Friday, August 30, 2013

Climbing Muscles? Perhaps

No More Ouch
When I began to do long hilly rides, I acquired a nemesis: the Mysterious Pain. This pain would get me even when my legs were strong and my energy levels were high. It would get me when least expected, ruining countless rides and limiting my progress. 

I have never experienced anything quite like it before. It wasn't so much of a pain even, as an alarming sensation of seizing, not so much in my lower back as below it. If you draw an imaginary horizontal line perpendicular to the top of the butt crack, the sensation was along that line, in two distinct spots on the left and right, symmetrical.

The first time I experienced it in earnest was during a 100 mile overnight ride to Maine early last summer. It came on around mile 70 and was so debilitating I had to stop on the side of the road and stretch every 10 miles to keep going. 

Mystery pains are a source of fascination to cyclists, and I talked about mine with a slew of local riders. At the time the consensus was that I had increased my milage too quickly and hadn't the upper body strength to handle it. So I spent the rest of the summer sticking to sub-100K rides, but doing them with more frequency to build up strength and muscle tone. I am not sure this had any effect. It may have worked subtly, but at the time I felt somewhat stagnant and dispirited. I wanted, very badly, to do longer rides. And I felt strong; my legs would seldom get tired on a bike. But this strange pain/ seizing sensation was like a brick wall I kept hitting: No sooner would I attempt a long ride with lots of climbing, it would return. 

This Spring I began riding more than ever. Short rides, long rides, paved rides, dirt rides, club rides, brevets... I thought I was riding a lot before, but now I was practically living on my bike. Disappointingly, the mystery pain was still there - though I'd now learned to manage it with strategically timed stops and stretching. On the 200K brevet, I'd pull over on the side of the road every so many miles so that I could bend over backwards and do some quick twists before continuing. That was all it took to stop the discomfort for the next so many miles, so stopping was better than not stopping: If I did nothing about it and continued riding it would only slow me down.

Having witnessed this riding next to me on the 200K, my friend Pamela suggested that the problem could be insufficiently developed "climbing muscles" - something she herself had experienced at one time. Rather than related to distance, the discomfort could be brought on by long stretches of climbing - which are of course more likely to occur on long distance rides. 

There were other suggestions from riding companions at this time: That my gears were too high. That my saddle was too hard. That my position on the bike was too aggressive. And that climbing seated was the real issue. 

At that point I decided to take an aggressive approach and try everything. The suggestion that my roadbike position was causing the discomfort worried me, because I otherwise found it so comfortable. But a few strategic rides helped me eliminate that as the cause: I was able to bring about the same pain on more upright bikes (even my Brompton) if I used higher gears when climbing for a prolonged period of time. So gearing had a lot more to do with it than position. I now also knew for certain that the source of the problem wasn't the long distance, but the long, repeated climbs. In Ireland I found that I could bring about the pain within as little as 20 miles, if they were "quality miles" with respect to elevation gain.

In short, the climbing muscles diagnosis seemed the most probable. But how to develop them? I was not willing to go to the gym to work on my "core," and so far just continuing to ride the way I'd been wasn't helping. 

Staying in Ireland took care of the problem. Here I did not continue to ride the way I'd been, but, with some guidance, began to do more focused riding - both faster and with more climbing - on a more or less daily basis. I learned how to use gears more efficiently. And I also finally learned how to stand out of the saddle and began practicing that every ride. 

One result of all this has been a subtle, but significant transformation to my body within a very short time period. The changes to my legs did not surprise me - after all, that is what we expect from cycling. But I did not expect the changes to my midriff. My abdomen has gone flat and there are these weird thin horizontal muscles wrapping around the sides of my torso, front and back - where the "love handles" used to be, if you will. I have never had muscle definition in this area before, and it all looks and feels absolutely bizarre, as if my body isn't really mine. But existential analyses aside, whatever's happened it has solved the mystery pain problem. No more. It's just gone - regardless of whether I climb standing or seated, in a low gear or high. Just to make sure, this past week I've made it a point to do hilly rides without getting out of the saddle at all, like in the old days (meaning entire months ago). But that seizing sensation below the lower back is now just a memory. 

