Sunday, March 04, 2018

New Winter Bike


About a decade ago, I picked up a set of Nokian A10 700C studded tires and began cycling through the winter snow on a more regular basis.  A couple of years previous, I had picked up a pair of used 26" Nokians, which I mounted on my Fat Chance and which started me on riding through snow and ice. The bike wasn't the most efficient for my long commute, so the 700C studded tires sped things up a bit, and eventually I built up a bike around an aluminum Nashbar touring frame as a dedicated winter bike. The frame had a nice, Kelly Green paint job with a light metal flake and no decals at all.  I don't typically name bikes, but since this one had no branding at all, so I dubbed it Zhongguo Zixingche, which is Google Translate's version of "Chinese Bicycle." I still ride the Fat Chance on days when it gets below 10 degrees F, as I have a set of snowmobile bar mits that fit it.

The ZZ had a great, stable ride and I fitted it with a triple crank, Suntour cantilever brakes, a Nashbar carbon fiber CX fork that was twice the price of the frame, and a dynamo hub.  Initially, this was a Chinese-made SRAM, but I upgraded it to the nicest hub on the market, a German-made Schmidt SON 20, which cut the drag significantly. The headlight was an equally nice (and also German) Supernova E3 and I eventually added a matching Supernova taillight, which must be the smallest bicycle taillight made, and exceptionally bright.  The ZZ had one flaw, and that was that under certain conditions the brakes were borderline useless. This wasn't really a problem, as I have lots of experience with rim brakes and know how to think ahead to avoid surprises, but I often found myself dropping down the long hill off the mountain in icy conditions, silently beseeching the brakes with thought like "Any time you want to wake up and begin slowing this bike down a bit will be fine."

The CX fork was setup for either rim or disc brake use, and I toyed first with the idea of switching to road V-brakes, and then with mounting a disc just on the front.  About the time I decided to do this, I found a new, 2013 Marin Lombard frame on eBay for $200 with the right geometry, and bought it.  The Lombard is setup specifically for disc brakes, so the gears were set in motion to rebuild the ZZ.

Since I was planning on using many of the parts from the ZZ on the Marin, and knowing that it would take a fair amount of time to complete the parts switchover, I decided to try the front disk only on the ZZ while collecting the rest of the parts I needed for the Marin.  I was impressed with the performance of the disc brake and found no problems at all mixing it with the cantilever rear.  Since I needed to switch out the hubs, and desiring to stick with the dynamo, I opted for a Shutter Precision unit, as they have received excellent reviews as a less-expensive alternative to the Schmidt, with supposedly superior performance. This reputation was not at all reinforced in my experience.  Although the hub got better with a little use, I have no explanation for the YouTube videos that show the SP hubs spinning much longer than the Schmidt in side-by-side tests. I found the SP to have significantly more drag than the Schmidt with the lights on or off. The difference was dramatic.

