Saturday, July 30, 2011

Fear and Loathing of the City Bus

MBTA Bus in the Night
As a cyclist, I doubt that I am alone in my strong dislike of city buses. They are enormous. They make frequent stops and wide turns. They have sizable blind spots. And their operators - overwhelmed with countless stimuli and the stress of keeping to a schedule - don't always notice cyclists in their path. All in all, it seems reasonable to be wary of these vehicles, and prudent to keep away from them whenever possible.

But as most fears, mine is not based on such rational ideas. What frightens me are things like the "heavy breathing." I will be riding along, when suddenly there is the sound of a most horrific heaving inches behind me, and I realise that a bus is dreadfully, unacceptably near. What exactly is responsible for the sound that buses make when they are braking I do not know, but it sends shivers through my body and makes me want to jump up on the curb in panic. A couple of times the bus stopped and "heaved" so closely behind me, that I could feel the heat of its terrifying dragon breath against my left calf.

My fear of buses can border on paranoia, and sometimes I am convinced that the driver is playing "chicken" with me. I can tell that they see me - they will sometimes look straight at me - yet they seem to intentionally try to squeeze me out in order to make their stop, or make the green light, or make a high-speed left turn as I am attempting to cycle straight through an intersection - figuring I'll stop out of sheer terror. I've been assured by bike messengers that the driver will yield if I don't give into them. But I lack the courage to play that game, and allow them to win every time.

Over the past two years I've overcome most of my fears about cycling in city traffic. Taxi cabs, large trucks - I am more or less okay with them. But the city bus continues to terrify me. Oh enormous, heaving metal beast... Some day, I will learn how to deal with you and my fears will be conquered.

Friday, July 29, 2011

Underdressed for Your Bike??

DBC Swift Ladies', Test Ride
from a recent email (published with permission):
"Weirdest experience this morning! Was about to go for a ride on my gorgeous Abici, then caught a glimpse of myself in the mirror and thought better of it. I was working from home and looked a mess! Stained cargo pants, old T-shirt, ratty ponytail, ugh... Do you ever feel underdressed for your bike?"
Okay, that's pretty funny. And I admit I've felt the same. On a day to day basis I could be wearing anything, depending on what I am doing - from a business suit to paint-stained rags. And when it happens to be the latter, I do feel self-conscious getting out there on a nice bike for the whole world to see me all disheveled. Not self-conscious enough to actually go and change, mind you. But enough to make a mental note to dress better next time.

Could it be that all the so-called "cycle chic" imagery is getting to us, so that we actually feel pressure to dress up on our bikes?

It's possible. But I think the more likely explanation, is that traveling by bicycle can make us more self-aware and self-conscious, simply because we are more visible. Sure, we can hop in the car wearing old sweats with our unwashed hair up in a bun, drive to pick up some milk, and no one will be the wiser. But on a bike we will be observed. If we ride in the same neighbourhood as we live and work, we may not want our acquaintances, romantic interests, or colleagues to see us in that state.

Then again, it may simply be the bike. Owning an elegant, civilised bicycle can make us want to follow suit. And maybe that's not such a bad thing.

Thursday, July 28, 2011

The Grass is Always Greener...

Pilen Bicycle, Castle Island
As the summer season of bike shopping continues, some are still looking for the right bicycle while others have already snagged one. And if the emails I receive are any indication, those in the latter category are often plagued with "the grass is greener" regrets.

I bought a Dutch bike, but now I'm thinking it's kind of heavy. Should I have gotten a mixte?

I bought a mixte, but now I'm thinking it's kind of aggressive and twitchy. Should I have gotten a Dutch bike?

I bought a vintage bike, but the components are creaky and it seems unreliable. Wish I'd sucked it up and bought a new one.

I bought a new bike and sold my old rust bucket on C-List. Now I wish I hadn't, because the old one was so much more comfortable!

Look: I don't know what to tell you, except that all of these scenarios make sense. No bicycle is perfect. How do you think I ended up with three transportation bikes?... And even that has not made me immune to the "grass is always greener" effect. Having delivered the Pilen to the venue from whence it will be shipped to the give-away recipient, I am now nostalgic for its super-stable ride and off-road capacity. I remain haunted by the memories of riding Anna's ridiculously gorgeous Retrovelo last year. And seeing the Rivendell Betty Foy makes me wistful every time, just because it is so iconic.

I don't think there is a moral to this story, except that we humans are annoyingly indecisive, covetous creatures. And perhaps also that there is a greater choice for wonderful transportation bicycles out there than ever. Determine what your priorities are, conduct thorough test rides, and don't expect the impossible. No matter how wonderful your new bicycle is, you will always discover an aspect of it where the one you had been considering instead might have fared better.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

A Look at Berthoud Handlebar Bags and Thoughts on Attachment Options

Berthoud Handlebar Bag, Model 25
I finally received a Giles Berthoud handlebar bag for the Randonneur. It's the Model 25 in gray, which is their medium size and features elastic ties for the pockets instead of leather straps.

Berthoud Handlebar Bag, Model 25
The visual presence of this bag is almost too much for me. There is something about its colour scheme and construction that says "I am French and I am exquisite," and I find this both interesting and intimidating.

