Friday, March 29, 2013

Into the Swing of Things

Over the course of last year I made considerable progress on the bike as far as endurance and handling skills. But what I found most rewarding was having gotten to the point where long and strenuous rides over challenging terrain began to feel normal, with the physical aspects of the riding itself fading into the background and the adventures the riding was enabling taking over. Having gotten a taste of this made it clear how much I valued and wanted it.

This made the start of this season all the more frustrating. Not riding takes its toll, we all know that. And the only fix is to start riding again - it will come back quicker than the previous year. We all know that too. But even experienced cyclists can feel deflated when, having emerged out of hibernation, they find themselves exhausted and with a sore butt after a ridiculously short ride. In response to a post earlier this week, I've heard from several local riders telling me just that. Strong, experienced guys who do hilly Centuries on gravel for fun, frustrated that they've lost their cycling mojo after a bad winter.

So here is something to cheer you up: A true story. I got my groove back after just 3 - count them, 3 - rides, and you can too!

The Damage...
Okay, I will try to be honest here. Between the snow and the weeks of being sick and the snow again, I had not been on a roadbike for close to 2 months, not counting a handful of sporadic short rides. I had also gained about 15lb in "winter weight." So that was my starting point.

The First Ride...
I rode a cyclocross bike with mixed terrain tires. I rode solo, for just 25 miles with a 15 minute break in the middle. It was an extremely cold and windy day, making me feel even more sluggish than I already did. By the end of the ride I was tired, and the next morning I felt shockingly bad. The muscles in my legs hurt, my arms hurt, my abdominal muscles hurt, my butt was sore, the works. Hard to believe that this was the same body that did all that cool stuff last year. Discouraged and in a bad mood afterward, I knitted furiously to dull the pain.

The Second Ride...
The very next day, I aimed to repeat the 25 mile route and again went solo. I had a hard time on this ride, because my butt was still sore from the day before. Again, it was cold and windy. After the ride I felt tired and achy again. In the evening, I tried not to dwell on how out of shape I was, knitting instead.

The Rest Day...
The following day I rode my city bike around town as usual, but not my roadbike. I was still a little tired from the previous two rides, but my butt was finally recovering.

The Third Ride...
This time I had plans to ride with Emily "Fixed Gear Randonneuse" O'Brien. I warned Emily about my sorry state, but she was undeterred, and so we set off. For the first few miles I was out of breath, struggling to hold a conversation while riding at a reasonable pace, so much so that I questioned the wisdom of continuing. Then we headed uphill, and I braced myself for the painful struggle. Oddly it never came. I wasn't fast, but I had low gears and the hill was okay. Then came the downhill, and some more riding, and some miles later - boom! I remember when it happened: We were passing the Air Base, and just like that, I could tell: I got my groove back. The sluggishness, the cobwebs, gone. The achiness gone. Between riding with Emily and on my own, it was a 40 mile day. Today I rode again, and the groove is indeed back: I feel like my old self again. And, as a bonus, I have a new skirt for Spring.

Without a doubt, I need more time in the saddle before a 100 mile ride, or even a non-stop 100K. But it's attainable.

Three rides to get into the swing of things after the winter we've had ain't bad at all. Cheer up, New Englanders and let's ride!

Thursday, March 28, 2013

Velo Vision

Focus
About a year ago, I started to notice that I couldn't see things in the distance as well as I used to. I could read and see up close just the same as before, but things far away were losing their clarity. I noticed this most of all while cycling. The landscape was not as sharp as it once was, far-away roadsigns were more difficult to read, faces of people riding toward me were harder to recognise. As someone who's always had perfect eyesight, I had no prior experience with vision loss and it took me a while to acknowledge what was happening. But finally I went to have an eye exam and the loss of "perfect" status in the eyesight department was confirmed. I was given a prescription for glasses that the doctor said I would need mostly "for driving."

