Friday, January 22, 2016

New Tires

Normally, new bicycle tires really aren't that big a deal. They are simply another wear item, disposable, temporary. Much like a new chain and cassette. However, when you start talking about new tires for a fat bike, things change.

For one, the tires cost nearly a fortune at about $150/each for a good quality folding bead 120tpi model. Therefore, the idea of having lots of use specific tires hanging around which you switch between isn't really a practical option for most. More practically speaking, the benefit or conversely, the detriment of a specific tire style for specific riding purposes can be huge. Fat bikes are, after all, meant to be ridden in the snow. In order to most effectively ride in the snow or any soft conditions, tire choice is crucial.

Key concerns are float which is a component of the tire volume and pressure making for the biggest footprint possible and of course, traction as provided by the tread pattern. In the few years that I have been fat biking a lot, roughly a thousand miles a year on snow, I've used four different tire/wheel combinations on there different bikes.

I started out on a Charge Bikes Cooker Maxi 135mm front and rear hub spacing with 80mm rims and 4" Vee Rubber Mission 120tpi tires. The 135mm rear spacing meant an offset rear end which was limited to a 4" tire due to clearance. The offdet is used to push the wheel away from the center of the bike, gaining clearance for the chain as it passes the tire coming from the crankset. Being new to the fat bike, coming from riding normal MTB in the snow for a couple decades, the difference was amazing. By closely controlling the tire pressure to adjust the footprint the bike went really, really well. That was the setup that got us hooked on the fat bike discipline and we rode them a lot.

Last year we got new Borealis Yampa with 197/135mm hubs and 80mm wheels with 45NRTH Dillinger 4 120tpi tires. The rear end was symmetrical as with a traditional bike frame rather than being offset. This setup worked significantly better than the Charge setup. Of course, the bike weighed 10# less and the tires had significantly more tread. The wider rear end also meant that the bike could take up to a 5" tire. The Dillinger is a great all around tread pattern, fast and light but a little on the conservative side. The sidewalls are thin because the tire is so light, which means that if you ride them in dirt and rocks, they get threadbare. That said, I put about 1000 miles on mine, primarily on snow with some snowy gravel, and they still look near new with no issues at all.

I also put together a Salsa Mukluk last year which had 170/135mm hub spacing and a symmetrical rear. Unfortunately, it can't handle oversized fat tires. I built it with 100mm rims though and ran  aggressive, Surly Nate 3.8" 120tpi tires on it. The wider rims gave a significantly larger footprint and with the more aggressive tread of the Nates, did very well in looser snow conditions. I found myself leaning toward that bike over the Borealis when the conditions were loose, despite the bike weighing significantly more.

We started this season out with the Dillinger 4 on the Borealis but also pulled out all of the stops and added HED Big Deal 82mm carbon wheels to the bikes. This dropped a fair amount of weight from bikes that were already lightweight. It really made a noticeable difference as well, in terms of rolling weight and spin up for the wheels. The conditions this season have been fickle, to say the least. We have not gotten that much snow yet to start with. The initial snowpack we had going, which had transformed into some very good rising, was greeted with a bout of warm and rain that turned everything packed down to ice.

In the past week or so we have started to get some small snow storms, which drop an inch or so at a time as well as some gusty wind, that blows and drifts the snow. Conditions tend to be good in places but loose in others. With that, I was ready to try something new, a little more aggressive and a little bigger.

Given the luck we've had with 45NRTH coupled with reviews from friends at the Village Sport Shop at Kingdom Trails in Lyndonville, VT, we decided to order some of the new, front and rear specific 45NRTH Flowbeist front and Dunderbeist rear. from Chris at the Bikeway Source They are beefy and the lugs are deeper and wider spaced than the Dillinger. The casing is a claimed 4.6", which is the largest volume tire that 45NRTH offers.

Out of the box, the tires look aggressive. Very moto like. An unscientific weight comparison by hand with the Dillinger 4 yielded exactly what you'd expect, they are heavier. The sidewalls also appear to be slightly heavier and more robust, which should help increase longevity at lower pressures. Mounted up, they are indeed wider. Not huge like the Bud and Lou on 100mm rims but bigger. On the trail, they roll well and hood up very well. I'd dubbed them the Garden Weasel, a throwback to an old reference my buddy Wick made to the WTB Velociraptor when they first appeared, in the 90's. These things grab and with a more pronounced edge know, they corner better as well. I got into some loose, super technical snowshoe trail with about 6" of semi compacted snow the other day and was blown away by how well they hooked up at lower pressure.

Though I was concerned about the weight at first, I simply didn't notice it. Now of course, if you were doing a long, hard packed snowy gravel ride these tires would be less desirable than the Dillinger 4. But for riding snow, they are very good so far. At present I've only got limited time on them but so far, so good. Will see how the race goes this weekend.

