Monday, November 2, 2015

Mental Health Day

My late dad was a major proponent of what he called the "mental health day": a day off from work or school not because you were sick, but just because everybody needs a day off to recharge once in a while. I wasn't allowed to abuse the privilege (he was a public school teacher, after all) but I remember a few times in high school where he let me take a Ferris Bueller day minus the parade-based hijinks.

I've carried that proud tradition into my quasi-adult life, and since I was supposed to be on vacation all last week (a vacation cancelled due to spousal sinus infection, unfortunately), I decided that Friday would be my mental health day. The result?

A bit of trailside relaxation with Fall color. Temps were a little crisp, but nothing tights and a wool jersey couldn't defeat. I tend to get a little goal-oriented/obsessive during my usual rides, forgetting to just kick back and enjoy from time to time. On this ride, I forced myself to roll a little more Pondero-style, and the results were very enjoyable. Not sure what Pondero-style means? Here's a great example. Of course, I have fewer (and worse) photos, no hammock, and no trailside coffee brewing apparatus. I'll have to do something about that.

Digressionary news flash, that will circle back eventually... I was also riding with the knowledge that Friend of Blog Steve F (a.k.a. Local Steve, a.k.a. that crazy guy who did the Tour Divide this year) was at that moment in the intensive care unit recovering from a bad crash Thursday night. He and a friend were putting in some after-dark gravel miles when a deer crossed their path. The friend got away relatively unharmed, but Steve hit Bambi hard at about 20 miles per hour, breaking seven ribs (his own, not the deer's) and puncturing a lung (again, his own) -- no word on the condition of the bike or the deer. The guy does over 2,000 miles on the Great Divide without getting even nibbled by a bear, then gets taken out by a deer in Iowa?!? C'mon, universe, that's just not cool. (Digression to my digression, Steve is healing up, has left intensive care, eaten a burrito, and worn pants since then. But think nice things for him in the direction of whatever higher power -- or lack thereof -- you profess to believe or not believe in.)

So given that I had Steve, Guru of Gravel on my mind, I figured it was a good opportunity to leave the paved path and see what the rocky roads were looking like these days. Spoiler alert, they looked like this:

When people ask, "What's the big deal with all this gravel riding?" show them this photo. That's a gravel road so nicely packed down that it could be a double-wide, groomed mountain bike trail. And it went on for miles and miles and miles and miles, way more miles than I had in my chubby, out-of-shape legs. I was out there for a solid two hours and encountered one (friendly) pickup truck, one other cyclist, and one farm dog that barked at me from his yard without even giving chase. Fast surface, rolling hills, perfect weather... what more could you ask for?

For the gear geeks, this was my first real test of the Refurbished Rockhopper as a "gravel bike" (whatever that means), and it passed with flying colors. No big surprise there, since old mountain bikes were designed with this kind of surface in mind. I even got nutty and carried some speed through a few curves just to see where the slick Kojaks would find their limit -- but they never did. Do I think that for a dedicated gravel racer/mega-enduro-gravel-dude, one of those ultra-optimized "gravel-specific" bikes might be a little better than my battered old beast? Maybe. But did this vintage ride with its "outdated" wheel size and rim brakes hold me back at all? Nope. (Well, the rim brakes held me back, but that's what brakes are supposed to do.) If I'm being extra-super-picky, I'd probably prefer a frame with a slightly lower bottom bracket and slacker seat angle, but man, that's really putting a fine point on it. Luckily, if the Rockhopper ever succumbs to the rust nibbling away at its tubes, all the parts will port over to a 26" Surly Long Haul Trucker frameset with just those features. Of course, by the time the rust catches up, the 26" wheel size may be dead and gone.

I can't say that the day off and ride fixed all my mental health ills (it's not a miracle cure, after all), but I am feeling much better. I guess my dad was a pretty smart dude.

Sunday, October 25, 2015

Despite All My Rage, I Still Lock My Bike in a Cage

So that secured bike parking I mentioned? It's real... and it's spectacular.

Here's a shot from the inside out, after I've scanned my Borg-badge for entry:

Anyone who wants to use it has to ask the security desk dudes. They tell "The System" (you know, the one designed by "The Man") that you're A-OK, and from then on, your badge works on the door. Not only did they cage in the existing bike parking area, they added a bunch of shiny new racks to boot.

And since I can't help showing off my bike, here's the ol' Rockhopper (finally sporting its finishing touch, some big ol' fenders), locked in the cage for the day:

Keen-eyed readers will say, "Um, dude, you know that your rear wheel has a quick-release and isn't locked, right?" Yes, yes, I know. But given that somebody has to get into the locked cage to get that wheel (and Big Brother knows who enters and leaves the cage) I'm willing to risk it. Heck, I might even start leaving my helmet with the bike now that I don't have to worry about stray dogs peeing on it.

In case Big Brother is watching this post too, it would be nice if there were one of those public bike workstations in the cage, too. Just sayin'...

Saturday, October 24, 2015

Another Pander to the Light Nerds

For reasons that mystify me, whenever I post about bike lights, my page views take off ("take off" being a relative term, which in this case means "go from zero to four"). So, since it is the time of year when days shorten, and since I'm never one to pass up an opportunity to sell out to my audience, it's time for another headlight review!

