Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Its Coming...

UPDATE Sept 2nd
Tulip notes index card size here, just print on 8.5x14 " cut em up and staple together and it should be good. We will of course have a bunch of these at the start too. Just for those self starters among you.
Profile is here
Bit of a sting in the tail!.
Have you seen the weather forecast? Unbelievably good. Just look at it, its ridiculous.

WATER STOPS: We will be providing water and bananas at the Gazebo in Low 60k into the route. Note: the ride to the start is about 8k. Many will want to take 3 bottles to cover this distance. The Gazebo is checkpoint #1; everybody must sign in so all are accounted for. There is also a depanneur here.

Water stop #2 is at the spring in Wakefield. It is as 100k. If you don't know it, look for the covering on the right side of the road as you descend from the 105 into Wakefield. Cars will likely be parked there. Excellent food can be acquired from Pipolinka just before the turn south along the river.

The second checkpoint will be virtual. Teams will be required to take a group photo at the gate of the parkway (Gamelin), along with a photo of the time on a watch or computer. We're going with the honour system here.


We are almost there. The QuinTuple falls on Sunday, September 6th, nestled in the middle of the long weekend. If you have other long weekend plans and have to miss it, I apologize for the timing. There is a lot going on in September, and this was the only weekend that worked for us, the organizers. We hope to see a good turnout nevertheless, and from all indications thusfar, we will.

Ok, so its time to get all the details down. I will update this post with 'Update' in red as more details surface. Here we go:

What? QuinTuple Pave Classic (Tall Tree Team Time Trial)
Yes, its dubbed a team TT, but the spirit is really team randonnee. Readers familiar with this genre will likely suspect I have invented this term; they would be correct, I have. I like the short version, 'team rando;' I think it is a format that holds a lot of promise. We'll see. We've found that doing group rides on difficult terrain is challenging, because there tends to be a broad range of abilities in the mix. That's cool we want to pull all sorts of riders into the fold to enjoy the routes. However, inevitably, some find themselves waiting too much, others chasing too much. The team rando format allows riders to ride in groups of similar abiilties, working together at whatever pace is desired. Two teams can work together, more even. Or teams can try to drop each other. Whatever, the idea is to have a good time.
  • 5 riders per team, all riders must finish in order for time to count. Last rider's time is the team's time.
  • Tandems count as two riders.
  • Teams that can't manage 5 can ride with 4 as a last resort, but we encourage you to get up to 5.
  • We will match up riders to complete/form teams.
Distance: 145k (including 10k neutral rolling start from Lac Leamy).

Elevation Gain: 1700m plus

When: Sunday September 6, 08:00 Departure. 7:00-7:45 registration (license not required). All weather event, with the exception of a major storm. If it looks like wild weather, check here on Saturday night for a decision.

Where: Departing from Lac Leamy, Gatineau. We will be amassed at the building between the parking lot and beach. Route terminates near the beginning/end (Gamelin) of the Gatineau Parkway. We recommend either being dropped off, or preferably, riding to Lac Leamy for the start, since the end is not all that close, and the after-party BBQ will be at Tall Tree on Richmond Rd.

Why: Fun, however you define it. This is an opportunity to hammer or take on a no-drop ride (or something in between) with four wind buddies over hilly, sometimes rough, scenic terrain. Its also a chance to ride a route that might be altogether new to you at a pace determined by your small group, rather than big, lumbering one. Don't want to stop much? Only stop for water. Want to have breaks? Take em. There are no such event exists in these parts, so we're gettin'r done.

The Route: The first 10k will be neutralized. We will stop at the designated zero-your-odometer point, then proceed to turn #1, where the race will begin. The route afford stops at two stores before arriving to Wakefield (one in Low, the other in Masham). We will have volunteers posted at the gazebo behind the Low dep with water for riders. The 'end' will be at 'the sign' on the Gatineau Parkway, near Gamelin. Its the sign the A and B loops sprint for...and others. The route is designed to strike a balance between scenery, challenging terrain, and fun. We could have put together a much harder route, but that wouldn't be very inclusive. We will run harder routes for other events. This one will be plenty challenging for most. The cue-sheets will be up here shortly. We're using 'tulip' direction symbols, which are nice and clear. You'll have the option of printing and mounting up your own cue-sheet in advance. See the D2R2 post for a tip on how to mount the sheets. Here is the map:

link to map here
If you want the .gpx trace click the above link, and click on 'share' along the top of the map and select 'download .gpx'

Current road conditions: Approximately 45k of the route is dirt road. As of Sunday, August 23rd, most of this was in excellent shape. There were only two short sections of loose gravel. The paved sections are generally good; much would be considered 'heavy,' ie. coarse. There are a few monster potholes on the very first stretch, but after that the roads are great. There is what appears to be either bridge or bank reconstruction underway at the Montagne and Riviere intersection. Dismounting and walking across the bridge will be necessary, followed by a short hike up the torn up, muddy road. Road pedals like Speedplays will NOT like this, I promise. We recommend MOUNTAIN BIKE SHOES and PEDALS. We will recon the section Saturday night prior the ride, and advise before we roll out.

