Wednesday, August 12, 2015

Requiem for a Handlebar: The Avenir Circa Bar

With all of the constant changing of bicycle technology and phasing out of old products to make room and excitement for new things, sometimes you discover something really good, that works really well, just as it's getting really hard to find.  So it was with me and the Avenir Circa handlebar.  This here is my eulogy to what probably seems like a wholly unremarkable handlebar, but is actually something really special.  At least to me.

It began life as an OEM spec handlebar on a pretty standard comfort bike, the Raleigh Circa, from which it got its name.  As is sometimes the case, Raleigh USA decided to also sell the handlebar aftermarket, through its parts and accessories (P&A) brand Avenir.  The Circa handlebar came into my life in 2012, when I started working at a small shop that was just opening in Berkeley.  The founder of the shop had previously been a sales rep for Diamondback/Raleigh/Avenir, so their products featured heavily in our early stock, being what he was most familiar with.  He had long ridden a Circa bar on his own early 90's Diamondback mountain bike converted to upright Xtracycle cargo bike.

The truth is, the Circa bar would have been an easy sell even if it wasn't totally awesome, because it had that other quality which makes people buy things: it was cheap.  We sold it for $24.99.  So, when people came into the shop with the old early 90's mountain bike or road bike and sought to address the fact that it was no longer comfortable for the commuting or around-town riding they were doing, the Circa became our go-to suggestion for an upright conversion, and the low cost ensured it was a best-seller.  We even included it as a handlebar option for our custom builds of first-generation Xtracycle Edgerunner frames, when we were the only place you could get that bike in California.

Here's the thing: every upright conversion or build I did with a Circa handlebar felt awesome.  Just right.  That perfect combo of comfortable and sporty that not only made a bike comfortable for around-town riding but fun as well, so you wanted to jump on it rather than get in your car for running errands or going out on the town.  And as far as I can remember, every customer who got a Circa bar really liked the way their bike felt.

Avenir Circa Handlebars

Furthermore, the design of the Circa bar was really practical for upright conversions.  The forward bend before the backsweep meant that the reach often worked out well, without needing a stem swap.  There was a convenient flat area next to the stem for lights, bags, basket mounts, or cup holders.  The length of the grip area meant that there was plenty of room for shifters, brake levers, standard grips, and even bells, all of which can sometimes get cramped with traditional upright bars.  There was even usually room left over at the forward part of the grip, which provided a great second hand position for jamming into the wind or just changing things up.  Finally, the generous width (round about 645mm), which really stands out among widely available upright bars, meant that even taller or wide shouldered riders didn't feel cramped out them, which I think is often a stumbling block with upright conversions.

As the bike industry is wont to do, things changed, and Raleigh USA (and hence the Avenir P&A brand) were bought by Accell North America, a wing of a Dutch conglomerate that already own numerous other brands, including other P&A brands.  So, in the merger, Avenir as a brand was phased out, and with it the Circa handlebar.  Who knows, it probably would have been phased out anyways.  When Rob and I saw the writing on the wall, we bought the remaining stock, which didn't amount to much.  Knowing there would be no more, I bought a pair for myself, knowing that eventually I'd find a use for them.

When we sold out of our last Circa bars, we started searching for the replacement for the Circa bar.  We poured over the catalogs of other P&A brands, searching for bars that seemed to match the dimensions of our beloved Circa.  We ordered samples of numerous bars that seems hopeful, but when they arrived we'd take them out of the package, hold them out at arm's length, and just shake our heads.  None of them was "just right."  None of them was the Circa.

Don't get me wrong.  There are tons of great handlebars out there, and I'm sure others have their bar which is "just right" for them.  It's no secret that I'm a big fan of Grant Petersen's handlebar designs, and I think our shop might just have been the #1 Bosco bar seller outside of Rivendell.  But the Circa bar just seemed to work out so well for so many people, and it's price made it accessible, and it felt great.  If I had the ear of Nitto the way that Grant does, it'd be the handlebar shape I'd ask them to make, maybe in their burly CrMo tubing, or the beautiful and strong heat treated aluminum.  Yes, it'd be more expensive, but I'd know I could ride that bar for a long, long time.

Avenir Circa handlebar

As for my Circa bar, it's ended up on my Quickbeam.  I'm perpetually changing handlebars and stems on that bike, searching for just the right combination, but I seem to keep coming back to the Circa, and the latest setup, with a 130mm Nitto Technomic Deluxe stem and Ergon GC-1 BioKork grips, seems to be the best yet.  Like all those bars I sold, it's helping me get closer to "just right."

Friday, July 31, 2015

Cross post: Where are the Women in Cycling?

My friend Deanna is a writer by trade and pens the blog Hearth and Work.  Like me, she's also a cycling fan, ever since we watched the 2004 Tour de France together in the co-op house we shared in college.  After watching this year's race she asked me to share a few thoughts on the absence of women's events in professional cycling coverage.  You can read our post here:

Hearth and Work: Where are the Women in Cycling?

It's a bit outside of my normal fare of the technical minutiae of un-racing bicycles, but definitely a topic close to my heart.  Check it out!

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.