Friday, March 25, 2011

Puddle Jumping.

Remember when your mom told you to quit jumping in the puddles?  Mom did not have a single speed.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Streamlining and Refining.

This winter I spent some time working on accumulating some new bikepacking gear.  First was this:  A bivy sack from REI.

It is pretty well water resistant and with the bug netting over the face, is something that you could use as a shelter all by itself, although obviously it is minimal and the netting is not ready for rainy conditions.  It weighs right at a pound.  It also adds warmth to whatever your sleep system is and I always sleep cold.  I did wonder if I would find it claustrophobic and I was concerned about condensation building up inside.  It would require a few trial runs.

But, what I liked about it was the options it gave me.  You know how the wise outdoors-person uses the concepts of layering their clothing to get a system that is flexible and versatile for all conditions?  I can use this bivy all by itself with a summer bag/quilt and be bug free.  I can add a warmer bag and bring my clothes inside to heat up a bit and I can use it in a shelter for increased warmth or for protection when I camp in this:

The Integral Designs Silshelter.  It gets mixed, but mostly positive reviews, and was on sale at REI for 100 bucks.  With the most excellent return policy, I was not worried in case it did not work out.  What appealed to me was the more than typical tarp coverage and the light weight.  It is 1 pound and packs up into a ridiculously small stuff sack.  I do not care for the center pole, but I will work on that and it needs a lot of staking if you want it to be storm/wind tight.  Otherwise, it really sets up with 6 stakes and has tie off options for overhanging limbs, etc.  So this gives me another part of the layering system.  Tarps are better in hotter weather as they ventilate well but should be storm tight if pitched correctly.  We shall see.  The obvious issue is the lack of a floor so a light ground cloth is a must and the crawly things can get ya.  The bivy will stop that in cooler weather and for summer I will attempt to make up a bug net for the Silshelter (they sell one all pre-made for the Silshelter, but I am cheap and dirtbaggish...think Walmart).

Now here is another thing.  Say that my tent weighs 3.5 pounds...I think that is about right for my one man set-up.  If I am using a tarp at one pound, a bivy at one pound, a ground cloth, and some tent stakes (more than my tent ever needs), then I am right at the same weight as the tent, so why bother?  Well, the tent is all or nothing.  Yes, I can bring just the screen fly and poles but that is only good for summer and even then, high altitude summer camping can bring rain showers, yes?  I can bring the storm fly to be safe, but there we are, back to all or nothing.  I can use just the storm fly and poles and make a tarp option out of it but the storm fly on my tent is pretty heavy.  And, in both cases, I still need a ground cloth (footprint) to protect the tent.

So I have that layered system....I hope....that gives me more options.  Now it was time to try some of it out.  I picked a local canyon and watched the weather forecast.  We went from 80 degrees to chances of rain in a day or so but I figured that I needed to know how it did in the rain anyway.  I grabbed a cheap 4mil plastic painters sheet and cut it into a ground cloth.  I packed my old North Face down bag...too bulky, but rated to 20*...and headed out into the evening.

I found a spot under a tree...not a good idea in the rain...that was out of the way and set-up camp.  One thing about a tarp is there are subtleties that are not present in a pre-configured tent.  You need to get the staking and such right to get the tension and shape of the structure right and that is easy to do on my front lawn...harder to do in the uneven grass of a meadow.   So much fiddling ensued until I had it pretty well ready to occupy.  In went the ground sheet, sleeping pad, bivy, bag.  The sleeping pad is an ancient Thermarest inflatable that has served me well but I found out that the surface of the pad against the surface of the plastic groundsheet had a nearly zero coefficient of friction...think Pigs on Ice as applied to sleeping.

So, the pad went inside the bivy, stealing some stacking room, but the bivy was stable on the plastic sheet under it.  A bit of time reading outside the shelter then inside with my headlamp gave way to nighttime and sleep.  I slipped the bivy sack over my head and zipped up the enclosure, placing the netting basically over my face.  Interesting.  If you are claustrophobic, avoid this.  I am not, so that was fine, but it did not allow for a very fresh air feeling when breathing.  I was surprised how the mesh inhibited that.  I was getting some condensation right at the head area from the breath there, but not much.  Eventually I unzipped the netting section and slept inside but uncovered at the head to feel fresher air.

I also played around with the quilt concept by opening up the down bag but keeping the bottom zipped into a pocket for my feet.  Actually, the bag only has a 70% zipper anyway, so that pocket is always there.  Inside that bivy, that set-up was awesome and I slept very comfortably into the low 40s.  I want to explore the quilt approach more this year.

