Monday, July 30, 2012

Old Bikes

Penny Farthing on display at local hotel bar on Martha's Vineyard

1980's Bianchi Volpe

In my last post, I described our vacation to Martha's Vineyard and the cycling we did there.  In the course of riding, we encountered some older bicycles that caught my eye.  Our first dinner on the Vineyard was at the home of Bill and Melissa, friends and neighbors of our hosts. When Bill heard we planned to bicycle the next day, he asked to come along. On that ride, I was immediately struck by his bike - an old Bianchi Volpe.  

Bill's Bianchi Volpe

Bill's Volpe is a 12 speed with 6 gears in the rear and two in the front.  It uses friction, bar-end shifters.  (I assume the aero-bars are not original equipment.)  The wheels are 700C.  The derailleur is a Sun Tour Cyclone, a feature that helps date the bike.

Rear derailleur on Bill's Volpe

I checked some Bianchi catalogues available online and found a Volpe in the 1987 catalogue but not in the 1973 catalogue.  Bill's Volpe appears similar but not identical to that in the 1987 catalogue - it has two rather than three gears in the front, for example. The frame is constructed from Tange Cr-Mo tubing.  The sticker promises that the three main tubes, but none of the other tubes, are thinner in the center than the ends ("double butted"), a feature which reduces weight while increasing strength. The Volpe in the 1987 catalogue claims that not only the three main tubes but also the chainstays are double butted. I don't know if this is a difference between Bill's Volpe and a 1987 Volpe, or if they just don't have a sticker for that.  (The two most common kinds of stickers are "Tubes" and "Tubes, Forks, and Stays". The 1987 Volpe is between these two standards.)

Sticker identifying the type of tubing used to construct this frame

A nice piece of detail work on the frame (the Bianchi embossing at the end of the rear stay.)

In summary, I would guess that this bike dates from about 1987.  What is amazing to me is that the Volpe has apparently been in continuous production from the mid 1980's until today, about 25 years.  It has evolved over the years with changing technology but has maintained its identity as an all-steel, do everything, fast but practical road bike.

1990's Specialized HardRock

My wife and I borrowed hybrid bikes to use for our rides.  In a post about renting bikes, I expressed concerns about hybrid bikes. I will revisit this issue in my next post, but here I want to focus a little historical attention on the bike I used, an older Specialized HardRock. Unlike more recent versions of this bike, the model I rode had no suspension. Like Bill's Volpe, this bike had six gears in the rear, but had three in the front and had the lower gearing overall characteristic of mountain and hybrid bikes.

Specialized HardRock

I found a Specialized Hard Rock on eBay very similar in appearance to this one, which was dated "from the 1990s", helping to date the bike I rode.  The bike I rode had a SunTour derailleur; that and the six gears in back help confirm a date in the 1980's or 1990s.  A date in the early 1990s is perhaps most likely.

SunTour Derailleur on the Specialized HardRock I borrowed

SunTour is a very interesting company which produced high quality derailleurs and introduced a number of innovations in derailleur design before they went out of business, not able to compete with Shimano.  I have two SunTour derailleurs in my garage, A SunTour Cyclone on an old Centurion my son keeps here for when he visits, and a SunTour GTK I put on my wife's Gitane in the 1980's when I increased its gear range.


The culture shock I experienced from the changes in bicycle technology which occurred between my first and second cycling careers engendered in me a fascination with the history of bicycles between 1960 and 2010.  There are a lot of wonderful resources available, a few of which I have been able to explore.  Grant Pedersen publishes a newsletter, the Rivendell Reader.  Issue number 42 has a very nice history of much of this period.  Two other resources I found useful are the iBike Timeline and a post on the forum BikeForums.

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Martha's Vineyard

Last week, my wife and I were on vacation in Martha's Vineyard, an island off the coast of Cape Cod in Massachusetts.  The island is about 15 miles across and is a popular vacation destination.

We got in some cycling whilst there, and that's what I will describe in this post.  The island is very crowded during the summer, it is expensive to bring automobiles "on island" via the ferry, and so alternative transportation, especially bicycles, is encouraged.  In the map above, the roads highlighted in yellow have dedicated bike paths next to the roadway.  The bike paths are heavily used.

