Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Don't Go Quietly

For some time now everyone has been telling me that I absolutely must see the 1952 film The Quiet Man. Apparently it's to do with Ireland, heavy on thatched cottage and bicycle content. And there is a redhead in it! And John Wayne! Oh my. But months passed into years and, philistine that I am, I still hadn't bothered to see the movie. So when I heard folks talking about a road trip to some special release premier of it in County Mayo this weekend, I thought - how perfect! - and decided to go.

Later I read the fine print, and discovered I had in fact signed up for a 300K brevet with Audax Ireland. Needless to say, it was LOLs all around! So... I guess I'll be taking my bike.

What makes me think I can ride a 300K brevet after barely a month of post-winter training, after having failed in my previous attempt at that distance last year, and after never having ridden in a timed event in Ireland before? Probably folly.

But in my defense, the organisers are not entirely blameless.

I give you Exhibit A:
"The Quiet Man is a relatively easy 300km featuring the best scenery in the West of Ireland."
Now, you and I both know that when randonneurs say "easy" what they really mean is "quite difficult indeed, but we like to pretend otherwise." In spite of this, my brain keeps connecting the words "easy" and "best scenery," bypassing logical circuits.

This effect is supplemented by Exhibit B:
this picture!

And finally, Exhibit C:
"Starting and finishing in Westport between Croagh Patrick and Clew Bay, the route takes in such delights as the Delphi Valley, Killary Harbour (where dolphins were spotted on the 2012 event), north Connemara, before travelling through the contrasting landscape of the “Plains of Mayo” and on to the north coast. On the way home, you’ll take in Ballycroy National Park, as well as countless lakes, mountains and salmon filled rivers. With a bit of luck you’ll see the sun set behind Achill or Clew Bay, before returning in time for a meal and a pint in one of Westport’s charming pubs."
Frolicking dolphins? Salmon filled rivers? Contrasting landscapes? The word "plains" with its suggestion of flat terrain? The mention of pubs, making it seem that one is likely to finish this ride before they all close? This is powerful propaganda.

So, what have I done to prepare for the Quiet Man, upon realising it was not a movie screening? Well, I  worked up to a couple of 60 mile rides, followed by a 96 mile ride, followed by a timed no-photos-allowed 120 mile ride with lotsa elevation gain. On days when I wasn't doing those, I did shorter rides involving hill climbs.

I also finally watched The Quiet Man. And okay, at the risk of angering fans, I just didn't find it that good of a film. Aside from the cloying music, the rather bland, I thought, performance from John Wayne, and Maureen O'Hara's over the top shtick as that '50s ideal of the Feisty, Perpetually Indignant Woman who goes around slapping men in the face and getting thrown on the bed for it, I had trouble believing that the main characters were attracted to one another. For all the talk of the great chemistry between Maureen O'Hara and John Wayne, I didn't see it here. No matter. The Quiet Man had some funny scenes, beautiful scenery, and, importantly, bicycles - my favourite being the tandem of the pedantic Protestant clergy couple.

And the Quiet Man 300K? You never know how these things will go. But one thing I can predict for sure: There will be bicycles there as well. It is coming up this weekend, so not much to do now but rest and wait, then pedal, pedal, pedal, pedal, and pedal some more. As I watch Maureen O'Hara's thrashings on the screen, I picture myself at mile 150, in the dark, a hot mess, narrowing my eyes in anger at the fatigue that threatens my honour and hissing "How dare you!" before speeding off to finish the brevet with a flick of disheveled red curls. You know. Or something like that.

Monday, April 28, 2014

The Story of Sleeve Boy

Taking my morning constitutional over the Sperrins, as is my custom, I turned up a mountain road just past the village of Claudy and caught, from the corner of my eye, a glimpse of a sign. It was a sign for Sleeve Boy Park.

Who is this Sleeve Boy, a curious traveler might ask, and why is a park named after him?

Ah. Well, that is a local legend.

Once there was a boy. And this boy loved to go to the park. But this boy, you see, he was very poor. So poor that he owned only one shirt, its sleeves worn to tatters from years of work on the family farm.

In the olden days, things were more uptight than they are now. To be admitted to the Country Park for a stroll one had to dress respectably. And after weeks of eying the boys' ragged sleeves with disdain, one Sunday morning the attendants finally shook their heads and refused him entry.

His head hung in shame, the young boy walked home weeping.

"What's the matter?" asked his older sister. But when the boy told her, she only shook her head and frowned unsympathetically. "Serves you right for wandering around parks when there's work to be done here."

"What's the matter?" asked his little brother. But when the boy told him, he only giggled and gave his sleeves a tug, tearing them even further, before running off.

"What's the matter?" asked the boy's mother. Reluctantly he told her. The woman scratched her head in thought. "Sure I have some sleeves saved up from your father's old shirts," she finally said. And she pulled out a great big basket filled with scraps of old clothing. She fished around in it and soon enough retrieved two perfectly good sleeves without a single hole in either. Problem is, one was red and the other blue. Meanwhile, the boy's shirt was white. "No law against that!" she said, and gestured for her son to hand over his shirt. Before he could muster a word, she was already busy at the sewing machine. Off came the old, tattered sleeves. On went the intact ones. Finally she presented him with the finished garment and pushed him out the door.

Never had the park attendants seen such a sight. A young boy in a shirt, white and freshly laundered. Only one sleeve was made of red flannel and the other of blue linen. They did not like the look of this nonsense one bit. But the boy was clean and his clothes weren't torn. They had no choice but to let him in.

