Sunday, August 9, 2015

Don't ants ever sleep?

Think I overpacked?

I was an half hour late leaving the house for a S24O outing, that being a Sub 24 hour Overnighter.  That time deficit had me concerned as my goal was the peak of a local mountain that used to have a fire lookout tower on it, now just a steel scaffold and a block building for some electronics and the associated antennas.

It was the type of experience that I think about a lot, but seldom act on; loading up a bike and heading for the hills just to get away and sleep under the stars, then being back home by breakfast.  I have all the gear for it...soft bikepacking bags, shelters of many colors and shapes, home made stoves, etc.  I love the idea of it; getting out and pedaling all loaded up, knowing that it will be the next morning before you get back home.  It actually strikes me as odd each time I do it.  the problem is I don't do it at all, hardly at all anyway.  It is inconvenient.  It is a bit uncomfortable.  It is more than a bit odd.  I need more of that in my all too convenient, comfy and 'normal' life, methinks.

Back on the bike, and as I pedaled out of town and up and up and up, it occurred to me that I should have caught a ride from the wife and gotten a head start to make up for the lost time.

I am not that smart or at least I AM THAT stubborn, so I pedaled on, watching the clock and the setting sun.  It was going to be close and I had a LOT of climbing before I hit camp.  I also did not estimate how slow I would be on a lightly loaded 29er hardtail as compared to my typical times up this paved canyon road on my road bike.  One hour turned into 1.25 hours and that trend continued.  Each section took just a bit longer than I expected.  I turned off the pavement and onto a forest service road marked with all kinds of dire warnings.  Interesting how public roads can be so private all of a sudden.  With no budget to do any repairs or at least no interest in doing so, we have less campgrounds and open roads and trails in my area So Cal then when I was a kid.  It's a shame, really.

And So Cal has recently seen some semi-apocalyptic weather and some big rainstorms.  Brief but big.  The next few miles of steep dirt climbing, a section of dirt that I recently climbed on my gravel bike, was now nearly not a road at all.  The water deluge had been hard and fast and the sand and rock that came pouring out of the gullies had changed the landscape in a big way.  Lots of walking in sand too deep to ride, at least when going uphill.  Fat Bike country.

The power of a bit of water.

SO it was a slow grind to the next sandy pour-out from the hillside above, and a shaky dismount to push over the nasties, then back in the saddle for another 100', rinse repeat.

Tick tock, tick tock.  I hit the saddle that marked half of the dirt climb and time was not on my side.  The next few miles of climbing were better...less washouts, but the water had washed all the topsoil off the road and left miles of hen's egg size rocks and small ruts to negotiate in the fading light.  My legs were fading too and I was sweat soaked, thinking I might stop short of the summit and salvage some light in which to set up camp.

But I really wanted to bag the peak and be there for the night, so I pushed on, hitting the summit in near darkness.  I could not find my Petzl head lamp before I left home, so setting up the bivvy and such with one hand holding a flashlight was less than great.  Down went the groundcloth, then the pad gets inflated, bivy then bag, etc.  About then I noticed the ants.  Lots of them.  Small ones.  Medium ones.  Hmmm.  Shouldn't they be bedding down for the night soon?  Surely so.

A quick search of the surrounding area showed more of the same, so I guess where I was is a good as any.  My bivy sack has a mesh screen head section, so although that was a bit 'enclosed' feeling, it would be bug free.  It occurred to me that I was still in my bike clothes and now as the body heat faded away form the climb, I was getting cold.  Ok...dancing in the dark as I stripped and got into the camping jammies, etc.  The moon rose twice that night.

Morning light reveals the drying rack.

Dinner was hardly the casual affair I had envisioned, snacking on chicken and biscuits as the sun went down and the stars came out.  Rather it was a ravenous moment of gnawing on a hunk of bird in the dark, famished by the 3 hour climb, and spitting out the gristle parts.  Sigh.

How romantic.

I also could not find the bug repellant before I left so I hoped that I would be far enough away from water to be decently mosquito free.  Almost.  I did have 4G phone reception though, so I texted those that cared and laid back, watching the night sky move in as the quickly fading sunset glow moved out.

Stars.  I had forgotten how many there are.  And shooting stars too.  Nice.  You can't see those from in front of the TV in the house.  The only sounds were from aircraft and crickets.  I zipped in and settled down, all snug in my cap for a quick summer's night.  Then the buzzing began.

I know what mosquitos sound like...high pitched and faint.  This was bigger.  And louder.  And it wanted me very badly.  I never tried to see what it was, but it apparently was partying with the ants that also did not need to sleep.  I would hear it land on the mesh screen but I kept my skin a proboscis length away as I never felt a bite.

I drifted off, warm and reasonably secure in my cocoon.

Looking east at sunrise.

