Category Archives: Mobility

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.

Lessons Learned from Commuting by Bicycle in 2016

Here is what I learned this year from all of my time in the saddle back and forth to work:

  • Rain sucks. It sucks worse than the cold or heat.  You can prepare with rain gear and fenders, but you are going to end up with road grit on everything and in places you cannot imagine.  Also, people suddenly forget how to drive when it rains.  What is up with that?
  • The miles will accumulate faster than you think. I traded in a six mile automobile commute for a seven mile bicycle commute.  The extra distance is a personal choice to avoid some nasty intersections and to take advantage of off-grade trails.  Every time I ride my bike to work I am putting in just under an hour of saddle time.  How many people do you know are able to squeeze in an hour ride every day?
  • You do not commute as many miles by bike as you did in your car. You avoid making unnecessary side trips or quick errands over lunch, choosing to consolidate those trips on the weekend or those days when you actually drive into work.  Like the Monday after putting on over 200 miles of mixed road/gravel riding in redonkulous heat and humidity.  Your rear end sent you a check for the day’s cost in driving as a thank you note.
  • You spend less money. Yes, you spend less money on transportation but I am actually talking about stuff like lunch.  As you do not find yourself running out for lunch or errands, you reconsider a lot of impulse purchases.  Plus, you have to carry those purchases home on a bike so you weigh the benefit fairly heavily.
  • You escape the racing paradigm. Bicyclists are defined by their slavish devotion to the trends of racing, particularly when it comes to road cyclists and the trends of European based tours.  Marketers understand this and it’s why people pay to slather logos on near anorexic athletes punishing themselves for two weeks in rural European locales.  All for a chance to sell a middle aged American professional an uncomfortable bike and matching kit.  A bicycle commuter does not care because racing is not their paradigm.  It’s about comfort, reliability, and safety.  A little extra speed is not worth compromising the other three.
  • The parking is the best.
  • The smiles are free.
  • Winter is coming

The commuting season in 2016 may be winding down, but I am already looking toward 2017.  Big goals for commuting by bike in 2017.  For now, I am looking forward to powder days.

Does it Really Cost $0.54 per Mile to Drive?

The IRS allows a person filing their taxes to claim a value per mile driven of $0.54 in 2016. The rate is actually down from $0.575 in 2015.  Gotta’ love those half cent increments.

This figure is supposed to represent the fixed and variable costs of operating an average automobile.  That is to say that it is to be inclusive of expenses like gasoline, maintenance, and insurance in addition to the depreciation of the asset as it is driven.

This gets me to thinking about the cost of owning and operating a motor vehicle for daily purposes.  If it really costs $0.54 per mile to operate my motor vehicle then I am watching a dollar bill fly out of the tailpipe, metaphorically speaking, about every two miles I drive down the road.  I could have gone with an analogy about change jangling out the tailpipe but change seems like such an anachronism anymore. Paper money is probably getting to be like that for certain age brackets.  I digress.

In general, we do not think about the costs of operating a motor vehicle in this way.  We tend to focus on the price of gas and near term maintenance expenses like oil changes or replacement tires.  Occasionally we think about expenses like insurance, especially after an accident, or license plate fees, when the government seeks to squeeze a little bit more out of everyone because companies like Apple do not really pay taxes.

Considering the average motor vehicle commuter in the U.S. travels approximate 15 miles to work one way for an approximate 30 miles round trip, we are spending on average approximately $16 to drive to work every day.  Individual results may vary.

Think about $16 per day to drive to work not counting trips to the shopping mall or grocery store during the weekend.  $16 per day for more than 200 days per year.  It’s kind of insane.

It is even more insane when you consider the tangential effects of these $16 commutes.  On average, Americans are more sedentary and spending time in a car waiting out traffic is not helping anyone’s derriere become shapely.  The environmental costs are huge, especially if you get beyond just thinking about the tailpipe emissions and consider the leakage of polluting fluids onto the ground, the embodied energy in the manufacturing of motor vehicles, or just the sheer amount of infrastructure we have devoted to driving in the U.S.  Hell, planners budget an area of approximately of 162 square feet per parking space when planning a building’s infrastructure versus the average cubicle size of approximately 75 square feet for the average worker.

Yep, your car gets more space at the office than you do.  Now do you feel like a valued employee?  Dig it.

Hybrid and electric cars do not help because that just shifts some of the costs from the variable to the fixed side, e.g. a higher sale price in exchange for higher effective mileage leading to less fuel purchased, and does nothing to ameliorate the tangential impacts, e.g. you are still sitting on your ass in traffic if you are in a Daewoo or a Tesla.  One just has better lumbar support.

The answer lies in subverting the paradigm.  Trade in your lazy ass motor vehicle commute for a two wheeled rock star commute on a bike.  Yeah, yeah another hippie in the blogosphere telling you to “go by bike.”  As if the world needs another e-hippie extolling the virtuous bicycle and its magical commuting properties.  You know what?  Until more people are riding bikes to work the world does need another person promoting the two wheeled miracle.

Bicycles are not a fancy solution to the transportation problem like subways, streetcars, bus rapid transit, autonomous cars, steampunk vacuum tubes, or whatever else someone has cooked up in the evil laboratory of urban planning alchemy.  Bicycles are the cockroaches or urban planning and transportation infrastructure.  Bicycles can survive with little or no assistance, taking over the margins, and thriving well after better funded alternatives have been shown to be nothing more than Potemkin transportation.

