Wednesday, December 25, 2019

Christmas Bike Ride

We have been "blessed" with unseasonably warm weather during this week, which means I was able to get out for my traditional Christmas bike ride this morning. What little snow we got last week has almost completely vanished but for a few patches in those shady spots that never seem to get the sun. Though we had temperatures in the 30s and some pretty soupy fog when I first headed out, the temperatures rose up to the 40s, the fog gradually faded, and by the time I was making my way up the long climb that always ends my rides, there was some hazy sunshine peeking through. It may hit 50 by the afternoon.

I've been getting out for Christmas bike rides since I was about 19 years old, so that's nearly 35 years I've been doing it. The weather doesn't always permit a bike ride - but I manage to ride a lot more often than not. It's become a tradition I look forward to.
At Stan Hywet Hall in Akron, the former home of F.A. Seiberling -
co-founder of Goodyear Tire and Rubber. I stopped for a photo
on my way home.
Roads were quiet this morning. All the way from my home in Akron to the little town of Peninsula in the heart of the Cuyahoga Valley National Park, and all the way back, I didn't see a single other cyclist on the road. There weren't all that many cars either, apart from some chippy sitting at an intersection putting on makeup after the light turned green. With weather as nice as we're currently having, I was more than a little surprised to be the only one on a bike.

With more than 20 miles under my belt for the day, and my famous pot roast in the oven, I'm taking a little break before the holiday madness starts anew. Then it's time for the Christmas Sequel: The In-Laws.

However you're spending your holidays, I hope they are relaxing and peaceful. And if you get a chance, I hope you'll be able to enjoy a bike ride.

Friday, December 20, 2019

Biking To Work - Midterm Review

In wrapping up another semester at work, it's a good time to take a look back at the previous months and to take stock of the kind of bike commuting year I'm having. Remember that a teacher's calendar goes from August to June, so the approach of Winter Break means we've reached the half-way point of the school year.

Back in August, I started the year with the same basic goal I usually do: to ride at least 90 days and to reach at least a 50% bike-to-work average for the whole year. In addition, I had set a goal to ride at least 50 days by Christmas, expecting that this would set me up in a good position to make that year-end goal.

So, at this, the half-way point, how am I doing?

Well, as of today, I have ridden 61 days, for an average of 70%. At 28.5 miles per day, that gives me a total of 1738.5 miles. I estimate that this works out to somewhere around 61 gallons of gas that I didn't use, and a savings of maybe $140 - 150 at current gas prices. Now, this compares to my best year (2017) where I had 71 days by Christmas Break, and my worst year (2014) where I only had 35 days at the same point. (I had only managed 61 days for that whole year - so I've matched that  this year in half the time!).

Looking back at my old calendars, I've noticed that every other year where I've managed more than 55 days by Christmas, I finished the school year with over 100 days, so assuming this winter isn't any more terrible than usual, I figure I'm well positioned to achieve something similar by June. We'll just have to see how that works out.

And yes, I keep a stack of my old calendars, kind of like Justice Brett Kavanaugh. ("Nov. 23, rode to work in the snow. Pumped iron. Had some brewskis with PJ and Squee."). I like that I can look back and see what days I rode or didn't, or when we had snow, or what my average was at any point through the year and compare year-to-year, month-to-month, etc..

Oh - for those non-teachers out there who follow the "normal" calendar, I found that from Jan. through December 2019, I rode to work 101 days and had a year-long average of 54%.

Wrapping it up for now, sometimes on my way to work in the morning I'll stop along the way to snap a picture or two. Here are a few from the past few months:

Light fog on an August morning - at the start of a new school year.

Brilliant sunrise, painted clouds, and early November frost.

First big snowfall of the year in mid November gave the trees a white frosting.
That's all for now - happy holidays!

Monday, December 16, 2019

Tire, Tires, Tired

The more miles I ride, the more I'm convinced that there are few things that make a bigger difference in a bike than tires.

In so many of the discussions I've had with other bike geeks, and in the majority of articles I've read in the bike magazines and blogs over the years, the discussions often focus on the quality of the frame or the frame material. Think how many arguments have been waged over Steel vs. Aluminum vs. Titanium vs. Carbon. Even in the "old" days when nearly everyone rode steel, riders still debated Reynolds vs. Columbus (or Vitus, or Tange, etc.).

Now, I'm not going to throw all that out the window and say the frame isn't important. Obviously a good frame is the backbone of any good bike. Hell, the way I (and many others) see it, you can change/replace pretty much any part on a bike except the frame, and most people would still say it's the same bike. Replace the frame (and move all the old components to the new frame) and it's a different bike. But these days, I think that any comparison that doesn't take tires into account is incomplete. Take a bike that seems to have a lackluster ride - one that feels heavy, slow, or "dull" - and swap the tires and sometimes it can transform the bike for the better.

Readers who are anywhere near my age probably remember when the big trend in tires was narrow 19 - 20mm clinchers (probably pumped up to 120psi!). Starting in the late '80s, many racing bikes  would strain to fit a tire any bigger than 23mm. The thinking at the time (based on lab tests using tires run on mechanical rotating drums) was that hard and narrow was faster. Of course, that meant a lot of folks were riding criterium bikes with rock-hard tires that could chatter one's fillings loose. More recent studies that take into account the bike and the rider on actual road surfaces seem to dispute those old results to the point that today the trend seems to be going the other way. Bikes are being made to accommodate larger tires, and the belief is that using that extra air cushion to smooth the ride wears a rider out less, and might actually be faster. I know that I am definitely going larger in my tire choices - and am glad that many of my bikes will fit them.

