Monday, September 30, 2013

I guess it's official!

When you leave your house in the morning and everything is covered by a thick fog blanket,
when it get's chilly enough that on your morning ride you have to put a light sweater on and when you see those first colorful trees around,
you know it's official. Summer is over and fall is finally here.
Fall is coming (Source: yehudamoon.com)

Saturday, September 21, 2013

Low gearing on a road bike - Part 3/3: "Sugino OX601D - The Freedom Crankset"

In the previous part, I considered Sugino OX601D cranks with 44T and 30T chainrings as the best solution for low gearing a road bike. I realized that this option would work better for me, since I can get this crankset with a dedicated 44T ring that is ramped and pinned to work well with modern STI shifters. Should I choose a triple crankset from Shimano instead, I would have to buy a ramped 44T chainring separately.

It is always a good idea to do some research and read other people impressions first. There are a few reviews out there, but not having enough, I contacted Mark from gravelbike.com and bugged him with some questions. Mark was super helpful and convinced me that I was making the right choice. You can read Mark's review about OX601D here. He should know what he's talking about. He does a lot of that kind of riding I would like to do, but lives in a nicer area than mine, with more gravel roads around.
Sugino OX601D on my bike - what a difference!

Having said that, I decided to buy these cranks and try them on my Poprad. For $330 with free shipping and a bottom bracket included, this looked like a pretty good deal. I also ordered a 28T chainring separately ($16) and decided to replace the original 30T one at a later time. The original smallest ring is not ramped and pinned so technically you can install any one that would work with a 10 speed chain and have a 74mm BCD.

The measured weight is 832g for the crankset (175mm long arms) and 94g for the bottom bracket cups. Compared to my original Bontrager Race GXP cranks the new setup is heavier by 84g, which makes me think how lightweight those Bontrager cranks were (718g for a 46/38T crankset)!

Installation of the new cranks was straightforward but removing the old ones wasn't. GXP cranks are supposed to be self-extracting. Technically, all you need is a 8mm Allen key. The left crank has a large retaining ring threaded into the crank arm. Underneath that ring is the main bolt that secures the left crank arm to the spindle. By unscrewing that bolt the left crank is supposed to be pulled off the spindle. Well, in my case it didn't really work this way. Once I tried to unscrew the bolt, the retaining ring came out as well. I didn't have a 16mm Allen key needed to tighten that ring back again. I had to visit my local bike store and they were able to finally remove those cranks.

Next, I installed Sugino cranks with their dedicated bottom bracket. That was simple and all I needed to do afterwards was to shorten the chain a bit. I tried to lower the front derailleur as well, but it turned out that I can't really do it since its cage would hit the chainstays. As you can see in the picture below, Shimano 105 front derailleur is clearly not designed for such a small chainring as its cage's curvature doesn't match the 44T ring at all. It's also too long. I am guessing that a cyclocross derailleur such as Shimano CX-70 may work much better with Sugino cranks, as it is designed with smaller chainrings in mind. But despite all this, shifting is very fast and smooth both up and down, likely thanks to ramps and pins on the larger chainring. Also, I didn't have any dropped chain problems at all.

The gearing range these cranks offer when combined with a 12-30T cassette on my bike is simply amazing. For 95% of my riding I can stay in the large chainring. By replacing the 46T in my original cranks with the 44T, I can now use the full range of the cassette much more efficiently. Not only I use the high gear range (12-15T) more often, but also I don't have to shift frequently to the small chainring when riding some hills. Still, knowing that the 30T ring is there and the 1:1 gear is available, I can now easily ride steep hills sitting. No need to ride out of saddle anymore. That's better for my knees.
 
After riding many kilometers with these new cranks one thought immediately came to my mind - "Why none of the big three manufacturers offers a crankset like this?". For an average cyclist, the gearing range Sugino cranks offer is simply amazing and it is difficult for me to understand why an average road bicycle must be purchased with a compact double (50/34T) cranks and a 11-28T cassette at best. Apparently, the Big Three (Shimano, SRAM and Campagnolo) think that people who buy road bicycles are professional racers only. The truth is - most of us don't race and a 50T chainring with a 11T sprocket is simply useless for an average Joe.

