Friday, March 30, 2012

How We Ride

Motobecane Mixte, Walden Pond
To the delight of some and eye-rolling of others, during the first year or two of this blog I referred to riding a bike recreationally as "sporty cycling." What a funny term. Why not just call it roadcycling? Well, because it's not! Roadcycling evokes associations that I felt were not appropriate to the kind of riding I did at the time - or in fact to the kind of riding most people who just want to ride a bike for exercise are drawn to. Roadcycling is its own world, with what I consider to be pretty rigid parameters. There are assumptions about equipment, positioning on the bike, speed, and even style, that are pretty much unspoken pre-requisites no matter how friendly and open the people are. Whether described as "social rides" or "training rides," it is still a fairly specific type of riding that assumes performance-optimised equipment, advanced handling skills, and the ability to maintain what most would consider a high minimum speed. And there is nothing wrong with any of this. Except that not everyone wants, or needs to ride like that. To ultimately be on a bike with dropbars, keeping up with the local roadies, need not be an end goal. Some might truly enjoy riding an upright bike at their own pace, without feeling the need to "advance to the next level." The very idea of advancing - of cycling in order to get faster, stronger - is part of the roadcycling discourse and& need not influence those outside of it.

In May 2009, just a couple of months after I touched a bike for the first time in 13 years, I rode my first 50 miles. I was living in Vienna at the time and riding around on an upright hybrid rental, up and down a short stretch of the Danube bicycle path outside of town after work. Then one Saturday, I just kept going and before I knew it I did 85km - which I hadn't even realised until I looked at the map of the area I covered later; I just knew it felt like "a lot." How fast did I go? No idea. What was my nutritional plan? None. What did I wear? A cotton tunic, leggings and sneakers. Did I look like a complete dork, puffing away on my inefficient hybrid with suspension fork, saddle too low and handlebars too high, my loose sweat-stained top billowing in the wind? To a roadcyclist, maybe. But to a regular person? I just looked like a person doing a long bike ride.

His and Hers Motobecane, Southern Maine
I do not know why, over the years, I have grown attracted to roadcycling and do in fact now want to get faster, stronger, to "advance." I enjoy it and do not regret the transition. But at the same time, I maintain that it is absolutely not necessary to ride a bike in this manner. Last October I was back in Vienna and did a 100 mile ride along the same route I rode in 2009. Again, on an upright bike in regular clothing, with no training in the weeks leading up to it and no nutritional plan. I thought that maybe that kind of ride would be boring for me at this stage, but it wasn't at all. It was just different. A different frame of mind, a different style of riding. I went slowly and didn't worry. It was not about performance or timing. I was just a person, going kind of far on a bike.

Now and again I get emails from readers who are genuinely upset because they can't seem to transition from an upright step-through or mixte to a roadbike with drop bars. The local cycling clubs only cater to the latter. Their spouse rides a roadbike. They feel left out. But the more I think about it, the more I realise it just doesn't make sense to give up the sort of bike you are perfectly happy with because of some misguided notion that you "should" be riding a roadbike if you're serious about cycling. I do wish there were more bicycle clubs that catered to casual cycling, where people on hybrids and upright 3-speeds and mixtes could feel at home and within their comfort zone. I also think there is a difference between casual cycling and casual cyclists. You can be a serious, committed cyclist and ride casually. This distinction is not often acknowledged.

Roadcycling is not the only valid form of recreational or sporty cycling. There are so many ways to ride a bike, and there is no right or wrong way as far as I am concerned. How we ride depends on us alone.

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Reading Bill Strickland's Ten Points

A little while back, someone suggested that I read Bill Strickland's Ten Points, and before I knew it I was interacting with Bill Strickland himself and he sent me a copy. When the book arrived, the cover alone induced a pre-emptive sense of nostalgia. A cyclist walking his bike into the fading sun, beneath the overhanging trees, as if savouring the sweet devastation of defeat. Of course this would be on the cover of Bill Strickland's memoir.

Bill Strickland is the editor of Bicycling Magazine. He lives in Pennsylvania. He races for Kapelmuur Independent. And he writes, a lot. Articles for various cycling and sometimes non-cycling magazines, a few books, blog posts. The first time I read something by him was maybe in Rouleur a year ago, and then I began following him online. I remember it initially surprised me that a person who wrote like Bill Strickland was the editor of Bicycling. Those guys are all about nutrition and training and race coverage and roadbike reviews. Strickland's writing is evocative and sensual and self-consciously sentimental. And that's just on his instagram account.

Ten Points is an unconventional memoir. It's inextricably tied to bicycle racing, but is not really about it. Bicycling is more of a metaphor, an explanation, a case study in magical thinking. At the start of the book, the author tells his little daughter that he will score 10 points during a single racing season, then proceeds to participate in criterium races and fail spectacularly week after week.

