Tuesday, November 30, 2010

What Our Hands Can Do

Looking over these photos from the Friday after Thanksgiving, I noticed something interesting: Almost everything pictured here is hand-made. The dress I am wearing was made by my mother. The hat and scarf were made by me. Even the bicycle was hand-made by an Italian frame builder for Bella Ciao. This combination was not intentional, but once I noticed it, I found it striking. 

My mother knitted this elaborate wool dress for herself in the early 1980s and wore it all through her 20s and 30s, after which point she gave it to me. The dress suited her much better, but that has not stopped me from wearing it since I were a teenager. It only occurred to me recently how remarkable it is for a dress like this to survive being worn for three decades by two different women - neither of whom are at all gentle with their clothing. And yet here it is, still looking fresh and current. The tailoring, the textural variation, and the attention to detail are incredible by today's standards - and my mother made tons of this stuff when I was a child, while being a busy career woman, too. (I remember seeing her knit while speaking on the phone and reading a book about mathematics at the same time... )

While my own attempts at knitting are fairly pedestrian compared to my mother's past projects, they do have one feature in common: longevity. I knitted this scarf back in grad school, and 8 years later it remains alive and well, while countless store-bought ones have since fallen apart. My friends, for whom I've made clothing as far back as high school, give me the same feedback - some of them still wear the things I made in the mid-'90s. Noticing this was a big reason why I started to knit and sew again this year: I am not that great at it, but the stuff I make lasts and fits me better than store-bought.

Over this past year I have done something a little nuts: I've sold or given away most of my clothing - stuff that I had collected and saved for more than 10 years. When I was younger, I was into edgy fashion and quirky designers, but lately that interest has all but faded - replaced by a curiosity regarding how far I can go making things on my own. Aside from knitting, I have been cutting up some of my remaining old clothing and handsewing "new" clothes out of it. Hopefully I will get a sewing machine for the holidays, which will allow me to take things further. In the past I have dabbled in making my own fountain pens as well. And eventually - maybe, just maybe, I would like to try my hand at building bicycle frames - or at least designing them à la Grant Petersen.

While my framebuilding days are not yet on the horizon, I do have enormous respect for bicycles hand-made by others, and an insatiable curiosity about the process. Whether independent framebuilders such as JP Weigle, Peter Mooney, Royal H. and ANT, or small manufacturers such as Mercian, Rivendell, Velo Orange and even Pashley and Bella Ciao - I am impressed by the sheer amount of work and consideration it takes to get the design, the construction, and the finishing just right. The more I learn about the process, the more overwhelming it seems. In a world of homogenous, mass-produced goods, it is amazing to witness what our minds and our hands are capable of creating.

Monday, November 29, 2010

OYB Pannier: a Modified Swiss Army Bag for Your Bike

The OYB Pannier is a small Swiss army surplus bag, modified via the addition of rack attachments and other features by Jeff Potter - the owner and author of the project Out Your Backdoor ("indie outdoor lore and more"). I purchased this bag as a smaller alternative to the enormous shopper pannier I normally use. My criteria were durability, classic aesthetics, a trustworthy attachment system, a reasonable price, and a size just large enough to snugly fit my medium format camera equipment or my (very small) laptop. While I am aware that these same bags (without the bike-ready modifications) can be purchased from several other sources, I opted for the OYB version because I wanted the modifications to be made by someone with experience and because I wanted to support the "Out Your Backdoor" project, which provides some great resources for its readers.

Compact and boxy, the pannier is a Swiss military bag made of a thick, stiff, olive-green waxed canvas with brown leather trim and steel rivets. The OYB leather patch is a lighter shade than the rest of the leather on the bag, but this can easily be changed with a modest application of neatsfoot oil or even Proofide. I am not sure whether this particular bag started out as new-old-stock, or whether it had been used in its previous life, but to me it looks more like the former. The condition is better than I had expected based on the pictures and product description on OYB.

The closure system is simple and secure: That very stiff leather cord pulls out of the metal loop, and the thick leather strap lifts up off the loop to open the bag. For those curious, the imprint on the leather reads "Fritz Gerber Sattlerei, Goldbach."

The attachment system is a combination of metal hooks and bungee cords, with which the pannier is secured to the rear rack. The rack I have on this bicycle is the Constructeur rack from Velo Orange, which is quite small. 

