Tuesday, August 30, 2011

It's All About the Bike - Robert Penn

Clear warning - this is a book review.  Yeah, it's normally something you would look to the New York Times for, but until Punch calls me for a regular column you will just have to handle the intrusion into my normal stream of consciousnesses babble about bikes.

Oh damn.  Now I raised the expectation about what will be in this particular blog, which happens to be a book review.  You are now expecting some work of literary art that is a thoughtful dissertation on another work of literary effort.  I'm sorry that you will be disappointed.  Here, however, is what I thought.

I recently read "It's All About the Bike" by Robert Penn.  Bob Penn is a lifelong cyclist and author and this book is his love letter to bicycling and, more particularly, bicycles.  Penn decides that he is ready for an ultimate bike; that one bike to end all bikes that will be a culmination of his many years of riding bike after bike after bike that in some way represents a compromise.  And, he is not only going to buy and build this dream-cicle (okay, dream-cycle), he is going to take us along on the journey.  Penn is different than you and me, however, in that building his dream bike involves getting on a plane and flying to the manufacturer of each piece of his dream bike.

The book is divided into chapters about each major item on the bike and each chapter includes a bit of historical information.  As a result, it is a wonderful journey through each element of what is really a very simple and amazing machine.  The journey starts and ends with a British frame builder, Brian Rourke.  He decides on a steel frame and through each successive chapter adorns his bike with a Cinelli bars and stem, Campagnolo parts, a Chris King headset, Gravy Wheels from California, Continental Tires from Germany and a Brookes saddle.  The history that Penn recounts, whether it is the original creation of the bike, the cycling boom across the world or the first mountain bikes, he makes the history thoroughly readable and fun.  Along the way, he is a convincing advocate for the notion that the bike is a crowning achievement of mankind.  After picking up the parts and teaching us a bit of background, he finally returns to Rourke to obsess about the painting and assembly of his ultimate bike and then to proverbially ride off into the sunset.

I personally suspect that this is not his ultimate bike, or even, if you will excuse the phrase, his Penn-ultimate bike (hah!), but like all cyclists, we delude ourselves into thinking that this one time we will splurge a bit on a piece or part or frame or bike, and then we will really stop.  But, the problem with addiction is that this is how we cope with the problem.  We tell ourselves it is really just this last time and then we will stop, but who is kidding whom.  The cycle (hah!, I did it again) just continues.

For Robert Penn, he may hold off on buying or building another bike for a spell of years, but I'm quite glad that he took the time to document this particular bike.  When I heard about this book, I was mildly interested in it, but might not have purchased it unless I ran across it at Aunties or Powells on a rainy day when my checkbook wasn't full of zeroes.  I was, however, lucky to have received it as a gift as I enjoyed it much more than I thought I might.  Penn's title is an obvious reference to Lance Armstrong's eponymous book and it points out that while it may not be all about the bike for the world's most famous bike rider, for a lot of us who are cycling crazed, it is about the bike.  And getting to build up your own bike piece by piece, without regard for price and without compromise, would be a dream process for most of us.

Until you can take that journey yourself, I would suggest you enjoy Robert Penn's.

Friday, August 26, 2011

I was just riding along and . . .

The worst words in a bike mechanic's life are, "I was just riding along and . . ."  This is usually followed by a tale of innocence that somehow results in a tangled mass of broken bike parts that is assuredly covered by warranty or it's the mechanics fault and therefore a shop expense.  These would be funny except for the deadly serious approach by said innocent customer.

Former VeloNews editor Charles Pelkey was recently "just riding along" when he ended up a mass of broken parts himself.  Before July 27, he was a well-respected journalist working for a major cycling publication.  After July 27, his position at VeloNews had been eliminated and he was diagnosed with cancer.

As a writer and editor at VeloNews, I was quite aware of three particular job duties he had.  He is, in addition to a journalist, a fellow attorney and was writing a column called "The Explainer".  It is an unfortunate side-effect of our current society that all sports involves an extraordinary amount of legal wrangling and cycling is no different.  Charles would wear his lawyer's hat, use his cyclist perspective and then come up with an explanation of the legal processes surrounding doping cases or other courtroom matters that the man-on-the-street could understand and appreciate.  It was a voice of sanity and much appreciated, even by those who understood the legal process.