Glasses
I expected shopping for glasses to be a nightmare, for the same reason finding a decent pair of cycling sunglasses had been a nightmare. But I underestimated modern technology and our neightbourhood's offering of optical shops. Picking up friends' glasses in the past, I remember them being heavy. But apparently eyeglasses today can be made extremely lightweight - with high-tech plastic and titanium frames. There is also enormous variety in shapes and sizes. I had no problem finding some that fit my face and weighed next to nothing. 

Glasses
With cycling in mind, I got a pair with plastic frames and photochromic lenses. They cover a good part of my face, and the lenses turn dark in the sun, but clear at night. I have already worn them on a couple of rides and the fit is very comfortable. But wearing corrective lenses will take some getting used to! Everything in the distance now looks unnaturally sharp, or hyper-3-D. My feel for how close or far away objects are is a little disturbed by this, but I am assuming my brain will adjust eventually. 

Focus
Another thing that's happening, is that while the glasses correct my far-away vision, they do so at the expense of making things blurry up close. On the bike, this means that I can't really see anything that's directly in front of me or at handlebar level (i.e. the cycling computer on my roadbike) unless I take them off or look underneath the lenses. I am still working out how to adapt to this. Meanwhile, it's a relief to see clearly at a distance again. 

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

The Deceptions of Early Spring Sunshine

Here in New England, early Spring might be the trickiest time to ride. At least in the winter you know where you stand: It is cold, very cold - wear your warmest. There are no expectations for a stark January day to turn balmy, and the winter sun has an icy brilliance to it that promises only sparkle, not warmth. But come March, the smell in the air changes; the quality of light changes. We want to believe that nice weather is coming.

There is something about the early spring sunshine that distorts our feel for temperature. A 40°F March morning can feel like 65° when the sun is out, causing optimistic cyclists to dress for a 65° day. But as soon as the sun disappears behind a cloud, the chill of the real temperature quickly takes over, making it feel like the dead of winter again.

Setting off in the morning, it is natural to expect that the day will grow warmer, causing us to shed layers as we go along. But this does not always happen in March. A beautiful, seemingly short-worthy morning can be but a cruel prelude to a freezing day.

Much as I want spring to come, I've learned to anticipate these deceptions. If the forecast says the temperature is colder than what it feels like, I dress according to the forecast. The piles of snow outside are also helpful: If the snow is not melting, then it is not actually warm, even though it might feel like it.

Yesterday, I rode off into the lazy warm sunshine, gentle and inviting. An hour later the temperature dropped and it began to hail violently, giving way to a bleak and freezing afternoon. Crossing paths with a blue-legged cyclist pulling up his knee warmers, we nodded at the sky, then at each other in mutual "WTF was that" acknowledgement. I zipped up my jacket's vents and rode faster, just as fledgling rays of sunlight tried to charm me once again with their promises of spring warmth.

Sunday, March 24, 2013

Ride Prep Numerology

Numerology
With snow still on the ground and brevet season upon us, New England riders are frantically counting weeks, playing with numbers, and putting together training plans. While I am not interested in long brevets, I would like to try the local Populaire, which is coming up in 4 weeks. A Populaire is a self-supported ride of around 100K (65 miles). Normally I would not be doing anything special to prepare for that kind of distance, but we've had a tough winter, and I am out of shape compared to this time last year. The situation is made more interesting by the treacherous pseudo-proximity of the start. The start of the local brevets is close enough to make it embarrassing to drive or hitch rides to it, yet far enough to add significant milage to the brevet distance. For me, riding to the ride will turn the 100K into 100 miles when all is said is done. So here I am, back on my roadbike and praying it won't snow again, as I engage in some ride prep numerology.

How does one prepare for a 100 mile ride? The topic is pretty well covered by riders with far more experience than me, and when readers ask me this question I normally refer them to other sources. For example, this guide by the Blayleys is a good place to start.

Generally, the guides and training plans stress the importance of building up the milage gradually - recommending anywhere between 4 and 10 weeks to work up to the ride, depending on your fitness level. As far as distance, a common theme is that you should be able to do the milage of the ride you're training for in the course of a week. In other words, if you are aiming for a 100 mile ride, you should be able to ride 100 miles a week.

