Category Archives: Mobility

What is This Saddle?

Somewhere there is a product manager for Wilderness Trail Bikes getting a bonus for having cut out anything resembling comfort in this saddle:

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A ride on this saddle is like experiencing one of the levels of hell in Dante’s Inferno.  My first ride was a short ~16 mile out and back on a paved recreational trail.  Smooth asphalt and concrete the whole way at a nice 16 to 17 mile per hour pace.  Nothing special and nothing extreme.  Oh boy did my rear end hurt at the end.

I chalked it up to the first ride of the season, which is always a somewhat tortuous experience as winter’s rust is shaken off.  Seriously, I feel like some kind of waylaid creature summoned when the weather warms up—kind of, if you know what spring has been like in Iowa this year—who breaks free of magical stone shackles.  No seriously, how can I spend the winter working out five and six days a week yet suffer mightily on the first easy ride of the season?  It’s like I should stop trying.

A subsequent ride confirmed my worst fears.  This saddle was designed to drive traffic into bike shops by users looking to upgrade to something that would not turn their most personal of areas into overcooked brisket.  Thankfully the solution to this problem was in my garage already: the Selle Anatomica Titanico X on the old dirtwagon.  Much better:

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A human being interfaces with a bicycle at three contact points: pedals, handlebar, and saddle.  At each contact point there are almost infinite options for one to choose from, but the saddle stands out for products to really suck.  Maybe it is personal preference or just the many ways our asses can be shaped.

On a related note, I had forgotten just how much fiddling was required to get a new bike dialed in.  After you have ridden thousands of miles on an old bike these little details are generally already taken care of and you just throw a leg over to get riding.  On a new bike you are fiddling with saddled tilt and height, fore and aft position, SPD cleat alignment, and the list goes on.  At this rate I do not think I will have everything locked down until well into May.

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The Missing Link in Local Trails

The Cedar Valley Nature Trail is an amazing recreational trail here in eastern Iowa.  Travelling from just north of Cedar Rapids in Hiawatha over 50 miles north to Waterloo it is justifiably a gem for those of us addicted to two wheeled recreation.

Notice I said travelling north.  To the south things are decidedly less amazing.  Paved trails exist throughout Cedar Rapids and extend as far south as the small town of Ely.  In Ely things peter out as you approach the Linn County-Johnson County line.  I say peter out when what I really mean to say is end abruptly.  As in the trail literally comes to an end at dirt with nothing more.

Plans have been in the discussion and preparation stages for what seems like a decade.  Now, this spring—despite the horrible weather—construction has finally begun!

It will take two years or more to complete.  Bet on the “or more” as delays are almost inevitable with projects like this and Johnson County is notorious for meddlesome parties to become involved in delaying projects for spurious reasons.  Nonetheless, the future is bright as this section of trail south of Ely into Solon will connect the trail systems of Cedar Rapids and Iowa City for the first time in forever.

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You can take a look at the trail map of the Iowa City-Coralville-North Liberty area and imagine a purple line extending from the intersection of Highway 382 and Ely Road NE into the town of Ely.  Now merge that with the trail map of the Cedar Rapids-Hiawatha-Marion area to get an idea of what a combined system will look like.

It is my hope that this combination becomes a catalyst to complete the connections to orphaned sections of trails throughout the area.

Now, if spring would actually get here we could really get to riding.  How bad is it?  It’s April 19th and there was measurable snow on the ground this morning.  Seriously, what is this?  Minnesota?

In Praise of the Humble Square Taper Cartridge Bottom Bracket

Bottom brackets used to be easy.  In the halcyon days of the 1990s when bicycles were simple and Trek Y bikes were all the rage for some reason there was one thing that we did not spend a lot of time noodling on: bottom brackets.

If you needed a new bottom bracket because your current bottom bracket turned with all the smoothness of a sanding drum you went to the bike shop and had one installed.  The choices were cartridge or open cup, Shimano or someone else, and that was about it.  Everything was square taper interface and you just had to figure out shell size and spindle length, e.g. match what you had unless you had issues with the chain line for some reason.

