Looking Forward

Things have a way of changing on you. In my last post, I mentioned that I was not currently able to do much transportation cycling. In the meantime, we have signed a new lease, in a new city. (Across most of the country, I might add, which may significantly impact the next month of blogging). We’re now biking distance to everything. Grocery stores, malls, movie theaters, parks, museums, you name it. While it would, in some ways, be an awesome time to buy a traditional step-through bike, that isn’t in the cards right now. This makes it high time to buy some new bike locks and do some updates to Florence, my all-around bike. Perhaps not the ideal bike for elegant city riding, but she does have the advantage of being highly reliable and inconspicuous.

I have two things in mind. First, a set of Wald folding baskets. While these aren’t the most elegant of all bicycle storage, they have three rarely-combined traits. First, they fold completely out of the way when empty. A good thing, since I’m a little worried about heel clearance. Florence has the long chainstays that make a good carrier bike, but I’m a small person on a small frame. Secondly, when they’re open, they have an almost incredible carrying capacity. They’ll hold an entire brown paper grocery bag full. Third, they’re cost effective. Good panniers can cost three times as much. The downside is the weight, but with Florence no longer my primary bike for long/fast rides, there isn’t much need to worry.

I’m also planning on installing a Soma Sparrow handlebar.
Swept back city bars often come much wider than I would prefer, but the Sparrow has a nice, moderate width. They’ll also take my current mountain-diameter grips, brakes, and shifters. With these bars installed in the “riser” position I’ll have a nice upright posture (for seeing traffic). They might also mitigate a nagging elbow issue I’ve had while on Florence for longer rides.

I left Florence with my parents for right now, to make moving easier, but I’ll be sure to post an update once the changes are made.

To Train or Not

It seems like bike blogs fall into two categories. On one hand, we have what I think of as “serious racing blogs.” Bloggers post details and stats from their latest races, outline their grueling training regimens, and, generally, take pride in a certain amount of suffering. I read a number of these blogs, mostly by mountain bikers, and find them interesting for a variety of reasons. On the other hand, we have transportation cycling blogs. Generally, but not always, kept by women, these blogs suggest that biking is not, in fact, about suffering, but can instead be about getting from A to B with some dignity and a little fun. The bicycles are prettier, the clothes are prettier, and the life outlook is certainly more congenial.

The problem is that I fall squarely between these categories. While I have a lovely fantasy life in which I commute, gently, to the office while wearing a skirt suit, perhaps stopping to buy some organic vegetables on my way home, that life isn’t my reality. My grocery store is 20 miles away. While I could, technically, bike to my farmer’s market, the ride is both on the long end of comfortable and involves some unsafe neighborhoods. On the employment front, I am, as I say, “between things.” I’m hoping to solve all three of these through an upcoming move, but in the meantime my transportation cycling is very limited.

I’m also no athlete. It’s been two years since I started biking, and I still struggle to climb hills or to ride even remotely fast. I’ve made progress, but it’s nothing to jump up and down over. I don’t even want to be a cycling athlete. I have zero interest in the kind of fast-paced group riding that “serious” road cyclists love, and less than zero of the technical skills it takes to do mountain bike racing.

Which puts me squarely in the in-between category that sometimes gets pegged as “recreational cycling.” We have a subscription to Bicycling, but I laugh at its excesses. I bicycle mostly because it’s the only kind of exercise I’ve ever been amused by. I like it. I don’t do it for a particular purpose, aside from getting outdoors and staying healthy. I probably log more miles in a year than purely recreational cyclists do, but otherwise it’s my category.

Still, when you come down to it, I would like to be in better shape for the cycling season. (Unlike professional athletes, I mean “season” quite literally, as in, the season that it is warm enough for me to cycle outdoors.) I also have a love for plans and schedules and a lot of time on my hands. Dedicated training plans seem so suspicious, though–so very “fake pro,” which is a trend in road cycling that I despise. I wonder where the line between “fake pro” and “schedules help me exercise better” really is?

Not too much bike

Last year, we went to the Vermont Mountain Bike Festival. I test rode a few things, including a very daunting full-suspension mountain bike. After five minutes, I told K, “This bike wants me off. It’s just waiting for me to make a mistake.” I took it back to the demo booth and told the very nice reps that it was “too much bike” for me.

I was worried when I bought my road bike that I had made a more subtle version of the mistake I made with that full-suspension bike. See, Elton–my road bike– and I had an unorthodox beginning. In early November, I was looking for a Lynskey. I went to our closest dealer, where they had nothing in my size. Then the sales clerk said, “But I do have a Serotta titanium bike, if you just want a feel for the material.” I rode around the parking lot for ten or fifteen minutes and noted that I really liked the bike. “This titanium is good stuff,” I thought, “I’ll order that Lynskey in the spring.” But the Serotta kept niggling in my mind.

