My new ride: the Gunnar

Sometimes, you just get on a bike and it says, “Dude. I’m your bike.” And that’s it. And sure, you could spend several more months comparing features on an 800-row spreadsheet, and debating frame materials with indulgent people who really couldn’t care less, and waiting for that new bike with the titanium DooHickey 9000 that is coming out in November… but why. When your bike is right there.

So here it is. The all-steel Gunnar Roadie. I took one ride on it, after another test ride on about my 10th carbon bike, and that was it. Story over.

I’m not arguing that this is a rational choice. I could have bought a lighter bike, or one with disc brakes, or slightly better components, for less money.

But this one is more fun than those bikes. It’s a puppy dog of a bike. You get on it, and it just starts yapping. “Let’s go! Let’s go faster! Let’s lean into that turn! C’mon!”

It’s lurid green. It’s a color that says, “I’m not cool, I’m happy!” Which is exactly what I want in a bike. Because I’m never going to be one of the super-cool-skinsuit-rolling-billboard-racer dudes. Or a hipster-goatee-Chuck Taylor-flannel shirt fixie-dude. I’m an I’m-outside-having-a-great-time-on-my-green-puppy-dog-bike dude.

Plus it’s got one killer feature that none of other bikes I tested has: It’s handmade in the U.S.A. Wisconsin, to be specific.
Gunnar frames are made in the old Schwinn factory, where America’s greatest bikes were made before that brand dried up, blew away and auctioned itself off to China. Sure, I would have bought a Chinese bike if I really, really liked it. But I didn’t. And I really, really like that this one is made here. Yes, I paid extra for that particular bragging right. I’d love to see us build more bikes here. And I’m voting for it with my wallet.

So what makes the right bike for you? I have no idea. You can add up all the features you want, but in the end, you just want something you can’t wait to ride. Something that makes you want to quit writing your blog post that only six people are going to read so you can go get on your

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Flirting with carbon

As a concept, I like carbon fiber bikes. Super light, agile, responsive, shock absorbing, extremely strong. Yes, sure, I’ve seen lots of pictures of busted up frames in millions of pieces, because when carbon fails it’s not pretty. But if you hit something hard enough to shatter your carbon frame, I kinda think the bike is going to be the least of your problems.

On my quest for a new “fast bike,” a rode a lot of carbon bikes. Generally I was looking in the $2000-$2500 range, which, believe it or not, is on the lower end for carbon bikes. But the bikes ranged in price from $1,600 to almost $5,000. I stuck with the “endurance” category, which is more for the type of riding I do, commuting and the occasional all-day super long ride. The geometry is less aggressive than your all-out race bikes, which is great for me. I’m not a racer, and don’t plan on racing anyone, unless it’s to the bathroom.

There are tons of bikes in this category now, and I rode a lot of them. Specialized, Trek, Felt (several types), Cannondale, Giant, Bianchi.
Out of that bunch, I liked the Felt Z4 the best. It came in at a lower price than most of the others, and had a supple ride quality that I found intriguing. I didn’t test it, but the new Z4 for 2015 comes with disc brakes, which are starting to be more common on road bikes.

The Bianchi wasn’t bad, although I didn’t much like how the brakes felt, same with the Cannondale. And I just have a thing about Specialized and Trek, seems like they cost more just for the labels.

But here’s the thing I discovered. Carbon doesn’t make me happy. The performance gain is indisputable, but I just don’t like how the frames feel on anything but a perfect road surface. And we don’t get a lot of that around here. When the bumps come, the carbon bikes just feel plasticky and a little cheap, kinda like when you were a kid, riding a Big Wheel on your neighbor’s crappy driveway. I know all the specs are better, but when I’m plunking down 2-3k, I don’t want it to feel like a Big Wheel.

Which is too bad, really. Because I like the idea of a super light, modern, zippy bike. I just don’t like riding any of them all that much. Turns out I’m pretty much a straight-up steel guy. It’s taken me about five years to realize this, but there you have it.

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Civia Bryant, two years later.

