Thursday, February 23, 2012

Broken Brooks B17

Update March 15: I've written up some repair-related information in this post.

Last weekend, I did my first long (i.e. over 100km) ride of the year. The weather was alright at 3°C and some sun with clouds and I had a very nice ride out to the L'Île Perrot. Not so nice was the fact that about 85 km into the ride my Brooks B17 Imperial saddle broke: I heard a quick cracking sound and immediately knew that it had to the failure that I had been afraid of for a long time: one of the rails broke, right behind the clamp.

Brooks B17 Imperial: Still in good shape
This problem is widely known, as is the fact that Brooks claims that it's not their fault (and Grant Petersen agrees). Saddles with the tension too low, mounted too far back, or malicious clamping mechanisms supposedly cause the issue, but that seems to be only part of the story. For one, Brooks saddle rails are slightly thinner than standard rails, according to an article in the German bike magazine Fahrradzukunft, resulting in a significant reduction of strength. Due to their hammock principle --  you sit on a piece of leather that is only connected to the frame at the nose and the rear -- presumably a Brooks creates higher stresses on the frame. And it's easy to see how higher stresses plus weaker rails can in some cases lead to breakage. Of course, it is impossible to tell how frequently Brooks rails break. The company itself probably has a good estimate of it, but is not making any figures public. However, on the internet you come across a fairly large number of incident reports. (It's important to keep in mind that Brooks saddles are pretty popular and therefore the number of incidents has to be put into the context of the large number of Brookses produced.)

Just a little asymmetrical...
My saddle had been ridden for approximately 10 000 km and my weight is somewhere around 85 kg. I think it's unacceptable for a saddle to fail after only such a short period of use -- at my current annual mileage I'd have to buy a new saddle for well over 100 dollars every two years! Some people might say, "well, then why don't you just get a nice saddle from a different manufacturer?" Unfortunately, it's not that easy: first, I do need a leather saddle. Despite being vegan and having some weight-weenie tendencies, I can't really give up on leather in this case: I have a slight scoliosis, resulting in me sitting on the bike crookedly. My leather saddles can adapt to that while plastic saddles can't. Second, while Brooks is not the only manufacturer of leather saddles the number of alternatives is limited and they all have their drawbacks, too:
  • Selle An-Atomica: reportedly, the saddles are very comfortable, but the leather stretches very fast. In addition, they carry a hefty price tag of over 200 dollars shipped.
  • Gilles Berthoud offers a range of nice leather saddles and apparently they can be easily repaired at home. Presumably due to their hefty price tag, they are not very common and it's therefore difficult to find reviews. 
  • Velo Orange sells a range of Brooks knock-offs. They're certainly cheap, but who knows long they will last.
So I'm not really sure what to do. I feel very reluctant to spend money on yet another Brooks, especially since breaking rails are not the only problem one can have with a Brooks (my father-in-law, for example, has a B17 that absolutely does not break in).  For now, I have fixed the saddle by using the advice from the Fahrradzukunft article mentioned above: move the saddle forward, so that the broken part is covered by the clamp, and then tighten the clamp bolt to 25 Nm. We'll see how long that is going to last and how long I'll be willing to put up with the less than ideal saddle position.

Repairing the saddle is another option. Since prior to the defect I was very happy with the B17 Imperial and the leather is probably good for at least another 10 000 km, it would be nice to repair the saddle. While Brooks offers all the necessary spare parts, unsprung saddles like the B17 require you to re-rivet the saddle onto the frame. This is pretty tricky and Brooks recommends to have it done by a professional. Which, of course, is pretty expensive. I haven't talked to any of the local Brooks "dealers of excellence" in Montreal yet, but what I've found online is not that promising: at this place, the cost would be over 100 dollars, and I imagine other places will charge a similar amount.
After the temporary repair

So I'm not sure what to do yet, but I'll keep you updated. If you have experience with Brooks saddles breaking or being repaired, please comment.

