Sunday, June 21, 2015

Solstice Ride: The Joys and Troubles of Night Riding

In my earlier days, I very much enjoyed riding alone at night. [...] It would be hard to defend the touristic value of these night stages, or argue that a beautiful landscape benefits from being seen under the pale moonlight rather than in the morning or the evening sunlight. Yet there is no doubt that some aspects of nature are more amazing when illuminated by the moon rather than the sun. Vélocio in Le Cycliste
The latest issue of Bicycle Quarterly features the republication of a 1929 article about night riding by famous French randonneur Vélocio. Inspired by his writing and the beautiful summer we're having here in Wisconsin, I started planning for an all-night ride on the shortest night of the year (this time hopefully without hitting a skunk...). The plan was to head out around sunset and keep going all night until the solstice sun would rise again.

 I developeded a few tentative routing options and tried to recruit fellow riders. Unfortunately, the few people potentially interested had other commitments that night, and so I was going to be on my own. I decided on a long but not ridiculous route: Head west on the Military Ridge State Trail to Dodgeville, then riding towards the Wisconsin River, follow the river east, and then return to Madison—all in all about 250 kilometers. This seemed like a good opportunity for another test ride of my newly acquired SOMA Grand Randonneur (there will be a dedicated post on this) and so I quickly installed the also new B&M IQ Cyo Premium headlight and swapped the dynamo front wheel from my Gunnar to turn it into an night ride-appropriate vehicle.
The sun has set

I got back from work a little after five, loaded up my front basket with supplies, had a nice pasta dinner, and by 8 o'clock I was ready to go. The fading sun provided beautiful light and I was zooming along at a decent pace, enjoying the cush of my 42mm-wide Compass tires.

I love riding this stretch of the Military Ridge in the evening light
Just after Verona I noticed that my front light bracket had started coming loose. A quick fix, but as soon as I stopped a squadron of mosquitoes immediately went on the attack. It was probably quite the sight to see me simultaneously trying to fix my light while minimizing the number of bug bites. Not much after this incident, I noticed that the right side of my saddle caused some discomfort. The saddle is a B17 Imperial that I just recently brought back to life with a new frame. I think what happened was that after a long ride in the rain last weekend, the saddle must have sagged enough to put pressure on parts of my behind where there shouldn't be any.
Blurry moon sliver over Mount Horeb

The last remainder of daylight was gone now, and soon the thin sliver of moon disappeared beneath the horizon too. I arrived in Dodgeville at 11:15. From here on I would be no longer on the bike trail but country roads. Lo and behold, I straight missed the first two turns, giving me pause: I was in unknown territory, relying only on the tiny screen of my GPSr for navigation. Suddenly that no longer seemed like such a great idea, and my saddle issues certainly didn't help. I assessed my options: Across the street, the glowing sign of a Super-8 motel tried to lure me in. I wasn't all that tired, though, and so I figured I might as well just turn around and take the same route back. The saddle discomfort I could deal with and navigation wouldn't be an issue on the bike trail. So around I turned, now with a slight headwind.

This time around, I didn't miss the turn-off to Blue Mounds State Park and climbed my way up to the plateau on top. There were a couple campers and barricades, presumably in preparation for the Horribly Hilly Hundreds taking place on Saturday. At 2:30 am, everybody was asleep (including the mosquitoes), though, and so I could enjoy a sandwich and a wonderful view of the starry sky. Continuing on the path would mean that I would miss out on a lot of the views of the skies and so I decided to continue on roads from Mount Horeb on. At least here I would be in familiar territory, and it was late enough to not have to worry much about people driving home after bars closing.

Strange animal sightings in the dark...

 Leaving the path also meant more hills, and while my mind was quite awake still, my body showed some signs of tiring. Nonetheless, riding on these back roads was much nicer than being on the path.

State Capitol, very early in the day

In the distance I could see the glow of Madison, gradually supplemented with the first bits of light of the new day. I arrived back home a little before 5 am, exhausted but not excessively tired. The theory that as long as you keep going your mind can stay awake for a long time does seem indeed work for me too.

