Sunday, October 30, 2011

Budget Supertrike

On a recent trip to Mystic, I got to see the perfect pedal-powered vehicle for someone who has a lot of storage space.

This is the Sun EZ-3 USX HD recumbent trike. It belongs to a good friend of my parents who dropped by their house one day when I was visiting. I was struck by the size of the 78” long trike and the thoughtful engineering that went into it.

Because the front wheel is way out in front, there's an intricate yet simple linkage between the underseat handlebars and the front fork. Options for this bike include a horn, a spedometer and a one-car garage to put it in. 

The owner, who is about my dad's age, was like a kid showing off a new toy as he pointed out the disc brakes and the suspension. But unlike most kids, he wanted to share his toy and he gave me permission to take it for a ride. Just sitting on it brought me back to the days of riding a non-powered go cart around my neighborhood growing up. Then I began pedaling the 65 pound trike and found myself moving around in striking comfort. For a frame that's built to support 400 pounds, it wasn't a surprise.

As a person familiar with the reasons one would want a recumbent – easier on the back, neck, wrists, knees...and it's fun – I found this would be a great one to own. It may be something I'd consider in the future but today the trike is too much for me: too much money and too big to fit in the back of my Honda Element or my garageless house. But I found myself liking the concept of having a trike, or at least seeing if one would manage the streets of Stamford.

I didn't give it a whole lot more thought until I stopped in a New York state bike shop weeks later and asked if they had any junked bikes to give away. The owner looked at me funny when I told him I wanted the only thing he was willing to give away...which was this.

Yes, this is 1/3 of an adult trike, and it appears exactly as it was given to me, complete with rusty water flowing out of every opening. The bike shop owner said the complete trike was abandoned at his back entrance, and he later sawed it up so he could take it to the dump. He mumbled something along the lines of 'knock yourself out' when I said I wanted to take it.

The thing he didn't know is that at home I've had a 1997 S&B Malibu recumbent frame, fork and seat that I had bought on eBay years ago. I wondered if I could combine the S&B frame with the rusty rear trike axle and build my own budget trike. As they say on Top Gear: 'How Hard Can It Be?'

The first thing I did was remove the bracket that had once connected the whole bike frame to the rear axle. I was encouraged at the fact the bracket was about the same width as the rear fork of the S&B frame, so I was pretty sure I could attach the two together without having to weld anything.

Next, I rummaged around trying to find the remaining bits of the S&B – and many of the parts I haven't touched since I dismantled the bike five years ago: I found the front 16” wheel, the seat, the seat stays and the idler gear. When I found the chain, I hung it casually on the trike axle and noticed that it wouldn't...what's the

I searched for chainrings I could use to replace the sprocket, but I had no luck: once I removed it I could tell it was some proprietary sprocket that I didn't have in my shop. But what I did have was a gear from a disassembled cassette. I decided to cut it so I could lay it over the sprocket and carefully weld it in place...because I wasn't sure what else to do.

I dry-fitted the S&B frame onto the axle to make sure everything was going to line up properly and draped the chain through. It worked suspiciously well and the welds looked like they'd hold. 

Next, I had to attach the S&B frame to the trike axle. Because the S&B frame was so overbuilt, I thought I could just drill through the holes of the frame into the trike assembly, and bolt everything together. Wasn't the easiest thing to do because the wheels were in the way, but luckily I had the right tool for the job: a drill bit extender.

I lined everything up carefully by eye and made two holes on either side. Once I rustled up some bolts I attached it all together and it worked.

When I sat on it, it didn't give me quite the same level of confidence as the Sun EZ-3 USX HD (the 'HD' stands for 'heavy duty') so I created additional attachment points with the S&B's seat stays to make it sturdier. I really didn't want to weld the S&B frame just in case I wanted to sell it down the line, and once I finished making additional attachment points, it was clear I probably wouldn't have to weld anything structural.

