Monday, September 30, 2013

Bucking the Trend

In my previous post, No Such Thing as Junk Miles, I wrote about how a lot of road bikes today are overly influenced by racing -- making them too narrowly focused for the needs of many people who otherwise could be well served by a good-quality road bike, but instead get steered into mountain bikes, "comfort" bikes, and cruisers because they don't want something that essentially boils down to a racing bike. There are exceptions, of course, and I thought I'd highlight a few bikes available today, to fit a range of budgets, that buck the current trends in bicycle design by being simple, comfortable, and versatile.

Surly Pacer (photo used with permission from Surly.)
Surly Bikes, a brand from Quality Bicycle Products (QBP -- which supplies many bike shops around the country), offers a couple of bikes that fit my description of versatile road bikes. They also are pretty affordable. Using chrome-moly frames, welded construction, and single-color powder coated finishes, they are not particularly fancy, but should prove to be durable and enjoyable. The Pacer is Surly's answer to the question "Why can't I just find a sporty, no-nonsense, comfortable road bike?" Something like this would be a good choice for someone who wants a nice road bike for spirited riding -- but who isn't trying to be the next big thing in Cat 5 racing. Then again, it's about as racy as a lot of high-end racing bikes from my youth. The folks at Surly say it's a bike for "all-day rides" and it will fit tires up to 32 mm, which is a nice thing. Tires make a huge difference in comfort. It has eyelets so one could add fenders (though I'm guessing it would only take 28 mm tires with fenders). Available as a complete bike, or as a frame set for a truly customized set-up. I've seen Pacer frame sets sell for around $500 - $550, and complete bikes about $1400.

Long Haul Trucker (photo used with permission from Surly)
Also from Surly is their Long Haul Trucker. This bike would be a great choice for long distance, loaded touring, commuting, and more. With slightly heavier-gauge tubing, it should handle heavy loads and anything else a person can throw at it as well. It can accept fenders and racks of all kinds and configurations. One particularly interesting thing about the LHT is that in many frame sizes, it can be ordered in either a 26" wheel or a 700c wheel version. (26" available from 42 to 62 cm frame, 700c available from 56 to 64 cm.). Considering that an awful lot of people out there ride mountain bikes that never leave the pavement, I really think that many people who might think they need a mountain bike would probably be suited just fine with a 26" wheeled LHT. Like the Pacer, it can be purchased as a complete bike, or as a frameset, which gives a person lots of options for tailoring the bike to their own specific needs. Equip it as modern or as "Retro-grouchy" as you like. Complete LHTs seem to average around $1300, while frame sets are likely to be found for $450 - $500.

A Velo-Orange Polyvalent, built to completion
with a lot of V-O branded components.
(photo used with permission from V-O)
Velo-Orange offers several models of nice road bike frames for buyers on a reasonable budget. Their Polyvalent and Campeur frame sets are both welded with butted chrome-moly tubing and painted in single-color paint jobs with tasteful, understated graphics. The Velo-Orange designs tend to have a classic French flavor, being influenced by great French road/touring bikes of a golden age. According to the V-O description, the Polyvalent Mk II (French for "general purpose") is designed for "cyclo-touring, brevets, and fast club rides." It is designed for 650b wheels (a size about half-way between 26" and 700c) which is a size that was often used on those golden-age French touring, or Randonneuring bikes. The Polyvalent is only available in four sizes, between 51 - 60 cm, which means very short or very tall riders may need to look to one of the other models. The Campeur frame is designed to be a very versatile bike, capable of loaded touring, or riding on pavement or path. It is designed for 700c wheels, and is available in sizes from 51 - 63 cm. Both bikes can be built up in a variety of configurations to suit many types of riding styles, and Velo-Orange can supply most of the parts needed to complete the bike (V-O has a full line of classic and traditional styled parts and accessories -- many with their own brand name). Some new, or newly re-designed models are in the works at V-O, like the Pass Hunter, and Camargue, and should be worth checking out once they're available. Current frame sets sell for about $500.

Soma San Marcos -- available as a frame set, but shown
here as a complete bike. (photo used with permission from Soma)
Soma Fabrications offers their San Marcos as a frame set so it can be built in a variety of ways, to suit anyone's particular needs or desires. Designed in conjunction with Rivendell (and also available from Rivendell) the San Marcos is built in Taiwan with lovely brazed lug construction and Tange Prestige chrome-moly tubing (excellent quality, heat-treated, butted tubes). It has provisions for racks and fenders, and room for large-volume tires (up to 35 mm) with long reach side-pull or center-pull brakes. This bike would be a great way to get the beauty of a lugged frame with Rivendell pedigree on a modest budget. With a smart nod to good frame fit and proportion, the San Marcos is designed for 650b wheels in the smaller frame sizes, and for 700c wheels in the larger ones. The two largest frame sizes have a double top-tube design to add strength. The San Marcos frame and fork sell for about $900, which is a bargain for a nice quality lugged frame. I should also point out that Soma has other frame sets available, a little more budget-conscious, that would be of interest to people shopping for classic-styled versatile bikes, like the Stanyan (which is also lugged steel), and the Buena Vista Mixte.

Sam Hilbourne (photo used with permission from Rivendell)
From Rivendell Bicycles comes the Sam Hillbourne, a Taiwanese-built frame and fork embodying Grant Petersen's design sensibility and Rivendell's lugs and fork crown. Described by Rivendell as a bike in-between a loaded tourer and a "roadish country bike," the Hillbourne should suit many kinds of riding on the road and even some trails -- a true all-arounder bike. Like the Soma San Marcos, it is designed for 650b wheels in the smallest size (51 cm), while the two largest sizes (58 cm and 62 cm) have the double top-tube for added strength. Compared to the Soma San Marcos, the Sam Hillbourne should fit slightly larger tires, has a little more "deluxe" detailing in the build and a fancier 2-tone paint job. It can be purchased as a frame set for $1,225, or as a built-to-order complete bike from Rivendell who can advise on component choices to fit the owner's preferences. The folks at Rivendell say a typical complete build would run approximately $2600, but it could vary depending on component choices.

