Saturday, January 24, 2015

I Give You... The Spork!

Just got back from the Iowa Bike Expo (and pal Steve F's excellent bikepacking talk), but since I'm still unpacking my brain and my photos, I'll do an expose on the latest test platform here at The Cycle instead, one that I've been hinting about for a while.

Apparently, I was so excited about this bike that I couldn't hold still for the full-bike shot, hence the blurriness:

I decided to do a new twist on the "bicycle leaning against a garage door" photo here, leaning it against a door IN my garage instead. What you're seeing is a late-90s/early 2000s Litespeed Appalachian touring/cyclocross/whatever bike, 61cm. I'm guessing the Litespeeders got hammered by the enthusiast nerd crowd back in the day because this thing is neither a true touring bike nor a true cyclocross bike... too low and laid back for 'cross racing, and not nearly eyeletted enough (or long-chainstayed enough) for loaded touring. But for my twisted tendencies, it's perfect: Slack seat angle, low bottom bracket, good tire clearance, awesomeness all around.

Here's what it looks like from the driver's seat:

Salsa Bell Lap bars, Tektro brake levers for the budget V-brakes, one bar-end shifter for the 1x8 drivetrain, and a stack o'spacers thanks to a previous owner who didn't chop the steerer. Yay, previous owners who leave steerers alone!

Since a lot of my readers are fat-tire and fender folk, here's a bit of tire clearance porn. Front end:

I'll admit, my Luddite tendencies have me a little wary of that carbon fee-bray fork, but you can't argue with that much air space underneath. I do have a replacement steel fork (thanks to my wonderful in-laws, who bought me just what I asked for even though they probably didn't know what it was) waiting to be installed, but I haven't gotten around to it yet.

And now, for some clearance out back:

This shot reveals one weirdness of the frame: It has dropout eyelets in the back, but no provisions on the bridges (brake or chainstay) for fender attachment, leaving me with the p-clamp bodge you see here and a zip-tie down below. I've long ago given up my snobbery about such things, though.

This drivetrain shot is really just so you can appreciate the clean weld at the cantilever posts. The dropout attachments look blobbier, but it's just a function of how they're attached. The weld itself is freakishly gorgeous.

And finally, a gratuitous headbadge shot. Why don't all bikes have nice headbadges? Is it a weight weenie thing? Stickers are lame by comparison. It's a coat of arms, for Pete's sake!

Most of my bikes get names, but for now, this one is called The Spork, in honor of the only other titanium thing I've purchased in my lifetime (my bionic femur doesn't count, since the insurance company bought that). My thinking is, it's a bike that -- like its utensil namesake -- can do a little bit of everything. Sure, a spoon is better for eating soup, and a fork is better for eating salad, but try eating salad with a spoon or soup with a fork. A spork can do both.

Since I picked up this beauty right at the end of decent riding weather, it hasn't been thoroughly tested, but so far, I'm impressed. Light, lively, just flat-out fun to ride. I knew I had something special when it didn't feel like a complete dog with snow tires -- a little more sluggish, sure, but still a fun ride. Really looking forward to spring, when I plan to put many, many miles on this mule.

Saturday, January 17, 2015

It's Steve Week At The Cycle

First, a reader contribution from our engineer Steve K, and now I've learned that frequent commenter, former neighbor, and all around good dude Steve F is giving a talk on bikepacking at next weekend's Iowa Bike Expo. I think we can now officially say that on these pages, Steves are "a thing."

Granted, I'm still not 100% sure what bikepacking is -- I think it's what we used to call "loaded touring" except that you aren't allowed to use panniers and thus have to buy a whole new set of bags. But Pal Steve F is a no-fooling expert on the subject, finisher of all sorts of epic (yes, really epic, not Rapha fake-epic) gravel events, and bear-snack-in-training for the 2015 edition of the Tour Divide. I missed it when he participated in a Trans Iowa Clinic (probably for the best, as it would have given me ideas), but I'm definitely putting this chat on my calendar.

