Tuesday, May 31, 2011

A Swedish Guest

Last week I received a new bicycle for an extended test ride and review: a Pilen Lyx. The distributor (BoxCycles) gave me a choice of colours and I took a gamble once again instead of just asking for black. This time the gamble paid off: The unusual shade of blue looks as stunning in person as it did in pictures. It is an ethereal "northern skies after an afternoon storm" sort of blue that I just want to keep staring at.

A small Swedish manufacturer, Pilen has been producing bicycles since 1998. The worksmanship looks outstanding.

The finishing on the TIG-welded frame with lugged fork crown, seat collar, and capped seat stays is up there with the quality of high-end custom frames.

I will cover the frame details in the review after I've had more time with the bike, but so far I am pleasantly surprised.

Nice headbadge, too. Pilen means "arrow" in Swedish.

The lady's frame is available in one size only and it is huge: 56cm or 58cm (22"+), depending on how you measure it. At 5'7" I had to slam the saddle down, but I'm used to that: my Gazelle and Raleigh DL-1 are the same size.

Here are the Gazelle and the Pilen together. The Pilen will be kept outdoors for the duration of its visit, which will allow me to test its resistance to the elements. The distributor assumed this as a matter of course, since that is how he keeps his own bike and that is how Pilens were designed to be stored.

I've been riding the bike since Friday, but am not ready to describe the ride quality yet. It is not like a Dutch bike, and neither is it like an English roadster, so I am trying to "understand" it. I am also still messing with the handlebar and saddle positions and will hold off on my impressions until I get those just right.

But wait, there's more...

In their generosity, the distributor has given me the green light to give this bicycle away once I am finished reviewing it. There are no strings attached: I can just give it to one of my readers in any way I see fit. This is exciting, and I already have an idea for a contest that is kind of kooky, but hopefully fun. So if you are a taller lady, the Pilen could be yours! The final review will probably be ready in 3 weeks' time, and that is also when the bicycle will be given away. Stay tuned and I will post more about the contest next week!

Monday, May 30, 2011

Right of Way and Driver Education

Last night we were returning home on our bikes. As we approached an intersection where we needed to make a left turn, we signaled and moved to the leftmost part of the lane. A motorist approaching the same intersection behind us began to honk. We turned around, confused. The light had just turned red and all three of us were stopped at the intersection. She continued to honk. We asked what the problem was. She rolled down her window, and the conversation went something like this:

Motorist:  What the hell are you doing?!
We:  What do you mean?
Motorist: You're not supposed to be in front of me like that, you're blocking the road!
We: We're using the road just like you. Why are you honking?
Motorist: What the hell am I supposed to do when you're blocking my way?!
We: You're supposed to wait for us to turn.
Motorist: But you're not supposed to be there if I need to get by. You don't have the right of way!
We: What? Of course we have the right of way, we were here first.
Motorist: Unless you're in the bike lane, you do not have the right of way! You're supposed to let me get by!
We: Bicycles have the right of way just like any other vehicle.
Motorist: Not if you're not in the bike lane!
We: Yes. Check your facts.
Motorist: No! You check your facts!

I don't know how things would have gone had the light not turned green at that point, but it did. The motorist floored the gas pedal and veered around us in order to proceed straight as we made our left turn.

It's not so much the motorist's rudeness that I found alarming  (she was screaming at us), but the fact that she genuinely believed that cyclists did not have the right of way unless they were in the bike lane. In other words, she thought that if a cyclist needed to make a left turn, they must stand aside and wait for all the cars behind them to pass before they were allowed to proceed. This is blatantly incorrect, but that doesn't help any in situations like this.

In my view, lack of drivers' awareness about bicycling laws is largely responsible for cyclist-motorist confrontations. When I first began riding a bike in Boston, drivers would occasionally scold me for "breaking the law" (i.e. cycling on the road). Now that bicycles have become more common this seldom happens, but yesterday's encounter shows that misunderstanding of road rules still exists. I've read that in areas where this is especially bad, cyclists have taken to carrying copies of local bicycle laws and handing them out to motorists who harass them. That is further than I personally would want to go. But it seems to me that some driver's ed initiative is in order - especially if a city is actively striving to be more "bicycle friendly."