It’s been two years since I bought the Bryant (and since I last posted on this blog). But weirdly enough, somebody still reads the blog once in awhile (thanks Wayne). And I’ve come to another key moment in my cycling life. So here goes:

I feel like the Bryant and I, while we’re a pretty good match, are not quite gelling. Put it this way: I’m ready to see other bikes. The Bryant was never really intended to be my primary bike, just for when the weather’s wet and the commute’s rough. But then I broke my Scott. The summer bike. The fast(er) bike. I don’t even know how. It happened at some point during RSVP, the ride from Seattle to Vancouver, B.C. When I got home I discovered another kink in the downtube, which on an aluminum frame means it’s toast. I didn’t even bother getting a crash replacement frame again. This is the second time it’s happened, so I’m done with aluminum. And with Scott, for that matter. I don’t think I could ever trust a Scott frame again.

So that left me with the Civia as my sole ride for the past year.

I spent a lot more time on it, especially since we moved. My commute is now a couple of miles longer, and it’s got a lot more hills. And the Civia doesn’t especially like hills. It’ll grudgingly accept them. But it’s not happy on them. I know, I know, you’re thinking, it’s not (the bike), it’s me. Which could be. I don’t think we quite fit right. It’s designed for someone a little wider. My legs feel a little splayed out on the thing. I could fix this with a narrower crankset, but there aren’t that many choices for a Gates carbon belt. The Alfine hub as proved a little finicky to keep adjusted correctly, and the Avid BB5 brakes are not the greatest disc stoppers out there.

So while it’s been a very solid, faithful steed, there are just enough little irritations to keep me from falling in love with it. I think with another four hundred bucks or so, I could get it sorted out a little better, drop some of the weight and get it close to perfect.

But I don’t think I’m going to do that now. Especially since I’ve found…. well, stay tuned.

Civia Bryant Gates Alfine: The Steampunk Commuter

The Civia Bryant, Alfine build

The Civia Bryant, Alfine build

After what felt like a Manhattan Project-level of research, I pulled the trigger. Here it is. My new thing. The Civia Bryant, with disc brakes, Gates Carbon Belt Drive, and a Shimano Alfine 8-speed internal gear hub.

I also had it built up with an Alfine dynamo hub and a Schmidt Edelux headlight. So I never have to worry about charging batteries, oiling chains, oil on me. Just about zero maintenance. I’ve adjusted the brakes once. I’ve wiped it down twice. In three months of winter riding. The thing just stays really clean and trouble free. (Big contributor to the clean factor: Giant, fluted Velo Orange fenders. Also big, heavy, and really solid.)

The bike is unbelievably smooth, quiet, and really, really heavy. Sometimes I like to call it “the Potemkin,” or the “U.S.S. Bicycle.” Strangely enough, this hasn’t slowed me down much. It’s also very stable over bad roads, ruts, railroad tracks, gravel and all the other crap Seattle winters throw at you. Actually, I lied. It’s a lot slower, but in bike terms, a lot slower doesn’t mean much. It adds literally 3 minutes to my commute. Which is a great trade-off for the stability, peace-of-mind and low maintenance.

I can also throw a lot of crap on it, instead of on my back. I outfitted it with a rack and a pannier (more on that coming later)…and it’s no problem to lug around a laptop, change of clothes, my lunch, and even, OK, not kidding, on Valentine’s day, a baguette and a bouquet of flowers. Not getting away with that on the racer-dude bike.

On longer rides, the jury’s out. I miss the higher “big ring” gears of my Scott and the lighter feel. But for everyday getting around in the muck, the Bryant is a beautiful thing.

Defeating the Devil, courtesy of Rivendell bikes


Rivendell's A. Homer Hilsen. Thanks Homer!

So we went down to the Bay Area last week to “visit my mother-in-law.” That was the excuse, but I had a secret agenda. I wanted to beat the Devil. Aka, Mt. Diablo, the sloping, 4,000 ft behemoth that looms over the East Bay. There’s a winding road that goes all the way up to the summit, and when we lived there in the early ’90s, I would sometimes ride up a few of those 4,000 feet. But I never could make it above the foothills that surround it. Lapping at the toes of the beast, as it were.

In terms of elevation gain, it’s not a simple goal. It’s more climbing in 10 miles than the entire, 200-mile Seattle-to-Portland ride. Plus I had a big disadvantage: I didn’t bring a bike.

Silly me, I thought I could just rent one. Turns out nobody rents road bikes in the East Bay. Enter Rivendell Bicycle Works, which happens to assemble their beautiful, lugged steel bikes in Walnut Creek, very close to Grandma. I’ve been stalking their website for a while, because they have great bikes, accessories, and lots of interesting bike info.

