Thursday, June 28, 2012

Cycling Up an Appetite: Women and Food

When I was in graduate school, a friend was conducting a research study that involved interviewing female students with and without eating disorders. This proved to be more difficult than she anticipated. Of the young women she'd recruited though a randomised process, all but one showed signs of disordered eating: She did not have a sufficient control group. So she dismissed her initial participant pool and tried again, only to get a similar result. Eventually this caused her to change the direction of the investigation: Her inability to recruit a group of university women with no history of eating disorders in itself became the theme of her research.

Looking back at this 10 years later, I don't think that she or I would have qualified for the control group of that study either. While neither anorexic nor bulimic, our eating was not what I would now consider normal. We were hyper-aware of our calorie intake. We knew our precise weights. We paid attention to the times of day we ate. After a meal, we would keep a mental note of the amount of exercise we'd have to do to compensate for it. The truth is, eating at that age for many of us was an inherently conflicted experience, the effect of food on our bodies ever-present in the backs of our minds. We were not fashion models and we were not athletes; we were university students. For most of us, it was not about our looks but about maintaining control in a competitive and stressful environment.

It was also a matter of having lost our natural appetite regulation mechanisms. We counted calories because we genuinely had no idea when we were truly hungry and when we were not. Our hunger and satiation signals were so out of whack with reality that we no longer trusted them. At age 12, feeling hungry simply meant I needed to eat something. But by age 22, this connection had become severed. There was nervous hunger, cravings for comfort food during all the endless studying, emotional eating. Lack of appropriate satiation signals could lead to overeating unless we were vigilant. And so we were, and it made us miserable.

How did this become the norm for so many women? Most likely it began with dieting during our teenage years and spiraled from there. We did not see it as abnormal, because we were neither puking up food nor outright starving ourselves. We were simply "eating healthy," watching our weight, making sure we maintained whatever clothing size we saw as being appropriate for our body types. But in truth we were suffering, and did not know how to put an end to it. In retrospect, I cannot believe how normalised this was in my generation of university women. Most of my female friends, acquaintances and colleagues had these issues and hid them with various degrees of success. Countless male friends have told me that they've never had a girlfriend who was not "weird" about food.

I cannot pinpoint exactly when things began to turn around for me. Possibly it was moving to a large city in my late 20s where I was suddenly doing lots of walking - not for exercise, but as a natural part of living and getting around. But riding a bike was what really accelerated the process of getting my appetite instincts back on track, so the connection is a strong one for me. Experiencing my body as a useful machine and not just as a bothersome appendage to my brain was what really did it. Through cycling I began to think of food as fuel. If I wanted to ride, I had to eat. And at age 30, for the first time in what must have been 15 years, I was once again able to eat when hungry and stop when full, just like I did when I was a child.

Since I began writing this blog, I have spoken with many, many women cyclists who describe similar experiences. Regaining trust in their hunger and satiation instincts for the first time since their pre-teens has been a gift more dear than they can express. And while cycling is not the only way to achieve this, it is certainly a great way, both fun and practical. Here's to all the women out there, cycling up an appetite.

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Chamois Creams: a Comparative Review

Chamois Creams Comparison
One of the first cycling-specific products I began to use when I started riding for longer distances, was chamois cream. Pronounced "shammy cream," this type of product is applied either directly to the crotch or to the inside of bicycle shorts (or underwear), in order to reduce chafing. The creams also have soothing, wound-healing and antibacterial properties that feel nice and help prevent infections. I have extremely rash-prone skin and I am prone to UTIs, but using chamois cream has virtually eliminated these problems. I go through the stuff fairly quickly, using up a tube every 1-2 months when I ride regularly. I have tried a handful of different brands. When I run out, I usually buy whatever the local bike shops sell, which can vary. A couple of the creams I've gotten based on friends' recommendations. Here is what I think of the ones I've used over the past 3 years:

Chamois Butt'r Eurostyle
I will start with Chamois Butt'r, which was the first cream I tried. It is available in two versions: regular and "eurostyle" - the former being non-tingly and the latter tingly. I bought the regular version first, and it did not work for me all that well; I found it somewhat bland and not entirely effective in preventing chafing unless I used a huge amount. It also did not stay effective for very long - maybe an hour tops. So next I tried the eurostyle and liked it a lot better; it did a better job preventing chafing than the regular version and lasted longer. It is worth noting that some people can't stand the tingly/cooling types of chamois creams and find that they burn or itch, so be careful. However, I do not have this problem and prefer the cooling creams. 

The consistency of Chamois Butt'r is medium-thick. Ingredients of the eurostyle version include witch hazel, aloe and menthol. But the dominating scent is oddly medicinal rather than herbal. While not my favourite cream, the eurostyle Butt'r does the job. I also like that it comes in smaller tubes, making it easy to keep in a jersey pocket in case you need to reapply in the course of the day. 

