown Truck Santa.

Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Thanks, Reader(s)!

Something very odd happened to me the other day. Amazon sent me an email saying that I'd received a gift card for something like twenty bucks. Honestly, I thought it was spam.

Turns out, I was wrong. That gift card was from you, because you clicked through something I'd linked (as part of the Amazon Associates program) and made a purchase. Through the weird machinations of the Amazonian universe, little fractions of your purchases added up (much like the rounding errors in Office Space) , and all of a sudden, I was the proud owner of twenty-some bucks of Amazon money. Pretty good haul for five years of writing, eh?

Being of the mildly neurotic persuasion (waits for snorts of derision from his wife to die down re: "mildly"), this little gift immediately put me into a tailspin of self-analysis about disclosure, my obligations as a blogger/quasi-journalist, etc., etc. So, to quiet the inner voices, I'm going to start adding a small disclaimer whenever I a) use an Amazon link that could get my beak wet, b) review a product, or c) both. You can see an example at the end of yesterday's fender review. Hopefully, this will provide enough transparency to let you know where I'm coming from and what (if anything) I stand to gain, while not being to annoying/nanny-state-ish.

Thanks again for supporting my blather!

Monday, July 29, 2013

Hail To The Cheap: Planet Bike Full Fenders

As I mentioned in my gravel gab, the Raleigh is no longer cavorting in fenderless indecency. It's now sporting a set of these babies:

Planet Bike's "full" model gets so little respect, it's own manufacturer doesn't even give it a model name. There's your Cascadias, your Hardcores, your Speedeez, your Grasshoppers... and then there's "full" -- a bland description pretending to be a model name. Being formerly of the naming-stuff profession, I propose Rodney, as in Dangerfield.

So why, pray tell, did I go with this oft-forgotten corner of the Planet Bike catalog instead of any number of other more ad-copy-laden choices? Easy: I wanted black fenders (must be my Mennonite heritage), and -- like yours truly -- the Rodney is simple and cheap. Same polycarbonate material that proved itself more than tough enough on my last set of Hardcores, minus their utterly useless vestigial mudflap and shiny stainless hardware. The result looks a little something like this:

One long wire wraps over the fender, held in place there by a small bracket, and meets those adjustable doohickeys at the dropouts. On your Hardcores and Cascadias, you get one straight stainless rod per side (two in the rear) meeting a bracket at the fender where all the adjustment happens. This leaves the poking end of the operation (and the one where excess rod has to be cut off) pointed back at your feets (encouraging toe overlap and necessitating little rubber nubbins that always fall off), whereas on the Rodneys, any ugly and/or sharp bits from the cutoff operation are hidden inside the adjusters. The adjusters themselves are a little kludgy, but the function? Slick. 

Bicycle Quarterly cultists may also note that wrapped over stays (like the old French dudes preferred) eliminate the bracket inside the fender which (theoretically) gives the water a path to the outside edge and (eventually) your feet. While that may be true, it would be a stretch to call the Rodneys "constructeur-inspired." The flat threaded plate holding the bracket in place does provide more clearance under the fender than a normal nut would, though:

Being utterly incapable of leaving well enough alone, however, I did make a couple minor modifications from stock. First, I loathe-loathe-loathe the plastic rear brake bridge clip that Planet Bike provides with most (all?) of their fenders. Luckily, I had a metal one from an old set of fenders kicking around the parts box. I added thick rubber washers (about a nickel a piece from the local hardware store) between my frame and all fender mounting points -- never felt the need in the past, but it didn't seem like it would hurt. Also, the steel clip for the chainstay bridge prevented me from using my frame's threaded mount there, so I drilled out rivets holding the clip in place and taped over the resulting holes (oh, and added a spacer to appease my OCD fender line tendencies):

The whole operation took maybe 30 minutes, and the resulting installation is solid, rattle-free, and keeps away as much schmutz as a fender of this length is going to -- which is to say, more than enough for my needs. I have already battered them on rough pavement and subjected them to the indignity of gravel washboard, yet they have made nary a peep. In short, I like 'em.