But this plot line merely serves as a trajectory for the real story - a story of surviving childhood abuse, emerging damaged, then wondering for the rest of your life whether you're human or a piece of garbage. In adulthood, the author considers himself cursed, a monster. He struggles to stay in control, but the past haunts him and he worries about being a fit parent and husband. He believes that cycling keeps the monster in him at bay. And winning 10 points for his daughter might just have the power to lift the curse entirely.

Reading the memoir and trying to process it as such, I must admit that I found the 10 points theme to be overbearing and at times distracting. The writing is good. Bill Strickland excels at creating a visceral sense of understanding between himself and the reader. Repeatedly I found myself lost in his past, in his life, in his very sensations. In contrast to this, the overarching storyline of the 10 points feels forced, packaged. Like maybe the author had written the book differently, and then some editor swooped in and tried to make it more marketable for those who like the "top 10 ways to tackle hills" types of articles. I don't know how else to explain it.

Could the story have been told without the 10 points theme being so overt? I honestly think that it could. The book is really a rich collection of snippets, flashbacks to various incidents in the writer's life, and there are other ways in which these could have been tied together. The narrative style is jewel-like, seductive, while somehow also managing to come across as sparse and reserved. It is part American Gothic, part John Updike, but replete with its own, uniquely Stricklandian, characteristics.

In a way Ten Points reads more like a novel than a memoir, and some characters feel more believable than others. The incidents from the past, despite how dramatic some of them are, read as believable, as do the parts about racing. But in the present-day dialogue with the wife and daughter, the things they say are sometimes too well-phrased, too conveniently meaningful. In those instances I could practically feel the author trying to wrangle them into the 10 points plot.

At his best, Bill Strickland is the sort of natural storyteller who can engage an audience with a description of an Idaho cornfield. He can stir the reader into alternating states of wistfulness and fear within a single paragraph. He is a master of subtle foreshadowing. I want more of all that, less meta-narrative.

Writing about this book, I find myself wishing I hadn't interacted with the author prior. Because now I am hyper-aware of him as a real person and nervous about how he will feel reading this. But maybe that's arrogant. After all, who the heck am I and what does it matter what I think. I am describing the book as a reader, not as a critic. And I continue to follow Bill Strickland's writing with interest.

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Cycling and Self-Portraiture

I have long been interested in the connection between cycling and amateur self-portraiture. Anyone familiar with the world of bicyclists' image galleries is also familiar with the ubiquitous "panda shots," storefront reflections, snapshots of one's bike shadow. Taken quickly with tiny low-quality cameras, these provide spontaneous glimpses into how we move through the world, what we encounter along the way, and how we relate to our bicycles while doing so. Over the years it has become a distinct genre.

But why do it? Looking in from the outside, it is easy to interpret it as a contemporary obsession with documentation, a marking of territory, or in the case of "panda shots" (pictures of yourself taken while cycling) as a showing off of skill. And of course to some extent it is all that. But what makes it bike-specific? I have never encountered another group outside of the art world that is as prone to self-portraiture as cyclists. Joking around with bikeyface, we tried to start a trend for "walk pandas," but somehow pedestrian self-portraiture does not hold the same appeal. 

Last year I wrote about bicycle blogs and exhibitionism - describing a culture among the blogs of beginner female cyclists where women communicate and encourage each other by showing pictures of themselves doing everyday bike-related activities. Outside of the intended audience (for example, when observed by experienced male cyclists), this is sometimes misinterpreted as exhibitionism. But for the intended audience it is in fact a "teaching by doing" sort of tool that can be more effective than any advocacy. 

Still the trend for self-portraiture among cyclists is not limited to this alone. It is more widespread than that and encompasses a more diverse demographic. From racers to retrogrouches to randonneurs to pedaling fashionistas, cyclists just seem compelled to snap pictures of themselves on or next to their bikes.

It is possible that moving around by bicycle, particularly when we are new to it in adulthood, heightens our sense of self-awareness and it is this that inspires the self-portraiture. In a sense, the cyclist keeps a visual diary. And a true diary, be it written or visual, is more than just about what happens in one's environment; typically the diarist also focuses on themselves. 

How well this works as an explanation, I don't know. But as a psychologist and a painter I am fascinated by the tradition of self-portraiture I've seen emerge as more and more cyclists share their images with the world. If you take pictures of yourself on or with your bike, why do you do it?