Berthoud Handlebar Bag, Model 25
But happily, the Berthoud does not overwhelm the aesthetics of the bicycle. The size is a perfect fit. And the darker fabric and lighter leather combination parallels the contrast between the frame and lugwork. In comparison, the Ostrich handlebar bag on my own bike is more drab and also more bulky.

Berthoud Handlebar Bag, Front Pocket
The bag has a large front pocket,

Berthoud Handlebar Bag, Side Pocket
two side pockets

Berthoud Handlebar Bag, Pockets and Rack Attachment
and two rear pockets. The top flap closes toward, rather than away from the cyclist, which is the opposite of what I am used to with the Ostrich and makes it counterintuitive for me to use - but this is of course user-specific. You can see that leather straps are provided for wrapping around the back of the rack. However, there are no provisions for securing the bag to the rack's platform, which surprised me (Ostrich includes straps for this). I know that some devise DIY systems, and if you've done so I'd love to hear about your process.

Berthoud Handlebar Bag, Books and Clothing
There are leather straps provided for attaching the bag to the handebars, though most opt for installing a decaleur. And here is where we are experiencing a little glitch. Ideally, the owner would prefer to forgo a decaleur: He plans to ride both with and without the bag, and a bagless decaleur sticking out of the bicycle doesn't look great (I agree). The handlebar straps hold the bag up fine, but without being secured on the bottom it bounces on the rack when filled with stuff and going over bumps.  I am also told that the bag can move from side to side without a decaleur, though I haven't experienced this yet during my one test ride so far (with 10lb of weight in the bag).

Berthoud Handlebar Bag, Handlebar Straps
As far as decaleurs go, we had planned to use one of these if going without proved impossible, but I have since been warned that using it with the Nitto lugged stem (as opposed to the regular Technomic stem) is not a good idea, for complicated reasons related to clamp compatibility that I won't go into here.  An alternative would be Berthoud's own decaleur, but it too apparently presents issues with the lugged stem - plus it is fairly obtrusive without the bag on. A headset-mounted decaleur is not possible here, because it would sit too low. So I am seeking a solution, and  also wondering whether securing the bag at the bottom would in itself solve the problem. The bag is not nearly as large as my Ostrich, and I know that some do manage to use it without a decaleur. Sharing of experiences in this regard would be most appreciated.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

What's in a Cycling Cap?

I was in the Ride Studio Cafe the other day, when a woman came in to buy a cycling cap. She was already wearing a cap - one that looked to be from the early '80s, faded yellow with "world champion" rainbow stripes. She looked around the shop and tried on several of the caps they sell, but seemed restless and her eyes kept wandering over to me. I was wearing a white cap with rainbow stripes, very much like her own only newer. Before she even approached me, I could sense that she was attracted to my cap. I thought that she was going to ask me where I bought it. Instead she asked if she could have it, buying me a Rapha hat as a replacement.

So that is how I came to be in possession of my very own article of Rapha clothing that I'd critiqued only a week earlier. It's (even) less flattering to my face than my other cap, though admittedly it works better under a roadcycling helmet and the fabric and stitching are of higher quality. But more than anything, I like the unusual manner in which I acquired it. Sometimes an item can serve as a memento of a day or a social exchange, attaining the status of a personal keepsake.

Cycling caps are a very particular design that has become iconic: The skull-hugging panel construction, the small visor that flips up, the racing stripes. I don't think that any of the variations look especially good on most people, but their symbolism seems to hold at least as much appeal as their objective attractiveness or their cycling-specific usefulness. I would bet that the sale of cycling caps went up when Breaking Away came out, as well as more recently, when the Yehuda Moon comic became popular.

On a personal level, a specific cap might remind us of an experience associated with cycling that was exciting, formative or inspiring. Maybe our favourite racer wore one just like it. Or the cool older kid in the neighbourhood used to ride his bike around wearing one. At some point I realised that one of my first memories of my father involved a cycling cap. He is not a cyclist, but it was popular to wear them in Europe in the '80s, especially on the beach. I have a very clear memory of him sitting on a blanket and sipping beer while watching my mother swim in the sea, wearing a cycling cap with the visor flipped up. It was either yellow or white, and it definitely had the "world champion" rainbow stripes. Funny.

When the woman at the RSC asked for my cap, I had the distinct feeling that it reminded her of something, and it made sense to give it to her. But I will probably buy myself another one at some point: Those rainbow stripes remind me of Europe in the early '80s, of vintage bikes, and of childhood days at the beach.

Gear Inches and Different Bikes?

Eternally Dirty
Whenever there is mention of a bicycle's gearing, inevitably we bring up gear inches. And when there is a question of what gearing is best on a new bicycle, someone will suggest to calculate the gear inches on a bike the person is already comfortable with and use that as a template. But here is the thing: While I known how to calculate gear inches, I've been finding this mostly useless when setting up a new bike - because, in my understanding, gear inches are bike-specific. In other words, the same gear inches don't feel the same on different bikes. What am I missing or misunderstanding here? 

To quickly summarise for those new to the concept, gear inches are a convenient way to describe the gearing you are in when in different combinations of the front chainring and rear cog (taking into account wheel and tire size and crank length [edited to add: see discussion in comments regarding this; seems that I did misunderstand.]). The lower the number, the easier the gearing. For example: The lowest gearing possible on my Rivendell is 26 gear inches. The lowest gearing possible on the Royal H. Randonneur is 27.6 gear inches. The lowest gearing possible on the loaner Seven is 33 gear inches. 