Part of what got me thinking about this was my commuting to and from work - and my non-retrogrouchy pack mule of a commuting bike. That thing has an aluminum frame with massive, oversized tubing and wildly manipulated tube profiles (swaged, oval, or even hexagonal). It's not pretty (in fact, to my vintage-bike aesthetic, it's an abomination!). Anyhow, besides the fact that I can ride it in the rain, snow, or salty slush without caring, it can also fit 35mm tires with fenders. A frame like that could potentially have a pretty punishing ride - but the large tires help that a lot.

Here's another thing - it isn't enough that the tires be large-volume. The kind of casing, tread, and weight also make a difference. Jan Heine has written about this a lot in his Bicycle Quarterly magazine and on his blog. Now, one might take what he says with a grain of salt because he also markets and sells his own line of tires (Rene Herse - formerly Compass). But in my experience, the claims hold true and the tires live up to the billing. As I understand it, the tires came about because of the testing they had done with the magazine - not the other way around.

Anyhow, it's not just about size or width. For a given tire size, light and supple tires will usually outperform those with stiff casings, thick tread, and "flat protection" belts. Part of that is borne out by conventional bikie wisdom: reducing weight from rims and tires makes a bigger performance difference than reducing weight from the frame or other components. But the "suppleness" of the tire casings has a noticeable effect on a bike's ride. It's a big part of why vintage sew-up tires with silk casings feel so good and fast.

So, back to the ugly pack mule. When I first got that bike, it came equipped with 35mm Schwalbe Marathon tires: a very popular tire among many tourists and commuters. They are known for their durability and flat resistance. Honestly, I think the tires must be made for streets that are paved with broken glass, roofing nails, and thumbtacks - and overkill for my needs or tastes. The major downside was that the bike felt sluggish and slow. The ride was pretty miserable, to be honest. One of the first things I did with that bike was take off those tires and replace them with a pair of Continental Contact Speed tires (sometimes labeled "Sport Contact"). The size/width was the same, but the Continentals were noticeably lighter. The casings were thinner and more flexible, the tread thinner, but still with some flat protection built in. The bike was completely changed. It was more comfortable and the handling was almost "lively." It's possible they are potentially more"fragile" than the Marathons from a puncture-resistance angle, but I've never suffered a flat in the time I've been using them, going on two years.

The Contact Speeds have a look that reminds me of a basketball - with a fine pebbly texture that wraps around the whole tire, including the sidewalls. In fact, Rivendell sells them on their website and calls them the "basketball tires." The profile is very "round" and they have a good ride and nice handling, too.

After nearly two years, the center is worn smooth,
but I think there's still enough rubber there to
get me to Spring. I have a brand new pair ready to
mount up when they're needed.
Another thing I like about them is that they are available (as are the Marathons) with a reflective band on the sidewalls. Much of my morning commute is in the dark, and I like the extra bit of visibility they give. I don't know for sure what they look like to the drivers, but when I go down to the dark basement to get my bike in the morning, I can sometimes see the tires reflecting back in a way that says loud and clear "BICYCLE."

As long as I'm on the topic of tires that can really improve the ride, I'll mention that I'm still a huge fan of the Panaracer Pasela tires, which are available in a large range of sizes and widths. And if I were after the best "performance" above all other considerations, it's worth noting that they are even lighter and more "supple" than the Continentals. I've used them for commuting, and they're a great "all around" tire - but I did suffer a couple of flats with them on the ride to work, and as far as I know, they don't seem to be available with the reflective sidewall. They are nice tires, though, and the price is terrific.

And then there was snow.

Riding year round does mean that I have at times had to deal with snow on the roads. A couple of years ago I picked up some studded snow tires: Schwalbe Marathon Winter. Needless to say, these are even heavier than the regular Marthons (I think weight is listed at over 900 grams!). When riding on roads with patchy snow, or with snow packed down to a slick, icy surface, they really do make a difference and I'm glad to have them. When riding up hills in those kinds of conditions without the snow tires, I'll find my back tire slipping as I try to make my way up, and I'll have to keep my weight low and on the back wheel as I climb very slowly. Cornering can be pretty scary, too. With the snow tires, I can stand up and climb with gusto, and I'll feel more secure in corners. On the other hand, when the snow melts, they are miserable. The rolling resistance and weight don't just make the bike feel slow. It's measurably slower. By my estimate, I'd say they add about a minute per mile to my commute, and at the end of the ride I feel totally spent. My morning ride (a little over 12 miles) will normally take me an average of 10 - 15 minutes longer, and the afternoon ride (just over 15 miles) will take at least 15 minutes longer. Riding with snow tires makes the bike feel like a truck -- a truck you have to pedal!

We had some snow a couple of weeks ago and I put the tires on. But after a few days, temperatures came up and the snow melted. With no more snow in the forecast, I decided it was worth taking the time to swap the tires again. If I see snow in the forecast, I can always switch them back (again) - but I just can't see keeping those winter tires on there if I don't absolutely need them. As great as they are when you need them, they are just awful when you don't.

I will say this - switching to the Continental Contact Speeds after riding a few days on the Winter tires made the bike feel like it had wings. That's a darn good feeling.

