Sunday, June 24, 2012

Too Many Choices

"The Paradox of Choice - Why More Is Less" is a 2004 book by American psychologist Barry Schwartz. In the book, Schwartz argues that eliminating consumer choices can greatly reduce anxiety for shoppers. (This same issue was first proposed by José Ortega y Gasset in Chapter 4 of his book "The Revolt of the Masses.") In 2010, when I decided to purchase new bicycles for my wife and I, the number of choices was overwhelming.

In the 1960's and 1970's, there were relatively few bicycle choices we knew about.  There were cheap 10 speeds for $100 and expensive 10 speeds for $200.  Although there certainly were some outliers, cheap Schwinn 10 speeds being a major one, and there certainly was some variation possible, 15 speeds instead of 10 speeds being an example, and there were custom bikes like my Hetchins, but nonetheless the choices available at our local bike shop were limited. Now, the choices seem endless.  Carbon Fiber, aluminum, titanium or steel frame? Racing bike, endurance bike, sport road bike, cyclocross bike, or touring bike?  700c, 650b or 26 inch wheels?  How many spokes per wheel?  Normal trail or low trail?  Shimano, SRAM, or Campagnolo components?  Rim or disk brakes?  The list goes on, and this list completely ignores whole categories of bikes such as mountain bikes, hybrid bikes, and urban bikes.

Besides too many choices, another problem was that I had to completely relearn about bicycles.  I had worked in a bike shop in the 1960s and had done all the maintenance and repairs on my own bike, so I thought I was something of an expert.  However, I had never heard of aluminum or carbon fibre frames, I racked my brain trying to figure out what "threadless headset" meant, and once I did, I continued racking my brains trying how one adjusts the height of the handlebars.  These and index shifters, sealed bearings, foldable tires, and clipless pedals are but a few of the things which didn't exist in the 1960s.

The modern stem on the threadless headset of my 2010 Surly.  To adjust the height of the handlebars, you move the spacers, the three dull and two shiny disks, above or below the stem.  In this picture, the handlebars are as high as they can go.  To increase the maximum height of the handlebars you replace the fork.  Many of us consider this innovation a step backwards.

The quill stem on my 1960's Bianchi.  To adjust the height of the handlebars, you loosen the nut at the top of the step, reposition the stem, and tighten.  If you have raised the stem as high as it will go and wish the handlebars to be higher, you replace the stem.

Even after I spent what seems like endless hours learning about the enormous array of choices in this brave new world of cycling, there seems to be questions for which I cannot find the answer.  Let's take a relatively simple example; what is the difference between a Surly Pacer, a Surly Cross Check, and a Surly Long Haul Trucker?  I pick these because they are all from the same vendor, and the vendor seems to me to be relatively forthcoming.  The vendor is quite clear as to their opinion of what each of the bikes should be used for.  The Pacer: "It is a road bike ... using frame geometry that makes it fast and efficient like a road bike should be, but it is not a racing bike.  This is a frame meant for all day rides."  The Cross Check: "This isn’t a touring bike per se, but it will handle lighter touring loads, and a front rack can make that easier...It does as good a job getting you across the country as it does getting you across town."  The Long Haul Trucker: "Its low bottom bracket and long chainstays provide comfort and stability...The frame’s tubing is thicker-walled and larger-diameter than standard road and sport-touring frames, and this pre-tunes it for the weight of cargo." That's great, but does the fact that the Cross Check "will handle lighter touring loads" imply that it has thicker tubing than a Pacer? How do either of these compare to a Soma Smoothy or a Rivendell Rodeo? I have seen tube thickness specified for a few high end semi-custom or custom frames, but have had no luck finding that out for the vast majority of frames.

Finally, I cannot help but notice that bicycles have gotten expensive. Back in the 1960's, a middle level "10 speed" cost about $100 and the bike that just won the Tour de France cost about $200. Correcting for inflation, this corresponds to about $650 and $1,300 today. Because of the wider range of choices, it is hard to say precisely what a mid level road bike corresponds to, but such bikes start at close to $1000 at the low end and go up to well over $2,000, and if you want the same bike just used to win the Tour de France, count on spending in the range of $10,000.

Don't get me wrong, I love modern bikes and relish the larger number of choices available. Some days I feel like today's bicycle manufacturers read my mind back in 1965 and are just now managing to grant all my wishes. I find the process of wading through all the opinions, marketing hype, and misinformation to figure out what's true great entertainment. I just feel like there are no easy answers, that the search for perfection is hopeless and can be a barrier to enjoying an imperfect but nonetheless glorious bicycle, and that there is no substitute for trying lots of different bikes.

