Thursday, March 31, 2011

Good-Bye 'Blueskies' ...Hello Blueprints

A couple of days ago, Seymour Blueskies packed up his things and went home with a very nice couple. I bid him farewell as I fondly recalled our times together.

From the start, my intent had been not to keep the vintage Trek, but to learn what I could from it, then move on to explore other bicycles. It was around this time that I recognised having two categories of bikes: a few that I "truly owned" and others that I considered transient and experimental. But experimental for what?

It took me some time to acknowledge that I was "seriously" interested in bicycle design, and acquiring the Trek last summer coincided with that realisation. I began to learn about bicycle history and frame geometry in a more systematic manner, to formulate ideas about the relationship between form and function, and to apply my previous training (in psychology and neuroscience, as well as art and design) to the realm of bicycles and cycling. I realised that the reason I keep acquiring more bikes, is not because I necessarily want to own them personally, but because I want to try out new ideas and to learn new things - then share the results with others. I enjoy the process of conceptualising a bicycle, then bringing about its existence and the result being successful. Now if only there was some way to do that over and over again, without ending up in financial ruin or with a hoarding disorder... Oh, I know: I could design bikes for other people.

After saying good-bye to Seymour Blueskies, I stopped by to see Bryan at Royal H. Cycles - with whom I am now collaborating on a bicycle. How on Earth did that happen? Well, funny story... You see, in this post about a month ago, I expressed a desire to try a bicycle with traditional randonneuring geometry (à la Jan Heine), and received some suggestions as to how this could be accomplished. There wasn't an easy way; these bicycles are rare. But one idea was that I could design the bike myself - and an intrepid reader was prepared to commission just such a bicycle from Royal H should I feel up to the task. And so here we are. The plan is that I come up with the specs, we discuss, Bryan builds, and we'll see what happens.

As this project begins and the Bella Ciao project nears completion, I am filled with nervous energy and self-doubt all around. I know my weak points: I am not an engineer and I am not a framebuilder. But I am perceptive and increasingly knowledgeable in other ways that are essential to bicycle design, and I do feel that I can collaborate with others to create something special. It's possible that I am over-reaching, that it's all too soon. But life is short and you never know unless you try. So I'm trying.

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

The Pashley Roadster Sovereign: Review After Two New England Winters

If you are a regular reader, you probably know that the Co-Habitant owns a Pashley Roadster Sovereign. We bought a pair of Pashleys when I first started this blog, and while I've since sold my Princess, he has kept his Roadster. He loves this bicycle. It is his main transportation bike, taking him to and from work every day for nearly two years now - in sunshine, rain and snow. This review is based on both his and my impressions of the bike.

Pashley bicycles have been made in Stratford-upon-Avon, England since 1926. The Roadster is a traditional lugged steel English roadster frame with relaxed geometry and 28" wheels. It is powdercoated black and fitted with a 5-speed Sturmey Archer hub, dynamo lighting, and drum brakes. See here for the full specs and here for the complete set of images. This bicycle was purchased in May 2009 from Harris Cyclery in West Newon, MA (not a sponsor at the time).

One interesting thing to note about this bike is the sizing. The Co-Habitant is 6' tall and his preferred frame size is normally 60-64cm, depending on geometry. However, his Pashley's frame is only 22.5" (57cm), and yet it is his size. That is because the Pashley Roadster has an unusually high bottom bracket (330mm), which makes the standover considerably higher than it would be on a typical bike. For comparison, the bottom bracket height on his vintage Raleigh DL-1 Roadster is 310mm, which in itself is considered high. This explains why the Raleigh and Pashley are both his size, despite the former being a 24" frame and the latter a 22.5" frame. When in doubt, go down a size with the Pashley Roadster.