Which leads me to a mildly ranty postscript I'm calling "good enough is good enough." If you read enough about bicycle fenders (though I hope you don't, because, well, real life is happening out there), you will learn just how AWFUL and USELESS the vast majority of JUNK MASQUERADING AS FENDERS is today. You'll hear how plastic fenders rattle like a lovelorn cicada until they crack, how fenders have to be installed just so to avoid scary "inbuilt stresses" (a process which can take hours and will require a machine shop and several magic incantations), how any fender without a mudflap practically dragging the ground is no better than no fender at all, and how futile it is to install fenders on a bicycle not specifically designed with perfect, to-the-millimeter clearances between its lovingly brazed mounting points. To all this, I say hogwash (and this is Iowa, so we know our hogwash). Are there some fenders that are better than others? Sure. But just because a fender (like the lowly Rodney) doesn't measure up to the Platonic ideal of capital-F "Fender" as brought down from the mountain on stone tablets by Herse and Singer (translated by Jan Heine) doesn't mean that it can't fulfill -- and fulfill admirably -- the role of a fender. It just needs a competent installation and a little respect. 

Obligatory Fine Print: I bought my fenders with my own hard-earned dollars and was not compensated one thin dime by the folks at Planet Bike for this review. Also, as a member of the Amazon Associates program, if you follow my link to Amazon and buy something, I get a little kickback. Thus endeth the glimpse of my seedy underbelly.

Saturday, July 27, 2013

Gravel Dabbling

I love a good Shel Silverstein homage.

Last weekend, I finally decided to scratch an itch that's been nagging at me lately and do a tiny bit of gravel riding, inspired by local dusty pals Steve F and Tom A, not to mention the blogular exploits of Pondero. I didn't do much off-pavement, maybe half to three-quarters of a 30-mile ride exploring the side roads off a local rail-trail, but it was definitely enough to whet my appetite for limestone grit. 

Before I'm accused of being a johnny-come-lately to the rocky stuff, let me lay out some bona fides: I grew up on gravel. We lived in rural Illinois, where gravel roads were just called "roads." As a kid, if I didn't ride gravel, I didn't ride. My "gravel bike" (a.k.a. my "bike") in those days was a hand-me-down early 70s Schwinn Continental: the mile-long wheelbase and big 27" wheels (probably fifteen pounds of Schwinn-approved steel right there) were unfazed by the washboard that characterized Illinois gravel roads. Float? Yeah, that baby had float.

On the gravel roads, I learned the bike handling skills that would pay off a few years later when real mountain biking caught my eye: finding the best line, keeping my weight balanced over the wheels, riding with a loose upper body (but not loose enough to lose the bars if things get really hairy), and generally trusting momentum. Thankfully, when I hit the Iowa gravel last weekend, the old synapses started firing (albeit much slower than they used to) and I was a twelve-year-old kid cruising the country roads again.

My "gravel bike" this time around is what I'm calling my "monster-road" Raleigh Clubman (if they can invent the marketing term "monstercross" for a fatter-tired cyclocross bike, then why can't I do the same with road bikes?) It's sporting 700x32 Panaracer Paselas on 32-spoke wheels, plastic fenders (again, finally), big Tektro dual-pivots with Kool Stop pads, and a bog-stock Tiagra 50x34/12-26 drivetrain. If I were just riding rough stuff, I'd want more tire clearance, but in terms of striking a balance between gravel capability and fun on pavement, I think it's right in my sweet spot. Basically, it's everything the Continental was, minus the weight of a compact car.

A couple things intrigue me about gravel riding: One (and I'm going to go snobby here -- you've been warned) is the solitude. I'd forgotten how peaceful a ride can be without running into a mildly intoxicated RAGBRAI "team" and its requisite 200-decibel sound system every 100 yards. Once I left the rail-trail, it was just me, my bike, and that delightful crunching sound of tires on limestone. I only saw one other rider on the rough stuff, a kid who -- like a much-younger me -- was just riding the roads around his house. It was bliss.