DZ Nuts Chamois Cream
I tried DZ Nuts because it was the only cream a nearby bike shop carried when I ran out and needed more. I remember distinctly how reluctant I was to get it, because the packaging put me off (the image just says "crotch on fire" to me). But once I tried it, it became my preferred product. DZ Nuts has a cooling feel similar to the eurostyle Chamois Butt'r, except it works better for me and the effects last longer. The soothing and healing properties are excellent, and I have even used it to soothe sunburn and rashes outside the saddle area. There is now a woman's version of this cream (Bliss) and I tried a sample at some point, but did not care for it. They basically eliminated the cooling effect for the women's cream.

The consistency of DZ Nuts is on the thin side, similar to body lotion. Ingredients include tea tree oil, sandalwood, barley extract and menthol - which the scent reflects. The scent is pretty strong and that might put some people off, but it does not really bother me. I like that this cream comes in a tube, though I wish a smaller size was available.

Vaseline as Chamois Cream
While Vaseline/ petroleum jelly is not marketed as a chamois cream, it can work in that capacity. I learned about this on Rivendell's website (here is the article) and decided to try it, since it's so much less expensive than actual chamois cream and readily available in any drug store. Vaseline both lubricates and heals. There is no tingling to bother those who are sensitive to it, there are no ingredients than can irritate, and the smell is more or less neutral. When traveling long distance, a cyclist can stop at any pharmacy and get some.

However, the problem I found with Vaseline is that it can seep through bicycle shorts (especially if they are unpadded) and discolour or otherwise damage leather saddles. It can also discolour the shorts themselves, leaving grease-like stains that resist removal. I stopped using Vaseline fairly quickly for these reasons despite its effectiveness and low cost. But I would still use it in an emergency, and I often use it post-rides. 

Mad Alchemy Chamois Creme
Mad Alchemy is a local-to-me company. Their chamois cream is all-natural, paraben-free, and US-made in small batches. So far I have tried the Pro+ and the LaFemme versions of the cream. They both feel markedly different than the mass-produced creams, especially the texture and smell - both are somewhere in between the filling of lemon pie and old-fashioned cold cream. It looks whipped, semi-transparent and almost luminous. As far as chafing prevention, I find the Pro+ version more effective than the LaFemme. The Pro+ has a mild tingly effect and combines some of the properties I like in DZ Nuts and eurostyle Chamois Butt'r, but suspended in a different type of base.

The consistency of the Mad Alchemy Pro+ is medium-heavy. Ingredients include grape seed, tea tree, sweet orange and lavender oil. The scent reflects this, but is very mild. While I like everything about the Mad Alchemy cream in itself, I find the packaging inconvenient as I can't carry it in a jersey pocket and reapply when necessary. I wish they made a version in a tube. 

Sportique Century Riding Cream
I bought the Sportique Century Riding Cream on the recommendation of a friend, who rides long distance and is crazy about it. I was complaining that no saddle seems to feel comfortable to me after 60 miles or so, and she recommended liberally applying this cream as a solution. I did, and I wish it worked. The cream is described as anti-microbal and anti-fungal. But honestly, it just feels like thick moisturising lotion. Sure, it prevents friction if I absolutely pack my shorts with it, but the effect fades fairly quickly and I do not experience the healing and soothing properties as I do with the creams I prefer. 

The consistency of the Sportique is medium-heavy. Ingredients include shea butter, wheat protein, sweet almond oil and beeswax. The scent is heavy on the shea butter and quite strong, almost candy-like. While this cream might work wonders for some, it is not for me. 

Rapha Chamois Cream
I tried the Rapha chamois cream over this past winter. I forgot to apply my own cream before a long ride, and a local shop had it in stock as a new release. Like many Rapha products, this cream has a whole romantic narrative attached to it ("...inspired by the flora around Mont Ventoux") and comes in some pretty fetishistic packaging including a slender tin jar with raised lettering. But this aside, the product works very well for me: It cools, soothes, prevents chafing and its effectiveness lasts a surprisingly long time (possibly the longest of the chamois creams I've used).

Consistency is medium-thin, similar to DZ Nuts. In the jar it resembles the original Noxema face cream I used as a teenager. Ingredients include glycerine, shea butter, menthyl and rosemary extract. However, it smells rather aggressively of pine - which I can't stand in any context other than on actual pine trees. So while I like the cream quite a lot, my dislike of the smell prevents me from purchasing it again. That, and the pretty jar is awkward to carry in my jersey pocket.

Boudreaux's Butt Paste
Boudreux's Butt Paste is the product Pamela Blalock recommends, so of course I had to try it. I ordered myself a sample and am not sure what to make of it. Not an actual chamois cream but a diaper rash treatment, the consistency and smell are like nothing else I can reference. Ingredients include zinc oxide, boric acid and castor oil. The scent is medicinal and odd; I can't really place it. While mildly unpleasant, it is not overbearing. The colour is tan-brown. Consistency is half way between toothpaste and putty. 

