Knowing What You Like: Theory and Practice

If you are reading this, chances are you do a great deal of bicycle-related research - from reading blogs, product reviews, articles and DIY tips, to examining endless pictures of other people's bikes. In the absence of direct experience, this sort of research shapes our preferences and informs our decisions about what bicycles to get, as well as how to outfit them. Knowing a lot about something through research can sure make us feel as if we are "experts" at it. But the truth is, that until we try something ourselves, we have no idea what it's actually like. Theory is one thing; practice is another. I will confess some bicycle-related ideas that I loved after reading about them, but did not love so much after actually implementing them.

In theory, I love the look of shellacked cork grips and shellacked cork bartape. In practice, I found that the feel of shellacked cork is too glassy and slippery for my liking. The more layers of shellac, the nicer the cork looks... and the worse it feels to my hands. I really wanted to like it, but it just does not work for me. I prefer un-shellacked cork, shellacked cloth tape, leather grips, and even plastic grips.

Inexpensive cloth tape with just a couple of thin layers of shellac. Not as fancy and shiny, but my hands prefer it.

The "Special" version of Brooks saddles. I love the look of Brooks "Special" saddles with their pretty copper rivets - so much so, that last summer I paid a bit extra for a Flyer Special for my vintage Motobecane mixte, instead of getting the Standard. I have since learned that the Special versions of the saddles are apparently made of a thicker leather. In theory this is a good thing, as the saddles are more durable. In practice, it has proven impossible for me to break in my Flyer Special! A year later, and it still hurts.

The B17 Standard on my Hillborne has less of a "wow" factor, but I don't care: It took me a week to break in this saddle!

Last year, Honjo fluted fenders seemed like such a beautiful choice for Marianne. But while they truly are picture-perfect, they did not stay that way for long once I began riding my bike. The long smooth fluted surfaces of these fenders showcase every micro-scratch, and after a few months mine began to look pretty beat up. By contrast, the Co-Habitant's hammered Honjos disguise scratches and dents, as they are essentially "pre-dented". Though I prefer the look of the fluted model, I regret having bought such expensive fenders only to have them look battered. You live, you learn.

And then of course there is the lovely front wicker basket - that ultimate symbol of civilised, romantic cycling. Alas, it was not meant to be: experience has shown that I prefer the front of my bike to be free of large wicker objects, no matter how beautiful.

Instead, these rear folding baskets have proven to be just the thing for me. Not as cute as a wicker basket in the font, but they suit me better.

In describing my experiences, I by no means suggest that you should stay away from any of the products that did not work for me. My point is simply that you never know whether you will like something until you actually use it - regardless of how stunning it looks in pictures, or even of how obvious its benefits seem in product reviews. There is no way around personal experience, and bicycles are no exception.


  1. I think Eustacia's wicker basket was kind of like ivy on a building: looks nice and romantic, but can possibly be damaging to the actual structure. One of my favorite architectural history professors was very fond of saying that ivy was only good as a cover for poorly designed facades and, if done properly, a building will always look better with a clean face! He could be sort of a grump about it, but I do think the Pashley's lovely lines are much more beautifully revealed with the front basket taken away.

    The news about the fenders, on the other hand, is a little bit more heartbreaking...

  2. I second what you say about shellacked cork grips. Not only are they slippery; they're brittle!

    Right now, I'm at a point in my cycling--and life--where some of the things that used to work for me don't anymore. I am going through some of the same process you've described, all over again.

    I generally don't like to carry things on my handlebars, as it affects the steering of the bike. Plus, I broke a couple of wicker baskets: I guess I was rough on them.

  3. Here's an example of something that's definitely better in theory than in practice:

  4. I agree totally. The best looking thing is not always the most comfortable one. It's good to have something that is pleasing in all ways :).

    Regarding your folding baskets: They didn't have them in bike shops here, so I thought about ordering them. On the other hand, a salesman told me that they weren't so happy with the ones they sold because they would rust soon (especially when used in the winter). So I'm curious of how it turns out for you. I hope they will maintain their form and beauty :).

  5. Oh yes, live and learn and do it all over again. I cycle through those changes every few years, as need dictates and am in the middle of another now. As for those special Brooks saddles, oh how I feel your pain. I have a team professional S and the S should stand for sadistic, because shortening the nose of that saddle made for less of a hammock effect and in spite of even doing the unrecommended neatsfoot oil treatment and huge mileage, that thing still will not give. I have another of them waiting in the wings and will no doubt sell it on eBay instead of using it. I do have a lovely green Persons saddle with copper rivets that has become very comfortable after a short time and I am very happy when I ride that. Feels good, looks good and quite a bargain.