Thursday, November 14, 2019

Cycling Shorts: Modern Vs. Retro

I was recently enjoying a short video on YouTube from Cycling Weekly - Modern vs. Retro, in which a young rider gets his first experience with a vintage bike and does a full back-to-back comparison between that and a bike that represents the current "state of the art." A few years ago I wrote about a similar video from Global Cycling Network. Have you ever seen one of those videos where parents give their kids a bit of old technology, like a Sony Walkman cassette player (something every kid in the '80s wanted or coveted) and then watch in amusement while their post-millenial kids try to figure the thing out? I find these things pretty entertaining in the same way, and any retrogrouch will find a lot of "These kids today" moments in this one. I can't help but alternatingly grin and grimace as young riders raised on clipless pedals and STI shifters find themselves flummoxed by toe straps and downtube shifters.

In this 17-minute video, Cycling Weekly contributor Oliver Bridgewood, whom I'm guessing is still a few years shy of his 30th birthday, rides a couple of circuits in Britain's lovely Peak District - first on a thoroughly modern Cervélo R5 with wireless electronic shifting and hydraulic disc brakes, then rides the same route with a mid-'80s steel-framed beauty from George Longstaff with a suitable mix of L'Eroica-ready components. Bridgewood readily admits that he's never ridden a vintage bike like the Longstaff before, and his inexperience shows throughout the video - so it seems unfair to be overly critical when he misstates various aspects of the vintage bike. And besides, it's all just in good fun.

The Cervélo typifies today's current trends - sloping top-tube, high saddle/low bars, deep-section rims, and monochromatic matte black-on-black color scheme. The Longstaff on the other hand sports a lovely and gleaming flam-red frame (probably Reynolds 531, though it's never mentioned) highlighted by a full array of bright and shiny aluminum and chrome. Bikes like the Longstaff would have been a pretty common sight in the '80s - but on any group ride today (apart from L'Eroica) it would be a real standout. At one point, the young reviewer admires the construction of the Longstaff and comments on the beauty of the "welding." He means well.

The Cervélo has the latest SRAM derailleurs - which to my eye look bloated and tumorous compared to the Longstaff's first-generation SunTour Cyclone unit. Funny thing: the SRAM's basic geometry and slant-parallelogram design owes a lot to the SunTour, even if it's powered by electric servos instead of a simple cable.

SRAM Red (that's the model - not the color!) brake and shift levers have hydraulic brake lines that run under the bar tape (the shifting is wireless). The Longstaff has mid/late '80s Campagnolo brake levers with cables running out the top. (Fun fact, those particular brake levers can also be configured to have the cables run "aero"- as in, hidden under the bar tape as well - but they are probably set up this way because this bike has been ridden in L'Eroica Brittania where the rules ban "aero" cables). In the video, Bridgewood has a chuckle at the brake cables as he says, "These old cables sticking out the top - you can hang your washing off of 'em."

The shifters on the vintage bike are mis-identified as Campagnolo and "frictionless" (I know, I know - cut him some slack!). Bridgewood adds, "There's no 'click,' you just have to sort of adjust it and work out where the gear is." They are actually the wonderful Simplex Retrofriction levers, and they are a sign that whoever assembled the bike had good taste. They definitely don't "click" or "index" but they are not exactly "frictionless." 
"I did it! I did it!" Out on the road he reacts with ecstatic glee as he successfully executes his first shift with downtube-mounted levers.
Another misidentification - the crank is said to have a "53/39" ratio. Actually, it's an old Campagnolo Gran Sport crank with a 144 bolt circle diameter, so the small ring can't be smaller than 41 teeth (and those are very rare) but much more likely it's a 52/42, which was the most common for that era. On back, he describes the 6-speed freewheel as 12 - 25. Without being able to count the teeth, I'd say it's more likely that the smallest cog is 13 (12 teeth on a vintage freewheel would be incredibly hard if not impossible to find) and it looks to me like the largest might be a bit bigger than 25. Maybe 28. Not that it really matters.

Of course there's the "dead lift" test that everyone is compelled to do when they encounter a steel-framed bike. Yeah - the dead lift is totally misleading because it has no relationship to the way we actually ride a bike. With no scale handy, he describes the weight as maybe 12 - 13 kilos (26 - 28 lbs.). I'm pretty sure he's overstating it by a few pounds. Equipped as it is, it probably weighs no more than 23 pounds. I know - that's possibly as many as 6 or 7 pounds more than the Cervélo (I'm guessing that bike weighs around 16 pounds) - but on the road, the difference still wouldn't count for much unless you were racing. 

Out on the road, the young reviewer shows his surprise about the nice ride quality of the vintage bike. "I'm AMAZED at how comfortable this bike is! The way it can kind of eradicate the road buzz that you get is . . brilliant! I'm going to say it's better than the Cervélo." He goes on to describe the power transfer and the difference in the feel at the bars, pointing out that it encourages a rider to ride down in the drops more. I don't think he recognizes exactly why that's the case, but he's describing something that I've written about before - how the "drop" from the saddle to bars has really increased on racing bikes today - and how modern bikes encourage riding on the top of the brake/shift levers. The drop from saddle to bars on vintage racers like the Longstaff is much less (making the bars feel relatively higher) - so that getting into the drops isn't all that much lower than being on the top of the levers on a modern bike.