A nice AHH example, outstanding in its field
(used with permission from owner Mel Hughes)
For riders after an extra nice, deluxe road bike, built from great materials, with a fantastic design, and brazed by some of the best craftsmen around (at Waterford in Wisconsin), there is Rivendell's A. Homer Hilsen. An uncommon name, but an uncommonly nice bike. For the same price as a "popped out of a mold" carbon fiber bike that's good for going fast and not much else, a person can get the AHH and have a timeless, durable, classic-looking bike that does all kinds of things well. In its design and geometry, the AHH is very similar to the Rivendell Long & Low that I've been riding and enjoying for the past 12 years -- the biggest difference being that the AHH takes long reach side-pull brakes instead of cantilevers. The AHH is a production-made bike, but it is about as close to fully custom as one can get without having a frame made-to-measure. It comes in a huge range of sizes -- between 47 and 71 cm. (typically in about 2 cm increments). Not many bikes are available beyond 65 cm (if even that) -- I'm not sure I can impress upon readers just how large that is -- if you're a 7 footer, this might be the only production frame you can find to fit. Sizes from 47 - 58 are built for 650b wheels, while larger sizes are designed for 700c. Sizes from 65 - 71 include the double top-tube design, which really makes sense in frames that large. The frame and fork cost $2300 (frames from 65 cm - 71 cm are $2400). It comes only in blue, but one may be able to order different colors for an extra charge.

All the bikes I've mentioned here would be much more versatile than many of the road bikes out there today that take too much of their design influence from racing bikes. The Surly Pacer is probably the "sportiest" bike I've listed, and it's still miles more versatile than most carbon-fiber wunderbikes on the showroom floors. Most of the bikes I've mentioned will take pretty large volume tires (a huge boon for comfort) and can fit fenders easily. All of them are built from chrome-moly steel which is tough, safe, durable, and repairable. They should all be good for a lifetime of riding.

Of all the bikes I've highlighted here, the Surly bikes may be the easiest to find at a local bike shop as they have a pretty extensive dealer network, and because QBP supplies so many shops around the country. Soma bicycles don't have as large of a dealer network so it's possible they might not have a dealer in everyone's area -- but their online web store is easy to use. Velo-Orange has a growing dealer network, and everything they sell is also available from their website -- I've ordered a lot from V-O over the years and their packing and shipping are first rate. Rivendell does have dealers scattered around the country, though not many -- but their website sales and over-the-phone customer service are tops.

It's possible that someone might want one of the bikes or brands I've mentioned, but not have a dealer in their area. If that person isn't confident in their ability to order the "right" bike/frame/components for their needs, and because I strongly value supporting local bicycle dealers, I'd suggest asking a favorite dealer if they'd be willing and/or able to help with or handle the order, even if they aren't regularly a dealer of that brand (it can't hurt to ask) -- and be willing and ready to pay for their assistance -- it will be worthwhile.

Friday, September 27, 2013

No Such Thing as Junk Miles

This isn't necessarily a Retrogrouch issue, but something tells me that a self-avowed Retrogrouch would be more likely to take notice of it. By adhering to a "code" of simplicity and embracing bicycles, componentry, and technology that those on the "cutting edge" of the sport would find outmoded, we tend to be drawn to bicycles that are, by their very nature, more practical and versatile -- useful for more than just racing or "training." For example, even the lightest, most advanced, "professional" racing bikes of the '70s and early '80s were probably more versatile in many ways than a lot of fast road bikes today -- capable of fitting larger tires and maybe even fenders; with pedals that didn't require dedicated shoes, and geometry that didn't force the rider into a neck-straining deep crouch.

I mentioned in my post about traditional pedals that once I got past the need to "suit up" any time I even thought about riding my bike, I started riding my bike a lot more. I started riding to the store, running errands, riding with the kids, or even just zipping around the neighborhood -- without feeling like the ride needed to be anything more than a chance to get out on my bike. I've heard people dismissively refer to rides like that as "junk miles." Think about what that term implies: only one kind of ride is of value -- only a ride that is part of a training regimen; everything else is "junk." The whole notion is kind of insulting, really.

The term "junk miles" I think is really significant, as it represents an attitude about bikes that actually goes against the very things that make bicycles great. In some ironic way, it's almost an "anti-bicycle" point of view, and it's elitist. Those who are racing, or training, riding on the most expensive and exclusive bikes, looking down on the rest. And these attitudes go hand-in-hand with the trends that keep making bicycles more complex, more expensive, and more narrowly-focused -- all of which I believe take bicycles and bicycling farther and farther away from the real virtues that they should embody.

Racing, and training for races, is only a small segment of the bicycling universe, especially when one sees how bikes are used worldwide. Most people who ride bikes don't race and have no intention of doing so. For a long time, bicycles for touring were considered the pinnacle of road-bike desirability. Now, many road bikes, even those that claim to be designed for soaking up long miles in comfort, are overly influenced by the racing and training mindset. Low bars. Skinny tires with no room for wider. No room for fenders, either. And the bikes become so narrowly focused, that they lack any versatility whatsoever.

 I believe there are a lot of people who might like riding -- like they enjoyed as a kid -- but they're afraid they have to become some kind of Lance Armstrong wannabe to do it. (Sorry if the Lance Armstrong reference seems dated, but he's still the only bike racer most Americans can name). While a good, comfortable, simple and versatile road bike should really be all the bike most people need, such a bike is hard to find. Instead, if someone doesn't want to go the racy road bike route, often their alternative is a mountain bike which is heavy and poorly suited for the road, some kind of so-called "hybrid" or "comfort bike," probably sporting heavy and unnecessary suspension, or a tank-like cruiser that isn't useful for much more than a couple of short (and hopefully flat) miles.

When it comes to road bikes, the needs of a glamorous (and perhaps elitist) few end up driving the design of a whole segment of the bicycle market. And I don't believe those values draw more people to cycling. We just keep selling more and more expensive, more technical and more specialized gear to the same people who already have expensive, technical, and specialized gear. It's basically pretty insular, and makes bicycling and bicyclists seem more "other" -- separated not only from those who refuse to go even a mile without their cars, but even from those who might otherwise want to ride. The more we, as riders, view the bicycle as just a training tool, and our rides as a means to prepare for this race, or that century, or the big gran fondo, the more "alien" we become to those who might otherwise consider riding for practicality, for commuting, and simply for enjoyment.

