Saturday, January 25, 2014

Niche-Niche Marketing: Gravel Bikes

You need a Gravel Bike. If you're a "proper" cycling enthusiast then I know you've already got a "fast" Road Bike, a "comfort" Road Bike, and a "winter" Road Bike, plus a Time-Trial Bike, a Fixed-Gear Bike, a 26er Mountain Bike, a 29er Mountain Bike, a 650b Bike, and a Cyclocross Bike. You might also have a Shopping Bike, a Tandem, and a Folder. If you're really dedicated (or a parent) you might even have a Cargo Bike (or if you lean Dutch, a Bakefiets).
Whatever you do, don't call it a Cyclocross Bike

Now you need a Gravel Bike.

It is not exactly clear how a Gravel Bike is different from the Cyclocross Bike you already have, or any other decent bike with drop bars and room for larger tires, for that matter -- but the bicycle industry very much wants you to buy one. Even if they can't agree amongst themselves how to define it.

From a VeloNews review of Raleigh's Tamland gravel bike: "The question of what exactly defines a gravel road racer is a legitimate one. Even some dealers on hand at BikeDealerCamp in Utah were asking the same question. Gravel road races have long been more about customizing an existing bike in one's stable, such as a cyclocross bike that can clear extra-wide tires, but with the number of races rising and more riders seeking out dirt-road adventures, so too has the demand for dedicated gravel machines." 

Really? All those people riding on gravel roads with bikes they set up for the task have been demanding another special niche bike that will do exactly the same thing as the bike they've built up for themselves? Because simply fitting fatter tires alone wasn't expensive enough?

I repeat: Not a Cyclocross Bike (from
And in this article from BikeRadar: "Increasing numbers of North American cyclists are venturing off the pavement to explore lonely country roads, which can be as remote as any stretch of single track. . . The ideal bicycle for conquering these gravel roads would be one that could traverse them swiftly, one with drop bars to allow the rider to switch hand positions and to hunker down when facing a stiff headwind. It would have enough seat and chain stay clearance to run tires with sufficient volume to take the edge off the rough and rutted roads, it would provide more than enough stability than a contemporary road racing bike, yet still be nimble enough to make quick course corrections to avoid other riders, ruts, cow pies and rattlesnakes masquerading as sticks (all things I've encountered while riding gravel)."

Nope. You simply cannot do any of that without a specially designed and marketed niche bike.

CAUTION: You MUST have a specially designed bike to do this.
The Gravel Bike was apparently all the rage at the last Interbike trade show, with versions from Raleigh, Salsa, Kona, Niner, and many more. And the one thing they all have in common is that they are not Cyclocross Bikes. Apparently, the industry sees them as "the Next Big Thing" and they're banking on the notion that people who already have Cyclocross Bikes (which were the previous Big Thing, after the Fixed Gear Thing became passé) won't notice that it's basically the same bike they already have. However, the differences seem to be more a function of marketing than actual design and equipment.

According to the folks at Salsa, their Warbird Gravel Bike is designed "around stability and endurance. Meaning it has a longer wheelbase and slightly slacker head tube angles to give you a stable, at home feel." (from BikeRadar) I'm curious what that "at home feel" feels like. But what they don't want to emphasize too much is that the Warbird is pretty much the same as the Cyclocross Bike they used to sell, called the Chili Con Crosso. Add or subtract a couple millimeters here and there in the geometry, add disc brakes, and now it's a totally different bike, and you can't do without it, Right?

Salsa's marketers also say that "Comfort is key, and the reason we offer a model of the Warbird in titanium." (Bike Retailer) That's right -- because you simply cannot get comfortable on steel. So does that mean that if your Cyclocross Bike is comfortable, has disc brakes, or a titanium frame, then it's actually a Gravel Bike? 

Of course, it isn't that simple. In the BikeRadar article, Dan Hughes, four-time winner of the DK200 (Dirty Kanza 200 "Gravel Grinder" in Kansas -- on a Specialized CruX Cyclocross Bike, by the way), says, "I would want the bike to be light and stiff, have a short wheelbase for fast handling, and the ability to run a fatish tire, with clearance for mud on top of that." OK, so a Gravel Bike has a longer wheelbase -- except when it has a shorter wheelbase?

From Off The Beaten Path - The Bicycle Quarterly Blog
Then, to really anger the cycling gods, I found this article on Jan Heine's Bicycle Quarterly Blog where he suggests one doesn't even need a special Gravel Bike, or even a Cyclocross Bike to ride in the gravel. "One of the most exciting things we have found is that the same bikes that work so well on pavement also are ideally suited to unpaved roads. My René Herse has excelled on the paved roads of Paris-Brest-Paris, yet the same bike has performed wonderfully on many gravel rides. The wide tires that offer such great cornering on pavement also float over hardpack and gravel with amazing grace and pace." Riding on gravel with a comfortable, versatile road bike -- and not a specially designed, ultra-narrowly focused niche bike? What is Heine thinking?!

In a BikeRoar article on the topic, they had the following, from Thom Kneeland of Service Course Velo, in Medford, Oregon: "Any road bike with relaxed geometry that accepts a 28mm tire will work pretty well." Yeah, that's what I thought. And 28mm isn't even that large of a tire! The BikeRoar article also has suggestions on how to turn a typical MTB into a perfectly serviceable Gravel Bike. Hint: it involves changing tires, and maybe adding some more hand positions to the handlebars.

Last year, I wrote about the old Bridgestone XO-1, which was incredibly versatile -- a relatively light road bike with 26" wheels -- suitable for all kinds of riding, whether on the road, or on dirt or unpaved paths. A bike for exploring. But instead of being designed for a particularly narrow niche market, the idea was almost the opposite -- to be a bike that could do anything its owners could dream up. It didn't sell well. Marketers, the bicycle press, some retailers, and even buyers apparently didn't know how to pigeon-hole it. They wanted a niche. Go figure.

A Gravel Bike? Why not? Many comfortable and versatile
bikes with clearance for fatter tires can be adapted easily for
use on dirt and gravel. You may already have a Gravel Bike.
Gravel Bikes are just the latest version of the industry trying to sell us the same thing we already have, by making (some) people think that what they already have is totally obsolete. They also represent the next step in the increasingly narrowly focused niche marketplace -- taken to the extreme. A niche of a niche, if you will. Cyclocross is already a pretty narrow market -- with bikes much more sharply focused than they were in the sport's past when riders would just repurpose an old road bike with slacker angles and more tire clearances. Now we have the Gravel Bike, not because other bikes are unsuitable for riding on unpaved roads, but because they aren't specialized enough (or so we're supposed to think). I believe all of this is due to the fact that the market for bicycles isn't really expanding that much -- the numbers of people buying and riding bikes isn't increasing enough to power an industry that seeks growth. So they have to keep coming up with new "improvements" and new "upgrades," and new (increasingly narrower) market "segments" in order to keep existing cyclists buying more.

