Sunday, May 19, 2019

It's been a while: Blue River 200k

My last brevet was in 2013, back when I still lived in Montreal. One major advantage of the brevets in Montreal was that they started within riding distance from my home. Not so much in Madison, where the choice was to either ride with the Driftless Randonneurs out of Richland Center—a 60-mile drive—or with the Great Lakes Randonneurs out of Delavan—also 60 miles from Madison. So while over the years of living here I had been interested in doing brevets again, in the end it never happened. Too much hassle for someone living without a car.

Things changed this month. Two weekends ago, a friend and I rode to Milwaukee, starting at 3 in the morning. I thoroughly enjoyed that 145 km (90 mi) ride. And so when my friend Andy asked on FB whether anybody was interested in a 200 km or 300 km brevet with the Driftless Randos, I was all ears.

Kevin was in as well, and he offered to give me a ride. We drove toward Richland Center on Friday evening after work. Andy met up with us for dinner in Spring Green at Freddy Valentine's, a lovely pub in a historic bank building. Andy spent the night in his Bike Mobile van, and Kevin and I stayed at the Ramada White House Inn. Yes, it's themed after that White House, meaning it has cheesy portraits of various US presidents inside, a half-collapsed awning pretending to be a prostyle portico, and a giant US flag flying in front of it. At the front desk we were warned that a high school class was staying near our room and if they were too noisy, we should just call... Well, the beds were comfortable and the students were quiet. At 6 am we were ready to roll.

Our group was about 15 riders strong. The 200, 300, and 400 kilometer routes shared the same course until after the first control. The whole group stayed together in a fast paceline, and it only took us 1 hour 18 minutes for the 23 miles to the control in Spring Green. Kevin and I got back on the road quickly, but not before 4 or 5 other riders had already left.

Pacelining into Spring Green (Photo: Andy Quandt)

We did catch up to one rider, and we stayed with him until the 300 km or 400 km course that he was on took him in a different direction. From the Wisconsin River in Spring Green, the three of us had the first of four big climbs ahead of us. The grade was subdued, rarely requiring us to get out of the saddle or even getting into the small chain ring. So far this season I had done few rides with significant climbing, and so I was committed to taking it slow on the hills. Kevin, who has ridden way more than usual this year, also took it easy on the climbs. Partly because of some back issues; partly because his drivetrain made it difficult to get onto the largest cog.

The next control came soon. The Hyde Store—which in typical Wisconsin fashion isn't a store but a tavern—was deserted at this time of day. We walked around the building, just to be sure we weren't missing anything, but eventually we decided to just note the time in our control cards and take a selfie as proof of passage.
Hyde Store control

The route now took us toward Governor Dodge State Park, and I started recognizing some of the roads from previous rides. Two more climbs were between the Hyde Store and the next control in Highland, which would also be the half-way point of the ride. Kevin and I stayed together, but he was clearly the stronger ride and I sat on his wheel for significant amounts of time. I started to fade a little and was excited at the prospect of a slightly longer break in Highland.

The BP gas station in Highland was hopping when we arrived. We were confused by our brevet cards, which indicated that this was an info control—but didn't provide us with a question to answer! I bought two small bottles of V8, a pickle in a bag, and a gallon of water to share. On the bench outside I had one of the peanut-butter-tofu-and-kimchi sandwiches I brought (I couldn't really argue with Kevin's assessment, “That's weird”). After a couple minutes, three other riders including Andy arrived as well. Sitting down and having food helped me feel refreshed. But I was also still a little chilly, as the day had warmed up less than forecast. In retrospect I probably should have had a Pepsi or some other sugary thing, but I wanted to save that boost for later in the ride and I was also counting on the route being downhill to the next control.

All five us rolled out of Highland together, but we were separated quickly. Because the bathroom line at the BP had been long, me and Gabe had to take a quick stop on the side of the road. Whereas Gabe on his fancy Pinarello was able to catch up with Kevin and Andy, I gave up the chase quickly and rode at my own pace. Which wasn't particularly fast. Highway Q followed the wide Blue River valley toward the Wisconsin River. The highlight of this section was spotting a bald eagle on a tree; the low was being chased by a St Bernard.

