Sunday, April 29, 2012

Ride report: CVRM Populaire April 28

I like long rides, and I like the idea of randonneuring: mostly non-competitive long-distance riding where your goal is to ride a certain distance within certain time limits. While still living in Ithaca, I never got around to doing a sanctioned brevet, partly because I wasn't quite sure if I could ride 200km or more, partly because none of the brevets start in or very close to Ithaca -- and I both don't like the idea of driving several hours to the start of ride and it's also not exactly practical if you don't have a car.

In Montreal, the practical aspect was much easier: all the rides start at the same place, only about 10km from our apartment. In terms of the physical aspect, I have also grown more confident in my abilities to be able to do at least a 200km ride -- after all, in 2010 I had done 230km on one occasion, and just two weeks ago I rode an average of 150km a day for 4 days in a row.

Thus, I decided to give to give the CVRM (Club Vélo Randonneurs de Montréal) rides a try. I was a bit intimated by the fact that their website is all in French whereas my French skills are still pretty limited. But whatever, last week I sent an email to the ride coordinator and signed up for their first Populaire of the year. Populaires are intended to introduce riders to randonneuring, primarily by being shorter than regular brevets which start at 200km. The ride on Saturday was announced to be 147km with a time limit of 10 hours.

I left the house around 8 o'clock and it was still around freezing. I had decided to do the ride on Wolfgang, my all-purpose, fully decked-out Cross-Check. As the forecast had predicted cold but dry conditions and the ride would be entirely during day light I might as well have ridden on the sporty Gunnar. After arriving at the start at 8:30 Wolfgang looked decidedly out of place: He was the only bike with fenders and dynohub lighting, and there were only a few other bikes with steel frames, racks, or non-system wheelsets. The rest was mostly racy crabon bikes, with a few titanium frames mixed in.

After a very cold half hour -- the icy wind was blowing relentlessly -- and a quick group photo, we finally got going with about 20 riders. And going we were! I tried hanging on with the guys in the front, and for the first 15km or so we were averaging well over 30 km/h. It was pretty obvious to me that this pace was absolutely unsustainable for me and I slowly fell back to what I think was the middle of the field. Supported by a strong tailwind I nonetheless kept my speed up and every once in a while saw some riders ahead of me. The first controle -- these are the waypoints where riders have to stop and get their brevet cards stamped -- was at a depanneur in the little village Saint-Paul-de-L'Île-Aux-Noix. There I caught up with a larger group of riders. Following Jan Heine's advice, I tried to limit my stopped time (the time limits on brevets count the total time, not only the moving time), and got going ahead of most of the rest of the group. Whereas most of the ride so far had been going south, i.e. in the same direction as the strong wind, the route now turned west or northwest, right into the wind. This slowed me down immensely, and I was quickly passed by the faster group. It would have been nice to ride in a group to better withstand the winds, but I knew that I wouldn't be strong enough to hang on with them. So I just continued on alone. At a long straightaway I got a glimpse of the group again -- and they were going straight where they should have turned right. The next controle was a gas station at km 95, and maybe 10 km before that the wrong-turn riders caught up with me and insisted that I ride with them. My legs weren't too excited but I went along anyway, channeling my inner Jens Voigt and telling the legs to shut up. Riding in a small group was clearly more effective in the wind and just before the controle we caught up with another small group (I guess they had taken the right turn).

According to the cue sheet, the second controle was a Shell gas station at the intersection of highways 219 and 221. I therefore was surprised and confused when the group left the Shell station on the right and stopped at PetroCanada 100 meters down the road. As a rule-abiding randonneur, I went over to the in my opinion correct gas station and met up with one other rider there. He wasn't quite sure what was going on with the others, too, speculating that they might be abandoning because of the wind. Well, we had a nice chat and decided to do the rest of the ride together. He had done a couple of rides with the CVRM before and he confirmed my impression of the club being somewhat more competitive than what I had randonneuring imagined to be.

Our abilities were fairly well-matched and while I in general don't mind riding alone, it was great to ride with him for the final 55 km. At some point we had to cross the A10 which added a little cyclocross element to our ride: the bridge was being rebuilt, with the surface at this point only consisting of the steel armaments without the final layer of concrete. A detour was not available and so carried our bikes across the narrow cantilevered pathway built for the construction workers. The rest of the ride was fairly uneventful, and at 3:50 pm, after 6 hours and 50 minutes, we checked in at the final controle.

At this point I was out of water, my legs were very tired, and my upper back and arms hurt. The final 10km back to our apartment I took it extremely slowly. This clearly had been the hardest ride I had done in a long time, surpassed probably only by my failed attempt of the "Terrible Hills involving the letter 'B'" in Ithaca and my ride up the Stelvio pass last summer.

Today, randonesia, the phenomenon that you very quickly forget about all the hardships a ride brings, has already started kicking in, and only my very sore legs are there to prevent me from immediately signing up for another brevet.

