Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Road to Trail: Speed, Skills and Bikes

Rivendell, Summer 2011
Among the people I ride with it is popular to mix stretches of dirt roads, paths and trails into what are otherwise fast road rides (well, they call the rides "social pace," but there is a certain level you have to reach in order to be social at that pace!). At first I would only join the rides that promised not to do any off-road whatsoever, but now I am gradually starting to ease into riding stretches of dirt trails.

Doing this in the company of experienced cyclists has given me a different perspective than riding in similar terrain alone. The biggest difference is that they go fast, whereas on my own I used to see cycling off road as something to be done cautiously and slowly. Now I am noticing that going fast can actually make things easier. Riding on rock-strewn dirt and gravel requires more effort and lower gearing than riding on pavement, particularly when going uphill. Ride too slowly, and the bike can get bogged down. But maintain speed, and the momentum "carries" the bike through sections that might otherwise seem difficult or scary. It's counterintuitive for a beginner, because the natural inclination is to slow down if the terrain gets challenging. And this is where riding with a group is helpful: following their pace means quickly learning the "faster is easier" lesson through experience. Of course part of it is also psychological. When I am focused on trying to keep up with the group, I don't really have the opportunity to worry about every single ditch and rock and root formation - my instincts kick in and somehow I end up riding through sections I would have considered too challenging if given a chance to think.

As far as skills, I am finding once again (as I did with roadcycling earlier) that I improve quickly with others and very slowly, if at all, on my own. I've ridden on dirt trails before, but now I feel that all those rides taken together did nothing for me compared to the single stretch of off-road I did as part of a ride last weekend. It wasn't a long section, but it had a bit of everything that terrifies me: ditches, rocks, mud, a bit of climbing and descending, even a tad of residual snow and ice. We rode through it quickly, and afterward I suddenly felt like I "got it," whereas on all of my slow and cautious lone rides previously I wasn't really getting it at all.

It seems to me that a good bike for transitioning from road to trails and back needs to be fast, light, responsive, and ideally to have wide tires. Last year I would probably have started with "wide tires" and listed everything else as optional, but recent experience makes me reconsider. I have found it easier to "push" a faster, lighter bike through dirt, especially uphill, than a slower and heavier one. And I have found it easier to avoid obstacles on a quick-responding bike than on a stable but sluggish one. And while wide tires would make things better still, it seems to me that those other factors are crucial.

My impression is that for a while there was a tendency in the bicycle industry to associate wide tires with more relaxed, heavier and slower touring-style bikes - the reasoning being that if you want wide tires, you probably do not need to go fast. Therefore, it was difficult to find bicycles that both had clearance for tires over 25mm and were sufficiently fast and aggressive. That began to change with the rising popularity of cyclocross, and with people like Jan Heine reviving interest in the classic randonneuring bicycle. Races and other competitive events with both road and dirt sections have become more mainstream over the past several years as well. I am not sure whether in the long run any of this will be relevant to me, but it is an interesting development. More builders and manufacturers are starting to specialise in fast road-to-trail bikes, and locally this type of riding seems to be all the rage. Whether I have what it takes to take part in it remains to be determined.

36 comments:

  1. Is that the Minuteman Nat'l Park Battle Road, Concord, where today's posted picture was taken? I rode that in November and, yes, we do condition ourselves to think we cannot ride a road bike off paved roads and over dirt trails but that is exactly what we did as kids unquestioningly.

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    1. Yup, that's the location. This was over the summer.

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  2. You clearly are the type of person who should not think too much about what she's doing and just mimic good riders.

    This is obvious to many but bears repeating: kids learn everything this way, including sports. Consider yourself a kid again; at some point closer than you think the learning window will slowly creak its rusty hinges more shut.

    Let's call this I Told You So #542.

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    1. I know this about myself, but did not expect it to be so extreme. In retrospect it makes me a little annoyed that I learned more after 3 paceline rides than I had after what must have been 2000 miles cycling on my own. And now it's the same, only a level higher with the people I've met this year. I like to think that I prefer to be independent, but clearly I just can't do this stuff alone.

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    2. From the outside cycling looks like an individual sport, like running, with a social component on the side.

      In fact cycling is the most social sport. The individual side, like commuting, is just riding and not sport. Clearly you just can't do this stuff alone because nobody could do it alone. We do it together. Welcome.

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  3. I agree with you, the cyclocross bike ticks the road to trail box.