Kevin and me (Photo: Andy Quandt)

As I got to the gas station control in Muscoda, I knew it was high time for sugar and caffeine in form of a Pepsi. All five of us headed out together again, with the next control being only a few kilometers downriver. On the dead straight highway 133 we were battling a stiff headwind at this point, and I think we were all very glad that Gabe took a strong pull all the way form Muscoda to Blue River. Here it was time to cross to the northern shore of the Wisconsin River again, with a quick control stop at a gas station. The Pepsi had done its job at this point and I felt much better. So much so that heading out of the gas station I unintentionally rode away from the group for a little bit. After going east on Highway 60 for a little bit, we turned north onto Highway E. The highway follows the valley of Mill Creek, and for the first time of the day we were able to catch a tailwind. Kevin, Andy, and I rode together, making good time. The valley very gently climbs for almost 20 miles.

Andy and me (Photo: Kevin Mulcahy)
Only once we turned onto Patch Hill Drive did the grade pick up. I shifted to the small ring and took it slow. I could definitely feel the kilometers in my legs and I didn't want to blow up in the last stretch of the ride. Ultimately, the climb was pretty short and I arrived at the info control on top of it not much after Kevin and Andy (who was slowed down by having to answer a bike shop call as he was climbing...). And not much after, the two other riders arrived on top as well. After we had counted the number of zip ties on the street sign, we departed for the final leg of our journey. The climbing was done for the day, but now we were riding into the wind again. With the final destination close, the group fell apart. Kevin and Gabe pushed ahead, followed by Andy; I was slowly falling back, and somewhere behind me was Bill.

Bonking, but not too bonked to take silly selfies

Not far from Richland Center, the Man with the Hammer came for me and made me pay for not eating enough. I snarfed down some more peanut butter pretzels and just made peace with the fact that the remaining few kilometers would be slow. A quick bathroom stop and eagle selfie on the outskirts of Richland Center helped me regain my composure and after 9.5 hours I arrived back at the White House. I was very happy with my time. The route had been great and the cue sheet accurate.

Even though it had been a hard effort for me (and I was really thankful for Kevin and the others whose wheel I could sit on), the next day I could hardly wait to get back on the bike again and ended up riding 50 kilometers (30 miles). I still very much enjoy riding brevets, but the complicated logistics probably mean that I won't do them all that often. I know that there are some permanent routes starting out of Madison, and maybe we can organize a little event around here to do them in a larger group.

Thursday, April 25, 2019

Review: Panaracer GravelKing 700x38C (40-622)

It’s time to update my first impressions on the Panaracer GravelKing Slick tires. I’ve ridden them on my fixed-gear Surly Cross-Check for a full season, from April to November 2018. Over that period, I rode about 3000 km (1900 mi), much of it for commuting and riding around town but also on camping trips hauling a trailer or the Lake Monona 100. In November I switched to my studded winter tires, and now that spring has returned to Madison, the Gravel Kings are back on the bike.
This post will focus on ride quality, number of flats, width, and wear.

Ride quality

I have little to say about ride quality—and that’s a good thing! Jan Heine of Bicycle Quarterly makes the argument that a good bike (and consequently good components) disappears under its rider. There are no annoying noises, the tires don’t feel harsh, they corner well, and they don’t seem to slow me down. They also don’t feel overly sensitive to pressure, which is nice for a bike that gets ridden every day. Usually I pump up the tires to 2.7–3 bar (40–45 psi) and then only top them up when they look really low, which could be as low as 1.7 bar (25 psi). I hesitate to make more quantitative statements about how “supple” or “fast” the Gravel Kings feel. I don’t believe that the subjective feel of those qualities is at all reliable, and I haven’t done any quantitative testing. But as I said: They certainly don’t feel slower than any of the other high-quality tires I have in my fleet, including Compass/Rene Herse tires with regular casing and Panaracer Pari Motos.


