Sunday, April 29, 2012

Biking Nations: Biking in Britain, Part I

I apologize for the unusually long gap between posts: I was traveling for the past 15 days in a stew of business and vacation time. I still have currency from three continents in my wallet but I want to talk about some of the trip while I recover from the jet lag. 

As I've said before, I'm lucky enough to get to travel to England about once a year. But my luck doesn't stop there.

Thanks to my wife's ingenious maneuverings with planning trips, we got to go a few days before the actual business part of our business trips were to begin, which meant we could visit friends in the county of Buckinghampshire. S.K. and his wife are generous and wonderful people who, on this trip, not only picked us up at the airport, but allowed us to stay with them in the guest room of their home on the top floor.

My luck doesn't stop there, either: S.K. is a cyclist, who's serious and laid back about the sport at the same time. He's about ten years older than me, in better shape, and knows exactly what he's talking about when bikes come up in conversation. If my cousin (the Mountain Bike Jedi Master) was fifteen years older and had a British accent, this is the cyclist he would be.

A few days before we were due to arrive, S.K. invited me to go with him on a Sunday morning ride through the English countryside. Since I couldn't bring a bike with me on this trip, he said I could borrow his commuting bike or his wife's road bike. I was worried about keeping up with him on either: on this long trip, my wife's suitcases and my own were already filled to the point of bursting so I couldn't bring my bike shoes.

However, the day before the ride S.K. and I had a revelation that changed everything: our feet our exactly the same size, so he loaned me his extra pair of bike shoes. And that meant I could borrow his wife's road bike.

This is a bike from a company that ends its domain names in '' so I had never heard of it before. The frame is light and stiff...but yada yada yada: it was a bike that I could ride and fit on, so it made me extremely happy.

I did run into a bit of embarrassment when testing it out: as I've said previously, most of my history is rooted in mountain bikes, and as much as I love my Bike Friday New World Tourist, the old school shifters on the bar ends was all I knew about shifting a road bike. I rode to the end of a street on my borrowed Quest using the tiny levers beneath the brakes, but I didn't know that to upshift I had to push the brake levers themselves. S.K. had to show me how it was done, and I marveled at the simplicity.

When I said I was slowing infiltrating road bike society, I didn't realize just how slowly until that moment.

But with the equipment good to go, we planned to set off early the next morning into the English Countryside. The ride was to be about 35-40 miles – nearly double my ordinary Sunday morning rides. I was worried about showing up at my conference the next day sore and stiff, but that worry was balanced out as I thought a long ride would help me deal with the five hour time difference.

Around 3:00 in the morning U.S. time, we started our ride with beautiful sunny weather. Not only was I thankful for S.K.'s shoes and guidance, but following him made it easy to remember that they drive on the other side of the road here (I did pack my own helmet, and I carefully placed the rearview mirror on the other side before the ride so I'd have notice before Range Rovers would pass).

We originated our ride from a town which had the British-sounding name of 'Chalfont St. Giles' and out trip took us through other towns that had similarly British-sounding names like Chivery, Amersham, Birkhampstead and Hogpits Bottom. A number of the houses looked straight out of the Harry Potter films, and others were just plain interesting: this one had the carving from the front of an old ship in the front yard for decoration.

That was one of the few pictures I took while standing still: the rest of the time I was trying to keep up with S.K. as we headed through the countryside.

Before long, the distance between my front tire and his rear tire opened up considerably. Since it was an unfamiliar bike and an unfamiliar place I didn't ride as fast as I normally do. Well, that's what I told myself anyway.

Soon after a particularly punishing climb, we stopped at the top of a hill so S.K. could show me the valley we were about to head to that contained P.E. Mead & Son's country store/tea shop which represented a place where we could rest and get coffee.

After warning me about the sudden stop at the bottom, S.K. took off like a shot down the hill, and I followed as quickly as I dared with the spedometer passing 40 mph. I was careful, though: If I died, my wife would never let me hear the end of it.

But I made it down the hill safely, and after we turned right we made an immediate left to head further into the valley. I stopped VERY briefly to take a picture as S.K. blasted down the next hill. See the little speck on the road in the distance? That's him.

I clipped back in and raced down the hill, catching up with S.K. at the next intersection. After our descent into the valley and a total trip distance of 17 miles, we arrived at P.E. Mead & Son's, which is affectionately known as The Black Barn by S.K. and his friends as it is a frequent stop on their rides – the British equivalent of Connecticut Muffin Company in New Canaan, and yet so much more since it stocks many varieties of local products.

With the British pounds I withdrew the day before, we got ourselves some fine coffee and delicious baked goods before we sat at the tables outside to enjoy breakfast and keep an eye on our unlocked bikes. We discussed various riding preferences and strategies (S.K. likes to plan rides that head into the wind on the outbound part of the trip and with the wind on the way back) and whether the term 'snot rocket' was the same in the U.K. as it was in the U.S. – common topics in British-American cycling relations.

Once fueled, we headed back to Chalfont St. Giles through Tringford and a slew of other towns with interesting names. While the trip to The Black Barn often brought us on two lane roads that were mostly empty (save for the occasional person on horseback or Range Rover) this route brought on narrower passages that again showcased the stunning landscape.


There was one big hill to climb, and now over 30 miles in I had to give it all I had to get to the top. Regrettably, I used the tiny chainring of my borrowed bike and wondered again if my switch to the 53-49 chainring was a good idea.

But after cresting the hill, I got some of my steam back and was able to ride all the way back to Chalfont St. Giles keeping S.K. within conversation distance. By the time we got back to his house, we had logged in 37 miles. I thanked his wife profusely for the use of her bike, thanked S.K. profusely for the use of his shoes and for the tour of the English Countryside – which is worth the plane fare to Britain by itself, so when you go to Britain, find a way to take a ride from Chalfont St. Giles (just a quick train ride from London) in just about any direction that you like. I just hope that when they make a trip to visit us in America one day, I can find a bike route to take S.K. on that will rival that one.

Unfortunately for me, I couldn't stay long after the ride. I had to go to the the nearby railway station to head to my next destination and prepare for the business part of my business trip. Still, I was confident that I could fit some more biking in while in London – and I'll tell you why in the next post.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Shock Value

Over a year ago, I set out to build a mountain bike. This one.

This was a great project for so many reasons. I finally had a project where I wasn't being hounded by anyone to meet or beat any deadline: I got to enjoy the doing part. I got to have regular contact with my cousin so he could give me advice and some great parts. The bike took me to some great adventures in the Northeast Kingdom in Vermont, Bluff Point State Park, the Mianus River Park and elsewhere. And a photo of the mud-spattered downtube made the header for this web site.

But I didn't want to stop building it. With fresh memories of the dreadful brake performance I bought another set. However, for some reason, I didn't put them on right away.

Even though I wasn't thinking about it at the time, I was subconsciously readying myself for a visit to my cousin's house so my wife and I could spend some time with them and their new baby (who is actually less new than from when this photo was taken).

Shortly before dinner, my cousin brought me to his shop to show me the mountain bike he had just built with a new frame. He said he was attempting to sell his old frame on eBay...and pointed to the wall where it was hanging.

It was a full suspension Specialized frame, and something in me clicked. The frame my mountain bike had was a hardtail, and I could see a bike with this frame. A bike I hadn't built yet. And I could put the new brakes on it.

The next morning, I emailed my cousin and told him wanted it, and he immediately removed it from eBay and knocked the price to a Family Discount level.

The day I met Stacey was supposed to be the day I was to meet my cousin for lunch so we could trade money for the frame. As we all know, he cancelled. But we were able to meet in Fairfield a week later...and I came home with this.

It's definitely not 'new baby beautiful' but it is quite nice to look at. Cost, complexity, and my inability to find a full suspension frame I liked kept me from building the bike with articulation in the first place, but you can hopefully see why I wanted this one: it was a non-gently used frame, but it came from a trustworthy source.

The move doesn't abandon my inherent love of hardtail frames. I grew up with them. I own two bikes (maybe more) with no suspension, but for the paces I like taking mountain bikes through, I decided it would be nice to have the extra level of comfort. When you look at the bikes I own, you'll immediately see that I almost always pick comfort over speed: the recumbent has a lovely armchair quality for long rides and the Dahon Matrix and the mountain bike have shared the same comfortable seat and Cane Creek Thudbuster seatpost.

Even when you do something like add a suspension fork to a bike or a Thudbuster seatpost, comfort in general and ride quality in particular is hard to quantify. But one afternoon I decided to do it anyway.

The camera mount my grandmother had given me for Christmas was proving itself to be incredibly useful for everything from carrying a miniature Millinium Falcon in front of the HD Hero2 lens to, as it turns out, transporting a solitary egg. As you can see the egg is in a watertight container and balanced on a metal washer. There could be a whole series of challenges based on this setup (i.e., what cities have the roughest roads, what bikes have the stiffest suspension) but for now I just wanted to see how my hardtail mountain bike would fare.

With the parking lot at West Beach almost completely empty (save for the guy who stared at me for 10 minutes before leaving in haste) and the bike GPS set to zero, I set off. The egg fell off its perch on the washer almost instantly.

As I quickly discovered, carrying an egg in this fashion has an unusual pyschological effect. Sometimes on rides you just feel every crack, sewer grate, manhole cover, rock, dip, tree branch, flattened cola can, puddle, dead squirrel, abandoned shoe and fallen campaign sign. On this ride, a relatively smooth parking lot, the egg's vibrations were telling me that the surface wasn't as smooth as I thought.

Finally, after about a quarter of a mile (and the most gently hopped curb in history) the egg decided to call it quits.

Now remember, while a hardtail, the mountain bike does have an excellent suspension fork, which I thought would at least cushion the egg's handlebar ride slightly. I cleaned the broken egg from the container, locked out the suspension, and put another egg in the container. As I suspected, it didn't last long without the front shock.

Finally, it was time to test the ride quality on the other side of the bike. For this test I attached a quick release rack to the seatpost and reset the test with a third egg.

At first I thought the test would be more difficult because the egg was mounted in a place where I couldn't see it. But it was easier than I thought because all I had to do was ride until I couldn't hear the egg rattling anymore. Barely 1/6 of a mile after I set off, I turned back and saw this.

Careful observers will note that this egg broke differently from the two handlebar eggs. Instead of rattling to the point of creating stress fractures in the shell, this one broke violently; as though someone had thrown it to the ground. Later I took the fourth and final egg and attached it to the Thudbuster seatpost itself, and that egg shattered in a similar fashion too (and surely wasn't heavy enough to make use of the Thudbuster's suspension).

Armed with data about how well the old hardtail frame worked at transporting breakfast food, I decided it was time to make the switch to full suspension - which would be a fun project and almost surely give me a smoother ride.

I set up the empty frame on one side of my workstand and the old hardtail on the other. It was time to start the operation - and find out just how many parts from one would be incompatible with the other.

To be continued.

(Follow me on Twitter at @michaelknorris)