So, on paper, it appears that the Rivendell is geared easier than the Randonneur, and much easier than the Seven. But in fact the bicycles feel similarly easy to ride in their lowest gearing. Cycling up the same hills, I've determined that 33 gear inches on the Seven feels about the same as 26 gear inches on the Rivendell and 31.6 gear inches on Randonneur. It seems that weight, geometry, positioning, tubing, and a number of other factors play into it and that gear inch calculations are bike-specific. It is not clear to me why some seem to suggest that gear inches are independent figures that one can use to determine the appropriate gearing on any bike. 

Edited to add: My "what am I missing or misunderstanding here?" question has been answered in the comments; please read through them for an interesting discussion. I was mistaken in believing that crank length is factored into gear inch calculations; it is only factored into gain ratio calculations (an alternative way to measure gearing). When comparing gain ratios between the three bikes, the equivalently-experienced gearing on the Seven and on the Randonneur are in fact the same, whereas the equivalently-experienced gearing on the Rivendell is a bit lower. So... while other elusive factors remain, it appears that crank length is a huge one and that calculating gain ratios instead of gear inches allows you to factor it into the equation. Please continue to contribute to the discussion if you feel there is more to it, or that I phrased something incorrectly. I would like all of this to remain here for others' benefit.

Monday, July 25, 2011

Royal H + Lovely Bicycle: Un Petit Projet

Royal H. + Lovely Bicycle Randonneur
First an idea. Then a frame. Now finally a bike!

Royal H. + Lovely Bicycle Randonneur
For those unfamiliar with this project, I have been collaborating with Bryan Hollingsworth of Royal H. Cycles to create a classic French randonneuring bicycle for a customer who was as curious as we were about how these mythical creatures handle.

Royal H. + Lovely Bicycle Randonneur
It's become popular to call all sorts of bicycles "rando bikes." Framebuilders and manufacturers will sometimes use this term to mean "a fast bike with fenders and racks that's meant for long distance." However, we mean something very specific: the classic low-trail geometry design with wide 650B tires, in the tradition of the early French constructeurs - as described and enthusiastically recommended by Jan Heine in the Bicycle Quarterly (see my earlier post about BQ here). We found Jan's descriptions of these machines intriguing: They promised the comfort and convenience of a fully equipped, wide-tired touring bike with the speed and responsiveness of a racing bike. Could it really be?

Royal H. + Lovely Bicycle Randonneur
Jan Heine and a couple of my personal contacts in France were immensely helpful with the process of figuring out the geometry. Jan also advised on the choice of tubing and a number of other details. We specifically wanted to consult with him on these matters, because the whole point was to try the sort of bike he recommended. While our bicycle is not a constructeur (the racks and other parts were purchased, and not custom-made for seamless integration), it is a fine handbuilt frame, fully equipped with fenders, front and rear racks, and internally wired lighting. I would also like to acknowledge that we had some help from Harris Cyclery with the finishing touches of the build.

Royal H. + Lovely Bicycle Randonneur
Naturally the frame is lugged, and for me the aesthetics of the bicycle are strongly defined by the lugwork in the headtube and the fork crown. I was happy to see that these lugs remained a strong focal point even once the frame became "cluttered" with components and accessories. Notice also the tiny lug where the wire for the lighting enters the downtube. There is a matching one on the left chainstay, but I don't have a good shot of it just now.

Nitto Lugged Stem
I am not going to go into details of the frame construction and internal lighting right now, so that will have to be a separate post. Some of the components are pretty interesting - such as the Nitto lugged stem and the Grand Bois Maes handlebars - and I may write about them separately as well.

Royal H. + Lovely Bicycle Randonneur
Will also write about combining Shimano drivetrains with Campagnolo shifters, which we have done to two bicycles so far.

Royal H. + Lovely Bicycle Randonneur
The bicycle as shown here is not entirely complete: It's getting a handlebar bag in a few days, as well as bottle cages, a bell and a computer installed. I will be thoroughly test riding it over the course of the next month before it is sent off to the customer, and writing up my impressions in an article for Bicycle Quarterly. The BQ article will be different from, and more detailed than the posts here, so reading it will most definitely be worth it for those interested in the topic.

1st Randonneur Test Ride
Yesterday I took the randonneur on its first ride: 40 miles consisting of the hilly countryside, a crowded bicycle path, and urban areas with heavy traffic. Some might say I should not be riding this type of bicycle without a handlebar bag at all, but I think it's important to get a sense of how it handles without any weight on it - even if the design is optimised for a front load, it seems worthwhile to compare the handling both with and without. The size of the frame is more or less right for me. If it were mine I would make the seat tube 1cm shorter, but probably would not change much else. I am particularly pleased that even on such a relatively small frame there is absolutely no toe overlap - in fact there is over an inch between the tip of my toe and the fender.