  6. The bugs (that would have become shellac and painted on the bars of your fans) thank you for your honest appraisal of this curious practice.

  7. It occurred to me that these things only become problems when the bike
    gets ridden. The obvious thing is to have an extra bike for decorative purposes. I guess that doesn't solve the "where to put them"

  8. I found by mistake that Minwax Natural works well on cork grips. Several coats will penetrate without giving the excessively shiny effect.

    For the saddle, take it off the bike & soak it in oil overnight. Then beat it with a rolling pin. Seriously! You need to make the leather softer than your sit bones.

  9. Since we can't afford to store decorative bikes, we've elected to make all of our bikes decorated. :)

  10. good points about theory and practice-- and this was an especially poignant observation i made when i made a career switch from academia to the private sector.

    just to comment on your first example of shellacked cork grip and it being glassy and slippery: i felt the same way! but, that's where creative thinking can play a role :-)

    to be completely honest, i love this solution so much more than shellacked cotton, both in terms of feel and appearance! i am thinking of doing it to all my bikes...

  11. Anna, I've been using my (purchased used) folding baskets for two years or so and there's not even a hint of rust.

  12. So informative and interesting! I've been torn because my Corsaro "should" have the B17 Special when I think I prefer the regular... this is all the permission I need to abandon that silliness.

    Also on my list of things I've accumulated and later found ill-fitting are probably two dozen cycling blogs... After reading them faithfully for a while, I now find myself skipping past them on my bookmarks and thinking, "seen it, read it a million times."

    Yours, however, continually finds new ways to be relative to my cycling! I really appreciate how genuinely your posts address something more than "look at my bikes." This sets you apart from most of the rest of us bike bloggers and makes finding a new post a day-brightener.

    Thank you!

  13. If you are the type to obsess over details (heh) shellacking can be done better or worse. Of course, as you may have guessed, doing it better takes a bit more time.

    A can of shellac is shellac flakes and alcohol. A can of shellac gets old and isn't as nice of a finish.

    What to do. Buy fresh shellac flakes, mix it just as you are going to use it. For bar-tape, you want a higher ratio of alcohol to flakes then the cans offer. Put a light coat on, dry. Another light coat, dry. A third light coat on dry.

    Now after these three light coats have dried thoroughly take it out for a ride. It would be all shiny and brittle and hard. It'll be more of a stain and grim-protector. Real nice look, real nice function.

    But wait, you are not done yet. Since you have only applied three thin coats. Every six months or so you'll have wear. So, wipe it all clean and apply another thin coat for maintenance. By now that can, with the hammered shut lid, is certainly no longer fresh.

    Get the fresh flakes, shellac, mix up a small batch. Apply slowly and thinly. Reapply a fresh maintenance coat as need.

    It isn't supposed to be a thick epoxy coat, it is a thin protector. More like wax on an automobile finish. Give it another try.

  14. I've experienced wearing cycling gloves on shellacked cotton bartapes and i'm quite satisfied as they are very soft, although it's an additional investment ...

    To make it clear, this is not a spam, i have no interest in this company.

  15. Refreshing post! To be honest, I stopped reading your blog for a while because it seems that many of the discussions were about theory or form over function, and I'm a pretty practical mom. This is your blog, and you have the right to write about whatever you desire, but it's been nice to read about your rain jacket and your real-life reviews about some items that were chosen for beauty. Thanks for reminding me that things can be beautiful and functional, too.

  16. I have one of my own to add.

    I thought the upright position afforded by raising the bars on Dutch or English Roadster style bikes was more comfortable. That is, until the DL-1 opened my eyes on what an upright bike with low bars feels like. Now I have my Pashley configured the same way and it feels like my hub got geared down! My Pashley is a real screamer now. Three used to be my main gear, now it's my moderate climbing gear.

    It took me a YEAR to get the Pashley where I want it.

    The road bike also took as long.

    It just takes a really long time to get a bike set up exactly how it needs to be, unless you have years of cycling experience, I suppose.

  17. personally, I've never been particularly keen on the hammered Honjo aesthetic. It just looks a little too much like crinkled aluminum foil to me. While I agree that the fluted and smooth fenders don't stay pristine for long, I think it just allows the fenders to age gracefully; building a patina of experiences and stories that could be retold by the owner.

    I have an ANT club racer that I've used year round for the last three years. It has a beautiful paint job that has seen its fair share of scratches and chips. I sometimes wish that I had gotten it powdercoated instead and sacrificed the shiny paint details for a more durable but plainly uniform finish. Then, a friend observed that, "It looks like it's been through a lot with you. It looks like an old friend." I haven't really minded the scratches since.