I'll check back in once I have some more hours on them but at this point I like them, a lot, which is a good thing given how expensive they are.

Thursday, January 07, 2016

Why do I Ride Bikes?

Have you ever stepped back and contemplated exactly why it is that you ride bicycles? Recently, I've been thinking more and more about that very question. In the past it was very simple, I rode my bike because I loved the sense of freedom, exploration, fitness and just plain fun. I've always identified myself as a cyclist and not a bike racer, regardless of the amount of racing I've done.

In recent years, that seems to have switched to a degree. Part of this has been the level of bike racing, which demanded more dedication. Part of this has been the fact that I've been forcing myself to ride the bike each and every day, which I won't lie, has often made the day's ride more of a chore than an adventure.

It always seems to be this time of year, when racing is done and I can ride whatever I want for as long as I want that I start to get excited again. Funny, as in New England this tends to be some of the harshest and most discouraging weather of the year. Just a couple weeks back Cathy, our friend George and I had one of the most miserable rides I've ever experienced. We started out on a road ride in Lyndon, Vermont as the temperature hovered at 37 degrees.

Twenty minutes into the ride, it started raining. An hour in, at the top of a four mile climb over Sheffield Heights, one of the higher areas around, it was pouring. The five mile descent to the mid point of the ride was frigid. The ride back from Barton through West Burke in the near freezing, pouring rain was intolerable. Feet, hands and even forearms were frozen numb and I couldn't generate any body heat.

Starting to feel myself slip into the early stages of hypothermia as I shivered uncontrollably, I bolted on a sprint to try and warm up and finish the final ten miles, reluctantly leaving my companions to fend for themselves. Shifting and braking were clumsy and awkward but I managed. About the same time, George, a man who thrives in conditions like this, was bonking and needed to stop for food. Cathy of course, was her normal stoic self and although uncomfortable, was still doing just fine.

I finished and as quickly as possible with frozen numb fingers started the vehicle and stripped my gritty outer layers off. I couldn't get the buckle on my helmet undone so that remained atop my head. I then headed out to try a rescue my cohorts, only to meet them at the end of the driveway.

That was a good one. I really thought that I wasn't going to make it back that time and had been running disaster plans over in my head for some time. Luckily, we all made it back, living to tell and having that distinct ride adventure memory to add to our collection. Often, rides like that, the ones that really leave a mental mark and memory, are the best ones. Similar to a ride the Kyle and I did last winter. This was a fat bike loop in Western Maine that went into some remote areas of NH. It started great but turned into a complete debacle. Seven hours in we were barely moving, trying to make it through loose, unpacked snow up over a major mountain pass, Evan's Notch. The sun was getting low and the temperature was starting to drop. It would be two more hours before we made it back home, after dark, punctuating a brutal day on the bike, but one that will always stand out in reflection and conversation.

Over the recent holiday break we had some stellar rides, as have we this week. Conditions have not been great and it has been cold, or snowing, or icy, or all of the above. Still, we were out of doors enjoying nature. Some consider many of these rides, like the cold weather rides on icy terrain where you are just meandering about exploring and trying not to fall down, as junk miles. From a pure physical fitness and training standpoint, they are probably right. You are not really working all that hard, aerobically speaking, and beyond practicing some limited technical skills, it isn't necessarily a super hard workout.

Recently, the rage with many competitive cyclists is online virtual racing. The way it works is you either have a smart trainer that can measure and adjust resistance to match a simulated course provided virtually, over the internet or you have a normal trainer and power meter which uploads to the internet based application, which in turn simulates and stages your position based on your power to weight output. Years ago I had one of the earlier generation smart trainers, a Cycleops model. It cost a bunch and worked really, really poorly in a closed virtual environment but was novel and I could see the benefits. I, however, decided a few years back to do all of my riding out of doors (are you really actually riding a bike if it is mounted to a fixed trainer indoors?) and have not looked back. Years before that, I'd stopped using a trainer anyhow and was only using rollers as I felt that they at least taught balance skills and also provided an excellent means of a recovery spin, recovery from a workout performed out of doors.

Reasons and values can and do change. Recently, I've cared more about the workout and somewhat less about the fun of the ride. This is mainly the case in the fall only, however, as CX is usually the only discipline of racing for which I show much of any training discipline. Even that is coming into question though as what I did this year, didn't seem to work all that well in the long run. I think that it is because I've gotten lazy, especially this past season. I'd told myself I was taking the year off and going easier, having no real goals at all. That was always in the back of mind so riding in many cases became academic and I was just going through the motions, not really getting value from it. Checking the box if you will and telling myself that it was OK. By and large, it was, except when it wasn't, like when I fell apart toward the backend of the season.