1st Randonneur Test Ride
Because countless people have told me that low trail bicycles are a "love it or hate it" sort of thing, I expected to have an extreme reaction to the randonneur's handling. However, that did not happen. It rides like a bike, basically. A nice bike. Different from other bikes I've ridden, but not as radically differently as I expected from some of the dramatic descriptions I've read and heard. The most distinct qualities I've noticed so far are the the way it turns (different), accelerates (excellent) and climbs hills (oh my...). But I need some time to make sense of it all and put it into words, so please stay tuned.

Royal H. + Lovely Bicycle Randonneur
In collaborating on the randonneur, my main agenda was to satisfy what had become a burning curiosity about this particular type of bike while also helping create a custom bicycle from scratch in keeping with my aesthetic vision - all of which was in line with what the customer wanted. We have no expectations about whether ultimately we will like or dislike the handling, since that is the whole point of the experiment. I will have the randonneur until September and am thankful for the chance to gain a firsthand understanding of these bicycles over the course of my temporary guardianship.

Sunday, July 24, 2011

How Many Bikes Are You Riding?

Mixte, Radcliffe
Lately I've been testing and experimenting with many bikes, and some have asked which ones I ride on a regular basis. Or do I ride a different one every day? Well, definitely not that. Despite a penchant for accumulating temporary and permanent bicycles, I prefer to ride the same ones over and over, and the fewer the better. The rotation changes, but the pattern has been three bikes at a time. Now that it's the hottest part of the summer, I've been riding the mixte for transportation, as well as a roadbike and a touring bike for sporty rides. As the cold season approaches I will start riding the mixte less and my hardy 3-speeds more. For roadcycling I will probably switch to a fixed gear as the days grow shorter, because it packs more punch into shorter rides. But all in all, it's pretty much no more than three bikes at a time for me, one of which is always a fully equipped transportation bike.

Giving this some more thought, I can see how I arrived at experimenting with multiple bikes. I don't drive, so every time I leave the house to do anything it is on a bike. But I don't have a consistent commute either, instead traveling between different places numerous times a day. The destinations vary, the distances vary, even the terrain varies. And that's all just for transportation. Add an interest in touring and roadcycling to the mix, and it's easy to see how things can get out of hand!

How many bikes do you have in rotation at a time? Do you enjoy switching from one bike to another, or are you a creature of habit who prefers to stick with the same one(s)?

Friday, July 22, 2011

Drinking and Cycling

Vita Coco
Yesterday I did a 40 mile ride in 97 degree heat and high humidity. As someone who is sensitive to hot weather, normally I would not go outdoors on such a day at all. But when the temperature is like this on a daily basis, the choice is either to stop riding or find a way to deal with it. One experienced cyclist I know suggested drinking large amounts of water starting early in the morning, and then a dose of coconut water right before the ride itself. I did just that, and it helped: I  was able to do the ride without feeling faint or headachy. Earlier in the week I tried to do the same ride and turned back 15 minutes later, nursing a migraine for the remainder of the day. I don't know how much the hydration regimen had to do with the improvement, but it made me curious about the relationship between drinking and cycling. 

Take, for example, water: I've always been one of those weird people who doesn't like the taste of water and does not usually feel thirsty, so drinking so much of it was an entirely new concept when I began cycling. At first I had to practically force myself to do it, but at some point it started to become more natural and I developed the thirst mechanism I hitherto lacked. Those who've known me for a while are surprised that I now actually crave water, even when off the bike. 

On the other hand, juice and energy drinks make me feel sick when I cycle. They are too sweet and I only feel more thirsty afterward. Things like Gatorade and weird chemical energy powders I just can't take at all - it goes straight to my head and makes me feel dizzy, as well as leaves a disgusting taste in my mouth. So in order to regain electrolytes, I've been eating bananas and putting a tiny bit of salt in my water. Coconut water was suggested as an alternative, and I was surprised to read about its electrolyte content: It is basically a natural sportsdrink. I still find it slightly too sweet and the aftertaste a little weird, but manageable - and it seems to work.

Then there is the question of coffee. I am addicted and drink more cups per day than I care to count. I like to drink coffee before a ride, because it makes me feel more energetic. However, some warn against doing this - claiming that it's bad for the heart to have coffee right before exercise. Are cyclists who caffeinate dooming themselves to early heart attacks? Seems unlikely to me, but I do wonder sometimes as I drink my nth cup.

And finally, alcohol. I am not a big drinker by any means, but I like an occasional white wine or martini. Sadly, I've discovered that I can't drink if I plan to go on strenuous rides, not even a little bit. Maybe I am worse at processing alcohol than most people, but if I have a martini in the evening and then try to go cycling the next morning, I can smell the gin coming out of my pores and just don't feel 100% on the bike. That's after just one drink. I cannot imagine how some cyclists manage to guzzle beer during races, or stop for lunch with wine in the middle of long ride; I can't do it.

What's your practice with regard to water, energy drinks, coffee and alcohol when cycling?

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Junk Miles: Not an Insult

Tired Computer
Since having gotten into roadcycling, I find myself in the hilarious position where both "roadies" and "non-roadies" will ask me questions about the imagined other, as if I can provide inside information. Of course the dichotomy is mostly a false one, but that hardly matters. I get questions such as "So why do roadies ___ when they ___?" or "So when people ride bikes to work, how in the world do they ____?" Half the time I don't even know what the person means, but it's always entertaining. It also shows our readiness to think in terms of ingroup/outgroup - attributing exotic, irrational tendencies to the outgroup while perceiving the ingroup as entirely normal. 