But I did decide to integrate more welding into this project. To my satisfaction, I could pedal from my welding room to my diner booth, but I only had one brake for the front wheel. The trike axle I had been given for free had no coaster brake, no disc brakes, no caliper brakes, and no mounting points for brakes of any kind.

I did have, however, a scrapped suspension fork from a originless department store bike. I took a quick measurement and cut part of one side off, then dug in one of my plastic bins looking for proper caliper brakes.

I've found that if I have a vision that involves putting metal objects together in unnatural ways, it helps to have magnets around. I had no shortage of those in the welding room and I used one of my Northern Industrial magnetic clamps (and a few pieces of scrap wood) to hold the broken fork where I thought it should go.

The first time I pulled the trigger, the fork moved slightly out of place and I had to break the weld to do it again. The department store fork needed its caliper brakes to be exactly where I wanted them if I had any hope of stopping my budget supertrike. The second time I pulled the trigger, it stayed where I wanted it to, so I moved the nozzle carefully around so I could put as many intentionally ugly welds as possible connecting the purple fork to the axle. It seemed sturdy, but I decided to weld the removed piece of fork to the assembly just to make it stronger.

Thanks to all the practice I had doing up the brake cables on my homemade mountain bike, the rest of the brake build went perfectly. Before long I had...THIS!

I will admit this does not have the gravitas of a SUN EZ-3 USX HD and with one speed it doesn't have the gear range, but it is a trike with two good brakes (I can come to a stop just before ramming into the clothes dryer!) and a comfortable seat. I had a budget supertrike that was ready to hit the streets.

However, the streets, as they relate to the birthplace of my budget supertrike, are up a narrow set of basement stairs, through a narrow door, down a narrow hall and through another narrow door. What I had built was several inches too wide and tall to make it out of the basement. And I was feeling so clever at having solved the sprocket problem and the brake problem.

So the lesson here is: if you have the right tools you really can build a budget supertrike for less than $200, but you should build it outdoors or in a garage. Or just buy a Sun EX-3 USX HD to save yourself valuable assembly, disasembly and reassembly time.

(Follow me on Twitter at @michaelknorris)

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Occupy Wall Street (Failing That, The Hudson River Greenway)

A recent Sunday brought me to Manhattan. It was one of those rare days when the weather never quite got the message that the seasons were changing. My wife wanted to spend some time in the East Village and I wanted to ride, so we set up the day so we could both do those things.

I decided to give the Dahon Matrix a rest and took the Bike Friday for the trip. True, I could have brought the recumbent or even the mountain bike because there are few bike restrictions on Metro North on the weekends, but after its strong performance in Boston I thought I could easily survive another major metropolitan area...and I could fold it up in a little bag and carry it into a restaurant with me if we ended up staying for dinner.

But lunch came first, and in the East Village you can take your pick of great places. My wife chose Hummus Place, which I recommend primarily for two reasons: the food was great and it had a metal railing so I could sit near the bike.

When I began the ride, I headed south into Chinatown and worked my way to Wall Street, where as you can see from the photo, the police were protecting the bull. Since I saw no protesters there I easily made my way to the start of the Hudson River Greenway, which begins at Battery Park.

I had last been on this path in May when I used it to make my way to 42nd Street after the Five Boro Bike Tour, but today I felt like crossing almost the entire length of Manhattan and shoot for the George Washington Bridge near 178th.

When you ride on this trail, you owe it to yourself to stop and see some sights. Not far up you can see the Statue of Liberty off in the distance.

That day, there happened to be the first annual electric car festival at Pier 54. I decided to drop in to check it out, but I didn't stay long enough to discover the link between face painting and electric transport.

I did, however, get to actually touch a Tesla – you know, those electric cars powered by over 6,000 laptop batteries – and I saw something that was incredibly inspiring.

I didn't stay long enough to discover the link between gorillas and homemade electric motorcycles, but feeling inspired, I continued my ride.

Around 46th street, I found my favorite floating landmark, The U.S. Intrepid Museum (nearby is a Bike & Roll location so those of you who don't or can't bring your bikes to Manhattan can experience this path on your own). I practically had to step over to the East River to fit this much of the aircraft carrier in the shot.

