Monday, September 28, 2009

Re-post of a thing about shopping for an older road bike

I wrote this in a forum thread started by a guy who wants a commuter bike and has a budget of $250 - not enough to buy any but the cheapest of new bikes, but enough to get quite a lot on the used market. I'm saving the part about shopping for an older road bike. My assumption is that the person shopping wants to get something inexpensive that they can start using right away or after a tune-up and maintain in pretty much the same configuration. Additions are in italics.

There are some things to watch out for on older road and touring bikes that can make them harder to maintain. 27" wheels were common in the early '80s, and while you can still get nice tires for them, it's harder and replacing the wheel or rim is also harder. Dropout spacing and rear cog styles also changed a lot - in the '70's, a five-speed freewheel was common and by the end of the '80's or at least the early '90's, an 8-speed cassette became common on higher-end bikes. There were eight-speed freewheels for a little while and a lot of people had problems with bent axles.

I would consider a road bike with 700c rims and an 8-speed cassette to be a pretty kickass buy because almost all the parts on it are in current production and easily replaced and the dropout spacing should match the current standard. I wouldn't worry too much about 27" rims, as long as they're alloy, or a 5-7 speed freewheel.

Unless the bike is steel, you're committed to keeping the same dropout spacing. That means you can't upgrade less than an 8-speed cassette to a modern drivetrain. Steel bikes can be respaced. Also watch out for stem shifters and "suicide" brake levers. Stem shifters are very awkward to use and point at your groin, so you may run into them climbing out of the saddle, crashing, or straddling your bike at an intersection. Suicide brake levers don't have enough mechanical advantage to apply much force at the brake and reduce the throw of the brake levers, which can make the brakes harder to tune so they work. Some 27" rims were made out of steel. Braking performance on a rainy day sucks - it takes a few revolutions to dry the rim enough for the brakes to work, and you may already have rear-ended a bus by the time that happens (didn't quite happen to me, but it was terrifying.) Some steel rims didn't have a hooked bead seat, preventing the use of high-pressure tires. But you shouldn't buy a bike with steel rims in the first place.

The compatibility and similarity in performance of 80's and early-90's bikes with today's gear is surprising. Without the rack and wire baskets, my cheap mid-80's aluminum commuter weighs less than my nice '99 steel road bike. But the resale value sucks, so you can pick them up for cheap and they're relatively unlikely to get stolen.

Friday, September 25, 2009

Credit for this shot goes to Greg Moring. Check out his slideshow of the race on Moring Designs.

I like this picture a lot. For me, the run-up was a defining feature of the race, and I hadn't been able to find any pictures of it that I really liked. It even has a name, "Knapp Time," after a dominant 'cross racing family from around here.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Over the last few weeks, I've tried to change the focus of this blog slightly to address a competition one of the big bike companies was doing. They planned to hand out some of their new line of urban bikes to bloggers who could commit to two entries a week for at least three months. I like free stuff, or at least stuff I get in exchange for doing something I do anyway, so I figured I'd give it a shot.

The contest is over and I didn't win. I wouldn't have chosen me either. The whole point of the new brand is that they're trying to depart from their image as a company making bikes for skinny, spandex-wearing racer wannabes. As a skinny, spandex-wearing racer wannabe, I'd say that I pretty well exactly match where they didn't want to go with the new line. I figured maybe I had a shot because while I've always been skinny, I don't always wear spandex and I have one bike that I ride in cities and have never raced. Not unpredictably, the bikes went to people whose stories are likely to be cute or inspirational. If I were running the contest, I'd probably have made at least half of the same choices.

Now that it's over, I'll be returning to the usual entries about whatever I happen to be interested in at the time. This summer it's been races; this winter it's likely to be skiing and going back to school. Expect some longish entries about Bhutan and Bangladesh in November.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Uphill Battle

Sunday's race was a really difficult one for me. Not the race itself, at least any more than usual, but everything surrounding it. I'd worked twelve days in a row leading up to it, including some long days and short turnarounds in the last few days before the race, and I was really tired. I also overslept a little, and didn't get out of Seattle until about half an hour after I wanted to. I still got to the race on time, since I budget some time to register and pre-ride, but I didn't have time to pre-ride the course and could only rely on information from a teammate who rode in the earlier race. (Thanks, Rachel.)

