Friday, January 17, 2014

I'm Not Trixie

Meet Trixie.
Or trick-sey.  Tricksy?  I don't do tricks well.  Now, stop that image in your mind right now.  I am talking about bike tricks.  You know…wheelies, bunny-hops, manuals, etc.  I suck at them.  I bet any 12 year old with a bike and a paper route (do they still have those?) can crush me in a wheelie contest.

I have been aware of this for some time…years, really.  And it has not gotten better with age.  I thought of it again the other day during a group ride where I was following a rider down a bit of a techy single track.  He was hopping and bopping over a few of the trail obstacles while I was flowing and going just as fast as he was.  I was a bit jealous, actually.  I wish I could do that, the hippy hoppy bunny trail approach to trail riding.

Some of these things are really practical such as the nose wheelie around tight switchbacks, the manual transitioning to a quick bunny hop for trail obstacles, etc.  I am a pretty good trail rider, actually.  I am even considered 'fast' in the group I ride in, but that is a 'big fish in a smaller pond' reality.  Still, it takes a pretty good rider to gap me on trail.  But if I have to do any trick moves, a skilled 3 year old on a straddle bike could school me.  Little brats.

I am not too sure how to improve this.  I guess I could set up some kind of skills course and work at it, but first I better armor-up and check my medical plan cuz' I think it might require a skin offering to the trail gods.  I do wonder though, since it has been this way from the beginning, if I just lack the gene.  Heck, even when I was a wanker on a BMX bike I was too attached to gravity to jump worth a fig…a flying fig in this case.  It might be too late for this old dog to learn any new tricks.

School is in session.

Still, I think I need to try to get better in this regard.  I think it will make me a better rider and that is something that anyone, no matter how new or experienced, can benefit from.

Turning serious tricks may not be for me, but perhaps I can learn to flirt in the dirt a bit more.  No street corners required.

Thursday, January 16, 2014

My Favorite Bike

When it was new and unsullied.

"This is my favorite bike I have ever owned".

I said that the other night during a group ride.  And it got me to thinking.

The way things are  in my life right now, I typically have a couple of bikes or wheels or tires or forks or whatever in a revolving ellipse centered around my garage so I am forced to grab whatever is on the top of the dog pile for a ride in order to get the business done that needs to be done.

But the other day I put together a bike that had not been ridden in, what, a year?  Hard to say.  Even beyond that, it had been little ridden the year previous to last year!  Parts had been borrowed for other bikes and then uninstalled from the temporary builds they had been used for.  This bike, nearly a chassis only at this point, hung on a back hook in the garage and languished.  A shame, really, so I put it all back together with most of the original spec except for the wheels, shifters, and bars, and tuned it up again.

The first real ride was the other night with 'the gang' and I was chasing Navy Mike who was riding a Scott Spark 910, or he was chasing me, depending on the trail, for a good 90 minutes.  And it came to my mind that, and this was not the first time I had thought this, that this bike was my favorite bike I have ever owned, heck, maybe even ever ridden!

The bike I had resurrected from the nearly-dead (Princess Bride reference there) and had just defended my honor with against the Mongol hordes of the Tuesday Night Ride was a 2010 Specialized Epic Marathon.  This bike was pretty high end when it came out that year.  Brain rear shock, M5 aluminum frame, SRAM XX 2x10 shifting, carbon crown/steerer Reba fork, Roval wheels, Thomson seat post, etc.

I have added carbon Roval wheels and swapped to SRAM Grip Shift but besides that (and tires), it is stock.  And it is one sweet ride.  It is like Specialized, when they were stirring the pot of witches brew that all bikes are designed in, stole a peek into my soul and added that into the incantations, frog's legs, and dragon's gizzards that went into the cauldron.

I *heart* this Epic.  I always have.  What is remarkable to me is how well it has held up over time even when it is compared to the newer Epics and the competition.  XX may not be the wisest gearing for a older guy that lives where you climb a lot, but I get by and even when XO is really just as good and XX1 is getting all the hoopla now, XX 2x10 is still the best shifting front double crank I have ever used.  Yes, it takes a student loan to replace the cassette, etc, but it is crazy light stuff and has been dead reliable.  The bike, even with only 90mm of rear travel, feels balanced front to rear with that carbon Reba.  I went back to the OE 105mm stem and actually flipped it to get lower, reversing the trend I was on of shorter stems and higher bars.  It feels good that way.

