All Sewn Up

New Wheels

It is often said that the quickest way to change the ride characteristics of a bike is to change wheels or tires. Last year I changed the wheels on my CoMotion American and immediately realized a weight savings and performance improvement. This year, I defied common sense and upgraded the wheels on my Seven to tubulars.

Tubular tires (or “sew-ups”) are fundamentally different from the clincher tires the vast majority of people ride. Clinchers rely on an inner tube underneath the tire to provide the pneumatic component that cushions the rider from the pavement. Clinchers are great and I won’t be getting rid of mine anytime soon, but they do come with two trade-offs. First of all, most clinchers tend not to be very supple. There are exceptions, of course, but for the most part they ride “hard” or “harsh.” And that brings us to the second drawback. Clinchers can be prone to pinch flats at lower pressures, which means you can’t reduce the tire pressure too much to achieve suppleness without risking a flat. Lastly, if you suddenly lose pressure in a clincher, there’s an outside chance it could roll right off the rim, leaving the rider totally screwed.

For several years, I’ve heard (but mostly read) about the benefits of tubular tires. Unlike clinchers, the tubular tire consists of the tire casing sewn around the inner tube as a one piece unit. Hence the name “sew-ups.” The better tires are made by hand and are much more supple than clinchers. Indeed, they actually describe the tires by thread counts like fine sheets! Most people rave about the ride quality of tubulars, partly because you can run them at lower pressures without risking the dreaded pinch flat. Tubulars are glued onto the bike rim, so there’s no chance they will roll off during a flat or blowout. The one drawback of tubulars is that they are glued on, which means mounting and changing tires takes some attention to detail and is not a quick operation.

Over the winter I began mulling over the possibility of trying a set of tubulars. I didn’t want to spend a lot of money on high-end wheels only to find out they did not live up to the hype. I devoted a lot of energy over-researching the matter and trying to find the cheapest way to try this old-fangled technology. In May I took the plunge and ordered a moderately priced wheel set and nice tires from Signature Cycles.

You don’t just pop tubular tires onto the rim and ride away. The tires have to be stretched a bit, the rim glued with contact cement, the tires glued and then everything has to dry a bit. Then more glue. Then you wrestle the tire onto the rim. It takes some experience to get it right. I didn’t want to learn on my own, so I arranged for a coaching session at the shop so I’d learn how to do it properly.

Learn to glue

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It really isn’t that hard; people make a bigger fuss about it than it’s worth. In the course of two and a half hours, I learned how to stretch, glue and mount the tires. I let the adhesive dry 24 hours and I was off and riding the new wheels.

I knew by the second pedal stroke that there was something different about the bike. The ride quality was noticeably softer, smoother, squishier. The ride was certainly not as harsh as my clinchers. I’ve heard the ride described as “pneumatic” and I’d have to agree. You definitely sense you are riding on a pocket of air instead of a hard piece of rubber. I also noticed that when cornering, the tire conforms to the changes in road surface more than my clinchers, which tend to just bounce over things. I’m definitely happy with my decision to try sew-ups.

A wonderful mural found on a bike ride in Great Neck

I went with a set of FMB tires. They are handmade in France and, as you might expect from something handmade, they are not as cheap as clinchers. But the ride quality is certainly worth it in my opinion. I couldn’t see the point of taking the leap to tubulars and then mounting a set of $30 tires on the rims. I have about a month’s worth of leisure riding and commuting (yes, I commute on them!) on the wheels and have not had any issues whatsoever. Eventually, one of the tires will flat and I’ll be heartbroken about the expense–at least momentarily–but for now I’m really enjoying the new wheels and tires. They’ve certainly changed the character of the bike.

Will I ditch my clinchers?

No way! Clinchers serve a purpose, and for me that purpose would be long rides with limited support or rides on particularly crappy terrain. Since the tubular tire is a one-piece unit, you have to carry a spare tire with you, not just an inner tube. Most people carry one spare and if they double flat on a ride they call a cab. I don’t think I want to be in that position, particularly on a dirt road somewhere; therefore, I’d mount up the clinchers and carry a couple of spare tubes. I also don’t see myself commuting on the sew-ups in the winter; I’ll put the clinchers back on in late fall.