Conclusions
I was thinking about writing something smart to summarize my impressions, but then I found out that epicureancyclist has already done it:
The Sugino OX601D Compact Plus‘s best feature is freedom (cue music). Freedom from the tyranny of road racing conventions that muck up cranksets for the rest of us. In all seriousness, it is wonderful to see a crankset that really gives you carte blanche with your chainring choices. It really allows you to fine tune your bike to your style of riding….and they are also compatible with modern STI shifters. You can set up a standard wide range double of 44-30, or even do something crazy like a 44-26! The only real downside is the cost. They are admittedly a bit spendy. However, if you are tired of waiting for Shimano and SRAM to make a crankset for your style of riding (instead of trying to fit into theirs), then the Compact Plus is just the ticket.
My rating
+ Complete freedom with chainring selection! Ever wanted a 44/26T crankset on your road bike? Now you can!
+ STI shifters compatible.
+ Fast and smooth shifting.
+ Low q-factor.
+ Simple installation.
- On the heavy side (926g for a 44/30T crankset and the bottom bracket).
- Simple finish (not polished), although they do look better in real light than in all those pictures on internet.
- Pricey? Yes, but once you start comparing them to all other cranks of this kind (such as Rene Herse, TA Carmina, White Industries VBC) you will realize that Sugino OX601D are... the cheapest.

Friday, September 20, 2013

Low gearing on a road bike - Part 2/3: "Choosing a crankset"

In the previous part, I discussed several possible options of lowering the gear ratio on a road bike with STI shifters - a task that seems to be non-trivial, since nearly all road component groups are designed around large-chainring cranksets, such as 53/39T or 50/34T.
I showed that even a compact crankset with a 110mm BCD (bolt circle diameter) and 50/34T chainrings is just not enough. That's because the smallest chainring that can be installed on such cranks is a 34T and there are no road cassettes that will have sprockets larger than 30T or maybe 32T (SRAM). This means that by replacing the cassette and keeping the cranks, we can't achieve a 1:1 gear ratio.
 
But what to do if we want even lower gears?
 
Replace the crankset - is the answer. Finding the right one, is the challenge. There are some classic offerings from Herse, Stronglight, TA and Velo Orange but all of these look just too retro for my taste, use square taper bottom brackets and have no ramps and pins to ease shifting with indexed STI shifters. Plus, all these cranks can be quite expensive - somewhere between $385 to $450, without bottom brackets (Velo Orange option is actually cheaper but it's also the most old-school looking).
Rene Herse cranks. (Source: Compass Bicycles Ltd)

TA Specialites Carmina cranks. (Source: Google Images)

Velo Orange Grand Cru 50.4 cranks. (Source: Velo Orange)

White Industries came up with their VBC cranks, which also use a square bottom bracket, lack good ramps and pins and use proprietary chainrings. They look a bit more modern though, but I have no idea how smooth shifting would be. At $350 (for a 46/30T setup without a bottom bracket) they are not the cheapest either.
White Industries VBC cranks. (Source: Google Images)
 
In my search, I considered several options:

1. Budget option
Use Shimano Tiagra FC-4603 cranks. These come with 50/39/30T rings and cost about $120, but I also found them for only $87 on ebay. Bottom bracket, such as Tiagra 4600, costs about $25. Set of chainring bolts: $8-$15. I would need these, since I would have to remove the 50T entirely and replace the 39T ring with a 46T ring from my current cranks.
TOTAL: $120
Pros and cons? It is cheap but also heavy - Tiagra crankset weighs over 1000g. The biggest problem is that I would be limited to 1:1 ratio with my 12-30T cassette. If I want something lower, I would have to spend much more and replace either chainrings, cassette, rear derailleur or all of these. Is it worth it? Only if you're on a tight budget.
Shimano Tiagra FC-4603 crankset. (Source: Google Images)
 
