Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Platform pedals for a road bike

It's been a long time since I started using clipless pedals on my bicycles. My first road bike I put together when I was 17 had Look pedals that I used together with hard, fiber glass sole Shimano shoes. But what worked pretty well on a road, I've never felt like trying in the mountains. My mountain bike at that time had wide, pinned platform pedals installed and I quickly recognized it as the optimal solution. Not being tied to pedals felt much safer in rough terrain where I often had to use my feet for support, yet at the same time pins provided excellent grip and prevented my shoes to slip. In most situations, at least. Sometimes pinned platforms are like a weapon that can backfire badly. If my foot slipped on a pedal, pins easily scraped skin off my shins. It did happened a few times so my legs were decorated with multiple scars at that time.

I stopped mountain biking years ago and since then I have never used pinned platforms again. Until now. It doesn't mean that I'm going back to mountain biking. I just decided that it would be worth trying pinned platform pedals on a road bike for a change. Although, to tell the truth, my bike is not a typical road bike actually, but more like a hybrid between a cyclocross and a touring bike. For the casual riding that I am mostly doing, wider platforms seemed like a good idea. Not only they would provide a better foot support than my old M540 SPDs, but also let me use more comfortable and more walkable shoes. While I really like my SPD pedals, in some situations, such as a very rough terrain, they certainly were more problematic than helpful.

Having said that, I decided to give Blackspire SUB4 pedals a try. They are made in Canada, cost about $88 and are supposed to be relatively lightweight. I weighed them at 414g (on my digital kitchen scale), which is significantly more than 350g you can find reported in various reviews on internet. The manufacturer's website specifies the weight at 400g and is clearly much closer to the truth. Even with all steel pins removed these pedals weigh 378g, so I had no idea where those claimed 350g were coming from. Then, after searching the net a little bit I discovered that old, 2010 SUB4s must've weighed around 350g indeed, but too often riders had problems like this:
Old style SUB4s had much lighter and weaker platforms (Source: NSMB.com)

...which resulted in a major redesign and the new, 2014 model features a heavier and stronger platform (and looks clearly different than those old SUB4s shown in the picture above). So yes, the new pedals are heavier. Should you be really bothered, you can always buy the SUB3 version with a titanium axle - for double the money, of course.

Anyway, Blackspires come with a bag of tiny washers to be installed under the pin heads in case we decided that factory pins stick out too much and want to set them back a bit. This is exactly the first thing I did, as I thought that such long pins will make my shoe soles look like a strainer after a while. After some experimentation, I decided to remove one pin at the front-center and one at the rear-center position and use no washers in the front, single washers in the back and double washers in 4 middle positions, per side. That means I added a lot of washers (and removed 4 pins per pedal) and the final weight came up to 413g (I saved a gram. Yeay!).
All this was done to better match the profile of the shoes I was planning on using with these pedals - Five Ten Aescent. These are amazing shoes that seem to combine everything you would want to find in a shoe - they are very comfortable (much better than any road clipless shoes, for sure), walkable, lightweight, their soles feature some really sticky rubber so they don't slip and at the same time the soles are relatively stiff - stiffer than you would find in your regular sneakers. This makes Aescents perfect for bike riding as well.

Next, was the time for a test ride and my first impressions (after roughly 100 miles) were very positive. Blackspires offer a very nice and stable platform for regular shoes and their pins locked my feet in place very well too. But I quickly realized that now I have to learn how to ride with pinned platforms again. I spent so much time with my SPDs that using SUB4s was a totally new experience. The pedals are grippy, which is a good and a bad thing. You have to land your foot in the right place right away, as any micro adjustments are difficult without lifting the foot off the pedal. At the same time, riding with SUB4s feels nearly like having SPDs installed. They really prevent feet slipping off in 9 and 3 o-clock crank positions. And they feel much more comfortable than the M540 SPDs due to their width.

The big thing is that I am no longer limited to only one position of my feet on pedals. I can ride them SPD-style, having the ball of the foot roughly where the pedal axle is, or I can move my foot forward a bit and pedal with the center of the foot instead. Both positions were very comfortable and this ability to change feet position on pedals may be useful to avoid fatigue during longer rides.