After concluding that he could get used to the gearing (he's gone from 12 cogs to 6! He comments, "This bike's from a different age - when men were men.") and other "quirks" of the vintage era, he says the only area that he really found lacking was the brakes. I guess that's to be expected. Honestly, it seems like everyone who reviews bikes these days has to praise disc brakes almost as though anything with rim brakes is unsafe to ride. Having ridden (or at least tried) just about every kind of brake system available on bikes today, I just do not perceive disc brakes to be the total revolution that all the cheerleaders proclaim them to be. True, he is riding the bikes in wet conditions, which is where disc brakes enjoy their biggest and most noticeable advantage - but the Mafac cantilevers on the Longstaff really should have all the stopping power anyone should need. Seriously - I've seen a lot of nice tandems that relied on the same exact brakes with no trouble. But here's the thing: they need to be set up properly. Take a look here:

Notice how long that straddle cable is on those brakes, with the yoke positioned about 5 or 6 inches above the fork crown. The thing about cantilever brakes - especially older types like these Mafacs - is that the feel and performance of them can vary a lot depending on the set up. A lot of younger mechanics may not have the experience with such brakes to know how to get the most out of them. Shortening that straddle cable (and lowering the yoke as a result) would change the angle between the yoke and the cantilever arm - and alter the mechanical advantage. Another factor is that it is important to pair the brakes with the right levers. According to Saint Sheldon, wide profile cantis like those Mafacs can have a low mechanical advantage, and should be paired with a lever that has a higher advantage. I doubt that those Campy levers are optimal for the Mafac cantis. Getting the combination right takes some experience, or at least a fair amount of research. Having said all that - I just want to mention that the choice of cantilevers on a racy road bike is an unusual one. I'm not criticizing it - it's just an unusual choice.

One thing brought up in the video that struck a chord with me was that he talks about the longevity of vintage bikes. "I think it's a testament to the design of old bikes that we still see a lot of them now, still with original components on them, and they still work and function as well as they did when they were first made." Of the modern bikes he adds, "I wonder how many modern carbon bikes we will see in the future. Maybe we'll see loads. Maybe they'll last a long time. But modern design seems to be a lot more consumerist and a lot more 'throwaway'." There's a lot of truth in that - and he goes on to compare it to other modern products and especially things like electronic goods, phones, etc., that are obsolete after only a few years. 

In the end, I like that the young reviewer is fair and not automatically dismissive of the vintage bike. He gives it a chance and shows it some respect. "It wouldn't be fair to say this is better than that, or that is better than this," he says. "They're different, and cycling is all the better for it." As he wraps up the video, he admits that if he were going into a road race or a criterium and had a choice between the two bikes, he'd absolutely take the modern bike - but then adds "Cycling shouldn't always be about racing, and performance, numbers, and Strava. Riding a bike like this makes you remember that. It makes you remember why you ride a bike in the first place."

Yeah - I like that. And if you have about 17 minutes for a fun little diversion, check out the Modern vs. Retro video. You can watch it on YouTube, or right here:


Wednesday, November 6, 2019

Fall Back, Spring Forward

This past weekend was the "Fall Back" change from Daylight Saving to Standard time. For the past month or so, my morning commutes have been completely doused in darkness from start to finish, but now and for the next couple of weeks after the change, I'll get at least a taste of daylight before I arrive at work. It's still as dark as can be when I leave, but this morning as I rode the last couple of miles in my roughly hour-long commute, I got to see this:

I don't know why it should make a difference to the way I feel during the rest of the day, but it does. Somehow, despite the fact that temperatures were only hovering around 30 degrees, things just felt a bit less cold and less dismal. On the other hand, it sure gets dark early now.

Nowadays it seems like twice a year, every year, as we change our clocks forward and back, conversation picks up about the need or the folly of playing with time the way we do. It's a surprisingly controversial topic. Much has been written about the benefits (economic, health, safety, etc.) or lack thereof. Some locations have decided to do away with the practice altogether, and politicians in other places debate doing the same. There are arguments both for and against the practice that strike me as reasonable, and I don't feel too strongly one way or the other. In the winter, when days are shorter, I appreciate a bit of light earlier in the morning - but I'm typically up so early that I'll spend my whole commute in the dark again before long. And in the summer, I appreciate the later sunset that comes with Daylight Saving time - but again, it's not like my life would change much if that sunset came an hour earlier.

This time of year, and again in the spring, I'll see different variations on this quote posted around social media sites: "Only the government would believe you can cut a foot off the top of a blanket, sew it to the bottom, and have a longer blanket." Food for thought.

Wrapping it up, I don't really know where I'm going with this, and maybe it doesn't really even matter. Is the change back and forth worth the disruption to sleep and other schedules? I don't have the answer. All I know for sure is this morning I did quite enjoy the sunrise. In the next couple of weeks it will gradually slip away from me again, but it's nice to have it when I can get it.

That's all for now.

Monday, October 21, 2019

Nashbar and Performance - The Changing Face of Bicycle Retail

If you've visited either the Bike Nashbar or the Performance websites lately, you've probably noticed that they've gone through some changes. You might even notice that, apart from the names, they're virtually the same site. Well, it turns out that basically they are. The last year or so has brought pretty big transformations to the two famous mail/internet bicycle shops - including Chapter 11 bankruptcy, closed stores and warehouses, and a complete consolidation of brands.