Hard to keep the calipers straight and camera in focus at the same time...
In the comment section of my first impressions post, several people asked whether the tires grew in width over time. As a reminder, these were the measurements right after mounting them:
  • On a DT Swiss TK540 (inner width: 18.2 mm), the tire measured just under 36 mm at about 40 psi. 
  • On a Mavic T519 (inner width: 19 mm), the tire measures just over 36 mm at about 50 psi. 
  • And finally, on the wider Sun Rhyno Lite (inner width: 22 mm), the tire again came out to just over 36 mm at 50 psi. 
As I mentioned in an update to the previous post, within a week the tires had grown by 1–2 mm. So how wide are they now? At 50 psi (as displayed by my pump’s gauge), the tires measure somewhere between 38 and 39 mm on both the Rhyno Lite and TK540 rims. For a tire labeled 700x38C* (40-622), I’d say that’s true-enogh to size. (If you want to learn more about tire sizing and tire size labels, I recommend the article “Tire Sizing: A Mysterious Art” in the latest issue of Bicycle Quarterly).

* Technically it should be 700Cx38, but this is a common labeling mistake nowadays.

Wear and Flat Resistance

Former front tire, now in the rear. Center tread still visible
Before remounting the tires this spring, I closely inspected the tread. One of the downsides of running full fenders is that it prevents a quick visual inspection of the rear tread—which of course is the tire that wears quicker. And indeed, on the rear tire the center tread had clearly worn away. On the front, the little tread dots were still visible, and so I decided to switch front and rear tire. I haven’t noticed an increased number of flats, and in general I have encountered few flats  (even though I did have one just two days after reinstalling the tires in the spring...). Frequent flats are one of my main indicators for replacing the tires. The casing is in excellent shape still, despite me lock up in public and the above-mentioned carelessness about tire pressure. I’m hoping to get another 1600 km (1000 mi) out of this set of tires, but we shall see.

One somewhat related observation: In my first impressions, I mentioned that installing the tire on the Rhyno Lite rim was nearly impossible. This has gotten much better and I can now mount and dismount the tires without tire levers. I have not tried setting the tires up tubeless and I have no plans of doing so.

After 3000 km (this is the rear tire): Center tread is mostly worn away

Overall verdict

I don’t regret buying these tires at all. My main concern had been wear. And so if the GravelKings do indeed hold up another 1600 km (1000 mi), for a total of about 4500 km (2800 mi), that’s good enough for me. I would probably still replace them with Compass/Rene Herse tires, mostly so that I could compare the cost per mile over the lifetime of the tire. At market price, the Rene Herse tires are over one third more expensive, and I think it's possible that I could one third more miles out of them. If it is close, I’d always opt for the more durable tire for environmental reasons.

PS Please note that within the GravelKing series, there seem to be substantive differences in tire construction based on size. Especially the 650B x 48 (48-584) has gotten some bad reviews and is much heavier compared to the Rene Herse tire in the same size.

Thursday, January 31, 2019

The Midwest Polar Vortex Kit

We're having record cold temperatures in Madison over the past two days: air temperatures below -30°C (-22°F), combined with a nasty wind to make things feel even colder. I've ridden in some very cold temperatures, but this was clearly a new low. As I have gotten frostbite before (not recommended!) I've been very careful about limiting the risks of being outside. I've kept ride short and dressed warmly. So what does my kit look like for a 6 kilometer (3.7 miles) ride look like? Like so:

  1. Cheap polyester tights (I think from Costco)
  2. Ibex El Fito wool tights (no longer in production)
  3. Lake MXZ-302 boots (no longer in production; replaced by the MXZ-303)
  4. SmartWool mountaineering extra thick wool socks
  5. HotHands chemical warmers
  6. Neoprene toe covers (meant for outside the shoes but worn over the socks, inside the shoes)
  7. Army surplus Arctic extreme cold mitts (without liner)
  8. FoxRiver Extra Heavy Double Ragg Mitten
  9. Merino wool sweater
  10. Dickies 874 work pants
  11. Wisconsin Bike Fed Forward cotton t-shirt
  12. Swrve Milwaukee ES hooded jacket
  13. Cheap synthetic buff
  14. POC Fovea goggles
  15. Cheap fleece balaclava with mesh
  16. Bontrager Windshell skull cap
  17. Pogies (not pictured)  
 Did it work? Mostly, as in I made it to work, didn't get frostbite, and wasn't too uncomfortable.