Morning happened and the sun was creeping up fast, fog laying in the canyons below.  Awesome.  All packed up...trail mix pointed downhill into a long, rough descent to a remote canyon, wet and green even in summer.  Then a 45 minute climb out of the canyon to the last 8 miles, all downhill, of pavement home.

Ritchey P29...great bike for such adventures.  The seat pack is a Blackburn product I was trying out.

A cycling buddy dropped me a strategic water bottle before the long climb out.

Foggy morning in August as I dropped into home.

Rolling in home I was tired and a bit dehydrated, but throughly satisfied with myself.  I could have planned better and I think the romance with bivy sacks is about over, but the important thing is I put down the remote, turned off the laptop, and denied the tyranny of the urgent and the comfy.

And I learned that ants don't sleep much.

Friday, August 7, 2015

Damn the grams.

My first 29er was a Karate Monkey, which began geared and then, as I acquired another FS 29, was converted to SS use.  I never really loved that bike.  It felt kind of harsh and skittish in rough sections and weighed a ton.

The next SS was a Vassago Jabberwocky.  Despite flaws of its own, and despite the same piggy weight, I loved that bike.  Just loved it.  I have this distant memory of how it used to feel on the faster crappy trails and fireroads like are so common around So Cal.  I could almost recall the way it moved down the trail in a springy yet solid way but it had been so long and there had been so many other bikes in the mix since then, that I could not remember for a faint odor that lingers in the air, prodding an even fainter memory.

Each new SS had been lighter and 'faster', first in aluminum, then carbon.  Each one gave me a great ride uphill and was exciting to pedal hard, but something else was happening.  Something was being lost in the trade and it happened so gradually that I did not notice.  Each bike was less and less fun to ride, unless I defined fun as how quickly I went uphill. Strava was pleased.  Myself, less so.

But it is hard to go backwards when that means adding grams to the bike you are riding now, or replacing it with a different bike that will be heavier.  The weight weenie within must have its say in the matter.  So the newest carbon SS 29er, which actually is a very nice riding bike for its ilk, hung on the hook, languishing, and I wondered if things could be different.

But yesterday I unboxed a test bike that I was very curious about, in fact I was darn near excited about it.  But with a recent disappointment with another bike I thought for sure would ring loud and clear and speak to my soul but only murmured, I was thinking I might be delusional about this one too.  I was unwrapping something I had not straddled for years now, and as the bubble wrap and blue painters tape fell away, I saw thin steel tubes coated in black like Johnny Cash on Sunday.

Steel. It looks so odd in a world of hydroformed aluminum and oversized carbon.

So the thing is there really something great about a refined steel frame that seems to transcend other materials in an almost undefinable way?  It sure isn't about having a light bike.  This one was built with very good parts yet weighed what one of my FS alu 29ers (with VERY NICE parts) weighs.

And pedaling out to the trail was just OK.  Nothing magical.  The first steep hill was so so and it sure did not scream KOM like the last carbon wonder bike I rode.  But that carbon winged Pegasus was also nothing I wanted to toss a leg over and trail ride all day either.  Fast?  Oh my yes.  You pedal, it answered. But unless you were hell bent on collecting Strava Bling, then it just was not fun IMO.  And although suffering and speed and performance are all part of the ride experience, let's not kid ourselves.  It needs to be fun.

I hit the top of the climb last night, said hello to 'Da Boyz' that were up there, and dropped in on a quick little ribbon of trail that quickly becomes like a luge run with baby head rocks melting out of the ice.  Within 100', that memory came back like a smack in the face, like that faint odor you could not place just became a warm from the oven chocolate chip cookie melting on your tongue and you said "that's it!"  That supple, lithe, springy goodness of steel doing its thing just rose up and I remembered.

And it was just like that all the way down the trail.  I was boosting off of the bigger rocks and dancing through the ruts with a fine mix of precision and give that was just so fun I was grinning all over.  SO IT'S TRUE!  I was not wrong and I had not imagined it.  And I missed it terribly.

So everything is a give and take.  But I do wonder if, along the path chasing the better and the best and the stiffest and the fastest, that were given so much we did not notice what was taken away?

Thursday, July 30, 2015

Learning to breathe.

You can learn a lot from a rabbit.
I think, after all these years of doing it, that I do not know how to breathe correctly.  Astonishing!  Could it be?  This crept into my mind a while ago but just as quickly crept out again.  Then last weekend I was in the middle of a long climb on the Warbird, a climb that was difficult and had me right below redline a good part of the time.  And I became aware of the fact that I was breathing shallow and fast, mostly from the chest/rib cage area.

And I thought back to an article I read that, IIRC, referred to Eddy Merxx and spoke about his 'paunch'...his beer belly look that was a result of bringing into play his belly area to expand the capacity of his lungs.  Now for all I know, Eddy might knock down a beer or two or three and maybe it is a bit of that too, but I never forgot that.