It's all an interesting twist in a story about the rapidly changing nature of retail shopping. Both Nashbar and Performance have been such a fixture for me since I first got interested in cycling - and I'll bet many people can say the same.

A look back:

An early ¼-page ad from Bicycling!
magazine, January 1975. It's the earliest
one I could find.
Bike Nashbar got started in 1974, though at the time it was known as Bike Warehouse. Arni Nashbar, an advertising man from New Middletown, Ohio (near Youngstown) started up the mail order bike shop out of his home with about $1000 of his savings. His idea was to keep the costs of doing business as low as possible, and thereby keep the prices of goods lower than the competition. One way to keep the costs down was with his catalog. Cyclists of my generation probably remember well the old Bike Warehouse/Nashbar ads and catalogs with their simple black and white hand-drawn pictures. They were decidedly a low-budget affair. As I understand it, Arni either didn't want to pay extra for reproducing actual photographs of the products for his catalog, or didn't have a good means to do so (perhaps both) so he put the manufacturers' own product photos on a light table and traced them by hand. Combined with the pulpy newsprint type of paper they were printed on, the overall look and feel lent the catalogs an old-fashioned "homey" or "folksy" charm. He continued to produce the catalogs that way at least through the 1980s. Eventually he had to give in to marketing pressure and "slicker" competition and start running full-color catalogs (I think it was in the '90s) but part of me missed the old style.

I couldn't pin down exactly when it happened, but somewhere around 1981 - 1982, Bike Warehouse became Bike Nashbar. For the first year or two afterwards, they were putting "Formerly Bike Warehouse" under the Bike Nashbar name.

A double-spread-page ad from 1980 - Still going by the name Bike Warehouse. Look at some of those prices! Cinelli stem, $19.80; Campagnolo Nuovo Record derailleur, $39.80. SunTour Superbe derailleur, $24.40. Oh, to have a time machine.
Now Bike Nashbar: this was from early in1982. 
Arni Nashbar also specialized in buying up overstocks, discontinued items, closeouts, etc., and passing the savings on to the customer. Another element in making his catalog shop a price leader was to make deals directly with manufacturers, mostly in Asia (first Japan, later Taiwan and China) to produce goods with the Nashbar name, eliminating middlemen. The same factories that were producing bikes, components, clothing, and accessories for big well-known brands were producing items with the Nashbar name for a fraction of the price. Nashbar-branded items typically didn't have a lot of drool-factor, and I suppose image-obsessed cyclists turned their noses up - but in my experience, many of the products were as well-made as the more popular branded items but a little more "basic" and were a great value. I had several pairs of Nashbar's best-quality bib shorts that were easily my favorites - the lycra blend was thick and durable, the chamois was a good fit and feel (and machine washable) and they lasted for many many years, miles, and wash cycles. I would often reach for them before some popular-brand shorts that cost much more.
Nashbar offered some really nice bikes for the money. This one from about 1986 or '87 had a Japanese-built Tange #2 frame, full Shimano 600 SIS group (including the brakes), tubular wheelset, and Selle Italia Turbo saddle. The bike listed for $479 - anywhere from $50 - $100 less than comparable bikes from more popular brands - and made in the same factory as some of them.

Many cyclists in Northeast Ohio and Western Pennsylvania probably share memories of an advantage to being nearby the company's Youngstown-area headquarters: the Bike Nashbar warehouse outlet store. It was a no-frills shopping experience, with tables and bins full of the things Nashbar was famous for: closeouts and overstocks - marked down to practically give-away prices. Also, the company had a very liberal return policy, so one could also get great deals on opened-box and returned goods (you had to check carefully that everything was in there!). When I was at Kent State University in the mid/late '80s, at least once or twice a year our bike club would rent a couple of 9-passenger vans and make the roughly hour-long pilgrimage to the Nashbar outlet to do some bargain hunting.

The origins of Performance Bicycle Shop are somewhat similar to the Nashbar story. In 1981, Gary Snook and his wife Sharon, from Chapel Hill, North Carolina, invested their savings into a catalog mail-order bike shop. The focus of Performance was to offer a wide selection of high quality bikes, parts, and accessories at low prices. The glossy, full-color catalog gave it more of an up-market look and feel as compared to Nashbar. I remember how getting those catalogs every few months was like getting a glitzy "wish book" - the feeling was not unlike being a little kid and getting the big Sears and JCPenney catalogs at Christmas time. "I want this, and that, and those, and . . ."
This is the earliest Performance catalog I could find - from 1983, when the company was only about 2 years old. Compared to Nashbar, it was a much glossier, "slicker" presentation.

Performance offered top-tier frames - and complete build kits. If you bought a frame, you could choose between different component packages and have the complete bike assembled and shipped directly to your home.
I used to drool over the frame pages in the Performance catalog. Here's an interesting thing to point out in this '83 catalog: Among these beautiful Italian and British frames, there is a McLean, from North Carolina-based framebuilder McLean Fonvielle. His fully custom-built frames were offered under the Silk Hope name, while his more "production-oriented" bikes were sold under the McLean brand. The quality between the two was said to be nearly identical because Fonvielle couldn't bear to skimp even on the lower-priced frames. He built approximately 300 frames before he died at the age of 30 in 1983.
My friends and I always loved seeing all this high-end gear pictured together in one place.
Performance, like Nashbar, also contracted with manufacturers in Italy and in Asia to produce bikes, components, and accessories with their own name on them. In the mid '80s, they offered some really lovely Italian frames, built of Columbus SL tubing, and made in the same shop that also contract-built for more famous brands. Again, the quality of their products was very good, but typically cheaper than the better-known brands. Performance also opened a nationwide chain of full-service storefronts, so they had not only the mail-order business, but also a presence on the street. That was an interesting twist, considering that many brick-and-mortar shops were probably driven under by the company to the point where there were probably a lot of places where Performance was the only physical bike shop in town.