Here is a close-up of the metal hooks. They are riveted on to the bag.

And here is a close-up of the bungee attachment. Together, these two attachment points ensure that the pannier does not sway or bounce against the rack - a good feature when you are planning to carry camera equipment. When the bag is not being used as a pannier, the bungee hook attaches to that small leather strip you see on the back of the bag - so that it does not hang loose. [Edited to add: I am now told that the bungee cord is supposed to go through that leather loop before you hook it to the bottom of the rack - oops.]

In addition to the rack attachments, the OYB pannier can be ordered with a number of other optional features, including shoulder strap attachments with a removable shoulder strap. I asked for the strap, because I pan to carry the bag around when off the bike, and this set-up essentially this gives me a camera bag and pannier in one. Other options include lights mounts, and a variety of other attachments.

To give you a sense of scale, here is the pannier in relation to me and to the entire bike. It is a small bag. Dimensions are listed as: 8.5" tall, 4" deep, 11.25" wide (5.4 liters).  Inside, the length of the bag is listed at 10.75", but I was hoping against hope that it would fit my laptop. OYB gives instructions for stretching the bag out with magazines in order to make it fit items of that size, and I will give this a try. If I can get my laptop to fit, I will be thrilled - but I am not getting my hopes up and am prepared to content myself with this being a camera bag only.

If it were not for the laptop fit issue, this would pretty much be my dream pannier.  The mil-spec colour scheme is not for everyone, but I love it, and it suits almost all of my bikes nicely. The durability of military surplus items is superb, and I appreciated getting the bag customised by Jeff at OYB. This is a classic, versatile, and reliable little pannier refashioned by someone who loves bicycles.

edited to add: I have sold the pannier since the review, only because it was too small for me. I loved everything else about it.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Winter Hibernators

With temperatures now falling below 40˚F, there is no denying that winter will soon be here. As I rode through a stretch of frozen mud this morning, it finally began to seem real: The snow, the black ice, the heavily salted roads - it's all coming. And once it does, I will be putting most of my bicycles away, keeping around only those equipped to take on winter's fury.

The bicycles destined for "hibernation" are those that have derailleur gearing: my roadbikes, and, sadly my mixte. The ones staying are my 3-speed loop frames with internally geared hubs and chaincases. I will also tentatively keep my fixed gear bike.

Everybody has a different philosophy regarding what makes a bicycle suitable for winter. Having seen countless cyclists struggling with derailleur bikes last winter in Boston - as well as many bikes abandoned, their drivetrains iced over or rusted - I am pretty comfortable with my decision to only ride internally geared hub bicycles once the snow arrives. While I am sad to put away my beautiful mixte after only a few months together, I would be even more sad to ruin her with salt and crud while she is still so new and shiny.

What are your thoughts on "winter bikes" versus "hibernators"?  Do you put any of your bicycles away for the season, or ride them all?

Announcing Hat Recipient!

[original of altered image via Atlanta Street Fashion blog]

Thank you to everyone for taking part in the "Thanking Your Bicycle" give-away.  Your notes were so very nice; I found it extremely difficult to choose.

Riddled with indecision, I finally left it up to my bicycles - and, upon voting, they chose... Kyle. Here is an excerpt from Kyle's note to his bicycle Nimrod - which I think is worth a read:

