Saturday, December 31, 2011

Things Change and Stay the Same

image from the tentacles of the magnificent octopus

With 2012 upon us, I would like to wish everyone a happy, healthy, safe, exciting and all around fulfilling New Year, full of cycling and all the other things you enjoy. 

I've been trying to think of "resolutions" for next year pertaining to this blog, and in the process I am realising that I don't have any. This may not sound very exciting, but more than anything I would like for things to remain as they are: to ride bikes, learn more about bicycle design, overthink everything as usual, make mistakes in the process, and write about it all without getting overly self-conscious about how silly I might sound. This year I was upset and surprised when two of my favourite bicycle blogs were discontinued. But I also understand why it happened, and I can easily see how the same could happen here. For that reason I feel that it is especially important to keep things low key and not overextend myself. This is something I will try to bear in mind throughout 2012. 

Other than this, I am quite happy to keep it open-ended. I have been cycling for transportation more or less daily since the start of this blog, and over time I've become increasingly interested in roadcycling. Within these two realms there are so many possibilities for exploration, that I feel as if I've barely scratched the surface. My interest in bicycle design continues, and it's been fascinating to learn about materials and methods of construction other than the lugged steel I love. There's just... so much to it all! As new people get swept up into this obsession every day, there are also those who've been at it for decades - no less enthusiastic now than they were in the beginning. I hope that will be me in future.

I've had some requests for a New Year's cocktail like last year, and so I offer you the following:

The Slideways:
. real pomegranate juice
. dry champagne or white sparkling wine
. gin (of course)
. small lime
. sprig of mint 
. ice

In a cocktail shaker, combine ice, 1 shot of pomegranate juice, 1 shot of gin, 2 shots of champagne, and a generous squeeze of lime. Keep a tall champagne glass in the freezer to give it that frosted look. Strap the cocktail shaker to a rear rack of a fixed gear bicycle, then pedal forward and backward, rapidly changing direction. Unstrap the shaker. Remove champagne glass from freezer and pour in the contents immediately. Garnish with mint. Recline on your bicycle, side-saddle, while drinking and listening to this. Repeat as necessary.

A hat tip to Andy Arthur for his adorable illustration of my clumsy bike handling skills, and my sincere thanks to everyone I've crossed paths with via this blog in 2011 - be it virtually or in person. A Happy New Year to all!

Friday, December 30, 2011

Of Cycling and Cheeseburgers

Before I started cycling I was a vegetarian/ pescetarian for many years. It began by accident: I was on a research trip in Moscow in 1999 and got food poisoning after eating a meat dish at a restaurant. It was pretty bad, though to be fair I can't even be sure it was due to the meat. Could have been the salad or an unwashed fork, who knows. Still, for a while afterward I felt sick whenever I looked at or smelled meat, so I stopped eating it. Eventually the effect wore off, but the vegetarian habit remained. I did not crave meat products, and I felt healthier not eating them. Attempts to coax me back into carnivorism were unsuccessful. I could watch others eat meat and even cook meat for guests without being tempted in the least. I was pretty sure this was a permanent lifestyle change.

It was a couple of years ago that for the first time I found myself "tasting" little morsels of the Co-Habitant's food (invariably meat dishes) when we ate together. I did not want any, mind you, I just felt like a little taste. I also began to notice that these cravings coincided with bike rides. Interesting. No doubt what I was really craving was salt and protein - not necessarily meat. So I ate more salt and protein as I struggled with this unfamiliar new attraction to meatballs and burgers and barbecued ribs. And steak. And paper thin slices of prosciutto. And spicy chicken wings. And hot dogs... One day, after an especially strenuous bike ride we went out to dinner and I just couldn't take it anymore. The smell of meat that had once made me respond with disgust, then indifference, now filled me with longing. I ordered lamb instead of my usual falafel. I still remember how those fragrant, lightly charred bits looked upon my plate. And so ended over a decade of vegetarianism.

I am bewildered by my current love affair with meat. Content for so long to live off lentils, walnuts, vegetable omelets and occasional salmon, I now fantasise about full Irish breakfast, black pudding included. The more I cycle, the worse it gets. The Co-Habitant thinks it's hilarious, but I am rather ashamed. I think vegetarianism is ultimately the healthier diet, and I feel sorry for the little animals. The tasty little animals.... See?! This is terrible. I know there are many vegetarian and even vegan cyclists out there. And they are probably very disappointed to be reading this. But I have to tell it like it is. After riding my bike, I dream of cheeseburgers.

