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…


Get fit: the slow and arduous way!

A rare bit of sun on the trail this week

Bright thing in sky! What is it?

It has not been an easy two weeks to be persistent about cycling. Slushy rain, crazy wind, one day with gusts up to 40 mph. I gave up half way that day, and jumped on a bus. But I had second thoughts. The bus took twice as long.

This evening, with a steady freezing rain and hardly any wind, seemed like a relative walk in the park.

But I am training for the Seattle to Portland ride in July, and I’m never going to get there if I let a little windy rain stop me. I logged 72 miles of riding this week, eight short of my training schedule. Next week I need to hit 100.

Yes, I know I sound a little nuts. I get lots of “You’re crazy,” or, “You’re going to ride home? Today?” But I have gotten to insanity slowly, bit by bit. First I rode a few times a month. Then a few times a week, usually half of my commute by bike, half by bus. Now I’m riding every day, going the entire route from Redmond to Seattle about half the time. I’m adding miles every week.

During my gradual ramp-up, I’ve learned the routes, I’ve learned more about my bike, I’ve learned to match my clothes to the weather, and I’ve learned how to be safer (Blinkies, Wayne!). And I’m in much better condition. I still have a long way to go on the fitness front, but I know how I’m going to get there. And it’ll be slow going, just like it has been up to now.

I’m a reverse infomercial: Get fit slow! Take forever to lose weight! Let’s see where you are in two years! But I figure gradual change has a better chance of sticking. I take a very long term view, i.e., what’s important is reversing trends. I was probably gaining about two pounds a year. Not much, but add that up over five years, or 10. Not pretty. If I reversed that trend, I’d be back to college weight in 10 years. Not that I really want to be that skinny again, but you get the point.

It’s worked so far, about 9 months into the plan. I let you know if it really worked in about two more years. Maybe three. In the meantime, if you want to let me know what’s working for you, chime in…

Chilly, hilly and kinda thrilly

On the ferry for the Chilly Hilly bike ride

For the Chilly Hilly on Bainbridge Island, you take a ferry with a few thousand other folks

Last weekend was my first test to see if all the commuting over the winter had paid off with better fitness. It was the first big ride of the season, the Chilly Hilly ride around Bainbridge Island in the Puget Sound. It’s not a really long ride, around 33 miles, but it is as advertised, both chilly and hilly, with about 2600 feet of climbing. This year was the coldest so far, with temps hovering around the freezing point, and spurts of rain and even snow flurries. Can I get some fries with that?

My friend Erwin got me into this ride a few years ago, and I did the first one with no training and a mountain bike with knobby tires. Not intelligent. It killed me. Even though we took a shortcut and sliced off the last 10 miles. The next year was a little better, I put slicks on the mountain bike and rode the whole way, but one of the last hills on the ride broke me. I was emotionally bankrupt just from looking up at the bottom of the hill. I made it up, but barely.

Last year I upgraded to the road bike, and did it much faster, much better, but still found myself huffing and puffing on the hills, getting encouragement from people who were at least twenty years older. Better, but still embarrassing. “Keep at it sonny, you’ll make it…”

I finished the ride, and plopped down on a curb at the finish next to a guy with a high-end race bike, who looked just as exhausted as me. “Man,” I said, “that really wiped me out.”

“Yeah, me too,” he said. “I was going to go around the course three times, but I had to stop at two.”

So yes, he had done 66 miles in the time it had taken me to do 33. Nice!

This year, well, I can say there was some improvement. I think I could have beat that racer dude. And by “beat” I mean I could have finished one lap before he finished two. Maybe.

The hills didn’t seem so bad this year, nothing much worse than what I handle on the daily commute back up Mt. Ballard. Still some huffing and puffing, but not that kind of, “Oh god who took the air I’m rolling backwards look out below” kind of huffing. I think my general philosophy is paying off, which is that a lot of little rides builds up your fitness much more effectively than a long ride, uh, once a month. Maybe.

Yes, I need to do some more work, more training. I have my sights set on the STP (Seattle to Portland) ride this summer, which is two days, 100 miles each day. My lofty goal is… to finish.

And I’ve got a little more motivation now. The second car just died. RIP, off to car heaven. And I don’t want to get another one. More on that later…




Learning to track yourself is the greatest data of all….

After years of putting up with a stupid phone, I finally sprang for a smart one. I know, we try to help the less fortunate among us, but this phone was hopeless. It did none of the things we expect of a phone today, no wonder-evoking apps, no effortless, magical interface. It’s interface was a couple of cracked buttons scotch taped on it. The one thing it did rather well, ironically, was make calls.

I went from a problem child to a teacher’s pet. The new phone does some amazing things, like keeping me too distracted tracking GPS-enabled bus arrivals to notice the bus pulling up in front of my face. It also tracks cycling rides.

I’m experimenting with two apps for Windows Phone 7, RunSat and Workout Tracker.