At the same time, pinned platforms require me to think more - every time I mount the bike I have to find the right position for my feet. Clipless pedals always do it for me. I also have to plan ahead. When I stop at the red light, there is no way to pull the pedal up (like I can do it with SPDs) to have it in 9 o-clock position, ready to launch. The best method is to back the bike a bit to bring the foot and the pedal up.

I think I like the SUB4s. They are comfortable and I will leave them on the bike for a while. I don't know if I stay with platforms forever, or go back to SPDs, but I will be subconsciously twisting my foot slightly outward when stopping the bike for some time, for sure.

Monday, April 14, 2014

The Carlisle Circle

We had a beautiful weather this weekend so I decided to explore Carlisle a little more by bike. I left my house on Sunday morning, very shortly after sunrise and took Minuteman Bikeway towards Bedford. At this time of the day this usually busy path was completely empty and dead silent. No cyclists, no joggers, no dog walkers and no cars on intersecting streets. I quickly reached Bedford and entered the Narrow Gauge Trail north.
It was still quite chilly and the early morning sun was still too shy to peek between the clouds. But I was moving forward rapidly and I quickly reached Concord River.
I crossed it and found Moran Rd to eventually reach North Rd and enter Carlisle. North Rd is a fun place to ride a bike. This winding, hilly road runs through the forest and sees little traffic. There are several places along the road worth checking and stopping for a moment such as bogs, ...
lakes, ...
hiking trails, ...
and the Great Brook Dairy Farm (They sell home made ice cream in the summer).
Once I reached Lowell St I decided to continue on its other side and take Curve St towards Cranberry Bog. The huge field of cranberries was glowing brownish-red even though we would have to wait until October to see fresh cranberries on it.
I continued on Curve St to Cross St, then South St and eventually I reached Concord center and I ended on the Battle Road Trail. I was back home 58km (36mi) later at exactly 9:00 am - right for breakfast and at a perfect time as it was just starting to rain.
It was a good ride, especially that I had a chance to try something new. I started running my Clement X'Plor USH tires with less air in them and I really like it! About 30psi in the front and 35psi in the rear tire seems perfect. The USHs are still fast rolling at this pressure and definitely don't feel sluggish on pavement. At the same time they become very cushy and swallow all small bumps of the road much, much better. The only real drawback is a significant deflection of the front tire when riding out of saddle but that's minor compared to all the benefits mentioned above. For my 84kg (185lbs) this pressure seems optimal but I wouldn't try anything lower than 30psi as this would mean asking for pinch flats to happen. USH tire continues to please me and seems to be a perfect road tire for off-road use.

Monday, April 7, 2014

Charles River Ride

Spring starts somehow slowly this season. Snow is gone, it's getting warmer, but I still can't spot a single new green leaf or flower on trees. Despite cold nights and mornings, weather this last weekend has been very cooperative so yesterday I decided to drag my sleeping body out of the cozy bed at 6 a.m. and go for a bike ride.
Instead of exploring the usual rural suburbs of the city, I rode straight south to Waltham and then picked up the greenway along Charles River.
 Prospect St Bridge in Waltham

It was pretty chilly at this time of the day (about 27F or -3C) but fortunately the air was still with not much wind. I quickly reached Watertown.
 A rare unpaved section of the Charles River Greenway

This is where Charles River gets a bit wider and where I joined the bike path along Soldiers Field Rd. Next, I passed Harvard and got to the BU Bridge. I was moving pretty quickly forward even though the bike path along Storrow Dr is very narrow in places.

