Sunday, April 3, 2011

When Simplicity Trumps Comfort

Will Spring ever arrive this year? Looking at all the new snow on the trail as we braved another "spring ride," I began to seriously doubt it. Nonetheless, my Rivendell is back in action after a long winter.

Now, here's an admission: Although the Sam Hillborne is super-comfortable, when it comes to shorter rides without major hills I've come to prefer a more pared-down roadbike. In fitting the Rivendell with a front rack, decalleur, handlebar bag and good sized saddlebag, we made a conscious decision to optimise it for long distance travel and exploration at the expense of simplicity. Though individually each accessory is fairly lightweight, all together they do add heft to the bike and make it more difficult to take in and out of the apartment. And I find it inconvenient to detach and reattach the bags depending on what kind of ride I am taking, so I would rather just leave them on.

I have a routine 30 mile ride that I do whenever weather permits, and on this ride my ideal bike would be a lightweight single speed (fixed/free flip-flop hub), with a tiny saddlebag and no fenders. Currently, my Moser and Bianchi share this role, with the Moser being the fixed gear and the Bianchi essentially acting as the freewheel singlespeed, since the 2x6 gearing is so unfinicky that it allows me to forget it's there. By contrast, the 3x8 gearing on the Rivendell feels cumbersome on a ride where I don't need to shift gears.

I am not the first person to experience the epiphany that "for fast and short rides I prefer Roadbike A, while for long and hilly rides I prefer Roadbike B." Still, I was surprised to feel myself developing this preference - particularly the single speed and no fenders part of it. There is something to be said for just being able to throw a bike down on the grass and not worry, for pedaling fast and not playing around with shifters. At times I value this simplicity and ease more than I value load capacity, gearing, comfort, and yes - even keeping my clothes clean and dry. There, I said it!

41 comments:

  1. I understand your thinking perfectly. All of my bikes have always been tourers, built for long-haul expedition use in Australia, Africa, wherever. My Pegoretti roadbike was the first bike I've owned that did not have mudguards or eyelets for racks and all the other doo-dads associated with touring use.

    I love its quickness and simplicity in this regard, just going out light and fast for a spin on the lanes. And yes, I have particular routes I save just for the Pegoretti - one up through the hills in the Sussex weald, and another up and along the chalky cliffs at Beachy Head. Just magnificent.

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  2. I don't own any 'simple' bikes. Every one has racks and fenders, but that's largely because I don't usually think of riding a certain bike only when the weather is good or if I'm not planning on bringing anything. Even the Centurion, which was loaned to me as a stripped down fixed gear eventually got a pair of fenders that it didn't wear too well, and the lack of rack brazeons was a not insignificant reason for me to return it to its owner.

    With that said, bolts come loose. Parts get worn out. The fender is something else that might start rubbing against the tire. The rack is another thing that might fatigue and break at an inconvenient time. This winter seemed worse than previous ones for wearing out parts, and I've certainly spent my fair share of moments by the side of road, trying to address some bit of fender rub on the Raleigh's SKS hardware.

    In total, though, I still prefer a bike that allows me to be ready for all conditions, especially on weekends like this one, where conditions can go from bright and sunny to cold and freezing in a matter of minutes.

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  3. The thing is, having 3x8 gearing doesn't necessarily mean you *have* to shift all time-- you can find a gear that you can stay in most of the time except for when you really need a different one. On my Jeunet, which I converted to 1x5, I find that I am in just one of the speeds (4th) 95% of the time, and only downshift when I need to climb the hill to my house. It's not quite as simple as a singlespeed, but still gets me a lot more versatility than one, without the complexity of a front derailleur. However, if I ride my heavier touring bike the same places that I ride my Jeunet, I have to shift more frequently. I attribute this to the difference in weight and less efficient energy transfer through the drivetrain. Sensitive subject, I know.

    I'm curious how much your Sam Hillborne weighs without the bags?

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  4. Speaking of simplicity, and the ease of getting bicycles in and out of apartments, do you have to fight the cats while trying to get out the door?