Starting with Shimano’s Octalink and followed quickly by the “open source” ISIS drive, which is an unfortunate name given current events in the Middle East, on to the modern day with external bearing, MegaEXO, PF30, BB30, Giga-X-Pipe, Ultra Torque…my head hurts.

Having owned one bike with an ISIS drive bottom bracket, which was a self-destructing piece of junk good for about six weeks of hard riding, and another bike with an external bearing bottom bracket, which was good for about a season of riding if all of the bolts holding things together stayed torqued down, I can say that I miss the days of the humble square taper bottom bracket.  Do not even get me started on those squeak machines that are PF30 bottom brackets.

Well, my new Breezer Radar Expert came equipped with that vestige of the past—an honest to goodness square taper cartridge bottom bracket.  It is so decidedly old school it should be on the poster with Will Ferrell.  I am almost tempted to head out and buy about a half dozen Shimano UN55 bottom brackets like a hipster hoarding a soon-to-be discontinued flavor of LaCroix.  Seriously, six of those things should last me until the end of times.

Surely, someone out there will tell me how an external bearing bottom bracket is better because of a certain percentage increased stiffness which in turns leads to more power being put into the rear wheel.  By the same token, if I lost twenty pounds and stopped drinking beer I would be that much more efficient in the saddle as well but life would be less worth living under those circumstances.  The true beauty, in my opinion, of the growth in “adventure” cycling is that the singled minded focus on efficiency and speed has been replaced by a more holistic ethos that focuses on the general experience of riding a bicycle.

With a square taper cartridge bottom bracket I do not even think about the component.  Should that not be the mission of something as critical as the bottom bracket?  I do not want it to come loose or squeak.  I want it to spin freely and keep out gunk.  In which of those desires does the square taper cartridge bottom bracket not equal or exceed the more modern alternatives?  Also consider that I can buy a Shimano UN55 bottom bracket for less than $20.

I am sure that I am fighting a rear guard action against the agents of “progress” when it comes to bottom bracket preference.  However, it feels like a fight worth having when it seems that the “better” alternatives have done little to advance the technology while creating a slew of problems that did not exist prior.

What are your thoughts?

There is a New Bike in the Garage

After much deliberation and the uncovering of a sweet deal at a Performance Bike retail location I have a new bike in my garage:

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It’s a Breezer Radar Expert.  All in, I picked it up for a little over $600 which seems like a steal compared to bikes I have bought in the past.  If you are a cyclist from the 1990s, especially a mountain biker, spending just north of six hundred dollars for a bicycle that is reliable and competent seems amazing.  I remember there being component groups that were cobbled together and barely worked when new let alone a few months down the road.

Also, if you are a historian of the bicycle industry the name Breezer should be familiar.  Joe Breeze, the name behind Breezer, was one of the founding fathers of mountain biking along with other luminaries like Gary Fisher.  The company that makes Breezer bikes today is not the same bespoke operation from the 1970s through 1990s, but it retains some of the mystique.

It checks off almost every criteria I had for a new bicycle:

  1. Steel frame—This is a personal preference. I ride steel bicycles.
  2. Disc brakes—One nod to modernity. One ride on a friend’s disc equipped bike converted me in an instant.  One ride in inclement weather with finicky cantilevers made me actively seek out a replacement for the dirt wagon.
  3. External headset—Chris King had a famous online post about why integrated headsets were essentially the devil reincarnated as a bicycle design trend. The world seems to be going to integrated and zero stack systems despite the proven longevity and maintainability of good ol’ external headsets.  Plus, is there a cooler looking component than a Chris King headset?
  4. Threaded bottom bracket shell—You can take your creaky press fit bottom bracket and enjoy the disharmonious symphony on group rides. I will take my old school threaded bottom bracket shell and its quiet labor any day of the week.
  5. Non-integrated seatpost binder—This seems like a trivial bit of frame design, but dealing with problems related to integrated binder bolts will drive even the most patient person to question the very nature of their existence. If the non-integrated seatpost binder starts giving you trouble just replace the damn thing.  Five minutes of work and no frustration.