Thursday, December 29, 2011

Emotional Landscapes

Pamela and Patria, Ride Studio Cafe Women's Ride
Two days after struggling through a hill training ride last week, I found myself on the bike again - doing what ended up being a 52 mile ride counting my trip there and back. 50 miles seems to be the magic number at the moment: shorter than that and I am left feeling regretful; longer than that and I become more aware of the difference between myself and the stronger riders I am with. Interestingly, I have not gone on a proper ride on my own for over a month: I've met so many cyclists to ride with lately, that I am always with someone. Among the benefits of this is discovering local roads that I've never ridden before - and noticing what an enormous role landscape plays in how subjectively easy or difficult a ride feels. 

Riding with the Ride Studio Cafe women last week, we did a loop that on the map appeared near-identical to a route I usually do alone, only along the back roads. The landscape, bathed in the ethereal late-December light, was so stunning that I did not notice the miles or the hills. Where were we? These hardly looked like the tired suburbs I had become so familiar with. Here moss-covered trees grew out of green bogs under cerulean skies. Sleepy farms peaked out coyly from the mist. The remains of frost on dried grass turned meadows into expanses of delicate lace. The sun shone through black, leafless branches, casting high-contrast shadows upon the road. We rode under canopies of fragrant pine trees, which then opened up to reveal enchanted vistas. Climbing one particular hill, I felt such a surge of emotion from the surrounding beauty, that I could not help but go faster. The desire to reach the top and see what more awaited there, made the bike feel weightless.

Roadcycling for me is not about suffering. It is about this emotional connection. Somehow the feel of being on the bike, the sensation of speed, and even the pain in my legs become associated with the reward of seeing an affecting landscape. Once it forms, the association is difficult to break, and it makes cycling addictive - apparently not just for me. Some of my riding partners are experienced racers and randonneurs, and when I listen to them describe rides I notice that they rarely speak of difficulty or pain. Words such as "epic" and "sufferfest" are simply not in their vocabulary. It's not because they don't feel pain and exhaustion, but because they do not consider these sensations to be the point. It's about fulfillment through a visceral connection with one's surroundings. The rest is not important.

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Reaching for Water

Moser 300
Spending lots of time on the roadbike has improved my speed and endurance more than I ever thought possible. Unfortunately, my bike handling skills are lagging so far behind that the gap is becoming almost comical. 

What's causing some frustration at the moment, is that I can't drink water on the bike while in motion. Other cyclists will nonchalantly remove their water bottle from the cage without reducing speed, drink while continuing to cycle as if this were the most natural thing in the world, then replace the bottle in the cage and keep going as if it never happened. For me this maneuver is impossible to execute; I need to stop the bike in order to drink.

Prior to now this was never a problem. For the most part I cycled alone, and if I needed a drink I simply stopped the bike any time I felt like it. And the paceline rides I went on were only 20 miles, plus our stops at intersections were sufficient to sneak a quick guzzle. But now that I am going on longer rides and with groups of people, I am finding it more difficult to manage my water intake. I need to learn to drink without stopping the bike!

It's just so sad, because I've been practicing the water thing since summer, but progressing at a snail's pace. I can now grab the bottle with my left hand, but the bike jerks wildly when I attempt to yank it out of the cage. And if I do pull it out, what on earth will I do with it? Should I need to turn or stop the bike suddenly, will I be able to do it with one hand holding a bottle? Panic! Panic! Swerve! Panic! Yes, I am really that neurotic. 

It doesn't help matters that I am extremely resistant to being taught. "No, really! If I could do it, so can you. Look, I'll teach you." Yeah... Suffice to say, I've never met a well-meaning cyclist whom I couldn't frustrate with my inability to learn technique. So, for now I'm stuck drinking water at stops and gazing in awe at those who can drink while cycling. Maybe some day I will read this post and laugh. Till then, I can only resume my snail's progress.

Monday, December 26, 2011

Roads to Nowhere

This Way to the Curb
Walking around on Christmas day, the streets are almost completely abandoned. This offers a rare opportunity to observe during daylight hours how things are laid out. I cycle past this particular intersection several times a week, but always approaching from the other direction, and it is usually very crowded. So I've never fully processed its design from the opposite direction until now. And the design is really something. I don't know how well my pictures demonstrate this, but there is a bike lane running against traffic that guides cyclist directly onto a brick island at the intersection.

Bike Lane, Curb
Once the bike lane reaches the island, there is no entry point. But the markings invite cyclists  to hop a 4-5" curb, at an angle. Some of you are probably thinking "Well okay, I can take that at speed on the right bike." But wait, not so fast.

