Sunday, August 03, 2014

Binge Climbing

Many young people engage in binge drinking because they want to impress their friends; after all, there's redemption in shared experience.  The drinking masks the decision of when it would be prudent to stop, and many feel that the limitations we attempt to enforce on access to alcohol simply aggravates the problem.  When they finally do obtain the forbidden mead, they tend to engage in excess, leading to unfortunate behavior that encourages the adults to apply more restrictions.  Once one is old enough that buying alcohol is legal, the attraction tends to diminish for most, especially as we begin to recognize the foolishness and negative aspects of it all and so we turn to other things on which to binge, like climbing gnarly roads where no one would drive a car.  Hence, the attraction of the IRR, the Irreverent Road Ride (or, as I prefer, the Irrelevant Road Ride, since some of these roads have outlived their usefulness).  It's a solid, and customizable set of nasty climbs that some use to prepare for the D2R2 and cyclocross season, and others just to slake their climbing addictions.

 The River Rd at 5:30 am

I decided to ride to the start, it being only 15 miles away, as Jonesville was on the return route and that would allow me to complete the ride without any driving.  I left home at 5:15 and arrived at the start in plenty of time to register, even without the half-hour delay in the actual start.  I was impressed seeing that Pamela Blaylock and John Bailey were prepping their tandem for this rugged ride.  They wisely chose to avoid the sections that went over Class 4 roads, but that still left then riding Moretown Mountain, and Roxbury and Middlebury Gaps.  Hats off to this amazing pair!

Only about 20 intrepid riders, few Vermonters
Surprising number of women riding today

First group heading out

The small sub-group that headed out first included the tandem and four other riders, plus myself.  The entire rest of the ride, I only saw two of the riders who started after us.  Only one rider of this group, named Tim, decided to tackle Cobb Hill Rd, the first Class 4 road of the day.  I really think that there should be another classification category for Vermont roads.  Class 4 roads are unmaintained, but those we rode today are also undriveable with anything other than a jacked-up four wheel drive, or an enduro motorcycle.  Class 5 already references ferry routes, so I propose we call these Class 6, which would be right in line with Cat 6 racing--and equally irrelevant.

Tim broke his rear cantilever cable yoke right at the beginning of the rough section of Cobb Hill, leaving him with only a front brake for the rest of the ride.  It didn't slow him down at all.  The camera angle belies the steepness of this climb.

The Mad River in the morning
Cobb Hill dropped us onto 100B, one of Vermont's prettiest roads, especially this morning.  We went downhill to pickup Moretown Common Rd, then Hathaway to Moretown Mountain Rd.

We caught up with the rest of the starting group near the top of Moretown Mountain.  John and Pamela were keeping up with the singles on this relentlessly long climb.

The "Blayleys" climbing Devil's Washbowl Rd, and looking really good!
I believe John holds the record for climbing Mt. Washington on a tandem, with a time that beats most singles. They are well known in the northeast randoneuring crowd for their amazing tandem prowess.  Sadly, this was the last I saw of them for the day, though I caught a glimpse of them leaving Roxbury to climb Roxbury Gap.

I couldn't pass up this picture of a comical road sign.  Yes, there is a farm up that dead end road!

After a short break at the Roxbury General Store, where the counter person graciously filled my empty water bottle, I headed up to ride West Hill Rd.  This was substituted on the ride map when the steeper Tracey Hill section became blocked by road construction.  After a good climb up Webster Rd and the Class 3 section of West Hill, the road shifted to its Class 4 status and didn't look too bad.

Soon, it deteriorated further, but still rideable.

Then it became a muddy mess.  Time to portage.  I didn't see any other bike tire tracks, so I was the first, and as it turned out the only rider to tackle this section.  Eventually the road, which doesn't show up on any maps, becomes a Class 3 again, but it was really steep and the descent highlighted the inadequacies of my cantilevers in the braking department, and the superior howling that I have not been able to eliminate from the rear brake.

Braintree Gap is not really all that steep, but it has few sections that are not at least 10-13%.  What makes it a really tough climb is the surface, which transitions gradually from crushed stone to loose, large rocks as you climb.  It's very technical and would be much easier on a mountain bike.   The sweat was pouring off me to the point where it was hard to hold onto the brake hoods and my leather Brooks became absolutely soaked.  This well-maintained cabin is the only building on the road, an amazing 2/3rd the way up the climb, and the road deteriorates further once past it.

Here's a shot of the road surface.  I tried to hold the camera as vertical as possible, so this should give an impression of its steepness.  It never really lets up, and frequent water bars make it even more challenging, but I was able to ride the whole east side, though I did stop a few times to pick some wild raspberries.  I saw tracks from two other bikes that looked fresh, so I was pretty sure that there were a couple other riders ahead of me.

They have been logging the west side (after pulling an unhealthy amount of timber off the eastern slopes over the past few years), which opened up this impressive view.  It also resulted in some significant improvements in the descent from the previous time I rode this, a few years ago.

There are still sections that would stop any standard four wheel drive vehicle that you cared anything about, but the three foot drops are gone.  The descent was so steep and long that my inadequate braking became too much for me and I opted to walk down a few sections when my hands got tired and to save at least some braking for the rest of the day's riding.

This classic old cemetery on North Hollow Rd doesn't look as if any new residents have arrived in over a hundred years.  The stones I read predated the Civil War.  It is surrounded by an old wrought-iron fence and gate.  The route next followed Rose Rd to the very steep Maston Hill descent to VT-100.  Ah, smooth pavement--it made up a bit for the headwind to Hancock.  How is it that one can always seem to get a headwind, traveling opposite directions on either side of this ridge?  A couple of older gentlemen sitting on the porch of the store offered up the sad confirmation of its closing.  Luckily, I had enough water left for Middlebury Gap.  I asked if they had seen any other cyclists head up the Gap and they said that a small group had gone through a half hour earlier, but they didn't know if one of them was a tandem.  I never did find out if most of the riders were in front of me, or still behind.

Middlebury Gap always fools me.  In spite of all the times I've ridden it, the top section always seems to take me from feeling really good about my climbing ability, to realizing why it earns its status as a gap.  Once over, and after shaking out the stones from my shoes yet again, I stopped at Middlebury College's Breadloaf campus to refill water bottles.  I had never done this before, but there were a lot of students there for summer programs and retreats, so I first tried the laundry, but found only machines and no sinks or spigots.  One of the students suggested "The Barn" and I found it setup with large, blue water dispensers that I used to refill both bottles and an extra, quart bottle I was carrying.  No one objected and I needed all of it by the time I was done.

I had always wanted to ride Steam Hill Rd, so I decided to deviate from the route to do so, and get back on dirt a tad earlier.  I went past the Road Closed Ahead signs and eventually came up on a box culvert installation that required a portage.  The construction workers were all taking the day off, and I took advantage of that gushing stream of water coming from the temporary culvert to rinse off some of the accumulated sweat and mud.  Steam Hill Rd does a fair amount of climbing before dropping back down to the Natural Turnpike, and it's not all that steep, but the surface of packed crush stone and sand proved difficult for my tires.  It seemed to require a lot of energy to ride through and challenging to ride at speed on the descent.  Natural Turnpike was a little better, but a far cry from the smooth, hard clay of Vermont's best dirt roads.

A small pond off the Natural Turnpike

 Natural Turnpike was as beautiful and lightly traveled as ever.  Most of the light traffic that travels between Lincoln and Ripton takes the Lincoln Road. perhaps because of the really gnarly section of Natural Turnpike.  As I approached Lincoln, and the houses started appearing again, the views improved as well.

I saw a couple riders looking at a familiar map outside the Lincoln General Store and they turned out to be the guys who left the tracks on Braintree Gap.  I think we were the only three to ride it.  They were both strong climbers and I rode with them up Forge Hill Rd, taken to avoid a bridge replacement on Quaker Street, leaving them at the top of Downingsville Rd when I stopped to switch water bottles.  We had chatted about whether or not to ride the last serious off-road section, with the general sense that, even without the sections of the route that had already been removed for one reason or another, we had all done plenty of climbing for one day.  They also clued me in as to why they hadn't ridden West HIll Rd--it had been recommended that riders skip this section at the pre-ride briefing.  I missed that little detail, to my regret.  In spite of this, I did start up Beane Rd when I got there, but eventually recognized that the route climbed an amazingly steep section I had ridden once before with John Gaydos, only to find it petering out in an overgrown, log-strewn field in the woods.  I decided not to risk it and returned home via Dugway Rd, to avoid the nasty descent on Wes White Hill.

It was 116 miles of riding and over 10,000' of climbing, much of it on truly challenging terrain.  The time is almost irrelevant, but it took me over nine hours of riding.  I learned that I should not ride such challenging climbs on a humid day, and that I should have switched to the Brooks Cambium for so many hours on a soaked saddle.  It might be a good idea to try a different set of wheels without ceramic rims, in hopes of better braking, since I am not in the market for a new bike with disk brakes.

The ride was memorable enough to warrant such a long blog post, but I might as well have just gone and ridden it alone.  I've done most of these roads already, and rode by myself most of the day.  I could have stuck with the rest of the riders, and probably should have, but few people seemed interested in doing the ride as it was created and promoted, turning it into just another two-gap loop, with a bunch of dirt thrown in.  I'm not clear on why there was a $35 registration fee, since almost nothing beyond the map and a couple of bagels was provided, and the ride organization wasn't very tight.  I'm sure there were some expenses associated with pre-riding and marking the route, and I don't want to come across as cheap, but I really like the model we created with the 100/200 and I think we would all benefit from more free, semi-organized rides, so get out there and plan one! 

Like the teenager with a hangover, I'm swearing off binge climbing for awhile, or at least until my butt isn't so sore.

So, where do you want to ride tomorrow?

Sunday, July 27, 2014

Meeting The Man, Keith Lippy

Tuesday, I received a call from Philip.  "Don't you have a Lippy tandem?  I've heard that Keith Lippy is doing the POMG Cross Vermont Tour this week." We do, indeed, have a Lippy that we purchased nine years ago from its original owner and which is the hands-down favorite of the many tandems we have owned.  Later in the day, after spending some time looking at the route they were to take, I got a call from Todd, who was one of the tour leaders, telling me the same thing.  Together, we hatched a plan to surprise Keith with a visit from one of his creations.