I got a first-row call-up this time, which has never happened to me before. The information leading up to the race was that call-ups were going to be based on MFG points, so I didn't expect it at all. What they didn't mention was that that only applied to people who pre-registered online, and since not very many people did that, the competition for those spots wasn't exactly fierce. I was nowhere near warmed up and I'm not a great sprinter at the best of times, so the start of the race felt kind of like being washed over by a wave I couldn't quite surf. After that, I at least made people earn their passes and I was starting to trade places a little during the second and third lap.

Don't I look like I'll make that guy earn it? Actually, I have no idea which of us finished faster. This is just the only picture of me I've found from the race. Thanks to Joe Martin.

The course had a brutal run-up. There's a saying that while races aren't won on run-ups, they can be lost on them. After the first lap, when I had no idea how long or steep it would be and raced all the way up to it, I took it a little easy on the paved section leading to it, on the principal that if I saved a bit I could pass the guys in front of me. That actually worked. Kind of.

I was feeling pretty good and thought I'd found my rhythm and figured the course out during the third lap, and I rode hard and made some passes. Then, coming into the final stretch, the guys around me really put the hammer down and sprinted for the finish. I remember thinking, "Why are they doing this? I'm going to see them again on the run-up anyway, and then I'll try to open a gap for the rest of the race and it'll be over." Unfortunately, it was already over - I had no idea the third was my last lap. There was no visual indicator for the last lap, and I can't be sure if I heard a bell or not during the previous pass through the start/finish area. It was a frustrating way to end a race, especially one that had had a frustrating start. I can't even be sure if I have a reason to be mad at the organizers - they're supposed to let people know when it's the last lap, even if they don't show a count or a time for the earlier ones - or if someone was ringing a bell and I just didn't hear it or tuned it out.

Honestly, I'm not even sure if that was my third or fourth lap. I think it was my third lap, but the scores indicate that most people did four and if I got lapped, I'd have known. The times are very, very low for a four-lap race. I finished 25th of 39 finishers, with another 9 DNF in my field. I thought I was 24th, but sometimes the scores posted on race day are off and get re-ordered later. I wish I'd known I was on my last lap in the final esses and the last concrete stretch. I might not have been able to hold off the guys I was with coming into the finish, but at least I'd have tried.

I'm now tied in the MFG series for 30th with two other guys, and I've come up with a goal for this year - I want to crack the top 20 in a race. If I don't do it at the MFG race on October 4th, it may not happen this year. But I think it's a doable goal, if I show up early enough to pre-ride, race my heart out, and do it intelligently.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Proselytizing, Maybe

My brother is in town this month and decided he wanted to borrow a bike while he's staying here. He's doing a Sub-I, a training rotation, at a few local hospitals and typically has to be at the hospital at 6am. Here in Seattle, the buses don't run that early often enough to be useful, or at least that was his conclusion from looking over the schedules. I lent him one of mine for a day until I could borrow a loaner from my friend Amanda, which he's been riding all week. Zach hasn't been on a bike in a few years, but he's been running, including a few marathons. I think it's interesting to hear about other people's experiences riding bikes, so I talked him into writing a paragraph for me.

Riding a bike to work has been a bit of a surprise. It's nice to have an extra jolt of energy to start up the day. It's also good to spend a little bit of time interacting with the outside world on the way there and the way back, even if I don't spend any other time doing so. I like that I'm getting some exercise, but maybe it's too bad that it's replacing that time with no worries. Instead, I'm worried about getting to work on time instead of letting my thoughts drift as in a long run. It's not meditative. Too many cars, lights, stuff going on. Sometimes it feels like driving slowly, sometimes like running quickly. Downhill and uphill, respectively.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Once More, With Feeling

When I went racing last week, I was a little disappointed in my performance. Mainly because I felt I could have raced harder. There are a lot of things in racing I can't control - the weather, other riders' performance, etc. But I can make a choice to race really, really hard, and last week it wasn't there. Since then, I've been riding bikes fast, near where I blow up, and I raced yesterday at that level. I don't think I placed much better, but the results posted on race day were pretty illegible, so I'm not sure yet. Adella thinks I finished in the leader's lap, near the tail, somewhere near the guy from the Starbucks team who just beat me at the end of last week's race. That would be a pretty similar result to last week's race, but I feel a lot better about it since I was better prepared and gave everything I had to the effort this time.

