Gorge(ous) Rides


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Hmmm – finally getting back to this writing business.  I just returned from an amazing 24-hr trip to Oregon.  It was a make-up for a trip I missed a year or two ago with a great pack of folks I met on the Seattle/Portland Riv Rumble.

Unfortunately, I missed the first ride on Saturday, and rolled into town around 6pm.  I met Aaron at the new’ish Freebridge Brewery in The Dalles, and there we decided to make a last minute plan change and head to Portland for a Rumble reunion with Chris and Andy. We made it to the Chen Palace™ around 10pm.

After lots of catching up, whisky tasting, and whatnot, we hopped the bikes and made our way to a late night ramen restaurant.  On the way, we rode by Rivelo, Portland’s Rivendell dealer run by their old GM John Bennett.  We also did a loop across the Willamette River on the new Tilikum Crossing transit bridge (no cars!).

After some crashing on Chris’s couch, we woke up to a sunny Easter Sunday and made Big Breakfast in the ChenKitchen™.  Folks started showing up like this was some kind of tradition, and everyone was well fed by noon.  That’s about when Aaron and I decided to get over to Rivelo and do some local economy boosting.  He rode an Appaloosa while I picked out some Grandpa’s Tar Soap.  When we were situated, we made our way back to The Dalles via Lyle, WA.

Here, a great 20-miler happened.  Rainbows and unicorns (or at least camels).  Pics:




Columbia River (way out yonder)




Wet one


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Nothing like a commute where it pours the whole way.  I squeezed a cup of water out of my gloves tonight.  Cold, too.  I had a nice case of numb arms when I got home.  Kind of great!


Something is grinding on my pedal stroke on the Toussaint.  I figure it is either pedals, chain (needs lube), or bottom bracket (hope not).

Oh well – have to use the other bike while I figure it out.  Off to DC for the rest of the week.


Bar Width and Handling


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As a follow up to my post on trail, this is a related experiential review on the role of bar width and the interaction with trail.  This may impact someone’s decision on whether high or low trail is right for them by basing it on one’s comfort with wide or narrow bars.  It also may impact the decision based on what you will be using the bike for, and where you plan to do most of your riding.

Low trail is great with narrow bars

On my Vélo Routier, having narrow bars is comfortable, and I have no problem putting feedback into steering even at higher speeds.  I currently use 42cm Noodles, and have plenty of control.

Higher trail is great with wider bars

Wide bars (48cm and wider) work very well on higher trail bikes.  They give you the leverage you need to turn during even an “in the rails” higher speed maneuver.

The further away from your steering axis you have your hands, the more they will have input on steering – this is true for any bike and any amount of trail.  To get a consistent steering input impact and feel, you should be able to compensate for higher trail with wider bars.

Adding bar width to compensate for trail will keep steering input feel approximately equivalent//

This is why offroad motorcycles/bicycles have wide handlebars, and most city or road motorcycles/bikes tend to have narrow bars.  Big generalization here, but I have definitely noticed this on several occasions. This is not really a discussion based on rider ergonomics and comfort, but a general handling conversation.  If you are a rider that needs a wider or narrower bar, it may help to understand how that will impact handling based on what trail geometry your bike has.

Real World Example

In prep for my last adventure, I wanted drop bars due to the length and time I would be in the saddle.  The Oregon Outback, at 360 miles and mostly dirt roads, would be an endurance test.  I wanted the most hand positions possible, and had done long rides in drops with plenty of comfort.  I used 44cm Noodles on my mid/high trail Hunqapillar with the thought that they would add a bit of leverage, but be very close to my “perfect” rando bar, the 42cm Noodle.

Reality was a bit different.  While I was plenty comfortable with the bars, and had no hand numbness or pain, there were several times where I wished for more leverage.  The amount of weight I had on the bike made these bars too narrow for the dirt trails.  I had to put a lot more effort into keeping the bike tracking at low speeds and up hills.  This was less noticeable when I was on nicely paved sections, but the dirt roads added difficulty.

On the fast downhills, the gyro effect tended to add to the effort required to steer.  I was hit by an incredible wind gust at the very bottom of a 30+mph descent near the end of the ride, and I barely escaped launching off the side of the dirt road.  If I hadn’t been near the middle of the road, it would have been grim – the bike tracked me all the way to the far edge before I got enough muscle into keeping on the road.