After the Thursday Eastern Tandem Rally ride, Jeanne and I drove over to Waitsfield, parking at the school.  We rode the tandem the mile from there to the B&B where the POMG group was staying.  Todd greeted us, then went up to get Keith, giving him a fictitious story about a couple of riders who were having mechanical problems, and couldn't he, with his experience, help them out?  No doubt, Keith was not excited about being tapped to work on his vacation but, being a nice guy, he skipped his shower and came down to see what was going on.  The look on his face when he emerged onto the deck and saw the tandem, in its original paint, was truly priceless.  Soon, his wife Pat joined us and we spent at least a half hour chatting about the bike and Keith's framebuilding history.

Keith quit building frames in the late 1990s to teach high school science.  He's got a few years left before retirement and says that he's leaving the door open to doing some bike work again in retirement, though not on a full commercial scale.  It was obvious that he took a great deal of pride in his work as a framebuilder and that he was an early developer and adopter of a number of innovations that found their way into accepted frame design.  Keith also corrected a number of misconceptions I had received from reading online posts from self-proclaimed "knowledgeable experts."

Keith did, indeed, build some frames and forks for Masi, but he did not master the trade in the Carlsbad shop, as some seem to think.  Once Carlsbad closed, Keith (who had started building his own bikes in San Diego around 1974, near, but not associated with Masi USA) agreed to manufacture for Masi under contract in his own shop.  Without mentioning names on the Masi side, Keith put his own business on hold to do the Masi work, but this proved difficult.  The Masi work came in fits and starts, with unexpected delays in obtaining components and orders that resulted in periods of weeks in which Keith didn't have work.  One cannot take custom orders without the ability to provide delivery dates, so he wasn't making money on the deal, overall.  Add to that delays in receiving payment, and it didn't take Keith too long to throw in the towel on the Masi deal, which still seems to be a thorn in his side.  This would have been around 1977, before Masi setup the Rancho Sante Fe and San Marco operations.

Keith said that our bike has the third generation of his decals (which was likely the last.  The serial number and information I received from the original owner places the frameset around 1987.  It has a number of unusual, custom details (more on those later).  Keith said that he was dissatisfied with the Columbus tandem tubing that was commonly used at the time.  Contrary to what has been stated by some of the aforementioned "experts", Keith did not use custom-drawn tubing from Pacific northwest aerospace suppliers.  Rather, the frame is made from straight gauge chromoly steel, with the oval top tube from Phil Wood, who was custom-drawing these for framebuilders at the time.  Phil had become a supplier for the tandem market, expanding his highly respected hub and bottom bracket offerings with an advanced (if fatally flawed from a design perspective) disk brake.  Keith also wasn't merely experimenting with oval tubes, as some claim, but rather had a design philosophy that followed from an analysis of the stresses on tandems.  He reasoned that the forces acting on the top tube were primarily horizontal, while stresses in the boom tube were torsional.  He felt that the best combination would be an elliptical top tube, and round mid and boom tubes, providing improved stiffness while softening road shock.  At least one other, now famous, tandem builder visited Keith's shop to benefit from his experience, though, having one of this builder's tandems from that era, I can tell you that he missed the recipe for Keith's secret sauce.

Here are some features of our Lippy.

That's the Lippy logo in the fork crown.  Keith said he had the fork blades custom drawn to use a heavier gauge steel and added an insert into the steerer to strengthen the fork in this critical area.  That's the original Dura Ace road headset, which is still in excellent condition.

Note the use of the oval top tube to internally route the rear brake cable.  The Scott Superbrake looks a lot cooler than it works.  Perhaps its lack of performance has more to do with the 25 year-old brake pads than the unique brake design.

Clean brazing on the front dropouts.

The brass head badge is silver brazed directly onto the frame.  It has discolored a bit under the clearcoat, but it's still classy, perhaps only challenged at the time by Bilenky's silver creations on his Sterling tandems.  The Scott Superbrake provides barely enough clearance for 28mm tires.

Here's a full-on shot.  The bike is a tad too large for Jeanne to allow fitting of a shock absorbing stoker seatpost , so we've replaced the rear saddle with a sprung Brooks leather model that has proven quite satisfactory.  The custom fade was done to the customer's specification by Keith, who did his own painting.  No stock colors or limited selections for Lippy customers.

Keith pointed out the large-diameter seat stays he used to stiffen the rear triangle, rather than to add an extra set of stays.  Keith didn't recall fitting any Campagnolo cranksets to his tandems.  These were on it when I got the bike, though I replaced the triple arm with one that was drilled for standard 74mm chainrings, to get a lower gear for our Vermont mountains.  I've always loved their clean, vintage look.

I don't think I ever noticed the rider in the negative image formed by the left side of this decal until Keith pointed it out.  Apparently, we were not the only ones who didn't see this in the graphic.

Note the custom seatpost binder and the points on the seat tubes, custom details that didn't make it onto all his frames, according to Keith.

Rear Brake Bridge Detail

Seat Tube Decal

We really appreciated the opportunity to meet the builder of our favorite tandem.  Keith had mentioned to the other riders on the tour that he had been a builder, but they were not aware that he was one of the legends of American framebuilding until we showed up with the proof of his skill and design genius.  There's a reason why, over 25 years later, people still skip over a hundred high-tech Cannondales, Co-Motions, and  Santanas, to see the Lippy at tandem rallys.  Keith said that, should he return to building in retirement, he will likely stick to singles, even though most of the frames he made were tandems.  Too bad--we told them that, if we could, we would commission him to make one like ours, but custom sized.  We love it!