Bike Lane, Curb
There is a bicycle stop sign just before the intersection, so you really don't have that much room to accelerate. In addition, remember that this bike lane is against car traffic, so you also need to watch the blind turn as you make your way toward that 5" curb. I am no expert, but this might be worthy of some sort of "cycling infrastructure fail" award. And it certainly explains why I see confused, flailing cyclists approach the intersection from this direction whenever I cycle through here.

Bike Lane, Curb
Lately I've been reading Brown Girl in the Lane's delightful rants about Vehicular Cycling advocates. She considers these fellows to be the "spawn of Satan" because they are against cycling infrastructure. Of course, their reasoning is that they are against it precisely because the sort of thing pictured here is what cities will do to cyclists when designing said infrastructure. Carving out a middle-ground position in this debate is tricky and I am not going to try right now. I only wonder whether there is a way to put a system in place whereby those who design cycling infrastructure (1) are required to consult with experts who are actual cyclists, and (2) have some accountability over the type of layout they create. We should not have to choose between harmful infrastructure and no infrastructure at all.

Saturday, December 24, 2011

Calm and Bright

Ride Studio Cafe, Sunday Ride
Looking back at this month, I cannot believe that I've managed to squeeze in 300 miles of cycling into the first three weeks of December. The weather has been so lovely. The people I've met have been so encouraging. My bike has been so much fun. The bicyclists around these parts are in a great mood: It feels as if we've been given the gift of a second cycling season in the middle of winter. Commuters and roadcyclists alike are out in full force, smiling and waving to each other (seriously, more on this later). Infected by the holiday cheer, the city has even painted bike lanes on one of the most horrible, unpleasant bridges across the Charles River.

Ride Studio Cafe, Sunday Ride
That said, I am taking a break from manic cycling for the holidays and looking forward to a calm week at home - eating, drinking, spending time with loved ones, listening to David Bowie, getting ready to move into my new painting studio, and just being quiet. The last time I felt like I needed time off the bike, it was kind of a negative "I am sick of being on the bike!" feeling that almost had me worried. This time it's a positive feeling. I am not sick of the bike at all and I am feeling very optimistic. But I am learning to seek balance and to take a break before the point where I overdo it - an art that is difficult to master!

Enjoy your holidays - be they on the bike or off. As always, thank you so much for reading. Here's to our third winter together! 

Friday, December 23, 2011

Titanium for Transportation?

Test Riding Van Nicholas Amazon
Over the weekend I am test riding a titanium bicycle from the Dutch manufacturer Van Nicholas that was enthusiastically recommended by a reader. I will be posting a review in the future, but for now I have some general thoughts on titanium bicycles as transportation.

Seven Cafe Racer Belt Drive
I've been thinking about this more and more after test riding several Seven transportation bicycles over the past few months, including this belt drive cafe racer. While their idea of how a transportation bicycle should be set up is not quite the same as mine, I have to say the ride quality was divine. I could go over all the roots and bumps I wanted and feel nothing.

Seven Axiom S
This is the same sensation (or lack thereof) I had reported after many miles on the Seven racing bike I had on loan over the summer: Riding it with 23mm tires over bumps and potholes, I would feel only an "echo" of going over them, as if it were happening to someone else. At the time I was careful not to attribute this sensation to titanium per se, because I had no experience with other titanium bicycles. But it did make me curious to go out and try some others. This wasn't easy, because titanium bicycles are not exactly common. Still, I managed to briefly ride an older Merlin with 28mm tires. While the ride was completely different from the titanium Sevens, I did experience the same "otherwordly" sensation over bumpy surfaces. Around the same time I also briefly tried a steel and a carbon fiber Seven, and they did not feel like the titanium Sevens. 

Brompton P6L-X
Another encounter with titanium took place when I test rode a Brompton over the course of several days. I had heard that bicycles with small wheels tend to have a harsh ride quality, but the Brompton felt just fine. The Co-Habitant pointed out that this could be because the model I'd borrowed was fitted with a titanium fork and rear triangle. "Nonsense," I said, "It can't possibly make a big difference!" But when I returned the Brompton I made it a point to try the all-steel version immediately afterward. Darn, I could feel a difference. The model with the titanium fork and rear tringle had a softer ride quality over bumps. I say "darn," because I was biased toward not wanting to feel a difference: that was one factor that prevented me from actually buying a Brompton, as the titanium model is considerably more expensive.

