Category Archives: bikes

In Praise of Fall Rides

Despite the emergence of pumpkin spice lattes and the forthcoming Halloween festivities fall is an amazing time in eastern Iowa for those of us who ride bicycles.

Why?

With RAGBRAI long past and college football in full swing a ride on the weekend is usually an affair where you might see a half dozen people out on the trail.  In the summer it is like spending Black Friday at the Mall of America.  Yes, it gets that bad.

Despite the increase in wind speeds the drop in temperature is manageable through some strategic layering and thoughtful ride timing.  A friend of mine says that if you wear black in the sun it feels ten degrees warmer than whatever the weatherman is telling you.  I do not know if that is true, but fifty degrees is pretty darn nice when you are twenty miles into a thirty some mile ride and starting to really heat up.

The cool temps and lingering humidity keep the dust down on the gravel.  Save for the patches of trail covered in green hulled walnuts, which will drop you on your ass if you are not careful, the surface conditions are just about perfect.  Dry and firm with enough give for traction.  This is a trail you would have killed for in the middle of sun baked summer when the conditions vacillated between rock hard and sloppy mess.  Sometimes in the same ride.

For some reason the animals are crazy this time of year.  Kamikaze squirrels will dart across the path with alarming frequency.  Raccoons crawl out from under bridges like they are coming off three day dumpster benders.  Bald eagles circle lazily looking for the plump, easy meal of a rodent making its way across a freshly harvested soybean field.

The changing colors and dying grasses add an otherworldly quality to the landscape that has grown so familiar over a lot of summer miles.  Where there used to be impenetrable walls of tall grass is now a mottled screen of drooping stalks and golden leaves.

Perhaps best of all is that your legs feel like they are carved from springy wood.  Hardened from thousands of miles, yet fresh from a taper in riding time equals some refreshingly fast and fun rides in mid-October.

Plus, you can wear a flannel shirt on your ride and no one looks at you funny.  Try doing that in July.

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Labor Day in Lincoln, Nebraska Leads to…

Bikes and beers of course.  Were you thinking I was going to say University of Nebraska Cornhusker football?  Hah!

As a loyal University of Iowa alumnus going to spend a long weekend in Lincoln, Nebraska I was not going to participate in any game day festivities.  Instead I was going to attack the Homestead Trail south of town.

Last year over the Memorial Day weekend I went on a ride that covered a portion of the Homestead and Jamaica North trails.  At the time the temperature was hovering around 90 some degrees with an equal percentage of humidity which forced me to cut my ride short.  Heading back to my truck I vowed to return.

The route from just south of Lincoln at the trailhead off Saltillo Road southward to Beatrice is a little over 30 miles.  Round trip I expected this ride to take about 4 hours assuming I could keep a consistent cadence on the gravel.

The morning started out cool and humid.  How humid?  Like fog dripping from the sky humid.  Like trailside grasses sagging under the weight of morning dew humid.  At least the trail dust was kept down by all the moisture in the air.  One can really tell that it has been a wet spring and summer in Nebraska just by the density of the greenery along the trail.  It is damn near jungle-esque.

Traffic on the trail was light.  A few ultra-runners early on, but almost completely depopulated by mile ten.  I passed a few people on bikes the rest of the way.  If you want to be alone with your thoughts on a bike I highly recommend the Homestead Trail.

The trail surface was in good condition for most of its length.  Somewhere around mile 20 the trail was scarred by what appeared to be quad bike tracks that whipsawed across the width of the gravel surface.  It was as if someone deliberately came out after a rainstorm and dug deep tire tracks in an effort to frustrate cyclists.  If so, that is just sad and belongs in the hall of shame next to the guys who “roll coal” next to cyclists at traffic stops.

I have got to be honest, the trail is a lot of this:

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If it looks really flat that is because the trail is really flat.  Over 60.34 miles—out and back to Beatrice—I gained a total of 479 feet.  That is right, just an average of less than 8 feet of elevation gain per mile.

I made it to Beatrice:

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Barn wood…it’s not just for people from Waco, Texas:

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Caution: Animal Holes…my new favorite sign:

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The reward for achieving my goal of riding to Beatrice and back was a trip around Lincoln to try out a few, new to me breweries.  My legs were rubber after sixty miles of riding, but I was game for quick pit stop by White Elm Brewing and Code Beer Company in Lincoln.  Both breweries put out a well-made IPA.  I really only had the energy to sample a few beers before heading to dinner and bed.