Sunday, May 29, 2011

Cycling and Sun Damage

Though I have derived many benefits from cycling, the one drawback I am still struggling with is sun damage. During my first year on the bike as an adult, I thought that I was being pretty good about using sun protection, but noticed visible damage to my skin that seemed to be a direct result of cycling over the summer months. Darkened patches and wrinkles appeared in areas of my face and body that had been most exposed to the sun while cycling. And this was despite using high SPF sunblock and staying off the road during the hottest times of the day.

At some point last summer, I switched from chemical to physical sunblock (titanium dioxide or zinc oxide), which seems to have helped. My skin was sensitive to the chemical stuff, and some friends told me that 30SPF physical block worked better for them than 60+SPF chemical, as well as lasted considerably longer. I switched and found this to be true for me as well. Physical sunblock remains visible after application and looks kind of goofy, but at this point I couldn't care less and just want to ride my bike without wrecking my skin. After year two there was still some additional skin damage, but less than before.This summer I will try to be extra good about applying the sunblock as frequently as possible.

In speaking to long-time road cyclists about sun damage, I've learned that it is a common complaint - to the extent that some just accept it as inevitable, embrace their wrinkles and brown spots, and pay frequent visits to the dermatologist. I really don't want to believe that it has to be that way, but my own case has done nothing to prove them wrong. What has been your experience with sun damage as a result of cycling, and how do you deal with it?

Friday, May 27, 2011

3 Wheels and a Box: the Christiania Cargo Trike

If you've been hoping for a change of pace from the recurring roadcycling theme, your wish is granted. Yesterday I had a visit from Will of BoxCycles - an importer of European utility bicycles whose warehouse is not far from Boston. The purpose of the visit was to drop off one of these - but more on that later! In the meantime, he was also delivering this Christiania cargo trike to someone local, and I had the opportunity to try it. 

Christiania Bikes have been around since 1976, initially as a small workshop in the Freetown Christiania neighbourhood of Copenhagen, Denmark. If you do not already know the history of this unusual neighbourhood, it's worth looking into - very interesting stuff. In addition to Christiania bikes, the modern incarnation of Pedersen began there as well. Having over time expanded, Christiania now has a factory on Bornholm Island. Their cycles remain manufactured, finished and assembled by hand - the most popular model being the cargo trike shown here.

Though I occasionally see cargo trikes both in Europe and in the US, this is the first time I've examined one so closely. The Christiania is a heavy-duty welded aluminum frame with three 24" wheels: two in front and one in rear. The cargo box is positioned between the front wheels and the cyclist steers with it when turning.  The box is plywood, and there are several models available in different widths and lengths. This trike is 82" long and 34" wide, weighing 75lb when empty. It accommodates 100kg (220.5lb) of weight can can be used for anything from hauling cargo to transporting children.

Inside the box is a bench with padded seat cushions and two sets of seatbelts. Given the weight capacity, this trike can easily fit several children, or even an adult or two.

Seatbelt attachment points on the back of the box.

The handlebars are not really handlebars at all, but more like a pram or shopping cart handle.

The lefthand side is set up with a front brake lever, parking brake and bell. A parking brake is necessary with a cargo trike; without one it will roll down even the tiniest inclines.

The righthand side is set up with a gear shifter. The trikes are available as either 7 or 8 speeds.

Shimano coaster brake hub, clear chainguard, massive cranks and non-slip pedals.

The chainguard provides good coverage, though it is not a full chaincase.

The front wheels are set up with disk brakes, which are activated by the hand lever. Tires are Schwalbe Big Apple.

Rear reflectors are affixed to the fenders of each wheel. A dynamo lighting package is available with his model, using a bottle generator on the rear wheel (you can see the attachment arm for it here).

The stock saddle is a plushy vinyl Selle San Remo.