Climbing the Dirt on a Tandem

The Rodriguez Toucan tandem passed the final road test on a 25-mile ride Friday, so we decided to put it through its paces, selecting a loop of primarily dirt roads, starting in Essex and going up through Fairfield. Many of these roads were unfamiliar, and the elevation graphs indicated that there would be some challenging climbs, but we felt that we were in good enough shape from the Eastern Tandem Rally last week to tackle it as we gamely set off.  I picked up the Toucan last spring, in my ongoing search for a good tandem for the dirt that actually fit.  Sadly, the purchase of a Santana that would have been a fantastic deal fell through, but the Toucan has turned out to be a really nice ride.  It has heavily ovalized top and boom tubes and a mildly ovalized mid-tube.  It was sold as an entry level tandem in 1998, but this was largely due to the component package.  The frame is actually quite nice.  I swapped out the crankset, which was junk, and replaced the drum brake setup with a standard, 8-speed mountain bike wheel.  The 26 x 32 gear seemed a bit too low, but turned out to be a good choice for this ride.  With the stem lengths finally dialed in, it's a quite nice riding bike and the fat, 26" slicks turned out to be perfect for the loose gravel and crushed stone we ran into, which would have stopped road tires.

It was a partially cloudy, 75 degrees when we started, with a very light tailwind, making for perfect riding conditions.  We started out heading up the long, easy climb up Woods Hollow Rd.  There was almost no traffic until we came out on VT-128 for the long descent into Fairfax.  We made the steep climb on Boissoneault Rd, stopping to look at the picturesque falls.  Starting out on the steep climb was a challenge, and we dropped the chain, while shifting into the smallest chainring, so I will need to add a guide to avoid that problem.  We realized that starting out on a steep climb on dirt is easiest when you are in the saddle, so we perfected that technique as we went along.

We continued knocking off the easy climbs on Huntville and Woodward Rds until turning onto paved Buck Hollow and its pleasant descent to South Rd.  There was some disagreement about the wisdom of selecting Ridge Rd for the next turn.  The stoker has decided that certain road names should be avoided.  This first included the obvious "Hill," "Mountain" and "Gap," and was extended to include "Hollow" and, most recently, "Ridge."  I assured Jeanne that this Ridge Rd was downhill in both directions, a concept that was immediately challenged, but since the road wound around with no steep sections visible at the start, there was no immediate mutiny.  True to form, the road soon pitched up to a decent, though not extreme grade, and there was some general grousing about having to do that much climbing on a road with the word "Ridge" in the name, but which had no view.  Eventually, we came out by some farm fields which the GPS seemed to want to send us off through.  This is not all that uncommon on secondary roads, where the databases sometimes keep the road on a route that was altered decades ago.  Soon there seemed to be a serious discrepancy, as the available options led us off the route, both proving to be dead ends.  Closer inspection showed a muddy, hidden, ATV trail as the likely alternative and, with much cajoling and an agreement to walk the bike, we set off through the woods.
"If this doesn't go through, it's all your fault!"
After awhile, the road leveled out a bit and was at least partially rideable.  Before it became an actual road again, it went past a sap collection shed and the sugarer had brought in a number of loads of large, crushed stone, laying it quite deep, apparently as it came off the truck, not bothering to grade it at all.  Surprisingly, we were able to plow through most of it with the fat tires.  We were rewarded with a nice, long descent on Romar and Lapland roads.

We looped around on Lost Nation Rd, to start back on Taylor.  While we had already hit a section that the GPS reported as over 23% (unlikely), Taylor Rd proved to be the most challenging.  It had a two-mile climb, with a short break about half way.  The last mile was the toughest, with an extended section over 15% at the end, approaching 19%, according to the GPS.  It was steep enough that the rear tire was skipping out on the dirt, something we hadn't experienced before on a tandem.  We made it without stopping, not wanting to try starting again on the steep grade, though we certainly thought about it.
View of Mansfield from North Rd
We were rewarded with lots more descending and some really nice views from North Rd.  We wound through Fletcher and then down to the river on Black Mtn. Rd.  After a stop at the store on VT-104, we headed up Sand Hill Rd.  Now, this does include the word "Hill" in the name, but the stoker had been so beaten up by the climbs that there was little more than some light whimpering and general resignation to the abuse ahead.  As it turned out, there was only a single short, if steep pull, before the road leveled out and started descending.  It was actually quite a bit easier than 128 would have been.  There was a long section of deep, very loose gravel, but signs gave us the impression that this was road work in progress.  Could it be that pavement is on its way?  If so, this will become our preferred route back to Westford.

We turned onto Brookside Rd for the easy climb past the Westford School.  Though Jeanne suggested we drop back to 128 and take the easy way back, we stuck to the route, making the steep climb to Woods Hollow, on Phelps, picking up Old Stage Rd and it's sweet descent to Chapin.  Ok, there's a little climb past the golf course, but it's easy, not to mention paved.

This was, perhaps, one of the toughest rides we've ever done.  Lots of loose stuff, plenty of steep climbs, with over 4k'of elevation gain, if the GPS is to be believed.  At 56 miles, it seemed harder than the paved Prouty century we rode a few weeks ago.  Jeanne keeps saying "Never again," (at least for some of these roads) but this attitude is bound to soften a bit, once she is again able to climb the stairs without complaining about her stiff legs.  The bike certainly proved that it is an excellent replacement for our old Santana.  The dirt is calling!

