Thursday, December 13, 2018

Testing one, two.

What the screed below boils down to is that I just want to ride my bike more.

In this instance, "more" does not refer to days per week nor even necessarily hours per day.  Although both of those would also be nice.

What I'm after is the ability to ride more feet per mile.  On snow.

Allow me to explain...

Our backyard mountain receives copious quantities of snow every winter -- averaging over 300" and piling up close to 500" with some regularity.  Today is December 12th and already over 100" has fallen this season.  I was out this afternoon as another 5" came in, driven on a wind.  Most well-adjusted funhogs would immediately jump in here and point me toward some phat powder skis and skins and suggest that I would enjoy myself more with those tools.  And they'd have a point.

But I'm not really interested in skiing anymore.  I ski bummed in Crested Butte from '92 to '98, banging out 130+ days each of my first two seasons, and then 100+ days each season thereafter.  Skiing is neat but I've nearly had my fill and moved on for many reasons.

Anyhoo, our backyard mountain gets lots of snow.  And while people flock here in droves to ride our trails in spring, summer, and fall, those same hordes are nowhere in evidence when winter arrives.  So these snowbound trails don't get much traffic -- nowhere near enough to keep them packed in and consistently rideable.

When you have a low-moisture content alpine/continental snowpack that is constantly being refreshed and not enough traffic to adequately compress it between storms, you get trails that are soft, punchy, difficult to ride.  At best.  More often they're drifted over with wind affected ball bearings, or completely buried under cold smoke.

To the end of being able to ride more, I experiment with new ideas every chance I get.  Usually that means ever wider rims and tires, such that I've had a series of custom snowbikes made over the past 20+ years.  Sometimes it means riding whichever rims and tires you have, but experimenting with pressures.  Sometimes it means ignoring the rolling bits and focusing on/learning about how geometry can make poor conditions more rideable.  Other times it means ignoring all but the minutia, and seeing where you can get with that.

And, quite honestly, sometimes it just doesn't matter, because the snow is too deep, soft, fresh to do anything other than push your bike through it.  When riding locally I have the luxury of checking weather reports daily and thusly keeping tabs on what conditions are doing.  If I know a foot of fresh is en route then I know better than to try to ride the next day or two.

But when I head to Alaska -- as I've done every year for more than 20 years now -- both the route and schedule are set, so I just have to embrace whatever weather and trail conditions happen.  Having the floatiest bike and the wherewithal to make proper use of it are critical.

For the past four seasons I've been on the same chassis -- built by Whit @ Meriwether and dubbed "Brrrrrly."

Click that last link and you'll understand a bit more about what makes sense for riding the kind and quantity of snow we have in our backyard.  Click this one if you want the builders perspective.  Keep in mind that this bike represents literal decades of trial, error, and evolution.

And then realize that *both* Jeny and I have these bikes.

That last bit is important because for the first time in a few years there are contenders to consider when it comes to uber-floaty fat tires.  For the past four years I've ridden the venerable Vee 2XL in the PSC (white) compound.  I run them tubeless on Kuroshiro 105mm carbon rims, usually at pressures so low that they fail to register on even the best modern gauges.  Nothing else commercially made comes close to the float this combo provides. 

But now Terrene is offering their Johnny 5 meats, and after installing and riding a set I'm finding lots to like about them.  And Terrene is also offering a writ-large B Fat tire that, when installed on the new ENVE hoops, might just be worth more than a passing glance.

So, over the past few weeks and the next little while we'll be riding all of the above on our Meriwethers, on our backyard fluff as well as further afield, swapping bikes often mid-ride so that we can get a sense for which combo's work best when, at what pressures, and why.  We've even invited a few snow-savvy friends to come join us on these test missions, partially because they're our friends and it's fun to ride with friends!  But also because it's nice to get second, third, and fourth opinions to ensure that the conclusions you've drawn are both scientific and accurate.

Bringing this whole thing back to where it started, what I'm after here is the ability to ride more.  Faster isn't of particular interest, although since riding is faster than walking, then anything that keeps us pedaling will ultimately prove faster than the alternative.

Thanks for checkin' in.  Don't hesitate with questions.

Wednesday, December 5, 2018

Tis the season.

If you're a small business owner, it's inventory season.

Time to move overstock or dead inventory before the tax man comes calling in a few weeks.

For those that aren't aware, I maintain a 'sale blog' where I constantly list overstock or old stock items at substantially discounted prices.

Please have a look here

Tis also the season to go anaerobic moving at a snails pace, to need to stop frequently to keep from exploding on every small rise, and to be completely blown after covering a massive 4 miles in ~90 minutes out.

Yep, it's fatbike season.

Thanks for checkin' in.

Monday, December 3, 2018

Name that Rapid.

I think Greg started it.  He and I both like to shoot pics on many/most of our rides.