Like before, I will be back.

In Praise of the Sick Ride

I have come to praise the sick ride.  No, not the kind of “sick” ride where you need to make sure to capture some footy for the boys.  This is about the ride you take after a sick day.

It is that time of year when the kids go back to school, so after a summer of days out in the open everyone is crammed back together in a single building.  Inevitably this begins the cycle of germ transmission that makes these places the equivalent of a low level biohazard zone.  I only half kid.

This is about the ride you take the day after you spend a day consuming Sudafed and Mucinex while wiping your nose with the equivalent of the boreal forest of Kleenex.  After a night of Nyquil induced sleep you wake up to a beautiful near fall day of full sunshine, no discernible wind, and temps hovering in the low 60s.

The leaves are starting to turn on the edges of that one tree in the neighborhood that always blazes red earlier than any other tree.  It is the harbinger of fall and the dreaded day when you hang up your bicycle until spring.  You cannot pass up days like this just because you spend the last thirty six hours binging on Netflix, mainlining herbal tea, and slipping off into fitful sleep.

So, you clip in and head for a ride.  The weather may be perfect and your bike is finally dialed in after an entire season of riding, but you are a mess.  Your cadence is jacked.  The hills you normally whiz up become grinds.  At the turn your legs are somehow managing to feel like Jello and be tight at the same time.  Your sinuses are torched and your skin has an oddly prickly feel to it.

Heading home you have gulped more than twice as much water as normal and your clothes are soaked.  The backs of your gloves are covered in an odd combination of grime, sweat, and snot.  Your teeth itch.

You unclip and slump onto the steps in your garage.  Your water bottle is empty, but you try and coax the last few drops out of the cap.  There is more liquid inside, just a few steps away, yet you remain glued to the second step.

A hot shower is a miraculous thing.  A few minutes with hot water and a bar of lemon scented soap makes a new person emerge from the other side.  All of the grinding of the past couple hours is forgotten.  The sickness of the past few days is forgotten.  Something magical happened over the course of thirty miles that no day on the couch could ever replicate.

You went on the sick ride.  Praise the sick ride!

A Few Hundred Miles on a Redshift Sports Shockstop Stem

In the 1990s I did not think that there was a better mountain biker than Thomas Frischknecht.  I tried mightily to emulate his riding style and kit.  At the time, the most notable difference in how Frischknecht set up his bike versus the rest of the field was with regard to suspension:

THOMAS FRISCHKNECHT CLINCHED THE OVERALL TITLE AT VAIL USA GRUNDIG WORLD CUP 1992

His bike did not have a suspension fork, which was then the height of mountain bike techno wizardry.  Oh my how things have changed.  Instead, Frischknecht used a suspension stem from Softride.  I wanted one of those very bad, but in the pre-Internet shopping days finding the right steam was not so easy.  It was probably for the best since everyone I know who owned one has nothing but negative things to report back.  Damn memories!

Well, it’s like a blast from the past.  As gravel or adventure bikes have proliferated so have the solutions to tamp down shock and vibration from crappy roads, rutted gravel, and whatever happens to dirt tracks from winter to spring.  Full on suspension forks seem like overkill and wider tires run at lower pressure do a yeoman’s job in making the ride more comfortable but everyone is looking for just a little more cush.  Enter Redshift Sports Shockstop Stem:

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It may be a suspension stem, but it is not trying to compete with suspension forks like the Softride stems of yore.  The goal is to provide a limited amount of travel in a simple package for riders looking to take the edge off of gravel, adventure, or touring rigs.

To accomplish this goal it uses elastomers:

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A lot of people have bad memories of elastomers from forks like the Rock Shox Quadra series or various Manitou forks before dampeners helped mitigate the pogo stock effect.  Here is the deal: elastomers are a lightweight and simple way to provide shock absorption.  In a limited travel application, as opposed to trying to provide multiple inches of travel, an elastomer can work very well because the perceived or actual rapid rebound is less noticeable.  Springing back from full compression on my Q21 was never any fun.

The installation of the elastomers on the Shockstop Stem is a little tricky because it is unlike any other product.  You could say it is tricky because it is specific.  Read the instructions people.  It is really not that hard.  Here is where the magic happens:

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Ride quality is adjusted by mixing and matching various elastomers to your preference.  I began with the combination suggested for my weight, which is shown in the combination above, and found it to be a little stiff for my typical rides here in eastern Iowa.