Teams: Similar objectives and abilities shared among team-mates is desirable. If you don't have enough buddies to form a team, but want to participate, get in touch and we'll form a list and go from there. One way or another everyone will ride who wants to. I already have a list on the go; let me know asap. If you find yourself without a team come Sunday morning, show up early and we'll try to work it out. You'll ride regardless, but obviously we want to maintain the integrity of the format as much as possible. I've been asked what sort of team Rodd and I will run in. We have no intention of putting together a Tall Tree power team and ride away from everyone (assuming that's even possible). Rather, we will base our team/s on the teams that enter. For example, if the EMD guys come with a strong team, we'll try to match it so we can get some fun competition going. If the teams are more mixed in ability, we'll do the same. Don't be afraid of being perceived in an ill light if you come with a stacked team. Just come with whoever want to ride. Update: Each team will require one digital camera for route confirmation and to participate in the photo contest aspect of the event.

Legal: Riders will be required to sign a waiver before receiving their cue sheets. Don't sue us. We don't have any money. If you think you might be tempted to sue us if things go sideways for you, don't ride.

BBQ: A BBQ will be held at Tall Tree Cycles (click link at sidebar) after the ride. We'll have typical fare, along with vegan options. Since the entry for the ride is paltry, we'll need to charge enough to break even-ish on the BBQ stuff, so bring some change. If anyone would like to contribute salads and the like please let me know. We hope to acquire a keg of Beaus, BYOB also welcome. Update: Our keg plans were stymied by the legalities. We cannot serve alcohol at the BBQ, however, you are all (assuming you are of legal drinking age) free to purchase drinks from the LCBO near the shop and brown bag your bounty. We'll try to iron out this wrinkle for next year's Quintuple. We'll be taking a poll Sunday morning before rolling out to gauge BBQ numbers, so please be ready to tell us whether you'll be coming.

Team Captains, please confirm attendance at quintupleclassic@gmail.com by Thursday, Sept 3rd pm, so we can print appropriate # of cue-sheets, gauge BBQ needs.
Cue Sheets with tulip notes here
I recommend downloading them in their large original size and printing them 4x6 and stapling them together like a pad, rip off the ones you're done with.
See above link for ideas on mounting these cues.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

The Ride of Rides: 2009 Deerfield Dirt Road Randonnee - D2R2

Warning: this will be an epic post. This is only fitting as an account of an epic ride. Indeed, many scoff at just about any application of this term. I met a man from Alaska last year who only considers rides around 10 hours long - where emergency blankets and stoves are taken along, just in case - epic. Indeed, its a relative term, you can't nail it down. Its a concept bound up with geography, experience, preparedness, fitness, and chance. Over the last few years I've resisted calling rides epic. Rodd and I have come pretty darn close, especially when I think of one GPS adventure that got pretty gnarly on our 'cross bikes. I think I flatted three times and we hiked a mini-boulder strewn climb we'd mistakenly descended. Later we encountered some friends on the highway driving to the golf course and motor paced behind them at 55 for as long as we could. We were pretty cooked in Wakefield, then rode the 40k home. That was pretty near epic. But we knew we'd be ok, we'd make it. For me, I have to really doubt whether I'll be able to complete a ride, and pull through in order for it to feel epic. My first crack at the D2R2 this past Saturday seemed like it might deliver such a feeling. Instead, I experienced a different sensation: pure satisfaction. While it didn't end up being epic for me, I'm pretty sure it felt that way for others! It was an incredible ride. Here is the story (if you are wondering what the heck D2R2 is, get the low-down from the rando master organizer himself here).

I headed down to Deerfield, Massachusetts early Friday morning with my lovely wife and daughter. After stopping in MTL and Montpelier VT, we arrived in town at 6:30pm. After much consideration, we headed over to Georgio's Pizza for dinner. Carbo loading ensued. Big time. We were not the only bike people in the joint; another group of guys were on the same page. Back to our budget Red Roof hotel we went for some prep and to be early. The ride was to begin at 6am. Sleep.

Getting up was not a problem. However, 5am was too late to keep from feeling rushed. I'd planned to break the fast with baked beans on whole grain bread (the super dense stuff). I find this makes for a safe, long burning meal. However, I barely had time for more than a few bites. Luckily, I also had a vegan date square on tap from Aux Vivres in MTL. It would accompany me in the car. Bottles received Vega sports drink (2) and water (1). Three bottles on-board seemed prudent. I also packed about 8 packs of Shot Blox (really), four gels, two Annie's bean and rice burritos (these are awesome, and don't spoil easily). Of the non edible sort, I packed two tubes, a bunch of glueless patches, tire boots, two CO2 cartridges, multi-tool, and my pump. Much of this fit in my ancient Cannondale tubular seat bag, which resembles a massive sausage. Hideous but effective. Off I went, wearing shorts and jersey alone, as it was already rather warm out.

