Thursday, December 31, 2009

A Revelation

Drinking coffee from a mug while riding on the trainer is difficult. The coffee sloshes around. Its tricky. But I think perseverance is key. You, meaning at least I, gotta keep on training your/my coffee drinking on the trainer. Why bother? Why not just give up? Because coffee is awesome, and riding is awesome (even on the trainer its way better than say, golf), so riding while drinking coffee must be awesome too. In fact, it does not just sound good on paper, its also sounds good in practice; I like to slurp. When riding the trainer in the early morning drinking coffee at the same time just makes sense. The question is: would it be cheap/too easy to use a spill resistant travel mug? I think that's cheating, it would take the whole art out of it. No, you have to use a regular mug and go for it. I bet some people can drink their coffee while on rollers. Having only a couple hours total on rollers in my lifetime, I think I'll leave that to the experts.

Who else drinks coffee on the trainer (or, gasp, rollers)? Anyone? Beer? Hmm, reminds me of Tom Green's experiment. Cable TV gold that was.

Happy New Year!

Monday, December 28, 2009

Post Holiday Post

My best Christmas gift, painted by my daughter. I've just won the cyclocross race (that'd be the first!), and I'm off my bike with fireworks going off above me while my daughter and wife (superfans) chear. Amazing. I'm pretty sure my daughter does not feel she's second fiddle to my cycling. She loves being a part of the team, and knows I'll be her superfan/coach/mechanic if/when she gets into racing (I'm already a big supporter of her dance). In the very least, we'll have many cycling adventures. But probably not cycle-dance.

Its Monday and Christmas is over. Its nice to have a the week off to defragment, relax with my family, and get some bike related work done. Last Wednesday the majority of the Tall Tree crew met up to discuss plans for 2010. Some of our plans won't be unveiled just yet, but I can share most of them.

First, there will be an official Tall Tree club starting 2010. The details are being finalized now. We'll have them up on the website and here soon. Second, the Tall Tree team will be bigger. We've made some additions, and will have the roster up in the new year, complete with bios and more.

Here's a list of other developments:
  • Tall Tree 2010 Calendars will be available for purchase within about a week. Yes, this is kinda late, but we figured better late than not at all. The calendar is a compilation of the best photos from 2009 of TT riders, and will retail for about $12.
  • a large group of the team will race the Tour of Battenkill in New York in April. We'll have a masters team and Neil will race the pro event.
  • Tall Tree will field three teams at each of the Chico 24hr races
  • the team will attend all the Sunset Series mtb races
  • we'll ride Rideau Lakes, possibly (hopefully) on fixed gears(!)
  • we'll be working on a not-so-secret-super-secret Steelwool development process from early spring through the season. We'll document this process here once it gets rolling.
Tall Tree rides will continue, building on the success of 2009's events:
  • the Ride of the Damned will run in May in 5-person format
  • we'll recon an Ottawa-Tremblant-Ottawa backroad route I've deivsed, toward running a future event (probably about 275k each way....possibly 'epic')
  • the Quintuple Classic will return, with BBQ at Lac Leamy afterwards and family activities
  • the Fixed Frolic will recur, with a tweaked route and less wind
  • the Double Cross will likely run the same route again, but we'll follow the format more strictly
  • perhaps most exciting, we're in the early stages of planning a kick-off event for the cyclocross series.
  • a tweed run is on the backburner as a possibility
We'd love to hear your thoughts on this stuff.

As an aside, check out Competitive Cyclist's 'Bike of the Year':

Bike of the Year : During my November sojourn to Europe I took a side trip in Girona, Spain where I put in good miles with serious PROs and we hit some nasty roads and these guys were on bikes with 26/28c tires and fenders and old wheels and old bars (with only one exception, see above) and there was no sense that using equipment like this was noteworthy in the least. These guys were on bikes of an aesthetic that would get laughed at on the typical local US training ride. They told me they ride these bikes almost exclusively from Oct-March. Seeing that in real life turned my concept of PRO upside down because it was full-blown, first-hand exposure to the notion that a bike is a tool for a job.

This sort of bike -- the racy-yet-not-racy, piggish-but-not-piggish road bike (not a repurposed CX frame), with room for 28's and fenders, but somehow desirable for the fastest guys in the world -- THAT is the bike of the year. This is not Rivendell Reader spew. It's about the lesser-known needs of a racing cyclist. Nothing beeswax and no godforsaken cloth bar tape!

No kinda-big company champions the bike-as-tool-for-a-job concept quite like Independent Fabrication. The Independent Fabrication Club Racer -- mine will be in the Titanium option so it'll be rust-proofed, it'll ride more sweetly, and it won't be self-defeatingly heavy -- this is the bike of the year because it's designed and marketed as a do-everything steed and possessing that quality is newly important to me. This is a man's bike for a man's life.

