Friday, June 19, 2015

Long distance riding on upright bars/ WSJ reports on the upright trend

I posted this recently in response to an inquiry on the Rivendell list about the appropriateness of handlebars like the Nitto Albatross and Albastache for long distance riding:

"I've had very good experiences over the past couple of years riding long distances (up to about 90 miles/day, and a week long, ~500 mile tour with plenty of climbing) with upright bars, mostly 58cm Boscos. I totally agree with Ron and Clayton: just like with drop bars, set up matters, and every body is different with regards to things like core strength, flexibility, limb and torso dimensions, etc.  Definitely, for me, long top tubes and stems seem to help me get upright bars feeling nice and "roomy."

While I love my Boscos dearly, I've also had a pair of the current standard 55cm CrMo albatrosses that have moved between a couple of different bikes and umpteen different setups and the truth is, they haven't worked as well for me.  I think a lot of this is down to width; the bit of extra width on the Boscos really helps me be in a relaxed yet-secure position.  I was at Riv HQ this past weekend and riding one of their Hunqapillars with Alba's that felt better, and talking to Keven I discovered that in fact had one of the older, slightly wider (56cm) bars on it. I was surprised at the difference it made.  I think the bend was subtly different was well, such that it maintained more if its width closer to the forward curve.

In terms of climbing, I actually feel like I climb better with Boscos, especially long climbs, since the position doesn't put as much strain on my lower back and hip areas.  My whole body is more relaxed, so more of my energy can be sent to power my legs.  If i do need more leverage or to shift my weight forward for a steep bit, I can grab the boscos on the forward curves. Furthermore, sitting up and looking around while climbing is an awesome way to pass the time while climbing. I've done many rides on upright bars that I had only previously done on drops and have been amazed by how many new things I've noticed: cool trees, interesting houses, little vistas that only emerge momentarily in passing.  I think that's especially nice when you're on tour and passing through new areas.

The headwind thing I think is fair.  Prior to the beginning of this year, I was living in a place where most rides involved a lot of climbing (Berkeley), but now I've moved to a flatter locale (Sacramento) where headwinds are more of a challenge, and I think about it a lot. If you're comparing my position to that of a racy drop bar bike I'm definitely presenting a larger surface area.  However, if you are comparing my real-world Bosco position to a drop bar position I might actually ride, I'm not so sure.  Over the weekend I was riding with a friend of similar height, whose bike was setup very similarly to my last drop bar position, before I sold my 'road' bike: contemporary short-and-shallow drop bars setup roughly seat height and with a short stem.  At one point I was riding behind him when he was in the drops and noticed that with my hands on the forward part of the bosco grip area and my elbows only slightly bent, that my head was basically level with his, so overall our cross sectional area couldn't have been that different.  Even if there is a disadvantage to upright bars in terms of wind resistance, it's only a disadvantage in a headwind.  The second you have a tailwind, you're flying!  In general I don't really care about speed that much, although I appreciate being efficient.  I feel like upright bars give me more confidence to ride longer distances with more comfort, so even if there is a speed penalty I think it's worth it overall.

I do totally get how swept back bars can be bit tricky in tight, low speed turns.  I've developed an instinct to deal with that: when I do have to go around a tight corner and rotate the bars a bunch, I kick out my inside knee, kind of like a moto GP rider, although I'm sure it looks funny since it's only at low speeds."

In other news, my wife recently sent me this article from the Wall Street Journal, discussing the trend in the bike market towards simpler and more comfortable (read: upright) bikes.  The growing availability of these bikes was posed as a reaction against the increasing complexity of bikes found in "traditional" bikes shops, as well as how most consumers felt intimidated by the environment of these shops, thus explaining why some brands like Public eschew the normal bike retail models in order to sell their products.  I think that it's a bit more complicated than the dichotomy that the WSJ sets up--there are plenty of people in bike shops, including yours truly, who also prefer simpler and more comfortable bicycles, as well as of brands available in bike shops that are designed in this way--but it is certainly interesting that people's desire for more upright bicycles is making it into the WSJ.  I must be onto something here...