On a future trip, I will visit this museum. Hopefully, before February 5, 2012, because that's when the special exhibit 'EJECT! The History and Workings of the Modern Ejection Seat' ends. Whoever named that exhibit did a great job – it makes me want to learn about ejection seats right now instead of finish writing this post.

I pressed on, and soon made it to the unattractive part of the trail. It's not a complaint. Since there are few, if any, rollerbladers on this section I could put the Bike Friday in the big chainring and go fast.

Soon, though, the path became attractive again, which brought about a return of traffic and safer speeds.

Eventually, I came across a cyclist I respected. It's not that I didn't respect the others I had seen so far that day, but this gentleman appeared to be getting his son started on cycling early and was taking him to (or from) a lesson.

Later I came across a woman who was writing something and gazing wistfully toward New Jersey. Was she writing a letter for a lost love? Writing notes for a cycling blog of her own? It was only for me to guess as I snapped her picture while speeding by.

I have no idea who she was, but she did a pretty good job symbolizing the pleasantness of the trail: it puts Manhattan at your back and the glorious beauty of the Garden State in your sight. It truly is a remarkable path.

About 11 miles after I started riding on the path, I made it to the George Washington Bridge, a colossal structure that has given me more traffic nightmares than I care to remember. Driving on the bridge can be terribly stressful. Beneath it, though...

And may I present: Mr. and Mrs. Folding Bike Week 2011.

Unfortunately, I couldn't stay long, and after a few swigs of a water bottle I headed back down the path and to 42nd Street so I could meet my wife in Grand Central Terminal. On the way to the city that morning, we had to stand up in the train because it was crowded. On the way back, we got seats...and the Bike Friday got to hang on one of the new Metro North bike racks (by the way, if you've used the racks don't forget to provide feedback to the MTA; here's a link to the survey).

Nice day. Visit New York.

Saturday, October 8, 2011

Go to Vermont. Bring a Mountain Bike. Right Now.

If you enjoy mountain biking and haven't yet been to Vermont's Northeast Kingdom, you should log off this site immediately and plan your trip. Right now. I mean it. Stop. And don't look at the picture.

You looked.

Alright, but plan your trip to Vermont as soon as you're done reading this post. Or just load the bikes in the car and have your passenger use his or her iPhone to find a places to stay and eat on the way up. Promise? Good.

My trip up wasn't too spontaneous: my wife was taking a five day painting workshop (run by the artist Susan Abbott) in Marshfield, Vermont so I tuned and brought two bikes: the recumbent and my homemade mountain bike. I modified the latter with wider 2.35” Ritchey tires thinking I could use better traction than what the 2” ones had been giving me. Putting them on made the bike look bigger and as good as new.

For part of the trip we stayed in Danville at the Emergo Farms Bed & Breakfast, about a half hour drive from the Kingdom Trails.

 And this is the view from the end of the driveway. The place just oozes peacefulness.

When I called to make a reservation, I spoke to one of the co-hosts, Lori, and quickly discovered she's a mountain biker. During our stay, it was great to chat with a New England B&B owner (who makes pretty incredible French toast, incidentally) about something other than leaves. For the record, the leaves in Vermont are beautiful right now...

...but that's all I have to say about that.

So after dropping my wife off at her painting workshop, I doubled back and headed to East Burke, which is home to the Kingdom Trails. These trails are made possible by generous landowners and a committed bunch of people who maintain them. A one-day trail pass is $15 and a season ticket is $150. I know there are free places to ride a mountain bike, but when you are on these trails, you know where the money went.

You only have to ride for a few minutes before you realize there are trails in the Northeast Kingdom that do not exist in nature. Some of these trails exist only in Vermont.

After a scenic drive, I arrived in East Burke and parked my car at East Burke Sports. There are several designated parking areas for the Kingdom Trails, but since I wanted to buy a few things and thus be a customer I thought my car would blend in.

