Wednesday, October 31, 2012

They Don't Make 'Em Like They Used To: a 1946 Griffon & Howle Rando-Broom

Griffon & Howl Rando Broom
Well, dear readers, it's that time of the year again: the Somerville-Salem 30K. Every Halloween, 13 metaphysically gifted women (we do not use the "w" word anymore) from the Greater Boston area are invited to participate in this historic paceline-style flight from Prospect Hill Tower in Somerville, MA to the Olde Burying Point Cemetery in Salem to conduct the annual New England Air Transportation Alternatives (NEATA) meeting. Invitations are sent just days before the event, and no one knows how the selection process works. Imagine what an honor it was to be invited! With mere days to prepare, I rushed about seeking a suitable flying broom. My own broom, I am ashamed to admit, was woefully inadequate: cheap flimsy plastic thing with nylon bristles, and no accessories to speak of. While sufficient for a quick flight around the block once in a blue moon, it was not the right broom for the Somerville-Salem 30K. I asked around, but no one had anything suitable to lend. Custom broom-makers had year-long wait lists. Finally, I heard from a friend deep in the woods of Virginia (you might know him from the comments here as Spindizzy): He had something for me and would mail it straight away.

Griffon & Howl Touring Broom
When I received and opened the package, I could hardly believe my eyes: an original 1946 Griffon & Howle randonneuring broom. Spindizzy had just finished restoring it for a customer, to whose mother - a Ms. Yeumadeen Platchen - the broom had originally belonged. When the customer heard that I had been invited to the Somerville-Salem 30K she offered to loan it out for the flight. What luck! You see, Griffon & Howle were the constructeurs of flying brooms, back in the days when fine craftsmanship and attention to detail truly mattered. They used only the finest wooden tubing, the lightest metal fittings, the softest, most aerodynamic bristles. But more importantly, they fabricated all components and accessories in a manner that truly integrated with the broom itself. To hold a Griffon & Howle is to hold a masterpiece. To fly a Griffon & Howle is a privilege that few experience.

Griffon & Howl Touring Broom
The Griffon & Howle's bristles are organic handbound straw, sourced from the Balkans. Importantly, the rear rack is welded onto the base of the broom, rather than attached via p-clamps or braze-ons. Not only does this provide considerable weight savings, but it is more durable, stable, aerodynamic and elegant. This rack will not shake loose mid-flight. And it looks like it belongs on the broom; it is not an afterthought. 

Griffon & Howl Touring Broom
The main part of the handle is constructed out of standard diameter, thin wall wooden tubing, which has been scientifically proven to provide just the right amount of flex for a responsive in-flight feel. The hand-crafted aluminum potion bottle-holder was painstakingly designed to minimise vibrations. Naturally, the potion bottle itself had to be custom made out of military-grade resistanium, as the potion tends to burn through metal and plastic commercially-available bidons

Griffon & Howl Touring Broom
The cork stopper and shellacked twine complete the look.

Griffon & Howl Touring Broom
Unlike today's flashy custom builders, the constructeurs abstained from affixing heavy metal badges onto their brooms. Instead, they simply carved their initials and the broom's serial number into the tip of the handle directly underneath the bell.

Griffon & Howl Touring Broom
And while the brass bell may look ordinary enough to the untrained eye, each one was handmade to emit a ring of a signature frequency. The art of this technique has unfortunately been all but lost. 

Griffon & Howl Touring Broom
The grip area of the handle is wrapped in twine, woven out of the rarest, most durable silken fibres available. While it is popular today to wrap broom handles in cork tape, this really developed as a result of the rarity of the silken fibres, as well as poor fit. Ideally, the gripping area should be firm to the touch, yet not so firm as to cause callouses. Notice the pinky hook at the bottom of the gripping area, designed to keep the hands in place.

Griffon & Howl Touring Broom
The quick release feature makes the broom suitable for travel and transportation in ordinary-sized packages and suitcases - an invaluable feature in today's high security travel climate. Note that, unfortunately, the skewer is a modern replica replacement. The original fitting was damaged when an attempt to steal this broom was made at a rest stop during the 1954 Liege-Sofia-Liege brevet. 