Once driving I soon realized I had little chance of actually finding the road I was supposed to turn down. Hmmm, not too swift in the planning there. It was dark and foggy. I pulled over, planning to turn around and try a road I saw. But a car with a bike on it passed, so I followed instead. Arrived at the corn field staging area at about 5:30.

Once signed in and pretty much ready to go I realized I'd left the cooler with bottles etc. at the hotel. Back in the car, driving too fast, back again just in time to see the group roll out. Hmmm, not so great. My research had revealed that the fast riders tend to roll out at 6 sharp. 170k riders have the option of going out between 6-7. I confirmed with a volunteer that the speedy people were in fact gone. You might catch them, she said. Uh, I dunno, 13 minutes is a pretty big gap I replied. Oh well, lets find out, I thought, and headed out.

Let me pause to reveal my intentions for the ride. #1: Ride with the lead group as long as possible. #2: Don't cramp. #3: Ride everything. In order to avoid getting lost/and or simply losing time on wrong turns, I needed to ride with the group. Ooops. Since I missed the boat I was on my own. My condensed cue sheet proved inaccurate at the second turn. Hmmm. This'll be challenging, I thought to myself. I resorted to the massive full sized 8x11" sheets, quickly becoming damp in my jersey pocket. This leads me to tip #1:

Tip #1: Sort out your cue sheet in advance. Find a way to mount it to your bars for easy reading. There are many ways to accomplish this. Randonneurs tend to use a bar bag with a clear sleeve on top. If you are sportier, you need another solution. In the event of getting separated from the group, you'll need easy access to the turn info. This route has a good 100 turns.

Ok, so I'm riding at a solid pace, getting the effort going, catching up to riders and passing, saying hi. I make some mistakes. No problem, just try to enjoy it as it comes, I think. We are on dirt very soon. The climbs don't wait to start, they just start. After about 15 miles I come up behind a rider in Embrocation Cycling Journal kit. I was on the lookout for Pete Smith one of the team's members, the Mad Alchemist himself (we're working on getting his embro in at Tall Tree in time for 'cross season). "Hey, are you Peter?" I enquired. It was. Pete had flatted and dropped off the main group. I offered to work with him to try to catch them. Game on. We worked together and chatted. Almost immediately we descended probably the BEST section of paved road I have ever encountered or seen. It was like a bobsled run, absolutely unreal. Even passing other riders it was controlled and ridiculously fun. I was loving the ride already. This descent was followed near mile 30 with an astounding dirt descent. It went on forever, though the cue-sheet says 1 mile. Whatever, it was nuts. I passed a rider on an Epic with slicks, and was hitting mid 40s (around 75k/hr). I slowed at one point to check my rear pressure as it was floating around so much. The last time I felt that sensation was while doing 70 on my 4" travel downhill bike on the fireroad at Mont St. Anne in 1998. Whoa. What a riot!

Pete and I continued on and put in a good bit of climbing before reaching the first checkpoint. To our happy surprise, the lead group had just arrived! Relief. We had plenty of time to fuel up before rolling out with them. The group was maybe 15-20 at this point, composed of one Cat1 racer, a number of local dirt masters, plenty of veteran hammers, one very strong woman, some other dudes, Pete, and me.

Checkpoint 1. I obviously didn't take this photo. I borrowed/pirated it from:
"Archambo is sandy," I was warned by one of the many incredibly hospitable volunteers. Hmm, so that's soon eh, I thought. Ok, giddy-up. After some warm up ascending we rolled a bit of flat into Archambo, the 27% beastie. I took note of a rider make an effort to get up front. He wanted to get clear of the possible carnage it seemed. I was about fifth wheel going in, but soon up alongside the surger. It was steep, and loose. But it was ok in the 34x28 with my Challenge Roubaix 28s. We crested together and felt good. The climb was not worse than some we have around here, Woodsmoke for example (see Rodd's recent video of the climb). Phewf. A highlight of the day came minutes later when one of the locals mentioned that climbing Archambo well was his goal for the season, and he'd done it. That called for a high five! Well done sir.

From Archambo we had more ups and downs, and the group gradually thinned. One of the riders crashed just before the second last checkpoint. He was ok, but suffered some road rash. Three of us headed out; myself and two locals. We rolled along pretty mellow, and were caught soon by another 5 or so. This section was the longest flat, running along the river we'd been criss-crossing all day. Before too long we began the Patten climb. Oh boy.

