Wednesday, September 30, 2015

"Smart" Pumps and PSI Apps

It's getting to where a person can't even pump up tires anymore without a smart phone and some kind of "app."

At least, that's how it seems after looking at a couple of recent pumps from Airace. Offered in both mini pumps and in floor models, the i-Gauge pumps use a Bluetooth 4.0 connection to the user's iOS or Android phone, and the pressure gauge app is claimed to be accurate to within +/- 1 psi up to 100 psi. In the case of the floor model, it is supposed to be capable of reading up to 300 psi -- you know, for people who like their tires really, really hard. On the other hand, the actual pump is rated for "only" 240 psi so maybe they're being optimistic.

Besides the claimed accuracy, one of the benefits of using a smartphone app for a pressure gauge is that the app allows a person to pre-program a desired psi, then an alarm will sound when that pressure is reached. Wow - that right there probably just made the whole thing worth whatever price they're charging.

Most mini pumps and frame pumps lack a pressure gauge. Then again, if all you want is to fix a flat and finish your ride, how important is having the perfect pressure? Squeeze the tire between two fingers 'til it feels right. Am I wrong? But now the iGauge mini pump with Bluetooth sends a signal to the user's smart phone, where an app will give the accurate pressure. And yes, that means the pump requires batteries (two CR1632 coin-type batteries). If the batteries go dead, users will have to guess at the pressure just like the "old days," but at least the pump will still work. Oh well. . . Price? $102. (photo from Airace)
Having a Bluetooth-enabled mini pump is a cute (but ultimately unnecessary) gimmick for people who obsess over having the perfect air pressure for on-the-road repairs. But for a full-size floor pump that stays at home, wouldn't it just be better to have a normal built-in gauge? Apparently not. Heck, it could even be a digital gauge for those people who are convinced that such things are automatically more accurate than a good quality analog gauge (which isn't necessarily true). But then users wouldn't be able to fiddle with their smart phones when pumping their tires, and where's the fun in that? The iGauge Veloce Bluetooth floor pump has no gauge whatsoever apart from the smartphone app. Like the mini version, it also requires batteries. If getting the right pressure is important, then keep an eye on those batteries. Price: $117 (photo from Airace)

30 years and still working fine, even
if the pink is a little out of fashion.
Are floor pumps equipped with analog pressure gauges (that don't take batteries) going away? I certainly doubt it. "Smart" pumps like this aren't likely to change that, or make my classic old Silca track pump obsolete. So I suppose these Bluetooth pumps are little more than an amusing little indulgence for people who believe there has to be an app for everything.

As for me, I still don't own a smartphone. My phone makes calls and takes calls, and that's about it. I'm resisting this technological march as long as possible, and so far, I'm proud to say that I'm still smarter than my phone. It's shocking just how much a person can do without one. Maybe more people should try it.

Monday, September 28, 2015

The Carbon Fiber Anachronism

Have you ever wondered what the first bicycles would have looked like if people like Pierre Michaux and other early pioneers had access to today's carbon-fiber and e-bike technology?

Though fully rideable, the front wheel is only 39-inches diameter,
which would seriously limit the "gearing." Proper P-Fars would
often have wheels up to 60-inches! (photo from DING3000)
Yeah, me neither.

But that didn't stop designers and engineers from THM-Carbones, BASF, and the design firm of DING3000 from teaming up to create a pair of €50,000 carbon-fiber penny farthings (that's €50,000 each!). Dubbed Concept 1865, the idea was to take the bicycle back 150 years, which apparently coincides with the founding of the chemical/plastic company, BASF. One of the bikes was shown recently at Eurobike 2015.

THM-Carbones is a German manufacturer of carbon fiber cranks and other components, and used their expertise in some of the P-Far's construction, utilizing BASF's latest plastics. And DING3000 apparently came up with the anachronistic design.

The removable seat hides the battery, which can be charged
off the bike. Notice that the bike also has some kind
of integrated LED taillight. (photo from DING3000)
Not only does the rolling anachronism sport plastic and carbon fiber construction throughout, but it also incorporates an electric motor hidden in the rear wheel. Traditional penny-farthings used the larger front wheel to increase gearing, (the larger the wheel's circumference, the farther the bike would travel on one crank revolution. To this day, gearing is often described as "gear inches" for that reason). This P-Far only has a 39-inch diameter wheel, making it much easier to mount and dismount, but would limit the gearing or speed considerably. To that end, the bike should get fairly speedy with its e-motor assist.

On the other hand, penny farthings had their cranks mounted directly to the front wheel without any kind of "freewheeling" mechanism. They were the original "fixed gear" machines, which meant that going downhill could be a pretty scary experience, or perhaps "thrilling" if a rider had what we might nowadays call "thrill issues." In any case, I haven't found any mention as to whether this little carbon P-Far has any kind of freewheeling action built into that front wheel. If it doesn't, then zipping along on the motor assist would mean the rider's legs would have to spin like crazy to keep up.
The THM carbon-fiber fork also has a loop of LED lighting.
(photo from DING3000)

Braking duties are taken care of with what appears to be a carbon fiber disc brake on the rear wheel.

Still, the basic design of the penny-farthing, or "ordinary" is it was also known, is such that the possibility of a face plant was all too real and likely -- which is why such things were really nothing more than a quirky-yet-charming dead end in bicycle design. Having a 39-inch front wheel doesn't really change that, other than reducing the falling distance a little. If anyone should actually want to ride the Concept 1865, I'd suggest they avoid hills.

Another tech feature of the bike is the tires, which are some new BASF polyurethane elastomer, and have some kind of expanded polyurethane foam for shock absorption. What is that? Solid tires? So, when they say they're going back to the 1860s, they really mean they're going back. Nevermind that the invention of pneumatic tires in the 1880s remains one of history's all-time greatest transportation-related inventions. The creators also gave the bike some new high-tech pedals that are made entirely of plastic -- without any ball bearings whatsoever. Again, ironically eliminating one of industry's greatest inventions (pioneered on bicycle pedals, of course! Jules Suriray, 1869).

Watch the carbon fiber anachronism in action in this little "image film" available on the DING3000 and BASF websites, or right here courtesy of YouTube.

At  €50,000 don't expect to see carbon-fiber P-Fars tooling around near you. But enjoy the video!

Friday, September 25, 2015

Sprocket Man Comics

It was the Bike Boom of the early '70s, and bike use at college campuses was . . . well . . . booming. With so many young cyclists taking to the streets, and probably annoying the drivers who up until that point believed they owned the roads, public safety officials declared that "the anarchy of the cyclist can be afforded no longer!" (*) So at Stanford University, in coordination with the Urban Bikeway Design Collaborative (UBDC), the solution was to create a new kind of super hero -- not a hero who could fly, or melt steel with lazerbeam eyes, or anything resembling superhuman powers. No, this super hero would be found astride a 10-speed bike, and would subdue his adversaries with a relentless onslaught of safety admonishments and, occasionally, a well-aimed freewheel cluster.

He would be forever known as SPROCKET MAN!

Sprocket Man was first published by Stanford University, then acquired by the CPSC.
Sprocket Man came to life in 1974 through the pen of Louis Saekow, a Stanford pre-med student who had no formal art training but enjoyed drawing comic book characters. Working as a file clerk at an urban research institute on campus, Saekow was given the opportunity to draw some cartoons on bike safety for a newsletter. That eventually became the Sprocket Man comic book, published in 1975 by the Stanford Dept. of Public Safety and the UBDC. (Stanford University)

A later version of the Sprocket Man
cover, after a little make-over.
Within a couple of years, the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) acquired the rights to the Sprocket Man comic book, and began distributing it nationally. The CPSC had begun regulating bicycles in 1976, and I believe they first issued their version of the comic in '78. In the CPSC editions of Sprocket Man, there is a legalistic-sounding preface that explains (or perhaps defends) the commission's right to regulate all bicycles sold in the U.S., including some language that probably alienated many serious adult cyclists. For example, it states that the CPSC's "regulation applies to nearly all bicycles that are toys or other articles for use by children (but may also be used by adults)."

In fact, it was the CPSC's definition of bicycles as "toys for children" that more than anything angered the more outspoken bicycle advocates of the time. There seemed to be no distinction to the regulatory commission between bikes for children and bikes for adults. John Forester, who first published his Effective Cycling in 1974, was one of the harshest critics of the CPSC's bicycle regulations, dismissing many of them as ineffective and misguided -- predominantly created and mandated by people who had no understanding of bicycles, or cycling. Interestingly enough, however, Forester's Effective Cycling is listed in the comic book's bibliography as one of the sources for the Sprocket Man's safety advice.

KA-BLOOM! Sprocket Man thwarts two bike thieves with a well-aimed freewheel cluster. It's the only real "action" this super hero sees.
Apart from dispatching a couple of long-haired bike thieves, Sprocket Man doesn't really battle a lot of actual villains. More typically, his efforts are aimed at promoting safe riding, stopping dangerous and lawless cycling behavior, and sometimes encouraging courtesy to drivers and pedestrians.

Some tips on avoiding the common "right hook" scenario, though it's mostly presented as an admonishment to follow the rules of the road, just like the driver of any vehicle.
Don't get "doored." Sprocket Man declares (rightly) "Don't waste your time fiddling a horn or bell. Go for your brakes and . . . SCREAM!!! Move left BUT . . . Don't swing into traffic!!"
Lock your bike. Use a good quality lock (U-locks like the one shown were still a pretty new item when this came out). Sprocket Man advises locking the front wheel, too.
The Sprocket Man comic book would go through a couple of minor re-makes over the years, but the majority of the text and most of the drawings were simply re-used throughout a couple of decades. Fun fact: In Saekow's drawings for the original Stanford version of Sprocket Man, he managed to slip in some little visual jokes. In one, he had a hapless cyclist dropping a bunch of books -- one of which, if you looked closely, was Playboy Magazine (a PDF of the original can be found HERE). When the CPSC took over the comic, that little detail got left out.

Another version of Sprocket Man was re-issued by Raleigh Bicycles - probably as a giveaway to their customers to promote safety. Again, most of the comic's artwork stayed the same - though some of the text was changed to reflect Raleigh's commitment to safe riding. For example, Sprocket Man says "Your Raleigh Dealer has asked me to share some of Sprocket Man's SAFE CYCLING SURVIVAL SKILLS with you." By the way, Raleigh must not have looked closely at some of the pictures, because their issue of the comic includes the "Playboy" image mentioned above.

In the '90s, the CPSC put out a slightly revised version of the comic - but this time, updated (rather awkwardly) to include the religion of helmet use (full PDF file).

Yet another re-make of Sprocket Manthis time from the '90s, clumsily adds helmets to all the old '70s era drawings.

The 1975 original (left) and the 1990s remake. Every single cyclist in the remake is shown with a helmet -- even the idiots who do everything wrong. Notice that the hair on the guy at the bottom still manages to stand on end, despite being covered by the helmet.
In 2002, the Stanford Department of Parking and Transportation Services went back to Louis Saekow (who gave up on his medical ambitions to become a graphic designer) to create a newer, updated Sprocket Man safety campaign - combining some of the original '70s artwork with newer, more modern graphics:

And now, the latest news in the saga is that, at long last, Sprocket Man, like all the other super hero franchises, is finally being turned into a movie for the big screen. And much to the dismay of hard-core Sprocket Man fans, Ben Affleck has been tagged to play the bike-riding superhero.

OK - that last part is complete B.S., but the poster is real.

So, he's not the Hulk, or Captain America, or Iron Man. He doesn't fly, and he doesn't seem to have any actual super powers. And when you get right down to it, he's even a little bit of a safety nerd. But for bicyclists, Sprocket Man may just be the only bike-riding super hero we're ever going to see.

(* actual quote from the Sprocket Man comic)

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Suspension Stems

Like lots of other rehashes of old technology posing as something new, it seems that suspension stems are back. In the days before suspension forks became a virtual marketing requirement on mountain bikes, some companies tried marketing "simpler" alternatives for suspension by putting the suspension into the stem. Using pivots, linkages, elastomers or, in some cases, coil springs, some of these suspension stems actually rivaled suspension forks for complexity and price -- and were eventually dismissed by buyers as pointless before basically disappearing from the market.

One of the original suspension stems. The Girvin Flexstem (originally known as the Offroad Flexstem) used elastomers to provide some damping. (photo from

One of several versions of the Softride suspension stem. I remember when it was known as "Frankenstem." (photo from

Recently, the editors of Dirt mountainbike magazine listed the stems as one of "The 15 Worst Mountainbike Products Ever." They wrote, "The young 'uns amongst you might not believe this, but there was a time when even the validity of front suspension forks was questioned." (Yes, I was one of those who questioned it -- and in many circumstances, still feel the same way). "For those that weren't sold on this newfangled idea, but didn't want to suffer the pain that a fully rigid bike dished out, there was an alternative . . . the suspension stem. The most well known of these was the Girvin Flex Stem, and that was a crime against suspension itself, but its saving grace was that it was at least relatively cheap compared to a suspension fork. The Softride stem on the other hand was the supposed dog's bollocks of suspension stems, and it cost as much as many suspension forks . . . but unsurprisingly it was just as rubbish as the Girvin, which is why I think it's the Softride in particular that needs naming and shaming."

Although the stems were primarily intended for mountain bikes, I imagine some were put into service on road bikes. Nevertheless, perhaps hoping that road riders are either unfamiliar with the old follies, or have perhaps forgotten about them, this new crop of suspension stems are primarily aimed at road riders. I'm still convinced that they're even more unnecessary on road bikes than they were on old mountain bikes.

It's even more complicated than it looks.
(photo from
One of these new stems comes from Naild and their R3ACT (I think that's supposed to make us think "react"). Their website declares, "The patented R3ACT System preserves the rider's energy by acting like a rigid fork on smooth terrain. Once a structure is encountered (potholes, bumps) the rider's weight reacts on the handlebars (Newton's 3rd Law) activating the system. Now fully active, R3ACT can track the terrain maintaining wheel contact with minimum loss in forward momentum. The system combines travel from above and below the frame, geometry and tire contact remain constant throughout resulting in improved handling, braking and control while reducing fatigue."

Or you could just run larger tires and keep your body loose over bumps.

By the way, their marketing materials mention Newton's 3rd Law so much, you'd think Sir Isaac had a hand in developing this thing.

The Naild R3ACT stem is actually a pretty complex item, as it incorporates extra linkages which keep the handlebar angle constant even as it pivots up and down. But more than the pivoting of the stem, the system also incorporates elastomers in the fork steerer, so it isn't really something that can be retrofitted to an existing bike -- the bike must be designed for the system from the beginning.

Simpler than the Naild R3ACT, but I suspect just as pointless.
(photo from the ShockStop Kickstarter page.)
Another new suspension stem comes from Redshift Sports: the ShockStop stem. Using hidden elastomers inside the stem, the ShockStop doesn't look a whole lot different from other threadless stems, and can be installed on most modern road bikes (with a common quill-stem-to-threadless adapter, it could probably be installed on older bikes too).

Here's what they say on their Kickstarter page: "Bikes should be comfortable, but ride more than a few miles and you realize very quickly that bikes are stiff, and they transmit every little bump straight to your hands and arms. After a while those impacts and vibrations make it hard to enjoy the ride."

Again - anybody who slams into every pothole and road imperfection with arms locked probably doesn't enjoy riding much anyhow.

In their promotional video, the company claims that with ShockStop, "You can relax and enjoy the ride. Instead of dodging every little bump and crack, you can focus on the road ahead." Suspension stem or not, focusing on the road ahead for bumps and cracks is still a good policy. Good technique is essential with or without suspension.

I still have some questions about this new generation of suspension stems, so I thought I'd go right to the source -- and ask the ShockStop stem directly.

Retrogrouch: So, isn't this basically just a reboot of old rejected mountain bike technology?


Retrogrouch: Couldn't a person save a lot of money by keeping their current setup and just learn some decent riding technique?


I'll take that as "Yes" on both counts.

Fully expect to see the current crop of suspension stems selling cheap on eBay in a few years, just like those old Girvins and Softrides do today.

Monday, September 21, 2015

Sexist Selling Strategies?

About a week ago, I posted about an old advertisement for Lambert Bicycles from 1973 which featured the following photo:

A reader pointed out the irony of my waxing nostalgic about the ad with its sexy model on the same day that much of the bicycling blogosphere was foaming at the mouth over some free socks that were given out in the swag bags at this year's Interbike trade show. Quickly dubbed "Sockgate," (why do ALL scandals since Watergate have to end in "gate"? Can't somebody get creative?) the giveaway socks renewed accusations of sexism in the bicycle industry -- even as they claim to be trying to appeal more to women cyclists. To be honest, until the reader mentioned it, I hadn't yet heard about the sock scandal.

I found the above photo on the Surly Bikes Blog, where Christina Julian, or Jules, makes a strong case against the "Sex Sells" strategy, and even includes some awful examples of the kinds of sexual harassment that she's experienced by some in the industry. It's worth a read. (photo originally from
Needless to say, it got me wondering if appreciating a 40 year old advertisement puts me in the same league as the doofuses who thought those socks would be appreciated by all attendees at Interbike. I will mention that even though I like the old Lambert ad (and lots of other old ads like it), I wouldn't be caught dead in those ridiculous socks -- even if they were free. Still - it's something to think about.

Of course, women have been used in bicycle ads (the word "used" suddenly seems more significant) almost from the beginning. Who can forget this old poster, and the many, many more like it from the turn of the century?

And the images of women appear in all kinds of bicycle ads throughout the century -- and in a lot of favorites from the Bike Boom of the '70s, including the Lambert ad shown above, or this similar Crescent ad from about the same time:

But now the question I ask is, is it the same? Or is there a difference? Is appreciating images in these vintage ads from earlier eras, when things were different, the same as giving out those tacky socks?

Sex is obviously still used in bicycle ads today, but somehow to me it feels different than in those older ads. More crass. And there's a sense that maybe people should know better by now. As a great example of this, do a quick search for Stradali Bicycles, and find tons of images like this one below:

She isn't going anywhere in those shoes. . . or facing the wrong way. Doesn't matter though --
the bike doesn't have pedals anyhow. They get worse -- some of the images would probably
qualify as NSFW (Not Safe For Work).

And to show that a giant like Specialized is not "immune," there's this one from last year.
Hell, this one doesn't even make much sense.
Even though I like some of the old vintage ads, the newer ads shown here seem worse to me somehow -- and more pointless.

I'm not a woman. But I am a man who tries to be sensitive to the way women think and feel. So, back to my question. Are those tacky socks, or those Stradali ads, et. al. in the same league as the old vintage ads I call attention to so often? Or are they different? I don't really know how many women read The Retrogrouch, but I sure as hell wouldn't want to alienate any of them. Getting some comments from readers on the topic would worthwhile. Any thoughts?

Thursday, September 17, 2015

Edward Gorey: Cycling Illustrations

I've long been a fan of the stories and illustrations of Edward Gorey. His style, which is often described as Gothic -- but almost absurdly so -- usually has a dark sense of humor, and his hapless characters often meet disturbing ends. Perhaps it shouldn't be surprising that his illustrations found their way into the opening credits of the program Mystery! on PBS.

Edward Gorey did illustrations for a number of books and authors, but also wrote and illustrated more than 100 books of his own -- books that, at first glance, might take the form of children's books (and I assume that children might enjoy some of them, if the books didn't give them nightmares), but are probably intended more for adults with a taste for the farcical or macabre.

The visual settings for his works are ostensibly Victorian or Edwardian (that's the period from about 1900 up to the beginning of WWI) and it shouldn't be a surprise that bicycles have found their way into a lot of his illustrations. I don't know that Gorey was a particularly avid cyclist or anything (in fact, some of his bicycle drawings would almost indicate otherwise) but they probably fit a sense of the setting he was portraying.

I recently picked up copies of two of Gorey's bicycle-themed books: a first edition copy of The Broken Spoke (1976) and a second edition of The Epiplectic Bicycle (1969).

The Epiplectic Bicycle is an absurd story of two poorly behaved siblings, Embley and Yewbert, who get taken for ride by a bicycle with a mind of its own. A lot of people probably mis-read the title as "Epileptic" -- but it is, in fact, "Epi-PLEC-tic" which comes from the word "epiplexis" which is a type of rhetorical question one asks "in order to chide, express grief, or inveigh." (yeah, I'm getting all English-Major-y, right?)

The cover art for The Epiplectic Bicycle has a dead alligator on a bicycle.
The story begins on "the day after Tuesday and the day before Wednesday" when the siblings Embley and Yewbert are engaged in "hitting one another with croquet mallets." They pause in their battle when a riderless bicycle rolls into view.

This is one of those instances where I wonder how familiar Gorey
 was with the form of a bicycle. Or was that a conscious decision --
that a bicycle that pilots itself doesn't need a crank or pedals?
After fighting each other to exhaustion attempting to take sole possession of the bicycle, they climb onto the bicycle together, only to be taken for an unforgettable journey.

They encounter dangers and mishaps, are nearly killed more than once . . .

before eventually returning home to find a strange and inexplicable surprise (sorry, I won't reveal it here).

I found a short stop-motion animated film version of The Epiplectic Bicycle, made by Lauren Horoszewski, an MFA student at the University of Connecticut. It's on Vimeo and I can't seem to embed the video here, but the screenshot below should serve as a link to the site. The look of the film captures, in puppets, some of Gorey's original style.

The other book I recently acquired is The Broken Spoke, which is not so much a story, but a collection of "cycling cards" - each about the size of a postcard. I have a sampling of some of the images below:
The cover of The Broken Spoke. There is no explanation for
the broken bicycle shown. There are more inexplicably broken bicycles on the back cover.
The bicycle as an article of worship. Why not? 
Gorey re-creates the style of medieval illuminated religious manuscripts 
with his bizarre Martyrdom of St. Egfroth.
Gorey channels the surrealists in Les Insectes Cyclistes.
Prehistoric men attack a woolly mammoth, astride early bicycles.
There is no Afazia, Ohio - but I wonder if it is meant as a play on the word
"aphasia" which is when someone loses the ability to recall words.
This reminds me somewhat of Dia de los Muertos. Notice that the
Victorian-era lantern puts out a beam of darkness in the fading daylight.
Bat-winged demons appear in many of Gorey's illustrations.
Why not put one on a bike?

The Broken Spoke is out of print, but used copies can be found without too much difficulty. The Epiplectic Bicycle was re-printed not too terribly long ago and new copies may still be available - or again, used copies are out there. Both books are contained in the anthology Amphigorey Also, which is still available through Amazon and most other booksellers. Check them out if you get a chance.

