Saturday, April 30, 2016

First impressions: Giro Rumble VR, a casual, vegan bike shoe

Update 2017-05-06: There is now a one-year follow up to these initial impression.

Winter was coming to a end, meaning that I'd switch from my Lake MXZ-302 boots—with cleats that no longer allow me to clip in—to my Mavic Rush MTB shoes—with a sole worn enough to make them a safety hazard. It was time for a new pair of shoes. This time around I wanted something that didn't outright look like a bike shoe but would still allow me to use clipless pedals. The non-bike bike shoe market segment has grown quite a bit over the years with companies such as DZR, Mission Workshop, or Chrome, and now also more mainstream bike clothing brands.

I'm vegan and have pretty big feet (size 14 US/48 Euro), though, constraining my options a lot. After some searching and reading reviews, I found the Giro Rumble VR, which checked all boxed: No leather, not looking bikey, available in size 48, generally good reviews, and pretty affordable. I ordered the blue/gum model (the other option is black/red) for $80 from REI, thinking that if they didn't work out I could easily return them.

I've worn the shoes for a few weeks now and am generally happy. They look great, sort of retro sneaker style (and matching our living room rug...), and I can even wear them to work. They're definitely large and wide enough for my feet. The laces are slightly short when you lace them through all the holes. Since that made them too tight for my liking anyway, I just leave out the uppermost hole, resulting in just the right length of the laces. For cycling shoes, laces can be problematic, but the Giros have a little elastic tab in the middle of the shoe's tongue that allows you to safely tuck away the laces. I have the suspicion that the elastic will eventually wear out, but we'll see. The outsole is made by Vibram and features a removable panel under which the four screws for installing SPD cleats are hidden. In contrast to many other cycling shoes, the panel is secured with screws and therefore you could theoretically go back from cleat to no-cleat. As you can see below (even though it's difficult to capture in a photo), the cleats are recessed, but not very far. This makes me concerned about the longevity of the shoes. But again, we will have to see.

What about comfort? On the bike I initially experienced some numbness even on relatively short rides (25-40 km/15-25 mi). Part of that was probably due to lacing the shoes too tight, and the fact that it was pretty cold on those rides possibly contributed as well. The numbness improved with looser lacing and warmer temperatures, but some of it remains, as well as hot spot issues. I will experiment with cleat placement and see if that helps. Even when laced not particularly tightly and mashing or spinning on my fixed gear bike, they securely stay on my feet. Off the bike the shoes are fairly comfortable—but not quite as comfortable as they look. The sole is very stiff. Walking or standing in the shoes for extended periods is not that great, even compared to my Mavics. After all, the Giro Rumble is very much a bike shoe.
In conclusion, I really like the looks of the Giro Rumble VR, as well as the fact that they're made from synthetic materials. What remains to be seen is if I can improve the on-bike comfort and if the shoes turn out to be durable. To be revisited later.

Update 2016-05-03
A couple additions from things I forgot and feedback I received:

  • A friend who also tried the Rumble VR says that they did not work out for him because of the foot bed: "I owned a pair for a week. They killed my arches. It's possible that I just have really high arches, but I've never had a cycling shoe mess with me this way..." Giro offers adjustable inserts to vary the arch support, but they are rather expensive.
  • I forgot to mention that because of the snug fit and the lack of a loop at the rear, I use a shoehorn to put them on. Without that, you'd have to loosen the lacing quite a bit to comfortably get into the shoe and/or possibly destroy the heel cup prematurely.

Thursday, April 28, 2016

Magnum Photos: "Cycling"

BELGIUM. Antwerpen (Antwerp), 1984 © John Vink

I love cycling and I love photography. So it's exciting to see that probably the most famous photo agency, Magnum Photos, is releasing a book about cycling. Based on the pictures I've seen on Amazon and elsewhere, this looks very promising. Guy Andrews, founder of Rouleur, selected the images from Magnum's vast archives and provides the text. The photographers featured include names such as Henri Cartier-Bresson, Robert Capa, John Vink and Harry Gruyaert. I'll probably preorder the book (release date is June 14) and report back once I have it in hand.

Saturday, April 9, 2016

Wahoo RFLKT+: Great concept, poor execution

For the past two years or so I've ridden without a bike computer. This was very much not out of some sense that have a real time display of how fast and far you go somehow ruins the cycling experience. Rather, the bike computer ran out of battery, and I somehow never got around to replacing it. In addition, I had finally replaced my smartphone to one that was able to run Strava, and I've been logging pretty much every ride with that. Strava is great for logging miles and analyzing rides after the fact. But unless you mount your phone on the handlebars—something increasingly difficult given the size of current smartphones—you don't have access to real-time data. And real-time data can be nice, for instance, for following a cue sheet or to avoid speed creep when riding in a group.