Anyhow, the latest conversation I had in this context was about "junk miles." Before I even knew what that term meant, I'd noticed that transportation cyclists find it offensive - perceiving it as a derogatory expression used by roadcyclists to be dismissive of any other type of riding. In keeping with this, last week someone asked me: "So when you go to the grocery store, do you now think of it as junk miles?" - the idea being that the person assumed roadies do not consider that sort of thing to be "real" cycling, hence junk miles or wasted time on a bike. 

All right. So allow me to attempt to explain "junk miles" as I now understand it from a roadcycling perspective, because the term appears to be widely misunderstood. Transportation cycling is not junk miles. A fun ride with friends at a leisurely pace is not junk miles. Relaxed touring is not junk miles. Nothing you do outside the realm of cycling as a sport is junk miles, because the term simply does not apply to you.

But let's say you are a roadcyclist who is training for a race. This means that you want to improve your performance, to become faster. In order to train effectively for this purpose, it is generally suggested that you alternate training rides that are super-difficult with rides that are easy. The super-difficult rides will push you beyond your current abilities and the easy rides will allow you to recover. What you don't want to do too much of are rides that are in between. Those types of rides are called "junk miles," because they don't help you get faster, but they don't allow you to recover either. That's it; that is what the term means. It is used exclusively within the context of roadcycling, and with the assumption that the person is an athlete, intentionally engaging in goal-oriented training. The term does not refer to other forms of cycling. 

I am not sure how the misunderstanding originated that "junk miles" is an insult to transportation or leisurely cyclists, but it is exactly that: a misunderstanding. 

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Everyone Wants Stability

Blue and Green
In discussions of a bicycle's ride quality, one thing that always comes up is stability. We want a bike that is stable and we complain when it is not. Of course the problem with "stability" is that the concept is largely dependent on our skill level and cycling background. Those who are unaccustomed to riding roadbikes will often find them unstable at first, while those who ride roadbikes exclusively will often find upright bikes unstable. This does not mean that either is actually unstable, but rather that the two cyclists are used to radically different means of weight distribution. Similarly, what's "unstable" to one cyclist can be "responsive" to another. It seems that perception of stability has at least as much to do with the person riding the bicycle as it does with the bicycle itself. How useful is it, then, to tell a salesperson or a framebuilder that we want a bicycle that is stable? And how useful is that term in reviews? Clearly we need further qualification.

When I talk to new cyclists who are uncomfortable operating their bikes, instability is often cited as the problem: It can make a bicycle difficult or scary to ride, making the cyclist feel not entirely in control. In the process of teasing out what exactly is meant by this elusive concept, I've identified a number of distinct points that I would like to share, and see what others think: 

Pilen, Balance
Starting from a stop
Some bicycles are described as shaky when starting from a stop, as if the front wheel is wobbly and wants to turn just as the cyclist is trying to get the bike rolling forward. This is a complaint I hear a lot from women about vintage mixtes that came with dropbars, but have been converted to upright bikes and also, interestingly, about classic Dutch bikes. The feeling is sometimes referred to as "light steering" or a "light front end," and has to do with a complicated combination of the bicycle's geometry and the height of the handlebars. With some bikes, I have found that lowering the handlebars helps - in particular when it comes to the mixte conversions - but ultimately it is a matter of getting used to it. Some cyclists do get used to it, but others can't and feel inherently uncomfortable with the bike. 

Cycling at slow speeds
Similar to the above, only extended to cycling at slow speeds: The bike wants to weave (i.e. feels "squirrely" or "twitchy") when the cyclist attempts to ride slowly, making it difficult to control. Aggressive roadbikes are known for this quality, but cyclists report the feeling about some upright bikes as well (albeit often they are upright bikes that are roadbike conversions). One thing I have found useful when riding bicycles like this at slow speeds, is to pedal in slow motion while feathering the brake, instead of coasting. I would be interested to know whether this works for others. 

Pilen Bicycle, Castle Island
Cycling at fast speeds, downhill
When riding at fast speeds, and particularly downhill, some cyclists are alarmed to notice that the font end of their bicycle will begin to vibrate in the region of the stem and handlebars. Assuming that nothing is loose on the bike or mechanically wrong with it, this is known as "shimmy" and there are ongoing debates regarding what causes it, whether it's a problem, and whether it is even a real phenomenon. This is something that a cyclist either gets used to, learns to avoid by abstaining from high speeds on that particular bike, or deals with by getting a different bike. 

When cyclists describe a bicycle as unstable on turns, they can mean a number of things by this. One type of complaint is that the bike turns too aggressively or, "too much," overreacting to the turn. Another type of complaint is the opposite: that the bike keeps trying to straighten itself while the cyclist is still continuing the turn. Either of these qualities can make turning stressful, with the cyclist struggling to make the bicycle follow the course they would like it to follow. How to deal with this, other than developing handling skills in line with the bicycle's tendencies (or getting a different bike) I cannot say.