Griffon & Howl Touring Broom
With a twist of the quick-release lever, the broom quickly disassembles. Mounted to the inside of the upper section is a Dragon's kydneystone, the purpose of which I am not at liberty to describe here - though some readers will know. The star-shaped cutout on the lower section is a Griffon & Howle identifier. 

Holding the broom in my hands, the first thing I noticed was how well-balanced it was. Despite the welded rear rack of considerable size, it was not bottom-heavy but balanced in the center. The technique of the old masters was impeccable. The broom was also remarkably light - more so than the modern plastic and nylon creations so many misguidedly use today.

Griffon & Howl Touring Broom
Having examined the broom extensively and marveled at its craftsmanship, it was time to commence my training for the 30k. With only three days left before the event, my plan was to complete a brief 5k flight around Somerville that evening, followed by a more challenging 10k around Boston the following day. After that I would rest before the Somerville-Salem 30K. As I prepared for my training flight, the first step was, naturally, to find a dark corner of the forest, assume the Chant Position, partake of the potion with which my bottle was filled, and utter the relevant Spell. I was amazed at how intuitive this part of the process was with the Griffon & Howle. The broom triangulated with the forest floor perfectly, allowing the Spirits to enter it just so. While my plastic broom required over an hour of chanting to be adequately prepped, the Griffon & Howle took a mere 2 minutes.  

Griffon & Howl Touring Broom
Next, I gently stepped over the broom whilst holding the gripping area and utilising the pinkie hook, and aimed my gaze at the skies, toward the Secret Constellation. Not having done Kundalini Yoga for Broom Flight in some time, my postures were rusty and I was worried that my skills had deteriorated. However, less than a minute into holding the posture I felt the broom begin to levitate. It was working already. 

Griffon & Howl Touring Broom
A well-balanced broom straightens itself out as it levitates, so that eventually it floats parallel to the forest floor. It is then up to the operator to control the angle. There is debate as to which angle is ideal to start with at take-off and maintain during flight, but in the era of Griffon & Howle brooms it was generally believed that a low-trail configuration provided the best handling.

Griffon & Howl Touring Broom
As I prepared to take off, one thing I noticed was that the broom had an unusually short handlebase by current standards. Most likely it was made for a more petite flyer than myself. The operator is meant to occupy the space between the rear rack and the potion bottle (in broom flying jargon, this space is referred to as the perch), and on the Griffon & Howle it was barely long enough to contain me. Were I commissioning a similar broom for myself, I would ask for an extra 2cm or so of perch length.

Griffon & Howl Rando Broom
As an aside on proper positioning: In the media today, we are inundated with fake and ridiculous imagery depicting women perching on brooms in ways that are not only inefficient, but downright unsafe for flight. The position shown here is the only correct one for paceline flying (the transportational position is considerably more upright, but requires a broom that balances differently). It is also important to understand that any images you might see that appear to depict metaphysically gifted women engaged in actual broom flight are fake: We are not legally permitted to capture this activity on film or digitally. To ensure that this rule is adhered to, a masking agent is incorporated into the Flying Spell that prevents photo and video equipment from recording the operator in flight. As the broom and operator take off, they remain visible to the human eye of bystanders, but cannot be captured by recording equipment of any kind. And so this is the last image I am able to leave you with prior to take-off. 

I can hardly describe my impressions of the 5k maiden voyage without getting emotional. Put simply, I had not known until now what I had been missing all these years of awkward, uninspired flights on cheap and ill-fitting brooms. The Griffon & Howle soared joyously though the skies. Responsive to my movements, it steered intuitively and soaked up air turbulence effortlessly. My heart skipped a beat, as I felt that this broom truly planed. 

Griffon & Howl Rando Broom
For the 10k training flight the next day (yes, I ventured out during Hurricane Sandy!), I added a pannier and wore a raincoat. The pannier was just the right width for the rear rack and there was no heel strike during take-off. The wonderful feel of the flight remained as I remembered it. The fit and the handling were so perfect that, put simply, the broom "disappeared" beneath me. And this, as Griffon & Howle were famous for opining, is the very definition of a well-made flying broom.

After a day of rest, I feel well prepared for the Somerville-Salem 30k this evening and am very much looking forward to the New England Air Transportation Alternatives (NEATA) meeting. I really can't thank Spindizzy and his customer enough for loaning me the Griffon & Howle and for allowing me to document it here for my readers. While I recognise that this is a bicycle blog and not a broom blog, I can't help but feel there might be some common ground here.