Here's a run-down of the build.
Rear hub: Shimano Deore XT (new). The Marin uses 135mm spacing, while the ZZ was 130mm.
Cassette: SRAM 11-32. I bit the wimp bullet, finding that at times the 28 just wasn't low enough for comfort. I have a couple of 17% pulls on the big climb up the mountain and when it's too slippery to get out of the saddle, it can be a bit of a yank, even with a 30t sprocket on the front. I also went from 8 to 9-speed, swapping out the fingertip shifter levers. Time will tell if the wider spacing of the 8-speed is better when the rear end is caked in snow and ice. There have been times when I only had a couple of gear options left toward the end of my 18-mile commute.
Rear derailleur: Shimano XTR "low-normal". I like the bar-end shifters for winter use, when things can get iced up and gloves are bulky.  Also, I do a lot of my winter commuting in the dark, and it's nice to have the lever angle as an indication of what gear I'm in.  What I don't like is hitting the right lever with my knee and shifting into a higher gear when muscling the bike up a hill, out of the saddle.  I may hate the low-normal arrangement, but I'm willing to give it a try to get the lever out of the way.  I had thought of switching to downtube shifters on the ZZ, but the Marin has no shifter bosses, so that's no longer an option.
Front Derailleur: Ultegra triple, from ZZ
Brakes: TRP Spyre mechanical road. These are great, with excellent modulation and good centering. I had a bit of difficulty setting up the rear caliper as the mounts on the frame were not machined and a bit of filing proved necessary to keep the caliper from twisting when tightened. The Lombard is not a high-end frame, though it is otherwise well-made. I went with Jagwire Pro compressionless cable housing. I can't say that I can tell any difference between it and wound housing, which I had initially used for the disc front. I ran the cable for the taillight alongside the rear brake cable for a cleaner look.
Rims: DT R460DB These were a bit of a disappointment, based on the reviews I had read. They were twice the price of some others I was considering and there was nothing about them that screamed "quality" as I built them up. This model is a pinned, non-eyeletted rim that has noticeable irregularities at the seam. I used rim washers on the rear. Since the rims are said to be "tubeless-ready", I decided to try it, even though the Nokians are not considered to be tubeless tires.  Thus far, with a couple of months on the front wheel, they are working fine with Orange Seal sealant. I chose Orange Seal as it has a low temperature rating and has been rated well on independent tests against other brands.  I have had flats at 10 degrees and it hasn't been fun fixing them in the wet and cold, with tires that are stiff even when warm.  The flats I've had were caused by the studs causing excessive casing movement against the tube, so the idea of going tubeless, and the self-sealing qualities that result seem especially appealing for this use. Spokes are butted 14/15 ga black DTs with matching nipples, laced cross-3.
Front hub: Shutter Precision PD-8.  I've already written about this disappointing piece.  Still, I'm too frugal to use a Schmidt on a bike that is intended to be sacrificed to MetalMunch, the god of road salt.
Headset: FSA integrated (Campy style), new
Seatpost: American Classic
Saddle: A very broken-in and decades-old Brooks Pro
Stem: Ritchey. I may end up swapping this out for a slightly longer one.
Handlebars: Specialized (probably from the 1990s)
Brake levers: Tektro. Nicest standard levers for the price, hands-down, and that price is cheap.
Fenders: SKA Longboards. These are only a year old, and I like the extra coverage they provide, which has done a great job keeping snow and slush off the crankset and drivetrain, but I was surprised to find the rear cracked almost completely through at the bridge (which was also cracked). I patched the section using a piece I cut out of an old license plate and attached with JB Weld and some rivets I made from aluminum nails and which look much like the factory rivets used elsewhere on the fenders. I have some nice, aluminum fenders on another bike, but find it difficult to keep them from rattling on the dirt road.
Crankset: Campagnolo Mirage Triple. This one is on its second set of chainrings. Square taper bottom bracket has lots of miles on it and still is smooth. While I agree with those who say that the Shimano HollowTech II / GPX is the current ultimate design, and that those pushing competing alternatives should be drawn and quartered while stretched across the giant anthill of marketing ripoffs, there's nothing wrong with the venerable square-taper design.  The Campagnolo square taper cranks are attractive in their lightness and simplicity. While I could easily scrap the big ring for winter use and a MTB double might be a better choice, I may find myself extending the riding season for this bike. It's quite slow when slogging through the slush on 800+ gram studded tires while wearing layers of clothing and heavy boots, but the big ring would come it useful when skimming along in warmer weather in stretchy clothes.
Computer: Quite old Sigma Sport unit.  It does what I need it to.

All the parts listed from the seatpost to the computer were from the ZZ.

I'll write a ride review after getting a decent number of miles on the bike, but I'm pretty happy with the way it came out.  The Marin frame has some interesting details, such as a grippy, reflective material that is mixed in with the paint in places.  CX frames are made to be carried over obstacles and this feature makes it easier to shoulder the bike as I wind my way around the tight landing on my basement stairs.

This bike will never be this clean again, so enjoy the pics!
Spacers are a work in progress

Nokian / Suomi A10 tires are fine for ice or light snow cover. Not so good in deep snow.
The grippy material in paint shows up well in the camera flash
Square taper BB is tried and true. Those who claim they can tell the difference in stiffness between square taper and modern pipe designs likely also believe they can feel thin steel frame tubing give under strong thumb pressure and the difference between 3-cross and radially spoked wheels.
Custom bracket to connect the svelte taillight to the Blackburn rack. American manufacturers have long ignored light and reflector attachments.
I usually ride this bike with both battery and dynamo lighting, front and rear. In this area, drivers don't see many cyclists in the winter. Since 1972, I've never found another saddle to be as comfortable as a Brooks Pro.
The shifters are new, but the housings are from the 8-speed ones that I used before.  Why scratch up the new ones?
Low-tech fender repair. I cut up a license plate from our old Subaru.

Saturday, January 13, 2018

Reflections on 2017

January is almost half-over, and it's a nasty, snowy, 12 degrees outside, so it's a fine day to spend part of a Saturday morning to reflect on last year's cycling and set a few goals for this year.  I just squeaked out 7,000 miles again, as I have for the past three years.  It probably would have been more, but Jeanne started a new job only two miles from my work, and this has led me to skip riding home most days, especially when it's cold.  The effect has been to cut my commuting miles by half.  that's not a bad thing, as a 38-mile commute is a bit extreme, especially considering the terrain and roads I need to ride.