2. Still quite inexpensive but lighter
This is essentially the same approach as option 1, but with the Shimano 105 FC-5703 cranks for $217. These cranks are hollow and the weight of the crankset is only about 850g with 50/39/30T rings.
TOTAL: $260
Pros and cons? Yes, it is lighter, looks much better, but it is still only 1:1 ratio. To achieve lower gearing I would either have to replace the 30T chainring with a smaller one or replace the cassette (with e.g. 12-32T) and a rear derailleur. This may quickly all add up to $430. Is it worth it? Depends. It is probably the cheapest option with a good weight-to-performance ratio: relatively lightweight setup, still not too expensive and 1:1 gearing can be easily achieved. But, using triple cranks with 2 chainrings only means that chainline and q-factor suffer a little but other than that, it does look attractive.
Shimano 105 FC-5603 crankset. (Source: Google Images)
 
3. The best choice out there?
However, within the $300-$400 range, I think I can do better. Sugino OX601D crankset is the smaller cousin of the $500 OX801D cranks. The finish of OX601D is a bit dull and the price is lower, but except that, there seems to be not much difference between these two. These cranks can be ordered with many different chainrings down to 44/30T and they come with 110/74mm BCDs (That's what Sugino calls Compact Plus). This means that theoretically, even smaller rings down to 24T can be installed. Not to mention that the largest ring is aggressively ramped and pinned to help shifting and the bottom bracket is included in price and features outboard cups!
Sugino OX601D crankset. (Source: Google Images)
 
Since OX601D can be purchased for $330, is it worth paying more for the OX801D? Their reported weights are quite different but after lots of research, I found out that while 920g of OX601D includes the bottom bracket, the 790g of OX801D does not. In fact, I read that the bottom bracket for both cranks weighs about 105g, which would mean that there is only 30g difference in weight between them. Apparently, the more expensive crank has alloy chainring bolts, high polish finish and... a higher price. The rest is about the same as its smaller cousin.

But how about the gear ratios? By purchasing the cranks with 44/30T rings (Unfortunately, there seems to be no way to order them with 44/28T rings.), I am still limited to 1:1 ratio, but future expandability of such system looks much more promising. I found out that I very rarely use the smallest 12T sprocket in my cassette, therefore, reducing the largest chainring to 44T makes sense. By doing this and eventually replacing the small one with a 28T ring, I can still maintain 16T difference between the rings - a maximum allowed for standard road derailleurs. Of course, I am not limited here. With different derailleurs, I can lower the gearing even further to 44/28T +12/32T or maybe 44/26T + 12/32T. This is the beauty of cranks such as OX601D and this is why in comparison, compact road cranks combined with a huge 36T cassette sprocket is a dead-end solution (You can't install a smaller ring than a 34T on compact cranks and there are no road cassettes with sprockets larger than 36T).
TOTAL: $346 (with an extra 28T ring)

Pros and cons? Not cheap, but highly expandable and flexible system. Possible to achieve a truly low gearing with integrated, indexed shifters.

Thursday, September 19, 2013

Low gearing on a road bike - Part 1/3: "Finding the best solution"

A standard road bike used to be equipped with a 2-chainring crankset: 53 or 52-teeth large ring and a 39-teeth small one. Within the last few years (roughly since 2006) we witnessed the (re-)introduction of a "compact" version with 50T/34T chainrings. I believe that many cyclists welcomed this option wholeheartedly, as the usability of the large 53T ring was somewhat questionable. Not everyone can be Lance Armstrong to spin that huge 53T chainring on local roads effectively.

Still, sometimes even the 50T/34T combination can be very limiting, especially that the largest rear cog available in a standard road cassette is only 30T (Shimano) or 32T (SRAM). This means, steep hills remain a challenge for weaker riders that are left on the road without a truly low (<1:1 ratio) gearing. Actually, achieving such a low gearing on a road bike is not that hard at all, but the tricky part is to do it with integrated shifters (such as Shimano STI). If we don't mind giving up on our indexed STI shifters, the best option seems to be to build a road bike with mountain bike components, as these come with smaller chainrings and larger cassette sprockets.

Or is it?