So... climbing muscles. What are they exactly? I imagine some combination of abdominal and lower back muscles. For some they might be naturally well developed. For most they are probably average.  And for some, like myself, they could be underdeveloped - requiring lots of work to get up to par. Happily, I love riding and doing this "work." And I love it that this limitation is finally gone. 

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

The Cyclist and the Roundabout

Roundabout, Limavady Northern Ireland Although not nearly as widespread as in the UK, roundabouts - also known as rotaries and traffic circles - are fairly common back in New England, particularly in the sort of areas that brevets and similar rides tend to take us through. Personally, I don't know anyone in the US - be they cyclist or driver - who actually likes roundabouts, and I am no exception. Over the years my attitude toward them has transitioned from one of pure terror to one of a more manageable, subdued loathing. There are right of way rules to navigating them, but somehow the traffic flow ends up being chaotic despite those rules. Drivers don't always yield to other vehicles correctly, and bikes they sometimes outright ignore. As a cyclist, you can end up waiting your turn forever despite having the right of way. Or worse yet, a driver's failure to yield once you're already moving through the circle can result in a close call or collision.

Now cycling in Northern Ireland, my relationship with roundabouts has moved to an entirely new, downright intimate level. On the North Coast they are everywhere, often used in leu of traffic lights, and I go through at least one - but more typically anywhere between three and six - every day. There are large roundabouts the size of parks. There are smaller ones that might display a modern sculpture or two. And there are tiny ones that are just painted circles on tarmac, easy to miss. There are urban roundabouts through which cars move at a crawl. And there are rural ones, through which lorries fly at top speed. 

Most impressive of all are the roundabouts situated along steep hills. One such stunner is just outside of Limavady town, approaching the village of Aghanloo. When I first saw this thing appear in front of me, my jaw dropped. When approached from one direction, this roundabout requires being ready to yield or stop while climbing a 10% grade, from another direction while descending the same. And to be clear, the hill does not start or end with the roundabout; the intersection is half way through the climb. For a cyclist this can be rather ...interesting, requiring precise control of one's bike and brakes.

But one thing I realised about the roundabouts in Northern Ireland over time, is that they are predictable: There is no chaos or confusion, as everyone actually follows the right of way rules. Traveling on the left side of the road, you yield to traffic approaching from the right, and in the same manner other traffic yields to you. Unlike in New England, drivers do actually yield when it is another vehicle's turn - even if that other vehicle is a bike! It took me some time to trust in this, but once I started to all the stress from navigating the roundabouts was removed. When it's my turn, I go and when it's not, I stop: easy, and, admittedly, more efficient than a traffic light. I like it!

What has been your experience with roundabouts as a cyclist in the area where you live?

Friday, August 23, 2013

To Match, or Not to Match

Blurry Grass Walk
"So are you, like, allergic to matching kit?"
"Well it's just that I know you own shorts and jerseys from the same manufacturers. But you never wear them together."

Caught off guard by being thus scrutinised, I quickly take stock of what I've got on. Between the shorts, jersey, jacket and various warmers I count 5 different brands. Okay, the man's got a point. But hey, at least it's all vaguely the same colour. And what does it matter anyway?

I confess that my choice of what cycling clothes to don on a road ride is largely determined by what's clean. I ride a lot and don't have time to constantly be doing laundry. And since shorts and jerseys have different "can keep wearing it without washing" cycles, it just so happens that the clean jersey/short combo appropriate for that day's weather often won't match.

But while I don't intentionally go for the mismatched look, upon giving it some thought I realise that I am comfortable with it. More comfortable than with the slicker, more polished matching look. Because on the bike I am neither slick nor polished, it seems somehow appropriate - even "correct," if you will - that my style of dress reflect that. 

