Saturday, April 26, 2014

"Fun" Geometry and Mountain Biking Culture: some preliminary thoughts

 I posted this on the Rivendell list in response to a thread started by a long-time Rivendell owner who recently bought a Surly Krampus for off-road rides, but isn't satisfied with it, especially the way it climbs. 

I don't want to add just another voice in the peanut gallery, but I have had similar experiences recently.  I bought my first "real" mountain bike earlier this year, a pretty standard aluminum hardtail 29er from Raleigh.  By "pretty standard," it's geometry is the kind of mass-market stuff that Rivendell geometry departs from: steepish seat tube angle, short chainstays, long top tube, relatively low bars.  To keep the reach in check, I even sized down a size from the recommended, very non-Riv indeed.  Previous to this, a lot of my off-road exploring had been done on a Long Haul Trucker with Albatross bars, so probably somewhat similar to your experience on your Atlantis. 

At first, I was pleasantly surprised by the climbing ability of the Raleigh, but in retrospect I think it was the fact that it had the lowest gears of any bike I've ridden recently, as well as the traction afforded by 29x2" knobbies versus the 700x42 file treads on the LHT.  On longer rides with a lot of climbing, however, I definitely get worn out on that bike.  I think a lot of this is down to the riding position: the wide, low flat bars force me into one position, with very little options for changing my hand position or back angle.  I plan to cut down the bars and add Ergon grips with built-in barends to address some of this.  However, especially off-road, not only does the component spec of the bike force me into this low position, but its geometry demands it in order to maintain traction and handling.  Specifically, the short chainstays and long front center/top tube force a certain approach to climbing.  I need to lean low over the handlebars and sometimes slide forward on the seat in order to keep traction on that front wheel and be able to properly direct the bike.  The times that I've had to put a foot down going uphill on this bike, it hasn't been because I've run out of gas, but because the front wheel has started to wander off my line and I haven't been able to reign it back in. 

If you read mainstream mountain biking mags and bike reviews, right now there is kind of a self-reinforcing obsession with this type of geometry on the part of designers and reviewers.  People are obsessed with short chainstays, long front centers, short stems; they describe such geometry as "aggressive," "playful," and "fun" (that "aggressive" and "playful" are synonyms for each other is indicative of the general techno-cultural problem with mountain biking these days).  And I think this is further reinforced by the type of riding featured in MTB magazines and videos: high speed, big jumps, riding up and down ledgy technical features.  All of this leaves those of us who want to get away for a few hours, to enjoy the escape and beauty of riding trails for a few hours but not feel like we're riding out of the depth of our bicycles, out in the cold somewhat. 

If you look at the Surly marketing around the Krampus, you'll see that they designed this bike very much in the mainstream conception of "fun" geometry: short chainstays, even with giant tires; long front center/TT, short stem, low-ish handlebars.  A lot of the early photos of the bike featured guys wheelieing them and boosting them off jumps.  I wonder if optimizing the geometry around this type of riding has made it not as ideal for your type of riding, specifically grinding up long, steep climbs.  Perhaps an ECR, with it's touring geometry, might be different. I've never ridden one, and I've only ridden someone else's Krampus around the block, so I'm not really in a position to say.  Certainly, I'm intrigued by the ECR myself; even though I don't really see myself doing long bikepacking tours, the fact that it's geometry, at least on paper, might allow a position closer to that of my LHT, has me interested.  I'm also super interested to try the long-chainstayed Hunqapillar proto featured on the BLUG a few weeks ago: high handlebars at a comfortable reach, relatively slack seat tube, long chainstays to keep everything planted even while maintaining an upright riding position. 

For the moment, I've accepted that my current MTB is less than ideal from a fit perspective, and I appreciate it more for its ability to help me stay in control going downhill, much the same as you. 

Saturday, April 5, 2014

Richard Sachs on Being Confounded

I've said that I never want to be the type of blogger that just re-posts what other people produce, but I felt moved today by a short post on Richard Sach's blog.  He's been posting short passages from older writings recently, and in general he's always had fascinating things to say about the life of being a framebuilder.  This is a part of an answer he gave to an interview question in 2010 (so, after close to four decades of framebuilding) regarding how long he expected to keep working. 
I am routinely confounded by the process. The lack of confidence or the deeply rooted feeling that, since I am self-taught, something is missing – this is an emotion that envelopes every working day I have and every frame I build. Because of this simple fact that I am never completely content with what passes as a finished bicycle, I continue to come in every Monday to see if I can redeem myself for all my past gaffes, miscues, and blunders. It sounds so drama queen-esque typing out these words, but this is how I feel. If it ever changes, maybe the word “retire” can be used in a sentence. For now, I have many years worth of work in which to see if I can possibly get it nailed.
I find these words of incredible value to myself as a basically self-taught bicycle mechanic, who routinely finds himself confounded by the technology presented to him (see, for instance, my last post).  I take comfort in the fact that being confounded by the technology, by the process, is not antithetical to a skillful practice, a practice that can develop and grow over decades. Indeed it, it might be a key part of such a practice.

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Stable Changes and Technological Love/Hate

I concluded my last post with these words:

"The truth is, because of some other priorities in my life right now, any major bike projects will probably wait for a year or two, so this is my stable as it will be for a while.  And I'm pretty satisfied with it."

