Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Gritty to Pretty: the Lovely Donation Bike!

Refurbished Shogun 400
I am pleased to report that the refurbished vintage donation touring bike - also known as "the roadbike for women who fear roadbikes" - is ready! As often happens with these things, the project took longer than I anticipated. In the end we did not have time to put the bicycle together ourselves, and I entrusted the job to the saintly Jim at Harris Cyclery - which contributed the labor pro bono and donated the remaining parts my build was missing, thus becoming a sponsor of this project along with Velo Orange. My sincere thanks to them, as well as to all readers who contributed parts and funds to this effort. This is not yet the official give-away announcement, as I first wanted to show off some pictures and describe the bicycle in detail. I hope you like it!

Refurbished Shogun 400
So what exactly is this bicycle... It began as a vintage Shogun 400 touring bike that looked like this when I picked it up, but has been rebuilt from the frame up. When I spotted the original bike, I immediately thought it had potential. The early '80s Japanese cro-moly frame with relaxed geometry promised a comfortable, "Rivendell-esque" ride. And, despite the fairly small size (52cm), it looked like there would be no toe overlap, even with fenders. As many know, it is extremely difficult to find a roadbike in a small size, with relaxed geometry and no toe overlap - be it modern or vintage - which is what makes some of these unassuming vintage Japanese frames special. My idea was to start with such a frame and build it up with comfortable, functional components - ending up with an unintimidating "starter" roadbike that a beginner would be able to learn on without undue nervousness or discomfort.

Refurbished Shogun, Nitto Randonneuring Bars
The biggest priority was the handlebar set-up. When women tell me they cannot ride vintage roadbikes, much of the time this turns out to be because the handlebars are uncomfortable - lacking a sufficient "shoulder" area. Those who are new to drop bars often assume that they are all the same, but in fact there are dozens of models, with subtle variations in shape. I chose the Nitto Randonneur handlebars for this bike, which have long, flat "shoulders" and a slight, ergonomic flare to them that most cyclists find extremely comfortable, particularly on long rides.

Refurbished Shogun, Tektro Brake Levers
I also chose modern Tektro short-reach brake levers, which are easy to squeeze from the top, even for those with weak hands.

Refurbished Shogun, Silver Bar-End Shifters
Finally, I chose Silver bar-end shifters, which are much, much easier to use than downtube shifters and less awkward than stem shifters.

Refurbished Shogun, VO Bar Tape
The leather handlebar tape is by Velo Orange. I had never tried it before and was glad to discover that it has a softer, more matte texture to it that Brooks leather tape (which I personally find a little too slippery).

Refurbished Shogun, VO Saddle
Velo Orange Model 3 touring saddle. Saddle comfort is one of these things that is different for everyone, but I have to say that (somewhat to my surprise) I found this one more comfortable than the Brooks B17s I once owned. The leather is very different from Brooks leather, and I cannot speak for its longevity or durability. But for me, there was no "breaking in" period, and no pressure on sensitive body parts. I will soon write a review of this saddle with additional details.

Refurbished Shogun, VO Fenders
Velo Orange hammered fenders, their pattern of indentations resembling a honeycomb. Later I will also post a comparison between the VO and Honjo versions of hammered fenders.

Refurbished Shogun, VO Crankset
Velo Orange also provided the headset and their Grand Cru double crankset. It was exciting when these cranksets came out, because they are classically shaped yet affordable. Personally, I find the looks of chunky modern cranksets rather depressing, so it's wonderful that these are an option. I have not ridden with them except during my test rides of this bike, but I welcome readers who've owned them to provide feedback. The pedals included are MKS Touring pedals, which I have on most of my bikes and love.

Refurbished Shogun, Panaracer Pasela Tires
The wheels are 27" touring wheels from the early '80s - a slightly nicer and cleaner version than the ones originally on the bike. The tires are the puncture-resistant Panaracer Pasela Tourguards. The headset, bottom bracket, chain, brakes, and front derailleur have all been replaced with modern components.

Refurbished Shogun, Original Wheelset
The rear cassette and derailleur are pretty much the only components that were left original. They are in good condition, but the downside is that the bicycle is only a 12 speed - as bikes of its era are. In order to upgrade to a cassette with more cogs, we would have needed to get modern wheels, which was beyond the scope of this project.

Refurbished Shogun 400
Here is a close-up of the bicycle's colour: an unusual champagne-lilac that I personally find very attractive.