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Prouty On!

Jeanne and I rode The Prouty for the fifth time last Saturday.  We've always done the full 100, on the tandem, of course.  The start was pleasantly cool, with a light fog, but things warmed up fairly quickly under a clear sky.  As usual, there was a huge number of riders participating, and we ran into a number of people that we know.  The tandem has its own speed, though, so we didn't ride for any appreciable distance with anyone in particular.
Moosilauke Highway
The worse part of such a popular charity ride is that there are almost always people riding slowly up every hill.  Tandems are not known for their hill-climbing prowess, though they descend like rockets, but it's really hard to go as slow as many of these riders.  On a single, you can simply accelerate around the group and then get back to your tempo, but it takes a lot more effort to do this on a tandem.  You need to time things so that you can get completely around the riders while there is a break in the traffic, and it doesn't help when they are going at different speeds.  It would be a lot easier if people would stay to the right, as the Prouty route features lots of wide shoulders, but this is, after all, a social event, so one can understand it if folks want to chat alongside their friends, where possible.
Sue & Dave approaching the bridge to Vermont
We caught up to Sue and Dave on their tandem a bit over half-way through the loop.  They had ridden the 100/200 back in June, the first to ever do so on a tandem!  They are a strong team and it was fun to ride with them, though they were stronger up some of the hills than we.  SAG stops are placed every ten miles or so on the Prouty route, and we were skipping every other one.  Being out of sync with the stops Sue and Dave were using, we were only with them for about 10 miles.  We added our names to those of the others riding for Team Hoss this year, mostly because so many Team Hoss folks have ridden the 100/200 over the past few years.  Team Hoss was the third highest fundraising team this year, raising over $86K.

Connecticut River, south of Wells River
As usual, we picked up a headwind when we headed south in Wells River, but it wasn't nearly as bad as in some previous years.  By the 80-mile mark, we were both pretty cooked and were happy when we passed the steel drum band on the final (and steep) hill, just before the finish.  We finished with an average speed of just over 17 mph, which was significantly slower than last year, but still respectable.  We'll be in good shape for the Eastern Tandem Rally in a couple weeks.

At the post-ride festivities, we loaded up our plates and headed for one of the three huge tents, randomly selecting one of hundreds of tables, where there happened to be two vacant seats.  After a few minutes, I noticed that a person sitting at the other end of the row of tables looked familiar and, sure enough, it was John Painter, along with Phil Surks and his family.  Now, it is a bit odd to randomly end up at the same table as someone you know in an event this large, but it's far stranger when this is exactly what happened two years ago, with the same people, and it's not like we were even sitting in the same place!  It reminded us of last year, where we ran into two friends at the 25-mile SAG stop and they each started introducing us to the other person.  It turns out that the two guys had never met before, and had randomly found themselves riding together and struck up a conversation on the climb to the SAG.  They didn't realize that we knew both of them already--and very few of the thousands of other people there.

We've lost too many friends of ours to cancer and have known far too many others who have contracted one form or another of the disease.  I am reminded of Richard Thompson's verse, "Too many friends of ours, blown off this mountain in the wind."  As we get older and that circle grows, and we realize it could happen to anyone, including us, riding the Prouty becomes more and more a compelling experience.  With our clutch of yellow ribbons bearing the names of some of these folks streaming from the back of our tandem, it's hard not to be reminded that any of them faced much greater obstacles than we did on this little ride on a beautiful summer day, climbing our little hills.  They were the giants.  They climbed mountains.

Saturday, March 22, 2014

In Praise of Old Bikes

An amazing amount of bicycle-related innovation has occurred over the 150-year history of the bicycle. Years ago, I purchased a copy of Archibald Sharp's book Bicycles and Tricycles: An Elementary Treatise on Their Design and Construction, originally published in 1896 with the intended purpose of pulling the rug out from under some of the hare-brained innovations of the day. The book is a fascinating read, as it's full of detailed illustrations. If you think that new ideas are flooding the bicycle and component industry today, Sharp's book is an eye-opener. You'll find that many cutting-edge designs were in production over 100 years ago!

What is really interesting is that the basic form of the bicycle has not changed significantly since the craziness of the late 1800s coalesced on the basic design of Starley's Rover of 1885, with two wheels of the same diameter, a low, center-mounted crankset, and chain drive. Materials have improved dramatically, gearing has helped flatten the hills, frame geometry has evolved to be suitable for modern roads, brakes can now actually stop the bike, and tires have improved dramatically, but the basic design hasn't really changed (ignoring recumbents, of course).

As the automobile replaced the horse, bicycle and train in the period between WWI and WWII in the US, the bicycle gradually became primarily a child's toy and there was little development on this side of the Atlantic. In Europe, however, continual development resulted in some very interesting bicycles, primarily focused on long-distance cycling. Randonneuring became popular, especially in France, with some amazingly lightweight bicycles being produced by French “constructeurs.” Complete bicycles with fenders, racks and generator lighting systems with weights under 20 lbs were available in the 1930s—just try to purchase a bike like that today! Racing was still big, as well. We all know that the Tour de France ran, with breaks only in wartime, continually since 1903. Once Europe rebuilt after WWII, and the automobile became affordable even in Europe, the bicycle took a hit there, as well. There were still many more fine bicycle manufacturers and builders in Europe than in North America, and the racing bicycles of the 1950s and 1960s are not a lot different from those of the 1970s, but they are hard to find today, and probably best left to the collectors.

