Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Winter Riding Tips From Snowmaggedon 2: Electric Boogaloo

One: Don't waste your money on aero rims. Just make your own:

Dude, those are some SICK white Deep-Vs.

Two: Your breath is full of water vapor that is above the freezing point, and said vapor is always being blown out in a small cloud in front of your face, and you are riding into that cloud at all times. Thus, if -- like me --  you have a particularly Cro-Magnonesque eyebrow (I'm saving up for the second one), said water vapor will collect there and re-freeze in a lovely ice-curtain. Heaven help you if you have curly eyelashes to go with that unibrow, because your eyes are gonna freeze shut. I think I get the whole "ski goggle" thing now.

Three: If you have to bust through a snowdrift, do so with great velocity and vigor. If you approach with any trepidation, you're just going to ride into it, flail to an awkward stop, and fall over. That's just humiliating. However, if you hit that sucker at ramming speed, one of two things will happen: Either you'll break through in a triumphant cloud of powder, or the bike will stop dead and you'll fly over the handlebars. Either way, passers-by will cheer... and isn't that the point of winter riding?

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Bored Plus Chalk Equals Chalkboard

Several readers have called my attention to a semi-new widget on the market that uses frickin' laser beams to draw a temporary bike lane on the road behind the rider. And sure, that's nifty, but isn't it just a little bit selfish? You get your own lane, but what about the rider behind you? Or the one riding on the same road tomorrow? You're long gone, and so is your bike lane.

My ever-vigilant spouse, however, discovered this in her never-ending quest to map the ends of the Internets:

Granted, it only draws one line at a time (which isn't much of a bike lane), but I can easily imagine bodges that would leave multiple chalk trails -- think of that thing your grade-school music teacher used to draw the five lines of a musical staff on the board. Rig a chalk line to each side of the bike, and you've got a semi-permanent bike lane (at least until the next rainstorm washes it away). Or you could stick with one line, laid down by a group ride leader to let the rest of the ride know the route.

I'm sure there are laws against drawing lanes (albeit temporarily) on public roads, but it's still fun to think about. If nothing else, this could heal some of the emotional scars inflicted upon yours truly by multiple art teachers over the years. With traditional art tools, I can barely draw flies -- but with a bicycle, who knows?

Sunday, January 27, 2013

Broken In Versus Broken Down

I went through a brief "Cult of Campy" phase as a teen... it was the 90s, I was a young and impressionable, whatever. And the line we Campy-nuts liked in those days was, "Campy breaks in, Shimano just breaks" (the counterargument -- and I wish I could source this quote -- was "your Campy drivetrain will shift just as badly in 20 years as it does today.") That "break vs. break in" argument was (and still is) an unfair criticism of Shimano, probably used to justify the insanely stiff out-of-the-box shifting of early Campy indexing (rock climbers could have used first-generation Ergopower to strengthen their grip), but the idea stuck in my head that good things should keep getting better the more you use them.

What got me chin-scratching about this is the saggy messenger bag you see above. I'd just unloaded it after using it as my carry-on during a recent vacation, and it came to rest just as shown... flat-bottomed, gaping, flap open, ready to load. In short, perfect for its intended purpose. It didn't start that way, though. As a new bag, the liner material was too stiff, the outer shell too slick. The flat center panel on the bottom was too narrow and the side panels hadn't yet worked in enough to slouch down and assist it, so the bag would topple over backwards at the slightest provocation. Only after years of commutes, bashing around, trips through the washing machine (not recommended, but I'm lazy), and general abuse did it reach equilibrium.

Lest you think this is some kind of Grant Petersen beeswaxing-poetic moment about the annoying neologism "beausage" (which -- if you're so inclined and don't mind downloading a pdf -- you can read more about on page 18 of Rivendell Reader #42 helpfully archived online by Cyclofiend), it most certainly is not. Do I like the look of my bag kinda beat up? Sure, I guess. But what I'm talking about is an object that actually WORKS better because it has been used, not something that just makes the Antiques Roadshow guys swoon with its patina (the perfectly good, already existing word that beausage is trying to replace). A good example is tires... Bicycle Quarterly testing showed that a worn (let's say "broken-in" tire) outperformed a new tire of the same make and model. Or leather saddles -- I don't ride them, but their proponents will tell you that they don't really come into their own until they've been used enough to mold to the rider.