Charles next specialty was live-blogging for races.  I have gotten up many an early morning to read the minute-by-minute report of races in Europe which Charles was providing by watching a live feed of the race and reporting the action online.  It is surprising how live and how real the action is when you are reading it, but it absolutely takes you onto the road where you live the attacks and counter attacks in your mind's eye, and then feel like you are there for the final rush to the line.  It is just as exciting to read it line by line as see it on TV, and often for our beloved one-day races that is not an option.  I confess to also using these feeds to supplement my desk-bound attention to these races from my office and they are a great way to keep up but not have you slack-jawed staring at a TV or video feed during the grand tours.  Luckily for us, Mr. Pelkey has  taken this skill with him on the road and is now reporting on races from LiveUpdateGuy.com.  His coverage of the Vuelta today was supplemented by ESPN's Bonnie Ford and Mad Dog Media's Patrick O'Grady (creator of the "Old Guys who get Fat in the Winter" cartoons, among much else).  It was by far the fastest way to know about Tyler Farrar's crash.  Oh, you didn't know about his crash today?  You should have been tuned in.

Charles' last specialty, of which I was aware at least, was the jovial and kind-hearted rejection of amateur bloggers who want to step into the limelight.  Yes, I was one of said bloggers who contacted Mr. Pelkey to offer my services.  I thought that VeloNews wouldn't have realized that they needed the cycling tales of an overweight 40-something enthusiast, but that if they would just take a look at this plucky star-in-training, it would be a match made in heaven.  I would speak directly to their primary readership, that is made up of other overweight 40-something enthusiasts who want more and better equipment, more time to ride and more time to contemplate our collective obsession.  Alas, it was not to be, but Charles couldn't have been pleasanter about it.

As a result of these specialties, I was mightily sorry to find out that not only had Charles been dispatched by VN, but that he was facing surgery and chemo treatment along with the impending end to his medical insurance.  It's a cold world sometimes. 

Thankfully for Mr. Pelkey, he has friends and resources and, just for good measure, he has a ChipIn account from NY Velocity.  He has asked people to hold up on donations for now, but just in a case, here is the link - Pelkey ChipIn

And lastly, just so you know there is some humor in this dark story, here is a Twitter exchange between Mr. Pelkey and someone well known for his work in cancer, Mr. Armstrong - http://twitpic.com/5xzbyo.

So there I was, just riding along when . . .

Best of luck to Charles Pelkey on the road ahead.  Along the way, be sure to stop by for live updates of bike racing at LiveUpdateGuy.com.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Change Up

The original purpose of this blog was to chronicle the building and riding of single speed bikes for me and my two boys.  It was inevitable that the topics expanded because Steve's On Cannon Street isn't devoted to single speed bikes and my own riding involves a small fleet of bikes intended for other purposes.  Upon retrospective review, however, it becomes obvious that shortly after the single speed bikes were completed this spring, that we stopped writing about them much.  There are a couple of reasons for this, but the unavoidable truth is that we haven't ridden them as much as I was hoping.

I have been known to say that my favorite ride is the one that starts at my front door.  I enjoy getting on any of my bikes and heading out and about in Spokane and its environs.  From my house I have pretty quick access to the west plains areas towards Cheney, access to the south including Spangle/Rosalia/Steptoe Butte, access to the Centennial Trail to get me east, and convenient access to the lower South Hill bluff trails.  As a result, long, short and/or dirt rides are all pretty convenient.  The one problem with dirt, however, is that I start at the bottom of the bluff trails and there is no where to go but up.  And, being trails that have developed a bit organically, all of the options in our area are quite steep and reasonably inhospitable, particularly for single speeds.