Bike counter on the SW Commuter Path
All in all it was a great experience, quite different from riding during the day. One of the things I enjoy about cycling is just looking at and experiencing the landscape. At night, this experience is very different: Visually it is very much reduced; but at the same time this enhances your other senses to some extent. If I were to a ride like this again, I would pick a route that's easier to navigate, maybe choose a night with more moonlight, and make a better effort of recruiting fellow riders.

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Not my day, but... – Dairy Roubaix 2015

Mile 50: Turn left and climb one last hill back to the camp site. Or turn right and do another 58 miles. I stopped at the intersection, drank some water, and chatted to some other folks pondering this decision. Eventually I turned left, and it was the right choice, even if meant not following through with what I had planned.

My Madison buddies working the registration desk

Wonderful breakfast buffet

Dairy Roubaix is a Wisconsin spring classic, and I had heard heard many great things about it. I signed up months ago and was excited to see that the weather forecast promised excellent conditions. Somehow I was not at the top of my game, though. I arrived at Wyalusing State Park the night before the ride, after a hectic day of work and errands. I ate dinner too late (and maybe should've gone a little bit more easy on those jalapenos...) and didn't sleep well in my bunk bed.

One of the nicest stretches of the route, along the Mississippi
Once the ride started, though, all that was forgotten. The sun was out, it was warm, and the scenery was terrific. There were lots of friends from Madison riding too, in addition to a whole bunch of interesting people I got to know before, during, and after the ride. Knowing that I would have a long day with lots of climbing ahead of me, I made sure to not start out too hard. Nonetheless, I was going at a good clip, probably helped by the fact that with my 35 mm tires and the low-trail geometry of my Gunnar I had an appropriate tool for the gravel roads of western Wisconsin.

First and only rest stop, including Korbel shots
The tiny hamlet of Glen Haven at some point had two bars
At the first rest stop, after 26 miles, I snarfed down one of the sandwiches I had brought. But my stomach discomfort had started showing itself again and I had a hard time eating for the rest of the ride. The nasty, strong wind from the east didn't make things easier either. Hence my decision at mile 50.

Unfortunately the tractor was to slow to make for good drafting

Rare sighting of yours truly wearing a helment
Some general remarks about Dairy Roubaix: The organization was wonderful, the scenery stunning, the people great. The variety of bikes was great, too: Fat bikes, single speed 'cross, crabon race bikes, a beautiful lugged Holdsworth, a randonneur build and ridden by Jon Kendziera of Jonny Cycles (which apparently might make a comeback), a stainless steel travel bike by Ellis Cycles, also ridden by its builder, and many more. The elevation profile of the ride is challenging for sure, and I felt sorry for the people riding on tires less than 30mm wide. I'm pretty sure I'll be back next year, then hopefully for the full length of the course.

Nice Soulcraft
Jonny Cycles rando rig
...with Rene Herse cranks
Special thanks to the ride organizer for going to great lenghts to reunite me with my helmet and my gloves that I had left behind!

Monday, April 20, 2015

Illinois Incursion: 150 gravely spring miles

As part of his preparation for the TransIowa race, Michael had announced another "long training ride," meaning about 240 kilometers (150 miles), a significant portion of it either on unpaved rail trail
or gravel roads. In theory that sounded like something right up my alley -- except that it was barely April. I had gotten in a good amount of riding in the previous weeks but am of course still not in
the greatest of shapes this early in the season. Combine that with the vagaries of April weather, and suddenly the ride looked a little daunting. Once I saw, though, that the weather forecast was about as
good as it can get at this time of year, I committed to the ride.

Jacob and Tyler on one of the first gravel roads we reached

Maybe the collapse of Wisconsin road funds will get us similar roads closer to home some day...

Incursing Illinois with me were Michael, Jacob, Tyler, and for part of it Steve. We have all ridden together before, and I think the size and constitution of the group was just right for such a long ride. Steve and I met up with the rest of the group at 5:20. The sun wouldn't be up for another one-and-a-half hours, and it was cold. I was only wearing thin wool gloves on my hands and wool socks in my summer shoes on my feet, making for a somewhat miserable experience. On the upside, there is something magical about riding into the dawn on a spring day. Frogs, birds, and the occasional rabbit were already out and about, and once we got into the country, a thin layer of hoarfrost covered the fields and wooden bridges on the Badger State Trail. Despite the heavy rain during the previous days, the trail was in not-too-bad a shape. Still, ruts, holes, and fallen branches did require our attention, meaning that I didn't take any pictures during the first couple hours of the ride.