The Pashley Roadster Sovereign is a bicycle fully equipped for commuting: generous fenders, full chaincase, vinyl dress guards, large rear rack, drop-down kickstand and an integrated wheel lock. The Co-Habitant finds the dressguards and chaincase convenient, because they enable him to wear pretty much anything he wants on the bike - including dressy clothing and overcoats. He does not like tucking his trousers into socks or wearing ankle straps when riding to work, so these features are important to him. The chaincase has kept his chain immaculately clean through two winters and does not stand in the way of rear wheel removal. For those who dislike the drop-down kickstand, the frame does come with a kickstand plate, so it's possible to install an alternative. Initially, we installed a Pletcher double-legged kickstand and used it instead of the drop-down, until it broke, so now it's back to the original.

Though the headlight on the Roadster is dynamo-powered, the tail light is battery-operated. The 2.4W dynamo hub makes it difficult to modify this lighting set-up, and we are really not sure why Pashley chose to do this instead of using a 3W hub and bulb. We are considering eventually replacing the lighting on his bike with a front and rear LED system with standlights. Trouble is, there aren't any classic LED headlights in a style that would suit the Pashley.

Supplementary Cateye battery lights attached for situations when visibility is especially poor. The bolts on the Pashley's front axel make it easy to mount these.

The rear rack is spacious, but made of such thick tubing that most pannier mounting systems will not fit it. The Ortlieb QL2 and the R&K Klick-fix systems sort of fit, but just barely.

Tires are Schwalbe Marathon Plus. They are not my favourite tires, but the puncture protection is unbeatable.

The saddle is the super-sprung Brooks B33 - especially suitable for the larger gentlemen on upright bikes.

And of course, the shiny "ding dong" bell. That's us, reflected in it.

Though we are both lovers of customisations, there wasn't much that the Co-Habitant modified on this bicycle. All the components have remained stock thus far. As far as positioning, he lowered the handlebars to make them level with the saddle and angled them down a bit, for a more aggressive position. He also shoved the saddle forward by means of reversing the seat clamp. He added a Brooks Glenbrook saddlebag and Millbrook handlebar bag, which are permanently affixed to the bike. The saddlebag contains his lock, bungee cords and saddle cover in the side pockets, with the main compartment kept empty for quick grocery trips and other errands.

The handlebar bag contains his rain gear, gloves, bad-weather cycling glasses, flashlight, and epic toolkit. The toolkit he carries only on longer trips.

The original plastic handlebar grips were replaced with the Brooks leather washer grips. Front and rear drum brakes are hand-operated, and he has them routed right-front. And just in case you haven't noticed, the handlebar set-up includes a cycling computer and twined water bottles in their DIY handlebar mounts. The computer is fairly unobtrusive, blending in with the black part of the riser stem.

And a close-up of he bottle cage mounts. The set-up with the twin bottles sticking out like miniature cannons over the handlebars is over-the-top eccentric for me - but over time I've grown used to seeing them on his bike and even find them endearing. He has also carried paper cups full of coffee in those bottle cages - successfully.

We considered washing the bicycle before taking pictures for the review, but ultimately decided against it. These pictures realistically portray what the bike looks like after a winter of commuting - and a harsh winter at that. The only time this frame has ever been wiped down was after the previous winter. With everything either fully enclosed or stainless, the Pashley Roadster is as low-maintenance as they get. The powdercoating has held up excellently, with just a few scuffs here and there. Over the time he's owned this bicycle, the Co-Habitant has broken two spokes on the rear wheel (one per year) and had them replaced. The wheels also had to be re-trued a couple of times, no doubt due to the horrible pothole-ridden roads on which he commutes. Otherwise, significant adjustments have not been necessary.

As far as ride quality and subjective feedback go, there is a distinct feeling of the bicycle being stable, reliable and enormous.

It can comfortably travel at high speeds, with the cyclist feeling relaxed, perched high above city traffic. And this isn't merely an illusion - with the high bottom bracket and the upright sitting position, the height at which the rider is placed really is out of the ordinary.

The bicycle handles well on the road and off, in dry and wet conditions. In the winter, it has proven to be a trusty companion.

Even during blizzards, the Co-Habitant continued to commute on this bicycle, and felt comfortable doing it.

