Monday, May 20, 2013

The Heart Wants What It Wants, Even When It's Stupid

My wife always gets nervous when I start a sentence with, "If we had a bigger garage and disposable income..."

The latest bike (because it's ALWAYS a bike) is a weird one. While floundering about the interwebs, I learned that Walmart sells a cheap fatbike cruiser. 

There are so many things wrong with this, I don't even know where to start... but that's never stopped me from trying before:
  • It's from Walmart. Let's just say I'm not a fan of Sam's empire and leave it there. It hurt my heart a little just to sprinkle that tiny driblet of link juice on them. (And don't get me started on the whoring of former "real bike" brands into the big-box channels...)
  •  It's gotta be disposable-cheap. Do the math: Start at two Benjamins, subtract the Walton family's cut, and see what you have left for just a frame, fork, wheels and tires, never mind the rest of the stuff that makes a bike go. Cheap, light, strong? In this case, I'm guessing you only get to pick one.
  • It's certainly not a "real" fatbike, intended for off-roading... unless you're seriously retro and just want to downhill with a coaster brake, klunker style. Going back up that hill on a 50-pound singlespeed? Uh, good luck.

And yet, dammit, I keep casting a covetous eye at the devil's "add to cart" button. All rationality aside, the thing just looks freakin' cool. I love fat tires. I love cruisers. A cruiser with REALLY fat tires? I think I just went from Schwinn to schwing.

A couple factors are working against me (and for my marital harmony), however. One, none of the Wally-marts anywhere remotely near me has this monster in stock. If I saw one in person rather than through the series of internet tubes, all hope would be lost. Two, I don't have the aforementioned large garage or bottomless wallet, so there's no physical or fiscal space for a bike that can't earn its keep with a purpose beyond "looking really cool" (shut up, inner monologue... you cannot convince me this would be a good commuter bike).

Now, if some generous benefactor/patron of the bloggerly arts (because really, who wouldn't want the publicity from a no-name blogger with zero fatbike experience and a predisposition to dislike both the bike's brand and its seller?) wanted to send me one to review, I certainly wouldn't turn the big brown truck away. Maybe I can have a seance and get Sam Walton on the horn...

Sunday, May 19, 2013

The Bike Trail And The Social Contract

I do most of my fun rides on local multi-use rail-trails. They provide a (mostly) smooth paved surface, no car traffic, pleasant scenery (yes, even in Iowa), and easy access to food and water as the trails pass through local towns. After playing in traffic all week on my commute, there's no better way to unwind.

However, the trail reminds me that as cyclists, we're engaged in a social activity, even when we choose to ride alone. On my "solo" rides, I'm going to encounter any number of other cyclists, walkers, runners or skaters on a trail that -- at best -- is three bikes wide.

There's an entire post (most of it ranting) to be written about encounters with pedestrians (and I count skaters in that category, since they're on foot, albeit wheeled foot), but I'd rather focus on the social contract among unfamiliar cyclists, even though it's probably going to leave me vulnerable to accusations of snobbery.

Rule 1 of cycling on a multi-use trail: Be in control. I'm not talking about speed limits. I'm talking about knowing how to operate your vehicle at whatever speed you choose. If you are capable of avoiding danger (and remember, "danger" can be anything from a patch of mud to a small child around a blind corner) at 20 miles per hour, great. If you aren't, slow down until you reach a speed where you don't out-ride your skill set. I see glaring examples of this rule being broken on our local Greenbelt Trail every time I ride it. The trail is a long series of tough curves, winding through trees whose roots tend to buckle the asphalt. Holding a line in those conditions can be challenging even for an experienced bike handler. It can be a lot of fun, the wheeled equivalent of the speeder bike chase in Return of the Jedi. But if I'm sticking my outside line in one of those curves and someone coming the other way goes too fast and runs wide, it's a recipe for disaster.

