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 Chételat
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. 

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

I love daylight savings! More fit pondering.

Tilden Rambling
Well, almost halfway through March and I'm not keeping up with doing this everyday, but clarity continues and I think that doing this writing is essential for that, so I'm going to try to keep in the habit. 

Recent changes: measured the latest setups on the Quickbeam and Casseroll , just to keep track.  Installed MKS Touring Lite Pedals w/ Power Grips, same as the Quickbeam, on the Casseroll, for two main reasons: facilitate quick riding before and after work by removing the necessity for bike shoes, and to give more flexibility with regards to foot positioning on the pedals, after liking a more midfoot position on the Quickbeam, and feeling like the more forward cleat placement on my Sidi's makes me more unstable on the Casseroll. 

The couple of short ride's I've taken on the Casseroll since installing the pedals (Marina rides) suggest that the newer foot position is good for balance, but the greater leg/torso angle has me feeling stretched out again, almost as much as I was before switching bars+stem for a shorter reach back in January.  So, that's got me thinking.  May try moving the bars back up the steerer tube some, after removing some spacers in a fit of creativity a few weeks ago.  But, my experience is that bar height (within a certain range) has relatively little effect on effective reach--it is much more effected by horizontal reach, i.e. bar reach+stem reach+effective top tube length. 

The measurements I took on monday are telling in this regard.  For one thing, the straight-line distance measured from seat nose to top of bar clamp on the Casseroll stayed pretty much the same even with dropping the bars ~15mm or so.  The steep head tube angle on the Casseroll probably contributes to this. 

Salsa Size-O-Matic II fitting stem.
Secondly, measuring the Quickbeam (the bike I feel most comfortable on nowadays), and comparing it to the Casseroll numbers, shows why the reach feeling so different between the two bikes.  Measuring to the stem clamp, things aren't that different.  The Quickbeam, with 120mm stem, has a reach of 605mm.  The Casseroll, with a 80mm stem, has a reach of 592mm.  But now consider that in tandem with bar reach: the Quickbeam has a swept back bar, and a quick 'n dirty measurement puts the reach to the grip area at around 555mm.  The Cowbell drop handlebars on the Casseroll have a reach of 70mm, so the minimum reach to one of the primary grip areas on that bar (the brake hoods) is something on the order of 592mm+70mm=662mm.  That's more than 100mm of difference between the two primary hand positions.  The Casseroll would need a 40mm stem (is that even possible with a 31.8mm bar clamp?) in order to even have the flats of its bars in the same place horizontally as the grips on the Quickbeam.
Saddle position close to dialed.
Or would it?  I've largely neglected this line of thinking, but thinking physically, the less angled your back is, i.e. the more upright you are, the less setback you need in order to balance the portion of your weight that is forward of your hips. I think there are limits to this--even with a bolt upright position, there is still probably some setback that is needed in order to keep your legs and feet at a good angle, to keep from throwing your torso off balance.  But theoretically, if I were to try to achieve a back angle closer to that on the Quickbeam on the Casseroll, some of the reach reduction could come from having less setback on the seat.  This holds up in my measurements too--the Quickbeam measured out at 12.5cm of setback with a fairly standard (i.e., not a lot of built-in setback) while the Casseroll has something more like a 13.3cm with the SMP Dynamic, which has a lot more "effective" setback. 

All of this is leading me towards some type of bike modeling software that allows rider modeling (hopefully taking into account body measurements) as well.  Does BikeCAD do this?

Monday, March 11, 2013

Inspiration: Bedrock & Paradox

If I had to choose a favorite blog, Dave Chenault's Bedrock & Paradox would definitely be on the short list.  Reading the blog would be worth it only for the photography--Dave spends his most of days in the breathtakingly beautiful mountains in and around Glacier NP--but the eye candy belies the strength of the writing it illustrates.  Dave is a masterful writer with a keen sense of genre, and if the random streams of consciousness that I post on here ever come close to being one tenth as good as what he puts out week after week, I'll consider myself accomplished.

