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.

Thursday, July 11, 2013

Eeek! A Naked Bicycle!

Since this is a family blog, let's just call this photo a "tasteful, artistic nude":

I had a rattling fender that turned out to be a cracked fender, so in a fit of pique, I just ripped both of the darn things off. Now, before the Bicycle Quarterly devotees get all over me for using those horribly inferior plastic fenders, bear in mind that this humble set of Planet Bike polycarbonates had lived for ten long years across four different bikes. Not bad for a $25 investment. That's $2.50 per year, or $6.25 per bike. Had I done a better job installing (and reinstalling, and reinstalling) them and not tried to manhandle this last installation (there was some over-aggressive Dremel artistry this time), methinks they would have gone a lot longer.

I've only been rocking the unfurnished basement for a few days, and I can't wait to get some proper mudguards back on the thing. First of all, it just looks wrong. Skinny-tired carbon race bike with its wanton wheels exposed? Sure. But a chubby-tired steel all-rounder? Gotta have some spray-deflectors to look right. Second, even in this week's relatively dry conditions, I'm getting schmutz all over my water bottles. I couldn't care less about dust on my legs, but dust on the thing I drink from? Ick.

The weird thing is, I actually ride differently without fenders. I'm more conscious of the surface, looking for the cleanest line. It's annoying. So I ordered up more Planet Bike polycarbonate, because, heck, why mess with what works? I do have some ideas for custom mounting tweaks to make the installation stiffer, prettier, and even longer-lasting, but I'll save that for when I have fenders in hand.

Having a bike stripped of fenderage does provide a rare opportunity for some Grant Petersen-esque tire clearance porn, though. Hey, if it's what you're into, who am I to judge?

She's wearing 700x32 Panaracer Paselas (which measure true to label) and Tektro R556 extra-long-reach brakes. I'll bet the next size of Pasela would easily fit, or (dangerous thought brewing) some cyclocross knobbies. Proof positive that the current (er, quasi-current) iteration of the Raleigh Clubman can be a real wolf in sheep's clothing with a few well-chosen modifications.

So there you have it. Illicit bike photos. You'd better clear your browser history now.

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Des Moines Cycling Gets A Celebrity Endorsement

This just in: David Byrne (of Talking Heads fame, among other things) seems quite impressed by the biking to be had here in central Iowa.

Mr. Byrne was in town for the 80-35 Music Festival, headlining the first night with St. Vincent, not to mention a whole heap of horns. Sousaphone? Sure! Flugelhorn? Why not? French horn? Well, the town has a French name, so oui! Hey, anybody got a bass clarinet back there? Bust that out too!

Nobody comes here for my music reviews, but I'd put the 80/35 David Byrne/St. Vincent set way, way up there on my list of favorite all-time concert experiences. If I know how to do this bloggering thing, you should be able to hear a song from their Love This Giant album by making the clicking on that linky-text. Said album comes highly recommended by yours truly, and if DB/SV come to your town with their herd of horns, go see 'em. 

Of course, while I'm well out of my depth reviewing music, Mr. Byrne is no slouch when it comes to reviewing a cycling scene. He is, after all, the author of the bike-travelogue-musing Bicycle Diaries (as reviewed by yours truly), not to mention a frequent target of mockery from BikeSnobNYC (a fine metric of cycling-scene-relevance if ever there was one). I'm glad his travels took him to Ichi Bike, maybe one of the most original bike shops I've discovered in my not-nearly-as-wide-ranging travels.

So, we have hip shops. We have great trails. And David Byrne, International Man of Bicycle, says we're cool. Being Midwestern and all, I'm not one to brag, but that's not too shabby.

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

LimpStrong 3: A Report, Of Sorts

The short version: Yup, I did it.

The funny thing is, though, as I sat down to write a lengthy, photo-encrusted description of my solo 100-miler, I came to something of a humbling realization: The only thing less interesting than riding a bike for 100 miles is reading about someone riding a bike for 100 miles. I mean really: I left my house, rode 50 miles, turned around, and rode back. Got rained on a couple times, drank a lot of chocolate milk, ate a lot of salted nut rolls, and scraped up the bike once when I was dumb enough to lean it against something concrete (at which point it promptly fell over, as both the laws of gravity and Murphy insist that it must). Nothing epic, nothing worthy of Rapha-esque purple prose. Just a dude riding a bike for a day.

And that, dear reader, was maybe my most important "deep thought" of the whole activity, namely that 100 miles is little more than the odometer reading after 99.9. Did I experience anything more transcendent than if I'd stopped at mile 90? That last 10 was just an exercise in my own stubbornness, and I've already had a lifetime of that. It would have been a great 85-mile ride... or 70. Nothing about that three-digit number makes me a "better" cyclist or a "more credible" cycling blogger (a snort-out-loud laughable concept if ever there was one). It just makes me a guy who turned pedals until he turned the odometer that last tick.

So, after three successful iterations, I think LimpStrong may be done. Not saying I won't ever ride 100 miles in a day again. If I have all day to ride and I'm feeling good and it happens, it happens. But the goal of the mythical capital-C Century has kind of lost its luster. When I think of the great rides in my life, they're never the "big goal" rides. They're the little rides with little expectations that turned into something more: discovering a new road, feeling the unspoken connection two people can share through a tandem timing chain, or just ambling through the neighborhood on a summer evening listening to the cicadas.

The odometer can't measure that.