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Great Bicycle Advertising: Lambert Cycles

This 1973 advertisement for Lambert Bicycles holds a special place in the hearts of many vintage cycling fans -- even for those of us who, in 1973, were too young to fully appreciate it.

A lot of young men probably bought Lamberts as much because of the gorgeous girl in the short shorts and knee-high boots as for the bicycles' high-tech (for their time) features.
Lambert of England, which apparently had much financial backing from U.S.-based investors, was an attempt to bring high-tech bicycles to an affordable price point in Bike Boom America. Featuring "aerospace" tubing (which was just straight-gauge seamless chrome-moly), and a number of advanced components, such as sealed bearing hubs, press-fit sealed cartridge bottom brackets and cotterless cranks, the bikes were ahead of their time -- at least at their given price point. Notice the prices in the ad: ranging from $114.98 - $139.98 (a special gold-plated version, shown under the gorgeous model, sold for $259). And the weights were good for the time and price point as well -- around 20 - 22 pounds.

Of course, in some ways the bikes were too good to be true. The cotterless cranks didn't fit well on the non-tapered bottom bracket spindles and would work loose. The handlebars would loosen in the stem. The early derailleurs didn't work so well. And worst of all, the cast aluminum forks gained a reputation for breaking unexpectedly, with predictable consequences. They were apparently made by pinning a cast aluminum fork to a steel steerer, and the joint would just give up at the wrong time. The expression "Lambert Death Fork" thus entered the bicycling vernacular.

A useful article about Lambert/Viscount can be found on Sheldon Brown's site, where one will find the following warning:


The company went through different names and owners. They were re-named Viscount after being purchased by a group called Trusty in the mid-'70s. Later they were purchased by Yamaha, which changed a lot of the unusual components to standard Japanese issue, such as SunTour and Shimano. Yamaha also recalled every one of the questionable forks (what took so long?). Eventually the company just faded away.

Now, after all these years, it seems like the legacy of the Lambert/Viscount brand is the legendary "death fork" and a really hot-looking girl in knee-high boots.

Be wary of the forks. Enjoy the ad.

Monday, September 14, 2015

Bigger Wheels For Marginal Gains

Remember these guys?
The same people who brought us $1000 derailleur pulleys are back with another hyper-expensive marginal gain. The latest oversized pulleys from Ceramicspeed are supposed to save performance-addicts a claimed 2.4 watts, and at $500 - $600 are likely to be declared a "bargain" by the cheerleaders (at least compared to Ceramicspeed's hollow titanium versions). The Over Sized Pulley Wheel System, or OSPW, uses bigger derailleur pulleys to make big claims of performance gains.

The Over Sized Pulley Wheel System,
or OSPW (c'mon, why not O'SPEW?)
comes complete with a new
pulley cage to be retrofitted to the
user's Shimano or SRAM derailleur.
With 17 teeth per wheel, the O'SPEW System is supposed to reduce the bends in the bike's chain as it wraps through the derailleur, thereby reducing friction -- to the tune of a claimed 60 percent! Understand that, while this sounds like a tremendous reduction, it's important to remember that the real-world efficiency of a chain-drive transmission is typically between 96-98% (I've read it can be even higher in lab conditions) so the friction losses in a properly maintained bike chain are already so low that you're actually talking about 60% of virtually nothing. And a healthy, vigorous cyclist might put out 200 watts or more in an hour-long ride, making a few watts pretty hard to notice. But the company is convinced racers and triathletes will feel the difference of those 2.4 watts. Or better yet, upgrade all the bearings in your drivetrain to Ceramicspeed, and save a claimed 10 to 16 watts! That will practically guarantee cutting 9 minutes off a 180 km triathlon "with no additional efforts" according to the website.

As always, I have doubts about such promises or claims of "minutes saved" in a time-trial, or a triathlon, or what-have-you. They make great marketing, but the reality is probably not nearly as impressive as the promises.

The way I look at it, even at the top levels of the sport, in the pro racing ranks, average speeds aren't really climbing significantly since the 1990s. Look at average speeds of Tour de France winners going back to the beginning, and you'll see speeds gradually, incrementally climbing through the years and decades as bikes and technology (and don't forget, roads, too) improved. The fastest races, with average finishing speeds in the 39-41 km/h range start happening routinely in the 1990s, with the introduction of EPO and serious, systematic doping, and peak in 2005. They've pretty much plateaued since then. Since 2006 (right after the nullified Armstrong streak), the finishing speeds have averaged 40 km/h. At this point, wringing the last bit of performance gains keeps getting harder and more expensive, and yielding smaller and smaller results.

