Author Archives: kitefencer

Looking back on Spring

Today is the first day of summer. I started training outdoors in early March. My first century of the year was in early May.  Since then, riding has become less stressful. Because I’ve already ridden the Six Pillars Century in early May, I feel confident about my riding. The Century was a pressure test that I passed.

Copper bike

Every year I get ready for an early century, then the rest of the spring brings me events like the SMECO 75 and the Patuxent Rural Legacy Ride (I refer to it as Pax.).  SMECO is a strange distance, 75 miles is usually around the point in a century when I start to tire. I normally get a second wind before the end of a century, but that “in between” distance it feels like you finish just as it gets tough. Pax is a metric, and that is a perfect distance. Long enough to challenge, but it unlike a century, which asks you to push through a little pain and fatigue to finish, a metric can be comfortable the entire ride. Pax is a scenic and enjoyable ride with something for everyone. Most of my weekend rides have been between 50-60 miles. If I keep riding, I’ll be comfortable on all the Century Rides I’ve signed up for in the fall.

This spring has had a lot of wonderful moments.  Here are some of them that stand out:

A steep climb on the SMECO75 ride, literally just before the first rest stop.  It was a cool morning, and the sun was just lifting the mist. At the top of that climb, a memorable feature of that event, the light was shining down on the hilltop, while we rode the tree-lined climb in the shade. At the summit, a rest!

A recovery ride that included a ride across the Potomac River on White’s Ferry, with a meal stop in Leesburg, Virginia. Cruising downhill to the ferry, and feeling free on a cool spring day. I felt the speed and joy of cycling. A comfortable ride with friends and a day to remember.

Ferry

Crossing the Potomac with Rita, Ron and Stephanie. 

Riding alone between the second and third rest stops at the Patuxent Rural Legacy Ride. Seeing a red jersey far ahead in the distance, and catching that rider – and passing! Sitting with a circle of friends sharing laughs and a beer post-ride.

Post Ride

Relaxing after the Patuxent Rural Legacy Ride.  It’s one of my favorite events, and my cycling friends agree. 

Riding in the Montgomery County Agricultural Reserve, and watching two foxes cross the road just ahead of me. One stopped and watched me as I passed.  Some things you’ll see on a bicycle that you just won’t see from a car.

My summer will be busy too.  I have to keep pedaling to be ready for fall, the season when I ride most of my centuries. It’s been a good year so far, and it’s only going to get better!

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Gearing Comparison: Campagnolo vs. Shimano

After a few weeks of riding on Campagnolo gearing with my new bike, I feel confident using it without thinking about what I have to do.  I use the Campagnolo Potenza groupset, and on my other bikes I use it’s Shimano counterpart, the Ultegra groupset.  At this point, I feel comfortable comparing them. For both, I use a double chainring setup in front and an 11 cog cassette at the rear wheel. The setup itself is similar, with the cogs on the Campagnolo bike being slightly taller. The Campagnolo cassette is 11 tooth on the smallest cog to 32 teeth on the largest cog. The Shimano bike I use most often has an 11-28 rear cassette, and both bikes use a 52 tooth big chainring and a 36 tooth small chainring.

The three major groupset suppliers to the road bike market are Campagnolo, Shimano and SRAM. I have tried the SRAM mechanical shifting system, but it was not an extended trial. All I can say about SRAM is that I was not impressed. Without an extended trial, I can’t say any more about SRAM.  The other point I need to make is that I have only used mechanical gearing systems.  Electronic shifting is common on high end systems from all three companies, but while they are acknowledged to be excellent systems that are in most respects superior to mechanical gearing, at this time, electronic shifting is more expensive, and the cost of a top end electronic shifting system alone is enough to get an inexpensive bicycle with mechanical shifting components. Electronic shifting may eventually come down in price, but as I write this, mechanical shifting is affordable, and for the most part allows the same gearing options.

Shimano

Shimano has been dominating the market since they developed their Shimano Total Integration (STI) system. Integrating the braking and shifting on the same levers changed the market. [Special note: There are people who have decided to call a shifter a “brifter” because the brake is in the same place. Such people, who need to make up a name to remember that the shifting and braking are on the same lever, should never, under any circumstances, be allowed to work on your bicycle. It’s too great a risk.] The Shimano system includes an inner and outer lever. Moving the inside lever shifts the chain to a smaller cog or chainring. Moving the inside and outside levers together moves the chain to a bigger cog or chainring. My experience with the last two iterations of the Ultegra groupset has been positive. It provides a light, accurate shift.  Shimano levers are canted slightly outward and the levers have a short, positive throw. In all the time I’ve used Shimano levers, I can’t remember having had mechanical issues.