So if you find yourself in Central Iowa next Saturday (January 24) looking to have some knowledge dropped upon you, head over to room 302 of the Iowa Events Center and say howdy to Steve.

Meanwhile, I'll be working on the lyrics to "Steves I Know", based on this Kids in the Hall classic:

Tuesday, January 13, 2015


It's a week of firsts here at The Cycle. In our first first from the previous post, I had to rescind a recommendation. And now, for our second first, I have to issue a correction. It seems that our Chief Unpaid Engineering Consultant, the legendary Sir Steve of the Greater Peoria Metropolitan Area (you may remember him from such posts as Steve K Provides Some Enlightenment) did a bit of peer review on my cost versus value equation and submitted the following corrected graph on behalf of his cat:

So now we have all of our values greater than zero, which is swell, though by swapping the cost and function axes from my original orientation, the quadrant numbering gets all wonky. So I will stand on the shoulders of giants (not really, Steve's about my height, but it's a metaphor, people), find another random notepad, and propose the following:

I'm going back to my original orientation, but I'm throwing out the whole "quadrant" idea and proposing instead a curve that represents the "typical" cost/function of bike stuff. As you pay more, the function goes up... to a point (beyond that, you're just paying more to impress the other dentists on your group ride). So the key (to me) is finding those outlier data points on the left side of the graph, dots above the curve, parts that work way better than those costing the same or more... like those $15 V-brakes I mentioned when I introduced the concept.

It's an insanely simple idea, one which certainly doesn't need multiple graphs, a lot of babbling, and an engineering consultation. But hey, it's cold outside, I may be nursing a non-bike-related hamstring strain, and cabin fever is just starting to rear its ugly head.

(Special thanks to Steve and his cat for providing some actual mathy-graphy know-how to this otherwise word-focused endeavor.)

Sunday, January 11, 2015

The Times, They Are A Changin'

I don't think I've ever rescinded a recommendation in the almost-eight years this blog has been spewing opinion, but unfortunately, I'm about to break new ground.

Despite my initial positive, nay glowing, nay almost fawning review of Bicycle Times back when they first launched in 2009, I am sad to report that in this never-humble blogger's opinion, they have now jumped the shark. I was concerned when original editor Karen Brooks moved on, but I knew new-editor Gary Boulanger's reputation and witheld judgment. Now that I've digested a few issues under the new leadership, I'm prepared to say that the current iteration of Bicycle Times is not for me. Here's why:

ONE, THEY GOT FAT: I'm not going to claim that fat bikes are not a "thing." Anyone watching the industry knows that tires wider than those on my Prius are big in both the literal and metaphorical sense. But I'm not convinced that fatties are a "thing" for the everyday cyclist that was the original Bicycle Times audience. The new Times, however, dedicates a lot of column space to big rubber, as if somehow we all commute through the woods and hunt squirrels for our dinner. News flash: We don't.

TWO, THEY PLUGGED IN: Electric bikes are not new to the pages of Bicycle Times. However, there appears to be a new focus on e-bikes under the new management. One can argue (successfully) that the e-bike is a game-changer that could turn a lot of non-cyclists into everyday cyclists. In fact, I suspect that argument will be the Helmet War of the new millenium. But this lone, opnionated reader is interested in motorless bikes and thus yawns at the sight of a 30-pound battery pack.

THREE, THEY HEADED TO THE HINTERLANDS: Man, there's been a lot of "I loaded up my bike and pedaled alone across the foreboding wilds of the Outer Nowhere desert" content since the editorial switch. It's like the subtitle of the magazine is now "Your everyday Cycling ADVENTURE!!!" Don't get me wrong. Self-contained touring is amazing. I've done it myself, and wish I could do more of it. In the hands of a good writer, it can make for a ripping yarn. But as my "wish I could do more of it" might indicate, it's far from "everyday" cycling. Those of us living in the real world are confronted with any number of responsibilities that prevent us from simply packing the panniers and heading to Burma for a few months. Sure, when you get your cycling in dribs and drabs, commuting during the week and getting out for a longer spin on the weekend, maybe the occasional touring story is entertaining or inspirational. But making it a focus of something that claims to be an "everyday cycling" magazine says to your reader, "Here's the real cycling you could be doing." Mixed messages, anyone?

