Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Seasonal Bike Disorder

Wish I could take credit for that title, but it comes courtesy of Dear Spouse/Chief Graphic Design Smartypants/Tandem Power Plant.

It's the condition that befalls me every autumn... days get shorter, temperatures get colder, and for some inexplicable reason, I get the urge to mess with the bike fleet. For the longest time, I thought it was just me (and so I kept this shameful condition to myself), but now blog-pal bikelovejones has also admitted to a case of Seasonal Bike Disorder.

So what causes it? Well, this is the season of post-industry trade show gadget lust. All the sparkly new stuff has been displayed at Interbike, and photos have trickled down through the bike media to everyday schlubs like me. But despite the amount of "here's some bike gadget I bought that I'm going to review to hear myself talk" that you see on this blog, I'm not much of a "must have new thing" gear-luster. If anything, I'm a curmudgeon who leans more toward "new thing evil! burn the witch!" I won't speak for bikelovejones, but I have to imagine that anyone still running a mechanical odometer isn't exactly prone to plunge blindly into this year's latest and greatest either.

Is it some urge to buy performance as the season winds down? Not really. I've long since given up on the idea of being fast, much less the idea that I can spend money to get fast. I was given this body and, more importantly, this almost-imperceptible level of motivation to "train." I'm as fast as I'm gonna get, and have zero desire to get any faster. Plus, my SBD (no, not Silent But Deadly... stay with me, Beavis) is just as likely to manifest itself in an urge to get rid of gear as it is to add to the collection. Heck, this year's oddball thought has been, "If I like the Raleigh so much for commuting, why exactly do I need the folding bike?"

If you think I'm driving at some sort of point/grand revelation/enlightening epiphany here, I'm sorry to disappoint. It's only this year (after doing the bike thing for the entirety of my adult life and a good portion of my larval stage) that I even saw the pattern in myself. It make take a few more years (and a few more SBD cycles) before I figure it out.

Friday, October 18, 2013

Lighting Nerd Chronicles: A SafeRide In The Hand

Okay, so some nitty and/or gritty. Still no real-world riding review (haven't been out in the dark all that much), but some actual hands-on stuff.

My first impression of the Philips SafeRide as I opened the box was, "Gosh, that is a BIG light! And kinda heavy!" Imagine my surprise when I realized the (provided, rechargeable) batteries weren't even installed yet -- I was holding an almost empty shell.

But what a shell it is! All brushed aluminum (though also available in black), and seemingly tough enough to drive nails. The two halves are held together by a 3mm Allen-headed screw, and the manufacturer was even kind enough to provide the appropriate wrench for it in the package. Needing a tool to swap batteries could be a nuisance if you're going to run it all night and require a battery swap mid-ride, but for my normal commuting use (where I'll have time overnight to charge it up via the mini-USB port on the back), I don't mind. I've read reports from other users that it's no big whoop to replace that screw with a thumbscrew for tool-free access to the innards.

Up top, there's a blue charge status light that gradually gets smaller until you're out of juice (and pulses like a tiny Cylon during charging) and a rubberized on/off switch that's easy to operate while gloved. You can also see the illuminated edge of the lens at the top of the photo above, which provides some side lighting.

The bracket is equally beefy. If you've seen the old Planet Bike bracket (before they went to a ratcheting hose-clamp to accommodate 31.8mm bars), imagine that clamp on steroids:

The thumbscrew bolt and slotted clamp make it easy to move the bracket from bike to bike. I'm also a fan of the shim system -- the bare clamp is big enough for 31.8mm bars, then a couple sets of interlocking rubber shims bring it down to what I consider "normal" bar size. The "interlocking" part is what I like -- no losing a stack of loose rubber strips when you remove the clamp. The bracket also pivots left or right with an audible "click" (and more than a little force), so there's very little chance it could point off in the wrong direction of its own accord.