It's been exceptionally cold this winter, and I've ridden in below zero temps, but typically I try to stick to 10 degrees or above.  That also has cut back commuting to only 2-3 days, many weeks. This leads me to think that I should pay attention to make sure my riding doesn't slip back too much, because cycling is one of those things that is better, the more that you do.  I have found that I can go out and spend several hours splitting wood and, though I'll find myself a bit sore for a couple of days, it's an activity that I can complete successfully, even though it may have been months since the last time I did it.  Cycling seems different, in that going a week without riding leaves me with a noticeable drop in condition, making the activity more difficult and less enjoying.

I've experienced a gradual evolution in my thinking about cycling.  Since I've been road riding for almost 50 years, at this point, my attitude towards cycling doesn't dramatically shift any more, but does change over time.  I have found myself becoming more detached from the "cycling scene," and more of an observer than a participant.  With 7k mile years, I actually ride a whole lot more than most avid cyclists, but I find myself far less interested in the social aspects of cycling. An evidence of this is that I quietly unsubscribed from the local bike club's listserv, several months ago. I found that this improved my outlook and I didn't miss the engagement at all.  I attribute this partly to the fact that communication on this particular listserv were less dialog than discussion.  Some years ago, I read a piece that proposed that there is a difference between dialog, in which participants communicate in such a way as to build community knowledge, and discussion, which, deriving from the same Latin root as percussion, can often become more similar to debate, or a firing of opinions back and forth, with the goal of replacing another's ideas with your own.

"What do you call it when two guys meet for a bike ride?  A race."  I cannot claim any moral high ground on this.  I have felt the urge to pick up my pace when I see a rider ahead of me, and Jeanne often points out that, when we're on a tandem and we're around other cyclists, I tend to push the pace.  I've found myself consciously working against this, backing off when I see a cyclist ahead if we're going a similar pace and I'm not feeling particularly social.  There's this sense that cyclists have that we're engaging in a shared experience and therefore have a lot in common, but there's no similar sense when we're hurtling down the interstate in a car.  I think that our approach in all interactions should be an underlying commitment to our common humanity, whether we be driving an F250 or a Toyota Prius, riding a carbon fiber racing bike or a chrome moly tourer, voting Republican or Progressive.  I want to get to the point where the only belief that I refuse to change is that everyone's perspective is worth understanding, even if I'm confident I am going to disagree with it.  I don't need to express anger when I disagree, no matter how strongly, and I don't need to ridicule or shout someone's ideas down in protest in order to be firm and resolute with opposing logic, when appropriate.  To bring this back to the topic at hand, cycling for me is not a big race, a sport focused on equipment and training, but a many-faceted activity that is equally valid no matter how it's approached.

Just because we're all in this existence together doesn't mean I find everyone else interesting and worth my time.  I have a somewhat immature student who seems to have made it his mission to convince me that I should be immersed in role-playing games, because this is his fixation at this point in his life.  I tried computer games many years ago, and both read and toyed with role-playing games just enough to recognize that there was no positive cost-benefit ratio for me.  Like watching television, it's not something for which I've seen any compelling argument to do again. I tried bicycle racing as a teenager and found it very similar to my experience running track in high school.  I'm sure I would have enjoyed it more with better coaching ("better," as in "any"), but I recall thinking during one race that I enjoyed the 25-mile ride to the start far more than the race itself.  I placed no value on my position relative to the arbitrary collection of other cyclists in my age group who had showed up that day.  I was just pushing my guts out because that was what I was supposed to do in a race.  It didn't seem to make that much sense, and I certainly wasn't enjoying the experience.  I think that was my last real race. I don't expect to go back and try again, and I don't see racing, or even performance riding, as the logical goal of all avid cyclists.

I have observed that most ex-racers who I've ridden with are faster riders and better climbers than I am, no matter how far back their racing career ended.  One tends to like doing that for which they have a natural affinity, but I suspect that this performance difference is the result of a combination of physiology and training.  I recognize that you get faster by riding with people who are faster than you, and that's part of the value in joining training rides.  Improved condition does indeed translate into more enjoyable cycling, but I am seeking a balance.  Sometimes I enjoy showing up for a Tuesday evening ride on a 30 year-old bike, when I'm in good shape and can easily stay with the main group.  I'm not saying that I'm going to avoid all group rides, but I think it's likely that I will dial them back even farther from the meager number I did last year.