One of the things I find funny about this whole blogging thing is how once I write down how I feel about something, I kind of let go of it and my feelings quickly change.  The above statement is a perfect example.  Only three months or so after saying I had stabilized my stable, I had sold my Casseroll road bike and used the funds to buy my first "real" mountain bike, a Raleigh Talus 29 Comp, in size Large (19").  Quite rightly, the purchase of my first 29er coincided with my 29th birthday in early February.  Here it is, my 29er for 29, in all of its glory:

A 29er for my 29th birthday
 This bike represents a major departure from bike business as usual, for me, being my first hands-on experience with a number of technologies:

-Aluminum frame construction.  I've basically only bought steel frames until now, enjoying the durability and smooth ride.  With 29x2" tires and a sprung fork (see below) on this beast, I'm not really worried about shock absorbing qualities of the frames as much.
-Suspension!  Specifically, a RockShox XC 32 fork with Solo Air spring.  Nothing to write home about for MTB geeks, but just quality enough and adjustable enough that I feel like I'm getting a sense of what modern suspension technology has to offer.  It has a compression lockout.  I use it often.
-Fully modern drivetrain with indexed "rapid fire" shifters, matched derailleurs (Shimano Deore "Shadow," meaning that the rear derailleur has a smaller lateral profile that's less likely to get smacked into rocks), and outboard bearing BB with two-piece crankset (again, Deore).  So far so good on this front.  I don't mind the wide Q-factor, in fact, it feels good, and I do appreciate the fact that my bearings aren't pressed into the frame, so they're easy to replace.  The only problem has been a bit of front derailleur tire rub in the granny gear, which is more of a frame design or adjustment issue.  
-Hydraulic Disc Brakes, specifically the Shimano BR-M395's.  As far as I can tell, this is a non-series OEM brake that is roughly matching the Deore/Alivio quality of the rest of the bike.

This last one, especially, has been the biggest love/hate technology for me on this bike.  In part, I bought this bike in order to give myself more experience and make myself more comfortable working on these types of technology, since I am increasingly called upon to set up and service them in my job as a mechanic.  This is especially true of disc brakes, since they are rapidly becoming the norm for cargo bikes, our bread and butter at the shop where I work.

Marincello trail

First, the love.  I bought this bike because I have a burgeoning interest in off-road riding, fueled by my explorations over last summer and fall on the Trucker.  And living up to my expectations, the 29er is by far the most capable off-road machine I've ever ridden, giving me much more confidence on the fire trails I had previous ridden on the Trucker, and opening up new riding opportunities on technical trails I might have thought twice about riding before.  In particular, I've loved the single track in Joaquin Miller Park above Oakland, and I said this on the Rivendell list after my first ride there with some riding companions from the list:

"..,being a relative novice to technical off-road riding, I was thankful for every last ounce of tire volume, fork travel, and hydraulic fluid I had, and totally humbled by the skills of my companions on their steel all-rounders."

Joaquin Miller overlook.

The hydraulic disc brakes are no small part of that.  When I'm working my way down a steep and bumpy descent I feel really in control, always having the braking power I need and with the braking surface separate from the rim, never worrying about over-braking or rim damage.  I feel the same way about the fat tires and the suspension fork: they let me build up speed when I'm confident, but they also let me slow down and keep my speed in check when the trail is sketchy, to take things at a pace that my novice off-road skills can keep up with.

But then, there's the hate.  While the technologies on the new bike have increased my confidence as a novice off-roader while riding, as a mechanic they've taken all of my skills to get set up satisfactorily.  The first few weeks of the new bike's life were marked by many multi-hour sessions in the shop, trying to get everything dialed just so.  The brakes were the biggest part of this; they took a long time to where they were hitting the rotor squarely and evenly from both sides, and not rubbing when released.  The standard "pull the levers with the calipers loose to self-align, then tighten caliper mounting bolts" simply didn't work, and I tried everything to get them to align properly: advancing and lubricating the pistons, pushing them back and pumping the levers to let them find their natural position, facing the mounts, etc.  In the end, I got them to work, but it was a long process.

All of this reinforces something I've learned about disc brakes: when everything is spot on, they work great.  However, when things are off just slightly, they don't work nearly as well.  Compared, for instance, to a set of V-brakes, they have fewer means of adjustment.  A hydraulic disc brake caliper has no adjustment for pad position other than the overall position of the caliper, while even the cheapest v-brakes have independent adjustments for the position and angle of each pad, not to mention the spring tension in each arm and overall cable tension.  Furthermore, these adjustments have ranges of multiple centimeters, while the whole travel of disc brakes happens in fractions of millimeters.   In the "less advanced technology" of v-brakes, there are built in means to deal with imperfection, and an experienced mechanic can still adjust cheap brakes to work surprisingly well.  As I work with mass-produced disc brakes on mass-produced frames, I just don't find the same means to deal with the imperfections inherent in things built to certain quality-control and cost margins.  That frustrates me.

All of this makes me curious to try a bike designed for off-road riding that uses simper technology.  When I was describing how much control I felt off-road while on the new bike, a coworker asked, "Yeah, but how much of that is tires?"  How would a bike with similarly knobby 29x2" tires, but with a rigid frame/fork and rim brakes feel off road?  Is over-braking and rim damage actually a concern?  However, there is almost no choice when it comes to mountain bikes in terms of braking systems, no chance to compare braking systems on the same bike.  Virtually all mass-produced mountain bikes use disc brakes exclusively, and hydraulic brakes are rapidly marching down the price points.  The only mass-produced 29er mountain bike frame that has mounts for both disc brakes and rim brakes, as far as I can tell, is the Surly Ogre. There are small production frames like the Rivendell Hunqapillar and upcoming Velo-Orange Camargue that use rim brakes, but with no fittings for disc brakes and more all-round-ish geometry, they are a commitment in a different direction.