The thing with the Shockstop Stem is that is imperceptible.  The travel is limited, but it is working to smooth out the bumps.  If you lighten the elastomers to such a degree that the travel is perceptible it ends up blowing through its arc without really tamping down any of the big bumps.  Look, I am riding a bicycle on trails, gravel roads, and unmaintained farm access roads that might see a road grader once a year.  I do not expect to be riding in a leather recliner.  The Shockstop Stem does not make your rig a leather recliner.  It does make things more comfortable and when you are staring at fifty miles plus into a headwind on crushed limestone every bit of comfort counts.

Granted, I am only a few hundred miles in and a lot of that has been on pavement now that the Cedar Valley Nature Trail is paved all the way into Center Point.  I do, however, feel that the Shockstop Stem is worth a look for anyone who puts a lot of miles in on gravel or trails as a way to increase comfort which will hopefully lead to more enjoyable rides.

Does anyone out there own a Shockstop Stem who would like to provide their impression?

 

Note: I spent my own money to actually buy this stem.  No one from Redshift Sports has ever contacted me about the product.  That is to say, I am not some internet shill “influencer” posting photos on Instagram in exchange for bags of chips.  I actually use this stuff.

Homestead and Jamaica North Trails Ride Report

This past weekend in Lincoln was a blast…okay, spending two days in a garage driving nearly 500 2” pan head screws for a slat wall in near 100 degree heat was not a blast but I did get to ride.  Specifically, I spent a morning on large chunks of the Homestead Trail and Jamaica North Trail southwest of the city.

For a lot of people this is the Homestead Trail:

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Look it up “Homestead Trail” on Google and this is likely to be in almost all of the images.  Yes, bridges and century old ironworks are cool but this bridge is about a mile south of the trailhead.  It is not like people are really getting deep into the trail to get their shots for Instagram.

The trail runs thirty miles almost due south from the trailhead on Saltillo Road in Lincoln to Beatrice.  I rode about halfway to Beatrice before a headwind really picked up and I started to get concerned about the rising temperature.  It was already in the low 80s by mid-morning.

The ride reminded me a lot of what the Cedar Valley Nature Trail used to be like before it was paved all the way into Center Point.  It’s not good or bad that the trail is paved.  It is just different.  The surface is a thin layer of crushed limestone—yay, limestone dust in every crevice—over packed dirt.  There were very few ruts and it did not seem like anyone had been out when the trail was wet to cause any trouble, which is more than I can say for some of the unpaved sections of the CVNT north of Center Point.  Whoever rode their fat bike on the trail and put a wandering two inch wide rut in the trail for about three miles can suck a fat one.  I digress…

At about the mid-point of my ride the Homestead Trail ran parallel to Highway 77 which is a four lane divided highway from Lincoln to Beatrice.  You will find yourself exposed to some serious wind in this section.  Be advised.

The Homestead Trail is connected to the rest of Lincoln’s trail via the Jamaica North Trail.  The Jamaica North Trail runs a little more than 6 miles north and south on the west side of Lincoln.  The southern portion is crushed limestone like the Homestead Trail and the northern section is paved.  I did not ride on any pavement for the portion I rode.

On a hot day this was a nice ride because it was shaded by thick vegetation.  The gnats were not even that bad on the day that I rode.  It was even too hot to eat a Runza.

Right now the biggest issue with this great trail pair is that most of the southern portion of Lincoln is isolated from the trail via active railroad tracks.  There is a fundraising effort underway to build a link connecting these trails to the existing Rock Island Trail near Densmore Park.  One can never have enough trails.

If you find yourself heading to Lincoln grab your adventure bike and get out on the trails.  The Great Plains Trails Network has some excellent maps to guide you on your way.

Remember, where the pavement ends is where unlimited possibility begins.

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A Quick Change of Tires Makes a World of Difference

Somewhere in Minnesota a long time ago a friend who worked at several bike shops around the Twin Cities told me, “Don’t buy the bike with the top flight component group.  Pick a similar bike with the next step down and spend the difference on a kick ass set of wheels.”

His contention was the even the best OEM wheelsets were essentially boat anchors and a lot of OEM tire choices were mediocre at best.  Over the course of the following twenty or so years—damn I am getting old—this advice has proven itself time and time again.

At the present moment, I am not quite ready to upgrade the entire wheelset and tire package on my new-ish Breezer Radar.  It is a combination of cost and indecision that is delaying any move to make a major upgrade.