Such realities won't stop the performance addicts, suffering from protracted cases of upgrade fever, from pulling their derailleurs apart to install O'SPEW wheels, though. Meanwhile, we retrogrouches can think of all the things we could buy for $500 - $600. Vintage frames. A bike's-worth of classic components. A trip to L'Eroica . . .

Thursday, September 10, 2015

Vintage Snobbery: Ted Baker - Quella Vintage Style Racers

Regardless of what some flawed self-assessment quiz says, I think that in some ways I really am a Cycling Snob. I just saw that Ted Baker (the upscale British designer clothing line) and Quella Bicycles (maker of British urban-fixie bikes) have teamed up to make "vintage-style" racers. "A thoroughly modern take on an Italian classic" the Quella website declares. Lugged frames, chrome-moly steel, Brooks saddles, and (mostly) Campagnolo components -- how could a retrogrouch find something to criticize? At a quick glance, maybe nothing. But look closer.

Just wondering. . . will that copper plating turn green with age? Notice that the bike comes with DiaCompe 610 centerpull brakes -- which should mean plenty of tire clearance -- but then look at that paper-thin gap between the rear tire and the seat tube. Might as well have used Campy's tire-skimming skeleton brakes. Those are listed as 28 mm tires, which isn't bad, but don't expect to get anything bigger in there. A little extra clearance never hurt anyone. By the way - what's with the big-ring-big-cog combo on the bike in the photo?
Not only that, but read the descriptions and the specs:

I'll admit, it's a cool head badge.
(photo from
"Like a shimmering salmon that soldiers upstream, Ted believes one should always break from the shoal and follow their own current. . . Whether you take the rushing torrent of the town or the trickling tributaries of the country, each stunning showpiece is flawlessly designed with style and substance."

Actually, I'd say it's a lot more style than substance. Amidst all the pretentious-sounding prose there's really not a lot of actual, useful info given. Like, where are the frames made? Are they actually being built in Britain, or farmed out to the same Taiwanese factories that make a lot of other vintage-style, designer-labeled frames? (I'm guessing the latter). I checked out the company's About Us page and found lots more Rapha-esque marketing hype that talks a lot more about style and fashion than actually riding bikes.

The bikes, which are differentiated by color, are named "Redfin," "Bluetail," and "Greengill." For some reason, the model names and marketing puffery for the bikes are full of some kind of "fish" theme. "Let your scales shine brighter than the rest with Ted Baker/Quella . . . and ensure you never go with the flow."

That's right - be a salmon. Ride against traffic.
That's a modern seat lug without a doubt. Not Nervex.
Man, somebody did a job on that seat post, didn't they?
(photo from

The listed specs seem a bit off to me. For one thing, the claim is that the frames are built with Nervex lugs. They certainly aren't any of the better-known ornate lugs that Nervex was known for, though there were some more plain models made -- but the big question is where would anybody get an adequate supply of Nervex lugs for a production run of modern bikes? The lugs have been out of production for decades. If I had to guess, I'd say that somebody in the marketing department (probably somebody raised in the era of welded aluminum and molded carbon fiber frames) has heard people talk about vintage steel bikes with Nervex lugs, and came to the conclusion that any classic lugged bike had "Nervex lugs" so that's what they called 'em.

There are only two sizes available - which means that many people would have an awfully hard time fitting the bike properly. Be ready to break out those extra long, extra tall stems and seatposts. Here's the size chart:
Notice there is about a 5 or 6-in. range of suggested heights for each of the two frame sizes. Also, do the British have a completely baffling way of measuring frame angles, or is it just Quella? Head tube angle 73 degrees. Seat tube angle 56.8 degrees?!

Of course, I'm all for lugged steel frames, and head badges, Brooks saddles - and many other elements that a bike like this brings, but I could really do without the pretensions. By the way, BikeRadar calls the bike "the perfect accompaniment for any self-respecting cycling snob." That alone kind of caps it off for me.

The Ted Baker specials, with their copper plating (to match the rivets in the Brooks saddle!), their leather bar wrap, supposedly Nervex (but probably not) lugs, and their pretentious marketing are set to retail for $1995, direct from Quella, or from the Ted Baker store in London. No American dollar pricing is given, but the current exchange rate puts it at a little over $3000. Not horrible, but for that kind of money, if I wanted a modern-but-classic bit of British steel framebuilding, I'd probably check out Mercian cycles and get a truly handbuilt bike made to my specs and measurements.