Campagnolo

Campagnolo has had a reputation for innovation for generations. Campagnolo gave cyclists the Quick Release wheel skewer, and the cable operated Parallelogram Rear Derailleur.  When Shimano patented STI, it was an industry game changer, and Campagnolo responded with a system of its own.  The Campagnolo system uses a single lever for each action.  The brake lever is fixed. The lever inside the brake lever shifts the chain to a bigger cog or chainring. A thumb lever on the inside of the brake hood shifts the chain to a smaller cog or chainring.  My experience with the Potenza group has shown me that the system is solid, accurate and every bit as quick as Shimano.

Differences

Shimano can be so smooth and quiet at times that you almost can’t be sure that you’ve made a shift.  Campagnolo drops into gear with a comforting “click”.  Both of these could be called an advantage. The biggest difference that I’ve noticed is the ergonomics of the hoods. The Campagnolo hoods are slimmer and curved slightly inward. To my hands, they feel better than the Shimano hoods.  Since this is such an individual thing, it seems to me that there isn’t a great deal of difference between them other than feel. This feels like I’m avoiding a choice, but I like them both.  The more I use Campagnolo, the better I like it.  Yet Shimano has proven that its technically brilliant.  I can’t find fault with either one, so sadly, it comes to preference. Much as I’d like to recommend one over the other, it comes to aesthetics and feel.

 

My Passion Project is complete!

After considering it for years, and waiting 4 months since I ordered it, my hand built steel bicycle has come home!

Wilier1

My Wilier Superleggera. The copper color is called “ramato” and it is a classic color made famous by professional racers on the Wilier Triestina team.

It started with a hand built, lugged frame made from Columbus SL tubing by Wilier in Italy.  The Superleggera. I’ve added custom wheels, with Velocity Quill rims and Campagnolo hubs. The gearing is Campagnolo Potenza to go with the Italian motif. It has a 52/36 crankset and an 11-32 11 speed cassette. I went with a quill stem, Campagnolo record headset, threaded bottom bracket and a Selle San Marco Regal saddle.

Pictures don’t really do this bike justice. the copper color could be described as “liquid” and with polished surfaces, this bike is everything I had hoped for. Despite the inadequacy of the photos, I’m including some to show details.

Fork_Crown

The fork crown, with the Wilier “W” Stamped on it.

Bottom_Bracket

The bottom bracket lug, with a stamped Wilier logo.

Derailleur

Gearing is Campagnolo Potenza.  The silver color is a nice change from the carbon black of common modern group sets.

Saddle

My saddle is a Selle San Marco Regal.  The copper rivets seemed to fit the motif! Note: The saddle bag isn’t white – it’s reflecting the flash!

Everything on the bike looks like a throwback to another age; the steel tubes look tiny compared to modern shaped carbon and aluminum tubing. The lugged construction is something that has long given way to smooth joining techniques or monocoque frame designs. This bike wouldn’t look out of place in a line of steel bikes made in the 60’s or 70’s.  Though you’d quickly find a few differences.  Steel tubing has gotten better – the bike weighs less than my imagination made steel out to be. Downtube shifters have given way to modern gear shifting on the levers. The gearing is modern 11 speed with a cassette ranging from 11-32 teeth cogs.  This bike may look vintage in some ways, but it is better defined as “retro”, where the look is vintage but there are modern components that are more convenient.

On the Road

My first ride on the Wilier was interesting. I was worried about the weight of the bike, but it didn’t matter to me after I got going. On the road, the bike seems to float; it’s a comfortable ride. It handles beautifully.  While riding, another cyclist we passed commented on it. It is truly a work of art. I’ve heard the term “Steel is Real”, but I didn’t really understand it until now.  This is a bike to enjoy. I plan to ride it as my primary bike, with my old bike as a backup.  This isn’t just a work of art, this is my everyday ride. This passion project will be an inspiration to me for years to come.  I’m still getting accustomed to the Campagnolo shifting, but that will become second nature after a few more rides.

My passion project has become a reality, and it’s all I could have hoped for!