So, here's a shot at some goals for 2018:

  • Strategically train for the 100/200, so that I enjoy the ride, without spending all my free time on the bike.  I have some non-cycling projects on which I need to make some serious progress.
  • More tandem rides.
  • Explore more dirt roads that I haven't yet ridden.
  • Keep my annual mileage to at least 7k. (Just being consistent should help me nail this one, which is why I think setting an arbitrary number as a goal is a valid exercise.)
  • Drop at least five pounds (makes a huge difference in climbing)
  • Drop my pulse rate a few beats.
  • Pay a little more attention to what I eat.
  • Ride the Prouty on the tandem again (it's been a couple years, now).
  • Complete at least one "epic" tandem ride, something along the lines of the Kelly Stand ride we did a few years ago.  Perhaps finally do a gap on a long bike.
  • Complete a LAMB or six-gaps ride.  It's been a couple years since I went over Lincoln Gap.
  • Get in at least one big ride, out of state.
  • Sell off at least a couple bikes.
  • I may join a couple of the rides sponsored by the randonneur folks, but if I do, the control card is going to get stuck between the spokes right at the start and stay there.
What I'm not very interested in for this year:
  • New bikes or equipment (though I am in the process of rebuilding my winter touring bike to become a slightly more sporting bike with disk brakes, so I might actually have some stopping power when things are all iced up).
  • The local bike scene.  I support cycling, I'm just not interested in being a "clubber."
  • Any large group ride, if it requires an entry fee over $15.  Charity rides excluded.  I'm not interested in paying someone for the privilege of riding my bike.
  • Tandem rallies.  It's not that we had a bad time at the one we attended last summer, it just wasn't interesting enough to justify the time and expense.
Ultimately, I just want to be a competent cyclist, enjoying the ride, doing my own thing, staying healthy.  I hope I haven't come across too much as a cynical, crotchety, curmudgeon.

Thursday, July 13, 2017

Amazing Calipers

In 1986, I was working at a shop in Burlington, Vermont as I was finishing work on a college degree. I was hired as a contractor by the US distributor of Look's new all-carbon framesets, which were being shipped out of the Geze ski binding warehouse on Pine Street. I believe that, by this time, Geze had sold its binding business to Look.  The issue was that they had been getting a lot of returns from dealers with the complaint that the frames were out of alignment. The initial KG86 model was made by the French company TVT and used carbon fiber tubes, bonded to aluminum lugs and fittings, using the proven adhesive technology perfected by ALAN on their aluminum frames. The KG86 was the first commercially successful carbon fiber frame, discounting the earlier Exon Graftek and the Raleigh SBDU experimental carbon frames, which all used similar technologies.

French on the left side, English on the right.
One design constraint of carbon fiber frames is that they cannot be cold-set after manufacture, to correct small variations in alignment. My task was to remove each frameset from its packaging, place the frame and fork in alignment jigs, and record its actual measurements. I used the New England Cycling Academy's portable frame alignment system jigs to make the measurements. This jig attached to the bottom bracket shell, as with a full surface plate, but then used precision bearings to allow a beam to provide a rotating reference from which to make measurements. I expect that it may not be quite as precise as a properly setup granite surface plate, but it was a well established system, so I believe the measurements were of acceptable accuracy.

As I recall, the results I got showed that the majority of the frames were, indeed, off by a few millimeters. However, the amount they were off ranged from 0 to a maximum of 4 mm, with most being in the range of 2 - 3 mm. The misalignment could be dropout spacing or centerline alignment, but dropout parallelism was generally quite good.  Main triangle alignment was generally fine. My sense was that almost all the frames were fine, with the amount they were off being too small to notice while riding. I would expect that the misalignment was understandable, considering the state of the technology used to make the frames. It was my sense that the real problem was shops that were pandering to an overly-discerning clientele, attempting to establish their elite status as "pro shops" by misapplying steel frame expectations to an emerging technology. After all, Gereg LeMond and Bernard Hiault were successfully duking it out in the Tour de France on these frames! I also think that the shops had found that the frames, which were about twice the cost of a quality steel frameset at the time, were not selling as fast as they would have liked, leaving Look USA to search for a way to either send a bunch of frames back to France, or to seek a discount.

When the project was finished, I had measured up over 400 framesets. The project took longer than anticipated and the folks who had hired me tried to wiggle out of their initial agreement, but I had kept excellent records of my hours and stuck to the rate under which I had been hired. As I recall, it totaled a bit over $400, which I estimated being about the wholesale value of one of the frames, so I made an offer that they simply give me one of them in my size. For some reason, they wouldn't go for this, so I took the cash.

Fast forward to this past winter when I found a KG86 in my size on eBay for a good price--much less than what I was paid for the project, even without factoring in inflation, which makes that $400 worth about $1,000, today. The decals have a few gouges and the fork was incorrect, but the frame apparently was ridden very little, and I'm happy with it. I expect I will eventually find the correct fork for it, but this one is quite close, in spite of the Litespeed yellow highlights.