  18. Any time I get a new bike, it takes me at least a season to get it set up the way I want it. I think it's because some things I was used to on one bike don't work on the next bike. Ironically enough, this has happened to me when I went from mass-produced to custom frames: I would find that, for example, I was using a particular handlebar on one bike to make up for deficiencies in its fit. Of course, I wouldn't need that once I got a frame that fit better.

    Now, because of my life changes, I've had to make some other changes, mainly in my saddles.

  19. Re mixing your own shellac - I don't do that, as the dust from the flakes is highly toxic when inhaled; I do not recommend this despite it being a more authentic method.

    cris - I am not crazy about the look of hammered Honjos either; not sure which I will get for my custom mixte build.

    Justine - "rational dress" impractical?? : ) But you know, I find these early adverts of buckling skirts and cycling pantaloons informative, as it shows that for as long as bicycles have been around women have found cycling in a skirt to be not optimal and preferred to cycle in something pants-like. This goes against the "cycle chic" discourse, which describes women as "historically" having cycled in skirts and always been fine with it. Mind you, I cycle in a skirt most of the time. But I think the "cycle chic" movement exaggerates how easy and prevalent doing so is.

  20. Well, another blogpost, another save. My new bike being set up from parts bin this week and your head's up on the B17 was definitely a "hail Mary" save. As we say out here, "Much obliged!"

  21. I agree with you about the Honjo fenders. My smooth, fluted fenders looked horrible after one winter. I scrubbed them with Simichrome polish which helped, but the scratches and discoloration is there to stay. Dottie's hammered fenders still look great.

  22. Mike and Jim Duncan - I think my experience with the Special saddles needs to be taken in context. I weight 125 lb, so possibly I am simply too light for these saddles to break them in properly. If a person is heavier, then the thicker leather would actually be an improvement, as it would make the saddle more durable.

    Mr. Dottie - Thanks for stopping by! And good to know it's not just me being too rough with my bike.

  23. Great post and very true. I just finished putting together my first custom build and a couple of the things that I was really excited about when I was picking out parts have not translated into everyday use. I also find that something that I love on one bike may be something that I feel the opposite about on another that I use differently. For example, I much prefer flat or slightly swept back bars for commuting and daily riding, but after converting a flat-bar commuter into a weekend-tourer found that the flat bar became horribly uncomfortable after about mile 40, even with ergo grips. A couple of days of hand numbness and a drop-bar conversion later, lesson learned.

  24. Velouria, I've never heard of the dust from shellac flakes being toxic. Where did you find this information ? Since I only use flakes and mix my own (pre-mixed shellac can go bad easily and won't thoroughly harden) I'm quite curious about your comment and what's out there to back it up.

    And to randalputnam - the bugs themselves aren't made into shellac. Its a secretion from the bugs. I doubt they mind very much.

    Love your blog by the way.

    John Price

  25. Today I discovered for myself that there is a solution for my dislike of clips. Yes, I am talking about clipless pedals for fast bikes. Never thought I would be going this route, but here I am.

    My Motobecane road bike now sports SPD pedals and I've got the shoes to prove it. :)

    All of my problems with clips seem solved. No more maybe your foot is out, maybe it isn't. No more maybe it's too loose or maybe it's too tight. No more wondering when I'll have to stop. You can just stop and unclip at the same time. Or stop, balance & wait, then decide to unclip. It's much easier than clips! I am not going to pretend that it's a simple trick or that platforms/touring pedals are somehow inferior, but I definitely enjoy my SPD pedals and not slipping off the pedals on potholes, quick descents and when aggressively leaned over. Overall, it's a plus for my fast-ish bike.

  26. Interesting the variation in perception...but that's what makes us analyze angels dancing on the heads of pins....

    I have both hammered and fluted honjos on 2 different bikes...i much prefer the fluted ones as they are more subtle; the hammered are almost roccoco; I had them on a Saluki as well, and in combination with the fancy paint / picked out lugs, etc, it was too much. The fluted ones are all dented and scratched up, but like an old leather saddle, the patina is pleasing to me.

    Also, re saddles, the selle anatomica WITHOUT the slot is a great alternative to a Brooks, and far more adjustable fore and aft; and they last quite awhile. I have 2 slotted, and 2 without slots, and the unslotted are (for me) just as comfortable, and far less costly than a Brooks (and I prefer how they look + they have copper rivets).

  27. I've had the Honjo fluted fenders for about 18 months, enough to get quite a bit of use. I've found that using fine steel wool on the scratches that Simichrome does not take out, then repolish that area with Simichrome again works well. The fenders shine better than new.


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