Both Performance and Nashbar, along with the other mail-order shops, took a lot of criticism for undercutting brick-and-mortar bike shops. It was a fair criticism. With low overhead, volume buying, and eliminating some of the distribution layers, they were often able to sell goods for less than the traditional shops could buy them. Another source of irritation was that some shoppers would engage in "showrooming" - essentially using the bike shop as a place to try on shoes, helmets, etc., only to buy them for less from the catalog shops. Both of these issues have only gotten worse in the internet age - and in fact, those same changing trends, and an increase in internet shopping choices, eventually worked against Performance and Nashbar, as internet competition has re-shuffled the industry even further.

In 2000, Performance bought Nashbar (and another competitor, Supergo, if I recall correctly), but the two companies were still run as more-or-less independent entities. Both brands continued offering bicycles, components, clothing, and accessories with their own names on them, but Nashbar continued to put more of a focus on value pricing, deep discounts, closeouts, etc., while the Performance brand focused more on having a range of leading brands, and continued to have a more upscale image.

The current state of affairs started in 2016. Performance had accumulated a lot of debt to Advanced Sports International (ASI) which owned and distributed several popular bike brands, including Fuji, SE, Breezer, and Kestrel. The result was that ASI ended up buying Performance. A new company - Advanced Sports Enterprises (ASE) - was formed to manage both the internet shopping brands and the bicycle brands, and that takes us back to the beginning of this story.

Unfortunately, the purchase of Performance didn't stop the losses or solve the debt issues. ASE, the parent company that controlled both Nashbar and Performance, along with those aforementioned bicycle brands, filed for bankruptcy last year, and different parts of the company were divided up between different investors. One investment group, Tiger Capital, took over the bicycle brands, while another, AMain Cycling, became the new owners of the popular online retailers. AMain consolidated the Nashbar and Performance retail operations, and as a result, Nashbar's Ohio warehouse was shut down, and all the Performance brick-and-mortar storefronts were closed, offices shuttered, and most if not all employees let go. Both websites became little more than mirror images of one another, offering the same products, which now all ship from the same warehouse facility. (I'm hearing from good sources that some of the bike brands may be totally gone. Whatever future they have is uncertain.)

The store closings probably mean that there may be some towns that have lost their only full-service bike shop, and it goes without saying that a lot of folks are out of jobs. And as often happens with bankruptcy, creditors and suppliers are left holding an empty bag. It's a little ironic that many people pointed to the mail order bike shops as contributing to the failure of full-service brick-and-mortar bike shops a decade or more ago - and then further shifts in shopping trends ended up killing Performance and Nashbar in return. There's so much competition on the internet - and nowadays the competition is global. Sometimes one can find products sold from Europe or the UK shipping directly to customers in the US at prices (including shipping) that can't be beaten even by American-based discounters.

All in all, it's kind of a sad twist that demonstrates the volatile nature of retail. It makes me wonder what changes we'll see in the future, and what it will take for bicycle retailers to survive.

Monday, October 7, 2019

Retrogrouch Re-Run: In Honor of Ginger Baker

I saw in the news this weekend that legendary rock drummer Ginger Baker has died. Though it doesn't, on the surface, seem to have much to do with a bike blog, many of us who obsess over classic and vintage bicycles know that Baker, along with musical partner and equally legendary rock guitarist Eric Clapton, was once an avid cyclist and maybe (dare I say?) a bit of a bike geek. 

A few years back, I wrote about the bike connection - mostly in regards to Clapton, but also Baker - and their classic album: Cream's Disraeli Gears. I don't have anything new to post today, but it seemed appropriate to do a "Retrogrouch Re-Run" of that post. Here it is:

I was listening to Disraeli Gears by Cream the other day and it got me thinking about bicycles.

Bicycles? Really?


Granted, lots of things get me thinking about bicycles, but it's probably already well known among us old bicycle enthusiasts (or maybe not) that Eric Clapton has been a huge fan of bicycles -- especially classic Cinellis -- going back to his youth. So was the band's drummer, Ginger Baker, for that matter. Their mutual love for racing bicycles, and a roadie's malapropism, led to the title of that iconic 1967 album.

The story goes that Baker and Clapton were talking about bikes one time in the back of a car, and according to Baker, "Mick Turner was one of the roadies who'd been with me a long time, and he was driving along and Eric was talking about getting a racing bicycle." Apparently, Turner commented about the bike having "disraeli gears," as opposed to derailleur gears. (The actual Disraeli was a British Prime Minister during the Victorian era). "We all just fell over," said Baker. "We said that's got to be the album title." (

I first heard about Clapton's passion for bicycles when I saw this picture in one of the bike mags back in the 80s"
That's Eric Clapton taking delivery of a new Cinelli Supercorsa from Antonio Colombo in 1987. Colombo is the owner of Columbus tubing, and has been the owner of Cinelli since 1978.
Clapton's love for classic Cinelli bikes has been well documented over the years, and he has apparently owned more than a few, from different vintages. In fact, here's another picture from the 80s, which one can find on the Cinelli website.