Saturday, May 23, 2015

Quickbeam 2.0

Today I completed a project which I've been mulling over for the past couple of months, which is the most major re-build and reconfiguration of my Quickbeam to date.   I've now had the bike more than two and a half years, and as followers of my blog and Flickr stream know I've certainly changed it numerous times.  In handlebars alone, I've gone from Nitto Bullmooses, to lower flat handlebars, to Bosco Bullmooses, to Albatrosses, to Avenir Circa bars, back to Albatrosses, back to Circas.  I've also changed the brake and rack configuration a couple of times.  However, all of these changes happened basically one component at a time, so they felt more evolutionary.  For this project I considered a number of changes and undertook them all at once, so even though it may not seem totally different it has turned out looking and feeling like a new bike.  So far, I've only ridden it around the block a couple of times, but everything feels great.  I'm slowly getting over a bout of tendinitis in my right knee so longer rides will have to wait, but I'm really happy with how this turned out.

Quickbeam 2.0

The new stuff:
  • Handlebars/stem: Back to Albatrosses, but recently I traded my 70mm Nitto Technomic Delux to a fellow Rivendell lister (thanks, Olivier!) for a 130mm version of the same stem.  I did so after riding a couple of bikes with Albatrosses at Rivendell HQ a while back that had longer top tubes than the Quickbeam--a 60cm Cheviot and Jared's 67cm A. Homer.  I also remembered that when I had Albatrosses on my Trucker in a setup that I was pretty satisfied with, it was on a bike with a longer TT than the Quickbeam and a longer stem than I've ever used on it.  So, I figured I'd try Albatrosses farther out on the Quickbeam, and higher up as well. 
  • Brake levers: some Soma "Urban Pursuit" (awful name) inverse levers, to allow for a more continuous grip area, maximizing hand position options on the Albatrosses.  
  • Tires: Schwalbe Kojak tires, 700x35.  I've actually wanted these tires for this bike since I built it up the first time, but I've been trying to be a good boy and wear out my previous tires (WTB Slickasaurus 700x37's) before I sprung for them.  I finally sprung for them.  
  • Front Rack: the Nitto Campee 32F Mini front rack.  After trying rack with saddlebag on the back and no rack at all, carrying the daily load in a back pack, I've decided that I'm firmly a load-on-the-bike kind of guy.  A friend lent me his basket and Shop Sack Medium for a couple of weeks last summer, and I've been craving one every since.  They will go on this rack. 
  • Headset: while disassembling the bike, I noticed that the Tange Levin headset was indexed.  I've had a couple of adjustment issues with it during the bike's life, so I wasn't completely surprised.  Luckily, a coworker happened to have a 1" threaded Chris King headset he was willing to trade for a saddle of mine, so I got the ultimate headset upgrade.
  • Gearing: Not necessarily new, but I've been missing riding fixed gear recently, so I swapped back to the original gearing I had on the bike, 42x17 fixed, with a new chain as well.  Should be a good gear for the flatlands where I live now.
I had also been considering a pedal swap, to something wider and grippier, but after getting everything together today I couldn't resist throwing the MKS Touring Lite pedals back on it for a test ride, and I think they'll do fine for the moment.  At this point all I need to do is pick up a Wald basket and Shop Sack whenever I can get down to Rivendell, and rig up some type of light mount on the new rack.  And ride it!

Quickbeam 2.0

Friday, April 10, 2015

The Bike that Rides Like a Car

I recently moved, and part of that move was acquiring a house with a garage.  I was particularly excited about this part of the move, not because I planned to use it for anything like parking our car, but because I finally had room to easily and conveniently park all of our bicycles, as well as room to work on them.  Furthermore it opened up the acquisition of non-standard size bicycles, bicycles that previously would have been too large for our small apartment.  Namely: a cargo bike.  In my case, an Xtracycle Edgerunner with the NuVinci N360 drivetrain.