But as some out there, like Jan Heine, are able to demonstrate, you don't need to go out and buy another bike that's designed for just one type of riding. A lot of bikes can be adapted easily -- often by doing nothing more than swapping tires. My Rivendell Long-Low has been ridden on all kinds of roads, including some that are only roads in the most generous of definitions. With 33mm tires and room for wider, it handles packed limestone paths beautifully, and is comfortable all day. Thicker, knobbier tires could easily be fitted for coarser, heavier dirt or gravel. Likewise, my vintage '84 Stumpjumper, with its long wheelbase and slack angles, has been equipped with mustache bars and narrower, smoother tires -- it goes swiftly from roads to trails and back again. It would make an awesome bike for heavy-duty gravel grinding.

So, do you need a Gravel Bike? You probably already have one!

Friday, January 24, 2014

Seventy Three Degrees

I just picked up Seventy Three Degrees: The World's Finest Bicycle Builders, a very attractive coffee table book that might appeal to some Retrogrouches and serious fans of hand built bicycles.

From the back cover text: "Four bike nuts - an entrepreneur, a frame builder, a photographer, and a designer, travel the world in search of the people who have perfected the processes behind the engineering of the ultimate hand crafted bicycle frame.

"The master builders, such as Pegoretti, Sachs and Tommasini, understand what creates the perfect symbiosis between bicycle and rider, power, performance, confidence, efficiency and aesthetics."

Written by Mark Reilly and Jim Walker, and published by Enigma Titanium Ltd. (a UK-based titanium bike company), 73 Degrees highlights about ten custom frame builders around the world, with Q&A interviews, accompanied by some very nice photography of bikes and the builders at work. There is also a chapter on the Columbus Tubing company, and another on frame-building technology that includes a glossary of terms and techniques.

The builders highlighted in 73 Degrees build hand-crafted bicycles in a range of materials. Retrogrouches and steel-frame purists will be thrilled to see the chapters on Mercian Cycles (UK), Richard Sachs (USA), and Pegoretti and Tommasini (both of Italy). Some of the builders work mainly in titanium, such as Baum (Australia), Crisp (an American, building in Italy), and Enigma (UK). Other featured builders, like Independent Fabrication and Seven (both US-based) work in a variety of materials -- including carbon-fiber tubing with titanium lugs, as well as steel.

Overall, the look of the book really delivers. Leigh Simpson's photography is great -- lots of beautiful glossy pictures of finished frames, and many more of gritty workshops, torches and files, glowing red lugs, stacks of tubing -- capturing all the expected "mystique" of frame building.

The interviews with the builders are good, revealing their techniques, backgrounds, and their philosophies on frame design and building, etc. -- although after a while, unfortunately, some of the interviews start to sound pretty similar. I mean, how many ways are there to say just how important good tube mitering is? Oh well.

One thing that detracts from the quality of the book is that there are occasional typos that really should have been caught in a book that is otherwise as nice as this one is. One that stands out is in the Foreword by former racer Sean Yates, where the word "peloton" appears as "peleton" or when "Ishiwata" tubing is misspelled as "Isiwata" (in the very next sentence after it was spelled correctly!). The English Teacher in me sighs heavily.

This is not an inexpensive book, and it isn't easy to find. Check, and they list it as unavailable. I could not find any distributors of the book here in the US. However, it is available direct from Enigma in the UK from their website. ( The cost is £30 -- which works out to about $50 at the current exchange (then you have to pay for shipping on top of that). Maybe someday my blog will take off to the point where publishers will start sending me free copies of these things for review. (The only free review books I get now are English textbooks, and they're no fun.)

Although the price and limited availability make it more than just a "casual" purchase, I would say if you love bicycles and are into the "mystique" of frame building the way I am, you'll probably enjoy 73 Degrees.

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Forester's Effective Cycling

John Forester's Effective Cycling is one of those books that all serious (and maybe even not-so-serious) bicyclists should read, but for whatever reason, I never got around to it until recently. God knows, I've read a lot about it over the years, but now that I'm blogging about bikes and bicycling, I figured that I couldn't put it off anymore, so I picked up a lightly used copy of the 6th edition cheaply (the newest edition is the 7th which I believe came out in 2012 -- if there are significant differences in the newest edition, I'd like to know!).

Even though Forester states pretty clearly in the introduction that he doesn't intend his book to be read from cover-to-cover, that's exactly what I did. Instead, his idea is that it be used more as a manual, to be read (and practiced) in manageable chunks, starting with the parts one feels they need to know first, and saving other parts for later when they've picked up more skills. I agree that the book is a lot to take in all at once -- being that Forester sees his book as a comprehensive manual to help cyclists from absolute beginners through seasoned veterans -- a book that one should be able to come back to again and again because we are always able to learn something new.

The book covers a huge range of cycling topics, including bicycle and equipment selection, comprehensive maintenance and repairs, basic riding skills, advanced riding skills (including negotiating traffic), touring, racing, training, and also societal issues (such as bicycle laws and bicycle advocacy). In some ways, Forester's ideas can be somewhat controversial in that he is sometimes at odds not only with government traffic and engineering officials, but also with some bicycle advocacy groups (more on that later).

I do have criticisms of Effective Cycling. The chapters on choosing bicycles and equipment are certainly aimed at novices (why would an experienced cyclist need to read in a book about the difference between a mountain bike and a road bike?) and yet at times those sections are a bit too general to be very helpful, in my opinion, for the intended reader. On the other hand, getting too specific (such as referring to specific brands or models of components -- as he occasionally does) immediately builds in a certain "obsolescence" for any book -- being that those kinds of things are constantly changing. Some such references I encountered were probably "dated" even when the 6th edition was brand new. In any case, I felt that sometimes Forester's descriptions could be more confusing than helpful for a novice -- and unnecessary for a rider with more experience. For example, his written descriptions of different types of brakes and their means of operation would be confusing even for a veteran -- and there are no photos or illustrations to help clarify that point.

Likewise, the sections on maintenance and repair contain some good, solid advice and information -- the kinds of advice that one would only get from a long-time veteran cyclist. However, again Forester's written descriptions can sometimes be a bit confusing, and there aren't enough pictures or illustrations to help if one should get confused. In those aspects, I think someone who really needs a repair manual might be better off with a book more "dedicated" to maintenance and repair only (such as Zinn and the Art of Roadbike Maintenance by Lennard Zinn), as opposed to this where it is merely one "section" of a book that covers many other aspects of cycling. As far as describing repairs, I find the late Sheldon Brown's website to be very useful, often including large, clear photos -- and Brown's explanations I think are generally clearer for bike repair novices (who are probably the most likely to be looking for repair instructions).

Forester's chapters on riding skills -- especially in traffic -- are the real heart of Effective Cycling, and the main reason I wanted to read the book. I've been riding, mostly on the road, mostly with traffic, almost as long as Effective Cycling has been in publication (first published in the mid 70s). Part of me wanted to see if Forester's advice was any different from what I've been doing, and to see if there was anything I should be doing differently. I was mildly surprised to find that most of what Forester recommends for cyclists riding among cars is almost exactly what I'm already doing. Is that because after all these years, through all kinds of trial-and-error, I've just managed to train myself in a way that is consistent with what Forester (and other cycling veterans) have found to work the best? Or have I picked up bits and pieces of Effective Cycling through other sources over the years (such as other cyclists, or through tips published in magazines, etc.?) -- I don't know. Probably a combination. But I think that either way, it is a bit of a testament that most of the advice on negotiating traffic on a bicycle is sound and well-proven.