Don't I look intense? I'm totally being intense. That's my war face. Or my metal face. Or at least my racing really hard face. Also, I raised my handlebars about half a centimeter and got rid of the crosstop levers from my brake lines. The bike is definitely better in its current configuration. I'm going to be adding barrel adjusters to the brake lines and changing the saddle for my favorite one, but then I'm going to stop messing with it for the season and just go racing.

This picture is another of my favorites from the set that Adella and her friend Dan took. In general, ordinary color photos are hers and the infrared ones are his.

The course was pretty fast, although it felt like there were a lot of false-flat climbs. I raced really hard, but ended up on my own a lot of the time. I'd pass someone and drop him, or get passed by someone I couldn't quite hang onto. There was no real run-up, although both of the singletrack sections had parts that I found to be unridable, so I did do some running. I think that the race was won and lost in the esses on the grass, which is fairly common to 'cross racing, and maybe a little bit on the stretch of course between the longer singletrack section and the paved descent. I think Adella's right about me finishing in the leader's lap, because usually if I get passed by the leader, he passes with authority and a couple of other racers right on his wheel. That didn't happen yesterday.

I rode as hard as I could. That's why I keep going back.

Wednesday, September 09, 2009

Broke Another Wheel

A few months ago, I tacoed the front wheel of my commuter. Last Sunday, I broke two spokes in the rear wheel. I was on my way to work and since I had several pounds of hand tools in a bag in one of my baskets, I decided to take a flatter route to work, via a multi-use path along Westlake Avenue. There's a point along that route where the paved trail shifts to the right. It was pretty early, since I had to be at work at 8am, and it was pretty cloudy and a little rainy. I saw that the pavement went off to the side, but I was going at a pretty good clip and it looked like going straight ahead just put me onto a gravel surface for several yards, which then rejoined the trail.

It turned out to be an old section of railroad track, with ties still present. I managed not to wipe out when I hit the first one, pretty hard, then I slowed down slowly, which felt like riding a jackhammer, and walked to the end of the section. I noticed that my handlebars were tipped way down, which I corrected, and then I resumed my ride. When I got to work, I noticed that one of the spokes was going to the hub out of line with the spoke head. I was running later than I'd have liked, so I left the bike in the stands (I was working at Safeco Field) and joined my crew.

At the end of the day, I took some time to figure out how many spokes were broken - two, on the non-drive side - and wrap them around neighboring spokes. According to cycle tourists, that's the best temporary solution because while I probably had the tool to unscrew the spoke from the nipple, that allows the nipple to fall into the wheel and rattle around; keeping the spoke keeps things closer to their proper order. I stopped at REI on the way home since it was too late to go to a bike shop. I don't understand why bike shops don't keep retail hours. Bought a couple of new spokes, went home, couldn't install them. The freewheel and pie plate were in the way and I'd have had to bend the spokes significantly to get them around them.

Can you spot what's missing? One of them's right above the reflector and the other is almost exactly opposite it. Since spokes work under tension, when a wheel is hit with a significant force, the rim wants to go from circular to elliptical. The spokes under the most tension are the ones the hub hangs from, and those running closest to the major axis of the ellipse formed by the rim under deformation. So it's something of a no-brainer that the two that I lost were along that axis and on the non-drive side, which is frequently more problematic on a dished wheel.

Lots of negative space when the rear wheel is missing. Also, a bike that can't take me to work. I took the rear wheel to the shop sponsoring my team and borrowed a freewheel remover to get it off. Then I laced the two new spokes into the wheel and trued it on their stand. The wheel had some pretty incredible wobbles in it, and the spoke tensions are all over the map now.