I am running a typical cyclocross crankset on my road/cross/touring bike. It has a 46T/38T chainrings, which combined with a 12-30T, 10-speed cassette gives me a decent range of gear ratios. Yet, in some situations, I wish I had even lower gears available. Unfortunately, the cranks (a standard road type) have the BCD (bolt circle diameter) of 130mm and the smallest chainring I can install on these cranks is 38T. In order to increase the gear ratio, I would have to install compact cranks, with a 110mm BCD. However, the smallest chainring available for such cranks is only 34T and combined with a 30T rear sprocket, it is not the sub-1:1 ratio I would be looking for. What options do I have then?

1. Use compact cranks. Change the cassette.
This seems to be a decent solution, especially that compact road cranksets are readily available and SRAM makes large-sprocket, Shimano-compatible cassettes with 32T and even 36T cogs. The problem is the rear derailleur capacity. Road derailleurs are not designed to work with sprockets larger than 28-30T. Recently, SRAM introduced the new WiFli road derailleurs that can now handle a 32T sprocket, which means that a 12-32T cassette may work with a standard derailleur in some circumstances, but choosing a 12-36T cassette means that the derailleur will have to be replaced with a long-cage MTB model. Unfortunately, these are rarely compatible with road group components. One known to work with 10-speed road cassettes and STI shifters is the Shimano Deore RD-M592 9-speed (!). Other options exist as well.
RD-M592 rear derailleur - 9 speed but works with 10 speed STI shifters. (Source: shimano.com)
 
There is a fundamental problem with this solution, though. Instead of just decreasing the chainring size, which could reduce the crankset weight as well, we have to increase the weight of the bike's rear end by using a huge (and heavy) cassette with the huge 36T sprocket. Also, there is no way of lowering the gear ratio past 0.94 with a 34+36T setup (a 34T chainring for compact cranks and a 36T sprocket in the cassette). To do it, the entire crankset would have to be replaced as well. That's why it clearly looks like an all-wrong, dead-end solution.

2. Keep the same cassette. Change the crankset.
This would be the best option of them all. The goal is to use a smaller than a 34T chainring and relatively large cassette sprockets. Theoretically, by reducing chainring size, we can not only lower gear ratios but also decrease the weight of the bike. We don't necessary have to change the rear derailleur for a one with a longer cage (although this depends on the final chainring selection) nor STI shifters. This means we need a crankset with a BCD smaller than 110mm, designed for road bikes. And this is the problem, as very few of such cranks exist. There is a bunch of retro-looking cranksets for square taper bottom brackets, but if you would like to use modern cranks with outboard bearing cups, your selection is very limited. The notable example is Sugino OX801D, which comes with 110/74mm BCD for a wide range of chainring combinations, down to 24T. Unfortunately, it costs $500 and it's availability is limited anywhere outside of Japan.
Sugino OX801D - one of its kind?

Alternatively, a triple crankset could be used, set up as a double, with the largest chainring installed in the place of the middle one. I am not sure how smoothly such contraption would shift, but theoretically, it is possible to achieve a 0.75 gear ratio with a smallest 24T chainring in the front and a 32T sprocket in the cassette. There are some issues with this solution. Front road derailleurs are designed to work with a 16T difference between chainrings so this setup may work if we stay with e.g. 46/30T or 44/28T rings. Such combination looks potentially promising as it allows for a 1:1 or even lower gear ratio. The q-factor (width between cranks) may suffer a little but it should be still smaller than when using mountain bike components.

I will discuss this option more in part 2. Stay tuned.

3. Settle for the middle. A compromise.
The third option is to settle for something simpler - a compact crankset with a 34T chainring and the largest cassette a road derailleur can handle. This would probably be a 12-32T cassette with a medium-cage derailleur. It may be a stretch on some frames, especially those with a shorter derailleur hanger. Obviously, this way we won't have the 1:1 ratio, but it will be close. The winners are bicycles set up with all-SRAM components, as they can take advantage of WiFli derailleurs and shifters.

This finally brings me to the point of this post - we desperately need manufacturers to follow Sugino's example and introduce more modern road cranksets with smaller BCDs. Sure, a 34T chainring is nice, but a 28T or even 26T is nicer.