I first found Dave's blog in 2007, when we were both pondering over flared drop bar setups (namely, utilizing the On-One Midge) for our respective bicycles.  Dave published some awesome comparison shots and I always liked the look of his old Karate Monkey singlespeed with Midges.  That may have been where I first got the idea to pad the drop area of the midges with Oury Grips.  He also had awesome trip reports, mostly involving endurance MTB riding and racing around the Four Corners states. 

Since then, our interests have diverged as he moved to the north (Montana) and shifted his focus to lightweight backpacking and ski touring, while I have come to be less influenced by the endurance MTB crowd in my own thinking about cycling.  But I have kept reading his blog and have never failed to be interested by whatever he is writing about.  His blog, and the experiences it describes, combine the many of the elements that I aspire to include in my own writing:
  • High level, detail-oriented tech geekery about whatever activity is being pursued, with a high degree of self-sufficiency and creativity--Dave is a MYOG (Make Your Own Gear) master.
  • Well written and interesting trip reports, attempting to share the quasi-mystic quality of human-powered travel over great distances and challenging terrain.
  • A knowledge of and ability to use his academic background in continental philosophy and social theory to make sense of the experiences he describes in his trip reports, as well as to connect his own experience and pursuits to a broader understanding of the worlds presented to him.
In sum, Dave's writing is never just about mountain biking or skiing or hiking, but how our mode of travel, the way that we choose to use our bodies, helps us to relate to the environment we inhabit.  Today's post is just another example:

 "Why" on Bedrock & Paradox

Thanks, Dave.  

Sunday, March 3, 2013

Late February: Highlights

i heart Sacramento

The Quickbeam felt very good, riding in the environment in which it was conceived, the flat streets and trails of Sacramento. The riding position was entirely comfortable in street clothes, not requiring bike clothes like the old stretched-out position on the Casseroll did. The gearing felt a little bit on the high side, but that I think was mostly because we were heading into the wind for the first part of the ride. Ah, the wind--Sacramento's substitute for hills.  However, I felt like I finally ran up against the Quickbeam's limitations for long, steady riding. My feet, in my Adidas on the MKS Touring Lite pedals with Power Grips, started to feel a bit numb. Riding in jeans definitely isn't as comfortable as bike clothes. My hands, my arms, and my torso never hurt, but definitely were feeling tired from being limited to basically one position, one arrangement. As we rolled up to our very pleasant stop in Midtown and I got off, my hands felt a little bit numb as the pressure on my palms was relieved.

Normally--even if I had been in a different mind state today--I would have worried about this, thinking about things to change about my bike fit to "fix" the little problems I had. But I feel like I was able to step back and realize that on the whole, the Quickbeam was basically performing as it should. I never felt unbalanced, like I had excessive pressure on my hands. Yes, I felt some discomfort a fatigue, but I think most of them were from doing a long, steady ride (which basically describes all of the riding in Sacramento, and very little of the riding in Berkeley) without much change in position--not from something being "wrong" with the bicycle.

Sure, the lack of variety of hand and torso positions had me thinking about different bars that would give more variety, and I've been even thinking over in my head what a drop bar configuration for the Quickbeam would look like. But then I realized that I do have a bicycle with good, multi-position drop bars, and multiple gears for maximizing efficiency for terrain and wind condition--my road bike, the Casseroll. The new position tweaks for it mean that bikes clothes aren't required for riding it comfortably, and flat pedals would even obviate the need for bike shoes.

Long steady rides aren't necessarily what the Quickbeam is for. It's for short blasts across town, running errands with lots of stop and start, short climbs. Or, maybe now with starting to think about using it for longer, hilly rides, it will do longer stuff, but still things which by their varied terrain also vary how I'm sitting on the bike. The limitations of flat bars aren't really a limitation, for now.