Monday, February 13, 2012

Planning for spring: Quebec to Montreal

Last year was a bad bike camping year for us. We only managed to do one overnight trip, and even that one had to be cut short due to health issues. Well, there's always the next year, and the cold of winter is a great time for daydreaming and actual planning of tours to come. Very high on the list of tours to do is a one-week ride from Quebec City to Montreal via Sherbrooke on the Route Verte 1. Using OpenCycleMap and the official guide I have mapped out a 445km route. The idea is to start in Quebec City and then ride back home to Montreal. This has the advantage of allowing us to ride as fast or slow as possible, without the pressure of having to catch a train. It will probably take about a week at about 65km per day.

We'll be taking the train to Quebec City, which is slightly complicated: the only regular train with checked luggage service (and therefore with bicycle transportation) is the Ocean, going from Montreal to Halifax. Unfortunately, it doesn't stop in Quebec proper, but on the other side of the St. Lawrence, in Charny. In addition to that, it gets into town rather late. The alternative to that is to take the "Bike Train," special VIA Rail trains that don't require you to box up your bike. The downside is that these trains only run on the weekend (and maybe only in the summer? Not sure.). So we'll have to see what works best. We'll probably do the fully-loaded camping kind of trip, and judging from a POI file of campgrounds in Quebec that shouldn't be a problem. Since I'm vegan, we'll probably do most of our cooking ourselves and I hope there will be sufficient shopping infrastructure for me not having to eat pasta and tomato sauce each night...

Have you been on this ride or portions of it before? It would be great to get feedback on the route, camping choices, and what the infrastructure is like.

Monday, February 6, 2012

Testing a Penny Stove in the Cold

I am a big fan of DIY alcohol stoves, especially the penny stove variety. I like DIYing in general, and in this case it's also about the fact that a homemade penny stove is actually better than many if not most of the commercial offerings in terms of weight and heat output.
Heineken Penny Stove and stand

In a recent thread on the German Radreise-Forum about equipment choices for an overland trip from Germany to China, the question of the ideal stove came up. Alcohol stoves were discounted by some, based on the availability of fuel in many countries along the way and due to their questionable performance at high altitudes and low temperatures. I was somewhat surprised by the latter objections, as on the penny stove website there are a number of testimonial about the cold weather performance of the stove, including a quotation by Reinhold Messner who supposedly made tea with a jet-based alcohol stove on one of his expeditions to the Himalayas. However, the information there was not very specific -- how much longer does it take to boil water at cold temperatures and how much more fuel does it take -- and my curiosity was sparked. I decided to test it myself.

Air temperature of -9°C
Stove, pot, windscreen
This winter has been pretty mild in Montreal and so it took some time until it was cold enough for a meaningful test. Last Sunday morning had been predicted to be about -10°C and so I put my stove, fuel, and thermometer out on the porch right after waking up and ran the test after about an hour. So this is the experimental setup:

Altitude: 10m
Amount of water: 1l
Air temperature: -9°C
Water temperature at start: 5°C
Pot: 2.2l REI coated aluminium pot with slightly to big stainless steel lid (I couldn't find the original plastic lid)
Stove: Heineken-based penny stove with wind screen
Wind: almost no wind
Fuel temperature: same as air temperature

Burner at full power
I started the timer right before lighting the stove. The lighting itself was unproblematic: I just dropped a burning match into the stove. The total time until reaching a full boil was about 14 minutes and 30 seconds. I didn't measure the fuel consumption, as my kitchen scale recently broke, but the stove still had quite a bit of fuel in it.

5°C water right from the tap

Now what's the bottom line? Is the penny stove an appropriate choice for winter camping or riding through the Himalayas? I don't think you can definitely answer that question based on my test. Unfortunately, I don't own any other types of stoves and therefore couldn't do replications of the test on other equipment. But there are some hints: first of all, the stove does work in the cold. Even if it may not be the fastest, it will still boil your water in a not totally unreasonable amount of time. Second, we can compare the stove's cold weather performance with some of the published data at higher temperatures: in this test, a penny stove boiled 32 oz (0.95 l) of water in 7:50 at 20° degree air temp with 18°C degree water temp and 670m elevation. It would be interesting to calculate the estimated burn time adjusted for the different starting temperatures of the water, but I haven't done that yet.

Full boil
Assuming that it will get colder again here at some point, I'll try to repeat the test at something closer to -20°C and I might also do a test indoors to get a good baseline to compare my results to. If any readers can contribute data on the cold weather performance of alcohol or other stoves, please feel free to comment.