True to its name, this stuff is definitely a paste and not a cream. It feels a little stiff to apply and does not spread quite as easily as actual chamois creams. The upside is that it stays put rather tenaciously. If your saddle discomfort is concentrated in a specific spot, this could be a particularly good product to use because it will actually stay in the area where you apply it. I have not yet decided whether I prefer Boudreux's over the other creams I like, but it is certainly an interesting one. And the fact that it comes in tubes of different sizes is very convenient. 

All things considered, the chamois cream I gravitate toward the most is probably DZ Nuts. It works for me, it can be purchased at several local bike shops, and it's available in a tube. But as with most other products, preferences differ. I like the "euro" style creams with the tingly/cooling sensation, while others cannot tolerate them. Despite being female, I consistently prefer the men's/unisex versions of creams and don't like the women's formulas. I find tubes more practical than jars. And I am relatively indifferent about a cream's consistency and texture, while others have very specific preferences in this regard. Chamois creams differ in their properties and it may take you a couple of tries to find one you like. While some popular names are absent from this review, these are the products I've used so far and I hope my descriptions are helpful. 

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Deteriorating Dress Guards

Slack Dressguards
I've had my Raleigh Tourist for close to 3 years now and, not counting the brake pads, the only wear on the bike over the course of that time has been to the aftermarket dress guards. These dress guards were acquired new old stock from a connection in Portugal. They are very simple - essentially a bunch of elasticised cords. And I love them: the simplicity of the design does not detract from the elegant form of the iconic loop frame, while being sufficient to do its job. Unfortunately, over time the cords seem to have lost their elasticity and are now kind of saggy. Some have even begun to disintegrate and I've had to cut them off. I am surprised that they've lasted such a short time, and it's a bit of a pain because the number of holes they require in the fender is unique to them. I will have to bother the person who gave them to me for another set, or attempt to make my own. 

Assuming that my experience is not a fluke, it might explain why so many vintage bicycles are found with holes in the fenders but no dress guards: Possibly, this accessory had an inherently short life span due to the elastic degrading. I assume the elastic is natural rubber, which would make it sensitive to heat and humidity - same reason it is so rare to find intact original rubber grips.

Those who are making dress guards today (I know there are a few of you out there now) might want to keep this in mind. I'd be curious to know what types of cords you use and how they have held up. If I make my own dress guards, I would like them to last next time! 

Monday, June 25, 2012

Thoughts on Bar-End Shifters

Rivendell, Surly, Shogun
When I was getting my first new roadbike in spring 2010, I had it built up with bar-end shifters. This decision was arrived at via a process of elimination. I had ridden a couple of vintage roadbikes before with very limited success and found the classic downtube shifters too challenging. I had also tried to test ride some modern roadbikes and found their combination brake/shifter levers ("brifters") to be so uncomfortable that I had trouble using the brakes. Other cyclists I knew recommended bar-ends - an older style that had grown popular again in recent years. Rivendell - the manufacturer of the road frame I was having built up - was also strongly recommending this setup. And so that is what I went with. 

Refurbished Shogun, Silver Bar-End Shifters
A bar-end shifter is exactly what it sounds like: a gear-changing lever installed at the end of the handlebar. There are different styles. Some are longer, others are shorter. Some are friction, others are indexed. I have tried a few now on different bikes, and my favourite remains what I went with originally: Silver friction shifters. The length and shape make them easier for me to operate than other models; I get more leverage. I find the friction mode easy and intuitive to use, and I like the control it gives me. If a gear is imperfectly adjusted, I can simply move it a tiny bit manually.  I can also shift multiple gears at a time quite easily. 

Motobecane Super Mirage, Shimano Bar-end Shifters
The shorter, indexable Shimano bar-ends are another popular choice for this style of shifters. The Co-Habitant uses them on his bikes and loves them. But personally I find them more effortful and less comfortable to use that the Silvers. 

Refurbished Shogun, Tektro Brake Levers
Over the time I rode with bar-end shifters, I was more or less fine with them. I was able to switch gears and I was able to install the brake levers I liked, since they were independent from the shifters. But I did find two things about the shifters less than ideal. One was that they required me to dramatically change my hand position(s) on the bars in order to switch gears. I got better and quicker at this over time, but nonetheless I was never "in love" with the process. The other issue was that when stopped or off the bike the shifters would often poke me and give me bruises. But both of these points seemed relatively minor at the time, and I was not considering a different lever setup.