The new contender: A Serfas "True 155" LED headlight. I picked this up as a relatively inexpensive ($35 at my LBS) and easily available replacement when the Knog Boomer on our tandem developed the annoying tendency of turning off and on at random. Here's a shot of it on my Rockhopper instead, for reasons I'll explain later:

Points in this light's favor already: Fairly compact on the bars, runs on just two AA batteries, and (so far) doesn't jiggle itself open during a ride, unlike all the Planet Bike Blaze lights I've used. Oh, and a nice mounting bracket, too:

That top "horseshoe" piece can rotate about 90 degrees in either direction, through a series of fairly heavily indexed clicks. What you can't see is that most of the clamp is a thick rubber strap. It has a pin on one end (like a watch band) that fits in several corresponding slots for coarse adjustment, then the plastic lever closes to snug it up for good. Simple, stable, versatile... not too shabby.

But, I can hear the light nerds asking, where's the beam shot? Here you go, shot in our top-secret beam testing laboratory, a.k.a. a dark bathroom:

Pretty typical round, flashlight-style beam here, nowhere near as sophisticated as my Philips SafeRide. Bright enough, sure, but shoots a lot of that brightness off in directions that don't do the rider any good. It has three different settings and claims to have a flash setting, but (thankfully) I can't figure out how to make it flash. I hate flashing front lights with a passion, so this is a feature, not a bug.

As for how a light intended for the tandem ended up on my bike, we learned quite by accident that many inexpensive LED headlights (including both the Serfas and a couple Planet Bikes from my stash that I tested) interfere with the also-inexpensive Bontrager wireless computer on the tandem. While the sun was up, we were humming along at our usual (blistering) average speed, but as soon as things got dark and I turned on the Serfas, zero miles per hour. Score one more for the SafeRide, which does not interfere with the computer. Thanks to the versatility of the mounting bracket, however, I was able to mount it on a fork blade below and opposite the sender for the computer, which doesn't interfere at all, and will probably make better use of the simple round beam. Haven't ride-tested this yet, though.

Since we were down one Boomer, I decided to replace the rear one with another Serfas, their basic seat stay tail light. Of course, being a rebel, I defied the name and put it on the seatpost instead:

Nothing terribly exciting here... a bright LED in the middle flanked by six smaller LEDs, and a variety of seizure-inducing flash patterns. We needed something that mounts with rubber straps to fit on the non-round rear section of dear stoker's Thudbuster. Wish it ran on something other than little coin-shaped batteries, but I'll wait to see how long the batteries last before I bag on it for that.

Obligatory disclaimer: I bought these lights with my own grubby dollars and was not bribed to speak well or ill of them. Also, if you click a link in this post and find yourself at Amazon, a pittance from any resulting purchase might make its way to my pocket.

Saturday, October 3, 2015

Cage Match

So I'm strolling through the parking garage of my employer (as one is wont to do), and I see this:

Secured storage area?!? For bicycles?!? Whatnow?!?

Several days later, this appears:

By golly, that's a big ol' fenced-in cage around the bike rack area. For several days, it had no gate (you can just make out the opening on the right edge of my photo), so I wondered if we were just going to count on the social-psychological pressure of a fence coupled with the legendary niceness of Iowans to protect our bikes, but just yesterday, it got a gate controlled by the same Borg-cube entry credentials that let people into the building.

This is awesome news for me (though likely ho-hum news for you), as I've lost a couple headlights and a rain jacket (during friggin' Bike Month, no less) to pilferers. I'd even taken to stashing my bike elsewhere in the parking garage, off street level and away from the prying eyes of passers-by.

Now, before we commend my employer too loudly for this act of generosity, let's remember that the same employer provides lavish gym and locker room facilities on all of its other campuses around Des Moines, while only recently adding a small locker room with a couple showers for the downtown peons. They also put an electric car charging station in this garage long before the secured bike parking, when the number of bikes locked up each day far surpasses the one friggin' Chevy Volt that I see plugged in maybe once a week. And given the state of our downtown facilities, I'm wary of how long that keycard reader is going to work and how quickly it will get fixed when it stops working. I'm just imagining being locked out of the cage with my ride home trapped inside...

But hey, progress. They might just get this whole biking thing figured out by the time I retire.

Thursday, September 24, 2015

Beware Of Popes Coveting Bikes

Just a public service announcement, since the news tells me there's some dude named Francis hanging around 'murica this week: DO NOT LET HIM HAVE YOUR BIKE.

Somehow, when this new Francis guy says, "My Father says everything's negotiable," it sounds a little more ominous...

Sunday, September 20, 2015

A Disturbance In The Force

Answering the question that absolutely no one was asking, why yes, you can buy a Huffy-made, Star Wars-themed fat "bike" from Target for the low, low price of three hundred dollars:

 Or, if you aren't a fan of the Darth Vader colorway, you can be a stormtrooper instead:

Now, I can't sit in my glass house and lob stones at the circa-2015 Star Wars cross-promotional marketing machine, seeing as I was the kid in 1977 who would plead with parents, grandparents, and random strangers to buy him absolutely anything that had Star Wars on it (and having soft, easily manipulated parents, I usually got it). But, um, wow.

