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: