Wednesday, September 9, 2020

Back To Work - Back To Biking

Well, I'm back to work.

After schools had shut down due to the virus back in March, I was working from home for a few months, followed by summer break. Other than our family camping vacation (for about a week) I spent almost the whole summer painting my house and not riding as much as I might have otherwise.

The entire summer was full of uncertainty as we waited to see what/when/how schools were going to reopen in the fall. Ultimately the decision was left up to every individual district in the state (and probably across the country) to come up with their own reopening plans. Some school districts went full-steam-ahead in mid-August with in-person classes, and no mask mandates, and then made national news when they were forced to quarantine within days due to viral outbreaks.

In my area, every school is on a different schedule and different opening plan. Many have delayed the start date by a few weeks. Some are entirely online. Others are in-person with certain "precautions" (like maintaining "social distance" - which is nearly impossible to enforce with kids in a school setting). My district delayed the start be several weeks, and is beginning with some kind of split schedule where half the kids are in school, while the other half are online, and then they switch on alternate days. We'll just have to see how that goes.

Anyhow, this means I'm back to commuting by bike as often as possible, which is great since that's how I get most of my biking miles. The weather this first week back has been and looks to be favorable for riding.

When we would start back to school in mid-August as normal, there would actually be a hint of daylight when I'd set off for work. Starting after Labor Day, as we did this year, means it's still pitch dark when I leave the house. But within the last few miles I can see the dawn breaking through.

I emerged out of the darkness of a long stretch of woods to see this misty sunrise scene.

This misty field is soon (unfortunately) to be filled with luxury McMansions. Looking closer I could see something moving off there in the distance (just a little black speck near the horizon).


Zooming in, it's a pair of deer. Probably a mother and fawn.

Readers might recall that I'm testing out a Brooks saddle. I moved that over to my commuting mule, figuring that that is the bike that's going to get the most miles on it for the next nine months.


The "Imperial" (B17 with a big cutaway in the top) temporarily replaces the all-weather, rubber-topped C17 on the commuter bike. The dark brown saddle doesn't look bad on the all-black bike - but ultimately I don't much care what the commuter mule looks like. In many ways it's kind of an assault on my retrogrouchy sensibilities, but that's why I got it -- I don't hesitate to ride it in bad weather, and I don't worry about riding through the salty slush of winter the way I would on a classic steel bike. I'm still withholding judgement on the cutaway saddle until it gets broken-in. However, I will say that the C17 I had been using was, in my opinion, a very nice saddle. Count me a fan of that one.

That's all for now. Welcome Back.

Monday, August 17, 2020

Portage

Long before Europeans settled the part of Northeast Ohio which is now Akron and Summit County, Native American tribes lived and moved freely about the area, using the rivers as almost a natural highway. Shawnee, Iroquois, Delaware, Wyandott, Huron, Ottawa, and Miami Indians are among the tribes believed to have traveled by canoe between the Great Lakes and the Ohio River, and from there, to the Mississippi and possibly all the way to the Gulf of Mexico.

There was one hitch, however, to making the trip entirely by canoe: there was no waterway connection from the Cuyahoga River, which flows to Lake Erie, to the Tuscarawas River, which flows to the Muskingum and Ohio Rivers. Perhaps thousands of years ago, Native Americans made an overland trail to connect the Cuyahoga and Tuscarawas Rivers -- an 8-mile stretch known today as the "Portage Trail." Today, the ends of the trail are marked by matching sculptures depicting a Native American carrying (or portaging) a canoe. One of these stands a couple miles from my home, at the edge of the valley roads I routinely bike on.

Riding through the valley the other day, just a couple miles north of the bronze Indian portaging his canoe, I had to do a version of some portaging myself. I got to a "Road Closed" sign blocking the way north along the main valley road and decided to ignore it, as I frequently do. Well, a little further up the road I found why it was closed. A huge tree had fallen over, completely blocking the road.

Couldn't go around it, so I just hoisted the bike up onto my shoulder and started climbing over the fallen tree. As I scrambled out of the tangle of branches with my bike, I saw a police officer on the other side, sitting in his SUV watching me. "Can't do that with a car," I told him, as I remounted my bike and rode off.

OK - so it wasn't anything like an 8-mile trek, but still. . . that's one of the great things about a bike, isn't it?