Monday, June 18, 2012

Racing with the Roadmen

The Modesto Roadmen are the three riders with the vertical stripes on their jerseys to the left of the picture
I firmly believe that humor plays a crucial role in communication, allowing us to express things that are too sensitive or too nuanced to express in straight, literal language.  That is why I am a fan of Bike Snob NYC.  Not only is he funny and entertaining, but integrally mixed with his entertainment are important truths.  That is why I would like to begin this post with the following quote from Bike Snob NYC's June 4 column:
"Sure, I was never a very good racer.  In fact, I'm like a call on an iPhone, in that I get dropped pretty much every time.  Nevertheless, I have been riding bikes for awhile, and there's one thing I've learned over the years, which is this: If you're not getting results, it's because you suck.  And when you suck, you suck."

When it came to The Modesto Roadmen and racing, we sucked. If any of the surviving Roadmen wish to dispute this, more power to them, but that is my memory and I certainly sucked.  So, if we sucked, why race?  Because it is fun, even if you lose all the time.  I assume most of you know what I am talking about, and in fact are wondering why I felt it necessary to even discuss the issue, but if you don't, you will just have to trust me because it is not rational and it cannot be explained.  It's why people who have no reason to, purchase racing bikes, sometimes paying a lot to get the same model of bike that just won the Tour de France, even when it is not even vaguely practical for how they ride.  The thrill of racing to work at about 50% the speed of the Tour peloton on your racing bike fully justifies the expense, the ruined clothes, and the aching back.  What the Modesto Roadmen were brilliant at was slowly riding all day, day after day, up and down major mountain ranges, carrying everything we needed on our bikes.  What our bikes were designed for was racing.  And, besides touring on racing bikes, about once a month or so we would twist the arms of one or more of our parents to drive us to one of the Amateur Bicycle League of America sanctioned road races in Northern California.

Back in the 1960's, bicycle racing in the United States was a much smaller enterprise than it is today.  As a result, everyone had the opportunity to race against members of the U.S. Olympic Cycling Team.  Robert Tetzlaff, a member of the U.S. Olympic Road Racing Team in 1960, was also a great human being and in particular, befriended the Modesto Roadmen, helping us organize as a club and gain ABLofA certification.  We didn't actually race against Bob Tetzlaff (or against other members of the U.S. Olympic Team) because we were a young club.  We all raced in the under-18 "Junior" category.

One of our favorite races, a race still popular today, was the Tour of Nevada City.

One of the Modesto Roadmen competing in the Tour of Nevada City

Races were sponsored by local clubs who did all the organization and hit up local merchants for the prizes.  The Modesto Roadmen sponsored a criterium, "The Tour of Graceada", which was quite successful and of which we are very proud.

Sunday, June 10, 2012

My Bikes

Pre-zombie Cyclist on his First Bicycle

Schwinn Continental  (ca. 1962 - 1964)

My first road bike.  This was a fancied up version of the widely popular Schwinn Varsity.  I started doing 25 to 50 mile day rides on this bike back in the early 1960's.  I can't find any pictures of this bike, but Tom Findley has assembled a nice collection of Schwinn catalogues where you can see what it looked like.  It had the proprietary Schwinn electroforged frame which was heavy and unresponsive.  Although I should be grateful to this bike for having gotten me started, I confess I don't miss it much.  I sold this bike to purchase my Peugeot PX10.

Peugeot PX10 (ca. 1964 - 1967)

Not a great picture of the PX10, but check out the helmet on proto-zombie!
To this day I love this bike!  It was equipped with sew up tires and an interesting mixture of mostly high end mostly French components - Normandy hubs, TA cranks, and a Simplex Prestige derailleur.  The Simplex derailleur gets mixed reviews, but I have always liked it and it is very light.  My PX10 also featured Reynolds 531 "double butted tubes, forks, and stays" and a Brooks Professional saddle.  It was much lighter than my friends' Italian bikes.  To my lifelong regret, I sold this bike to buy my Hetchins.