Some might know that prior to the move (unfortunately) taking me away from it, I've spent the last couple of years working at a bike shop that specialized in cargo bikes, and the Xtracycle was one of our top products.  Most of our customers for the bicycle had big loads they needed to carry with it, usually one, two, or even three small children.  And it works superbly for loads like that.  However, since I've acquired my own, it's rapidly become one of my favorite bicycles for just riding around town and running errands, not necessarily just for huge loads.  We don't have kids yet, so most of my use is for non-live cargo.  Certainly, it's made food shopping on the bike easier, especially when the store has a really good deal on that 12 pack of IPA.  But I love riding it even when the mission doesn't require its full capacity.

Part of it is the fit.  Like all of my favorite bicycles, the large (19") Edgerunner with an uncut fork puts me in a nice, upright position, and the moderately swept bars with ergonomic grips are super comfortable.  It's a fit that works great both for jamming across town at a high pace or relaxed cruising with my wife, in any kind of clothing or footwear.  Even the stock, generic looking saddle is damn comfortable (at least for short distances), although I'm sure it'll get replaced with a Brooks at some point.  The great thing about the Xtracycle in particular is that this comfortable fit is paired with a frame design that is really well suited to it.  While the extra-long rear end of the bike is designed to help keep the bike balanced and easy to ride with a large load, it also makes the bike super well balanced with an upright riding position, since it keeps the center of gravity balanced between the two wheels, instead of biasing the rear wheel as an upright riding position does with more traditional frame geometries.  It handles great at any speed, both stable and more nimble that you would expect for such a large bike.  The icing on the cake in terms of the bike's comfort and confidence are the awesome 2.35" Schwalbe Big Ben tires, which ride smooth and fast, and offer tons of traction.

Which brings me to the second reason this bike has become my go-to: the parts spec, namely the drivetrain.  This is my first bike with an internally geared hub, and the NuVinci is a great example of the type.  The ability to shift across the gear range almost instantaneously means that I am always in the right gear, able to put power to the rear wheel without huge effort.  The continuously variable transmission (CVT) in this particular hub accentuates this ability even further.  What this means while riding is that I can keep my effort level constant, no matter my speed and even through stop-and-go city riding, which pretty much describes most riding on the gridded street system where I live.  I almost never have to stand up and put power down to the pedals to start up from a stop, as I often do with my derailleur or single speed bicycles.  This constant energy expenditure makes the bike super easy to ride, even when I am tired, thus making it more likely that I will choose it over my other vehicles (including my car) when I am headed out.  The icing on the drivetrain cake is that the constant chainline of the internally geared hub means that the the bicycle is also fitted with a partial chainguard, which means I never have to roll up my right pant leg to ride it.  Just hop on and go.

The final reason that the Xtracycle has become my go-to bicycle for errand running is its capacity, but not, as I stated above, because I need its full capacity all the time.  Instead, the Xtracycle has shown me the joys of overkill.  Having all that capacity means that any load smaller than its max capacity is a no-brainer.    No longer do I need to carefully consider which particular bag configuration on my standard-racked bike will be best suited to the errand before heading out.  No longer do I need to consider whether a bike or my car would be the easier way to carry a load.  When I'm shopping, I can impulsively pick up extra things (like that 12 pack) without worrying how I'm going to carry them.  When I leave the store, I don't need to spend a long time carefully packing the bike so I can get myself and the load home safely.  I just hop on the bike, get what I need, drop it in the X2 bags and go.  Done.

So, a vehicle that's comfortable to ride, requires a consistent, non-taxing level of energy to operate, and has more capacity than you really need, making normal loads super convenient?  The Xtracycle thus approaches the holy grail of alternative transportation.  For me, it's the bike that rides like a car.

Friday, February 13, 2015

Crashed: Nitto vs. Surly

So, I crashed yesterday.  In my history of crashing bikes, it was a relatively minor one.  The bike took most of the damage, and I escaped with minor road rash and a couple of bruises, and after getting the bike rideable again I was able to ride the ~10 miles home with pretty much no problem.  I'm thankful for the bike taking the damage, as my last couple of crashes have seen the bike pretty much unscathed and me damaged (the last one enough to land me in the emergency room and five staples in my knee).  Furthermore, the way the bicycle was damaged is pretty interesting.  Blog gold!