When we don't ride together we'll send each other emails of the rides we *have* done, with pics included.  At some point Greg started sending me pics and asking if I could Name that Trail.  I responded with the same.  Eventually -- over years -- it became a contest of sorts, to see if you could stump the other.  It was fun, and we both probably looked at both trails and photography a bit different as a result.

I shoot with some frequency when paddling, but don't often do much with the images or video that I capture.  While culling clips this morning it occurred to me that it might be fun to share some of the clips and ask people to Name that Rapid.  

Care to take a stab at any of these?

All in fun -- don't be shy.

Thanks for checkin' in.

Sunday, December 2, 2018

My wife is smarter than I.

Shocker, I know.

On a recent gorgeous fall day she wanted to ride.  Had a specific route in mind, even.  It's a decent ride with OK trail and good views, but because it requires a ~45 minute drive each way I'm rarely excited about it.  Just don't like to drive if I don't need to.

Plus I had a pile of projects to putter on at the shop and in the garage, and I was tired from a few weeks of go-go-go helping with the bike testing.

Ultimately she prevailed on me to join her.  Honey low-angle fall light might have helped with the decision.  The promise of hero dirt too.

At the trailhead and on the initial climb I wasn't enthused.  The noise and stink of texas wheelchairs were the main reasons why.  I'm happy to see other people out enjoying the day, but I feel like I've failed if I end up riding within or even near anything that feels crowded.

At a gate where the trail morphed from wide to skinny the 4-wheeled crowd got squeezed out and I finally began to enjoy the place and the day.

Tacky dirt, diffuse, warm, and high contrast light, my favorite riding partner, my favorite bike, and a more or less empty trail were what we immersed ourselves in that afternoon.

I almost always want to ride, but I've become pernickety on when and where I do.

Fortunately my wife is smarter than I, and understands that once you've stepped past all of your hangups and made it beyond the threshold of the doorway things tend to work themselves out for the better.  

Also fortunately?  She's usually willing to drag me along with.

Thanks for checkin' in.

Wednesday, November 21, 2018

A ride, recently: 24 hours of fall.

In the mountains.

Wet earth, greased rocks, mud and duff clinging to tires.  The combination of all of these results in an ice-like experience when attempting to find traction on rock.  None exists and we entertain ourselves slipping and sliding while trying.

You can't exactly blow up boats and put into the river from the end of the ride.  

But close.  Jeff probably knows a way...

From one of the overlooks on the ride you can *almost* see down into the river.

Not that that matters -- because what you can see from on high is so much more expansive.

And then, hours later, what you see from the cockpit of your boat is so intimate, engaging, happening.  

This isn't our backyard.  But it could be...

...if we wanted it to be.

Hmmmm.  Nah?

Thanks for checkin' in.

Wednesday, November 14, 2018

From where I sit: Late addendum.

After riding everyone else's idea of bicycle nirvana for the last month and leaving my own bike hanging forlorn all that time, the last 2 nights I've plucked my dream machine off the hook and gotten reacquainted with it.

2 glorious, golden hour, AHA-I-remember-why-I-love-29+FS-so damn-much rides.

Testing gee-whiz carbon spaceships with all sorts of buttons, bells, and whistles is awesome and all that, but g'damn am I glad to be back home.

Thanks for checkin' in.

Monday, November 12, 2018

From where I sit: 2019 bike testing.

Simple fact: Bicycles have never been better than they are today.

As far as categories of bikes for riding off-road, we used to break things into XC, Trials, and DH.  Before that you either had a mountain bike (and used it for, um, everything) or you didn't.  Nowadays there are additional categories for Trail, All Mountain, and Enduro, plus Slopestyle and Dirt Jump.  Where do those fit in, how do they apply to you, and which bike should be chosen for each?  Further muddying the waters there are subcategories such as Downcountry, Cross Stuntry, even (swear to god...) SlopeDuro.

To the end of answering that question for myself I used to attend the annual bike industry trade show every fall.  Or at least once they started to have an on-dirt demo where you could actually ride different bikes, on dirt, and feel the nuances of each.  Eventually that demo became crazy crowded, such that you'd spend more of the day waiting for a specific bike to become available than you would riding.  Sometimes you'd never get a chance to swing a leg over that bike.  Eventually I stopped going because I wasn't getting to actually ride the bikes I was going there to ride.

There are lots of other demo events these days, most of which seem to be afflicted with similar crowding issues, or they're held at places that can handle crowds but you still can't get the bikes you want.  Or you finally get the bike you want but the trails are so milquetoast that you can't learn much about it.  The last demo event I attended featured manufacturer's reps whom insisted on cramming their hastily assembled propaganda ("this layup is unparalleled in it's ability to be laterally stiff yet vertically compliant...") down your throat one-on-one while slooooowly installing your pedals and ostensibly tweaking the suspension to suit you.