As a result of this confluence of circumstances, when it was time to grab the single speed bikes for quick jaunts, it meant getting to the bottom of a steep hill and . . . well, usually walking the bikes or, alternatively, struggling mightily.  If you happen to be wired so that you think that greater the struggle, the greater the fun you must be having, then this was all right.  On the other hand, if you are a reasonable-minded young rider, you might see this as not great fun.  And having "not fun" is not a good way to feel like grabbing the single speed bike and hitting the trail.  This leads to fewer rides and, somewhat perversely, it also meant that I felt guilty about taking my own single speed out when I knew that the kids would want to come along and then I knew it wasn't going to be a barrel of laughs for one or more of them.

So, as a birthday gift giving occasion arose recently, we made the decision to convert one of the single speed bikes into a 1 x 9 to improve the "fun" factor for said rider.  For those of you not hip to the lingo, this means adding 9 gears to the rear of the bike and leaving the single chain ring in front.  It adds flexibility to the set-up and still tries to hew to the ideal of simplicity by not adding what it not needed.  1x9 and 1x10 bikes are a niche within the niche of single speeds, but it makes a lot of sense.  In my own riding, for instance on any paved section, I long for a bit more gear to get my speed up.  I've been pretty happy on the dirt with my one speed, but getting to and fro the limitation of one speed becomes apparent.

The bottom line is that cycling should be fun and certainly riding with my boys should be fun.  I'm hoping that the conversion from 1x1 to 1x9 will add a serious chunk of fun and flexibility to the riding and we will have more tales to tell as a result.  Stay tuned for further results.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Cool Stuff

When I saw that there was another Danny MacAskill video I thought, "That dude was very amazing, but why would you watch a 3rd or 5th or 20th video from that guy?"  But, of course, I clicked on the button because I was curious.  I was curious about where the video was shot and what might be different to grab attention.  I then sat slack-jawed at my computer for almost five minutes because that guy isn't amazing, he is freekin-incredibi-mazing.  I can't fathom stuff this guy does, even after watching it.  How is he not a mass of broken bones and hard-earned lessons?  I don't know. 

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Getting Dropped

I know, for sure, that I'm not in very good cycling shape.  I would venture a guess that while most people out on the road are in August-shape, I'm more in April-shape.  You know what it feels like to occasionally feel good pushing the pedals, but you know you really don't have much depth of fitness or speed?  Whether you do or don't, that is where I am.  Too much time between rides, too many one to two week breaks, too much beer (or gin or tequila or wine or vodka - well, anyway, you get the point) and the end result is that you can be pedaling around in August with April fitness.  But knowing that on a rational level didn't stop me from going out for the Morning Ride today.  And really, that was stupid.

It wasn't a brilliant beginning when I didn't get to the start on time.  I saw the group way down the road and started after them.  It took about 2.5 miles of me going "fast" and them dawdling along, but I managed to catch them a few blocks before the drop down Waneta onto the Palouse Highway.  And then . . . something happened that I don't ever recall happening before.  I got dropped going downhill.  Not panicking, I picked up my speed and caught the tail of the group just as the hill up to Baltimore started.  Bad timing for me.  I got dropped again.  Hard.

How hard did I get dropped, you ask?

I was so far back that some guys in the group thought about leaving gel pack and water provisions along the road so I could find my way.

I was so far back that Tim Pawlenty felt bad for me.

I was so slow that a boy scout offered to help me across the street.

I was so bad off that even the Spokane Police Department deemed that I wasn't a threat.

I was so far behind I got worried about getting lapped.

I was so far behind that when I got back to Hatch Road, I immediately headed up to try to be on time for Wednesday's ride.

I was so weak that Jens Voigt called me and said I was never allowed to say his name again.

I was so slow that a couple of moms with strollers passed me on High Drive yelling "biker up!"

It was so bad off that a Sheriff pulled me over and ticketed me for impersonating a bike rider.

I was so slow that when I checked to see if my brake was rubbing, the brake actually laughed at me.

I was so far behind that Tom Wessels felt bad about making fun of me.  Sure, he did it anyway, but he felt bad.

I was so far behind that Alberto Contador called me to offer me some of his beef.

I was so slow that I went to the physical therapist to see if there was something wrong and they told me that if I was really diligent with my therapy that in a few months I could buy a bike and use it to get some exercise.

That sounds like a great idea.  I will do that and catch up with you in the Spring, when we all be in April shape again.