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Versatile Pedals - Not Just a Retrogrouch Thing

The year was 1985. Bernard Hinault, riding on the latest "clipless" pedals from LOOK, joined an elite group of 5-time Tour de France champions. From that point on, toe-clip pedals became a thing of the past.

Well. . . not entirely.

I'm not going to go on a total Retrogrouch diatribe against clipless pedals in this post and try to argue breathlessly that toe-clip pedals are better. Clipless pedals are fine. I use them. They have their place. But I still like and use traditional toe-clip pedals for a lot of my riding. There are a lot of situations for which I simply prefer them. I thought I'd take this post to discuss some of the things I like about traditional pedals, and to show some of the pedals I like.

First, with so many choices in clipless pedals, why would anyone but a self-avowed Retrogrouch still use toe-clips? One reason: Versatility. Traditional pedals are simply more versatile than the click-in variety. No special shoes needed. With traditional pedals, whatever you're wearing becomes riding footwear. Sneakers. Casual shoes. Sandals. Whatever. In fact, once one gets past the need to wear special cycling-specific shoes (many of which necessitate the "duck walk"), one pretty quickly realizes they don't really need cycling-specific clothing all the time, either. Speaking for myself, once I got over the need to "suit up" for every ride, I found I started riding a lot more. Trips to the grocery store. Chinese take-out runs. Library. Pharmacy. There are lots of things I used to do with my car that now are another chance to get on my bike.

For rides over about ten miles, at faster than a casual pace, I do of course wear cycling clothes, including shoes. But out of a collection of roughly a dozen bikes, only my "fastest" and most narrowly-focused road bike has clipless pedals. The rest have toe-clips. My main commuting bike has toe-clips, and for my roughly 14 mile commute I wear classic-looking traditional touring cycling shoes that give me the benefit of stiff-soled riding shoes, but also let me walk more or less "normally." I'll wear cycle-specific clothes for the commute, but change into professional wear at work.

Let me show some of the pedals I use and enjoy:

The classic Campagnolo Superleggeri pedals from Italy (above). Here's a set I have that is still brand new in the box. I have identical sets on several bikes. Great pedals all around -- made from the 1970s through the 80s. Many other companies made (and some still make) pedals that were basically knock-offs of these. But Campagnolo bearings are about as good as they come, so in that regard, they'll last a long, long time. These are distinguished from the otherwise very similar Nuovo Record pedals by their black anodized aluminum cages. (The NR pedals, available at least since the 1960s, had chromed steel cages). There was another version, called the Super Record which are distinguished by their titanium spindles, but otherwise look pretty much the same as these. People often confuse the SL with the SR pedals. And now that I've pointed out the difference, I'm sure some Campagnolo expert out there is going to write and tell me I got it wrong. It's happened before. 
TA Specialties quill pedals (above). Made in France. In many ways, these are even better than the Campagnolo pedals above. With a combination of precision ball and needle bearings, they could potentially last forever -- maybe even longer than the Campys -- and they have a cool little grease fitting at the end for easy maintenance. Everything on these is replaceable -- the bearings, the cages, even the little flip tab on the back (the one that makes it easy to flip the pedal up to get your foot into it). These are pretty hard to find nowadays. I'm not even sure they still make them, and if they do, it's possible they no longer export them to the US. I use these on my Rivendell Long & Low.

Mid 80s Campagnolo Chorus platform pedals (2 pictures, above). I use these on my commuter bike. Yes, my friends at my local bike shop joke about the fact that even my "commuter bike" is fully Campagnolo equipped. What can I say? What I like about platform pedals like these is that they work really nicely with touring-style shoes because they offer a bit more support under the sole. In that way, they'll even work well with sneakers and other non-cycling-specific shoes. Looking closely, one may see that these have laminated Cinelli toe straps (no stretching!) with a sweet little buckle pad on the outside.

Campagnolo Croce d'Aune TBS (triple bearing system) pedals. Mid 80s vintage. These are ideal for fixed-gear track bikes because of the tapered spindle -- notice, no dustcap at the end. That allowed a bit more clearance when cornering (dragging a pedal on a fixed-gear bike is not a good experience). These use a combination of ball and needle bearings to help support the shortened spindle. Really cool-looking pedals, and pretty hard to find these days. Something tells me that somebody's going to write and tell me that the toe strap is routed wrong. I'm not sure there's a better way to do it on these -- if there is, it isn't obvious.
MKS Sylvan pedals. Made in Japan. Basically a knock-off of the Campagnolo SL pedals above. These ones are the "short cage" version, which is modeled on the track version of the Campagnolo pedals. These are good quality, but inexpensive pedals for daily riders, and MKS still makes 'em. They also have a full-cage version that looks almost exactly like the SL pedals shown above, and a slightly wider "touring" version which lacks the little flip tab and is probably better for use without toe clips.
MKS Urban Platform pedals. I don't have a pair of these, but they'd be a great choice for around-town riding. With a nice, flat base and that big, wide flip tab, they'd be excellent for riding in "normal" shoes. They do accept toe-clips, too (they really wouldn't be ideal to use without the toe-clips). These are derived from (not an exact copy of) an old French model, the Lyotard "Marcel Berthet" pedal -- loved by touring riders for years, but no longer available. These Japanese-made pedals are probably cheaper than a nice used set of the original Lyotards from eBay. (photo from
White Industries Urban Pedal. Made in USA. Another design essentially based on the Lyotard "Marcel Berthet" pedals, but in this case, rendered in super high quality CNC'd aluminum with precision sealed cartridge bearings. Very nice. Not cheap. (photo from
Those last few pedals, I think, show that good quality, traditional pedals are alive and well. Velo-Orange and Soma Fabrications are a couple of good online sources for them, but check the local bike shop, too.

Some people will still wonder why anyone would still use traditional pedals. I hear it all the time: "They don't hold your feet securely." "You won't be able to pull up on the pedals." "They're harder to get in and out of." But I don't see any of these things as issues.