Rarely am I deterred on a bike ride from a closed road, unless I know for certain that it's truly impassable. On a bike you can almost always find a way to get through. Bridge out? I've been known to scramble down riverbanks and ravines, wade through streams, and climb back up the other side with my bike on my shoulder. Once, on a ride many miles from home, and on unfamiliar roads, I got to a bridge that was in the process of being rebuilt. Turning back and following a detour was going to add many miles to what was already a very long ride, so it was portage time. There was no roadway - just I-beam spans across a stream. Being a Sunday and no workers around, I picked up the bike and walked carefully over the spans to the other side. A bit foolhardy, perhaps, but no regrets.

I recall some years back when a major flood hit the Cuyahoga Valley. Sections of the two main roads that flank the east and west banks of the river were under water - at least a couple of feet deep in some parts. Car travel was impossible. I went for a ride the next day, and there were several stretches where I was wading knee-deep - with shoes in one hand, and bike on my shoulder. I remember one section where I could see a car stranded in the deepest part, with water half way up to the windows. Obviously some idiot thought he could make it across. On the other side I found a lady in a minivan watching me wade across the flood, and she was actively contemplating whether she should attempt to drive through. The stranded car was apparently not enough of a deterrent. 

As I emerged from the water carrying my bike, she asked me "Do you think I can get through?"

"I don't know," I answered, and pointing to the bike on my shoulder, I asked "Can you do this?"  

She didn't press the issue.

Being able to go where cars cannot, or ignoring signs that say "Road Closed," feels not only a bit rebellious, but also like getting a free pass, or like being part of an exclusive club, or knowing a secret handshake.

Portage-ability. Just one of many awesome things about a bike.

Thursday, August 13, 2020

Trying Out a New Brooks

Last month I got an email from the folks at Brooks Saddles informing me that I'd been selected to test one of their new saddles. When I got back from my camping vacation last week, I found a box had been delivered from Brooks, and I eagerly opened it up to see what they'd sent. What I got was a bit of a surprise: a B17 "carved" or "Imperial" - the one with the big cutaway in the center. Why was that a surprise? Well, I was under the impression that they were testing a new model, but to the best of my knowledge, the model has been around for over 10 years. If there's something new about it, it must be something that isn't obvious to casual observation. Regardless, I'm happy to use it and give them my impressions, and I may post a bit here, too.

I've got several bikes equipped with Brooks B17 saddles. It's safe to say that they're a favorite of mine. The shape works really well for me, and I typically find them to be pretty comfortable right out of the box - even before they've "broken in" (despite all the mythical horror stories about the brutal break-in period). I've tried the "narrow" version (didn't like it as much) and I've got the "standard" and "deluxe" versions, but I've never used the version with the big cutaway. Another difference is that this model comes with holes punched along the bottom skirt, ready to be laced. Lacing is supposed to firm up a leather saddle by keeping the bottom skirts from splaying out. People will sometimes drill the holes and lace up an old Brooks saddle if the top starts to sag too much (that method is less likely to accidentally damage the saddle than over-tightening the adjustment bolt at the nose). The "carved" or "Imperial" saddle comes laced right out of the box.


The saddle I received is in their antique brown color - and it came with blue laces. I decided to install it on the Sequoia for now, since that bike has been getting more use than most. By the way, I really liked that paper the saddle came wrapped in.


The brown color and blue laces make it a natural fit on the Sequoia. After I start back to work, I may move the test saddle over to my commuting mule because that will be the bike getting the most miles at that point.

Okay - so about that big hole. If you're a man and you've spent any time on a bike in the past 20 years or so, you've no doubt heard warnings about bike saddles leading to impotence. And there aren't many words that strike more fear into men, or make them cross their legs more self-consciously, than "impotence" (I assume it is second only to "castration"). I don't remember who the doctor was, or exactly when the report came out, but 20 years ago seems about right, and the scare stories were all over the news. There were articles in all the bike mags, and I think it was even on  20/20, or 60 Minutes or something like that. Since then, saddles with big "pressure relieving" holes have become common.

Interesting fact about the "pressure relieving" cutaway is that Brooks introduced saddles with that very feature back in the 1800s - for the very same reason as today - The ads said "preventative to all perineal pressure."