Moser, 11cm Stem, Nitto Noodles, Campagnolo Levers
My switch to combination levers was a product of accidental discovery. I was discussing test riding a Seven roadbike with the staff of the Ride Studio Cafe, and all their demo models were set up with modern brifter-type levers. I told them about my inability to brake using brifters when I attempted to ride other modern roadbikes. Rob Vandermark asked which specific makes and models I'd tried. It had not occurred to me until then that this could make a real difference. I'd tried quite a few, all of them by Shimano and SRAM. Rob looked at the Tektro short reach brake levers on my own bike, and suggested I try Campagnolo; apparently the shape is very similar. And so it was. I test rode a demo bike with Campagnolo ergo shifters and it was as if my brain became integrated with them immediately. I resisted making a rash decision to make the switch on my own bike, but a couple of months later I finally did switch and have not looked back.

Sunset, Handlebar Bag
So what do I think of bar-end shifters in retrospect... Pretty much the same thing as before. I have no desire to "bash" them or to proclaim the superiority of brifters; it is really a matter of individual preference. I still like bar-ends and I am fine riding a roadbike set up with them. I especially love the friction mode. If given a choice of models, my favourites are the Silvers; they feel great in my hands. I imagine that bar-ends are well suited for those who prefer their shifters to be separate from their brake levers, who wish to have the option of friction shifting, and who have no problems moving their hands to the edges of the drops swiftly and efficiently when they need to change gears. I am sure there are other contexts in which bar-ends are the preferred choice, and those who have things to add on the subject are welcome to chime in. To me, bar-ends will always be associated with my first road cycling experiences, and I retain a fondness for them despite having switched to another system. 

Sunday, June 24, 2012

Aesthetics of Use

Pamela's "Green Queen" Cielo Cross Classic
This morning I came across the phrase "aesthetics of use" when it appeared in Bill Strickland's description of his muddy cycling shoe. It is a term I often hear thrown around by artists and designers. In essence, it means that to see an object in use is beautiful - that an object reveals its true self not on display, but in action. Some makers like to think of the aesthetic direction their objects take in the new owners' hands as a happy surprise. Others try to control it. Others still encourage what might be called hyper-use (or at least superficial signs of such), believing that distress enhances the appeal of their creations. These attitudes can be discerned in the manner manufacturers describe and promote their products. Owners' attitudes run the gamut as well. Some emulate the manufacturer's vision in their use of the object, while others are intent on making it their own. 

Pamela's Seven Axiom SLX
Thinking of these differences, I am reminded of Pamela Blalock's bicycles. A local randonneur who probably spends more time in the saddle than not, she has a few bikes and they are very nice ones. At some point I had it in mind to test ride and feature some of them here. But the more I examined them, the more I realised that the bikes say more about Pamela herself than they do about the manufacturers and models they started out as.

Pamela's "Green Queen" Cielo Cross Classic
Befendered, weathered from winter commutes, and covered in all manner of curious contraptions, "Cielo Cross bike" hardly seems like an apt description for the magnificent creation that is the Green Queen - Pamela's transportation bike. Fixed gear, rear rack, dynamo lighting, possibly more than one bell - these things make sense to her; the bike is clearly built with a purpose.

Pamela's Seven Axiom SLX
Neither is it really accurate to describe her roadbike as a Seven Axiom and leave it at that. While I do not think Pamela was the first to put dynamo lighting and bar end shifters on a Seven, she certainly managed to do it in a way that looks eye-catchingly unusual - blurring boundaries between racing and utilitarian riding and making others question their own understanding of these boundaries. The visually distinct setup reflects preferences that developed out of personal experience. Pamela came up with these ideas from doing years of long brevets and endurance races. It's what works for her in use, and the aesthetics are merely a by-product. 

Pamela's "Green Queen" Cielo Cross Classic
We all have our own ways of using objects, of gaining experience, and then of changing the way we use objects as a result of what we learn from experience. We can follow a manufacturer's vision, we can imitate those whom we admire, we can heed the advice of the more knowledgable. But ultimately we each have our own trajectory to follow. Aesthetics of use are personal; they are not generic, rigid ideas of how an object ought to be utilised. 

Saturday, June 23, 2012

Sharing Space with Pedestrians

Vienna, Bicycle/Pedestrian Sign
As cyclists, when we are not sharing the roads with cars we often share space with pedestrians: mixed use paths (MUPs), off road trails, certain types of crossings, even the road itself in areas with no sidewalks. To new cyclists this usually seems like a safer option to riding in traffic, but they soon learn that mixing with pedestrians presents its own challenges. People on foot move differently than those on a bike and their behaviour can be difficult to predict. Compared to cyclists, pedestrians are less likely to keep a consistent line of travel and more likely to make unexpected stops, which makes passing them tricky. Children make sudden u-turns. Dog walkers let their canines loose. Couples shove each other playfully across the path. Joggers zig-zag obliviously with their headphones on. Even seemingly predictable walkers moving at a steady pace can stop without warning if they get a phone call or notice something interesting. These things happen. 