The notion that feet must be attached firmly to pedals is a bit of a myth in most cases. I find that my feet are held more than securely enough with traditional pedals, even with non-cycling shoes. The only time I've ever pulled (or nearly pulled) a foot out of a pedal unintentionally was on a fixed-gear bike going up a hill way too steep for the gear I had, and with the toe straps completely loose. It was a complete tactical error in judgement, and not something that happens in most riding (and my foot still didn't come out, and I still made it up the hill without incident).

Can't pull up on the pedals? Thing is, we don't really pull up on the pedals as much as we "un-weight" the pedal on the upstroke. Grant Petersen busts that myth pretty thoroughly in his book Just Ride. Read it.

Harder to get in and out of? OK, so on one hand people fear the pedals are too easy to pull out of. On the other hand they're too hard to get out of? I actually find traditional pedals just as easy to get into as clipless pedals, maybe even a little easier, but that might be because I use them so much more. It's a different movement than with clipless, but no harder really. The other thing I've found is this: if I'm taking off at a light and have trouble getting into a toe-clip pedal, I can still get myself going well even if my foot isn't properly "in" the pedal. But with clipless pedals, that is much harder to do. The cleat/pedal "target" is much smaller, and if one doesn't get lined up just right, or if the cleat doesn't engage properly, it's really hard to get going without a foot slipping off. Banged up shins are the likely result.

As far as getting a foot out of toe-clip pedals, if one is riding with old-style slotted cleats and cinches the straps down tight, it can be hard to pull a foot out in an emergency -- but how often does that happen? Secondly, it really isn't necessary to tighten the straps that much -- as I've already pointed out, it's a bit of a myth that we need to be so firmly attached to the pedals. If riding in touring-type shoes, and with the straps only semi-tight, getting out of the pedals is no problem at all.

So as I've already pointed out -- I'm not arguing that traditional toe-clip pedals are superior to clipless. I have no problem with clipless pedals in all their various forms and guises. But I still value the versatility of traditional pedals, and I'm really glad that there are still at least a few companies out there who still make good quality toe-clip pedals for road bikes. For a lot of riding -- especially any riding that isn't racing -- traditional pedals are a classy choice that make a bike so much more than an expensive, narrowly focused training device.

Monday, September 23, 2013

Get the Brakes off the Rim and the Rim Won't Break

I explored disc brakes vs. rim brakes pretty thoroughly in my post, Putting on the Brakes –Part Two. In it, I pointed out that disc brakes offer somewhat better wet-condition braking, but somewhat inferior braking power under most other conditions, and much less modulation overall than good rim brakes. They are also much more prone to heat-induced fade and heat-warped rotors. But in the name of “progress,” the push to get them on more road bikes continues.

The attitude expressed by the component manufacturers is that bikes are behind the times. Cars and motorcycles have so much advanced technology, so why shouldn’t bikes follow suit? (see Bikes Aren’t Cars). One manufacturer even goes so far as to say that current braking technology for bicycles is from the “dark ages” (someone needs to study history better -- the Anglo-Saxons would've killed for some dual-pivot sidepulls). But beyond the belief that disc brakes are “new” so they must be “better,” is there anything else behind the trend?

I have a theory: Carbon fiber rims don’t make good brake surfaces. Ok, that’s not really a theory – that’s just a simple fact. But if the wheel manufacturers like Mavic, Enve, Reynolds, Zipp, HED, et. al. want to keep selling their $1000 - $5000 all-carbon wheelsets to weight-obsessed (and image-obsessed) roadies, then they need to do something about the crappy braking and shattering rims.

Fact: Braking on carbon-rimmed wheels is nowhere near as good as on aluminum rims. Braking on carbon-rimmed clincher wheels may be downright dangerous.
(reprinted with permission from Red Kite Prayer
Even with the special brake pads (required with carbon rims), braking distances are longer. (In the wet, they’re flat-out awful). Worse, the heat generated from braking on carbon rims builds up much faster than on aluminum rims. Combine that heat with the outward pressure (over 100 psi) on the rim’s sidewalls coming from clincher tires, and catastrophic (explosive!) failure ensues. Just urban legend? If only. Lots of carbon fans would like to ignore it, but the failures keep piling up. Many (including some of the manufacturers) would like to blame inexperienced riders, while others point fingers at one brand or another. But at last year’s Levi’s Gran Fondo in California, the organizers actually warned participants to please leave the carbon fiber clincher wheels at home because of the well-documented failures.

The all-carbon tubular wheels apparently aren’t as prone to these blowout failures because the pressure is better contained within the tire’s sewn up casing and not pushing outward on the rim sidewalls. But superheated rims aren't good for tubular tire glue, either. And the braking performance on these rims is still lousy, which isn’t much of a selling point – although it isn’t hurting sales so far, is it? Style and image trump safety and reliability (If you don't agree, people call you a retrogrouch! That's why I gladly embrace the name). And the life expectancy still has to be much shorter than on a good set of aluminum rims. Picture this: a tiny speck of grit gets lodged in a brake pad. Every time the brakes are applied, that little speck starts working a tiny gouge in the sidewall of the rim. If that rim is aluminum, one will probably notice it by the sound and clean the brake pad – but even if they don’t, it would take a long while before that grit could seriously damage the wheel. The damage would occur slowly and be much more likely to be caught before an actual failure would occur. But if the rim is carbon, that little speck of grit will do much more damage much more quickly. Putting a deep scratch into the carbon fiber will create a stress riser, leading to rapid delamination of the carbon in no time flat.

Enter disc brakes. Get the brakes off the rim, and then the rim won’t break.

So it isn’t really an issue where the new technology is actually superior to the old (as is the usual argument) but rather, the new technology is addressing problems caused by the previous new technology.

This is typical of the supposed “advancements” that drive the bicycle industry today. New technology supposedly improves this component or that one. The new “improvement” (note the quotes; in many cases it’s marginal) comes with side effects not previously experienced with the “old” technology. Maybe it's simply not the huge advancement that it's hyped as. Or maybe there are failures. So another new “improvement” comes along to address the side effects caused by the previous “improvement" which exposes another weak link or raises another previously nonexistent problem, and another and another and the process repeats. Of course, none of the ads describe it this way. Instead, they point to meaningless gains in "lateral stiffness" and "vertical compliance" or some other ridiculous marketing buzzwords. How else do you explain why headsets and fork steerers keep getting bigger? And bottom brackets? Handlebar diameters?