I'm trying to grasp the logic of a front disc brake (likely cheap and cheesy) paired with a rear V-brake (also likely cheap and cheesy). But that's applying the mindset of a bike person to what is really a bike-shaped object/extremely large prize from the bottom of a cereal box. Here's an easy tipoff... if the "bike" you're looking at is within easy reach of a box of pool noodles (see second photo), you should look elsewhere.

(Aside: Just noticed the 27.5" mountain bike -- using the term loosely -- in the background of my first photo. So that marketing hooey has even made its way to the box stores. Calling Jan Heine, the 650B revolution has arrived, but you might want to be careful what you wish for.)

I will say that in the late-80s, my personal discovery of mountain biking had a reptilian-brain connection to the original Star Wars trilogy, as zipping through the woods on my first MTB was the closest I'd ever been to the Return of the Jedi speeder bike chase sequence. But if you want to have that kind of fun these days, I suspect that these Target fatties are not the bikes you're looking for.

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

How The Other Half Rolls

Many electrons are wasted around here on the bikes that yours truly, Grand Pooh-bah of The Cycle (the ugly dude in the photo to the right) rides, but it's been a while since I've featured the cycle stylings of my long-suffering spouse. Thus, I give you... the little Cannondale:

This is a v1.2 photo, after I'd already given it some love in the form of flat pedals (replacing clipless), new grips, new tires, new saddle, some lights, fenders, a bottle cage, and (of course) a bell. The previous owner had clearly ridden it a lot but taken good care of it -- all the things that are usually hurting on a 20-year-old bike (like those vintage Grip Shifts) were just fine.

This is a gen-yoo-wine Made in Bedford, Pennsylvania Cannondale from the mid-1990s, welded from big ol' aluminum tubes, natch. The thing I find neat about it from a bike-nerd perspective is that funky front end... on a mountain bike, Cannondale called that extra triangle the Killer V configuration. It was designed to provide more standover clearance, eventually to make space for a suspension fork, and generally, just to look cool. On a hybrid like this one, it doesn't get a snazzy marketing name, but it ticks the "standover clearance" and "looks cool" boxes, at least to my eye. Our tandem has a similar front end, and my delicate dangly bits appreciate it every time I have to stand over the big bike at a stop.

I toured the Cannondale factory as a Pennsylvania shop rat just before the turn of the century and was able to see how they could rapidly prototype oddball designs like this... draw it up in CAD in the morning, a computer-controlled laser cutter slices exactly the right miters into the right tubes, pass those tubes off to a welder, and by the end of the day, you have a rideable frame. If it doesn't work out, start over again tomorrow. It's a far cry from those "Designed" in the U.S.A. companies (including the Cannondale of today) who have to send their blueprints overseas and wait for the shipping container to bring the results across an ocean.

(Ranty aside: If it seems like I kinda talk about Cannondale in the past tense, that's how I see them after Dorel shut down Bedford. As far as I'm concerned, if it didn't come out of Pennsylvania, it ain't a Cannondale. Neener neener neener.)

But enough harumphing, and back to the bike at hand. Here's some action-shot proof that my tandem stoker does more than just stoke tandem (at least until she sees that I've put a slightly silly picture of her on the blog and tells me I have to take it down):


This is v2.0, after she determined that the reach to the stock flat bars was a bit too much Swapped those out for some inexpensive riser bars with some sweep, and the smile tells you the verdict. (Apologies to the bike photo nerds for not capturing the drive side of the bike, or the bike in its entirety... when you're being buzzed by a crazy woman in a parking lot, you take what you can get.)

Perfection was not attained, however, until v2.1, with the addition of a key accessory:

Big ol' basket? Check. The bike's now functional, and just as stylish as its pilot.

(If you were sucked into the Cannondale company/history nerdery above, is a great resource, with a catalog archive going all the way back to 1973 when they only made backpacks, bike touring bags, and bike trailers.)

Sunday, September 6, 2015

Rockhopper Reborn

Methinks it's about time for a (blurry) unveiling around these parts. I give you the latest Frankenstenian creation from The Cycle World Headquarters, the Retro Rockhopper All-Surfaces Touring Beastie:

You may recall that this specimen arrived as a badly beaten but mostly bone-stock mountain bike from the days of grunge (and the days when your humble narrator could grow a full head of hair). The trashed (cheap) parts, battered paint job, and dented downtube (who dents a downtube?!?) spoke to a long, hard life being ridden as an actual mountain bike. But, like Charlie Brown shopping for a Christmas tree, I saw something in this ragged, run-down wreck and brought it home.

Now, thanks to a deep parts box and a project-tolerant spouse ("You're STILL futzing with that thing?"), it's starting a second life as a pavement/dirt/gravel/commuting/whatever bike. I would say that the inspiration came from Bicycle Quarterly's recent embrace (and term-coining) of Enduro Allroad bikes, but I've been obsessed with critters like this since ol' Rocky up there was brand-spankin' new. The true inspiration was probably the drop-bar mountain bikes Charlie Cunningham made for his wife, the legendary Jacquie Phelan, or maybe the iconically weird drop-bar 1987 Bridgestone MB-1.