    I'm finding that as I plan out the overhaul and rebuild of the Kettler mixte, that I'm wanting to simplify it some. It will still have it's original fenders, but I'm thinking of doing away with bags and such, since I find that the more space I have to carry stuff, the more stuff I find to fill that space.

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  5. I understand your point of view, but I think mine might actually be the opposite of yours. With my Trek 520 -- my touring, fun ride, and commuter bike -- I feel free to throw extra layers, toolkit, and food in a bag and just go. W.r.t. clothing, I don't care if I don't judge the weather correctly at my door; I just adjust within the first few miles. With my Bianchi road bike, I have to cram the toolkit in the little bag, take "power" food, and predict the (finicky, here) weather perfectly because I don't have room for extra layers, all of which require preparation. So I view the 520 as the "simpler" choice. Also, the 520 has a larger gear range, so I can decide on a route as I go, whereas the Bianchi is most definitely not a mountain-oriented bicycle. Of course, my bikes stand in a bicycle rack in my garage, making carrying weight a non-issue.

    That said, when I really feel like going simple -- mostly because I don't want to deal with cars -- I take my 36" unicycle on the dirt trails north of where I live. A quick ride on a road, and then 15+ miles of car-less bliss. Besides the lack of cars, I do enjoy the simplicity and solid feel of direct-drive -- no accidental shifts under power. And since I have to take a backpack anyway, I'm free to throw in clothes and food without much planning, again making the whole experience simple.

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  6. Aaron! 15+ miles on a unicycle??!! Or did I read that wrong? Wow!

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  7. somervillain - Have you not seen the unicycle commuters around Cambridge lately? (not joking!)

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  8. My friends Dad in the 60's, rode a unicycle from Kalamazoo to Grand Rapids, Michigan, thats about 60 miles.

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  9. "With my ...touring, fun ride, and commuter bike I feel free to throw extra layers, toolkit, and food in a bag and just go. "

    When I first began cycling, my rides were almost always combined with commutes and errands. So at the time it made sense that all my bikes should have fenders, racks and bags. Now I go on 25-30 mile stand-alone rides which take me just over 2 hours. I don't need to eat or change clothing during that time; I don't need to carry groceries or my laptop on my bike. I just want to get out of the house as quickly as possible, do my loop and return. A very small saddlebag will fit my paper-thin rainjacket, keys, credit card, phone and even battery lights. I do not carry a toolkit on these rides, because my tires are puncture resistant and there are 5 bike shops along my loop.

    With a touring type bike, I find that I can't just "throw food and extra layers" into my bag. It ends up being a whole production and takes me a half hour to get our of the house. The bike will have stuff in it from a previous trip that should be removed, then I will overthink the number of sweaters and jackets I need to take... it's all entirely unnecessary on a short, fast ride.

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  10. Amy-we have cat airlock system. They have no casual access to the room with the front door. So once I count the cats and close the airlock, all is well, and "bike portage" via the front door is free of worry about eloping cats.

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  11. somervillain said...
    "having 3x8 gearing doesn't necessarily mean you *have* to shift all time"


    The best way I can explain it, is that the Rivendell's 3x8 gearing "makes its presence known" on rides, whereas the Bianchi's 2x6 road gearing does not. The long rear derailleur on the Rivendell is "jiggly" for lack of a better word, the front derailleur is so tight fitting that it sometimes needs adjustment even when not in use, and the bar-end shifters are sensitive to being hit or touched or leaned against stuff. To me it's all just too high maintenance on a ride when I don't need to switch gears.

    Amy - My bikes live in "the studio" which is a sort of combination room where I paint and where we store stuff. The cats are not allowed in there and the room is closed off from the rest of the apartment. It is also the closest to the front door, so the bikes can be taken out of he house via this room. Still, every day the cats cry and ask for their own tandem. So sad.

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  12. Regarding the saddle bag, did you ever think about getting one of the Bagman quick-release supports for the Carradice? That way you can easily remove the bag. (Owning two Carradice saddle bags, I know how much of a pain in the ass it is to remove and remount the bags!)