Weak spots:
  • The goggles were useless, as they fogged up within the first ten minutes of the ride. I have yet to find a way to solve this issue. On the other hand, I find riding without goggles not too bad, even in these temperatures.
  • My thumbs got pretty cold and I had to pull them into the main mitten to warm them up. Of course, that meant I couldn't shift any more. Eventually they'd probably have warmed up; in the morning I have a hard time getting my hands warm even in much milder temperatures. I may invest in better pogies at some point.
  • The balaclava wasn't thick enough, and the skull cap slid up enough to make my earlobes very cold. I have a thicker balaclava that I can wear without the skull cap, which works better.
  • My toes were warm enough, but on a longer ride they'd probably have gotten too cold eventually. Having roomier boots would help, but I've already maxed out my options with a size 15 wide.

Saturday, January 26, 2019

A record cold ride? Sunrise in Madison

I can't really remember what the coldest temperature I've ever ridden in is. But today must have been close to or even below that: It was -19°F/-29°C when I woke up. The sun wasn't up yet, and so I decided to ride to the shore of Lake Monona to catch some good pictures of the sunrise. Yes, it was horribly cold, but the beauty of the ice fog, the sunrise, and the hoarfrost on the plants made it well worth it. No Strava track, as my phone battery quickly succumbed to the cold, but the ride was about 12 kilometers. Here are some pretty pictures!

Tuesday, January 1, 2019

Happy 2019!

I started the year with an excellent fat bike ride through Madison's snowy winter wonderland. Definitely one of the best winter rides I've had! I'm not a fan of winter, but today was truly magical. Happy New Year everyone.

Monday, December 24, 2018

Tried and Liked 2018


This is how much I love our tandem!


I've been wanting a tandem for a good while now. My SO and I had ridden rental tandems a couple times in the past, and the experience was good enough for us to want to own our own tandem. The promise of being able to go faster and farther than on solo bikes seemed enticing. One obstacle to finding a tandem was sizing: I'm 198 cm (6' 5 1/2") tall, whereas the SO is only 163 cm (5' 4"). My local Craigslist alert for tandems didn't yield anything appropriately sized, and we didn't want to jump in over our heads with an expensive new tandem before we were more certain that we'd actually ride it enough. In the end, I found an early-2000s XL/M-sized Cannondale RT-3000 at a local bike swap. Nice components (XTR rear derailleur, Ultegra 9-speed brifters, Hügi tandem hubs) and in great condition. It fits 38s in the rear and 40s (and probably more) in the front, and we've had some good rides on it. Tight turns are still terrifying for the stoker, but otherwise it's been working out well. We haven't gotten around to try and load it up for camping or at least credit card touring yet, but that's definitely in the plans for next year. I also need better lighting, as we often end up riding in the dark and the Planet Bike battery front light I have is mediocre compared to the dyno lights on my other bikes.

Giving the SO a lift to the airport on the tandem

Plastic saddles on everyday bike

When switching around saddles between bikes somehow I ended up with a racy Prologo saddle on my everyday fixed-gear Cross-Check. As it turns out, I like it a lot. Previously I had had different leather saddles on the bike (first a Brooks B-17 Imperial, then a Velo Orange one), which made some sense as they were comfortable and the bike served double-duty as a touring bike. But for an everyday bike that gets ridden in any kind of weather and often parked outside, a plastic saddle is just more practical. And I survived a 100-mile ride on the saddle while just wearing MUSA shorts (see below)!
Lake Monona 100 -- my first fixed-gear century ride

MUSA shorts

I bought a pair of original MUSA shorts from a friend and they are great! I'm not sure if I'd be willing to pay retail on these, but they are comfortable and practical -- just as you would expect from a Rivendell product. One downside (which I believe has been changed in the current generation of the shorts) are the large and unattached pockets. It's nice to have plenty of pocket space. But especially on downhills on my fixie (i.e. at high RPM), the pockets and their contents bounce around a lot. My SO slightly shrunk the pockets and that has improved the issue.