Thank you, Nimrod, you mighty hunter, for never failing me.
When everything else fell apart -- losing my job, losing my wife, all in the same month -- someone moved to Romania and had to let you go. And we found each other. You are three years older than me but did you know we share a birthday? We will have cake in January!
You and I had a long, strange winter, exploring the silent city during seven months of unemployment and the depths of heartbreak. You never asked what was wrong, never pressured me to speak. You were just there. You listened. We watched the sunrise from the hilltop cemetery and I whispered my woes. We explored the abandoned prison farm and I talked through my grief. Your freewheel's whizzzz was the only comment offered. Thank you for listening.
We had those long hours to get to know each other. That is when I learned you liked fluted fenders. That you wanted a rear basket. Remember when I found your voice, when I brought home that brass bell? And when we removed the original, 34-year-old wrap on your handlebars? Now they are a brilliant hunter green. A mighty hunter, just like you, Nimrod. You fit my style perfectly, but I fit yours, too.
Those small things -- too, too little -- were my poor way of thanking you for being my constant companion. We are a badass duo, friend. We toured our first century, just us, into the Georgian countryside, and several after.
We planned and led an urban bike tour and a Labor Day seersucker social; though already noted in the bike community, you became my best accessory and with you, we became something of bike celebrities. Folks flung compliments like laurels as we whizzed by, bold with bow tie and brass bell. Remember when those racers tick-tacked over in their cleats to scope you out, envious? We even ended up on a bike blog. http://atlantastreetfashion.blogspot.com/2010/08/in-old-fourth-ward-new-friend.html
You were there when I met Laura. She said she was smitten with me but you sealed the deal. Thanks, wingman! Her lime green Schwinn looks awfully nice, huh? Huh? (I know you liked how I cozied you two up on the car rack: you're welcome.)
Without your steadfast support, Nimrod, I might still have come through this all. But not like this. Not whole. Back at scratch and my first fully car-free year, I needed you and you gave all you had. I owe you what I am now.
You were always there for me, Nimrod. Thank you. 

Kyle, please get in touch with me at filigreevelo{at}yahoo to discuss your hat - as I do not have your contact info. (And in the event that I do not hear from Kyle, my bikes did agree on several runners up.)

When I asked my bicycles what made them pick Kyle, some said it was the content of his story, others said it was his engaging narrative style, one said that the phrase "mighty hunter" reminded him of The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter by Carson McCullers, and yet another simply liked the name Nimrod. But it really was very close, and quite difficult to decide who the recipient should be. I think that next time, I will come up with something where there can be several recipients. Though the theme of this give-away was meant in good fun, I think that many of us - myself included - are sincerely grateful for the role bicycles play in our lives. Thank you again for taking part, and thank you for reading Lovely Bicycle!

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Musings on MUSA Knickers

Musa is a Rivendell  house brand that stands for "made in USA." Under this label, Rivendell produces a line of clothing and accessories, including the knickers and pants that are designed specifically for cycling, but are described as being wearable "anywhere when formal wear isn't called for." The Co-Habitant ordered both the knickers and the long pants over the summer, because he was wearing out all his regular pants on long rides, and he thought these would be more durable. He immediately loved them and kept recommending them to me - until I finally bought a pair of knickers myself a couple of months later. Our impressions of this product are somewhat different, and put together they will hopefully be informative for both genders.

Made of lightweight, breathable, and durable nylon, the Musa knickers work well for cycling, because they feature a roomy gusset in the crotch area, adjustable-width cuffs with velcro straps, and reflective strips.

The adjustable waist closes via one of those nylon belts and plastic buckles you see on hiking pants.

The pockets are deep and cut in a way that stuff doesn't spill out of them while cycling - a useful feature for those who like to keep small items on their person while on the bike.

The Co-Habitant normally wears pants with a 34" waist, and the XL Musas fit him well. They are relaxed, but with a tailored look to them. The cut is flattering to the male body.

The pants and knickers are currently available in olive, gray, black and blue. The Co-Habitant has the olive knickers (pictured) and the gray long pants. The knickers he wore mostly over the Summer and early Fall; the pants he continues to wear now, including off the bike. His feedback is that his Musas are extremely comfortable and useful. Not only does the seamless gusset protect from chafing during long trips, but the pants regulate temperature well in both hot and cold weather, and are a lot more durable than the trousers he wears off the bike (one problem with cycling long distance in regular clothing, is that the clothing can get ruined from rubbing against the saddle and from sweat). For those men who do not want to wear tight, padded cycling shorts, but want something cycling-specific that looks decent off the bike, these are a good option. I do not quite agree with Rivendell's description of them looking like "normal" pants. They are definitely quirky. But I find this particular quirkiness attractive.

Moving on to my own experience with the Musa knickers (and in case you are wondering - no, we do not wear them at the same time!), my main reason for buying them was the gusset. I cannot ride a roadbike for more than 20 minutes while wearing anything with seams along the crotch, and finding pants without seams in that region is not easy. So seeing how happy the Co-Habitant was with his Musas, I finally ordered a pair for myself. Rivendell describes these knickers as unisex and has a size chart for women. Going by the waist measurements on the chart, I initially ordered an XS. However, I could not pull them on over my hips, so I exchanged them for a Small. The Small went on over my hips fine, but fit me overly loosely petty much everywhere else.