In its conception, the Quickbeam has a philosophical or aesthetic function in my bicycle quiver: it's a fixed gear. Fixed gears for me are about accepting the limitations of the bicycle, asking yourself to do more with less things, in return for mechanical robustness and simplicity. In this configuration, it makes sense to have not just a single gear but also simple, flat handlebars. Yes, riding a single gear bicycle with only one real hand position quickly makes you aware of the limitations of such as setup, but perhaps being aware of and accepting the limitations of the machine is a good thing.

All too often, especially when they are constructed and acquired with significant expense and effort, I can come to expect too much of my bicycles. I want them to make pedaling effortless, to smooth the path in front of me, to comfort my weary and fallible body and mind. And while riding a well designed and constructed bicycle is truly a joy, it's good for me to remember that at the end of the day it is just an arrangement, an assemblage of steel tubes, aluminum bars, and rubber tires. Sometimes it can be comfortable, sometimes it can be uncomfortable, but as long as I keep pedaling, it will move forward. Riding a simple bike helps me remember that.


What is a partially connected cyborg approach to bike fit? To begin with, I think it has to recognize bike fit as a form of situated knowledge. No matter how much I ride, my knowledge is enacted through my situation as a bloody bundle of nerves and neuroses, connected physically, mentally, and emotionally to an existing assemblage of steel, aluminum, and rubber tubes. It can only know what is is possible to experience, to embody as part of this assemblage. Like scientists wishing to transcend the embodied practice of observation, I have been wishing to transcend the embodied practice of riding, controlling a bicycle. But what if if I give up the idea of transcendence?

Then I've learned a lot already. Everything is where it should be. My nerves being sore from a long ride on flat bars is no longer a cause for concern, a challenge that my knowledge and engineering isn't sufficient to have achieved transcendence, but rather a gentle reminder of my embodiment, my close relationship with my bicycle.

Friday, February 22, 2013

Moving, Thinking

More riding home tonight, thinking about sitting, shifting my focus from my butt/pelvis to my back muscles, and using them to absorb shock...that seems to work.  It seems almost silly to be thinking so hard about my body and how it's sitting during the 1.5 mile ride home.  But in some ways, this is my cross to bear, fairly integral to how I interact with the world. 

From a young age, I was breathtaking clumsy in my movements, unable to coordinate sensory input with the movements of my rapidly lengthening extremities.  The doctors called it a deficit in fine and gross motor skills, prescribing years of occupational therapy to try to train into me skills that other children acquire unconsciously from a young age.  The OT helped, but my parents went beyond that, enrolling me in piano and tap dancing lessons to help further train my arms and legs, hands and feet to be able to move with some semblance of rhythm, fluidity, and coordination. 

It all worked, to the extent that I can move around fairly well without embarrassing myself too much, but I often get the sense that I'm wired differently than other people when it comes to moving my body through space.  I don't take to new sports or physical games quickly, especially ones that involve new motor skills.  Ball sports and gym class were always difficult for me, and never really held much interest anyways.  With the things that I had enough interest to stick with a long time, a basic level of functionality always came with much difficulty and repetition, until I had built up enough muscle memory to do the required movements more or less automatically.  If I don't have muscle memory yet for something, I need to take things slowly and pay extremely close attention to what I'm doing, or else things quickly snowball out of control.  Perhaps this is why I stick with the same active hobbies year after year--new things don't come easily to me. 

It makes sense that I took to road bicycling quickly, since on the whole it actually requires fairly little coordination and motor planning skills.  You plant your butt on the seat and your feet on the pedals, put your hands on the bars, and off you go.  The structure of the bicycle keeps everything in coordination.  Of course, being graceful, and developing the handling skills to change direction quickly, such as might be required for off-road riding, takes some time, but the fundamentals of moving a bicycle through space don't require that much coordination. 