So in the middle of the climb, I began to breathe deeply, consciously allowing my belly to expand, feeling the lungs go just a bit 'more', if you will, then expelling the lungs with a good push.  I found that I dropped farther away from redline and my suffering dropped down a notch.  I did not have a heart rate monitor on, but it would have been interesting to see if that was affected.
I just know that it hurt less and I had more room for harder, short efforts without tipping over the edge.  My legs felt better too, but mostly it was cardio bennies I was seeing.  The funny thing was that I had to really concentrate to breathe this way.  As soon as I stopped thinking about it, I stopped doing it.  As well, it did not feel natural when I was doing it.  It felt good in a way but bad in a way, like I was betraying what I knew how to do well from if I took two steps, then hopscotched the next one before the next regular step, etc.  Just not natural.

So I need to play with this more, but it seems there is science behind this, which actually does not surprise me.

Linky number 1  Linky Number 2

Now I figure it this way...the bigger the belly the bigger the breath.  Bring on the donuts and Fritos, I have a hill to climb.

Look at them lungs, huh? I am gonna crush the next hill.

Saturday, July 25, 2015

Friday, July 24, 2015

A pleasant surprise.

Full of possiblities.
When I decided to build up a "gravel bike", despite having very little real gravel at hand, I was not sure if I was going to like it enough to ride it often.  Boy am I pleasantly surprised.  It is a bike that I have been riding more than any other in the stable and that tickles me to no end.  Who would have thunk it?

Now that I have worked through gearing changes and tire selection, at least for now, the bike is working really well.  And I have been pretty happy with the way that Salsa built the Warbird, although I still do wish they did it in a nice steel too.

At a recent press junket, I brought up the subject of Gravel Bikes to many journalists there and almost to a man they responded back with positive comments.  They either are riding a bike like that or are using their cross bike or maybe even a road bike to get into "multi surface riding".

I call it dirt.

And I find myself planning rides now that have a mix of pavement and dirt; big loops that have a good amount of climbing.  I have a buddy that just bought a Raleigh Willard.  I have another buddy that just bought a Specialized Sirrus and we have been wondering how big a tire we can stuff in there and get into some dirt here and there.  The manager of one local shop bought his and hers Cross bikes and that is what they ride most of the time now.  Another shop here in local SO Cal is hosting regular Gravel Bike rides and is reaping the bennies by selling several models in that genre.

Iowa is spilling over to the Left Coast, so it seems.

Tomorrow's self supported road century ride just cancelled, so I have my options open.  I already have a plan and it includes riding across town early on the Warbird, using local paths and streets. Then I will hit the dirt and climb for 9 miles or so on the dirt, mixing in some abandoned paved mtn roads, then returning on surface streets and paths.

I have been researching another route in a nearby town that will be the same type of mix.  My wife is all ready to take her flat bar road bike with 38s and low gears on this one, we just need to get some cooler weather.

So I think I am getting my money's worth out of this gravel bike deal, in fact I think it is paying me back!

Friday, July 17, 2015

Can a car be a soulmate?

I cannot remember ever feeling this way about any other car, but going back to the beginning of the model line, the Subaru Outback wagon always caught my eye.  It looked like it celebrated all the things I thought were neat in a lifestyle...a bit of practicality, a bit of adventure, and a bit of style that was counter to the Fast and Furious way of thinking about cars and life.

Not once would one go by on the road and not rate a long glance; a follow with the eyes and a swivel of the head.  I was smitten, but at a distance.

A recent trip to Vail, where Subaru is considered the "Official State Car of Colorado", I bet every 3rd car in any lot was either an Outback or a Forester.  I was in agony, driving around in the family truckster Mazda 5, and I whined incessantly about it, much to the chagrin of my wife.

But God was gracious and I am now among the ranks of Outback owners. I could hardly be more pleased.  She's a beaut', she is.

Soulmates, we are, or at least from my viewpoint.  How she feels about this, I cannot say for certain, but I suspect she feels the same.

Thursday, July 16, 2015

Crusher Redux.

"Ah, but a man's reach should exceed his grasp, Or what's a heaven for?"
Robert Browning.

I would not have been so excited about heaven if I had known I would need to pedal to get up there.

In 2014 I entered the Crusher in the Tushar race event in Beaver, Utah.  Known as one of the more difficult races of it's kind, it is a 70 mile bike race over a combination of paved and dirt (or gravel) roads and ascends over a total of 10,000' in those 70 miles, much of that at altitude, ending up at around 10,500' feet at the finish line.

It is, to put it mildly, challenging.  It is, to put it succinctly, freaking hard, and the ex-pro road racer that thought up this thing is the race promoter, T. Burke Swindlehurst. 'T-Bird' is a cruel, cruel man to be sure.  That first attempt at the Crusher found me lacking in speed and I missed the time cut off by four minutes.  Four lousy minutes.  And that was the end of my Crusher.  Done.  And to add insult to injury, to rub salt into my lactic acid oozing wounds, I still had to ride another 10 miles and a few million feet of gain (felt like it anyway) to the finish line at the ski resort.  But 2015 would be my revenge.