Tire and Rock
Rough surfaces
To some cyclists it is important how stable a bicycle feels when going over rough or uneven surfaces. While wide tires play a role, at least to some extent this seems to be also about the bicycle itself - with some bikes seemingly "unfellable" off road or over potholes, while others relatively easy to wipe out on, especially for novices. In the realm of upright city bikes,  there is an increasing number of manufacturers (Pilen, Retrovelo, Urbana) infusing classic transportation bicycles with mountain bike characteristics in a way that works well in this context. Converting an old hardtail mountain bike to an upright bike can work as well. Upright roadbike conversions on the other hand, tend to be problematic in this respect - particularly for beginners. 

Tire width
Whether on smooth or rough surfaces, I have noticed that tire width can have a lot to do with a novice cyclist's perception of a bicycle's stability: Narrow tires are simply more difficult to balance on across a wide range of circumstances. If the bicycle's clearances allow for wider tires, this is an easy way to improve the feeling of a bicycle's stability. 

Mixte with Camera Bag, Pannier and Packages
Cycling with a load
Finally, whereas a bicycle might feel perfectly stable unloaded, some notice that introducing weight in the front basket or on the rear rack can disrupt that stability. Most of the time, this happens with a front rather than rear load: the bicycle begins to weave or wobble if the front is overloaded. There can be a myriad of causes for this, and subsequently a myriad of ways to deal with them. Generally speaking, carrying weight lower on the bike (i.e. not mounting a basket on the handlebars) is said to improve stability. But some bicycles are just not intended for a front load no matter what.

Pilen Bicycle, Castle Island
While it might be difficult to express what we mean by stability, breaking it down into specifics can be helpful - both in communicating with others and in gaining more insight into our own preferences. In attempting to understand the nuances of ride quality, it continues to amaze me how the same idea can be echoed by so many people, yet mean something slightly (or even not so slightly) different to each. Does a novice who finds their bicycle unstable need a different bike, or merely wider tires? Could be either.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Pop-Up Tour de France! A Book About a Race That Put a Smile on My Face

Pop-Up Tour de France
When Paintbox Press asked me to review Pop-Up Tour de France: the World's Greatest Bike Race by Pamela Pease, I agreed out of sheer curiosity - expecting a children's picture-book. Having now read it cover-to-cover, I must say that this is the most comprehensive and captivating explanation of the race I have come across, as a novice follower of the sport. Oh yes, and the pop-up illustrations are adorable!

Pop-Up Tour de France
Written in a way that can be read by adults and precocious children alike, Pop-Up Tour de France begins with the history of racing and of the Tour itself, before plunging into a step-by-step explanation of how the race is organised and held today.

Pop-Up Tour de France
Everything one might care to know - descriptions of the stages, explanations about how teams work together, race tactics, etc. - is spelled out in language that is interesting and understandable to a layperson, without being condescending or simplistic. Illustrations are done in what looks like pencil and gouache, occasionally combined with photos and logos collage-style. The pictures have a whimsical, half-finished quality to them that adds textural interest and a sense of spontaneity: Pencil marks are visible and the density of brush strokes is uneven. While parts of the same image might be rendered in great detail, other parts look almost like abstract colour blocks. Combined with the pop-up features, it all comes together well to attract the viewer's eye to even the most minute details of the illustrations. The book is exciting and succeeds in portraying the Tour de France as a very real and very appealing event.

Pop-Up Tour de France
Then of course there is the cute factor. There are tiny cut-outs of jerseys for the various race stages.

Pop-Up Tour de France
And things like this, where you get to see who's inside the team car by pulling on the tab, or who rides in the caravan by rotating a spinning wheel. Overall, the book comes across as well researched, though I am sure Tour aficionados would find plenty of slip-ups. The only thing I found off was a reference to a "back derailleur".

Pop-Up Tour de France
Held since 1903, the Tour de France is the most famous bicycle race in the world and takes place every year in July - In fact it is happening right now, and today is Stage 16. This year is the first time I've felt inclined to follow the Tour and I am not ashamed to admit that this wonderful pop-up book has contributed to my enjoyment and understanding of the coverage. Whether a novice or a seasoned follower, a child or an adult, the Pop-Up Tour de France is certain put a smile on your face and rev up your enthusiasm for cycling - be it on a racing bike across France or on a 3-speed around the block. I am delighted that a book like this exists about a sport that does not receive as much publicity as its fans would like. Thank you, Paintbox Press, for the opportunity to review it.

Monday, July 18, 2011

Bicycle Safety: My Perspective

Every so often I am asked to state my views on safety with respect to transportation cycling*. Though reluctant to raise this topic in the past, after more than two years I feel ready to share my perspective. So here it goes, and I ask in advance that you help me keep any ensuing discussion civil:

When it comes to bicycle safety, I draw a categorical distinction between two facets that are often mushed together, but for me are entirely independent: (1) safe behaviour, and (2) protective gear. I believe that safe behaviour is essential and a matter of social responsibility. I believe that protective gear is secondary and a matter of personal choice. This distinction and prioritisation governs (i.e. biases) the views on transportational cycling that are expressed throughout this blog.

To clarify what I mean by "safe behaviour" on a bicycle, here are the points I consider crucial:

Riding a bicycle that is functional and road-ready
Taking reasonable steps to ensure one's bicycle will not fail on the road. This includes making certain that the wheels are secured and that the brakes, lights, and other crucial components are functional. Riding a bike with known mechanical problems, insufficient braking capacity, or any unusual features that make it intentionally difficult to operate, can have disastrous consequences in traffic.