You see, I'm not wired in such a way that I can race bikes and not have it matter. If I'm going to pay money and line up, it matters. So, the takeaway is that if I'm going to take time off, I really need to take time off, from racing, and not race. Who would have guessed? And if I'm going to take time off from riding, I need not continue to ride every day, especially when I don't really want to. I need to want to ride, to be hungry for it, not to look at it as a chore that needs to be completed for the day before I can go to bed in the evening. In many cases, that is what it has become. Getting back home after a long day of working only to feel compelled to go out in the cold, dark rain so that I can check the box. That is the problem with a streak, it's like a habit. Sure, it may be a good habit, but it really comes down to the fact that it is a compulsion. "I can stop anytime", "I'll stop next year", "What if I don't start again?".

The truth is that you invest so much, and have invested so much up to that point that you don't want to give that up. I can't believe how scary the thought of breaking the streak is, really. As I sit here thinking about it I am getting seriously agitated. This, I'd guess, is what addiction is like.

We are heading into a good time of the year, for riding, and for other outdoor activity. If only winter would set in for good, I'd feel better about not riding. For now though, I will keep at it but when we really get some winter, who knows. I look forward to long, fun rides. The host of great rides in the past few weeks keep me motivated, wanting for more.

So, why do I ride bikes? The real answer is that I love riding bikes. I crave the excitement and adventure of exploration. It truly is what defines me, as a person. Exploration is the core reason for my aversion to out and back routes. I've already seen that stuff, show me something different. Mapping new routes and new places to ride is always on my mind. It is what got me hooked on cycling to begin with, exploring the trails and looping them together in a cohesive fashion, building a war chest of personal, local trails. Unfortunately, though you can get a heck of a workout on a trainer, that lack of exploration and adventure has kept me out of doors. I'm interested though and who knows, maybe I will get into it on some really nasty day, when the outdoors are closed, or broken. Maybe.

That may be shallow but it is what I have to work with. I love riding and sharing the passion for riding with others. In the near future, I hope to expand more upon that aspect and promote the sport in areas that I feel, really need it. I come from a very rural and arguably poor background. There is nearly no cycling outreach to those areas. I'd love to help change that, to get bikes into the hands of rural kids that can't afford them, get them involved in group cycling activities and plant the seed of cycling. I've done it before for suburban kids and it worked pretty well. I don't see why it wouldn't work for less affluent kids, who really need the help.

Tuesday, January 05, 2016

Cannondale Synapse Disc Impressions

 Let's be honest, I'm really really fortunate in that I get the opportunity to ride some really nice bicycles. It isn't by chance. I am very critical of what I ride and what I buy with my hard earned money. You won't see me buying a bike that I feel is not a front runner in the market for which it was designed. That said, I don't have unlimited financial resources and although I'm fortunate to have more leeway than many when it comes to bicycle purchases, cost is always a factor.

For the past few years, Cathy and I have been doing more and more dirt and gravel road riding and less and less traditional paved road riding. Part of the issue is the traffic, especially in the urban area where we have historically done most of our riding. Part of the reason is that we are spending more and more time in rural areas that have a far greater quantity of unpaved roads. Another part of this equation is that there are more and more really good gravel based race events taking place, which have a vastly different flavor and feel than traditional road races, one that we have become enamored with.

Up until now, Cathy and I have been riding and racing our slightly modified cyclocross racing bikes for riding and racing gravel. This bikes are the Cannondale SuperX disc, a bike that is perfectly adept at riding road and gives little or nothing up to the emerging, purpose built gravel or endurance road bicycle segment. With the shift from strict paved road to more open, endurance road and gravel, coupled with a pair of really nice road bikes that spent most of their time hanging in the corner virtually unused, I started thinking that a more versatile solution may be a better idea. I'd looked at, and built up a few of the Cannondale Synapse bikes at the Bikeway Source over the past couple of years and thought that they looked interesting. I'd also raced against a few of them on gravel, getting to see their performance first hand. That said, I wasn't certain that the subtle changes over a normal road bike and vs. the SuperX would warrant the switch.

Finally this late fall I decided to move forward, first with a new 2016 model Cannondale Synapse Carbon Disc Ultegra Di2 (2x11 speed) bike. We got the bike in the heart of cyclocross season so it didn't get much use. Cathy did get out on it a few times and although very different what with the Di2 vs. SRAM that she was used to, she liked it. The shifting was exactly as hoped, spot on and bombproof once setup. The brakes were awesome as well with great feel, modulation and stopping power from the fully hydraulic discs with 4" IceTech rotors.

