Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Born to ride steel?

Well, that is silly, of course.  No one is born to ride a certain kind of bike material as that decision is typically determined by the needs, predilections, and often, the budget of the cyclist.

But, I do wonder if I am not fated to be (with apologies to John Henry) a 'steel driving man'?  I have waxed philosophic about owning Ti here and here, and carbon fiber here.  I have been sucked into the siren call of at least two aluminum hardtails now and both times I come up short of an emotional tie to the bike.  They do not suck, but they do not inspire my favor either.

"How do you make an aluminum bike?  Start with a steel one and then suck out all the soul."
                                                                                                                                     -  Unknown

Pouring in a bucket of soul

I have to say that I am quite possibly the poster child for steel frames as a hardtail bike of choice.  They meet my beer budget.  They last nearly forever.  They ride smoothly as a rule.  They have a living feel to them when ridden.  They look elegant to my eye in a classic sense.  They seem to go well with 'reverse technology'.  My Jabber looks swell with the old school White Industries hubs and non-external BB cranks.  It would look even better with some WI Eno cranks and a Phil Wood BB, something that I do not think a modern alu frame would quite do justice to.

In the same way that an alu frame feels like a 2x4 with wheels to me, even if it is great pedaling, light, and fast, the steel frame feels more like a leaf spring with wheels, even if it is a heavier carcass.

Less *thunk*, more *twang*.

*Twang* ist gut

And, ya know, like the Germanic Twang inspector above, I will take twang over thunk any day.  I have ridden CF frames I think I could have taken home.  I don't know what carbon does, in general.  It can be *thunk* or maybe *whack* or possibly *thwack*...but it ain't got a chance in h-e-double tooth picks of ever twanging.

Now I still think that Ti could be the ultimate steel bike, but unless the cost comes down or someone makes a geometry that I think is spot-on stock, there is no way I can pop for a handmade Ti frame, not when I could buy two or three steel frames at that cost.  Until beer jumps up to champagne, I think I am out of the market.

I am still expecting another steel SS frame at the end of the year and I am excited about the numbers on the geo charts.  If it is as good as I have heard, I may be a happy man.  If not, there are lots of choices to point to next.  I am even pretty interested in seeing how the new Vassago Black Label frames compare to the standard stuff.  At just over twice the cost, they are in the truly hand-made custom range, but, one would hope, readily available without the wait.

Hmmm...all that soul, off the rack.  Twang included at no extra cost.  Thank the big German guy.

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Call me Carbon Fiber Man

Yup, I am now officially mesh re-inforced due to a recent triple hernia repair.  I had been dealing with it for a couple of years but every so often it would flare up if I moved something heavy, etc.  Not a biggie, but annoying.  It was actually quite difficult to go ahead with the surgery because I knew it would take me off the bike for several weeks.  I hate that.  Add in the fact that I felt great the rest of the time and it was hard to make the decision to go 'off line' for a while.  But I am not getting any younger and this kind of thing only gets harder to recover from as time goes by.

It hurts.  I walk like Tim Conway's Old Man character from the Carol Burnett show.  I cannot imagine riding a bike and I am sleeping in one of those zero gravity chaise lounger/patio chairs on a egg crate foam camping pad.  It works.  It actually is pretty darn comfy.  Makes me wonder why folks spend $2000.00 on a bed.

So, I am the proud papa of a few new incisions, all backed up by some trick mesh panels that will support the muscle wall, etc.

I had my choice of materials for the mesh:  Ti, Steel, Alu, CF, and bamboo.  Being an internet info kinda guy, I got on the surgery forums and asked for some opinions.  It went something like this:

"I am having hernia repair surgery and I need to decide on what material is right for me to use for the mesh panels.  I know that Ti is the most compliant and lasts forever, the aluminum is pretty light too but I am worried about getting beat up by the lack of flex in the panels.  Carbon is pretty tempting and is soooo light, but will it crack and leave me worrying about a warranty, especially if it is a cheapo, Chinese CF panel?  Finally steel is really the real mesh.  I mean, it has been good enough for screen windows for years until the lighter alu and CF stuff got the 'bling'  Then there is the bamboo option, but that may be too odd.  What should I do?"