Very little development of the modern bicycle can be traced to the world beyond North America and Europe. The most popular single bicycle model of all time was the Chinese-made Flying Pigeon, with over 550 million produced. This bicycle remained largely unchanged over its production life, having been essentially copied from the 1930s British rod-brake, 28” wheel design. The only real difference in the Chinese version was the use of almost unbelievably inferior quality steels. It's amazing that the third world has moved on that platform for so long, and it's a lesson to the value of ingenuity and standardized parts.

Most of you are aware of the Bicycle Boom of the late 1960s through the first half of the 1970s. Some of you lived through it! This was the era when derailleur-equipped bicycles became popular in the US and it became almost acceptable for adults to ride bicycles for exercise and transportation. I say “almost” because I lived through that time and I must say that if you think that too many drivers are hostile to cyclists today, you haven't seen anything compared to what we experienced in the 1970s. The Bike Boom caught manufacturers unprepared and the components on basic models represented designs that had been established over 20 years earlier. Generally speaking, only the top-level bikes of that era are worth riding today. The heavy Schwinns, and the Raleighs and Peugeots with steel cottered cranks and carbon-steel frames were junk then and they haven't gotten better with age.

It was the Japanese who really improved the performance and durability of bicycle components in the later 1970s and 1980s, leaving European manufacturers to play catch-up. Once you get to the 1980s, you find a large variety of very nice, affordable bicycles, with proportional sizing, modern 700C wheels, and quality frames and components. It's these bicycles that may deserve your attention today. These bicycles get little respect, but are often available cheaply and the reality is, they can be fine riding bikes. I won't say that they will offer the same level of performance as a brand new model, but you may find that, at least for some purposes, they can actually be superior in many respects.

The longer you are a cyclist, the more you become aware of the gigantic disconnect between marketing and articles in the mainstream cycling press and real differences in bicycle performance. I won't say that there is no benefit to carbon fiber frames and electronic shifting, but these improvements are incremental, not revolutionary for most of us. Certainly, if you are racing or time trialing, these differences are very important, and some things, like electronic shifting, are just plain luxurious in the same way as a high-end automobile, and there's nothing wrong with that. The bottom line, though, is that a fast bike will not make you go fast; it's the engine that's important. If you're not trying to eke out every bit of performance from your bike, you'll find that you can have just as much fun on a $200, 20 year-old bike as you can from a $3,000 modern model, and feel a lot better about leaving it locked up downtown or riding it on a dirt road.

A Bianchi, Trek, Cannondale, Fuji, or even Schwinn from the 1980s or 90s can be an excellent bike for commuting or dirt road riding. Many of these bikes have eyelets for fenders and racks and sufficient clearances for 28mm tires, which are fine for most Vermont dirt roads. You can pick up these bikes quite cheaply at garage sales and bike swaps and you can often find examples that have accumulated very few miles over their lifespans. You can have a bike that not only rides very well, but one which you will not care if a stone gets thrown up and dings the paint.

If you go shopping for one of these dusty jewels, you do need to use some care. The biggest issue is fit, and if it's not your size, it's impossible for it to be a good deal. Resolve not to buy a bike that is not a perfect fit, even though it will cause frustration if you require a very small or large size. Be patient and wait for the right bike to come along. Decide what features you need, such as eyelets or clearance for wide tires. Spin the wheels slowly and look carefully at the trueness of the rims. Gradual wobbles between the rim and brake pads can probably be adjusted out, but flat spots and blips in the rim will require replacement, and the bike may not be worth it (though you can get decent wheels brand new for about $100 a pair). While you are spinning the wheels, put your hand by the hub and feel for rumbling caused by bearing wear. You will need to pull the greasy chain away from the cassette so that you can feel the hub bearings, not the ratchet. If you feel roughness that is caused by pitted bearings, it's not something that will be corrected by repacking and you might find the damaged parts difficult or impossible to replace. Check for excessive wear on the teeth of the chainrings. Teeth that are hooked on the front indicate a bike with a lot of miles and most of the rest of the bike is probably worn out as well. Finally, steel frames need to be checked for front-end damage. Sight down the fork to see if it is bent back at all and check for any distortion in the top and down tubes immediately behind the head tube. If you spot anything unusual, pass the bike by—it's junk.

If you find your perfect closet queen, don't ride it until it has been rebuilt. Grease can thicken and dry out over years of storage and your bike will die a speedy death if you just pump up the tires and ride it. It also may not be safe without new tires, cables and brake pads. The big disadvantage to an old bike for an inexperienced cyclist is that it should be completely overhauled before use and the owner usually lacks the necessary knowledge, skills and tools. This becomes especially problematic when you've bought your new-old bike in May, when the bike shops are swamped with work and simply cannot fit your complete overhaul into their schedule. Your choices then become hanging onto the bike until the off-season, when your favorite bike mechanic will be happy to take on the job, or learn to do the work yourself. If you choose the latter, you will find that it's not rocket science and you'll have the added benefit of learning the skills and acquiring the simple tools needed to keep your bike working well far into the future. Just be patient with the process and you probably will end up saving money in the long run.