That day the boy played in the park to his heart's content - chasing butterflies, sniffing daisies, and feeding squirrels till sunsent. And every so often thereafter, when his sleeves would grow worn and ragged again, he would come to his mother and she would replace them with newer sleeves from her basket of scraps. One month you could spot him in sleeves of pink and yellow. The next in sleeves of green and violet. Sometimes one sleeve would be checkered or polka dotted, and the other plain. Who could tell what would be found in the scrap bin!

From that point onward, the young boy became know as Sleeve Boy. Everyone in the county recognised him from miles away, delighting in his unique appearance. Fellow villagers would even come and give him their old sleeves, so that he might continue visiting the park.

That winter, the fortune of Sleeve Boy's family began to turn. Their struggling farm did well for the first time in years. "Let's go to the city and I will buy you a stack of new shirts for your birthday," offered his mother. But so accustomed now was Sleeve Boy to his look, that he did not want new shirts. Instead, for his birthday he asked for a bicycle. He rode this bicycle every day and soon enough began to race, distinguishing himself not only by being the fastest boy around, but also by his striking attire. "Go, Sleeve Boy, Go!" shouted the spectators at the races. It was always clear which one he was. Soon, the big teams came calling and the sponsors, and before long Sleeve Boy was a famous bicycle racer in the distant land of Italy. And after an illustrious career, he moved back to his old village and made a generous donation toward the preservation and upkeep of the local Country Park, on the condition that all children - rich or poor, smartly dressed or unkempt - were to be allowed in at all times. Many decades have now passed, the park since renamed in his honor. Such is the happy tale of Sleeve Boy.

...Or at least could have been. In fact, "sleeve boy" is the anglicisation of the Irish sliabh buigh, and as such means nothing like what it sounds. But it is stories like this we tell ourselves on a 7 mile climb, to keep our minds occupied and to keep ourselves sane when our legs already feel heavy with still 80 miles to go in this final long training ride before that Event we hadn't fully committed to until This Very Moment.

Thank you Sleeve Boy. You've been an inspiration.

Friday, April 25, 2014

The Point of No Return

A friend of mine is a glider pilot, whose specialty is cross country flights. While the comparison is not fitting in all aspects, cross countries to gliding are a little bit like what brevets permanents are to cycling. You declare a task involving a long distance route, pick a day when thermal activity is conducive, and take off - in a tiny unpowered plane. Because glider planes have no engines, the pilot must rely entirely on their aviation skills to stay up in the air over hundreds of kilometers, to cover the route they set out to do, and to land safely. It is an unsupported, challenging activity that, as the consequences of failure are high, would to most people seem insanely dangerous. To the pilot, however - who is typically the sort with nerves of steel and a pathologically high fear response threshold - it is a nice day out. "My favourite part," says my friend, "is when you pass that point where there is no longer an option to turn back early - when you've committed yourself to doing the entire distance…" 

Merely imagining experiencing this inside a glider sends a chill down my spine. But it is also deeply familiar. It is something I feel every time I cycle long distance, whether as part of a brevet or on my own. As the miles roll I can sense that point approaching, and a subtle, yet delicious excitement builds up within me. Mile 10, 20, 30 … mile n …if I'm not feeling up to this, I can turn back and cut the ride short, yet still get home on my own power. I'm in the safety zone. But then comes that mile n+x when I know that, if I continue, there is no turning back. Or rather, no sense in turning back, as doing so wouldn't diminish the distance left to travel compared to completing the route. I am in the deep end now. I am out at sea. This awareness, rather than making me anxious, fills me with an unexpected inner calm. 

For a glider pilot, to abandon a cross country flight once that point of no return is passed involves the skillful act of "landing out" in the nearest field where an emergency landing can be accomplished. Then comes the phone call to that lucky designated friend or family member, who will have to drive out to the site with a special trailer in tow to bring pilot and glider back. The riskiness of an unplanned landing, the inconvenience of the rescue, and the pervasive aura of failure accompanying it all, make this an experience pilots want to avoid like the plague. Abandoning a ride and requiring a rescue (while far less  fraught with danger) is similarly traumatic for cyclists - particularly on a brevet, with its stress on self sufficiency. A year after the fact, the one and only time I've had to be rescued remains an open sore. 

I do not make the decision to pass the point of no return frivolously. Do I have the legs? Do I have the energy? Is the amount of food and water I've brought proving sufficient? Is the weather shaping up to make for a safe return? Am I doing okay for time and are my lights adequate if I run out of daylight? These are all questions I run through my head, like a check list, before re-committing to the intended distance at that mile n+x marker, where I still could turn back and cut the ride short. But once I do decide to keep going, there is no second guessing. And a wonderful feeling of being untethered comes over me, bringing with it a fresh rush of energy. There is a sense of freedom in the awareness that there is nowhere to go but onward. 

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Springing to Life: the Simcoe Roadster

Simcoe Roadster
At one point, many of the European city bicycles available in North America were distributed by a company called Fourth Floor in Toronto. Through test riding the bikes they carried, I got to know the guys who ran Fourth Floor and eventually learned they were working on their own line of products. At Interbike 2012 the newly launched Simcoe was unveiled, with a display of prototype bicycles and bags. The idea behind the brand was to make a quality, yet no-frills classic city bicycle, at a reasonable pricepoint. The prototypes looked good, but the final product was not yet ready. By the time Simcoe bikes did become available it was Spring 2014, with a number of other companies promoting a similar concept. Would Simcoe stand out? In the final days of my last visit to Boston, I got a chance to find out, as the Bicycle Belle received a sample of the Simcoe Signature Roadster. We were actually expecting the step-through model, but there must have been a mix-up. No matter. No sooner was the diamond frame assembled that I took it out for a spin.