So you'd think, after almost 11 years (!) of cycling regularly,  you'd think that I have most of the motor skills required for riding locked into muscle memory by now.  But as I'm learning with bike fit, part of it is setting up the bicycle so that the bicycle matches your contact points, but part of it is training your body to sit on that bicycle and match those contact points.  Of the last few years I've played around a lot with contact points, moving them up and down, forward and back, making them narrower or wider.  Each time, I throw my body for a new loop, and the adjustment process can take a long time.  During that more or less constant process, things which might be autonomic functions for other cyclists--like using your back muscles to absorb shock, for instance--are part of conscious thought for me.  I don't necessarily remember to do them if I'm not thinking about it.  Grace doesn't come easily, but is a process. 

As I think through this process, think about how to match the bicycle to my body and the body to my bicycle, I constantly hear voices.  I hear the voice of my mother, as I try to move too fast down the steep and rocky mountain trail that we're hiking together.  The voice of my piano teacher, as my fingers trip over themselves playing a particularly complicated few bars.  The voice of my tap dancing teacher, as I struggle to make my feet and my body match the rhythm of a step. As they reminded that clumsy little kid so many years before, it's about slowing down.  Taking things one step, one note, one beat at a time.  Think--really think--about where you're putting your hands, your feet, your fingers.  Watch your balance and your center of gravity.  Breathe. 

Friday, February 15, 2013

Learning how to sit on a bicycle

I was thinking about sitting as I rode home tonight; trying to feel the difference between sitting "back" more on my sit bones and rotating my pelvis a bit more forward, resting more on the middle of my pelvis.  It feels more secure--I rotate forward by my center of gravity is farther back, I'm bringing more of my back muscles into more natural alignment to support my torso, etc.  But is is kind of something I need to work at as I ride--it's not totally automatic how I plant my butt on the saddle.  There is some technique to it, that I learn.  Like I've always had to learn muscle memory for things--riding a bike, playing piano, tap dancing. 

It occurs to me that a way to gloss a lot of my thinking about bike fit, bike setup etc. is that I'm working at learning how to sit on the bicycle.  For one thing, I think this glosses my ideal of how the bike should fit and feel--it should be something that your are sitting on securely, as a piano player might sit on their bench or a worksman sits on a stool.  I'm not talking about a plush barcalounger or the heated massaging leather seats of a Mercedes S-Class, nor some kind of sinister exercise machine where you're forced into doing a pushup at the same time you're pedaling, but the secure seating of a person who is working at something.  

The gloss "learning to sit on a bicycle" also connotes for me Buddhist meditation, and the attention paid in certain practices like zazen to learning how to just sit.  Of course, some might take issue with my connection between bike fit and meditative practice, saying that bike fit is a process of trying to create comfort through material manipulation, while meditation has little to do with comfort (just ask those who do it for long periods) and everything with the spiritual, not material, practice of sitting.  But go with me here for a while.  Of course, meditation isn't "just sitting."  A great deal of attention is paid to the (material) form of the sitting body, the arrangement of the legs and hands, the relaxation and extension of muscles and tendons, the posture of the torso, and running through this all, an attention and mindfulness of breathing.  Meditation involves a great deal of mindfulness about the otherwise autonomic aspects of inhabiting a body. 

I think the same things could be said to be true of bike fit.  While it certainly results in making a bike more comfortable and avoiding pain, especially in the the arms and back, bicycling--especially spirited riding--accepts the effort and sometimes pain of using your body to propel yourself forward.  If you can give up the notion that bike fit is about maximizing your potential and making yourself go faster, in my mind it becomes the pursuit of being able to be settled on the bike, achieve a type of spiritual stability, with, again, a focus on breath.  Riding a bike up a hill is always going to be hard, but if you have found a good way to sit, all you need to do is focus on the rhythm of breathing and pedaling. 