They don’t rent bikes either. But I told them about my quixotic, unfulfilled quest to ride up the Devil, and they said, well just take a bike. And bring it back before the shop closes. No charge. And just like that, they set me up on a gorgeous A. Homer Hilsen road bike, and there I was, on my way up the mountain.

Now, Rivendell is one of those bike companies with a very distinctive viewpoint. They use lugged, steel frames (lugs are connectors that join steel frame tubes; you don’t see them much on modern bikes, but vintage bike fans love them.) Their bikes are not light, they use big tires and heavy wheels, and more upright positioning than you’d ever see on a current race bike.

By most conventional thinking, this is not what you’d want for going straight up for 10 miles. You’d want some sort of featherweight carbon thing than weighs less than an average bowling ball. But it turns out the Homer was perfect. Mt. Diablo’s roads are not smooth, and at times they’re scarily narrow, with significant, humility-inducing drops off the side. And the big tires and steel frame soak up these kinds of conditions beautifully. The Homer is a stable, very comfortable ride, wonderfully suited for ambling up dicey roads.

Yes, it’s heavy, but it’s also got a triple-crank, and even though I was going to tough it out in the middle ring, I dropped that idea after about 800 feet of climbing and got down to the granny gear, and I was grateful to have it, thank you very much.

I stayed in the wimp ring for the rest of the climb, and yes, there were a few spandexed racer dudes that zipped by me, and more power to them. I was going to take it slow. I stopped to take pictures, because the view is breathtaking. Which is not saying much, because I didn’t have much breath left to take, but what there was…. you get the idea.

One of the carbon dudes, who actually looked like he was in his 60s, (Dear Lord, please let me be in shape like that when I hit my 60s), took a break with me and warned me about the summit. The last 100 feet or so is the worst stretch, a 15-degree pitch, he said. Which is not what you want after climbing 3,900 feet.

After that warning, I decided to take a more philosophical approach. Enjoy the scenery as much as possible. Go pretty slow, save the breath. Get as far as possible, and if I didn’t make it, well, I’d come back better prepared next time.

Before I knew it, I was near the summit, staring at that 15-degree pitch. The road split into two, narrow one-ways, and I cranked down into my last gear and went for it. Very slowly. Before long I heard a car come up behind me, and I had to pull over to the gravel to let it go by. Just when I slowed, my left leg completely seized up in an excruciating cramp.

I think I frightened some German tourists with my cursing. Here I was, about 50 feet from fulfilling a nearly 20-year quest, and my leg gives out. 50 stupid, idiotic feet! So I stood there, straddling the bike, cursing at my leg until I could bend it again. Fuck you leg! Bend! The leg relented. I got back on the bike. You can’t really crawl on a bike, but that’s what that last 50 feet felt like.

But I made it. Homer got me up there. The ride down was obviously a whole lot faster, and the handling of that bike was stable, smooth and surprisingly nimble.

I still can’t believe those Rivendell guys, who don’t know me at all, just let me walk off with their bike. They even gave me a Rivendell cap when I got back (five minutes before the shop closed). Thanks Rivendell, for helping me beat the Devil, after all these years.

I don’t want to pick a tribe, but…

Cyclists can be a hard-core lot, especially when it comes to defending their tribes. The Upright Woolies wouldn’t be caught dead in Lycra, and the Spandex Ballet dancers would never go near a piece of tweed. The Flower Girls love their wicker handlebar baskets and pastel frame colors, and the Fixerati love their stripped-down, one-gear specials.

Rarely do the tribes cross lines. I tried to resist pidgeon-holing, but it’s too late. I like my spandex, and my drop-bar road bike. I like my bikes fast and light, and I wish I could afford a racier one. Totally Spandex Ballet. The trouble is, that whole concept is not so ideal for commuting to work through a Northwest winter, when most of the other Spandex Ballet-ers are inside on their flow trainers. A pseudo-racing bike is not what you want when you’re slushing through leaf-paste on a questionably paved trail.

So I thought about crossing over. I don’t think the Flower girls would take me, and certainly the Fixerati wouldn’t. But the Upright Woolies … why not? They ride more practical machines, typically steel, with big tires, big fenders, racks and baskets. And the truth be told, a lot of those guys are faster than I am, even with all that extra weight and the challenged aerodynamics of flapping wool jackets. There must be some finely tuned calf muscles under all those natural fibers.

My problem is, I hate their bikes. I respect them, I get the purpose and the whole aesthetic, and I keep looking at them, thinking I could make it work during the winter at least.

