Category Archives: bikes

A Quick Note on My Revised Gravel Drivetrain

Coming into the 2020 riding season I needed to do some serious revision to my daily rider.

A new wheelset was in order as I had just about burned through the life of the OEM wheelset.  Plus, the OEM wheelset was a boat anchor.

My drivetrain also required a refresh.  Building on prior modifications—carrying over the SRAM GX 10 speed shifter and rear derailleur from my prior ride—I set out to complete the transition to a 1x 10 speed adventure setup.

In a prior season I was forced to go to a 1x setup a little earlier than I had wanted due to a strange accident where my chain skipped off the chainring, bent the front derailleur ninety degrees, cracked a water bottle cage, and generally made a mess of things.  My solution at the time was to swap out the double rings on the SRAM Via Centro crankset with a “made in China” narrow wide ring.  The BCD on the SRAM Via Centro crankset was odd, so I had to machine some material away on the new chainring to make everything work.  Thousands of trouble-free miles ensued.

Over the winter I noticed a crack developing on my crankset near one of the bolt holes.  Whoever designed the SRAM Via Centro crankset probably did not intend for it to be used for thousands of miles in a modified single ring setup.

As a 1x convert I knew that whatever replaced my Frankenstein setup was going to be similar in nature.  The problem I discovered early on in the process was that my threaded bottom bracket was 73mm wide as opposed to 68mm wide.  Why is this a problem?  It is not hard to find cranksets for 73mm wide bottom bracket shells.  It just happens that most of those cranksets are mountain bike oriented so the chainrings are generally in the low 30 tooth range and the BCD does not make it easy to find a chainring in the 38 to 42 tooth range.

The good folks at Goldfinch Cyclery in Cedar Rapids—my go to source for solving bicycle related problems—came up with a great solution:

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The setup is a Race Face Ride crankset with a Race Face Team outboard bearing bottom bracket with an Easton Cinch 42 tooth chainring.  The Cinch direct mount system gives me a lot of options for changing the tooth count of my chainrings.  After this season I am probably going to install a 40 or 38 tooth chainring.  I have found that I rarely use the smallest three cogs on my cassette (11-36 10 speed), but I would like some extra range at the low end to assist in climbing the hills of northeast Iowa.  It is the only time I miss having a second front chainring.  Wolftooth Components has just what I want.

I was not thrilled to be moving to an outboard bearing crankset as I had a lot of longevity issues with a prior SRAM GPX outboard bearing setup.  It seemed to eat bottom brackets by about 1,500 miles without fail.  However, I have over 1,000 trouble free miles on this setup and I see no problems developing in the near future.

Maybe I will even give my bike a wash sometime soon.  Although I consider the accumulated grime the sign of a good season.

1,000 Mile Tire Check-In

I cannot believe I have already put over 1,000 miles in the saddle this season.  All of this time stuck at home because of coronavirus is at least good for something.

At the beginning of the season the good folks at Goldfinch Cyclery in Cedar Rapids hooked me up with a set of WTB Venture 700x40c blackwall tires set up as tubeless on my new wheelset.

In terms of ride quality I have been very happy with how the tires have performed on everything from smooth pavement to messed up gravel.  Compared to my prior tires—Donnelly X’Plor USH 700x35c—the WTB Ventures are more compliant.  This is a big deal when you are staring at a twenty mile return trip home in a nice springtime headwind in Iowa.  Trust me, it happens way more than you would think possible.  People from the arctic may have many different names for snow and ice, but in Iowa we have a lot of different names for the wind.  Not all of them are safe for work, either.

For a set of tires the quality of the rise is one factor in deciding the overall rating.  The other major factor is wear.  Below is a progressions showing the tire wear for the front and rear tire at 500 miles and 1,000 miles:

Tire Wear 1000 Miles

As you can see from the image progression above the front tire is looking good, but the rear tire is starting to show some serious wear.  This image is fairly indicative of the tire’s condition overall, but there are some spots where the tread is even more worn down.

The rear tire is suffering from gravel pattern baldness.  It might be the high ration of pavement to gravel early in the season.  So far I would guess that my riding has been split 70-30 pavement to gravel.  As the conditions dry out it will migrate to a more evenly split mix.

My plan is to rotate the tires and hopefully get another 1,000 miles out of the set before having to thing about replacements.  At $60 per tire the level of wear is a little disconcerting.  On the other hand, maybe I will just call them semi-slicks and ride them as such.

Stuff I Like: Thumb Over Grip System (TOGS)

The one bonus to the current lack of travel options is that I have been spending a lot of time in the early part of the cycling season actually on my bicycle.  If the weather is even slightly favorable I will clip in and head out for a ride.  It is just about the only thing keeping me sane right now as everyone in my house is going a little stir crazy after more than six weeks of isolation.

For the current cycling season I changed up a lot of things on my bicycle.  New wheels.  New drivetrain.  New cockpit.