First, the details of the crash: I was riding my Long Haul Trucker along one of the levees that separates the American River from the Sacramento suburb of Arden, paralleling the American River Trail that runs from Sacramento all the way up to Folsom.  The levees can provide a fun alternative to the paved trail sometimes, since they are usually paved with gravel.  However, the stretch that I was riding on had become so hard packed that it felt as if I were riding on pavement, so I decided to cut back to the River trail, using one of the paved connector ramps that connects the trail to the levee.  The particular one that I decided to use was at an oblique angle to my direction of travel, so it required a sharp turn to enter.  Basically thinking I was on pavement, I didn't slow down much for the corner and took it with much exuberance.  I immediately regretted this decision as my front wheel lost traction on the less-hard packed gravel along the edge of the levee and I went ass over teakettle down the ramp.

Picking myself up and ascertaining that the bike had taken more damage than me, I set about righting it so I could ride home.  The front end of the bike had completely jackknifed around, with the front wheel turning more than 90 degrees to the right.  Normally, the front end rotation is limited by the bottom corner of my handlebars hitting the top tube, and by the front rack hitting the downtube.  Both handlebars and rack are made by Nitto: 58cm heat-treated aluminum Boscos and a chromoly M18 ("Mark's Rack") with the standard aluminum struts, respectively.  So, the crash really turned into a grudge match between my Nitto bits and my Surly frame.

Round One: Bars vs. Top Tube

In the battle of bars vs. top tube, the bars definitely won.  Whereas their rotation is normally limited by the top tube, the force of the crash was enough to push the bars past the top tube, so much so that I actually had to pull the stem off the steerer so I could turn the fork forward again.  When the head-treated Nitto aluminum met the double-butted Surly 4130 chromoly, the steel was the first to give.  As the bars contacted the top tube, the force (very minorly) dented the top of the top tube, while the bars escaped with a barely-noticeable scuff to their underside.  The dent happened right in the middle of the tube's length, right where you would expect the wall thickness of the butted tube to be the least, and it is a very gentle dent.  I actually didn't even notice it until I got on the bike to ride home and was looking down at the tube from above, and noticed the distortion in the tube's finish.  I have zero qualms about continuing to ride this frame now, one of the beautiful things about a material like steel.  It also goes to show the quality and strength of the Nitto handlebar, and why their are well worth their price.  In terms of swept-back bars appropriate for a high-performance upright bike, they really are without equal in their ability to hold up to the demands of enthusiastic riding (which, occasionally, includes crashing).  Many lesser swept-back bars intended for "casual" or "city riding," made from plain aluminum, would not have fared as well and would probably need replacing after such an incident.

Round Two: Rack vs. Down Tube

In the second round, Nitto didn't fare as well.  The front rack swung around with the fork and hit the down tube of the frame.  The best I can ascertain, the rear/upper struts of the rack (I use a four-strut mounting on this fork, seen here) hit the down tube right where the down tube cable stops bolt up.  The force badly bent all four rack struts, and twisted one of the mounting tabs that connect the struts to the rack platform.  These struts are solid aluminum, but probably not heat-treated, given how easier they are to manipulate when you are installing the rack.  The down tube, on the other hand, shows no signs of damage, even after removing the cable stop and inspecting underneath.  This impact happened much closer to the tube junction, so I assume that the wall thickness of the tube was greater here than where the impact happened on the top tube.  Since the rack was pushed against the tire, I needed to remove it in order to ride home.

I definitely need to replace at least the rack struts.  I haven't decided whether or not to replace the entire rack or try to straighten out the bent tab and re-install this platform with new struts.  Usually, I use an extra degree of caution with stuff mounted to the front of the bike, since something failing up there has the potential of stopping the front wheel suddenly, which causes a much worse crash than something stopping the rear wheel suddenly.  However, given the general beefiness of the rack platform and the redundancy of the mounting on this bike, it might be safe to ride still.  In any case, bike funds are pretty low right now, so it may be a while before I get around to doing anything.