Which leads me to Rule 2 of the social contract: Trust is earned, not inherent. Here's where the snobbery kicks in. Out on the trail, I don't know you and you don't know me. You might have the bike-handling skills of a professional mountain bike racer, or you might be a wheeled klutz. I don't know. So when I see you and your buddy coming at me riding two abreast (on a three-bike-wide trail, remember), I get very nervous. Yes, I know you've left one bike's width for me, and yes, I know I can hold my line through that gap -- but I don't know if you can hold your line while I'm in that gap. On a long, straight stretch of trail, maybe I've watched you long enough to get a quick impression of your trustworthiness, but my first impression might be wrong. And how do you know you can trust me? Do us all a favor and drop back to single-file.

I'm particularly sensitive to Rule 2 for a couple reasons. First, I've been hit head-on by one of these side-by-sider riders (who may have been drunk, but that's an entirely different rant), resulting in a messed-up knee and taco'd wheel. Second, I do much of my trail riding on a tandem. When I'm piloting almost 400 pounds of rider/bike at 20 miles per hour (with very precious cargo on the back), the stakes are pretty high. I don't know the physics of it, but I don't have to do math on the back of a napkin to know that impact with another cyclist will end badly for all involved.

With summer weather finally hitting Iowa, I'm sure I'll have plenty more rules and rants as the bands of RAGBRAI idiots start taking to the trails (such as, "I didn't come out here to listen to the music blasting from your bike trailer," or, "It is possible to ride past a bar without stopping for another beer," or, "More than three people are allowed to ride together without wearing matching 'team' t-shirts proclaiming some supposedly cute slogan about how their butts hurt.") But for now, can we all just agree to these two simple rules? It will keep the trails safer and improve the ride for everyone.

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Great Advances In Average Brakes

There was a less philosophical outcome from my unexpected test ride of my sister's bike over the weekend: I learned just how far run-of-the-mill brakes have advanced in the last 18 years.

To whit: My sister's bike is a mid-90s MTB with midrange low-profile cantilevers (if you really want to nerd out on what that means, the obvious source is the late, great Sheldon Brown). It's still equipped with the stock mid-90s Shimano brake pads on basic, non-machined rims. Some may argue that 18-year-old pads don't make for a fair comparison, but Shimano's pad compounds of that era were so awful, they work just about the same two decades later as they did when fresh. The brake adjustment is exquisite, if I do say so myself, obviously done by a skilled, attractive young mechanic with a bright future ahead of him in corporate selling-out and side-blogging.

In short, there's nothing really special about this bike's setup for its original time and place. It's the same basic collection of parts we all rode back in the day, through slop, slime, sand, often aggressively, sometimes stupidly. It worked fine then, and I never gave it much thought at the time (hard to believe from someone who over-thinks minutiae as much as I do). During my impromptu test ride last weekend, I didn't have much time to think about the brake feel or performance -- I was chasing nephews, so I wasn't too focused on reviewing the bike.

Then, I came home and rode my bike: machined rims, dual-pivot calipers, and Kool Stop pads. Still nothing fancy -- and this is a road bike, not a mountain bike -- but the difference was a revelation. My average road brakes of 2013 are hands-down, no-foolin' better than the average brakes we used in the dirt back in the halcyon 90s. Better feel, better modulation, shorter stopping distances, you name it.

Nothing scientific about this at all, mind you -- I'd get laughed out of Bicycle Quarterly if I pitched it as research. But for a self-proclaimed Luddite who'd like you to think that the Great Decline of the Bicycle began with the V-brake and the suspension fork, it was humbling to admit that yes, Virginia, there is such a thing as technological advancement.

Of course, this means I'm about ten years away from accepting (shudder) disc brakes...

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Winged Feet Of Clay

I was reminded last weekend of one of the things I love most about bikes.

Uncle Jason had just installed a new bell on the youngest nephew's bike and a new helmet on the youngest nephew. Before I even had a chance to put down the screwdriver (for the bell installation, not the helmet), the kid was out of the driveway and down the street like a shot, test riding the new equipment.

Next thing I know, here comes the older nephew behind me, unable to resist the lure of a bike ride. So I've got a four-year-old disappearing into the distance, a six-year-old headed off in another direction, and the foot speed of a garden slug with a sprained gastropod. Remember, I have one sibling, no kids of my own, and these two little boys are the only ones she's going to make. The entire future of my family is making a break for it, and nobody's covering the deep zone in my defensive scheme. In short, I'm screwed.