Jane Adams Trail

In Monroe we made our first convenience store stop and also left the Badger Trail. Instead, we rolled along on country roads, which meant a faster surface but also the beginning of some rolling hills. And a dog: Jacob and I were a bit ahead when we spotted a black lab coming towards us from on the farms. It didn't look particularly threatening, but you never know. So we stayed alert and kept an eye on our new companion. He just kept running along and along and along... Only once we got to a farm with more dogs, maybe 2 kilometers down the road, did he get distracted enough and let us continue by ourselves. Soon after crossing the border into Illinois we also hit the first gravel roads, which were in pretty good shape and fun to ride on. The Jane Adams Trail then led us to the turnaround point, Freeport. We stopped at a—well, not that great gas station, where Jacob and I were immediately approached by a toothless guy in a car who wanted us to buy lottery tickets for him. Uh yeah.

The beautiful city of Freeport, IL...

...offers great amenities for the driving population.

Gravel roads + tailwind = bliss

Now turning north, we had a great tailwind for most of the way back to Madison. I felt great and couldn't resist upping the pace a bit. Our little group got spread apart and reunited a couple times until we hit the final rest stop, the Piggly Wiggly (for those of you not from around here: yes, that's the actualy name of a supermarket chain) in Brodhead. Tyler and I hammered along, doing some nice paceline work whenever we had a stretch heading into the wind. I knew the pace was too far in the red zone for me, but with "only" 70 kilometers ago I threw out common sense and kept going hard. We were pretty close to Madison when I started fading. Tyler kept disappearing into the distance and I finished the ride at a more leisurely pace and a coffee stop at Barriques, clocking in at 235 km on what was my earliest-in-the-year-ever 200+ kilometer ride.

Friday, March 27, 2015

Suggested reading: "Jan Heine: A Randonneur's Long Rides and Strong Words"

Bicycle Quarterly is my favorite bike magazine—well, actually it's the only one I bother reading at all—and its founder, editor, and main author Jan Heine has influenced my thinking about bikes and riding profoundly. I just stumbled upon this interview with Heine in The Bicycle Story that provides a great overview of his background and philosophy as well as randonneuring in the US then and now.

One passage, about the appeal of long-distance riding, especially jibed with me:
First of all it gets you out to places you don’t normally go. I live in the big city of Seattle. If I ride 20 miles, I’m not going to get out of the suburbs. But if I ride 100 miles, I can go to amazing places in the mountains with beautiful views. If I go for 600km in a brevet, I can get all the way to the other side of the mountains into a totally different climate.
Even though my rides aren't nearly as long as those of Heine (and even if they were, you'd still stay in the Midwest the whole time...), this very much captures my own motivation for riding ever longer distances. I don't have a car, and so being able to ride 100 or 200 km in one day allows me to see and experience places outside the immediate vicinity of where I live.

Link to the full interview (and hat tip to Jason Marshall). And if you want to learn more, I highly recommend the “Journey of Discovery” series on Heine's blog.

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Converting my Gunnar Roadie to low-trail 650B, part 2: First ride impressions

What was the fifth-coldest February on record in Madison provided me with many opportunities to work on the 650B conversion of my Gunnar Roadie. Two days ago I had finally reached the point where it was time for the first test ride. It was already late in the day and so I just went around the block—and was like “Woah! What's going on?!” Little did this have to do with the low-trail geometry of the bike, though. For the past five months I had been riding almost exclusively my fixed gear, studded tire Cross-Check, totally messing with my muscle memory of riding a “normal” bike. In any case, the ride around the block was sufficient to confirm that by and large everything seemed to work and Gunnar was ready for a longer test the next day.