One day early this summer I was out riding and passed a couple of cyclists on a gentle descent. They were skinny boys on nice bikes, who must have been lost in conversation and taking it easy. On the next uphill they caught up to me and we got to chatting. One of them looked over my shorts and jersey. Trying to make out the writing (it was my club's name - Ride Studio Cafe), he said with a straight face: "So who is that you ride for?" For, not with. I thought he was mocking me and turned beet red (Come on, how the hell could I ride "for" anyone, spinning uphill at 10mph?). I am still not sure whether he was joking or not, but in a roundabout way that illustrates why I shy away from wearing the matchy stuff - especially with my club's name on it. 

There is all this talk among roadies about "looking pro." It is said ironically, but nonetheless meant seriously. It covers lots of things, including clothing - which, according to the rules, ought to match. In that vein, I guess I am quite happy to leave looking pro to the pros - while myself mismatching my cycling clothes with abandon. 

Thursday, August 22, 2013

The Feel of the Road

Chipseal, Northern Ireland
I never gave much thought to the feel of pavement until I started cycling in Ireland last spring. Then I noticed the difference straight away: The tarmac, as they call it in the British Isles, felt distinctly softer than the asphalt in my part of the US. Having lived for years in the UK before I was a cyclist, I'd somehow never noticed this. But on a bike it was difficult not to. I could feel a give in the road's surface under my tires. It was also more porous, gravely in texture. Feeling more resistance than I'd come to expect from pavement, I kept wondering whether my tires had gone flat, or whether something was mechanically amiss with the folding bike I was riding. Later I learned that the roads in Ireland are a kind of chipseal. The differences I sensed were real. 

Being back this summer, and with a skinny-tire roadbike this time, the characteristics of the Irish roads feel even more pronounced. The softness and the rough texture make me exert more effort to achieve the same speed as in the US. I would place the experience as somewhere between riding on pavement and riding on tightly packed gravel. 

When the tarmac is freshly laid or repaired, the top layer can be quite loose. It also loosens easily after stretches of bad weather. Cornering on such sections without realising what you're dealing with can be dangerous. 

There are other interesting effects. Once I did a long distance ride in a 75°F "heatwave." On the return leg around 4pm, I noticed that the road in front of me was glistening, getting shinier and more liquid-looking by the minute - almost as if it were melting. I thought to myself "Nah, can't be. I must be tired and imagining things." Next things I know, viscous clumps of tar were sticking to my tires and clogging my brakes. I had to pull over and scrape the gooey black chunks off, then use a stick to knock the hardened clumps out of the brake calipers. Then I sat in the shade and waited for an hour, until the road cooled off enough to continue home. To my relief, the following day everyone was talking about the melting tarmac, so at least I did not hallucinate the surreal experience. I guess the tarmac here is not rated to withstand such boiling temperatures!

If you're riding a harsh-feeling bike on Irish roads, you'll know it. The rough texture exaggerates the jarring sensations of road buzz. When I tried a friend's racing bike, my hands were vibrating so much I could not believe it. "Oh it's like riding on razor blades, to be sure," he laughed. I stroked my own bike with renewed appreciation. 

Once I do get used to the roads here, the roads in the US feel unnaturally hard and smooth in comparison, and readjusting to them takes some time as well. As for the New England potholes... well, that is a topic that deserves its own post, possibly in poem form.

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

High Heels and Saddle Height

A belated Monday Mailbox post, on account of my wifi having conked out yesterday. Here is a variation of a question I've gotten from several readers this summer:
...I'd like to wear high heeled shoes on my bike, but find it's hard to get the saddle height right. If I adjust the saddle for my heels it is too high when I wear flats, and vice versa. What do you recommend?
The problem here is not so much with the high heels themselves as it is with platform soles. Over the past year platform and wedge style shoes with substantial stack heights have become popular again. And alternating between shoes that are flat, and shoes with a 3cm rise in the sole will make a noticeable difference in leg extension on the bike.

For short distances, this might not matter so much. Some women will adjust their saddle height for flats and then simply ride with it too low when wearing heels and platforms. Others (myself included) find this uncomfortable even for short stretches. And of course for longer distances riding with your saddle too low is simply a bad idea - not only uncomfortable, but bad for the knees.