Van Nicholas Amazon
And now there is the Van Nicholas. This is a touring/commuter model that rides not unlike a titanium version of a Rivendell. At the same time, it has the "echo-like" quality I've noticed in the other titanium bicycles I've tried, and in combination with the 32mm Schwalbe Marathon Supremes I just do not feel the road. It's as if the bike rides on balloon tires, but without the heavy sensation these tires sometimes have.

Test Riding Van Nicholas Amazon
Having tried about half a dozen titanium or partially titanium bicycles at this point, I can say that I do feel a common aspect in their ride quality independent of manufacturer and geometry - namely the manner in which they dampen road vibration. This alone would make titanium a good candidate for a transportation bicycle, simply because it makes for a comfortable ride without the need for super-wide tires. In addition, titanium does not rust and does not require paint. The frame should be absolutely fine in the winter and in the rain with virtually no need for maintenance. Any scratches can simply be buffed off the surface. Combined with an internally geared hub, which would further reduce the need for maintenance, this type of bike could, in theory, be indestructible - lasting for decades with minimal maintenance. And of course the light weight of titanium does not hurt. The downside? Well-made titanium bikes tend to be painfully expensive - if only because they are typically handmade by small builders.

Brompton P6L-X, Ti Fork
One framebuilder in the Netherlands has been making titanium Oma-fietsen(!), which I find completely intriguing and would love to try some day. In the meantime, the only other woman-secific titanium frame I have seen is the ladies' version of the Van Nicholas Amazon, but I don't find the design appealing. I wonder whether there would be demand for elegant titanium loop frames in the US, where weight and hill climbing ability tend to be particularly important. While I am generally not attracted to welded frames, the ride quality and other features of titanium have drawn me into becoming increasingly interested in this material and its applications. What do you think? Does titanium appeal to you and would you consider it for a transportation bicycle if it were more readily available?

Thursday, December 22, 2011

On the Symbolism of Cargo Bikes

Bakfiets, Somerville MA
Lately I have been spotting more and more cargo bikes and trikes "in the wild" in the Boston Metro area. Bakfiets, Christiania, Nihola, Xtracycle, Yuba Mundo, Gazelle, all sorts of neat models. Interestingly, almost none of them could have been purchased locally, because no local bike shops carry them. This seems to be based on the bizarre notion held by local bike stores and importers/distributors, that Boston would not make a good market for cargo bikes. I have personally heard this rhetoric many times from various members of the bicycle industry: Cargo bikes in Boston? Oh no, there is no market. Terrible place for cycling. Awful drivers, dense car traffic, narrow streets with no room for bike lanes, rude people. It's a good place for fixies and such, but cargo bikes? No way. 

Nihola Cargo Trike, Cambridge MA
But clearly there is a lag between how Boston is perceived by the bicycle industry and what is actually happening here - especially in the lively suburbs (more like boroughs) of Cambridge and Somerville. Beacon Street - a main road that acts as a border between the two - features parade-like processions of cyclists during morning and evening rush hour of almost Copenhagenesque proportions. Women in skirts, men in smart blazers, child seats strapped to rear racks, baskets on the handlebars, enormous panniers, and even - that's right - cargo bikes.

No market for them, eh? I must have seen half a dozen over the past week alone. And since local shops won't sell them, the cargo-bike-starved population of Boston is forced to travel to Portland ME or NYC to shop for them, or else order online, or else attempt to get them direct from the distributor with lots of behind the scenes begging. Odd really.

Xtracycles Radish, Cambridge MA
At this point you might be wondering why I care. In fact, why do I have reviews of cargo bikes here at all (see my test ride reports of the Bakfiets, Larry vs Harry Bullitt, Christiania and the Maderna Cycle Truck)? I don't have children and I don't really have enough stuff to transport on a regular basis to need a dedicated cargo bike. So why the interest?

I think cargo bikes are important in that they indicate how far a city has come in embracing and normalising transportational cycling. They equate cycling with safety and comfort, as opposed to danger and athletic skill. The mere sight of cargo bikes suggests:

"Look, people here must feel comfortable carting around their children by bike!"

"Look, there are people here who even replace their trucks with bikes!"

"Look, it must be okay here for bicycles to take up lots of room on the road!"

And of course when people see signs that something is okay to do because it looks like others do it, they are more likely to consider doing it themselves. So even if they do not need or want a cargo bike per se, they may be more likely to look into cycling with their children, cycling with baggage, cycling on the road, and other aspects of transportational cycling because these ideas are suggested by the mere existence of cargo bikes. 

I suppose a simpler way of saying what I am trying to say might be that cargo bikes are symbolic of a strong, healthy "bike culture." Going with this premise, I am pleased that more of them are popping up in Boston and wish the industry would take note. What about your city?