But today I took a look at a nice steel bike, internal gear hub, racks, fenders, wide tires, leather Brooks saddle. Perfect for winter. And I just shook my head. There was no way in hell I was going to get on that thing. Sigh.

OK, check that one off the (non-existent) list

The other day my wife and I were talking about the notion of the “bucket list.” And she said, “I don’t get it. If you don’t want to do something before you die, then you really don’t want to do it.”

Which I thought was an excellent point. In any case, I don’t have a bucket list. I generally take things one at a time. This year, I wanted to ride my bike from Seattle to Portland in one day. 205 miles. I’ve been working for this since January. Planning ride calendars, working out the right ride food and drink, coordinating busy schedules, seeking out a bunch of help, from among others, a physical therapist, a bike fitter, a personal trainer and of course, family and friends. The last 10 weeks or so I really upped the game, extending my miles, pushing myself until I bonked several times, doing strength and flexibility training every week.

And it all came good Saturday evening, when I crossed the finish line and saw my wife and kids waiting for me with Hooray Dad! signs and huge smiles. This was a Top Five moment, for sure.

It was a long day: started at 5:15 a.m., finished about 7:30 p.m., which is a long time to be on anything, never mind pedaling a bike.  But I felt great. Certainly there were some low points: the part where I had to let the faster guys in my group go, the one flat tire, the part where we had to leave some of our guys behind. When my stomach finally said “will you stop sending down this crap?” after about the 10th packet of GU.

But the lows weren’t that bad at all. And the highs were great. Zipping out of Seattle with the paceline, practically flying through the morning air. Whooshing through the forest on the trail between Yelm and Tenino in a pack of about 30 riders, the closest thing to the Tour de France I’ll ever experience.  Every time I told myself to stop worrying, look up and enjoy the sometimes spectacular views. Rainier looming overhead, Mt. St. Helens, and then Mt. Hood. Crossing the bridge over the Willamette River into the heart of Portland, during the “golden hour” of sunlight. And that moment when I realized I was going to finish the way I wanted to, feeling strong, and still in daylight.

It was definitely worth the work. Yes, it was a selfish endeavor, but the family and plenty of friends really pulled for me. And I hope the kids got a good lesson on achieving a tough goal.

Here’s what I learned too. You don’t have to accept the idea that something like arthritis is slowly going to take away your mobility and strength. When I started all this, I thought I could do it, but I also thought I was going to wreck my knees in the process. Instead, they feel better than they have in years. So does the rest of me. You can fight back. You can find new sources of strength. I made it to Portland in a day. But I’m just starting to realize what else I gained. My three-year-old asked me, “Daddy, did you win?”

Yes. We did.

The Pity Burger (and other signs of benevolence in the universe)

Last week I went on a training ride, a very long, 100-mile training ride. It didn’t go well. It was my first serious ride after being laid up with the flu for a week, and I think I got ahead of myself. But whatever. Up until this point, I had felt great (well, “great” is a relative term, which in this case means “feeling less severe pain than I feared”) on every tough ride I’ve tried.

Until last week, my training had been going really well. I’ve been getting stronger, faster, all that six-million-dollar man stuff. Sunday, I got schooled. I rode from my house in north Seattle to Puyallup, which for those of you, (probably the one of you), who is not from here, is a long way. With long stretches of nothing. Energy-sucking nothing.

Once in awhile, when I’m out on the trail, I run across a cyclist or two who is clearly struggling. I try to offer a word of encouragement as I zip on by. I never know whether that’s actually encouraging, or whether the guy I’m passing is like, “thanks buddy, screw you.” I choose to believe the former.

This time, it was me. About 75 miles in, I was deeply questioning the point of all this, in a kind of oxygen-deprived, red-faced, nihilistic festival of self-pity. It must have been pretty evident too, because a couple in an Acura pulled up next to me, rolled down the window and said, “Hey man, you need a burger? It’s healthy!” Yes, I was in such miserable shape that complete strangers were offering to give me their drive-thru food. The Pity Burger.

I politely declined, and at first my mental reaction was something like, “What, do I look like a charity case out here? Am I really that pathetic?” But I realize that reaction was entirely wrong-headed. Now I choose to interpret the offer as a benevolent sign from the universe.

I.e., when you are on your last dregs of energy and hope, someone, even someone completely unknown to you, might offer to give you a Pity Burger. And if this ever happens to me again, I will take it.