Friday, August 12, 2011

Getting Caught

Went for a ride the other day.  That is remarkable enough in a summer when that seems to rarely happen, but something else happened along the way - I got caught.

What do I mean by that?  I mean that another rider that I had passed caught up to me.  Not in a race (not literally), but just out on the trails.  There are times or places that this is a regular occurrence and not noteworthy.  And it definitely isn't that I am that strong or fast.  But the combination of riding lots of empty roads, riding with groups that move along reasonably quickly, and, once in a while, being strong enough to pedal a bike quickly, means that it has been a long time since I have been caught by someone from behind.

And, I am here to say . . . it bothered me.

It shouldn't have.  There is no rationale reason for it to bother me whatever the circumstances.  And the fact that there was a strong headwind on an exposed trail and I was riding my commuter bike and my commuter bike has lights and fenders and giant wind-catching panniers and I was tired from riding a couple of days in a row and . . .

See, it does bother me.  I should be a tad relieved because I had passed a rather elderly woman on a mountain bike and the first time I looked back I thought she was catching back up to me, so I guess I should be glad that it was a fit guy within a decade of my age (yes, he appeared older) on a mid-level carbon Trek rather than an ancient woman on a mountain bike, but still.

When I ride I don't normally look behind or worry about it, but in this case my heart rate was pegging over and over and I was getting tired and I was getting close to the trailhead and I had passed 15 people and for some reason I looked over my shoulder and noticed someone getting inexorably closer.  I finally gave up the effort and slowed because I just didn't have the last 1 - 1.5 miles in my legs.  I suppose the reality is that if I had dug in at a slower pace I still might have made it to the trailhead or a lot closer, but I threw in the towel and he closed the gap.  That was when he graciously said that he had been working for 6 miles to catch me and he had struggled to catch me and I replied by starting to list my excuses for why I wasn't going faster.  Yeah, not a proud moment in retrospect.  I should have just said, "nice work" (which I did, by the way, just in the midst of other stuff), and left it at that.

I will do that next time.  I just hope it is a really long time until it happens again.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Mind Shifting

I thought that when I got an e-mail about this, that it was a joke or hoax, but this article and brief video is actually about a bike that is designed to shift electronically, just with your brain waves.  Seriously.  Is that a good idea?  I don't know, but it is cool that someone is thinking about it, even if it seems useless and wasteful today.


Monday, August 8, 2011

Tour de France

I can't help myself.  I am still wondering on weekend mornings why I can't watch the Tour de France.

I hope there is decent coverage of the Tour of Utah and the Tour of Colorado, which for some reason they are calling the Pro USA Cycling Something-or-other.  It may not be a 100-proof fix, but hopefully for a junkie like me it will be enough.

In the meantime, I started reading David Miller's autobiography to help me with the transition.  Look for a review coming someday.

Also, if I had been a real man, I would be posting a review of the Midnight Century right now, but there was no way I had 100 miles in my legs, much less 100 miles of up/down/up/down/gravel/gravel/gravel in them, all in the midst of the night.  Good night for it though.  I hope next year.

Friday, August 5, 2011

Mr. Millimeter

I was thinking about small things recently.  Not nano small, but reasonably small, like millimeter small.  In fact, not just "like" millimeter small, but exactly millimeters.

A number of years ago, I was building or changing some bike and Steve recommended a "new" saddle from Selle Italia that he thought might be a good seat for me.  Unfortunately, there isn't a great way to figure out what is a good seat and what is not a good seat for any one person except by riding on it.  It is my experience that a few seats you will hate within minutes.  Others are comfortable to start, but after an hour or so, you start to realize ways that the seat doesn't agree with your particular particulars.  And, once in a while, you find a seat that is comfortable for hours and hours and hours.  Or at least as comfortable as any seat can be for that duration.  When you find that seat, you don't really want to consider riding anything else.  Which explains why top level pro riders have been known to ride a specific saddle for years, even decades, after the model isn't produced anymore.