The components are nothing special—Shimano Sora all the way around with some OEM wheels, WTB tires, SRAM crank, etc.  However, for a little more than $600 I am on the road riding which is in the neighborhood of what I was looking at spending on a frame and fork combo.  Sure, the frame is not as good as the model I was considering purchasing.  How great of a difference would it have been and would I have noticed?

Now I am able to upgrade the bits on the bike on my schedule.  This equates to buying the upgrades when I find them on sale and replacing components piece meal.  Thankfully most bikes these days do not spec pedals because it is such a personal choice.  I usually go with Shimano M520s.  I think that for an average price of around $30 you cannot go wrong.  However, for Christmas I was gifted a pair of Shimano PD-M8020s which are normally outside of my price range.  I am fairly stoked about the stainless axle and bearings that can be replaced because I have chewed through bearings on the M520s.

One change that I made immediately was to swap out the stock bar for a Salsa Cowchipper 44cm from my previous gravel bike.  The stock bar was quite narrow owing to the smaller frame size and not compatible with my broad shoulders.  I am giving the drop bar a second chance since the geometry of this bike is much less aggressive and I feel that it will put less stress of my hands.  Also, I put gel vibration pads under a cushy EVA bar tape to hopefully help out with some of the hand pain issues that I was having on longer rides.

Today was the first day that I have gotten out to ride and…it hurt.  I also forgot how much work it is to dial in a new bike.  It is going to take a few rides just to feel comfortable on the new bike but it is close as is right now.  A more comprehensive report is forthcoming.

Get out there and ride!

MPG (Beer Equivalent)

The comments were lobbed across the common table at the local taproom:

How many miles per gallon do you get on your bike?

Is it really that efficient to ride a bike?

And so on and so forth.  The topic of conversation was the next step in the #myPersonalParis evolution.  In order to reduce my personal emissions of greenhouse gasses I have set the goal of riding my bike to work three days a week through the fall.  Sixty percent of my commuting trips by bike might seem a little aggressive, but I feel that doing more than half will be a sort of tipping point in my daily behaviors.  It’s a theory and I am going to test that theory in practice.

The miles per gallon question is a constant because there is always some smart ass in the room who says, “You aren’t carbon free because you are breathing.”  Sure enough, but I had to be breathing anyway so I consider that a moot point.

However, let’s spend a moment to ruminate on the relative efficiency of riding a bike to work versus commuting in my truck.

A gallon of gasoline contains 7,594 kilocalories of energy and a gallon of e85 contains 5,463 kilocalories of energy. [1]  On average my truck—a Ford F-150 equipped with a flex-fuel V-8 engine—achieves 15 miles per gallon using e85 fuel.  Simple math says that my truck uses approximately 364 kilocalories to travel one mile.

What about the bike.  Based on over 1,110 miles of riding tracked via a Garmin vivoactive HR the kilocalories expended to travel one miles via a bicycle is approximately 65.  The range is anywhere from 60 to 75 with the high end representing some serious pedal mashing on a long distance ride.

Based purely in terms of kilocalories the bicycle is around six times more efficient just to transport myself from point A to point B.

How does that translate to miles per gallon?  I do not care because I am not fueled by gasoline.  Beer on the other hand?  The average pint of beer—not the light lager swill—contains 200 kilocalories.  A gallon therefore contains 1,600 kilocalories.  [2] Therefore, I achieve approximately 25 miles per gallon beer equivalent or MPGBE.

It’s a ridiculous comparison, but sometimes we need a little folly.

 

Beware the Drop Bar Mafia

I tried.  I really tried.

First, I tried to find a level of comfort or rather less discomfort with the compact bend drop bar that came stock on my cyclocross bike many years ago.  Ugh.  It was nothing less than an exercise in shifting my hands constantly to find a position where something did not ache.

Next, following the advice of many fellow riders in the area I went with a Salsa Cowchipper.  The flared drops and increased width seemed to do the trick along with some generous bar tape and gel padding underneath that bar tape.