Sound familiar? It is mildly amusing that this is a revelation, but I must admit, this format didn't really register for me either until I started doing way more road than mtb riding. Before then, I'd just ride my mtb if it was wet out...or get filthy. In case you don't know what I'm talking about right now, I'm connecting the 'Bike of the Year' to the bikes many of us have been talking about for some time now. Rodd was into the whole big tires and fenders thing years ago; his custom True North is just this kind of bike. So is Jamie's Salsa Casserole. My Steelwool Secteur 18 is the a dedicated 'allroad' bike that fits 28s and fenders, and 32 knobbies sans fenders. "A man's bike for a man's life," also great for women who like to ride in all weather conditions.

These are bikes for riding all day in whatever weather. They don't conform to the 'race bike' category, they are not superlight or super stiff. But there is far more to a bike than its weight or 'stiffness'. As Richard Sachs says, "There's no such thing as a 'race bike;' any bike is a race bike if you put it in a race and race it." Its better to have a bike that suits the majority of the riding you do, and fits. Sachs rode D2R2 in the same bike he races cross on. My Steelwool is much the same, albeit with calipers rather than cantis. More on this later....

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Road Descent: Hairy with a Capital H

Pascal found this today and send it over. Its incredible.
Have any of you ever ridden a descent like this? Its so
long and SO exposed! The walls are more dangerous
than anything else. They'd just launch you if you hit
them. I'd love to take on a descent like this, but I think
'conservative' would be my approach. This is scarier
than a World Cup downhill course, and they are pretty
gnarly these days.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Ice-Man Cometh

On Saturday I resolved to ride rather than ski Sunday. Sure, I could strap my skis to our Ute and do a skate ski, but I could also ride. Would I be able to ride in -4 weather all winter? Nope. Would I love to ride in -4 come January? Yep. Done, I'd ride.

It took just a bit of work to switch my Steelwool over from cross to road mode. Honjo fenders and road tires back on, lube generously applied, the bike was good to go.

Sunday morning broke as expected. Overcast, mild, no snow. The forecast called for snow here and there, which I took as a green light. With two layers on top of my Russisch Thee embrocated legs, I was out the door before 10.

Off to Wakefield was the plan. See how warm I am, evaluate once there. I'd keep on going and do the Alcove loop if possible, otherwise I'd turn back for the 40k back to town. 15k in I was doing a lot of toe wiggling to get the blood flowing. My hands and everything else were fine, but I could not help my toes much. Winter shoes won't come soon enough. At about 20k the snow started. It was light at first, then picked up, accumulating faster than I'd hoped. I didn't find it painful or particularly cold on my face, but I was concerned about cars. The 105 has lots. I'd already decided it would be best to turn around as soon as I got to Wakefield; now I was trying to decide whether to keep going. I resolved to turn around at 30k, the split to River road.

The snow was definitely picking up. I was rolling on about a centimeter by the time did my 180. At this point I realized I'd been benefiting doubly from a tailwind. Shocker, the wind pretty much always blows that way. Now I was battling a stiff headwind, which was also pelting my face with snow. It hurt, but I got used to it. My beard was taking on snow and ice at a rapid rate.

Thankfully I had lights on the bike and was not struck by a car. I did veer off the non existent shoulder on Notch to make room for a car, then pulled a full on foot down moto slide when my rear tire failed to climb back up. I was on the tops and it felt fine. Stable bike. Rolling through the Hull neighborhood toward town I practiced my moto slides on purpose around about 20 turns. Fun. The snow accumulated on my shins and booties soon turned to brown slush, as did most of the snow on the bike. Not so nice.

Back home at about 12:30 I was more than happy to get into warm clothes and brush off the bike. Most of the snow came off easily, and the clean-up after was pretty simple. Gotta love fenders. The ice on my beard, on the other hand, was tenacious.

Does this mark my last ride outside for 2009? Perhaps, seems likely. That's ok, I'm starting to like the trainer. Seriously. I've never really liked it before, but last year I started to when I was watching inspiring race videos for an hour or two at a time (usually an hour). This year I don't have the video option, so I'm listening to the radio on my phone, or music on the iPod. I'm enjoying it mostly because its quiet time. Sure, there is noise going on, but I can just focus on what I am doing and feeling and work on all the aspects of my pedaling technique. I'm not riding hard, just working on keeping the base going. Little by little, I might just learn to meditate on the bike. That's be fantastic. I don't think I'll try closing my eyes on the rollers though!

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Ride Quality: Steelwool Secteur 18 Custom Project

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?