Good thing I didn't know what I was getting into, because Patten was a nasty brute. It began steep - 20% or so - and paved. Then it became dirt. I rode off the front on the pavement, turning the 34x28 standing, doing my best Lance impression. This leads me to tip #2.

Tip #2: Study the pedalling technique of riders who are much better than you. Lance is such a rider; he is much better than me, and you. Have you noted his pedalling technique out of the saddle? Its very smooth. I've been working on it for about three years. Its coming along. His flick in the saddle is also very effective. Work on that too. The key for really long, really climby rides is moving the effort around. You have to stand even at times when you don't 'need' to. This keeps you from tiring out your big muscles prematurely. In the past I've powered in the saddle too much and suffered hamstring cramps. Not this time; I stood a bunch. Use gravity to your advantage.

Ok, so, Patten is long. It flattened a tad after the pave, but then turned and kicked up again into the sunshine. The local with the best form was alongside me now, and the Cat1 with a 39t ring there too. The local, who was, BTW, very friendly, and happy to navigate for me, dropped back a bit as Cat1 and I took on the straight. The 39t proved too tall, and bogging ensued. I pulled away, and it was just me. Eegad. It was hot now, about 30 celcius, and extremely humid. As in too humid for glasses. This last stretch was THE part of the whole route that made me suffer. I was not prepared for its length. I kept thinking 'there's the top,' only to find that it wasn't. I wanted it to be done. I was defeating myself. 'You can do it.' 'Never give up.' These were my mantras. It hurt, then it hurt more. Then it was over. Checkpoint. Mmmm, watermelon. 100miles in. 13 to go.

From here there was still more climbing, some descent and flat at the very end. But before that we were treated to a trail section that was fairly mountain bikish. Not a problem at rando pace, but if we were racing it would have been a bit hairy. 108 miles in you don't want to flat. It was fun. Out onto the open road the local with the most juice said we were just about there. We'd caught up to a 100k female rider, who was very strong. She attacked, and one of the older locals took chase. I wasn't sure what to expect at this point, but I took it as my opportunity to spice up the finish, so I countered. I overtook them and kept going. After maintaining a gap for a few minutes I decided I needed to know where to go. So I let the others reel me in. We thus rolled into the cornfield finish together. Having spent the most time on the front, I think the others were happy to have me sign in first. I obliged. I think I came close to the course record, but I believe it is under 8 hours total time. Perhaps next year. Proper navigation on my part will be key if I hope to shave much time. Whatever happens, I'm sure I'll have a great time next year, especially if more riders from Ottawa make the trip down.

The dust congealed into a muddy paste on my shins. This is the sign of a good day in the saddle.

I cannot think of an event I would recommend more highly. Its encouraging to see that riding in the Ottawa area is sufficient for preparing for such a demanding ride. It seems like its not necessary to have big terrain to be able to ride big stuff. All you have to do is 'press the meat' on what you have available to you. Of course, altitude is another story, but this is just to say that one need not come from mountains in order to be able to climb. We evidently have terrain here both good in itself and good as a means to other ends. If we can put together routes half as good as D2R2 to share with others I'll be a happy man.

Why only one 'action' photo? I didn't bring a camera on the ride; there was no way I wanted to deal with it. Perhaps next year with friends along I'll get some action shots. Here is a link to a photo of me with the guys I rolled in with.

Start time: 6:13
Finish time: 2:17
Elapsed time: 8:03
Ride time: 7:35
Distance: 114m (183.5k)
Average speed: 15.05mph (24.2kph)
Max speed: 49.85mph (80.23kph)
Bottles consumed: 9ish
Banana consumed: 4
Fig newtons consumed: 8
Shot Blox consumed: 2 packs
Low gear: 34x28
Tires: 700x28
Frame and fork: carbon
Extras: Bar Phat under tape, SPD pedals and mtb shoes

Monday, August 17, 2009

Not Matt's ride report from D2R2

Hey all,
As followers of this blog may know Matt left to do the D2R2 (link over there >>) this Sunday
Been surfing the interwebs and found some neat reports, from a few different riders so far.
Thought y'all might like to read about it a bit to give you some perspective.
The one that got me is that folks were amazed about how someone could have climbed a particular hill in a 34x27. The hill is on gravel and apparently measures out at *ahem* 29%
Hai Karate!
so yeah
just under 4000 m of climbing, 70% of the 180km on dirt.
Seems like the fastest guys rode it in 7:40 ride time, 8:30 elapsed.

Next year.




Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Monday, August 3, 2009

Steelwool All-road Build Log #1: Design

At the end of July, Will and I sat down for a few hours to design my new 'all road' bike. Those who have a sense of my present 'stable' of bikes will, quite reasonably, question why I need another. I won't list them, but I can say that I have my bases pretty well covered. This really boils down to me being a complete nerd when it comes to the performance of my bikes; I am not a big fan of 'jack of all trades, master of none' bikes. You know the joke about how many bikes are enough...whatever you have now plus one? I think that holds for me, and will likely hold for some time. I am ambivalent about the degree of consumption that accompanies this obsession, but I seem to justify it with the love I have for cycling. Or something like that.

So why a new bike? Numerous reasons, some interesting, others less so. As a Tall Tree team member, I want to do what I can to help the shop and Steelwool grow. Riding a Steelwool rather than my Specialized in team colours is less confusing to would-be customers, and helps promote both shop and brand. But building a new bike also affords me the opportunity to improve on the set-up I have now in important ways.

The two most important aspects of the new bike are the tire clearance and ride quality. Both will differ from my present bike just enough to make a significant difference. The Roubaix has clearance for 28c Grand Bois tires. These are fantastic tires, as I've mentioned before. However, for most of the riding I do on the road bike, bigger is better. That is, 30c is better. Consensus is that the 30s lose nothing in speed to the 28s; they work better where roughness factors. I will suffer fewer flats while plummeting dirt/rock descents, dent fewer rims. So the new bike is designed around these tires. It will also take fenders with the 30s, which will be key in the spring and fall. I don't plan on subjecting this bike to winter for some time. For races like the OBC's Paris Roubaix, the Hell of the North, the Tour of the Battenkill, D2R2, Hastings Highlands Hilly Hundred, and the Tour of Flanders and Paris-Roubaix sportives, this bike will be in its element. For the Grand Prix, a little less so, but hey, that's where a no-holds-barred road race Steelwool will figure down the road. Like I said: One more than what I have now.

The second aspect of the design that is key is the ride quality. It will be tig welded by Sam Whittingham of Naked Bicycles and Design in BC. Sam is a well respected and incredibly talented builder with a real creative flair. His bikes have won awards at the North American Bike Show two years running. It is an honour to have Sam build my bike, and it will be a great learning experience. The frame is intended to improve on the ride quality of the Roubaix. This is no small feat, as the Roubaix is an unflappable bike that handles the rough extremely well. At the same time, it accelerates well and does not feel noodly in sprints. It is a very sound bike. However, a high end steel bike should, in theory, be able to outperform a carbon production bike like the Roubaix. This is the challenge I have set for the project. I will delve into the ride quality goals in the next installment of this build log.

Now, you might be wondering how the design process unfolded. I've been thinking about the finer details of this frame's geometry got a while, but until it comes to life on 'paper,' a lot of the ideas are just that, ideas, tentative. Will and I sat down in front of his computer for a session on BikeCad, an incredibly detailed program that allows the designer to 'draw' frame-sets and to fit a vitual rider. This program is used by many builders these days.

So, step one, measure me up. This was not a prescriptive step. That is, we were not working out from my dimensions. Since I've already spent a lot of time on a bike that works well for me geometry-wise, we took my measurements to create a virtual rider for the program.

Step two, measure my Roubaix. This step had to be taken very carefully. We checked my bike's measurements against the geometry Specialized publishes. The key angles that we were starting with were 72.5 degrees for the head-tube and 73 for the seat-tube. From there we tweaked the top tube length, adding 5mm. We ran a longer fork than the Roubaix, as we want to fit 32c tires with fenders. This length must be very accurate, as being out either way can mean too little clearance for the fender or not enough adjustment for the brake pads downward. Since the new bike will run larger tires than my Roubaix, we had to spec more bottom bracket drop. This is the distance from the centre of the bb shell to a horizontal line bisecting the wheel axles. My Roubaix ran 70mm drop; we went with 80. Many builders I hold in high esteem run 80mm on their bikes, both road and 'cross, so we felt comfortable with the number. Naturally, this means the chainstays must be longer than for a 70mm, but this should not be a problem. I have yet to hear anyone complain about the handling of their RIchard Sachs with an 80mm bb drop, so I think I'll be ok. Dropping the bb allows me to accomplish the long and low fit I am seeking, which should add up to stability and sure-footed cornering. I can think of a few gravel corners where I'll be able to test this!

With 'me' on the screen, we were able to gauge toe overlap quite accurately. We measured the exact location of my cleats in relation to the toes of my shoes and were able to tweak things until we had no overlap with the fenders installed. I had wanted to go with a 73 degree head angle for the sake of a little quicker handling, but we wound up back to 72.5 in order to avoid overlap. No loss there. The seat-tube on the new bike will be longer than the Roubaix. It was a little tricky to get the right length for the 3T post I have, which is designed for compact frames. I think the graphics will line up the way we did it. Speaking of graphics, Greg and I came up with an excellent scheme. I will not reveal them now; come back to see photos of the frame when it is complete.

