Monday, August 17, 2020


Long before Europeans settled the part of Northeast Ohio which is now Akron and Summit County, Native American tribes lived and moved freely about the area, using the rivers as almost a natural highway. Shawnee, Iroquois, Delaware, Wyandott, Huron, Ottawa, and Miami Indians are among the tribes believed to have traveled by canoe between the Great Lakes and the Ohio River, and from there, to the Mississippi and possibly all the way to the Gulf of Mexico.

There was one hitch, however, to making the trip entirely by canoe: there was no waterway connection from the Cuyahoga River, which flows to Lake Erie, to the Tuscarawas River, which flows to the Muskingum and Ohio Rivers. Perhaps thousands of years ago, Native Americans made an overland trail to connect the Cuyahoga and Tuscarawas Rivers -- an 8-mile stretch known today as the "Portage Trail." Today, the ends of the trail are marked by matching sculptures depicting a Native American carrying (or portaging) a canoe. One of these stands a couple miles from my home, at the edge of the valley roads I routinely bike on.

Riding through the valley the other day, just a couple miles north of the bronze Indian portaging his canoe, I had to do a version of some portaging myself. I got to a "Road Closed" sign blocking the way north along the main valley road and decided to ignore it, as I frequently do. Well, a little further up the road I found why it was closed. A huge tree had fallen over, completely blocking the road.

Couldn't go around it, so I just hoisted the bike up onto my shoulder and started climbing over the fallen tree. As I scrambled out of the tangle of branches with my bike, I saw a police officer on the other side, sitting in his SUV watching me. "Can't do that with a car," I told him, as I remounted my bike and rode off.

OK - so it wasn't anything like an 8-mile trek, but still. . . that's one of the great things about a bike, isn't it?

Rarely am I deterred on a bike ride from a closed road, unless I know for certain that it's truly impassable. On a bike you can almost always find a way to get through. Bridge out? I've been known to scramble down riverbanks and ravines, wade through streams, and climb back up the other side with my bike on my shoulder. Once, on a ride many miles from home, and on unfamiliar roads, I got to a bridge that was in the process of being rebuilt. Turning back and following a detour was going to add many miles to what was already a very long ride, so it was portage time. There was no roadway - just I-beam spans across a stream. Being a Sunday and no workers around, I picked up the bike and walked carefully over the spans to the other side. A bit foolhardy, perhaps, but no regrets.

I recall some years back when a major flood hit the Cuyahoga Valley. Sections of the two main roads that flank the east and west banks of the river were under water - at least a couple of feet deep in some parts. Car travel was impossible. I went for a ride the next day, and there were several stretches where I was wading knee-deep - with shoes in one hand, and bike on my shoulder. I remember one section where I could see a car stranded in the deepest part, with water half way up to the windows. Obviously some idiot thought he could make it across. On the other side I found a lady in a minivan watching me wade across the flood, and she was actively contemplating whether she should attempt to drive through. The stranded car was apparently not enough of a deterrent. 

As I emerged from the water carrying my bike, she asked me "Do you think I can get through?"

"I don't know," I answered, and pointing to the bike on my shoulder, I asked "Can you do this?"  

She didn't press the issue.

Being able to go where cars cannot, or ignoring signs that say "Road Closed," feels not only a bit rebellious, but also like getting a free pass, or like being part of an exclusive club, or knowing a secret handshake.

Portage-ability. Just one of many awesome things about a bike.

Thursday, August 13, 2020

Trying Out a New Brooks

Last month I got an email from the folks at Brooks Saddles informing me that I'd been selected to test one of their new saddles. When I got back from my camping vacation last week, I found a box had been delivered from Brooks, and I eagerly opened it up to see what they'd sent. What I got was a bit of a surprise: a B17 "carved" or "Imperial" - the one with the big cutaway in the center. Why was that a surprise? Well, I was under the impression that they were testing a new model, but to the best of my knowledge, the model has been around for over 10 years. If there's something new about it, it must be something that isn't obvious to casual observation. Regardless, I'm happy to use it and give them my impressions, and I may post a bit here, too.