Sometimes a loose fit can be flattering, but with the Musa knickers luck was not on my side. The sagginess in the butt distorts the shape of my body in a way that just doesn't look good, and extra material bunches up around my inner thighs.

The knickers are also overly loose in the front. It is as if the fabric won't lie against my body right - bunching up in all the wrong places. This leads me to conclude that the pants were simply not tailored with a female waist-to-hip ratio in mind. While I am not the curviest woman in the world, I do have a narrow waist and comparatively wide hips - a combination that makes it difficult to get the sizing right.

But fit and sizing issues aside, the Musa knickers do have a number of features I find useful. The gusset is huge and there is not a single seam between me and any part of the saddle, which is excellent. The nylon material really is very light and breathable, as well as wind-resistant, mildly water resistant and fast-drying. The fabric does not pill or degrade after prolonged contact with the saddle  - and having worn through several pairs of leggings and shorts over the past year, such durability is welcome. The pockets are staggeringly deep - though the feature is wasted on me, as I prefer to cycle without too much stuff in my pockets. The expandable width cuffs with velcro closure are clever, if a bit finicky (I had to redo mine a few times to get them to feel right). As other owners of these have noted, the pants were shiny and slippery in the beginning, but this went away after a few long rides.

All in all, the Musa pants and knickers are excellent if you want to wear something comfortable and durable on a roadbike, and if you are male. If you are female, consider the issues with fit and compare how the pants look on a male vs a female body. For me, the gusset and other positive features are worth it - but only because I found no better alternatives. And I would never wear these knickers in a context other than on a roadbike, which does diminish the value of what was meant to be a "wear them anywhere" design.

Friday, November 26, 2010

Fade to Black


For as long as I can remember, the idea of Black Friday has sort of frightened me. The name sounds so dark and sinister - like a day of mourning rather than a day of shopping. And the reports in recent years of shoppers getting crushed to death in stampedes have only strengthened that association. The possibility of someone wanting to save money on something so badly, that they are willing to wake up at 4 am, stand in line waiting for a store's doors to open, and then... walk over bodies in a rush to get to it, is upsetting. What can inspire that kind of drive for acquisition? - a laptop? a beautiful dress? a bicycle? Or just the very notion that "stuff is on sale today" and that "the thing to do is to go out and get those deals"?  Year after year, I find myself recoiling from those messages - not so much in protest against consumerism, as in protest against being expected to blindly follow those crude marketing tactics.

[image via radlmax]

I want to be free to do as I like with my holiday weekend, and I don't want to be controlled by a vague, socially-induced fear of missing out on a bargain. I will buy the stuff I need when I need it. "Black Friday" can fade to black; I am off to enjoy my day!

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

The 'Thanking Your Bicycle' Give-Away!

Have you thanked your bicycle lately? Just think of all the wonderful things our velocipedian friends have done for us! Surely they deserve a little thanks? To inspire you, I have prepared a little give-away for the Thanksgiving holiday.

As a small "thank you" to my readers, I will be giving away a hand-knitted "cycling hat" - made especially for the recipient, in their size. The hat will be 100% wool - a soft wool that feels nice against your skin, densely knitted to protect against the wind. The shape is as pictured above and also here. It covers the ears, and can either be worn on its own or (and I am 98% sure about this) will fit under a helmet. The pattern will be stripey - using whatever colours spontaneously come to mind out of what I have available. If the recipient is male, I can make "manly coloured" stripes as well. And if you hate a particular colour, you can request that I not include it. The finishing at the top of the hat is as shown in the picture above. Just a simple, fun and (hopefully) useful hat, custom made for you by me.

If you would like to be considered for the "Thanking Your Bicycle Give-Away," here are the guidelines:

Please write a thank you note to your bicycle in the "Remarks" section of this post. 
Description of your bicycle and a links to pictures are a bonus, but not required. 
If you have multiple bicycles, multiple entries are eligible. One entry per bicycle. 
Entries should be posted between the start of Wednesday, November 24th and the end of Friday, November 26th.
International entries are eligible from all corners of the world with reliably functional postal systems.
Shipping will be taken care of.
Recipient will be announced Sunday, November 28th.