And so it is with wheels and brakes. Aluminum rims and rim brakes work fine; the rims are strong, last long, and fail rarely. But they’re “old” and we want “new.” Carbon fiber rims are introduced and the trend followers are swift to join in. But the brakes don’t work, the rims don’t last, and they fail. The brake manufacturers introduce new brake pad materials that help, but not much. The wheel manufacturers play with new “weaves” and finishes that help, but not enough. The carbon wheels keep failing. People point fingers, and in the meantime, cyclists with money to burn keep “upgrading” components that they just upgraded the previous season. Now the brake manufacturers are pushing disc brakes – not because they’re superior to rim brakes (as they claim) – but because they solve the problems that were created by pushing carbon rims onto the market. And the wheel manufacturers will get to sell new wheels that accommodate brake rotors (and the rims will probably be shaved even lighter now -- another big selling point to the target market). And the bike manufacturers get to sell new bikes because the new brakes can’t be installed on last year’s frame. And the whole industry is happy. It’s very symbiotic, really . . . kind of beautiful.

Is it any wonder there aren’t more Retrogrouches out there?

Saturday, September 21, 2013

Campagnolo Tools

One of the great things about classic, vintage bikes and time-tested components is being able to take care of them yourself. Classic cup and cone ball bearing hubs, headsets, and bottom brackets require a certain amount of maintenance, but that maintenance is not difficult, and the components can potentially last longer than their "maintenance free" sealed bearing counterparts. And for me, working on bikes is just part of the allure, and a great way to clear my head. Maintaining a bicycle can be almost therapeutic in a way. I remember reading Robert Pirsig's Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance -- which Pirsig himself explained wasn't really meant to be a primer on Zen Buddhism, nor was it very helpful in understanding motorcycles. But I believe that bicycle maintenance, on the other hand, might really be a path to enlightenment.

When it comes to maintaining a bicycle, of course, the right tools are important, and unfortunately most of the necessary tools aren't available at the local Sears, Lowes, Home Depot, or even your old-fashioned family-owned hardware store (the one with the creaky wooden floorboards and that awesome smell that seems to be a mixture of sawdust, gear oil, and plumbers putty). Cone wrenches, headset spanners, bottom bracket tools, 3rd and 4th-hand tools (for brakes), freewheel and cassette removers, crank pullers and more -- all are needed for basic bicycle maintenance, and available only from the bike shop. Look for bicycle-specific tools today, and one will mostly find tools by Park or Pedros -- fine tools, no doubt -- but the most sought-after tools for classic bike enthusiasts and retrogrouches are the ones made by Campagnolo of Italy.

The Holy Grail - as shown in one of Campagnolo's
old catalogs. A place for everything,
and everything in its place.
In addition to making virtually all of the components needed to build a complete bicycle (except stems and handlebars, interestingly), Campagnolo also made all the tools necessary to build and maintain the bicycle -- including the thread-cutting tools and alignment tools needed to prepare a new frame set to receive components. The tools were available individually, but the ultimate collection -- the holy grail -- was the full kit which came packed in a beautiful wooden case.

These full tool kits were available with cutters for either English or Italian threading. Find a complete kit in the case today (used!) and expect to pay several thousand dollars. As I was writing this, I spotted one on eBay, brand new -- the cutters still had wax on them from the factory -- listed for over $5000. I've seen just the wooden cases, devoid of any tools whatsoever, sell for $500 or more.

I don't have the full kit. (Sigh).

I do, however, have a pretty nice collection of individual Campagnolo tools -- most of the tools for basic maintenance, minus the cutters needed for frame preparation. I use them regularly. Let me take some time to show some of the tools I have, use, and love.
Headset and Bottom Bracket Spanners (from top): BB pin spanner and headset combination; BB lockring spanner and headset combination; BB fixed cup and pedal wrench combination.
A really useful set (from left): Offset seatpost and saddle wrench (for adjusting Nuovo Record 2-bolt seat posts and the tension bolt on Brooks leather saddles); T-wrench (6 mm allen/8mm socket -- really useful for many components); 5mm allen wrench (often called the "pregnant" wrench); Pedal spanner (for pedal dust caps and locknuts); Chainring bolt spanner (to hold the back of chainring bolts while tightening with the 5mm allen wrench); Cone wrenches - two each, 13/14 combination and 15/16 combination.
An interesting mix: (from top left) C-Record hub dustcap remover; Spoke wrench; "Special Brake Spanner" (that's what it's called); Pedal bearing cone spanner (that's a hard one to find -- but nice to have!); Pedal dust cap tool; 17mm/23mm combination spanner; And crank removing tools: One-key release crank puller (with allen wrench); and pin tool (for removing the one-key release bolt, as well as certain dust caps); Crank puller; 15mm crank bolt wrench -- aka Peanut Butter Wrench. Legend has it that the crank bolt wrench took on its "culinary" use with bike racers who were travelling to races and needed to improvise when preparing quick meals on the road. I don't know if anyone actually ever used one to spread peanut butter, or if they just thought it looked useful in that way. All I know is that it is also really useful for tightening or loosening axle nuts on track hubs.
Headset tools (from top): Fork crown race setter; Head tube bearing race remover; Fork crown race remover.
Wheel dishing tool (top) and Derailleur hanger alignment tool. 
Great tools, all of them. I managed to get a lot of mine when an old bike shop, Al's in Cleveland, was going out of business after about 40 or 50 years. I had gotten to know the owner, Al, in the last few years -- he had a reputation for being pretty "gruff" and not the friendliest guy in the business, but I think he took a liking to me. When he was closing up, I bought a bunch of his tools -- some brand new, some used. I've been filling in gaps and adding to the collection over the years keeping my eyes open on eBay for the tools that I'm missing.