On a beautiful spring afternoon I went out on the Southwest Bike Path, one of Madison's most popular bike paths. I got used to being able to coast and not riding boat anchor tires relatively quickly, and after that the bike mostly felt—not that different from its 700C build. I figured that wasn't a bad thing, and once I had cleared the busier sections of the path, I started experimenting to explore the handling of the bike. Putting into words how a bike feels is difficult. Probably the best way to describe it is that the bike goes exactly where I want it to go, with high precision. The smooth rail trail didn't provide opportunities for, say, high-speed cornering, but adjusting my line a bit felt very precise and required little steering input.

Low-trail geometry is sometimes said to feel unstable at low speeds, but I didn't really notice that. Riding with no hands can be another point where low-trail bikes are different. It should be noted that in general I'm not particularly comfortable with no-hands riding—I suspect that my scoliosis is part of the issue. When taking the hands of the bars, the bike immediately starting shimmying; however the bike stabilized and the shimmy stopped after only a few oscillations. I will have to explore this further. With hands on the bars, shimmy did not occur at all, despite using a regular ball bearing headset. (Roller bearing headsets with their increased friction are said to be a remedy for shimmy in low-trail bikes). Of course, I didn't do any fast descents on this ride.

What did feel weird was getting out of the saddle. It was very different from my Cross-Check, but also different from the 700C build of the Gunnar. However, it seemed like something that I quickly got accustomed to.

One thing to keep in mind with all this is that the bike didn't carry any load. I had taken off the Carradice saddlebag, and the Nitto front rack remained empty. For some low-trail bikes, having a front load apparently is almost a necessity to achieve acceptable handling. This doesn't seem to be the case for Gunnar, and I'm curious to see if/how things change once I add a handlebar bag.

A few remarks on the Panaracer Col de la Vie tires: Using the canonical Frank Berto chart, I pumped the front to 3.5 bar (~50 psi) and the rear to 4.1 bar (60 psi), making them about 35 mm wide (nominally they're 40 mm). While they felt fine, I must say that I didn't have a "magic carpet ride" experience compared to the 25 mm Conti Grand Prix 4000S that where on the bike previously. The Col de la Vie is, of course, what is considered to be a budget tire that didn't fare too well in the tire test by Bicycle Quarterly. Also, the SW Path is smoothly paved, canceling out the potential advantages of wider tires. Aside from subjective impressions, I did end up with a few personal records on Strava, despite not trying all that hard. I'll do some more performance tests on stretches where I more have reliable Strava data from Gunnar's 700C days.

Tuesday, March 3, 2015

Pimp your Ortlieb: Replacing plastic hardware with stainless steel

Have you ever been bothered by the plastic hex nuts that Ortlieb uses inside their bags? Quite possibly your answer will be “no” and you haven't ever thought about them. However, some people are bothered by them, as they stick out into the inside of the bag and can get snagged on things—and also look a little cheap.

When, after many years of heavy use, I lost one of the nubs, I remembered that I had once seen an alternative on a German bike touring forum. Unfortunately, several different local hardware stores didn't have the required parts. But hey, McMaster-Carr to the rescue!

Here's the before:

And the after:

Much nicer, isn't it?

These are the required parts, from left to right:

For a full conversion of a Back Roller you will need thirteen of each. I got everything in stainless steel, which is probably a bit overkill and quite expensive. If you're paranoid about waterproofness, it might make sense to add a little Seam Grip before tightening.

Credits for coming up with this solution go to GeorgR.

Friday, February 27, 2015

Musson's Professional Guide to Wheel Building: But does it work!?

My review of Roger Musson's Professional Guide to Wheel Building is very positive. But how does his advice hold up in practice? Well, I just finished building a 650B wheelset following his advice and using some of the DIY tools described in the book.

DIY Nipple driver

Musson argues that commercially available nipple drivers such as the Park Tool ND-1 suffer from a design flaw in that they lead to an initial spoke tension that is too high[1] . Musson's design, built from a cheap screwdriver or bit has a central pin 3mm long, significantly longer than that of most other nipple drivers. The idea is that the spoke moves up inside the nipple, pushes against the pin, and then disengages the driver, allowing the builder to quickly achieve the same thread engagement on all spokes. To achieve that in previous builds I had used a visual indicator: Engage all nipples to the point where the threads just disappear into the nipple. Depending on your spoke length, this may already be too much tension, and Musson's method also sounded faster so I decided to give it a try.