There's not much out there for the the relatively novice, technologically skeptical, empirically curious off-road rider. 

(Having said all this, I'll probably post a glowing endorsement of hydraulic disc brakes in a couple of months).

Monday, October 21, 2013

Fall 2013: State of the Stable

Redwood Park

The bike builds and changes of spring and early summer led to some great riding all through the summer; between that and traveling, working, weddings, etc, most of my time's been taken up, which is good for me.  Riding has been when I can and where I can, mostly rides of an hour or three up in the Berkeley and Oakland hills, a lot of it in the hours before or after a workday.  This kind of riding is the core of my practice as a cyclist and are really what do it for me, I've come to realize.  Once in a while I'll get to together with people to do a longer ride or even an all-day epic, but I'm slowly realizing that my fantasies of randos or epic tours don't really reflect my natural inclinations as a cyclist.  I try to refocus, appreciate what I have here in the East Bay, close at hand.  It really is a great place to ride.

My bike stable has stabilized on three bicycles, and I think that it will stay that way for a while, at least while my wife and I devote most of our resources towards other goals.  My three bike stable is:


1. The Trucker.  Building up this bike as I have has turned out to be a great addition to my stable.  Its present configuration is super versatile.  As I said in my original post about it, it's opened up tons of mixed-terrain and off-road riding to me, and I've really enjoyed bombing around the East Bay trails on it.  Sometimes I wish for fatter tires or suspension, but the truth is that would make it less capable as an allrounder.  With a my Blackburn rear rack bolted up and a pair of Ortleib panniers, I've done a great little overnight trip with Megan on it.  In addition to touring capability, its carrying capacity with panniers also means it's a great utility bike, and it's become my go-to for big grocery loads and even trips to Target or the like.  Just yesterday it carried a huge grocery load home--it felt like something around 50lbs.  I've even done long-ish road rides on it, when I felt like its low gears would come in handy, and haven't felt held back by the lack of drop bars or anything.  It's latest upgrade came this week when I finally got my SP SD-8 dynamo hub built into a wheel (laced it 32h 3x to a polished silver Sun CR18 with Wheelsmith 14g spokes, brass nips), and got that mounted up with a good basic LED dyno light from Avenir.  With the dyno light, I'm sure it'll see even more use as the days get shorter around here.

This bike has really become something I've sought after with many builds, and mused about on this blog before, but only feel like I've really got it with this one: a true allrounder.  Jack of all trades, master of none, but so capable that I wouldn't hesitate to take it anywhere.  It's gearing is low enough and it feels efficient enough to tackle long rides and long climbs, but it's also burly enough with fat enough tires that it can handle basically any of the roads or trails I have accessible to me around here.  It feels good with a load, but not overly heavy without one.  It's got lighting, and it will probably get fenders before too long.  It's comfortable and well balanced, and handles really well.  As I said before, for any one type of riding, I could see making improvements.  A simpler drivetrain, maybe with an internally geared hub, would be better for urban riding.  But that would remove some of gear range for the mixed-terrain riding.  Offroad, fatter tires and/or suspension might come in handy, but I'd probably regret them on the long road climb up to the trailheads around here.  It's pretty awesome as is.  If circumstance forced me to have only one bike, chances are that it'd be this one.

At the same time, having the Surly as the designated all-rounder has allowed my other bikes to evolve as well, to become more focused on the types of riding that they are better at than the Surly, and in so doing to become better.  So while the Trucker is the allrounder, the one bike I'd have if I'd have to have one, I'd sure miss my other bikes as well. 


2. The Quickbeam.  The Quickbeam has kept it's role as upright, Bosco-barred fixed gear basic transportation bike, but has gotten stripped down a bit.  Now that I have the Trucker for big grocery loads, the rack and bag on the Quickbeam have been taken off.  For most of my basic riding, to and from work and around Berkeley, I'm only really carrying a lock, waterbottle, and maybe an extra layer, so I get on really well with just my smallest messenger backpack or even just a musette on this bike.  Furthermore, the rear brake (and brake lever) have gone along with the freewheel from the flop side of the hub.  I'm also running a slightly lower gear (42x19 versus 42x17), which is great for maintaining my cadence heading up the grades towards downtown Berkeley and accelerating from a stop sign, of which there's a lot when you're riding around here.  I'm really enjoying the lighter, more bare bones bike.  It harkens back to my old fixed gear beaters that were the original inspiration for the bike, and it's focused really well on its purpose. 

Stripping off the rear brake lever (as well as removing the vestigial "stopper button" from the remaining front brake lever) has had the added benefit of opening up the hand positions on the Bosco Bullmoose bars.  I find myself grabbing a different portion of the long grip area depending on how I'm feeling and how much I'm hustling, including the forward extremities, where it drops down to the horizontal flat section.  In fact, holding on to the forward curves, thumbs inward and pointing down (like they would be as you slide your hands forward from the grips and rotate your wrists inward) is a surprisingly ergonomic position.  It doesn't sound like it, but it is.  I'll have to get a picture of it. I should probably wrap the bars forward of the Oury grips with some cotton tape, but for the moment I don't mind grabbing bare metal, and there's some interesting beausage happening with the nickel plating finish on the bars.  I may want the bars wrapped as it gets colder and damper, however.