Here's the thing: I've always been skeptical of the fear mongering, and I'm generally skeptical of saddles with cutaways, grooves, nose-less designs, or other methods for reducing pressure. I believe there were some serious flaws in that original study that linked biking to erectile disfunction, and there have been numerous studies conducted since then that are far less dire in their conclusions. It really seems to me that a quality saddle that is wide enough to support the "sit bones," and is positioned optimally for the rider (proper height, and angle, etc.) will eliminate most issues, with or without the gimmicks. Also, sensible riding style can make a difference too. Using handlebars that put a rider low and forward can lead to problems, and staying in one position on the bike for too long doesn't help either. But seriously, if you're on a long ride and you start feeling numb or tingly "down there" - get out of the saddle for a bit! And if it keeps happening, re-examine things like saddle shape, angle, and position.

Now, having said all that, I know that suddenly I'm going to start getting emails from people telling me that a grooved or cutaway saddle saved their sex life. Okay - that's cool. But just like diagnosing the source of a creaking noise on a bike can be tricky and inexact, pinning down the exact reason or proper cure for erectile issues can be similarly speculative. Heck, I think I'd rather pin down the creaking noise, as there are far more limited variables.

One concern I've had with pressure relieving saddles is that I wonder if some of the designs might not actually be worse than a traditional design. It's just speculation - but what I mean is that if you look at the nose of a traditional saddle, the curve of the top surface is usually one large, broad curve, with a radius of maybe an inch or so. But on some saddles with a big groove in them, that broad curve over the nose is replaced by two narrow ridges, each with a much smaller radius. So instead of one broad "pressure point," you get two much smaller, sharper pressure points. Does that make sense? I don't know. . .

So getting back to this test saddle. I'll be interested to see how it feels, and what differences (if any) I might be able to detect between this one and the ones I'm more familiar with. I've been on a couple of rides with it already - including two brief rides with unpadded shorts. Was it my imagination, or could I feel the edges of that slot? Not sure. With padded riding shorts, I haven't noticed much difference so far, except that with the skirts being laced, the saddle may have a bit less "give" to it, even accounting for its brand-new, non broken-in condition. Maybe I'll loosen the laces a little. However it feels right now, it's important to remember that it will likely change as it breaks in.

Last thing - and again, I really have no idea, so I'm just curious. Brooks was sold to the Italian company Selle Royal back in 2002, but the Brooks website says that their leather saddle models are still made in England. So why did the shipping label on the box this sample came in list Italy as the point of origin? Curious.

Saturday, August 8, 2020

Vacation Biking

COVID19 has no doubt changed a lot of people's plans this year. The most recent plans to be changed for me were vacation plans. Our original (fairly elaborate) plans, which involved airline tickets and passports, ended up being cancelled, and so our backup became a camping trip in one of Ohio's state parks. Hey - no complaints.

We were at Salt Fork State Park, a couple hours' drive south of Akron, in the Southeast part of the state. And since we were driving, it was easy enough to bring some bikes with us. I brought my Specialized Sequoia, which has been getting a lot of use since completing its restoration, as well as my daughters' bikes. The hope was that we could go for some rides together, and they might be able to ride around the park.

That part of the state is pretty, though maybe not as natural for biking as the area I live in (at least not for road riding). In fact, I barely saw any cyclists anywhere, and found a noticeable lack of bike shops in the area. It could be the roads. It seemed all the roads I encountered were narrow, twisty, and extremely hilly, with high speed limits (55 mph was common) - or they were narrow, twisty, extremely hilly, and gravel

Did I mention hilly? Living near both the Cuyahoga and Chagrin river valleys, I always thought we had a lot of hills nearby. But in Southeast Ohio, you start getting into the foothills of the Appalachians, and the hills are non-stop. Around home, there are lots of long, steep, tough climbs, but there will be miles of relatively flatter roads in-between. Riding in Southeast Ohio, it's constant up and down, and it wears a person out! I found myself dreading the downhill descents because I knew that as soon as I reached the bottom, the road would immediately turn skyward again. No rest for the wicked.

Even within the boundaries of the park, the roads were so hilly that the girls weren't able to enjoy riding to the pool or the beach. We did get in some riding, nevertheless.