So I mentioned that this was a big, honkin' light, right? In fact, when I put it on my bars the first time, I thought, "Dang, that looks pretty clunky and massive." However, I'm giving it a pass, for four reasons:
  1. I'm pretty clunky and massive.
  2. Part of the size comes from the fact that it runs on four AA batteries, which passes my "even number of commonly available batteries" test for easy charging (assuming I ever run it on batteries that charge outside the light).
  3. The other part of the size comes from a really big lens, which passes my "doesn't look like a laser pointer to other vehicles" test.
  4. Pal Steve K. the Professional Electron Wrangler (who's so bad-arse, he makes his OWN lights) has hypothesized that all that aluminum functions as a heat sink to protect the LEDs.
However, being way too obsessive about such things, I did put my brain to work on alternate mounting solutions to get this thing a) centered, and b) a little lower on the bars. Take the clamps from an old set of Cinelli Spinaci aerobars (how did THOSE get in my parts box?) and a chunk of old handlebar, and voila! Homemade accessory bar!

I like this solution, but I think there could be an even more elegant one. See, it looks like the part of the clamp that actually attaches to the underside of the light is held on by two bolts:

My thinking is, an old front reflector bracket (the beefy steel kind) could be installed on the fork crown and bent so that the mounting holes are quasi-perpendicular to the ground. Then, remove the mounting bracket piece and use the bolts to mount to that bracket instead. Of course, it would require a really strong bracket so as not to fatigue, fail, and fall off; it would defeat the "easy to move among bikes" feature (flip side: also defeats the "easy to steal" bug); and I'd have to park the whole bike close enough to an outlet to charge the light with the included cord.

So, on perceived initial quality and meeting my arbitrary list of bike light features, we have a winner. Next up, I'll go play in the dark (which is getting easier and easier as the days get shorter) and report on what really matters: Does the darn thing work? 

Disclaimer again: The Cycle paid for this light like any other schlub off the street, and was not compensated in any way for this review, other than the pleasure I get from hearing myself babble on the Internet. And, as usual, if you follow that Amazon link in paragraph two and buy stuff, I get a tiny kickback.

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Lighting Nerd Chronicles: The Philips SafeRide In Theory

First, if you're saying, "What exactly is a Philips SafeRide?" don't feel bad. You won't find these things on the shelves of your typical bike shop. In fact, I've never seen one in a bike shop. I only found mine because I was tipped off to a good deal on (yes, again) Amazon. Now that I got mine, Jack, I'll also share:

Moving up the obligatory disclaimer to make it painfully obvious, because I'm feeling guilty about being too spammy: My SafeRide was a gift... from my lovely wife.And while she did allow me to marry her, I've done my best not to let that color my judgment in this review. If you follow that link to Amazon and buy something, I'll get a cut. Thanks, I feel better now.

So anyway: What's the deal with the SafeRide, and why did I feel the need to get one rather than buying any number of perfectly good lights in ye olde LBS? The hook on this light is that it gets a stamp of approval under the German rules for road vehicles (StVZO for short, which, if I know my German heritage, is an abbreviation for a word of approximately 93 characters and 14 umlauts). "But Jason," you're asking, "why do I care, since I don't plan to ride my bike in Germany?" Here's why: The StVZO rules say that it's not nice to blind people with your headlights, whether you're a four-wheeled internally combusting engine or a two-wheeled, schnitzel-powered one. So a bicycle headlight meeting these rules has to have a defined top cutoff to keep the light on the road rather than in the retinas of an oncoming driver.

If you look at some of the beam shots in one of my old lighting posts, you can see what I'm talking about. Most bike lights (including all the other ones I've tested to date) have round reflectors, which shoot light out in a big cone. Some of that cone hits the ground, helping you. Some of it hits other people in the eyes, enraging them. And a lot of it just shoots up into the air for no good reason. The SafeRide (and other StVZO-approved lights) have shaped lenses that cut off the top of the beam like a car headlight, as shown in this recent photo from our lighting test bathroom... er, lab here at The Cycle:

"Big deal," you're saying. "I like blinding people." I get that. I'm as antisocial as the next fella (okay, maybe more antisocial). But what I don't like is all that light blasting up into the sky, wasting my batteries without doing me any good. An StVZO-approved light won't do that. It's putting all your photons down on the road where you need them.

So there you have it: An introduction to the obscure world of European traffic regulations. Sorry you asked? Next up will be some actual hands-on stuff about the SafeRide, I promise.