So, about midnight it began to rain.  And rain.  And rain.  It rained all morning.  At one point I switched on my light and took stock of my situation.  I reached out from under the tent and readjusted the side stakes to give me more of a slope for a drip zone, but I did have some water enter the tarp right at the center pole.  I am not sure if that came from inadequate seam sealing on my part (I sealed the tarp before use) or it was sneaking in where the two front flaps overlap.  Still, it was a small puddle but unwelcome none the less. 

By dawn the rain had moved on.  I stayed dry and had no more issues with leaks anywhere. The inside wall of the tarp was as wet as the outside from condensation, but it never rained on me.  I had the sides of the tarp down pretty low and the flaps closed, so that did not surprise me.  However, inside my bivy it would not have mattered if I did contact the tarp sides as the bag would have been protected.  As far as condensation inside the bivy, that was very minimal and I cannot imagine camping in wetter weather, not where I live.  I only had some spots on the down bag where the shell had dark spots on it, but the loft was intact.

So, there were a few things I learned:

My ground sheet was too big and too slippery.  Too bulky too.  I need to cut it so any water getting into the edges of the tarp or dripping in just soaks into the ground and does not pool up on top of the sheet.  I had it 5 feet wide...2 feet would be better.  I will replace it with something else at some point. Maybe Tyvek or something.

Staking is everything on a tarp.  Practice and get good at it.  In spring, the ground is soft but in summer it won't be so I ordered some of these: Titanium tent stakes.  Bomber and light too.

The pole solution:  The Silshelter was designed to either be tied up to a limb for the main support or use a hiking staff as a center pole.  Great if you have a tree or a hiking staff.  I typically have neither.  So I needed a center pole (maybe two) option.  I wanted it to be light and cheap...dirtbag, I looked around for a suitable material.  I found it in the form of carbon fiber golf club shafts.  I will take some pics at some point, but basically I cut the heads off, cut them to length and then in half for storage, sleeved them, and pinned them together.  Voila...light, strong and $3.50 to $5.00 each at the Goodwill center.  They are only sooo long, but typically tarps sit low to the ground.  I bet that fishing poles, ski poles, and who knows what would work too.  I also am looking at ways to eliminate the center pole with an a-frame of two very light weight sectioned CF poles and an elbow join.  We shall see.  I would like to gain back some center room.

The Silshelter has one thing I fought and that is the two front flaps that make the vestibule.  They are a challenge to get taught, overlapped, and staked down when you are inside.  I need to figure that out, but I have to wonder what the makers had in mind when they designed such an odd arrangement?  More thought required here on my part to come to terms with this.

But, all that said. it was a success in that I stayed 99% weather tight, warm, and secure in conditions that are above what I would typically expect to be in.  Only high winds would have made that worse and hopefully I will get the set-up better as I go along.

More refining to come as I get a better ground sheet, look at lighter quilt options, and build some bug netting.  Fun stuff.

Monday, March 14, 2011

Be the windshield. bug.

You know the old adage..."sometimes you are the bug, sometimes you are the windshield"?  Yesterday morning I was trying to get ready for a morning ride with my wife and her cronies.  It is a very casual pace, so I often add some extra credit laps to the morning.  I wanted to take the SS out, but I needed to replace the torn front tire and the chain as it was pretty worn.  Neither of those things are too hard, but it seemed like everything was fighting me.  By the time I got it done, I was running late and that ruled out a pre-lap before I met with the Sunday AM Cruisers.  I headed out anyway and got a ways down the road before I found my rear tire to be a tiny bit low...forgot to check it.  Off the bike...out with the pump...etc.

Then, when I did finally get on trail I was just off my line in every corner, so-so on the climbs, and just basically living a bug's life in search of an oncoming piece of curved and tinted safety glass.

Well, that sucked.

So, about 02:00 in the PM, I was enjoying the extra time in the day after the 'Spring Ahead' time change.  I thought about an afternoon nap after the wife and I had made a car run to the local Honey House to grab some of the bee's finest work.  Instead, I suited up and pedaled out again, this time on another bike, the Epic Marathon.

I really like my SS, but the Epic is still the finest ride I have in the garage.  I always love riding that bike.  But when I have to rotate between perhaps 4-5 bikes to get the testing duties done, I never get in-sync with any one bike.  Every time I ride is a lesson in 'getting to know you' all over again and sometimes that sucks.

