Thursday, November 20, 2014

Fat Bike 101

It seems that over the course of the past year especially, fat biking has become one of the hottest sectors in the bicycle business. Though the bikes themselves have been around for more than a decade in mass production, it seems that only recently have they really caught on. People who once exclaimed "not for me", myself included, have gotten bikes and been smitten by the two wheeled winter adventure that they open up.
Charge Cooker Maxi
Last year, my wife and I purchased a pair of Charge Cooker Maxi fat bikes from Chris at the Bikeway Source in Bedford. Charge is owned by the parent company of Cannondale, Dorel, so as a Cannondale dealer, Chris was able to get the bikes for us. The Charge are and good quality steel framed bike with solid and reliable mid level components. They were a great introduction into the market space without completely breaking the bank. After all, we were not sure how we would like the discipline and didn't want to spend too much trying it out.

As luck would have it, last year was a banner snow year. We had the luxury of spending much of the winter in Western Maine where the snowmobile trails were abundant with access literally just down the street. We quickly grew to love the adventure of being out in the frigid winter nights with nary another sole in sight. We loved it so much that we rode literally every day last winter and spent over 100 hours on the bikes exploring over a thousand miles. One thing that became quickly clear was that when riding in the dead of winter, at night, in a northern climate, normal cycling clothing is inadequate. As a long time year round cyclist I'm used to riding in the cold weather. That said, cold weather riding in MA was usually in the upper teens at a minimum. Now imagine starting your ride in falling temperatures that start out at ten degrees colder than that. We very frequently rode in the single digits and did ride that never made it above zero.
45NRTH Wolvhammer SPD
We found that the biggest challenge was keeping the hands and feet warm. To those ends, when it was really cold we resorted to heavy, expedition weight mittens and thin wool liner gloves. Sure, the hands got moist and using the controls with mittens on was a challenge but so was trying to do anything with frozen hands. On warmer days we would wear insulated ski gloves, which afford a bit more dexterity and control at the expense of some warmth. We also always carried spare mittens when doing colder or longer rides, just in case.

On the feet, we used winter SPD cycling shoes with neoprene over boots. These worked pretty well, for a certain length of time and to a certain temperature level. Below about 15 degrees you only had a couple of hours before your feet would get cold from the moisture buildup. Chemical warmers helped stave off the cold as well so we often used them. This year, we have gone to the 45NRTH Wolvhammer SPD winter boots (which run small IMHO so I ordered two sizes bigger than normal). Luckily Chris was able to get some into the shop for us before they sold out for the season. They are the top end for warmth when it comes to SPD compatible cycling boots. We are looking very forward to using them. In terms of other clothing, we were fans of Nordic wind-front ski pants from Salomon with suspenders and bib shorts with leg warmer underneath rather than cycling tights. The nice thing about the pants was that the cuff went over the top of boot, which helped keep the warmth in and from escaping. In turn, I felt that my feet stayed warmer as well as my legs. Up top I used a myriad of different layers and materials. In the super cold we wore down sweaters outside with a long sleeve wicking base and a breathable thermal layering mid. When it was warmer we went a wind-vest over a long sleeve wicking base and a heavy breathable thermal layering mid. Also, whenever we went on longer rides we went prepared for the worst. This meant carrying a hooded packable down jacket, a thick winter hat and/or balaclava and extra mittens. If something went wrong when you were even a few miles out it takes no time at all to go from hot and sweaty to hypothermic. Where we often rode, there was no cell reception so we were on our own.
Borealis Yampa X-0/X-9
This season we have bumped up the game on many front. I've already mentioned the boots. Additionally, we are trying some new designs and materials for outerwear. On top, we are going to use a hybrid jacket for cooler rides. These have thermal insulated fronts with lighter, breathable stretch arms, back and hood. For ultra cold we are switching from down to man made lightweight insulation. Hopefully these will be less susceptible to degradation and pack-out from moisture. We  are getting some heavier gauntlet style gloves as well with the hopes of retaining some of the dexterity. As a note, we tried pogies/bar-mitts but felt confined and never felt they provided the warmth we'd hoped for. On the bottom we are stocking up on more wind front active-wear with suspenders, so they stay up and down expose in the tail.