Being in possession of basic bike handling skills
This includes being able to start and stop without faltering, to maintain a line of travel without weaving, to reduce speed when appropriate, and to safely maneuver around obstacles. It helps to ride the type of bike one is comfortable with and in a way they are comfortable with, depending on skill level and personal preference. Those who do not yet possess adequate handling skills should practice on trails and quiet side streets before mixing with traffic.

Adhering to traffic laws
Knowing and following local traffic laws, as they pertain to bicyclists. This includes respecting lane directionality, street lights, stop signs and right of way, signaling turns and intentions to merge, and in general behaving predictably.

Knowing safety maneuvers
Awareness of various crucial safety maneuvers and the ability to execute them. For instance: not positioning oneself in the blind spot of a car that could turn into one's line of travel, not cycling in the door zone of parked cars, and not passing other cyclists on the right.

Being visible
Having sufficient lighting on one's bicycle, so as to be clearly visible to others on the roads in the dark and in inclement weather.

Being vigilant
Paying attention while cycling; being cautious and attentive to what goes on in one's peripheral vision while resisting distractions. This includes not being engrossed in conversation with fellow cyclists, not chatting on one's mobile phone or texting, and otherwise not engaging in activities that detract from an awareness of one's surroundings.

You might not agree with me on some aspects of these points, but I believe in them and try to adhere to them to the best of my ability. In my view, this makes me a conservative and safe cyclist.

As for protective gear (helmets, knee pads, steel-toed boots, padded vests, pre-emptive neck and back braces, etc), these things are simply not relevant to the safe operation of a bicycle. We all have the right to expect safe behaviour from each other, when the behaviour impacts other road users. But we do not have the right to decide what each other's personal comfort levels ought to be, when this comfort has no effect on us.

In addition, I think that protective gear - whether we believe it to be useful or not - is secondary to safe behaviour to such an extent, that to stress it above the other stuff (as I feel is routinely done in safety campaigns) is misguided and even, dare I say, dangerous. As I write this, out of the window I can see a helmeted cyclist making a left turn onto a one way street against traffic, riding a bicycle with no handbrakes and no lights. I think this sort of thing is a direct result of promoting protective gear instead of safe behaviour, and I think it's evidence that we have our priorities backwards. I do not find that my views on this matter are radical, although sometimes I am made to feel as if they are. Whether you agree or not is entirely up to you.

*a small group of us (Dave from Portlandize, Matt from Bicycles, Books and Bowties, and myself) are working on a transportation cycling brochure, where the topic of safety will be covered. However, I am not the person who is writing that particular section, and the opinions expressed here - though congruent with those in the brochure - are my own.

Sunday, July 17, 2011

A Dirt Road Excursion

Bedford Narrow Gauge Rail Trail
I've decided that I will definitely be going to the Deerfield Dirt-Road RandonnĂ©e (D2R2) this year - a scenic ride along New England dirt roads that will take place in August. The 40 mile route is said to be tame in comparison to the longer options, but I still need to get used to riding on dirt roads if I am going to do it. So we began by exploring some of the ones close to our usual cycling routes: the Narrow Gauge Rail Trail that runs from Bedford to Billerica, and the Battle Road Trail that runs from Lexington to Concord. Both of these are pretty short (3 miles and 5 miles), but they are the only dirt roads I know of around here that aren't too technical. We incorporated them into our regular 40 mile ride, setting off on bikes with wide tires. 

700Cx50mm and 650Bx42mm
650B x 42mm Grand Bois Hetre tires on my Rivendell, and 700C x 50mm Schwalbe Fat Frank tires on his Surly. I know that some prefer to ride mountain bikes and be more upright on trails, but I really like the feeling of a roadish bike with dropbars on this terrain: My weight feels well-distributed and the speed and maneuverability seem to work in my favour when going either over or around tricky patches. 

Lake Trail Surface
I am fairly certain that I would not enjoy a trail so technical as to require a dedicated mountain bike. Even this offshoot of the main path was too much.

Bedford Narrow Gauge Rail Trail
When there are rocks and roots jutting out every which way, navigating around them is stressful - while going over them feels like riding a pogo stick. I don't think this kind of surface is for me.

Main Trail Surface
But the surface of the main paths looked like this most of the time: Mainly packed dirt with some gravel, and occasional stretches of sand. These things I am more or less okay with.

Bedford Narrow Gauge Rail Trail
We maintained a speed of about 12-13 mph most of the time on this surface, and I was fairly comfortable. When gravel is loose, it can feel like it's slipping out from under your tires - but the main thing is to get used to that sensation and just keep going. Easier said than done of course - especially when cycling down a winding incline. Even a gentle incline and a subtle turn can incite panic if it feels like your tire is slipping sideways. But braking is a bad idea and trying to put a foot down is a bad idea - pretty much just trusting in the bike's momentum and continuing seems to be the way to deal with this.