I've heard and read from numerous sources, including former British framebuilder Dave Moulton, that Clapton used to race a bit in his teens, probably time-trials mostly (like most British racers in those days), and that bikes and guitars were the competing interests in his life. Guitars and music of course took the lead, but he never really let go of the bike bug.

Clapton used to have a blog (it appears to be defunct at this time) where he would occasionally post some thoughts, and sometimes pictures, of his passions. Sometimes, his bikes would make the blog, like this vintage track bike:

Photo from Eric Clapton's now-defunct blog. Great old components would sometimes make the blog, too.
In 2010, Clapton was pictured on the cover of a Japanese fashion magazine (with an English-language title -- Free & Easy. Gotta love it!) posing with what looks to be a '60s-vintage Cinelli.

Clapton mentioned bikes a few times in his 2007 autobiography, too. In one passage, he talks about getting one of his first bicycles. In another he describes a visit to Japan, and meeting with designer Hiroshi Fujiwara. He writes, "Hiroshi came over to the hotel with his new Cinelli track bike. He is still a leading pioneer in street culture, hence the Cinelli. . . I have caught the obsession of course. He is very infectious, and I have begun buying vintage road bikes, not to ride but because I have always loved the equipment of cycling, especially bikes and accessories from the sixties."

Legendary drummer, Ginger Baker, 
looking iconic and ironic in the 60s 
As mentioned previously, drummer Ginger Baker, who collaborated with Clapton both with Cream and with Blind Faith, was also once an avid cyclist and aspiring racer. In Baker's own website, under the history archives, there is a quote from a 1967 press article: "Ginger Baker was doing very well as a professional bicycle racer when he was fifteen. He had already discovered and enjoyed listening to the music of jazzman Dizzy Gillespie. One day he sat down at a drum set and found he could play . . . He's been a drummer ever since."

Something tells me that the description of the 15-yr old Baker as a "professional bicycle racer" is a slight exaggeration, but numerous sources mention his early ambitions to race bicycles. In a 2009 Rolling Stone interview, it was said that an accident on the bike with a taxi left him with a busted bicycle, ending the dream. Another source says that the accident broke his leg, and it was during that time while he was recuperating that he started playing the drums. In any case, the drums quickly changed the direction of his life.

It's fun to imagine these two legends of rock -- one of the greatest guitarists, and one of the greatest drummers -- chatting between gigs, or out on tour, swapping stories of riding, racing, and the bikes they loved.

Saturday, September 21, 2019


With school back in session, and with a new schedule and new teaching assignments, it seems I haven't had a lot of time for blog writing these last few weeks. But I have been riding to work as much as possible. Usually I ride a decidedly non-retro-grouchy bike to work, fully decked out with racks, panniers, fenders, bags, and lights - and with an aluminum frame, modern Shimano components, and even (gasp) disc brakes. I see it as utilitarian pack mule that gets the job done without inspiring much passion - and riding it in rain or winter's salty slush doesn't make me cringe the way I would if I were on a nice classic steel bike.

The last couple of days have brought us fantastic weather -- warm, sunny, and with no hint of rain in sight. I haven't had to carry a lot of gear back and forth either, so for my last few commuting rides I decided to skip the pack mule and take something a little more lively: my black & blue Mercian "retro-mod." Since I haven't really featured it on the blog much, I thought I might take some time today to rectify that.

This was a frame I had built back around 2010 - a King of Mercia model in Reynolds 725 heat-treated chrome-moly. The "retro" comes from the lugged steel frame and vintage-inspired paint scheme with contrasting panels and bands on the seat-tube. The "mod" comes from its modern (well, modern for 2010) components - including 10-speed cassette and Campy Ergo brake/shift levers. Prior to acquiring the pack mule with its disc brakes, this was the most "modern" bike in my collection.

In the Mercian color palette, the main color is called Black Pearl - it has a fine metallic sparkle that catches the light. The contrasting color on the head-tube and seat-tube is called Blue Intenso Pearl. I had Mercian finish it off with red pinstriping and lug outlining. The bar tape, from Fizik, was a near-exact match to the blue contrasting panels, while the saddle has a center stripe in the same shade. The red cable housing picks up the red in the pinstriping. It's very matchy-matchy, but it all fell together so easily that I couldn't resist it.
The bike was built with clearance for reasonably large tires - those are about 28 mm, though I think 32 would fit without difficulty. Most of the components are Campagnolo, but Campagnolo doesn't make a "medium" reach brake as the clearance on this frame required. The brakes I ended up using were made by Tektro, but they have a beautifully polished finish and first-rate hardware (like the barrel adjusters and the eccentric quick release) much nicer than their low price would indicate. I was "snobby" enough to carefully remove the Tektro name from the calipers, though. I upgraded the pads with top-quality ones, and the brakes look and work as well as the best. 
The tubing on the frame is slightly oversized, but that meant an oversized 1⅛ steerer, too. Yes, I think 1⅛  is overkill on a steel bike, but apparently the available lugs made it necessary. So I had to get a threadless headset (Chris King) and stem. The stem from Velo-Orange is a decent-looking one with a nice polish, but honestly I think a traditional quill stem looks better on a steel bike. Another thing - commonly available aluminum headset spacers tend to be really thick, making the already large steerer tube look even bigger. I had a friend who owns a machine shop turn down some nice thin spacers for me on his lathe. It helps the look. What would be ideal would be to have someone craft a nice, slim stem out of steel, but that's an expensive option.
I've used or at least tried the integrated brake/shift lever systems from the three main component makers - Shimano, SRAM, and Campagnolo, but of the three, I really prefer the Campagnolo Ergo.  The Shimano shifters have a "lighter" touch, but the Campagnolo have more "feel" or "feedback." The paddles for shifting need only a small "throw" to execute a shift, and can make multiple gear shifts with one press of the lever. By contrast, the Shimano take a much longer sweep of the lever to make a shift. The lever shape is a little weird-looking (at least they are if you typically use more traditional or vintage-styled levers), but they feel nice in the hand. The bodies are long and offer plenty of room for big hands.
In this shot you can see the sparkle in the black and blue paint, and the little hand-cut heart detail in the lugs.
Campagnolo Centaur 10-speed drivetrain looks good in silver. The crank looks a little like the late-'80s C-Record but has the Ultra-Torque bottom bracket system. There can be issues with that system (I wrote about that HERE), but mine was set up well to make it smooth and trouble free. Fun detail: my bottle cage is carbon fiber. It's the only carbon fiber thing I have on any bikes.
The light, nimble, and racy bike made for a fun change of pace on my commutes for a few days.