Simcoe Roadster
When I do a test ride for the blog, I will normally spend some time examining and photographing the bicycle before riding it. But the way this day worked out, I hopped on the Simcoe first, and only after the test ride did I even get a good look at it. So my first impressions were based purely on feel. And these impressions were two-fold. First, this bike felt like a vintage roadster. That mysterious ride quality particular to old English 3-speeds that modern manufacturers can't seem to recreate was there. It was not a cushiness attributable to obvious things like tire width or even frame flex, but to something different, something only those who've ridden bikes like the Raleigh DL-1 and the Humber and the Royal Enfield will understand, while others might be skeptical about (and perhaps rightly so!). Bike construction is not magic and every sensation can be explained if you look hard enough. Probably Simcoe tapped into the right combination of tubing, geometry, wheel rims, et cetera, to achieve this feel - either deliberately or due to sheer luck. Still - subjectively, that intangible "vintage bike feel" was there.

The second thing I noticed while riding the Simcoe, was that it fit me in a way that worked very well for stop-and-go city cycling. It is a long bike with a fairly low bottom bracket. This combination accomplishes several things that I like in a city bike. The low bottom bracket makes it possible to adjust saddle height so as to get full leg extension when pedaling, and also put a toe down at a stop without dismounting. The long top tube combined with the swept back handlebars gives the cockpit a nice roomy feel while allowing for an upright position. The length also prevents toe overlap with the front wheel, as well as "handlebar poke" on turns (the latter doesn't bother me, but some riders complain of it). While I much prefer to ride a step-through for transportation to a diamond frame, I could forgive this bike because it otherwise felt so nice. 

As far as speed, Simcoe describes the Roadster as being "upright yet agile …perfect for short rides through the city, and long rolls through the park." This is pretty much spot on. The bike maneuvers, accelerates and progresses uphill nicely, especially considering its relaxed feel and length. But it is a city bike, so any comments on speed and climbing have to be taken in that context. Compared to other upright city bikes I've tried, it is on the faster end of the spectrum. The 3 speeds on the model I rode felt more than sufficient for the relatively benign hills of Cambridge I tackled. 

Simcoe Roadster
Getting back to the bicycle itself, the Simcoe Roadster is a fairly straightforward English 3-speed inspired city bike. Relaxed angles, upright position, hub gearing, fenders, chaincase, rear rack, kickstand. Front and rear caliper brakes. The Roadster bikes are available in 20" and 22" frame sizes, both with 700C wheels and 35mm Delta Cruiser tires. The weight is not stated, but I would estimate it to be between 30 and 35lb.

Simcoe Roadster
The Taiwan-made frames (described as combination hi-ten steel and cromoly) are welded, with a couple of faux-lug flourishes on the headtube. 

Simcoe Roadster
The cromoly fork features a nice twin plated crown with a 4-cornered star emblem. 

Simcoe Roadster
The headbadge is a sort of stylised leaf. I could be reading too much into this, but maybe an homage to its Canadian provenance? The word Simcoe itself - which at first I thought might be a combination of the founders' initials followed by "Co" as in "company," is in fact the name of a town in Ontario. 

Simcoe Roadster
The Roadster's chaincase is one-sided and open at the rear. While not fully enclosed, it allows for easier wheel removal and still keeps most of the chain covered. The rear rack is extra long,

Simcoe Roadster
with built-in bungee cord attachment points.

Simcoe Roadster
Eyelets at the fork dropouts allow for an optional front rack as well. 

Simcoe Roadster
A Brooks B68 saddle comes standard with this bike. The cost for the 3-speed Signature Roadster model as shown is $899. At that price it comes fully equipped for utility cycling, with the notable exception of lighting. 

Simcoe Roadster
As far as the Simcoe Roadster's looks, I am neutral. Abstracting my dislike of this almost neon shade of kelly green (it's also available in blue and slate gray), the bike comes across to me as rather ordinary, perhaps even made a little awkward by the extra-long rear rack. Were I to see it in a line-up next to a Linus, Papillionnaire, and the like, I don't think it would stand out as a "nicer" bike, despite the stock Brooks saddle. Yet it is priced a step above these. To me, the price difference would be worth it for the feel and ride quality of the Simcoe. But I wonder whether the lack of aesthetic differentiation might be an issue for potential customers. 

Simcoe Roadster
If you are considering Simcoe's Step-Through model, please note that I did not ride that version of the bike. Judging by the pictures, the step-throughs are constructed differently from the diamond frames. I am curious to try one and perhaps some day I will, but for now my feedback applies only to the Roadster. 

For a company brand new to bicycle manufacturing, the Simcoe Roadster is an impressive start. As distributors, the guys behind it have had a great deal of experience with both European city bikes and North American customers, and it shows. And it probably didn't hurt that one of the designers learned frame building from Mike Flanigan. If you're in the market for a sub-$1,000 city bike and are chasing that intangible "vintage bike feel" in a modern machine, the Simcoe Signature Roadster is worth a look - but more so, a test ride. 

Sunday, April 20, 2014

To Roll Softly and Carry a Big Camera

Photographing by the Windmills
Easter weekend here is stretched into a nearly weeklong holiday of endless sunshine and gleeful business closures. It is quiet. Not in a hushed churchy way. But more in the lazy, sunbaked way of a backwater beach town in the waning days of August. The morning is so bright it could be mid-day. The sun does not set till nearly 9:00 in the evening. Friday gives way to Saturday, then Sunday, with a viscous seamlessness. This weather and this silence are disorienting, making me feel drowsy at random times of the day.