Of course, the physical practice of sitting in meditation involves little more than the body and maybe a small stool or pillow, so practicing sitting need not involve any material attachment or possessions, while learning how to sit on the bicycle involves not just the body but also changing the material dimensions of the bicycle, changing pedals, shoes, handlebars, or seats, and thus involves material and often financial investment.  If you can get beyond the simplistic thought that one change, one new component or even a new bicycle will be the "answer," however, you start to see how bike fit can be about developing meaningful connections between the external and internal worlds.  It requires a great deal of learning to listen to the body, mindfulness about how it is arranged, feeling how small changes of posture can affect the way that energy flows through the body.

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

The Idea of the "All-Rounder" Bar

I discovered the Origin-8 "Adventure Touring" bar while flipping through a catalog at work yesterday.  I immediately started building a bike around them in my head.  To be fair to myself though, they do look pretty cool.  I've been liking the swept flat bars on the Quickbeam, feel like they give that "upright yet speedy" thing on that bike that I was searching for, and now seem to have found.  But being a well-heeled touring cyclist, I'm naturally wary of putting flat bars on a bike that I'm going to ride more than a few miles  "But, but, I need multiple hand positions!!!" my mind says.  Never mind the endurance mountain bikers that do this kind of stuff on flat or riser bars.  I'm not riding as long as them.
Grant Petersen's famous illustration of Moustache bar hand positions from the 1993 Bridgestone Catalog
This is why I think I've always found the Nitto Moustache bar intriguing.  I keep coming back to this idea of the all-rounder and the all-rounder bar, as a basically level and flat bar...i.e. not a drop bar, that can allow good hand and body positions for urban, road, and off-road riding.  Something that is comfortable enough, and has enough variety, for longer rides.

Me riding Midge bars in the Olympic Mountains

I was attracted to flared drop bars, and rode the On-One Midge for a long time, I think, in theory because they in their very description were all-rounder bars, drop bars that could be used offroad.  But they are something different it turns out, and while I now have the tools to fit them correctly (I probably had the reach right on the last iteration of the trek, but not the balance), they aren't really what I'm looking for.   Is it just aesthetics?  No, it's a fit thing too----flared drops need a very specialized reach setup, something that won't work for me on a lot of bikes.

An old Peugeot "PX-3" of Sheldon Brown's, with what he describes as "GB All Rounder handlebars"

I keep coming back to the IDEA of all-rounder bars as what I'm looking for...the ideal handlebar I'm searching for, for the to-be-built custom, whatever it may be.  They are flat so they don't need tons of rise to be comfortable for me.  They are swept back in the primary (braking) grip area so the reach is manageable for me with ~60cm top tubes and level 100-120mm stems.

Writing this now, I look on my last couple of years of hard-core roadie-dom a bit more generously.  Yes, I was a bit more "serious" about it, but being "serious" about it allowed me a couple of things to focus on: first off, it got me off of the flared drop kick, which was making things more complicated fit-and-aesthetics wise, and it allowed me to focus on normal-ish drop bars, just getting fit right on them as a starting point.  Secondly, it allowed me "get serious" about bike fit, and delve into the subject more deeply, which I think overall has had positive consequences.  So taking the Casseroll "seriously" as a road bike was a way to teach myself some things.  And now, I feel like I'm getting a handle on those things, so naturally my mind is wandering on to the next things.  I guess this is what learning feels like. 

Monday, February 11, 2013

Broadening Genres

Preface: As you can probably tell, I haven't been really good about getting in the habit of writing material for this blog, and in general my writing hasn't really been that active for the last few months.  So, towards getting myself back in the habit of writing, I've decided to try to write everyday for the next forty days, and towards that end I've dusted off my dormant 750words account.  As befits everyday writing, I'm trying to turn off my self-editing instincts, and just focus on the flow of writing.  Think Jack Kerouac, on a bike.  I'm gonna post some of the pieces up here.  The writing won't be quite as technical or descriptive as some of my previous posts, and certainly will be less polished, but they will be a pretty close embodiment of the things I'm thinking about these days.  Hope you enjoy, and any comments will be much appreciated! 