    23mm tyres work great on hard packed trail, not so much on the loose. Like you I have found that skinny tyres work surprisingly well in snow and on ice.

    Great read, keep it coming.

    Dan.

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  4. Only 2 comments?! I guess everybody's watching the Apple live-blog today! :)

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    1. FYI The comments here do not always get approved right away and this post wasn't published until the afternoon.

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    2. That reminds me that I need to fix the time straps; they are several hours off. A Blogger mess-up and I can't figure out how to fix it.

      What is going on with Apple? Guess I should visit their blog.

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    3. They are releasing the new iPad's details today. Some other stuff too. The intergoogles are throbbing with excitement.

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    4. Jeez you people and your iPads! I've got bikes to pay for.

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  5. That there's exactly why my CX bike has become my go-to bike,and my mountain bikes haven't had as much use the last year or so ;) GOOD read,Velouria,it thrilled me to read about CX bikes (and similar) getting exposure :D

    The Disabled Cyclist

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  6. Cyclists over 50, and those who know their cycling history, recall that clearance for tires over 25mm in width was the norm for lightweight road bikes throughout most of the 20th Century. Even in 1985 it was still possible to buy a Trek or a Japanese bike with light tubing, 57mm side-pull brakes, and room for a 32mm tire and fender. That's the specification now being called a fat-tire road bike, much talked about at NAHBS last weekend, and maybe the next big thing from mass producers. However some of us have been riding light, quick, off-the-peg road bikes with 32-35mm tires on dirt roads and single track since long before the ATB came along, let alone the recent craze for cyclocross bikes.

    After mountain bikes came in, it became hard to find a mass-produced road bike that could handle 28mm or larger tires, unless it had a touring-stout frame (not necessarily a disadvantage). However there were always alternatives in the custom, semi-custom, and second-hand markets. Grant Petersen deserves the lion's share of credit for addressing the industry and consumers alike that a good road bike should be able to handle dirt. He would be too humble to say it himself, but most of the designers, builders, and publicists of road bikes with big clearances rode in on GP's shoulders.

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  7. I just don't understand why tire clearance has been reduced som much. I just started riding my race after winter and some gravel (from sanding the roads) got stuck between the rear brake and tire, making noce and resistance. There are just a few mm of clearance between tire and brake. My CX on the other hand can take a 40 mm studded tire. What is the advantage of the lousy clearance?
    Personally I really like going on dirt roads having grown up in the countryside. They also make it possible to avoid roads woth heavy traffic on several of my favourite routes.

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    1. There is probably a very slight aerodynamics advantage, but for the majority of cyclists, that would be negligible. The tight clearances are for marketing and aesthetic reasons. Only a few mm of clearance looks trick and racy, and that's what moves the market, especially with roadbikes. (Everyone else seems to love clearance, although the tendency is to stuff the gap so full of rubber that there's barely any left.)

      I liked my ol' fuji roadbike quite a bit, but the lack of clearance was killing me. I could barely squeeze 25c tires and fenders in there, and the rubber would rub the fender under hard acceleration. A set of r556s and some 650a wheels have given that bike a new lease on life... Clearance is a good thing!
      -rob

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  8. Fast bikes that accommodate 28mm tires are no longer unusual, but what about 35mm and wider? Personally I would like to see more of those.

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    1. As far as stock frames go, Surly comes to mind. If you are willing to pay more and go 650B/ low trail, there is Rawland and Box Dog Pelican. With mid/high trail the Rivendell Homer Hillsen is supposed to be faster than my Hillborne and will take the same tire width, but those frames are $2,000. I am sure there are other options out there these days.

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    2. Most any race bike built before 1970 will take 35mm. Many built afterwards will too.

      Mercian is pretty much a 1970s bike that you buy new. Clearance past 35mm gets hard with available modern frame parts and without lots of metal work but it's doable. Basic Mercian will be about $1100 here. The website says they do extra clearance no charge but sounds like you are pushing for more than what they are thinking.

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  9. The Vento rims are a touch wider than most race rims. They'll support a 29mm tire nicely.

    Between the (slightly) wide rim and a wider tire it's considerably easier to change a flat. You still need hand strength but at least whoever helps you will have an easy time of it. And you won't have to worry about breaking tire levers.

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  10. What about Salsa? I seem to recall a model which allows for a wide range of tire width....