When describing the Pashley Roadster's ride quality, it is worth noting that it is not the male equivalent of the Princess model: The geometry and handling of the two bikes are different. Performace-wise, the Roadster accelerates faster and climbs hills easier than the Princess, which can be problematic for those who buy the two bikes as a "his and hers" pair. Though this discrepancy between the men's and women's models is unfortunate, the Roadster's performance in itself is terrific.

As for my own impressions of the Co-Habitant's Pashley, I've come to see the bike as his permanent companion or even an extension of his personality. He loves the bike, never complains about it, and uses it daily for transportation, which is fantastic. But sometimes I do wonder whether the bike is overbuilt for his purposes: To me it seems excessively heavy, and I don't get the point of having that monstrous rear rack if it is seldom used for anything other than saddlebag support. Also, it takes great effort to convince him to leave the bike locked up in the city, which is frustrating. At work he has secure locking facilities, but when we go out he worries about the bike too much - which in my view somewhat undermines its usefulness. However, the most important thing is that he enjoys the bike and rides it, which I feel has been accomplished here pretty well.

Though the Pashley Roadster Sovereign is not inexpensive by any means, it is a good value once you consider what is included and add it all up: a traditional lugged frame made in England and a fully integrated "commuting package" consisting of fenders, drum brakes, full chaincase, dressguards, puncture-proof tires, lighting, and a high quality sprung leather saddle. After close to two years of daily use, including two New England winters, the bicycle looks hardly worse for wear - a testament to its durability. As with everything, your impressions may differ, but the Co-Habitant is a happy owner. He is not looking for another transportation bicycle for the foreseeable future.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Vegan Options for Classic Saddles

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Though I am personally not against using animal products, some of my friends and readers are - which makes bicycle saddle purchases especially difficult for them. The problem is the basic construction of the saddles: There simply aren't any vegan options on the market today that are made in the same manner as suspended leather saddles, whereby a tough yet breathable material is stretched over metal railings like a hammock. So, what is the next best thing in terms of construction? Since saddle preferences are highly personal, I can only tell you what works for me, and hopefully it will be useful to some of you as well. If not suspended leather, then the next best thing for me is an ergonomically-shaped saddle that is a hard plastic shell, covered with a thin layer of synthetic material and very minimal padding in between. I prefer this construction by far over heavy padding or gel, which I find completely unridable. A number of experienced cyclists, such as Jon Forester, recommend these hard saddles over padded ones - the reasoning being, that the padding/gel bunches up under your sitbones and becomes uncomfortable over the course of a ride, whereas a hard plastic support with minimal padding holds up your weight equally.

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For roadbikes, there are several vegan options available as far as these types of saddles go. Notably, SOMA has recently released the Okami series (above, and the previous image), which comes in black, white, and embossed floral "synthetic leather," with copper-plated rivets. I've heard good things about this saddle, though I personally have not tried it. And it certainly looks classic.

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The Japanese manufacturer Kashimax has recently re-issued several colourful models in this tradition, many of which are vegan (just look for the models labeled "plastic" rather than "suede"). Though the Kashimax saddles look scary-long and uncushioned, I've tried one on a friend's bike and really liked it.  

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Another all-plastic option is the Cinelli Unicanitor re-issue - "the first saddle with a plastic shell in the history of cycling".

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And a limited edition Barry McGee version, covered with a lightly padded synthetic leather.

[image via chari &co]

Two Italian manufacturers have re-issued their original versions of these classic saddles as well. Selle Italia has released several versions of the classic "Turbo" model. I have ridden on several vintage Turbo saddles and loved them, so this would probably my vegan saddle of choice for a roadbike. There is something about the squarish back, the sloping sides and the down-turned nose that I find very comfortable. 

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The Concor release by Selle San Marco is a similar design to the Turbo, though I have not tried these personally. And SOMA's Ta-Bo is yet another version.

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Now, as far as saddles for upright bicycles go, I am not really sure what to tell you. I have not found a good vegan alternative to a sprung leather saddle, so these are more like "the lesser evil" suggestions. The Ondina model by Selle Royal (above image) is a mattress-style saddle. It is more evenly padded than other models I've tried, and resists bunching up. I have ridden on this saddle and thought it was fine for a short urban ride.