 

 

The Wait is Ending

When I finally committed to buying a new bike, I had a lot of options. I’m not a particularly difficult body type to fit to a bicycle.  Since I don’t have any fit issues, I had the widest range of options imaginable. I am past the point where I might race or take advantage of higher speeds.  My joy in riding is found in different areas of the cycling experience.

Buying a bike from a manufacturer like Specialized or Trek or Giant would have worked fine without a wait. I would have had to choose a bike among a great number of brands and models.  While all are good choices in their own right, all are mass produced and therefore they are not truly unique. Each would come in a choice of one or two colors; and some are more customizable than others, but customization always comes at extra cost, and while the best technology can be purchased this way, the best technology won’t make me better. So rather than take the most common option, I looked elsewhere.

Getting a truly custom bike would be the ultimate in personalization.  That specialization always comes at a high price. One of those prices would be time.  Waiting a year for a full custom bike is often worth it, but with my fit metrics, I knew that while it might fit like a glove, such a bike is a wonderful thing that would be worth the cost, but would it be worth the wait? It was a difficult choice, but in the end, I chose a third option.

Buying a frame and choosing my own parts specification seemed to fit my desire for a unique, handmade bike that wasn’t common while giving me a good fit and the experience I wanted.  I’ve already described my decision in this forum, but After waiting four months, I finally have a delivery date!

The frame has arrived in the United States from Italy.  It will be shipped to the shop, where all the parts I’ve chosen will be added to it.  Since my friend Travis will be building it, I’ll see photos of the process, including building my wheels and building up the bike with all the parts that have been waiting for it. It will be used (with my enthusiastic consent) to market his skills and his customer service.

My wait has nearly ended. As I waited, I had no idea how long it would take to see the finished product. Now I know. I write this on a Sunday, and the bike will be delivered to the shop on Tuesday, and delivered to me on Thursday.  Watch this space to read more about the final steps of my passion project!

I’m far too serious about this.

It’s a cold Sunday morning in late January.  I’ve worked out indoors, and I’ve been relaxing and reading about cycling on the internet while my laundry spins away. I always find it fun to read product reviews and articles and watch videos about cycling, particularly the breathless sort where the latest and greatest things are aways exciting.

I don’t doubt for a moment that they’re exciting.  They are. We love spending our hard earned money on new products.  I’m not immune to such things. After all, my new bike frame will come in and be built up within a month or so if the estimates of my frame’s arrival are accurate. I have purchased a few things, such as a computer for the new bike and a seat pack and tools and tubes to put in that pack.  I’m just as big a consumer as anyone else is.

Having said that…  These “trends” are largely useless to someone like me.  There.  The hard truth is coming out.  I’m an aging man who is reaching the point where he can’t buy speed.

I am not blessed with unlimited means. The best I can hope for by buying the best road cycling tech is not to be slowed down by age and physics as quickly as I already am. I already spend a lot on things for my bike(s). No question. I’m also single and have very few expenses.  All cyclists spend a fair amount on cycling. Sometimes I think the more you have, the more you spend.  I do this because I get health benefits, it’s a social thing, and everybody needs a hobby to take up their free time.  Though days like this tell me why I shouldn’t take it all too seriously.

One of the things I’ve been reading about is aerodynamic bicycles.  They’re fabulous.  Until recently, aerodynamic shapes came with a weight penalty.  That is changing, and “Aero” bikes are now becoming much lighter.  Road bikes are constantly evolving, and with carbon fiber technology, the top tech is going full aero.

I know that my body isn’t aero.  Not a bit.  I was not built to do this efficiently.  I’m more likely to be mistaken for a large marine mammal than a racing cyclist.  That means I should be much less concerned about cycling aerodynamics than I should be that somewhere, out there, is a harpoon with my name on it.  I’m not all that excited about aerodynamics. I just can’t help reading about it.

I have purchased a GPS bike computer which is waiting for the new bike.  I’ve never owned one before. I’ve always gone with simple computers that include a display and a pickup that reads how often a magnet affixed to a spoke goes past it.  That tech isn’t really accurate, nor does it offer a lot of features or data. What that tech offers is simplicity.  I admire simple.

One of the selling points of my new GPS head unit is that it is “aerodynamic”.  That has been tested independently.  It’s true. It’s also so marginal that most people couldn’t possibly tell the difference.  I chose it because I read reviews.  It seems to have addressed the concerns that bedevil the industry giant in GPS bike computers. It is supposed to be easier to set up and use.  Reviewers are more positive about the one I chose than they are about it’s competition.  That was what decided me. Simplicity. Not the fact that on a 40 mile ride I might save a watt of energy over the competitor.  I could stand to burn a few more calories per ride anyway.