Look KG86 - The first commercially successful carbon fiber frame
When I initially built the bike up, I decided to try to use as many French components as I could, and to use parts from the same time period as the frame. If I didn't have a suitable French component, the next choice would be European. I had some cool stuff I had accumulated over the years, so almost everything came right out of the basement.
  • Mavic: headset, crankset, hubs, rims (wheels are SSC, which is pretty much just some decals), stem
  • Sachs freewheel, 13-23, 7-spd
  • Sedisport chain
  • Huret titanium Success front and rear derailleurs
  • Simplex retrofrictions shifters, of course
  • Look pedals--certainly!
Non-French components
  • Campagnolo seatpost (25 mm diameter)
  • Sampson Stratics sealed bottom bracket. I'll probably swap this out for a Swiss Edco, once I replace its bearings.
  • 3TTT handlebars (they probably made the Mavic handlebars, anyway) 
  • Universal LS-1 (Italy) brake levers--just because they're composite, cool, and there has to be some reason I've held onto a brand new pair for 30 years
  • Concor saddle (Italy)--it doesn't fit my butt at all, so perhaps I'll swap it for my ultra-cool Ideal 90 with titanium undercarriage
  • Tape is Orbea, which is the current iteration of the Spanish Zeus company, no telling where it's actually made
  • The sewup tires are high quality, but I'll likely swap them out at some point for a pair of Michelin tubulars that I have, which are exceptionally nice
  •  Tacx (Dutch) bottle cages -- just because they're cool
It's the brakes that are the real point of this post, though. In the photo, the bike has Zeus Supercronos calipers, which were the only non-Campagnolo, European brakes I had that were both short-reach and recess-mount.  While they fit beautifully, and are like-new, I found that the springs are a bit too strong for the mechanical advantage of the levers, and the first ride showed that it was not a great combination.  While the brakes stopped quite well, they were difficult to modulate, as I needed to squeeze the heck out of the levers to get any braking at all, and I have a very strong grip.

I found a set of MAFAC's very last model brakes for sale in France. I had not heard of the LSX model before, but learned that it was a Hail Mary play by the French company in the 1980s. MAFAC was the first company to market cantilever (1946) and centerpull (1952) brakes, but once they had established these designs, they ceased to innovate and simply manufactured them for decades, with small modifications. This really wasn't much different from most bicycle component manufacturers at the time, but by the mid-1970s, MAFAC's products were very stale and the Japanese had become the innovators. The LSX was MAFAC's pull-out-all-the-stops attempt to produce the finest single-pivot sidepull, along the lines of the Modolo Professional, and I think they succeeded. The calipers extensively use high-strength aluminum pieces, superbly machined and finished.  The precision is impressive, the fit on all parts is perfect, and the features are both impressive and, in some cases, unique.
Mavic LSX brakeset
The mounting bolt arrangement is quite interesting, allowing the caliper to be fitted to either recessed or nutted frames and forks.  Different length bolts were available. This could present a bit of a challenge today, as it uses a fine thread. I've labeled the few steel parts with the letter S in the photo. The black piece next to the left arm is a special rubber piece designed to fit over the quick release nut to keep it from scratching the paint on the frame, similar to that used by other manufacturers at the time. The left arm has a nylon insert to keep the arms from rubbing together (some Japanese brakes also have this feature). The arms have brass inserts for the pivots and are separated by plastic washers, backed up by a steel bearing washer. The brake shoes are asymmetrically designed to direct water away and out from under the pads. Even though they are 30 years old, they stop impressively well--with similar grip required for dual-pivot calipers. They are, however, a weak part of the design, as their mounting bolts are designed to mate with the wheel guides and the arms have a recess for these guides. Since the holders are closed at both ends, replacing the rubber pads will be difficult at best, and good luck finding replacement shoes for these rare birds.

The levers are scratched, so perhaps at some point I'll file and polish them and fit them to the bike, but I'm in no rush as the Universals work fine. I'm just surprised that these fine brakes were not accepted better in their time, though I suspect that the cost of manufacture made these too expensive and low-margin to turn around MAFAC's faltering finances. Eventually, MAFAC was snapped up by Sachs, as it consolidated many other failing French companies, like Sedis, Huret and Simplex.  I may eventually swap the derailleurs over to Mavic, but for now the Huret units shift at least as well as any other non-indexed shifters I've ever used, while being even more rare than the Mavics of the era.

I've ridden the bike twice, on 25 and 45-mile rides, each featuring about 10 miles of gravel and with steep (17%) climbs. The ride is quite nice, very similar to that of a quality steel frame of the era, but smoother over rough surfaces and without any chainring rub under heavy load, indicating less flex in the bottom end. Otherwise, it's very similar to my mid-1970s Masi Gran Criteriums in terms of handling, as could be expected, considering the geometry. It rides nice enough that I expect it won't be a wall hanger.

Wednesday, November 23, 2016

A Wilderness Ride

I had hoped that I would be able to ride to the VermontFest educational conference in Killington, as I did once in the past, but the early November weather did not cooperate, yielding instead a cold rain, Thursday morning.  I took the Gunnar with me, planning to get in an evening ride or two, after the rain stopped.  Thursday evening, I headed down steep East Mountain Rd and then to West Bridgewater, to check out some dirt roads that have long intrigued me.  The climb on Bridgewater Hill Rd was quite steep, but I turned around after two miles, as it was getting pretty dark by then and I had the tough climb back to the hotel ahead of me. I'll have to leave those roads for a future expedition.