Two, the whole "gravel scene" (quotes intentional) seems like it hasn't been co-opted (yet). Shoot, I'm being snobby again, aren't i? As I read more about the state of gravel riding, the whole thing feels like mountain biking did way back in the day: unsanctioned, fun, casual, just people doing it for the sake of doing it. While the bike manufacturers are starting to notice the niche and produce "gravel-specific" bikes to add to their quiver of super-hyper-specialized "you must have a 27-bike collection to be happy!" options, the people out there actually doing it seem to have a "ride what you got and make it work" mentality. As a gear-geek, that's fun to watch. I'm fascinated by the "why" of it, the reasons for each individual choice, and the diversity that's produced when people don't have a catalog telling them what a "gravel bike" is. As a marketing geek, I'm also interested to see how the big players are going to coalesce those grassroots choices into showroom SKUs -- probably with a few hilarious missteps along the way.

I'd prattle on more, but Steve F has pointed me to a promising strip of gravel that I missed last weekend, and that thing isn't going to ride itself.

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

And Lo! The Prophecy Did Come To Pass!

No sooner do I post my lament about cheating in pro cycling, then along comes VeloNews with a report that big names in the '98 Tour just tested positive for EPO. I won't name all the names, since some of my readers may be too young to even remember the pre-21st-century peloton, but one of the riders identified was Marco Pantani -- a man who's been dead for almost a decade.

Let me say that again: In 2013, samples taken from riders during the 1998 Tour de France tested positive for EPO. 1998. 15 years ago. Mr. Hillary Clinton was president. There was still a dot-com bubble waiting to burst. The Goo Goo Dolls topped the pop charts. I could still grow hair on 90% of my scalp. Rivendell frames only had one top tube, and Tour riders were still using QUILL stems, for (Grant) Pete(resen)'s sake!

Hope you brought plenty of white-out, because we've got a lot of history to revise.

Monday, July 22, 2013

The Eternal Asterisk

"Everybody cheats. I just didn't know."  (Dave Stohler, Breaking Away)
The big bike race in France just ended. Yippee. And, like a big Texas deus ex machina, Lance Armstrong happened to start his trek (pun not intended, but I'll take it) across Iowa with RAGBRAI on the same day. 

I was home on the day that the racers went over Mount Ventoux, and -- gripped by a morbid curiosity -- decided to watch.  

I can't lie. It was kind of exciting. Big guy in the yellow jersey somehow digs deep, finds another gear, and motors away from his rivals like they're hardly moving. And then I thought, "Huh... why does this seem so familiar?"

And that, dear reader, is the Lance Legacy. Namely, fans (or even nonplussed observers) of professional cycling don't know what they're watching any more. Is any of it real? How long until the B-sample comes back to negate that drama on Ventoux? When will we learn that it was really just a test of who had the better pharmacist? Next week? A month? Ten years?

For the record: I'm not saying Chris Froome is dirty. I don't know that. And that's the shame in all of this: Maybe that effort on Ventoux was the real deal, just an athlete triumphing because he trained harder, had the better team, and had the strongest legs. But even if he did it all himself, all guts and no needles, the recent shame of the sport will mark his accomplishment -- and the accomplishment of all future winners -- with an asterisk. We'll always be holding our breath, waiting for the next scandal to break. The three weeks of excitement that used to be the entirety of the Tour have become a meaningless prologue. The real winners and losers are determined in a lab, long after the lanterne rouge crosses the finish line in Paris.

The only thing we can know for sure is that we, the fans, lost.