Being a BlueBikes Bike Angel

I've been spending a bunch of time in Cambridge (Mass.) this year. My SO is on a fellowship at the Radcliffe Institute for the academic year and I've been visiting her regularly. Because her apartment is very small and doesn't have any secure bike parking, I've gotten by with the BlueBikes bike share system. One neat feature of BlueBikes is that as part of their rebalancing of bikes between stations, they have the Bike Angels program: You get points for removing bikes from full stations, as well as dropping off bikes at empty ones. The points translate into free passes, membership extensions, and even cash. Cruising around to earn points has been a great way to explore the city. My goal is to reach 250 points total and earn a Bike Angel pin. 125 points down, 125 to go.

iBOB Midwest Unmeeting

It was a small gathering, mostly friends and family of ours, plus Matt, who read about the meeting on the Riv list. The weather was what you may expect for Midwest summer in July: Very hot, humid, and with strong thunderstorms. It would've been nice to have had more BOBs, but I think we'll try again next year or the year after.
Unmeeting at Governor Dodge State Park

Kevin, me, Matt (Photo: Grant Foster)

Having a real camera again

I bought a Sony A6000 mirrorless camera this summer and am very happy with the decision. After a couple years of mostly smartphone photography, it's nice to have a "real" camera again And the mirrorless format makes it compact enough to easily carry it in my handlebar bag or on my belt.


Portland Design Works Dave's Mud Shovel Fender

I bought these fenders for my Pugsley. At my local bike shop, Revolution Cycles, one of the employees told me that the initial version had had some issues, but he thought that now those may have gotten fixed. That may be the case, but the fender still turned out to be a disappointment. It functioned well enough to keep \muck off my back, but the mounting method has serious flaws. The connection between the part that attaches to the seat post and the actual fender is tightened with a loctite'd thumb screw. During a long ride, that screw came loose, and I dropped the fender. Of course, I couldn't find screw and nut and had to clumsily carry back the fender home. PDW customer service was very good in sending me a free replacement, and since then I regularly checked the tightness of that screw. However, there is a second weakness: The fender blade is attached to the mount with snaps. This seemed to work well enough while the fenders are on the bike. But the first time I had the bike transported on a hitch rack on a car, the snaps came loose and the fender blade was lost. Unfortunately, I seems like there aren't any other promising fat bike fenders on the market, and so when I saw another cheap Mud Shovel at a gear swap, I bought it anyway...

Counterfeit disc brake pads

When I needed new pads for my Avid BB7 brakes, I discovered that on Ebay and AliExpress there was a large selection of very cheap no-name brake pads available. Compared to the $20-30 for genuine pads (are brake pads the inkject cartridges of the bike world??), these would come as cheap as $2. This seemed sketchy, and so I went for the middle ground: Pads labeled as genuine Avid, shipped straight from Taiwan, for $8/pair. Turns out that these most likely were counterfeit: The braking compound was much thinner and they wore like crazy, especially on wet rides. Not recommended.


Panaracer GravelKing

I praised the 650Bx38 Panaracer Pari Moto tires last year as an economical alternative to Compass tires. This year I bought two sets of Panaracer GravelKing Slicks, which look quite similar to the Pari Moto. They do come in more sizes, tread patterns and are now also available as tubeless compatible. You can read my first impressions of the tires here. Since then they've seen a few thousand kilometers, and they're holding up okay. Ride quality is great, but I'll reserve my final judgment for when they wear out completely.

Sunday, November 18, 2018

Coffeeneuring 2018: Antisocial Coffee Outside

My 2018 Coffeeneuring season hasn't been going so well. Travel, lots of paid and bike advocacy work, and unseasonably cold temperatures have kept me from getting in my rides. It's the last week of the challenge, and I had only gotten three rides done.

Today, I had intended to again participate in the Madison Cranksgiving alley cat/food drive. But after several days of back-to-back social events, introvert-me needed a break from people. A fat bike ride on the Badger State Trail and #coffeeoutside seemed like the perfect no-people activity. It below freezing but sunny.

The trail was a mix of snow, ice, and dry patches so that I was happy to have chosen my Pugsley. Coffee spot was a nondescript location just off the trail near Belleville. On the menu was Lion Gold Roast that a colleague had brought back from a Hawaiian vacation, prepared in the Moka Express over my alcohol stove.

Distance: 43 km
State of mind: Reinvigorated
Notes: I don't like drinking fresh coffee out of my thermos; should bring regular mug next time.