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Under Pressure

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I’ve been busy lately with work and family but I have been riding! I’ve been posting pictures on Instagram; it’s quicker and more fun to snap a picture and ‘gram- it than it is to blog about it. Every ride does not need its own written summary when a picture can paint a thousand words.

The picture above needs some explanation, however. For the past year or so, I’ve been trying different tire and pressure combinations in order to find that “magic carpet” ride on my bikes. My mountain bike is the easiest of the three. It gets 29 psi in the front tire and 32 out back, running a Stan’s Tubeless set up. The road bikes, on the other hand, require more experimentation.

I tried using a formula to find my optimal tire pressure, taking into account the weight of the bike, my weight and the amount the tire compresses with me on the bike. The formula consistently gave an answer of 160 psi for 28c tires, a preposterous number and well above the manufacturer’s suggested maximum pressure. So it’s back to old school methods: using a tire pressure gauge and tweaking the pressure based on ride characteristics.

Tire pressure in cycling is an often overlooked data point. Too much pressure and the tire will ride like a brick and you’ll lose some valuable contact patch needed for handling. Too little pressure and you’ll bottom out or pinch flat. Most people think they can assess tire pressure using the gauge on the tire pump, but that gauge is measuring air pressure in the pump’s hose. It is not an accurate measurement of the tire pressure. You want tire pressure, use a tire pressure gauge.

Air gauges 3

I’ve been using this gauge for several years and it works. It fits on my Presta valves with little fuss and produces a measurement. My issue with the gauge is its size and precision. I’ve reached the age where I need reading glasses and, even with the glasses, the dial is difficult to see. The dial precision doesn’t suit my needs either. I want to see pressure in individual units; in other words, I want to know if the tire is at 78 or 79 psi. I know, I’m fussy.

Two weeks ago I was watching behind the scenes coverage of some bike races and I noticed that a lot of the wrenches were using digital tire gauges.  The two mostly commonly used were the SKS Airchecker and a model by Topeak.  The Topeak model consistently garnered complaints about causing air to bleed from the tire, so I ordered the SKS device pictured above. At $25, I figured it was worth a try.

I’ve been using the Airchecker for two weeks now and I can say that it is serviceable. I won’t go any higher on the rating scale because it could be better. Most of the negative reviews on the Airchecker say that it is fussy. If you don’t put it on exactly “right” it will produce a nonsensical reading. I concur.

The first three times I used it, I got ridiculous readings of 8 psi, 57 psi and 37 psi on a tire that was mostly inflated (my thumb test suggested it was at 55 psi, while the analog gauge read 60 psi.). I very nearly packaged it up and sent it back, but instead decided to hang onto it for awhile. Here’s what I learned:

  • You must hold the valve stem steady with one hand and slide the gauge on with the other. See picture below.
  • For Presta valves, do not unscrew the valve all the way. I found unscrewing about 90% of the way works best. Going all the way seems to provoke crazy readings…maybe the gauge cannot engage the valve properly with the nub fully unscrewed
  • Put it on deliberately. Hold the valve and firmly affix the gauge and push it onto the valve in one motion. When you hear the beep, remove it and read the number. No beep means it did not take a reading.
  • If your Presta valve core is even slightly bent, it will leak a little air and mess up the reading
  • If you hear air leaking, expect the reading to be wonky
  • Evaluate the reading with your common sense

Air gauges 2

The last item seems to be most important from a practical standpoint. You should know what your tires feel like within a couple of pounds. The Airchecker ain’t perfect but it works if you have patience and can be methodical. If your fingers tell you that your tire is mostly at the correct pressure and the gauge tells you something completely different, you have a choice to make:

  1. Go riding
  2. Spend the rest of the day taking serial measurements, create a log and complain to the manufacturer

I’d go with Choice #1. The Airchecker takes some practice. More practice than it should, really. I cannot understand why it’s so difficult to make a good digital gauge; in other words, one with the head of that analog model and the digital guts of the Airchecker. Maybe the folks at DARPA could get on this mission for us! But seriously, it takes some practice, but don’t expect to get it perfect the first couple of times you use it. And don’t spend the whole day fussing with it if you get frustrated because you’ll only get more frustrated. Ask me how I know.

After a few sessions of using the Airchecker, I’m reasonably confident that it gives accurate readings as long as you get it on and off the valve without leaking any air. I’m cognizant that my complaints might be entirely related to the Presta valves on my tires, but the complaints pop up from time to time on bike forums and Amazon so I’m not the only one with these observations.

