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Fort Ebey MTB

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Sometimes I do something that jump-starts my love of cycling all over again. 25 years ago, it was a ride on my first borrowed mountain bike up near Whistler, BC – felt like a total kid flying over railroad grade grapefruit size rocks, and nearly losing control.  That led to a 10 year segment of regular rides in the local Seattle rooty, muddy mountain trails.

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After a few months of putting all my miles in via commuting (a worthy endeavor if you live in a car-choked city like Seattle), I got out for my first mountain biking since Moab a few years back.

My pal John brought his new Jones Plus up – A bit about John’s bike – it’s a steel frame 27+ mid-fat bike with a very different geometry. I’ll put my notes on this below.

We headed up to Fort Ebey State Park and the Kettles trail system near Coupeville, WA. It’s an easy 25 miles north from the Clinton Ferry.

 

MTB at Fort Ebey

John on the bluff

 

John had ridden this area 20 years ago, but I had never been there, so we found our way into the middle of the biking trails and started on what we wanted to be a large loop around the area. There are roughly 25 miles of trails, but a loop is about 5-miles around. The trails turned out to be nice and moderate. Soft forest singletrack with a few rooty spots here and there. We had a few steep climbs and descents to test our dusty skills and bikes.

MTB at Fort Ebey

Nice soft singletrack

There was a really nice stretch out of the gun battery that threaded along the edge of a bluff overlooking the Straight of Juan de Fuca. Beautiful! After this, we joined the Hokey-a-do-do section – probably the most fun we had on a nice descent down to the Kettles trail. MTB at Fort Ebey

Bikes. I grabbed my 90’s Kona Hei Hei for its virgin voyage in the dirt. I really loved the light simplicity of the bike. It allowed me to climb some steep tech stuff that I wouldn’t otherwise make it up. The bike has a single front 32t chainring, and a 10-speed rear with a 34t big ring. I found plenty of torque on this trail. It was actually nice not worrying about a front derailleur. One place to shift.

MTB at Fort Ebey

Strappin’ Flower Power

John had his Jones. That bike was a revelation. One of the things I like about mountain biking on singletrack is the sensation of skiing through the woods in the off season. This bike actually accentuated that feeling as I was very upright in my riding position. I felt like I was standing up floating down the path. No feeling of diving down a steep descent. Pretty cool. The bars were wide, but I didn’t have any trouble clearing the few tight spots I encountered.  It’s also a traction beast!  He rode right over the roots and up the loose gravel without any trouble.

I was able to climb a bit better on my Kona, but I only attribute it to the weight. It required more technique in picking my path during one of the ascents which had loose gravel in the middle of the trail. I had to stay to the edges while climbing to avoid losing my grip.

I will definitely be getting out to this area more. Only saw a few trail runners the whole day. And this was on a sunny summer Saturday – prime time!

MTB at Fort Ebey

All Grip!

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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:

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Klickitat

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Columbia River (way out yonder)

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OMG

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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!

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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.

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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//embedr.flickr.com/assets/client-code.js

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.

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44cm – a bit too narrow

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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.

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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.

Tracking

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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Commuting

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.

Balance/CoG

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.

Summary

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.

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