Xtracycle Radish
Aside from the obvious but unhelpful suggestion of picking a heel height and sticking with it, one thing to consider is converting your seatpost to quick release. This should be easy to do on most bikes: You simply purchase a quick release skewer, and install that in place of the seat clamp bolt. I now have QR seatposts on my everyday city bike and on my cargo bike, and they have changed my life. Well, not really. But they have liberated me to wear crazy heels again without worrying about leg extension. In mere seconds I can adjust the saddle to whatever height I want before a ride; problem solved.

Granted, the downside to quick release seatposts is the increased possibility of saddle theft - which means either sticking with an inexpensive saddle on your QR bike, taking the seatpost and saddle with you every time you leave the bike locked up, or using an extra lock to secure the saddle to the bike. The last two are a bother, but still could be worth it for the versatility of footwear the setup affords.

Another possibility is adjusting your saddle height on the go without a QR seatpost. Just carry the appropriate tool with you. Of course this assumes the ability to do it on your own, and a willingness to constantly mess with your saddle height "the hard way." Personally, I kind of enjoy this. But still the quick release is an easier and more reasonable solution.

After several years of wearing mostly flat shoes, I've been getting back to heels and platforms lately and it's been great fun. And being able to adjust my saddle height on the go means my leg extension is always just the way I like it.

Saturday, August 17, 2013

A Subtle Surprise: Brooks Cambium C-17

Brooks Cambium C17
Earlier this year Brooks surprised their fans by announcing the release of a non-leather saddle: the Cambium C-17. Selected to be one of the beta-testers, I must have been in the very last wave of recipients, because the saddles have been out for months now and mine arrived only last week. About to head back to Ireland, I threw it in a suitcase and, after several days of jetlag, have now finally managed to get a good look. I have not tried the Cambium on a bike yet, but wanted to post some shots and first impressions, figuring many of you are as curious as I was. And there is good reason to be curious: The Cambium is quite a departure for Brooks of England - a storied manufacturer whose very claim to fame is its leather saddles. 

Brooks Cambium C17
As Brook describes it, the Cambium C-17 is made "from vulcanized natural rubber and organic cotton enhanced by a thin layer of structural textile for added resilience." Considering this is a bike saddle, I'd assumed the fabric would be treated with something to make the surface smooth. But the surface has a distinct texture to it similar to that of artist's canvas or some types of denim. While it's been treated for stiffness and waterproofing, there remains a bit of tooth to it. For that reason I have to admit, I am reluctant to try this saddle with lycra cycling shorts - which can be delicate and abrasion-prone in the seat area. But I'll do it, and will let you know how it goes.

Brooks Cambium C17
As far as looks, the one word that comes to mind in describing the Cambium is "subtle." This is a minimalist, low key saddle, not an ostentatious one. The colour of the cloth is half way between gray and taupe. In person, it can look either charcoal gray, ashy brown or even mauve, depending on what it's placed next to. This is rather nice, in the sense that it will match pretty much any bike. The brooks logo is stamped tone on tone into the rear of the undercarriage and is only noticeable close-up. The metal bits are matte, almost dull. The overall shape is somewhere between a Brooks B-17 and an '80s style vinyl racing saddle. 

While the Cambium's "C-17" label suggests it has the same dimensions as the B-17 touring saddle, this is not the case: The C-17 is narrower (162mm across, compared to the B-17's 175mm), longer (283mm, compared to the B-17's 275mm), and has less height to it (52mm, compared to the B-17's 65mm). The Cambium should be suitable for a more aggressive bike position than the B-17. The weight of the Cambium is 415g (compared to 520g of the standard B-17). The ladies' version - the C-17S - is the same as the C17 in every way, except 18mm shorter and 10g lighter. 

Brooks Cambium C17
I did not receive any special insight into the Cambium's construction from Brooks, so I am just describing what I see. It looks like the undercarriage is modular, similar to Berthoud, with (rivet-shaped) screws instead of rivets. 