So what's a bike nerd to do? I saddled up on my sister's bike (which is way too small for me, but there was no time to be picky), grabbed someone's helmet off a shelf (because even in a panic, I felt the need to be an example for the boys) and took off in hot pursuit. And as soon as I got wheels under me, my panic was replaced by calm. I was in my element. I could catch either one of the boys at will, check in on him, then circle back to the other one effortlessly. I could hold back, keeping them both in my sights, secure in the knowledge that if I needed to, I could get to either one with just a few pedal strokes. On foot, I didn't stand a chance against these tiny speed demons. On a bike, I felt like a bird keeping watch over chicks that hadn't quite learned to fly yet.

It's easy to forget that feeling of flying. After all, I'm not exactly the fastest guy on wheels either. But that brief reminder of just how clumsy and slow I am without those wheels was enough to convince me. The bicycle is a pretty amazing thing.

Friday, May 10, 2013

Go Read Steve

Far be it for me to drive away the few readers who stumble into these pages, but if you're here and haven't been paying attention to the blogroll over to the right, you owe it to yourself to pop in on Local Pal Steve's Zen Biking.

Steve recently completed Trans Iowa V9 (an event so worthy of the word "epic" that it would make those faux-epic Rapha punks soil their overpriced knickers), and is now documenting said adventure via blog. So far, the following chapters are available:

What I find so compelling about this whole endeavor is that if you met Steve in the non-virtual world, you'd think, "That's just a normal guy." He's got a job, a wife, and a kid. He's obviously in killer shape (anyone who spends enough time on his indoor trainer to tag it as the Gopher Wheel Lounge on Facebook would have to be) but I don't think he'd strike you as one of those hyper-obsessed athlete-freaks. Those guys don't tool around town with their wives on the back of a Surly Big Dummy, or bust out their 1939 Colson ballooners for a tweed ride.

So, congrats to Ol' Iron-Scranus, officially the 9th-place finisher of Trans Iowa V9, a swell former neighbor, a canine delicacy, and clearly a guy who knows how to grind some gravel.

Monday, May 6, 2013

Swift And Single: A Long-Term Check

Reader feedback (I have readers? And they provide feedback?) has reminded me that it's been a while since I checked in with a report on my Swift folder, its current configuration, and how it's holding up. Here's what it looks like today, almost three years since it first crossed the threshold of the garage:

The Swift serves as my daily driver/commuter and errand-runner, 2 miles round trip on a short day, 10 on a long day. It has done time in any sort of weather the Midwest can drum up, from snow to scorching summer. Modifications from stock include:
  • SINGLESPEED DRIVETRAIN: When I put the studded tires on this winter (yes, there are 20" studded tires out there), I decided that a simpler drivetrain would be nicer for the slop. Swift apparently now offers this as a stock option, too. It's also fun to tell other singlespeeders that I ride a 52x16 and watch their jaws drop when they assume 700c wheels.
  • DROP BARS: The conversion to drops flummoxed me for a while, thanks to the v-brakes and SRAM 1:1 ratio rear derailleur (requiring SRAM MTB shifters). The Tektro brake levers for drops have worked out nicely once I added an inline cable adjuster, and the singlespeed alleviates the shifter issues (though I did bodge around that briefly). Probably makes the bike harder to pack, but man, do I like drop bars.
  • HARD-WIRING THE FOLDING MECHS: I just don't fold this thing very often, so to thwart thieves, I replaced the quick releases on the stem riser and seatpost with regular binder bolts. This may not be a Swift-approved modification (so do it at your own risk), but I haven't had any issues. I can't imagine the bolts are any weaker than the fairly cheap quick-releases that the bike comes with stock.
  • WHERE THE RUBBER MEETS THE ROAD: The stock Kenda tires wore out (thank goodness) and were replaced by fairly cheap 20x1.95" BMX freestyle tires. These things are cushy and quick beyond what their humble price would suggest, and probably deserve a Hail to the Cheap shout-out. The Planet Bike fenders (another aftermarket add-on) still (barely) clear them, too.
  • LOAD BEARING: I added a mini front rack and a modified Jandd rack duffel to carry my commuting load. I know next to nothing about the appropriate geometry for a front-loaded bike, so it was by sheer luck that the Swift appears to be unaffected by the weight over the front wheel.