Monday, March 26, 2012

Navigating the World of Clipless Pedals

Last summer I wrote about trying to ride clipless and failing. Unfortunately, not much has changed since then. For background, I do ride my roadbike with foot retention: I use Power Grips, adjusted as snugly as possible. They bind my feet to the pedals effectively while still being extremely easy to get out of. Sure, they don't exactly look "pro," but they get the job done and anyone who thinks otherwise has probably never tried them. Still, it bothers me that I just can't master riding clipless after all this time, while others have no trouble with this skill at all. This year I was determined to get to the bottom of what makes it so hard for me. 

My first step was to start from scratch. Last year, the Co-Habitant gave me his old clipless pedals (Shimano M520) and I used those by default. I got as far as being able to ride around the block gingerly, but ultimately just wasn't comfortable with it. Later more than a couple of women told me that they hate these pedals and cannot use them either, and that what I should really do is go to a bike shop and try as many different pedals as possible. I didn't know you could do that, but apparently some bike shops offer this service. Since I spend a lot of time at the Ride Studio Cafe as it is, I arranged with them for a fitting. They have a trainer in the back room where you can set up either your own bike or one of their demo bikes, and they have a variety of clipless shoes and pedals to try.

To ride clipless, you have to buy a set of pedals, which are sold with cleats, and a pair of compatible shoes. The cleats that are purchased with the pedals are then attached to the shoes. There are many brands of these pedal/cleat systems, and they are generally classified into road (SPD-SL) vs mountain (SPD) - a little misleading, since in practice both are frequently used by roadcyclists. The mountain bike system (left) features small cleats with 2 attachment points. Notice also that on the shoe, the part where the cleat goes is recessed, so that when off the bike you walk on the sole and not on the cleat itself. The road system (right) features larger cleats with 3 (or 4) attachment points. And the shoe is not recessed, so that when off the bike you actually walk on the cleat (this is why roadies make those click-clacking noises on pavement). As it is explained to me, the benefit of the road system is that more of your foot is attached to the pedal. The benefit of the mountain system is that it is easier to walk off the bike. 

Popular road-compatible systems include Look, Shimano, Time and Speedplay, all shown here. The former 3 are near-identical, but the Speedplays (the smaller pedal on top) are a little different in shape and attachment style (also they are double-sided, whereas the other road pedals are one-sided). I did not bother trying these, because nearly everyone I know who uses them seems to have problems. But I tried the Shimano and Look SPD-SL, and I liked them both. The clipping mechanism felt very different than that of the (SPD) Shimano M520s I was practicing with last year. For me at least, it felt much easier to clip and unclip with the road pedals; the mechanism did not feel clunky or death-grippy. With the SPD cleats last year, even on the weakest setting I felt as if I were stomping on the pedal with all my might to clip in and jerking the bike sideways in order to unclip. With the road system, the mechanism on the pedal felt as if it grabbed the cleat without much effort on my part, and I could also unclip fairly easily. On the downside, I found the road shoes slippery to walk in, which made me nervous. A number of people I ride with discouraged me from going with the road system for this very reason.

Having already tried the typical Shimano SPDs and determined that I did not like them as much as the SPD-SL, the one system left to try was Crank Brothers. This is technically a mountain bike system, and the cleat looks very similar to SPD cleats. However, the pedals are 4-sided and use a different mechanism. I had hope for these pedals, because those who use them report that they are very easy to clip in and out of compared to the other mountain systems. I tried them, and I agree. The mechanism engages and releases very easily, and I know that I will be able to practice with these without the "what if I can't unclip?!" anxiety. The model pictured here is the Egg Beaters, but I ordered the Candys - which are the same, except with a platform. I wanted the platform version, because I do not like the feel of tiny pedals and want more support for my foot. I think the platform will also make it easier for my foot to locate the binding mechanism, before that part becomes intuitive.

It is yet to be determined whether I'll be able to master clipless, but I have a feeling that if I can do it at all then I'll be able to do it with these Crank Brothers. My biggest problem so far has been fear over the effort of unclipping, which should no longer be an issue with these. I will keep you posted on future progress or lack thereof. But for any beginners reading this, I encourage you to visit a bike shop that specialises in this stuff and talk to them, try different pedal/cleat combinations and see how they feel - as opposed to struggling with a system just because a spouse or a friend uses it. 

Sunday, March 25, 2012

In Print

I wanted to share that this Spring I have two pieces of writing coming out in print publications. An article on my impressions of a classic randonneuring bike will appear in the Spring 2012 issue of Bicycle Quarterly. And a reworked version of a post from last December, "Emotional Landscapes," has been included in Taking the Lane, Volume 6: Lines on the Map. If you are interested in reading these pieces and the excellent works alongside which they appear, both issues are now available to order.