Rush hour in Beaver, Ut
Beaver, Utah, population 3000 or so, and the birthplace of Butch Cassidy, sits alongside Hwy 15 between St. George and Salt Lake (more or less) and is nestled at the base of the Tushar Mountains which provide an amazingly scenic background for the race course.  It is the kind of place you would come to to ride on vacation, especially for a So Cal guy like me.

Beginning in town, and it's a small town to be sure, the race has a very grassroots feel to it and the community seems to enjoy having it happen. Held on the same weekend as the Butch Cassidy Days festival, the race mixes with pie eating contests and what not.  It is good fun in a way that bigger towns and cities have lost the ability to provide.  The race caps at 600 riders and always fills up fast, so the difficulty of the Crusher is not scaring everyone off.

The race rolls out of town on the paved State Hwy 153 alongside the Beaver River, and while it is not a steep grade, it is still uphill and the packs of riders are out for blood, so it is a fast pace right off the bat. Also, we are beginning at a 5900 feet elevation so flatlanders like me are sucking wind right away.  After 11 miles it hangs a right and the grade immediately ramps up, at first on a chip seal paved surface, then into smooth dirt, and begins to climb and climb and climb, seemingly forever to the first aid station at 18 miles, pitched by a sylvan lake scene. Then it continues to ascend to the 27 mile point where that looming time cut off awaits at check point 2.  You need to be there by 11:00 or you are done racing.

From there, the course drops off the face of the earth and plummets you down the Col 'd Crush, a 4000 foot descent on a gravel covered, washboard infested road, into the Piute valley where you circle around through a couple of towns, ride through the Sarlacc Pit, which can be sandy and hot, before riding back up that steep and ugly descent you barely survived.  That brings you back to the aid station that was the time cut off point before you turn right and climb a good bit more to reach the high point at the finish in the Eagle Point Ski Resort.

But I never experienced most of that as I was out of the race at aid station two.  No Col 'd Crush…no Sarlacc Pit…just what I read about it.  But that was 2014 and 2015 would be different.

Last year I rode a well equipped 29er hard tail.  It was quite good for the day, or I thought so, and it was comfy and had lots of low gears.  The Crusher is a bit of a puzzler as to what bike type is fastest there, and while a cross bike or gravel bike is the prominent choice, there are a lot of riders that race a hard tail 29er or even an FS 29er.  But this year I wanted to try something different.  I had been curious about owning a gravel bike for a while anyway, so I built one up to see if I liked the genre (I do!) and to see if I could improve on my chances at the Crusher.

This is a very fun bike, it just needs a bigger motor.
The 2016 Salsa Warbird (alu model) was built with a SRAM Rival 22 Hydro group running a 36/46 crank and an 11-36 rear cassette.  That 1:1 low gear had shown to be adequate on the steep climbs at home and with the decent DT Swiss wheels and Panaracer 38C Comet tires, the bike weighed in at 21 lbs ready to ride (no bags, etc).  It is a fast bike, and at home I was setting PRs on Strava anywhere I pointed it uphill.  I figured that would transfer over to the Crusher course, but I was to be proved wrong, oh so tragically, dismally, comically wrong.

I had trained hard, or at least as hard as a very early and hot spring-into-summer allowed for and that a working guy could muster.  I had a strong base fitness, and a couple of recent, hard century rides on the road had showed no cracks in my tanned and chiseled facade.  Every ride I did had climbing in it and I was almost always on the Warbird, working out any bugs in set-up, etc.  I felt ready.  I was mistaken.

Race day was going to give us great weather and Ed the Tall, a riding buddy, was there with me to race the event.  My wife had come along too, and her and the dog were going to ride the course a bit ahead of the pack and I would see her along the path somewhere before the cut off.  

Ed the Tall and his Raleigh WIllard
I only needed to be 4 minutes faster than last year.  I was pretty confident that I could do that, but right from the starting gun I was struggling to stay with the pack of riders I began with, the Men's 50+, who are a group of fast, fast, old guys.  Last year the Men's 50+ winner was only an hour and change slower than the overall race winner.  Seriously.

I should have just ignored my heart rate monitor and done whatever it took to stay with the pack for that 11 miles up the highway before the dirt began, but I was afraid of digging a hole so deep that I could never recover so I managed my heart rate and spun along at a good pace.  Still, I was already concerned as to how hard it was for me to recover from any hard effort.  I never felt like I could back off, rest, then jump hard again.  It just was a long, constant feeling of being under water and suffering.  You see I have the body of an antelope; fleet, lean, and fast.  But it is powered by the heart and lungs of a gerbil - soft, round, and furry.  Or so it would seem as altitude really hammers me.  And living at 1200' above sea level (if I am standing on my tip toes) does not help at all.