I rode the trike briefly and clumsily, so I better use the pictures I took of Will to show you how it works. To operate the trike, you basically need to point the box, using that one long handle, in the direction you need to go. This sounds simple enough, but if you've never ridden this kind of trike before it is completely counter-intuitive. The other thing that takes getting used to is that when turning, the box pivots on its axel and becomes parallel to the cyclist - not unlike a swing bike!

Watch this: Here is the trike going straight.

And here is what happens when turning. Crazy!

Those who own one of these trikes say it takes about a day to get the hang of the steering, but that once you do it becomes second nature. While I have no experience with other trikes, there is a nice test ride report on Suburban Bike Mama where she compares the Christiania to her own Sorte Jernhest. I've also seen a couple of Christianias around Boston at this point, and the owners seem pretty adept at steering. 

If we continue to live without a car (which at this point seems likely), it is possible that I may want to get some massive cargo hauling contraption in the future, which is why I was curious to test ride one of these. One thing that surprised me about the unloaded Christiania is how light it felt. I expected the trike itself to be heavy and clunky, but it has an almost airy feel to it without cargo. It rolls easily, including up the mild incline of my street. Once it is filled with 100lbs of stuff I am sure the handling will be different, but it is nice to know how the trike behaves on its own as well. Making turns felt wild and tippy, but also a lot of fun. Since others are able to grasp it in a day, I am sure I would as well. My one source of ambivalence toward the Christiania, is that it seems designed specifically to transport children, which is not what I would need a cargo bike for. It's not only the benches (which I am sure are optional), but also that long handle and something about the general look that, to me at least, makes it resemble a giant pram. I can just imagine using this trike to carry equipment and being constantly asked how many kids I have. Having said that, I think that most people considering a cargo trike like this do in fact plan to transport children, which would make what I am describing a good thing. If drivers see you on the road and think "baby carriage!" they will probably be more careful and will give you more room.

Front loaded box cycles - be they two wheeled bakfiets or cargo trikes - are a radically different experience than riding a standard bicycle, but they also offer a radically different degree of utility. As more people are looking at transportation cycling as a normal and viable option, cargo bikes of all sorts are becoming more popular and I love seeing them on the streets. Maybe a couple of years from now, I will be riding one to the hardware store and writing about it here.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Misadventures on the MUP

Last evening was a low point for me... I yelled at someone on the Minuteman Trail. I was cycling home after a ride, and the trail was more or less empty. I am normally ever-vigilant for dogwalkers and baby carriages suddenly appearing out of nowhere, but this time I had let down my guard. I was going faster than I normally do on the trail, when from around the bend, three cyclists - traveling three abreast and taking up the entire width of the path - came barreling toward me at a similarly unadvisable speed. They were chatting and the cyclist who was headed for a direct collision with me had her face turned toward her friends instead of looking ahead of her. Time froze and I kept expecting that any instant now she'd see me and get out of my line of travel, but she didn't. Not wanting to end up in the bushes or in a pile of bikes and limbs, my mind went blank and I heard myself scream "MOVE!" in a tone of voice that was so menacing that I even scared myself.

It got their attention and a collision was avoided. But as I continued on my way, I heard a distinct "and a nice day to you, too!" from the direction of their receding forms. I felt a wave of shame wash over me. Sure, in a perfect world I would have yelled "excuse me" or "watch out" instead. But I yelled the first thing that popped into my head, and if I didn't we could have both been in the hospital right now.

Multi Use Pathways can be difficult for cyclists precisely because of situations like this. The trails are narrow and those who travel along them do not always behave predictably. Joggers wearing sound-proof earphones, rollerbladers veering from side to side, dogwalkers brandishing those terrifying invisible leashes stretched across the path, unsupervised children making spontaneous U-turns on their tricycles... It's a jungle out there. If I could easily do so, I would avoid MUPs entirely, but the alternative route out of town is 10 miles on a very busy road. So I try to be cautious, stick to a moderate pace and hope for the best. How do you deal with MUPs?