An alternative is to spend a bit more and buy your old bike from a shop that specializes in used bikes. The Old Spokes Home is the leader in this regard, though some other shops will have used bikes available from time to time. One of the best things about northern Vermont is that we have a higher per-capita concentration of bike shops than almost anywhere else in the country. I have visited all the shops in the Burlington and Montpelier areas many times and I have a great deal of respect for the people working in them. We are very lucky to have such universally solid professional support for cycling in northern Vermont, and these folks deserve your support. It may sound crude, but this is offset a bit by some of the idiots who sell used bikes regularly on Craigslist. You are wise to stay far away from those guys.

So don't look down your nose at that dirty, steel-framed bike lurking in the back of your neighbor's garage. I put more miles on my 1984 Bianchi Nuovo Racing while commuting last year than any other bike I own (2300 miles out of 10,000 total) and never wished I was on a different bike. I bounced across freshly-graded roads, slogged through the rain, and left it unlocked outside grocery stores lots of times (you can get away with that in Vermont). I wouldn't want to lose the bike to accident or theft, but neither would it be a huge deal if I did. I never worry about it, I just maintain it and ride it. It may be the perfect bike.

Monday, March 03, 2014

Overhaul Suntour XC Pro Rear Hub

7-speed Cassette Body
I've managed to pick up a variety of Suntour cassette hubs and cassettes over the past year.  Anything Suntour from Japan is at least 20 years old at this point (though all these parts were brand new), but the products that Suntour was making at the end of their road were among the best available at the time.  The XC Pro hubs used cartridge bearings and had a feature called GreaseGuard, that allowed you to inject grease into two ports that directed the grease into the inside of the cartridge bearings, flushing out any contaminants.  The concept, created by Charlie Cunningham and licensed to Suntour by WTB, was pure genius, though some of the advertising makes highly suspect claims (do headsets really blow out grease when the altitude changes, and would this even matter?  I think not).  The best thing about these hubs, made by Sanshin, was that the cartridge bearings are a standard size that is very inexpensive to purchase and easy to replace.  The bearings are also well-supported, strengthening the standard diameter axles.

The big downside of the Suntour hubs is that they used their own spline arrangement for the cassette versions, which is not interchangeable with anything else on the market.  Suntour was always known for making outstanding freewheels, so their cassettes were among the best of the best at the time and they used their PowerFlo tooth profile, which improved shifting.  Many people didn't like the locking design, which used a threaded sixth or seventh cog, requiring two chainwhips to remove.  If you find one of these that hasn't been serviced in many years, you may have a bear of a time getting it off, though a well-maintained one will present no problems.  There were also a few different variations of the cassettes and bodies that could make it difficult to find matching replacements and many of the 7-speed versions that you find today were designed for Suntour's MicroDrive system, which used smaller chainrings (for the time) and only offered an 11-24 seven-speed cassette.  Finally, almost all the 8-speed cassettes you can still find are 11-28 MD, though that happens to be a size that works very well for my commute with its steep climbs and I settled on 28 as the bottom cog on my mountain bikes decades ago.

Here are some useful body dimensions I found online:
Suntour Cassette spline lengths
6 speed = 23.7mm
7 speed = 26.1mm
8 speed = 30.8mm
7 speed MD = 20.7mm
8 speed MD = 25.4mm
 I was cleaning up the drivetrain on a commuter bike, a mid-range Bianmchi from 1984, on which I had laced an XC Pro hub into the rear wheel.  I was using a 7-speed version of the hub with an 8-speed cassette that had the threading for the last cog removed and the O.L.D. reduced to 126mm to fit the frame spacing.  I noticed a bit of roughness in the cassette body and decided to take the time to dismantle it to see if there was any dirt inside.  I looked online for any instructions on how to overhaul the hub and couldn't find much, so I decided to post some tips for anyone else who is still riding these hubs.  Most forum posts seemed to be authored by those with little direct experience (no surprise there) and consisted primarily of warnings against dismantling the cassette body, which actually proved to be quite easy.

The cassette body is held tightly to the hub shell by a threaded sleeve that is tightened with a right-hand thread, accessed from the non-drive side of the hub with a 10mm hex key.  The IceToolz tool for removing Shimano cassette bodies worked quite well for me.