One other thing to consider is hydration. When it is below freezing, keeping your drink from freezing is a challenge. Clearly bottles don't work. The best luck that we have had is to use a minimalist Camelback worn under your outerwear, such that your body heat keeps it from freezing. Obviously, the hose needs to stay inside as well less it freeze and render the liquid somewhat useless for all intents and purposes.

Oh, I almost forgot. We also upgraded the bikes as well. We had so much fun last season that we jumped in with both feet, convincing Chris and the Bikeway Source to become the areas only Borealis Fat Bikes dealer. We bought a pair of the X-0/X-9 Yampa, a full carbon-fiber frameset with a very respectable parts spec. We opted for a 2x10 with double front chainrings for the range they offered. We ride some very diverse trails that have some incredibly steep sections that require low end, steady torque to maintain traction. On the same ride there are often long, fast downhill sections where I feared an adequately low one-by would spin out. My guess is that the weight saving alone, nearly ten pounds, is going to make the bikes feel like they can fly.

As you can imagine, we are very much looking forward to the winter months. If you are thinking about getting into fat biking, stop by the shop and see Chris. He usually has some bikes sitting on the floor, though this time of year, they are going out the door quickly.   

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Camp Status

It has been some time since I've done an update on the status of our camp/cottage/cabin in Kirby, VT. Though it is the fall and we have been entrenched in CX season, progress has not halted. In the late summer Cathy and I though it might be neat to price out a little upgrade to the place and give it a full concrete foundation underneath. As you may have noticed, the camp was previously on concrete piers that may or may not have been all that sound. The reality is that the place is about 40 years old and was still standing, so the footings were probably OK.

That said, the support beams were sagging and the span between piers was way too wide. I'd done some initial work and then scrubbed the project, realizing instead the right fix would be to dig and pour all new footings, by hand, in the 2-4' of crawl space under the camp. If you have ever done that kind of work you will quickly understand that the thought of it would absolutely stink.

As mentioned, I turned my attention inside for the summer instead and gutted and re-did it all, or at least all most all. The results were pretty dramatic IMHO and we were blown away by what we were left with. So much so, that we started wondering what it would cost to jack the place up, excavate and then put a walkout basement under it. We came up with a number that we were comfortable spending and then started talking to friends and family, who thought that the number may not be that crazy. May not be that crazy because I happen to have a good friend from high-school, Bruce Cushman (who is also my sister in law's brother) who is a mason and does foundations as well as this exact type of work. I gave Bruce a call and he stopped by to take a look.

To our delight, the number he came in with was pretty darn close to what we'd come up with and so after not much discussion, we agreed and work began. The camp and deck were braced up on three very large (12") and very long beams. The beams were actually just logs that had been faced off with a chainsaw on site. Level footing was dug in multiple points under each beam and large scale hydraulic jacks were placed under the beams on cribbing. Then the jacks were raced in synchronization while cribbing was placed under the beams as you went through the jack's stoke. When the jack reached it's limit your simply crib right up to the beam then back the jack off, place more cribbing under it and start over again. It's actually quite simple and is the process my dad and I used when we replaced one of the support beams this past spring.

Once the camp was raised high enough, which was about 3' higher than it had been sitting, Bruce went in and excavated underneath with his Kubota tractor. We decided to do a complete walkout basement with a concrete slab and frost-walls and then a concrete block wall. This was easier and cheaper and should still be completely fine and water tight if drained correctly. We also decided to pour a full floating reinforced concrete pad under the deck so we could have that as usable space. The plan is to put roofing sloped toward the front to pitch rain that comes through the deck and keep the space under the deck dry. We also thought about framing the space in as a screen porch. Will see as that is a project for next summer, after a couple of other projects.

Through the course of the early fall the excavation was completed, the forms went in, the frost-walls were poured, the walls were laid and the slabs were poured. In NEVT, it was a fairly wet fall. Our place is off a gravel road, up a steep hill with a narrow, long and twisty driveway. Getting cement up in there meant getting a mixer up in there. Cement mixers are big and really, really heavy when especially when loaded with 20,000 pounds of cement. Needless to say, on the trip up to deliver cement for the pad under the deck, the six wheel drive, eight wheel truck had some issues and got stuck near the top. It also slid sideways and pretty much wedged itself. Cement has a shelf life and needed to be unloaded. Fortunately the tractor and bucket were there to transport to the actual site. I've never seen a tractor move back and forth so quickly but it did, and Bruce got the cement to the pad while his crew leveled it out.