I had several long replies and arguments for each material.  20 folks argued passionately for Ti cause "you will never need to do it again" and it has that magic mesh quality.  At least as many folks pitched in for steel cause it is cheaper ("why spend more for something you can't see after it is installed?") and most small, custom medical groups still like to use steel.

There were a few alu guys that said I should just harden up and shut up and go for the lightest, stiffest material there is for the least money.  Comfort is overrated anyway.  The composite folks chipped in and lobbied for the high tech solution as the ultimate material for mesh panels.  Flex vs. strength, weight vs. durability, etc.  I was concerned about a rough strike on a Kidney Stone damaging the CF mesh, but that seemed to be more of an issue with the one brand of mesh panel that was trying to be too light and fancy.  Trek recalled those.

Finally there was one hippie that wanted me to go for the bamboo option with a hemp suture.

Then the words and passions flew...Steel mesh may rust unless treated with 'body-saver' first.  It is heavy.  Alu cracks.  Ti is over priced.  Carbon is great for bike frames, but mesh panels for hernia repair?  C'Mon.  Get real.

The bamboo guy just wanted to legalize pot and drifted off into an hazy tirade.

There was one European poster that no matter what we suggested, always wanted a bigger mesh panel with certain specs like 1.2mm thru-sutures and odd stuff.  Barely understandable, we figured he was a surgeon wanna-be poseur troll.

There was one wise old country Dr. who piped in at the end and said that it was more the way the mesh was used and the magic of the Dr's hand that defined the performance of the mesh panel more then just the material.  "Sure", he said, "some adages are true, but some are just tired old dead horses looking for a place to get beat...again.  Wear what ya' want to wear and lift happy" he said.

So, I went for the CF mesh panels with a good warranty.  I think that will work for me as long as I keep the expectations real.  I sure did like the shiny Ti, though.  And steel is still real.

Note:  If you do not 'get' the satire here, then you do not waste as much time on the bike forums as I do and you likely ride more.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Giant Anthem X 29er for 2011.

In versions 1, 2, and 3.  Plus a bit more.

Man!  Good looking bikes, although I am not sure I like the polished combo on the 1 version.

Then there is this little gem.

Tell me is not a great time to be a kid again.  Man, that is industrial art. 

Friday, August 13, 2010

Who will do it right?: Softails and the promised carrot left dangling.

OK...I will say it again - One of the best things about 29ers is that they do more with less.  Less suspension, less tire size, less gears, less.  Yet, they allow for a great ride and bennies despite the seeming lack of squishy bits and such.

Mr. Peabody and Sherman.  Ah, yes.  Good times.
Now, let's step into the WABAC machine and go back to the days when the first softails that I recall came into existence.  I remember the KHS and the Ritchey ones most of all, then there was the Ti Moots YBB and some stuff from Castellano and Ibis.  I remember talking about a design that pedaled well and yet 'took the edge off' of things.  What defines a softtail is kinda vague, but I would say that in a pure sense it would be limited travel, 2" or less, and no real pivot at the chainstay.  It relies on flex in the material to allow for wheel movement.

I never got one, but I always was up on the concept.

Fast fwd to today and the 29er, something that almost singlehandedly resurrected the viability and commercial appeal of the steel hardtail from the shelves of Walmart and put it back into high demand, is rolling large and in charge across the countryside.  A well designed HT in 29" mode is pretty smooth and I have found that, for me, even 3" of travel in the back end is plenty.

What could be the perfect combo but a 29er and a soft tail?  Can you imagine the marriage of snappy acceleration, a light frame, and enough 'give' in the frame to be the smoothest hardtail you have ever ridden?  The things is, can it be done?  I am not sure.  There are some versions out now that come close.  let me look at some and spout a bit.