Not far from the park, in the city of Cambridge, there is very nice trail on a converted rail line that turned out to be a good choice for biking with the girls. At about 6 or 7 miles, the Great Guernsey Trail just might have been the longest stretch of flat/level pavement I encountered in the whole county. It was paved and also seemed to be well maintained.

A couple miles of the trail passed a wetland area that offered some nice scenery.

The sleepy town of Lore City sits near the other end of the trail. There didn't seem to be much to see or do there, but the town has a park, playground, and some porta-john facilities for trail users.

Downtown Cambridge features a picturesque old courthouse, and a large Civil War monument out front. We stopped in town to get some ice cream after our ride on the Guernsey Trail. Anytime I'm out traveling, I like to visit the local bike shops. There had been a bike shop in downtown Cambridge, but it was empty and looked like it has been closed for a while. I checked Google for others but couldn't find any listed. 

As mentioned already, the roads in the area were not ideal for biking. Narrow, twisty, and hilly - with big rig trucks, and massive diesel-spewing pickups (many sporting MAGA and confederate flag stickers) flying past, I found riding within the boundaries of the state park to be a less tense alternative. The roads were still narrow, twisty, and hilly -- but at least there was less traffic, and it moved a lot slower. And with the various roads within the park, it wasn't difficult to put together some loops for a challenging ride of an hour or two.

There was at least one ride outside the park I wanted to do, however. I learned there was an old covered bridge about 20 miles northwest of the park that I thought I'd like to find. With the ever-present hills, I thought a 40 mile round trip ride might feel like 60 or 70 miles. So I drove about half-way out, parked the car, and went exploring. 

After leaving the main road, I had about 6 miles of gravel roads to get to the bridge. It was a challenge because the fine-tread 32 mm tires on the Sequoia weren't really ideal for the loose surface. Downhills (which could get pretty steep) were nerve-wracking and I feared washing out in the curves, and climbs required staying low in the saddle to keep traction on the back wheel. It was awfully pretty to look at, though.

Often these old covered bridges are closed to car traffic. This one, built in 1855, is still open for one-way traffic -- though how much actual traffic it sees I couldn't say. I only saw one other vehicle on the road leading there and back. It did not disappoint.

On the whole, the vacation was pleasant and relaxing, even if it was nothing like what was originally planned. 


Tuesday, July 21, 2020

Retro Raleigh - A New Team Replica

Forty years ago, Joop Zoetemelk won the Tour de France on a Raleigh, built of Reynolds 753 tubing and painted in the Raleigh Team's classic red, black, and yellow scheme. This September, Raleigh will be releasing a new Team replica that pays homage to the past, but also nods to the current era.

Zoetemelk had the unfortunate experience of having a career that straddled the eras of Merckx and Hinault. He raced the Tour 16 times (and completed it every time), finished 2nd six times, and won it in 1980 (at age 33). Zoetemelk would go on to win the World Championship road race in 1985 at age 38. He doesn't get nearly enough credit as one of the greats of the sport.
So, about the new bike:

Honestly, it's amazing that any major bike company is making a bike like this in the year 2020. And I like it. Reynolds 753 tubing. Downtube shift levers. One-inch fork steerer with Cinelli quill stem. Traditional non-aero brake levers. Selle Italia Turbo saddle. The "modern" comes in with the 10-speed cassette and 50/39 chainrings.

From a few feet back, it sure could fool a person that they're back in 1980. Except for the derailleurs (modern Campagnolo) and brake calipers (dual-pivot - also Campagnolo), it could possibly fool a person up-close, too.
Did I mention Reynolds 753 tubing? Yes, I did. Seriously, I didn't even know that Reynolds was still making it. Some years back the tubing company released a "limited run" of their classic 531 tubing. Perhaps they did something similar with the special heat-treated, thin-walled 753. But the tubing choice sets this bike apart from most other vintage re-creations I've seen over the years -- in other words, some substance to go with the style.

A fun detail - a vintage-styled crank. Squint a little and it looks like '70s/'80s vintage Campy. The 39-tooth small ring offers gearing a good bit lower than the 42t ring of the old Campagnolo cranks, though. I can't see a brand, but it looks a lot like the cranks that are sold by IRD (their Defiant model, maybe?). Though shown here in the studio photos without pedals, I read that the bike will ship with traditional quill pedals with toe-clips and leather straps.