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I have also tried the mattress-style Lepper saddles (which come standard on many Dutch bikes), and those are similar to the Selle Royal, though with a more boxy profile. They are also usually quite heavy and the springs are enormous.

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Electra offers a number of vintage-inspired saddles that look the part, and aren't as horrendously over-padded as others I've seen - including these narrower styles that would work well on a mixte. 

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Electra also sells a lot of colourful models that could work well on a traditional bike. After all, a classic look does not necessarily need to imitate leather. 

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The cruiser manufacturer Nirve offers a number of traditional styles as well, including the riveted saddle pictured above and a number of floral-embossed models.

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And another classic design by Nirve, with the "diamond" pattern popular on cruisers. If you are going for looks alone, there is a great deal to choose from between Nirve and Electra, but ride quality reports for these vary considerably.

If you have experience with any of the saddles listed here, please share your thoughts. And if you have other vegan alternatives to recommend for those who do not wish to buy leather saddles,  your suggestions would be much appreciated. 

Monday, March 28, 2011

Free 'Superba' to a Woman in Need

Talk about the kindness of strangers... Even as I announce this I find it hard to believe, but here goes: A reader of Lovely Bicycle wishes to donate a Bella Ciao "Superba" to a woman who cannot afford a nice bike. The bicycle has already been pre-ordered and paid for, and it will be available as soon as the Superba bicycles arrive in May. The idea was the donor's, not mine, and I was as surprised as you probably are by the offer! Please read on for the details:

The recipient will be a woman, who is actively interested in owning this particular bike, and is in a situation of financial hardship. The recipient must be located in the USA or Canada. To learn more about the bicycle, please see here and here. This bicycle will fit persons 5'5"- 5'10" and note that it has a coasterbrake.

Entry Instructions
If you would like to be considered, please email me privately to "filigreevelo-at-yahoo" with the subject line "Free Superba" and tell me why you are the appropriate recipient. Please also include your height. The emails I receive must be from the women who want this bicycle for themselves and not from their spouses, relatives or friends. Deadline for submitting an entry is May 1, 2011.

Additional Information
I want to make it clear that this give-away is not sponsored by the manufacturer. The donor is an individual with no bike industry connection who is simply a reader of Lovely Bicycle. The donor wishes to remain anonymous and does not wish to take part in the selection process; that has been delegated to me. Entry emails will be read only by me and your information will be kept strictly confidential. The recipient's full name and mailing address will be disclosed to Harris Cyclery (in order to ship the bike), but not to the donor. One thing I ask, is that the recipient emails me a picture of themselves with the bike after receiving it, along with some feedback.

I will be collecting entries from now until May 1st. It will then probably take me a week or so to choose the recipient, and the bicycles will hopefully arrive shortly thereafter. If you have any questions about this give-away, please feel free to ask in the comments. And thank you to the person whose kind gesture makes this possible. It's hard to know what to say and I will do my best to select the recipient fairly.

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Saddlebag as Buffer Zone

With most of our bicycles fitted with saddlebags, we've noticed a welcome secondary benefit: They provide an effective buffer zone. Should a bicycle fall or come into contact with an abrasive surface, the bag can protect the frame, components and saddle from getting damaged. 

When a bicycle is on its side, it essentially rests on the saddlebag, without the saddle itself touching the ground. If the bag is large enough, it can even provide enough of a buffer so that the drivetrain does not suffer from impact.

The saddlebag is also helpful when you need to rest the bicycle against a rock or a fence. Even if you have a kickstand, sometimes it is too windy to use it, or the ground is not stable enough, and you are better off resting the bike in a position where it can't fall. On the picture above you can see that the saddlebag allows for almost the entire bike to avoid contact with sand or rock. While the primary purpose of a saddlebag is, of course, to carry stuff, the "buffer zone" it provides is tremendously useful. I have scuffed the saddles on every bicycle I've used without one.

