Category Archives: Buying a bike

My new ride: the Gunnar

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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.
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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 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.

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 ecovelo.info 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…”

Lusting after steel

The Civia Kingfield. Note the carbon belt drive and the 8-speed internal-gear hub.

My bike is your basic entry-level aluminum road bike, which is to say it’s light, attractive, pretty fast, and kind of fragile. (You can imprint your own metaphorical connections to your previous, questionable romantic choices here).  I’ve already trashed the frame once, and had to have it replaced. Am I happy with it now? Certainly.

But I still shoot it sideways glances occasionally and ask myself, how long are you really going to stay with me? How long before the next break-down tells us we’ve both had enough? Truth be told, I’ve been looking for a steadier alternative. One that’s perhaps not as flashy, but one that I know I can depend on for the long haul.

And that means steel. Steel bikes fell out of favor a few years ago, when these upstart aluminum and carbon frames started showing up. Yes, they’re lighter, but they have their problems. Carbon’s expensive. Aluminum breaks. Both are really hard to fix. I’m not one of these material snobs who only swears by the ONE TRUE BIKE FRAME MATERIAL, but for my purposes, steel looks like a good way to go.

It won’t break. It can handle rough roads, bumpy sidewalks, transfers on buses and bike trailers and all the other abuse I throw at it as a daily commuter. And fortunately, the bike industry has really gotten behind steel again. There are hundreds of steel models out there now, designed with exactly my level of abuse in mind.

There are lots of upright commuterish models, but the ones I like are the steel drop-bar road bikes, which is the style of bike I feel most comfortable on. These bikes have racerish drop bars, but they tend to be more moderate than your racer-boy models.  They tend to have braze-ons for attaching fenders and racks, and geometry that places the handlebars higher up, for more comfort and less neck-strain. Brands to look for include Kona, Surly, Masi, Redline, Civia and Raleigh (note that some of these are just different brands from the same company).

Even big-gorilla REI is getting into the game, although I checked out their newest steel road bike, and the welds looked like a drunk guy did it after happy hour. But hey, at least they’re trying.

One bike I find really intriguing is the Civia Kingfield, which has a drivetrain made for abuse: A Gates carbon belt drive (no chain, no lube, very quiet), and a Nexus 8-speed hub, which has all the gearing contained within the sealed rear hub housing. Which means no cleaning gunked-up rear cassettes. It’s not cheap, but it’s moderately priced for this level of equipment, and it seems like a great choice for those looking for a bomb-proof commuter. We’ll see how the technology holds up. Meanwhile, I’m thinking that something like this is in order before next winter.

After all, I got rid of the second car. There’s no turning back now…

I’m gonna ride down to electric avenue

The Kalkhoff ebikeI was just in Portland, which seems to be the bike capitol of the west half, and stumbled into an unassuming little bike shop near Powell’s City of Books. Turns out they only sell one brand of bikes there, Kalkhoff, which is a German brand that specializes in…. wait for it… electric bikes. Shocking!

Up until now, I’ve been fairly unimpressed by the whole electric bike concept. Carting around another 20 pounds of motor and stuff to assist you seems somewhat pointless, and since fitness is probably my chief goal in this biking endeavor, it also seems like cheating. Not to mention a little dorky, and I’m already Mr. Lit-Up Yellow Banana Riding Down the Street. There’s only one problem with this set of assumptions.

Riding this bike is a blast. I took it for a short test ride, and could not wipe the smile off my face. The motor kicks in when you start pedaling, and a control on the handlebar allows you to pick how much power you have at your disposal. You can get going up to 25 mph on the thing. It’s very easy, smooth, and intuitive. I got the hang of it within a couple of yards of starting. And once I got going, it just seemed like the fun of biking got magnified a couple of times over. It’s like riding with a wind always at your back.

What about the cheating thing? Well, I look at it this way; the bike’s got a 50-mile maximum range on a battery charge, more than enough to get me to work, and probably back. As it stands, I ride about three times a week, and I usually go half way, and take the shuttle the rest of the route. I could easily see using a bike like this every day, and going the entire way on it. It’s got a lot of carrying capacity, 60 pounds on the rear rack. I’d use it for grocery errands, all kinds of stuff. You don’t need special shoes, or spandex, or anything but a helmet. I could forget about a lot of the planning I have to do around showering and clothing, etc. I think I’d be on it a lot more than I’m on my road bike.