Griffon & Howl Rando Broom
For anyone interested, Spindizzy (aka Jon Gehman) does offer complete broom restoration services, as well as custom bicycle racks and other cool and weird accesssories. The full set of pictures of the original 1946 Griffon & Howle randonneuring broom can be viewed here. Happy Halloween everyone!

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Can Stop, Will Stop: Paul Racer Brakes

When I received a Rawland Nordavinden demo bike for review some time ago, it was fitted with Silver Bigmouth sidepull brakes. The Nordavinden model is made without cantilever bosses, intended to be used with either sidepulls or centerpulls. With 650Bx42mm tires that leaves few options for brakes with sufficiently long reach. I have tried the bigmouth sidepulls before on a 650Bx42mm tire bike with upright handlebars and the stopping power was fine. But it proved decidedly less fine on a bike with drop bars and road levers. The braking wasn't terrible, but not as strong as I wanted. So when setting up a Nordavinden with my own components two months later, I decided to go with centerpulls. The choices were: Paul Racer or Dia Compe 750 brakes. The feedback I'd read about the Dia Compes was pretty good, so I bought those, since they are the considerably less expensive option. To my disappointment, the braking power was not much better than it had been with the sidepulls. I rode the Vermont Fall Classic with the Dia Compes, but had to watch my speed on steep descents, particularly once it started to rain. I was now feeling a little dispirited, because there was only one option left. Trying to not get my hopes up, I bit the bullet and bought the Paul Racers several weeks later. To my immense relief, they work. They are expensive. But they are US-made, and, more to the point, they stop my bike.

In fairness, I should note here that I know riders who use Silver Bigmouth sidepulls, Tektro Bigmouth sidepulls, and Dia Compe 750 centerpulls on fat tire roadbikes without issue. However, my grip strength is weak and I have damaged nerves in my hands. Braking power with the combination of road levers and long-reach brakes has been an ongoing problem, including on bikes built for cantis. It is useful to know that Paul brakes are an option that works. The Center Mount version of the Racers does not require special braze-ons and can be used on any bike that accepts sidepull brakes, provided there is enough steerer available for a cable hanger.

Paul Racer brakes can be purchased from the manufacturer directly, or ordered via your local bike shop. The company is based in Chico, California, where they have been making parts since 1989.

Saturday, October 27, 2012

It's Not About the Weather

Autumn Birch, Nordavinden
While we wait for Hurricane Sandy to arrive, I am still finding sand caked on my bike from an earlier rainy, muddy ride. It seems that every time I have ridden this bike so far, it has rained. Of course today, on my inaugural ride with fenders, it is sunny and dry. A friend consoles me by reminding me of the approaching hurricane. Surely I will have the opportunity to test the fenders then. I take the idea seriously and begin to mentally map out a route on some local trails, before realising how utterly insane that is. When the townsfolk are stocking up on canned goods and flashlight batteries, I should probably stay indoors.

With the season marching on toward starker days, I find myself thinking of weather. As cyclists we all tend to have an idea of the "perfect weather" for riding. For some it's the height of summer. For others it's that elusive "60 degrees and sunny, with a mild breeze." A few riders I know prefer cooler temperatures, and some even claim to enjoy rain. I think for me, the biggest revelation has been that, when push comes to shove, I can feel good in almost any weather. 

After a recent post describing a rainy ride on dirt roads, a reader wrote: "It's in our nature to want to be comfortable and coddled, but you celebrate the joy of pushing yourself through rain and mud." I felt guilty reading this, because honestly I don't feel as if I am overcoming discomfort or pushing myself when I ride in those kinds of conditions. And I think that is the key to my being able to do it. The secret is to find a way of being comfortable, to just go with it and appreciate the situation for what it is, rather than spending energy on trying to overcome it. Maybe this is just a different way of looking at the same thing, but to me it makes a big difference. Rather than pushing through discomfort, I extract comfort. 

Part of it is of course practical considerations. Figuring out how to dress, eat and drink in different conditions. Over the summer I stumbled upon some tricks that enabled me to ride in heat in humidity like I'd never managed to do before. And last winter, I discovered that riding in sub-20 degree temperatures was also very doable with the help of strategic layering. But equally important is the attitude. We have to be curious, interested. We have to want the experience. 

