Sunday, May 30, 2010

A 'Successful' Bicycle Blog?

Today I received an email from a reader asking for "tips on how to run a successful bicycle blog." I get this type of question every so often, and never quite know how to respond. For starters, what exactly is a "successful bicycle blog"?... One with a readership of over x visits per day? An average of y comments per post? Placement on "top 50 bicycle blog" lists? Mentions in local publications? Probably all of the above, plus other indicators I am not even aware of.

[EcoVelo - one of my favourite "successful bicycle blogs"]

The next thing that comes to mind when considering the question, is why would one want a "successful bicycle blog" - that is, what do they hope to get out of it? If one's heart fills with desire to write about bicycles, they can simply open their computer and start typing - using free and easy platforms like BlogSpot and WordPress if they wish to make the writing public. The act of turning to an "established blogger" (reader's phraseology) for advice suggests that there is a specific end-goal in mind. I suppose the goal can include sponsorships, effective advocacy, and personal fame... but I think that such a goal-oriented attitude at the start is counterproductive.

[Let's Go Ride a Bike - one of my favourite "successful bicycle blogs"]

The main thing I would suggest, is to start the blog only if you have a genuine interest in the topic - an interest that is sufficiently strong, so that you can imagine producing hundreds of posts, day after day, with the same degree of enthusiasm as your first. Because the most important aspect of a blog's "success," from what I have seen, is its sustainability. Even though it may seem like there are tons of bicycle blogs out there, the number is actually not that great if you narrow it down to those that have been around for at least a year and continuously generate new content on a close-to-daily basis.

I would also consider how much of your time writing a blog would take, and whether that time investment would be worth it for the end-goal you have in mind. I am an unusually fast writer and constantly write anyway as part of my work. A blog entry every one to three days is possible, in terms of both time and effort. Otherwise, I absolutely would not be able to do it.

[The Mixte Gallery - bicycle blog with a unique theme]

Finally, I would suggest considering whether your bicycle blog will be sufficiently unique so as to differentiate it from all the others out there. The uniqueness can be a result of a specific focus (The Mixte Gallery is all about mixtes), of a distinct tone of voice (BikeSnobNYC's comic crankiness), of a consistent visual theme (the women on Copenhagen Cycle Chic), of being a source of cycling news in your area (the regional focus of Boston Biker), or of many other factors - but there must be something that will make the blog stand out in some way.

[BikeSnobNYC - one of my favourite "successful bicycle blogs"]

As for attracting readers, advertisers, sponsors, journalists and what have you... I feel that having this as your goal from the start could very well undermine it. It is my belief that readers can sense it when the ultimate purpose of a piece of writing is marketing-driven, and are less likely to connect with such writing.  I could be wrong, but I think that most "successful bicycle blogs" happened not by design but organically: The writer is so taken with the topic, that they keep writing and writing - until people begin to read. The best thing to do is simply to write and not think about "success" - whatever that may mean to you.

Friday, May 28, 2010

Bicycles in the Field

While the Co-Habitant and I have separate dayjobs, we also work together as an artist team. The artwork we make is hard to summarise, but, among other things, it involves photography - usually in far-off, remote locations. The distance to the locations, the remoteness, the amount of photo equipment and props we use, and the need to be on location at a specific time so as to get the right light, make driving the most suitable means of transport to the sites. However, we now have at least two photo-shoots planned that are close to Boston, and the distances to these locations (13-15 miles from home) are reasonably cyclable. Prior to doing the actual photo shoot, we normally take a reconnaissance trip to the location - to take test shots, to get a feel for the light, and to try out background compositions. These trips don't require much equipment, and so we decided to try to do this on our bikes.

It took over an hour to arrive at the photo-shoot location on our roadbikes. While we have cycled that distance many times before, it has always been in a recreational context, never for work. Here are some notes as to how this was different:

It was difficult to focus on creative thoughts with my leg muscles working overtime (hills) in the summer heat. Instead, my focus is mostly on the physical process of cycling and on monitoring traffic conditions.

Also, I realised that when we cycle together we tend to talk about cycling-related matters - a habit that proved difficult to break! When we drive to photo-shoot locations, we use the trip as an opportunity to have in-depth conversations about our work. We did not succeed in doing this while cycling, as the topic of conversation kept shifting to bikes - that is, when it was possible to talk at all.

Upon arriving on location, even after a rest, it was difficult to focus on work. We were in a forest, dissected by foot-paths covered in gnarled tree roots and pine cones. The Co-Habitant got excited at the opportunity to cycle off-road. I became frustrated - both because I was too afraid to do it, and because that wasn't what we were there for. I insisted that we walk the bikes and search for potential scene backdrops instead. He agreed, but I could tell that his spirit yearned for off-road cycling and he wasn't truly able to keep his mind on our project.