After the second and final day of the conference, I parked at the bottom of East Mountain Rd in the parking lot of the lower gondola station for the ski area and struck out on a loop I had planned.  I headed down VT-100 toward Plymouth, until I got to the old CCC road that heads up into the Coolidge State Forest. The single-lane road was closed for the winter, but quite smooth, and I had it all to myself, winding around the switchbacks as it climbed out of the valley.

At the very top, I came upon what I thought was a monument, but which turned out to be a chimney, likely left from a cabin that had burned.  It was in pretty rough shape.


 After the top of the climb, I came on another gate and the road at this point was open to vehicles, but since it was effectively a dead-end, I saw no one.  With the leaves gone, I had some nice views of the wilderness through the trees and I could imagine what this area might have been like when it was settled, as evidenced by the many stone walls and empty fieldstone foundations.  It was very peaceful.

Soon, the road dropped down the other side of the ridge and houses started appearing.  The dirt turned to pavement as I reached North Shrewsbury, where I stopped to get a few photos of the old church.  This is one of those really short, classic churches, although it doesn't show in the photo.  It's quite similar to the one in East Braintree, except it still has the two entrances common to many of the churches built in the early 1800s, when there were separate doors for men and women.  This is locally known as the Northam Church and the plaque on the front indicates a date of 1823.  The Men's door on the right had been retrofitted with a wheelchair ramp and, with typical Yankee ingenuity, they simply shortened the door by cutting off the bottom.  After all, a wheelchair user doesn't need the extra headroom!


The road soon turned back to dirt, and I made the turn onto Upper Cold River Road, where I soon stopped to take a photo looking up the valley in the setting sun.  I should have brought a real camera with me, as the quality of the one in my Motorola cell phone isn't that great, especially in low light.


Soon, I passed this beautifully restored building that bore a plaque indicating that it had been built as a cheese factory in the 1800s.


The road wound past more stone walls and eventually started a long, steep downward pitch until reaching the recently restored Brown Covered Bridge, built using the Town Lattice truss design in 1880 by Vermont bridge builder Nicholas Powers.


There are two unusual features of this bridge.  First, it is believed to be the only covered bridge in the US that retains its original slate roof.  Second, at one end the bridge abutment is built into a large boulder.  The location of the bridge obviously was chosen to utilize this boulder and this proved quite fortuitous, as it likely saved the bridge from destruction during Hurricane Irene in 2011, when the roadway on the other side of this boulder was completely washed away.  Powers was also the builder of the famous Blenheim Covered Bridge in Schoharie, NY, which was carried off to its destruction by Irene.


The bridge is also considered unusually well-preserved, having received no major reconstruction beyond the replacement of its siding since it was built over 130 years ago. Even so, it remains in extremely sound condition. There wasn't much light left when I shot the last photo, looking down the side of the rebuilt roadway as I climbed back out of the brook's ravine.

I was soon back on pavement and enjoyed a nice descent into Rutland.  I had toyed with the idea of taking another unfamiliar road that headed back into the wilderness, instead of riding busy US-4 over the mountain, but had pretty much decided it was getting too dark when I came on the turn and talked myself into taking the gamble. I soon found myself climbing the exceptionally steep Notch Road, eventually turning onto Wheelerville Rd and was deep in the woods, again. There is nothing left of Wheelerville--and there are only a few houses at the beginning and end of the eight-mile, single lane dirt road.  I found the road deserted, as it wound through the Rutland City Forest.  The road surface was light colored and I took advantage of the partial moon to leave my headlight off and follow the white ribbon through the trees.  It was magical, and the road was almost completely free of potholes, so I enjoyed the dark solitude.  The sounds of animals fighting in the forest kept me moving, though!

Mary Provost's Grave, from FindAGrave.com
Later, when I was looking for information about the area, I found that I had ridden right by a cemetery that dated back to the mid-1800s, when the area hosted a small settlement.  The cemetery is tiny, with only seven unmaintained graves, and I wondered about the story that must be behind those of three children who died over a fifteen year interval, at ages ranging from 5 months to six years.  I tried to imagine what it must have been like for their mother; how many others in the family may have survived, and did the family give up trying to scratch out a life in the wilderness?  Is that why the parents are not buried there?  Did they move to Rutland, or go to find a better life out west?  The cemetery also contains the headstone of "Indian Joe," who reportedly saved a settlement of whites from impending massacre, and then escaped to Vermont where he hid out from members of his tribe until he died in 1810.  I will definitely head back to the area sometime in the daylight to check out this small patch of Vermont history.