Nothing perks up a 29er like wheels.  Cheap 29ers suck, mostly because the wheels get like hoops of lead and that is death to fun.  The Roval Control Carbons are solid enough for a much bigger travel bike yet are light and dead easy to convert across axle types.  No 142x12 rear axle for this bike.  Not even a 15QR front.  But the OS28 front axle caps and the well built frame deal with all that well enough and while carbon would be lighter and snappier for sure, it is no slouch when you stand and "git 'er done".

And there is the Mini Brain rear suspension.  If ever a technology was made for a guy like me, this is it.  Yes, you give up some suppleness.  Yes, it is proprietary and costly to repair.  But it works so well, especially when you stand and climb.  I have played with some of the latest DW link bikes and they are really, really good, likely better as an overall performing system, but the Mini Brain just has that 'something' going on that works soooo well for this type of bike.

The handling is very middle ground, not too fast, not too slow.  It is just right for covering ground as the hours and miles go by.  It is 'dialed', to use a word.  Sure, there are things here and there that are not the pinnacle of performance as time has upped the ante for what a 29er FS can be, but the sum of all this…and this is key…the sum of all the parts, angles, dimensions and specifications just rings like an old bell - smooth and clear, even if the surface is a bit tarnished.  Or is it perhaps Patina, and not tarnish?

What popped out of the cauldron that full moon night on trail, was a bike that, after going into 4 years of time passed, is still, if I had to have only one bike in the garage, and taking into consideration where I ride and how I ride, would be the one I would have still left on a hook when all the other hooks were empty.

It's a keeper, this one is.

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Personally, I blame the dog.

No, not for that.  Well, OK, sometimes I get away with that too, but this is altogether different.  I blame my wife's new bike…2 new bikes, really…and the fact that we are signed up for three centuries next year, and the fact that I now have to consider my wife when I plan a mountain bike ride…that all falls on the dog.

It all started when my son and wife were at the animal shelter for some thing or another as my wife was volunteering there for a time.  Our dog, Moots, was getting pretty old and we like to bring dogs in the house so they overlap a bit.  It helps the new dog settle and figure things out.  Anyway, my son calls me and asks me to hurry over after work as he has found a dog and "it will not be here for long".  Little did I know.

As I loaded this Black Lab/Greyhound looking mix into the car, already named Sophie by my son, I did not know I was in for it.

Now my wife had ridden bikes years ago but had given it up for horses, then Jazzercise, Aerobics, the gym, etc.  She was never a passionate rider, just a social rider.  That was fine.   I was the passionate cyclist.  But when Sophie came along, she was a dog that required a regular, heavy workout or there would be hell to pay.  None of us are runners, and they don't like dogs in Jazzercise classes, so my wife asked if I could dust off her old 26" hard tail and get it running.  It was a handmade steel frame right out of the 90s, brakes, shifting, etc.  We worked out some way to tether the dog's leash to the head tube and off they went.  Sophie was stoked.  This dog was on a mission.  Do they have Strava for canines?  If not, they should.  She would QOM that thing.

In time, I came into a 29er hard tail that fit my wife and gave her an upgrade.  We live within a 1/2 mile of a trail area so it became a regular thing, this dog exercise deal and we improved the bike/dog interface.  Then my wife began tracking her times to certain parts of the trails.  Hmmm.  Then she started keeping heart rate stats and calories burned…gear selection in various parts of the course…oh my.  Jazzercise stopped.  More riding replaced it.

Last year I bought her a flat bar road bike, inspired by the fun I had on my new road bike last year.  Before that we would go do some simple bike path rides, maybe 30 miles at the most, but we would do it on our MTBs.  Not bad, but not great.  So when she got on her new road bike, she was inspired.  We could ride farther and faster now.  It was easier to be social too.  It was not long after that we did a metric century on a short weekend away.  I had helped her train for it.  Afterwards she said she would have liked to go for the full hundred and that her training needed to step up.  Oh oh.  I smelled trouble.

So when she said, during a ride, that all she wanted to do was ride bikes all day I knew I was in deep chain lube.  I had created a monster.

"Will a helmet ruin my hair?"
So we have been testing saddles and swapping to shorter cranks and tweaking this and trying that to fine tune the road bike.  But I really ratcheted up the noise when I began to build her a new MTB for the times we ride sans doggie.  It has been kinda' fun and kinda' painful as I/We pick parts together based on cost, color and fit -- feng shui meets the engineering dept.

Parts are tickling in as we speak.  The good thing is, when your wife is the accountant and you are buying it for her, it is darn near carte blanche.  "Did you order my new _____ (fill in the blanks) yet?".  Yes, sweetie.

Actually, all this is awesome.  I mean, there must be thousands of men out there that long for their 'significant other' to be an enthused cyclist.  I have seen that tried and failed many, many times.  So when I gained a mutt, I did not know that included in the deal was a new riding buddy who I just happen to be married to.