At an hour that could be early morning or could, just as easily, be high noon, I get on my bike and go. I have a route to follow, designed weeks prior in the unlikely event of just such a long lazy day of calm weather. And now I'm glad of it, because my brain is mush from the unexpected solar caresses. And my legs are mush from the too-fast ride done with a friend the day before. For the first time this year I have exposed my ankles and I feel giddy.

Backroads Toward Dungevin
Along the main road processions of caravans and trailers flow unhurriedly. Some head toward the seaside caravan park. Others toward the Gliding Club. Their parade is peppered with the occasional car, stuffed with children being driven to football games and egg hunts.

Cycling alongside them gingerly, I am accompanied by honks followed by enthusiastic hand waves from people I know (how did I manage to know so many people here?!), as the sun beats down on us all. And then I turn off the main road, and all signs of life disappear.

Rapeseed Starting to Bloom
On the narrow mountain lanes there are no church bells and no beach goers. No caravans and no carpools. There are no village shops, flaunting traditional Easter closures to capitalise on ice-cream sales. There is no weekday and no weekend. There is no sound, aside from the occasional hum of a distant tractor. There is only an eerie stillness, more noticeable now in the absence of wind.

The rapeseed fields, having blossomed all at once in the week prior, look now like a spillover of sun from the sky. The earth underneath them is scorched and cracked, showing no signs of the water that flooded it only weeks earlier.

Cricket Game in Progress
Half way up a hill I pass a cricket field, the first sign of activity for miles. As men in white move about a whim bush-framed playing field, Binevenagh Mountain looms in background with an almost ludicrous picturesqueness. I do not know the game, but from the vantage point of my bike I can see it involves at least 2 bat-like objects in use at once. I remind myself to look this up.

Just then a ball flies out of the field and lands on the road beside my wheel, and so I stop and pick it up. The man who hops over the fence to retrieve it pauses to thank me, then quizzes me about my comings and goings in the uniquely local manner that feels simultaneously like friendliness and meticulous intelligence-gathering. In the end he squeezes my shoulder and gives me his good wishes, warning me to be careful over the next, sharply winding, downhill stretch of road. I photograph the cricket game and get ready to take off. "Ride softly and carry a big camera, eh?" I hear a laughing voice behind me as I pedal away.

Backroads Toward Dungevin
Along roads like these you can ride with no end and no beginning, because they seem to have none. You can ride tired, drowsy, wobbly legged, half asleep. You can ride all day and not feel the bike or yourself as distinct from what is around you. The road rolls and you can roll along with it. You can roll fast. Or, you can roll softly and carry a big camera. And as you snap that photo you will feel that the still, sundrenched landscape will be here, rolling, with or without you in it.

Friday, April 18, 2014

The Cycling Swell

“Why is it I feel so disgusting after cycling? And just look at these, how swollen they are!”

Putting down her emptied water bottle, the woman sticks out her wrists to demonstrate. The flesh is puffy above her gloves, folding over muffin-top style. Mine look similar, as do my ankles over the edges of my socks. For a few minutes the group of us sits there, comparing unattractively swollen body parts.

There is an expectation that cycling will make us sleek and lean, instantaneously. But, in particular when riding long distances, many are alarmed to find themselves bloated and swollen instead. The first time it happened to me in a noticeable way, I went on the internet and found a dazzling array of explanations. It happens from not drinking enough water. It happens from drinking too much water. It happens from overconsumption of calories from energy drinks and snacks. It happens from consuming too few calories. It happens if you eat too many carbs or not enough carbs. It may or may nor happen more if you are a woman. It is due to water retention and will lead to temporary weight gain, followed by weight loss. It is due to cortisol production and will lead to real weight gain, accompanied by other problems. "There is no cause for concern," said the highly qualified doctor of Cyclist A on Forum X when consulted about the symptoms. "There is cause for concern, and you must cut down on cycling," said the equally qualified doctor of Cyclist B on Forum Y. Well then, there's that explained!

Monitoring myself over the past few years on the bike, I see two types of processes at work. One is the temporary bloating I get in the course of a single ride. This tends to happen on rides longer than, say, 50 miles. And it seems absolutely unrelated to the amount of water or calories I consume. Either way, I will get a little puffy, a little bloated - noticeable mainly in the face, ankles and wrists. And, a few hours after the ride is over, it will all go away. The swelling will diminish, then disappear; my skin's tautness will return.

The other is a longer-term process that seems to happen when I do a lot of cycling all at once following a period of taking it easy. After a couple of weeks of doing the miles in earnest the first thing I notice is that my legs get big - so big that I have trouble getting my jeans on. The first year this happened I mistook it for very rapid muscle development. But now I know it is a temporary effect - more like a swelling from the shock of those muscle groups being overworked. In the first instance, my legs bulge out. But if I keep cycling at the same frequency and intensity, their size will eventually diminish. Gradually the swelling will subside and give way to actual muscle tone - hard, sleek and well defined, rather than puffy or bulging. And my jeans will fit again. Last summer this happened over a 2 months period.

Very possibly there is more than one single cause behind the cycling swell. But in any case, it is apparently not unusual. This spring I've just entered the "can't get my jeans on stage" and look forward to getting it over with!

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

The Handbadge

1950s Rudge Sports Roadster
Until recently I had not really considered the meaning of the Rudge headbadge. It was only a couple of days ago when, having spotted a lovely sports roadster with a full-colour version of the emblem, that it hit me. Is this the Red Hand of Ulster?