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Hill Training: My Epic Semi-Fail

Trek & Moser, Arlington Heights Water Tower
Over the summer, one of our local bicycle clubs runs what's officially known as the (In)famous Wednesday Night Hill Ride: a loop "encompassing the gnarliest hills in the Boston Metro area." Of course the route does not belong to them and lots of local cyclists who want to cram some serious hills into a relatively short ride use it to train on their own time, particularly racers and randonneurs. Back in July Somervillain began riding this route with a small group as practice for the D2R2 and invited me to join. At the time the very notion was laughable. Me, on the Infamous Hill Route? The women's paceline rides were hilly enough for me, and those were described by the same bicycle club as "mostly flat" (ha!).

But definitions of "hills" are subjective. Fast forward a few months, and mine too had changed. Having gone on a handful of rides with some strong local cyclists, I even developed a new fondness for hills and no longer outright hated them. So when Somervillain suggested the two of us try the Hill Route before the snow arrived, it suddenly seemed like a great idea. What can I say? I am human, I got cocky.

Somervillain and His Trek
Things started off innocently enough. My level of excitement was almost festive. Finally, I was going to do "real" hills, like the "real" roadies. I managed to get organised and dragged myself out of the house to meet Somervillain at an ungodly morning hour. The temperature was blessedly mild in the high 30s. The sun arose picturesquely over the local Dunkin Donuts parking lot as we convened in front of it on our trusty steeds: he on his '80s Trek racing bike, I on my Moser. It was going to be a great ride! A nice 30 mile ride with some hills in the middle. As we took off, I had a smile on my face (hint: it did not last).

Let me tell you about the Hill Training Route. The part with the proper hills is a 12 mile loop and the elevation profile looks like this. But no technical description or chart can communicate the subjective experience of this ride. The build-up was uninspiring, as we cycled along some ugly main roads with fast suburban traffic. After about 10 miles of that, we turned onto a narrow residential street and began the first climb up a small mountain. The climb began suddenly, and, being out of sight from the main road, there were no visual cues that allowed me to psychologically prepare for it. We turned the corner, and bang! - the very turn itself was already the beginning of a steep, twisty hill. The narrow road wound around the mountain instead of going directly up it, so there was no way to see what was around the bend. Would it get steeper or let up a bit? And how much longer to the top? Not knowing this drained my self-confidence and increased my anxiety tenfold. In addition, there were potholes the size of craters, and I had to zig-zag gingerly around them as I climbed.

Backlit and Exhausted
My bicycle is geared fairly high (52x39t in the front and 12-26t in the rear), but still I did not expect to max out my gears quite so early on. Click-click-click! Click! And I was done. From that point onward there was no spinning, only pushing, and I still had most of the hill ahead of me. So I pushed on the pedals and heaved myself forward in jolts.

Promptly, my body began to rebel. A pain shot up straight to my right temple, so intense that it clouded my vision. I had a strong urge to throw up. My leg muscles felt as if someone was injecting them with acid. Somervillain was way up ahead of me and around the next bend. I felt intense shame at being so hopelessly terrible at this, even after all the rides I've done to build up to it. I did not see how I could possibly keep going at this rate, and only a stupid, primitive sense of pride kept me pushing. Thoughts such as "Do not stop the bike!" and "Like hell you're going to walk!" were the only things circulating in my otherwise empty mind.

Trying Out the "Epic" Face
At the top I felt nothing. No elation, no sense of accomplishment. Maybe some anger at my naivite ("You needed to do this, did you? Racers describe this ride as "infamous" and you decided this meant it was suitable for you?"), but otherwise nothing. I drank water and looked around blankly for Somervillain. Somehow I'd managed to lose him. Could he have taken a different side street to descend? I cycled around the maze of streets along the side of the mountain, climbing some smaller hills for no reason other than to keep warm. I was now shaking violently. Then it occurred to me that we both had phones. I phoned, he picked up immediately, we realised what had happened to separate us and agreed to meet back at the base of the hill. It was pretty apparent to me that I could not continue the ride, and he could hear it in my voice as well. I cycled down to meet him with my head hung low and my face a deep crimson.

I am not entirely sure how we ended up repeating the climb (yes, you read that correctly). I think it may have started out as a suggestion in jest. But long story short, we climbed the same hill again. Oddly it went easier the second time around, despite my utter sense of depletion. Maybe knowing what to expect made it easier. Once again I maxed out my gears and pushed myself up in jolts the whole way, but with a clearer sense of when to expect an end to the hellish ordeal. In the last stretch, my breaths were coming out in audible heaves: Hee! Haw! Not unlike the sound of a tortured donkey. And then again it was over. At the top we stopped in a parking lot behind a small, shabby water tower. I tried to eat a piece of an energy bar, but nearly threw it up. I did drink more water and kept that down. My hands were trembling. We agreed that we were done for now: descend carefully, then back to Somerville. Two difficult climbs was not so bad given my lack of experience.