I've got several bikes equipped with Brooks B17 saddles. It's safe to say that they're a favorite of mine. The shape works really well for me, and I typically find them to be pretty comfortable right out of the box - even before they've "broken in" (despite all the mythical horror stories about the brutal break-in period). I've tried the "narrow" version (didn't like it as much) and I've got the "standard" and "deluxe" versions, but I've never used the version with the big cutaway. Another difference is that this model comes with holes punched along the bottom skirt, ready to be laced. Lacing is supposed to firm up a leather saddle by keeping the bottom skirts from splaying out. People will sometimes drill the holes and lace up an old Brooks saddle if the top starts to sag too much (that method is less likely to accidentally damage the saddle than over-tightening the adjustment bolt at the nose). The "carved" or "Imperial" saddle comes laced right out of the box.

The saddle I received is in their antique brown color - and it came with blue laces. I decided to install it on the Sequoia for now, since that bike has been getting more use than most. By the way, I really liked that paper the saddle came wrapped in.

The brown color and blue laces make it a natural fit on the Sequoia. After I start back to work, I may move the test saddle over to my commuting mule because that will be the bike getting the most miles at that point.

Okay - so about that big hole. If you're a man and you've spent any time on a bike in the past 20 years or so, you've no doubt heard warnings about bike saddles leading to impotence. And there aren't many words that strike more fear into men, or make them cross their legs more self-consciously, than "impotence" (I assume it is second only to "castration"). I don't remember who the doctor was, or exactly when the report came out, but 20 years ago seems about right, and the scare stories were all over the news. There were articles in all the bike mags, and I think it was even on  20/20, or 60 Minutes or something like that. Since then, saddles with big "pressure relieving" holes have become common.

Interesting fact about the "pressure relieving" cutaway is that Brooks introduced saddles with that very feature back in the 1800s - for the very same reason as today - The ads said "preventative to all perineal pressure."

Here's the thing: I've always been skeptical of the fear mongering, and I'm generally skeptical of saddles with cutaways, grooves, nose-less designs, or other methods for reducing pressure. I believe there were some serious flaws in that original study that linked biking to erectile disfunction, and there have been numerous studies conducted since then that are far less dire in their conclusions. It really seems to me that a quality saddle that is wide enough to support the "sit bones," and is positioned optimally for the rider (proper height, and angle, etc.) will eliminate most issues, with or without the gimmicks. Also, sensible riding style can make a difference too. Using handlebars that put a rider low and forward can lead to problems, and staying in one position on the bike for too long doesn't help either. But seriously, if you're on a long ride and you start feeling numb or tingly "down there" - get out of the saddle for a bit! And if it keeps happening, re-examine things like saddle shape, angle, and position.

Now, having said all that, I know that suddenly I'm going to start getting emails from people telling me that a grooved or cutaway saddle saved their sex life. Okay - that's cool. But just like diagnosing the source of a creaking noise on a bike can be tricky and inexact, pinning down the exact reason or proper cure for erectile issues can be similarly speculative. Heck, I think I'd rather pin down the creaking noise, as there are far more limited variables.

One concern I've had with pressure relieving saddles is that I wonder if some of the designs might not actually be worse than a traditional design. It's just speculation - but what I mean is that if you look at the nose of a traditional saddle, the curve of the top surface is usually one large, broad curve, with a radius of maybe an inch or so. But on some saddles with a big groove in them, that broad curve over the nose is replaced by two narrow ridges, each with a much smaller radius. So instead of one broad "pressure point," you get two much smaller, sharper pressure points. Does that make sense? I don't know. . .

So getting back to this test saddle. I'll be interested to see how it feels, and what differences (if any) I might be able to detect between this one and the ones I'm more familiar with. I've been on a couple of rides with it already - including two brief rides with unpadded shorts. Was it my imagination, or could I feel the edges of that slot? Not sure. With padded riding shorts, I haven't noticed much difference so far, except that with the skirts being laced, the saddle may have a bit less "give" to it, even accounting for its brand-new, non broken-in condition. Maybe I'll loosen the laces a little. However it feels right now, it's important to remember that it will likely change as it breaks in.