All told, Will and I spent about 3.5 hours on the design process. This is a little shorter than typical. For customers looking for a new frame to fit their dimensions because they have never achieved a good fit on a stock bike, the process would work out from the customer's dimensions. In cases where customers have bikes they love, but want to work in special features like rack compatibility, light mounting, fenderability, larger tires, etc, working from the existing bike tends to fast-track the process a bit and will likely result in a very familiar fit. Because I've gone into this process with specific ideas about what I want, I am obviously setting myself up for a possible disappointment. While there is nothing a particularly odd about this bike, I nevertheless consider it a test-bed, a prototype. I do not expect to achieve the ultimate ride quality with this particular frame. Few people are fortunate enough to hit it out of the ball park with their first custom frame. Typically, riders come up with tweaks they'd make if they were to do it again. Knowing this, I am not concerned about whether this frame will be the 'perfect.' It will be the first iteration of a design that will evolve through time. As I change as a rider, so to will my demands of the bike. As I learn more about the art of bicycle design, so to will the bike. As Will, Thom and Brad get into production of Steelwool frames in-house, opportunities for experimentation and innovation will unfold. Taking the long-range view, I am happy to get the ball rolling now and see where it goes.

The next installment of the build log will detail the ride characteristics we are aiming for in the new frame.

Steelwool All-road Build Log #2: Ride Quality

Looking Back

A while ago I posted about the design process Will and I went through for my new Steelwool custom ‘all-road’ bike. I set out to improve on the ride quality of my first-generation Specialized Roubaix. Its a very good bike; light, fast, and stable on all terrain, including loose dirt. I’ve never been tentative on the Roubaix, no matter the severity of the terrain I’ve ridden.

Many virtues are espoused for steel. I knew there was substance behind these claims, but I wanted to try to get a sense of how a good steel bike compared to a really good carbon bike. Just how much does the hype associated with a particular material influence the way we perceive its ride quality? Situated in a culture where the “quality and usefulness of…goods,” including bicycles, “are subordinate to the artifice of their display," I wanted to wade through the web of discourse and get right down to the somatic level – the riding (Neil Postman 1985: 5).

After sending off the bike-cad file to the builder, I took to waiting. It was a busy time, so I had to put off completing my follow up post on the ride quality goals I’d set for the bike. Here is that installment. Its on the long side; a coffee or tea might make a nice accompaniment. This post is a little more rigorous than my usual products; this subject demands careful treatment. Here we go.

The Now

The careful reader will ask, what do I mean when I say I want the ride quality to improve? What constitutes ride quality? Stiffness? Tracking? Comfort? Yes, all of these are component parts. But the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. I am aiming at holy grail of bicycle design, at least that which is sought after by a certain portion of riders out there: planing. All the other traits need to be present too, admitting, a la Richard Sachs, ‘stiffness’ is a amorphous term in this context. My Roubaix planes a bit...I think. But what is planing? Why not aim for stiffness, or low weight?

Planing is a term Jan Heine coined to denote "the ability to get in sync with the bike" (Bicycle Quarterly, Summer 2009: 3). The whole is greater than the sum of its parts; everything must come together just right for a bike to sync with its rider. Jan is the man at the root of our fat tire road bike obsession. He started importing the Grand Bois tires into North America a few years back, and Rodd was the first early adopter I know of. He spread the gospel with a fervor that only a maven like him can muster, and Tall Tree consequently started carrying them.

Jan's penchant for old, proven technology meets his scientific bent in the Quarterly, where he chips away at quantifying various nebulous aspects of bicycle design. One such aspect, or rather, characteristic, is the 'lively' quality certain bikes have. Lively bikes tend to be steel. I have almost never heard the term used in reference to a carbon bike, nor an aluminum bike (almost; I think David Bilenky might describe his lugged aluminum Alan ‘cross bike as lively…it’s a special bike). Some well build titanium frames are said to possess this quality. But what makes a bike lively? Is lively a good quality?

I’d like to turn to Padraig, of Red Kite Prayer and Belgium Knee Warmers, on this matter. In a September post on RKP, Padraig presents a compelling account of what he terms road feel:

For me, road feel is the great separator, the ultimate arbiter. But what is it? It’s that thing you experience when you get on a steel bike and go, “This feels so good.” You’ll feel it in titanium bikes as well. It’s an elusive quality, one that comes in many shades of gray. Aluminum bikes are almost uniformly devoid of it and for many years the vast majority of carbon fiber bikes were as out of touch with it as the pope is to the charms of Led Zepplin (I’m guessing here).....
So what the hell does that mean in bikes? On the very best bikes, stiffness is achieved with enough high modulus carbon fiber that the walls of the tubes can be thinned in the middle, the way double- and triple-butted steel tubes have thin midsections. These thin midsections attenuate a certain amount of road vibration but they still allow a small amount of high-frequency road vibration to reach the rider. Too much of this high-frequency road vibration results in muscle fatigue, a la lawn mower hands. However, a small amount of it will tell you a lot about the road surface you’re riding over and can be critical in trying to get the most out of a bike on a fast descent.
[Road feel] is the quality that is hardest to find in bikes, and one of the reasons is that it depends on very precise layup schedules (you can’t just use tons of material to get strength and stiffness and hope to have any road feel left) and demands a fair amount of high-modulus carbon fiber in order to achieve enough strength and stiffness....
I’ve still got my Torelli Nitro Express built by Antonio Mondonico. Its .7-.4.-.7-wall Nivacrom tubes epitomize excellent road feel, as does my butted titanium Seven Axiom. After riding those bikes, lots of bikes are just … not exceptional.
I’m not interested in commodities. I write about cycling because it transformed my life and a great bike can lead us to peak experiences. The bike isn’t the be-all-end-all, but a great bike can entertain us on an ongoing basis. I’ve ridden loads of bikes and the carbon bikes that are worth remembering have this rare quality of road feel and there’s no way to find out if a bike has it until you have ridden it. No test any German magazine can devise will find it. Achieving it requires a bit of art and a bit of science, but the result is pure art, and something every rider I know who has encountered it agrees upon. You might argue whether Pollock is art or not, but everyone agrees that Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel is great art. When you encounter real road feel, you’ll never want to settle for a frame without it.

On my interpretation, Padraig speaks of what some would call the elusive quality of liveliness in the bike. It is the perfect synergy of bike weight, flex, comfort, and power transmission. Its not just the right amount of road buzz he’s talking about. A bike could have just the right amount of ‘feel’ but handle like a tank or feel like a wet noodle out of the saddle. In order for a bike to ‘sing’ for a particular rider, all the elements of the whole must come together just so.

Jan Heine often remarks on whether a bike urges him to attack...or whether it seems happy to plod along. Whether a lively bike is right for a particular rider is a matter of taste, predicated on experience on different bikes. That is, if a rider has never ridden a lively bike, the might not like the feel. In case you are wondering, ‘hey, what happened to planing?,’ I’ll make it clear: a lively bike is a bike that planes.

My Roubaix at Battenkill 2009

After the Hell of the North 2009

The current crop of carbon frames tend to be optimized for 'torsional stiffness and vertical compliance.' Huh? Basically, this means the wheels are supposed to track in line, the bottom bracket/seat-tube is supposed to resist flex, as are the chainstays and headtube, while the bike retains a degree of bump absorbing ability, usually in the seat-stays and top tube. Most companies say their bikes have these qualities, though they tend to vary considerably on both counts. But I think it is safe to say that most high end carbon frames resist flex more than a steel frame might. This is considered beneficial by most, mainly because the marketing 'info' put out by companies producing these bikes has hammered this message into our heads: stiff good, flex bad. However, this is a very simplistic rule of thumb that stands at odds with the concept of planing. As Padraig points out, a stiff carbon frame should not be equated with superb ride quality. Like any other material, carbon requires careful lay-ups akin to the butting process for alloyed tubes in order to provide the beneficial flex and ‘road feel’ that translates into a pleasurable, efficient ride. I believe my Roubaix is a good example of a frame with such an effective lay-up. Padraig has just posted his review of the Roubaix, confirming my evaluation. But two questions remain: would a bit more flex make the Roubaix more efficient; and, just how much beating can a frame like that take anyhow? Does it matter? If Gary Fisher is right, we don’t really want bikes to last a long time anyway. In the Nov/Dec issue of Road, Gary Fisher states:

"[t]he philosophy back [in the late 1970 and early 1980s] was that a good steel bike would last 20 years. Nowadays nobody wants to be stuck with the same bike for 20 years. Nobody wants to be stuck with anything for 20 years! (40).

Is he right? If so, why are steel bikes seeing a resurgence right now? Why are so many people putting down serious money for custom steel bikes? I think Fisher is generalizing far too broadly here. I’ll leave this aside for now and get back to the plot.

I do not experience much planing on my Roubaix. The frame resists lateral energy from my crank arms. A smooth pedal stroke will yield good results on the bike, but it never really feels alive. The closest it comes is when I rock it back and forth in a steady groove in the saddle and effectively side-load the bb. It kinda-sorta planes a bit then (the bike damps a lot of road shock, but we’ll discuss that more in another installment). In contrast, my early 90s Pinarello 'cross bike does feel alive when I get into the right pedaling rhythm. I discovered this in the spring on a training ride. I could not discern it while riding off road/racing cross. It was a revelation, as the Pinarello is the first high quality steel frame I have ever spent time on. The bike has character. Before really feeling the bike plane, flexing in sync with my pedal strokes, I did not understand the concept on a somatic level; it was just a theoretical entity. I now understand that the bike was flexing in the seat-tube, not the bottom bracket shell. It is constructed out of the smallest diameter steel tubing available. To look at it one might wonder how it could take my abuse, being a large, strong rider. It takes it, and it gives it back too. Despite all this, the frame is not particularly light, and it feels like it would be better if it returned my energy quicker. Perhaps the seat-tube could use a little more butting…I don’t know.