For these and other reasons I haven't attended a demo event for a few years.  But an opportunity presented itself this fall -- fell into my lap you might say -- which I simply couldn't refuse.  Outside Magazine holds an annual event where they test and review 50 of the most highly desired bikes (roughly split half road and half mountain) in an effort to pin down some of the nuances, pick their favorites, and then write about the nuances of the favorites so that their readers can better make their own buying (or not) decisions.  This year's test was going to happen in my backyard, on trails that I've been riding and maintaining for better than two decades.  Pretty sweet, right?

It gets better.  The test bikes were shipped to my shop in advance so that I could unbox, assemble, debug, and test ride them before the real test even started.  How many times does an opportunity like that present itself?  Never.  Well, for me, once -- and this was it.  I took full advantage, riding at lunch or after work (sometimes both) for a few weeks straight, to the extent that when the test actually, finally began my legs were already fried.  First world problems!

The results of the testing are not mine to share.  The details on several of the bikes are actually still under embargo for a month or more, so although I wrote individual reviews for 20+ of the mountain bikes, I'm not going to share those now, either.  Maybe later.  Instead, below I've detailed some big picture thoughts on the minutia that made itself apparent as the test proceeded.  Sort of feels like a 2019 'state of the industry', at least from where I sit.

+ + + + + + + + + 

For those of us not racing professionally, for those of us that 'just ride' with our friends, dogs, or solo, it seems the most important metric is not weight, not seat tube angle, not suspension kinematics.  The most important metric for many of us is simply how the bike makes you feel while riding, or when the ride is done.

i can't speak for others but I don't care too much about efficiency or weight on the way up as long as the bike doesn't get in my way when climbing, and as long as it also feels playful on the way back down.  Time needed to complete a loop or section is irrelevant.  I want to get outside for awhile, get some exercise, breathe fresh air, incinerate a few endorphins in a white hot fire, then return to life with a smile on my face.  Riding a lively bike that hops and pops and manuals well is the quickest way to achieve all of the above.  Riding something that's .09162% lighter or more efficient yet sacrifices liveliness and playfulness does not put a smile on my face.

I'm not sure I care about frame material anymore.  Suspension quality and tire casing construction can make a more noticeable difference in subjective feel while being much less expensive to employ.  

I definitely care about wheel size -- 29" and 29+ just roll over ledges, roots, chunk much better.  27.5" is dead to me, except for fat tires.  It was interesting to learn that 90% of the testers were in this same boat.

I definitely care about tire size -- bigger and more aggressive is almost universally better for where I live and how I ride.  Anything smaller than 2.6" collects dust in my garage, and even 2.6" tires feel too small -- too harsh -- for better than half of the year.

29+ has some sort of stigma attached.  Perhaps related to the fatbikes that paved the way for them.  The lone 29+ FS bike in this test was derogatorily (if playfully?) referred to as 'the yoga ball' before anyone had even ridden it.  The metamorphosis from laughingstock to legitimate contender took but a few minutes.  The first few to ride it came back somewhat astonished: "It's *not* heavy" they said.  "It rides really light, actually", they said.  "It is so. effing. smooth!" they said.  "I had so much fun!", they said.  And after a day of this, the next day the feedback morphed to "If that bike was for sale I'd take it home with me.  Now.  Tonight".

One of the testers summed it up perhaps best with "I'm guilty of judging that book by its cover.  I was *so* wrong.  I want one now.  I want one NOW!"

Crazy, stupid, ridiculous, so-low-that-they're-unpedalable-uphill bottom bracket heights persist.  Even on bikes that are ostensibly made to be pedaled up *big* hills.  How does one do it -- climb tech trails that is?  Ratchet uphill for 2 hours straight?  

I can think of no single gear-specific parameter that has had a greater negative effect on our trails than low bottom brackets.  When people repeatedly bash their feet or chainring into rocks and ledges they think not of the welfare of the trail but that of their machine.  Bash a rock enough times and one of two things happens: Either said rock gets dislodged and removed, or if the rock is deeply embedded riders just start to go around it.  Our local trails now feature hundreds upon hundreds of go-arounds -- to the point that many of these trails are no longer singletrack so much as a series of linked figure 8's.  These same trails also now feature hundreds of holes where a rock used to be, but was ultimately dislodged by a barrage of low bottom bracket bikes.

I wasn't sure that anyone in the industry 'got it' until this test, where testers could be frequently heard discussing how some bikes -- bikes that the marketing machines have made people believe are highly desirable for tech riding -- simply could not be pedaled up anything remotely technical.  I fear that it's going to take years and years for the industry to pull its collective head out of its collective ass and slowly start to bring BB's back up into the realm of reasonable.