Brooks Cambium C17
The matte metal resembles titanium, but it is not labeled or described as such, so I assume it is cro-moly.

Brooks Cambium C17
Stamped "natural rubber vulcanized in Italy," the saddle is extremely flexible - I can easily bend and twist it with my hands. I imagine Brooks was trying to replicate the hammocking/ suspension qualities inherent to their leather saddles, and this was the solution they came up with. I am eager to experience the feel of this on a bike - especially on bumpy roads, chipseal and gravel.

Brooks Cambium C17
The surface layer of cotton fabric is cut to form and glued onto the rubber. While the construction looks to be top notch, one potential problem I can see, is that over time the edges might begin to lift. Only long term use can determine whether this proves to be the case.

As I see it, the potential appeal of this saddle is two-fold: Those who do not use leather for ethical reasons will welcome a non-leather option from Brooks. And those who dislike how much Brooks leather saddles change shape over time might prefer the stability of the Cambium's construction. It is also interesting how Brooks went with natural, rather than synthetic materials in constructing this saddle, in keeping with its usual aesthetics. The C-17 will look good on a wide range of bikes, classic and modern.

Well, that is all for now. I am going to try this saddle on a semi-upright pathrace-style bike, then on my roadbike, and report back in a couple of weeks. If you have any questions in the meantime about the construction, shape or aesthetics, feel free to ask. In fairness to Brooks, I would like to note that I was not asked to write about the saddle on this blog or to publicise it in any way; my role as a beta-tester involves only private feedback. I believe the Cambium C-17 and C-17S will be available for sale in September, as a limited edition release. You can see its full specs, as well as read feedback from those who were in the earlier waves of testers, here.

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Tracing the Tangles

Mysterious Ways
In theory, cycling on Cape Ann - with its miles of rocky beaches and its quaint villages - should be idyllic. In practice, it is all main roads, devoid of shade and dense with traffic, along a largely hypothetical coastline. The water views are obscured by developments and the sea is strangely scentless much of the time. Add to that the crater-sized potholes, the unyielding drivers, and the mosquitos immune to insect repellant - and frankly I don't find it so idyllic at all.

But stubbornly I persist: the same old 45 rolling miles, from Rockport to Ipswich and back. There is exactly one stretch of backroad along my route, and I anticipate it as one might anticipate a tart fruity filling in an otherwise bland pie.

There is only one stretch of backroad, but this stretch has a little of everything: climbing, quiet, overhanging trees, wooden bridges over saltwater marshes. And the part I look forward to most are the twists. The narrow road loops abruptly to the left, then to the right, then to the left again, then - who knows. It twists haphazardly - not so much a series of hairpins, as a mess of tangles.

As a young girl I once found a stray length of golden chain in my grandmother's garden. It was thin and delicate, the kind of chain meant to be worn with a pendant. But now it was dirty and torn and missing a clasp - not really of use to anyone. I remember standing there and spilling it back and forth from one hand to the other, fascinated by the curves and tangles it made each time it settled on my palm. I would trace the tangles with my eyes and it was an act of meditation.

This memory comes out of nowhere as I now trace the twists of the road on my bike. Or rather, it is the bike that traces them. I merely hang on and take it all in, savoring the experience. The bike leans dramatically left, then right, then left, then ...who knows. And I relax and lose myself in the meditative feel of it, my hands keeping clear of the brakes. I can't tell you how I finally learned to corner. It just happened one day. It emerged from a tangle of experiences, memories, emotions.

Monday, August 12, 2013

What About the Movies?

At the Cinema
"Okay. But what about the movies?"

"What about them?.." 

It is one of those circuitous conversations about whether bikes stand a chance in mainstream culture. The kind of conversation that inevitably raises the point that American cities are not Amsterdam. Or Copenhagen. Before moving on to differences in fuel prices, weather conditions, standards in hygiene and typical commuting distances. Quick to tire of this topic, I sip my wine - inserting the occasional comment on autopilot. But now this movie thing is a new twist and I perk up.

