Wednesday, June 26, 2013

My Favorite Vaporware Upgrade

It's a brake pad, of all things. On the Tektro website, it goes by the cryptic moniker of 720.12. Not even important enough to get a cutesy marketing-department name.

So what makes this thing so cool? It mates the replaceable-cartridge feature of a fairly common road brake pad (basically, the shape that everyone's copied from Shimano) with the long threaded stem and ball-and-socket adjustment of a modern cantilever/V-brake pad and provides a nice, thick, long-lasting pad without compromising fork blade/tire clearance when the brake is opened. Basically, it's a cyclocross design that makes a lot of sense for other canti-/V-brake-equipped bikes.

I stumbled on a set when I tried some flavor of Tektro mini-V brakes on my old touring bike. The brakes were fine (still have 'em somewhere), but when the bike passed on to another owner, I never gave them another thought... until the pads on my commuter bike's V brakes wore out and I didn't have any replacements. Pilfered these Tektro things off the old mini-Vs and was immediately wowed by the improvement. The commuter uses a full run of cable housing from lever to caliper on the rear brake, so it tends to be a bit mushy. Pair that with a long, thin mountain-style brake pad (and the toe-in needed to keep it from squealing), and the resulting feel is like a brake made of marshmallows. With these smaller, stiffer cartridges, the feel was crisp without any loss of power, and the brake flat-out refused to squeal, even with what seemed like woefully insufficient toe-in.

Having grown tired of constantly toeing in the pads on the tandem to save my stoker from the humiliation of brake squeak, I recently swapped these pads from the commuter to the tandem (noticing a theme in my garage, whereby Peter is robbed to pay Paul?) and was again wowed. A little more challenging to set up on the tandem's wider rim due to the pads' thickness, but well worth it. Crisp, powerful and quiet again, even with the tandem's long cable runs.

Of course, having talked these things up, my Google-fu can't find a source to actually purchase them on the interwebs without buying a whole brake. Kool Stop makes a cyclocross pad which looks like a fancier "skeleton" version with funky triple-compound inserts -- and when it comes to brakes, you can't go wrong with Kool Stop. Still, I imagine that if the Tektros can be bought somewhere, they'll probably be cheaper, making them a real sleeper upgrade for a lot of otherwise crappy brakes.

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Getting Dropped: A Long-Awaited Tandem Conversion

In the world of bikey stuff, I'm a pretty open-minded fella. I like trying all sorts of different bike types, pedals, bar configurations, saddles, you name it. But one thing that I keep coming back to time and time again is those curvy handlebars like what the dopers use in that Tour Day France thing.

The tandem I share with Dear Spouse, however, came with the non-curvy bars like what we used to use back in the day for biking on mountains. And from Day 1, I obsessed over the thought of switching the front end over to drop bars (the rear is subject to the whims of said spouse, who has other preferences -- plus, there isn't a drop bar alive that can clear my ample posterior). Since the tandem was designed as one of those mountain-riding bicycles, this conversion posed a few gotchas:
  • V-brakes: When we bought the tandem, there was but one lever for drop bars that pulled enough cable for Vs, the Dia Compe 287V. I'd tried them on other (single) bikes and was slightly less than whelmed. The thought of trusting a big bike and precious cargo to them didn't seem prudent.
  • Reach: The captain's compartment on the twofer is (at least on paper) pretty long. Having arms of the T-rex variety, I questioned whether I'd even be able to get my scaly claws out to the brake hoods.
  • Shifting: I'd need bar-end shifters to make it work. Not a big deal, but not an expense that seemed worth it when the other pieces weren't falling into place.

With these hurdles in mind, I put the conversion idea away and learned to deal with the flat bars... but then Dear Spouse dropped a bunch of pounds and turned into a stoking Quadzilla to my T-rex captain. Rides times started stretching well beyond what I could comfortably do on flat bars (or in non-cycling shorts, for that matter). I tried everything: bar ends, swept-back bars, Ergon grips, different gloves, but my numb hands kept telling me that a more drastic operation was needed. Thus, I started collecting the parts that would eventually lead to this Frankenbike creation: the stealth black, drop-bar, 26"-wheeled, touring tandem tank!

The bars are a spare set of 45cm Nitto 115s that were cluttering my parts box. Levers are Tektro's answer to the 287V, the RL520 -- which had been thoroughly tested and found more than satisfactory on my Swift folder commuter. Stem is a short, upjutting Salsa on a stem riser to address the reach issues. And finally, the shifters are Dura Ace 9-speed bar ends I got via barter (which required a cassette/chain upgrade from the stock 8-speed, but barterers can't be choosers). Here's what it looks like from the driver's seat:

Normally, this is the type of project that I dive into with zero planning, which means I end up making a frantic run to the bike shop mid-project for a cable or chain or bar tape. However, with all the tandeming we've been doing this summer, I knew downtime had to be minimized, so I was very OCD about getting every duck in a row before wrench touched bike. The results were worth it -- everything came together in just a couple hours with no panic, no mistakes, and no do-overs. I even remembered to do the Cannondale Cable Crossover (where the right shifter cable makes a smoother path to the left downtube stop and vice versa, only to cross back over each other under the downtube to reach the appropriate cable guides at the bottom bracket). It was a mechanical masterpiece, if I do say so myself.