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Clement X'Plor USH tires - test ride

After my bad luck with Schwalbe Marathon Supreme tires a few weeks ago, I concluded that very light, wide, smooth road tires are probably not for me. I like to ride off the beaten path and getting there on pavement is only one part of the problem. The other part is to actually completing the trail puncture-free - something that Supremes struggled with. It wasn't that Schwalbe tires were particularly bad. They weren't. In fact, they were really nice for pavement riding - fast-rolling, lightweight and supple. But too often my trail riding ends up with some really rough paths, with rocks, roots and heavy gravel. For such conditions, Supremes were a poor choice. I needed something wider, thicker and more durable.
This is why I decided to try out Clement X'Plor USH tires. With 35mm width, more aggressive tread and a $38 price they seemed to be a better choice than Supremes - not only much cheaper but also more suited to the type of riding I was interested in. There is plenty of cyclocross tires in this width and price range but the reason I decided to buy USHs was that they have a smoother central ridge for faster rolling on pavement and side knobs for more grip off-road. I have never tried a tire like this before so I was hoping that this unique tread will give me the best of both worlds.
I measured the tires weight at 445g each - not the lightest, but considering that they are much thicker than Supremes, it is acceptable. Installation was simple because thankfully, these tires weren't so tight on the rim as Marathons. After a short, 35km (22mi) ride through some local dirt and paved roads I am very pleased with my new choice. USH tires seem to roll nicely on pavement, likely thanks to their central smooth ridge. They are not as fast as many lighter and narrower road tires, but I definitely did not feel like they were slowing me down on a smooth, paved road. They definitely have much less drag than my 700x35c Bontrager Jones tires. Also, USHs are noticeably quieter. They are not as stealthy as Supremes but are clearly much quieter than Joneses.
Off the road, they work quite well too. Thanks to their 35mm width and side knobs I have more support on loose surfaces and better control in corners.

Overall, I really like Clement USH tires so far. Let's hope now that their sidewalls are also more durable than Schwalbe Supremes.

Friday, September 13, 2013

The Phoenix Bike Project - part 1

It's been very quiet here for the last several days but that's only because my day job kept me very busy - not because there was nothing exciting going on to write about.

I mentioned several months ago that I happened to have a nearly complete Ultegra 6400 group - parts that I removed from my old road bike I left in Europe, after moving to the U.S. While the frame and rims of that bicycle were not usable anymore, the rest of the components were in an excellent condition - they were just begging for a new life in a new road bike.

The parts list is quite impressive, I think:
1. Ultegra FC-6400 crankset with 53/39T chainrings
2. Shimano bottom bracket, BB-UN72
3. Shimano FD-6400 front derailleur, braze on mount, 2 speed
4. Ultegra RD-6401 rear derailleur, 8 speed
5. Shimano 8 speed Hyper Glide cassette, 12-21T
6. Ultegra 6400 28-hole hubs
7. Shimano 105 threaded headset
8. Shimano BR-1055 short reach caliper brakes
9. Shimano SL-BS50 bar end shifters
10. Ultegra 6400 brake levers
11. Shimano 8-speed chain
12. ITM Goccia 100mm quill stem
13. TranzX 27.2mm seatpost
14. Selle Italia Flite Titanium saddle
15. Look clipless pedals
16. road drop bars
Technically, I don't need another road bike. In fact, because of the hilly area I live in now, a 53T chainring and a 12-21T cassette would make the bike nearly useless. My idea was to build something more usable such as a bicycle based on a vintage steel frame, which would make use of most of these components, but geared much, much lower to allow me riding these hills with ease. After some calculations I figured out that the solution is simple - lose the largest chainring and leave the 39T single ring in the front. Then, replace the cassette with a new 8-speed, 11-34T one. This combination would give me a very nice range from 93.3 to 30.2 gear inches.  Obviously, I would need a new rear derailleur as well, to handle that 34T sprocket.
Then, I thought that since this bike isn't going to be a speed demon anyway, I should probably plan for a slightly more relaxed riding position. I am thinking that Soma Sparrow bars should work pretty well with road brake levers and the single bar end shifter.
Soma Sparrow bars in the configuration that I plan for my new/old bike (Source: Google Images).