I've been pleasantly surprised to see that the stock bottom bracket, wheels, and headset are still holding up. The hubs are slightly rougher than new, the rim sidewalls are getting thin, and the headset has a tiny bit of notchiness, but this is par for the course considering the abuse (from both weather and neglect) that my "work" bikes suffer. The bottom bracket's still spinning like new. Not bad after two years of minimal maintenance and rough use.

I'll keep banging on this little bugger and continue to check in on it from time to time. It's definitely earned a place in the fleet and proven itself as a capable performer.

Saturday, May 4, 2013

Pity The Poor Copywriter

I had a parking incident last week that tore a nice gash in the otherwise-pristine cork tape on my daily driver bike (don't worry about the digression -- I'll get to that poor copywriter eventually).

Being (ahem) "frugal", I first attempted to patch it up with a chunk of high-test black duct tape. The result was effective, but being (ahem) "particular" in addition to (ahem) "frugal", I couldn't stand to look at it. (I'll also justify my (ahem) "particular" tendencies by saying it was a bit slippery).

Don't get me wrong: I love taping drop bars. Many people dread it, but I take perverse pride in getting just the right overlap, the perfect figure-8 around the brake hoods, and a nicely angled end-cut at the tops to leave a square edge. What I don't like is undoing a nice tape job just because I happened to put a hole in it. So, I decided it was time to do an overwrap with something a bit more durable, preserving the cush of the underlying cork while adding a skin of something tougher. Enter Avenir Classic Cloth bar tape:

Avenir is somebody's house parts-and-accessories brand (maybe Raleigh?), pretty much just a label slapped on a wide range of basic aftermarket stuff so your bike shop's shelves have a branded consistency of matching orange packages. Their cloth tape, however, is pretty nice if you're into such things. It's a bit thicker and wider than the traditional Velox/Tressostar, and (as the package promises), the rolls are a bit longer to make their way around wider bars without coming up short. In fact, I had enough left over during the wrap of my 45cm bars that I cut a small piece, undid the wrap on the gashed side, and used the extra to fill in the hole. Remember, too, that I was wrapping a 45cm bar over a fairly thick layer of cork.

A couple downsides did show themselves during the installation. First, the adhesive strip isn't very well attached to the tape, making it a real challenge to get the backing paper off without peeling off the adhesive too. I suppose this could be an upside if you're looking for non-adhesive tape, though, since it would be very easy to just peel off the whole shebang. Also, there's a light "stitching" pattern along one edge of the tape -- doesn't appear to be functional, just something decorative. I didn't notice it and wrapped in such a way that it's visible on one side, hidden by the overlap on the other. So much for being (ahem) "particular".

In use, though, I'm happy with this tape. The cloth has already proven to be a more durable outer layer, putting up with a couple unceremonious dumpings of the bike without complaint. It also provides nice grip whether I'm bare-handed or wearing gloves. I prefer more cushiness than it would provide by itself, but over a layer of cork, it feels great. And getting back to that (ahem) "frugal" stuff, I got it for only $11. Not half bad.

So why do I pity the poor copywriter? Check out those "features" on the package again: "Inspired by the great 20th century road races." That's the mark of an ink-stained wretch who's been told, "Come up with five bullet points about cloth handlebar tape, fast!" I can hear the internal monologue: "Okay, I got the contents of the box, I got the length, I got the sticky stuff, and it looks good on old bikes. Crap. Well, maybe they won't notice if I throw in another one that basically means it looks good on old bikes."

(I'm not even going to touch the fact that said copywriter is probably young enough to think that the 20th century is "retro", or my pity will turn to loathing. Dang kids, get off my yard!)