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  13. For some reason I just don't like the Bagman, despite trying to like it. Also, there is still the handlebar bag, which is even larger than the saddlebag. But I know lots of people who love the Bagman, and it's a good system.

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  14. eat every 30min when cycling, and drink alot - before you´re thirsty!

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  15. I know some people don't like the Bagman because visually it can make the bag look like it's "floating", but for a sport bike that I just want to take out for a 2-3 hour ride, I like the Bagman a lot better than a rack (it's lighter, for one thing). It holds the bag perfectly, better than a rack, so the bag doesn't tug on it's saddle straps, or droop. It's one of those cases of function over form, and I've surrendered to the sheer functionality of it.

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  16. Axel - maybe a snack, but not a full chicken dinner, right? : ) A snack should fit into the same tiny saddlebag.

    somervillain - We don't use rear racks with the Carradice barley or Zimbale 7L; these bags can be supported by the saddle loops and seatpost alone.

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  17. In recent years I’ve become more open to different kinds of bikes, including utility bikes and accessory bike “stuff”, but when it comes down to it I still enjoy more than anything an unencumbered day on my road bike. Those hills are out there and they must be climbed. It feels good to be light, free and nimble. No fenders, racks, bags, mirrors, lights, bells, whistles or any of that stuff. In commute or utility bike mode its only by necessity that I take a bike with racks, fenders or lights. Otherwise I’d prefer to not buy or have any of it, nor lug it around.

    You can cover a lot of ground with nothing more than a water bottle and the contents of a couple rear jersey pockets, maybe a little pouch under the seat… a chain tool and piece of chain, tire levers, an allen wrench or two (maybe), a tube, a patch kit, and a couple peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. Still room to tuck in a few bucks (for coffee emergencies) and… [sigh]… nowadays a small cell phone. I have the tiniest hand pump I could find for this purpose (rather than those awful CO2 cartridges). The little pump takes a lot of effort to inflate a tire but it weighs nothing, and the ability to carry it in my pocket is to me is well worth the trade-off.

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  18. For some reason I find it extremely unpleasant to cycle on a roadbike with anything in my pockets. Folded bills and maybe a credit card are all right, but even having keys or a phone in a pocket bothers me. It's like I can feel the objects there, bouncing and pulling on the pocket. I guess I am overly sensitive when it comes to these micro-sensations. So a tiny saddlebag is pretty much a must for me on a roadbike.

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  19. The dreaded micro-sensations! Well, you must place things just so in your jersey pockets. You see, this is why you put two sandwiches in there. One is for lunch and the other provides a cushion for pokey objects.

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  20. Velouria, I know this is off topic/out of place, but I was wondering who recently had a picture of a 650B conversion on your blog? Thinking of doing one.

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  21. Velouria, you've made me a bit jealous. Your point makes perfect sense to me, and in my old in-town commuting days, it would have made sense to have another bike that would just let me 'go for a run.' I'm a little sad that my newly lengthy commute calls for something a lot closer to your Hillborne and pretty much covers all the miles I'd like to cover.

    I'd say it's pretty accurate that getting out the door with this bike is more of a production, and I long for both the old days (of throwing my handbag in the basket and hopping on my single-speed Abici in whatever I happened to be wearing) and for the simplicity of getting out 'for a run' on something made for the job and nothing else. Somehow, those two bikes have more in common with each other than with my 'sport touring' commuter.

    I think both the city bike and simple road bike manage to perfect the pure joy of riding in their own ways, while the commuter and the touring bike are compromises that bring other joys: skipping an annoying train/car commute for a still fun ride, and being the perfect vehicle to get a good look around outside a single city. Useful, fun, and better than the alternatives, but just not as carefree and simple as some other bikes.