One of the designated parking areas is just across the street from East Burke Sports by the Kingdom Trails office, which is where you go to buy your trail pass (and souvenir socks and a T-shirt, if you like). Just nearby is the Northeast Kingdom Country Store.

Because this area is such a destination, there is an expectation of the clientèle that extends all through East Burke I rather like. For instance, walking into a restaurant after a day of muddy mountain biking would cause many a normal business owner to scowl. Not here. If you walk the country store wearing muddy bike clothes, the staff will smile at you just as brightly as they did that morning when you entered in clean clothes to buy a pre-ride cookie. Or two.

Likewise, if you enter East Burke Sports to buy a new pair of gloves and you have spatters of dirt all over your face, you may share a friendly nod with just about everyone you run into who bears the same filth – much like the scene in Fight Club where the guys with bruises would quietly acknowledge one another. In fact, I'd like to think that if you visited East Burke wearing a nice dress or a tailored business suit, locals would call the police to report a suspicious person.

There's also a resourcefulness of the Kingdom Trails staff that I appreciate. For instance, at some point prior to my visit, a large tree fell on a trail. Instead of removing it, someone thought it would be better to just buzz the upper part of the trunk with a chainsaw and set up a ramp leading to it – thus creating a new part of the course that I didn't have the nerve to try with my homemade (hardtail) mountain bike.

Upon buying my two-day pass I was given a trail map. Upon opening it, I was almost overwhelmed by the size of the place. Over 100 miles of trails altogether, and on the map they are conveniently coded for 'easiest' all the way to 'experts only.' There's also 'expert freeride' if you have a full face covering helmet and wear Mad Max-like body armor. I hadn't even taken the bike out of the car and I was already thinking about my next trip.

The first day I was there it was raining, which isn't ideal. At times it was a drizzle and during two four-minute periods on my first day, it stopped altogether. It wasn't the best time to hit the Kingdom Trails but it was one of only two possible days I could visit, so I put on a waterproof jacket, stretched a hotel showercap over my helmet, and set off from the parking lot of East Burke Sports and headed up the steep East Darling Hill Road to hit some of the trails near The Wildflower Inn, which was where I had taken my wife (who was my girlfriend at the time) for a romantic getaway in the summer of 2004.

Part of the trail network runs through the back of The Wildflower Inn's property. Even though the weather wasn't cooperating, it was still just a beautiful place.

On this wet day, I decided to warm up on some of the easier trails but I kept diverting onto trails that have names like 'Troll Stroll' and 'Coronary.' That can throw you off because I found plenty of trails that had less interesting names that were just extraordinary. I also discovered trails that could have been named differently. I forgot the original name for this one, but I quickly dubbed it 'The Dagobah System' though it may not look that way in nice weather.

 'Check Your Brakes First' would also be a great name for a trail.

Speaking of brakes, after a morning of rainy, muddy riding, my disc brakes that I had installed myself were working perfectly in every way except they wouldn't stop the bike when I squeezed them. Far from my car, I found an abandoned maple syrup building on a trail to get out of the rain so I could investigate the problem.

Of course, I didn't have my newly built folding workstand, so among the debris in the barn (which, for the record, included a worn 26” tire discarded by an earlier trespasser/cyclist in need of a workshop) I had to improvise: I found two sawhorse pieces and two long sections of wood to thread through the bike. The weight of it held it off the ground and I didn't use nails or screws.

While I was making the adjustments, I got hungry so I pulled out a MRE (Meals Ready to Eat) I had brought with me. This came from my 'hurricane preparedness kit' from back home and was months, if not weeks, from its five-year expiration date. It's not the worst trail food you could have, but it would have been much better if I had gotten a sandwich from the Northeast Kingdom Country Store. No matter what you eat or bring on the trail, always, ALWAYS take your garbage out with you.

Once I had the brakes back up to strength, I returned to the trails and had such a fantastic time I didn't want to leave.The bike I had built was in top form.

Even though I was wiping mud from my eyes rather frequently, the place still looked beautiful. I thought that if it looked this good now, imagine what it looks like in nice weather.