Putting aside the twisted connection of synapses that motivated it, here's how it's built up:
  • Frame 'n' fork: Specialized, chromoly, beat up but ready for more.
  • Wheels: Modern Deore hubs on Sun CR-18 rims (budget prebuilts with a bit of tensioning by yours truly to make them rideable). Tires are the folding Schwalbe Kojaks that were deemed too worn for continued tandem use this season.
  • Drivetrain: Sugino XD cranks (26/36/46), older Shimano XT rear derailleur, modern Shimano Deore front derailleur, all pulled by Shimano 9-speed bar-end shifters. Cassette is an 11-32 9-speed.
  • Brakes: Tektro CR720 wide-profile cantilevers pulled by Shimano aero levers.
  • Cockpit: Salsa Bell Lap bars on a low-budget upright stem (more on the stem later). Never cottoned to these bars before, but they feel right on this bike.
  • Other contact points: Platform pedals (keepin' it simple) and an old WTB SST saddle, which fits both the style of the bike and my ample posterior.

If you're interested in playing along at home and rescuing your own vintage MTB as a newfangled Enduro Allroad bike, here are a few tips/potential gotchas:
  • For my money, I'd stick to a post-1990 "source bike". As I blathered about in my original post about this Rockhopper, I think what became "NORBA standard" geometry in the early 90s is more suited to this sort of thing than the old "klunker" layout. But hey, if you know you like those Repack angles, knock yourself out.
  • If your source bike is from the era of 1 1/8" threaded steerers (like mine), it can be interesting to find a stem that brings the drop bars up and back far enough. I used this almost disturbingly cheap Sunlite stem, which has the added advantage of a pop-top bar clamp.
  • Similarly, some source bikes (like mine, again) will lack a rear cable stop on the top tube for brake cable housing, routing the bare cable around the seat cluster through a small welded-on tube instead. No problem if you want to use cantilevers (and kinda elegant in that application, actually), but V-brakes need a stop back there.
  • The Bicycle Quarterly folks will probably tell you that a true Enduro Allroad bike needs their Rat Trap Pass tires to reach its full potential, at an eye-watering $63-$84 per tire (a.k.a. more for a bikesworth of tires than I paid for my bike). As you might expect, this cheap bastard says "hogwash!" Having ridden Kojaks on our tandem for many years, I can say with some authority that they'll give you a heaping helping of go-fast fun at less than half the price (some sources have the wire beads as cheap as $25 per tire).

So, dear reader, thar she blows. She may not look like much, and I've yet to determine how fast she can make the Kessel run, but I smile every time I throw a leg over this little slice of 1995.

Thursday, June 25, 2015

Allez, Steve F!

Time to check in on one of our favorite Steves here at The Cycle, Steve F, a.k.a. "Local Steve", a.k.a. "Former Neighbor Steve", a.k.a. "Proprietor of Zen Biking", a.k.a. "This Guy":

(The homely, bald one on the right.)

If you've been following Zen Biking during the inexcusable hiatus of this particular blog, you know that this is the year he's going big(ger) and riding the Tour Divide: a nutty, damn-near-2500-mile off-road race from Canada to Mexico along the Great Divide.

I am totally sucked in to this event, checking in on Steve's Spot tracker several times per day. By the time you read this, he'll probably be in Colorado with over 1600 miles behind him, covering over 120 miles per day. The dude has done more off-road miles during this event than I've done miles for the entire year. Mind: Blown.

It just takes a brief peek around the social mediums to see that a big chunk of the Iowa biking community has adopted Steve as our hometown hero. Local shop Beaverdale Bicycles and even teamed up to offer a Steve Fuller Posse t-shirt (proceeds benefiting trails in Central Iowa) -- yeah, I ordered one. And no sprinkling of link juice would be complete without a shout to Steve's shop sponsor, Rasmussen's. (For the record, nobody gave me squat for all this wanton linking -- I'm just a Steve supporter, and a supporter of those who support him, and a supporter of supporters of biking in Iowa in general.)

So if you're burned out on professional racing (and you'd better believe I am), I encourage you to click in to the Tour Divide coverage. As far as I'm concerned, these are the real racers.

UPDATE: So, yeah, he did it. 24 days, 17 hours, 2 minutes (because even after 24 days, I guess the minutes still count), 2,745 miles, and a lot of pie. Words fail me. Steve, my man, you are harder than woodpecker lips, and I'm proud to call myself a member of your posse:

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Long-Term Test: Shimano M088LE Shoes vs. Hobbit Feet

Lo, it was way back in ought-thirteen that I first introduced you, my wide-footed reader, to the Shimano M088LE shoe. And alas, I did promise to report back, so report I shall.

I'm sorry to say that while all my initial praises of the shoe (not ugly, nice and wide) did pan out over our two-year test period, I was not thrilled with their durability. Sure, the soles don't look all that bad for a shoe that's seen a couple years of commutes, hike-a-bikes, farmer's market runs, and whatnot:

But the uppers didn't fare so well under the incessant pressure of my knobby toes:

(For the record: That's my FINGER demonstrating the "aftermarket ventilation" -- even my toes aren't that freakishly prehensile.)