Our hostess and my wife on one of the bike paths.  This one is right next to the road.  Others are a bit farther away from the road and are sheltered by trees, making them prettier.

We stayed with friends who have a summer house in Katama and borrowed hybrid bikes from them.  (I will discuss our experience with these hybrid bikes in a separate post.)  I participated in a total of four rides; 9 miles, 25 miles, 12 miles, and 13 miles.  We rode on a mixture of bike paths, paved roads, and dirt roads.

One of the more interesting bits of bicycling infrastructure on "the Vineyard" was a bike ferry connecting Menemsha to Aquinnah on the north shore.  Our last ride of the vacation was one of our prettiest, a 13 mile ride around Menemsha to Aquinnah, which returned us home on the ferry.

The bike ferry "terminal"

Our bikes on the bike ferry

Another bit of interesting cycling infrastructure was bike racks on the beach:

My wife in front of the on-beach bike racks

Like many of you, I would really like to see more support for bicycling in our country.  I am a realist, however, and realize that this will only happen if the benefits of cycling are apparent to a broad section of the American public.  Those of us who enjoy riding bikes are an important part of this, of course, but I think those who do not ride themselves also benefit from increased cycling, and if this were generally appreciated, support would increase.  There are many ways in which cycling benefits everyone, by reducing traffic, by improving public health (and thus decreasing healthcare costs), and by decreasing pollution.  In particular, I think vacationing cyclists should be of particular interest to non-cyclists.  As communities see cycling as an important form of tourism, support for cycling will naturally follow.  Thus, I was excited to see an example of just this on Martha's Vineyard, a major destination for tourism.

Thursday, July 12, 2012

No Post This Week

There will be no post the week of July 15.  The next post will be the week of July 22.


Sunday, July 8, 2012

Why Hybrids?

Our family's 2010 bicycle tour with Summer Feet was a wonderful experience which I described in my previous post. The one thing we were less than happy with was the bicycles provided by Summer Feet. I am going to spend this whole post dwelling on this one issue which was the only negative aspect of the trip.  Please don't give this undue weight, our overall evaluation of the trip was A+. I am dwelling on this one point so much  because I find it so confusing and because it is likely to significantly change our behavior in the future.

Summer Feet provides bicycles at no cost for some of their tours, including the one we took, and rents bikes for others.  If you rent a bike from them, you have the option of a road bike or a hybrid bike.  Because one day of our itinerary was ridden on packed dirt roads, they provided hybrid bikes for our tour.  Although there was no charge for the bikes, we were free to bring our own if we preferred, and about a third of the people on the trip did so.  We opted to use their provided bikes to avoid the inconvenience and expense of shipping our bikes from Texas to Maine and back.

The bike my older son rode, a Trek

The bikes Summer Feet provided were a mix of brands, but my impression is that they were good quality bike shop bikes including such brands as Trek.  (In fact, every client bike I could identify in my photos was a Trek.) Summer Feet does their own maintenance and the bikes were very well maintained; the brakes and gears worked flawlessly, for example. Not everyone had problems with the bike.  In our family, our two sons thought they were "fine", I found mine awkward but usable, and my wife was able to complete the trip but found the bike a significant drawback and was somewhat traumatized by the experience.  Outside our family, most people didn't comment on their bikes one way or another (nor did we, outside our family), but one person finally gave up the trip in tears, unable to use the bike at all.  Norm, the owner of Summer Feet, was one of our guides and so was well aware of what was going on, he runs a class operation and everything he provided was first rate, I am sure this was an outcome he did not want at all, but despite all that, it happened.