My aforementioned goal is to get from Seattle to Portland in one day. This ride is six days away now. After my 100-mile debacle, I had begun to have serious doubts. But how can I not make it, when the universe is going to drop cheeseburgers on me?

That, my friends, is special sauce. Portland or bust, baby.


200 miles in one day?

OK, it’s not about getting to work anymore. I’ve set myself a new goal, getting from Seattle to Portland in one day. It’s about 205 miles, and the ride takes place this July. Most people do this ride in two days, but quite a few do it one. I was planning to do it in two as well, but lately this idea has just taken over my brain, like a fungus. I can’t get rid of it. So I’m going for it.

For some people that’s not a huge distance, for others it’s inconceivable. Since the longest I’ve ever ridden is about 90 miles, and here’s the important statistic — it was 20 years ago — this is not an insignificant personal goal. But hey, if I were sure I could make it, then it wouldn’t be that much of a goal, right?

All my commuting has gotten me into fairly decent shape. But there’s a big difference between commuting and focused training, which is what I’m going to have to do to hit my target. I’ve been ramping up my mileage every week, with the exception of that one week about three weeks ago when for some inexplicable reason I was like a wet noodle sliding off my bike, and couldn’t ride my way out of a paper bag. We all have bad weeks, I suppose.

Last week was a great week, and this week I’m going for an even better one.

My big concern are my knees, which are always kind of cranky and stiff. I have arthritis, which doesn’t really bother me as along as I don’t try to bend them. But you sort of have to do that to go forward on a bike. So I decided to get some help, and consulted with a physical therapist, and I’m getting a personal trainer as well. The trainer thinks it’s possible. Not easy, but possible.

I’m not a young guy anymore, and if I’m going to do this I need all the help I can get.

So stay tuned, the next few weeks are going to be a chronicle of this quixotic quest. We are upping the game.

Mini-Review: Jamis Aurora Elite

I’m in search of something a little bit smoother and tougher for next winter. Which is the excuse I give myself for walking into bike shops and drooling over new bikes.

The Jamis Aurora Elite. Nice bike, except for those stupid fenders...

I did this yesterday, and the salesman offered to let me take one out for a ride, and so I did. It’s the Jamis Aurora Elite, which is made for purposes like mine: tough, weatherproof commuting. Things that make it commute friendly:

  • Reynolds 631 steel, welded frame
  • Rear rack
  • Avid BB7 disc brakes
  • SRAM Apex drivetrain, which has a super-wide gear range for a double crank
  • 700×32 Vittoria Randonneur tires

I liked this bike a lot. It was a lot smoother over rough pavement than my aluminum road bike, and despite being a little heavier, it didn’t feel that way on the hills. The geometry was very comfortable for me, with a fairly high handlebar set-up that can also be lowered for racier days. It’s very stable on descents, and still corners well.

The disc brakes really were awesome, great stopping power. The real advantage of discs for these parts is the wet-weather braking power, although I didn’t try it in the wet. I’ve also heard they can be a little finicky to adjust, but the BB7s have a little more adjustment capability than the more common BB5s.

The SRAM Apex’s rear derailleur shifts very smoothly, but I’m not used to SRAM’s double-tap shifting system. The shift levers are nestled behind the brake levers, which is similar to my current set-up. To upshift you press the lever inward once, and to downshift you press it inward about twice as far. The downshift felt like I was going to break the lever, and I never could get the front derailleur to shift. Could’ve been user error, but it was still a little weird. The range, though, felt huge, more than enough to cover any possible circumstance I would run into.

The fenders are a complete joke. They look like very long sticks of aluminum chewing gum that are tacked onto the bike. Why they would even bother with these is a mystery to me, and I’m sorry, but on a $1600 bike you don’t want to see something that looks like a trained monkey made it. Talented monkey, to be sure, but come on. They can’t even get the radius right in the publicity photo. Sad.

I’d also get rid of the saddle, which felt horrifically uncomfortable to me. Your butt may beg to differ, but mine didn’t like it at all.

Aside from those two factors, though, this is a very nice bike, much more suitable for the kind of abuse I subject my ride to. Would I buy one? Not without looking at several alternatives. I still am very interested in the belt drive bikes, especially after reading this post at on the greaseless joys of belts in the wet. The Civia Kingfield has the belt, and its MSRP is $325 less. So I’ll just keep telling myself I can afford to buy a new bike this year, and keep wandering into shops. “Hey, I’m thinking about getting a good rain/winter bike…”

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