By the time I finished saving my bike money, it was February. Snow everywhere. We were on our way to a warmer climate where I could do some riding (work reasons, which I won’t go into here), and I was afraid that the Serotta, a discontinued model at a very good price, would sell in the spring rush before we were back. This is how I managed to buy a high-end road bike with almost no test ride.

After the first ride or two, I was convinced that I had done something stupid. My shoulders hurt. My hands hurt. My bottom hurt. I couldn’t shift the front gear without veering all over the bike path. For that matter, I couldn’t do anything without veering all over the bike path. I rammed my pedal into a road bump, thanks to a low bottom bracket. I had trouble stopping at red lights, because I found it so awkward to dismount the bike.

This weekend, though, I think Elton and I hit our stride. K made some mechanical adjustments to my shifting and changed out the stem. Beyond that, I’ve just gotten used to the bike. On Sunday, I even realized that this bike is seriously fun. It zooms. I still want to make a few changes–narrower bars, non-black bar tape, and the saddle has got to go–but I see the beginnings of a beautiful relationship.

Weekend Fit Discoveries

This weekend we went out bike investigating. K wanted to check out two sizes of the Santa Cruz Tallboy mountain bike.

Santa Cruz Tallboy
Photo Courtesy of http://www.kevin-yui.com, via flickr

He’s 5’10”, which is the classic “in-between” bicycle size for most mountain bike manufacturers. They give a breakdown something like “Medium: 5’6″ to 5’10”. Large: 5’10” to 6’2″.” The fitters actually gave him some grief over trying the Medium. “Oh, you’re the large!” (My take: Santa Cruz is trying a little too hard to make that Medium bike seem like a small, since they don’t make one.) When he did try the smaller size, he loved it. So much so, in fact, that he’s rearranging what we call “The Bicycle Progression” in order to buy this bike next.

On the way home, we discussed why the bike fit him so well, when the fitters were so skeptical. First, his height is entirely in his legs. Thanks to the seat angle, extending the saddle also extends the reach from saddle to handlebars. Also, he’s the the thin, wiry type. As we talked about it, I suggested that a person of his height, but of a stockier build, would probably have felt cramped, thanks to inadequate room to maneuver their arms and legs. That is, a larger person would occupy more of the available room between the saddle and the handlebars, even if the center-line of his/her body were in the same place.

I made my own bicycle discovery this weekend, as well. I’ve been looking, in a very casual way, for a mountain bike. I am not, nor will I probably ever be, a “real” mountain biker. Real mountain bikers say things like “Oh, I hit a tree, but it was no big.” K really wants me to learn, and I like the idea of, say, toodling along down a nice, wide, obstacle free trail. Who knows, maybe I’ll even love it. For reasons too tedious to list, I’ve been quite enchanted with the Salsa El Mariachi mountain bike.

El Mariachi
Image courtesy of salsacycles.com

This bike has 29″ wheels. While there is fierce debate about the pros/cons of riding what the guys call a “29er,” I can say, with some certainty, that it is easier to have as few tires sizes in one house as possible. K is dedicated to his 29″ wheels, so, barring fit obstacles, it’s just easier for me to ride them too. The problem is the size. Think about road bikes. Until somewhat recently, many bikes for small women were 650c. A smaller tire is easier to geometrically integrate with a smaller frame, and it took changes in both geometry and riding style for women’s bikes to be mostly 700c. Many custom/handmade frames still use the smaller wheel size. Similarly, classic 26″ wheeled mountain bikes come in significantly smaller sizes than their 29er brethren. I am at the very bottom end of what most manufacturers suggest for their 29er.

Being the smallest size is fine. Somebody needs to ride them. On the other hand, nobody seems to stock them. Finding a size small mountain bike to test ride that isn’t absolutely bottom-end is hard enough even before you add the “niche market” that is the 29er.

Which is why I was so excited yesterday to see the elusive size small El Mariachi in a store yesterday. It was the display bike, hanging from the ceiling over the cash register. I was a little hesitant to make them get it down, since I wasn’t buying, but I couldn’t pass up the opportunity. The fit was, aside from a handlebar the size of a boat oar, completely perfect. I’m 5’3,” which is a smidge shorter than Salsa recommends, but I didn’t have any trouble. (If you’re a leggy 5’3,” you may struggle with the reach.) I could even, gasp, ride fairly comfortably with the stock 90mm stem.

After a month of us agonizing over who buys what bike next, it was really nice to have had such good opportunities to sort things out.

On Helmets

While I envy, in some ways, the kind of cool–physically cool, that is–chic of people who cycle without helmets, I just can’t do it. I know that the data on helmet safety is conflicting; I know the entire population of Copenhagen sneers at the very idea. But I would no more cycle without my helmet than I would without my shoes. The end. Sadly, the average bicycle helmet is as aesthetically pleasing as roadside litter.