Since the start of this blog I've been reluctant to commit my bicycle-related writing to print. I did not feel the writing here was good enough, and I also didn't think the style really flowed outside of the blog format. But working on the Bicycle Quarterly article and interacting with Jan Heine made me aware that I've accumulated material - stories, thoughts, ideas - that do not fit the blog format and would work better in print.

Posts like Emotional Landscapes and this earlier one about Vienna are examples of writing that really should have been longer and more nuanced, adapted for the blog only because I had no other outlet for it. Publishing a slightly altered version of the former in Taking the Lane allowed me to test the waters as to whether I felt comfortable turning non-committal blog snippets into real pieces of writing.

I think that one of my readers, who comments here as "Spindizzy" (aka Jon Gehman the rackmaker) is a genius writer who owes it to the world to write a book about life and bicycles. His comments alone are literature as far as I am concerned. I've also been inspired by the writing of Tim Krabbé, Grant Petersen and Bill Strickland (in a way I see the latter two as flip sides of the same coin), and reading their stuff has made me realise that distinguishing "bicycle writing" from "literature" is silly and a defense mechanism. I've written stuff that has been published before. But with this blog I wanted to de-stress and take the pressure off with what I initially thought was a lighthearted topic. Imagine my surprise.

The Spring 2012 issue of Bicycle Quarterly and Taking the Lane, Volume 6 are now available, and those who order should receive theirs some time in April. I derive no financial benefit from the sales of either, but invite you to support these small, independent publications.

Friday, March 23, 2012

Rise and Ride

I both am and am not a morning person. I do like to wake up early. But mornings are a still, quiet time, and while my mind is active (I can get a full day's work done before 9am), my body is not. So I sit and work, and drink endless coffee, until my body starts to feel more energetic and I am ready to face the world. Riding a bike before that point is not something I feel compelled to do. And yet, lately I've been doing it. Group rides tend to meet in the mornings, and friends with 9-5 jobs can only ride before work. My desire to join them has lured me onto the bike at some ungodly hours.

There is a lot to be said for early morning cycling. It's quiet. There is hardly any traffic. And it's beautiful - in a magical and almost eerie way that makes you feel special to be there. The world is allowing you to see it in its softest, least aggressive state. Once I am out there pedaling, I am glad to be doing it. But getting myself out of the house in the early morning can be difficult. 

What I found helps, is to force myself to be organised and to develop a routine. I check the weather and lay out everything I will need for the ride the night before - everything, from socks to jersey and chamois cream, in one accessible pile. This way I can shower and immediately get dressed without thinking. I fill my water bottle at the same time as I fill the kettle to make coffee in the morning. I put my phone, keys, and money in my jersey pockets as soon as I put it on, so that I don't have to scramble and search for them at the last second when I can potentially forget something. Then I eat breakfast, top up the air in my tires, and go. Things that I put on right before leaving - such as gloves and sunglasses - I keep inside my helmet by the door. 

If meeting up with another person or a group in cold weather, I've learned to make sure the meeting point has the option of seeking shelter. Somebody's house, a cafe, a building with a lobby, or at least a gas station that will let you wait inside with your bike. This way, if someone is late you do not have to wait in the freezing cold - it is extremely difficult to stand still in the cold for long, particularly first thing in the morning.

Now that it's spring and the days are longer, more rides will be scheduled for the afternoons. But I am still glad to have developed a morning routine, and it will especially come in handy once it gets really hot out. What time of the day do you usually ride?

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Dream Wool Cycling Jersey Concept

Wool Jersey, Front and Rear Views
A number of manufacturers have come out with updated versions of the classic wool roadcycling jersey over the past few years, and I've accumulated a few. All have some nice features, but none are perfect. Yesterday I noticed one that I think might come close, and exchanged some emails with my Ibex contact Julie lamenting that there is no women's version. This ended with the people at Ibex saying they will consider it for Fall 2012, which, in turn, inspired me to be more specific about what I envisioned. This is not directed at Ibex necessarily, but at wool manufacturers in general. It is a simple concept, and shouldn't be difficult to execute - yet no jersey quite like this exists at the moment as far as I know.

Lightweight merino or merino/lycra blend; no polyester
The key to my dream wool cycling jersey is a very lightweight merino fabric. And by lightweight I mean summer weight, t-shirt weight. The wool Swobo and Woolistic use for their jerseys is too heavy. Rapha, Road Holland and Shutt Velo Rapide use "sport wool," which is a wool/polyester blend that, for me at least, works nicely over a base layer in cold temps, but not against bare skin. Icebreaker adds a touch of lycra to their paper-thin wool jerseys for stretch, and I like their fabric as a possibility. But the nicest I've worn so far has been the 18.5 micron, 195g/m2 merino used by Ibex for their Indie line of jerseys. That fabric feels pretty much spot on.