So why not get one? Well, the one I rode is about $3k. Which I don’t have to blow on a bike. They run from around 2 to 5 Gs, and we’re not talking cell phone networks. For bikes, they’re pricey. On the other hand, that’s a whole lot cheaper than a new car. And a lot more fun and environmentally friendly.

There’s a larger issue here too. Bikes like these could really get more people riding. It makes biking a lot more convenient, a lot more family friendly, and a lot less dependent on things like good showering facilities at work. Clearly, I’m excited by the possibilities. I think for that to happen, though, the prices have to come down, and the designs have to improve. The Kalkhoff is a nice looking bike overall, but it still looks like it’s got a plastic tumor stuck to the frame.

There are lots of other brands out there, and I’m going to go ride some more of them. Maybe someday I’ll take the plunge….or the plug, as it were…

Getting a new bike? Start with the tires. And don’t tread on me.

OK, so I bought the wrong bike. Once it’s back from the bike hospital, I will still love it. But it’s a racy road bike, which is generally not the best choice for commuting. I didn’t know this when I bought it two years ago. It’s kinda like that one time when you went home with the punk band drummer, woke up the next day and went… hmm. Not so smart. Actually, in my case, it’s more like we went to Vegas for a quickie wedding. But I’m committed to it now. We’re not going to Reno.

It turns out, there are a bazillion new bikes out there now that are much better suited for a rainy, dark commute. They go by various names: Commuter bikes, comfort bikes, town bikes… Plus there’s a lot of genre bleeding, with mountainish road bikes and roadish mountain bikes. I love that there are so many to pick from, but the choices are so numerous it’s paralyzing. I started to wonder how I would pick one today, and it all came down to the tires.

The Continental Gatorskin

The Continental Gatorskin

Why? Tires are the most important factors for determining the quality of your ride. It is after all… wait for it… where the rubber meets the road. So let’s talk about sizes and their implications. There are two general classes of bike tire sizes, the 700 mm diameter family, and the 26 inch diameter family. Notice that these families don’t bother to have the same measurement system. Already our families are dysfunctional.

Once you pick a family, that’s it. You can’t change, because the frame is designed around that diameter. But each family also has a second number, the width, which you have a lot more flexibility to mess with. Like so:

700×23: This is a typical tire size you see for road bikes. It refers to a 700 millimeter diameter and 23 millimeter width. This generally translates into tall, skinny, lightweight tires designed more for speed than durability or puncture protection. Which is great for racing or going on a century, but not so much if you’re hitting a lot of rain, potholes, etc.

I’ve upgraded my tires to a tougher commuter spec tire, the Continental Gatorskin, but there’s no room in my frame to go to a much fatter tire, say, a 700×28. There’s just enough clearance to fit a 700 x 25, but at that size there’s no room for full fenders.  I put a 700×25 tire on the back wheel, and even that small change made a huge difference on the rough spots and wet patches. I wish I could go bigger.

If I were buying today, I’d probably still get a road bike, because I like the riding position, but I’d get one with a lot more clearance, so I could put a 700 x 28 or even a 30 on there, and a set of full fenders as well.

The Breezer Uptown Infinity

The Breezer Uptown Infinity, with 26''x1.5'' tires

26 x 1.5: This is a typical mountain bike or commuter bike tire, smaller in diameter than a road bike tire. Yes, we have suddenly switched to English measurements instead of metric. Don’t get me started. Suffice to say that the measurements are a little inexact in either system. A 26” diameter is a good choice for a commuter bike, especially in winter. You can put a really beefy, bombproof tire on 26” wheels, for a lot more security and a smoother ride in rough conditions. Plus, your center of gravity is lower, and you’re more stable when things are slippery. Commuter bikes built for 26” wheels are generally more upright, cushier, and more casual than road bikes.

These are really broad generalizations that will vary greatly with your bike, but if speed and weight are the most important things to you, find a bike with 700mm tires, although for commuting I’d still recommend enough clearance for wider tires and fenders.

If reliability, smoothness and the security of a lower center of gravity are more important, I’d go with the 26 inchers.

The next things I’d think about are frame style, brakes and drivetrain, in that order. But that’s for future posts.

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