However, getting back in the saddle again—cue the only slightly ironic rock anthem “Back in the Saddle” by AC/DC—is a personal choice and it is not something that you will get to talk about with the cool people at work.  The cool people just spent $35,000 on a Chevrolet Volt because it’s electric and gas.  Congratulations, you just bought the Snackwells of 21st Century motor vehicles.  Just think about pocketing a dollar bill every time you replace 2 miles of motor vehicle commuting with 2 miles of bicycle commuting.

Down and Dirty Bike Rack

If you own a pickup truck you will be quite familiar with the world of accessories designed for these all-purpose utility vehicles.  You will also be familiar with how expensive accessories have become for pickup trucks, which is to be expected when you can easily order a pickup truck from the factory with a price tag north of $50,000.  Who in their right mind would consider a pickup truck with leather and a sunroof?  Just saying.

Spending north of $300 on a bike rack seemed a little crazy.  So, like any self-respecting suburban male with a garage full of tools, a stack of miscellaneous wood lying about, and an Amazon Prime account I got to work on a homebrewed solution.

From the aforementioned Amazon I ordered three quick release block fork mounts.  Total cost at the time was ~$35.  Now, I did not need to worry about thru axles or anything more exotic than a standard 9MM quick release skewer.  Your experience may vary and so may mine when I build up my next gravel grinder.

Next, I cut a piece of wood from a 2×4 to fit across the bed of my pickup truck after the wheel wells.  With the block fork mounts closer to the tailgate I can just roll a bike toward the cab and secure the fork without having to actually get into the truck.  The block fork mounts took all of five minutes to install with three captive washer wood screws each.

The results speak for themselves:

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Three bikes with full size wheels (26” in the case of my wife’s bike and 700C for my daughter and I) and quick releases fit easily.  As you can tell by the image I offset the middle fork mount block to make room for my son’s bike, which does not have a quick release for the front wheel and thus stays assembled on trips to the trailhead.

All in all, minus my time and materials I already had lying about the garage, I was into this for the ~$35 I spend on block fork mounts and about twenty minutes of total working time.

Missing the Point…by a Country Mile

A vast amount of ink has been spilled by the bicycle press recently in regard to the proliferation of single ring road bicycles aimed at the endurance or adventure category of riders.  Traditional road cyclists scoff at the notion of 10 or 11 sprocket cassettes with 36 to 42 tooth large cogs and relatively wide spaced steps between cogs.

In response to the rise of single ring drivetrains, road-centric cyclists and commentators spend hours extolling the virtues of traditional multi-ring cranksets and close ratio cogsets.  Trust me, if you mention this topic to a cyclist bedecked in Rapha gear you will get to hear him—it’s always a dude by the way—berate you for even thinking about having steps in your rear cog be greater than whatever percentage was deigned by Merckx or Anquetil decades ago.  Although I have to believe that any of those legends would have scoffed at such technical debate, preferring to just ride hard.

The people I know who have gone “over to the dark side” with single ring rigs setup for endurance road or gravel grinding or fireroad flying or whatever you want to call it come from many walks of life with regard to cycling.  Some, like me, came from the mountain bike world and now find a plethora of opportunities to ride on gravel in our new homes where trail networks are somewhat sparse.  We are refugees from a cycling niche where bicycles are of ever increasing complexity and expense.  Where once mountain bikes were cobbled together from various disciplines these machines now resemble human powered motocross bikes.  Red Bull Rampage may be an attraction for some, but for many of us we felt “extremed out” of the mountain bike scene years ago.

Others have come from the road world where group rides have become microcosms of high schools with cliques and socially acceptable behavioral patterns only known to a select few tastemakers who are able to pass judgment on all others.  These riders no longer want to worry about having perfectly matched kit that also happens to be color coordinated with the bar tape and saddle on their bikes.  These are riders who no longer want to talk about the latest Strava achievement.

The single ring phenomenon, to me at least, is about simplifying the ride.  It’s about crafting a bike that is perfectly suited to my needs.  It’s about creating something that is unique and that someone walking into a bike shop with a high credit limit cannot duplicate.

It’s about not worrying about pace and accepting that you might only be going fifteen miles an hour, but you don’t care because the smile on your face is ear to ear.  It’s about the silence of your drivetrain and not worrying about trimming your front derailleur to cut out any chain rub.  It’s about the satisfying crunch of limestone gravel beneath fat adventure rubber.

It’s about getting back to what bicycles were when you were a kid and two wheels seemed to open up the whole world in a way that was incomparable before.

Mind the Pedals

I was on a never ending quest to banish noise from my bicycle. This quest led me down the path of a single ring conversion, which necessitated a complete overhaul of my drivetrain because I wanted to take advantage of the benefits of a clutched derailleur. No chain slap for me anymore.

The final bit of noise I could not eradicate emanated from the area of the crank. It was consistently appearing at the same spot in the pedal stroke. I dutifully tightened all of the bolts and what not to no avail. The little click or creak was still there.

I replaced the external bearing bottom bracket. After 3,000 miles of dirty and dusty gravel grinding the unit was pretty much fried. I loved how much smoother everything turned, but the noise was still there.

What about the pedals? I had not thought about the pedals. The same 3,000 miles that fried the bottom bracket might have also done the same to the pedals. Why not? Shimano M520 SPDs have a set of small bearings in each pedal that allows the pedal body to spin freely on the spindle attached to the crank.

Off came the battle scarred set, replaced by a new-in-the-box set that I keep in the shop on the off chance that my current set meets its maker. Sure enough, the sound was gone and my gravel grinder was a silent ride.

Now I need to spend some time to figure out how to repack the bearings on a Shimano clipless pedal. Nothing makes you sound like a retrogrouch quite like the statement “repack the bearings.”