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    1. Oh that's right, I always forget Salsa. Pricier, but I also forgot to mention Cielo. The Cross model takes 35mm tires and is supposed to be pretty fast. No TCO on small frames either : )

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    2. With salsa, the caseroll and vaya are their all road bikes, with Fargo being their drop bar mtb.

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    3. But what are the all road models like? Are they for touring, or for faster rides? After reading a couple of reviews it sees the former, but I may have misunderstood.

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    4. The case roll they market as cyclocross/randonneuring the vaya is marketed as touring/gravel grinder. I think the main difference is the vaya has discs and the cass is a bit lighter. I've got a dSogn and the vaya, built up the vaya comes in at about 25 lbs, the rawland about 30 but I've got a dynamo hub on the rawland. The trail difference is a whole different issue which I'm still figuring out.

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  11. So it looks like you are not riding the Rivendell, even off road now, because you can't keep up with your ride buddies. Are you considering getting another bike to replace it?

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    1. Short answer is yes, I am working on it. If it works out, I will indeed sell my Sam Hillborne, since it would be a replacement.

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    2. D'oh a riding buddy suggested selling my Hillborne as well. I love it but it's now my 'slow bike'. Let me know if you want any info about the Pelican. :)

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  12. One thing to consider for your off-road adventures, is to be sure that you have strong wheels. When I was many pounds lighter, I tacoed a wheel braking abruptly in the middle of a turn. I look at modern lightweight wheels and wonder what drugs people are taking (for me nowadays, the budget rim of choice is the Sun Rhyno Lite).

    And 35mm is not "fat". 50mm and above is "fat". Go visit Belmont Wheelworks, they've got a Moonlander and a Pugsley available for test rides.

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  13. This post is an elaborate illustration of the concept that speed comes with stability. This is possibly more true on dirt than on tarmac, but it is almost universal. It's a lesson I learned while learning to ride motorcycles.

    Another key strategy for riding offroad is that you want to keep your eyes and your mind on what is coming up the trail about 5 yards ahead of you, rather than what you're riding thru at the moment...
    -rob

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  14. btw, the kind of bike you're describing in this post is exactly the kind many of us use for transportation/commuting.....light, responsive, efficient, and with a wheel/tire combo which allows for all kinds of road or trail conditions. my commute covers twenty miles, five of which are trails. so, yes, let's see more of them out there on the market!

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  15. I would not go for surly or any of those big name companies if you want something fast, responsive etc.. They tend to use 4130 with oversized tubing. You do want something smooth to help with the bumpiness. On especially rough trails or gravel roads my nerves go crazy and I get the dreaded arm itchies so I want a really great frame. I do alot of road to trail to gravel road biking because I live in the country and as of yet have had the big wide tire experience other than with a vintage raleigh. It has tires very similar to the grand bois cypres or hetres-sort of in between the 2 widths. And it is great on rough terrain. I was able to ride it on very rough trails with no problem. Sometimes you just have to get on the bike and move regardless of what you are riding.
    I do wonder if some of the rivendells are a bit slow like your Sam Hillborne? The oversized tubing does matter especially for smaller and lighter riders.
    There are plenty of not so vintage bikes with the clearance you want and some are great to convert to 650B if it is a size you'd like to try on a zippy frame.

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    1. I've ridden with a couple of people now who ride small Surly Cross Checks or Pacers with carbon forks, 28mm tires and lightweight components. They are probably much faster than me to begin with, but they do quite well on these bikes.

      Personally I was not impressed enough with the Cross-Check I briefly test rode last year to buy it, and also I am honestly kind of tired of heavy roadbikes. But it works well for some people.

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    2. the great thing about surly is they whet one's appetite. they're relatively inexpensive and have a good group of components. a functional affordable option and if one wants lighter, more responsive, they can spend the extra for better tubing and custom design.

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  16. velouria, now that you have publicly admitted to wearing synthetic bike knickers, i have to wonder whether its only a matter of time before you add something like this to side bar stable:

    http://www.ibiscycles.com/bikes/hakkalugi/#imageGallery

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  17. Velouria, I share your view about the lighter the bike the easier it is to manoeuvre but that is true of all routes.

    For off-road trails wide tires with deep tread are better; one can find good hybrid tires now Smooth centre for road use and deeper tread at the side.

    For riding style one should ride light, avoids the risk of front wheel skidding while turning, and be able to jump the front wheel over obstacles.

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  18. Quick,light bikes that can handle fatter tires? Seems to me Bridgestone had that covered years ago.

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