The Dos Niner:  A Salsa Cycles/QBP item, the Dos Niner uses shaped Scandium CSs to accomodate the inch or so of travel out of the air shock.  Light and well made, it has been reliable and it is not that expensive at $800.00 or so IIRC.  It has a rep for being flexy, especially in the older models.  It also uses the rear Relish shock as a stressed member of the frame.  Not so good IMO.  As well, I friend I ride with has one and I can see the shock cycle as he pedals.  it is not moving much, but it is moving, even on smooth pavement.

The Siren Bikes Song:  1.5" of travel out of the Cane Creek shock and very innovative use of Ti and Carbon Fiber makes Brendan of Siren bikes a leader in softail design as far as I can see.  Downsides?  The Ti plates at the BB are not that great looking and it still uses the shock as part of the frame, although I know he is playing with a rocker version.  If I was laying down my cash on a softail, it would be this one, even though I have reservations.

The Moots YBB:  An old-y but a good-y, the YBB as in, Why Be Beat, has been around for a long time and Moots makes a fine bicycle.  Ti likely is the perfect material for the Cs material here.  The complaints though are the frame is noodly and always has been and the simple but unsophisticated rear damper gets it's share of problems.  I saw one ride by once up a trail and it was pogoing like a bunny rabbit.  That would bug the heck out of me.  $$$ too for 1.125" of squish.

The Cannondale Scalpel:  I am not sure of the travel here as the home site kind of sucked for details, but I have to say that this bike promises to have it all for me...the rear shock is on a rocker, the chain stays are shaped carbon and should have a tremendous duty cycle, and it looks light and fast.  Rumours of a 29er version for 2011.  But, will it only be present in a high end racers only $$$ version?  Too bad if so.  Then you have the odd Lefty fork to decide upon.

So, this is one thing I wonder about.  Long time ago some of the early sus designs pivoted at the center of the BB shell in line with the chainstays.  It sucked.  Tremendous amounts of chain torque induced movement trying to pull the rear wheel over the top of the BB compressed the shock with every pedal stroke.  Single pivots went up to be in line with the middle CR as a compromise to keep things stable.

Now how is this better with a softail, where all of a sudden they defy science?  I doubt it, based on watching the YBB and the Dos Niner in action.  I think they get away with it because they have very little travel OR the shock has a Pro Pedal type platform to keep things in check.  

Then the idea of having the shock as part of the seat stays is not that great an idea.  A shock is not a very good frame tube IMO.  It works, but it has to be a compromise in durability, stiffness, and frame design and fit for smaller riders.  A small rocker is a better way to go, taking that stress of of the shock body.

The thing is, once you begin to get rockers and pivots there, how far are you away from something like a Lenz lev 3.0 or Milk Money?  Not far.  When is it not a softail anymore?

I have to think that it will get sorted out as it promises huge bennies for 29er riders who care about a fast and efficient bike.  I am looking to the Cannondale to hit that high jump bar, but we shall see.  Often small innovators like Siren can get there first, but will it be affordable?

Finally, I would not put it past Salsa to get it smack on....light enough, cheap enough, stiff enough, fast enough, but the Dos is not it.  I bet they know that too and it would not surprise me to see revisions of that bike on someone's Soft Modeling screen display.

Meanwhile, I wait, dangling that carrot that has tantalized me for a decade or more.  No bites yet.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

S24O single speed version

Well, I had just come off of a record setting two weeks of overtime/doubletime at work so I wanted to head for the hills and get out on an overnighter.  It is surprising how refreshing they are to the spirit and mind, providing a bit of a 'check-out' time.

It has been a very mild summer here in So Cal, but the brown is still in town and things are dry and dusty.  To help out with all those things, I headed up to elevation at Mt Pinos in the Los Padres Forest, only a 40 minute drive from home.  Parking at a friend's house in the community of Pinion Pines, I gave myself about 3 hours to see how far I could get up the mountain.  The climb...well, it is ALL a climb the way I did it the first day... could be as long as 8 to 10 miles and gave me a choice of pavement or singletrack.  I mixed it up a bit and rode about half and half in the interests of time.