Hetchins (ca. 1967 - 1968)

Hetchins Mountain King Touring Bicycle
Between High School and College I spent the summer bicycling through Europe with the American Youth Hostels.  I knew I would need to carry more than we did on our week long trips during the rain-free summers of California, so I decided I needed a touring bike, which my parents paid for as a present with the understanding that I sell my PX10 to help cover the cost.  Through the Cupertino Bike Shop I found out about a custom builder in England where my trip started, a Mr. Hetchins.  Working with the shop owner, Spence Wolf, I requested a custom manufactured bicycle that would be appropriate for touring but that I could be use as a racing bike when I brought it home.  Hetchins (or Hetchin's) bikes are thought to be among the finest ever made and have acquired a cult-like status, but from the git-go, I hated mine and sold it at the first opportunity.  Mr. Hetchins was a very nice man and gave me exactly what I asked for, but this bike always felt slow to me.  Fortunately, the person to whom I sold it wanted it very much and loved it dearly, so perhaps all's well that ends well.  Going back over the very interesting specifications for this bicycle in order to write this blog I think this is precisely the bike I would want today!  So why didn't I love it?  All I can figure was that "back in the day" I wasn't ready for a touring bike.  You probably can't see it because the picture is too small, but this bike has an unusual rear derailleur and a front "granny gear".  The derailleur is a customized Campagnolo Record manufactured at Cupertino Bike Shop to allow it to handle the granny gear, an innovation years ahead of its time. Very unusual for a touring bike, my Hetchins had sew-up tires.  This distressed Mr. Hetchins greatly, and in retrospect, I think he was right.  I paid $220.50 for the bicycle and supplied my own saddle (the Brooks from my PX10.)  I sold this bike to buy a Bianchi Specialissima.

Bianchi Specialissima (1968 - 1970)

This is what we called loaded touring "back in the day"
The Bianchi Specialissima was the go-to racing bike for the Modesto Roadmen.  It was competitively priced, it felt fast, it had all Campagnolo Record components, Columbus double-butted tubing, and in general, all the right stuff.  Unfortunately, like many college bikes, it was stolen.

Fixie (1970)

While looking for a replacement for my stolen Bianchi, I went into Velo Sport Bike Shop and they had a fixed gear bike outfitted for the road for sale for a very reasonable price.  We had read about fixies and their popularity in Great Britain, and experimented with them a bit, but this was my first, dedicated fixie.  In 1970.  Take that, hipsters!  It lasted a week before being stolen.

Bianchi Specialissima (1970 - Present)

Bianchi Specialissima with clincher wheels and clipless pedals
The epidemic of bike thefts had depleted my finances, so when I saw a used Bianchi Specialissima in good condition at Velo Sport, I grabbed it.  This time, I kept it IN my apartment, so it didn't get stolen, but the dirt it left on the carpeting resulted in the loss of my security deposit.  The only downside to this bike was the Campagnolo Gran Sport derailleurs instead of the more usual Record, and fairly narrow gears.  In 1971, I was planning a bike trip from Boston to Montreal, and decided to rectify the gear situation by replacing the 14-22 rear cluster with a 14-26, the maximum my Gran Sport derailleurs could handle.  In the process, I purchased the wrong cluster, ruined the rear hub trying to put it on, and got yelled at by Sheldon Brown himself, who built me a new wheel.  In 2010, frustrated with the tubular tires, I (temporarily) replaced Campagnolo/tubular wheels with no-name/clincher wheels.  I also replace the Campagnolo pedals with inexpensive SPD compatibles.  Honestly, I am torn as to what to do.  On the one hand, I feel like my poor Bianchi is now disgraced and I want to restore her to her former glory.  On the other hand, she rides really well, and I am tempted to replace the Campagnolo rear derailleur with a Sun Tour I have that would allow me to put a 14-32 tooth cluster on her, making the gear range marginally suitable for randonneuring.

Surly Crosscheck (2010 - Present)

Surly Crosscheck with 28 mm tires, Deore derailleur, and wider  cassette
As much as I still love my Bianchi Specialissima, it is somewhat impractical as an everyday bike because of the difficulty of refitting it with components compatible with my current riding.  My wife also needed a new bike to replace her 1970's, low end Gitane, and I felt it would be appropriate to have matching bikes.  Due mostly to availability, we purchased Surly Crosschecks that had been upgraded by the shop where we bought them to indexed shifting.  These were not perfect bikes, the gear range didn't go as low as we wanted and we might like to make a few adjustments to the fit, but they have proven to be good, reliable bikes.  I extended the gear range on mine in preparation for my 200K brevet by replacing the 11-25 cluster with an 11-32 (which required replacing the Tiagra derailleur with a Deore).  We plan to do that to my wife's as well at its next servicing.  This bike looks like it should feel slow, but honestly, it feels almost as fast as my Specialissima, and objectively seems to be every bit as fast.  Am I under appreciating this bike?