In general, I'm really happy with how the damage from this crash shook out.  My injuries are minor, and I feel relieved that in the confrontation of handlebars, rack, and frame, the rack took the worst of it, since while not having a rack is convenient, it does not affect the rideability of the bike in any way.  I was also sure glad to have my rear rack and bag on the bike too, since I was able to just strap the damaged rack to my saddle bag, strap my front bag to the rear of the rear rack, and ride home with no issues.

Now, I wonder if there are ways I could substantially increase front-end traction in these situations, or if I just need to be more careful going around corners with sketchy surfaces?  Or both?

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

High Performance Upright: Towards a New Category?

I curated this Flickr gallery to start cataloguing and expressing a type of bicycle that I would like to use this oh-so-neglected blog to highlight, discuss, and promote. This is a type of bicycle that I have become interested in over the past couple of years through my own riding and tinkering, through my work in a small bike shop focused on fun, practical bikes, and through my participation in certain online niche cycling communities, namely the Rivendell Owners’ Bunch, the iBOB list, and the larger Flickr cycling community

I struggled to name the Flickr gallery as I started to build it, because I don’t think that this type of bicycle is as of yet instantiated enough in cycling culture to have a named category strongly associated with it. As this type of bike started to become a regular occurrence at the shop where I worked the past couple of years, my boss there started calling the category “High Quality Casual.” Certainly, this started to get to some of what this category is about, because at first glance these bikes seemed similar in overall configuration to a “hybrid” or “sport comfort” bike. However, the bikes I’m referring to generally have a higher quality of frame and components than is typically found on a bike intended for someone who doesn’t want to spend more than, say, $1000 on a bicycle, and takes a relatively non-strenuous approach to riding. However, I don’t think that “High Quality Casual” fully captures what this category is about for me.

The strongest similarity between the category of bicycle that I’m trying to describe and “casual” bikes is the handlebar setup, particularly the shape of the handlebars and their position. Perhaps the biggest identifying feature is some type of swept-back upright handlebar, set so the grips are near, at, or above saddle height. And it is exactly this feature which causes many “real” (read, not “casual”) cyclists to dismiss such a setup offhand. “Oh, I like to do long rides/ride quickly/climb hills/go touring so that type of setup isn’t going to work for me.” Or, “that’d be great if were just commuting, but I want to use this bike for recreational riding as well.” In short: upright handlebars aren’t really appropriate for any type of riding where performance matters, right?

Here’s the thing: since I built up my Surly Long Haul Trucker with an upright handlebar setup almost two years ago, it has become my preferred bicycle for pretty much everything, including long day rides, fast rides, rides with lots of climbing, and, as of this past August when I did the SF-LA route on it, touring as well. Namely: riding where performance matters. The handlebars don't hold me back; in fact, they make it easier and more comfortable to get the most out of my bike. Before this, in my first ~ten years as a “serious” cyclist, the bikes I used for these purposes all had drop bars. Sure, some of them were funky drop bar setups, with wide, flared, shallow-drop bars set at or above seat height, but they were all drop bar bikes, because that’s what you needed to really get the most out of your bike and yourself. The Surly changed all that. It showed me that a bike with an upright, comfortable riding position can also be a high-performance bicycle. It can come close to that holy grail for many cyclists, the one bike that can do pretty much everything.

Thus, it is this combination of upright comfort and high performance that really defines the category I’m getting at here. In addition to upright bars, these bikes have frames made from high-quality materials (mostly some type of chromoly steel) that balance strength, light weight, and ride quality. These bikes have lightweight wheels and fast, supple (though not necessarily skinny) tires. They have high-quality, high-performance drivetrains that shift cleanly and easily, with gearing appropriate to the terrain they are designed to encounter. They have highly effective braking systems for good control, and they handle well on variety of surfaces. In short, they are every bit as efficient as modern bikes can be, but without the drop bars or low, flat, straight handlebars traditionally associated with performance.

So, the Flickr gallery was named “High Performance Upright Bikes,” and that’s what I’m going to try to flesh out in some upcoming posts. Certainly, it’s not the catchiest name and it is kind of a mouthful, but I do think it’s the clearest description of the category I’m trying to describe.

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.