Crude, but it works

I started out with a drill bit, later to be used with an electric drill. I don't have a vise, and consequently the tool I produced is neither pretty nor particularly precise. Musson also advocates against using an electric drill. He argues that with a hand tool, it is easier to precisely feel get the disengagement of the tool just right. After having used an electric drill in this build, I tend to agree. I ended up with fairly good equal tension in all spokes, but it could have been better still. Another problem I encountered was that after using the tool, the spokes were still very slack, requiring several more turns with a regular spoke wrench. However, that probably was less the fault of the tool but of slightly too long spokes (see below).

Spoke lengths

I had ordered spokes before buying Musson's book and reading his strongly worded advice to not rely on manufacturer or any other measurements that you haven't done yourself. While I actually had measured at least the front hub myself, for the ERD of the rims and the rear hub I relied on the value provided by the manufacturer/the Edd online database. This did not work out so well. Assuming that my tensiometer is still accurate, in order to get adequate spoke tension, I had to engage the nipples to a point where I'm almost out of thread. One or two millimeter shorter spokes definitely would have been better—and probably would have prevented the problem with the nipple driver described above.
Spoke is already far in the nipple, despite not being at final tension yet

Lacing instructions

The lacing instructions were perfect. I got the lacing (32 spokes, three cross) right on the first try and for the first also managed to properly align the hub label with the valve hole (for purely aesthetic reasons, one is supposed to be able to read the hub label when looking through the valve hole). Between the written instructions and the helpful illustrations it is hard to go wrong.

Dishing gauge

When reading the instructions for building a dishing gauge, I was skeptical: Building a precision tool out of cardboard, double-sided sticky tape, and zip ties!? But lo and behold, this is a very solid design. Instead of using Musson's design of a bent spoke as the feeler gauge, I simply stuck a barbecue skewer through the corrugated cardboard. Because my truing stand—in contrast to Musson's design or the Park Tool TS-2.2—requires me to have the quick release skewer in the wheel for truing, the BBQ gauge was not ideal, requiring me to remove the QR skewer each time I wanted to check the dishing. This would be easily fixable, though, and with the QR removed, the dishing gauge worked great! As an alternative to cardboard, Musson suggests using thin plywood. At this point I think that for an infrequent wheelbuilder like me the (more easily manufactured) cardboard version is totally sufficient. Instead of using double-sided tape to attach the wood pieces that sit against the rim, I used superglue, which allowed me to more easily align.

I used E-6000 glue instead of double-sided tape to attach the wood pieces


Spoke torsion flag (and marked valve hole)
As a way of achieving spoke tension, Musson, like others, suggests using the sound a spoke makes when plucked with a fingernail or guitar pick: Pluck the spoke and compare the sound to that of the other spokes. I must say that this has never worked for me. You always get a mix of different frequencies and I find it hard to compare them to each other. It's quite possible that this is just a skill I lack (I do like death metal and grind core after all...), but I rather relied on my Wheelsmith tensiometer. Of course, as Musson correctly points out, this is more time consuming than the plucking method, but it does have the advantage of also providing you with absolute values for the spoke tension.

Musson's approach of iteratively checking lateral trueness, vertical trueness, dish, and tension works well, especially if you have the luxury of the amateur wheelbuilder: You can take as much time as you want to. For the final stages of tensioning I found his advice of using a masking tape flag to visualize spoke torsion to be especially useful. Under high tension, turning the nipple will start lead to a small amount of twisting of the spoke instead of further engaging the threads. So if you turn the spoke half a turn, it will probably only have engaged the equivalent of one third of a turn earlier in the building process. Previously I had just overtightened the spokes by about one eight of turn and then turned them back the same amount to get rid of the spoke torsion. But with the flag method it is possible to get the exact amount of required overtightening and backing out.


All in all, using Musson's tools and instructions allowed me to build a great set of wheels with little pain. Obviously I can't say for sure how they're going to hold up in the long term. But the tension is even, and trueness and dish are within tight tolerances so that I have a lot of confidence in them. The Professional Guide has proven itself to be an excellent manual for wheelbuilding while also saving you money by building your own tools.

[1] I believe this is not true for this VAR tool. But then that's 50 bucks...