Finally, we happened upon a grassy clearing with wildflowers, and now it was my turn to get distracted. I was supposed to be taking test shots of the location, but I could not resist the opportunity to take "bike portraits". Neither could the Co-Habitant. We ended up posing our bicycles amidst the flowers and then cycling around the grassy meadow, just to get it out of our system. Pathetic!

In the end, we did take the test shots we needed, and even came up with plans for the perfect backdrop. But the process took all day, and we repeatedly struggled with staying on task. The lesson? Well, I guess that we have a hard time combining fieldwork with long bike trips, as the latter is not only exhausting, but fosters a cycling-specific atmosphere that is difficult (for us) to break out of.

That is not to say that we are giving up and will take the car on such trips next time. Rather, I am trying to figure out how to prevent the same conflict from happening again. As much as I love bicycles, they are (believe it or not!) not the center of my universe, and my artwork is infinitely more important to me. I would like for cycling to be a tool that will help me with fieldwork, without sucking all the attention away from it. Just need to figure out how exactly to make that happen.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Reluctant Friends

They exchanged suspicious glances and growled at each other at first, but Graham and Eustacia have finally learned to be friends. They now see beyond their differences and instead focus on the similarities: the green frames, the cream tires, the leather Brooks saddles, the twine, the dynamo hubs and headlights - so much common ground.

Lately I have been incorporating both bikes into my routine: During the day I travel for work and errands on the Pashley, then come home, quickly change clothes, and do a 25-mile ride on the Rivendell before it gets dark. They are both feeling loved, and I am feeling a like a velo-bigamist!

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Drop Bars: What Are They For?

After initially having set the handlebars on my Sam Hillborne quite high so that I could get used to them, I have now lowered them to a more typical position. Despite having done this, I think that there was nothing objectively wrong with my initial set-up. I received lots of comments and advice in my previous Hillborne posts, and one view expressed was that if I have to raise the bars so high, then perhaps I should not be riding with drop bars. This is an idea I very much disagree with, and here is why.

What is the purpose of drop handlebars? Many believe it is "to go fast" - that is, to achieve an aggressively forward-leaning position that would allow for maximum speed. And for that purpose, it would indeed make sense that the handlebars ought to be placed as low as possible.

However, while this is one of the things drop bars can be used for, it is by no means their only function or their mandated use. An equally important feature of drop handlebars is the unparalleled variety of ergonomic hand positions they offer - which is crucial for long rides. When cycling long distance, it is not only uncomfortable, but dangerous to use handlebars with limited gripping areas that allow for only one hand position. And by "dangerous" I mean that you can cause nerve damage to your hands. Drop bars, on the other hand, offer a continuous gripping surface with 5 distinct hand positions to switch between, greatly reducing the chances of this happening.

As I have mentioned before, I already have pre-existing nerve damage in my hands, so I feel hand "discomfort" (electric-current-like sensations running through my wrists and fingers) a lot sooner than those with healthy hands. This makes me an especially good candidate for drop bars when I go on long rides.

So what do ergonomic hand positions, nerve damage and touring have to do with speed or aggressive cycling? Absolutely nothing, and that is precisely my point. I have no interest in breaking speed records. All I want, is to cycle long distances without my hands ending up in bandages again. Drop bars are perfect for that, and whether they are placed high or low is completely irrelevant - as long as I am comfortable reaching all the available hand positions. Drop bars mounted high are better for touring than no drop bars at all. Sheldon Brown and Grant Petersen agree.

The perception that drop bars must be mounted as low as possible is an aesthetic preference rooted in racing culture and informed by the male anatomy (as males have longer torsos than females). But it's time to break that connection. Drop bars are fantastic for touring and exploring, and they can make your ride extremely enjoyable if used in a way that is right for you.

Monday, May 24, 2010

Wald Rear Folding Baskets Up Close

I am being asked lots of questions about the Wald Rear Folding Baskets, so here are some details and close-up pictures:

The Wald folding baskets are perceived as practical and inexpensive, but unglamorous. People tend to put them on their old 3-speeds and beater bikes, but rarely will you find them a "nice" bike. I too would have been reluctant to install them on the Pashley. But having used these in Austria on Jacqueline, I saw that they can look elegant on the right bicycle.

Anyhow, here they are on the Pashley now, and you can judge for yourself. To answer some questions: Yes the baskets are "heavy": according to the specs, they are 2.75lb each. And no, they do not jiggle or make noise. Whether empty or full, I don't even really feel them. What's especially nice, is how integrated they are with the Pletscher "Athlete" rear rack; all together it almost looks like one unit.