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

I am Curious, Yellow

Obscure film references aside, the past week for me has been dominated by equal parts anticipation and anxiety. I've ridden my loaner roadbike for 120 miles in preparation for the next paceline ride... which, ironically, was cancelled for the second time in a row due to rain. The more time passes, the more my anticipation builds and the more exaggerated my anxieties become.

The Co-Habitant and I did two fast-paced, hilly rides over the weekend - he on his Surly Cross Check and I on the borrowed Seven. We went over the same hills where he has previously passed me nonchalantly regardless of which bikes we were both riding... only this time our positions were reversed dramatically. I shot past him while exerting little effort, continued to merrily cycle uphill, and then waited for him to catch up as I sipped water and sniffed flowers.

Of course we expected that a racy roadbike would be faster than a heavier and more relaxed cyclocross bike with wide tires and a saddlebag. But since he is a stronger cyclist than I am to begin with, I thought that the discrepancy would level the playing field between us. Neither of us thought that it would make me this much faster uphill.

The interesting thing is that on downhills and flats there was not much difference between us; it was uphill that the bike really began to matter. This parallels my experience of the paceline ride on my Rivendell, where it was specifically on the uphill portions that I felt a disadvantage to the others.

But while I am now confident in the bike's climbing ability, this is tempered by a fear not only of its speed on descents, but also of my relative unfamiliarity with its handling. After putting nearly 2,000 miles on my Rivendell I pretty much know how it behaves across a wide range of situations. The 120 miles on the Seven are just not sufficient for that kind of comfort to develop. I don't mind admitting that I'm plain scared when riding it at 25mph+ downhill - scared of the narrow tires, scared of the carbon fork, and scared of its precise but aggressive cornering. The fear saps away my confidence, making me squeeze the brakes and cycle more conservatively than I am capable of.

Being 100% comfortable with a bicycle is not something I can force; it takes time. My curiosity is a strong motivator to keep riding and practicing, specifically seeking out those situations that still make me nervous.

While the bike is in my possession I've fitted it with my own saddle, which has made it more comfortable to ride long distances. I've also installed my pedals (the narrow MKS Streams) and PowerGrips. This looks silly on a bike that is typically ridden clipless, but I don't care: I need to ride it in a way that makes me comfortable. I've also now raised the saddle another 5mm from how it's shown in this picture, which almost makes it look like the standover is not too high. Almost. The length of the toptube and the handlebar set-up work well for me (the Ride Studio Cafe matched the configuration to one of my own bikes) and it's only the seat tube height that's off. The result is that the bike fits me extremely well when I am riding it, but looks too big when I am not. Ideally, the frame would have the same virtual top tube length, with the actual top tube just a little bit sloped in order to reduce standover. Given the available demo models I prefer this set-up over a smaller frame, because I don't like toe overlap. All in all I feel good on this bike, which is what matters.

I really hope they don't cancel the paceline ride next week; the anticipation is getting ridiculous. In the meantime, all I can do is keep riding.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Mirror, Mirror on the Bike...

Over the past week I've received several emails with questions about bicycle mirrors, so it seemed like a good topic for a post. As with most safety-related issues, opinions on bicycle mirrors are divided. I don't want to reiterate what's already been discussed to death elsewhere, but here is a very brief summary:

The pro bicycle mirror rhetoric is that they allow you to monitor the traffic behind you without having to turn around. The anti bicycle mirror rhetoric is that they are distracting, and that using them can lead to misperceptions of traffic proximity. Furthermore, those who do use mirrors are divided on whether they ought to be handlebar-mounted or head-mounted. Here is a post from Alan on ecovelo that explains why he uses bicycle mirrors. And here is a thread on bikeforums where members explain why they believe bicycle mirrors are dangerous, as other members argue with them.

If you look at pictures of my bicycles, it is obvious that I don't use mirrors. But I am not rabidly anti-mirror either. I just find that they are not for me. They do distract me. And they do interfere with my sense of connectedness to my environment - a connectedness that is the very reason I find cycling in traffic easier than driving a car in traffic. For what it's worth, this is also why I cannot relate to arguments that compare bicycle mirrors to car mirrors. In a car I am closed off from the road and my view is blocked in almost all directions. Also, turning around is tricky, because of the way the interior of the car is structured. On a bicycle, my view of the road is unobstructed and turning to look over my shoulder is much easier. This is why I find mirrors in a car necessary, while I find mirrors on a bike not only unnecessary, but counterproductive. Your experience may differ.