The bike my younger son rode, another Trek

So what was the problem?  In short, the bikes Summer Feet provided had skittish handling characteristics.  On the first day of riding, which included some of the busier roads we travelled, my wife fell off her bike into traffic.  The drivers were all cautious and were able to stop so no physical harm was done, but she was badly shaken and asked that the toe clips that she had requested on her bike be replaced with flat pedals, which Summer Feet cheerfully and quickly did. This helped, as she no longer felt that she was trapped if she fell, but she was nervous for the rest of the trip and this unavoidably meant she had less fun.  She is a somewhat nervous rider, but reasonably experienced; she and I have ridden a lot of miles together and so I don't think it would be at all reasonable to suggest that this trip was too ambitious for her (and nobody suggested that). The person who ultimately abandoned the trip fell repeatedly, ended up taking the sag wagon home on multiple days before giving up entirely. I flatter myself that I am a pretty competent cyclist.  However, I felt like I needed to keep a death grip on the handlebars of the bike and, when I ascended Cadillac Mountain, was significantly hindered because I was not able to stand on the bike to climb, I had to remain seated to keep control.  Clearly different people were affected to differing degrees by this problem as evidenced by the different experiences within our family.  It is quite possible that the Summer Feet staff simply don't experience the problem so cannot easily correct it.  Despite these qualifications, I nonetheless cannot accept that this "high failure rate" of the rider-bike combination is normal or acceptible.

A lady's bike, also a Trek

What caused the problem?  I certainly don't know.  While on the trip, I blamed it on the style of bike.  I felt like if we had ridden road bikes instead of hybrid bikes, we wouldn't have had this problem.  I shared my opinion with Norm, probably excessively.  Norm's position was that road bikes were inappropriate for the dirt trails included on this trip.  However, one couple who brought their own bikes brought "cyclocross bikes"; a Surly Crosscheck and an Bianchi Volpe. "Cyclocross bikes" is in quotes because these are not really bikes used by cyclocross racers, but medium priced general purpose bikes built with many of the characteristics of a true cyclocross bike, road bikes with high bottom brackets, fatter tires, and ruggeder construction.  These are the kind of bike my wife and I own (Surly Crosschecks).  Their tires are as wide as a hybrid bike but they handle like a road bikes and are perfect for good quality dirt roads and trails.  Perhaps it is unreasonable to expect Summer Feet to offer cyclocross bikes as an third option, but I wonder if they offered them, could they go from offering two kinds of bikes to one? However, this begs the question: is this a generic problem with hybrid bikes?  Would Trek, for example, deliberately sell a kind of bike that handles badly?

I don't have answers to any of these questions, but here are some possibilities I have come up with:
1) Hybrid bikes don't really handle badly, just differently, and I am not used to how they handle.  I am skeptical of this answer given that I rode on this bike for five days running. I would have thought that was enough time to at least start to get used to its handling.
2) Hybrid bikes are designed for different situations than what we used them for, and their handling is appropriate for their intended use.  I might buy this argument for mountain bikes, but by definition hybrid bikes are supposed to be a compromise.  I feel this is a bad compromise indeed if this is how they handle on the road.
3) Hybrid bikes are the least expensive of bike shop bikes.  Perhaps my expectations of them were too high; for this price maybe you get bad handling.
4) The problem was not with the bikes, but with the fit.  Given the challenge of fitting a number of customers from a limited stock of bicycles, Summer Feet were able to get the seat height right for everyone, but in some cases at the expense of the overall configuration of the bike, leading to bad handling.  This would explain why some people were more affected by this problem than others.
5) There was more variability between the bikes than I realized; some of the bikes were badly designed and rode poorly.  (I do not, at this point, recall the brand of bike I rode.)  This would also explain the variability of experience.
6) It was the riders and not the bikes that were the problem.  I am only certain of three people out of the approximately fifteen on the trip who were less than happy with their bikes.  (On the other hand, four or five people brought their own bikes, and I suspect more were unhappy than acknowledged it publicly.)  This seems unlikely to me, but even if true, the fact remains that my wife and I can comfortably ride many miles so long as we have the "right" bike, so at worst, it is a "rider plus bike" issue.

The one thing we did learn with certainty from this trips is that choice of bike matters a lot in terms of how much fun we have on a ride.  Regardless of the cause, I doubt that we would ever again invest this heavily in a trip and use bicycles other than our own.  As I have mentioned in previous posts, my wife and I are thinking about our next bicycles, and we are now thinking that S&S couplers and the paraphernalia to go with them to allow us to check our bikes on airplanes at reasonable cost are a "must have" feature.