FOUR, THEY STARTED DRINKING: As soon as I saw a beer reviewed on the pages of Bicycing Times, I was done. Not that I'm a teeotaler or beer-prude... open my fridge right now, and you'll find a selection of malty adult beverages waiting to be quaffed. But in the same way that I don't ask my bartender to recommend a chain lube, I don't read bicycle magazines to learn about beer.

Add it all up, and you have a magazine that has strayed from its mission statement into the territory of the Surly blog (minus the e-bike content)... fat tires, bearded dudes (did I mention that Bicycle Times now has a fictional columnist called Beardo the Weirdo?), drinking beer under bridges, and showing off the scars you got from doing stupid stuff on your bike after drinking too much beer under a bridge. Maybe that describes your everyday cycling adventure, but it looks nothing like mine. Thus, I'm letting my subscription lapse.

Thursday, January 8, 2015

Fish In A Barrel 2: Electronic Boogaloo

In one of my more curmudgeonly moments last year, I lambasted electronic shifting based on the insanely-complex adjustment process described by Lennard Zinn in a VeloNews tech piece. Well, poor Lennard's readers are still having issues with their newfangled electron-driven derailleurs, as indicated by his recent Tech FAQ column on Shimano electronic compatibility. Here's the key quote as far as this Luddite is concerned:
"Electronic components have doubled the possibilities for incompatibility. They have brought us not only incompatibilities based on intended use similar to those of mechanical systems, but also incompatibilities that we constantly run up against with our computers due to software revisions. When it comes to Di2, we can lose compatibility with components that had been happily working together by simply performing a software update."

Isn't that just the greatest news? Aren't you just rushing out to the bike shop to upgrade all your so-last-century mechanical derailleurs for this Brave New World of electronics now? I mean, in the past, you just had to worry about hardware compatibility. If your stuff wore out or broke, it could be difficult to source a compatible replacement as Shimano and Campy chased the never-ending "n+1 cogs" dragon. But as hard as they tried, they couldn't make an existing, functional, mechanical drivetrain simply stop working without sending ninja mechanics into your garage at night to tweak your bike without your consent.

But now? Now our bikes can be just as reliable and future-proof as our computers and phones! Today's perfectly functional hardware can be turned into tomorrow's paperweight with the click of a mouse! "Oh, I'm sorry, sir... Derailleur Operating System 2.3 is only compatible with derailleurs that have an Intel processor. Your derailleur can still run on Derailleur Operating System 2.0.1 in compatibility mode, but it will only shift three gears and is not officially supported by the manufacturer. You probably just need to buy a new bike."

My only (futile) hope is that the software running these things could somehow be hacked and/or made open-source. Then maybe a code whiz could figure out a way to make "officially" incompatible things play nicely together. Di2 on a five-speed rear wheel, anyone? Maybe shifting a SRAM 1:1 rear derailleur? Or a Di-2-controlled Rohloff hub? Now that could be fun...

Tuesday, January 6, 2015

Cheap, Effective: Pick Any Two

In my 2015 blog-reboot manifesto, I mentioned a newfound focus on parts that -- despite humble origins -- outperform expectations. Here's a little sketch to describe what I'm talking about:

(Obviously, our staff graphic designer had nothing to do with today's artwork, so don't hold it against her. And no, the makers of prescription antidepressants are not sponsoring this blog or endorsed by it... I just didn't redact them because, well, don't you often wonder if I'm off my meds based on my writing?)

