Tag Archives: gravel

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.

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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.

New Wheels for my Ride

It was not planned this way, but I ended up equipping my cyclocross bike turned gravel grinder with new wheels a little early.

An online store that shall remain nameless, so that my LBS does not shame me forever, had a major sale on wheelsets and I was able to pick up a set of Vuelta Corsa Lites for less than $150. This is a screaming deal on a good set of wheels. Sure, I could have spent a lot more on wheels but I am putting these on a bike with Shimano 105 components that is going to get beat up on some gravel roads and trails here in Eastern Iowa. Exotic is not the name of the game.

The wheelset sat in my garage for a few weeks because I was planning on doing a complete rebuild of my current bike to make some major changes based on my riding this summer—don’t worry details on the major changes to come later. However, circumstances changed on a ride last week when something—probably a strip of flashing metal or something similar—ripped a hole through the tread section of my well-worn Kenda Kwicks. How well-worn? The front tire—switched from the rear about halfway through the season—was bald and ready to die. The piece of metal just hastened its burial.

Tire choice was probably the biggest decision. If you look up “good tire for gravel” on the Internet be prepared for a lot of opinions and no definitive answers. One theme that seemed to be constant was the love for Clement’s X’PLOR series of tires. These are the USH and MSO, named for the airport codes for Ushuaia, Argentina and Missoula, Montana respectively. The USH comes in 35mm width and the MSO comes in 32mm or 40mm width.

Trying to decide between the tires came down to the center ridge. The USH has a more solid center ridge that seems like it would offer a smoother ride on the pavement sections of my usual rides:

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If the county ends up paving more of the Cedar Valley Nature trail than I will be riding on even more pavement. Plus, the 35mm width seemed to strike a balance between the 32mm and 40mm width of the MSO. I went with the 60 TPI version versus the high zoot 120 TPI version because I could not justify the difference in cost for a tire I did not know if I would enjoy. BTW, I changed out my old Tektro Oryx cantilevers for Tektro CR720 cantilevers. Big improvement, huge!

How do things look:

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All up—including skewer and cassette—the wheelset weighed in at 3380 grams. This is compared to my prior no-name stock wheelset weight of 3925 grams. The stock wheelset included tires that were 5mm thinner and lacking a lot of tread after almost 3000 miles. Doing the whole conversion math thing—thanks Google—the difference of 545 grams works out to approximately 1.2 pounds of weight saved. For those of you who slept through physics, this weight is even more important than cutting frame weight because it is rotational. It’s not the two or three to one delta that cyclists have used for years to justify spending a lot of money on wheels but it matters.

The true measure of a new set of wheels is not how much they weigh, necessarily, but how well they ride. The Corsa Lites and Clement USH tires are light years better than the prior wheelset. The ride is noticeably smoother because of the tires, especially when the pavement ends and the gravel begins. Also, out of the saddle sprints seem a lot more fun which I am going to attribute to the lighter weight and “springiness” of the new wheelset. The bike just seems to pop when I start mashing.

The other big improvement was the aforementioned brake swap. The Tektro CR720s are a big jump in stopping power versus the stock Tektro Oryx brakes. For about $20 per set there are few better bargains for improvement in performance. Plus, the new brakes look “old school” cyclocross. Sometimes it is about how something looks when all else is equal.

In terms of “big changes” or transformations coming to my bike I am considering ditching the front derailleur and small chainring in favor of a single chainring setup. I rarely use the small chainring and I do not use the smallest cogs in my cassette, so I feel that a smaller big chainring with my existing cassette would meet all of my local riding needs. The Wolftooth “narrow-wide” chainrings look like a sweet option. Anyone have any experience?

There’s a New Ride in the House

I came home one Friday night after my daughter’s swim lessons to discover a box waiting for me in the entryway:

Bike Box

Given how crappy the past six or so months have been—coping with my father’s suicide and the daily dealing with of estate details—my family members got together and decided to surprise with a new bicycle.

Why? Because my attachment to my long-time bicycle is legend. Anyone who has owned a bicycle and ridden it for more than a decade can attest that it becomes part of your personality. You unconsciously understand the little squeaks and creaks from the frame. You instantly slide into a comfortable position and can ride for hours without much consternation.

There comes a moment, however, when it comes time to retire the old friend and I did not have the heart to do it myself. I probably should have hung up the Bontrager a few years earlier, but I kept it moving down the trail with a lot of TLC and some new parts. At the end of last summer I could tell that it was going to need a complete rebuild of the drivetrain because some of the parts were still original. Yes, it has a pair of nearly twenty year old derailleurs.

My wife could see me toggling between screens of components and pages with complete bicycles at night after the kids were put to bed, but I would never pull the trigger on either. A complete rebuild of the drivetrain was going to be expensive and a new bike seemed like treason. I think she got sick of me spending so much time on indecision and collaborated with her mother to execute a plan.

Inside was this red beauty:

New Bike

It is a steel cyclocross bike from Nashbar.

As loyal readers will know I noticed a problem immediately after unboxing; one of the Shimano 105 STI levers was broken. For those of you familiar with STI levers will know, if something goes wrong it is usually a complete replacement. Even if it is just a nickel’s worth of plastic. Dumb. Nashbar was most excellent and sent me a replacement lever lickety split.

It’s a steel bike. I am not a retro-grouch or cro-mo curmudgeon, but I prefer to ride steel bikes. I have an aluminum Gary Fisher Big Sur set up for singletrack. It’s not a bike that I could ever really get used to riding over the long haul. I cannot speak to exotic materials like carbon fiber or titanium because my budget has never allowed me or I have never allowed myself to spend that kind of money on two wheeled transportation.

It’s also a fairly yeoman’s setup in terms of components. The critical bits are Shimano’s 105 value gruppo. Bicyclists are a bling obsessed lot and Shimano 105 is not a bling gruppo. No one gets excited about Shimano 105. You can, however, put mile after mile of trouble free cycling on these components and not be out an arm, leg, and lots of donated plasma when something finally goes tits up. Except for the god damned STI levers which retail for like $200. What a joke.

The wheelset is no-name hubs laced to Alex DC19 rims shod in Kenda Kwik 32C rubber. Having not put many miles on the bike yet I cannot speak to the durability or ride quality of the wheels. I do not have my hopes set very high as most OEM wheels are uninspiring at best. This is one of those upgrades where I wait until the end of the season to snag a nice wheelset on the cheap as stocks are cleared in anticipation of next year’s fancy gear. An upgrade is an upgrade whether it’s this year’s model or next.

It did not come with pedals. I am a mountain biker at heart, so mountain-style SPD pedals are the name of the game for me. I am also cheap. I use Shimano SPD M520 pedals exclusively. You can get a pair for anywhere between $25 and $50. It is almost impossible to beat the performance at that price. In all my years of riding I have had zero problems with these pedals.

The critical feature of this bike, for me, is that the headset and bottom bracket are the more standard type as opposed to internal headsets or BB30 like bottom bracket solutions. It might seem silly, but I agree with Chris King’s perception of the flaws with internal headsets. I plan on upgrading my headset to a Chris King NoThreadSet over the winter. There is no finer component on the market.

Before my first ride I also changed out the no-name OEM saddle for a Selle Anatomica Titanico X, of which I will write about at a later date, and re-wrapped the bars with a less corky/foamy bar tape. The bar tape that comes on bikes is absolutely awful.

Here is to a season of great rides.