Once all of the cement work was complete and the camp was set back down on the PT sills of it's new foundation, it was time for me to do my part. That was to frame in the walkout and install a door and a couple of big windows for lots of light. I decided to frame it with 2x6" wall and just went with PT for the whole thing rather than only using PT where it contacted the cement. This all worked really well with the help of my brother Chad and we knocked most of the framing off in a few hours on his day off from the barber shop, then the door and windows went in the next evening. I'd finished the framing and sheathing by myself earlier that day. The place was really starting to look good.

A couple of weeks back I spend some time up there and got the septic plumbing squared away as well. Nothing too complex but the main stack, which was now all new in the basement, had never had a vent. Actually, the old system did have a vent on the sink drain tee, right into the camp. I'd capped that thinking I'd take a chance with a hard flush siphoning my p-traps and venting gas (methane from the septic system which like all natural gas is highly flammable, and smelly) into the camp over knowing I was venting gas into the camp.

With a little research I found these neat one way plumbing valves which although not to code, should do the trick. They allow air into a system while not letting back gasses escape out into the area. I replaced the 1.5" cap on the existing vent with one of the one way caps and then plumbed a 2" vent into the main stack itself. The right fix of course is to run the 3" main stack right up through the roof and vent it outside. I'm too lazy to cut a big home in the roof right now though. Anyhow, it is fixed and has clean-outs and p-traps galore. The wonders of PVC and PVC cement.

So that's it. I've done a number of other small projects including putting a new wood stove to replace the old, oversized Jotul system. This stove is a nice, air-tight glass front with catalytic converter and re-circulation that is relatively efficient. It was also on sale at Lowes for $389 from $599 so was a HUGE score. I still have a bunch of work to do in order to finish and trim the casement windows and button the foundation up but given that had nothing underneath it for the previous years of it's life, it is way better off than it was. It is also way more stable. Turns out the footing it was on before were only down a couple of feet. That means the frost had it's way with the place. Amazing that the doors and windows ever opened and that it didn't fall over. This was certainly the right call.

I've still got my work cut out for me and the list is huge for next year. I plan to re-side it as it really needs to be done. Much of the trim on the outside needs help as well. I also have to move all of the plumbing fixtures, the pump, water heater and storage tank into the basement. While I'm at it I plan to get rid of the water heater in favor of an on demand propane system. I also plan to install a direct vent heating system in the basement so we can keep the place active for winter use. Right now we have to drain the pipes for the winter and throw antifreeze in the p-traps, which we did last week. The other thing that I need to do is throw in an electrical sub-panel in the basement, that way I can wire the basement as well.

It never ends but progress is being made. Hopefully next year will yield huge changes. The best thing is that to date, we are as far as we are concerned still ahead of the game in terms of this property versus some other properties we have seen, even with what we spent on the interior renovations and the foundation. Will see where we end up when it is all said and done but the bottom line is that we love the place and it is ours.

Monday, November 17, 2014

Making Up

When you care so deeply about a certain thing, your perception as well as your perspective can get clouded. Love is like that, as it involves deep emotion. It may seem odd for someone to be writing about this, not in terms of a relationship or family or a vocation but instead, in terms of a cycling sub-discipline but the honest truth is, I love single-speed cyclocross (SSCX) racing. I can't say exactly why I am so passionate about it, but I just am. For me, I love the surface level simplicity that actually lightly obscures a deeper level of intense complexity in making such a straight-forward and simplistic system work as reliably as one would just assume that it should.

You really need to keep things in perspective.
Over the years I've managed to put together a system of small tweaks and integrations that although not perfect by any stretch, seem to work very reliably for Cathy and I as well as the few other folks for whom I've set this same system up for. Other folks have developed setups that are equally as effective, but this setup is mine. I developed it, and that is something in which I take pride. I've also put together numerous other setups for people using a host of different platforms and tensioning systems. These range for simple setups that use leftover parts that most everyone has in their spare parts bin to more elaborate systems with custom components. I like them all equally and relish the challenge of making something that works and works reliably and safely.