Shaped headset spacers.  I walked out into the shop just now and noted 4 random road bikes (all from the test) leaning against each other, not one of which could share a stem or headset spacers with any of the others.  The only big-picture benefit that I can see to designing things this way is to keep road riders tethered to a certain shop in the same way that they are tethered to prepared surfaces.  And that same lack of foresight has recently arrived in the mountain bike world, where 2 of the test bikes featured shaped HS spacers, HS bearing covers, and HS top caps.

There were two hardtails in the test.  I rode one of them, twice.  I saw each of them get ridden a total of once after that.   Perhaps this is more a testament to the corrugated, blocky nature of the local trails than anything else, but no one wanted anything to do with them -- regardless of wheel size.  I saw people reach for FS bikes that didn't fit them, or that they'd already ridden several times, rather than ride one of the hardtails.

175mm droppers are stupid.  Your butt hits the tire before your chest hits the saddle, and sometimes your saddle hits the tire as suspension compresses.  I subscribe to the 'if some is good more must be better' credo with lots of things.  Bacon and ice cream immediately come to mind.  I personally don't see much point in droppers beyond 125mm, and could happily live with 100mm.  Perhaps the best evidence for this is that almost no one runs the saddle on their DH bike 7" lower than their fully extended height.  4 to 5" is more like it.

Electronic shifting is silly.  And unreliable.  And a solution in search of a problem, creating problems all it's own.  I like progress, I like to drink kool aid, and I embrace change when it's sensible and demonstrably better than the alternative.  E-shifting simply isn't either.

Boost spacing is nice, in that at least we're all agreeing on *something* finally.  This was the first bike comparo in memory where every MTB used the same hub spacing front and rear.  Wheels were swapped between bikes, quickly and easily, for various reasons.  Different rotor sizes and cassettes/freehubs meant that not every wheelset was truly quick switch, but getting everyone on the same page with both brakes and cassettes is probably asking too much.

Crazy low out of the box cockpits.  I ride -- as do 99% of my riding partners -- with my handlebars a bit above my fully extended saddle height.  Several of the test bikes came with their steerer tubes cut so short that 1.5" to 2" below saddle height was as high as the bars could be set.  Some were so low out of the box that I was unable to test-ride them beyond a quick lap around the parking lot, where I was so uncomfortable I immediately returned the bike to the corral and chose something else.

Bars well below saddle height is a young persons game and sometimes an XC racer's preference.  I rode that way for better than two decades, and I have irreparable nerve damage in my neck and hands as a result.  It hurts NO ONE to leave steerer tubes a little longer on stock bikes.  Those that want a slammed position can still get it.  Those that want a more upright position won't immediately be turned off of a potential candidate.

Gearboxes are coming.  They aren't quite 'there' yet because improvements in shifting ergonomics and reductions in frictional losses still need incremental progress.  But they're already really good.  There's something about being able to take tight lines through chunky right handers without fear of ripping a $300 der off the bike.  If someone could figure out a way to run a gearbox on an FS bike and *not* need an external tensioner, I'd probably jump in right now.

Most high engagement hubs add needless noise and drag.  Easy to feel that drag when coasting -- the bike slows as though the brakes are rubbing.  Impossible not to hear the added racket, and equally impossible to converse over said racket.  I'd love for consumers to see past the marketing and arrive at some sane realization that (for starters) fast engaging hubs don't have to be noisy or draggy.  I'd also love to see people recognize that normal and even slow engaging hubs aren't a limiter in technical riding situations.  The rider is the limiter -- not the hub.

We are so lucky with rims and tires these days. 26, 27.5, 29. Skinny, medium, wide, plus, mid-fat, fat, morbidly obese, and everything in between. Carbon and aluminum. Tubeless ready as standard. Supple, high thread count, and reinforced casings with a dizzying number of tread patterns to choose from.  If you can’t find what you’re looking for within all of those, you are truly a .01%er. 

Maxxis makes fantastic tires and deserves the market domination they currently enjoy.  That said, it was also really nice to see other, smaller brands represented and ripping.

Integrated storage options are taking hold.  Anything is better than a big bulbous pack on our very sweaty backs.  Putting tools into bottle cages (on frames that are finally starting to prioritize fitting them!), pumps alongside, and tubes or tubeless plugs elsewhere is the minimum going forward.  Plus there's a whole slew of good, well designed fanny packs (Hipster satchels? European Carry-alls?!) just hitting the market.  For 5+ hour rides you're always going to need something more than the basics discussed above, but for shorter rides it's nice to ride unencumbered.

+ + + + + + +

I've only been riding bikes on dirt for 40 years, thus I still have a lot to learn.  I'm grateful to this crew for the opportunity to be so deeply immersed into bike-nerddom for a solid month this fall.

Thanks for checkin' in.