The mesh (probably nylon?) on these shoes seems to be vulnerable to wear and ultraviolet exposure. What started as a small abrasion (the sort of thing you'd expect to get on a shoe designed for mountain biking) degraded fast, until I had a the custom pinky-toe window shown above.

Further proof comes from the instep of the same shoe, in the seam between two fake-leather sections held together by the same mesh material. No initial abrasion here (the "leather" bits keep it pretty protected), but the mesh got brittle and failed anyway:

Had this instep hole been the only blowout, it wouldn't have been a deal-breaker (you can hardly notice it unless you're wearing white socks or sticking your finger through the hole), but the pinky-toe blowout was already well developed at this point.

It looks like the successor to the M088 (the M089, also available in wide) wraps the fake leather up over the Pinky Toe Danger Zone a bit more, so maybe it's less prone to abrasion-induced blowouts... but I still fear for the structural integrity of that mesh material once it's been through a few soaking/sunbaking cycles.

So, great shoe for fit, but not tough enough, in the eminently valuable opinion of one random internet babbler. I'm currently trying out a wide shoe from Bontrager, so check back in 2017 to see how that one's holding up.

(Obligatory disclaimer: I buy all my own shoes with my own money and put them through a rigorous battery of unscientific testing known as "wearing them". No illicit bribes were exchanged for this opinion, though if you follow that link to the M089 and buy it on Amazon, they tell me I might make a couple nickels someday. I won't hold my breath.)

Sunday, May 17, 2015

New (20-Year-Old) Toy!

Oh, Craigslist, why must you tempt me so?

Meet the latest arrival in the garage, tastefully photographed against said garage per the Society of Terrible Amateur Bicycle Photographers Official Rulebook. That's a 1995 Specialized Rockhopper, steel, 20.5" frame, with no squishy bits save the tires. When I saw it listed on the local List of Craig for a song, I decided it simply had to be mine.

It wins nostalgia points because this is the same exact model (and color, even, though a different frame size) that I sold to my Dad back in 1995 during the shop gig where I actually got semi-good at mechanicking. He was recovering from a near-death cardiac "incident", and that Rockhopper was going to be his comeback bike. Eventually, he decided that he still liked his Cannondale road bike more, "incident" or not, so the Rocky was briefly loaned to my then-girlfriend who became my then-financee who is currently serving time as my now-and-future wife. Once I ponied up to buy her a bike of her own, the Rocky went to my sister, where it remains to this day.

Even putting aside nostalgia, though, I think these bikes were (and are) the bee's knees, cat's pajamas, and dog's bollocks. In the mid-to-late 90s, the steel hardtail was still trying (gamely) to compete with cheap aluminum as a viable race weapon, and the result was some pretty light and lively frames, even at midrange price points -- a far cry from today's tank-like steel off-road frames that emphasize bike-polo durability over ride quality. Trek had their 900 series, Gary Fisher had the Hoo Koo E Koo, GT had the Karakoram, and Specialized had this Rockhopper. Geometries had coalesced around a pretty quick-handling standard (with minor variations) thanks to the iconic Bridgestone MB series, though Bridgestone USA was defunct by the time this Rocky hit the sales floor. That bike layout became so standardized that it was just known as "NORBA geometry" for its ubiquity on the professional race circuit. It felt great on dirt and -- though this falls in the category of Unintended Side Effects -- it didn't feel like a chopper on pavement (pretty easy to do when the longest suspension fork on the market had maybe 70mm of travel). Most of these bikes had a full complement of braze-ons if you wanted to add fenders and racks to make them solid utility bikes. In short, they were simple, fun, versatile bikes.

When I take off my rose-colored riding glasses, however, I know darn well that this example is pretty rough. The paint is battered, which isn't unusual for the matte finishes on these frames. The low-end Shimano and Grip Shift parts left a lot to be desired when brand new, and they have not aged well in the last 20 years. But with a bit of adjustment, the bike still runs, and I've now commuted on it enough to confirm that it's worth a few well-chosen upgrades from the parts stash. Even with pretty abused wheels, horrible tires, and a Slime tube in back, it has that lively feel I remember. I'm going to swap the Alivio crank (which Shimano eventually recalled due to breakages) for a Sugino XD, dump the worn-out Grip Shifts and rear derailleur for nicer ones I got from reader Steve K (thanks, Steve!), and hopefully find a good deal on some 26" non-disc-brake wheels (which modern bikery thinks is an obsolete format). With those changes and fresh consumables (rubber, brake pads, cables), I'll have a mechanically good-as-new MTB for chump change.

Saturday, April 11, 2015

"Pro" Tip: Tektro RL520 Brake Levers

The "pro" is in quotes because I don't know what kind of professional I purport to be. Professional unpaid writer? Professional home hack mechanic? But if you use Tektro's road brake lever for v-brakes, I'm a proponent of this trick, which I'm giving you pro bono.

For whatever reason, the angle that the cable housing exits these levers is incredibly awkward on pretty much every bar I've ever installed them. Case in point:

See how the cable comes out pretty much perpendicular to the lever body, then has to make a sharp turn upward to follow the curve of the bar? It's subtle, but it's there -- and it's just enough of a kink to make the action of the cable rough. It works, but it just feels cheap and unpleasant.