Making it a bit more interesting was the choice of pack mules for the night, the SS Jabberwocky.  I normally ride the Lenz Lev for this type of stuff, but I wanted to see how it felt on one gear packed up for an S24O.  It actually was quite good all in all, but I sure ran out of gear fast.  Good thing I brought my feet with me, cuz I sure used them a lot.  Walking teaches humility.  I am very humble now.

Part of the reason was that the trail I rode up for the first 3 miles of dirt (after several miles of pavement climbing) is pretty steep.  McGill trail is a local fav as it allows easy access for shuttle monkeys (unfortunately) and is ribbon of narrow trail clinging to the shoulder of the mountain.  I walked probably half of McGill, but since most riders are on the granny-granny on this trail anyway, I was not moving much slower than the average bear.

Still, I was moving slower plus I had begun back down the highway aways and the combo was robbing me of daylight.  I was running out of light and legs by the time I hit Chula Vista and the parking lot on the end of the paved road.  Greeting me was a sea of motorhomes, all getting set up with telescopes for the celestial wonder that 8000' feet of elevation and little light pollution offers.  That meant noise though, and I already heard the barking dogs and clatter of the group.  Getting away from this area only required a bit of riding/pushing up the last section of dirt for 100 yds till I spied a rocky knoll off to the right that looked like it would give me a quiet and secluded camp spot.  It did.

I had seen afternoon clouds hanging around Mt Pinos as I was packing, so I brought the REI Chrysalis tent and storm fly.  It is a nice nest for one.  Dinner was chunky chicken spread on a cheese roll, pringles, both providing salty goodness, some cookies, and the prize of the night, a small chocolate milk that I had wrapped in a thin ice pack and tucked into my clothes in the pack.  Oh man...that was yummy.

As I ate dinner, I had changed out of my damp riding clothes but I wondered if I had underestimated the temps.  At just under 9000', it was pretty cool already at dusk.  I did not want to get too cold, so as slight shivers accompanied the evening's arrival, I hit the tent and my sleeping bag.

I really need to re-visit my sleeping kit.  The Deuter Dreamlight 500 sleeping bag is a very tiny package and fits into any pack, but the 50 degree rating is optimistic.  As I am a cold sleeper, I added a bag liner and some extra clothes...wool Swiftwick socks, arm warmers, leg warmers, my baggies (less the chamois), and a long sleeve T capped with a Pearl Izumi head cap.  I try to make the clothes I wear do double duty for riding, camp time, and sleeping.  Still I was cold at the wee hours of the morning.  I think I err'd in covering myself with a mylar blanket.

I have been experimenting with the limits of adding a burrito cover using a space blanket cut and taped into the shape of a quilt.  This night was the worst I had seen as far as building condensation between the sleeping bag and the space blanket.  Not good.  I don't think it was soaking the bag, but it would have eventually and the moisture was likely getting trapped into my bag and clothing.  The chills that came along with that moisture were an unwelcome guest.  I am looking at making a quilt from a kit here.

I sleep on a 3/4 Thermarest mattress and, using the backpack as a base, I add an inflatable pillow to keep my neck straight.  I am a side sleeper, so I need some support there.  It works really well.

As far as packs go, I used the new Osprey Talon 22, possibly the most honored and revered bikepacking pack out there.

It holds as much as I would want to put on my back and pedal with and it may just be the most comfortable pack I have ever worn.  One thing I noticed was the weight swinging my shoulders around when I was standing climbing on the SS Jabber.  I got used to it, but it did feel odd at first.

I made the summit at Condor Peak (first pic) as my breakfast stop, then turned back down toward the truck, a multi-mile serving of singletrack.  We used to be able to keep riding over the summit of the peak and drop into two distant valleys.  Now this area is wilderness and verboten to bikes.  Silly.  I can take a poopy, trail whomping horse there, but not a smooth rolling, non-poopy bike; more religion than science going on here.