Saturday, March 26, 2011

Zipcar... Not at All Like Bikeshare

So, we have finally signed up for Zipcar, and I thought it might be useful to share my impressions. While I had imagined a motorised version of a bikeshare program, Zipcar is a different thing entirely.

Here is how it works: First you buy a yearly membership. It is worth noting that some employers have programs for employees to try it free, which was the case with us - but otherwise it's $60 per year plus a $25 application fee (so essentially you pay $85 to sign up). You are then able to rent a Zipcar by the hour at rates that start at $7.50 per hour. The rate depends on the type of car you need. So, for instance, a compact sedan might be $7.50, but a truck or SUV would be more like $12. You can also rent a Zipcar for an entire day, and the daily rates start from $69. To use a car you must reserve it, which can be done online or via smartphone. You specify in advance the exact time you will be getting and returning the car, and when finished, you must return the car to the same location from which you got it.

I can see how this system would be useful for those who need a car for short and pre-planned trips to the grocery/  hardware/ furniture store, or for meetings with clients that are short and finite in nature. However, our needs are different and there is no way Zipcar would work for us in most circumstances.

Scenario 1: We need to go to our photo studio or to a photoshoot in a far-off location, and to bring a bunch of enormous equipment with us. We will then be staying there for 5 hours working, maybe longer - depends how it goes. And it's the weekend.

Problems: We'd have to rent the car for en entire day, because at the hourly rate it would not be worth it. Either way, the rate would be quite high, because we'd need a large vehicle. Additionally Zipcar's weekend rates are higher than weekday rates, which would make the fee greater still. Car rental makes more sense than Zipcar.

Scenario 2: There is an urgent situation and we need a car right away.

Problems: We check the Zipcar reservation site and there are no cars available in any locations within 2 miles from us for the next hour and a half (This is true: I just checked). We also do not know for how long we need the car - could be 45 minutes, or could be 3 hours. A taxi makes more sense than Zipcar.

So... since 90% of the times we need a car, it is one of the above scenarios, Zipcar is not really the right choice for us. However, I think that if Zipcar worked more like a bikeshare program, it could be more useful for everyone. In many areas, there is a dense grid of Zipcar locations - so why not make it so that a car can be checked out from one location and returned to another? I am sure there are good logistical reasons why this is not done, and as always no system is perfect. I hope this was useful for those considering a Zipcar membership and wondering how the system works.

Friday, March 25, 2011

(elk)Hide I Seek

I get lots of questions about what handlebar tape I use on my mixte, so I've taken some close-ups. It's actually not tape at all, but elkhide sew-on city grips from Velo Orange. From a user's viewpoint, these are probably my favourite things to put on upright handlebars, because they feel the most comfortable to grip: not too hard and not to soft, just right. However, from an installer's viewpoint, they are kind of a pain to sew on and it takes forever. I've put them on two of my bicycles so far (the Royal H. and the Gazelle), each time thinking "never again!" while doing it. And yet, they are so comfortable, that I've just ordered another set.

The reason my elkhide grips look like bartape in pictures, is that I do have a layer of cloth tape installed underneath the leather. Doing this provides extra padding without making the gripping surface too soft. And the texture of the cloth tape printing through the leather feels ergonomic to my hands.

My grips are "espresso," to match my brown Brooks B72. When you first get these, they are kind of a dusty brick colour and don't match the Brooks brown at all - but they do once treated with Proofide (just install them first, then the Proofide).

As for the installation process... Let's just say lots of profanity was involved both times I sewed these on. VO recommends doing a 2-needle baseball cross-stitch, which is utterly foreign to me. After a half hour of unsuccessfully trying to figure out the instructions and undoing some very ugly sewing, I gave up and used my own stitch, which has held up pretty well since last September. Elkhide is a soft, almost buttery leather that weathers nicely and adapts to the shape of your grip - especially if you install it over a layer or cloth tape. Overall I find that it's worth it, despite the not-so-fun installation.