By now I have grown used to seeing renderings of the up-turned hand on flags and logos - the mystical symbol of Northern Ireland, appropriated, interestingly and confusingly enough, by both Loyalist and Republican groups, as well as by various non-sectarian organisations, clubs and the like. And now here it was on this bicycle.

1950s Rudge Sports Roadster
I scanned my memory for what I recalled of Rudge history, but none of it had to do with Ulster. So I looked into it once again. Founded in Coventry, England by engineer Daniel Rudge, the company later merged with Birmingham-based Whitworth Cycle Co. to become Rudge-Whitworth Cycles (and later motorcycle manufacturer). Nothing geographically close to Northern Ireland here. Neither did the old catalogues seem to offer any explanation. The one thing I did find acknowledging the link was the Rudge Ulster motorbike. That, however, was named after the 1928 Ulster Grand Prix race, won on a Rudge machine - an event which the headbadge precedes.

1950s Rudge Sports Roadster
The Rudge sports roadster distracted me from the hand question with its many nifty features, such as this original Sturmey Archer Dyno Luxe battery pack, mounted on the seat tube.

1950s Rudge Sports Roadster
Wired to the battery pack are the headlight and tail light, also Sturmey Archer branded. During this time period, it seems that manufacturers used dyno hubs, bottle generators and these dry battery packs simultaneously. I've often wondered what determined which method they chose.

1950s Rudge Sports Roadster
Like a missing key to a vintage wheel lock, the definitive answer to the question of the Hand's origin may never be found. The most likely explanation seems to be that the Rudge family (edited to add: actually, the Whitworth family, as it seems the logo came from their side of the Rudge-Whitworth merger) hailed originally from Northern Ireland and used the Red Hand symbol to commemorate this. However I also love Jim Langley's thinking that the symbol meant "hand made." If only we could "talk to the hand" and ask! 

Whatever the origin of the Rudge emblem - rendered in several versions on their headbadges and chainrings - it is a striking symbol, in particular when the bikes are spotted in Northern Ireland. And if anyone is in the market for a vintage Rudge roadster, this one can be had at Gerald Deehan's Vintage and Antique Swap in Limavady. 

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

What Is the Right Bike for You?

Bellarena Airfield by Brompton
Of all the bike-related discussions I have with readers, with members of the bicycle industry, with other bloggers and with cycling friends, the most common one - the most recurring and inexhaustible - centers on that all-important question: "What is the right bike for me?" What is the perfect bike, the ideal bike? Does such a thing even exist?

Funny enough, over the years this question has gotten more, not less complicated. From city bikes to racing bikes to everything in between, we are plain spoiled for choice in 2014 compared to the way things stood in 2009. There are more off-the-shelf options now than ever in every category and sub-category of bicycles for sport and transport. The custom framebuilding industry has mushroomed. And we are showered with philosophies and slogans - some competing and overlapping - with respect to how to approach cycling in the first place. There are lots of products out there, lots of opinions and information. But how to parse through it all and know what bike is right for you?

After 5 years of running this blog, I still don't know very much about bicycles. But I do have an answer (not THE answer, heavens forbid) to this question that I can offer to those who ask it. It is not an especially profound or epiphonic answer. It is an answer that, quite, frankly, is disappointing in its simplicity. It is an answer so obvious that it is consistently overlooked. Chances are you will find it a bit of a letdown. But here goes anyway:

The right bike for you is the bike you will ride. 

That's it. That is all there is to it. 

The right bike might fit all the criteria put forth, with impeccable logic, by the most revered cycling journal, book, blog, or reviewer - right down to geometry, tire size and accessories. Or it might fit none of them. It might be completely wrong for your use case scenario. It might be ill fitting and improperly accessorised. It might be too fancy for what you use it for, or not fancy enough. It might have features you'll never need, or lack features you do need. Still, if you find yourself riding it all the time, reaching for it when you head out the door, it is the right bike for you. 

The right bike might be the very epitome of your idea of beautiful. The smuttiest of #bikep0rn. The sort of bike you have always pictured yourself upon, gliding down the street as passers-by swoon with admiration and envy. Or it might be nothing of the sort. Even if the bike is lackluster in appearance and totally at odds with the way you see yourself, if you ride it all the time it is the right bike for you. 

The right bike is the bike you ride. 

This does not imply you ought to force yourself to make do with a machine you dislike. Rather, it suggests you keep an open mind about what it really means to like a bicycle in the first place. The litmus test is in the riding.

Is your "dream bike" - the bike that's supposedly perfect in every way - languishing in the hallway while a different one gets ridden? The one that's being ridden is the right bike for you. 

The right bike is the one you will end up riding the heck out of - regardless of whether you, your friends, the staff at your local bike shop, reviewers in your favourite publication, or anonymous commentators on internet forums, agree it is right for you. In short, all I'm saying is...


Thank you, as always, for reading Lovely Bicycle - in particular over this past, rather turbulent year! 

Sunday, April 13, 2014

Why Beer?

Over the years cycling has had a transformative effect on my diet. For instance, I acquired a taste for plain water after a lifetime of disliking it. And I started to eat meat again after 10 years of vegetarianism. Just as startling, but hopefully less controversial than the latter, has been my newfound enthusiasm for beer.

Now, I know some feel that that bikes and beer go hand in hand, so this is not exactly a novel concept. But until a couple of years ago I just didn't get it. Why beer? What's so great about it and what does it have to do with cycling? Because frankly, until 2012 I had been unable to touch the stuff. Not only did it taste horrible to me, but drinking even small quantities would reliably leave me with a heavy, unpleasant, bread-coma type of feeling that I wouldn't be able to shake for hours. Beer? Beh. I'd rather have a glass of wine or a cocktail.