For me, that seat is a Selle Italia Gel Flow seat, but what I didn't realize when I ordered my last seat is that Selle Italia makes somewhere between 5 and 37 models that are Gel Flow seats, but they aren't a specific line or part of the line, the name just appears within other line-ups or groups.  As a result, you can order a seat that appears to be exactly what you looking for and have it not be right.  And, in fact, I ordered the wrong seat and it wasn't until riding it that I realized that it was not quite that loving feeling that I remembered.  Being a somewhat picky dude, I thought it was a good idea to figure out which seat I wanted, which is what lead to the discovery not only of the full extent of the Selle Italia line-up, which includes 142,921 different models each year, but that they only have about a dozen names that they mix-up and rearrange to create the model names.  I think that the "Selle Italia Gel Flow Pro Link" and the "Selle Italia Pro Link Gel Flow" may actually be different models, although honestly I can't tell for sure.  But what I do know for sure is that the gel flow seat I got is about 14 millimeters more narrow than the gel flow seat that I wanted.

I have a buddy I call "Mr. Millimeter" because he pays attention to the exact and perfect measurement of his cycling gear.  He has been known to adjust the seat of his bike to take into account the thickness of his socks, so when I say he is exact, I mean he is really exact.  I, on the other hand, am more likely to lick my finger, stick in the wind, bang on the seat or seat post so it moves one way or the other and then call it good.  Mind you, the finger licking has nothing to do with the adjustment, but lacking any other measuring device, I use what I have.

In this case, however, I find that 14 millimeters does really make a difference.  Keep in mind that 14 millimeters is only 1.4 centimeters.  It is less than the width of my thumb and, in fact, it is even less than the width of my pinky.  And, I should hasten to add, my ass is dramatically wider than either my thumb or my pinky.  As a result, it seems funny that a seat that is 130 millimeters wide is too small to be comfortable beyond an hour or two, but one that is 144 millimeters will take me from Seattle to Portland in a day, or along the Tour of Pain route in a day, or where ever, with nary a complaint.  I admit I am surprised, but it is the case.

I don't think I will start measuring the thickness of my socks, but I will at least consider it the next time a discussion of stack heights and stem lengths comes around.

Wednesday, August 3, 2011


Yes.  Yes I did ride my bike.  I didn't get out for the regionally famous Morning Ride, because I just don't have the fitness to hang on there, but I did ride to work.  Hey, a guy's gotta start somewhere, right?

And since Monday, I have actually managed to get on my bike more than once.  Heck, riding to work and home again 10 hours later should count as two rides, right?  And then I got out for a wee tiny single speed ride with the boys, so that definitely counts. 

This could be the start of something great.

Monday, August 1, 2011


I don't what time you will be reading this, but at the time it comes alive on the interwebs, I hope I already have a ride in on Monday morning.  For a bike rider that wouldn't be an unusual occurrence, but I am having a hard time considering myself a cyclist right now.  Sure, I'm a cycling fan, because the month of July involved watching approximately 170 hours of Tour de France coverage (yes, it does take me longer to watch it than it takes even the slowest guy to ride it - who, by the way, was Fabio Sabatini - who rode the course 4 hours slower than Cadel Evans - in about 90 hours; which now that I check is not bad for 2,130 miles - in other words the last place guy covered the miles in an average of 23.7 mph)(Cadel did it in 24.7 mph).  Anyway, I seem to have lost my point.  Although it does raise another question in my mind.

You know how the major cycling sites have pictorials of various bikes during the Tour?  They highlight interesting bikes, bikes with custom bits, etc.  And, they usually feature the bikes from the leaders and stage winners.  Did you notice that there were no features on Cadel Evan's bike?  Pictures of his new high zoot time trial bike, yes, but nada on his BMC Team Machine.  I think they are cool and would like to know more about them, but I guess they didn't get much coverage because they are ready to focus their marketing time on the new Impec, which was ready enough to be painted yellow, but not ready enough for Cadel to ride it from start to finish.

Anyway, I seem to have lost my way again, but I wasn't going to talk about pro racing, even though Phillipe Gilbert probably deserves another shout out.  No, I was going to talk about my personal riding, which has been sparse so far this summer and particularly this July.  So, yes, it is time to get back in the saddle and get to it.  I hope to get out for an early ride on Monday (accomplished by now?) and report back later.