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  22. Nina - I know what you mean. The last two times I was staying in Vienna, I rode my commuter bike 20-25 miles daily just to get to work, to meetings across town that were part of work but away from the office, then back from those meetings, then home from work, then grocery shopping or other errands. After all that I had little desire or energy to go on another ride on a lighter bike on the same day!

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  23. For years, I was a "minimalist" cyclist. That meant no fenders, racks or anything else that didn't make the bike go faster. I only used such things on tours, and they were temporary attachments to whatever bike I rode at the time.

    I still love having my "stripped down" bike for pure pleasure riding. (I must admit, though, it is kind of funny to ride a fixie with a Carradice bag, as I sometimes do.) However, I now appreciate having a bike on which I can ride whatever I happen to be wearing. Part of the reason for that is that I dress a bit better for work than I used to, and I don't always have the time (or energy or inclination) to change clothes. Plus, I'm not trying to show my identity with some Euro-team. So I don't feel that my bikes or clothes have to be like theirs. Actually, these days I'd be a pretty scary sight in some team gear!

    Nina and Velouria: I find it interesting that cyclists who ride long distances to or for work usually aren't recreational cyclists. At least, that is what I noticed when I was a messenger and when I lived in Europe and saw people whose bikes were their work vehicles.

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  24. Velouria: Regarding the shifting issue and your comments about the drivetrain on the Sam, I think some of that is attributable to the bar-end shifters which RBW is so fond of promoting. This is one topic on which I take issue with GP. Since my first modern road bike in 1995, I've been completely sold on STI and I refuse to go backward. This said, I've also loved the look and idea of bar-ends for a long time. When planning the build on my Riv, I considered bar-ends and read GP's posting on why people should use them, and how to deal with hills. No thanks. I have a hard enough time dealing with hills as it is. STI makes shifting about as automatic as you would ever want on a bike. If one wants to stay in one gear most of time, or train in single speed mode, no problem. I'm just offering that if your Sam had STI instead of bar-ends, and possibly 2 x 8, or 2 x 9 instead of a triple, I bet you would find it less of a hassle to ride. I know that I'm not the only Riv owner that uses STI, but I'm definitely in the minority, if internet picture galleries are any indication. Steve in MD

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  25. A couple of months ago, I started to want a simple black city bike because my Retrovelo attracts so very much attention.

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  26. Steve in MD - I have the same shifters on my Royal H mixte, and have tried other bikes (with doubles) with them. I thoroughly enjoy the silver bar-ends and do not find them difficult to use; on bikes with doubles the shifting is crisp and precise. So I am pretty sure it's the 3x8 gearing specifically. When I am cycling along hilly terrain and shifting constantly, it's great. But when I am cycling along flatter terrain and don't want to fuss with gearing, it is annoying. I would like to try STI shifting, but the concept of tearing up my entire handlebar set-up and spending $300 just to experiment with them does not thrill me, especially since I like my current shifters and brake levers.

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  27. I have Ergo shifters (the Campy version of STI) on my Pegoretti and it's all right; I like it and have become accustomed to it - on that bike.

    But for more than 30 years now I have had bar ends and I would have to say that I still prefer them, even having tried the others. THe shift beautifully and crisply every time and require no maintenance. I like that simplicity. And on a touring bike I think they are an imperative, especially if you are going well off the beaten path. If an STI or Ergo shifter acts up, you really can't fix it in the field (or even in the shop at home; open one up and you'll be lucky not to cop a tiny spring in the eye)

    Bar ends on the other hand (or down tube shifters for that matter) can be repaired anywhere; you could conceivable whittle functional new ones out of drift wood if you had to. I wouldn't bother with making the experiment; stick with the bar ends.

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  28. Velouria and Roff: I certainly can't argue with 30 years of experience or with the complexity issue regarding STI. Nor can I discount the expense issue. However I will say, as one who has opened one up and successfully fixed it; that 95+% of STI users should never need a repair. A good soaking with a spray cleaner (or WD-40) will fix most issues. Maybe someone or some business will "sponsor" a trial with STI for you, V. After all, there are lots of them around on the used market. Just a thought. Steve in MD

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  29. Roff - I've generally heard (mostly from women) that the Campy Ergos are difficult to use compared to Shimano STI, so that has deterred me from those.