Refurbished Shogun 400
The frame has been left original - frayed decals, rust spots and all - and I want to make it very clear that at heart this is still a vintage bike that looks its age, despite the updated components.

Refurbished Shogun, Carradice
I received a Rivendell "SaddleSack" as a donation from one of my readers, but I think this bike works better with a Carradice. So I will let the recipient choose - either the SaddleSack, or one of my own Carradice bags, as shown here. I will soon post a review of the SaddleSack (pictured here).

Refurbished Shogun, Carradice
And so that's it, in a nutshell. To my eye, this bicycle looks modestly beautiful, which is what I was aiming for. It is fairly light and is easy to carry. It is not "fast" by modern roadbike standards, so please don't expect to race or join paceline rides on it. Neither is it a bike for a tour of the Alps, since the gearing is somewhat limited by current standards. It is really meant to be a low-key, introductory roadbike for those with no athletic background, for those who want to explore nature while getting a bit of exercise, and for those who don't want to wear lycra and be all "serious" about roadcycling. If you've been unable to ride roadbikes in the past, this bike may be a good alternative to the ones you've tried. It is friendly. It is stable. There is no toe overlap. Lots of room on the handlebars for moving your hands around. Brake levers are easy to reach and easy to squeeze. Frame geometry is relaxed and won't hurt your knees. Having ridden the bike myself for a bit, it handles as comfortably and easily as I hoped. I've even ridden it in a dress and sandals, and it was great - just a really easy-going, "smell the flowers" kind of bike. Bicycles with drop bars are not for everyone - but this is as unintimidating of a way to try one as I can offer. I will announce the contest rules and timeline in the coming days, and I hope this bicycle will find the right owner.

I want to express my thanks again to Velo Orange, Harris Cyclery, and the generous readers who have contributed to this project: Justine, G.E., Neighbourtease, Spindizzy, Cedar, Somervillain, and others!

Sunday, August 28, 2011

A Ride with Irene

Irene, Toppled Tree
And so we have weathered the storm. Here in Boston, the general attitude toward Hurricane/ Tropical Storm Irene has mostly been one of sarcasm. Sure, there was some anxiety - stocking up on water and that sort of thing. But for the most part it's been a collective rolling of the eyes, a general feeling that the whole thing was unnecessarily hyped up by the media. One local establishment posted a handwritten sign stating "Closed tomawrah due to wicked bad hurricane!" Other businesses ranted against the public transit system for shutting down - drafting "Closed for the Day Thanks to MBTA" signs explaining that their employees have no way of getting to work - but that otherwise they would have happily remained open.

Irene, Branches on the Road
My own feeling was that the hurricane/ storm was not so much intentionally overhyped, as unpredictable - and there was a conscious decision to err on the side of caution. I also felt that it was insensitive of some to make light of a potentially destructive phenomenon just because it did not cause havoc in their neighbourhood. We live on the border of Somerville and Cambridge, MA, where the storm felt mild - but it did damage even here. Around mid-day Saturday, a large tree toppled over onto a major road around the corner from us, knocking out power lines and blocking part of the street until the city cleared it away. Had anyone been walking, cycling or driving on that side of the street at that exact moment, they could very well have been killed.

Irene, Toppled Tree
Today we carefully cycled around the neighbourhood and discovered more trees uprooted and large branches strewn across side streets. The strange thing is that the wind did not feel all that strong even during the worst of it, so we were surprised to see some fairly large trees knocked over. Does this mean they had shallow root systems?

Irene, Power Lines Down
Powerlines were downed in quite a few places, too. One local coffee shop that decided to stay open lost power on Sunday afternoon, yet remained operational for as long as some pre-brewed coffee remained. Customers would come in and sit with their drinks and pastries in the dark - quite happily, since this was one of the very few places open.

Irene, Branches on the Road
Surveying the damage in our neighbourhood, I think that the calls for caution were justified, even if the storm did not reach hurricane level. Overwhelmingly, motorists chose to stay off the roads here and the streets have been mostly empty - which I am certain accounts for the lack of injuries and casualties, considering the fallen trees and dangling powerlines. Cap'n Transit wrote a post a couple of days ago about the connection between driving and hurricane deaths that is worth reading.

I hope that all my East Coast readers are doing well, and that the storm has not been too severe for you. Has anyone been cycling?

Friday, August 26, 2011

Side Street or Main Street?