And for that, I can blame…and thank…the dog.  Good girl.

Monday, January 6, 2014

Five millimeters.

Five millimeters.  About the thickness of a Nilla Wafer.  Likely less than an Oreo cookie.  That was how far I lowered my handlebar last night when I was setting up a new bike for the first ride.  Spinning around in the street in front of my house did not feel quite right at first and I was at a bit of a quandary as to how to get the bar lower than what it was without going to a lot of trouble.  I had the stem flipped already.  I could have turned the bar upside down and gained 5mm as the bar is designed just for that purpose but that is a lot of wrenching to do ten minutes before a ride.

But I had a 5mm spacer under the stem and then it was stem to headset direct.  Moving that spacer to the top was easier than flipping the bar so above the stem it went.  Frankly I was not expecting much of a difference.  But as soon as I pedaled out after moving the spacer I was right where I wanted to be.  Good to go.

And later on, as I was riding, it struck me that we, the human machine, are very perceptive creatures.  5mm higher was too high.  5mm lower was just right.  It also came to me that I like Nilla Wafers and it has been far too long since I had one…or two or three.

Further, it brought to mind something that is a broader subject, the macro to the 5mm micro, if you will:  stem length, rider position, 29ers, and wheelbase.  This has been a bit of a revolution for me.  At just over 6' tall, I have tended to run towards XL 29ers to get the cockpit right for my long arms and yet still stay with an under 100mm stem.  It was not always this way.  Back 'in the day', I ran a steel hard tail 26er with no suspension fork, a 23.5" effective top tube and a 150mm stem.  Pretty standard fare, really.

As time marched on, the top tubes got longer, over 25" on an typical XL 29er, and the stems got shorter.  I remember once, maybe in the mid 90s, hopping on a friends bike which was a 19" frame.  Mine was a 20.5" frame of the same exact brand and maybe was a half an inch longer all around, wheelbase, etc.  I was struck by how his carved around corners better than mine.  It was like a short ski.  Intriguing.  I never forgot that but the bike was too small for me.  Still, it occurred to me that as bikes get longer, they gain some things but begin to lose other things.

Fast forward a decade or two and I am having a conversation with an MTB project manger of a large bike company.  We are talking geometry and he mentions that he has gone back to longer stems set lower for his personal bikes as he feels it weights the front end better during turns.  Then here comes the much anticipated Ibis Ripley and they created it to turn more like a 26er by keeping the top tube shorter, the head tube angle semi-slack, and the stem longer.  It worked.  Then Turner does nearly the same thing on his new Czar.  As well, they mix in a 51mm offset fork.

Then I get in two bikes for review, a Niner RIP 9 and a Scott Spark.  The RIP is a LG size frame (a bit short for me according to the numbers on the geo chart) with a 100mm stem in a pretty long travel trail bike 29er FS and has the expected 69*-ish HT angle of it's ilk.  I was just shredding the local trails on that bike.  It turned like a dream…stayed hooked up and could drift through corners with control and poise.  The Spark is all XC with a much lower than normal (for me) 100mm stem on a slack for XC 69* HT angle.  The way it steers, even in an XL (but a relatively short overall bike for that size), is just right.  Truly balanced.

So last night, with the whole 5mm spacer deal in my mind,  I went out on yet another slightly small for me top tube bike with a 100mm stem as low as the bike would let me put it.  It felt great and carved up the hills like it was, to coin a tired old phrase, 'on rails'.

Then, I rode another bike, something I have had for some time now and enjoyed riding.  It has a longer front center/rear center and suspension travel that is somewhere in the middle of all the other bikes I mentioned.  But I am running that with a 90mm stem on an XL frame, the bar being higher in space relative to me.  I was struck by how much I was fighting the front end to stay hooked up and driving through corners.  Huh.  It used to feel great to me, now…

So all this to say that the dimensions and angles and widths and heights and settings and intentions of any bike is a black box that is filled with science and mystery.  I am beginning to think that it comes down to where the rider's weight is relative to the front wheel more than any other thing.  More than chain stay length, more than seat tube or head tube angles, more than frame size.

It also relates to how I want a bike to feel as I am not in the gravity mode where loooong front centers and shorty stems make sense to get the rider off towards the back of the bike.  But across several bikes that really could hardly be more different between them intent-wise, the longer stem in a lower position has been winning me over.

I have another test bike coming in that is 130mm travel F/R and, in an XL, and based on the charts, is just what I would always ride.  Instead I asked for a LG and will run a longer, lower stem.  Huh.  Old dogs and new tricks indeed.

Now for those Nilla Wafers.