Rivendell, Grand Bois Hetres, Sand
I did have a minor incident when we went over a stretch of deep sand. I was fine through most of it, but toward the end the mere awareness that I was cycling through sand just got too much and I lost my nerve. The bike started to topple and I sort of half-fell forward in slow motion (crotch onto toptube - ouch!), while desperately clutching the handlebars so that the bike itself wouldn't fall. Given that this hardly even qualifies as a fall, I am glad it happened: Now I understand how the bike behaves if I slow down in sand.

Rivendell, Grand Bois Hetres
After this dirt road excursion, I am still not not sure how I feel about cycling off-road. Riding in the woods was nice and I do appreciate the fresh air and the quiet of being away from busy roads. But the slower speed felt limiting and I was very glad to be back on pavement and cycling at 20mph once we were done with the trails. The technical aspect - developing skills to transcend difficult terrain on a bicycle - is just not exciting to me at all in of itself. The aspect I do like is the feeling of exploring, and I hope to find some other trails that are longer and lead somewhere more interesting next time. What appeals to me about the D2R2 is the vastness and diversity of terrain it promises, with beautiful riverside views. It's a legendary ride, and I hope to be comfortable enough on dirt roads to complete it in August. Any advice for local routes to practice on most welcome!

Friday, July 15, 2011

Rapha Women's Line... I Don't Get It

Rapha, Ride Studio Cafe
Rapha is one of those companies that people tend to either love, or love to hate. Essentially a manufacturer of high-end cycling clothing, but also a magazine publisher, racing sponsor,  event organiser, bicycle design collaborator, and general "lifestyle brand," Rapha promotes an unapologetically romantic vision of roadcycling via an endless output of dreamy images as part of its advertising and social media campaigns. Slender, beautifully backlit cyclists suffer exquisitely as they scale mountains - often in black and white, and often to the accompaniment of haunting music, fostering a sense of nostalgia for a time that is not yet in the past. The garments offered are minimalist and expensive. That is Rapha in a nutshell. 

Rapha, Insignia
Now, let me make it clear that I have nothing against Rapha's marketing tactics. I appreciate an effective advertising campaign achieved through emotional channels, and for this they surely deserve an award. When something inspires such excellent parody, you know it's reached iconic status. I also have nothing against brands that are considered luxury or high end, if the quality of their products reflects the price. So what's my problem with Rapha? It's not so much a problem, as a genuine feeling of dissonance - at least when it comes to the women's line. When I encounter their clothing in person, what's in front of me does not match the image cultivated by the impressive adverts.

Rapha Jacket
Take, for instance, the Women's Stowaway Jacket. Last summer I was desperate for a cycling rain jacket after my old windbreaker came apart. I wanted the jacket to be form-fitting, waterproof, and, ideally, red. Having exhausted the less pricey alternatives, I followed up on a suggestion to try Rapha. The Stowaway happened to be on sale at the Ride Studio Cafe at the time, and I came prepared to buy it. I tried on the jacket. It wasn't bad. I mean, not horrendous. Basically, it looked like a tracksuit top circa 1982 - something you'd expect to see on, say, an East German gymnast of that era. It's an intriguing look if you can pull that sort of thing off, but not especially flattering. The shade of red also strikes me as uninspired: not an exciting bright red and not a classic vintagey-brick either, but a dated crimson that I do not readily associate with cycling.

Rapha Jacket, Collar
True to '80s tracksuits styling, the fit is tight in the chest, but mysteriously baggy above the chest - forming strange folds at the collar that threatened to constrict my breathing.

Rapha Jacket
And do you see that bulge in the back? You're probably thinking that's the rear pockets. Nope. This cycling jacket has no rear pockets; that's just a bulge that forms on its own.

Rapha Jacket, Pocket
Although there are side pockets, they are small - so small, that I had trouble sticking my hands inside. Mind you, none of these design flaws are at all unusual in the sadistic world of women's cycling apparel, and if anything Rapha is not as bad as some of the alternatives. But for me, that is just not good enough given what I was made to expect.

Rapha, Jersey
Moving on to the Classic Women's Jersey - which I had considered when looking for wool cycling clothing: The styling in itself is all right, except that the full-length zipper creates artificial "tummy folds," as is common with this type of jersey.

Rapha, Jersey
The fabric is described as "sportwool," but as soon as I put it on, it became clear that this was a euphemism for a polyester-heavy blend. I later checked and yup: "sportwool" is 60% polyester.

Rapha, Jersey
Though the minimalist design is tasteful and subtle, I would rate the texture of the fabric as average on the rough vs silky scale. And for a hot weather jersey, it seemed somewhat heavy to me.

Rapha, Arm Warmers with Jersey
One nice thing about the Rapha jerseys, is that they come with arm warmers. Problem is (and I am not the only one to have noted this), that the arm warmers seem to be one size smaller than the jersey - rendering them essentially useless for those whose arms are not stick-thin. Too bad, because including matching arm warmers is a wonderful idea.

Rapha, Cycling Cap
I could go on about other items in the Rapha women's line, but that's probably enough for now. Suffice to say that I find all of it more or less all right, but by no means extraordinary either in quality or looks. I am supportive of what Rapha is trying to do - create inspiring, classic, tasteful, well made cycling clothing. We can certainly use more brands that create such clothing for female cyclists, so really, I am all for it.  But come on Rapha: Live up to your image. Watching all those dreamy backlit videos, I expected some truly "epic" women's cycling apparel... and this ain't it.