Lesson – I’m putting a wider bar on this bike.  Likely either the new Choco bars from Rivendell, or the Albatross/stache bars I’ve used in the past.  A nice Jones H-bar would be great, as well, providing even more leverage and plenty of hand positions.


44cm – a bit too narrow


Trail Riding


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I want to go into a bit more detail on what I’ve found in experimenting with a more traditional low-trail bike like the Vélo Routier, and compare it to the mid trail Rivendell A. Homer Hilsen from my last post.  I have these bikes set up nearly the same.  Both use 42cm Noodles, Compass cranks, and VP pedals (not shown), and Selle Anatomica Titanico saddles.

BH-5.jpg BH-8.jpg

As the side view shows, the main difference is the fork rake and head tube and seat tube angles giving the bikes a slightly different geometry.  The Toussaint has slightly steeper angles, and more rake giving it trail around 30mm, whereas the Hilsen is more relaxed with trail around 55-60mm.  Yes, the Vélo is 650b and the Hilsen is 700c, but both bikes use light, supple Compass tires (tubeless even).  The tire volume has a definite impact on the ride, but it doesn’t really relate to how the trail aspect affects the feel of the bike, at least not in the detail I’ll get into here.

Steering Curves

You can definitely tell the difference in the feel that the geometry creates when doing tight turns on the bike.

I’ll start with a spot in my commute that “pushes” technique a bit. There is a railroad crossing on my daily ride where I perform a fairly tight “S” turn that has fences on either side to keep me honest.  The Hilsen requires more thought and body lean.  The Vélo Routier requires less body, and steers the curves easier.  This is the case no matter the load on the bikes for the most part.

On the other hand, when I put the Hilsen into a curve, it tracks it.  When I put the Vélo Routier in, it will still respond to inputs.  This can be good or bad.  I would say that on the Routier, I have to stay on top of steering all the time, whereas on the Hilsen, I have to be a little more planned up front, but when committed, it requires less concentration from me.

Front Weighted Loads

The Routier is much less concerned if there is weight in the front.  The bike doesn’t wag from side to side (wheel flop) when there is significant load, and when I park it with the front bag, it doesn’t sway over to the side.  The times I’ve actually found this to be nice is when I’m parking the bike, and when I’m carrying a 10+ pound load (which is actually very rare for me).

My typical rando load is probably at most 5 pounds in my front bag with a layer, extra gloves, and food. This is easily handled with little problem on the Hilsen when similarly front bag equipped.


The Hilsen always wants to go straight at speed – there is more gyro stabilization effect with this geometry.  This helps when you want to be minimal in steering input.  Examples: curves, laziness, riding no-handed.  The Routier goes where your hands move it to.  This isn’t great if you are tired or distracted.  I’ve had a few more close calls on the Routier nearly going on a temporary off-road excursion.  This has been at normal riding pace: 12-17 mph.  I really noticed this “ultra responsive” steering at the end of a 300k when I was tired, and couldn’t seem to keep the bike going in a straight line without undue effort.  I remember thinking to myself that the low trail was supposed to be “easier”, but in this case, under fatigue, it was actually the opposite.  This is also a complaint generally fielded against higher trail bikes – that they tend to wander when climbing at slow speeds.

I’ve heard that wind gusts can really upset a higher trail bike, but I haven’t experienced that yet.  Gusts tend to bother me on either bike, but not uncontrollably so.

UPDATE: a comment left by a reader asked about high speed descent handling between the bikes.  I have noticed very little differences here – when moving at speeds over 20mph, both bikes feel stable.

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I find no real difference other than the amount of weight you want to carry. And, this only matters if you really want to carry a lot of weight in the front.  I tend to hate on rear rack and pannier combos as I don’t like the tail wagging the bike feel, and the dirt on the panniers from road spray. Front bags are awesome for keeping your stuff accessible and clean.  I don’t typically carry a lot of weight on my commute.  I keep heavy clothes in the office, and only occasionally bring an iPad or MacBook on the commute.  I will sometimes pick up beer, or other heavy items on the ride home, however, but either bike manages this for a few miles with no real problems.