Many people, even those who have not read this book, may be familiar with at least some of the basic concepts -- sometimes referred to as "vehicular cycling." The idea is that a bicycle is a vehicle, and that cyclists are safest when they act like other vehicles on the road: following the same rules, responsible for the same regulations, asserting the same rights. Forester advocates that cyclists assert themselves with confidence in traffic. "Once you learn how to ride in traffic, you will realize that you are a partner in a well-ordered dance . . . Once you can ride comfortably and efficiently, without worrying about traffic, on a machine you can trust, you are ready to experience the full joys of cycling."

In some cases, Forester's advice is to actually buck the "conventional wisdom." For example, if poorly-written laws, or poorly-designed bicycle lanes would actually lead to a less-safe condition for the cyclist (as Forester frequently contests they do), then the cyclist is far better off to stay in the lane of traffic following the rules or conventions typically followed by drivers. Now I should point out that Forester's book does NOT advocate blowing off signs or traffic signals (and neither do I), although I frequently hear cyclists say they believe they are "safer" in doing that -- they'll attempt to justify their actions by saying that traffic laws are written for cars, and are more dangerous for cyclists to follow. Effective Cycling argues against that. Pretty much the only traffic laws I found Effective Cycling to condemn are the ones that are written to apply to bicycles only, such as those that require riding only on the far right side of the road, or those that force cyclists to stay in "bike lanes." Such laws, Forester argues, are often pushed through legislatures under the guise of "bicycle safety" but are often really an effort to add to the convenience of motorists, are passed without any data to support their claims of safety, and often are in direct contradiction to actual accident and safety studies. Otherwise, apart from a few exceptions, the main point of Effective Cycling is that one is safer to follow the laws much the way they would in a car.

However, one area in which I find myself in (at least some) disagreement is in Forester's almost unwavering opposition to bicycle-specific infrastructure -- whether bike lanes or cycle paths. Forester makes the case (pretty effectively, I'll admit) that bike lanes and the like are actually less safe than riding in the road, using accident data to show, for example, that bike lanes greatly increase cyclists' risks at intersections which is where bicycles are the most vulnerable. In other instances, some (poorly designed) bike lanes reduce visibility of cyclists to motorists, or create confusion for drivers and cyclists alike, leading to serious accidents. His arguments certainly gave me something to think about, and I can't say I totally disagree. On the other hand, there are situations where it still seems to me that bike-specific infrastructure, especially if properly designed by people who actually understand the needs of cyclists, might be favorable.

For instance, my own commute to work averages about 14 miles each way and covers a full range of riding and traffic situations and challenges. My ride starts on the urban streets in the heart of the city, then out to the suburbs with miles of strip-mall shopping centers and fast food joints, then through a freeway interchange with a full array of on-ramps and off-ramps with all the typical traffic merging and diverting. Then there's a full divided highway with cars and tractor trailer trucks flying past at 55 - 60 mph (not a limited-access freeway, which would be illegal to bike on, but it pretty much feels like one). Then comes an unlit, virtually deserted back-country farm path, followed by a narrow, shoulderless rural two-lane highway, again, busy with traffic moving at about 55 mph. For most of my commute, I have no qualms whatsoever about riding with the traffic -- I practice "vehicular cycling," taking the lane when necessary, and asserting my rights with confidence. But on those roads where the difference in speed is so great, with traffic flying past at 55 mph or faster, like the divided highway or the narrow high-speed two-lane road, I would gladly take a bike lane if one were available. Though not cited in Effective Cycling, I have seen studies showing that the greater the difference in the speeds of different vehicles on a road (regardless of vehicle types), the greater the danger that is posed.

Forester bases much of his opposition to bicycle-specific infrastructure on a series of comprehensive accident studies conducted by Kenneth Cross for the NHTSA between 1974 and 1980. Forester notes repeatedly that a lot of the support for bike lanes and the like is about reducing the possibility of a cyclist being struck from behind by an overtaking motorist, but the Cross studies show that type of accident to be a statistically slight possibility compared to the much higher statistical probability that a cyclist would be injured in or around an intersection (a probability that is increased by many bike lane designs). However, those studies were conducted long before the advent and widespread use of cell phones, the use of which while driving very closely mimics the effects of drunk driving. What I'd like to know is if a similarly comprehensive study were conducted today, when perhaps as many as a third of the drivers at any given moment may be either on the phone or texting while driving, would the results be different than they were in the 70s? Given that practically every day I'm on the road (whether in my car or on my bike) I witness cell phone distracted drivers weaving and drifting onto the shoulder of the road, I shudder to imagine the consequences that would be faced by myself or any other cyclist in that position. I don't know if a more current study would show a difference or change the situation -- but I'd like to know more.

Despite my (at least partial) disagreement on the point of bicycle-specific infrastructure, I also understand the point that Forester makes about such efforts and his reasoning behind it. His experience on the subject seems to come in part from studying poorly-designed bicycle infrastructure, from the aforementioned accident studies, and in part from battling numerous legislative efforts to strip cyclists of their legal rights on the roadways. When so many misguided efforts to relegate cyclists to second-class status are pushed forward by non-cyclists in the name of "bicycle safety," it is no surprise that one would likely become highly skeptical of any such effort. But that brings me back to the point about how Forester is sometimes at odds with both the enemies and the advocates of cycling.

Whereas much of today's bicycle advocacy is dedicated to building more bike lanes and other accommodations to encourage more people to ride bikes, Forester is, as already mentioned, stridently opposed to those efforts. In his words, "Bikeways neither make cycling much safer nor reduce the skill required. They probably do the reverse." ( He writes essentially (I'm paraphrasing) that in many ways, bicyclists are their own worst enemies -- riding without the necessary skills and no training, and that most of the accidents that injure or kill them are the result of that lack of training. His belief seems to be that bikeways simply increase that problem, and we don't need more such bicycle riders on the roads, but rather,we need to properly train and educate the riders that are out there in the skills of Effective Cycling

Forester was president of the League of American Wheelmen from 1979 - 1980. However, according to Pedaling Revolution, by Jeff Mapes, he was later ousted "in a power struggle over the organization's direction." Mapes writes, "As usual, the fight revolved around whether the wheelmen would stick strictly to the precepts of vehicular cycling or would support bikeways and other facilities aimed at encouraging more bicycling." Forester himself describes some of the struggles in one of the last chapters of Effective Cycling, but if there is another side to the story (and there always is) that isn't in his book.

I do not know, nor have I spoken with John Forester, so I have no real familiarity with him or his personality -- but his writing style, evident clearly in Effective Cycling, has such a distinct "voice," that a personality definitely comes through -- one that is unflinching and perhaps uncompromising. He dismisses many of today's bicycle advocates as having a "bicycle inferiority complex" or, as Jeff Mapes writes from his meeting with Forester, "anti-car" people. From Pedaling Revolution:

"Indeed, Forester could see no common ground with his opponents. 'The anti-motorists I have dealt with in my life, they are religious frankly about anti-motoring and they will do anything to carry on their cause,' he told me. 'Nasty people!'"