Although, I will say that McGill is feeling the effects of too many bikes riding at too high a speed and the turns following fast sections are bombed out pretty good.  Poor riding habits and lack of skills add up to toasted trails.  In contrast, my SS and I rode a pretty conservative pace and hardly ran into another soul all the way down.

I really enjoy the S24Os.  Besides the fun of them, it is allowing me to refine my 'kit' so that I will be ready for multi-day trips.  Bikepacking is very cool, and I actually liked the SS as a way to approach it.  If I was a stronger rider, it would have been less walking, but so be it.  I think I would choose gears for most trips like this, but I am sure I will keep the SS around as an option to camping trips.  More flavors keep life interesting.  I actually liked the hardtail approach for bikepacking and I think I am going to convert the SS Jabber to rigid in the future.  I have another SS getting built up that will be the yin to the yang of the Jabber, allowing me some options here.

S24Os rock.  The next one will be in October most likely as September will see me off the bike for several weeks.  Fall will be a great time to hit Liebre Mtn and the Golden Eagle trail.  

Friday, August 6, 2010

That Fine Line

I obsess over corners.  No, not like the corner of the room, or the corner market, but rather that part of the trail that bends away from straight ahead.  Whether single or double track, fireroad or jeep road, when it turns twisty and begins to shuck and jive, I am in search of that fine line; the path of least resistance; the zen moment of less equals more...less brakes, less doubt, less indecision...more swoop, more flow, more grace.

It is what I yearn for and struggle to achieve and mostly it eludes me.  I keep in shape so I can ride well, but I do not chase speed as a rule so I can be at peace with being average there.  I am a very good downhill rider, but I have no plans on being the fastest guy to the bottom.  I can be beaten by a better rider and be OK with that.  Props to them.

But, the corner and the puzzle it presents is an ever changing, ever morphing, ever demanding mistress with a curving whip that taunts me with whispered phrases:  "Too much brake there."  "You missed that line by 3"...sloppy."  "Why did you not commit to the line you envisioned?  What are you afraid of?"

It feels so good when you do it right and so mediocre when you do it wrong.  So the few times I know I have nailed it leave a sweet trace in my brain and I long for that 'hit' again.  It is a slippery thing, that fine line.  It seems so easy but is not.  If I can do it once here and there, I can get to where I do it nearly all the time, yes?  No.  Well, at least not yet.

It reminds me of a saying I heard once:  "If a man's reach does not exceed his grasp, what's a heaven for?"  This heaven is filled with loose corners banked the wrong way, tight apexes pivoting around a scrub oak at the left elbow, and rapid left-right-left transitions that need a delicate yet strong hand.  It is this heaven I reach for and my grasp is tenuous at best.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Fat and happy.

Now, ya' gotta love this.

Yeah, THAT is a fat tired bike.  The new Salsa Cycles Mukluk

I rode a fat bike at Demo Days for abut 100' and thought, "oh, this is fun!"  That was a custom version of this type of bike, but the concept caught my imagination.  Do I need a snow bike?  No.  Would I like to be able to ride up some sand wash that would be a push-fest on a normal MTB?  Oh yeah.  How about a bikepacking tour of Death Valley?  Or the Mojave Road?  This thing would make desert hardpan and washes a hoot.

Salsa has a bunch of bike nuts running that place and they are really good at bringing niche bikes like the Fargo and Vaya to market.  Now, you have the Mukluk.  Cool name, too.

But it has been interesting watching the response of some of the cycling world who are pursing e-lips together and making cyber-raspberries about the seeming lack of what exactly....originality?  Like much of anything is really new in bikes anyway.

What does a small builder expect?  That just because they make a unique product, that no one should ever go mass-market with the idea?  Sour grapes.  Think about the reactions that Mike Sinyard (Specialized) had to taking MTBs into the big time, something that until then was the realm of the little-guy builder.  Some folks have never forgiven that trespass.

There is room for both.  The small builder/seller has to differentiate themselves by reputation, features, service, etc. to compete.  There are more little builders now then ever as far as I can see.

In any case, I would sure like to have one of these Fat Bikes someday.  No matter who makes it.