Monday, December 21

Elegance Counts Too

During the course of the last couple of years, I've seen lots of stuff on the Internet about bicycle commuting and transportation. Some of it extolls urban transportation riding as the apex of bicycle culture, some of it sneers at "casual urban" cyclists. I've seen claims that cycling will cost you under 10 cents per mile, with corresponding large savings over automobile travel. On the other hand, I've suggested myself that cycle commuting isn't something you do for purposes of saving money at all. If cycle commuting is for saving money, trash bin bikes, run on a shoestring, using replacement parts from Wallyworld and thrift stores are the order of the day. Its what I'd run if I were trying to absolutely minimize outgo. A step up for those not wanting to deal with getting a relic back on the road are big box stores. It's what you can see any day of the week, chained up at the back of restaurants almost anywhere. However, even in a transportation bike, elegance counts.

Before you read any further, this post is a Steve A foray into "bike culture." As noted in that post, I tend toward bike culture stuff when I haven't been riding enough. Commuting is over for 2009.

Bike Transportation Secret
In truth, the ideal transportation bike is quite simple. It's the bike that will make you dream about riding it to work, or to the store, or to go work out at the gym. It's a bike you'll just go out to gaze on before you got to sleep, just to look at it one last time. For some, it's a traditional style touring bike, such as a Pashley. Sometimes their enthusiasm even makes me feel a bit tempted. For others, it's a modern bike, or a mountain bike. For a few, it's a Bakfiets or Xtracycle. For me, it's Frankenbike and Buddy, but Buddy's the serious transport bike I take when I need to do the miles to work daily, in darkness or light, in all weather (even though I'm just a fair weather cyclist at heart).

I first started riding to work in Texas back in 2004 (I moved here in 2003), using my road bike. It was a 19 mile commute to Vought in Dallas, and I only did it a couple times of week, and only during the longer days of the year. In 2006, I changed work locations and then began riding to work occasionally to Haltom City, using mostly older bikes. Starting in 2008, I got more serious and began to consider what I really wanted for transport. KEEP IN MIND that my transport considered only what I needed to make the trek of well OVER 10 miles each day to work. Had I been going a mile or two, or five, the criteria would have resulted in a different choice.

My Ideal Transportation Bike - First Element
There are two cycling books that have most influenced my attitudes toward cycling. Effective Cycling is one that I've talked about in this blog before. When it comes to how to ride safely, I've never seen anything that would cause me to criticize the opinionated old coot that wrote it. I've never seen any serious criticism of him in this regard elsewhere, either.  But there's another cycling book that has been at least as influential on me. To this day, I read it, though much of its advice is laughable and hopelessly outdated. That book is The Complete Book of Bicycling by Eugene A Sloane, 1970 Edition. My wife also got a copy. We keep hers, which is autographed. Eugene Sloane passed away just last year - of causes unrelated to cycling (cycling IS safe and fun), at the age of 90. My favorite chapter is "So You Want to Buy a Bicycle!" It's a window into a different time, when bicycles were more primitive, but more elegant at the same time. It predates mountain bikes. It's why I still have a French bike in my garage that I bought new in 1971, though the paint is worn clear off the chainstays, the right rear dropout is bent, and it's too big for me. It's why I now have an old Falcon. It's why I have two sets of tubular rims. That book drilled into me the first element of a serious bike - drop handlebars. All my own bikes have them. I've ridden bikes with other handlebar types, and they're pleasant enough. I may even back off someday. But not yet. In this, Forester in Effective Cycling didn't help. Forester also said drop bars are IT. I think both these guys are wrong on this, but I'm like the Pearl Harbor survivor that can't bring himself to consider buying a Toyota. As it is, shallow drop bars DO work very well for how I ride. Buddy's got shallow drop bars.

My Ideal Transportation Bike - Second Element
Sloane's book also instilled an appreciation for a second element I want in a serious bike. That second element is relatively light weight. I've never wanted the very lightest. Such bikes make too many compromises for serious point-to-point riding. They don't accommodate fenders. They don't have proper wheel clearance. They won't take racks. Many of them compromise braking - or stability - or durability - or reliability. But the influence still has power. A kickstand is, to quote Sloane, "at least a pound of dead weight." None of my bikes have kickstands. I still have the one that came with my 1971 bike, but it hasn't been on a bike for 36 years. It's why I'm fitting "quick change" fenders to Buddy, a bike that has places to attach fenders permanently.

My Ideal Transportation Bike - Third Element
Now we depart from elements contained in the book influences. I've moved beyond the love of a lugged Reynolds 531 or Columbus frame, and Campagnolo components, to an appreciation for welded aluminum with SRAM or Shimano shifters (actually SRAM rules & Shimano drools). Sloane also lacked an appreciation for the utility of braze-ons and places to bolt stuff. He was a reflection of the time in which he wrote. Forester, on the other hand, wanted to take out a torch and start brazing stuff on personally. Recently, I asked my LBS about adding braze-ons to Frankenbike and they laughed at me (there is a shop that can do it in DFW, however). My third element is that the transport bike should have enough provisions to allow it to mutate easily. None of this having to sneak a rack aboard using klugey clamps or such. None of this having to velcro a water bottle holder to the frame. Any bike that can't accommodate fenders and a rack in the basic design need not apply. That rules out most of the road bikes built nowadays.