So, am I being a Snob by reacting negatively to this overly style-conscious attempt to market a "modern classic" bike? Or am I an Anti-Snob reacting against a bike obviously being marketed to overly style-conscious bike snobs? That just might be tougher than the Riddle of the Sphinx.

Tuesday, September 8, 2015

Are You A Snob?

I took a goofy "self-assessment" quiz on BikeRadar the other day -- Are You A Cycling Snob? I found it deeply flawed, but readers might be interested in checking it out.

I actually had a hard time answering some of the questions because many of the possible answers were so ridiculous - and the "right" answer (at least for me) often wasn't among the options.

Here are some of the questions - and my responses:

Have you ever used the term chapeau in a non-ironic way?

OK - I'm trying to remember if I've ever used the word "chapeau" at all (other than just now). Being that my command of the French language is pitiful, I've never been tempted to substitute "chapeau" for "hat" or "cap." But more importantly - other than French people, WHO THE HELL DOES THIS?

Strava is . . .
The perfect opportunity to look down on others
A place to follow friends' achievements
Somewhere to log my ride data

What if my answer is "None of the Above"? Where was that option? Has Strava become so widespread that the editors couldn't conceive of anybody not using it? Or have I gotten so backward by avoiding it that I've ceased to exist?

Do you have a favorite chamois cream?
What's chamois cream?
Yes - one for cold wet days, and one for hot days
Whatever the shop was selling.

There is no option for "No." But I know what chamois cream is. I just don't bother with it. As retro-grouchy as I am, I generally don't bother with shorts that contain "real" chamois - and I've never been a fan of slathering my backside (or the garments that cover it) in goop.

How many cycling caps do you own?
I have a wide selection of caps, color matched to my various outfits
I wouldn't be caught dead in one
I have one or two, mostly to keep the sun out of my eyes

At least they're not calling them "chapeaus." I have a few - mostly for nostalgia. They don't match my outfits, and the brims are usually too short to do much about sun. The best reason I will wear one is to cover "sweaty helmet hair" if I have to get off the bike during a ride - to go into a shop or a restaurant, for instance. With no options to fit my answer, I figured the 3rd one came the closest.

Does your sock choice vary based on your kit selection?
I buy my socks together with the kit
Only to suit the weather
No, whatever is handy

How about "No, because that's stupid"? I had to go with "Only to suit the weather" because it seemed like the most practical answer. Cold weather, warm socks. Beyond that, they should be white.

I shave my legs because. . .
Why would I bother shaving my legs?
It's more aero, isn't it?
It's pro

I went with "Why bother. . . " But if someone does it, there are better reasons than "It's more aero" or "It's pro."

Sunglasses should be . . .
Protective against UV rays
Cycling specific

Give me option number 1, please.

Your stem position is. . .
Where the bike shop put it
Slammed, always
The best position biomechanically

Is "The best position biomechanically" the same thing as "Where it feels best for the kind of riding I'm doing"?

Leaders' jerseys and world championship stripes are . . .
For Grand Tour leaders and World Champions only
For avid race fans watching TV
For wearing on club runs

Why is there no option for "Pretentious"?

Italian bikes are . . .
Works of art
Overpriced rubbish
Finely crafted machines

I had to go with "finely crafted machines," though "works of art" can describe some of them.

Gran Fondos and sportives are for. . .
Racing with your friends
Sharing the road with fellow cyclists

I went with the last option, but I wanted an option to say "I don't do Gran Fondos."

You carry your drink in. . .
A bidon
A ring-pull can
A water bottle

Who drinks out of a ring-pull can on a bike ride? If we're talking about beer, it gets ruined on a bike ride. And unless your name is Jacques, you shouldn't be drinking out of anything other than a water bottle.

Pro kit is. . .
As pretentious as it comes
For looking like a pro
Cheap at the end of the season

This isn't really much different from the World Champion jersey question - but at least this time "pretentious" is one of the options.

Your favorite drink is. . .
Hand picked, heritage coffee beans, prepared by genuine Italian baristas, drunk from an espresso cup co-designed by your favorite pro cyclist.
Powdered and full of energy

Ummm . . . I'll take water, thanks. The "Hand picked, heritage coffee" answer is maybe a pretty good indicator of where bicycling is headed - or at least, in danger of heading - in this world where the cheerleading magazines call $9000 bikes "bargains."

What is your favorite frame material

That was the easiest question for me. Obviously I chose Carbon. Oops!

At the end of the test, I was given the following assessment:

Anti-Snob. You have a strong love of cycling but you hate the pretentious crowds with their caps and pulled-up socks -- you'd rather be out on your bike than sipping espressos.

You can take the test HERE, and if you do, come on back here and leave a comment to share your result.