Last but not least: I'm not just a fan of great classic bikes -- I also love good wine. When work is over and it's time to relax, nothing pulls open a bottle of red better than Campagnolo's specially designed and built cork puller. Much larger than most, it stays perfectly centered on the neck of the bottle, and the specially designed screw cuts cleanly into the cork without breaking it. The bolts that hold the two arms are Campagnolo chainring bolts. A nice, collectible piece that comes packed in a classy wooden box. Yes, it makes very nice, easy work of pulling corks. An indulgence, but one I had to get.

Friday, September 20, 2013

Putting on the Brakes -- Part Two

In my last post, I looked at the latest and greatest thing in brakes for road bikes – hydraulic rim brakes – which stop the bike roughly the same way as the brakes we already have, except that they are operated with hydraulic fluid instead of cables. Readers will be glad to know that this new “breakthrough” lifts bicycles out of the “dark ages” where they have “languished with the likes of horse shoes and buggy whips” (actual SRAM ad copy). Indeed. According to the folks at SRAM, we should now be able to engage in space exploration with our bicycles, or something like that. It all just kind of makes my head hurt. And it’s almost enough to even make BikeSnobNYC into a Retrogrouch.

Today, I’d like to look at the other trend in braking that is making its way onto more road bikes today: disc brakes.
Coming soon to a road bike near you!
(but probably not one of mine)

People who are familiar with cars are well aware how much of an improvement disc brakes are over the drum brakes they replace. Discs are used on all high performance cars today, and on most normal passenger cars and trucks – at least on the front (some less expensive models still use drums on the back). Discs offer better stopping power, better modulation, and are less prone to overheating, and therefore less prone to fade under hard braking. Most motorcycles use disc brakes now too, for the same reasons.

Knowing what an improvement they make on cars, they should obviously be much better for bicycles, right? Well. . . that’s not so clear and easy. Keep in mind that the force necessary to stop a 3-4000 lb. car is many times higher than what’s needed to stop a bicycle. Given the options available, disc brakes are the best one found that can handle that task on cars. Current technology rim brakes manage the task on bicycles so well that it’s hard to really improve them very much.

What exactly are the problems with rim brakes that disc brakes are supposed to solve? Here are two: First, when riding in wet and muddy conditions where the wheel rim – which is also the braking surface – is constantly sloshing through the mud and water, rim brakes can lose some of their effectiveness. One applies the brakes, and the brake pads first have to essentially “squeegee” the rims clean before they can really begin to grab. This is why disc brakes have been sweeping through the mountain bike world. OK, score one for discs.

Second, on long fast descents, if one isn't careful in their brake use, the rims can become hot enough to cause a tire blowout. A legitimate concern, although that’s one of those things one hears more warnings about than actual incidents (I’m not saying it doesn't happen, but I've never met or even heard of anyone it’s actually happened to). I do believe tire blowouts from overheated rims would be more of a danger with a heavily loaded touring bike or on a tandem – either of which can generate some pretty serious momentum on a long mountain descent. That is why many tandems are equipped with some type of “drag brake” – either a drum or disc brake – to scrub off some speed without overheating the rims – but even then, rim brakes are often used for most of the stopping duties and are more than effective enough in most conditions even with the extra weight of a tandem.

That’s two problems with rim brakes, both “solved” by disc brakes – but not completely, and not without other drawbacks.

Look at the wet weather problem. Getting the brake surface up out of the water and mud means stopping power should be degraded less. That's good, but brake performance is still diminished in wet conditions, just not as much as with rim brakes. Then again, I've seen tests that show rim brakes still stop faster and more controllably in most other conditions. Bicycle Quarterly, which I believe is more independent than most bicycling publications, does tests that are more objective, with more measurable and repeatable results -- and they found that under most conditions good rim brakes stop faster and more predictably than discs, despite the claims by the manufacturers. (Vol. 11, No. 4, Summer 2013)

What about the heat problem? Well, as I've already pointed out, that’s more likely to be a problem on heavily loaded bikes and tandems – and even then, only if they’re being ridden over exceptionally hilly terrain. Most road bikes aren't subjected to those conditions, and most people don’t ride the kinds of long mountain passes that would be able to generate that kind of heat. And heat buildup is still a problem with disc brakes – it just presents itself in a different way – in the form of warped rotors and dangerous fade. That's right -- the very same thing that makes disc brakes superior to drums on cars makes them actually inferior to rim brakes on bicycles!

When it comes to disc brakes, one important factor in their performance is the size of the brake disc, or rotor. All other things being equal, the larger the rotor, the more surface area it has, and the better it will handle heat -- all of which mean better stopping power with less fade. One thing people overlook about rim brakes on bicycles is that functionally they ARE disc brakes. The wheel rim is the rotor -- a huge rotor that is 622 mm in diameter (559 for MTBs), as opposed to 140 - 200 mm diameter as found on most disc brakes. And those disc brake rotors are only a couple of millimeters thick. One doesn't need to be descending mountain passes to overheat those rotors to the point of warping. A few hard stops, or dragging the brakes on even a moderate hill can heat the rotors up to the point that they will blister skin (so don't touch 'em!). That heat means warping and fade -- both of which are every bit as bad for braking and safety as a blown tire, and perhaps more likely to happen because the heat builds up so much faster. The manufacturers could make them to better withstand the heat, but that would mean making the rotors much thicker and larger and therefore much heavier and nobody would want them.

Then there are other problems with disc brakes, such as poor modulation. Good quality rim brakes have terrific modulation -- smooth, linear, and predictable. Many independent tests (like the BQ one I mentioned) find such modulation to be lacking in disc brakes. I've ridden bikes equipped with mechanical disc brakes and found them to be incredibly "grabby." It was as though they had only two "speeds": Go and Stop RIGHT NOW! Even a light touch was easily enough to lock up the wheels -- too easy. It's possible that hydraulic versions might offer better feel or linear control, but the jury's still out on that one.

It seems to me that disc brakes are also more finicky about adjustment. Of the bikes I tried with them, I found one of them had brake pads that must have been out of adjustment to the point of constantly and audibly scuffing on the disc with every rotation, and no amount of fiddling could get it to go away. The other bike had, to my estimation, a slightly warped rotor (which seems to be a fact of life with discs), which led to more scuffing and a bit of "shudder" while braking -- much worse than I've experienced with rim brakes on an out-of-true rim. These were not old abused and neglected bikes, either.