3. The Casseroll.  The Casseroll has become my road bike, period.  This is the bike I take out when the route is paved and I want to go fast.  It's riding position is low down and stretched out, and it is the only one of my bikes at the moment with drop bars.  It's great at that, and it's got an eclectic mix of new and not-quite-old-enough-to-be-called-vintage road bike parts that works well for me: long reach brakes for 28mm tires and 35mm fenders, 7spd shimano DT shifters and derailleurs shifting 7 of 8 speeds on a Campagnolo rear wheel, Salsa Cowbell bars, Selle SMP Glider saddle (what can I say, the yellow one was on sale...).

This used to be the bike with which I was search for the "one" fit...the transcendent fit that would be the basis for all of my other fits.  In the early part of this year, there was a lot of work on the trainer with levels, measuring tape, a Size-o-Matic stem, and a couple of different saddles mounted way back on a S-84 post searching for it.  Truth be told, I wasn't really satisfied with any of the results I got, and I didn't ride this bike a ton in the later spring, around the same time I was discovering riding more upright and building up the Trucker.  

And then something interesting happened.  The original seatpost I had on the Trucker wasn't working for my, so I cannibalized the S-84 from the Casseroll for it.  Wanting to keep three working bikes, just cause it was the first time I'd had three working bikes in years, I just threw the SMP Glider saddle, the last saddle I had been experimenting with, back on using a Thomson seatpost I had in the bin.  The Thomson, with a measly 18mm of setback despite its oddly kinked design, gave me probably the farthest forward position on this bike I had tried since I discovered the concept of balance and saddle setback being related.

When I tried it out, low and behold, it didn't feel as horribly unbalanced (weight on hands) as I had remember.  Furthemore, the bike felt fast, and I began to really enjoy it's responsiveness.  So what, I thought; if this is my fast bike, let me have the position on it which makes me the fastest, even if it might be slightly less comfortable.  The Casseroll has become my go-to for a ritual I've taken to calling "Ferrari Friday," where I ride my road bike to work, taking a long detour through the hills on my way there.

Then another thing happened.  My wife and I started attending a weekly Beginner Yoga class at a studio near our house.  Mostly, we just wanted to get some weeknight exercise together, and I wanted to get some exercise different from bicycling.  From the very first class, it was clear that while I'm pretty strong and flexible in certain parts of my body, overall I lack a lot of core strength and flexibility, especially in my hamstrings, pelvis, and lower back.  In just a couple of months of going to these classes (and I've definitely missed a few), I've already started to notice a difference in my body, and if nothing else I'm much more aware of my limitations and am working to make them better. In terms of riding, even from the early days of going to class I've noticed a difference in comfort and power on the bicycle, and I notice it most drastically on the Casseroll.  I can reach the drops easier, and feel balanced while being able to apply power.  It's clear that some of the basic limitations of my body have been a major limiting factor in terms of bike fit, and it's cool to be able to work on that and change my body, little by little.  

I still have a long way to go: on the weeks where I don't do Yoga, I can definitely feel it when I hop on this bike.  Furthermore, I'm still not 100% satisfied with my position on it.  I'm not in pain at all anymore--this is basically a comfortable bike for me now--but there are a couple of things I want to play around with.  I find myself sliding forward on the saddle while climbing, which can be annoying with the raised nose on the SMP.  The hoods still feel pretty far away.  I think the truth is that maybe, this winter, some more trainer fitting work and real-world testing with a yet further forward saddle position might be in order, to help dial in the reach while seeing if I can still feel balanced farther forward.  Of course, such a position might be as far forward as I used to ride on this bike, with standard seatposts and saddles, and the truth is I've never felt 100% fitted properly on this thing.  What might be different now?  Three things: One, I'm using a shorter reach stem and bars than I ever have in the past, meaning I might not need to shove my butt back as far to balance.  Two, I've started using plain sneakers on platform pedals (MKS Touring Lite) with Power Grips as foot retention, rather than my old SIDIs with Time ATAC clipless pedals, and have naturally moved to a more midfoot riding position, and consequently a lower saddle height, which helps me feel more balanced overall.  Finally, the core strength and flexibility work I'm doing with Yoga mean that a lot of limitations I had before are slowly getting better.

I'm still not convinced that the rather long effective top tube on this bike (60.5cm) is right for me, and I wonder about trying a road bike with a shorter top tube.  Just yesterday I discovered this site in the UK, and started fantasizing about something classic and lugged, with a nice short top tube...even the older ones with 120mm spacing, I could use one of those cool new 120mm cassette hubs hitting the market....ahh....hmmm...........

*snaps back to attention*

The truth is, because of some other priorities in my life right now, any major bike projects will probably wait for a year or two, so this is my stable as it will be for a while.  And I'm pretty satisfied with it. 

Monday, June 17, 2013

Bikes: Surly Long Haul Trucker

Surly Long Haul Trucker

Time to do a post outlining the latest addition to my stable: my 64cm Surly Long Haul Trucker, built by me around a 2013 frame.

Back story on this bike: my oldest bike, which hasn't featured much on this blog so far, is my Trek 520 touring bike.  This was my first "serious" bike, bought in 2002 from Belmont Wheelworks near Boston, for the purposes of a summer coast-to-coast bike trip with an Overland touring group.  It was the bike on which I fell in love with cycling, and after the trip it followed me to college, where it helped me discover the joys of riding in the San Francisco Bay Area.  Over the course of it's life, I had tore it down in rebuilt any number of times, each time with a different configuration.  This past spring, wanting to do a geared, upright-bar build for mixed-terrain riding, I was tearing it down and planning to rebuild it yet again.  Unfortunately, as I outlined in a previous post, while removing the blown headset I discovered cracks in the headtube, leaving me in need of a another frame for my build.