Okay, one more example, then I promise to stop gazing at my navel: Anodized aluminum rims. Lots of rims today use machined braking surfaces, scraping off the anodized layer at the factory to provide good braking when new. On rims that haven't been pre-scraped, however, your brake pads have to do that work, wearing down the anodizing while you ride. Once that layer is removed by braking, the rim looks absolutely awful, but the braking performance is infinitely better. Of course, when you're a shop mechanic, try explaining that to an angry parent who demands to know why his kid's rims look "all worn out" after just a few weeks of use. 

Unfortunately, I don't know many other things in modern cycling can pull off the "better with age" trick. Shoes, maybe? Gloves? Or -- wishful thinking -- riders?

Friday, January 25, 2013

Return Of The U.S. Postal Service Team

Our intrepid staff here at The Cycle just got back from a brief vacation to the dangling appendage of the lower 48 also known as Florida. Not a lot of blogworthy stuff to report (though the bar qualifying material as "blogworthy" around here is low enough that even I can bunnyhop it), but I did have one epic cargo bike sighting in St. Petersburg:

That, dear reader, is not the twee NAHBS booth candy porteur of an artisanal Portland builder. We're talking heavy iron from the good folks at Worksman Cycles in Noo Yawk. As far as I could tell, it's one of their "Low Gravity" models, named not for their resistance to that basic law of physics (because, c'mon, these babies are all about succumbing to -- nay, reveling in -- gravity) but rather for a small front wheel that keeps the (absolutely massive) front load lower to the ground. One speed, coaster brake, and parts designed to withstand a nuclear blast. When the zombie apocalypse happens, I'll take a Worksman, thanks. I may have to work a little harder to outrun the undead, but at least I know my bike won't fail me in the brain-munch bunch sprint.

The historical precedent/direct ancestor of the Low-Gravity is the Schwinn Cycle Truck, which also featured a classic "camel-back" frame, a big ol' frame-mounted front load, a small front wheel that steers independent of the cargo, and a massive triangular kickstand on the front wheel to keep things upright while at rest. If you couldn't cart it around in one of these Chicago-made monsters, it didn't need to be carted. (If you can't cart it around in the modern Worksman equivalent, however, they're happy to oblige you with an Industrial Trike.)

As you can tell by the special-edition "yellow jersey" frame color and red, white and blue accessories, this particular example is piloted by a member of the U.S. Postal Service team. Dig the add-on USPS canvas bags mounted on the back of the box, facing the rider for quick access to the mail, not to mention the spare rubber band storage on the left ape-hanger. I also liked the heavy-duty hydration system: one more USPS canvas bag strapped to the side, carrying a big red and white cooler. Neither rain nor snow nor sleet nor a shortage of beverages will stop this guy from his appointed rounds. Allez, Mr. Postman. And chapeau.

Saturday, January 19, 2013

In Writer-Speak, It's Called "Deus Ex Machina"

So I write this navel-gazing snooze-fest about the "integrity of the non-professional reviewer", blathering on about how I buy my own stuff to review, and what happens next? Free product falls from the sky:

Full disclosure: It didn't fall from the sky. One of the nice people at Polar Bottle happened to notice my insulated bottle shootout (and the fact that their bottle took one of the coveted spots on my 2012 Things That Did Not Peeve Me list) and sent me one of their Ergo Bottles (shown above) to try. Ergo, I will review it. (Yeah, I had to go there.)

First, let's start with the obvious downside for my bike-crazed audience. This is not really a bike bottle. Even the website describes it as a "lifestyle" bottle -- which may make me the world's least qualified reviewer, as I barely have a life, much less a lifestyle. The shape is too lumpy to be an oval and too rounded to be a square, and pretty much the same diameter from stem to stern. Comfortable enough in the hand, yes, but not great in a bottle cage -- I tried, and it fit, but it seemed to be saying, "oh, we're doing this? really?"

So what's a non-bike bottle doing on a bike blog? Well, my other crippling addiction happens to be coffee... and the Ergo bottle happens to bill itself as suitable for both cold and hot beverages. So, seeing as how my cold-beverage needs are already more-than-adequately met by other Polar products more suited to my cycling life(less)style, I put the Ergo through its paces as a hot caffeine portage and delivery system.