I recently learned, the hard way, that not everyone is interested in, cares to or has the resources to do this kind of work. There are a large number of folks, dare I say the majority, for whom the the enjoyment is not in the process but in the execution, the race/ride itself. I can understand that. These are the folks that eat their meat first and only go back to the vegetables after the fact. I've always saved the meat for last and took great enjoyment from the vegetables themselves, for what they had to offer. Maybe it was because when/where I grew up, we didn't have much and, not to get all Tiny Tim on this, there wasn't much meat on the plate so what little we got, we tried to make the most of.

These life lessons from an extremely modest rural upbringing obviously shaped me on many facets. My love of building bikes comes from the fact that as I child, there was no such thing as a new, store bought bicycle for us. Bikes, for which I was obsessed for many years, were salvage, scrap or trade items that would then be laboriously cobbled and pieced together. Don't get me wrong, I loved working on bikes and I loved the process of sourcing pieces and parts. Again, we had no little or no money so it was generally a matter of bartering for the parts required with the local wholesalers, aka a couple of kids that had huge supplies of old rusted and broken bikes and parts. There was no bike shop where I grew up and there was no mail order that we knew of, or could have afforded. Still, we got by and we always had something to ride.

This passion has carried through to adulthood, where I've built hundreds of bikes up for myself as well as for friends. I ran and outfitted an entire junior development team on mostly cobbled together bikes that I built from donated and salvaged parts. Again, I took great pride in this and enjoyed every moment of it. I love being an enabler in getting folks involved and interested in cycling. It means so much to me that I just can't help myself but want to share it with others. Just ask my wife Cathy, who was not a cyclist when I met her.

Is it wrong to have two identical dedicated SSCX bikes?
Getting back to SSCX, if there has come to be a particular discipline of cycling that has come to be an embodiment of my passion for the sport, it is likely SSCX racing. I adore it and I adore the people. With that, it isn't hard to see how the events of the past couple of weeks (the Zip-Tie-Gate Conspiracy) unfolded from seemingly trivial origins into an all out feud. The bottom line, as with most spats, is that the details are not that important and that it doesn't really matter. What truly matters is what is underneath it all, the love and passion that brought you together in the first place. With that, we made up last week. I recognized a number of things that had deep meaning to me, did not have that same meaning for others. I also recognized, admitted and apologized for being a douche. The last thing that I want to do is discourage folks from cycling. I never meant to do that.

So last Saturday it was back to the races once again. Cathy and I headed to Cheshire Cross in CT, a stellar CX venue with one of my favorite courses. Very woodsy and very mountain bike with a crazy hill climb of despair that is gut wrenching and leg busting on the single-speed. We had a good size field stacked with stout competition. I'd gone back to some pretty solid training this week and was feeling pretty strong and confident that I was going to give it my all. I knew the hole shot was critical so at the whistle I pushed hard securing third spot around the first tight corner at the backstop and then pinned it coming back the long stretch to go under the lap/finish line. I kept on the gas and was first into the woods, slamming the sidewall of the tire against a rock right in the tight corner at the entry. I feared the worst but it seemed to hold.

Going up the run-up a gap opened and I went really hard down the first windy descent making really good time. I could see that I had some distance but as I got into the really bumpy up/down twisty section I felt the rear rim contacting the ground. I had a flat. Within a few seconds I was caught by the chase group as progress was hampered significantly, not wanting to destroy the rear wheel. Still I was able to move reasonably well and made it back to the pit still probably in the top 10 or so.

The sidewall on the PDX couldn't handle the pressure
Unfortunately, I'd decided to leave the spiffy new dedicated SSCX pit bike I'd built up that week at home. Worse, the spare wheelset that Cathy and I always drag with us to the races, dump in the pits and never use, was still in the van and not actually in the pit that day. Ah, Karma has a really cutting sense of humor. So I made it to the pit where Matt asked me if I needed anything. I exclaimed something like "a brain". I dropped my bike and ran out of the pit, across the parking lot and over to the upper part of the field where we had parked. I pulled the wheelset from the back of the van, which was a different set that had never been mounted on the bike before, and ran back to the pit. This got some colorful commentary from Cory who was on the microphone announcing for the event. I mounted the wheel and thank goodness, the rotor lined up relatively well. Back on the bike now well, well off the back of the race and try to move forward. According to my Garmin I later learned, I was stopped for 2:28 in the pit. Actually, not that bad all things considered.