Now here is something I’ve noticed more as I ride the Toussaint, and this is more obvious when I try to ride no-handed.  I feel like my center of gravity is higher on the low-trail bike.  It sort of feels like I’m sitting up higher and closer to the bars – more of an “on top” feeling rather than an “in the bike” feeling.  I would just attribute this to the sharper seat tube angle – not even something that necessarily contributes to the trail number, but is part of the geometry difference.


Different trails for different folks with different needs.  If you are a long-distance or endurance rider who carries a good load, is alert even after hours in the saddle (think 12+ hours), and you like to have a very precise feel for control on steering movements – go with a low trail ride.  If you are regularly carrying large loads, and want them to stay clean and dry, go low trail.  If you don’t mind carrying load in the back – it doesn’t really matter then.

If you like to ride long distances but want to be able to do lots of restful no-handed riding, and you like to zone out a bit more – go with a mid-trail bike.  If you are a commuter and want a bike that doesn’t flop over and pull the bike down when you have stuff in the front basket/bag, get a low trail bike.

If you like to ride big tires with fenders, or have bigger feet, and hate toe-overlap, you may find you will have less on a low-trail bike as the fork is raked out more.  Another consideration.

I find both of these bikes to be great brevet bikes.  They are also great commuters.  I would give the nod slightly to my Hilsen based on my riding style, preferences, and loaded weight characteristics.  Someday, I’ll have to “pull a Chen” and “get another Hilsen” that is modified to low trail and then do a test, but that sounds like a lot of work.  I’m moving out of my tweaking phase.  My real recommendation is to get two bikes, one low and one mid/high, and find out what you prefer.  Nobody can really just tell you – it helps to experience it yourself.



A. Homer Hilsen 7-year Review


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My first real thoughtful bike purchase was the Rivendell A. Homer Hilsen.  Color – metallic copper – one of the web frame specials in 2009 shortly after I moved back to Seattle from a brief 18-month foray to my childhood home of Minnesota.  I had been commuting on a ’96 Kona AA that I was pretty much done with.  The aluminum frame never felt right – too stiff. I was ready for a real road bike after spending much of the prior 20 years on a mountain bike.

I did a lot of research, but after I found the Rivendell site, started reading Sheldon Brown and Grant Petersen’s opinions, and did some test rides on a local friend’s vast collection of Riv bikes, I was smitten.  I recall going to the Seattle Bike Show in 2008 and walking around forlorn, seeing nothing attractive.  At all.

At that point, I knew a couple things about myself:

  1. Steel felt right.  I grew up riding this material.  My Raleigh Reliant, and Stumpjumper Pro (’91) were my benchmark rides.
  2. I wasn’t planning to pick up racing.  I am a recreational and practical cyclist.
  3. Damn those lugged frames were pretty!  They really hit a “homer” in terms of where my aesthetic sensibilities were concerned.
  4. I wanted to build this bike myself from the frame up.

I started watching the Riv site and decided the copper Hilsen was the one.  It was a 59cm frame, and although I would probably fit up to a 61cm, this was as big as I wanted to commit to.

After a few months of collecting the parts and tools needed to put this together, I took it for the first ride and was amazed at the effortless speed compared to my mountain bikes. At about the same time, I had also stumbled on the  RBW owners bunch online community, which helped me navigate a first bike build, as well as sharing lots of good technical advice.

Here was a large community of like-minded folks generally oohing and aahing all the builds folks were doing.  This tight-knit community is one known for being a polite and caring group, and I’m happy to count many of the folks there as friends.


Favorite Bike in Current Config

The Hilsen took me on my first 100k brevet, and then my 200k.  Then my 300k.  It helped me learn that I like the Selle Anatomica Titanico saddle best on anything over 100 miles.  It showed me that clipless pedals were not necessary anymore.

I briefly became caught up in the low-trail Jan Heine camp, and picked up another rando bike (the Toussaint), but after all these years, the one bike I still enjoy the most is the A. Homer Hilsen.  It is still as lovely as ever, and gaining beausage every year.  It still gets more comments on my daily commute, rain or shine.  After riding other bikes for several months, and then coming back to this one, it still feels “just right”.  The ride is smooth, predictable, natural.  I never feel like it has quirks, defects, or limitations that I’ve noticed on lesser bikes.

It has done brevets, snowy singletrack(!), loaded commutes, and just riding trips.  Handled ’em all with aplomb.  ’nuff said…


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