The test: I filled the bottle with lip-scaldingly, McDonald's-lawsuit-worthy coffee at 6:30 in the morning and sealed 'er up (the Half Twist lid is kinda slick... screw it closed and it's closed, unscrew it enough to line up the drop on the lid with the drop on the bottle and you can drink from either opening while the other acts as a vent). About an hour later, the bottle went into my commuting bag and spent about 15 minutes in 20-degree (F) weather, before going into my room-temperature office. I'm pleased to report that the cap did not leak AT ALL, despite laying on its side in my bag and getting a lot of jostling on rough roads. And -- as promised by the packaging -- my coffee was still at a just-drinkable temperature two hours later.

Is this the bottle for you if -- like me -- you bring coffee in the morning that you want to drink in the afternoon? Well, no. You'll probably need double-wall stainless with a vacuum seal to pull off that trick (Polar makes one of those too, but I couldn't beg one to test). This is really more of a commuter cup -- fill it when you're leaving the house and drink on your way to work.

What I really like, though, is the cleanup. In the past, my go-to commuter mug has been the Good Grips LiquiSeal. It keeps coffee hotter longer than the Polar Ergo and even fits better in a bottle cage, but that big, thick pushbutton lid is one of those "no user-serviceable parts inside, and don't even think of putting it in the dishwasher" items. Any attempt to wash the lid leaves liquid sloshing around in there that refuses to leave, and inadequate rinsing leaves the delightful aftertaste of dish soap in your joe. Pretty epic fail.

The Polar, on the other hand, has just three easy-to-disassemble parts: the bottle (which seems to share the same basic "two plastic layers with shiny space blanket stuff in the middle" construction of the other Polar bottles), a very simple hard plastic lid (with no nooks and crannies to hold gunk or soap) and a silicone seal:

All three parts can go in the dishwasher -- you're seeing mine after the coffee test above and a top shelf, normal cycle trip through ours. No place for gunk to hide, no soapy aftertaste, no taste at all, really. Like new. It's a simple, effective (dare I say elegant?) design that my OCD tendencies like a lot.

So, the bottom line for coffee nerds: No, the Ergo isn't going to keep your brew at face-melting temperature for half the day. But if you want hot joe to go for a couple hours in the morning, are too lazy to hand-wash (guilty), and want something different than the typical cheap, quasi-disposable, imported sippy cup, the (U.S.-made, if you care) Polar Ergo is a good choice. Heck, Polar's free cap replacement policy (which applies to all their products) would make this worth the price of admission for me, as I've killed more sippy-cup caps than I can count over the years.

Sunday, January 13, 2013

I Believe Caley Fretz

I spend a lot of time on these electronic pages lambasting the state of bicycle "journalism" today. However, Caley Fretz's recent VeloNews piece on objectivity in reviews gave me a lot of chin-scratching, ponder-worthy material, and is definitely worth a read for anyone who writes or reads reviews.

As a blogger (what Fretz would call a "peer-to-peer reviewer"), I spend a lot of navel-gazing time on this topic. And I'll admit, I fall into the trap of feeling superior to those paid hacks (er, "professional reviewers") because I'm out here, doing it, paying to play, testing the stuff in the real world, skipping the press junkets, blowing off the PR hacks, not getting bought by The Man (continue silly little-guy-against-the-machine blather ad infinitum). But am I really immune to the conflicts of interest of a paid reviewer, or am I just a sucker? After all, at least they get paid for their biases.

Case in point: When I was coming up as a young cyclist in my small, two-bike-shop hometown, all the "serious" riders in the area were rolling on Continental tires, with their telltale reddish-brown sidewalls and yellow labels (yes, I come from the pre-blackwall era, and thus am older than dirt). Why? Because Continental was the brand that the "more serious" shop in town carried and pushed to their clientele. I got passed a lot, often at blur-inducing speeds -- but even in the blur, I could make out the distinctive brown sidewalls. As I got serious, I bought Contis of my own, and (oddly enough) I didn't get passed quite as much. Nothing to do with the tires (I was just getting stronger), but I came to associate "hauling ass" with those brown sidewalls. And to this day, there's a part of my brain that thinks I'm faster on Continental tires for no rational reason -- even though Jan Heine has proven me wrong with some pretty fine journalism of his own.

So what does all this hoo-hah mean to you as a reader and me as a reviewer? It means that I'm a fallible human being, not a robot. Everything you read in these pages comes from my (often skewed) perspective. I do my best to explain that perspective, let you know where I'm coming from, what informs my thought processes, and what's important to me as a rider, a mechanic, and a person. Hopefully, that context helps you fit my opinions into what you know about yourself and your preferences. And -- one of the cool things about this whole newfangled social media/Interwebs 2.0 thing we all live in -- you get to talk back in real time. If you think I'm pulling something out my chamois, there's that neat little "Comments" section at the bottom of every post. Get in there and tell me so. You might not convince me, I might not convince you, but hopefully we both come away with a more-rounded view.