The dirt began and I was passing some folks who had passed me back, so that was good.  I just had to really minimize any stopped time and go, go, go.  But even with a very short time at aid station one, I was seeing my time slip away.  I was getting concerned.  The clouds rolled in and the wind came up and the temps fell.  I stopped to slip on arm and leg warmers and lost some minutes, but losing critical body heat would be bad too.  Then my cages rattled loose and I did not want to lose my bottles, so I was forced to stop and tighten them.  More time lost.

But what surprised me was how, after attending to the cage deal, my legs were showing signs of early cramping, something that has plagued me for years, but not recently with a well sorted nutrition plan.  That was not good.  And it had me wondering that even if I made the time cut, could I, or should I, press on? 

Miles and minutes went by and the Garmin was not making me feel better. I was running out of time and I simply could not go any faster.  I was just at a loss to do anything about it, and I was struck with this incredulous realization that history was repeating itself. When I came across the wife and dog, maybe 2 miles out from the second aid station, it was 10:56 AM.  I was done and I knew it.  I rode on, preparing to surrender my timing chip, and was in a pretty dark place.  How could I miss this again?  What could I have done differently? Thoughts came to my mind like "You have no business being here."  "Too old and slow."
I pedaled on with the consolation that even if I made this by some miracle, it might have been foolish to continue with my legs being the way they were.  That thought was of little help.  On the other hand, I was pretty sure I could have recovered in the descent and the road section to follow and even if I crumbled on the Col 'd Crush, I could walk or surrender the fight with some honor, knowing I made it one step farther than last year.  When I rolled up to the check point I looked at my watch and saw that I was almost precisely four minutes past the time limit, just exactly what I missed by last year.  How comically ironic…better bike (maybe)…better plan (maybe)…same result.  I had to laugh.  Other riders were coming up behind me and finding their race over as well, many of them seemingly stunned by the time cut off. Yep…sucks, huh?  Welcome to my slow, slow, slow world.  And I thought to myself that I will never do this silly thing again.

After a volunteer surgically removed my timing chip from my number plate with a pocket knife, I asked if he could remove my broken heart while he was at it.  Just joking, pal. I already had spit out my lungs along the way, so there would have been plenty of room for him to work. I walked my bike over to the aid table and grabbed some water.  Along the way, well meaning folks were yelling "good job" and "you did awesome".  Well, not really.  Awesome usually gets you past the cut off time in a race.  I was four minutes less than awesome.  I was in no hurry now, so I ate a bit, mixed up some energy drink, and hung out for a few minutes, talking to other shell shocked victims of the sands of time. 

This time I decided not to ride up to the finish line like in 2014, but instead I flipped around and headed back down the course to catch up with the wife and dog so we could hang together and then drive up to the finish area for food and festivities.  I did so with a mixed bag of emotions; relief, angst, frustration, wonderment, resolution, confusion and no little amount of bummed-out-ness.  Along the way I felt the life returning into my legs and looked at the amazing beauty around me, something I had not appreciated on the way up with my tongue stuck to my teeth and my sweat dripping onto my top tube like a melting block of salt.  

My mood brightened as the mountains yielded their elevation to me, and down, down I sped till I met up with the family.  Over a tuna fish and cranberry sandwich, shared three ways of course (the dog), and tasting like the most delicious thing I could ever remember eating, I looked at the lake in these pictures and thought how beautiful this place is.  How terribly, terribly hard and frustrating and difficult and beautiful.
And I was already working on a new plan for next year.

Yeah, not bad on the eyes, this Utah.
The registration area blends with the town festivities.

It's a real, honest to goodness pie eating contest.

Cannondale Slate with 45mm-ish 650b slicks
Where it all ended for me.  It was pretty cold too.
The last 1/2 mile of pavement may be the cruelest part of the race.

A rider nears the finish line I have yet to see with a bike under me.  Next year!

Monday, June 15, 2015

What's In a Name?

"Now you can call me Ray, or you can call me J, or you can call me Johnny, or you can call me Sonny..."  Raymond J. Johnson Jr.

Cross bike.
Gravel Bike.
Adventure Bike.
All Road Bike.
X-Road bike.
Mixed Surface Bike.

I cannot recall a time when the marketing folks in the bicycle industry have struggled so hard to define a niche.  And believe me, this industry LOVES 'niche'.  Niche means you need yet another bike in your stable and this biz thrives on 'the next thing'.  But I digress.

Take a road bike, open it up for bigger tires, slacken the angles a bit, and tune it for comfort and stability and you have drawn a big circle around this new genre.  Now I am not poo-pooing the idea.  Far from it.  I am very much enjoying the gravel bike I have in my garage (yes, the maker of the bike calls it a "Gravel Race Bike".  So, there!).  But not everyone has such a clear vision of what they are selling.