Bianchi Volpe (2011 - Present)

Family responsibilities required that I spend about half my time in California for the Fall and Winter of last year.  My loving family bought me a used Bianchi Volpe so that I could ride while I was there.  Like the Surlys, it is a steel framed bike, but with wider gears; a triple chain ring in front as well as wider gears in the back.  It's a great bike, in many ways my favorite of my three bikes, but it suffers from toe overlap, a controversial issue that some people say is a not an issue at all, but it is something I find annoying.  Is this a candidate for a 650b conversion?  I left this bike in California so I don't get to ride it as often anymore. You may notice, as my wife definitely has, that my bike acquisitions are no longer balanced by sales, and so I am starting to collect bikes, a trend I hope to continue.

My Next Bike

We did not expect that our Surlys would be our dream bikes, but rather usable bikes to get us riding on a regular basis with minimal fuss and to allow us to experiment with the world of modern bikes.  Based on our experience with the Surlys, my rather incompatible list of wishes for my dream bike includes a "faster feel", equipment for Randonneuring (generator lights, good fenders), lower gears, and a better fit.  On our Surlys, the handlebars feel a bit low and forward for comfort.  I have briefly test ridden carbon fiber frames, and I am not inspired to switch, so we are likely looking at steel frames.  We would like S&S couplers so we could fly with our bikes.  I have read that it is important that one's bicycle be beautiful, and that one loves it in order to have a truly good riding experience.  Honestly, I have never seen a bicycle I didn't enjoy looking at, but if we are going to talk 16 years old, the evening after the prom, heart beating, head swimming love, I have to say my favorite bicycles today are some of the randonneuses one sees posted on the web.

Saturday, June 2, 2012

My First Brevet

On May 5, I rode my first brevet with the Houston Randonneurs.  I am the kind of person who researches everything to death, so for the previous year I had been reading every blog, every FAQ, everything I could find about the sport of randonneuring.  I might have just as well have read the "Randonneurs USA Members' Handbook" that RUSA provides to their members.  In any case, there is no way to really know what something is like until you do it.  As I mentioned in my previous post, I felt like randonneuring was something that matched my style of riding and my limited experience to date confirms that impression.  I had previously tried a more conventional cycling club in Houston.  The folks were terrific; they were welcoming, friendly, and helpful.  When I found myself in a group faster than I could manage, they slowed down and made sure I had a good time.  Still, they enjoyed fast, 40 mile rides rather than slow, 100+ mile rides and I was the only person there not on a carbon frame.  When I showed up at the start of my first brevet, I found quite a variety of bicycles.  My Surly Crosscheck was quite typical and there were plenty of other steel frames. Although I could not keep up with the fast group (or with any group, for that matter), that was fine, nobody cared.  I had my queue sheet which told me where to ride and it was assumed that I could take care of myself.

The start was a La Quinta Inn in Brookshire, Texas and the instructions were to park in their parking lot, but to "Leave space for the guests", so I wasn't sure what to expect.  Would this be some kind of stealth activity?  Not to worry, the staff at the La Quinta could not have been more welcoming, Houston Randonneurs were set up in one of their public rooms, everything was above board, and we had access to the public facilities of the La Quinta.  Everything was an interesting mixture of formal and casual.  The rules of Randonneuring as I had studied them were followed to the letter, but in the context of a very friendly and relaxed atmosphere.  I signed in for the 200K ride (there was also a 300K leaving from the same site at the same time), got my brevet card, and waited for the official 7 am start.  As I hung out, other riders came over to chat and introduce themselves.  There was a contingent of riders from Lone Star Randonneurs, a club from Dallas, about 250 miles up the road, and the odd rider from farther away.  In total, there were about a dozen riders equally divided between the two rides.  A few minutes before 7, the organizer gave us last minute updates, and we were off.

Start of the Houston Randonneurs 200K and 300K Brevets

One thing I learned during training is that the best way for me to ruin a ride is to start off too fast.  I do my best rides when I start out very slow for the first 5 to 10 miles and then gradually move my pace up to a comfortable cruising speed.  When I looked around at the start, it was clear that I was older, pudgier, and less fit than most of the other riders. So, when everyone else took off at 17 mph I was the first one off the back and rode at my own pace and so ended up doing most of the ride by myself.