What you have in this brilliant example of outsider art is a two-axis graph describing all bike things based on their cost (the X axis, increasing from left to right) and their function (the Y axis, increasing from bottom to top). Those axes lay out four quadrants: cheap and functional (1), expensive and functional (2), cheap and non-functional (3), and expensive and non-functional (4).

If I were to start putting points on this graph, I suspect most of them would cluster around a diagonal line from the lower left to the upper right, which is where the old "you get what you pay for" adage comes from: spend a little more, get something that works a little better. (I'd hazard another guess that there's a flattening of the line in Quadrant 2, where you've already bought all the performance that can be bought and you're just spending money to spend money, but that's a topic for another day.)

What interests me is good old Quadrant 1, the cheap and functional. There won't be a lot of dots in there, but the bike industry (sometimes in spite of itself) occasionally wanders into that corner. Case in point (to bring this out of the hypothetical stuff resembling -- shudder -- math), the lower-tier Shimano V-brake:

(As usual, if you shop via that link, I get a cut. Consider my devious ulterior motives disclosed.)

You'll find this thing (model M422) labeled Acera, Alivio, "replacement/repair brake", whatever. But this humble little V packs a metric crapload of performance for the price of a takeout pizza. Our tandem came with some flavor of Tektro brake relabeled as Cannondale's house brand, and it was decidedly a Quadrant 3: cheap and lousy. The thing refused to stay centered no matter what I did to cajole it. I bought two pairs of these Acera/Alivio Vs in desperation, mounted them up, and haven't had a brake worry in the world since... and this is on a tandem, mind you. Even the stock pads were fine, which has traditionally been Shimano's braking downfall.

When I was building up the new-to-me Litespeed, I decided to put very little of my money where my mouth is and use the ol' M422 again. Same result: Couldn't ask for better braking, even coming home in five inches of fresh snow yesterday. (Confession: I did use fancier pads on the Litespeed because I had them, but in a blind taste test, I wouldn't be able to tell the difference.)

Are they the prettiest thing? No, although they do come in your choice of black or silver. (And introducing an "aesthetics" axis to my graph would be well beyond my artistic and mathematical abilities.) Do they limit your choice of brake levers, especially on drop bars? Yes, but more on that in another post. Do they stop a bike reliably (whether it carries one person or two) without breaking the bank? Yup. Thus, I'm awarding the humble M422 a place in the soon-to-be-coveted Quadrant 1.

THIS JUST IN! A real, honest to goodness engineer-person has corrected my graph, which has inspired me to re-revise his revision. Thus, while the basic idea of "cheap stuff that works" is still sound and will remain a guiding principle around these parts (and the cheap V-brake recommendation still stands), pretend you never saw that silly doodle above. We have always been at war with Eurasia, we will always be at war with Eurasia...

Monday, January 5, 2015

The Perfect Bike Shop

Okay, bike industry venture capitalists, break out your notepads and checkbooks, because I have an idea that's guaranteed to make someone a hundredaire, and I'm giving it away for free.

First, the back story: Over this blog's recent hiatus, our IT guy (a.k.a. me) was tasked with replacing a failed hard drive (thankfully, the one that backs up the pseudo-important stuff, not the one that contains the pseudo-important stuff to begin with). As it was during the Season of Festive Giving (which often leads me to thoughts of retail homicide), I had no intention of spending time in a store... but I didn't want to make my precious un-backed-up bytes wait for mail order either, especially since Brown Truck Santa runs slow during the holidays.

After a bit of research, I found a "buy online, pick up in store" feature on the website of a monstrous electronics chain store that shall remain nameless because, hey, they have an advertising budget, and if they want a plug, they can pay for it. Basically, I picked out exactly the hard drive I wanted online, confirmed that my local store had it in stock, paid for it, drove to the store, and it was waiting for me just inside the front door. No festive crap, no retail homicide, no pushy salesfolk, just "choose what you want and go get it right now." 