I was disappointed as I'd felt good and was looking at this race as a test of my fitness, the fitness and motivation that had escaped me of recent but honestly, it wasn't that big a disappointment. It took the pressure off and so now it was just a matter of seeing how far back I could get. Getting through traffic on that course harkened to countless MTB races I've done where you just can't always pass when you want to. You have to wait until it is safe and reasonable for all involved. Though it can be frustrating it is part of racing, so don't be a d!ck about it. I had a great time cheering for folks and racing with them as I made progress steadily forward. I was never able to get any where near the front and missed catching Mo by a ton. She absolute ripped it as did everyone. In a desperate final push I tried to get cycling legend Funky on the line from behind but missed them in a congested finish zone. Just a little too late. The men's race came down to a wild sprint where Matt narrowly missed pipping race winner Don in a come from behind sprint finish. I was coming around the pit at that point so watched it happen. Cathy held on for third in the women's races, salvaging the team's results for the day.

All in all, a good day with some great people and lessons know, clearly re-iterated.

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Love Lost

As many can attest, I am a fanatic for the single-speed (SS) bicycle. Over the years I've spent countless hours and miles as well as races aboard my SS bicycles. I've done numerous blog posts about building, racing, riding and reminiscing about my beloved SS bikes. A couple of weeks ago I posted about single-speed cyclocross (SSCX) conversion techniques. These detailed various simple and economical ways to convert a normal geared bicycle into a single-speed bicycle that met the definition of a single-speed bicycle as defined by USA Cycling. That definition, which can be found on page 30 of the USA Cycling 2014 Rule Book in Chapter I - General Regulations Section 1I: Bicycles under clause (i);

  • A Single Speed is any type of bicycle possessing only one rear cog and only one front chainring and with no means of altering the gear ratio in any way during the race.

Cassette swapped for cog and spacers
Pretty simple, right? I think so and as such, wrote a post detailing numerous simple and inexpensive ways to help make any normal cyclocross bicycle conform to the regulations and race legally in the numerous regional USA Cycling sanctioned SSCX events.

In fact, I neglected to mention this alternative before but in terms of the easiest and most cost effective solution to meet the rules would be the following. If you pull the cassette from your rear wheel and exchange it for a single speed spacer kit and cog you will need to spend $25.99. You could also just scavenge a bunch of cassette spacers from worn out cassettes and use a singe cog from an old cassette, which is what we all did back in the day and cost us nothing. Then, you remove the big ring from the crankset and swap the double chainring bolts for a set of single chainring bolts which cost $13.99 or use flat washers on the backs of the nuts to space then out a bit. You could also throw a bash ring on instead, which also costs $14 from BBG Bash Rings online. Zip-tie your shifters in place so they mate with the cogs and you are done, and legal. $39.98 and a pair of zip-ties is the cost of converting a legal single-speed. $39.98 is what people were claiming was too high a cost for many to bear, that many could not afford in order to enter a single-speed race. Roughly the cost of a case of premium beer and requiring maybe 20 minutes of time.

Why do I care enough to keep posting guides on how to easily meet the requirements? Because those are the rules, that is the definition and these are billed as single-speed races. I honestly do care about the rules, all of the rules, and I do my very best to abide by those rules at all times. I also care because there are countless disadvantages to a dedicated SSCX bike. For instance, if you skip or chain drop on an SSCX, the chain falls into oblivion not onto another cog or ring. Gear selection onsite is problematic and risky as you have to physically mess with the mechanics of the bike such as the ring or cog used as well as chain tension if not chain length. Not something you want to be doing right before a race, which is why most people (us included) don't do it. Additionally, with dedicated SS bikes, very, very few people have a spare so there are no pit bikes to speak of. Also, for many folks, their SSCX bike is a secondary piece of equipment and is not as nice or as light as their fancy carbon-fiber geared race bike, despite not having gears. Bottom line, those racing an actual SSCX bike put in the time, effort and expense to build that bike to meet the requirements and moreover, the spirit of the event. I believe that counts for something and should be rewarded, not disincented.