Rivendell "Silver" downtube shift levers - a remake of a 1980s SunTour design. And yes, they will work with modern 10-speed gearing. Notice the homage to the 1980 TdF win on the sticker.

Though the bike uses modern Campagnolo dual-pivot brakes, the levers are from DiaCompe. I'm not sure anyone else still makes traditional non-aero road levers. The levers also have a built-in quick release, which is a good touch with the Campagnolo brakes, since those no longer have a quick-release built into the caliper to open them up for wheel removal. (Campy's Ergo levers have a small quick-release button to open up the calipers). Another fun detail is in the wheels. Yes, they are modern hubs and current Mavic Open Pro rims - but someone had the clever idea to put old-style Mavic stickers on the rims.

On the whole, it seems like Raleigh took the retro/replica idea seriously. The frame seems to be a good classic design with no obvious shortcuts (and 753 tubing - wow!) and the components are well-chosen to combine good quality with the right "look" for a vintage-styled bike -- or at least, as close as one can get with modern-production parts. There was another Team replica released a few years back (2015?) but this new one seems a little closer to the target than that earlier attempt.

The bikes will be available direct from Raleigh starting Sept. 1 - through their website: https://www.raleigh.co.uk/gb/en/ti-raleigh-relaunch/

Prices only seem to be listed in Pounds or Euros - but I expect the frames to sell for somewhere around $2000, and complete bikes to be maybe a little over $3000. A lot of money, yes, but comparable to other high-end steel frames/bikes today. I know I won't be lining up to buy one - I'd probably keep my eyes open for an original Raleigh SBDU if I were really interested. But I expect there are people out there who want vintage style without the hassles that can come with true vintage bikes.

Saturday, June 27, 2020

A New Bike Boom

Been to a bike shop lately?

If you have, you probably noticed a lot of empty racks. If you were actually looking to buy a bike, you may have been told you'd have to place an order and wait indefinitely for a bike to come in. If you needed repairs on a bike you currently own, you may have even found a longer than usual wait to get the job done.
Our local shop had a few rental bikes on the rack, and a handful
of others with "sold" tags on them.

It's uncertain how long the situation will last, but for now, it seems that we might be in the midst of a new "bike boom" - or more specifically - a "COVID19 Bike Boom." What's going on seems to be what one might call a "perfect storm," of increased demand, and reduced supply -- and a lot of it has to do with the reaction to the corona virus, both at home and abroad.

I was talking with the folks at my local bike shop, and what they have been experiencing seems to fit the stories that people are sharing all over the country. More people are buying bikes (along with helmets and other accessories), and others are getting long-neglected bikes road-worthy again. As far as the shortage goes, what the experts are saying is that there are several factors that have led to the supply/demand issue.

First, bike shops (in most states) remained open even as many other businesses were closed. The need for transportation meant that many states declared bicycle shops "essential businesses" - and if you're reading this blog, you probably agreed with that notion.

Second, people have been "cooped up" with little to do - but outdoor exercise has generally been permitted, as long as people try to maintain some "social distancing." Many people have discovered - or re-discovered - bicycling as a great way to get some exercise and enjoyment. The fact that fitness centers were closed (and may still be closed) fits right into that as well.

Third, the supply of new bicycles has been disrupted - first because of economic uncertainty, and second because of the virus. According to bicycle industry insiders, many manufacturers had already reduced their production in the last couple of years because of concerns about the current president's trade war. One source I found said production had been down as much as 25 - 30% even before the virus hit. Remember that China accounts for a huge percentage of the world's current bicycle production. If you factor in Taiwan and Japan into the figure, you'll find that the vast majority of bicycles and components are made somewhere in Asia - regardless of what brand might be on the frame. And Asian countries were among the first to shut down because of the virus - and to take the most serious measures to contain its spread.

The last time we had a drastic increase in demand for bicycles was the bike boom of the early 1970s. In that "American Bike Boom" sales of bicycles jumped from about 7 million in 1970 to 14 million in 1972. And the biggest part of that increase was in adult bicycles which had previously been only a small market segment. The tremendous spike in demand meant that American and European factories could not keep up, which proved to be a major opportunity for Japanese bike and component manufacturers who had been eager to break into the American market. Within a decade, they would dominate the world.