 BU Bridge - one of those rare places where 4 means of transportation could (theoretically) meet in one place at the same time: a plane, a train, a car and a boat

The sun was up higher in the sky and heating me nicely, which was very welcomed as I finally reached North End and I could feel the cold wind coming from the ocean. I didn't spend much time there and crossed Washington St bridge to get to Charlestown.
 USS Constitution in Charlestown Navy Yard - in active service since 1797
 USS Cassin Young, across from the "Old Ironsides"

I circled around Charlestown visiting "Old Ironsides", the Navy Yard, Bunker Hill Monument and finally moved towards Museum of Science.
 Tobin Bridge
 Riding downhill from the Bunker Hill in Charlestown

From there, it was just a simple ride back home along Memorial Drive in Cambridge. The views of Boston are obviously great but the bike path itself is not so much fun to ride as you can easily encounter here swarms of joggers and very bumpy surfaces.
Zakim Bridge and I-93

I was back home after 60km (37mi) at 10 a.m. - right on time for a late Sunday breakfast.

Thursday, April 3, 2014

Thursday of things

First of all, it seems that spring has finally arrived. Well, almost. I still can't find a single flower or a single new leaf on a tree.
Nope, not yet.
But anyway, it feels like spring, it smells like spring and it looks like spring so it must be spring. Finally.
All this means that I started using Minuteman Bikeway more often again, especially that my company moved to a new location just 2 weeks ago. This also means that my commute is 10mi (or 16km) long one way, so it takes me more time than ever to get to work. And the best way of getting there is to take MB all the way to Bedford. Quite a ride on a slow bike like my Schwinn, but at least I stay away from the car traffic.
Speaking of car traffic, it may be a royal pain in the rear end sometimes, especially  when some (mostly truck) drivers think that they own the road. Bikeyface shows us what would happen if this "ownership" has changed:
"If I owned the road" by Bikeyface.
In my new workplace I had to ask the question of where to park my bike because this brand new building obviously has no bicycle racks of any kind at all. The answer was encouraging: "Just leave it in the hallway". Great! I can park my bike inside. We'll see for how long.
The weekend is supposed to be nice and sunny. I am looking forward for another bike ride.

Monday, March 31, 2014

The (Wet) Lincoln Loop

I think I really have enough of this crappy weather and the main reason for this is that I just want to ride my Poprad a lot more. Traversing snow, ice, mud and wetlands is just not what brings smile to my face.

Nevertheless, despite the rain on Friday afternoon, roads on Saturday morning didn't look bad at all so I decided to go for a bike ride. The day was supposed to be really warm, which means air temperature of only 10C (or 50F) - that felt almost like a heat wave compared to the earlier days of this crappy month. I started rolling along the Minuteman Bikeway and as I expected, it was actually pretty dry so I was moving forward quickly. Next, I reached the Battle Road Trial in Lexington and unfortunately here is where the fun ended. The trail was just very muddy and had huge patches of ice all over the place making it impossible to ride without studded tires.
The Battle Road Trail in Lexington in this so-called Spring.

I gave up on the trail and took North Great Rd instead, then connected to Sandy Pond Rd. From there I was planning on taking the trails crossing Pine Hill and merge with Concord Rd but again - despite being nearly April this winter is just not gone yet. The trails across Pine Hill had a lot of frozen snow and ice and I ended up carefully walking my bike there.

I finally reached Concord Rd and I promised myself not to take any forest trails until the end of this ride. This means I had to stay on the pavement so I followed Concord Rd all the way to Weston center, crossing the Weston-Wayland Rail Trail.
Tracks along the Weston-Wayland Rail Trail.

From there, I moved towards Waltham and using greenways along the Charles River, I reached Watertown. I got back home on time for a late breakfast after just 50km (31mi), wishing that all this bloody snow melted very soon.
Historic trestle over Charles River in Watertown.