So what's in a name?  This gravel thing was too good to stay in the rolling plains of the Mid West.  It has spilled out across those borders and founds it's way into places like So Cal where I live.  But we have no gravel, per se.  We have dirt.  And we have paved road - lots of that - that can be mixed with dirt.  So the appeal is there for a bike that can cover all kinds of surfaces (although I think "Mixed Surface Bike" is the worst name of all...sounds like a Home Depot product..."mix well and wait 24 hours before use").

"Call me what you like, just don't call me late for dinner."

But what to call them, these new bikes that are not really cyclocross, not really road, and not really an MTB at all?  No one seems to know.  Heck, even I am not sure and I find myself using one of those terms listed above in a conversation and feeling awkward about it, like I called one of my kids by the wrong name. I mean, don't I KNOW what it's called?

No.  And neither does anyone else, it seems.  At least not in the broader sense. Yet defining this in a marketing sense is to get that term right so as to not exclude potential buyers.  And no one wants to miss this gravel gravy train, so you are seeing most of the bike makers getting something out there that gets them in the game.  So back to the list of name options (and I am sure as I write this, more are being thought up).

Cross bike:  In some cases it is accurate, like if I have a Specialized Crux.  But I am not 'Crossing on it (as in cyclocross racing).  Still it is a real 'cross bike, yet most new bikes coming to the market are certainly NOT a 'cross bike and calling them so would be wrong.

Gravel Bike:  Personally my favorite.  Even if gravel is not the same everywhere, it is easy to say and folks 'get it', even if you do not have gravel to ride it on.  It means (or should mean) that it is a bit lower, a bit slacker, more comfy, and bigger tires will fit compared to a typical 'cross bike.  Or at least to me it does and that is where the gravel bike and 'cross bike begin to take separate paths.

Adventure Bike:  Really?  Any bike is an adventure bike. And while you cannot deny that pretty much any bike can be ridden on a dirt or gravel road, not all of them will do it well.  And adventures, or how you experience them, are quite different. There is road based touring, fat biking (snow or otherwise), century-type road stuff, bike packing, and ...gasp...dare we say it, having an adventure on any old regular MTB.

All Road Bike:  Interesting and maybe a contender.  But is a Trek Domane with 32mm tires stuffed in there really a bike for all roads?  There are some roads that would truly suck on that bike.  Try the White Rim Trail in Utah.  It's a road.  Is this the Jack of all, master of none approach?  Not sure.

X-Road bike:  I think Giant has this one in their corporate pocket.  But I have no idea what it means.  Can I cross the road on it or what?

Mixed Surface Bike:  Saw a Ti bike called that from a big builder in that frame material.  Ick.  See Home Depot comment above.

So until something better comes along, I am sticking with Gravel Bike.  At least I have some idea what I am saying at the time.

A sign that befits the quandry, courtesy of the 4077th MASH unit.

Warbird Update

Remember that I had a Warbird on order?  Well go over to and look for the Warbird article series.  But I am very happy with what it has turned out to be.  I am still fine tuning gearing and tires and such but I think that is about done for now, or at least until 1X road gets on the market and then I might go to Gearing Phase III. is being used and enjoyed.  It is surprising where that bike can go and not surprising where it cannot go.

More on that later.

Tuesday, June 2, 2015

Then I'm gone.

Pulling back the curtains and peering out the window into the dimly lit darkness showed a foggy morning, the street lamps looking like little moons haloed by the moisture in the air. I had no idea how cold it was and was not sure I wanted to find out.

I sat in the dim light, not wanting to stir the entire household, pulling on a base layer under the bib knicker's straps, then a wool jersey over that, then finishing with a jacket rolled and tucked into the center pocket. Tires were checked and the sound of a "PSSSFFFttt!" from the presta valves as the Silca pump head was removed, worried the dog who looked a bit afraid that she was going to be invited on the ride.  She got up, spun in a circle or two, then laid back down, turning away from me as if to put that idea to rest.

Shoes next…ratcheting straps ratcheted, wool head cover pulled on, then helmet, then gloves.  The sounds of clacking cleats on the hard floor mixed with the click click click of the free hub as I duck walked to the front door, pulled on the handle and caught a full breath of cool, moist air.  

A thought came to me.  "I could be in a Rapha video right now".

Out into the morning, away from warmth and comfort, pedals turn and gears spin as muscles strain to wake up and perform.  Maybe the dog was right.

I wonder how many times I have done this, this pedaling thing.  No idea.  I cannot even be sure how old I am at this moment…let's see…my inner abacus whirs and clicks along with the gear changes and a freshly oiled chain, but it's early and math is hard.  It is certain that nearly 6 decades on their earth have gone by and I settle on one number or another as my age.  Close enough.  Until carbon 14 dating gets a bit more accurate or I die and they count the tree rings, that estimation will have to do.  What's in a birth date anyway?