Saturday, January 12, 2013

Old Wounds: Shouldering On

I was changing a tire the other night when I felt the familiar double-click of  shoulder leaving its socket and going back in. Cue searing pain, and now I can look forward to a week of fitful sleep, interrupted by that same pain every time I roll over.

The shoulder is the bane of old bikers, especially old mountain bikers (and trust me, in mountain biking, 40 is old). if you frequent a bike shop and haven't seen at least one of its employees in a sling at some point over the years, shop elsewhere, because it's likely those guys don't ride.

I've come to expect the double-click from my right shoulder. I crashed on it while commuting back in 1992, misjudging a curb hop, going over the bars, and landing full-force on my right elbow. Quick ER trip, six weeks in a sling, and it hasn't been right since, giving me an old-farmer-on-the-porch ache whenever the weather's changing. When the arthritis that plagues my family finally finds me, I know its point of entry will be that old dislocation.

The left is one of those sneaky old injuries, though. Same basic story: 1994, riding trails near Iowa City, bottom of a long, fast descent, carried too much speed into the corner, went flailing off into the woods, bike went out from under me, I hit the ground rolling (textbook technique!) in an absolutely spectacular "cloud of dust" yard-sale crash, and I came up with a bum wing. That one popped back in almost immediately, and -- thanks to the rush of endorphins -- convinced me that while my day on the trails was over, no trip to the ER was necessary. I skipped the sling time without incident, and Its been pretty much dormant and forgotten ever since... until the other night.

The thing about shoulders is that once you've hit them with enough force to temporarily disassemble them, they'll come apart with remarkable ease after that. They will -- literally! -- pop out if you sneeze on them. I once saw a mechanic do just that... he happened to be leaning on the workstand at just the right angle, sneezed, and popped a shoulder. My pop the other night came as I was levering a particularly tight tire bead onto a rim... my shoulder wasn't even involved, but the angle and force must have been exactly right. I'm sure that given the right circumstances, you could literally pop one out at the drop of a hat, but I'd rather not prove the adage.

Someday, I suppose I'll want to have these things surgically repaired. For now, though, the occasional downtime is just a nice memory trigger to the days when I was younger, stupider, and much more durable.

Thursday, January 3, 2013

A New Twist On FDGB

Anyone who's cycled for any length of time has heard countless variations on the "clipless newbie falls over" story. Mine happened as I pulled in to a gas station with my dad for a snack stop, successfully unclipped my right foot, put it down on the curb, and promptly lost my balance to the left, falling on my still-clipped-in side. My cousin rode into the yard of a woman he hoped to impress, rolled to a suave stop right in front of her, forgot to unclip, and faceplanted into the grass. It happens to everyone, each in his or her own uniquely humiliating way.

Falling down at speed during winter cycling is also so common as to be boring (at least in the Midwest, where winter equals snow and ice) -- and assuming you can hit a soft snowdrift, it isn't so bad. However, when you mix studded snow tires into the recipe, you get a variation on the low-speed clipless pedal Fall Down Go Boom (FDGB) I like to call the Overconfident Dab and Dump (ODD).

No clipless pedals are required for the ODD. In fact, flat pedals and regular shoes increase the overconfidence factor, making an ODD even more likely. All you need is a set of studded tires and enough riding time to get very accustomed (perhaps TOO accustomed, he said, ominously) to the traction they provide. Soon, you're gleefully zipping over black ice like it's bare asphalt in July. You laugh at the elements. You're untouchable. You even find yourself looking for the icy spots and aiming for them, just so you don't wear down your pricy studs on the rare stretch of bare pavement.

Finally, you have to stop. Maybe it's for traffic. Maybe you need a coffee. Maybe there's someone you want to impress with your devil-may-care "cold? what cold?" attitude. So you hit the brakes, bring those studded tires to a halt, gracefully remove a foot from its pedal, and place it on the ground -- forgetting that, unlike those tires, your shoes have no studs.

Face, meet ground. Oh, and the bike's now on top of you, too, just to add insult (and maybe more injury) to injury. But hey, at least you provided some much-needed perspective for all those people in their warm cars who are now thinking, "My commute may suck, but at least I'm not that poor bastard!"

If you ever need motivation to practice your trackstand, one ODD will do the trick.