And THAT, dear reader, is all I want in a local bike shop. Real-time online inventory. Let me surf your website in my jammies at 1:00 in the morning and see whether or not you have what I need in stock. If you do, I'll pay for it on the spot (still in my jammies), come to your store (with real pants on, you're welcome), and pick it up. If I can't get to the store during your business hours, maybe my wife can -- and she'd be much more willing to make a pickup of something I've already selected and paid for than to try to describe my often obscure and extremely specific needs to a sales dude and hope he sells her the right thing (this is NOT a knock against my wife, by the way -- she just doesn't nerd out on the minutiae like I do, thank goodness. In fact, most bike shop dudes don't nerd out on my brand of minutiae either, which is why I'm wary of phoning in an order at the LBS and hoping the dude translates it correctly.)

To me, this model strikes the perfect middle ground between mail order (which lets you pick exactly what you want whenever you want to shop but takes forever to arrive) and in-person shopping (which provides the instant gratification of getting your stuff now, but only if the shop knows what it is and has it). Is it realistic? Heck, I don't know. I'm just the idea guy. But I know it's possible for a monster-sized electronics chain, so maybe it will trickle down someday.

(For you snarksters who are thinking, "But didn't you just say that you were downsizing and trying to get less stuff?" Yes, yes I did, and extra points for paying attention. But stuff does break and wear out, and with a downsized fleet, being able to get the right replacement in a hurry is critical. So there. Neener neener neener.)

Sunday, January 4, 2015

The Blog Is Dead! Long Live The Blog!

Not that I really intended to shut the thing down for four months (and I have no excuse or reason for the hiatus), but January seems like a good arbitrary point on the calendar to reboot this little endeavor. And what better way to reboot at the beginning of a year than with some resolutions for 2015? I'm terrible at resolutions for myself, so let's try some resolutions for this blog and my bikes.

ONE, NO MORE HIATUSESESES: I'd like to say that my many extended blog-pauses resulted from having nothing good to say, but c'mon. When you look at some of the things I've thrown up against this electronic wall, it's clear that my standards can't possibly be that high. So in 2015, I intend to overcome my own writerly laziness/inertia and -- as the new media folks say -- generate content.

TWO, GET LESS STUFF: One of the things that has happened in the four months since this blog last wasted your time is a major downsizing in the test fleet here at The Cycle. That Raleigh Clubman I spent so much purple prose on? Under a new roof. The Xootr Swift folder? Shipped off to a new owner. In fact, the only bikes you might recognize from the pre-hiatus days are the Cannondale tandem and Dear Spouse's Raleigh 20 folder. My collection of single bikes? Traded en masse for one used Litespeed that (in theory) covers all their functions. My hope is that fewer bikes means less maintenance, less clutter, and (most importantly) less for my OCD brain to obsess about.

THREE, FOCUS ON WHAT MATTERS, STUFF-WISE: I've always tried to do this, but I'm human. I get distracted by shiny baubles as much as the next fella. I give in to the fallacy of "Widget X costs more than Widget Y and was used by Famous Guy Z to win the Tour of Q, so obviously, it will make me happier and more fulfilled." As a biker and blogger, though, I'm going to try to fight against that urge in 2015 and beyond. It's been an occasional theme here in the past with my critically-ignored Hail to the Cheap series (which focuses on parts that work way better than their humble origins might suggest) but it's going to be a guiding principle going forward. I want to find the stuff that just works. Maybe it isn't the prettiest stuff, maybe it isn't the high-techiest stuff, but it performs reliably and doesn't break the bank.

I think those three make a pretty decent go-forward manifesto for The Cycle. As we move into 2015 (the eighth year this little drivel-spew has existed), I'd like to thank my loyal reader(s) for the patience and the pageviews. I don't know if this thing is ever going to grow up and become a Big Boy Blog, but I truly enjoy making it and people (inexplicably) keep reading it. What more could a writer ask for?