This is what I'm saying: in truth, and financially, life-wise, I really only want one or two, three at the most bikes.  I want a fixed gear.  I want a bike that I take out for fun rides in the hills, probably pavement and dirt equally (this is the one that I'm focusing on right now).  And, maybe I want a bike I can take on occasional week-long-ish tours with a good camping load, maybe even carry some stuff for my wife if she's coming with me. 

But the second bike of this list--the one that I ride mostly for fun, taking it out in the mornings or evenings of days I work, or for longer rides on free weekend days, I feel like I want it to be a representation of me, something that emerges naturally out of a variety of bicycles, components, riding experiences.  My riding activity doesn't fit well into the traditional genres of bicycle design, and in any case I'm too much of a contrarian to use the "traditional" type of bike for any given purpose.  If it's going to be the bike that I ride mainly for fun, than it has to be something that I've found to be fun, on the types of ride that I've found to be fun.  It has to emerge out of experience, from a variety of things.

I think what I'm trying to say about the Casseroll is this: I think that I've been a bit too focused on its genre and what it says about what my riding "should be," what the setup of the bike "should be."  Somewhere a while back (2007?) I decided that a nice steel road bike with long reach brakes would be the ideal bike, that if I were going to start spending money beyond beater fixed gears and the Trek, that this is what I should spend money on.  And so this is what, mentally, identity-wise, I invested in.  Riding distance.  Riding road bikes offroad.  It has allowed me to keep one foot in mainstream roadie culture and one foot in the Rivendell aesthetic and sensibility, with curiousness towards Rando riding and style.  And that's what I've pursued--road riding, with the occasional foray onto a dirt road.  I trained and did a distance ride last year, and have been considering doing the same type of thing this year. 

Part of the frame of reference that it's given me is more subconcious, it's the way that I judge my riding and the performance of my bicycles.  Namely, the ability to cover distance comfortably.  Rides were judged subconsciously by mileage, leading to many years of never really being satisfied by my riding because it was never "long enough."  Bike performance was also judged by this metric, leading to my experiments in bike fit, which I feel like I'm finally really getting a handle on.  But feeling like I'm getting close with the Casseroll in terms of these metrics (I could probably ride a century comfortably on it), I'm still left seeking something 

So I feel like it might be time not to focus too much on refining the Casseroll further or even replacing it with a more idealized bike of the same genre, but rather to broaden genres and think a bit more about where fun really comes from in bike riding for me, and to focus on that for a while.  When I think about rides that have been really memorable over the past couple of years, certainly the long ones stick out, but the other fun ones include more rambling and exploring.  Riding in Tilden during my summer of depression.  Rambling around the Fullerton loop trail on the Takara, Christmas Eve of 2011.  Exploring the Lomas Cantadas--El Toyonal--Wildcat connection.  Climbing Hill 88 in the Marin Headlands at sunset and then bombing back down, during the STS retreat last june. 

So broadening the genre, judging things on just having fun, making memories, seeing beautiful things.  I think this is the next step in the "everyday riding" realization I had last year.  Truthfully, doing the same road loops week after week, no matter where I was living--Sacramento or Berkeley--can get old quick.  Riding everyday, what are the types of rides that I keep wanting to do?  I don't feel like I have a good handle on this yet. 

Finding out where that dirt trail actually leads.  But it's not mountain biking, because I want to ride up to the road to get there.  And keeping going when the road ends.  There's probably a fair bit of hike-a-biking involved, so keeping the bike light is probably a good idea.  Flat pedals too--i'm really liking that setup, with power grips, on the Quickbeam. 

Not having a clear sense of where the fun lies, I'm not sure I want to spend a lot of money on any particular vision of riding right now.  Instead, I think it's about creating variety in the bikes I have now, and seeing which ones naturally get ridden more, emerge as the thing I want to have fun on.  So: I think the Quickbeam and Casseroll are pretty close to their ideals.  I'll probably put fatter, but still light, tires (Jack Brown Greens?) on the Casseroll once spring instantiates itself around here and I can take the fenders off.  I'll probably also put the 22t freewheel on the Quickbeam so I'll have a much lower gear for hilly rambling, something which the current setup doesn't really do that well. 