My early '90s Pinarello cross in race trim

The giving back is key. When the seat-tube flexes it stores energy rather than resisting it. That energy is returned on the next pedal stroke, carrying momentum into the subsequent stroke. This is the sync Jan speaks of. The big question is: how much flex is optimal, and how do we achieve it? From my perspective, this is the most challenging aspect of the design process, choosing the tubing for the rider. I didn’t have much in the way of options for my new bike. I knew going in that because this is my first custom bike, it will not likely be perfect as we have designed it. I see it as a test bed that will inform future Steelwool bikes. It will surely be followed by another instantiation, built by either Will or Thom.

Secteur 18 in All-road trim

Secteur 18 in Double Cross trim

So, to pull this together, I set out to try to improve on my Roubaix with the new Steelwool. I now have the bike, and have done a few loops of the Gatineau Parkway a loop past Wakefield, our Double Cross, a proper cross race, and a few bike path/trail rides on it. Its got about 500k on it. What have I learned?

1) My new bike, the Secteur 18, is definitely heavier than my Roubaix, and that does matter. How much does it matter? Depends on what I’m doing. On a smooth road like the Parkway, there is just no way you can argue that the heavier frame and fork are doing you any good. They are not. This is not a bike suited to Parkway ripping as it sits.

2) Bigger tires are not necessarily slower. I’ve got 30s on the Secteur 18, and they don’t feel much different from my 28s (both Grand Bois). Where the larger tires will hurt a bit is on smooth climbs, where there suspension does not factor much, but their additional weight does.

3) On the flats the new bike does not seem to have lost much, if anything to the Roubaix. In theory, a steel frame will absorb road shock better than an aluminum or stiff carbon bike, which translates into greater efficiency for the rider. This steel frame is being compared against likely one of the smoothest carbon bikes out there. That’s tough competition. So far, the frame actually feels stiffer than the Roubaix in terms of road shock transmission. This begs the question: why run steel?

First, as I mention above, I knew going into this process that I’d not likely actually pull off my goal. That’d be pretty lucky, too lucky. My frame is built with a 28.6mm top and seat-tube, and a 31.8 downtube. Would I be better off on a 25.4 top-tube, like that on my Pinarello? I don’t know...yet. I don’t have confirmation of the tubing profiles used on the bike, so I don’t know how much thinner the tubes can get. Obviously, reducing thickness would reduce weight, and afford more compliance. How much more is desirable? I don’t know. So, again, why bother?
Foremost, I feel more confident about steel’s ability to retain its structural integrity through time. I’ve had numerous frame failures over the years, all on mountain bikes, and I can attest to how bad that can be. One must be able to trust their bike. Yes, I am aware Specialized, and other reputable companies, test their frames very rigorously. I have been told that the Roubaix takes a massive beating before failing on the test machines. I believe it. But at what point do I retire the bike? I don’t have a clue, and I can’t know. When I retire it, what do I do with it? Recycle it? I’d rather not buy carbon bikes every 3 or 4 years, just to wind up in the recycle bin. I want my bikes to enjoy long lives. Steel offers that. Its repairable without fuss. In addition, once one attains the magical quality of a steel frame that sings, that syncs with one’s effort, there is nowhere one needs to go. Sure, select carbon frames might be able to offer the same ride quality. But will they fit like a custom? Will they age like a steel bike does, with grace? I have my doubts.

Looking Forward

Bottom line, I do not believe steel bikes offer the best ride quality of all frame materials. I do believe they can be very, very good. And for most of us, that should be good enough. There is more to the question of what is ‘best’ than performance alone. A good steel bike, tailor made for you, with braze-ons to fit everything you need, is far more affordable than a carbon equivalent. And it will age gracefully, providing years and years of service. It may even outlive you, and carry your spirit along with whoever has the good fortune to ride it.
As I ride the Secteur 18 more, I will provide more insight into its attributes. I have yet to have opportunity to descend on dirt at high speeds (above 60k/hr), and look forward to seeing/feeling how it handles that. My experience on the Double Cross was the first ride I did on the bike that made me love it. It was nimble yet as stable as I could hope for. I loved it. I love it. As soon as I get the right housing and tape on it I’ll post up some more photos and talk a bit about the name.

We'd love to hear what you think about all this ride quality stuff. What material(s) do you like, geometry, tires, and why?