From birth till somewhere in our 20's we are on an upward swing, getting better and faster and holding a glass half full, our bodies and minds being an optimist.  But around the mid 20s, it begins to tilt the other way and some guy comes along with that half empty glass and kicks the half full glass guy in the nuts and steals his glass.  From there it's a desperate attempt to keep even status quo in sight.

No matter.  The road turns up and into the fog as moisture from the air condenses on my helmet brim and mixes with sweat on my face.  There are no glasses in sight, full or empty.  Just the road and the tires and the pedals that require my full attention.

The road forks and I stay right, into smooth dirt that I can smell and feel under my tires more than see.  Earthy and rich.  Water drips from road side plants and I brush them in my hasty weaving, adding to the wetness I am becoming.  Not cold anymore.  Working harder now and man that feels good.  So familiar.  How do people live their lives and not do hard things like this?  I have the half empty glass guy worried that I might be gaining on him just a bit.

And then I am there.  The top.  I cannot actually see that I am on any summit, as I am covered in clouds.  But I know this road, and where it leads.  On comes the jacket, fastened tightly for the descent to come.  Ears are covered, gloves pulled tight. Somewhere down below there is a barrista who knows me, knows I am out here, and knows what to do about that.  And with fast moving hands, jets of steam, and careful pouring of milk into steel cups, he or she is creating aromas that call to me.  Click…clack. In the pedals and pushing away. 

The wind tugs at me, flapping fabrics and pushing beads of water off my helmet in fast streams.  Gravity vs. wind.  The eternal cyclist battle. I bring in my knees to the top tube, reach for the drops, and lower my head.  Things go quiet. I look up, craning my neck to see the next line, the next corner.  A foot is dropped to the outside, weight is shifted, and then I am gone.

Photo courtesy of

Tuesday, March 3, 2015

Gettin' Fat.

You have seen them, I bet, and thought "Hmmmm…maybe that would be cool?"  Fatbikes - those rolling Stay Puft Marshmallow bikes that are all over the snowy parts of North America and beyond.  As well, desert dwellers seem to love them as they make sand and loose rock just a slight annoyance.

But I was only curious, not smitten, and I had no immediate need, sooooo…..

What has been interesting to see has been the acceptance of these El Gordo scoots as 'normal' MTB rides.  It seems that there are riders, if you can believe the 'wilder-net', that once they get a Fatbike, they make it the go-to bike and the carbon/FS/Uberbikes just gather dust in the corner.

Huh!  Really?  Why would that be for a typical trail or XC rider?  Unless you spend big, Fatbikes are heavy and a bit slow.  The tires are $150.00 bucks a pop, not something you want to be burning out pedaling down some smooth trail somewhere. And we only just now have ONE front suspension fork on the market (although that will change this year) and there are three or so FS models out as well.  But most Fattys are rigid set-ups and that big tire only goes so far to absorb bumps, etc.

I have seen riders on these things pedaling them for a 100 mile gravel race.  Seriously?  I totally do not get that, unless you just love being odd and wasting energy.  Horses for courses, not mules for fools.

Time went by, but in the back of my mind was the thought that a Fatbike just might be the perfect adventure vehicle if you wanted to open up trails that were not that fun on a regular 29"er.  I lean that way, to the adventure side, although my life restricts that more than I would like but it is what it is for now.

So when an opportunity came my way to get on a Fatty for a while, I jumped on it.  Salsa sent out a 2015 Mukluk 3, not a fancy scoot, but perfect for getting my size jumbo feet wet in this weird world of 5PSI tire numbers and BBs wide enough to suit a bow-legged cowboy.

I will be experiencing this for myself and the actual 'review' of sorts…I do not consider myself a competent and confident Fatbike reviewer…will be carried on  Stay tuned here for more of the personal experience of the journey.

I will be getting on trail and finding out some things.  Could I use this as my 'main ride'?  Will 3.8" tires woo me into a place where it's all I want to roll on from now on?  Can I go back to rigid bike or are the poofy tires really that comfy?

I will be setting it up for bikepacking for sure and planning some outings.  It's gonna' be interesting.

Granny is getting' fat.

The Salsa Mukluk 3 in all its glory.

Thursday, February 26, 2015

Why is this so hard?

Well, posting has taken a biiig back seat to all the rest of my writing/testing duties and that is not likely to change soon soooo…..apologies, if you care.

But this gravel bike thing…oh man has this been a journey.  I have never found it so hard to get just what I want - price, geometry, features, construction, etc.  I could get really close, but having all the things I wanted in the right combo simply does not exist as far as I can see.