So I thought, until one innocent summer evening when I took a sip of Guinness at dinner after several weeks in a row of strenuous cycling. Normally I hated this particular beer even more than the others. But, to my amazement, it now tasted out of this world delicious. I finished an entire pint and felt fine. No bread-coma, no uncomfortable fullness. And thus my transformation into a beer drinker began. I never felt compelled to get into fancy or craft beers. Whatever was on offer would taste pretty good after a long day on the bike - though I would also get cravings for Guinness specifically. There is just something about it that tastes …I don't know, fortifying? As long as I cycle, I love the stuff. And, with equal reliability, if I'm not putting in the miles I soon find it difficult to drink again.

So what is it about beer and bikes? Is it about the ritual of it? Is it about carbohydrates, metabolism and all that?

"It's to do with strength training," a local cyclist explained, and showed me this informative mural. Those climbing muscles are not going to maintain themselves.

Contemplating this bit of expert wisdom, I partook of the dense white foam, which in turn gave way to the dark, strength-replenishing liquid. And as I did this I closed my eyes, losing myself in a deep visceral appreciation. My legs are aching and my mouth is craving beer again. Spring is in full swing.

Friday, April 11, 2014

Toward a Topographical Fatalism

Seacoast Road Cyclist

Without a doubt living in Northern Ireland has changed me as a cyclist. I have noticed. My friends have noticed. But the exact nature of this change is tricky to articulate. It isn't merely a matter of having gotten "better," as defined by improvement in speed and technique. Sure there is that too. After all, how can one not improve with pavement the texture of hard-packed gravel? With a mountain straight out the front door? With winds attacking from every direction? With former racers for cycling buddies? 

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Adventures in Cyclo Shepherding

Lamb Herding
The first time it happened unintentionally. I was cycling down a neighbouring farm lane, when I noticed frantic activity in front of one of the cottages. The farmers - a man and woman in their 60s - crouched facing each other with their arms spread wide open, as if about to perform some strange circle dance. As I got closer I saw they were attempting to surround a tiny, highly vocal bundle of white fleece. The creature, sensing that capture was near, leapt and darted about wildly until it evaded the two pairs of outstretched hands and galloped away. Never having witnessed such a scene before, I stood frozen over my bike for a moment, mouth agape, watching the newly born lamb - hardly larger than a cat - disappear down the lane in the direction of the shore. For a moment the others stood silent as well. And then all at once we knew what needed to happen. By the time the farmer said "Would you go and chase it down on your wee bike?" my foot was already pushing the pedal.

Lamb Herding
So what exactly is involved in herding a lamb by bike? Luckily I had watched sheep dogs do this a few times, so I wasn't entirely clueless. First, I cycled fast, to catch up with the lamb. The rush from the escape having subsided, it now hopped along anxiously, its tail trembling, not sure what to do next. I slowed down and cycled directly behind it, coasting to let it hear the ticking of my hub and sense my looming presence. And then, ever so slowly and carefully, I maneuvered my bike as if I meant to cycle around it and into its path. 

Lamb Herding
After some initial moments of indecision, the lamb did what I had seen others do when confronted with this maneuver - it made a U-turn and ran back in the direction of the farm. Slowly I followed close in its tracks to make sure it kept this course. It was growing dusky by this time and my bicycle's headlight was glowing bright, illuminating our path. When the farmers spotted us approaching they were ready and grabbed the twitching creature after I steered it into a narrow, fenced in part of the yard where the newborn lambs and their mothers were kept in a pen. The poor thing had gotten out by accident, but now it wanted its mother - wagging its tail happily and going straight for the milk upon seeing her. All was well.

Lamb Herding
I would not say that herding lambs has become a habit. But I've helped bring back a few of these wayward darlings now, including this fleecy fellow just earlier this morning. My little Brompton is hilariously perfect for the task - compact and easy to accelerate and maneuver, it can sprint after the lamb, then slow down and hover around it until it turns in the desired direction. The lambs seem to accept this two-wheeled shepherd and behave predictably.

Lamb Herding
Despite their erratic galloping ways, once caught the lambs are actually quite docile and cooperative. Cooperative enough to sit in my bike basket, I've wondered? But, considering they aren't house-trained, I've never gone as far as to try it.

Monday, April 7, 2014

Cycling Bib Shorts for Women: An Overview of Styles

Lately I've been getting lots of questions about women's bib shorts. Are they more comfortable than regular cycling shorts and worth switching to? Having made the switch to bibs a year ago, for me the answer was Yes. As soon as I tried bib shorts it was love at first ride. Instead of an elastic cutting across my belly fat and chafing my skin on long rides, bibs offered a wonderful feel of support and compression. True, the under-the-jersey straps make peeing a more elaborate process for women. But that is a price I am willing to pay for the extra comfort I get out of them on the bike.

So the next question is, which style to chose? There seem to be so many. And the funny thing about that complaint, is that until recently there were almost none. Cycling shorts and tights would be offered in a bib style for men, but not women. Then a couple of years ago this suddenly started to change, with manufacturers scrambling to come up with women-specific designs and each seeming to arrive at something different. But why the need of a women's specific style in the first place? Let's start by examining the traditional design.