This advice works for a lot of people. But it helps to know yourself as a rider when applying it to your own training. For instance, from experience I know that I can do 100 mile weeks more or less effortlessly, yet still be unprepared for a 100 mile ride. To get from a place where 50 mile rides twice a week (or even three times a week) are fine to doing 100 miles in one go is difficult. Interestingly, most riders I speak to report the opposite experience: It is hard work building up to 50 miles, but once they pass that mark things get incrementally easier. For me, it gets incrementally harder.

For someone like myself, it makes more sense to focus not so much on building up the weekly milage, as on building up the milage of individual rides. And a good 4-week training plan (starting from some, but not much riding) might look something like this:

Week 1: 20-20-40-20
Week 2: 50-50
Week 3: 60-40
Week 4: 70-30

Some might feel that if a rider is capable of following this schedule, then a 100 mile ride should not present a challenge to begin with, but it just goes to show how different we all are. Getting to know my strengths, weaknesses, and the patterns I follow when getting into riding shape, has been educational - and I am just scratching the surface. I would love to ride the Spring Populaire (on the clock this time!), and I hope the numbers - and the weather - work in my favor.

Friday, March 22, 2013

The Service-Oriented Bike Shop

HUB Bicycle, Cambridge MA
As I continue to gain familiarity with the bicycle industry, I am always curious to observe different models of bike shops in action. There is so much variety in inventory, atmosphere and business practices. Some bike shops cater to athletes, others to everyday riders. Some carry high-end products, others are budget-minded. Some are diversified in their offerings, others are quite specific. One model that I find particularly interesting is that of the service-oriented bike shop - a model where the focus is on service and repairs rather than on sales. 

HUB Bicycle, Cambridge MA
In the Boston area we have a few shops that lean in that direction, and one that truly exemplifies it. Hub Bicycle in Cambrige is described by its owner Emily as a "pro bicycle repair" shop. 

HUB Bicycle, Cambridge MA
Although an authorised dealer of a variety of brands with products available to order, on any given day Hub Bicycle carries little inventory. What they do carry consists mostly of accessories: lights, fenders, racks, baskets, bells. 

HUB Bicycle Chairs
There is no online store. Everything is about the in-person experience, the here and now.

HUB Bicycle, Cambridge MA
And the customer who drops by for a tune-up, repair, or overhaul gets exactly that, instead of being encouraged to buy new parts or upgrade. 

HUB Bicycle, Cambridge MA
There is lots of flat fixing - Every time I've been to the shop, at least two customers had come in with flats within relatively short time periods. While elsewhere I have seen mechanics roll their eyes at this, at Hub it is treated as entirely normal. No job is too small. 

HUB Bicycle, Cambridge MA
The service-oriented shop is a great place to spot interesting vintage bikes, since bicycles of all ages and conditions are welcomed. Examining this saddle, I learned that Belt was a "Fujita Leatherworks" brand - supplied on early Fuji bikes.

HUB Bicycle, Cambridge MA
Obscure French 10-speed from the '70s? Department store mountain bike from the '90s? Something with a no-name coaster brake hub of uncertain vintage? Other shops might tremble or cringe, but here such machines are welcome with open tool chest.

HUB Bicycle, Cambridge MA
At the service-oriented shop, you are also likely to see quirky patch-up jobs and DIY repairs. 

HUB Bicycle, Cambridge MA
Funky decorations.

HUB Bicycle, Cambridge MA
There are frames brought in for custom builds, which the shop is also happy to do - following the customer's suggesting their own.

HUB Bicycle, Cambridge MA
There are bikes in for 650B conversions, single speed conversions, road to city conversions. 

HUB Bicycle, Cambridge MA
There are clinics and instructional courses for those who want to learn how to perform their own repairs and maintenance. 

HUB Bicycle, Cambridge MA
But for the most part, basic tune-ups and quick fixes for walk-in customers are what's happening. 