They’re both pretty cool, and they both track your progress through GPS. With both apps, you hit the start button, put the phone in sleep mode and get going. Here’s a breakdown:


Price: Free and$2.99

Data: Distance, time, Avg. Speed, Lap times

Cool feature: It also maps your progress, so you can see exactly where you went on a bing map. For a daily commute it’s not that big a deal, but I could see this being really great for a weekend ramble or an organized group ride.

Workout Tracker

Price: Free trial and 99 cents

Data: Current speed, average speed, max speed, distance

Cool feature: It tracks altitude, and shows you total feet climbed and descended.

Verdict: Workout Tracker. I like the extra data it gives, although the one thing I wish it did have is the mapping.

Why keep the data? Personally, it’s just fun to know what you did. A little sobering though, I don’t go as far or as fast as I thought. I’m hitting about 14 mph avg speed, including traffic light stops, and maxing out at about 30 on the downhills. I thought I was averaging about 18 mph. But hey, now I know what I’m shooting for. For commuting, again this is not a big deal, overall time is more important, and you can get that from your watch. But I intend to go on some extended rides this summer, including my first century. If I’m going to be in shape for that, I need to track my progress. Nice to be able to just push a button and have that done for you….

The sun also rises

View from the Montlake Bridge, 7:25 a.m.

Aunty Em? Is that you?

The view from a rainy commute

This morning, when I shot this pic from the trail, the rain was light, barely a problem. Tonight, oy.

Some days on the bike trail call for an additional measure of stubbornness. Like today, when the rain was blowing sideways and the head/side wind was gusting at up to around 35 mph. I felt like a character in one of those stop-motion animation films where the Greek God of Nastiness appears in the form of a tower of swirling rain and wind and tries to swat me off my bike with his water hand.

Clearly, I need to sacrifice more goats if I’m going to keep up this commuting thing. Or maybe just one goat. Go away and be appeased, Greek God of Nastiness!

Normally, I like riding in the rain. Today, not so much. But in a typical Seattle drizzle, I like the feel of the water droplets hitting my face, and the sound of the tires whooshing through the wet pavement. Rain also thins out the crowds on the trail; only we who are stubborn remain.

True, riding in the wet is a little riskier, but here are the things I do to keep safe and dry. Even when the GGON appears.

1. Slow down. I ride about 20 percent slower. Brakes don’t work as well in the wet. Same is true for everybody else’s brakes. Visibility sucks. Slow down.

2. Wear a visor. Even those tiny, 2-inch visors that come with most  bike helmets really keep a lot of rain from hitting your eyes/and or glasses.

3. Keep your blinkies on, even in broad daylight. You know how I love the blinkies.

4. Give others plenty of room, and don’t pass them in tight turns. They might slip. You might slip. Badness will ensue.

5. Assume invisibility. I always assume that that cars/other cyclists/dogs and whatever else don’t see me until they prove otherwise. I say always, but today I assumed a driver slowing down for a stop sign also saw me coming through. She didn’t. Not too close of a call, but I’m sorry I broke my rule.

Tonight I stopped to buy chocolate, and during the 15 minutes I was in there a huge, biblical storm swelled up out of nowhere. So my sixth tip is, don’t buy chocolate in the rain. Not unless you’ve already sacrificed a goat.


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…

Light up your smile!


Japanese school girls with LED teeth
Japanese school girls, once again on the cutting edge of bike tech.

Cyclotopia is a big fan of wearing all kinds of blinkies. But sticking them in your teeth might be going just a little too far. On the other hand, it does encourage you to smile at people on the bike path. Or scare the hell out of them. Check out this NYTimes blog post…

Clowns to the left of me, bikers to the right

Must... get... to... work...

Must... get... to... work...

The back-up Trek is a bomber, a heavy, lumbering thing with balloonish tires that meander down the road like a float in the Macy’s day parade. Riding it, I feel like a giant, inflatable cartoon character, loosely tied to my vehicle by ephemeral strings and bamboo poles. I can practically see the clown cars passing beneath me.

But all those absorbent qualities also suck up road imperfections and noise. It’s a smooooth ride, blissfully silent save for the almost reverent whirring of the gears. The silence is especially impressive in the dark of the early morning, when sounds are so close that my breath drowns out everything else. In the damp dark, with my lights trained ahead, I almost feel like an invader, a kid cutting through a fresh field of black snow. But I don’t leave a trail. The dark swallows up any trace of me.

In the course of my ride the day starts, headlights retreat to pinpoints and the surroundings emerge. Other people emerge too, converging on the path and bringing edges of reality with them. Their tribes are evident on the path, the fixie tribe, the blinky people, the students, the athletes, the greasers, the soces. I float by them, pulled by my invisible clown car, on my way for the bus and the bridge and the highway and the office to swallow me up and deposit me into my worker tribe.

The clown car will have to wait outside.

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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