The Classic Bib Design

Unlike elastic-waisted shorts, cycling bibs stay up via suspender-style straps. These straps can be either solid of mesh, narrow or wide, and they can vary in their degree of stretch. The classic cycling bib design (ie most men's bibs) routes the straps straight up and over the shoulders, as shown on the left. For women this can be problematic, as it means the straps are placed directly over the breasts. Depending on the size, shape and orientation of the breasts and nipples, this can result in uncomfortable digging into sensitive tissue - in particular with straps that are on the narrower side and made of a dense, not super-stretchy fabric. Because there is so much variety in this part of a woman's anatomy, it is difficult to come up with bib dimensions that will solve this problem - which is why most manufacturers avoided the issue altogether and stuck with ordinary shorts for their women's lines. Still there there are manufacturers who produce women's bibs in the classic design - for instance, Road Holland. I own a pair of these and find them comfortable enough. The straps are very wide and made of a lightweight, stretchy mesh; worn over a sports bra I can hardly feel them. But again, reactions to this style will differ depending on the specifics of the design and on your anatomy. In particular, women with large breasts and large, sensitive nipples may find the routing of the straps uncomfortable.

The Open Bib Design

Some manufacturers have tried to address the problem of bib strap routing by making them "open" - that is, routed around rather than directly over the breasts. Here the straps sit at the far sides of the torso, close to the armpits, resembling the back of an athletic swimsuit. Personally, I find this style the most comfortable out of the ones available. The bib straps on my Giordana shorts keep clear of my boobs and stay in place remarkably well; I cannot feel them at all when on the bike. However, I know that some women dislike having the straps so close to the armpits and experience chafing at the inner arms. This does not happen to me at all. But whether this style works for you will depend on your anatomy and skin sensitivity.

The Y-Front Bib Design

An alternative style of routing bib straps to avoid the breasts is the Y-front. Here the straps meet at the collarbone and connect to form a single panel that sits between the breasts, then gradually expands at the abdomen to merge with the lower part of the shorts. Assos, with their coy models, is particularly well known for this style and I have a pair of their shorts for review. The Y-strap bib routing is clever and feels comfortable enough to me - with the caveat that the size has to be spot on, or else the strap will either choke or feel too loose. Some versions of this style also feature a clasp - presumably for easier removal of the straps in order to pee. Personally I do not like having a clasp at my sternum and would prefer the version without it. All in all, the y-front style is a little too fussy for me - but preferences will differ.  Those with unusually long or short torsos might have trouble finding a good fit.

The Body Suit Design

Yet another way to avoid dealing with boobage issues is with a full coverage style of bibs. Similar to a bathing costume circa the 1920s, this design is basically a combination of shorts and a tank-top. Typically a zipper will run down the middle. Rapha makes their women's bibs in this style and I own a pair of the 3/4 knicker version. In some ways I like this design, in particular I enjoy the extra compression that comes with the full coverage. However there are times when I just don't want all that extra fabric around my torso - when I'd like to wear bibs and not a full body suit. Aside from this, women with large breasts and narrow hips or vise-versa might find it tricky to get a good fit, as the top and bottom proportions are either/or.

There are other women's cycling bib designs out there, but I find that most are variations on these four. Every season it seems there are more and more manufacturers offering various versions of women's cycling bibs. If you are looking to compare styles and prices, Team Estrogen looks like a good starting point. If you have your own favourite style, brand or model, please share what works for you - as well as what doesn't. Women in all shapes and sizes can and do wear bib shorts. But they are not for everyone; in the end it is all about what suits you personally.

Friday, April 4, 2014

Non-Holiday Romance… Fumblings with the Budnitz No.5

Budnitz Model No. 5
To a monolingual English speaker’s ear the name Budnitz might not evoke any particular associations, other than a vague sense of Eastern European linguistic origin. But to an ear attuned to tongues from said region, the association is an interesting one. The name is formed around a word that might be translated as “weekday,” or “non-holiday.” In Russian, for instance, a budni den is an ordinary day, a workday. And while budnitz is not an actual word in any language I know of, if it was it would mean something like “weekdayer.”

What to expect from a bicycle thus named? While so many manufacturers market cycling around a fantasy of carefree joyrides, here is one that – whether deliberately or not (after all, Budnitz is simply the owner’s surname; he might not be aware of its roots) – insists upon the reality of ordinary, everyday life. This filled me with great expectations. Expectations of supreme utility, comfort and durability. But also of a certain special something that would make transportation cycling feel so wonderful, so effortless, so pleasurable and fun, that the weekday would become the new weekend. Would I see anything of the sort in the bike I had been invited to test ride?

Budnitz Model No. 5
When I opened the door that wintry March morning, what I saw was almost too much to take in: a titanium swoopy mixte with fat tires, belt drive, disc brakes and wooden fenders. It was their new model, the No.5 – described as “the ideal step-through framed bicycle [defined by] elegance, grace, and speed.” Well, they got the elegance part, I thought, picking up my jaw from the ice-encrusted pavement.

The beauty of the Budnitz No.5 was doubly surprising, considering that (1) I don’t like the looks of any of their other models, and (2) it is tremendously challenging to build a mixte out of titanium tubing and with modern components that looks cohesive and elegant. But I have to hand it to Budnitz - they did it. The bicycle in front of me looked stunningly gorgeous to my eye. It was also full of interesting features.

Budnitz Model No. 5
Not only was the curvy, twin lateral stay frame titanium,

Budnitz Model No. 5
but so was the segmented fork. Most titanium frame builders do not offer matching Ti forks (you get a choice of carbon or steel instead), feeling it is cost-prohibitive to make them in such a way that they are neither too flexy nor overbuilt. So the Budnitz titanium fork is quite a rare beast.

Budnitz Model No. 5
Also titanium are the stem, handlebars, headset, and seat post. All of these are proprietary, marked with the Budnitz name.

Budnitz Model No. 5
Finally, the elaborate Tubus rear rack is titanium as well -

Budnitz Model No. 5
affixed slightly off center to accommodate the disc brake on the rear wheel.

