Tag Archives: gravel

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!

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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.

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!

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.

Building a Better Gravel Grinder Part II

I addressed the drivetrain issues I was having in Part I of this process. Now I am moving on to the cockpit of my gravel grinder.

Since I was going to be removing the shift wire for the front derailleur I took the opportunity to change out my OE drop bar for something different. Depending on who you ask around here the most popular drop style handlebars come from Salsa. Almost to a person they recommend the Cowbell or the Woodchipper.

What makes these bars special? It has to do with flare. Unlike traditional drop bars, which have zero flare on the drops, the Cowbell and Woodchipper flare 12 degrees and 26 degrees respectively. The Woodchipper takes things a measure further by canting the flat part of the drops out to the sides. How to decide? Thankfully the good folks at World of Bikes in Iowa City, which is a designated Salsa Adventure Center, had these bars and the newest entry from Salsa, the Cowchipper, in stock for me to take a look at.

Like Goldilocks I found the Cowbell and Woodchipper to be off just slightly from what I wanted, but the handlebar positioned in the middle of the lineup—the Cowchipper—was just right. It has a more traditional drop shape, but the flare is 24 degrees. I also upsized my handlebar from the stock 42cm to a 44cm bar in order to “open up” my shoulders and hopefully reduce some of the back fatigue I was experiencing on longer rides.

Below you can see what my stock handlebar:

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Notice the awesome bar wrapping that is coming undone? Yeah, I suck. Below is what the cockpit looks like with the Cowchipper installed:

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Normally, I could care less about the difference in weight between two components given that I am carrying approximately 20 extra pounds myself. However, I was kind of surprised that the stock compact road bar weighed in at 430 grams and the Salsa Cowchipper weighed in at 290 grams. Remember, the Cowchipper was a 44cm versus the stock bar’s 42 cm size. Sometimes OE stuff is really heavy junk.

Yeah, the orange tape on a red bike is butt ugly. But I always know where my bike is and no one can forget that it is mine. Okay, the color is not what I was expecting. Considering that I suck at bar wrapping it will not last overly long and can be replaced with something less garish.

But how does it ride? Like the 1x drivetrain I do not have a lot of miles, but in a couple of rides I notice that my hands and back are less fatigued. The flare in the drops puts my wrists in a very neutral position when I am riding on the brake hoods and I actually spend some more time in the drops than before when trying to cheat the wind. I am sure that I am sacrificing some top end aerodynamics by going with the flared bar, but comfort over the long haul seems to be worth the price of admission. For anyone who spends a lot of time on gravel the Cowchipper might be the answer to your handlebar prayers.

Note: I paid retail for everything in this post. That means I spent ~$75 on the bar at my LBS and do not need to send kind words to anyone regarding their product.

Building a Better Gravel Grinder Part I

I should probably have considered the new wheels and tires that I put on my bike a month or so back to be part I, but I had not yet decided on what path this transformation was going to take so I punted.

The two things that I am trying to achieve with this transformation are simplicity, e.g. reducing the number of failure points, and comfort. Unlike a lot of riders who crank out a twenty mile ride at a twenty mile per hour clip I find myself in the saddle for three hours or more on the weekends and about two hours per ride on the weekdays. That is a lot of saddle time for someone who works in an office job full time. Comfort is critical and I do not want something to fail twenty miles from my start point because it is a long way back. Trust me, I found out the hard way that I had not replaced the twenty six inch tube with a 700c tube until I was looking down at a slow leak sixteen miles from my house. Whoops.

The first change that I wanted to make was to get rid of the front derailleur. Several times this season I had to clean out masses of limestone dust, sweat, and grime from the pulley mounted on my seat tube in order to regain the ability to shift the front derailleur. Considering how little I used the second chainring I deemed the entire front shifting regime to be expendable.

Thankfully, the world of single chainring drivetrains has taken the road world by storm in the last year or so. Okay, maybe not the road world but definitely the sub-segment of riders who spend a majority of their time on less than ideal surfaces like gravel, crushed limestone trails, or straight up dirt. Full-up OE crankset solutions exist, but I am cheap. I wanted to go with an aftermarket conversion that replaced my two OE chainrings with a single aftermarket chainring.

Dropped chains you ask? Yes, if you just removed the front derailleur and went on your merry way with the original chainrings there would likely be a lot of dropped chains in your future. This new breed of chainrings takes care of that problem by using a “narrow wide” tooth configuration. This helps prevent dropped chains and removes the need for a chainkeeper. A lot of 1x riders are also using so-called “clutched” rear derailleurs that restrict chain movement to only the times when a shift is activated. It is a bomb proof solution, but I am going with the down and dirty solution for now to see if I enjoy the single chainring experience.

Two manufacturers of narrow wide chainrings caught my eye in preparation for this project: Race Face and Wolf Tooth Components. Both offered a 110 BCD chainring to fit my OE FSA Gossamer Compact crankset. Initially I considered the Wolf Tooth option to be preferred—small company making their stuff in the U.S.A.—but a trusted rider of the gravel who also rides a converted single chainring rig swayed me to the Race Face chainring. I am sure that the Wolf Tooth is a quality component and there are a lot of online reviews that attest to the fact, but I was convinced by the opinion of someone I consider trustworthy that I would not go wrong with the Race Face chainring. It was a judgment call.

In terms of tooth count a range of options were available, but I settled on a 42 tooth chainring. Using the Sheldon Brown “Gear Calculator” I figured on the following gear inches:

Gear Inch Table

You can see the two original chainrings on the left and right with the chosen narrow wide chainring in the middle. With the narrow wide 42 tooth chainring I am losing a little on the top and bottom end, but I am keeping a pretty good amount of the overall range. Unlike a lot of group riders who are worried about cadence I ride mostly by myself so the difference in steps is not a critical issue for me. The calculations are based on 700c wheels with 35mm wide tires and 170mm crankarms.

The cassette was considered for replacement, but considering that I spent 90% of my time riding on one of the cogs I figured that there was another season of life if I spent more time in cogs with 11, 12, and 13 teeth.

Installation was a snap. If this is something that you want to do make sure that you get the correct chainring bolts otherwise you will end up making another trip to the LBS in anger. I had a set from a single speed build I put together years ago.

All told the look is a lot cleaner:

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But how does it ride? Stay tuned for a long term report.

Note: I paid retail for everything mentioned in the above post. No one sent me anything to test nor does anyone expect any kind words in return for the use of their products. I would love to be one of those lucky people, but instead I just ride what I think will work best.