Monday, December 25, 2017

Merry Christmas From The Grouch

Our weather isn't permitting me to go for my traditional "Christmas Day Bike Ride" this year - unless I can put some chains on my tires.

If you're cold, they're cold. . . Bring them inside!
So I'm reflecting a bit on Ghosts of Christmas Past as I sip some coffee and watch the retro-kids enjoy their new presents. It won't be long before I'll be busy preparing for visiting in-laws, so I'm making the most of the quiet.

There were no bicycles under the tree this year, though to my mind, a bicycle has always been the ultimate Christmas present. Little Ralphie and his Red Ryder BB gun notwithstanding, I'm sure I'm not the only one who feels that way. Remember ads like this?
Merry Christmas from Schwinn - 1972.
It's been a long, long time since I've found a bicycle under the tree, unless I put it there for someone else. I think the last time I got one was about the same time that little kid in the Schwinn ad was pouncing on his new Sting-Ray. Even though I'm long past getting bikes for Christmas, my "second favorite" present these days is a gift card from the bike shop.
Always the right size and the right color.
And I don't think it was meant as a joke.
There seems to be bit of a stigma among some people about gift cards as being "impersonal." That attitude might be changing, but to my mind, whether a gift card is a thoughtful gift or a thoughtless one depends on one simple and obvious distinction: did the giver actually think about what they were giving? I mean, isn't that true of any gift? Seriously, I could fill a couple of closets with all the useless "thoughtful" gifts I've gotten over the years -- perhaps the epitome of which would be the fish broiler basket for the grill, made particularly useless by the fact that it's no secret that I absolutely hate fish. Believe it or not, I've actually gotten two of those.

Sure, gift cards can be impersonal or thoughtless. It isn't uncommon for me to clean out a drawer and find old unused gift cards that I've totally forgotten about. Cards for restaurants that I hate, or that don't have a location anywhere near my home. Or for stores that I never visit. But a card from the bike shop? I'll always find a good use for that. New gloves, tires, or tools -- there's always something I'll find that I need and will use.

It's not quite as exciting as finding a beautiful gleaming bike beside the tree - but in practicality, it's pretty close.

Wherever you are, I'm wishing you the best that the holiday season can bring you!

Friday, December 15, 2017

New Record Commuting Numbers

Well, I'm just days from wrapping up a semester at work, and I'm pleased to say that I've racked up a new personal record for bike commuting. With just three days left until Winter Break and the end of our semester, I have logged 68 days on my tally. Up until last week, I had been maintaining a bike-to-work average of 90%.

Then the snow came.

With the snow we had this past week, riding a bike would have been ill-advised, and it's a bit unclear what the next week will have in store for us. If I'm lucky, I could possibly pick up another day or two before the break, but even if I don't, 68 days would let me finish 2017 with an average of about 83%. My previous record was 63 days and 75% (two years ago), and last year I "only" had 58 days or just shy of 70%.

1,917 miles. That's how many miles I've managed between mid-August and now, riding back and forth to work. I figure that probably works out to around 63 gallons of fuel that I didn't put into my car, or somewhere in the neighborhood of $140 - $150 in fuel costs. For the full calendar year 2017, I had 118 days of bike commuting for a total of 3327 miles. Also a new personal record.

In the past year, my best month was without a doubt September. I drove only one day the entire month and had a month-long average of 95%. And I'm still really bugged about the one day I drove. I remember it because that morning looked like it would be a good one for riding, but the weather forecast was calling for an 80-90% chance of thunderstorms in the afternoon - likely to start just about the time I'd be heading home. The way I see it, rain isn't much fun to ride in, but thunderstorms are definitely a bad idea on a bicycle. It's like having a lightning rod between your legs. As it turned out, not only did we NOT get any thunderstorm that afternoon, but it didn't even rain. Nothing. Nada. Zip. So I ended up driving for no good reason on a perfectly good riding day, and the only thing I can say in defense is that if I had ridden, we would almost certainly have gotten that thunderstorm.