Enter the Long Haul Trucker.  It was an easy choice, really: being a steel, 700c touring bike designed for cantilever brakes, it would easily accept all of the parts I had intended for the Trek, save the headset (the Trek had a 1" threadless steerer, the Surly a 1 1/8").  It is also readily available as a frameset.  I had also recently built up one of the complete bikes for a friend recently and was impressed with the quality of the frame, which was very high compared to a lot of mass-produced bicycles at simliar price points.   Checking out the geometry, it seemed like it would work well for my preferences.  Since this bicycle was going to be based on my experience riding upright bars on my 64cm Quickbeam, I was drawn towards the recently added 64cm size.  Comparing the bikes, they have similar angles--72 degrees parallel on the Trucker, and 72 degree seat/72.5 degree head on the Quickbeam.  The similar seat angle in particular was good: combined with the standard 27.2mm seatpost spec, I could use the same Nitto S-84 seatpost to get my seat in the wayback position I've been preferring.  Other than that, the Trucker had a slightly longer TT compared to the Quickbeam (61.5cm vs. 60cm), which didn't really concern me since I knew I would be using swept-back bars and I could always use a slightly shorter stem to dial in the reach.  I also like the extended headtube, another feature it shared with Rivendell bikes.

So, the Trucker frame was ordered and received in short order.  Building it up, I really appreciated how well the frame had been prepped and the overall quality of the frame and finish work.  The headset pressed in easily with no fuss, the bottom bracket threads were totally clean and the BB threaded in perfectly, and the seatpost fit just right.  The build was completely straightforward, finished in just a few nights of after-work sessions.

Surly Long Haul Trucker

The build:

Frame/Fork: 2013 Surly Long Haul Trucker, 64cm, 700c w/ Cantilever brakes.  Color is "Blacktacular."
Headset: Cane Creek 40, 1 1/8" Threadless
Handlebars: Nitto Albatross Chromoly, 55cm wide.
Stem: Dimension 110mm, plus 17 degrees (may flip that), 25.4mm clamp
Front Cable Housing Stop: Origin 8.  Has pinch bolt and barrell adjuster, easily clears the headset even when placed just above the top bearing cover.
Saddle: Brooks B. 17 Champion Standard, Black
Seatpost: Nitto S-84, 27.2mm.
Seatpost Clamp: Surly (comes with frame)
Cranks: Sugino XD2 Triple, 28-36-48
Bottom Bracket: Shimano UN-? (I think it's a -54), 113mm
Wheels: Older Shimano LX hubs.  Front rim is a Bontrager Maverick, rear is Mavic T520.  32F/36R.
Tires: Continental Cyclocross Speed 700x42c, originally on my Quickbeam.  These are great all-rounder tires.
Cassette: SRAM PG 850 8spd, 11-32
Chain: SRAM PC 830 
Front Derailleur: Shimano FD-2303 8spd road triple, 28.6mm clamp.
Rear Derailleur: Sachs Quarz (esoteric component points!)
Shifters: Shimano Dura-Ace 9spd bar-end shifters, running in friction mode.
Brakes: Tektro CR-720 Cantilevers
Brake Levers: Origin-8 Flat Bar levers w/ adjustable cable pull.
Pedals: Diamondback Sound BMX pedals
Front Rack: Nitto M-18 ("Mark's Rack"), four strut mounting with extra long struts for the lowrider braze-ons.
Front Bag: Rivendell Sackville TrunkSack Small

Brooks B17 Standard, Nitto S84 Seatpost

I've been riding the bike for a few weeks now and feel like I've hit all of my design goals with the build.  It is a great riding and very capable bike, the upright bars and wide range gearing keeping me comfortable on long hilly rides.  The only slight hiccup at the beginning was with a component spec, not the frame or build.  Originally, wanting to assure that I wasn't limited in setback, I sourced a vintage ITM MTE-100 adjustable-setback seatpost, and this was the seatpost I used at first.  However, I quickly discovered that the ITM was a true single-bolt micro-adjust post, lacking any kind of indexing teeth to help maintain the rail angle adjustment.  Unfortunately, with my 220lb+ bulk and upright riding position, it wasn't up to the task of holding the angle, and riding over bumps would leave the nose of my saddle pointing further skyward than I had set it.  So, off came that post and I swapped in the S-84 that had previously lived on my Casseroll (I'll need to figure out another seatpost arrangement for that soon).  While I'm always concerned about having enough setback, the truth is that with a Brooks saddle and relatively upright riding position, the combination of 72 degree seat tube angle and the ~40mm offset S-84 is "just right" in terms of saddle setback for me.

Nitto Albatross bars

The upright bars have also worked really well.  The main grips position is so dang comfortable, I find myself staying there for a long time.  It also offers really good control off-road.  I do find myself sliding my hands forward sometimes on long climbs, to stretch out or balance the traction a bit better.  Like the Quickbeam, they keep my head up and looking around, enjoying the scenery.  However, I can also say for sure that there is a definite difference between the Albatross bars and the Bosco bars on the Quickbeam.  Both are basically swept-back bars for achieving an upright riding position, but the Boscos are considerably roomier than the Albatross, offering a greater variety of hand positions and back angles.  I am also more upright in the Bosco primary position than in the current Albatross position on the Trucker.  Ironically, I also find it easier to get aero on the Boscos: with my hands on the grips, I can lean basically all of the way forward and tuck into kind of a ski racer position, with my arms completely folded.  I have the Albatross grips set a bit lower and at a little bit more of an angle, which puts the grip at a really nice angle for my hands when seated.  However, when I'm trying to get into an aero tuck on the Albatrosses, the slightly lower position and angle means that my arms are deeply bent but not completely folded, meaning I have to use my arm muscle to maintain this position, which can be fatiguing.  I noticed this yesterday as I was coming back on Wildcat Canyon Rd., which is slightly downhill heading back into Berkeley.  However, this is with the Albatrosses as I currently have them set, and I have some ideas about changing their angle and position which might help.   