Grocery Shopping with Wald Folding Baskets
Cycling in greater Boston, I alternate between routes that take me along busy roads and routes that take me through quiet side streets. Each option leaves something to be desired. The busy roads are, well, busy - lots of car traffic, lots of action, lots of chaos. But they do seem to have enough room for everyone, including the processions of cyclists that now travel along them more than ever. The side streets are much quieter and greener, but are often too narrow to fit both a car and a bike side by side - resulting in its own set of challenges. 

I've mentioned before that when I have close calls or memorably negative encounters with cars, it almost always seems to happen on a side street. But the same is definitely not true for everyone, and a recent post on Let's Go Ride a Bike illustrates why many urban cyclists tend to keep away from busy roads. So I keep wondering what it is that, over time, has made me weary of side streets, whereas others see them as a refuge. 

One possibility is that I tend to overcompensate for the danger factor of main streets by being extra-vigilant, extra-focused and extra-careful as a matter of course - expecting the worst from every vehicle out there, and cycling in a way that anticipates that. On the other hand, side-streets lull me into a state of relaxation, because they seem so tranquil and friendly - so when something bad is about happen, I don't see it coming and am less likely to avoid it.

But this factor aside, I also think that drivers are less likely to keep their aggression in check when there are fewer witnesses. On side streets there aren't many people around, and perhaps the drivers with whom I've had confrontations and close calls were well aware of that. A scary thought, to be sure.

What is your take on main streets versus side streets, and what is your preference?

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Bella Ciao Superba: Ready and Available!

Bella Ciao Superba
Fashionably late and appropriately glamorous, the Bella Ciao Superba is here! I was nervous up till the moment I saw it, but the bicycle is perfect. The pre-ordered bikes should be off to their owners very soon.

Bella Ciao Superba, Lovely Bicycle Decal
To recap for new readers, this is the result of a collaboration between myself and Bella Ciao, and you can read about it here and here. Twelve bikes were made as a special edition and they are available exclusively at Harris Cylery in West Newton, MA. I know that a good portion of them have already been sold, so please check with Harris for availability. The price is $1,495. I am not the one selling the bicycles (and I do not receive commission on the ones sold), so please contact Harris directly with all sales inquiries.

Bella Ciao Superba
The Bella Ciao Superba frames were handmade in Italy, using Columbus Thron tubing. The frame size is 54cm, with 700C wheels. Tires are the cream Schwalbe Delta Cruisers, 700Cx35mm. The wheelsets are proprietary to Bella Ciao, made inhouse.

Bella Ciao Superba
The Superba includes all the components and accessories pictured here, which I will detail below. It is a 3-speed bicycle with a rear coaster brake and front handbrake, internally routed dynamo lighting front and rear, leather Brooks saddle, natural cork grips, chaincase, and a handmade rear rack.

Bella Ciao Superba, Handmade Rear Rack
The stainless steel racks were designed by me and handmade in Dorcester, Massachusetts by Trimount Ironworks. They are rated to carry 18kg (40lb) of weight, provide attachment for bungee cords, and will accommodate a variety of pannier systems.

Bella Ciao Superba, Rear Rack, Tail Light
There is a provision for attaching a battery-operated tail light to the rack, for those who wish to supplement the dynamo lighting.

Bella Ciao Superba
One thing I like about the stainless rack with its thin tubing, is that it has the effect of being "invisible" on the bike. I've played around with a number of different racks, and this definitely suits the bicycle best. I may write a separate post about the rack design in the near future.

Bella Ciao Superba, Handlebars
The high-polished alloy handlebars are made by Bella Ciao. I would describe them as a hybrid between North Road and Porteur style bars, and they are possibly my favourite handlebars on the market today.

Bella Ciao Superba, Cork Grips
The bike is fitted with natural Portuguese cork grips from Rivendell and elegant Tektro city brake levers. The cork grips will be left unfinished, but they can be shellacked by the owner - which will make them darker. The brake lever can be placed either on the right or on the left.

Bella Ciao Superba, Bell
Brass bell, of course.

Bella Ciao Superba, Headlight
The dynamo-powered lighting is by the German manufacturer Buechel.

Bella Ciao Superba, Tail Light
It looks fairly classic and unobtrusive, and works nicely.

Bella Ciao Superba, Dynamo Hub
The dynamo hub is Shimano. The wiring is routed externally up the fork, then internally through the frame, exiting through one of the chainstays.

Bella Ciao Superba, Coaster Brake
Sturmey Archer 3-speed coaster brake hub.

Bella Ciao Superba, Front Brake
Front caliper brake.