Monday, July 2, 2012

The Maine Massacre

Our 2010 bicycling vacation in Maine was a delightful experience, not at all a massacre. However, I could not resist paying homage to one of my favorite authors.

Summers in Houston are truly brutal.  We have loved Houston since we moved here in 1988, but every summer presents the challenge of where to vacation to get a break from the heat.  By 2010, we had started bicycling and so we took on the added challenge of making it a bicycling vacation. We considered all kinds of options, from a self organized tour to Adventure Cycling's offerings to winery tours in Napa Valley.  One additional complication was what to do about bikes: should we take our own, and then how do we transport them, or should we rent?  In the end, we settled on a fairly deluxe tour run by a small company in Maine, Summer Feet

Summer Feet's van, which they used to transport us to and from each day's ride.

Although the financial impact of this trip on our family's budget was significant, we wanted to use it to stay in touch with our two grown children and the luxury was an enticement to get them to come along.  Another reason for choosing Summer Feet was to minimize stress. They did all the planning, which included providing the bicycles.  As it happened, the one aspect of the trip that was disappointing was the bicycles provided.  I will say no more about that today, but rather devote all of next week's post to that topic.

The package included five days of riding, five nights of lodging, and most of our meals.  The first three nights we spent in a high end resort, the last two in a luxurious Bed and Breakfast.

Our family enjoying an al fresco breakfast at a period B&B

Breakfasts were provided by the lodging, dinners were different each night, always something special and unique, and picnic lunches were prepared by our guides, Norm and Paul.  (Norm is the owner of Summer Feet.)

Paul and Norm, our guides for the trip.

In order to maximize the quality of the rides, Summer Feet used their van to transport us and our bicycles to the start of each ride and back from the finish.   Thus, the rides did not need to start from where we were staying nor did they need to finish where they started.  Norm and Paul would take turns each day, one of  them riding with us and the other driving the van.  There were about 15 people in our group spanning a wide range of ages, from about 12 years old to about 75 years old.

Almost everything about the trip was magnificent.  The accommodations were luxurious and interesting.  The dinners were each a gourmet delight.  In addition to the cycling, there was one day of sea kayaking and a sailing ship dinner cruise.  Norm and Paul were friendly, helpful, competent, and funny; by the end of the trip we considered them friends. The weather was everything a sweltering Texan could hope for.  The routes were low traffic, gorgeous, and varied.  One special day was the one we spent riding the carriage trails of Acadia National Park.  The only traffic we had to contend with on these hard packed dirt roads was horse-drawn carriages and the route featured an unexpected treat; fresh, wild blueberries right off the bush.  

A carriage trail in Acadia National Park.

The tour we took, "Maine's Gold Coast", was Summer Feet's easiest. My wife, the weakest rider in our family, found it a satisfying challenge but had no trouble completing any of the rides. Each day there were one or two riders who did have trouble finishing and Summer Feet used their van to provide sag support; nobody ever had to ride more than they wanted to.  On the other hand, there were usually options for extending the day's ride.  In our family, we split up into two groups of two so that my wife was always riding with one of her men, while the other two took a more challenging route.   My wife's rides were between 6 and 28 miles long, with 28 being more typical. I managed to set what were then my personal bests in both distance and elevation gain, riding up to the 1532 foot summit of Cadillac Mountain one day and a distance of 48 miles on my longest day.

My wife and older son modeling our jerseys

As a surprise, our older son bought my wife and I custom jerseys for the trip.  He is shown here modeling the copy of mine he bought for himself.  My son's jersey reads "Raulston Strokers", the snarky pseudonym we used for the Modesto Roadmen when we entered the worst part of our adolescence.  "Raulston" was the land developer who created the city of Modesto, and the first city government would have named the city after him but he declined out of modesty.  "Strokers" was chosen for the double entendrĂ©.  You need to be a biochemist to understand my wife's jersey. It refers to a class of proteins that span the cell membrane just as the chain on the front of her jersey spans the zipper.

In summary, if you can squeeze the cost of this trip into your family's budget, we all would heartily recommend it and feel that it is worth every penny.