The best thing about this bike, and definitely one of my main design goals, is the ability to be equally at home on- and offroad.  The gearing and position, as well as the fat 42mm rubber I'm easily able to run, has allowed me to start comfortably exploring much more of the riding the East Bay hills have to offer.  This bike has taken me up and down some beautiful and secluded fire roads and singletrack, handling the rough and steep stuff with aplomb.  It served me well on the epic mixed-terrain ride from Fremont to Berkeley I described in the last post.  I had been over some of this same ground before, but rarely.  I had even done some on the Casseroll, but that was a bit too white-knuckled to be really enjoyable.  The Quickbeam is also a capable offroad machine, but it's single gearing takes some commitment to get up a lot of the hills around here.  The Trucker handles all of this comfortably, and is probably all the "mountain bike" I'll ever really need.  Sure, over some of the really washboarded and rocky sections of trail, wider tires and maybe even suspension would make the ride smoother, but at no point have I felt that the Trucker wasn't capable of handling whatever I could throw at it.

Back at the beginning of this blog last year, I had talked about wanting to introduce more variety into my riding, thinking about mountain biking.  I think the Trucker is finally getting me to that place, of allowing me to take different kinds of rides, approach things differently than simply transportation or road rides.  I'm not sure it's the "one" bike for me--in fact, as I'm writing this I'm thinking about rolling out the Casseroll again, trying some new things with that.  But I'm happy to have three really awesome and different bikes to work with in my stable. 

Monday, June 3, 2013

Ride Report: Fremont-Berkeley Mixed Terrain Ride, 6-2-2013


My brief ride report from the Riv list:

Normally any ride where I get three flat tires and am plagued by a saddlebag rubbing on the rear wheel would seem pretty frustrating to me, but this ride was so awesome that all of these minor problems paled in comparison to my stoke.  Manny lead us on an awesome ride starting from the Fremont BART station, pretty much the southern extremity of the East Bay line.  I'd never really biked in Fremont before and I was quickly blown away as we blasted up Niles Canyon to Sunol, a beautiful and fast stretch of road.  Stopping in Sunol for supplies and to pet Mayor Bosco for good luck, we headed up driveways and fireroads towards Pleasanton Ridge, which seems to favorite with local MTBers.  From there it was rolling fireroads and plentiful singletrack detours as we made our way northwards, through increasingly deserted lands.  Somewhere in there I got the first of three flats, which seemed to be related to a bad rim strip.  Popping out on Palomares Rd. we bombed the paved descent (who says you can't get aero on Albas?) into Castro Valley for a Safeway lunch.  From there Manny took us up on trails around Lake Chabot and the golf course (golf balls!), where the second flat happened.  Manny had to get back home to get his camping gear for the evening's S240 so he took as far the southern extremity of Skyline Dr. before dropping down into San Leandro.  I lead the rest of us up Skyline and down Joaquin Miller through Montclair to the Rockridge BART station for the rest of the folks to get home to the city.  Leaving the BART I felt my rear going flat for the third time, luckily there was an open bike shop right there so I bought another tube and a new Velox rim strip.  Got it fixed and rode home, pretty stoked to arrive on my doorstep in Berkeley after riding all the way from Fremont, mostly on trails.  An epic day all around.

We had a good mix of bikes on this ride, everything from a full-on (monster) cross bike to a couple of well-setup Rando machines, and of course Manny's Hillborne.  I was on my new LHT with Albatrosses and 42mm tires, and it was perfect for this ride. 

Pics to prove it happened, although I seemed to stop taking pictures after Pleasanton Ridge so you'll just have to believe me about that part:


Unrelated to the ride report, this is awesome. 

Monday, May 13, 2013

Spring 2013: Becoming-Upright

Quickbeam Update 3

Been a while since I wrote anything on here, exactly two months it looks like.  Still, following Esteban's suggestion, I'm not going to apologize for lack of content on here, since my commitment is to quality, not quantity.  I've been busy the past couple of months, with my day job taking most of my mental and physical energy.  When I do have energy and time to myself, I usually spend it on riding or working on more tangible projects, rather than directing energy to this creative medium.  But today, I find myself with a bit of downtime, waiting for some things to come together, so I decided to try to get some thoughts down on here and a provide a bit of an update as to recent activity. 

The burst of thinking and writing around February and early March definitely helped to break me out of some mental ruts I had been riding for a while, regarding bike setup and fit.  Asking myself to let go the idea of transcendence, as I did at the end of my Late Feburary: Highlights post, got me thinking about how to introduce more variety into the range of bicycles that I own.  I started thinking that rather than trying to approach a similar, transcendent fit on both the Casseroll and the Quickbeam, what if started to thinking about making them as different as possible, at opposite ends of a continuum of bike fit?  Looking at them, the Casseroll seemed to be best suited to being the road bike, with drop bars and a stretched out riding position.  Looking at the Quickbeam, I started thinking about making it more upright, befitting its main purpose of town riding in traffic, where being aero isn't ever a concern and visibility is a huge benefit.  This was spurred on by looking at pictures of old British "Roadsters" as a model for upright, all-purpose bicycles, and then by building up a Heron Wayfarer touring bike for my wife using Nitto Promenade bars, and seeing how well it came out.  She loves it!