A local woman new to bicycling once told me she was hurt and baffled to discover how much pedestrians, whom she had considered allies, dislike cyclists - not only failing to apologise, but inevitably blaming her for the near-collisions they cause. (I can certainly relate: Just earlier this week a man whose undisciplined dog lunged at my wheel as I passed them cursed at me for not being "more careful.") I think the reason for this is simply that we, as cyclists, are perceived as more aggressive because we are operating machines and moving faster than walking speed. Despite whose fault an incident is, we are seen as the dangerous ones. 

It doesn't help matters that pedestrians might not hear a cyclist's approach, or might not know how to react even when they do. In my 4th year of riding in Boston now, I have still not found an ideal way to gently warn those on foot of my presence. If I ring my bell, they might freeze or panic. If I say "on your left" they might instinctively jump to the left. If I say "excuse me" they might misinterpret this to mean "get out of my way" and get offended. And if I say nothing at all and don't ring a bell, they might move into my line of travel at the exact moment I try to pass them. No solution is guaranteed to work.

When sharing space with pedestrians, I have now simply learned to accept the inherent unpredictability of it; the need for vigilance and reduced speed. I expect inconsistency, especially when children are involved. I pass carefully and never assume my approach is heard or understood. I am mindful of dogs even if they appear to be on a short leash (those things are sometimes expandable). When in doubt, I slow to a crawl or stop altogether. And I do not enter into altercations: If a pedestrian at fault fails to apologise or even shouts at me, I just let it go. While these incidents can be frustrating, I try to keep in mind that as a cyclist I am the fast and scary one; I am the one who is operating a machine. 

When I voiced this philosophy to the woman who'd complained of being disliked by pedestrians, she pointed out that cyclists are no less vulnerable in a collision and therefore such a distinction is unfair. Maybe so, but I don't think it's a matter of fairness. I suspect that pedestrians' response to cyclists as "fast machines, therefore dangerous" is a visceral one. Should parents be taken to task for not supervising their children and allowing them to run across the path? Should dog walkers be reported for not obeying the leashing laws? Maybe, but on some level that seems petty to me and I just don't see it making a real difference. The only reasonable solution, in my view, is to separate the infrastructure and not group pedestrians and cyclists together. Until then, we must make do with what is available, cycling responsibly and cautiously in the shared space. 

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Storing Water on a City Bike

Carradice Pocket, Klean Kanteen
Many city bikes are made without braze-ons for bottle cages on the frame. This is probably because they don't look right with roadbike-style bottle cages, and manufacturers expect that trips on these bikes will be short anyhow. But what about those of us with longer commutes, especially in the summer heat and humidity? While clamp-on bottle cages exist that can be fitted onto the frame without braze-ons, the shape of the frame can make attaching them challenging and unsightly. 

Royal H. Mixte, Downtube
With upright handlebars, it is also not exactly convenient to reach all the way down to the down tube or seat tube for the water bottle. Most seem to prefer alternative solutions. 

Pashley, Twined Water Bottles
DIY handlebar setups are popular, and above is the Co-Habitant's somewhat eccentric solution. He modified regular water bottle cages to clamp onto the bars and can have up to two water bottles at his fingertips as he rides. For him this setup works nicely, though others might find it cluttered - particularly on bikes with not a great deal of room in the "cockpit." 

Twined Cup Hoder
A more conventional solution is to install a coffee cup holder, the likes of which several manufacturers are producing now. From what I hear, the quality of these holders varies from one brand to another, and they do not fit all water bottles. But if you get one of the good ones and it does fit your bottle of choice, they can work great. 

Po Campo Pannier, Inner Compartments
Personally, I prefer to have as few items attached to my handlebars as possible and would rather carry water in my bag or basket. When I ride a full-sized city bike, I keep a bottle of water in my pannier and keep the pannier unzipped for easy access. When I get thirsty en route, I reach for the water when stopped at a red light, drink, then put the bottle back when done. I don't need to turn around in order to do this and kind of know where it is by feel. 

Carradice Pocket, Klean Kanteen
On the Brompton it is easier still, because the Carradice front bag has stiff rider-facing pockets that are the exact size of a small Klean Kanteen bottle. I can reach the bottle, drink from it, and put it back in the pocket without having to stop the bike. Of all the different ways I have carried water on a city bike, I think I prefer this front pocket option most of all. Not only is the water bottle close at hand, but I then easily can take it with me once off the bike without having to carry it in my hand. 

Do you feel the need to carry water when riding for transportation? Do you think city bikes should come with provisions for doing so? Please share any clever systems you've come up with as well. 

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Cycling and Hairstyles: Long vs Short

Charles River, Late Autumn
This morning I received an email from a reader asking whether I prefer long or short hair for cycling. Short answer: Long! 