What is my idea of perfect riding weather... Probably high 40s to low 50s, with heavily overcast skies. I feel most alive then; the raw energy in the air makes me want to ride faster, further. But in the end, it's not about the weather, but about finding comfort in whatever is thrown at me, about feeling coddled by the beauty of the surrounding landscape. 

Friday, October 26, 2012

Signs of Richard Sachs

Richard Sachs, PVD 2012
It was the day before the Providence Cyclocross Festival and Richard Sachs asked whether I was going. Richard Sachs is a bicycle framebuilder in central Massachusetts, maybe you've heard of him. He builds these nice lugged steel bikes for which there is a 10 year wait list. He also races cyclocross, with his team, on bikes that he makes (no wait list for those). They would all be racing in Providence that weekend, and if I went I would get to see them. 

RGM/ Richard Sachs, PVD 2012
I should explain that I'd never actually met Richard Sachs at this point, though we'd exchanged a couple of emails. As another bit of indirect contact, some time ago I briefly rode one of his bikes - a blue and white 26" wheel brevet bike that belonged to a friend of the Blayleys. It was a nice bicycle, and I knew of the legendary status of Sachs frames. But what truly sparked my interest in the builder was his writing. His writing is extensive, addictive, and freely available online. Blog entries that read like essays on postmodernism. Quotes from his own interviews followed by commentary, analysis and critique of those quotes. He keeps records of things that happened 10, 20, 30 plus years ago. He tells and retells his history, using scanned photographs, scraps of receipts, and yellowed bits of newspaper as evidence. You can learn almost anything you care to know about Richard Sachs by reading through all of this. "[People] are buying me, not the bike," Sachs once wrote. "They want to have a little bit of me." And so he grants us access to his person, or at least gives the illusion of doing so. Naturally, all of this fascinates me.

RGM/ Richard Sachs, PVD 2012
The site of the Providence Cyclocross Festival was labyrinthine and chaotic. When I got there, I realised that I had no idea how to go about finding a specific person. There was no Sachs tent, and he had given me no instructions for where to find him. As I wandered around, I made a game out of looking for him. After 10 minutes the closest I got was spotting a red and white bike being wheeled past, with "Richard Sachs" on the downtube in yellow. 

Deb, RGM/ Richard Sachs, PVD 2012
Then I saw a woman with a fluffy white dog peeking out of her backpack. Both she and the small creature looked familiar. When I noticed that she too was rolling a red and white bicycle, I realised this was Deb, Richard Sachs' wife. The Masters men's race was scheduled to start soon, and she was headed to the staging area. 

RGM/ Richard Sachs, PVD 2012
All of the Richard Sachs cross team bikes are red and white, and all are fitted with identical components. The look of the team bikes has not changed much over the years, nor have his bicycles in general. "Why buy a frame from a one-man shop still using traditional hand-building methods?" his website asks. "Because technology alone is a poor substitute for experience." The experience he speaks of dates back to 1972. His frames are not custom, but made to measure, in the sense that the customer has no input into geometry or other core design elements. A Sachs frame means Sachs geometry, his own proprietary blend of (Columbus "PegoRichie") steel tubing, his own lugs, dropouts, fork crown. He has perfected his method over the course of 40 years. This is what the Richard Sachs customer pays for; this is what they believe is worth the wait. Spotting some more of his bicycles on the roofs of cars, I try to see all of this in the frames. But my novice eye just sees some classic lugged bikes. 

RGM/ Richard Sachs, PVD 2012
I was now in front of a car that I recognised as his. "Richard Sachs" was everywhere, but still no Richard Sachs. Also everywhere was his signature acronym ATMO - "according to my opinion." ATMO is used on online forums, in written correspondences, in descriptions of things. Products are branded with it. You can buy an ATMO bag, t-shirt, hat.

RGM/ Richard Sachs, PVD 2012
Socks. Seeing them somehow made me feel better prepared to meet him. Just one of those ridiculous thoughts that goes through one's mind. In fact I had no idea whether I'd be able to pick him out of a crowd. I flipped through my mind's database of all the online pictures I had seen of him. These generally fell into three categories: There was the thoughtful Richard Sachs in a black turtleneck sweater, brazing. The muddy, suffering Richard Sachs in a skinsuit and helmet, racing. The smiling Richard Sachs in jeans and a blazer, shaking hands at NAHBS. Tableaux.