There are a few things that are different this time time around. As mentioned already, most of the world's bicycles are now being made in China and Taiwan. As their factories closed down due to virus concerns, there's really nowhere else that could pick up the slack. Most bike "brands" that we might associate as "American," "British," "European" are now nothing more than names on decals that get stuck on the bikes. So when the Asian factories shut down, nobody else had the production capacity to crank out bikes to meet the demand, and that has meant empty racks in the shops, and a waiting game for new bikes to come in.

Another difference is that in the '70s bike boom, the biggest chunk in sales was in "adult" bicycles -- but especially for lower priced, entry-level "10-speeds." From what I understand from talking to both sales people and buyers is that this time people are buying everything and anything they can get their hands on. If they've got the means, they've even been buying the high-ticket items like bikes with electronic and wireless shifting. While it can be a little harder to track accurately,  I've heard anecdotally that even sales of used bicycles are up. Whatever people can do to satisfy their current itch.

One thing that remains to be seen is how long before things go back to "normal." Demand could remain high as long as there is uncertainty about the virus and there are restrictions on what people can do for exercise and entertainment. I understand that factories in Asia are starting up again, so production should soon start meeting the demand.

Another thing that remains to be seen is how long will all these people who can't wait to get their hands on a new bike stay interested in biking. Not long after the boom of the 1970s, an awful lot of those bikes that were sold ended up collecting dust in basements and garages all over America. One can still find them today at garage sales for bargain prices, or (if you're really lucky) out on the curb on trash day, free for the taking. Will the current buyers be different? Will they keep riding even after everything is reopened and concerns about social distancing are just a memory? Or will the later half of the decade see tons of used bike bargains?

Only time will tell.

Sunday, June 21, 2020

Fathers Day 2020

Today is Fathers Day, and I spent part of it with my kids, part of it with my father, and a good bit of it riding bikes.

Since I planned to spend the bigger part of Sunday with my 80-yr-old father, the RetroKids and I did our traditional Fathers Day bike ride on Saturday. Our usual "go-to" for bike rides is the Ohio & Erie Canal Towpath, but this time we opted for some different scenery. The Towpath is a great biking destination, and very popular - but it isn't the only game in town. We are fortunate enough to also have a very nice trail on a converted rail line, known locally as the "Summit Bike & Hike" trail. The trail follows what was once known as the Akron, Bedford & Cleveland RR (also known as the "ABC Line") which went out of service in the 1930s, and spans the north-east quarter of Summit County, but also continues well into Cuyahoga County to the north, and Portage County to the East. It's a paved trail, well maintained, mostly flat, and a good place to ride with kids.

One of the best spots to stop and explore is Brandywine Falls. The path crosses a bridge directly over the falls, but it's a great place to get off the bikes and follow the boardwalk down into gorge.

The boardwalk path winds down along the rocky ledges, and to a couple of observation decks to see the falls.

My favorite part of the trail is a few miles south of the falls, where it passes through a corridor of steep rocky ledges. The ledges are so tall, covered in mosses and ferns, and it's always noticeably darker and cooler. I don't know if it was a natural formation, or if it was blasted out to make way for the railroad (it appears to be natural - but it's almost too perfect for a rail line to assume some blasting didn't happen). Anyhow, as we ride through that mossy green cathedral, I keep expecting a Hobbit or Golem or some other Tolkien creation to make an appearance.

While passing through the rocky corridor, we stopped for a drink and my daughter happened to park her bike in a perfect little spot of dappled sunshine.

So that was Saturday. For Sunday, my plan was to drive up to my father's (it's about an hour's drive away) and make him dinner. But before making the drive, I got up early for a ride on my own. The forecast was for temperatures in the 90s, but it was still in the upper 60s when I left.

I took the red Mercian, which hasn't been ridden since I finished renovating the Sequoia. The Mercian's shorter wheelbase and slightly thinner tires means it doesn't have quite the ride of the Sequoia, but the handling is "snappier."

I stopped for a photo by the old covered bridge.
By the time I got home (after making the usual long climb out of the valley) it was already noticeably hotter outside, and I was thoroughly drenched in sweat.

That's all for now - to all the fathers out there, Happy Fathers Day.