Budnitz Model No. 5
The other notable feature is the Gates belt drive, which came with a DaVinci crankset and an Alfine 11-speed hub. 

Budnitz Model No. 5
Paul brake levers activate the front and rear mechanical disc brakes.

Budnitz Model No. 5
The cable routing for the brakes and shifters is quite elegant, routed along the left fork blade for the front brake, then internally for the rear brake and shifter.

Budnitz Model No. 5
The Budnitz No.5 is a commuter bicycle based on a 29er mountain bike design. The (700C equivalent) black-rimmed wheels sport fat Schwalbe Big Apple tires in cream.

Budnitz Model No. 5
The lacquered wooden fenders are a nice match for the caramel Brooks saddle and leather grips. The warm brown of these accessories complements nicely the unpainted matte titanium frame, silver and black components, and cream tires. Overall the bicycle looks impressively clean and neatly put together, despite the heady mix of components and accessories. 

When a certain other blogger reviewed a Budnitz bike a couple of years back, I recall he complained of shoddy assembly. In fairness to Budnitz, I should note there was none of that with my test bike. Over the 2 week period this mixte was in my possession, everything functioned smoothly and silently - they did an excellent job. 

Budnitz Model No. 5
So what we have here is an all-titanium transportation bike with a low standover, fat tires, strong brakes, low-maintenance (allegedly) belt drive, a gazillion of high-end modern features - and it's beautiful to boot. What's not to love? 

Well, for one thing, there is the weight. For a bike with such an impressive mix of titanium and other nice components, I found it to be remarkably heavy (over 30lb, I would estimate). While this figure is very reasonable for a store-bought city bike, considering the cost of the Budnitz (over $5,000 for the build as shown) and the care taken to source lightweight parts, I would expect it to be much, much lighter. For comparison, my personal steel mixte, outfitted with 650Bx42mm tires and mostly midrange aluminium components, weighs noticeably less - and that's including dynamo hub, lights, big front rack, and kickstand - all of which the Budnitz lacks.

Neither did I find the No.5 especially fast compared to ordinary upright city bikes. It is a comfortable bicycle for certain, the combination of titanium and those fat Big Apples ensuring a wonderfully cushy ride quality. But I would not say speed or maneuverability are its strong points. The combination of the big wheels and fat tires felt clumsy - a bit like riding a monster truck. And when pedaling, I just couldn't seem to get into that groove where I'd feel a direct translation of my pedaling efforts into the bicycle's forward movement. Cycling up hills was a particularly tedious ordeal, no matter what gear I switched to on the 11-speed hub. Again, I do not mean to suggest that the Budnitz was unusually slow for a city bike. But it didn't have the kind of light, sporty feel that I would expect from its price tag, description and materials used. 

Budnitz No.5 vs My Swoopy Mixte
Finally - and, granted, this part is the most subjective - I could not get comfortable with the fit of the Budnitz. Despite the mixte frame design and mountain bike inspired geometry, it fits almost like a Dutch bike. The Medium sized frame, described as appropriate for my height, felt simultaneously too big and too small - the headtube extended so high, it was impossible to get the handlebars as low as I wanted them, yet the virtual top tube on the shorter side of what I would normally ride. Going down a size would be much too cramped, and the larger size would be even more upright. The high bottom bracket is also something I don't care for on a transportation bike. You can see how much higher off the ground I need to be on the Budnitz compared to my own bicycle to achieve decent leg extension. And then, there is the toe overlap - which is considerable and impossible to ignore; I would hit the tire with my toe every time I'd try to make a U-turn. To each their own, but the fit and geometry of this bicycle did not suit me. I should note, however, that switching to 650B or 26" wheels could solve most of these issues - has Budnitz considered it, I wonder? 

Budnitz No.5 Test Rides
Given how much I liked the look of the Budnitz, and the idea of a fully equipped titanium transportation bike in general, I felt badly about my less than enthusiastic response after test riding it. So I asked a few friends to take it out for a spin as well. A total of 4 others rode it, including Emily and Pamela pictured above. The other test riders were less critical of the speed than I was (although their test rides were much briefer than mine). But all of them commented on how surprisingly heavy the Budnitz was, as well as on the dramatic toe overlap.

Budnitz No.5 Test Rides
Pamela also noticed that her foot would hit the bottle cage (mounted on the seat tube) when she'd step through the frame - something that I had experienced as well, but forgot to mention. In fairness, with step through and mixte bicycles the decision of where to mount the bottle cage is tricky. Put it on the downtube, and it can be too low for comfort. On the seat tube and you can kick it when stepping over. 

Budnitz No.5 Test Rides
And one thing Emily pointed out, was that the Budnitz was more difficult to track-stand - in particular no hands - than other bicycles she's ridden. Buyer, beware!

Budnitz Model No. 5
Jokes aside, I've tried to share my impressions of this bicycle fairly. When people discuss Budnitz Bikes, the issue of price point tends to be hotly debated. In theory I do not have a problem with a $5,000 titanium transportation bicycle. Manufacturing costs for small-batch projects are high and titanium as a material is expensive; this price tag - or higher - is pretty much to be expected. To manufacture their bikes, Budnitz (a Vermont-based company) works with a Taiwanese framebuilder who specialises in titanium, and is particularly equipped to bend Ti tubes according to their specs. The complete bicycles are then assembled in Vermont and sold to customers directly. I like the idea of a well thought through, made-to-last titanium bike for transportation, and I've reviewed a couple of others in the past (see here for instance). The Budnitz No. 5 is a beautiful bicycle, but, in its current iteration, not my cup of tea.