The rules of a brevet is that there are controls along the way where you have to have your brevet card signed.  This ride had a total of 5 controls, one each at the start and finish at the La Quinta, one more at the half way point (62 miles) and one each going out and coming back at 26 miles from the start/finish.  The first signature was provided by the organizer when we registered for the ride.  The 26 mile controls both going out and coming back were "open controls", we were free to have our cards signed at any business establishment in the town of Bellville.  I was feeling pretty good at the 26 mile control, not tired at all and no pain.  I picked a convenience store to have my card signed.  I had read that it was good manners to buy something at these kinds of controls, so I purchased a container of Gatoraide to top off my water bottles and a small package of Fig Newtons.  The clerk in the store was a bit mystified by my brevet card, but was happy to sign it.  I wasn't quite sure what to do with my bike while I was in the store.  Because I was riding off the back by myself, I didn't get to see what the other riders did, so I locked it outside the store.  Carrying a Kryptonite lock certainly added to the weight I was carrying, so I look forward to finding out if others have a better solution.  The control at the the half way point was once again staffed by the ride organizer and his wife.  I filled my water bottles, ate a small package of crackers they provided, chatted probably longer than I should have, and headed back.  By that time, I had passed one rider who arrived at the control after me and left before I did.  I was still feeling OK, but was starting to feel some pain at contact points (hands and shoulders) and it was getting pretty hot.  There were stiff tailwinds going out so we were looking at a much more difficult ride back, plus it was continuing to get hotter.  Although I slowed down significantly, I was riding along pretty well for the next 20 miles. I stopped at a gas station convenience store to replenish my water bottles and where I caught up with a second rider.  He was suffering from the heat and had brought his bike into the store and was sitting on the floor.  I don't know if that is how this group deals with bicycles, but if so, it made me a tad uncomfortable, it didn't seem polite to the store or other customers.  We left that stop together, but I ended up going faster than he wanted to.  The ride at that point continued very hot and I got increasingly tired but managed to maintain a slow but steady pace to the next to the last control 26 miles from the finish.  After getting my card signed, refilling my water bottles, resting a bit and eating, I called my wife to let her know when to expect me and ground out the last 26 miles.  These were extremely painful and my pace became erratic.  By the end, I was seriously wondering what madness caused me to do this and question if I ever wanted to do one of these again.  I arrived at the end after 11 hours 54 minutes, comfortably within the 13.5 hour time limit.

Map of the 200K Brevet
The control at the end was interesting.  My brevet card was signed by the desk clerk at the La Quinta, I then signed it and filled out my part, and dropped it into a coffee can left for that purpose at the front desk.  This is another example of how this ride followed the rules to the letter, but did so in a way that minimized the effort of organizing the ride.  The result is that, with limited resources, Houston Randonneurs is able to offer an impressive number of brevets.

In retrospect, how do I feel about my preparation?  From the beginning I knew that trying to do this ride with the time I had to train was a stretch.  The training guides  all said that my training was a week or two short, and this is in addition to the fact that these guides are written for the 40 and below rider, not a 60+ year old.  These guides increase mileage at 10% a week to avoid over training and include a "taper" at the end (a reduction in training) so you don't go into the ride exhausted.  I created a modified plan that had some 20% mileage increases at the beginning to make the rest of the schedule work, and hoped for the best.  During training, I felt that I approached the edge of over training, but managed to barely avoid it.  My taper at the end seemed to work well; I really feel like I peaked nicely for the ride.  That said, this ride took everything I had and so my training was definitely as minimal as it could have been.  Besides getting fit, I used my training rides to test ideas about clothing, equipment, etc., and I was satisfied with most of my decisions about what to wear and bring.  I probably carried too much, but since a lot of it was "just in case" items (tools, spare parts), that is a little hard to say.  I found it difficult to eat, but never felt like I was bonking, so that was also probably marginal but acceptable.  Where I really felt the pain was in the weeks after the ride, something I plan to discuss in a future post.

In conclusion, Randonneuring was everything I hoped it would be, my body, less so.  I would definitely like to thank the Houston Randonneurs for organizing such a wonderful ride and making me feel welcome.  The ride went through some of the prettiest parts of Texas, and with a few notable exceptions, was over wonderfully quiet country roads.  I didn't take a camera because, for my first ride, I wanted to focus entirely on finishing, but that is something I hope to correct on future rides.  And yes, there will be future rides, but perhaps not until after a significant time for recovery, some longer term training, and after the end of the brutal Texas Summer.