I think there's a lot to be learned from the Trek in these new proceedings, as well.  I think it would be good to re-create something with a Midge Bar setup, since I always like that setup and it seems like it would be good for rambling.  But, I also have crazy ideas involving the Bullmoose bars that were originally on the Quickbeam and the Soma Quill-inator.  It'll probably get flat pedals. 

But of course, as I write this, there is a new, idealized bike forming itself in my brain.  An A. Homer Hilsen with a fit pretty close to what the Quickbeam has now, including flat bars with some sweep--maybe Jitensha bars or the VO Postino bars, for whose moniker I am responsible.  Built up light, with a fairly lighweight wheelset, and maybe just a Mark's Rack in front for the Trunk Sack.  Triple crankset, flat pedals. 

So my brain works as I work out these words on the page.  

Abridged Bibliography:

Matt Chester, "Isolation for Revelation," 5mod blog: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3

Jøtul's Quinetucket Traditions from Jamie Murrett on Vimeo.

Sunday, January 6, 2013

Inspiration: mc

"The resulting bikes reflected this...oddly hacked road, hybrid, and touring frames sporting shortened + burnt stays, BMX platform pedals, repositioned braze-ons, mountain bike components (always STX-RC or lower), and cheapo 27" or 700c tires in some hybrid/commuter-friendly iteration...usually with gumwalls. Gravel gaps in North Georgia would be ridden with black socks stuck into Vans or Converse One Stars. Unbridled contrarian pedaling backed by a Leth-inspired dissonant minor chord taped down with masking tape on the Moog, played in a loop on an answering machine cassette tape...the kind of thing that happened before everyone was watching each other through a computer screen."
 -Matt Chester, "A rough stuff machine as I see it," from his 5mod blog

I don't really want to be the kind of blog that aggregates and re-posts "content" from others' works but I would like to give credit to those that have inspired me.  I've always appreciated Matt Chester's words on bikes and riding, not mention the beautifully minimalist machines he creates, ever since I saw one of his personal sleds on Fixed Gear Gallery back in the day.  I've always liked the way puts his words out too, through long and detailed pieces that don't rely heavily on illustration but rather seemlessly weave together his experiences, borne of long miles in the saddle and days behind the bench mill and welding table, with a detailed knowledge of subaltern bicycle history, the kind of stuff that is only found in the archive of long-forgotten and low-circulation cycling publications, not the latest cycling coffee table book.  His blog posts were sparse from a frequency standpoint--with often months or even years between them--but when one came out, it was always good reading.  Thus, my own propensity to allow weeks or months to pass between blog posts, forgoing frequency for quality of writing.

I've been going back over some of his writings on the on-hold "5 metres of development" blog, trying to remind myself that the type of functional simplicity that allows robust mechanics with minimal material/financial investment does not necessarily equal "easy" in the momentary effort climbing hills or covering miles on your bike.

But that's okay.

Instead of worrying about whether I should spend my limited means on new wheels for the Casseroll so I can run something other than a Campy 8 speed road cassette so I can fit mountain bike cassettes so I can not worry about how hard it will be to get up any hill I can imagine facing.......

....I try to just sit up, look around, relax, and focus on riding with what I've got. Fitness and the ability to surmount obstacles are first-order effects of getting out there and riding, not my granny gear ratio.  Focusing on refining bike fit is okay, since it is directly related to my ability to get out there day after day and mile after mile without pain or injury, but I try to also remember that fit is an iterative process that itself is made easier (more first-order effects!) through riding, rest, stretching, and the fitness and functionality that they bring. 

I'm not sure what Matt's up to these days. I know he's struggled with illness and injury in the past couple of years, and his ability to focus on framebuilding has suffered, but whatever he's up to, I hope he's doing well.  Someday I'd love to meet him and maybe put in some long gravel miles together.