I thought this was the ticket.  Riding in the drops was much more comfortable with the flare and the extra cushy bar tape/gel padding combo seemed to dull the pain of long rides on the tops.  Over time—as in thousands of miles the past couple of summers—several problems reared their ugly heads.

I was never comfortable in the drops for anything other than a moment or two.  I was never comfortable with the drops or hoods being the only place to grab a handful of lever.  This is not a big deal on wide open country roads or trails, but in town surprises are many and if you are not in the drops you might not be able to brake in time.  At least that was the problem for me.

Riding on the tops was okay, never truly comfortable but better than being in the drops.  However, with no accessible brake levers I always felt like was riding somewhere between secure and without hands.  Call it the mountain biker in me.

With a handful of scavenged parts from my garage and those of a friend I went all-in on a flat bar conversion:

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The Answer Protaper Expert bar is 685mm in width and has a nice brown finish.  Does anyone else remember when bars came in black or silver only?  Maybe that is just me.  The bar has an eight degree sweep to the back.  The bar ends are some cheap Titecs that would have cost an arm and a leg in the 1990s because of the carbon fiber construction.  Grips are repurposed Ergons from another mountain bike build that has been languishing in my garage for the better part of two years.

The result looks a little odd.  It is almost like the gawky half-brother of a NORBA cross country rig from the early days of mountain bike racing.

The drop bar mafia is coming for me.  I can feel it.  Around here fellow riders have already looked somewhat askew at my dirt wagon—the half-kidding nickname given to me well-loved and well-worn bike—as if it were some unwelcome chimera among the carbon fiber matchy matchy set that seems to dominate the weekend population.  The best part is that I just do not give a flying f*ck.  For the first time in at least three years I am comfortable in the saddle.  That is all that matters.

Spring Suffering

Suffering comes in two flavors during the spring: end of season suffering for skiers and beginning of season suffering for cyclists.  Unfortunately, I find myself suffering on both ends of those seasons.  Damn.

Spring skiing sounds like fun, right?  Warmer temperatures, laid back crowds, decent base…blah, blah, blah.  For the first couple of hours everything holds true.  The runs are great and the kids are happy.  Sometime around noon as the sun bakes off any cloud cover you slowly descend into a slushy hell known as the last run of the day.

The crowds wake up from their jaeger bomb comas for the two runs they will do for the day before going back to an après scene focused on even more jaeger bombs, but not before completely chewing up all of the decent runs and clogging the lift lines.  Seriously bro, do you even lift?  Sorry, I could not help myself.

Spring skiing starts off with so much potential and ends up being a sufferfest of slogging through snow more reminiscent of mashed potatoes than anything else.  At least my kids do not complain about cold fingers and toes.  So I have that going for me.

Spring biking is never meant to be fun and no one is really going to try and convince you otherwise.  The weather is usually leaning toward cold and wet.  The wind is never blowing less than ten to fifteen miles an hour with gusts of double those numbers.  And your legs are somehow not prepared for even a light day despite a winter of working out and skiing.

You spend the first few rides wiping snot every five minutes, huffing cold air like an asthmatic weed smoker, and generally struggling to push a gear that would be light in the middle of July.  What the hell spring?  At some point during every early spring ride you ask yourself why you do this and why aren’t you inside watching Netflix?

Why?  Because we are masochists who need to suffer in order to feel alive.  None of this activity is necessary to our living yet it is essential to our happiness.  We are smug in looking across the bar at a fellow skier with sun burnt cheeks and a wiped out thousand yard stare at the end of a long day plowing through snow cone conditions.  We are a member of that tribe.  We wave stealthily to the other hardy cyclists out in these early days of spring knowing that their lungs are struggling to suck down air just like us.  We are bonded in our suffering.

It is easy to go out when the skies are clear, the temps are in the teens, and there is an inch of fresh snow on the front side of the mountain.   It is easy to get in the saddle when the sun is out, the wind is mild, and your neighbors are out mowing their lawns.  What defines us as members of a different tribe is when we commit to the suffering willingly.