I’ve also seen the new trend toward “gravel” or “adventure” bikes.  They look like a lot of fun. I think that if you want to ride off road and go anywhere, you should probably have a mountain bike.  I wish I had a mountain bike sometimes, just as a change of pace. If you ride on the roads like I do, you should own a road bike.  They’re a lot of fun, and they’re efficient, and if you have the funds available, you can buy a technical marvel of a road bike (probably a very aerodynamic machine) that will cost you more than an inexpensive new car.

Now, if you want to ride on unpaved roads into the back country, you can get a gravel bike.

It’s hard to find any agreement on what a “gravel” bike really is. Some are more like mountain bikes, others are more like road bikes. Some people might confuse the gravel concept with a cyclocross bike. One thing that isn’t in dispute is that they aren’t as good on the road as a road bike, and they’re not as good off-road as a mountain bike. Another thing that you can’t dispute is that they’re cool.  If you have a lot of gravel roads nearby, and you ride on them enough to justify spending the money, a gravel bike could be perfect.  I probably won’t buy one though.  If I spend too much time riding one on the road, I’m the kind of guy who will wonder why I’m not riding a road bike.  If I spend too much time riding one off road, I’m the kind of guy who will wonder why I’m not riding a mountain bike.

There is no such thing as a bike that does everything well. On the other hand, there is no such thing as owning “too many bikes”.  So I’m torn on the gravel bike concept.  I’d own one if I had the money and I didn’t mind it sitting around unused most of the time.
Because: bike!

I think of a gravel bike as the cycling equivalent of night vision goggles.  Sure, you probably have no reason whatever to own expensive night vision tech that you likely won’t use very much. Most people would just buy a flashlight instead. You want night vision goggles for the “cool” factor!

A gravel bike might get you to go out and look for “gravel” rides and off road adventures that don’t demand a mountain bike. It’s a solution in search of a problem, though.  At least where I live that’s true.  If I find myself in a place where riding a gravel bike makes more sense, I’d probably rent one for a day just for the experience. If I ever move to a place that could be described as a gravel bike nirvana, I’d probably buy one within a week.

After having said all this, what I need to do is shut down the laptop and find something else to do.  I’m getting far too serious about all this. Spring can’t come fast enough.  When spring comes, I’ll be outside on a bike rather than inside on the computer.

Bicycle Cleaning, Maintenance, Road Repairs, and what to carry with you.

Yesterday, I did a little bike cleaning.  It’s something I do regularly. There are a lot of good reasons to do this.  First, it’s nice to ride a clean machine. Second, a good cleaning is also an opportunity to inspect your bike.  I have found problems that could have stranded me on the road somewhere while cleaning my bike.  I have found tire damage, chain damage, and other problems while cleaning my bike.  I clean my bike regularly by habit.

I recently went out on a windy winter day to ride with friends, and while the conditions weren’t the best, the one thing that didn’t concern me was the condition of my bike. Perhaps as a result of good maintenance habits, or more likely because of a good amount of luck, I seldom have problems out on the road. I consistently ride between 2500 and 3500 miles a year. There are a lot of problems that can occur that you have no control over. The most obvious is a tire puncture, but good luck on the bike is enhanced by good habits when you’re off the bike.

My cleaning habit means I probably spend a little more money than the average rider on things like cleaners, degreasers, and chain lubricant. I will not pretend that my habits are the most effective or even the recommended way to maintain your bicycle. For example, I clean and lube my chain a little more often than most people do.  However, I do wipe off the excess lubricant and make sure that grit isn’t building up that might wear my gears out too fast.  In fact, they wear anyway, but keeping up simple maintenance is a good habit.  I actually enjoy cleaning my bike. It’s part of my ride.

The other thing I insist on is a yearly overhaul. I get a full maintenance check. I have the wheels checked, the headset checked, the bottom bracket checked, and I get the chain replaced yearly. Yes, chains wear out. It’s also a fact that replacing your chain is less expensive than replacing worn gears. Worn chains wear down your gears more quickly. If I’m told a part is worn, I replace it. I can spend a lot on maintenance, but when the bike is working great, it becomes a part of you.  When it isn’t, or it’s doing something wrong, or making a noise that bothers you, it gets you worried. It takes away from the experience of riding. Pro tip: The best time to take your bike in for yearly maintenance is between December and April.  That is when your local bike shop is the least busy.  I have more than one bike, so I can just switch bikes and keep riding if I have a bike in the shop, but there are good reasons to do overhauls when it’s cold out.  It keeps your local shop busy when most people aren’t thinking about their bikes, and that’s a good thing!