Richard Sachs, PVD 2012
I'd heard numerous stories at this point about what he is "really like." He is arrogant. He is humble. He is funny. He is humourless. He is charming. He is abrupt. But now I spotted him in the race, and my first impression was that he was a cyclist. Skinny and scowling, he stood and pedaled, staring straight ahead, breathing with his mouth open, as if gasping for air. "That bike fits him well," I thought, before I remembered that he made it.

Richard Sachs, PVD 2012
I had picked the wrong day to attend the cyclocross race: sunny, dry, cheerful. The following day would be all rain and mud, but my pictures make the riding look like a fun little jaunt. There were at least two men in the Master's race wearing the RGM Watches-Richard Sachs team kits, but I quickly determined that Sachs was the one in long sleeves and that made it easier to follow him around the course. Not that this helped me much.

Richard Sachs, PVD 2012
I do not envy sports photographers: This stuff is more difficult than a wedding. To get good shots, first you have to study the course in advance and wait for the riders you want to capture in the spots that not only promise action, but offer a good vantage point for photographing individual riders. Then you have a split second to compose a shot; once a rider passes you, there is no do-over. By the the end of the day I started to figure it all out, but when Richard Sachs was racing in the morning I had not yet gotten my bearings. It took a couple of laps before I even managed to get a picture where his head was not overlapping with a tree or other riders. Finally he was riding alone for a stretch and I got a few shots, one or two of which were even in focus. Still, nothing to write home about and certainly not worth all the running around I did. 

RGM/ Richard Sachs, PVD 2012
Once it was over, I headed back toward the car where I had seen the ATMO wheels and dirty socks. On my way there I saw the other, short-sleeved Masters rider (David Genest?) rolling along while doing the double-bike maneuver. 

Richard Sachs, PVD 2012
Soon after that Richard Sachs rolled up, recognising me. His appearance up close was a little startling at first. He has very pale gray eyes and features that are both angular and delicate. The kind of face you might see in an expressionist painting. We said hello. He was tired, but willing to pose for pictures, even pointing out which parts of the bike and his outfit to photograph, so that sponsors would receive attention.

Richard Sachs, PVD 2012
"Make sure to get the watch," he said, and I did (RGM Watches). 

Richard Sachs, PVD 2012
The black team kits with cream horizontal panels and red edging are striking and elegantly styled. Sponsors' logos have the look of vintage newspaper headers. 

Richard Sachs, PVD 2012
I studied the bicycle - a Richard Sachs, with Richard Sachs upon it. I tried to focus on the details of the frame, take some close-up of the brake bridge and fork crown, that sort of thing. But instead I kept thinking of the steel tubes against the 59-year-old muscles. The streaks of dirt on the frame juxtaposed with those on his legs. The stylised RS headbadge with the weight of the actual man whom those initials represent resting above it. Richard Sachs has done an impressive job of branding himself. He has created a micro-universe of imagery, logos, words, phrases, even ideas that signify him. The red bikes. RS. RICHARDSACHS. e-Richie. ATMO. CFRS. "The frame is the frame." "Imperfection is perfection." I tried to see through these layers of signifiers and representations, to the actual flesh and bone person in front of me. But I couldn't see him clearly. Or photograph him in a way that satisfied me. 

Richard Sachs, PVD 2012
We kept talking, not about anything in particular. He came across as open, friendly. At some point he picked up his fluffy white dog, cuddled it, held it in front of the camera. I took the pictures, but even as I did I sensed that this too was a tableau; that when I'd get home and look online, others will have taken the same shot. 

Richard Sachs, PVD 2012
"Perhaps I am not I even if my little dog knows me," I thought. That's a lesser known version of a popular Gertrude Stein quote. I could not get a feel for the man, as a separate entity from the e-mythology that surrounds him. At the end, finally I came close - catching him off guard as he sat on the edge of his car and stared into space. It was a fleeting moment, and still perhaps a tableau. The post-race Sachs. 