John Forester, from the
American Dream Coalition
Today Forester is, perhaps ironically, a featured speaker for the American Dream Coalition, which is a conservative political action group dedicated to "Defending freedom, mobility, and affordable home ownership" (from the ADC website). The ADC is very much a pro-automobile group, focused on eliminating barriers to suburban sprawl, while fighting against urban development, public transit, and anything that could be seen as putting restrictions on driving. Obviously, his association with the ADC adds to the complexity and controversial nature of the man considered by many to be the father of modern cycling advocacy.

So getting back to the question of cycling advocacy, what is the answer? Is it simply, as Forester seems to believe, that we need better training and education for cyclists? Of course that would be beneficial but where and how would this training happen and who would pay for it? Certainly not our public education system, which is already cut to the bone in funding while over-burdened with more and more mandated testing on the "core" subjects. School districts that are already cutting Art, Music, and Physical Education aren't going to suddenly start teaching kids about bicycle safety. Would bicycle shops offer such training? Some very proactive shops do offer seminars on things like bicycle maintenance and riding skills -- at least in part to distinguish themselves from deep-discounting online retailers -- but how many people actually go (or would go) to such training seminars? Proper training and education for cyclists are very important, but can only be one piece of a multi-part solution to a complex problem.

Another part of the solution, which Effective Cycling doesn't seem consider, is better driver education. Driver education is required for anyone seeking a drivers license (at least for those in their teens), but such programs in the U.S. are pitiful. It is far too easy to get a drivers license in the U.S., and far too hard to lose one. Driver education programs at best make virtually no mention of cycling rights and responsibilities, and those that do often propagate the "second-class" mindset relating to bicycling, or even (in the worst cases) actually instruct students on behaviors that could possibly endanger cyclists. I know for a fact that some Drivers' Ed instructors teach their students that they should honk any time they pass a bicyclist! The result of all this is that many drivers on the road have no idea what to do or how to react when they encounter someone on a bike (regardless of how well-trained the cyclist may be) -- and many are convinced that cyclists have no right to be on the road in the first place. Could driver education programs be required to cover bicyclists' rights and include some training on how to properly share the road with cyclists? Absolutely, and it could be done while adding very little in expense or time for the programs.

Yet another piece of the solution might be to examine some bicycle infrastructure developments that might actually make sense -- designed not by traffic engineers who don't ride, or by those with a motor-vehicle-centered mindset -- but perhaps with close input from cyclists, taking into account the deficiencies noted in some bikeway designs regarding crossing and turning at intersections, and maybe centered more on those routes where the vast difference in speed may create a greater danger for cyclists. Even in Effective Cycling, Forester notes that about the only time he ever felt truly frightened while riding on the road was along a narrow, shoulderless high-speed two-lane rural road, loaded with traffic, probably not unlike the one I mentioned having to negotiate every day on my own work commute. I personally know a number of people I work with who live much closer to work than I do and who would probably bike to work at least occasionally if not for the fact that getting there requires riding on that high-speed, narrow, rural highway. If there were some kind of bikeway along that route, I have no doubt that the number of bicycle commuters would increase, and I don't see that as a bad thing.

To wrap up, readers might wonder if I recommend reading Effective Cycling. Despite whatever criticisms I have mentioned, I do think that anybody who shares the road with cars should definitely read the book -- particularly the sections pertaining to "vehicular cycling." Even though I discovered through reading it that I am already using a lot of the skills Forester advocates, I know I still picked up a few more tips, and overall it will likely give me more confidence as I negotiate traffic. But more importantly, had I read the book years ago, I probably would have saved myself a fair amount of "trial-and-error" which I believe may be how I learned some of those skills I'm using today. Regarding chapters on selecting equipment and others that may be intended for novices -- a person can take them or leave them as they see fit. And even on the points of cycling advocacy -- whether one agrees or disagrees with Forester's uncompromising view, I find it very worthwhile to explore different views, especially when those views are arrived at honestly and are supported in a meaningful way. Those chapters gave me something to think about.

Friday, January 17, 2014

Total Electronic Integration: The Fly-By-Wire Bicycle

BREAKING NEWS! Shimano has just unveiled its newest breakthrough in bicycle technology: Shimano TEI, or Total Electronic Integration. Building on their Di2 electronic shifting system, which is already being viewed by some as a bit "long in the tooth," TEI is the next advancement in making bicycles a complete "fly by wire" system.

"Look, current Di2 technology is really amazing -- but you still have to push the buttons to make the shifts happen -- and too many riders just don't know the optimal time to do that," said a Shimano spokesperson at the official product launch. "Complete electronic control, or 'fly-by-wire,' has been used in cars for about a decade now, and most drivers don't even know their cars have it." He then added, "Everyone knows that companies like Google are even working on self-driving cars. Why should bicycles be left in the dark ages?"

Not surprisingly, it took Shimano to finally make it a reality for bicycles. Step one was to incorporate an ANT+ protocol transmitter into the Di2 controls. This could then be used to send riding information to their new PRO-SCIO ride computer. The next step was to incorporate data from crank mounted power meters and cadence sensors. Lastly, they added GPS capability into the PRO-SCIO computer, which has more than twice the processing power and speed of current generation cycle computers -- more than enough processing power to crunch all the numbers.

All together, the complete TEI system can combine route and elevation grade data from the GPS, wattage output from the power meter, pedaling rpms from the cadence sensors, and even the data from a wireless heart-rate monitor, to automatically select the right gear for the terrain and the rider. And the system is constantly re-evaluating and updating every 1/500th of a second, so riders will always be in the optimal gear.

Users can also program the system to maximize their training -- for example, to keep them spinning higher cadences on one training session, or to force themselves to push bigger gears on another. Users will be able to customize their own training parameters, or choose from a selection of pre-programmed training sessions. Additional aftermarket training programs will soon be available for download, designed by top-level coaches. Want to do the same training regiment that Fabian Cancellara uses? Or Tom Boonen? That will all be possible. Not only that, but all the rider's data can then by sync'd with a user's smart phone to be tracked through apps such as Strava.

"We imagine that this capability will lead to a whole new level of racing and competition like we've never seen before," said a Shimano sales rep. "Not only that, but with a special coach's app, trainers and coaches will now be able to monitor a racer's performance in real time. It will revolutionize racing and training for amateurs and pros alike."

"This is really the breakthrough I've been waiting for," said an ecstatic visitor to the Shimano launch event. "I never manage to be in the right gear at the right time, but now I won't even have to think about shifting my bike. TEI will do all the thinking for me!" Another visitor seemed disappointed that the system doesn't also control braking. "Maybe they'll add that with the next version," he said, hopefully.

Rumors had been circulating for some time now that Shimano was working on something really big. Apparently, pros like Mark Cavendish have been using prototype versions of the system for the past year, but secrecy had been tight. Reporters asking about what appeared to be extra wires and black boxes on Cav's bike were being stymied while the sprinter's bike was quietly but quickly whisked out of sight at races late last season.