Deciding to go bolt-upright on the Quickbeam, and still concerned about bar leverage and rotation after having had issues with the Civia bars I tried last fall, got me thinking about the slam-dunk solution: the Nitto Bosco Bullmoose handlebars from Rivendell.

Quickbeam Update 3

Definitely enough rise and, more importantly, sweep back to get me in a bolt-upright position.  From all reports, they offered quite a variety of hand positions as well, allowing you to incline your back if the situtation demanded.  Finally, being chromoly and brazed as a single piece to the stem extensions, they provided no chance of me overcoming the stem clamp and rotating the bars under heavy riding.  As long as they allowed out-of-the saddle climbing, important for when I took the singlespeed QB up into the hills, and the angle was a decent fit for me, they looked like neat handlebars. 

The Bullmoose version being available exclusively from Rivendell, I headed out to their Walnut Creek headquarters to check out the bars for myself before buying them.  It was a fun time, mostly talking to Keven and Vince, who had helped me when I first bought the Quickbeam, and fellow customer and RBW Owner's Bunch member Jim W., who it turns out was probably the guy for whom my QB frame was originally intended, before he decided to go with a Hillborne instead.  But the real revelation of the day came test riding.  The only bike in the showroom which was generally my size and featured the Bosco Bullmoose handlebars was the ~59cm Proto-Appaloosa, a prototype of a new bicycle designed specifically around handlebars such as this and an upright primary seating position.  It features a very long top tube (65cm on the 59cm bike!) and very long chainstays to keep the bike balanced well with the upright riding position, as well as an extra main frame tube and rear stays to maintain triangulation on the stretched frame, a feature which is becoming a distinctive Grant Petersen trademark.  I had long been curious about the bike, ever since I had been the first to guess its design intention based on seeing a picture of the unbuilt frame.

Rivendell Joe Appaloosa
Photo Credit: Olivier Ch├ętelat
I only took the bike on a short spin around Walnut Creek, doing a short stretch of the Iron Horse Trail, but it left a big impression on me.  Far from being a sedate bike, it felt lively and fast with intuitive handling, able to take anything I could throw at it.  It quickly had me shifting up into the higher gears and spurring it along.  So much so, in fact, I got a bit ahead of myself, carried to much speed into a off-camber section of singletrack next to the Iron Horse Trail, and had a bit of a spill.  No serious injury to me and the bike, and I dusted myself off and returned to RBW Headquarters, pretty sold on the whole concept of upright bars and upright bikes for fun riding.  Keven and I talked for a long time about upright riding and the finer points of the Appaloosa design.  Keven, who has raced cyclocross in the past (I remember lusting after his Legolas in a Rivendell Reader a while back), has gone over completely to upright bikes from previous drop-bar bikes, his current stable consisting of a Betty Foy mixte and his own, "Kermit Green," Proto-Appaloosa.  He actually reports feeling more powerful on his upright bikes than on his previous drop bar machines, likening the feeling to picking up a heavy weight by keeping your hands close to your body and your back straight, rather than bending your back and reaching down with your hands.  Needless to say, I picked up a pair of the Bosco Bullmoose bars and rallied home to get them hooked up on the Quickbeam.

Quickbeam Update 3

I have since been putting in a fair number of miles on the Quickbeam and am really happy with the conversion to fully upright riding.  It had the desired effect of increasing visibility and motivation for around-town riding, now that any trace of stretch required for riding had been removed.  Furthermore, it has performed well on long, hilly rides, including off-road; I feel absolutely no loss of power with the upright position over the previous racy flat-bar setup.  I can slide my hands forward on the long extensions when I need to incline my back some.  On long paved descents I can even get aero and still access the brake levers in a kind of Graeme Obree/Alpine Ski Racer position.  Particularly surprising is how well it feels to climb out the saddle.  There is definitely enough room between the grips for me to stand up and swing the bike, and it feels totally natural and powerful to do so with my arms basically in line with my torso.  The best analogy I can think of is that it feels like pushing a large load in a wheelbarrow, in a totally good way.   Longer rides on the upright Quickbeam have felt really good, with little or no back pain, feeling more refreshed longer into the ride.  Furthermore, the upright position does great things for improving the view--I've noticed new things on rides that I had done dozens of times before.

Quickbeam Update 3

The other component change that the conversion to fully upright riding on the Quickbeam has incurred is in my saddle.  I was kind of getting there before, but once I had the Bosco bars on the Quickbeam, it quickly became clear that I was going to need a saddle with a wider, flatter platform than the narrow Terry Fly Ti that I had been using.  I decided that it was finally time for me to try to the gold standard, and get myself a Brooks saddle.  Probably a sprung one, as befit the Quickbeam's new "Roadster" setup.  So, I ordered a Brooks Champion Flyer Special saddle in Honey colored leather.  The Champion Flyer is a sprung version of the ubiquitous B.17, and it has been perfect for this bike.  Initially, I was concerned about achieving enough saddle setback with Brooks' notoriously short saddle rails, so I also sought out and acquired an SR MTE-100 super-setback seatpost at the same time.  However, wanting to keep that seatpost for another project (more on this below), I just bolted it to the 40mm offset Nitto S-84 seatpost that was already on the Quickbeam, and lo and behold, the setup has been perfect--very well balanced.  This supports my suspicion that saddle shape has at least as much to do with balance and effective saddle setback, than does seat tube angle, seatpost offset, and seat rail length. 