Richard Sachs, PVD 2012
Before becoming a framebuilder, Richard Sachs had planned to be a writer. Of course, this was over 40 years ago, but it still "explains things," one could say - meaning his blog, his extensive documentation of personal history, the way he forms his replies in interviews. And the interviews with him are numerous, as are the biographical articles and the reviews of his bikes. Me, I can hardly contribute anything of substance to such a collection. Best I can do is share this story of meeting him.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

A Season of Evenings

Low Light, Flowers
Walking through town just as the light began to fade, I had one of those odd moments when everything falls into a rhythm. A woman in very high heels had just unlocked her bicycle from a pole and began rolling it down the sidewalk toward me, her shoes clicking on the bricks and the hem of her coat fluttering in the breeze. At the same time a second-story window opened and there was the late Jim Morrison's drunken baritone singing "come on now touch me baby." The sound warped a little, carried sideways by the breeze. Just then someone down the street slammed their car door and the alarm went off, a persistent beeping without that edge of harshness it would have had, had it been closer. As I stood still for some seconds, letting the woman in the heels and coat maneuver her bike around me, all of these events became harmonised. Click-click, beep-beep, what was that promise that you made? Click-click, beep-beep, why won't you tell me what she said? The woman looked up toward the open window as she passed me, and suddenly I was flooded with a sense of deja-vu.

In the Russian language there is a word - a verb - to describe the onset of evening: "vechereyet" (вечереет). It's an archaic word, but still used on occasion. The closest English translation would be something like "evening is coming," but the mood is not the same. And it's the mood of that word that's important. You hear it, and you feel an "eveningness" gently setting in. It's an anticipatory state, fostering expectations of moonlight, cricket sounds, a chill in the air, perhaps peals of laugher in the dark. I remembered this word on my way home today. The sun had nearly set and when I looked at the time I saw it was 5:35pm. "This is the last week of October," I thought. A season of early evenings awaits.

Monday, October 22, 2012

Echoes of Bikes Past: Yamaguchi Mixte

Yamaguchi Swoopy Mixte
At a gathering of vintage bicycle enthusiasts last week, I spotted this unusual machine and made my way toward it through the sea of French constructeurs. "Aha!" said the owner, "I brought this one especially for you to look at." Yamaguchi Bicycles, Japan. Year, model, and history unknown. Not collectable. Not worth much. Not of interest to many. But what attracted me was its surprisingly elegant combination of design elements not usually seen on the same bike: a mixte frame, roadster geometry, 26" wheels, rod brakes, full chaincase. The colour - straddling the border between beige and mauve - reinforced the theme of blending.  

Yamaguchi Swoopy Mixte
Despite its obscure pedigree, the Yamaguchi was a hit with the vintage collectors; there was just something about the way everything harmonised. It also "looked light" despite weighing over 50lb.

Shimano Trigger Shifter, Yamaguchi Bike
From a historical perspective, an interesting feature of the bike is the very early Shimano 3-speed trigger shifter. I have never seen one of these before, and could not find examples online allowing me to establish the date of manufacture.

Yamaguchi Swoopy Mixte
As far as frame construction, it is neat how they kinked the right lateral stay so that it would clear the massive chaincase, then routed the shifter cable and dynamo wiring along that stay. 

Yamaguchi Swoopy Mixte
Another interesting thing is how thoroughly branded this bicycle is: Every part of the frame, many of the components, and even the bolts used sport the Yamaguchi name.

Yamaguchi Swoopy Mixte
Yamaguchi fender ornament.

Yamaguchi Swoopy Mixte
Yamaguchi cranks, including dust caps.

Yamaguchi Swoopy Mixte
Yamaguchi saddle.

Yamaguchi Swoopy Mixte
Noticing a decal that mentioned motorcycles, I incorporated that into my search and found mention of a company that went out of business in the late 1950s. This could be them. Later a reader posted a link to a Japanese blog showing some photos of Yamaguchi "Gold" roadsters, which is the only other significant mention of the brand I've encountered so far.

Yamaguchi Swoopy Mixte
Over the decades, bicycle manufacturers all over the world have come and gone. Some of them have left a mark in history and others disappeared without a trace. The Yamaguchi roadster-mixte is in the latter category, which makes its elaborate branding and unusual design all the more intriguing. Did the manufacturer have plans for this bike to become popular, or was it merely a promotional item for their motorcycles? How many of these were produced? How did this one make its way to the US? These things we may never know.