But the system is now ready for release to an eager public. Visitors to the TEI launch could not stop wringing their hands greedily in anticipation. "No matter how much I train, I'm always finishing mid-pack," said an anonymous Cat. 4 racer. "But I know this new system will give me the edge I need. I'll never get dropped again!"

As per usual Shimano tradition, TEI will be introduced with the newest iteration of the Dura Ace group: Dura Ace 9100. The complete group is expected to sell for $5999. "Listen, if you want the best, you have to be willing to pay for it, and with something as revolutionary as this, and the performance gains I'm sure to see, it doesn't seem that unreasonable," said the racer.

Although Shimano denies that the system can be controlled or over-ridden remotely, all the wireless and computer-controlled circuitry would certainly seem to make it possible. In fact, not long after details of Shimano TEI were released to the public, a Kickstarter campaign was launched for a new theft-deterring smart-phone app that the designers claim will notify a user if their TEI-equipped bike is being ridden, and allow them to completely disable their bike from anywhere in the world using their phone.

Of course, critics of the TEI system claim that having the computer take over shifting decisions goes too far. "What ever happened to strategy or skill?" asked one skeptical cyclist. "What's wrong with actually knowing how to shift? And if it's just one computer racing against another, what's the point of competition? What makes it different from a video game?

The Shimano reps quickly dismissed the skeptic. "Guys like that won't be happy unless we're all riding Fred Flintstone bikes. They're just bitter retrogrouches. I mean, come on, you still have to pedal after all!"

Disclaimer: OK, most (but not all!) of the above is complete BS. But is it just an early April Fools, or a prescient prediction? Seriously, all the necessary technology is already here. It's only a matter of time before somebody actually puts it all together to make it happen. And when they do, you can bet people will be lining up to buy it, no matter how much it costs. Shimano's latest update to Di2 really does include ANT+ transmitters and a new computer (with another black box to tack onto the frame -- and hiding it inside the frame tubes interferes with the signal, apparently). The rest of it is just, I believe, inevitable. Can't wait!

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Cold Weather Cycling

In the past couple of years I have become a more-or-less year-round cyclist. It wasn't always so. When I first started commuting to work by bicycle on a regular basis, I wasn't sure how long into the winter I'd be able to go. People would ask me "How long are you going to keep this up?" -- and at least some of them probably didn't intend their question to imply that I was going through some kind of awkward or rebellious phase that they were hoping I'd "outgrow." And I didn't really know the answer. I didn't know what my own limits were.

At first, I thought I'd be able to ride until maybe November. Before I knew it, it was December and I was still riding. Then January. I'd think maybe I would ride until the temperatures fell into the 30s -- maybe 35 at the lowest -- next thing I knew it was 30 degrees and I was out on my bike. Every time I'd contemplate a certain limit, before I knew it, I'd gone past it -- often without even realizing it until afterwards. Eventually I did find my limit: 25 degrees F. Below that, I just couldn't keep my fingers and toes warm, even with the thickest gloves with liners, and with the best thermal socks and neoprene "booties" over my shoes plus an extra covering over my toe clips. I know there are products, like battery powered toe warmers, etc. that might let me ride when it's even colder -- but I don't want to go that route. I've decided that there IS such a thing as "too cold to ride," and for me that's below 25 degrees. I don't feel too bad about that.

Riding in the winter can be great -- but having the right clothing is very important. As much of a Retrogrouch as I am, and as much as I love classic wool jerseys, the fact is that I happily embrace modern "technical" clothing materials when temperatures get into the 30s or lower.

Allow me to share some of the clothing I've been using for my cold-weather commuting. You'll probably notice that most of it comes from Pearl Izumi. That's partly because my favorite local bike shop (CC) mostly carries PI clothing and I like to support them whenever I can (the bike shop, that is), but also my experience with PI's clothing has been very good. I actually wrote some full-length reviews of a couple of these products for the bike shop's blog, and I'll include a link in those instances.

Pearl Izumi AmFib Tights: When temperatures dipped down to the the freezing mark, I'd find myself doubling up on tights, which isn't very comfortable and can be pretty restricting of movement. The AmFib tights are as warm as doubled-up tights -- without doubling up. They have a thick, fleecy interior which makes them very warm -- plus they have a wind-stopping material completely covering the front half of the tights. They are also cut in such a way as to fit well on the bike. There are a couple of different versions of the tights -- with or without a chamois; with a drawstring waist, or in a bib-design. I use the drawstring waist without the chamois, and I wear them over a pair of cycling shorts. I typically wear these for temperatures between 25 - 35 degrees. (full review at CC blog)

Pearl Izumi Select Thermal Jersey: I love these. Full zip front. High collar. Soft, fleecy interior. Good cut for cycling. The fit works well for me -- PI calls it "semi-form fitting," which fits fairly close to the body but not "too" close. I can wear it over a base layer, but it also fits easily under a cycling jacket. I like the design of the sleeves and cuffs in that the cuffs are cut a little longer on the front/top of the wrist, slightly shorter underneath, so they cover the wrists well when on the bike without the use of elastic. They come in some high-vis colors (which I like for dark winter mornings), but they are also available in "normal" colors like red and blue. Overall, it's a very versatile jersey -- wear it alone, or combine it with other pieces as conditions demand. (full review at CC blog)

Pearl Izumi Elite Barrier Convertible Jacket: This is another versatile piece of clothing. It is a very light, packable shell that is nice to have during those changeable months -- late fall, early spring -- where temperatures may change dramatically through the day -- but I use it for all but the coldest winter rides. It fits close enough to the body that it doesn't flap much in the wind, and it also fits over layers well. When paired with the thermal jersey mentioned above and maybe a base layer, it works for me down to the mid 30s. Later in the day, if temperatures warm up, I can zip off the sleeves (they'll pack into a pocket easily) and it becomes a vest. The barrier fabric is listed by PI as water resistant but not water proof. My experience tells me that is pretty accurate. I've been caught in light sprinkles without trouble. But if the rain really starts to fall, it is no substitute for dedicated rain wear. (full review)

Pearl Izumi Elite Softshell Jacket: This is the jacket I go to when temperatures drop to freezing or below. The Elite Softshell is essentially like the jacket version of the AmFib tights -- surprisingly warm for its lightness and lack of bulk. It is insulated with a soft fleecy material on the inside with wind-blocking material over the front of the jacket and front half of the sleeves. In terms of style and fit, it looks almost more like a jersey than a jacket -- it has a very sporty look to it. I find that it fits pretty close to the body, but I have no trouble getting it over the thermal jersey with a base layer (I'm a pretty slim guy -- I don't know if the fit would be as good for a guy with more around the middle). It has a good cut for cycling with sleeves that are plenty long, and the design of the sleeve cuffs is similar to the cuffs on the jersey mentioned above -- no elastic. Some might want to have some kind of elastic cuff to keep out the cold, but I have not found it to be a problem -- and when I think of how many jackets I've had where the elastic in the cuffs was the first thing to go, I'm happy enough not to have it. For convenience there is a zippered pocket in the chest, plus another zippered pocket in the back. One thing I like about the jacket is the color. On those dark morning rides, I want to be visible, but so many "sporting" cycling jackets (as opposed to those designed specifically for the commuting crowd) always seem to be black. The PI Softshell is available in a bunch of different colors, including a high-vis yellow. Mine is a very cool-looking orange (nicely visible -- but not like a traffic-cone). There are also plenty of little reflective details. Worn over a jersey and base layer, I wear this right down to 25 degrees.