Thursday, March 27, 2014

NAHBS and after - 2014+ wish list

This year's NAHBS is long over and while I didn't attend the show, it made me think about a few innovations we have seen during the recent years and share some thoughts on the direction the bicycle industry should, in my opinion, follow in the nearest future:
1) We desperately need a new road groupset(s) from the Big Three (Shimano, SRAM and Campagnolo) designed for "normal" road bicycles, that is, those used by "normal" people - not racers. It should offer a 44/28T or 46/30T crankset with a 12-30T or 11-32T, 10-speed cassettes and be paired with standard 2x10 speed integrated shifters. These combinations make just much more sense for everyday use than those 50/34T cranksets and 11-28T cassettes found on today's road bikes.
2) I would also like to see a SRAM XX1 drivetrain designed for a road bike. The XX1 is a unique, fully integrated drivetrain that uses a single 28T or 38T chainring and a very wide range, 11-speed cassette: 10-42T (!). It is designed for mountain bikes only, but a simpler and cheaper version with a 10 or 11-speed cassette could be introduced to road bikes as well. A single 37T chainring paired with a 10-36T cassette offers a very useful range of 100-28 gear inches of development (with 700c wheels) and this would work very well for most "normal" road cyclists. The drivetrain is simplified and lighter - no need for a second shifter, chainring and a front derailleur.

3) But since this is supposed to be a wish list, let's take SRAM's idea a bit further. For decades, bicycles have had 2 derailleurs and SRAM wants us to give up on the front one. But I would really like to see a complete solution where all gearing is placed right where it is supposed to be - in the crankset (or the bottom bracket - the be precise). Picture a bicycle that has a single cog on the rear hub and a single chainring in the crankset and all gears are internal, hidden inside the bottom bracket. Something like a 11-speed Alfine or 14-speed Rohloff hub but moved away from the rear wheel. Sure, this would require a special frame and a crankset and it's not a solution for everyone. But theoretically, we could benefit from a better weight distribution, a stronger, symmetrically-dished rear wheel, a stronger, wider chain or belt and a nearly maintenance-free gearbox.

4) City bicycles (and others too) with fully integrated electric assist motors. I touched this subject here, already.

5) Wide 700c forks. I know this makes you think "huh?" but let me explain. A few things happened in the cycling world during the last few years and two of them were: gravel bikes (1), whatever they really are, and 27.5" or 650B tires (2). The gravel bikes are supposed to be pretty much cyclocross bicycles but perhaps with a little less sporty geometry, disc brakes and even wider, than cyclocross, tires. We routinely see 40mm tires on "dedicated" gravel rigs. What I would like to see is a gravel bicycle that features a frame with enough tire clearance to fit either a 40-45mm 700c tire or a 2.0" one on 27.5" wheel. This can be done even using narrower, 68mm bottom brackets. In worst case the frame would need sliding rear dropouts to increase tire clearance when 27.5" wheels are used. But there is still the unresolved problem with forks. There are virtually no forks designed for cyclocross or gravel bikes with 700c wheels that would clear a wider 2.0" tire on a smaller wheel. Currently the only solution to this problem is to use a rigid 29er as a gravel bike. However, that's more like a mountain bike, not a "road" bicycle. I think it would be nice to have more options.

6) The handlebar of the future -  the crowbar!
Just kidding...

Monday, March 17, 2014

Taken for a ride - part two

As a follow up to my post about the demise of public transportation in United States, here is an article about the history of our cities - how we lost the streets for cars and how crossing freely anywhere we wished became illegal jaywalking. Worth reading and worth remembering how
"At some point, we decided that somebody on a bike or on foot is not traffic, but an obstruction to traffic." 
Sixth Ave in 1903, New York City. People ruled the streets and public transport was a dominant way of travel. (Source: CollectorsWeekly.com)

Most countries followed U.S. example and opened their cities for cars, pushing people off the way, onto sidewalks. Few tried to fix the problem. Obviously the best example of one of those few is Holland, where some time in the 70's the Dutch realized that the best way to avoid having their cities plugged permanently with a slow moving car traffic is to take the streets away from the drivers and give them back to pedestrians and cyclists. It worked! Dutch cities are often quoted as the most walkable in the world.

Meanwhile in the U.S. traffic congestion is growing three times as fast as U.S. economy but we are still too afraid to make driving unappealing and stimulate drivers to to switch their cars for other means of transportations. On the other hand, we demolished our streetcar lines back in the 40's so there are few alternatives left. Are we just destined to be car-dependant forever?