I turned on my headlight when I approached Rte. 4 and took advantage of its wide shoulder as I climbed the mountain alongside a steady flow of traffic.  Four miles later, I reached Pico Ski area, where the road pitched down and the traffic thinned out to a trickle as I enjoyed the long descent past Killington town.  One final, short detour onto Mission Farm Rd, which was almost certainly once part of US-4, and I was back to my car.  It was only 42 miles, but over 4,000' of sometimes extremely steep climbing.  Definitely a great capstone on a good year of cycling.  It will be a fond memory as I slog through the winter months on studded tires, under multiple layers of clothes.

Sunday, August 21, 2016

Kelly Stand Loop: An "Epic" Tandem Ride

The term "epic" is vastly overused when describing athletic activities.  You can look up the definitions of the word yourself, but if you will permit me to redefine the term to mean a ride that you will remember in detail the rest of your life, then the loop Jeanne and I did on August 20th certainly qualifies.

I had spotted Kelly Stand Road on a map years ago and quickly decided that it was one that I wanted to ride, sometime.  I was taken by its remoteness and a couple years ago, I was traveling through the area with a suitable bike in the car and decided to try it.  I parked in Arlington and when I reached the start of the road, I noticed with dismay that it was a construction zone.  The road had been largely washed out in Hurricane Irene and its rebuild was one of the last of the storm reconstruction projects in Vermont.  In fact, the state had planned to simply abandon the road, due the extent of the damage, but locals lobbied their legislators until they found the money to reconstruct it.  I forged ahead, past the signs warning me not to, and threaded my way past a number of very large excavators, making it most of the way through before a foreman stopped me.  Since it was far shorter to continue on the road, he let me go on, with an admonition to not come back and to not try it again.  No problem there, but I think my focus on the construction itself distracted me from the grade and left me with a sense that it was easier that it actually was.

Chiselville Covered Bridge
I've long wanted to go back and ride this scenic road on a tandem, so I eventually talked Jeanne into it and we headed down to Manchester to start the ride from there.  The stretch from Manchester to Arlington is quite nice, with pleasant roads that parallel the busier US-7.  There was only one significant climb and we were rewarded with a ride through the Chiselville covered bridge, near the end of the descent.  The name comes from an early mill at this location that was renown for its associated iron works that made outstanding--you guessed it--chisels.

We noticed as soon as we turned onto Kelly Stand Rd that it had been recently graded.  We were riding a tandem with 38mm tires, so we had the right rubber for it, but there were a few places where the grade was steep and the surface loose enough that we had barely enough traction to maintain forward momentum.  There's a big difference between riding smooth, hard packed dirt and freshly graded gravel, especially of the type that has only recently been laid down.  The material contained a lot of sand and none of the clay that tends to work its way up through over decades of use and which can provide a surface that sometimes rivals asphalt.  There was a huge difference once we had completed the several miles of newly rebuilt road and were on the section above the washout, which was relatively smooth, in spite of the grading.

Kelly Stand Rd
We were about half way up the long climb when I realized I was soaked with sweat.  Near the top, Jeanne called me on the fact that I had said it was a long, but easy climb, with only a few steeper pulls.  Her GPS had revealed the truth--multiple 18% climbs, extended grades of 13% - 16% and an elevation of 2800' at the top, for an almost unbroken 2100' climb, much of it on some pretty loose and bumpy gravel.  This rivals many of Vermont's storied "gaps." Including a couple short breaks on the climb, it had taken us 2 1/2 hours to cover less than 21 miles.  On Kelly Stand Rd, we had climbed 1900' in just over eight miles of almost unbroken ascent.  Suffice to say, we were plenty glad to reach the top.

Daniel Webster Monument
Just before the end of Kelly Stand Rd, where it turns to pavement and becomes the Stratton-Arlington Rd,  is a monument that I have been trying to locate for years.  At this location, in the summer of 1840, Daniel Webster came to speak, over the course of two days, to an estimated 15,000 people on behalf of the candidacy of William Harrison for president.  This event has amazed me since I learned about it, as Kelly Stand was little more than a logging camp at that time (it's uninhabited, now), with the only business being a single, small hotel on the stage line.  There was no significant population in the area, yet Webster was such a respected figure that his presence drew a gigantic crowd for the time, with people traveling many miles via horse and buggy to hear him.  Political speeches, like sermons in those days, could run many hours but people didn't have the entertainment options that we now have, so they were willing to go through the hardship of a long trek into the wilderness for such an event.  To assemble 15,000 people, many of them would have had to travel quite a distance to get there!  I think it reflects the level of orator than Webster must have been.  Apparently, it was to good effect, as all the counties surrounding the area went for Harrison in the election, some of them by fairly small margins.  History buffs will recall that Harrison's term only lasted a month, as he caught a bad cold after giving a long inaugural address outdoors in bad conditions and died, leaving his running mate, Tyler, to complete his term.  Today, this monument in a small clearing marks where the event took place.