No Seams Dividing SleevesI prefer cycling jerseys with long sleeves, even in summer, because this way my arms don't get burned. Also, if the fabric is lightweight enough, I actually find it more comfortable to have my skin covered in the heat than not. The combination of the t-shirt weight wool and the long sleeve length is perfect for temperature regulation on both hot and cool days. One thing to add here, is that I beg whoever makes this jersey to not do anything crazy to the sleeves - like what Swobo did here by adding seams. I have both the older (no seams) and the newer (seams! why?) versions of their long sleeve jersey, and the seams on the newer one make the sleeves constricting. Please just leave the sleeves be; they don't need reinventing.

2-Way Zipper
One feature I would absolutely love to see in a cycling jersey is a 2-way zipper. I think this would be an especially useful feature for women, as it would enable us to unzip the jersey for extra ventilation just like men do, but without exposing the bosom. With a 2-way zipper we can unzip along the tummy and leave the chest covered up. I am surprised no one has tried this yet actually. The zipper should be covered on the inside of the jersey, so that it doesn't come into contact with the skin.

Shaping darts, for Bosom
Women sometimes complain that cycling jerseys are unflattering, and one way to remedy this would be to tailor the jersey via shaping darts - which Ibex already does in some of their athletic tops. However, I am reluctant to suggest this, because it does introduce additional seams which for some may cause chafing. Personally I am okay with or without darted tailoring, though a women-specific fit would be nice.

3 Classic Rear Pockets
In the back, all I want is the classic 3 jersey pockets, elasticized at the top. No more or no less; no bells and whistles; nothing weird. Some manufacturers have been getting clever with the pockets - adding all sorts of secret zip-up compartments for pumps and wallets, which I really feel is unnecessary, and if anything, limits the use of that potentially vast pocket space. Just the standard 3 pockets please!

Wool Cycling Jersey, Front
As far as looks, I am open - just please keep it simple. No flowers, no swirly shapes, no faux-oriental designs, and no clever slogans. Classic colours. Maybe a stipe or two somewhere, with room for embroidering a club name across the chest and back. I love this colourscheme from Ibex, and these from Rapha (sans prominent logo), and this one from Shutt Velo Rapide - and of course these vintage beauties from Bridgestone. Less is more, and a couple of contrasting stripes go a long way.

Wool Cycling Jersey, Rear
I have not described anything complicated here, and I hope manufacturers reading this will consider producing something like it. Ibex is probably in the best position to do it, because they already have the perfect fabric and a design that comes very close. But I'd love to see more options for lightweight, women-specific wool cycling jerseys across the board. Your thoughts and input are, of course, welcome. Who knows, maybe we can make something happen.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Purse or Pocket?

Tyranny of the Purse
For as long as I can remember, I have loathed those things that are known as purses: small handbags designed to house not books, laptops or groceries, but tiny personal belongings such as a wallet, phone and keys. Traditionally women have carried purses, because their clothing is not designed with pockets to accommodate these miscellaneous items. Even when pockets exist, their design is not actually useful for storing things without distorting the fit of the garment or even interfering with movement. And so historically, women have carried tiny handbags, seldom experiencing the freedom of walking around empty-handed, the peace of mind of not constantly having to look after one's belongings, and the fun of spontaneous mobility (try running down the street with a purse).

In the twentieth century, some women have taken this up as a feminist issue, refusing to carry a purse out of principle and only buying clothing with well-designed pockets. But for the most part, the purse trend persists, with fashion designers making a fortune on this accessory every season.

Freedom of the Pocket
For me it's not really a political thing, but I do get frustrated carrying a purse. Over the years I've made an art of finding clothing with proper pockets, or else adding my own pockets to garments. Even for 90°F summer heat, I own skirts and sundresses with cleverly placed pockets for my wallet, keys and phone.

Looking at a friend's vast collection of diminutive handbags one day, I asked why she preferred this method of carrying her things. She replied that this way everything is always in one place, and she need not move it from jacket to jacket as I do. That makes sense - except that she switches from one purse to another on a semi-daily basis, so she still ultimately has to move everything over. But explanations are about subjective perceptions of reality, and this was how she saw it. When I talk of purses being a burden, those who like them probably think it's mostly in my head as well.

I've been thinking about the purse vs pocket issue more since I started cycling. When riding a bike - particularly if that bike is not bolt upright - pocket design presents a special challenge, as contents can spill out more easily than when walking. Clothing that is marketed as cycling-specific, even for commuting, usually features lots of complicated pockets that try to get around this. Sometimes they work, sometimes they don't. Personally, I find the rear pocket design of the cycling jersey to be an extremely efficient way to carry small items on the bike, and I've wondered what elegant method can be devised to translate this into streetwear and maybe even business-casual attire. Begrudgingly I've ridden my bike with a purse in the basket or strapped to the rear rack now and again, but I always wish for pockets.