I'm not sure how much longer this wheel's going to last, and it's going to be a pain to replace it. It's a 27" wheel with a six-speed freewheel, so probably 126mm dropout spacing. I'm somewhat committed to using a 27" rim and a 126mm OLD threaded road hub. If I changed the rim size, I'd also have to change the rear brake and get a new tire, and while neither of these is particularly difficult, it adds to the expense. I can't use a differently sized hub in this bike since the frame uses a bonded aluminum construction and might respond poorly to respacing. I also don't want to change number of speeds since I'd have to replace my shifter, which is a fairly expensive upgrade even on a bike this old. I also want to stick with Shimano shifter, derailleur and freewheel, or at least Shimano-compatible, because I like it that the indexing works. The hub's also toast, but a new rim and spokes would cost more than a cheap rear wheel.

Luckily, enough people are trying to keep beater bikes like this rolling as working bikes, not just project and restoration bikes, that there are some cheap rear wheels out there if I need one.

Tuesday, September 08, 2009

Seasons Change, Bikes Change, Dirt Remains

My "Gateway Drug" for cycle racing was cyclocross. And now that it's Fall, the season's on. I think that racing mountain and road bikes is sort of like wearing white - it's inappropriate to do it after Labor Day. And cyclocross racing is like wearing boots - the moment Fall begins, you get to pull them, and dark-colored clothes, out of the closet and start running up hills and epic stairways.

I've heard people say that, no matter what you do to get ready, you're never prepared to have children. I think that being prepared for the first race of the season is similar. I lent my 'cross bike to a friend shortly after the end of last season and got it back in May. I rode it once then and two more times leading up to Monday's race, and didn't really get it dialed in. At all. When I was pre-riding, I decided that the saddle was definitely too high and everyone was already lined up for the start when I got to the line after asking everyone in sight if they had a Metric Allen set on them. During the race, I decided that my handlebars were too low - in a somewhat silly reaction to how un-racy my friend's version of this bike's setup was, I removed a spacer, flipped the stem, and tilted the bars down when I got the bike back. I think I probably lowered the height of the clamp by about an inch doing all that, and lowered my hand position even more tilting the bars down to a racier spot. I'd also spent about ten or fifteen minutes practicing mounts and dismounts on dirt since November before today's race.

One of the things I love about racing is that no matter where in the pack I am, there's someone ready to race me. The gentleman in the Starbucks jersey passed me coming out of the singletrack, before the last turn. I decided that I wasn't going to let him beat me, shifted up, stood up in the pedals, and found out that actually I was totally going to let him by. I saw him after the race and shook his hand - he earned 27th place. I still made it by the guy running, making 27th-29th places a hotly contested finish. The preliminary results put me in 28th place out of 32 riders finishing in the leader's lap and 43 riders completing three or more laps (the leader rode four laps.) I haven't done speed work since early in May, so I'm not too surprised not to have any top end right now.

Thanks, Adella, for taking pictures and for coming to the race with me.

Thursday, September 03, 2009

Riding Streets Again

I've been doing a lot of driving for the last week, which is kind of irritating. Work was pretty far away, too far for me in normal clothes and if cycling's not the main activity for the day.

Today, though, I had some errands to run and some work to do in town.

I got up latish, since work ran until midnight last night, and then rode from my place to my favorite Seattleite's place in Capitol Hill. 4.7 miles. There's a pretty stiff climb up into the Capitol Hill neighborhood, pretty much no matter how it's done. On the way, I got my own private rain storm - it only lasted about a quarter of an hour, ending just before I arrived. Seattle weather does this, and I have fenders permanently installed on my silver bike and quick-release sets for my road and mountain bikes.

The reason for the trip, aside from brunch with my favoritest person, was that I needed to see a doctor about a trip overseas I have coming up. I padded the brunch time by a couple hours, which we used to go shopping for gear for a trip I have coming up. That trip was done in her car - she doesn't ride bikes. Then I rode to the doctor's and back, about a third of a mile, then "cheated" and threw my bike in the back of her car so we could drive to her next commitment and have coffee for a while beforehand. That's five miles so far.