Sunday, April 1, 2012

Product review: Chain-L chain lube

The world of chain lubing and maintenance is one of strong convictions and fervent beliefs: to clean or not to clean? Wet lube or dry lube? Teflon or oil?

During the past couple of years I have almost exclusively used FinishLine Dry Teflon lubricant. My trusted LBS, Swan Cycles, recommended it--and more importantly: sold refills for cheap. The Finish Line lube is great in that it does not leave any dirt-attracting residue on the outside of the chain, therefore keeping it relatively clean. The downside is that it gets washed out pretty quickly, especially when riding in the rain or on wet roads. During winter this would often mean that my chain squeakingly demanded more lube after just a day. And since I'm a bad, bad bike owner, those demands often were ignored for several days...
Retrogrouch-friendly design

Consequently, the idea of a lube that withstands wet conditions without the constant need to re-lube seemed pretty attractive for riding in Montreal's winter. I first read about Chain-L on Kent's Bike Blog, whose writing I appreciate and whose bike-related opinions I trust. He was full of praise for Chain-L and commenters seemed to agree. On the Chain-L website there are also links to a bunch of very positive reviews from reputable sources. So when the accomplice went to visit some friends in Portland, I asked her to stop by at Clever Cycles and buy me a bottle of that wondrous fluid.

This is not chain lube (Image by Dvortygirl under a CC-BY-SA license)

Chain-L is sold in 4 ounce bottles (1 oz trial bottles are available, too) and it costs 12 dollars. This comes out to 10.14 for 100ml, compared to 6.76/100ml for FinishLine Dry or 8.74/100ml for Phil's Tenacious Oil. The lube resembles in color and texture Grade A maple syrup (translation for people from non-maple producing states: dark golden color and fairly thick). The instructions recommend to apply one drop per chain link, ideally on a new or thoroughly cleaned chain. After giving it at least 10 minutes to permeate into the chain and turning the cranks a couple of time you wipe of the excess from the outside of the chain. The stuff really is sticky and when you watch the chain running over the cassette you can see thin oily threads form between cogs and pulley wheels. The manufacturers warns you that due to its viscosity then drivetrain will attract a lot of gunk but I didn't find it as bad as I expected.

So what's my verdict?

Initially I was pretty disappointed. I applied Chain-L on Wolfgang, my all-purpose Cross-Check, some time in February, a time when there was still plenty of snow around and roads were wet constantly. Within just a few days my drivetrain started squeaking and surface rust was clearly visible. I reapplied the Chain-L, and this time around it lasted a little longer, but still nowhere near the hundreds or even thousands of kilometers that other people claimed. The next attempt with the lube was on the following Sunday: the weather was predicted to be lovely for March: 10°C and sunny, and so, after lubing up the chain in the morning, I set out for a 120km, 6 hour ride around half of Montreal Island. There were still plenty of snow heaps around, and thus a good deal of riding was on wet roads. Come next day's commute: squeak squeak squeak. So within just one ride all of the lube had gotten washed out again.

So what's going on? A) I'm doing something wrong. B) There's something about the environment that negatively affects my outcomes; or c) All the positive reviews for Chain-L are written by shills or people who don't know what they're talking about.

A) seems pretty unlikely, as there's not that much you can do wrong when applying chain lube. B) seems more likely. At least in the first weeks of me testing Chain-L there probably was still quite a bit of salt on the roads and it's possible that Chain-L and corrosive salt water don't go together well. I've kept using Chain-L since then and once roads switched from wet to dry and salt-free the lube did stay on longer, but still nowhere near the "1000 miles in the wet" some people have boasted.

Which leads me to C): As mentioned in the introduction, the world of chain lube is an esoteric one and has lots of strong believers and little hard evidence. I find I hard to believe (ha, there we go again!) that any lube will withstand 1000 miles in the wet on a bicycle. And anyone who claims otherwise is probably a little gullible or wants to sell me something. [edit: I must have been in a bad mood when I wrote this paragraph. Since it's already out there, I don't just want to delete it, but say that this doesn't add anything to the review and should have been left out in the first place. Apologies.]

Now this doesn't mean that Chain-L is necessarily a bad lube--in winter it clearly is superior to dry lubes. And who knows if, assuming I reapply it frequently enough, it will prolong the lifespan of my chains and cogs. But I'm very skeptical if it is superior to any other oil-based lubes.

The only comprehensive lab test of lubes I know was done in 2009 by German road bike magazine tour (free registration required for the download). However, performance in wet conditions was not tested. A really nice real-life test was done by Rainer Mai (German only; results table here) but nobody has replicated his results and there doesn't seem to be any systematic relationship between the type of lube and its performance.

So to sum up: in a world belief and convictions it's probably best to be an agnostic. For me, that means that on the commuter I'll use up the bottle of Chain-L (and keep reporting) and on the fair-weather Gunnar I'll stick with the FinishLine Dry. And once both bottles have been used up I'll try the next wonder lube.