Somervillain and His Trek
Cycling home, we transitioned to the Minuteman Trail and enjoyed the glorious sunshine. We chatted casually about this and that and began to contemplate where would be the best place to stop for coffee.

And then I opened my mouth and said: "You know what? I am not tired anymore. This always happens, I begin to feel more energetic at the end of a ride."

And he said: "Oh yeah? Do you feel like going back and doing the last climb of the route then? We have time before I need to be at work."

And I said... Well, what could I say. I couldn't exactly back out of it at that point! So we rode to Arlington Heights for the last climb.

Trek & Moser, Skyline
This climb was very different and I am so glad I did it. It was a big, open road that went straight up instead of winding, and I could see exactly how far it was to the top. It was a steep climb of about a mile and again I maxed out my gears fairly early on, but somehow it was just a more rewarding experience. This road had nice scenery and a more pleasant atmosphere; I just felt better riding there despite the same horrible pain in my legs and the same shortness of breath. Seeing that I had about a mile of this ahead of me, I somehow "settled into" the climb and relaxed. The entire time I was thinking "Oh my God, am I actually... enjoying this?" Somervillain was way ahead of me of course, so I had no illusions about my speed. When he stopped at the top and turned around to check how I was doing, I gave a thumbs up and smiled.

Trek & Moser, Arlington Heights Water Tower
Upon reaching the top, I was delighted by the sight of a beautiful stone water tower surrounded by a small park. I had never been here before, and it's always nice to discover a new scenic spot. Suddenly, everything began to seem okay, even funny. It wasn't so bad. I really should have done the middle two climbs of the route instead of bailing so early on. To make me feel better, Somervillain pointed out that we'd really done more like 3 out of 4 climbs, since we did the first one twice. Plus we'd cycled 30 miles over all. Let's call it a modified route. After taking some pictures, we descended down a monstrous hill with a view of the Boston skyline, climbed another short but steep hill, and then cycled home for real with a quick coffee before parting ways.

On my way home I stopped by the Co-Habitant's office to say hello. He laughed and said I was incoherent, clearly still coming down from a post-cycling high ("and then... and then... there was a TOWER! And I almost gave up, but... tower!")

Sigh. I guess I should be grateful that even in my 30s I can enjoy the little things. I am pretty terrible at this roadcycling stuff, especially hills. But God, I love it anyway. We'll be doing this ride again. And thank you, Somervillain!

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

The Virtues of Versatility

Bella Ciao, Boston
For a couple of months now I've been riding only one bicycle for transportation instead of switching between several, and I've got to say that I like it. Not only that, but I am realising that strictly speaking, the others I own are not really necessary, as this one is sufficiently versatile to do everything I need. I've never felt this way toward another transport bicycle before, which is why I've always had multiples: at the very least one IGH bike for local errands and winter cycling, and a lighter, derailleur-geared bike for long distance trips with hills. But now that division of labor is no longer neeeded.

The bicycle I am riding is a modified Bella Ciao Donna that I finally have all to myself again after it served as a guinea pig for a project I was working on. It is not perfect at everything. My other transport bike is a vintage Gazelle and it's a cushier, more luxurious ride with greater carrying capacity. I also have a Royal H mixte that is faster, lighter weight, easier uphill, and equipped with better lighting. But the Gazelle cannot be ridden long distances efficiently. And the mixte cannot be ridden in the winter, plus the frame can be a pain to mount and dismount in some outfits. Neither of the two would work as an "only bike." But the Bella Ciao can handle long distances, does a decent job of tackling hills, is suitable for winter, and accommodates any outfit. The 3-speed drivetrain keeps things simple. The powdercoat and chaincase keep it maintenance-free. The handling has a distinctly vintage feel that is not for everyone, but works well for me. Sure I've wished for more cush over potholes, more cargo capacity and more gears while riding this bike. But I can count on one hand the number of times that has happened over the past two months.

Versatility is not an exciting characteristic, because it implies compromise. "Jack of all trades, master of none" sort of thing. But I guess for transportation cycling I am finding that the jack of all trades is winning me over - at least for the time being. More than anything, I think the trick is finding that sweet spot of a bike - what one person considers versatile may not be sufficiently versatile for another. But if you do find one that does it for you, it can be such a relief! Getting around on the same bike regardless of destination has simplified my life considerably, giving me a new appreciation for versatility. 