So where has this gotten me?  I have successfully introduced some more variety into my bike setups, and have struck on a setup that really works for the Quickbeam, that I think I'll keep for a while (but you never know on that one).  In fact, the setup was so successful that I now have a new, derivative bicycle in the works based on what this experiment has shown me.  This project is the confluence of two threads: first, a desire to rebuild my Trek 520 touring bike, a bike I've had for 11 years (it was my first "real" bike, an took me on a coast-to-coast touring trip when I was 17) and is very close to my heart, but has recently fallen into disrepair.  Secondly, feeling the upright conversion working so well on the Quickbeam, I wanted to build another bike with a similar (but not exactly the same) upright riding position, using the popular Nitto Albatross handlebars, but with a full complement of wide-range gearing.  As much as I love fixed gear riding for commuting and city riding, the truth is sometimes it's hard to motivate myself for longer rides on the singlespeed, even though the Quickbeam handles such rides with aplomb.  Furthermore, I wanted a bike with even wider gears than the Casseroll road bike, for handling extended and steep off-road climbing or climbing with (touring?) loads.  So, Plan A was to build up the Trek as just such a machine, and I've been acquiring parts to do just that. 

But as the label "Plan A" implies, last week that project hit its first snafu.  In the process of stripping down the Trek for the rebuild, I discovered that the headset was basically toast, and decided to replace it.  I went to remove the headset cups with the traditional Park headset remover, only to find the lower one seemed hard to remove.  After having much difficulty, I discovered the problem: the Trek frame had brazed-in interior reinforcing rings at each end of the headtube.  Instead of seating the cup remover on the top edge of the headset cup, I had seated it on the reinforcing ring and was hammering on that.  Placing the remover properly, the headset cup came out with a single tap.  Concerned that my hamfisted mistake had caused damage, I took a small flashlight and thoroughly inspected my headtube.  This is what I discovered:

Frame experts: cracked headtube?

Fairly certain that these were cracks in the headtube, radiating from the downtube vent hole as far as the area of the downtube weld penetration, I quickly posted pictures to Flickr and the iBob forum to get a second opinion.  Consensus seems to be that they are in fact cracks (there may be as many as 3 or 4 of them, it's hard to tell), but they probably weren't caused by my hammering but rather probably had formed as a result of the (rather large) vent hole not having been properly deburred, and/or the joint cooling too fast after welding.  Meaning, these cracks had probably been forming for a long time. 

This discovery left me without a workable frame for the "Geared & Upright" project, throwing things into limbo for a while.  Some suggested that the frame might still be covered under Trek's lifetime frame warranty, but I expect that a) it would be an effort to get Trek to come through on this one and b) even if they did, they'd probably offer me one of the current 520 frames, whose geometry is different from my 2002 frame in ways that don't work for me (namely, a steeper seat tube angle).  Headtube replacement is a totally feasible frame repair, but it would probably take a while to find an amenable builder to the repair, work it into their queue, get the frame back, refinish it, and get it up and running again. 

I was really looking forward to riding this bike this summer, especially on a couple of rapidly approaching rides in June.  Taking stock of what I had, I decided that the best course of action would to find a new, quickly-available frame that matched the function and component spec of the Trek, and use the parts that I had earmarked for the Trek to build up a new bike to ride this summer.  And really, thinking about an affordable steel, 700c touring frame with cantilever brakes and clearance for 40mm+ tires, with good geometry for an upright riding position, one option stood out: the Surly Long Haul Trucker.  Definitely not the rarest or prettiest of frames out there, in recent years the LHT has become an extremely popular choice for people looking for a touring bike or a capable all-rounder, and for good reason.  I built up one of the LHT complete bikes for a friend recently, and I was impressed by the quality and features of the frame, not to mention the smart parts spec on the complete bike.  And, Surly being part of the QBP empire, I could get one in my size and get it built up, quick. 

So, taking a couple of days to mull it over, I placed an order for a 64cm LHT frame, the same frame size as my Quickbeam and the largest made by Surly.  Looking at discussions of LHT sizing, many note that they have relatively long top tubes for their sizes (compared to Rivendells, for instance), so it can be good to go down a size from a Riv-style fit, especially if you plan to use drop bars.  Since I'll be using Albatross bars, I decided to stick with the 64cm. 

I'll be financing the frame purchase with some of the money that I've been saving towards taking a framebuilding class.  As for the Trek, I still think I'll get the frame repaired, but more as a learning experience than as something than I need to get riding soon.  I'd like to find a framebuilder who's amenable to letting me help out, or at least to watch them work, so I can experience the process a bit more directly. 

Last Friday, after work, I took the Casseroll out for a ride.  Having been focusing on the Quickbeam and this new project, I haven't been thinking about much about the Casseroll.  Heading up Tunnel Rd in the evening light, I found the low, stretched out position of my raciest bike not really working for me.  It wasn't that it was uncomfortable per se: considering the fit issues that I had been working through with that bike, I think I've made a lot of progress.  But I found myself longing for the upright, relaxed position on the Quickbeam, but also wishing for even lower gears than I had on the Casseroll. 

Confident that this next project would help me build on everything I've learned, both with the Casseroll and the Quickbeam, I turned the bike for home, ready for the experiments to come.