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

The Continued Quest For Enlightenment

Yup, it's that time of year again... time to pander to the bike lighting nerds! You know who you are. First up, the Knog Boomer, which has only one steady setting and about a dozen weird flashing patterns that probably spell out "hipster" in Morse code:

For fans of my "beam shots captured in a dark bathroom" series (which is gonna get a gallery show someday, I swear), one caveat -- my camera (a.k.a. my phone) has been through several purported "upgrades" since I last went on a headlight photography binge, so any comparisons between this post and previous lighting posts should be made at your own risk. Bad science? Probably. But still worth precisely what you paid for it.

Anyway, as you can see, ol' Knoggy puts out a fairly blue light, round beam, bit of a corona, and some odd shaded bits mid-beam. I've used this as my only commuting light a few times, and in a city setting with plenty of ambient light, it gets the job done. I wouldn't count on it as my only light source on a dark, unfamiliar trail, though.

What I really do like about the Knog (and its matching tail light) is the hipster-approved rubber strap mounting system that makes it easy to mount on handlebars, seatposts, fork blades, seatstays, helmets, and small pets. Thus, I've put both of them on my helmet, thusly:

Irony alert: I wasn't able to stretch them through the minimal vents on my hipster-approved skater-dude helmet (shown in my photo over there to the right), which is even more appropriate since hipsters love irony. So, as you can see, they're adorning my go-slightly-faster space alien helmet. The tail light is angled to mount on a seatpost, so I had to flip it over to keep it from pointing into space and annoying Martians.

Other nice things about these lights: Each one runs on two AAA batteries, which makes them a) easy to recharge, b) easy to replace, and b) not terribly heavy upon my melon. So, while they definitely fall into the "be seen" category rather than the "light up every pebble" category, I'm happy to have them up there as a supplement.

To what, you ask? Guess you'll have to read my next post.

Obligatory Disclaimer: I was given these lights -- not by Knog, but by my in-laws. And while they did allow me to marry their daughter, I've done my best to not let that color my judgement in this review. Oh, and if you follow that Amazon link and buy stuff, I eventually make a few pence on the deal.

Thursday, October 3, 2013

Kingdom Phylum Class Order Family Genus Species

Now that I've spewed my gravel-bike rant (and subsequently adjusted the dose on my medication), it's time to face facts. This gravel-bike thing is here to stay, at least for a couple seasons until everyone's bought one, the trend is played out, and the marketing machine finds something else (don't believe me? remember trendy hipsters on fixed gears? yeah, they're even hard to find in Des Moines now, and it takes trends about seven years to get here.)

Given the fact that we're stuck with the category, I'm going to tilt at just one more windmill. The name. Gravel bike? Really? Sure, it makes sense out here in the flyover, where we have miles upon miles of gravel within easy reach. But who needs a "gravel" bike in the civilized world where all the primitive pre-roads have been slathered over with asphalt?

So we need a new name. Guitar Ted is taking a swing at it with his open-source naming project, but I have a simpler solution. Let's just take back the perfectly good name these bikes had about 30 years ago. Y'see, sonny (grandpappy settles back in his rocking chair), back then, we rode these things called "road" bikes. They fit medium-width (say 32-35mm) tires. They had long wheelbases. They had low bottom brackets. Now, some folks'll tell you that's what you call a "sport-touring" bike, but I say phooey! We didn't call 'em "sport-touring" bikes! They were road bikes! Because we rode 'em on the road! Any old road we chose!

And then, along came the mountain bike. And the next thing you know, the road bike was gone. Oh, there were things that sorta looked like road bikes if you squinted real hard, but don't be fooled. Those were racing bikes. The "roads" they were good for went around in circles, with corner marshalls at every turn to sweep up even the tiniest pebble. Pretty soon, folks forgot what a real road bike looked like. And so these impostors, these racing bikes, these Indy cars with two wheels and pedals, muscled their way in and took over a perfectly good name.

Here's the gauntlet I'm putting down: I'm going to call this everything-old-is-new-again breed of bikes exactly what we called them back in the day. They're ROAD bikes, people. When I see someone on one of those skinny-tired things, I'm going to call it what it is: a RACING bike. If that makes the owner feel stupid because he/she doesn't race, well, so be it. But this industry has already hyper-specialized itself enough. We don't need a new category. We just need to use the ones we already have correctly.