Saturday, July 20, 2013

Going Dutch, Des Moines Style

On one of my morning commutes this week, I espied a woman who was the very epitome of that Americanized-Dutch-vaguely hipsterish cycling commuter style that magazine ads are made of: Electra Townie bike pimped with fenders and wicker baskets, and the (requisite) Nutcase skater-style helmet. She wore human clothes, just a sundress and casual sandals, and was making perfectly acceptable time through the traffic without being in any sort of hurry (Des Moines had swamp weather this week, so I can't blame her). We exchanged the requisite "I'm-on-a-bike-and-so-are-you" hello at a stoplight and were on our way.

(Aside: You know you're a happily married, 40-year-old bike nerd when the sight of an attractive woman on a bike makes you think, "I should write a blog post about marketing!")

I didn't grab a photo because, well, that's creepy even for me. So for the purposes of this blog post, the role of Anonymous Woman Cyclist will be played by Julia Roberts in the film Eat, Pray, Love (never thought I'd reference THAT, did you?)

You'll have to imagine the helmet.

I am of two minds when it comes to this whole new Americanized-Dutch thing that Electra (and others) have glommed onto in recent years. On the one hand, there's a very commodified "uniqueness for sale" about it. You go to the bike shop, pick out the bike you like, and Electra has designed an entire range of designed-to-fit-perfectly, color-matched-to-the-hilt accessories to go with it. Sure, the end result is unique to you, but unique in the same way that your Subway sandwich is unique because you had the Sandwich Artist put pickles and onions on it.

On the other hand, Electra has finally come up with a sales model (and more importantly, an image) for that person who walks into the bike shop and says, "I just want a bike to ride around on." When I think back to my days as a shop rat in the 90s, we didn't have that. It was either a knobby-tired EXTREME (guitar solo) mountain bike, a skinny-tired road race bike, or the much-snorted-at hybrid, the bike-shop platypus. Assuming the "just ride around" customer even stuck it out long enough to buy a bike (and I'm sure many didn't), he or she usually got stuck with a low-end mountain bike, wore a backpack, and maybe got some clip-on fenders. The end result probably worked about the same as an Electra, but style-wise, it was pretty hodge-podge and certainly nothing for a magazine ad or Julia Roberts movie.

My cynical snark-meister rears his head again here and says, "Well, sure, somebody had to come up with that because the sales curve had flattened, so they needed to find a new market." Yeah, true, snarky guy. But that new market is people who weren't riding before. Pulling them in might be a purely money-driven thing from the bike companies, but it also puts more bikes on the street, which is good for those of us out there already. Given the choice between riding with a bunch of Electras or a bunch of Chevy Tahoes, I think I'll take the Electras, thanks.

(Note: Before there was The Cycle, there was an Electra Townie in our proto-test-fleet. For the sake of the equipment nerds out there, I'll see if I can dredge up the memory neurons to review it at some point and explain why it's no longer in the fleet -- beyond my usual fickle-ness.)

Sunday, July 14, 2013

That's Some Bad Hat, Harry

Recently got an email newsletter from the folks at Walz Cycling Caps that included the following almost-too-awesome-for-words image:

Irony Alert: "Bad" in the title means "good", obviously. I mean, look at that thing!

For those not versed in oddball roadside attractions, that big dude is what's known as a Muffler Man. If you like your treatises on such things a tiny bit more scholarly-like, there's a Wikipedia page devoted to Muffler Men. Or, if you want to go deep down the rabbit hole of strange things to see on a road trip, try Roadside America's exhaustively weird and wonderful Muffler Men page. I cannot tell you how many bizarre side trips I've been on thanks to Roadside America, so consider yourself warned.

Apparently, the Amgen Tour of California was headed through Escondido, CA (not far from Walz headquarters in Oceanside), so the folks in Escondido commissioned their hat-making neighbors to outfit the big fella for the event. The Muffler Man stands 25 feet tall, and his hat is a whopping 104 inches in diameter... which makes me think the Walz folks might even be able to make a cap big enough for my gargantuan melon.

So, Walz, chapeau to you. A really, really big chapeau.