My Ideal Transportation Bike - Final Factors
Once one specifies drop bars, light weight, room for fenders and racks, there are a few other factors. Number one amongst these are brakes. I want brakes that are capable of throwing me over the handlebars in a torrential downpour. My bike in 1971 once took two blocks to stop when I was going down a hill in the rain. It's why I'd never ride a bike with steel rims on anything other than a nice sunny day. Number two is some sort of way to fix one's feet to the pedals - either toe clips or clipless pedals. This, of course, is something that can be accomplished with ANY bike. For long-range commuting, I think SPD pedals are ideal. Number three amongst these are a solid feel to the bike. I like a twitchy feel in a road bike. It's what they're about. But a transport vehicle should feel solid and steady. It inspires confidence and purpose in the commute. Number four amongst these is that the bike has to "call out" to me. THAT is a combination of a lot of stuff. All together, these factors add up to the elegance of the bike I'm considering.

My Ideal Transportation Bike - Candidates
When you add it all up, there were basically two bike styles that remained after the criteria were set up; Touring frames and Cyclocross. Both were designed to travel all sorts of terrain. Both considered weight without being obsessed by it. Both had brakes. REAL brakes. Touring bikes all had good places to bolt stuff and they tended more towards the steel I'd grown up with and always appreciated.

Wild Card
As it turned out, I was led towards my current approximation of an ideal, long distance transport bike entirely by accident. One of my coworkers had a Specialized Tricross. What's more, he locked it OUTSIDE in the bike rack I passed by daily when I went out for a walk at lunch. Over time, I noticed the serious brakes, and the rack mounts. None of this impressed me overmuch - I had Frankenbike and I wasn't looking for a new bike anyway. Until I heard vague rumblings of a work move.

I started looking at Tricross. Tricross seem, to me, overpriced for what you get. I wasn't about to pay $1300 for a clunky Tiagra bike. What's more, over time, I've lost enthusiasm for triple front derailleurs for general use. I could get as much out of Frankenbike at 1/10 the price. I didn't see much in the way of used ones. Entirely by chance, I ran across a used, late model Expert in mid January. The Expert not only had a better specification, including SRAM shifting gear, but it avoided the drab look of the lower end Tricrosses. And the upgraded wheels made me drool. They were, simply, elegant. Buddy was it. I rode Buddy to work the first time in February 2009. It's been great.

Even Love Has Warts

Ten months of commuting show Buddy isn't perfect, but it's not real far from it. Rather than extoll its virtues, I'll focus on where it falls short:
  • Zertz Inserts - Despite what Buycycling Magazine may tell you, interrupting primary load paths with a hunk of translucent plastic isn't a road to paradise. I'd have to ride an equivalent bike without the zertz to know for sure, but I think Specialized Marketing won out over the engineers in the design. Trust me. I work on carbon stuff for a living. Carbon doesn't like making load go around corners like Specialized has done. If I ever need to replace the seatpost, I'll pick something without Zertz. I don't LIKE those popping noises I occasionally hear over rough roads.
  • Rubber Doughnuts - Buddy came with little white plastic doughnuts over the rear brake cable. They would rapidly slide to the back of the cable, with the cable marring the paint. When I switched the cables to a conventional bike arrangement, I went to rubber doughnuts. They work better, but it's still not reliable. One disappeared when I was in bike class.
  • Brake Pads - 3400 miles is a bit short for pad life in my book. Kool Stop pads might or might not last longer, but they're sweet in any event. Get the salmon color.
  • Frame Stiffness - While Buddy feels rock solid on the road, I occasionally get rear brake rubbing at times that suggest the torsional stiffness of the rear is less than ideal. Buddy also shudders on occasion when travelling over heavy gravel, and then keeps going. It's a "solid shudder" if that makes any sense.
  • Balance between cost and "perfect." - That 10 cents per mile is tough to achieve with a bike like Buddy. Buddy's about the most expensive bike with a chance of hitting that target. I think I'll get there.
  • Mileage concerns - Buddy is the first bike I've ever owned that I felt any need to conserve mileage on to avoid premature wear. That's due to the cost - even though I bought used. You buy cheap and such things are of no concern.
That's about it. Specialized may be the "Pepsi" of the bike industry to Trek's "Coke," but Specialized has done a pretty darn good job with the Tricross, though if you go visit the Specialized website, you'll find it difficult to find. On the other had, something from Surly, Redline, or Masi, without the Zertz, and a little lighter, with maybe a light green frame color. Mountain Dew, so to speak. In the meantime, I'm going out to the sunroom to look at Buddy a bit...


Pondero said...

Well, in addition to a pavement commuter, it seemed Buddy did well out on a bit of gravel recently. Neat bike.

Keri said...

"Buycycling Magazine" That's a keeper!

I never had a kickstand on a bike I used for commuting. But when I started shopping by bike, I very quickly discovered the virtue of a kickstand. Now I'm so used to having one, I get annoyed when I use the Roubaix for errands and have to hold it up while loading a pannier or putting the trunk on it.

Buddy seems like an excellent choice for your commute. And you got the bonus of being able to race with it. Nice multi-porpose bike.

Tracy W said...

"Mileage concerns - Buddy is the first bike I've ever owned that I felt any need to conserve mileage on to avoid premature wear. That's due to the cost - even though I bought used. You buy cheap and such things are of no concern."

Steve, I'm of the other opinion. If you've spent the money for a decent bike, it's a shame to let it sit. I agree that until I got my Surly last month, I was feeling bad about putting so many commuting miles on my road bike, but that was due more to the nature of the hard miles it was racking up without decent opportunities for maintenance and pulling a duty it wasn't designed for.

If you've got the right bike for the task (and I agree with Keri that you do), ride it!

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