Bella Ciao Superba, Saddle
Brown Brooks B72 saddle.

Bella Ciao Superba, Chaincase
Non-slip platform pedals.

Bella Ciao Superba, Fork Ends
And the fork ends/dropouts (I like to remove those black dust caps, but forgot to do it here). You can also see the bungee cord attachment point on the rack here.

Bella Ciao Superba (Photo Taken by Elton Pope-Lance)
The colour of the bike as it shows up in the pictures here is fairly accurate. It is not the same colour as my own bike, but a more vibrant, saturated pastel green. If you have any questions about the features, I will be glad to answer them here. I hope that the owners of these bicycles will be pleased with them - I am very happy with how they came out. There is some talk of more bikes, but nothing is certain yet - so your thoughts are welcome. Many thanks to Bella Ciao again for the opportunity to work on this project, and many thanks to Harris Cycley for all of their help.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Ridden to Distraction

[image via Amsterdamized]

I have noticed that I feel a greater need to concentrate on the road when riding for transportation than other cyclists I know. This is not a criticism of others, but an admission of my own cognitive deficit: While in many ways I am a multi-tasker, this trait has bypassed anything that involves sensorimotor coordination, and sadly I am one of those people who has a difficult time chewing gum and walking at the same time. I am also a scary-horrible driver, never quite sure when it's safe to merge or at what angle to approach a parking spot.

When it comes to cycling for transportation, I am actually remarkably calm and collected - provided that I pay attention to the task at hand. For that reason I am uncomfortable chatting while navigating traffic, and no doubt appear rude to those who innocently attempt to socialise with me during their commutes. Sometimes another cyclist will pull up and start talking to me when I am on my way somewhere, and all I can think is "Oh my God, you're blocking me in and I need to make a left turn!" - not feeling very friendly at all. Needless to say, talking on the phone or texting is out of the question for me, and I am always stunned to see cyclists who are proficient at this - texting away as they execute complex traffic maneuvers in the most relaxed manner imaginable. Listening to music is something I can do on quiet country roads, but not in busy urban traffic. Drinking coffee on the bike? Forget it. I can sometimes rummage in my front basket for my sunglasses and put them on without stopping, but that is probably the height of my achievements.

Though I believe it is "dangerous" to perform sensory demanding tasks while riding a bike, I am aware that my views on this are influenced by my own inability to do these things safely. So, out of curiosity, what is your distraction threshold when you're cycling in traffic? And if you're also a driver, does it differ from being behind the wheel of a car?

Monday, August 22, 2011

Paint It Good: On Bicycles Becoming Art

Once upon a time I was enrolled in art school and we had this visiting professor - a new media guy - whose sulky catchphrase was "painting always wins." By this he meant that painting, being the traditional form of artistic expression, enjoys an unfair advantage over less conventional art forms in that it is more readily accepted as "art" by the general public - even if it is not. Those students who were not painters nodded sagely every time he said this, whispering "patriarchal" and "privileged" while throwing scornful sideways glances at their painterly peers. Whereas those students who were painters shrugged dismissively: "Well of course he's going to say that; he's a new media guy who hates painters." Naturally, both groups were right, but this is the sort of debate that is taken very seriously in art schools. I hadn't thought about Professor Sulky New Media Guy in some time - until I came across a link to this article on TreeHugger.

My understanding of the story is like this: A woman in Toronto decided to decorate a bicycle that was abandoned, locked up to a bike rack. She painted it neon orange and placed potted flowers in the basket. The city of Toronto then ticketed the bicycle, indicating that it was tagged for removal as a result of being abandoned and now clearly unridable. The woman and her friends decided to protest this and formed a collective, seeking out other abandoned bicycles and painting them neon colours as well. They received publicity. Eventually, the city stopped ticketing the bikes and reluctantly agreed to treat the project as public art. It is called The Good Bike Project and it has been applauded by cycling and environmental blogs for "defying" the city of Toronto.

Call me a disloyal artist if you will. Tell me I lack appreciation for symbolism. Accuse me of being no fun. Fine. But I look at these pictures of spraypainted bikes locked up to bike racks and I think: "Someone could have used that bicycle. Someone could have used that bike rack." I've read the article a couple of times and have browsed the project's website, but I don't get what exactly it is protesting and what exactly it is trying to say. It seems to me that in removing blatantly abandoned bicycles, the city of Toronto was actually doing cyclists a service by freeing up bike racks and other potential lock-up spots. Of course it would be great if those abandoned bikes could be rescued, then refurbished and donated to those who need them. But to turn useful objects into decorations, while also taking away parking spaces from cyclists? I don't know. Spraypainting a bicycle so as to render it unridable is not recycling, and perhaps what irks me is that this word is being used to describe the Good Bike Project. Refurbishing a bicycle is recycling, and I would love to see that become the de facto fate of abandoned bikes in cities throughout the world.