The new setup has only been out on a maiden shakedown cruise, but I'm already excited about getting my favorite hand position back, not to mention getting back feeling in said hands. It has, however, exposed an interesting handling trait of this bike. At very slow speeds, the thing is still as razor precise as I remember it with flat bars. We went to the farmers' market, and I was able to pick through pedestrians and parked cars in a way that shouldn't be possible on a bike as long as a Buick. High-speed handling was also just as I remembered it -- not scary at all, despite being at the front end of a whole lot of momentum. There's a handling no-man's-land in the slow-to-moderate speed range, however, where things get a little wobbly. Not scary-wobbly, just a "glad I'm an experienced captain with a predictable stoker" feeling. I'm not going to pass judgment until we put in a few more long rides, though.

Monday, June 24, 2013

Pasela! Gesundheit!

Alas, a moment of silence for the late, great Michelin Dynamic, a low-budget tire that was much lauded around these parts (and whose review is consistently the most-visited bit of blather on this blog). The ol' girl's been replaced by the Dynamic Sport, which, while still being inexpensive, features much more logo-crap, and comes in a variety of fashionable (read: ugly) colors. Interweb rumor-mongers also claim that they don't run as wide, which was my favorite feature.

So, with one of my favorite tires gone, I've been forced to go to the old standby of retro riders, the Panaracer (and/or Panasonic) Pasela. I have a checkered past with these, for a number of reasons:
  • I was on Paselas when I broke my leg. Not the tire's fault, but the association sticks.
  • I've found them to ride a little "wooden" in the past, though I was always on the belted TourGuard version (and in retrospect, I was probably overinflating them).
  • I always associated the old Pasela (and it's prominent-center-ridge tread) with the cheap-and-crappy gumwalls that came on just about every 10-speed in the 80s.
  • I hate tires with tan sidewalls. Twee showbike eye-candy/wall-hangers? Sure. Real bikes that get wet and/or dirty and/or exposed to UV? No thank you.
So with all that yammering, why would I even try the Pasela again?
  • Like me, it's cheap. I found mine for something like $16 a tire (for the steel-bead, non-belted version).
  •  It comes in about a zillion sizes... something like 6 widths in 700c, not to mention a couple 26-inchers.
  • You can finally get it in blackwall. Cue chorus of angels, and derisive jeers from the retro guys who just kicked me out of the club. Also, the center-ridge tread has been rounded off to just a hint-o-ridge.
  • Paselas did quite well in Bicycle Quarterly's recent rolling resistance tests (you'll have to pick up a copy of Vol. 11, No. 3 for the deets). Granted, I'm not trying to go fast, but when a $16 tire tests better than the $25-$50 ones I've been riding, what's the downside?
Given all that, I ordered up a set of steel-bead, non-belted, blackwall 700x32s for my monster-road-converted Raleigh Clubman (the only unavailable combination, it seems, is non-belted folding bead, sadly). At 60 psi, mounted on Mavic Open Sport rims, and ridden long enough that I think they're done stretching, my calipers show a very respectable 31mm width. I know 60 psi seems laughably low for a road tire, but that darn Bicycle Quarterly (again) will tell you that we can (and should) be running our tires a lot lower than we do. At 60, I get no cornering squirm, no pinch flats (knock wood), seemingly limitless traction, and some serious plushness over rough stuff.

In fact, after a few hundred miles on these things, my only thoughts about the lamented Michelin Dynamic are, "The King is dead. Long live the King." On smooth surfaces, the Paselas are no slower than the undersized 700x28s they replaced, and they're markedly faster on the rough patches, floating rather than bouncing. It's especially noticeable in corners -- a choppy surface that would have knocked me off my line on the skinnies just gets eaten up by the fat Paselas. In general, the wider footprint gives me the confidence to take my "road" bike places where a road bike has no business going. I even think that the Clubman would now make a passable gravel-grinder bike, though I haven't put that to the test yet. It's certainly more gravel-worthy on paper than what my friends and I rode on gravel as kids (grumpy old man cue: We rode gravel because the roads around our houses were gravel, not because it was some trendy new thing.)

I keep waiting for the downside to show itself on these tires so I can write a balanced review, but I haven't found it so far. The Paselas will be getting their longest test yet (not to mention the Clubman's longest test) during Saturday's LimpStrong ride, so we'll have to see how they (and I) hold up.

Sunday, June 23, 2013

Absence Makes The Heart Grow Fungus

My reader (hello, lovely wife) has been complaining that this blog has been radio silent for quite a while. In my defense, I've been way too busy riding (often with said lovely wife upon our tandem) to spend time writing about riding.

That ends today, however, as it's a rainy one here in otherwise scenic Des Moines and I have a fresh haircut to keep my brain from overheating (I should really install some cooling fins as a cerebral heatsink, sort of like on the old Scott-Mathauser brake pads). I intend to spend the afternoon in my bloggin' chair, cranking out posts and scheduling their publishing to leak out in dribs and drabs all week, thus maintaining the illusion that someone's maintaining this blog. Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain!

First important news is that LimpStrong 3: Return of the Fred-I has been scheduled, and it's (gulp) next Saturday, June 29. For those who have no idea what I'm talking about, LimpStrong was conceived in 2007, was a stunning success (in that I didn't die), came back (like a bad rash) in 2008, and was discussed briefly in 2009 but hasn't been seen since. This year, I made the mistake of 1) cranking out some relatively fast and easy 40-50 milers early in the season, thus feeding my hubris, and 2) mentioning to lovely wife that I felt manly enough to do another LimpStrong this year. Of course, she immediately said, "I'm going to be busy on the 29th... you should do it then!" Never mind that LimpStrong is usually a Fall tradition, when my legs have been seasoned like a fine beef jerky and my scranus has hardened itself to the indignities of the saddle.

So, watch this space for reports from next Saturday, when my fake titanium femur and I plan to be aboard the steel horse all the live-long, LimpStrong day, putting in a solo hunnert miles just to prove that I'm a stubborn bastard.