This time out none of that mattered.  The tired legs did not matter.  The narrow handlebars, different tires...none of that mattered.  The hills gave way one by one as I ignored the pain and when the first loose, blind corner in the singletrack rushed at me, I bent my elbows, leaned forward behind the glass and pitched the bars over, expecting any minute to meet an oncoming insect.  I shredded that trail. windshield.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Do you ever ride?

One might ask that of me lately, with all the pontificatin', prognosticatin' and soap box blabbing.  So yes, yes I do and to prove it, some pics from the last few rides.

First up was a dash in between the rain storms that seemed to be hitting every weekend.  The FSR was baptized by fire on the trails of Rocky Peak in So Cal.  It worked pretty well and once I get used to all that travel, I think it will be a hoot to ride.  It was great few hours out with the gang.

The FSR gets to a trail worthy of the blue bandit....Hummingbird Trail, Simi Valley, Ca.
Hard to tell how steep and rocky this is, but it is a fairly techy trail.
Next up was a 5.5 hour mini epic with Kevin aka Superman.  He is a great guy to ride with and is one of those nuts that show up for a long ride with a jersey and two water bottles.  Me?  Pack, snacks, water, extra this and that, tools, windbreaker, leg warmers....just in case, ya know.  Never needed them.  Sigh.  Spring is coming soon, but a bit of winter still clings.

The Epic gets to get out and play for the day.
Snow up top in the shadows

Looking across two forest zones...Angeles to Los Padres
Yep...spring brings the critters.  This one wanted to be left alone.  I concur.
The old road bike got a bit of new parts.  New/used wheels courtesy of JeffJ, 8spd cassette (better than 7 spd freewheel stuff...yeah...I suck at road bikes), 8spd bar end shifters from an old drop bar MTB from the 90s, and a saddle from Bontrager.  A stem adapter let me use an MTB stem and dump the quill stem.  Goodbye 120mm...hello 80mm.  Yeah, it was not a great fit before.  Better now.

Handmade steel Curtlo, circa mid-nineties.
I have been enjoying some most excellent tasty bits from Clif Bar.  Lovin' the salty, nutty goodness of the Mojo Bars.

The right Mojo adds color to your world.

Monday, March 7, 2011

What is missing?

This is.  The Ibis Mojo HD.  It has a carbon fiber frame and makes for a pretty light build, has enough travel for nearly all trail conditions, pedals well enough to climb for hours, and pretty much is darn close to an all around package for the weekend warrior as one could dream of.  Well, it is not really missing since you can go right out and buy one....unless you want one with big wheels.

Then, fuggit' about it.  You can't have it, not because Ibis does not make one...they don't...yet...but you cannot have one because NO ONE MAKES a 29er like this.  This occurred to me as I was riding with a guy that works for Ibis and we were talking about his Mojo.  It was an HD 140 built up with moderate but nice components.  It had 140mm of travel, was pedaling up the paved road we were on with hardly a unwanted wiggle from the DW link rear suspension, had a beefy Fox fork, a slacker head tube angle for all around trail fun, and weighed 27lbs.

You can't buy that type of bike in a 29er.  The closest thing right now is a Santa Cruz Tall Boy and it is lacking in travel and over zealous in the HT angle department.  Riding the recently built Specialized FSR points out how much fun a slacker HT angle and more travel in a good pedaling 29er can be, but it has very nice parts on it and it still weighs 31 pounds.  Too heavy for an all around everyday bike for where I live, but still fun on the right trail.

There has been a lot of noise about more and more, bigger and bigger travel 29ers but I still have my doubts as to how many riders will embrace that.  But I bet a ton of them would ride a 27lb, carbon, FS with great suspension manners, relaxed handling and 120+mm of travel.  If someone will only make one.  26" FS bikes have gone through a refinement process that brought them from shorter travel, steeper angled designs to 33-35 pounders that were waaay overbuilt for the average Joe to something like a Ibis Mojo or carbon Specialized Stumpjumper 26er.

If I were to pick a next direction for 29ers to go, it would be that-a-way.  But so far, no one has asked me.  Till then, in my opinion, something will be missing.

Friday, March 4, 2011

The point of diminishing return?

A recent ride on the Specialized FSR 130mm/5" travel bike brought something into clarity for me.  I have been a bit of a skeptic regarding the movement towards bigger and bigger travel 29ers.  My long standing motto has been that "29ers do more with less".  That is immediately apparent in the first few rides on a hardtail 29er or even a rigid bike.  In fact, the 29er, IMO, has completely saved that type of scooter from near obscurity as purely a XC race thing or a casual putt-a-rounder, WallyMart bike.  The custom steel frame builder that does MTBs should thanks the gods of big wheels daily for breathing life into their business in a big way.