I am wondering what my female readers prefer. And does it depend on whether you are on or off the bike?

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

ANT Truss Bike... Mine!

ANT Truss Frame Bicycle
For some time now I've had a trade deal in the works with Mike Flanigan of ANT. In the early stages we discussed what kind of bike it would be, but couldn't decide with certainty. A loop frame with faux lugs? A basket cargo bike? Then one day I knew: a truss frame. And trying one that belonged to a friend cinched that decision.

The truss frame bicycle is a Massachusetts classic, the original having been built by Iver Johnson in 1910 as a pathracer. Mike Flanigan revived the design about a decade ago and made it his own. The basic ANT Truss is what I would call a "civilised recreation" bike: a simple single speed with a reinforced frame, wide tires and low but swept-back handlebars, intended for casual road-to-trail cycling in one's regular clothing. Over the years, the Truss has become one of ANT's signature designs. This, and its relevance to local bicycle manufacturing, is why it appeals to me. I consider this bike to be a ridable collector's item and a piece of local history.

ANT Truss Frame Bicycle
An additional aspect of owning this bike that's interesting to me, is that it is a prototypical ANT and in no way a "collaboration" with me. I merely signed off on features that the builder himself thought best to use. And yet, I like everything about it; I agreed with all the choices Mike made. The bike shows off the shared aspects of mine and the builder's tastes, with neither of us having had to compromise.

ANT Truss Frame BicycleThis Truss is a 52cm x 54cm lightweight cro-moly steel frame. It is a hybrid between a classic pathracer and a modern track frame, with a high bottom bracket, aggressive geometry, clearances for 35mm tires, and a generous wheelbase. There is no toe overlap with the 35mm tires.

The Eastwood (not RAL) powdercoat is an interesting colour half-way between sage green and slate blue. It looks greenish in the sun, bluish in the shade.

The fork is also handbuilt by Mike Flanigan, with a brazed double-plated fork crown. These forks are Mike's specialty.

ANT Truss Frame Bicycle
The main tubes are TIG-welded with a superbly smooth finish. The headtube features decorative lugwork. The handmade ANT headbadge was made right in front of me, with the process shown here.

The seat cluster features the signature ANT stays and a lugged collar.
This bike does not require a rear brake bridge, and in its place is a signature ANT plate.  Paul dropouts were used for the rear fork ends.

ANT Handmade StemThe stem is handmade by ANT, fitted with Soma Oxford handlebars flipped upside down, a Dia Compe front brake lever, and classic grips from Gripworks.

The stem is rather stunningly made and finished, and also one of the builder's specialties. The hard plastic grips are made in Missouri. Gripworks only sells them wholesale in large batches, but Mike has individual pairs available, if anyone is interested. They are very firm to grip, which I prefer to the softer rubber ones. I also like the shape quite a lot - gently fluted and not too thick.

Paul Crankset, ANT TrussThe crankset is Paul's, with 170mm cranks. I love the beautiful circles design and the classic look.   MKS Touring Pedals were customised with ANT cutouts and the cages powdercoated black.
ANT-Branded MKS Touring Pedals
Chris King headset and a Paul centerpull front brake with Kool-Stop pads.  Paul's seatpost with a standard amount of setback. And a Selle Anatomica saddle.

Mike Flanigan prefers to make as many parts of the bike on his own as he can, and to source as many of the remaining components as possible from the US. On this bike Mike made the frame, fork, headbadge, stem, and pedal cages. The headset, crankset, brake, seatpost, saddle, and grips are US-made.

ANT Truss Frame BicycleWe wanted this bike to be a single speed with free/fixed possibilities, but we agreed that it should not be drilled for a rear brake. So the natural solution was to have two wheelsets: one fixed and one with a coaster brake. We installed the coaster brake wheels to start with and I will probably leave it this way for a while. The rear hub is VeloSteel, made in the Czech Republic. Harris Cyclery built this wheel around a spare Bella Ciao rim I had left over from an earlier project. The front wheel is also a Bella Ciao left-over. The rims are aluminum and made in Germany. My fixed gear wheelset is a very low-end one, but some day I will save up and replace it with one built around Phil Wood hubs, to honor the builder's US-made preferences.

ANT Truss Frame BicycleYou don't need me to tell you that ANT makes good bikes; Mike has been on the scene for decades and has a legendary reputation without my help. Having known him for three years now, to me Mike is a very real person - creative, independent, open-minded and kind, with great stories and valuable advice. I am fortunate to have been given the opportunity to own one of his bicycles, and I think the unique Truss was the right choice. The bike fits me wonderfully, it rides nicely, and I will surely post more about it as I get to know it better. Full set of pictures here.