Whether spraypainting abandoned bicycles is art is not my call. And perhaps it's ironic that in the back of my mind echoes the sulky professor's complaint that painting always wins. "Paint it and they will applaud," he'd say - to warn, I now realise, rather than to mock.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Unexpected Interludes

Cabin, North Shore
Back in the city now from our stay on the shore, I am looking back in bemusement at what had been intended as a bicycling-heavy trip, but turned out to be anything but.

Surly Peeking Out
It did rain a great deal. But even when the weather was good, we hardly did any substantial cycling. In fact, we probably cycled less during this trip than at any other point since winter ended. Like everyone else who rides a bicycle, I go through periods when my enthusiasm for it waxes and wanes. But this was probably the strongest and most unexpected case of the latter I have experienced since I started this blog. Why?..

Beach, Rockport MA
On a superficial level it was really very simple: I lost interest in cycling when I discovered that the water was warm enough to swim. You see, I love swimming in the ocean but can't tolerate hot climates, so my options are severely limited and I've been swim-starved for years. In Northern New England the water is too icy, but in Southern New England (let alone popular vacation spots such as Florida) the weather is already too hot and humid for me. It is as if there is an imaginary line somewhere along the MA/RI border where the climate and the water temperature undergo a dramatic change and what I really need is a place that is north of that imaginary line as far as climate goes, but south of it in terms of water temperature. And unexpectedly, I found such a place in Rockport, MA. Despite it being August, it was never above the low 80s, and dipped as low as the 60s on cooler days. Yet, the water remained swimmable the entire time and I found myself perfectly content to spend my waking hours at the beach: swim, read, eat, repeat. I cannot remember the last time I've been able to do anything like this!

Loaded Bikes, Rockport MA
I also must admit that we did not enjoy cycling here as much as we hoped during the few times we did it. Going north to Ipswich and beyond, water views were limited, car traffic was pretty heavy and there was not a whole lot of shade. We know from experience that once you get up the coast to New Hampshire and Maine it gets better, but we never made it that far. Truthfully, cycling "at home" - along the tree-lined, quiet country roads Northwest of Boston - is, on the whole, considerably more enjoyable.

Bearskin Neck, Rockport MA
So at some point we decided to just let it go and accept that there wasn't going to be a whole lot of cycling during this trip.

Carradice Pannier
We used the bikes for transportation when necessary, but gave up even trying to go on "real" rides after the first week.

Loaded Rivendell, Rockport MA
By the time we loaded up the bikes again to head back, I felt as if I'd gotten completely unaccustomed to it and the weight of our luggage was challenging. There are many short, but steep hills en route from the place where we stayed to the train station, and the bike fishtailed wildly every time I attempted to feather the brakes on a downhill. Given the huge amount of Saturday tourist traffic and the narrowness of the road, this made me so nervous that I was shaking and covered in sweat by the time we got on the train. Ironically, the final leg of the trip home - from the train station in the center of Boston to our house on the outskirts - was less stressful, but by the time we got home I was completely drained and did not want to look at another 100 lb luggage-laden bike again for a long, long time.

Beach, Rockport MA
24 hours later, I still can't shake that feeling - a feeling that somehow morphed from that of being tired of just the trip home, to being tired of cycling in general. Maybe the hot, dusty, overloaded final ride was just a particularly cruel contrast to the cool, light feeling of being on the beach - swimming so far out from shore as to be surrounded by complete silence, submerged in the blissfully perfect temperature of Rockport's water. Also, maybe having taken a step back from cycling has made me realise that I've been neglecting other activities that I used to love - still love, in fact, but just don't get a chance to do. Maybe I ought to try harder to find time for them. Take swimming for instance: After all, Rockport is just a commuter rail's ride away and I can take one of my upright transportation bikes on the train, and... Ah, there. I guess I am still thinking of everything in terms of bikes, and there is really no danger of Lovely Bicycle abruptly ending as I run off to spend all of my time on the beach. Everyone needs an interlude, but cycling is such an inherent part of me now that I can hardly imagine life without it, at least in some form.