Monday, August 19, 2019

Americane Vintage Road and Track Bike Show

This weekend I took a drive up to Rochester Hills, Michigan, near Detroit, for the 11th annual Americane Vintage Road and Track Bike Show, organized by Vintage Velo Rendezvous Michigan (VVRM). The show was held at the International Velodrome at Bloomer Park and included free admission to the track in addition to the vintage bike show. Having never actually ridden on a velodrome before, I was eager to give it a try, so I loaded up a couple of vintage bikes for the show, including my track bike. It's about a 3½ hour drive from Akron to Detroit, which means I was probably the farthest from home of any of the event's attendees. But I knew there'd be some familiar faces at the show as I've met a few Michigan vintage bike fans over the last few years as I've been traveling there for other vintage-oriented bike rides.

Weather for the event could best be described as tenuous. Rain in the morning made for a wet track that needed to dry out in the earlier hours of the day. But the sun came out to dry things off in time for the main event, and eventually it got into the upper 80s (though someone said it was close to 100 on the track!). But then more storms rolled in for the afternoon and cut things short. By the time the show judges were announcing winners, people were rushing to pack up their bikes as lightning could be seen (and heard) moving closer.

A view of the velodrome at Bloomer Park.
There's two riders on the track - Tim P. on one of the "loaner" track bikes, and Mark A. on his lovely vintage Masi Pista.
The velodrome facility had someone on hand to provide free one-on-one lessons on track riding, so I took advantage of that. It didn't take long, and after a couple of laps, I was up on the banking and having a ball.
There I am on the banking, riding my vintage Mercian track bike.
There were some awfully nice bikes brought in for the show. It was great to see what people entered - and lots of bike-lust opportunities. There were awards given for Best British, Italian, French, North American, Japanese/Asian, and "Other" European, as well as a "People's Choice - Best in Show" and "Judges Choice."

This red and white Atala, owned by Jon A., was the winner for best Italian bike.
My Mercian track bike was part of the show - with my green and red 753 Mercian just behind it. 
I liked this blue Colnago - and I also enjoyed talking with its owner, Bob B. I'm going to take a moment here to plug his charitable organization FB4Kdetroit (Free Bikes 4 Kidz) which gets bikes to kids in need. If you're in the Detroit area and have a bike to donate, or would be interested in helping out in some other way (like building or repairing donated bikes), contact them at It sounds like a great cause.
I got a few pictures of this beautiful example of Mark Nobilette's work, owned by Phil K. Elegant lugwork under shocking purple paint. This was the winner for best North American entry.

I really liked the seatstay/seat lug treatment on this bike.
Beautiful old Gios Torino pista. Stunning.
This old Rochet would have been my pick for best French bike. One doesn't see many of these - and this example has some really nice details.

I think this was the French category winner (photo by Tim Potter) - A very nicely detailed Peugeot PX-10, owned by Phil H. 
Tim P. won "Best Japanese/Asian" for this wonderful Nagasawa keirin racing bike. Fun fact: I learned at the show that Tim's father-in-law was a championship keirin racer in Japan. He had some  magazine articles, news clippings, and plaques to display.
Just look at that clearance under the fork crown! Tight!
Okay - so, like a dope, I forgot to get a decent picture of my own 753 Mercian at the show. But this is the bike that won both "Best British Bike" and the "Judges Choice" awards. Wahoo!
Accepting one of the two awards for the green Mercian from event organizer Jon Albert. (photo by Tim Potter).
If you're a Facebook user, there are a bunch more photos on the event page - including more of the bikes, and more of the prize winners (sorry - I didn't get pictures of all of them), with photos uploaded by several participants. Maybe more will be added over the next couple of days. Anyhow, check those out HERE.

So as the last awards were handed out, thunder was rumbling and everyone was packing it in. Too bad, as I was hoping to get back out on the track again before heading home. All in all, it was a fun day (even if it was cut a little short) and I was feeling pretty good at getting some recognition for one of my own bikes at the show. I understand VVRM is hoping to see the event grow - I'll be keeping an eye out for another invite next year. Thanks, guys!