HUB Bicycle Windowsill
The success of a service and repairs shop depends on the local culture. Hub Bicycle is situated in a busy, urban part of Cambridge MA, where it is very feasible to get walk-ins. Local cyclists will drop by on their lunch break or after work when they need something done. And when a shop like this is around, word quickly spreads. Lots of people in Boston own vintage 3-speeds, 10-speeds and old mountain bikes, as well as quirky modern city bikes that the mainstream shops don't quite know what to do with. A centrally located bike shop that is willing - and able - to work on such machines with a quick turn around time becomes a go-to resource. 

HUB Bicycle, Cambridge MA
Service-oriented bike shops are popular in countries where cycling for transportation is commonplace and doing one's own repairs is not. In Vienna I knew of several bike shops that opened at 7am, so that cyclists could stop in on their way to work. Passing by in the morning, there would sometimes be a queue out the door. Broken chains, worn brake pads, snapped cables, flat tires - absolutely normal to roll your bike to the shop and get it fixed while chatting with other customers and staff - much like Ellie Blue has recently discussed doing.

In North America, bike shops focusing on service and repairs are comparatively rare. As more people start riding for transport, perhaps that could change.

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Knitting Cyclists and Cycling Knitters

Knit Bike
Last week I finally got back on the roadbike enough to start marking miles on my calendar again. Birds were singing, legs were spinning, flowers were pushing through. Then yesterday, this happened. It's still on the roads today. And it's supposed to happen again tomorrow. I lost my temper and did something I hadn't done in some time: I knitted.

I am not a committed knitter, but I learned as a child and do it whenever the fancy strikes. Or when I'm frustrated. The winter of 2010-11 was terrible for cycling, but great for knitting. I made myself an entire new wardrobe, made presents for friends, and did a brisk trade in hats for bicycle components. I must have knitted over 50 hats that winter; it was pretty bad. I can never just sit there and knit, so it's always done in conjunction with another activity, like reading, or talking, or watching a film. I did try knitting while cycling on a trainer a couple of times, but the rhythms are too different for it to work well.

It's been a surprise to discover how many women who ride bikes also knit. They seem like such different activities on the surface: one is domestic and stationary, the other exploratory, active and physically draining. Maybe it's the contrast that's attractive. Or the rhythm. Or the element of independence and self-sufficiency that both provide.

Apparently Lyli Herse was a prolific knitter. She would knit before bicycle races and brevets, because it kept her from getting nervous at the start. She made matching sweaters for her tandem partners and randonneuring teammates, their patterns distinctly recognisable in the historical photos.

Today, there is Emily O'Brien, who is not only a knitter, but also a spinner (can make her own yarn out of fleece). Bobbin and Sprocket knits and crochets. Knitting Lemonade knits and embroiders. There is Roseread, who knits lovely socks. The writer Sally Hinchcliffe a bicyclist and knitter. There is also The Knitting Cyclist. And The Knit Cycle. And Knitting by Bicycle. And more! Some are predominantly cyclists who are also attracted to knitting. Others are predominantly knitters who also ride bikes. Either way, it's an interesting convergence of interests: Knit your own wheeling costume (or a handlebar flower?). Get on a bike. And ride where you like ...once the snow melts a bit.

Monday, March 18, 2013

Firefly Bicycles: a True Story

Firefly Bicycles
In its two years of existence, Firefly has built over 200 bicycle frames in titanium, stainless steel and titanium-carbon - nearly every one of them documented from start to finish and shared over the internet with what seems like hoards of enthusiastic followers. This rate of productivity is particularly remarkable considering that Firefly is just 3 people: two framebuilders and a tester/designer, all of whom perform double duty as PR specialists and photographers. When I visited Firefly last week, they had just held an open house at their impressive new space in Dorchester. The recent upgrade from their prior digs will allow for even greater efficiency - helping the young company meet increasing demand and tackle their now 8-months long wait list.