Monday, December 19, 2011

Scaring Away the Cold with a Balaclava

Ibex Balaclava
Of all the winter cycling accessories out there, none can match the formidable powers of the balaclava. I daresay few garments will make a "cycle chic" photographer withdraw his camera faster. And what other article of clothing is capable of striking fear into bank tellers? As universally unflattering as it is terrifying, the balaclava is not an item one would purchase casually. You've got to get to the point where you really, really need it. For me that point came one December morning. As I pedaled my roadbike against a brutal headwind with temperatures in the 30s, I felt ready to give the dreaded balaclava a try. The one you see here is from Ibex, sent to me for review. 

Broadly speaking, a balaclava is a garment that covers the entire head and neck in order to protect the wearer from the cold, exposing only small parts of the face. The Ibex balaclava has an opening for the eyes and nose, but covers the mouth completely. It is form-fitting, closely hugging the contours of the back of the skull, browbone and cheekbones. It is made in the USA of soft and lightweight merino wool (18.5 micron) with flat seams, one size fits all.

Ibex Balaclava
My interest in a balaclava is specific to roadcycling. Going at speeds of over 20mph in a leaned-forward position, my face takes the brunt of the harsh winter wind and this can feel extremely uncomfortable. The close fit of the Ibex balaclava is an advantage here: the opening is so tight that it feels almost elasticised; wind does not enter through it while cycling at high speeds. The thin fabric and close fit also make it comfortable to wear under a road helmet when I don one for organised rides: There is no bunching up or slippage. I would say that Ibex's take on the balaclava is designed for athletic activities, such as skiing and winter cycling, rather than for casual wear. Everything stays in its place, and the technical merino fabric forms a tightly woven layer of protection against the wind that feels feather-light and pleasant against the skin.

Ibex Balaclava
The inevitable downside of such a precise and form-fitting design, is that there is no versatility in how this garment can be worn. While in some balaclavas the lower portion can be stretched down to expose the mouth or pulled up to cover everything but the eyes, this is not possible with the Ibex version. In order to expose my mouth, I have to stretch the opening forcefully and as soon as I let go my mouth is again covered. Likewise, covering the nose would not be possible. For me that is probably a good thing, because covering my nose with fabric in the past felt constricting and uncomfortable. Even having my mouth covered feels somewhat restrictive and will take some getting used to.

Like most balaclavas, this one is profoundly unflattering - particularly to a face like mine, that becomes all nose and eyebrows once the other features are hidden. So if you're going to rock this, you basically have to not give a straw about how you look for the time being. Also, consider that drivers will be seeing less of your facial features and hair, which, in theory, could interfere with them fully processing you as a real, vulnerable human.

I am not sure yet whether I will be keeping the Ibex balaclava. Current retail price is $30, and I consider that a good deal for a US-made 100% merino product. As a roadcycling-specific garment I think it works well, but the sensation of having my mouth covered might just be out of my comfort zone. Have you worn a balaclava for cycling in the winter? Your thoughts, experiences, and recommendations appreciated.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Seatpost Setback and Related Matters

Origin8 Seatpost, Zero Setback
A couple of days ago I replaced the seatpost on my Rivendell Sam Hillborne with one that has zero setback, and the change has been interesting. Before I go any further, I will warn you that this is a continuation of the long top tube post. So if that one gave you a headache, please stop reading now and save your sanity! Or, continue at your own risk.

For those new to the concept of setback, seatposts come with different amounts of it. One of the things the setback does is move the saddle clamp back, thus altering a bike's effective seat tube angle. Say your bicycle frame has a 74° seat tube, and you buy a seatpost with 2cm of setback. Unless you counteract the setback by moving the saddle forward along the rails, your bicycle's effective seat tube angle will be 2° slacker, making it more like 72°. And you can make it slacker still by pushing the saddle further backward. By contrast, a seatpost that goes straight up with no setback leaves your frame's natural seat tube angle unaltered. Seat tubes today tend to be steep, so it is rare that anybody wants to make them steeper still. But with a zero-setback seatpost, it is possible to make the effective angle a bit steeper by pushing the saddle forward on the rails.

2 Year Riv SH Frame-a-versary
The other factor influenced by a seatpost's setback is the reach from saddle to handlebars. The more setback a seatpost has, the further the saddle moves away from the handlebars. Here it is worth noting that bicycle fit experts typically warn against messing with seatpost setback and saddle positioning in order to alter reach. Instead it is advised that one's saddle position preference should be fixed in relation to the bottom bracket. At least that is my understanding.