So let me summarize the disc brake vs. rim brake pros and cons: Disc brakes offer somewhat improved stopping power in wet conditions, but somewhat less stopping power in most other conditions, along with inferior modulation. Disc brakes make heat-induced tire blowouts (which I believe may be fairly rare) virtually impossible, but make heat-induced rotor warping and fade much more likely. I think we'll continue to see disc brakes on mountain bikes, where some may feel the strengths outweigh the weaknesses, but even on a mountain bike I think I'd prefer a good set of cantilever rim brakes to get the best possible brake feel and feedback. Discs may be a good choice on urban commuter bikes, especially those that are ridden in wet climates and are rarely pushed to the limit. Discs may make a good "drag-brake" for tandems. But on a performance road bike, give me a set of good rim brakes, whether side pulls or cantilevers, any time.

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Putting on the Brakes

One of the latest pushes to make bikes more like cars and motorcycles comes in the form of disc and hydraulic brakes. The industry’s marketers and advertisers tout the supposed advantages. Pros (who are paid to ride the stuff) give testimonials to their effectiveness. The bicycle press jumps on with glowing praise for the latest and greatest trend, making claims that simply are not substantiated. With hype piled upon hype year after year for every new “breakthrough” in a constant quest to make the bike we own today obsolete tomorrow, it’s amazing to me that there aren't more Retrogrouches out there.

Take a look at SRAM's new hydraulic rim brakes. Here's what their website says about them: "Road braking has remained in the dark ages. Sure, they're shinier and lighter, but rudimentary. While frame and drive train development has been the stuff of modern space exploration, road braking has languished with the likes of horse shoes and buggy whips." Wow. All I can guess from that assessment is that these guys don't really like bikes that much. Next thing you know, they'll be criticizing bicycles for not having engines. 

And then there's this review of those same new hydraulic brakes from Velo News“I’ve been riding a lot of mountain descents on them the past three weeks and find them to be confidence-inspiring. SRAM claims that Mark Cavendish said they saved him from crashing in the big stage 1 pileup in the Tour de France on Corsica. I had a jogger jump out in front of me on the Boulder Creek Bike Path and I stopped on a dime without skidding.

What I love about that quote is how it manages to combine the marketer’s typical puffery, the pro’s testimonial, and the press reviewer’s dewy but unsupportable accolades all in three little sentences. It’s like a grand slam of spurious praise.

SRAM Red Hydraulic rim brakes:
approx. $480 + 625 for the levers! 
Think about the claims. The beautiful thing about them is that as impressive as they sound, they are essentially impossible to either refute or support. Cavendish claims the hydraulic brakes “saved” him from the big pileup. Prove they didn't. There’s no way to know that he couldn't have avoided that pileup just as well with cable-operated brakes. Then again, other riders avoided the pileup – presumably they didn't all have the latest hydraulic brakes. The reviewer from Velo News, Leonard Zinn, claims he “stopped on a dime without skidding.” I wonder, does Zinn usually plow right into those pesky joggers? I’m guessing not. Considering the fact that the hydraulic-operated brakes still work by squeezing the rim in almost exactly the same way as the cable-operated versions, and using the same brake pads on the same rims, then how can one rely on anecdotal evidence to say that one version stops the bike more effectively than the other?

So, if these hydraulic brakes are simply squeezing the same rims with the same pads, what supposedly makes hydraulic actuated brakes better than cable ones? Is it the hand force/lever effort needed to stop the bike? While the necessary force on the lever may be lightened somewhat with hydraulic brakes, the effort with today’s dual-pivot cable-op brakes is still light enough for even the most delicate of hands. Do hydraulic brakes offer significantly better modulation to stop controllably without locking up the wheel and skidding? Again, proper modulation is certainly not hard to achieve with high-quality cable brakes with good pads. And ham-fisted application of brakes can lock up the wheels whether using cable or hydraulic versions.
Last year's Red brake calipers: $175 at Nashbar.

With cars, and motorcycles to a somewhat lesser extent, switching from cable-operated to hydraulic-operated brakes made a huge difference. But the weight difference, and therefore the force and energy needed for stopping, between bicycles, motorcycles and cars is hundreds and even thousands of pounds. The improvement with cars was obvious, because there was so much room to improve. The difference between these two types of brakes on a bicycle simply cannot be that great.

I’d like to see a scientific study to look at actual braking performance between the two kinds of brakes, but since both types work essentially the same way (at least where the pads meet the rims) I’m guessing that actual braking distances will be similar. As for “feel,” that’s much harder to quantify and can be open to much more opinion, but any differences will be purely subjective.
Or spend about $50 on these Tektros,
upgrade to better pads for $15, and just
enjoy riding with more money in your pocket. 

Then there’s maintenance. If one rides in rain and mud a lot, brake cables may need to be removed and lubed once in a while. It takes seconds and any home mechanic can handle it. Hydraulic brakes need to be “bled” with a special syringe. I've bled brakes on motorcycles and cars – it can be tricky and messy. And, while a basic cable brake lever is a fairly simple piece of equipment, a brake lever with a brake fluid master cylinder is not such a simple thing. I've had them go bad on motorcycles, and replacing them was really the only option, as repairing them wasn't a job for the home mechanic.

And then there's the cost. For a tiny increase in braking "feel" (again, assuming there is any) and what probably amounts to similar stopping power, is it worth hundreds of dollars over a good pair of dual-pivot cable-operated brakes and some good brake pads? Maybe having more money in your pockets adds too much weight?

So to my mind, hydraulic brakes are just the latest case of a minuscule, incremental improvement (if at all) being hyped as a major advancement – with the intent that we’ll all rush out and buy new bikes because the bikes we bought last year are already obsolete – and the result being yet another thing that we won’t be able to fix ourselves should it go wrong.