Out of this post came a mostly positive discussion. However, when a follow-on Facebook rant in which I was tagged took over the day's social media discussions, a lengthy diatribe ensued which at first started well but ultimately culminated in vilification of myself and another vocal SSCX purist and proponent by a small group that felt that we were being elitist and trying to undermine the efforts that they had made toward the promotion of the discipline and to the local SSCX series. Not exactly the warm and friendly feeling I'd hoped for when giving my simple, honest opinion by posting a reference to the very clear and concise rules of the competition. Social media persecution for perceived heresy.

I was completely taken aback by this as I've spent as much time as anyone personally promoting the discipline of single-speed cyclocross racing. I've dragged countless individuals into the sport and built, helped to build or consulted in the build of many of the SSCX bikes currently being raced on the circuit. I've written numerous posts on conversion and setup and have been a willing and open resource for single-speed knowledge for all who inquire. I've even offered to help people do their conversions, thrown spare parts from my stash to people to help get them in the game or just built and given dedicated SSCX bikes away.

But a few people didn't see it that way. This left me with a pretty hollow feeling when it comes to the discipline and sport I've spent years trying so hard to promote and build. I take things like this very personally and I also tend to hold grudges. Just can't seem to let it go. I'm not saying that is a good thing, just that it's the way I am. This whole ordeal has weighed heavily on my mind for the past week now. In fact, after the affair transpired I'd decided to quit racing the local SSCX series all together. However, I recanted for the race last weekend given that I had a good friend staying with us whom I'd strong-armed into building up a dedicated SSCX bike and getting in on the fun Saturday in his first SSCX race. Still, I felt awkward and out of place at the event and didn't really want to be there.

Part of the issue is that I have worked hard to build and legitimize the discipline by getting people to take it seriously and by doing my best to recruit talent into the races. I think that right there is where at least some of the rub comes in. When it comes to racing bikes, I take the race itself very seriously. After all, I am paying my (Cathy's) hard earned money to enter a race and therefore, I am going to give my all every time. However, some people do not treat racing the same way. Moreover, for some reason, they tend to align themselves with the single-speed events. I think that much is this comes from the countless large scale single-speed events that are simply glorified frat parties. As much as I love the single-speed and have had pretty good success at both SSMTB and SSCX, I've shied away from these events for the very reason they are so popular.

Here at our local races I have been a vigilant advocate of the separation of the race and the party. I'm fine with partying and hanging out and having a beer after the race is done but when the race is going on, I want to race and I want people to respect that I and everyone else on the course are racing. Why the need for the sophomoric antics and thinly veiled alcoholic tendencies anyhow? Really, beer feeds and shots before the race? How about keg stands and shotguns or maybe a mid race beer-pong or quarters match or how about buying a breathalyzer and giving bonus points to the racer who blows the highest reading. Wouldn't that be fun, and mature.I'm embellishing of course simply to make a point. When does it stop being a race and start being a party with a $25 cover charge?

I know, I'm taking it too seriously and trying to ruin it. Anyhow, I'm not sure where I'm going from here with the season or with SSCX. I guess that we will just have to see. Trying to keep it positive and I think that I had I not been in the dumps about my form, fitness and results recently this probably would not have bummed me out as much as it did. At present, I feel a commitment to my wife, friends and teammates that I have drawn into the SSCX races. They all spent their time, effort and money to build up bikes with the intent of racing them. Cathy and I also have a big investment, what with our uber-expensive dedicated SSCX bikes that some goob heckled about Saturday. (Our dedicated SSCX bikes, of which we each have one, were built from all old, used parts that we had and are based on damaged framesets which cost us nothing. They also weigh more than our geared race bikes and sport parts that are inferior to those of our geared race bikes. Sure, they may be nicer than your's but whose fault is that?).

I've been thinking that if I could convince some of the key competition as well as my wife, who is already talking about racing her SSCX in the categorized races next year, it might be fun to enter the 1/2/3 A races on the single-speeds at the smaller venues and just race each other there, for fun. I can say for certain that having so many single-speed races this season meant that I doubled up far too many times, leaving me well over-trained recently. Maybe just racing the single-speed in the A races only would be the best of both worlds, netting all the great competition as well as the fun on the single-speed without cramping the style and flair of the series. After all, I was racing the SSCX now and again in the normal geared races before there was a SSCX series and there isn't a big reason not to do it again I suppose.