Under Armour ColdGear Compression Mock Neck: These are not a cycling-specific item, and are available at most sporting goods stores as well as a lot of regular department stores. The ColdGear Mock Neck makes a good base layer for those extra cold mornings. Essentially these have smooth lycra outer surface, with a nice soft brushed fleece inside layer. There are different fits available from UA, including "Fitted" but for cycling I like the "Compression" which fits closely in the same way that good lycra cycling shorts do -- like a second skin. For that reason, it adds a lot of warmth, plus good wicking, while fitting under even a snug jersey really well. Plus, with that smooth outer surface, any jersey will slip right over it easily. The sleeves are plenty long enough for cycling, and there is a band of silicone-type of elastic at the waist so it doesn't ride up while in the cycling position. Not made for cycling, but works well for riding regardless.

Pearl Izumi AmFib Neoprene Shoe Covers: There are a lot of different types and brands of shoe covers available, and I've used a few of them. But these ones from PI seem to be holding up well and are working about the best for me. With a full-length zipper up the entire back and with a fairly generous cut and shape, these fit over most of the cycling shoes I have, including my traditional-styled touring shoes (which have some fairly thick soles). There is also a MTB version that should fit over shoes with big knobby soles. These have 3mm neoprene for warmth, plus an insulated (not neoprene) ankle. They come up high enough to cover my ankles well and minimize exposure. There are also holes in the sole to accommodate pedal cleats. With well-insulated wool socks inside my shoes, and with these shoe covers on the outside, I manage to keep my feet warm down to around 30 degrees.

Kucharik Toe Warmers/Toe-clip Covers: I still use traditional toe-clip and strap pedals. Besides the fact that I simply like traditional pedals, when the weather gets really cold, I've found another advantage to using them. After one has already put on the warmest socks they can fit inside their shoes, and putting insulating booties on over their shoes, what else can be done to keep toes warm when it gets down below freezing? With traditional pedals, I've discovered that I can add yet one more layer over my toes by using these toe-clip covers from Kucharik. They are not exactly insulated, but they are a thick, windproof nylon material that fits over the front of the pedals -- over the toe clips, and attaching with velcro straps -- adding just a bit more warmth for those vulnerable extremities. Available in only one size, they are large enough to fit even over large shoes and clips. Prior to finding these easy-on/easy-off covers, I used to make something similar for myself using plastic bags and duct tape. These work as well, but look much better, and can be easily removed when not needed. Combined with the booties shown above, I can keep riding down to my 25 degree limit. Available direct from Kucharik.

Giro "Proof" Winter Gloves (with liners): Giro says their Proof winter gloves are good for "near-freezing" rides, but I've found them to work pretty well even a little below freezing. These are a 2-glove set -- that is, there is a thin liner glove, with a thicker thinsulate-insulated weather-proof glove to go over them. Mine are actually slightly different than the ones that are available now (shown right), as they've been re-designed a little since I purchased mine. But on the whole, they don't seem that different, and the overall specs seem to be about the same. Giro claims the newer version is even more waterproof than the previous version. One thing I like about the 2-glove concept is that if I need to get into my saddlebags to find something, or get something out of my pockets, I can remove the outer glove (for a bit more dexterity), but keep the inner glove on so my hands still stay warm. These have large cuffs that are nice in that they'll cover jacket cuffs easily. Something worth noting is that the Giro gloves seem to fit much smaller than their listed size -- so I recommend buying them in person from your local bike shop so you can try them on. For instance, I normally wear medium gloves, but in the Giros, I ended up with XL. Go figure.

Pearl Izumi PRO Softshell Lobster Gloves: The Giro gloves listed above are good down to around 30 degrees. When it gets colder than that, I find that by the time I get to work (about 50 minutes typically) my fingers start getting a bit numb. My friends at the bike shop suggested that I try "lobster" gloves. In terms of insulation value, etc., the PI Softshell Lobster Gloves probably aren't much thicker than the Giro Proof winter gloves I've been using -- but the lobster design is supposed to help keep those digits warmer by keeping them paired up together. It does seem to make enough of a difference to keep me riding down to my 25 degree limit. In fact, wearing these gloves at around the freezing mark, I found they were almost too warm, so I reserve these just for those coldest mornings. Cuffs on these could be bigger -- it's nice when the cuffs on the gloves are big enough to go easily over the cuffs on the jacket -- these don't, but I also don't get any icy blasts on my wrists, either, so they must be OK. The lobster design does take a little getting used to, but braking and shifting do work just fine. When wearing them, though, I do sometimes find that I miss having that middle digit available. I'll leave it at that.

Well, those are some of the items I've been using to help me get through cold winter rides comfortably. I do have some other clothing pieces -- different kinds and brands, etc. -- but all of these are the ones I go to again and again because I like them and they work well for me. My experiences with all of them have been good and I'd buy them again -- and in the case of the jerseys, I liked them enough that I've bought several.

Monday, January 13, 2014

Classic Tubes: Tange and Ishiwata

As the next installment of what I suppose has become a "series" on steel tubing used on classic bikes, I'll take some time to look at Japanese tubing manufacturers Tange and Ishiwata. Both companies made high-quality bicycle tubing that was in many ways the equal of European tubing giants Reynolds and Columbus -- although acceptance by the performance and high-end bicycle market (at least outside of Japan) took time.

Tange started out in 1920, originally producing bicycle forks, and expanding to butted tubing in the 1950s. By the 1970s, they had expanded to make all the frame components, including stays, dropouts and lugs. (Tange History)

Until the mid-80s Tange was probably best known for their mainstay tube sets, Champion #1 and #2 (later called simply #1 and #2) -- cold-worked, butted chrome-moly tubing that compared favorably to Columbus SL and SP tube sets. For instance, the down tube of Tange #1 was butted to .8/.5/.8 mm, while the #2 was .9/.6/.9 mm. (by comparison, SL was .9/.6/.9 - so Tange #1 was actually slightly thinner and lighter!) These tube sets were used on a lot of higher end Japanese-built bikes being imported to the U.S. in the late 70s and early 80s. There were also thicker-walled, heavier sets, called #3, #4 and #5, available for loaded touring and other applications where more durability was required.

Tange also made a manganese molybdenum alloy, Mangaloy 2001, that should have compared pretty favorably to Reynolds 531, at least in terms of its basic characteristics, though it was heavier, (thicker walled than Reynolds) much less expensive, and generally found on lower-end models. In the early 80s, some lower priced Treks (such as the 400 series) were built with it.

A cheaper tube set was created by Tange in the 80s: Infinity -- designed as a good quality but low-cost set for lower-priced bicycles. It was a seamed tubing, which meant that it started out as flat stock. It could be rolled out with different thicknesses along its length, then formed around a mandrel and welded into a tube. Additional working made the welded seam invisible. Many people would be turned off by the thought of seamed tubing, but in reality, there was not likely a big difference in strength. And the manufacturing method used meant that the butting could be customized without adding complexity or cost.