The fix for this is really simple: Take a file to the lever body and remove a bit of the upper corner where the cable housing exits, allowing the cable to come off the lever at a more natural angle:

That little corner of the lever body serves no structural purpose that I can determine, and knocking it off lets the cable follow the bar in a smoother arc, resulting in a much better lever feel. Here's the modified lever all cabled up:

Very, very subtle to the eye (heck, I'm not even 100% sure I got my before and after pictures in the right spots), but a night-and-day difference in the hand, especially when I'm dealing with the long cable runs and resulting potential for increased friction on our tandem. Not bad for just a few swipes with a file. 

(Disclaimer: I am not a professional engineer, this is not a manufacturer's recommended hack, my suspicion is that any warranties these levers might have are null and void after the application of a file, and you are taking responsibility for any chance -- however remote -- of lever failure that may result from this modification. Not valid in all states, selection varies by store, yadda yadda yadda trailing off into fine print...)

Sunday, April 5, 2015

Somebody Went to NAHBS...

... and all I got was this link to an amazing photo album.

Seriously, roving reporter and frequent commenter Steve K. made the road trip to Louisville for the North American Handmade Bicycle Show a few weeks ago and has compiled one of the most encyclopedic (and well-photographed) collections of images I've seen on the inter-tubes. Seriously. The coverage from the "real" bike magazines pales in comparison.

I had the crazy idea that I was going to link to (and comment on) specific photos, but there's just too much goodness going on. Even skimming them gave me a head rush. Seriously. Just go there and let it wash over you. I'll still be here once you recover.


Monday, March 9, 2015

Shady Business

As regular readers know, one of my minor obsessions is bicycle lighting and the many ways (in my curmudgeonly opinion) it could be improved. As a result, I was recently contacted by the inventor of the Sombra, dubbed "the world's first tail light diffuser."

If you're scratching your head over what a "tail light diffuser" might be, think of it as the bike equivalent of turning this:

... into this:

If you're looking at those photos and thinking, "But the first one is so much brighter! It has to be better!", then you haven't been paying attention and need to re-read the chapter on frickin' laser beams. I happen to be a firm believer that making lights brighter and tinier is not the be-all, end-all that the light makers would like you to think. My feeling (backed up by absolutely ZERO research) is that I'd rather have a lot of surface area lit up, and if I have to lose some retina-searing power to get there, I'm OK with that.

The Sombra is just that: More surface area for the light you already have. It's a very simple design, a translucent plastic shade that mounts over your existing taillight to give those around you more to see. I was given a review sample by the kind folk(s) at Sombra (BLOGGER FREE SCHWAG DISCLOSURE!), so I gave it a go on my daily driver.

Here's the titanium test-bed from the side with its normal rear illumination, a Planet Bike SuperFlash:

Same thing, with the Sombra installed:


The Sombra folks intend for it to be mounted on the seatpost binder bolt, wrapping over a seatpost-mounted light. However, since my light rides on the seatstay under my saddlebag, I improvised with my rack mounting points instead. The result's pretty much the same. As you can see, the side view doesn't give up much in the way of light intensity, but there's a lot more illuminated area to be seen. Major, major improvement.

So far, I'm on board. But I wish the Sombra folks had gone all-in and figured out a design that has the same effect on the rear view as well. Here's a look at the back of the bike sans Sombra:

And here it is with the Sombra installed:

Not a lot of difference, right? In fact, you have to look pretty closely to know that it's there.

I rode my normal commute with the Sombra installed for several weeks, but I can't say if drivers noticed me any more or less. Honestly, the drivers around here are (knock wood) pretty polite folks who don't give me a lot of reason to complain, so it wasn't much of a test. I did find it a bit more challenging to turn my light on and off with the Sombra installed while wearing bulky winter gloves, but not annoyingly so. If any of my regular readers have a commute situation where they think a Sombra might make a bigger difference, I'd be glad to send you the prototype to try in your urban jungle if you promise to report back.

If anything, one of the Sombra's biggest strengths is paradoxically one of its biggest weak points. The thing is so simple, if you have the slightest DIY inclination, you're going to look at it and think, "I'll bet I could make that!" As soon as I started pondering ways to possibly reshape it to improve rear visibility, I realized that with a couple bucks' worth of plastic file folder and some scissors, I could probably hack any number of diffusers in whatever shape or size my twisted little mind could devise. Granted, the same response applies here as to the armchair modern art critic who says "my kid could paint that": Yes, but your kid didn't. The Sombra folks came up with this idea, did the hacking, worked the iterations, and deserve kudos for pushing the bike lighting business in the right direction. If they succeed -- or if the idea catches on -- we'll all be a little safer for it.

So, the verdict, in terrible bicycle magazine bullet point style...

  • Definitely improves side visibility.
  • Easy to install.
  • Shouldn't be very expensive (final pricing isn't set yet).   

  • Doesn't improve rear visibility.
  • Can make it harder to turn your light on and off, depending on the light.
  • Almost too simple for its own good.

Sunday, March 8, 2015

Iowa Bike Expo: Local Customs

One of the features of this year's Iowa Bike Expo was the Teesdale Handbuilt Bike Awards, named in honor of late Iowa framebuilding legend Tom Teesdale. While I didn't cast a ballot in the People's Choice competition (something about maintaining journalistic integrity or whatnot), I did grab a few photos of custom bikes that caught my eye.