The Co-Habitant carries one of those multi-use tools at all times, so he installed the baskets for me as soon as we bought them.

Each basket mounts to the rack via 3 bolt-on metal brackets (which are included): two on top and one on the bottom.

Here is the bottom one. Some people use zip ties in addition to or instead of the brackets.

The baskets lie flush with the bicycle's rear rack when folded. To unfold, you lift a metal tab on top and pull out the sides.

Then lower the bottom, click it into place, and voila!

Here is the basket transporting my workbag - which houses my laptop, documents, and about a dozen other things. The bag is very secure in there, much more so than in the front wicker basket of yore. For me, this system really works. When cycling for transportation I prefer to keep my things in my normal, favourite workbag, and then to be able to place the bag into some form of container on the bicycle. Click-on panniers that double as laptop bags or handbags don't really do it for me, because I want to be free to carry any bag I want when off the bike - including my photo bag. Of course, an additional benefit of a metal basket, is that I can leave the bike anywhere and not worry about its bags being pillaged or removed.

Here you can see the position of the baskets in relation to the rider. It's a very tidy system.

On my Pashley there is no foot strike or leg rub when pedaling, but this really depends on a bike's geometry.

The practicality of the Walds is so seductive, that I have lost my ability to tell whether they suit the Pashley or detract from its loveliness. Your honest opinion?

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Schwalbe Delta Cruisers vs Marathon Plus

I have written before about how much I like Schwalbe Delta Cruiser tires, and almost a year later I feel the same: These are my favourite tires for commuting. Happily, we have now finally installed them on my Pashley Princess.

I know, my tastes are so predictable! - but how can you beat this gorgeous crème de menthe look? See here for the "before" picture.

Because the Pashley originally came with Marathon Plus tires and I rode it with them since last summer, I thought that the change provided a good opportunity to compare the two tires and to explain why I opted to switch to the cream Cruisers.

One key difference between the Marathon Plus and the Delta Cruisers, is the level of puncture protection they provide: The Marathon Plus are basically the bestest/toughest/kevlarest tires you can get. Delta Cruisers still have plenty of kevlar protection; they are just not the absolute best in this respect. As a result of all that extra armour, Marathon Plus are almost twice as heavy as Delta Cruisers. Additionally, some report that Marathon Plus tires feel sluggish and "leaden" when they roll (I agree) - whereas Delta Cruisers have a zippy, racy quality to them. Delta Cruiser tires are also somewhat balloon-like: cushy and better at swallowing potholes.

Pashley's wheel with the new tire. Removing and re-installing the front wheel was fine, but the rear wheel was a different story. The chaincase was actually pretty easy to deal with, but the custom coaster-brake hub took some figuring out.

Upon removing the chaincase, we were shocked to discover how clean the chain was. This bicycle lived through a snowy winter! I guess the chaincase really works.

With the wheels successfully re-installed and the coaster-brake hub adjusted (thanks to the Co-Habitant - who can do anything when he has the time for it!), I immediately set off on my daily errands.

Mmmm, yummy cream Delta Cruisers!

In terms of the ride quality, I could feel an immediate difference. The Delta Cruisers are indeed both zippier and cushier than the equivalently sized Marathon Plus. On a bicycle where I have been trying to maximise speed and maneuverability, that is a major benefit. To me, this factor is more important than the super-extra degree of kevlar protection of the Marathon Plus - which for me is overkill anyhow.

Whether you prefer the Delta Cruiser or the Marathon Plus tires, really depends on your needs. Do you consistently puncture all of your tires - even those with kevlar belts? If so, get the Marathon Plus and that is the end of it. On the other hand, if you prefer a faster ride, love cream tires, and are fine with a degree of kevlar protection that is "only" excellent and not unbelievably excellent, then ditch the extra weight and go with the Cruisers.

Saturday, May 22, 2010

Purchasing Power

The economy is terrible, but my purchasing power has just undergone a significant increase. How, you ask? Ah, keep reading!

Yes: a set of Wald folding baskets - filled with enormous grocery bags, the contents of which I could never have fit into my previous set-up. We passed a bike shop today that happened to have the black Walds in stock, and I ended up buying them. Now that I no longer have the front basket on my Pashley, I needed something ASAP - at least to tide me over until I can get panniers.

Well, the Wald baskets did not disappoint! You can't quite tell from these pictures, but the grocery bags are very full, with the level of the contents extending far beyond the brims of the baskets. Technically, it is possible to haul more than twice the volume of each basket. We tied the handles of the bags together on top, so that the contents wouldn't bounce, and had no problems at all.