An hour after I had finished lunch, the brakes once again started to fail at their official job. To paraphrase Jeremy Clarkson's description of Alfa Romeos, it was clear I had built a mountain bike to be as great as a mountain bike can be – briefly.

I decided that 15 miles was enough and reluctantly stopped for the day to avoid a disaster. I also bought new brake pads at East Burke Sports before leaving.

The next morning, I was thrilled to discover that it wasn't raining, so fueled by a great breakfast I set to work installing the new pads in the driveway of Emergo Farms. The cows showed no interest in what I was doing.

I was relieved to discover that my original pads were badly worn and even more relieved to find the bike stopped on a dime with the new ones on, so I headed back to East Burke, filled with hope. East Burke Sports, bathed in sunlight, looked as though it was full of hope as well.

As I did the day before, I started the ride by heading up East Darling Hill Road in the lowest gear possible. On the way up, I passed a couple mountain biking down. The second rider was an attractive woman who looked to be in her mid-forties, and she responded to my 'good morning' with a smile and: 'you're heading in the wrong direction!'

As she raced down the hill away from me, I smirked at her comment. With hills you have a challenge and a payoff, and my first destination that morning was Heaven's Bench, which is behind The Wildflower Inn. My wife and I hustled up there one morning in the frost (in August, mind you) during our weekend there, and I wanted to see if I could take some pictures now that the sun was out. Trust me: the photos do not do the place much justice.

Since it was sunny and my last day (on this trip) at East Burke, I decided to hit some different trails. To get there I had to return to Darling Hill road near some animals – including a horse who was gazing wistfully in the general direction of the trails as though he were wishing he could go biking. May make a good children's book. Never mind. 

Just past the Inn, I hooked up with the Bemis trail, which runs between Darling Hill Road and most of the trails I had hit the previous day. I found it an easy and scenic singletrack.

Eventually, I hooked back up to Darling Hill Road so I could go to the new trails. Because I had failed to bring my notebook, I had to use other methods of documenting where I had gone and what trails I really liked.

I originally planned a never-the-same-trail-twice day in the Northeast Kingdom, but I did Kitchel twice in a row, which meant at the bottom of my first run I immediately got on East Darling Hill Road so I could do the slow and thigh-burning ride back to the top. I have no photos of the trail whatsoever because I didn't want to stop on this heavenly half-mile to get the camera out. It's a roller coaster in single track form and I'd write a song about it had I the talent. Whoever maintains that and the other trails: thank you.

After the second trip down, I headed on the VAST trail and eventually made it to Sugarhouse Run.

I liked this trail because it intersects with so many others, such as 'Nose' and 'Pines.' Wisely, I stopped for lunch at the Northeast Kingdom Country Store before heading right back out again. Once again, I was faced with a day I didn't want to end.

Unfortunately, it did, and before I knew it I had a very narrow window to leave, head to Emergo Farms for a shower, and drive to Marshfield to pick up my wife so we could go to dinner. Since I was in the vicinity, I headed back to the Heaven's Bench area to take one last picture. On the way, I marveled at the intricate network of tubes that would collect liquid from trees that would eventually be boiled for hours before being poured onto pancakes. Or, if you're lucky, an innkeeper's amazing French toast. 

I soon made it to Heaven's Bench where I took a final triumphant photo.

While riding down, I passed a couple heading up, and by complete coincidence, one was the woman I had seen earlier - who was now walking her bike up the hill.

“Am I there yet?” she asked me jokingly as I approached.

“You're heading in the wrong direction,” I said with a smile as I rolled by.

She threw her head back and laughed so loudly everyone in a three-inn radius probably heard her.

I did a last trip down Sugarhouse Run and a third and final (for this trip) run down Kitchel before getting back to my car. I ended up keeping the Kingdom Trails map in the waterproof pouch for days after the trip was over. You had better believe I'm hanging on to it for the next trip. As for you: plan your trip to the Northeast Kingdom. Now.