"Can you imagine bikes instead of cars in movies? I mean, that would be ridiculous!"

We run through the gamut of pop culture classics that would not be the same carless. James Bond. Ferris Bueller's Day Off. Back to the Future. Pulp Fiction. The list goes on. Re-imagining some of these with bikes replacing cars proves a great source of entertainment. National Lampoon's Vacation with the dead grandma strapped onto a longtail cargo bike. Law and Order SVU, with Olivia and Stabler as bike cops (okay so that's a TV show, but still).

But it's not just about specific movies. It's entire scenarios, concepts. The summer road trip. The iconic car chase. The drive-in and the drive-through. The dead body in the trunk. Romantic joyrides in convertibles. Disastrous family vacations. High school students cruising aimlessly as they come of age in towns where no one understands them. Tragic couples, well-dressed and adulterous, exchanging looks of yearning in the dim light of the dashboard. Secret agents and mobsters getting in and out of each other's sedans in abandoned lots under rusty bridges. The entire kitsch horror genre that relies on teenagers smooching in the back seat, oblivious to the crouching axe murderers ready to prey upon them. And of course there is that scene, where the sleek black Porsche (or maybe it's a BMW) pulls up and, as the driver comes around to get the door, the camera zooms in on a pair of women's legs stepping out - just the legs, in stiletto heels and perhaps black fishnet stockings - a moment in which we, the viewers, know that the creature who emerges will be beautiful and mysterious and utterly unattainable - destined to become the main character's love interest.

Do you mean to take this - all this - away from us and replace it with bikes? that sporty, politically-correct contraption devoid of sex, drama and suspense? That is the panicked subtext of all this movie talk.It is almost as if we're discussing the possibility of some big, bad Bike Lobby censor editing out cars from all our favourite films and TV shows. 

I never know what to say to those who view bike culture as threatening to car culture, and this is no exception. Look, I don't want my Ferris Bueller and Pulp Fiction ruined with bikes either. Jokes aside, it's absurd to imagine bikes in existing films where the cultural context for them is all wrong. Just like it's absurd to imagine films with period-inappropriate clothing, dwellings or slang. But if bikes become more normalised in society over time, things will change - not forcefully, but organically. Bike-centered cultural scripts will emerge and take root, upon which scenarios of future films could be based - complete with naturally-occuring sex, drama and suspense. It does not seem like such a difficult concept to me.  

And the thing is, Vincent's suit in Pulp Fiction aside, it's not all black and white. Don't you remember, when they were talking in the car, how he'd just gotten back from Amsterdam? If you think about it, he probably rode a bike there. In that suit and everything. Briefcase full of drug money dangling off the handlebars of a borrowed opafiets, a miniskirted lady-friend perched on the rear rack... Okay, so it's not in the movie. It was 1994 after all; they didn't want to shock the American public with bikes. But it's implied, okay? Subtly implied. It sets the groundwork.

And with that image, everyone seems appeased. Maybe the movies are safe after all. 

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Fluttering About: the Papillionaire Sommer

Papillionaire Sommer
One of the newer members of the upright city bike club, the Australian Papillionaire (a sponsor of this blog) has recently opened its doors in the USA and sent me a bicycle to try - their step-through Sommer model in the aptly named "Boston" colour scheme. Based on a traditional European loop-frame design and available in a range of candy colours, the lugged steel Sommer also comes with an attractive price tag - starting at $429 for a basic single speed bicycle, including fenders, chainguard and rear rack.

Papillionaire Sommer
Founded in 2009 by a brother and sister team in Melbourne, the Papillionaire name is based on the Latin word for butterfly (papillio) - reflecting their philosophy that "riding should be easy and fun and of course look good at the same time." 

Papillionaire Sommer
The bicycle frames are designed at Papillionaire's Australian office and manufactured in Taiwan to their specs, along with the rear racks, and custom leather grips and saddles. The finish is powdercoat. The stated weight of the complete bike is 29lb. 