“So what!” you say, “who cares about a 4 or 5 PSI difference?” You should. A few pounds in either direction can make the difference between a supple tire and comfy ride, or needless pinch flats because you under-inflated the tire. Whether you choose analog or digital, get a tire pressure gauge and use it.

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Grey and Cloudy

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Life has been a little gloomy lately. Two people in my life were recently diagnosed with brain tumors. One of them passed a couple of days ago, just a year after the initial diagnosis. Both of them are mothers of grown children.

My own kids have been sick lately, but with the ordinary maladies of childhood. Nothing serious. And, of course, when your kids get sick, so do you. I’m nursing a wicked ear infection.

Life can get pretty grey, like there are clouds following you around. Illness, work stress, household disorder, hectic schedules etcetera. But none of this is cancer. It’s important to keep your shit in perspective. Your bad day is nowhere near as bad as someone else’s. Lost your wallet at the market….how about those Nigerian mothers who lost their daughters?! It’s all about perspective.

This afternoon I took my son for a bike ride. The bike helps me maintain perspective. I get to focus on simple things like breathing, and listening and seeing. And the simple pleasure of hearing the little man whoop and cheer as we rode along. Forty minutes on the bike with my son cleared the clouds and made me appreciate how much I have and how precious life is.

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Inhospitable

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I commuted to work yesterday after a 3 week hiatus from serious riding brought on by downright inhospitable weather in the Northeast. My last recollection of so much snow in one season is 1993, but maybe my memory is influenced by other events that year; either way, there’s an awful lot of snow on the ground in New York.

The snow, by itself, is not a major concern in terms of bike commuting. My bike has fenders and I have knobby tires for it. The cold weather doesn’t scare me, nor does leaving the house in darkness. I worry a little about black ice, which is nearly impossible to see in darkness but that is not what has kept me off the roads lately.

Two things have confined my rides to short ’round the neighborhood jaunts. First of all, the roads in New York are absolutely trashed with pot holes. Most of the roads on my usual routes look like they’ve been shelled by artillery fire. I cannot understand why NY roads literally fall apart in the winter while roads in other Northeast states seem to survive much better. My commute involves a few major roads and crossing through the entrance ramps for two major parkways. The route is tolerable but it’s certainly not something you’d design into a weekend club ride or brevet. Busy, disintegrating roads don’t make for a pleasant ride particularly in the dark.

Oh how I yearn for some of the commutes that I see on Instagram, where people get to ride through the woods and over covered bridges!

The second reason I’ve been staying inside is……New York drivers. Take the crappy, busy roads mentioned above and add drivers who cannot control the speed or direction of their car in the snow and you have the necessary ingredients for getting run over. No amount of reflective gear or lighting will protect you when a car is sliding sideways toward you because the driver lost control on an uneven, icy surface.

The weather yesterday was nearly ideal for commuting, with the exception of the giant snow mounds intruding on the shoulder of the roads. It was 44 degrees when I left work at 6pm; the warmest it’s been since the end of January. It felt good to get the heart and lungs working again. There’s another polar vortex threatening the Northeast for next week. I only hope it will not bring more snow. I cannot bear to be off the bike for weeks in a row. It’s not good for my fitness or mental health.

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Fender-less Was A Bad Choice

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I kept hearing Anchorman Ron Burgundy’s voice in my head during yesterday’s club ride. “Milk was a bad choice” became “Fender-less was a bad choice!”

My CoMotion commuter recently underwent a rejuvenation session at Signature Cycles. I had messed up the rear fender trying to get the Burley Piccolo rack in place, and the bike was in need of better brakes now that I plan to tow a kid around behind me.  So when the opportunity to do a club ride presented itself yesterday I naturally grabbed the bike without fenders. And you can see in the picture above how that worked out for me.

Yesterday’s weather was quite remarkable. It was 35 degrees at the start of the ride. Five riders set out from the usual starting point and one quickly fell behind. I’m not sure if it was a mechanical issue or the pace. It didn’t seem like we were going all that fast but, then again, there’s a core group of people who ride through the winter and others that do not. By the end of the ride, it was 55 degrees. 55 in February!! Yet as I type this it is dumping snow on Long Island and we are expecting 10 inches by afternoon. I ride and it snows, the theme for the past several weeks.