We were rewarded by an extended, and in some places high speed, winding nine-mile descent to Wardsboro and VT-100.  Very little traffic and mostly smooth roads made it quite fun.  Then it was another nine miles heading downhill to the intersection with VT-30.  After climbing that section so many times during the 100/200, it was nice to be heading the opposite direction.  We had coasted most of 18 miles!  From there, it was an easy climb up to Jamaica where we took a much needed break.  Jeanne's legs started really hurting a couple miles before, leaving us a bit concerned as there was no way to shortcut the ride, but the break, and a chocolate creemee, did wonders, and soon we were on our way again.

I had long wanted to ride some of the West River Rail Trail, and had worked this into the route.  There's a great video at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=02t9LlbzB78 that describes the trail and shows some of its route.  The railroad had run from 1879 until a number of sections were destroyed in the Great Flood of 1927, and it never recovered, becoming fully abandoned in 1936, leaving very little of the infrastructure intact, today.  The rail trail is a fairly recent construct, and we were traveling the "upper section," which is bisected by the Ball Mountain Reservoir, which now covers a long section of the old railroad bed.  It was this interruption which put the ride over the threshold that I believe qualifies it as "epic."

Former RR bridge in Jamaica, VT
The first evidence of the defunct railroad that we encountered was this bridge, which is now used to access the Jamaica State Park.  Its placard shows that it was built in 1926, leaving it in use as a RR bridge for only a year.  Not wanting to pay the park fee just to ride through on the rail trail, we followed the old rail bed around the gate, and threaded through the campsites until we picked up the trail on the other side.

West River Rail Trail

The rail trail in this area is quite nice, but it gradually deteriorates and eventually leaves the old RR bed and becomes more of a trail.  There were a couple places where we needed to dismount and push, until a clearing presented us with the wall of stone that is the Ball Mountain Dam.  I had only hinted of this to Jeanne, so it was quite a shock to her to learn that we needed to get to the top of it.  A steep trail led us to the series of switchbacks that climbed the face of the dam.  Although a young couple successfully rode their mountain bikes down it, there was no way we were going to be able to get around the switchbacks with the tandem, so we resorted to pushing the bike to the top.


Ball Mountain Dam
Top of Ball Mountain Dam
Aerial View
Posing on the dam
Jeanne poses in front of the reservoir
It would take a lot of water to raise the level to the spillway
View of the dam from the west side


After a false start, we located the trail on the other side.  Since the RR bed is somewhere under the reservoir, a hiking trail travels 2 1/2 miles along the edge to link up to the point where the former railroad reappears.  Though parts are rideable, and would be more so on a mountain bike, there are a number of sections that were quite tough to get through with a tandem!  I was glad that our bike is well-nicked up and thus didn't feel bad about the many rocks it contacted on our way through.

Stonework on the trail around the reservoir
It was worth the trek just to cross this stone bridge in front of the waterfall.
Jeanne is laughing because she knows it's going to be
my job to carry the bike up this section of the trail.

We came out on the backside of a campground.  After bouncing over all kinds of rough surfaces and trails, I hit a portable speed bump that had been laid across the pavement.  I was taking advantage of the smooth asphalt to get to my water bottle and didn't see it until an instant before we hit.  The stupid thing was at least 4" tall and the resulting whack left us with a blip in the front rim.  I was some peeved that there were no pavement markings warning of this obstacle.

We took another break in Londonderry, and Jeanne was none too happy with the fact that she could see the steep climb on VT-11 that we were going to have to take.  We pass by this spot on the 100/200, and I am always glad that our route veers off to the left when we reach this spot, as VT-11 looms like a wall in front of you.  That was not going to be the case, today.  After downing a cold drink and a couple energy bars, we were back on the bike, passing the sign noting it is eight miles to the Bromley Mountain ski area.  This is not a continual climb, but one of those rolling ones.  Although we were glad that it was actually only a bit over seven miles to the top, we climbed 1150' to make just 900' of vertical gain.  Although I knew what to expect, Jeanne was pleasantly surprised that it was entirely downhill for the last 6.3 miles, with extended 9% grades, making for a fine and fun end to the ride.  We earned it!

I highly doubt that we'll be doing this section of the White River Rail Trail again on the tandem.  Jeanne commented that her sentiment was the same as that expressed by most riders when they reach the top of the Mt. Snow climb, "Well, I never have to THAT again!"  Of course, many do return, so you never know!  Still, I'm thinking that we'll just leave it as an "epic" memory, and seek out other challenges in the future.

I confess that I showed Jeanne a stretched out version of the elevation profile, before the ride.