Thank you for reading Lovely Bicycle, and enjoy!

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Advice from Fixed Gear Experts? And a Look at MKS Stream Pedals

I have been riding my Francesco Moser roadbike as a fixed gear since July. I love this bicycle and ride it considerably more than I thought I would. For an aggressive roadbike, it is puzzlingly comfortable and easy. My bicycle handling skills have improved thanks to this bike and I have grown very attached to it.

But here is the problem - or rather what I keep hoping is not a problem, and would like your opinion about: The frame has a low bottom bracket. In our innocence, we did not notice this when we were building it up, and I don't even think the person who gave me the frame noticed quite how low it was. The bike originally came with skinny tubulars, but we fitted the frame with 700C wheels and 28mm tires - which raises the bottom bracket off the ground more than originally.

The cranks are 165mm, which is already as short as I can reasonably go with here, and just recently I switched the pedals (originally MKS "Touring") to the narrower MKS "Stream". All of this has helped ward off "pedal strike," but I still worry whether it is safe. A couple of people have taken one look and told me that I should get a different bike, with an expression of concern on their faces. Others have told me that it's not too bad and there should be no problem as long as I am not too aggressive on turns and don't take it on the velodrome.

So my question: Is there an objective way to tell? How high should the bottom bracket be off the ground in order for a fixed gear bike to be "safe"?  And "aggressive on turns" seems like such a subjective concept. I think of myself as a bad cyclist and I think of my speed as slow - but I am not sure how to quantify these things. Once I get going, I like to ride 15-18mph on this bike. But I am consciously very careful on corners and slow down on them due to paranoia over this issue.

So far, the MKS "Stream" pedals (purchased from Cambridge Bicycle) seem to have made a big difference, and I am keeping my fingers crossed that perhaps they solved the problem. This is what the lean of the bike used to be in order to get pedal strike, but the Streams have improved things considerably.

Here are the MKS "Touring" (left) vs the MKS "Stream" (right) pedals side by side. As you can see, they are very similar except for the size.

The MKS Streams are basically touring-style pedals that are the size of track pedals. They are comfortable and accept both toe clips and Power Grips. I was worried that my feet might feel cramped on them, but I have felt absolutely no discomfort so far.

Here is another size comparison.

And notice the difference in teeth. The Streams are more grippy.

The ride quality with the new pedals feels the same as previously, with the benefit of additional "room to breathe" on turns. But is it enough?  If I do need to start thinking about a new frame, I doubt that I can find something as good as the Moser (Columbus tubing, Italian quality) in anything resembling a reasonable price range. My best bets are probably to look into Mercian or to wait for the Rivendell "Simpleone".  And if you can recommend a vintage model that resembles the Moser in ride quality but has a higher bottom bracket, I am of course all ears. I do not want a new fixed gear roadbike. I love this one and would prefer to ride it forever. I just want to know whether that is a good idea.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Colour Theory for Bikes

As someone who deals with colour all the time - taking pains to get it "just right" for paintings and photography setups - I am fascinated by the role of colour in bicycles. Choosing colour is not just a matter of "what matches what." It is a matter of understanding the psychological mechanisms involved in human colour perception and processing - which to me has always been interesting. But taking it down a notch from the realms of art-speak and neuro-psychology, here are some thoughts on colour choices as they pertain to setting up bicycles:

Handlebars and saddle
My go-to standard for handlebars and saddles is the brown family. The reason I like to use brown as opposed to black, is that brown enhances the colour of the bicycle frame, whereas black tends to "deaden" it. Being neutral, brown will not compete with the frame colour, just as black will not. But it will make the colour more vibrant, more emphatic - whereas black will leave it flat.

This works especially well on "cool" frame colours - such as blue and silver. And using twine and bits of leather on other parts of the bike (chainstay protector, kickstand, waterbottle, saddlebag straps) will further enhance the "warming" effect.

Brown can also make a black frame look less intimidating and more "personable" - as well as bring out the details in what would otherwise be an expanse of black-on-black.

But of course, black has its place as well. Black accessories make a bike seem more aggressive - which can look good on some bicycles. And depending on the "personality" of a particular bike (lady's military bike?), you might not necessarily want the frame colour to be overly vibrant.