There are a couple of roads on our usual routes that haunt me. They consist of little stair step hills or rollers. Climb, level off, climb again. They trouble me because they occur at the very start or end of the ride, when I’m either not warmed up or when I’m done for the day. For years, when I rode by myself, these roads would beat the crap out of me because I didn’t know how to pace myself and because I’d get all up-in-my-head about them. Joining the club helped tremendously because I had people to pace with and talk to; tackling the hills became less of a mental exercise because there was someone to chat with.  

Yesterday I worked my way up the first road and realized “this doesn’t suck anymore.” I haven’t been up the road since last Spring, so it was nice to get up it without any drama mentally or physically. The first “climb*” of the new year was made easier no doubt by commuting and by the group I was riding with. You cannot underestimate the power of riding with others.

{** I say “climb” but people from other states would call it a mound or speed bump. Long Island is pretty flat compared to Connecticut, for example}

With that first climb behind me, I was able to focus my attention on getting the bike as dirty as possible. We came home filthier than had we been on a mountain bike trail. My brand new mega-dollar Assos jacket has permanent dirt stains on its white portions and I managed to get dirt inside my pockets. That’s never happened before. All this provided the motivation to scrub down the bike. 70 minutes later…..

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As inconvenient as bike maintenance can be to one’s schedule, there is a grand satisfaction to scrubbing every nook and cranny, including removing the crud from the drivetrain jockey wheels. I applied a few drops of NFS chain lube (literally a FEW drops), and the bike was as good as new. 

How’s that for a product placement? In all seriousness, I wouldn’t mention something unless it was good. This was my first application of the lube so I’ll have to see how it works. But it’s recommended by my mechanic, and that’s good enough for me. 

Next time, I’ll take the fendered  bike.

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Steel Cut Oatmeal Made Easy

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The bowl of oatmeal pictured above was made while I slept. It was easy to make. Honestly. And it’s the best bowl of oatmeal I’ve ever made.

Yesterday I got involved in a social media discussion about how to prepare oatmeal. Almost immediately, the discussion turned to steel cut oats as being healthier than the pre-packaged processed crap you buy in the grocery store. I believe that to be true but I’ve never had much luck cooking steel cut oats. I’ve tried the microwave method and the result has been something with the texture and flavor of concrete. I’ve tried the stovetop method and it takes too damn long for my morning schedule. One of the participants in the social media discussion mentioned using a rice cooker. That was my Ah-Ha moment.

Last year I bought a Zojirushi rice cooker, mainly to break me of the habit of eating pre-packaged processed crap from the grocery store. I use it two to three times a week but never thought of using it for breakfast. A quick trip to the Internet and some review of the owner’s manual and I had a plan for breakfast that I put into action last night before I went to bed. Here is what I did, using the timer function on the rice cooker:

1/2 cup McCann’s Steel Cut Oatmeal rinsed to remove dust  ( I didn’t know what to expect, so I started with a small serving)

1 3/4 cup water ( the rice maker manual called for a ration of 1 cup of oats to 2.5 of water. Most recipes I found online and on the side of the oats box called for at least 1:3 or 1:4…..so I winged it because I didn’t want it too mushy)

Pinch of salt

Sprinkle of cinnamon

Set timer on rice cooker and go to sleep. Make sure rice cooker is set to “Porridge” or “Oatmeal” mode
Awake to a nice smell in the kitchen
Open lid …..looks a little like slop. Give it a stir and it is perfect consistency!

Taste test and add a teaspoon or so of brown sugar and let it melt in while the cooker was in Warm mode.
Top with blueberries and toasted almonds for some crunch

My wife is not an oatmeal fan but she indulged me and ate it. Her first words were “This tastes like something we’d have at a bed and breakfast on vacation.” We were both looking for second helpings. Total hands-on time was probably 10 minutes. The rice cooker did all the work. It is so ridiculously easy to cook oatmeal in the rice cooker there is no reason not to set it up the night before and enjoy in the morning.

Of course you can go crazy and add hundreds of different toppings to your heart’s desire. Happy cooking.