If you are trying to decide whether a bicycle mirror is a good idea, why not buy an inexpensive one and give it a try on a quiet road? That way you will be able to determine how you respond to it and whether you find it beneficial or detrimental. I can't recommend any particular mirror, since I don't use them. I've heard good things about the Zephal Spy Mirror and the German mirror sold by Rivendell, but that's all I know. If you have opinions or recommendations to contribute, that would be most welcome.

Monday, May 23, 2011

On Sentimentality and Retiring Old Bikes

When we got the Co-Habitant's Surly Cross-Check frame, it was supposed to be an off-road-capable supplement to his vintage roadbike, not a replacement. But after he built up the Surly and took it on several rides, the old Motobecane was soon put away. We had expected that the modern cross bike with wide tires would be more comfortable, but slower and less agile than the vintage roadbike. Instead, it is more comfortable in addition to being just as agile and also faster - not to mention more stable and entirely lacking in shimmy on descents. 

The Co-Habitant is a wee bit disillusioned in vintage bikes at the moment. All the lugs and "patina" in the world are not worth it to him, if a reasonably priced, good quality new TIG-welded frame fitted with decent components offers a better ride. That is not to say that a mass produced mid-tier Motobecane from 1976 represents all vintage bikes. But sometimes experimenting with vintage until you find a good frame can be more expensive than buying new.

Nonetheless, "Myles" the Motobecane was the first roadbike he'd ridden as an adult, and the one and only roadbike he's been riding for the past two years. It was old and crusty and we made it beautiful. It was rickety and we updated it with nicer components. That bike got him through multiple trips to Maine and Cape Cod just fine, before he knew that "just fine" could feel even better. It seems almost a betrayal to get rid of it so unceremoniously.

We've considered turning the Motobecane into a beater city bike, but that idea was eventually dismissed. Ultimately, he likes wide tires and stable handling for city riding, and a twitchy 1970s French roadbike is just not his idea of a good time in our pothole-ridden neighbourhood. Fair enough.

So, what to do with a retired bike? One option is to sell it as a complete bicycle. The other option is to strip all the good components, keep them for future projects or trades, and sell just the frame. In the past, we've always gone with the former, even though financially it makes less sense. This time we are considering the latter, but ultimately still leaning toward the former out of sheer sentimentality - if Myles is kept intact, at least he would still be "alive." But of course that's ridiculous.

Later in the summer I will face a similar dilemma with my vintage Moser fixed gear conversion. It feels too small. But more importantly, despite having been reassured about the low bottom bracket issue I've now actually experienced pedal strike on this bike and that's enough to convince me that I need a fixed-gear specific road frame. In the case of the Moser, I plan to move its wheelset and some of the other components to the new frame when I get it, and just hang on to the Moser frame as a keepsake. I got in in Austria and the memories associated with it are worth more to me than whatever money I could get for the frame. Maybe some time later I will give it away to a friend as a gift, but I just don't feel that it's sellable.

What do you do with bicycles that you replace or retire? Does sentimental attachment get in the way of reason?

Sunday, May 22, 2011

An Igleheart and a 'Sex Hub'

At the New England Bicycle Expo a couple of weekends ago, I had the pleasure of meeting legendary New England framebuilder Christopher Igleheart and briefly test riding one of his bicycles - an upright commuter model called the Yoyodyne. One cool thing about this bike - aside from it being an Igleheart - was the 3-speed Sturmey Archer S3X hub - aka "the sex hub." Several people I know have set up their bikes with this hub and their feedback has been intriguing, so I wanted to try for myself. And what better way than on an Igleheart bike?