Firefly Bicycles
To those unfamiliar with Firefly’s history, it may seem implausible that a brand-new maker of custom bicycles can hit the ground running with this degree of success. But the story makes more sense given their background. When Boston legend Independent Fabrication announced an impeding move to New Hampshire at the end of 2010, most of their employees remained behind. Among them were friends Jamie Medeiros, Tyler Evans and Kevin Wolfson, who decided to start their own venture. They developed a detailed business plan, Jamie and Tyler founded the company and hired Kevin, and on January 10, 2011 (at precisely 2:10pm, they tell me) Firefly was born. While the company itself was new, the skills and experience of those involved were considerable. At IF, Tyler had worked as a welder for over 13 years, Jamie for 14 years in R&D, and Kevin as a designer for 3 years. When Firefly announced they were open for business, orders began coming in straight away.

Firefly, D2R2
I first saw a Firefly bike at D2R2 last summer: two of them in fact. I remember it was an overcast morning, and when they rode past me I did a double take. While the bicycles themselves were quite minimalist, they were also unmissable: In the milky fog, their distinct graphics lit up in shades of green and violet much like ...well, fireflies. I noticed this again at the New England Builder's Ball last October: walking past Firefly's booth, their graphics flickered fetchingly in the dim light of the oddly cavernous showroom.

Firefly Bicycles
This "firefly" glow is in fact achieved fairly easily, through masked anodising. On titanium frames, different colours can be produced through anodising by controlling the voltage. The visual effect is surprisingly beautiful.

Firefly... More Pictures Coming!
The unpainted titanium with anodised graphics quickly became Firefly's signature look, though other finishes and materials are available.

Firefly Carbon-Titanium
Most recently, the other materials on offer include bonded Ti-carbon: frames with titanium sleeves and carbon fiber tubing. As Firefly puts it, this is "technology usually reserved for the companies with million dollar R&D budgets, used by a company of three." 

Firefly Carbon-Titanium
As the guys strung up the bike for me to get a better look, my eye kept going back and forth over the top tube. Something looked odd. I soon realised it was the expanding diamater. The top tube starts out skinny at the seat cluster, then expands until it's fat at the headtube joint, with the titanium sleeves shaped accordingly. 

Firefly Carbon-Titanium
Less noticeable, the same thing happens with the seat tube, which starts out fat at the bottom bracket, gradually tapering until it's skinny at the seat cluster.

Firefly Carbon-Titanium
Between the tapering tubes and the carbon-titanium interaction, the bike, when examined closely, looks like a puzzle box, or an M.C. Escher drawing come to life. 

Firefly Carbon-Titanium
The Firefly logo is carved into every titanium sleeve, like a bit of lacy edging.

Firefly Carbon-Titanium
And fans of colourful anodising have not been forgotten. 

Firefly Bicycles
Being around Jamie and Tyler is a bit like looking at the mixed-materials frame. Somehow they click, despite seeming so very different. Jamie Medeiros has an old-fashioned European face that would not be out of place in a Renaissance painting. A big guy with fluffy hair, he moves around softly, almost stealthily. He often seems lost in thought or amused by something. He smiles to himself as he works.

Firefly Bicycles
Tyler Evans has a sharp and direct gaze. His movements are precise and quick. No question I ask seems to surprise him or give him pause; he is articulate and focused.

Firefly Bicycles
Watching them together - interacting by the machines, or drinking coffee in the kitchen - there is a synergy that is as effective as it is endearing. They sometimes give the impression of speaking in unison, or finishing each other's sentences. When working in close proximity, their movements appear synchronised. 

Firefly Bicycles
This could go some way toward explaining Firefly's productivity. The shop space is organised with a separate station, machine, and tool for every task, arranged in the sequence in which the work gets done. Jamie cuts, prepares and notches tubes. Tyler welds. The smart layout and the rapport between the pair ensure that the works gets done in an efficient sequence, with as little time and energy wasted as possible. 

Firefly Bicycles
Kevin is not in on the day that of my visit (he is baking bread, they explain - a culinary course), but I've met him before at local events and know that he completes the synergy. He is missed and mentioned often, as Jamie and Tyler discuss the shop and the business. Kevin is the racer, and every prototype bike gets tested by him in action. 