Ames builder Jeffrey Bock brought this jaw-dropper of a touring/randonneur ride. As if the lugs and pinstripes on the frame weren't enough, soak in the matching stripes on the fenders. Classy.


The Bock booth also featured this classic-looking townie with custom racks. Again with the fender stripes!

At the risk of offering too much Bock (and being told to get the Bock outta here), the front view of this obviously well-used and loved Bock machine really appeals to me. Something about the big bag, big tire, and big honkin' headlight has a classic motorcycle aesthetic I dig. Remember when Salsa Cycles was one guy and their "If it ain't moto, it's worthless." slogan hadn't been co-opted yet? That's what this shot is to me: Moto, in the original sense.

I thought about putting this Ventus in my gravel bike post, but it's pretty enough to hang with the custom peloton instead. Lotsa titanium, lotsa shiny silver parts, and box lining? C'mon.

Did I ease you gently enough into fat tires with that Ventus? Then try this Rabid Frameworks on for size. If there's not a little Jeff Jones homage/inspiration/DNA in that truss fork, I'll eat my helmet.

As long as we're going fat, let's go REALLY fat. This Rabid Frameworks chubbie was my "huh?!?" moment of the show. I have no idea why a front brake cable needs/wants to route through an extended lower steerer tube. It creates feelings in me that I myself do not understand. But I like it.

This is just a sampling of the local and semi-local wares on display. Of course, the only online article I can find that looks like it might divulge the winners of the Teesdale prizes is from our terrible local paper The Des Moines Regurtigator, and thus hidden behind 18 levels of firewall protection. So we'll just all have to stay in suspense on that one unless Steve F. actually stayed at the show long enough to find out.

(Aside: Intrepid reporter Steve K. is currently sleeping off the car-lag of his road trip to the North American Handmade Bicycle Show, so if the kind of stuff you see here is your jam, stay tuned. Once he's curated his camera full of -- stunning, I'm sure -- photos, I'll post a link.)

Monday, March 2, 2015

Score One for Homemade Tools and Brute Force!

Had a day to play in the garage and figured it was a good time to swap out the creaky cranks on the Cannondale tandem for some (hopefully) less-creaky cranks (for those who like minutiae, I'm going from the stock Octalink V2 setup -- which has always been a noisy nuisance for me -- back to ye olde fashioned square tapers).

I was able to get an impressive 75% of the old bottom bracket cups out of the frame (a solid C), but the stoker's drive side absolutely refused to budge. Poured some oil in from the non-drive side, let it seep in (and out the other side onto the garage floor, sorry dear), nothing. And yes, smarty-pants, I know that the drive side bottom bracket cup is left-hand threaded.

I was up against two problems: One, I needed to apply approximately 1.3 metric crap-tons more leverage, and two, I needed a way to make sure that the bottom bracket tool didn't pop off the cup during the application of said leverage. Being unable to plan ahead for my blog posts, I addressed the second problem first:

There's the offending bottom bracket (for ease of viewing, shown -- SPOILER ALERT!! -- after it had already succumbed to my greater intellect and been liberated from the bike), the bottom bracket tool, and a rear skewer. You could just as easily use a quick-release, but I went with what was handy. Put 'em all together, and you get this:

Ain't no way, no how that tool's popping off now. So all we need is approximately 1.3 metric crap-tons of leverage, which comes courtesy of the Cylindrical Leverage-Enhancing Tool Utilization System (CLETUS):

The CLETUS is available in a wide variety of lengths specifically calibrated to deliver the exact metric crap-tonnage of force needed for precise extraction. I selected the 609.6mm model, affixed it to my wrench, grasped it with the opposable thumb shown, applied force with the hairy Neanderthal forearm shown, and proceeded to remove that cup like nobody's business. Then this happened:

 So I got that going for me, too.

Sunday, March 1, 2015

Iowa Bike Expo: Beaverdale, Baby!

Returning to the theme of "neat local shops at the Expo", here's a look at another unique-to-Des Moines purveyor of bikes (and in this never-humble blogger's opinion, owner of the best logo in town), Beaverdale Bicycles:

BB's been closely affiliated with a t-shirt shop from the get-go (they used to share a building), so they always have an array of unique and funny bike-themed Ts. I believe that's proprietor Ed Veak manning the booth and the Wall of Shirts.

They also carry a pretty eclectic family of bike brands and accessories, catering to the everyday cyclist/oddball. That's a Soma Wolverine in drool-inducing orange, fully fendered and lighted for commuting with a belt drive to boot.

Further proof that this is not your everyday yawn-inducing Trek megastore: That's a Tout Terrain Silkroad expedition touring rig from Germany. Check the integration in that insanely beefy welded-on rear rack. Das ist gut, nein?

Velo Orange calls their Carmague a touring frame for unpaved roads, but this one looks to be built up nuovo-retro-mountain-bike style akin to my mental project around a Long Haul Trucker. (Notice that all the bikes have uncut steerer tubes with massive spacer stacks, which looks kinda weird from a "show bike" perspective but is a lot more sensible than cutting them down and limiting the customer's choices later.)