    My sister (about whose bicycle search I wrote here) now owns a modern Marin roadbike with STI shifters. After learning how to use them (and having the levers adjusted to accommodate her short reach) she finds them easy enough and has no complaints.

    Steve - You are right, that I could probably get one of the local bike shops to give me a set of "brifters" in exchange for sponsorship, but then it's also a matter of not wanting to unravel my perfected handlebar set-up and redoing the cables. A better idea might be to do an extensive test ride on a roadbike that already has them, and I will try to do that later this spring.

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  30. I think you may well have a good point about Ergo shifters. I have quite big hands, and they are fine for me, but in thinking over what you have said, they could be awkward to use for anyone with smaller hands. I have not used STI myself but I have herd from those who have that the ergonomics of them is quite a bit different.

    Go for a test ride; I'm sure you could some shop or other to let you test drive a STI -equipped roadbike. I'd be interested to hear the results.

    Steve - I'm impressed you were able to disassemble a set of STI levers and get them together again; what was wrong with them?

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  31. V: I have small hands myself and find my 105/8 STI to be just fine. So I would encourage you to do a test ride with similar levers. The largest movement is the left lever, which has to pushed inward quite a ways to shift from small (front) to large chainring. But it's still not an issue. I guess you could do your reverse brakes setup with these, I never thought about it. I can also understand not wanting to undo your cockpit setup. Once I get mine finished and taped, I won't want to mess with it either.

    Roff: Thanks. Well, if one were to do something stupid like work the shifter when the the cable is not fully seated, things get jammed. This does not happen while riding, but I guess if the cable got terribly worn in there somehow, something like this might happen. I did this years ago and followed someone else's repair guidance posted on another cycling forum. Cheers, Steve in MD

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  32. Since we are discussing light, low maintenance and "easy to just go" bikes: anybody riding a roadtype 3 speed bikel, like a SA or similar? I just converted a mixte fron 3 speed to 5 speed, and I am not sure I`ll keep it like that. One thing I do not like the "plasticy" look of the 5 speed shifter (older two wire one) and then there is the weight, and what do I REALLY need..
    badmother

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  33. Hi Steven- again I'm impressed you took one apart and fixed it. My worries about STI or Ergo, speaking as a long-haul tourer, are that over time, and rough conditions, little things like springs wear out and break and that can be tricky to find replacements and repair adequately - especially in out -of-the-way places.

    My longest expedition so far was about ten months and involved a lot of very tough desert crossings with plenty of fine gritty bull dust that could get into anything. Wear factor in those conditions increases dramatically. That's why I try to keep things on my tourers as simple as possible.

    With bar ends there is nothing to go wrong - they are as simple as a bag full of hammers.

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  34. Roff, I understand. My riding was never as rigorous or as isolated as what you describe. Mighty impressive yourself! Regarding the STI repair, it is indeed tricky. But one is motivated by having a rather expensive piece of machinery in an imoperative state! Steve in MD

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  35. badmother - I think it's generally very difficult to find an attractive shifter solution for a mixte. Have you looked for a vintage 5-speed SA shifter? And also, are you talking about the old style (plastic, black and red) or the new style? The new style ones are considerably nicer.

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  36. Velouria: Not sure if this is going to work:

    http://de.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Datei:Schalthebel_von_Fichtel-und-Sachs-Pentasport.JPG&filetimestamp=20100513205504

    It is for a 80`s Torpedo-Pentasport 5. Great hub, not so great (they say not so strong) shifter, and butt ugly "plasticky".
    badmother

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  37. There is a general right-of-passage challenge for unicyclists, once we hit 55 years of age, to ride their age in a day. I manage it at least yearly.

    Of course, in Australia we are metric so that is, for me, 59km (37km). For Yanks it can be a lot tougher in miles, though we are not anal about it. You could choose to do it in furlongs.

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