The bicycle remained just as stable with the grocery bags inside the baskets as without.

Just as easy to maneuver, too.

As we were about to head home from the grocery store, we ran into Biking in Heels. Talk about a sense of community! We compared notes about panniers and tires, as I eyed her rear rack with longing (I've been looking for a suitable rack for my vintage Raleigh DL-1 with no success).

I was a bit nervous about what it would feel like to cycle with so much weight in the rear of the bike, but once we took to the streets it was effortless. Mind you, I am cranky and picky when it comes to carrying stuff on my bike - so when I say "effortless", you can take me literally. When I carried groceries in a front wicker basket, I had to lower the gearing on this bike in order to cycle comfortably. With these baskets I happily remained in the same gearing as without the groceries.

These passers-by are clearly envious of my amazing baskets and of the abundance of groceries I was transporting.

Can't say I blame them - this is great!

Friday, May 21, 2010

Pining for Panniers

My Pashley Princess is undergoing a little make-over and, among other things, she will be getting panniers for her rear rack. My criteria for the panniers, are that they be of a classic design and colour, water resistant, connected at the top so that they hang over the rack (rather than two separate bags connected to each side of the rack), easy to open, fairly compact, and fit my 13" Macbook (sideways is fine). I have narrowed it down to the following:

[image via bikebarn]

Brooks "Brick Lane" roll-up panniers. I have been eying these since before I bought my Pashley last year, but haven't been able to afford them. The panniers are waxed canvas. They roll up tidily when unused and expand when needed. They look gorgeous and come in a "moss" colour that makes me weep. I have read reviews describing them as the best panniers ever, and I have read reviews describing them as impractical and too small. Retail price seems to be around $250.

[image via Basil]

Basil "D'azur" double-bag. Less than half the price of the Brooks roll-ups (around $100 retail), these look classic, practical and low-key. They are not compact and will stay 3-D even when empty. I have not found any reviews of these; they may be new.

[image via Rivendell]

Rivendell "TourSacks" rear rack panniers. I was so excited when Rivendell announced their plans to manufacture these, and now they are finally available to order. These don't roll up, but they will stay flat when empty. The price is around $200.

[image via Wald]

An alternative to the panniers are these Wald folding baskets for $40 per pair. But I am just not sure that these will suit the Pashley. I was hoping to try them at a local bike shop, but no one seems to have them in stock this summer.

So, what do you think? If anybody owns either of these and has any words of wisdom from experience, please chime in. Also, if there are other panniers out there I've missed that you can recommend (given my criteria), please let me know. I don't want to buy a set of panniers just for the looks, and it's so hard to know what's what based on pictures and online descriptions alone.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Drop Bar Diaries

So I have a confession to make... I have been riding Graham (my new Rivendell Sam Hillborne) almost exclusively since I got him - drop bars and all. I've now twined his bars, gave him the Carradice bag that had hitherto been on my Pashley (the Pashley will soon be getting panniers), and have ridden him for about 120 miles in total.

Every time I ride this bike, I feel that my comfort level with the diamond frame and the drop bars increases exponentially.

And the Brooks B17S Standard saddle was much easier to break in than the Flyer Special (that I'd put on my Motobecane mixte last year). I attribute this to the thicker leather on the "Special" models.

The only difficulty I've had so far, happened when I was unexpectedly caught in a downpour 13 miles from home. Minutes after the above picture was taken, it began to pour. The bicycle handled splendidly, but the problem was that my wet fingers would slip on the wet brake levers when trying to squeeze them, and I had serious trouble using the brakes. This problem might be unique to me, as I have nerve damage in my hands and a very weak grip.

Having survived the ride home, I promptly purchased a pair of full-fingered cycling gloves. The material on the fingertips is grippy and should do better on wet levers than my fingers. I will keep these in Graham's saddlebag from now on, in case I get stuck in the rain again.

Other than the rainy lever-slip issue, I have been surprised at the lack of "challenges". I am even able to use the bar-end shifters! I am keeping the giraffine stem extension for now, but in another week or so I think I will feel comfortable lowering it.

Here you can see that I really am quite leaned over as it is when reaching for the hoods. I know that the bike will look nicer if the saddle and handlebars are at the same level, but the lean will be too much. I think I will compromise and lower it half-way.

Front view showing the current reach when on the hoods.

Well, that is my progress update so far. I can't express how happy it makes me to be able to ride this bike after having anxious doubts about whether I'd really be up to it when the time came. I am in love with the drop bars and will write a separate post about them soon, discussing hand positions.