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Shedding Layers This Winter

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As a former Boy Scout and someone who tries to get outdoors on a regular basis, I’ve always subscribed to the “layering” philosophy for outdoor sports. Rule number one is: No Cotton. Cotton absorbs and holds onto moisture, making it pretty dangerous in the winter because the wet fabric conducts heat away from the skin, thereby cooling the body when you don’t want it to be cool. It’s also unpleasant to have a wet shirt clinging to your torso.

The second rule of layering is that several thin or light layers generally outperform one really bulky layer. I’ve been following this rule for years. My typical riding apparel for 40 degrees and below consists of a long sleeve wool or polypropylene base layer, a long sleeve wool jersey and some sort of wind breaker if it’s closer to 30 degrees or windy. For 30 or below, I add a second polypro layer. All these layers make me feel a bit like the Staypuff Marshmallow man and, more importantly, they are difficult to manipulate when I start to overheat because only the jacket and the jersey have zippers to relieve heat build-up.

A couple of months ago, I became aware of an alternate approach. Instead of wearing multiple layers, why not buy layers that are matched for certain temperature ranges? The benefit of this approach is that you do not have to wear as many layers to achieve the same thermal performance. Fewer layers means less bulk and improved comfort. The Assos Climarange accomplishes  this approach to winter dressing on the bike.

At this point, some of you are probably shaking your heads in disgust and picking a different blog to read because Assos garments are undoubtedly some of the most expensive sporting apparel on the market today. You’re right. In fact, the packaging material for the Assos winter hat admits that their products are ridiculously expensive. Stick with me here….

I have no desire to waste money. On the contrary, I’m a tightwad when it comes to buying clothes whether it’s a business suit or a cycling jersey. But I do enjoy being warm, dry and comfortable and, as such, I will spend money on items that meet my needs and will last for years.  My Sidi cycling shoes were expensive when I bought them 14 years ago, but I can safely say I got my money’s worth out of them. I can safely say I will get my money’s worth out of the Assos items I’ve acquired over the past two months.

In case you didn’t click through to the Assos page, here’s the basic premise. You identify a temperature range that you ride in and then select a base layer, shorts, jersey, jacket etc that covers that range. Don’t worry, you’re not locked into that specific range for those specific garments, and if you choose not to buy their base layer, the base layer you already have will probably work fine. In other words, you don’t have to spend $3,000 to buy everything all at once.

I was looking to improve my comfort in the <35 degree range so that I didn’t have to wear so many layers. After speaking with a few people and searching the interwebs, I decided to get two items in the “6” range: a winter Skinfoil and the Bonka jacket. They are engineered to work together. Here’s the Skinfoil.

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The Skinfoil is a winter base layer. Paired with the appropriate outer layer it will keep you toasty warm and will help manage perspiration.  Two notable things about the Skinfoil: it’s meant to be snug fitting. Snug, as in skin tight. I’m not accustomed to skin tight garments, so it took some getting used to. The second notable thing is the zippered neck. The zippered neck is invaluable for managing heat. It is easy to grab the zipper and open up to let some heat escape while climbing, for example. I’ve had the Skinfoil for over a month and am very pleased. My first ride with it was under a Rapha winter jersey (didn’t have the Bonka at the time) in 27 degrees and I was too warm. I’m not sure how they engineered this thing to be so light and provide so much insulation.

My Bonka arrived on the 25th. The first ride was this morning. I wore a lightweight, long sleeve Pearl Izumi base layer  under it in 40 degree temps (at the last minute I left the Skinfoil home because I thought I’d overheat in it) and had to unzip the jacket after about 50 minutes of riding because it was a tad too warm.  It has a built in neck gaiter, which I can’t imagine using except on the coldest rides but it stows nicely inside the jacket. Ample rear pockets including two that zip shut. I can easily imagine riding in this jacket, with the Skinfoil as the only other layer, into the mid to upper twenty degree range; maybe lower but I tend to run hot.

My tendency to run hot, by the way, almost kept me from buying the Assos kit. I was afraid it would be overkill or that I’d overheat in it. I don’t see that as a real concern anymore. And I really enjoy not having to deal with multiple layers.

I’m reasonably certain the Bonka is the finest piece of cycling kit I’ve ever owned. If you saw it hanging on a rack and looked at the price tag you would walk away because at first glance it looks like there is nothing to this garment. But when you put it on and ride with it in the cold and wind, you realize that it is a high performance garment intended to replace multiple layers. In terms of winter cycling apparel, Assos gets it right

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