In 1985, Tange hit the big time when they came up with their heat-treated Prestige tubing. Like Reynolds 753, but made from chrome-moly as opposed to manganese alloy, Prestige had the tensile strength to be drawn to super thin-walled dimensions -- only 0.4 mm in the center section with the regular version. A "Super Lite" version of Prestige was only 0.3 mm in the center section! Another advantage was that, unlike 753, no special certification was needed to use it, so Prestige gained much more acceptance among frame builders. Versions of Prestige are still used today.

I read an article by builder Dave Moulton about a bike he built with Prestige -- a one-of-a-kind bike because at that point in his career, Moulton's bikes were almost all built with Columbus. (Pictured on the left)

Another interesting note about Tange tubing is their relationship with Tom Ritchey. When Ritchey was looking for someone who could put into production some new ideas he had for butted tubing -- with specially tapered and directional-designed butted sections -- he first approached Columbus. Apparently, they were unable to manufacture it. He then went to Tange, who had recently started making their heat-treated Prestige, and they were able to make it work and manufacture it. Ritchey "Logic" tubing was the result. (Ritchey In His Own Words).

It is pretty difficult to find the history of Ishiwata tubing. The earliest mentions I can find of it are from the 1970s, but nothing very specific. In any case, their best tube sets through the 70s and 80s were seamless, double-butted chrome-moly, labeled "019" and "022." The late Sheldon Brown's website has some info about Ishiwata, most of which in turn came from Andrew Muzi of The Yellow Jersey bike shop in Madison, WI. (see

In material composition and in specification, Ishiwata 019 and 022 were (like Tange #1 and #2) very comparable to Columbus SL and SP. In fact, many people claim that the Ishiwata tubes were, at least in their surface finish quality, even nicer than the much more expensive Columbus tubes. For instance, in the early 80s, Tom Kellogg, probably best known today for his Spectrum Cycles, was working for Ross Bicycles developing their "Signature" line of hand-built bikes (something like their answer to Schwinn's Paramount line). Kellogg specified Ishiwata in those bikes. I found a quote that I couldn't verify, but Kellogg reportedly said of Ishiwata tubing, "It's like little men polished the inside."

Early 80s catalog scan from the Equus Bicycle Info Project
The names "019" and "022" refer to the claimed weight of the tube set -- i.e., "019" (drawn to 0.8/0.5/0.8 mm) weighed 1.9 kilos, while "022" (drawn to 0.9/0.6/0.9 mm) weighed 2.2 kilos. Less well-known (and much rarer) are the "017" and "015" tube sets. Despite not being heat-treated, these tubes were drawn down to super-thin dimensions. The "017" was 0.7/0.4/0.7 mm, while the "015" was 0.6/0.4/0.6 -- with the down tube even thinner (0.35 mm!) in the center section! Needless to say, these were only used for track or time trial bikes, and likely only for very lightweight riders.

Ishiwata also produced triple-butted and quad-butted chrome-moly tubing, known as EX and EXO respectively. It is not unusual to find decent-quality Japanese-built bikes with those tube sets. In the 1980s, they were apparently even producing carbon-fiber tubing (in their catalog they were calling it CFRP - or carbon fiber reinforced plastic) and aluminum lugs to join the tubes. (see the catalogs at Equus Bicycle Info)

Look closely at that unique little tubing
sticker on 3Rensho frames and you'll see
 the Ishiwata name.

Of course, many Japanese manufacturers used Ishiwata tubing (sometimes labeled under other names, as on some Fuji bicycles). Some, like 3Rensho and Nagasawa had/have a very high profile and their frames are sought after. But a particularly notable user of Ishiwata outside of the Japanese manufacturers was Trek. 

In Trek's early years (mid 70s through early 80s, that is), they made bikes using Ishiwata, Reynolds, and Columbus. According to the Vintage Trek website and from the Trek brochures of the time, the frames were essentially the same -- certainly equal in quality -- only the tubing was different (and the Ishiwata-tubed models used SunTour dropouts as opposed to Campagnolo pieces -- but like the tubing, there was really no difference in quality). In those early years, the model numbers would indicate which tubing was used (5xx - Ishiwata 022; 7xx - Reynolds 531; 9xx - Columbus SL/SP). Mainly because of the dollar/yen exchange rate and other market-driven factors, the Ishiwata-tubed models were significantly less expensive than the others, which probably (unfairly) gave buyers the idea that they were somehow inferior. They weren't. Today, in the vintage bike marketplace, they can be a good value. In any case, by some time in the 80s, the Ishiwata tubing was dropped by Trek.

Ishiwata ended up going bankrupt in 1993, but some of their employees went on to found Kaisei which is being used by a number of steel-frame bicycle builders today. It has a well-earned reputation for quality.

Although it took time for Tange and Ishiwata to fully gain acceptance outside of Japan, especially for top-level bikes, there is no doubt that their quality was the equal of the European standards. Even though Japanese-built bikes, especially by the early to mid 80s, were (and still are) considered to be exceptionally well-crafted, especially for their price, for a while many fashion-conscious buyers of high-end, top-level bikes still looked for Reynolds or Columbus in their frames. The Trek example mentioned above is a pretty good illustration of that. But in today's vintage bike market, those bikes represent a real value -- super bargains. And the marketplace for new steel frames today doesn't really seem to discriminate the way it once did. Maybe it's because in a world of carbon fiber and welded aluminum bicycle madness, anyone buying a new steel frame is already bucking "fashion" enough that the brand or nationality on a little tubing sticker (assuming there even is one) just doesn't matter.

Saturday, January 11, 2014

Tubeless Bike Tires

I'm thinking about switching to the latest tubeless tires on my road bike.

Yeah, I know traditional clinchers are really easy to work with, and come in all kinds of sizes, tread patterns, and price ranges. And I know that fixing a flat while out on a ride is easy, even with a cheap mini-pump. And they don't require any messy liquids to mount or seal them. And yes, I know there generally aren't compatibility issues between different brands of "normal" clincher tires and rims.

Yes, the new tubeless tires can be a pain to mount, and special "fitting fluid" is recommended. And they're hard to get seated on the rim without compressed air. And it's generally recommended that you use liquid sealant with them which makes a nasty mess if you do have to remove the tire. And yeah, there can be fit and compatibility issues between brands and types of rims, tires etc. And they're expensive. And there aren't many choices for sizes.

Tubeless tire and rim - plus special rim strip,
valve, and liquid sealant.
OK, I know the actual weight savings over regular clinchers is not even as much as a the weight of an inner tube. And I recognize that if I really want to drop weight, I could drop a lot more by switching to sew-ups. And yes, I realize that there are traditional clinchers and a lot of sew-ups that have lower rolling resistance than tubeless tires.

Now, at this point, you may be wondering why someone would switch to tubeless tires. Well, because they're NEW, of course, so they have to be better.

It's probably pretty obvious that I'm being sarcastic. But seriously. What are the benefits to tubeless tires? What is the selling point?