Sunday, September 15, 2013

Retrogrouch Ride: Rivendell Long-Low

I thought I’d share some pictures and info about one of my favorite bikes. A Curt Goodrich-built Rivendell Long-Low from about 2001.
Long and Low - among the strawberry plants.
I'm proud of those fender lines.
I purchased this as a frameset new and direct from Rivendell, although it was not built specifically to my order, as most Riv-badged bikes are. This was listed on the Rivendell website as a special offer and was available for immediate delivery – no waiting – although there was no real explanation of its story. It was exactly the size I’d have wanted, and was very much what I might have ordered if I’d have been able to custom-order a Rivendell. The best part? It was $500 less than the starting price for a new Riv frame.

Some interesting details about the frame: The head lugs are a bit different from most Riv-badged bikes. The points are rounded and shorter, and the lugs don’t have as many hooks and swirls. In fact, the head lugs are the same as were used on the first generation of the Rivendell-designed, Japanese-built Atlantis and Rambouillet production frames – although the lugs had a little extra cutting and shaping to make them a little more “special.” According one of Rivendell's flyers from 2002, they would sometimes use the Atlantis lugs on a Rivendell if the particular geometry called for it. One other thing that makes the frame different from other Rivendells I've seen is the fork crown. Rivendell bikes usually have really interesting flat-topped fork crowns – this one has a much more plain semi-sloping crown. I've identified it from RR 23 (June-ish 2001) as a Long Shen LC-17, and according to that article, it was used on many Rivendells, but I've never seen another one with it (I'm guessing they were used on some of the earlier bikes, but by 1998 or 99, I believe most were using the Riv-designed flat crowns). It’s still nice, but the overall effect with the lugs and fork crown is a more understated frame than most of its brethren, which suits me fine.
Atlantis Lugs 
The frame is built for cantilever brakes and has huge clearances for tires and fenders. I have it equipped with Velo Orange hammered fenders and Rivendell Jack Brown 33.333 mm (green label) tires and there is still plenty of room to spare. It is painted in a light blue that has just the slightest hint of green to it, and a contrasting cream head-tube. If Rivendell has anything like a “standard” color for its bikes, this is probably it.

I built this up with what I believe is an ideal selection of components, each part selected for the best reliability and durability. After about 12 years and I don’t even know how many miles, everything is holding up exactly as I’d planned. Other than tires, and a new chain and cassette, nothing has been changed since I first built it up. It’s gained a little “beausage” (BYOO-sage) – beauty through usage (a Grant Petersen term) but everything still works like aces.

I built my own wheels with Shimano Ultegra hubs and Ritchey Rock Pro rims. I’m not sure those rims are available anymore, at least not in the 700c size, but the rear rim is an asymmetrical design that helps equalize spoke tension on both sides of the dished rear wheel, making it stronger. The Ultegra hubs are notable for being essentially the same internally as the more expensive Dura Ace hubs. They are serviceable, and have proven themselves to be very reliable. One could spend a lot more for hubs, but they wouldn’t be gaining much for their money.

The derailleurs are Ultegra (6500 generation), which work beautifully and look pretty good, too. Shifters are Dura-Ace 9sp bar-ends. The right lever (rear derailleur) has a friction option, but I’ve never needed it: the indexing works well. The left lever has a very fine micro-ratcheting mechanism that gives a light feel with great fine-tuning control of the front derailleur. I have bikes with integrated brake/shift levers – but really, with bar-end controls as good as these, I don’t see the STI or Ergo controls as offering any significant advantage. The bar-end levers can be shifted without taking hands off the bars; they are durable, reliable, and work flawlessly; they offer more user control (especially on the front derailleur); they are less vulnerable to damage, there's less to break or wear out, and they’re cheaper.

TA Zephyr Crank, with elusive TA quill pedals. There's
a Phil Wood BB holding it together.
Instead of the Shimano crank and bottom bracket setup, I used the very lovely Specialties TA Zephyr crank with a Phil Wood bottom bracket. The Zephyr isn’t available anymore, but it was a great looking, super strong, low-q-factor (for a triple) cold-forged crank. The Phil Wood BB is about as good as a square-taper BB can get. I also have the TA pedals, which are probably the best quill pedals ever made. Excellent bearings. Replaceable cages. Even the little flip tab is replaceable. They have grease ports in the end for easy maintenance. I don’t know if these are available here in the US anymore – over the years they’ve seemed to disappear and reappear every so often. Current status: unknown.
Brooks B-17 - well aged - and a Baggins Bag.

Handlebars, stem, and seatpost are all from Nitto. Beautiful and strong. Headset is a Stronglight Delta needle-bearing unit. Needle-bearing headsets are incredibly long-lasting, but still completely user-serviceable. I have spare bearings and races should they ever need to be replaced. I wrapped the bars with Tressostar cotton tape and many coats of natural shellac. It’s holding up incredibly well. Maybe once every other year or so, I’ll put on a fresh coat of shellac. The saddle is, of course, a Brooks B-17. The honey color has darkened significantly over the years, but it is wonderfully comfortable.

Cotton tape and shellac bar wrap. Twelve years
old and still looking great. 
Brakes are Shimano cantilevers. I upgraded them with Aztec pads which I think improves their braking. The brakes are light, smooth, and powerful. They are also easy to adjust. For brake levers, I had thought about using some old Shimano aero levers with under-the-tape cable routing – the spring loaded SLR versions are really nice. But I had a pair of vintage SunTour Superbe levers (with non-aero cable routing) that weren’t being used, so I put them into service. They work so well, I’ve never seen the need to change them. Maybe if the bar tape ever needs to be replaced, I’ll put on different levers, but I don’t foresee that happening anytime soon.

I've never gotten the backstory on this bike. Why was it available at such a discount back in 2001? Did someone place an order then change their mind? Was it made for a photo shoot? Was it built to try out new lugs, or experiment with geometry -- like some kind of prototype? (Rivendell has put prototype frames up for sale before, but they don't usually badge them as Rivendells -- they'll call them "Protovelo" to make clear what they are). Whatever its backstory was, in the past 12 years, its story has been mine. It's proven to be one of my most versatile bikes. Comfortable, and great-handling. I've ridden it on century rides (it's an absolute dream on centuries) and I've commuted on it to work. It's equally at home on roads and on trails. If for some reason I ever had to get rid of all my bikes except for one, this would be the one I'd have to keep.