Last thing - and again, I really have no idea, so I'm just curious. Brooks was sold to the Italian company Selle Royal back in 2002, but the Brooks website says that their leather saddle models are still made in England. So why did the shipping label on the box this sample came in list Italy as the point of origin? Curious.

Saturday, August 8, 2020

Vacation Biking

COVID19 has no doubt changed a lot of people's plans this year. The most recent plans to be changed for me were vacation plans. Our original (fairly elaborate) plans, which involved airline tickets and passports, ended up being cancelled, and so our backup became a camping trip in one of Ohio's state parks. Hey - no complaints.

We were at Salt Fork State Park, a couple hours' drive south of Akron, in the Southeast part of the state. And since we were driving, it was easy enough to bring some bikes with us. I brought my Specialized Sequoia, which has been getting a lot of use since completing its restoration, as well as my daughters' bikes. The hope was that we could go for some rides together, and they might be able to ride around the park.

That part of the state is pretty, though maybe not as natural for biking as the area I live in (at least not for road riding). In fact, I barely saw any cyclists anywhere, and found a noticeable lack of bike shops in the area. It could be the roads. It seemed all the roads I encountered were narrow, twisty, and extremely hilly, with high speed limits (55 mph was common) - or they were narrow, twisty, extremely hilly, and gravel

Did I mention hilly? Living near both the Cuyahoga and Chagrin river valleys, I always thought we had a lot of hills nearby. But in Southeast Ohio, you start getting into the foothills of the Appalachians, and the hills are non-stop. Around home, there are lots of long, steep, tough climbs, but there will be miles of relatively flatter roads in-between. Riding in Southeast Ohio, it's constant up and down, and it wears a person out! I found myself dreading the downhill descents because I knew that as soon as I reached the bottom, the road would immediately turn skyward again. No rest for the wicked.

Even within the boundaries of the park, the roads were so hilly that the girls weren't able to enjoy riding to the pool or the beach. We did get in some riding, nevertheless.

Not far from the park, in the city of Cambridge, there is very nice trail on a converted rail line that turned out to be a good choice for biking with the girls. At about 6 or 7 miles, the Great Guernsey Trail just might have been the longest stretch of flat/level pavement I encountered in the whole county. It was paved and also seemed to be well maintained.

A couple miles of the trail passed a wetland area that offered some nice scenery.

The sleepy town of Lore City sits near the other end of the trail. There didn't seem to be much to see or do there, but the town has a park, playground, and some porta-john facilities for trail users.

Downtown Cambridge features a picturesque old courthouse, and a large Civil War monument out front. We stopped in town to get some ice cream after our ride on the Guernsey Trail. Anytime I'm out traveling, I like to visit the local bike shops. There had been a bike shop in downtown Cambridge, but it was empty and looked like it has been closed for a while. I checked Google for others but couldn't find any listed. 

As mentioned already, the roads in the area were not ideal for biking. Narrow, twisty, and hilly - with big rig trucks, and massive diesel-spewing pickups (many sporting MAGA and confederate flag stickers) flying past, I found riding within the boundaries of the state park to be a less tense alternative. The roads were still narrow, twisty, and hilly -- but at least there was less traffic, and it moved a lot slower. And with the various roads within the park, it wasn't difficult to put together some loops for a challenging ride of an hour or two.

There was at least one ride outside the park I wanted to do, however. I learned there was an old covered bridge about 20 miles northwest of the park that I thought I'd like to find. With the ever-present hills, I thought a 40 mile round trip ride might feel like 60 or 70 miles. So I drove about half-way out, parked the car, and went exploring. 

After leaving the main road, I had about 6 miles of gravel roads to get to the bridge. It was a challenge because the fine-tread 32 mm tires on the Sequoia weren't really ideal for the loose surface. Downhills (which could get pretty steep) were nerve-wracking and I feared washing out in the curves, and climbs required staying low in the saddle to keep traction on the back wheel. It was awfully pretty to look at, though.

Often these old covered bridges are closed to car traffic. This one, built in 1855, is still open for one-way traffic -- though how much actual traffic it sees I couldn't say. I only saw one other vehicle on the road leading there and back. It did not disappoint.

On the whole, the vacation was pleasant and relaxing, even if it was nothing like what was originally planned.