I've read that tubeless tires virtually eliminate "snake-bite" flats like those that can happen when running traditional clinchers at low pressure. It is probably for that reason that tubeless tires have become so popular with mountain bikers (I've seen surveys saying 50% of MTB riders use them). But they don't eliminate flats entirely. And unlike traditional clinchers, if you do get a flat out on the road, they are much tougher to fix. You'd be much better off calling someone for a ride home.

Some people claim that they're "faster." I have my doubts. Some tubeless tires might have lower rolling resistance than some traditional clinchers, but rolling resistance is greatly affected by the "suppleness" or flexibility of the tire's casing and tread -- and from what I understand, a lot of the new tubeless-specific tires are less "supple" than the best traditional tires. I know of some traditional clinchers that are awfully hard to beat when it comes to weight and rolling resistance. (For more about those, check out this article from the Bicycle Quarterly blog).

Anyhow, it really seems to me that tubeless tires and wheels are yet another thing where the reality doesn't match up to the hype. Another situation where just because something is New, it isn't necessarily Better. In fact, in reading about the new tires, I was really trying to find the benefits of switching "systems," but I couldn't find any advantage to the tubeless systems that wasn't either doubtful, or offset by serious disadvantages. Tubeless tires? Fine on my car -- but I'm in no rush to put them on my bikes.

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Cycling in Alaska

With our current outside temperature hovering somewhere around 1º fahrenheit, I can't help but think back to better riding time and memorable rides. Perhaps ironically, the place that comes to mind right now is Alaska. Yes, Alaska.

This past summer, my family and I were fortunate enough to take a trip to Alaska -- one of those two-week trips that consisted of a cruise up the coast, followed by an overland trip into the state's interior. It wasn't the kind of trip where I'd expected to be able to do much (if any) bike riding, and I didn't have a bike that I would be able to bring with me on the trip. But at a couple of our stops during the trip, I found bike shops that had rental bikes and guided tours available, so I took advantage of those where I could. I was glad I did.

The first thing anyone would be struck by in Alaska is the rugged beauty of the place. Big surprise there. But the surprise for me was what a great place it is for cycling. Depending on what part of the state a person is in (it's more than twice the size of Texas, after all), there may only be a four-month long riding season. In Fairbanks, for instance, it often starts snowing by the end of September, and the snow pack doesn't start melting typically until May. Winter temperatures there frequently are well below zero. Anchorage, further south and near the Pacific, is a bit more temperate. On the southern panhandle, things can be damp, but downright mild.

This was part of a guided group ride with
maybe 7 or 8 people.
But despite the shorter riding season, Alaska has done a lot to promote bicycling. Anchorage, for instance, has a pretty extensive bike lane network, and has even cracked the top 50 in Bicycling Magazine's list of best cities for bicycling. But bike lanes and separated bike paths were all over the state. It is apparently state law there that any new road construction, or any major renovation of an existing road, must have provisions for bikes -- in some cases, it means an adjacent lane for bicyclists. In other cases, it is a separated path running near the main roadway. I was impressed. While I was in Fairbanks, I noticed a lot of the businesses had bike racks outside -- many of which were full of bikes which tells me that they have a fair number of people actually using their bikes for commuting, etc.

A bike path through Tongass National Forest, outside Juneau.
For one of my bike rides, I was in the city of Juneau, in the southern panhandle part of the state on the Gastineau Channel. Because of its proximity to the Pacific, the climate there is surprisingly mild. It does, however, rain a lot -- typically more than 200 days per year. In Juneau I was able to rent a bike and go with a small guided group out to the Mendenhall Glacier. It was a nice ride -- partly on the road, partly on some trails through the Tongass National Forest. Because of the bike trails, we were able to get to a part of the Mendenhall Glacier Lake that would be difficult to access by car -- so while most tourists were taking tour buses to the main visitor area and observation point, we on our bikes were able to get a quieter, less crowded view and access. That was without a doubt the way to go. Our ride ended at a waterside tavern in Juneau where we got to sample some Alaskan-brewed craft beers -- a nice finish.

This was a nice, quiet spot beside the Mendenhall Glacier Lake. The glacier is that sheet of craggy blue ice between the mountain and the lake. The icy cold lake is fed from that glacier and the rest of the Juneau ice fields. Big chunks of ice, "calved" from the glacier, can be seen all over the surface.
This was a scene along the trail through Tongass Nat'l Forest. Everything there was blanketed with this moss.
An icy waterfall making its way down the White Pass.
Another ride I was able to take was in a small town called Skagway where they had a pretty cool little bike shop called Sockeye Cycle Co. (Salmon fishing is a pretty big industry in that part of the state). The bike shop offered rentals and a couple of different guided tours. While in town, I had time for a guided ride down the White Pass summit. It turned out to be one of those mostly down-hill rides where they take you to the top of the mountain in a van and you ride back down the pass and back into town. On that day, the top of the mountain was enshrouded in clouds, where it was very cold and damp. Visibility was pretty limited for a while, but there was still some pretty incredible scenery.

Despite being the end of June, there was still a lot of snow and ice melting from the top of the mountain, so there were icy cold waterfalls pouring down within easy reach of the road.  With all the mist, the road had an eerie, mysterious look to it.

Even though I thought I was dressed pretty well for the weather, I wasn't quite prepared for the temperatures at the top of the mountain. For the first couple of miles I found my teeth chattering and my fingers getting numb. Luckily I was able to borrow a spare pair of warmer gloves from the tour leader. The further we made our way down the pass and out of the clouds, things warmed up to match my clothing choice.

Being that I was completely unfamiliar with the area and had only limited time for my ride, I felt like taking the guided tour was probably the best choice. On the other hand, while a mostly downhill ride is probably very enticing to some, it wasn't quite as much of a challenge as what I'm more inclined to take. Seriously, I kept finding myself wanting to turn around and ride up the pass before coming back down.

At one point I asked the ride leader if they had any group rides going up the mountain instead of just down. "Tourists never want to go UP the mountain," he said. "Well I do!" I replied. Anyhow, while the guided tour was really nice and I definitely enjoyed it, if I had it to do over again, I might have just rented a bike and asked for a map and some route suggestions. If any of my readers ever get to take a trip to Alaska, keep that in mind.

After coming down out of the clouds, I was able to get this shot across the mountains. The road we were on can be seen down below. Like I said - Rugged and beautiful.

I don't know if I'll ever get another opportunity to get back to Alaska, but I did make a big decision after my trip ended. I decided I need to get a bike that I can travel with, because it always happens when I'm traveling far from home -- I find myself wanting to explore wherever I am by bike, and renting bikes can sometimes be a hit-or-miss proposition. Rental bike fit and quality can be pretty iffy. The bikes I was able to rent in Alaska seemed to be maintained well, but the fit of one of them was just so-so -- I had to raise the seat post up to the limit, which got my saddle height in a good spot -- but then the relationship between the saddle and the bars was way off from what I'm used to. Also, a lot of places that rent bikes don't typically rent out road bikes (overwhelmingly my own preference), but more likely have rental fleets consisting of mountain bikes or so-called "hybrids."

After getting home, I looked into some travel-ready road bikes and after doing a lot of reading I made a decision and placed an order for one. I won't go into details in this post, but after it arrives, I'll definitely devote an article to the subject.