Located just North of Boston, Mr. Igleheart - like many local builders - traces his professional beginnings to the legacy of Fat City Cycles, where he started as an apprentice welder in the 1980s. By 1994 he had established Igleheart Custom Frames as an independent operation, spcialising in TIG-welded steel. In the chaotic environment of the Bicycle Expo, a sense of calm presided over the crowded Igleheart booth. The man is very comfortable with his work and discusses it in a way that communicates his experience and versatility. Road bikes, mountain bikes, transportation bikes and even randonneuring bikes - he knows them all, executing them in his distinct aesthetic.

Unfortunately, I somewhat dropped the ball on photographing this beautiful bicycle. The high noon light was unflattering from every angle, the background I chose was too busy, and people kept coming up to ask about the bike and distracting me. The results are washed out and entirely unworthy of the Yoyodyne, so I did what I usually do with ruined pictures: upped the contrast and at least tried to make them atmospherically interesting.

The Yoyodyne is designed as a fun and comfortable city bike. This particular one has a green frame and an orange fork, which is an unexpectedly pleasing colour combination. 

Columbus Zona is a comfortable all-around tubing that contributes to a plush ride quality. The welds are very cleanly done. The segmented fork is one of my favourite fork designs and I never tire of its various iterations from different New England framebuilders.

Components cater to urban commuting, combining good quality and budget considerations: single crankset, Soma stem and Oxford swept-back handlebars, cork grips, simple city brake lever, brass bell, and a front rack. [edited to add: I just learned that the price for this complete bicycle is $1900 - good deal!]

Cardiff leather saddle with copper rivets. You can't see this very well here, but the seat post has a special feature that allows the top of it to be easily detached and reattached, without having to re-adjust saddle position.

And of course, the exciting 3-speed fixed gear hub. A testament to just how distracted I was, I even failed to capture the "S3X" label. It's on the other side. 

Sturmey Archer has a new gear shifter for 3 and 5-speed hubs that is versatile in that it can be used both on upright and drop handlebars. I found it a little difficult to budge in comparison to the traditional trigger shifter, but perhaps that can be adjusted. 

It's difficult to properly test ride a bicycle at a crowded Bike Expo, but I made a half dozen laps on it around the large parking lot in the back of the building, as well as cycled up and down the long driveway a few times. With a constant stream of cars coming and going it was like a slower version of actual urban cycling.

The ride quality of the bicycle felt familiar as soon as I began pedaling. Cushy and easy to handle, it was not unlike a vintage Raleigh Sports - only more responsive, 1/3 of the weight, and made of far nicer tubing. I would feel comfortable riding it in city traffic. However, I would need a longer test ride to determine how it handles potholes at speed. 

All of this struck me before I remembered about the bike being fixed gear. What I mean is that usually the fixed-gearness of a bicycle tends to dominate my impression of it, but here this was not the case. It felt more like a comfortable 3-speed, on which it just so happened that I didn't coast. This could be due to the bicycle's handling, or it could be due to the hub.

The ride with the S3X hub felt interesting, but I would say not entirely like a fixed gear bike. When I ride a single speed fixed gear, there is more to the sensation than merely not coasting. I feel like I have a direct connection to the drivetrain, and for me that is part of what makes riding fixed gear bikes enjoyable. This aspect is gone with the S3X: It basically feels like a nice 3-speed hub that does not allow you to coast. Shifting is easy and the gear spacing is just about perfect, but no matter what gear it is in, the feeling is not quite the same as single speed fixed gear.

One thing you have to watch out for with the S3X is that if not adjusted properly, the hub can "space out" and go into coasting mode for a millisecond's time at the end of each pedal revolution. Several people I know who've installed the S3X hub report this, and I experienced it as well - which makes me think that the adjustment has to be extremely precise in order for it not to happen. 

While I like 3-speed hubs and I like fixed gear, I am not sure that the combination is for me, as it introduces a degree of complexity into both categories. But I still think it's a neat idea, and I am glad I tried it. In future, I hope to have the opportunity to learn more about Igleheart bicycles and to take one on a longer test ride. Many thanks to Mr. Igleheart for allowing me to ride the Yoyodyne!