  1. Remove the left side locknut, washers and cone.
  2. Slide the axle out,. taking care to catch the nine 1/4" balls that support the right side of the axle.  (This is another weakness of the design, in that there is no cartridge bearing on the right side of the rear hub.  However, the placement of the bearing makes the assembly quite strong, like Shimano's designs.) Carefully pry the steel labyrinth seal from the cassette body, if it's a non-MicroDrive 7-spd hub, working evenly around.
  3. The cup for the outer bearing doubles as the locknut for the cassette body.  You could use a punch to loosen this, but I found that the old Shimano cassette lockring tool I have worked fine.  I held it tight against the hub with a long 5/16" bolt and nut, and loosened the reverse-thread locking race with a wrench on the Shimano tool.  Only loosen the locknut; do not remove it at this point.
  4. Remove the sleeve that holds the body to the hub by inserting a 10mm hex key into the left side of the hub.  This one is right-hand thread.
  5. Once you have the body off, put a clean cloth in a shallow box or tray and complete the disassembly of the body, taking care not to mix the 1/8" balls from one side with those of the other, if you plan on re-using them.  I found that there was no dirt inside mine.  The body could probably have used another shim, but it wasn't binding and the bearings were in great shape, so I just cleaned and reassembled it.
  1. Place some tacky grease (white lith works well) in the inner bearing race and arrange the balls.  Alternatively, you could simply install the inner body into the outer body and then insert the balls with the two parts just far enough apart to provide clearance.
  2. With the shims in place, insert the remaining 1/8" balls into the outer race.  If you are going to use grease for these balls, drip some oil onto the pawls, first.  If you like grease on the pawls (I don't), make sure it is very light stuff.
  3. Drip some 30-weight oil into the body to lube the outer bearings and pawls.
  4. Install the reverse-threaded locking race, but don't try to cinch it down yet.
  5. Reinstall the cassette body to the hub shell.
  6. Cinch down the cassette body locking race.
  7. Tap the labyrinth seal back in, using a light hammer and flat plate.
  8. Reinstall the axle.  Adjust using standard QR axle techniques. Read Sheldon's article at if you don't have any idea what I'm talking about.
That's all there is to it.  The entire process shouldn't take more than a half hour the first time you do it.  There are two tiny holes on each side of the cassette body that I believe are the path that grease is supposed to take, using the GreaseGuard system.  It looks like the grease pressure is supposed to move grease through the cassette body to the outer bearing and then out.  If you submerge your hubs completely in water, then this is probably a good feature, but that's a lot of grease to have inside the cassette body and I've had troubles in the past with greased pawls, so I prefer to only inject grease into the left side cartridge bearing, which is more exposed, and leave the drive side lubed in a more traditional manner.  Of course, you will need to disassemble the hub to service a non-GreaseGuard version.

The MicroDrive hubs had the smallest cog threaded onto the next cog, which then threaded onto the body.  The outer seal for this hub is a custom rubber piece that will probably dry out someday, rendering the hub useless.  The seal does not work as well as the labyrinth seal of the standard bodies, making GreaseGuard a more useful version on these hubs, but you need to use MD if you want an 11t cog for some reason.

More classic Suntour fun at The Bicycle Info Project and MOMBAT

Saturday, February 01, 2014

First App Gap for 2014

January was a dud. The bitter cold and the need to drive Tuesdays and Thursdays conspired to keep me off the bike much of the month. I ended January with only 156 miles under my belt, with only four days of riding. Ouch. Riding yesterday reminded me of how out of shape I was after two months of little cycling. Seeking more miles, I decided to take advantage of the warmer weather and see how many I could get in before the next storm came in. I left around noon, with the temperature at 37 degrees, on the Gunnar, with non-studded 32mm tires.

Getting down the hill on the dirt road was a bit sketchy, but I kept to the sections that were covered with gravel and made it without mishap. The ride was pretty uneventful. It was solidly overcast when I got to the bottom of upper App Gap in Buels Gore, so I headed up. I didn't dance on the pedals, but I didn't struggle either, in spite of donating blood a few days ago.  Most of the Gap was clear, though the descending lane at the climb at the top was snowy. I came back down in the wrong lane until the right lane was clear. I went slow to avoid the random patches of snow and the nasty frost heaves, which almost made me wish for something besides cantilevers for brakes.

The ride back to Richmond was fast, with a light tailwind, but my legs were feeling all the climbing. I stopped to waste Gene Bell's time a bit at his shop. He had just gotten back from going down to Tennessee for a few weeks. It had really started to snow when I left, a flurry of fine stuff, though the roads were still clear. I saw another rider in the snow just before hitting the dirt and exchanged greetings. I stopped part way up the hill to let most of the air out of my tires and that gave me the traction to get through the accumulating snow. By the time I got home, there was quite a buildup on the bike.  50 miles, 4,000' of climbing, a good start to February!

There's a set of cantilevers under there.
Shifting got mighty slow.

Sunday, January 12, 2014

Named Vermont Gaps, Notches and Passes

I've ridden most of the popular Vermont named climbs several times, but there are a lot more named passes that I've never done. Many of these are not climbs that can be done on a bike, though a number of those that are not traversed by roads look like they have logging roads or trails that do go through. I spent some time today with a list of these and created a table that lists the passes and indicates what type of bike, if any, should be suitable for a crossing. I'm thinking of making it a goal this year to ride all the ones that look like they might be rideable at least once. Here's the link

There are exceptions, but generally "gaps" are east-west passes over the spine of the two spines the Green Mountain range. Notches tend to have larger cliffs on each side at the top, though App Gap certainly has some significant cliffs. Gulfs in Vermont usually run north-south and follow steams between steep inclines, but they are not included in this list. VT 100 north of Granville is widely known as Granville Gulf, but appears on the list as Granville Notch. I haven't checked the official place names (upon which this list claims to be based), but that one certainly is not in the same league as Smugglers' Notch or Hazen's Notch.

I achieved my goal of 10,000 miles for last year. I was still about 50 miles short of last year's total, but my records showed about 30,000' more of climbing and slightly more (10) hours of riding. Granted, my elevation recording methods are questionable in terms of accuracy, but then all are (GPS units fool many folks into confusing precision with accuracy). However, they have been consistent, so I think it's valid to say that I did a significant amount more climbing. My total recorded elevation gain was around 667,000' for the year, which is 126 miles, straight up. Not too shabby, if it's even remotely close to being a valid number. That would easily get me into low-earth orbit (min. 99 miles), which shouldn't surprise some people who know me. So far, this year is off to a very slow start with the cold weather we've been experiencing.