I had forever signed off on anything that was not FS in 26" wheels.  It just sucked to ride it off road.  Now, I love my steel SS hardtail and I even enjoy geared hardtails again.  Who would have thunk it?

And that magic that the big wheels bring to the trails also makes a lesser travel FS enough for most of the folks out there, truth be told.  3-4" sure feels generous when you are gittin' it down a fast, bumpy trail.  But, is that still as true when the travel gets to 5"?  6"? More?  Does the big wheel begin to lose some of its advantages, not that it stops rolling as well or loses its ability to corner faster or stability goes away, but rather are there other factors that begin to encroach into the 29ers advantages that take some of the shine off of the apple?

A recent ride on a 5" travel 29er brought that to mind.  Now this bike is not billed as an AM or DH bike, but rather a XC/Trail bike for rougher trails.  The downhill I was on was a 3 mile path of mostly sandstone and dirt with lots of ruts and odd angles worn into the rock over the ages.  Is is a complete hammer fest on anything without suspension and the ledgy and edgy surface make it a challenge to ride a clean line at speed.  I had two true AM 26" bikes ahead of me.  They were both sporting big forks in the 6" range with 36mm stanchions, 20mm thru-axles, stout tires, maybe a coil rear shock, and head tube angles at around 65* to 67* I suspect. 

I figured it would be possible to stay with them on the FSR, being that I was only giving up an inch of travel and I had the Big Wheel Mojo going for me.  After all, I regularly keep up and haunt 4-5" travel 26ers on smoother singletrack when I am on my hardtails, and even on the SS for that matter.

I got dropped.  See ya.  Well, actually, I was keeping them in sight but losing ground until I took a shot of mud in the eye and had to stop to deal with that....can't ride like Popeye all squinty and all.

So what happened?  A few things come to mind:

  • Rider issues?  They were simply better than me and I was lacking the skittles to keep up.  That could be, but that was the only place all day that happened, so although they certainly were very good riders, so am I.  Still, there is this factor to consider.
  • Bringing a knife to a gunfight.  130mm of travel and a 69*-70ish* HT angle do not an AM bike make, no matter what size your wheels are.  The 26" bikes were built for this type of riding.  Burly singlecrown forks,  stout tires, lighter (or as light) but stiffer wheels, HT angles that get you feeling better about high speed chunk...etc.
Were the bigger wheels helping?  I am sure they were to some degree, but it was not enough to close that gap when the trail REALLY demanded the whole package the other bikes had.  It was not the ace up my sleeve that it is on smoother trails.  Huh.

In fact, there were times when things got really intense that I felt that the big wheels were working against me as much as they may have been helping.  That trail required rapid corrections on (and sometimes IN) very rutted, bomb-cratered rocky surfaces.  In this case, how much was I giving up to the naturally more agile and easier to pick up and turn 26" wheel of the AM bikes?  Maybe not as much as I think, but I bet there was something going on there that I never even feel on a smoother trail.

So, what would happen if I get on a 29er that really was built to be a big wheeled version of the bikes that ran away from me on the devil's highway that day?  There are not too many of them right now...maybe 2 I can think of.  And there is really only one tire to choose from, so if I had one of those bikes, maybe I would have dogged them all the way down.  I sure could have used a slacker HT angle and a beefier fork.  I was using all the travel I had and I could feel the fork 'twanging' as I stuffed it into ruts in the corners.  But I would not have gained any agility, and more likely I would lose some.  As well, the bikes those guys were on were nearly as light as mine was.  A true AM fork and Dissents on wide Sun MTX rims or Gordos or whatever, plus the beef in the frame would be a heavy bike.  What would it take to toss that around at speed?  Would I be able to run through stuff that they have to tip-toe around with those tiny wheels as thus negate the increased mass there?  Maybe.

Like this Lenz Lunchbox?

I know that this guy thinks so and he is certainly in a position to know.  He is one of the main players pushing for and riding on this kind of bike done up in big wheels.

So, what is the point here?  Not too sure, but I think there is a place where the 29" wheel really, really is better, and that is where it allows a rider on a simpler, lighter bike to ride with more confidence and carry speed like a mad man on the average trail, whatever that may be.  I think that the advantage may begin to narrow a bit as the intensity of the trail demands a bigger, tougher, stiffer, slacker, hammer.

One thing for sure though, we have not seen the limits of where 29ers are going in this direction.  If the weight can be held to a reasonable place and the components like forks and tires  become readily available, then I just may get a chance to prove myself wrong and I am always ready to give that a try.