Mine looks a lot like this:
image courtesy of theicebunny, via flickr

The visor blends in a little better, but it is the same kind of expanse of blue plastic.

The problem is that more attractive helmets just look so hot. (Again, physically speaking.) Bern and Nutcase helmets are much prettier than the Tour de France special, but those ugly helmets are much more vented. Nobody wants a hot head. They’re also heavy. The best Catlike helmet (I mention them specifically, because they are “the best” but also insanely ugly) weighs something like 300 grams. A Bern helmet weight over 400. I’m not one to split weight hairs, but that’s a lot of additional neck strain when you’re in a traditional road-bike posture.

All I want is a non-ugly, breathable helmet, with a nice visor to keep the sun off my face. Alas, it seems to be too much to ask.

Introducing: Florence

Florence is the bike that started it all.


For five years, I lived in a bike-friendly city. While I was there, I didn’t bike a mile. My apartment was the so small that I didn’t have room for a sofa, let alone a bicycle. (Or so I thought at the time.) But the seed was planted. I moved away to a smaller town and a larger house, and I felt that it was time to get a bike.

I wasn’t sure how much I would really use a bike, though. Hence, Florence. A nice, mid-level, off the rack bike. The parts were so-so, but easily upgradeable. I couldn’t ride drop bars, hence the flats, though the geometry is more road than hybrid. She’s technically a man’s bike. Research indicated that, at this price point, “women’s specific” meant a different saddle and paint job. The women’s version of this bike had flowers painted on it.

Florence has been a nice, stable, practical bike. We know each other’s quirks. She’s seen some pretty serious upgrades, but also still has some really cheap original parts. This has made her a little bit of a handyman’s special. The stock wheels were embedding metal fragments in my brake pads, so the wheels got a major upgrade. The drivetrain is a complete mish-mash. The original flat-bar shifters were too stiff for my hands, so I switched to twist. I replaced the front derailleur, hoping to solve some major shifting problems. When my husband got a new mountain bike, I got his formerly-top-of-the-line rear derailleur, which for some reason made my right shifter work backwards. Thanks to this bizarre blend of parts—some road, some mountain, some SRAM, some Shimano—my shifting took a lot of tweaking, but now it does just what I ask. Well, know that I know not to ask certain gear combinations. There are a few other mountain bike hand-me-downs, as well. The seat post and handlebar are, again, the best money could buy five or six years ago. (From what I gather, no “real” mountain biker would be caught dead with that diameter bar these days.) The grips are Ergons, which solved a problem I had with my hands going to sleep.

Now that I have a dedicated road bike, Florence is due for another round of part changes. As soon as those blue tires wear out, if they ever do, I’m going to find something a bit wider. They’re Panaracer T-serv messenger tires, and while they are both flat resistant and jaunty, they aren’t doing my stiff aluminum frame any favors. The blue was something of a joke, by the way. The blue saddle was such an incredible deal that I couldn’t leave it, and after that the blue tires were just oddly fitting. Something also needs to be done about either the stem or the bar, because this frame really is a smidge too long in the top tube for me. I’m thinking about a more traditional “city bike” look, with a swept back bar and a pair of folding baskets. We’ll see.

North American Handmade Bike Show, Part One

I had the rare good luck to attend the 2011 North American Handmade Bicycle Show. The photos I took are, across the board, not that great. My camera flash dealt me misery. I’m going to post them here anyway, though, because they showcase some really nice bikes. I have two clusters of photos, based on what my companion and I were keeping our eyes on. In Part One I’m giving you the “ladies’ city bike” photos. This is not an exhaustive list by any means. Bikes were in and out of booths for photo shoots, some photos didn’t turn out at all, and some booths were just too crowded.

I was especially disappointed that my pictures of the ANT bikes “Boston Roadster” turned out so poorly. A black bike in a black booth completely defeated my little point and shoot. What I did get is this tantalizing detail of the skirt guard:


You can see better photos on the ANT site, here.

The Independent Fabrications offering in this genre was drawing a lot of attention, but I found the harsh and dramatic paint job a little off-putting:



I’m also not sure if this bike is intended to scale up into larger production, or if it was just a one-off for the show. I believe IF does mostly semi-custom, and this bike wasn’t an option on their website last I checked.

Retrotec brought their customary curves to a mixte frame as well, going for a very feminine pink and grey look:


With a charming chain cover:

Sycip’s version is much less fussy, and more to my liking:


My favorite was in some ways the most utilitarian of them at all, but it had a kind of quiet charm:


This is the True Fabrication spin, and I loved it. The grey is a little industrial, but otherwise I was quite smitten with the frame’s lack of frills.