So this is what I was looking for, based on what I know and what others that I trust know:

  • Geometry:  A low BB of AT LEAST 70mms of drop.  75mms would be better.  A head tube angle that will not be too scary at speed on the dirt.  What is that for sure?  Dunno', but over 72° is not it.  Lower stand-over, in that I mean a sloping TT so the seat tube length is NOT taller than my road bikes fer cryin out loud!  I am not shouldering this thing and running up steps and I do not care at all about your bias, speaking to the bike frame builders here, the bias that says a level top tube looks 'classic'.  So do steel forks and gum wall tires.
  • Features:  Big room for big tires.  At least 40s with mud room.  I can always run a smaller tire if I want to.  Multiple WB mounts would be good.  Fenders or rack mounts?  Don't care.
  • Construction:  A decently compliant ride, regardless of the material used. Most bikes I looked at were over-built for gravel use.  Has to have a carbon fork for weight savings and vibration canceling.  
  • Price:  I'm not rich and this not my main ride for life, so a custom frame is not in the cards.  Frame/fork for a grand or so would be fine.
One of the issues here, maybe the BIG issue here, is the muddy mess that this gravel/all-road/any-road/dirt road niche has become.  Even the riders who are doing it cannot agree on what is good or bad for bike set-up.  The manufacturers are trying to figure out if the trend is worth the cost of all the R&D to jump in for real. Or they are trying to say that the cross bike they have is a great dirt road bike too.  

Despite all this, and working within the compromises in the market place, I nearly had the following bikes in my garage:

  • Ritchey Swiss Cross disc - Nice steel, not heavy Surly-type steel.  Carbon fork, NOT overbuilt.  Will ride very nicely, I bet, based on the time on my steel Ritchey road frame.  Only room for a 38C tire and a BB drop of 63mm plus a semi steep HT angle had it on the iffy list, but I would have pulled the trigger except production delays had me passing on this one.
  • Raleigh Williard -  Tics all the right boxes and is lighter than the all steel Tamland.  Big tire room, long and low.  Tons of BB drop.  Slacker angles.  The alu frame ride quality is a complete unknown though and I would have had to buy a complete bike (no frame option) and strip it.  Still, this was a contender and I think Raleigh at least 'gets it' regarding gravel bikes.
  • Specialized Crux - Expensive in carbon, better $$ in alu and with a frame only option.  Maybe room for bigger than 38s.  Decent geo specs, but still a cross bike approach.  And besides that, they were out of stock, but I had ridden the carbon version and I liked it.
  • Niner RLT - Every professional review I read on this bike mentioned the rough ride.  Overbuilt for its intended use.  High BB too, but big tire room and slacker HT angle is nice.  Good price too.  Pity.
  • Ibis Hakkalugi - I actually had a great deal on a demo bike and had it in my house when the deal was just not quite right for me.  Still, the geo is very good, low and slack, and the frame is known for a smooth ride.  Only room for 38s or so, but this one was very close to ideal.  In the end, the $$ level of the deal was just not right.
  • Salsa Warbird - Too much money in Ti and the alu one had a rep for a stiff ride.  Tire size is sort-of ok, and it could be lower and slacker too.
  • Others like All City cycles, Black Mtn Cycles, Surly, and a Ti frame that cannot be named…either they were too heavy, too tall, too high, too something.

Then Frost Bike 2015 happened and the clouds parted a bit.  The new Salsa Warbird was announced and my ears perked up.  It was a bit lower at the BB.  It was more compliant than before, and even the alu model was better in that regard than the old Ti version.  It had tons of tire room.  It still was a bit steep in front, but the new fork was redesigned for gravel use, not 'cross use, so it looks like it is NOT overbuilt for miles of tiny bumps.  It was not too tall at the ST and it was tall enough at the HT for this old guy.

And, best of all, the alu one was available as a frame set at a just under one grand cost with a carbon fork.  Oh my.  Unless I want to wait for the next year for something else that may never come, this was very, very close to ideal.

And it's on order.

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

But I have no gravel!

And yet, here I am on the precipice of purchasing a 'gravel' bike…well, it is a cross bike really, but it will be a sweet gravel bike too.  Am I just a bandwagon jumpee?  Perhaps.  I tried the slack-in-front/short-in-back 29er hard tail deal and that was a bust.  I mean, you cannot pick up an industry mag without reading about either fat bikes or gravel bikes.  Am I chasing a fad?

I don't think so, and this is why.

I have already ridden three gravel events, one on a cross bike, one on a 29er hard tail, and one on a 29er FS (Epic) so I have an idea of how it feels to ride one.  As well, I really, really liked the format of the events.  They were long and non-technical, but challenging and scenic.  I really liked them and pedaling for miles in open spaces or along mountain roads does not bother me at all.

I have been doing a lot of summer road riding, so the body position and overall style of bike is working for me on the road.  It is not like I have never held onto drop bars before.


I got no gravel.  Nope.  None.  Not in the classic style, anyway.

Oh now, I have dirt roads…yessir…lots and lots and lots of those.  And I have miles of paved roads connecting them so there is the potential to make some big training loops by stitching together road and dirt sections.  And I plan on entering at least two gravel events for 2015, so while it is still a gamble, it is not a complete jump off a blind cliff.

If it all goes well and the stars align, etc…