Last summer I chopped my hair for the first time in nearly two decades. While I didn't do it for the sake of cycling, I did expect short hair to be easier to manage for someone who rides a lot compared to my previously unruly mane. Surely it would feel lighter, be less prone to getting disheveled and sweaty, be easier to comb. Lots of active women have short hair, so this logic made sense. 

But oh how wrong I was. You know how sometimes you have a bad hair day? I feel like I've had a bad hair year. While I like the look of my bob and it was nice to have a change, as far as cycling it's been annoying and fussy. Not long enough to fit into a pony tail, it is long enough to fly into my eyes when I ride unless I use lots of pins. This includes the times I am roadcycling and wearing a helmet - loose strands won't stay under the helmet, but fly in my face unless I remember to pin them down. Post-ride maintenance is harder as well. When my hair was long and it got disheveled or tangled after a ride, I could simply put it up in a "messy bun" and it would look decent enough. With short hair there is no way to hide the mess; looking presentable after a sweaty or windy ride is a challenge.

So while it may seem counter-intuitive, my experience as a cyclist has been that long hair is easier to deal with: With or without a helmet, I can just tie it back or braid it and forget about it. Now that mine fits into a pony tail again, I am ecstatic and feel like I need to write a note to myself with a reminder to never cut it again. I could see how a buzz-cut or pixie cut would be low-maintenance, but my chin-length bob has been anything but. 

What are your thoughts on hair maintenance and cycling? Have you changed or tweaked your hairstyle as a result of riding a bike?

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Making Sense of Handling Characteristics

Test Riding the Soma Smoothie
"Hey, so how does it ride?"

It seems like such a simple question. But the more I learn about bikes, the less certain I am how to answer it. As cyclists, our experience expands as we ride more, and as we try different bikes. And our vocabulary expands as we talk to other cyclists, bike mechanics, salespersons; as we read cycling literature, including myriads of bicycle reviews in magazines and blogs. One thing I notice is that while there are default terms used to describe bicycle handling characteristics, these terms are weakly defined - with different persons using them in different contexts. In particular, it fascinates me to navigate descriptions of bicycle stability versus twitchiness.

In reviews I will often read that a stable bicycle "tracks well" or "rides like it's on rails." As I understand this notion, it means that the bike holds its line of travel on its own accord, without the rider having to constantly micro-correct the steering. This is generally considered to be a good thing. But can it be too good? For me, when experienced at high speeds the feeling of the bike being on rails can also make it resistant to turning. And what about going around sudden obstacles? If the bike tracks so well that it resists changing course, would this not present a problem when encountering an unexpected pothole, or when the rider in front of us swerves?

The concept of twitchiness is not so simple either. There seem to be different kinds, and I can think of at least three: There is the "squirrely" twitchiness of a racing bike that makes it hard to control at slow speeds. This is not to be confused with the twitchiness of low trail - a very different kind of feeling, that gives the rider a more active role in the bicycle's line of travel. There is also the twitchiness associated with a "light front end," regardless of geometry.

Stability can vary with speed. On some bikes there seems to be a linear relationship: The bike will start out twitchy when slow, stabilise at moderate speeds, and "ride like it's on rails" when going especially fast. The faster you go, the more stable it is. Other bikes will be stable at slow speeds and track exceptionally well at moderate speeds, but then level out or even ease up at fast speeds. Other bikes still will handle more or less the same regardless of how fast you ride them.

Whether a bike is described as stable or twitchy, it is hard to know what that means without additional detail, which is not always available. What I wonder is, have there been efforts to maybe create a guideline for both reading and providing descriptions of how a bicycle rides? Without context and well defined terminology, it seems that anything goes and we can easily misunderstand each other's impressions of handling characteristics.

Monday, June 18, 2012

Better Than New

1941 Royal Enfield Lady's Sport Roadster
When vintage bicycle collector Chris Sharp invited me to join a VCC ride in Northern Ireland, he also offered to lend me one of his pre-war roadsters and I gladly accepted. We corresponded about this for some time, and I arrived very curious what my loaner bike would be. Before the ride, Chris took me aside and told me he had something very special picked out. "I'd like to know what you think of it."

Royal Enfield Sport Roadster
When he pointed out this bike across the yard, I admit I was a little surprised. It was certainly a nice bike. But considering some of the other machines in his impressive collection, there did not seem anything extraordinary about it: a plain black step-through with rod brakes. 

1941 Royal Enfield Lady's Sport Roadster
"It's a 1941 Royal Enfield Sports Roadster, single speed, "Chris explained, studying my reaction. "I think you'll like it." Puzzled, I stood there looking at the bike as our group prepared to take off.

Brooks B18 Original
Aside from the original Brooks B18 saddle, I just didn't see anything remarkable about it. The drivetrain was in the right place. Nothing eccentric about the components. Ordinary lugwork. I didn't get it.