Papillionaire Sommer
The cro-moly frames are lugged and the fork features an attractive crown with cutout detail.

Papillionaire Sommer
Here is a look at the seat cluster.

Papillionaire Sommer
And the junction of the curved top tube with the seat tube. 

Papillionaire Sommer
The bottom bracket is the only lugless joint on the frame, and it is done smoothly.

Papillionaire Sommer
The horizontal dropouts in the rear accommodate hub gearing and incorporate braze-ons for rack mounts, fender mounts and chainguard bracket. 

Papillionaire Sommer
Braze-ons for both fenders and front rack on the fork dropouts as well.

Papillionaire Sommer
The Sommer comes in two sizes: standard and small. Aside from the curved top tube, a main distinguishing feature of this model is its handlebars: Somewhere between North Roads and Apehanger on the upright spectrum, the bars have quite a rise to them. This has the interesting visual effect of making the rest of the bike appear miniature, almost toy-like in comparison. In fact the bike is normal sized, with 700C wheels to boot - it's just that the handlebars are quite massive - intended, in combination with a short top tube, to achieve a super-upright riding position. 

Papillionaire Sommer
View of the bars from the rider's perspective. 

Papillionaire Sommer
And a side view of the rise. Note that the stem here is shown lowered to maximum capacity. 

Papillionaire Sommer
The test bike I received was set up as a 3-speed, with a Shimano Nexus hub and twist shifter, front and rear caliper brakes, 

Papillionaire Sommer
Papillionaire's leather grips (a copy of the Brooks version, it seems), a silver bell,

Papillionaire Sommer
a Peterboro front basket (big enough to fit a handbag or similar),

Papillionaire Sommer
and a sprung leather saddle (looks to be Gyes-made), embossed with Papillionaire's logo. Note that the saddle here is shown sitting pretty far forward, with the clamp not allowing further backward movement. A setback seatpost is now available to get the saddle a bit further back.

Papillionaire Sommer
The Sommer's rear rack is rated for 18kg (40lb) of weight. No lighting is included with the bike, but the rear fender is drilled for a tail light, and a rear reflector is included. The fenders, rack and chainguard are all powder-coated to match the bicycle's frame.

Papillionaire Sommer
The alloy touring-stlye pedals come with reflectors.

Papillionaire Sommer
The 700Cx35mm Kenda West city tires are available in gumwall or cream. 

Papillionaire Sommer
The Papillionaire was delivered to a nearby shop, the Bicycle Belle (read about it here), where I test rode it on a 4 mile urban loop simulating some of my usual local commutes.

Nothing about Papillionaire's branding suggests a focus on performance and speed, and so the bicycle's tame handling was consistent with my expectations. The Sommer is a bike for fluttering about town, not for "super commuting" 10 miles up hilly country roads. At the same time, the gearing is set quite low - so reasonable urban inclines are not difficult to tackle. And the roomy, integrated rear rack is a convenient standard feature, making it immediately possible to attach panniers, as well as rack-top bags and baskets to the bike.

On the whole, my impression of the Sommer was dominated by its bolt-upright positioning and tight "cockpit." Seated upon the saddle, my back was as straight as if I'd been sitting in a chair, and my hands gripped the handlebars just forward of my ribcage. The new setback seatpost alters these proportions, but only slightly: The Sommer was deliberately designed to be extremely upright. Those looking for that sort of fit will appreciate that, while those seeking a more leaned-forward, active position, may find the proportions limiting.

Papillionaire Sommer
Another notable feature of the Sommer is its very high bottom bracket. Those who enjoy being perched as high as possible on a city bike so as to "see above traffic" will appreciate this. Those who like to stop with a toe on the ground without getting off the saddle, may not: The high bottom bracket will make it difficult to set the saddle height to make this possible whilst achieving full leg extension on the downstroke when pedaling. 