Yamaguchi Swoopy Mixte
Recently a friend and I were talking about all the new bicycle brands popping up on the market today, and speculating which of them will last. History suggests that most will not. But maybe now - with all the forum chatter and other electronic traces of things - we will be left with more detailed records of the brands that disappear. Stories of failure are just as historically significant as stories of success, and it's a pity these stories tend to get lost. Trying to reconstruct them is one reason I like finding obscure vintage bikes.

Saturday, October 20, 2012

A Taste of the Radish

Xtracycle Radish
As anticipated after our meeting at Interbike, Xtracycle has sent over a demo model of their Radish long tail cargo bike for me to test ride. I will be picking it up from Harris Cyclery next week, and after trying it for the first time a few days ago, I have a feeling we will get on nicely. Pioneers of the long tail concept, Xtracycle makes two main categories of products: the Free Radical, which is an extender kit that can turn almost any standard bike into a long tail, and a line of integrated longtail bikes. The step-through Radish model has been around since 2010 and is available in multiple configurations. The Radish pictured here is the Classic - designed to carry "groceries, cargo of all shapes and sizes, and adult passengers." 

Xtracycle Radish
As the term "long-tail" suggests, the Radish sports an extended rear end: The back wheel is set back considerably, allowing space for a massive deck to extend along the chainstays. Other than that, the Radish looks like a fairly normal transportation bicycle: lowered stepover, swept-back handlebars, fenders, flat pedals and a chain guard. All it is missing is lights. Current retail prices for the Radish start at $1,220 for a complete bike, bags included. 

Xtracycle Radish
California-designed and Taiwan built, the frame is welded cromoly steel. The complete bike weighs 43lb. 

Xtracycle Radish
The 1x9 speed derailleur drivetrain is geared to provide a nice and useful range, including a low 1:1 gear. 

Xtracycle Radish
V-brakes front and rear.

Xtracycle Radish
The cargo deck can serve as a carrying platform for large objects and passengers. It also integrates with XtraCycle's expandable FreeLoader bags, as well as with the optional WideLoader side platforms (not pictured). I am going to experiment while the bike is in my possession and see how well this system accommodates the sort of cargo I am likely to carry. 

Xtracycle Radish
My initial ride on the Radish was modest. First I rode it completely unloaded, just to see how it would handle in that state. Then I added some photo equipment, my laptop bag, and an armload of random heavy-ish items from Harris Cyclery for extra weight. Here are my first impression notes based on the (4 mile) test ride:

. The unloaded Radish felt surprisingly light to pick up, something the shop staff noticed as well. 

. The Radish handles like a normal, faster-than-average upright bike. There was no learning curve involved in riding it. I would wager that if you can ride an upright bike, you can handle the Radish.

 . I could not feel the long-tailness of the bike, even when cornering.  

. I could not sense a difference in handling or speed between the Radish unloaded vs lightly loaded. Apparently it will take a lot more than the equivalent of a week's worth of groceries, plus camera equipment, plus laptop bag, for me to feel anything back there. 

. Ride quality over potholes was great (26" x 2" tires). 

. I like the quick and efficient feel of the derailleur drivetrain.

. The geometry makes full leg extension possible when pedaling, while still allowing me to put a toe down at stops without dismounting. 

Xtracycle Radish
. The quick release seatpost makes sharing the Radish easy.

. The stepover is pretty low, but still requires leaning the bike toward me in order to step over the top tube. It is not quite as low as a full-on step-through or loop frame.

. The size of the Radish makes it impractical for me to store it indoors (we have a tiny place). I wonder how it will fare when stored outside. 

. While my impulse is to say that if the Radish were mine, I'd want a box permanently affixed to the rear, I will give the standard setup a fair chance before jumping to conclusions. 

. Aesthetically, I have to admit that I like the Radish a lot; it just looks so darn friendly and adorable.  

All of this combined leaves me in eager anticipation of truly putting this bike through its paces and experimenting with various types of cargo. If you are local and interested in taking it for a spin, the Radish remains for a few more days at Harris Cyclery in West Newton, MA, and will return there after my review.