While the metal may stay the same the rubber is in for a change.  The Breezer came with WTB All Terrain 700c x 37c meats:

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These tires are so non-descript as to be almost invisible.  I put about two hundred miles of mixed pavement and crushed limestone/early season sand riding on them before deciding that it was time for a change.  The motivation was mostly that the bike felt

My preferred tire of choice over the past few seasons was the Clement X’Plor USH.  Apparently, no one informed me that the company that used the Clement name—an old cycling brand owned by Italian tire giant Pirelli—was switching to its own brand Donnelly.  The good news is that the tread remains the same:

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Weight is a big deal here.  I am no weight weenie as an overweight middle aged white male, but reducing rotating mass is the one place where you can notice a difference.  The WTB All Terrains were wire bead and had an average weight of 18.5 ounces as measured on my own scale.  The Donnelly X’Plor USH are aramid folding bead and has an average weight of 13.3 ounces.  Of note is that there was a half an ounce discrepancy between the two X’Plor USH tires.  I do not know what that was about.  Over ten ounces of weight reduction at the outermost portion of the wheel is a big deal.

My prior set of Clement X’Plor USH 700c x 35c has thousands of miles on the odometer.  I found the tire to be durable and great riding for a variety of conditions that I find here frequently in eastern Iowa.

I am already over fifty miles into the new tires and loving the change.  Weight is one part of the equation when it comes to tire choice, but there is an overall quality of ride that also matters greatly even if it is highly subjective.  That is why there are so many tire choices from so many companies.  What I love to ride and what you love to ride may be totally different, but neither of us is wrong in our choice.  The minute we start making absolute assertions about what is the correct way to do anything on a bike other than ride as much as possible we become the worst characters in the sub-culture.  No one wants to be like the roadies of yore who would stare in disdain at anyone who came to a group ride in mismatched kit.

Interestingly, Donnelly has a slightly different version of this tire: Strada USH 700c x 40c.  The trade is a little more pavement focused with less aggressive lugs along the sides, but the smooth center track remains and with a wider casing this might make an excellent tires for those days when you spend a lot of time on pavement just getting to the untracked gravel.

Things are finally starting to get dialed in on the Breezer and the rest of the riding season looks bright.

104 BCD Unicorn

Over the past two seasons of riding I have fallen in love with the single chainring setup on the old dirtwagon.   With the arrival of my new Breezer Radar I was thrust back into the world of dual chainrings up front and the horror of a front derailleur.

In all honesty the dual chainring has not been that big of a deal save for the annoying rubbing of the chain against the front derailleur’s cage.  I had begun to take for granted the blessed silence of a single narrow wide chainring doing the duty up front.

The plan all along was to migrate to a 1x setup on my new bike.  It would likely be something similar to what I installed on the dirtwagon using SRAM mountain bike components on a drop bar bike.  The only fly in the ointment is that my current crankset has a bold circle diameter (BCD) of 104.  Spend some time online with Race Face or Wolftooth and you will discover that most 104 BCD narrow wide chainrings top out at 36 teeth.  I want to have something with 40 or 42 teeth.  It is like I am scouring the land in search of a mythical chimera.

I followed rumors of such a chainring to the deepest corners of the internet.  Ever heard of Amber Bikes?  I had not until I spent time checking out the Lithuanian company’s website.  It looked like this might be a winner, but the price put me off and so did the internet comments about slow shipping.

In my time of need and desperation I turned to AliExpress.  If you want to see what the wild wild west of manufacturing, intellectual property theft, and just plain strange capitalism looks like head over the AliBaba’s e-commerce portal.  If you thought Amazon had a problem with fake products you have not seen anything until you have checked out AliExpress.

However, there are a lot of companies producing no-label bicycle components like this little beauty:

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This is a 42 tooth, 104 BCD chainring delivered to my door for approximately $20.

How good is it? I have no clue, but considering that most of the problems with chainrings come from difficulties in shifting there should be less chance of this occurring since the drivetrain will not be shifting up front.

What about Wolftooth or Race Face or some other mainline manufacturer?  I would have loved to gone with one of these companies’ narrow wide chainrings.  However, none of them made what I wanted in 104 BCD.  Maybe as more compact road cranks use this BCD or other people repurpose bikes with cranks that use this BCD we will see such a product but until that day I am forced to go elsewhere.

Updates to follow as I make the drivetrain changes over the coming month or so.