And when it comes to racing bikes, an aggressive or sporty look is usually more fitting than an "earthy" look. This can be achieved either with black, white, or brightly-coloured saddle and tape combinations (ideally in a contrasting colour to the frame). Bright and high-contrast colour schemes are exciting and suggest high energy, fast movement. If that is what you want your bike to communicate - go with it. And if not, you can tone it down with browns and neutrals, as I have done to this bike.

Tires
It goes without saying that performance and not colour should be the first consideration when it comes to tires. But assuming that you can get equally well-performing tires in a variety of colours, it can be nice to play around with that element as well. While I do not hide my crazed preference for cream tires, I do not suggest that they are "the best" option.

Cream tires can look elegant if you are going for a delicate look and have taken pains not to include any black on your bike. Here they make the bicycle look a lot more "serene" than had I used other tire choices.

And they can also look elegant as a contrast to the frame. But there comes a point - and for some it arrives much sooner than for others - where cream tires can be just too much and overwhelm the rest of the bike (I think that here I am dangerously approaching that). I also don't think that cream tires look good on a cream or white bicycle. It is too low-contrast and reminds me of "ghost bikes." Achielle does the cream-on-cream look better than others, and if you go in this direction adding prominent brown accessories to break it up a bit is the key.

A good, traditional option if you are looking for classic tires, are "gumwalls" - which are tires with back tread but tan sides. The tan fits nicely into the "organic" saddle and handlebar colour scheme, without the tires competing with the rest of the bicycle for prominence. I also like it how the alloy rims, the tan sidewalls and the black tread create the visual impression of 3 circles, one inside the other.

Bags and accessories
I am very conservative when it comes to bicycle "luggage," so perhaps I am not the best person to ask about this one. Mainly, I don't like it when bicycle bags are too distinct in relation to the bicycle itself - whereas the trend now (especially for accessories targeted at women) seems to be brightly coloured luggage with prominent graphics. It's not that I am "against" flowers, polka-dots, curly-cues, and the like. It's more that I want my bicycle to be the main focal point and not the bag. So I prefer to get subtle, classic accessories in neutral colours. As with saddles and handlebars, I think that the brown/olive family works well for a nature-exploring sort of look, whereas black works well for a more aggressive or racy look.

Decorations
Unless intentionally using decorations to distract from the rest of the bike, the colour of the decorations should not stand out too much from the other colours on the bicycle. Otherwise, the eye will get drawn to the decoration itself, with the rest of the bike an afterthought.

Frame Colour
If you are getting a bicycle frame re-painted, or are trying to choose a colour for a custom bike, the colour selection is of course a matter of personal preference. But based on my own experience (and conversations with others), keep a few things in mind:

1. Speaking very generally, super-bright colours work better on sporty bikes, whereas subdued colours work better on touring and transportation bikes.

2. True white is very harsh and almost never looks good. Even if a bicycle you like appears white to you, the actual colour is almost definitely a pale cream, a very light gray, or an off-white. Think twice before asking for a true white paintjob.

3. If you are getting the paintjob (especially powdercoat) done at a "budget" type of establishment, beware of asking for metallic colours. They are easier to mess up, and flaws in them are more visible than with regular colours. Flaws in lighter colours are also more visible than flaws in darker colours.

4. Prepare yourself for the fact that the colour never, ever looks the same on the bike as it does on the tiny colour chip, let alone on the online colour sample. I have seen some pretty amazing discrepancies, where after the person spends a month wringing their hands about the "perfect" shade, the colour on the bike does not even look like the same colour family as the chip they chose. One thing you can do, is give the painter a sample of the colour you want and ask them to find the closest match. They have experience with the way the colours actually looks on a bike. Alternatively, you can find out the colour code of a bike you like, and ask for that exact one.

There are those who take bicycle aesthetics very seriously and start to pull their hair out in despair if they cannot find the exact shade of orange handlebar tape they wanted. And there are those who could not care less about the details, and just use whatever components and accessories are available. I see myself as somewhere in the middle, leaning perhaps just a tad towards the former. (What? You think it's more than just a tad?...) While I enjoy setting up my bicycles in a way that is aesthetically pleasing to me, I do it quickly and intuitively, without dwelling on it too much. Then I ride the bike and get it filthy beyond all recognition - which is part of the fun, at least for me.