Nobody can escape road repairs.  If you ride enough, you will puncture a tire.  Sometimes things will need to be tightened.  Sometimes a friend will need help. Having said that, road riders are minimalists. We want to carry as little as possible.  Yesterday, I had a look in my saddle bag again, and here’s what I carry: Two tubes, in the correct size for my wheels.  Because road debris doesn’t care that you had a puncture five miles ago, and riding with friends sometimes means sharing tubes. There are latex and butyl tubes, and while latex are lighter, I go for good quality butyl tubes. The weight isn’t much, but they’re a little tougher. I also carry an adhesive patch kit that I replace every couple of years, because it’s the last, forlorn hope of getting home when bad luck is persistent.  I carry tire levers, the smallest multi-tool that I can get away with, and a couple of disposable wipes that are good for cleaning hands and other surfaces after roadside repairs.  I also have a small, retractable cable lock for cafe stops.  This is not effective protection. It is actually the least that I can do to protect my bike. The determined or professional thief will cut the cable and make off with the bike in a flash, but it deters crimes of opportunity.

Saddlebag_contents

This is what I carry in my saddle bag, though I probably don’t need the second tube as long as I have the patch kit. The second tube is protection from worry.

I always carry a mini pump in my cycling jersey pocket, and of course, a cell phone. Other than an ID, money or a bank card, and whatever keys are necessary for house or car, that’s all I carry. I know people who carry less. I know a lot of people who carry much more. Whatever you’re comfortable with is the right amount.  Some riders carry everything they could possibly need, including multi-tools with spoke wrenches and chain tools. They are, by definition, heavy and complicated.  If you want to carry a spoke wrench, an individual spoke wrench is light and easy to fit in a saddle pack.  A Chain tool? If things get that bad, I carry a cell phone. I know that accidents happen. People crash. Damage is sometimes unavoidable. However, it seems to me that the heaviest thing that people carry with them is worry.  I try to carry only the minimum that covers the most likely emergencies.  It all has to fit in the saddle pack or my pockets.

Bike Fitting

Modern road bicycles have evolved over the years to be as efficient as possible.  Most of the innovation has come as a result of racing. Technology has steadily improved, and the biggest innovations over the last 30 years have been integrated shifters on the bars, and clipless pedals. I think that electronic gearing and carbon fiber frames are the other big changes. As a result of these changes, particularly clipless pedals, riders are connected to their bikes. Because of this, things like seat height, stem length, bar adjustments and cleat placement are vital to ensuring a comfortable, pain free ride.  The way to get these things right is a bike fit.

Before these innovations, bike fitting could be done using the TLAR (That Looks About Right) method.  If the frame didn’t leave you looking stretched out or cramped, and you had sufficient clearance of the top bar and your seat height didn’t cramp your pedaling or completely straighten your leg at the bottom of the pedal stroke, and your seat was in a good position and not pushed too far forward or back, a fit was accomplished. While this is still a starting place, bike fitting has advanced a great deal.

When I was growing up, if we wanted to be connected to the pedals, we used toe clips and straps. These limited foot movement, making your pedaling more efficient, but didn’t entirely prevent foot motion. Platform pedals allowed your feet to find their place even more easily, but they weren’t as efficient as having a good connection to your pedals.  Now, we are connected to the bike with a device like a ski binding, Placement of cleats is a science. If your cleats aren’t placed well, pedaling can become painful. A good fit avoids injury.

I had a fitting last week. It was intended to be sure I ordered the correct frame for my next bike.  I was on a an adjustable “fit bike” which can be configured to any frame size or geometry. The handlebars, shift levers, seat post and seat that I’m going to use were fitted to the fitting bike, as well as the pedals I use.  I wore my normal cycling shoes. The fitting went well, only a few adjustments were needed to make me feel comfortable.  When you know that a good fit will be a matter of very small adjustments when the bike is ready, it really raises your confidence.

Now I have to wait for the frame to arrive. This could take a while. If I can stand the anticipation, I’m certain that I’ll be happy with the bike.  If a good fit is easy to create, then I know that I’ll be comfortable on the new bike, and that is a  big part of the project.