Monday, March 19, 2012

Lululemon Ride On Blazer: A Modern Take on the Riding Jacket

Lululemon Ride On Blazer
Having recently added a cycling collection to their lines of  yoga and running apparel, Vancouver-based Lululemon sent me and a couple of other bloggers some samples to test and review. The cycling collection is called Ride On and consists of some rather diverse items, from stretch-denim shorts to exuberant raincoats. I found the blazer to be the most interesting and versatile piece overall, shown here in "deep indigo."

Lululemon Ride On Blazer
At its core, the Ride On blazer is a classic Edwardian riding jacket, re-imagined for cycling in the 21st century. Tailored in the torso and cinched at the waist, it skims the lower abdomen in the front, then lengthens and flares out in the rear to fully cover the derriere. As someone who rides a bike and also likes to sneak yoga pants and leggings into my wardrobe, I like this design for two reasons: (1) It is long enough to cover my lower back when I am leaning over my bike's handlebars, and (2) it allows me to wear stretch pants as street-wear without worrying how my butt looks. Just being honest here.

Lululemon Ride On Blazer
The pleats at the rear have held their shape after a week of rather careless wear on my part. Despite its structured appearance, this garment is not something you will have to take an iron to.

Lululemon Ride On Blazer
Though visually the fabric resembles denim, it is in fact a stretchy jersey material - a cotton/poly/spandex blend. It allows for a great amount of stretch, and the jacket does not restrict movement even when worn on a bike with drop bars. The fabric is on the heavy side and I would rate it as best for temperatures between 50°F and 70°F. 

Lululemon Ride On Blazer
Aside from the length in the rear and the stretch, the Ride On blazer is designed with a number of cycling-specific elements. The extra-long sleeves feature thumb loops that I find to be quite ergonomic both in their placement and in the shape of the opening.

Lululemon Ride On Blazer
If you read customer reviews of this blazer on Lululemon's online store, there are lots of complaints about the sleeves being too long. However, I doubt that those who voice these complaints ride a bike. The sleeves have to be this long, or else the thumb loops will dig into the space between your thumb and forefinger when your arms are stretched out over the handlebars. I'd say the length is appropriate if you want this jacket for cycling, and there are plenty of other jackets with standard length sleeves for those who do not ride a bike.

Lululemon Ride On Blazer
Another cycling-specific feature is the reflective detailing on the sleeves and on the back of the collar. The narrow scalloped ribbon used for this is very pretty, but I wonder why they were so stingy with it. For instance, why not incorporate it into the seams on the back of the jacket?

Lululemon Ride On Blazer
In the front of the blazer, there is a lot going on. It's mostly good, just overwhelming at first. In addition to the standard lapel design, the Ride On blazer is fitted with a second, detachable inner lapel with a stand-up collar.

Lululemon Ride On Blazer
Zipping up the inner lapel and then closing the outer one around it provides several layers of protection against the wind in the chest and throat area, which is quite useful for cycling. Those who don't cycle might find these features unnecessary and bulky.

Lululemon Ride On Blazer
There are lots of buttons and zippers to facilitate opening and closing the jacket to different degrees, as well as two zip pockets. The benefit is that everything is kept tucked in at all times; nothing dangles or flaps around in the wind as you ride. The downside is that it's a little cluttered and complicated. The exposed zippers also give the front of the jacket an edgy "biker" look that competes with the refined equestrian look of the rear of the jacket.

Lululemon Ride On Blazer
The two front pockets with zip closure are large enough to house things like a wallet, phone, and other small items, but they are designed in a way that keep these objects tightly enclosed - so that when you're leaned over on the bike the weight doesn't make the pockets hang down. This is an especially useful feature if you're riding a roadbike.

Lululemon Ride On Blazer
All things considered, the Ride On blazer impressed me with how comfortable and convenient it is to actually ride a bike in, while being wearable as everyday clothing off the bike as well. I find it flattering for my body type, though the sizing isn't perfect (loose in the abdomen and torso, but would be narrow in the shoulders had I gone a size smaller). One thing to note is that, being made of soft and stretchy fabric, this blazer undergoes wear at the rate of a jersey garment and not a traditional blazer. The hem and the sleeves on mine are kind of filthy already and need washing. 