Firefly Bicycles
In Firefly's range of offerings there are no model names, only descriptions of bikes and frame materials. They can build road, cyclocross and mountain bikes, or anything in between, or something different entirely. Recently they made a classic randonneurring bike with 6550B wheels and front rack. They have made upright city bikes. When I playfully ask about step-through frames they assure me that they would welcome such an order. 

Firefly Bicycles
Hanging up in the "to do" corner, I spot the fabled monster cross frame that belongs to a local customer.

Firefly Bicycles
It is in for seat stay modification, to allow for a 650B conversion (built for 26" wheels originally). 

Firefly Bicycles
Firefly's beautiful dropouts are machined locally by Cantabrigian Mechanics

Firefly Bicycles
A few other bikes lurk in the shop on the day of my visit. Tyler and Jamie's personal bikes are there, as well as a new road build for review in Australian Ride Magazine. Several frames sit in fixtures in states of near-completion. A well-ridden mountain bike, its frame anodised in brown, hangs by the door. None of the bikes are my size, which is just as well, since absorbing the new shop is more than enough for my senses this time around. 

Firefly Bicycles
It's hard to describe Firefly's shop space without appearing to be gushing. The place is - quite deliberately - a showpiece of interior design. Upon moving into the new building, Firefly gutted everything and started from scratch, hiring designer Alessandra Mondolfi - who also happens to be Tyler's wife - to create an interior to suit the company's needs and business model.

Firefly Bicycles
Firefly's space was designed to serve three distinct functions: as a workshop conducive to efficient fabrication, as a showroom for customers, and as a promotional space for both process and product.

Firefly Bicycles
The open concept layout is arranged as a series of rooms separated with sliding doors. At the very back is the roomy shop space, laid out much like a factory floor. Leading up to it are an office space, an inhouse photo studio,  

Firefly Bicycles
a fit studio, 

Firefly Bicycles
a kitchen and meeting room,

Firefly Bicycles
And a dramatic entryway that also functions as a rotating art gallery (currently showing work from Heather McGrath). 

Firefly Bicycles
Strategically placed sliding doors and windows can make every section as public or private as necessary. 

Firefly Bicycles
But aside from how the space is organised functionally, there is also a branding aspect to the design. It is difficult to point a camera within the shop without getting at least a part of the Firefly logo in the shot. Virtually everything - from the welding setup, to the fit studio, to the kitchen - has been arranged with documentation and media visits in mind.

Firefly Bicycles
The lighting is photogenic and atmospheric. The shop doubles as a stage.

Firefly Bicycles
The colour orange is carried through into all aspects of the space, from bar stools

Firefly Bicycles
to machienery,

Firefly Bicycles
to plant life. 

Firefly Bicycles
There are unexpected installations. The moss bed not only smells wonderful, but is a great stress reliever - petting it feels wonderfully relaxing.

Firefly Bicycles
A modest DJ setup for parties.

Firefly Bicycles
Bits of stained glass to enhance the light streaming through the small windows. I'll refrain from posting pictures of the bathroom, but the theme continues there as well. 

Firefly Bicycles
In an era when creating a strong brand presence and culture around your work is crucial, Firefly's purposeful approach makes for a fascinating case study. It is unlikely that their success is a matter of mere luck. 

Firefly Bicycles
They work on building bicycle frames around the clock, sharing the results with the world as they go along through activity on social media and bicycle forums, building a loyal and ever-expanding following. 

Firefly Bicycles
From the get-go, this was a part of their business plan, and they have followed through as intended.

Firefly Bicycles
Can the market for custom bicycle frames in titanium, stainless steel and carbon fiber sustain Firefly's practice? Impossible to know what the future will bring, but at the moment it appears the answer is yes. 

The Firefly showroom in Boston is open weekdays 9-5 (no appointment needed). And, of course, you can also follow along online. Many thanks to Firefly for the tour and the chat. More pictures of the visit here