A handful of things helped me maintain such good numbers. One was weather. Generally our weather during the fall was pretty good this year. We've had some really cold mornings in recent weeks, but until the snow hit this week, it was always manageable.

Another thing was a slightly different attitude towards rain. I still really don't like riding in rain, and up until this year I'd been making a pretty concerted effort to avoid it. That included driving on days when the forecast called for a strong likelihood of rain in the afternoon (for me, that usually meant more than 50% chance). So, about that day I already mentioned when I drove to avoid the thunderstorm that never happened? Most previous years I'd have a lot of days like that one. What I've often found is that when I'd drive, the rain wouldn't come - or at least, it wouldn't come until I would have made it home on my bike. The thing is, I've got a bunch of rain gear packed into my saddlebag. Jacket, pants, and shoe covers. And I would end up driving because I was worried it might rain in the afternoon? This year, apart from that day calling for thunderstorms, I decided to take the risk a lot more often than not. Guess what? I got rained on a bunch. Turns out, there are lots of times when they say it's likely to rain in the afternoon, and it actually rains. Though I'm still enough of a believer in Murphy's Law to be convinced that had I driven on those days, it probably wouldn't have rained.

A third thing was using a bike that I don't have an emotional attachment to. Beautiful vintage steel bike with a leather saddle in a rainstorm? Makes my stomach churn just thinking about it. The non-retrogrouchy bike I've been commuting on most of this year? Meh. Rain, slush, road salt - I just don't care. I still have a comfortable Brooks saddle on it, but in this case it's one of the new-generation C-17 models with a rubber top. Promises to be more weather resistant than traditional leather. And while I'm still convinced that disc brakes offer little-to-no advantage on a road bike in good weather, I have had to admit that their effectiveness in the rain is quite reassuring.

No telling how well I'll be able to keep it up through the winter. We've had two unusually mild winters in a row, so I expect we're due for a bad one this year. But I've got good numbers going into it, and am well-equipped for winter riding so we'll just have to see.

UPDATED 12/20/2017: The snow and ice we got last week started melting over the weekend, revealing our roads again, and making it possible for me to add a few more days to my commuting totals. New Record: 71 days, 2002 miles. Bike-to-work average from August through December, 86.5%

Tuesday, December 12, 2017

Lake MXZ 303 Winter Boots

If you are a winter rider, you know it can be hard to keep your toes warm when temps get below freezing. Over the years, I've mostly relied on my traditional leather riding shoes with wool socks, and covering the whole package with insulated "overshoes" or "booties." As a commuter, I still think there's something to be said for that approach - particularly on those days when the morning is cold, but the afternoon warms up to the point where the extra warmth and bulk aren't needed. In November, for example, it isn't unusual to have a morning around 30°, with afternoon temperatures rising to 50° - in which case, it's an easy thing to stow the booties into a pannier or seatpack for the ride home. But when it's really cold, and expected to stay that way throughout the day, having some serious dedicated winter footwear can be a welcome luxury.

For my birthday this year, the retro-wife really came through, and I got a pair of Lake MXZ303 winter riding boots. I've had the chance to wear them on some awfully cold commutes in the past month, and so far have found them to live up to the billing. My coldest morning in this time was 20°, with a wind chill making it feel closer to 10° and my feet never felt a chill, even after an hour of riding. I feel pretty confident they'd be good for even a little colder, though to be honest, I don't see myself riding below 10 - 15°, so they'll definitely meet my needs.

For sizing, I've seen a number of reviews that recommend going up a size from your normal cycling shoe size, and I agree with that. In most cycling shoes I wear a 44, and in these I got a 45. Don't ask me what that is in US sizes, because the conversion charts seem out of whack to me. Most charts I've seen say that Euro 44 is equivalent to a US 11, and yet I've never been able to wear anything larger than a US 10 in my life. Go figure. Anyhow, with a 45, I can wear these with extra thick wool socks without feeling constricted in any way. For those who have wider feet, or who maybe want to double up on socks, Lake also makes these in a "Wide" version, that I understand adds quite a bit of room in the toe-box. Mine are the "regular" and fit me fine.