1941 Royal Enfield Lady's Sport Roadster
Furthermore, it occurred to me that riding a heavy ancient single speed with rod brakes was maybe just a tad ill advised in a hilly area with a group of people I'd never met before. Would I have to walk it uphill? Would I be able to stop downhill? But the ride began before I had time to dwell on these questions. 

And that is when I learned what the mystery was, and what made this Royal Enfield so special: This bike was a rocket! A 45lb rocket, but a rocket nonetheless. It accelerated at the drop of a hat. It sailed effortlessly uphill. It plunged downhill. Its maneuverability and stability were impeccable. Riding through a stretch of rough gravel road, it rolled jauntily along as if on smooth asphalt. On top of that, the rod brakes actually worked, no worse than modern caliper brakes. "How are you liking that bike?" Chris would ask with a wink. But the answer was pretty clear, as for the entire ride I was in a state of permanent jaw-drop. How could something so old, clunky and seemingly ordinary handle like this? 

Royal Enfield Sports Roadster
Chris's theory is that this 1941 Royal Enfield happens to be an especially successful specimen of what was once known as the Sports Roadster: an upright model designed for leisure cycling, with more aggressive geometry and a shorter wheelbase than the more stately Roadster model. Raleigh made a Sports Roadster as well, as did most other English manufacturers of that time. The ladies' versions had straight step through frames, instead of the loop frames of the Roadster/Tourist bikes. 

1941 Royal Enfield Lady's Sport Roadster
The following week, I paid Chris Sharp another visit and we went on a ride just the two of us. Once again I was given the Royal Enfield - I had to confirm whether my memory of how well it rode had been accurate. We were spectacularly unlucky with the weather that day, and it began to rain not long after we set off. Soon we were riding in a downpour, and by the time we decided to turn around, the shortest route back was 20 minutes. The rain was so bad we could hardly see in front of us.

1941 Royal Enfield Lady's Sport Roadster
I would never have imagined that I could ride a bike like the Royal Enfield in such weather, but it was fantastic. It handled no differently in the rain, and - perhaps most amazing of all - the rod brakes remained perfectly functional.

1941 Royal Enfield Lady's Sport Roadster
Really, these must be some magical rod brakes. Normally this type of brake is notorious for loss of functionality in wet conditions.

1941 Royal Enfield Lady's Sport Roadster
Overall, to say that I was impressed by this bicycle would be an understatement. "They don't make them like they used to" is a cliche I do not always agree with, but in this case it happens to be correct: I do not know of a modern step-through city bike that handles quite like this. Some come close, but this one wins nonetheless.

1941 Royal Enfield Lady's Sport Roadster
While a 1941 Royal Enfield Sports Roadster is a pretty obscure bicycle, my point is really more general. I've mentioned before that I tend to prefer the handling of vintage European strep-through city bikes to that of any contemporary version I have tried so far. In my experience, the older bikes tend to be not only more comfortable, but also faster - despite usually being at least as heavy and made of lower quality tubing. What was their secret? And why, with all our technology, can we not match - let alone improve upon - their ride quality today? It is a mystery that I would love to figure out some day. 

Sunday, June 17, 2012

Drop Bar Hand Positions: an Introduction

Braking from the Drops
Riding a roadbike does not come naturally to everyone, and one particular source of frustration is the drop handlebars. I was frustrated by them too when I first started, and so I hope this illustrated introduction might be of some help. To preface, a couple of things to keep in mind: First, drop bars vary in shape. This post assumes that your bike is fitted with the flat ramp style of bars prevalent today - either the compact type found on most stock road/racing bikes, or the more classic style popular with the twine and shellack crowd (i.e. the Nitto Noodle, Grand Bois Maes, Velo Orange Course). I am also assuming that you are using contemporary "aero" style brake levers, with the brake cables hidden. Note that if you are dealing with a 1970s-80s roadbike (i.e. something like this), the shape of the original handlebars and brake levers will make some of the positions described here impossible. Not everyone agrees on which hand positions are best to use at which times, or even on what the positions are called. This write-up reflects my non-expert personal experiences, informed by local mentours.

Whether you are racing, touring or going on a leisurely ride, what makes drop handlebars special is the variety of hand positions they offer. I consider there to be 5 distinct positions available: The hoods, the hooks, the drops, the tops, and the ramps. Read on for a description of each.

Drop Bars: Hoods, Front View
1. The Hoods
The "hoods" position refers to keeping your hands on top of the rubbery brake hoods, wrapped around them firmly. I think it is fair to say that today this is widely considered to be the standard, neutral position for riding with drop bars. When done correctly, it is extremely ergonomic, distributes the cyclist's weight nicely, and affords optimal leverage for cycling at different speeds. It is also a position from which the brake levers are easily accessible. Some cyclists report that the hoods make them lean forward too much. If this is the case, consider changing your handlebar setup - perhaps raising the bars, getting a shorter stem, or getting compact handlebars (with less distance between stem and hoods). On a properly fitted bike the hoods should feel easy and natural to reach.