Anyone familiar with my struggles over the years—compact drop bar to flared drop bar to flat bar—will not be surprised that I am trying again to find the combination that feels right.

Previously, I set my handlebars up with a carbon flat bar, Ergon grips, and stubby bar ends.  This was a cockpit very similar to my mountain bikes in the late-1990s.  I enjoyed the different hand positions afforded by bar ends and I did spend a lot of time with my hands “splayed out” to combat the dreaded numbness that comes with spending hours in the saddle.  However, it was never quite “right.”

Enter the Thumb Over Grip System (TOGS):

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It is hard to see from the image but the TOGS are a little stub that extends out from the handlebar to give you a place to rest or hook your thumb.  Doing so allows you to unwrap your hands from the grips and achieve a different grip position without sacrificing a measure of control.  Sure, you could do something similar without TOGS, but you risk your hands slipping fairly easily.  Trust me, I have had it happen.

Installation of the “flexible” version is a snap.  You do not even need to remove your grips because the TOGS can be slipped over your bars and screwed in place.  It’s a no risk installation, although with most grips being of the lock-on variety anymore I do not know how much this helps.  Reposition your controls and off you go.

After about three hundred miles of early season riding I consider myself a fan of TOGS.  As someone who does not ride with padded gloves or gloves of any sort unless it is cold outside I appreciate the multiplicity of positions I can grasp without sacrificing control.

A bonus is that by forgoing bar ends I can add a set of pogies for cold season riding and still maintain a lot of different and positions.  Remember, I dislike gloves.  Win, win baby!

NOTE: I bought the TOGS with my own money, installed them myself, and use them every ride.  I received nothing from the manufacturer to write this piece.  I am not pimping products like a B-grade influencer on Instagram.

A New Set of Wheels for My Daily Ride

Being stuck at home is the perfect time to conduct a major overhaul of my daily ride.  The Breezer Radar that I bought a couple of years ago has already been through some major changes since the day it arrived on my doorstep.

In keeping with tradition, I felt that it was time to hit the reset switch and improve some things.  This entire process was also caused by some “cabin fever shopping” during the shut-in time over the past two weeks due to COVID-19.

The single biggest change that I undertook was a new wheelset.  The stock wheelset on the Radar was fairly mediocre.  This is to be expected in an OEM wheelset on a bicycle that came with a value build component set.

I went with a wheelset from online retailer Bicycle Wheel Warehouse.  The set that I ordered was BWW Trail Pro 29er Custom Build.  My set was built with the Speed Tuned Super 6 quick release hubs, Shimano freehub for a 10 speed cassette, and DT Competition 2.0/1.8 spokes.  For a little bling, I went with blue alloy nipples:

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Yeah, it cost a little more but you only live once.  All in, with a 20% discount coupon, I paid just under $300 for the wheelset.

The tires are WTB Venture 700×40.  This tread is a little wider than the Donnelly X’Plor USH 700×35 tires that were installed on the previous wheelset.  I went with something wider and a little more aggressive in the tread department because I felt that the tread profile on the USHs was a little squirrely on the rough stuff around here.  Wanting to spend some more time on more remote routes this year led me to a more off-road focused tread pattern.

The bigger change is moving to a tubeless setup. The good people at Goldfinch Cyclery in the NewBo district of Cedar Rapids got me rolling on tubeless rubber.  Sure, I could have done it myself but I was a little intimidated to make the effort.  After more than thirty years of being used to tubes it will take a little bit of time to teach me some new tricks.  Here they are ready to roll:

You will notice that I removed the decals from Bicycle Wheel Warehouse, so now the wheelset looks like a boring old OEM wheelset.  Minus the blue nipples of course.  There are also some other changes to my bicycle that you might notice.  I will explain at a later date.

The wheelset works with quick releases as opposed to thru axles because that is what my frame can accommodate and the disc rotor mounts via the 6 bolt standard as opposed to centerlock.  A lot of people advised me to go with a centerlock hub and use an adapter, but I sort of despise adapters.  Plus, this wheelset is not going to get moved to another bicycle so choosing specifications based on its requirements alone is a safe bet.

All in—wheels, tires, sealant, cassette, skewers, rotors—the new wheelset came in at a total of 3,810 grams (1,630 grams front and 2,180 grams rear).  This compares with an all in weight—including tubes as opposed to sealant—for my old wheelset of 4,495 grams (1,750 grams front and 2,745 grams rear).  That is a ~15% decrease in rotational weight without breaking the bank or doing anything exotic.

So, for less weight I get wider tires on a wider rim without having to deal with tubes.  This might be the biggest win in a long time.

It’s going to be a hard few weeks waiting for things to dry out in eastern Iowa.  I so want to see how this revamp rolls down the trails.

 

Note: I bought these wheels with my own money and received nothing in return from any of the companies mentioned.

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.

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.