The sole is thick with large lugs for sure footing when it's slick. I have found them to be decent for walking at least for short distances.

You'll notice that the Lakes have a very modern non-retrogrouchy "BOA" closure system. That seems to be the latest thing in cycling footwear. I've found that it works well, though I've yet to see any problem with traditional laces. Seriously - what's the hangup with normal laces on cycling shoes today? I suppose one doesn't need to worry about laces getting caught in the chain. OK, score one for BOA. But I do wonder what happens if that BOA thing eventually breaks. Can it be replaced easily? I don't know the answer. If any readers have some experience with that, leave a comment.

Regular readers know that I still have a preference for traditional toe-clip and strap pedals. One thing about the Lake boots is that they don't really lend themselves to use with a traditional pedal. The thickness of the toe-box and the lugged sole make getting into a toe-clip pedal difficult and awkward. I tried (briefly) switching my pedals to a pair of flat/platform pedals for winter riding, but I find that I don't really like using those on my commute. I don't mind flat pedals when riding around the neighborhood, shopping, or with my kids when the pace is kept casual. But on longer rides, especially if there are some hills, I just really prefer to have a better "connection" to the pedals. I don't need to be "locked in," but even with toe straps, I generally keep them just tight enough to keep my feet from coming off the pedals inadvertently, without being so tight that I can't get a foot out quickly if need be.

The Lake boots are designed for an SPD-type 2-bolt cleat. I know there are lots of choices in compatible cleats and pedals out there, but I found these Crank Brothers pedals on clearance for only $29 from Nashbar that seemed like they'd be a worthwhile choice as a winter pedal - and cheap enough that it would be hard to go too wrong. They have the easy-to-engage "egg beater" system on one side, and a basic flat platform on the other. I've found that in traffic, if for some reason I have trouble "clicking in" on the first try, the full platform still makes it easy enough to get pedaling from a stoplight. They seem to be working out well with the winter boots, and come spring, I can easily switch pedals if I wish.

In case anyone's wondering about what socks I'm using this winter, I'll mention that I'm a big fan of the socks from SmartWool. Though not actually marketed for cycling, SmartWool's Slopestyle PhD skiing socks are awfully nice on those extra-cold mornings. Being extra tall (they come up almost to the knee) they keep the lower legs warm and keep the cold winds out even if one's tights or riding pants leave a gap above the ankles. And they are extra thick, including at the toe and on the bottom of the sole. That last detail is good because I frequently hear people say that cold sometimes seeps in through the soles of some winter cycling shoes/boots (the cleat interface is often cited as a trouble spot). As thick as they are, they still fit into my boots comfortably (remember - up one size). Like a lot of SmartWool socks, these come in some pretty outrageous colors and patterns - but I believe they also come in plain black. I don't mind the patterns. Shop around, but the going rate seems to be in the $15 - 17 range, which I think is quite reasonable.

Back to the boots - of course there are plenty of options out there today. I've also heard good things about the boots from 45NRTH. I couldn't possibly give a functional comparison between them (unless they'd like to send me a pair to try out). The 45NRTH Japanther boots, which seem to have a slightly milder mission to these Lakes, have a listed temperature range of 25 - 45° with online prices ranging from about $195 - $225. The 45NRTH Wolvhammers, which seem a bit bigger and bulkier, have a listed range of 0 - 25° and sell for $325 or more. I cannot find a claimed temperature range for the Lake MXZ303 boots, but as I've already pointed out, they have worked well for me at 20° and I suspect they'd be good safely down to 15°. Prices online seem to range between $175 - $250.

I don't know if expensive 1-season boots are the thing for everyone out there - but for my needs, I'm feeling good about them.