Except the front derailleur, I would probably have to put away some of the other components from my list as well. Look pedals would be useless. I would go with some simple platform pedals instead. I am not sure about the saddle either. Flite is a very nice and lightweight racing saddle, but I would prefer something more comfortable on this bike.

However, all those things are just details. The biggest problem was the frame. After a lengthy search on Craigslist (where people usually sell whole bikes, not just frames) and Ebay, I finally purchased a vintage 56cm 1986 Univega Gran Rally frameset in ugly pink color. I probably overpaid quite a bit, but I didn't want to hunt for the perfect  frame forever and $50 more or less didn't matter so much at this point.

What does matter is that the frame is nearly perfect for my project. It fits the bottom bracket, cranks, headset, stem, brakes and hubs I have. The only component that doesn't fit is the seatpost. Gran Rally needs a 26.8mm seatpost, I think and the one I have is 27.2mm. Fortunately, seatposts are not expensive to replace.
The frame (and fork) is pretty nice (except the color!). After a quick check, it looks like it is going to fit 700x32c tires easily and that's the size of tires I would be planning for. The minor issue is lack of any fender or rack mounts but this is understandable - it is a road bike frame after all. I measured the frame weight at 2.23kg and the fork at 0.81kg. Clearly not the lightest and honestly I don't know why it's so heavy if it's supposed to be made of a triple-butted Cr-Mo tubing.
My "new" Univega Gran Rally. God, this color is ghastly!

I have been looking at this frame from all angles for some time and as much as I like nearly everything about it, its color is just plain ugly. I don't know what they were smoking there in Japan to paint their frames this ugly pink. Oh, wait. The frame is from late 80's - that explains it! Everything was crazy colorful back then:
My Univega must have been previously owned by one of these guys!


Anyway, I did some thinking on how to get rid of this color and replace it with something more XXI century, without emptying my wallet. After much debate, I decided to strip the paint (good I have access to a large bead blaster) and replace it with... nothing. That's right. Bare carbon steel with lugs. Call me brave or stupid, I think that may work. The steel tubing will surely develop a dark grey tarnish quickly and some rust as well, but that's the look I would like much better than the original 80's pink. The only protective layer I would use is some linseed oil applied with a rag and a brush. I will likely use this bike at good weather only, so it may never get wet (No fenders - remember?). And even if the frame was painted, I am not sure I would enjoy using it in winter months anyway. Knowing how much our roads in New England get salted every winter, I am only happy to ride my cheap Schwinn clunker at that time. Also, no plans on storing it outside. Fortunately, at both home and my work place I have a parking spot inside the building.

The plan is set and the full list of components for my "new" bike looks like this:

headset: Shimano 105 (removed from my old bike)
stem: ITM Goccia 100mm (removed from my old bike)
handlebars: Soma Sparrow 560mm
seatpost: Kalloy SP-267 UNO 26.8mm
saddle: Selle Italia Flite Titanium (removed from my old bike)
bottom bracket: Shimano BB-UN72 (removed from my old bike)
cranks: Shimano Ultegra FC-6400 175mm (removed from my old bike)
chainring: Shimano Ultegra 39T (removed from my old bike)
chain: KMC X8.93, 8 speed
pedals: Kore Rivera Thermo
rear derailleur: Shimano Alivio M430
cassette: Shimano HG-41, 11-34T, 8 speed
hubs: Shimano Ultegra 6400, 28H (removed from my old bike)
rims: Mavic Open SUP 700c, 28H
tires: Continental Contact 700x32c (I had already one of these lying around)
brakes: Shimano 105 BR-1055 (removed from my old bike)
brake levers: Shimano Ultegra 6400 (removed from my old bike)
shifter: Shimano SL-BS50 bar end, 8 speed (removed from my old bike)
chainguard: Velo Orange Alloy, 38T

The cost of the entire project adds up to just a bit over $600. Obviously, you may wonder at this point: "Does it even make sense?". My own old/new bike costs me more than some decent offerings found on Craigslist. If I simply wanted another bike, I could have just bought something second-hand. But on the other hand, building my own bike is a part of fun (a major portion of it) and this way I can customize everything exactly the way I want to. And in my opinion, this is worth a higher price.