Lululemon Ride On Blazer
The biggest negative for me about this garment, is the faux denim print. They have other colour options, but the "black" is also faux denim and the "fossil" looks a little sweatshirty. I gather they were going for the edgy urban look, but the result is too "hip teenager" for me. I also wish the zipper-happy biker aesthetic of the front of the jacket could be toned down and brought in line with the more classic and elegant design of the rear. As it stands, the overall look doesn't really feel like "me" and I am torn about whether to keep it or not, despite how comfortable it is. Most likely I will give it away to a local cycling acquaintance - lots of women here like Lululemon and want to try it [edited to add: I have now given the blazer away; the new owner loves it!].

Lululemon Ride On Blazer
I was never a fan of Lululemon's yoga apparel, but the Ride On collection intrigues me. The ladies at Let's Go Ride a Bike are testing it as well, and their review of the Ride On blazer is posted here. Lululemon's foray into cycling-specific designs goes hand in hand with them having become a co-sponsor of a women's pro cycling team, which I think is great. Though I'd love to see some modifications to the Ride On blazer (adjust the sizing and nix the faux denim, please!), overall I feel that Lululemon is on the right track here, and I appreciate the opportunity to test and review their products. Full set of pictures posted here.

Sunday, March 18, 2012

Doesn't Even Have a Top Tube

Notice Anything Different About This Betty?
Rivendell Betty Foy [review here]

The other day I received an email newsletter from Rivendell, where, among other things, they announced that their mixte model - the Betty Foy - is becoming their most popular bike... which, they promptly added, "was quite a surprise considering it doesn’t even have a top tube." 

Okay, so I know that was meant to be tongue in cheek. At least I think/hope. But it references a sentiment that is prevalent in the bicycle industry: that step-through/mixte frames are inherently inferior to diamond frames and therefore it is not worth making them with the same degree of care, precision and attention to detail. After all, customers are unlikely to buy these frames at the same price point as diamond frames. This idea comes from the fact that the "two triangles" design of the diamond frame construction is stiffer and stronger than any variation of the step-through design, and I do not intend to disagree. But there is more to a bike than that, particularly when we are talking about "real world" bikes. When it comes to accessibility, ease of transporting a rear load, and cycling in one's everyday clothing, step through designs are in fact superior. It is no surprise that people are willing to pay for them. 

Soma Buena Vista Mixte 650B
Soma Buena Vista [review here]

When I considered buying a Betty Foy over two years ago, it left me with mixed feelings to read the following in the description of the bike: "This style - mixte, lady's bike, step-thru, whatever you like to call it - came about originally to allow a woman's dress to drape gently down so it wouldn't get blown up by the wind. Most women don't wear dresses anymore, and if they do they don't ride bikes in them; but there remain benefits to this style frame..." And this was the manufacturer talking, trying to sell this bike? Sheesh. Walk into any clothing store or office building, and it is clear that women can and do wear skirts and dresses. And why on earth should they not ride bikes in them? The Betty Foy's popularity is not news to me, or to anyone else who is familiar with the female bicycling blogosphere. Countless women with an online presence pine for this bike, if they don't have one already. After all, bikes like the Betty and the Soma Buena Vista are well-suited for hilly, long distance real-world North American commutes, and many women turn to them when Dutch-style bikes prove not to be sufficiently fast or light for their needs. But there aren't enough bikes like this made; we need more.

I was so excited when Velo Orange introduced its lugged mixte in 2010, and I was equally disappointed when they discontinued it in 2011 - due, apparently, to less than stellar sales. I have a theory about why the VO mixte did not sell, and I will state it at the risk of being perceived as sexist. My impression is that (despite some vocal commentators ready to argue the opposite) it is women who mostly want mixtes. But VO was reluctant to cater mainly to women, and so they intentionally made the colour scheme aggressively sporty/ masculine just to say "look, this bike really is unisex!" Okay, yes technically it's unisex. But what ended up happening, is that many of the women who would have otherwise loved to buy a lugged mixte frame found the colour scheme unappealing. And the men did not want a mixte in the first place. I have a strong feeling that if VO were to introduce the same frame in a different colour it would sell. I hope very much that they give this a try some day.

Royal H. Mixte, Garden
Royal H Custom Mixte [review here]

Even custom framebuilders have a difficult time constructing lugged step-through and mixte frames, because standard lugs for these designs are no longer available. A few years back Reynolds stopped producing tubing suitable for mixte stays, which is why Mercian has discontinued their classic mixte and now makes only this. I believe there is money to be made in producing batches of split-stay mixte lugs and tubing, for anyone interested. 

Bike manufacturers need not be afraid of step-through frames. And they need not be afraid of catering to women. And they need not be afraid of acknowledging the fact that many women wear skirts and dresses, and for this and other reasons they prefer step-through frames. Please do make bikes without top tubes, and make them nice. Rivendell is a case in point that it makes sense financially.