Hard to tell from my always-lousy photos, but the telltale fat front hubs on all these bikes point out another of Beaverdale's specialties/niches: Dynamo hub-powered lighting. Not something your humble narrator is really into, but I'm glad we have a shop in town that is. In fact, Beaverdale Bikes (and Ichi Bikes, detailed in a previous Expo post) are two of my favorite places in all of Des Moines bikery for that very reason: Both are different. A Trek store? That's the Wal-Mart of cycling: There's one in every town, selling the same stuff. But Ichi and Beaverdale (and the Des Moines Bike Collective, which I need to detail in a post someday) are uniquely ours, actual local bike shops.

Huh, how did that soapbox get under there? Guess I should step off it...

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Iowa Bike Expo: Two Seats Are Better Than One

While reading this blog might give one the impression that I am a lone curmudgeonly hermit living under a bridge, I do in fact have a (lovely and talented) spouse who shows even more poor judgment by trusting me to pilot us safely down the road on a tandem bicycle. As a result, many of the bicycles that caught my eye at the recent Iowa Bike Expo happened to have extra seats, handlebars, and pedals between their two wheels. 

Boo Bicycles brought this part-panda-bear-food, part-crabon-fribre creation. They don't show any tandems on their website, so maybe it's a one-off/custom. (Late-breaking news: Intrepid reporter Steve F. reports in the comments that yes, this Boo for Two was commissioned by a local couple, and it even made an appearance at last year's NAHBS show. Thanks, Steve!)

A smooth, Campy-equipped, S&S-coupled custom from Christopher. Christopher who? Dunno. And I can't find a web presence. I suck at this journalism thing. (Later-breaking news: Intrepid reporter Steve K. tells me in the comments that Christopher is the marque of framebuilder Dave Huff, whose family tree of torchwork traces back to Iowa framebuilder Gordon Borthwick. Thanks, Steve!)

Nothing terribly exciting to see here if you know tandems, just an off-the-shelf Co-Motion Periscope. But dang, those Co-Mo folks know how to bring together a nice-looking twofer. When my ship comes in and this whole blogging thing goes huge (it'll happen! just you wait!), I fully intend to drop some coin on their lustworthy Java 29er/adventure tandem before I do anything silly like pay off the mortgage.

I couldn't figure out who was responsible for this Softride-equipped beauty as it was logo-free and sitting in an aisle, not clearly associated with any particular booth. (I told you I suck at journalism.) Sure, the carbon fiber diving board is a little incongruous on an otherwise classic-looking machine, but as any good tandem captain will tell you, do NOT argue with the stoker over matters of comfort... or anything else for that matter.

This one made me so happy, I think I actually laughed out loud. It's the product of student designers (like the fresh-faced youth in the yellow t-shirt) from my alma mater, the University of Iowa. If the proportions look odd to you, it's because those are 36-inch wheels. 29ers are SO over, man. (I'm bracing myself for the day that someone comes up with 36-inch fatbikes. You know it will happen.)

So, some good diversity in the two-seater world at the Expo... bamboo, steel, swoopy frames, wagon wheels, you name it. (I vaguely remember seeing a Cannondale too, but I didn't photograph it because I'm a snob/purist who thinks if it ain't welded in Bedford, Pennsylvania, it ain't a Cannondale.) There was certainly enough tandem content at the show to get me excited about the upcoming riding season with the aforementioned spouse, which bodes well for both our physical and marital fitness in 2015.

Saturday, February 7, 2015

Iowa Bike Expo: The Ichi And Scratchy Show

Shifting gears (ha! see, I made a bike pun!), here's a look at the Expo booth of perhaps the coolest and weirdest bike shop you'll ever see, found right here in dear old Des Moines: Ichi Bike.

This ain't your grandpa's Trek Factory Store, folks. Owner Dan Koenig (the blur in green above) is part Sheldon Brown, part Pablo Picasso, and part Dr. Frankenstein. Proof?

Why yes, that is a hot-pink kids' penny-farthing with apehanger bars and a custom fringed-leather banana seat made from a recycled skateboard! Oh, not weird enough for you?

A kids' electric-assist fatbike with (again) custom recycled-skateboard banana seat. Yeah, that happened. More practical, you say?

That's the Ichi "mobile shop on an electric-assist trike". Note the Park workstand arm on the back, holding the green fatbike in the air. My bad cropping means you can't see the giant patio umbrella (on the wooden pole) shading the works... because (obviously) wrenching in the hot sun is no fun.

Finally, my personal favorite, since (as you're well aware by now) I'm obsessed with retro mountain bikes:

Looks kinda like a late-70s Joe Breeze, no? Actually, it started life as an old Schwinn tandem before the twisted minds at Ichi got their hands on it, chopped it in half, gave it some drum-braked, internally-geared wheels, laid down some classic points and pinstripes, and bam. Instant klunker lust. (I wish it had silver rims for the full-on classic look, but man, that's just quibbling.)

You can see a few snippets of other fun stuff in the background of my photos... more electrics, fatties, cruisers, far-out customs, you name it. Best to just go to the shop and see for yourself, though. Time your visit right and you might run into David Byrne. Yeah, that David Byrne. Did I mention this is kind of an unusual shop?