Getting back to my bike, it has a 52cm seat tube and a 57.5cm top tube - the latter being unusually long given the former. Additionally, it has a 71.5° seat tube angle, which is atypically slack. In previous posts I explained that when I ride this bicycle, I feel as if my body is not sufficiently forward. The long top tube will not allow me to fit the bike with a stem longer than 7cm, and the slack seat tube puts me further back still.

2 Year Riv SH Frame-a-versary
Originally the bike was built up with a seatpost with generous setback, making the effective seat tube angle even slacker than its natural 71.5°. Eventually I replaced it with a seatpost that had only minimal setback, but even that did not feel as if I were sufficiently forward. I was reluctant to go with a zero-setback seatpost, because everyone I spoke to acted horrified by the idea. "Zero setback? What are you trying to do, turn it into a racing bike?" However, after the "long top tube" post I came to the conclusion that a zero setback seatpost is the most obvious solution. Far from making the bike "racy," it would simply continue the frame's already slack seat tube angle without slackening it further. Or, I could move the saddle a tiny bit forward and make the effective seat tube angle a rather normal 73° (as it is on my other two bicycles with drop bars). So, that is exactly what I did.

The welcome side-effect of the new saddle position is that the long top tube problem seems to be resolved. My reach has been reduced considerably and I can get a longer stem if I want. But even with the current stem I already feel myself positioned significantly more forward on the bike than before. The subjective sensation of this is greater than I would have predicted: I feel more in control over the steering, and I feel that the bicycle is distinctly faster to accelerate and to start from a stop. Although visually the saddle comes across as being too far forward now, its relationship to the bottom bracket is actually quite normal for a roadbike (off-the-shelf road frames in my size typically have 74-75° seat tube angles). I need to take the bicycle on a longer ride before I can say more, but I think this setup may be just the thing.

It's been exactly two years since I received the Sam Hillborne frame as a holiday gift, and this bicycle has given me over 2,000 happy miles. I've changed a lot as a cyclist over this time and the Sam's frame is quirkier than I initially realised. But I am going to try and make it work for me - hopefully learning a thing or two in the process.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

This and That

House of Talents Basket
You can get with this

Reclining Moser
or you can get with that

Post Ride
Sometimes I wear a helmet

Basket's Edge
sometimes I wear a hat

Sometimes I work from home
with my lovely assistants

Moser, Charles River
Sometimes I go on rides
in the cold wearing mittens

Lunch Stop, Dover
Sometimes I ride with others
sometimes I ride alone

Pamela and Patria, RSC
Taking wacky pictures
with my camera phone

Lunch in Concord
meeting nice people

Lunch in Concord
eating hot soup

Z and Her Seven
climbing hills along the
Concord-Lexington loop

Lunch in Concord
Now let's all get cozy
with a warm cup of java

Ibex Balaclava
Or how about a crazy
wool balaclava?

Rainy Boston Night Time View
Enjoy your weekend
and the beauty outside

Crisp and Sunny
No matter what you're into
it's time for a ride!

Friday, December 16, 2011

What's Your Urban Speed Limit?

When I ride through parts of town with chaotic car and pedestrian traffic, I find that I need to limit my speed in order for my reaction time to be adequate. I told this to another cyclist one time and he laughed: "But the speed limit is 20mph here! You can do 20 and still be fine." But I don't believe that's accurate. Maybe a car can do 20 and be fine, but their braking system works differently. A driver is unlikely to flip their vehicle over if they brake suddenly at 20mph, but a cyclist is quite likely to either go over the handlebars or be unable to come to a complete stop quickly enough.

Some hold the theory that instead of braking, the urban cyclist should be quick to accelerate so that they can go around swerving cars and leaping pedestrians. But that isn't always possible. Earlier this week during the holiday shopping rush, I found myself in a situation where I was basically trapped between several moving objects simultaneously and had no choice but to slam the brakes: Two car doors in a row swung open ahead to my right while, at the exact same time, a pedestrian jumped into my line of travel (which was out of the door zone). I could not swerve right because of the car doors, I could not swerve left because of the moving cars in the travel lane, and I could not continue straight because of the pedestrian. Within milliseconds, I had to come to a complete stop.

Over time I have determined that my self-imposed "speed limit" when cycling through areas where such situations are possible needs to be 12mph at most. Any faster than that, and I cannot guarantee that I can come to an immediate stop safely. Do you have an urban speed limit?