So when I read about the Wahoo RFLKT series, the basic concept seemed great. It is basically an external screen for your smartphone fitness tracker, similar to a smartwatch. It also has a few additional sensors embedded (see below), and the buttons on the unit allow you control certain functions of your phone. This makes a lot of sense: Many of us already own smartphones, and those are incredibly powerful computers and have good-quality GPS receivers. What they lack is robustness and a display that can easily be read outdoors without quickly draining the battery. Fancy bike computers with integrated GPS, such as the Garmin Edge series or the Sigma Rox 10, address those downsides, but a) they lack some of the functionality that a smartphone-based app offers (e.g., automatic upload after a ride) and b) have to duplicate a lot of what your smartphone already can do and therefore end up as expensive or even more expensive than a smartphone. The RFLKT concept is a middle way that in theory nicely fills a gap.

So with my birthday near and REI having their annual 20%-off member sale, I decided to give this middle way a try. In my usual modus operandi, I spent a lot of time reading reviews and figuring out what exactly I wanted. First, RFLKT or RFLKT+? The RFLKT is the original version and about 20 dollars cheaper than the Plus-version. Other than that, the two main differences are: 1) In addition to Bluetooth, the Plus also supports the ANT+ protocol (meaning that it can interface with a wide range of other sensors such as heart rate monitors). 2) The Plus also comes with a barometric altimeter and a temperature sensor. I didn't care much about the temperature sensor, but the altimeter is useful because elevation data based solely on GPS is notoriously inaccurate. In addition to choosing between models, there are a number of additional accessories one can buy, most importantly a crank-mounted wireless speed and cadence sensor. The speed sensor is important primarily for logging workouts when your bike is on the trainer—GPS obviously doesn't work in that case. The cadence sensor did appeal to me, but between me never riding indoors and the additional cost, I opted for the RLFKT+ but against the sensor.

With that decision made, I read specs and reviews to ensure that everything would work with my setup: LG G3 Android phone, interface with Strava (even though some limitations were mentioned), no other devices to connect to. Pretty standard. Reviews on Amazon and were middling, with the major complaint being connection problems between RFLKT and smartphone. Pretty much all of those seemed to stem from the distance between the two devices: Bluetooth LE signals aren't particularly strong, and the human body absorbs them well. So when you have the phone in your rear jersey pocket and the device on the handlebars, connection problems aren't that surprising. In my particular case I figured this wouldn't be an issue: My phone lives in the handlebar bag, less than 20 centimeters from where I planned mounting the RFLKT. So I went ahead and ordered.

Regret came quickly once the device arrived. Yes, it looks slick, and it's actually smaller than I had expected: Much smaller than my old Garmin Etrex Vista (but with the same screen size) and not that much bigger than my even older Sigma BC1606.

From left to right: LG G3, Garmin Etrex Vista HCx, Wahoo RFLKT+, Sigma BC1606L
But from here on it was all downhill. Because it was late and my phone low on battery, I first read up on how to connect the RFLKT+ to Strava. Well, you don't. Unless you use an iPhone. The Android version of the Strava app does not support the RFLKT+, and from the support forums it looks like Strava has no intention of changing that anytime soon. Given the ubiquitous advertising/cross-marketing for Wahoo on the Strava website, this came as quite a surprise. Well, I figured this wouldn't be a dealbreaker, as apparently using the native Wahoo app has some advantages anyway and allows to sync your rides with Strava after the fact.

The serious problems began when I tried connecting the RFLKT to my phone. For initial setup, you download the Wahoo Fitness app to your smartphone, go to the devices page and then hit a button on the RFLKT+ to start the pairing process. For a few seconds everything looked fine: The device indeed showed up on the smartphone. But after a few seconds, the RFLKT turned itself off and the pairing process stalled. I tried it a couple of times, but the problem persisted. Reading the Wahoo documentation and support forums, I now learned of more limitations: Yes, the there are some Android smartphones that work with the RFLKT, but the list of explicitly supported models is pretty short. My LG G3 was not on the list; it's predecessor, the G2, however, was. Alas, pairing also didn't work on my SO's G2.

So what's going on? Explanation 1 is that the device is simply defective. The packaging that the RFLKT came in looked like it may have been opened before, and so maybe I got a returned item that didn't work for the previous owner either. Explanation 2 is that the Android versions on my and the SO's phones are incompatible with the RFLKT. We both run custom ROMs, and looking at the short list of compatible phones, I can well imagine that the RFLKT has very specific requirements as to what operating system is running on the paired smartphone. At any rate, at this point I've already had enough. Given all the limitations, I wasn't interested in doing an exchange for another device. Back to the store it goes.

In summary, while the concept of the RFLKT is a great idea, the execution is very much lacking. The dependency on very specific hard- and software makes this a solution way more finicky than it should be. In my mind, the use of standard protocols such as Bluetooth or ANT+ would make seamless integration easy, but apparently that assumption was naive. I can imagine that for iPhone users the situation is better as it takes some of the variables out of the equation. But Wahoo explicitly advertises the RFLKT as an “iPhone and Android bike computer,” and I think they should be a bit more straightforward about the limitations of the Android part of that.

Personally, for now I will probably just got back to my jumble of old devices: LG G3 smartphone with Strava in my bag, the old Sigma for real-time speed and distance; and the Garmin for when I need a map display or more accurate recording. To be revisited later.