Drop Bars: Hoods, Side View
There is a number of ways to hold your hands on the hoods, and this is how I usually do it. The main thing is to actually grip them and not just rest you hands upon them.

Drop Bars: Hoods, Braking
There are also different ways to brake from the hoods, and this is how I prefer to do it. Squeezing the brake lever with only two fingers while leaving the rest wrapped around the bars/hoods themselves ensures that my hands won't fly off the handlebars if I go over a bump. 

For those accustomed to upright handlebars, the hoods position on a drop bar bike can feel awkward and disconcerting at first and can require some practice to use comfortably. It took me a couple of weeks before I really "got" the hoods, but once I did it's been true love. It's the position I use the most no matter what kind of riding I do. And if you are planning to take part in formal paceline training rides, chances are they will expect you to use the hoods as the standard position - and may even insist that you do so. 

Drop Bars: Hooks, Side View
2. The Hooks
While often the position shown here is referred to as the "drops," there are actually two distinct drops positions. To differentiate between them, this one is more specifically known as "the hooks." It involves holding on to the parts of the bars that curve outward, with the cyclist's hands directly behind the brake levers. It is a more aggressive and aerodynamic position that the hoods, which makes it especially useful when cycling downhill and attempting to fight wind/air resistance.

Drop Bars: Hooks, Braking
The brake levers should be easily reachable from the hooks position. Braking in this manner is more powerful than from the hoods, because it affords greater leverage. It is important to be aware of this, so as not to accidentally slam the brakes when riding at high speeds. 

Drop Bars: Drops, Side View
3. The Drops
To differentiate from the hooks, this is what I will call the "true drops" position. To what extent the two positions are distinct really depends on the style of handlebars used. On some types of contemporary drop bars, the curvature here is so dramatic that the positions are very different - the true drops being parallel to the ground and the hooks perpendicular. On other drop bars the curve is less defined and it's hard to tell where the hooks end and the drops begin. Either way, the crucial distinction for me is that you can reach the brakes from the hooks, but not from this lower section of the drops. 

Both the hooks and the lower drops positions are quite aggressive, and for beginners the crouching posture they put you in can feel scary. While at this stage I am more or less fine riding in these positions, even now I am still not as confident as I could be. Riding downhill in close proximity to others, I sometimes chicken out and stay on the hoods, simply bending my elbows a whole lot to get myself low enough over the bars. In a pinch, that tactic will do - but mastering the hooks and drops is ultimately worth it and I continue to work on it. 

Drop Bars: Tops, Side View
4. The Tops
And now, the dreaded tops of the bars... My personal opinion is that the "tops" are bad news for beginners and are to be avoided until after you pick up some road cycling skills. Let me explain: Beginners who cannot use drop bars properly tend to hold their hands on the tops, because this reminds them of mountain bike handlebars and allows them to stay more upright than any of the other positions do. It feels safer. However, this is deeply problematic. First, you cannot reach the brakes from the tops. And if you are too scared to use the other positions, will you really be able to brake quickly and effectively when the situation calls for it? Probably not. Furthermore, drop bars are narrower than mountain bike handlebars, and holding the tops places the rider's hands too close to the stem - not the best position for controlling the bike. Nearly every time I see a beginner on a roadbike lose control of their bicycle, they are holding the tops. 

Drop Bars: Tops, Front View
That said, the tops do have their function. Some find this position helpful for climbing, as it opens up the chest and facilitates deep breathing. Also, when doing a long ride it's great to simply have it as yet another position for your restless hands. Personally, I almost never use the tops even in these circumstances, because my hands are uncomfortable. But not everyone has this issue.

Drop Bars: Ramps, Side View
5. The Ramps
Finally, there is the rather difficult-to-photograph position called the "ramps," and I have also heard it referred to as the "shoulders." Located between the hoods and the tops, it involves holding the corners of the top portion of the handlebars. In this position the rider is more upright than on the hoods, while maintaining more control of the bike and a more ergonomic wrist position than they would on the tops. I hold my hands in this manner mostly on long rides, for short stretches at a time, when I want to do something different or be more upright for a bit. 

All these new positions can certainly be overwhelming. As far as a starting point, I suggest learning to use the hoods well first, then transitioning to learning the hooks/drops. If the pictures here are not enough to help you understand the positions and the braking, ask an experienced cyclist to show you in person and imitate them. I did this some time ago, and it was more helpful than any online tutorial I could have read. And for those riding vintage bikes with handlebars like these and having trouble using them, consider updating the bar setup. You cannot use the hoods with that style of handlebars and levers, and I wish someone told me that when I first struggled with vintage roadbikes 3 years ago. 

While drop handlebars are easy and intuitive for some, for others it takes practice to get comfortable with the different positions. My suggestion is to not be intimidated and just keep practicing. If you ask me, it's worth it.