Adella knows I'm writing this entry so she was making fun of me about not being very good at being car-minimalist. To me, being able to throw my form of transportation into someone else's form of transportation is actually a pretty useful attribute. I used to drive trucks for a company that had a couple of different storage locations, so sometimes I'd pick up a truck one place, drive it to a gig, and then leave it in a third location. I just chained my bike to the front rack and then it was with me whenever, and wherever, I was when I finished. That applied here too - I had my bike with me, so after coffee, I just rode home. 5.9 miles.

I had a little time at home, then I had to head back downtown to go to a job I have here in town. That's a 5.4 mile ride, although I stopped and bought groceries on my way home, so the ride home was more like 5.7 miles. Miles for the day come out at 17. It was dark when I was riding home, so I clipped on my bright headlight, a gift from my Dad. Most of my nice things are gifts.

Tomorrow, I'm back in Issaquah, and back in my truck. It's not going to leave me with time to go mountain biking, which I sometimes do on days I spend out there, but I might go for a run or something during lunch. But on Sunday, I'm going to be back to using my bike to commute to work locally, about six miles, in work boots with a bag of hand tools in one of my baskets.

Clearly I'm not car-free. I don't even try to be. However, I enjoy riding my bike and driving in Seattle frequently makes me angry. Convenience is often how I make my choice - I'm a pretty strong cyclist, so my trip times don't go up horribly when I ride my bike; sometimes they even go down. I also don't have to park or buy gas. I've gone weeks without moving my truck, and probably make it a month without buying gas from time to time. I don't really have a vision of a world in which nobody uses a car or truck for personal transportation, but I do think that there are a lot of people who could be using cars much less.

Tuesday, September 01, 2009

A quick look back at my commuter bikes

I'm a little bit obsessive about bicycles. I like to think that it's because of the experiences they afford me, but I'm also a gearhead. In the stone age, I'd be the guy who was stoked about the discovery of flint, and could tell you about all the different kinds. I've been commuting on bikes, on and off, for thirteen years. I've been riding mountain bikes for nine or ten and riding road bikes almost as long. I entered my first race, a cyclocross race in 2000 or 2001. Lately, I tend to ride bikes for from five to fifteen hours a week, depending on how much time I have for fun riding and where I'm working.

I've tried a couple of different setups for commuting on bikes. In high school, it was a road bike converted with flat bars for a while, and a hybrid for a while. In college, it was a mountain bike with a rack and panniers, then a touring bike with panniers, then a touring bike but wearing a messenger bag. Discovering messenger bags was a revelation - suddenly I could stabilize a load on my back, lower than a backpack, and still ride in an athletic position. In New York, I rode a stripped-down ten speed converted with a BMX driver.

Here in Seattle, I have a mid-'80s road bike with a rack and wire baskets, and wear a messenger bag but put heavy items, like hand tools, in the baskets. I think that I've got the cycle commuting thing fairly dialed for my circumstances now, so when someone tells me they've got a better way, I tend to doubt them. My bike can't carry as much as a longtail, but I can get it upstairs. It may weigh more than a bike without permanently installed baskets, but I can't forget to bring my pannier and I don't worry about them being stolen. It's not as fashionable as a fixie, but I value my knees. It's not as comfortable to sit on as a cruiser or a hybrid, but when I had to commute twenty miles to a far-ish gig while my truck's brakes were out, it was up to the task. Some days, I decide I want to go for a bit of a cruise on my way home and it's a fun enough bike that I can do that and enjoy it, and that's a big part of why I commute on a bike - because I enjoy riding bikes.

Specialized, who made my mountain bike, have a new brand of bikes and I have to admit that most of why I'm writing this post is that I want one. The Big 'S' is going to give some of their new line to bloggers, and one of their bikes is very very close to my idea of the ideal commute/utility bike for someone like me - something I can ride to work, with a bag of hand tools and a drill on the racks and off my back, use to pick up groceries, and still enjoy riding. They seem to think they've come up with a product like that and I think it would be cool to try one. If it's actually better than my current setup... So far I've got two of my friends onto different bikes because they believed me when I told them they'd be better than their previous rides. They both seem pretty happy with them too.

I don't think that having a different bike would necessarily change my life. I think I'm already pretty minimal about how I use my truck. But if it really is better than what I have right now, I won't hesitate to say so.