While Papillionaire refers to their bicycles as "Dutch-style," the Sommer is not a typical Dutch Omafiets. They do have the upright positioning in common. But the Sommer's frame angles are not as relaxed and the fork is not as raked-out - giving it a more compact, less boat-like - and also less cushy - feel than that of a traditional Dutch bike. The Sommer's combination of tight frame, 700C wheels and wide tires also leaves very little toe clearance with the front wheel; some riders may experience toe overlap. 

The 29lb stated weight figure feels pretty accurate; for a bike of its kind the Sommer is on the lightweight side. But note, that (to be fair, like most bikes in its price category) the Sommer does not come with lighting options - something I hope Papillionaire (and other manufacturers) will consider remedying, since the bike is intended for regular commuting. 

Papillionaire Sommer
Since Papillionaire expanded its market to the US, I've received regular emails from readers asking how it compares to the popular Bobbin Birdie (see review here). As far as apples-to-apples comparisons with other city bikes, I think this is a fair one: Like the Sommer, the Birdie is a Taiwan-made lugged cro-moly loop frame with hub gears, fenders, chainguard and rear rack, at a similar price point. As far as quality, I find the bikes equivalent - from the finish, to the components, to bike shop mechanics' feedback on the quality of the from-the-factory assembly. As far as frame design and ride feel, there are notable differences: The Sommer is a considerably more upright bike, and it is fitted with 700C wheels, whereas the Birdie is a 26" wheel bike with a position that (while still firmly in the upright category) is more aggressive, and to me feels more responsive. So the choice between the two will likely rest on the type of fit and ride quality a cyclist prefers. Go with Papillionaire if you want to be more upright and higher off the ground; with Bobbin if the reverse. Price-wise both are pretty good deals. I get so many inquiries from readers looking for new, but "vintage-style" upright bicycles at reasonable prices. It's great to have multiple options in the sub-$700 price range.

The Papillionaire Sommer as shown here (the 3-speed version, with leather accessories and basket) is priced at $629, and is available to test ride at the Bicycle Belle in Somerville, MA. Aside from the Sommer model, Papillionaire also offers a diamond frame and, most recently, a mixte. You can check out the specs and colours of all their models here and see the complete Sommer picture set here. Many thanks to Papilllionaire and Bicycle Belle for the opportunity to try this bike!

Thursday, August 1, 2013

Hey. You Look Good.

Gran Prix of Beverly
Looking straight at her, he said it with nonchalant sincerity, nodding in approval for emphasis.

"Hey. You look good."

In response she gave him a startled, almost bewildered look. As if caught off guard by his directness. As if to say "Hey buddy, this is a cycling club, not a night club. And don't you know any subtler flirting tactics besides?"

Witnessing the exchange I had to suppress a laugh. When this phrase was first said to me on a ride, I did not know what to make of it either.

Of course the guy was telling her she looked good on the bike. That her position was good, that the bike fit her well, that she had good form. It's all in the tone and in the look. Once you get used to this pronouncement in a cycling context, it's hard to mistake for flirtation. But the first time it does catch you off guard. "You look good." Just like that, huh?

I don't tell other cyclists they look good on the bike when we ride together. I don't feel ready. What do I know good form from bad? Yes I see things, and I think it to myself. But it wouldn't be right to say it. The compliment must have significance.

But when I have my camera the dynamic changes. I tell riders they look good then, and it takes on a different meaning: happy, radiant, picturesque. Maybe they have a contagious smile. Or an intriguing frown. Or the light through the trees is falling on their face just so. Or the colour of their bike interacts perfectly with the colours of the bench they are standing beside. It feels natural to say it then, looking through the lens of my camera. "You look wonderful." Or "That's beautiful - thank you."

And there are times when I know not to say it. Just like sometimes I know not to point my camera. Even though the scene looks perfect, I just don't.

The human gaze is such a complicated thing. It communicates interest, care, the acknowledgement of the other, but also scrutiny. We want to be gazed upon to some extent, but there is always a line beyond which we don't. In cycling, the gaze is ever present - focused on each other's bodies, movements. Sometimes it is silent judgment. And sometimes it culminates in "Hey. You look good." In response to which I simply say "Thanks" and continue to pedal.