The Shimano setup works very, very well, albeit at a bit of a weight penalty over SRAM. I did upgrade the wheelset from the stock Mavic One disc which although a stout and very reliable wheelset, was also a bit chunky. We went to a HED Ardennes Plus SL disc wheelset, which was a little wider and a little lighter. For tires, we swapped from the stock 28c slicks to a Clement X'Plor MSO 32c 120tpi tire. These tires have more tread which affords better traction in the loose terrain as well as puncture resistance on rocky terrain, both of which we experience often riding dirt roads in Vermont. They fit the frame and fork fine with enough clearance for safety but are just about the biggest tires that will work. I also used the Vittoria XN Pro 32c file tread, which fits well. The Kenda Happy Medium 32c did not fit as it had too much side know though. That's it and with that, the bike is awesome, according to Cathy.

Back in November, as the CX season was winding down and I was starting to think ahead to what comes after, I started looking at a Synapse for me as well. Based on availability, I decided to go with a 2015 model Synapse HiMod SRAM Red disc bike. This bike has the full high-modulus carbon fiber frame, and slight upgrade over the normal modulus carbon fiber of Cathy's bike, and used SRAM Red 22 (2x11 speed) with full hydraulic disc brakes. Setup on the bike is stock save what is actually a downgrade on the wheelset, from the stock, superlight Czero carbon clincher wheelset, to a pair of HED Ardennes Plus SL disc wheels. My thought was that a slightly beefier build may be better for my weight and riding style for the type of riding I will do with the bike.

The bikes come stock with long cage rear derailleurs and the new wide ratio drivetrains. Can I be the first to say that I love this! In back we have 11 speed cassettes with an 11-32 range and up front we have 50/34 chainrings. This makes for an excellent range for virtually everything we do, save the longest, steepest climbs such as the access roads to Burke or Radar Mountains. Plenty of range for strict paved road riding as well save for all but the biggest downhill descents, most of which in New England are too sketchy to push much bigger of a gear on anyhow. I'm flabbergasted by the trend toward 1x systems for gravel riding. For CX racing I get it but for gravel? That seems a really limiting choice for a discipline that likely sees super steep, extended and often loose climbs as well as extended downhills. If ever there is a place where more is indeed more, the gravel segment is it, IMHO.

Over the past few weeks I've had a chance to get in some good solid rides on the bike. In general I've got to say that I'm amazed. The subtle changes in frame design over the SuperX like the curved and shaped stays are huge. I never felt that the SuperX was harsh on the gravel but the Synapse is so smooth. Staying seated through the chatter it is amazing how much of the impact and vibration is absorbed by the frame. the tiny little 25.4mm carbon seatpost diameter helps this as well as it absorbs some of the shock also. Add to that the highly shaped fork blades and the front end is also dead stable.

A relatively long headtube and setup that is more aggressive (handlebar height lower) than the CX setup on the SuperX but not quite as aggressive as on my SuperSix road bike and the bike feels comfortable and familiar yet fast and stable. Short chainstays compared to the SuperX get handling back inline with a traditional road bike, adding to that predictable stable feel both up and down. Make no mistake, when you stand on the pedals and sprint there is no hint of flex. As with the SuperX and the SuperSix, the bike is efficient with very little power loss due to flex. Point the bike up and it likes to climb, retaining traction even in the loose stuff, even better than the SuperX with comparable tires again, thanks to the stays.

On a group ride in VT a couple of weeks ago a few of us had some spirited climbs throughout the ride. These climbs were on roads that I'd done before, ones that I'd had other spirited efforts up as had some others. When we finished the ride and I downloaded my GPS data, I was shocked to see that I'd gotten a couple of Strava KoM's on some of the tougher segments. These were solid climbs and aboard the new Synapse on a 35 degree day in late December, which I was dressed appropriately for (lots of extra clothing) I was able to beat my best effort set in the middle of this past summer atop my SuperX, when conditions were just about perfect. I'm not saying that it was all the bike but I can say for certain that the bike did not hurt one bit.

In general, the bike is the best of both worlds. It is more than competent on paved roads and is fast, light and smooth when paired with narrower slicks. I actually look forward to testing the bike more on choppy springtime pavement to see how the bike rides. As for the gravel roads that we spend most of our time on, the bike is perfect. Sure, if your thing is to do more rugged ClassIV roads or trail riding which would require bigger tires than the SuperX or better yet, the Cannondale Slate, which I'm hoping I can test out at some point, might be a better idea. For us though, we can now leave the CX bikes in CX mode and pare down the unused road bikes.

One in, one out. It's the unfortunate law around these parts, at this point. Whoever said you can't have too many bikes needs to visit my basement.