Thursday, October 31, 2013

Tour de France years ago

The beginning of the XX century it was the time when bicycle racing became popular but was still pure - untouched by big money, sponsoring or drugs and doping scandals. Those guys could count only on themselves. There was no EPO to give them some superhuman powers. Let's take a look:
Meanwhile in Holland...
(Not sure about source of all these pictures. I found them somewhere on Internet a long time ago. I someone know where they came from originally, please let me know.)

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Bionx electric assist - first impressions

I had a chance to test ride a bicycle with Bionx electric system. Oh boy, it's fun! But, let me start at the beginning...
I am not planning on adding an electric assist to any of my current bicycles although those hills in my neighborhood are still bothering me. Arlington, MA is a hilly place. The town is located on two large hills with Massachusetts Ave and the town center sitting in a valley between them. Unfortunately, I live on the top of one of those hills. This presents a problem. Any errands I would like to run car-free, involve walking or biking down the hill to the town center and then back uphill, with my son in a stroller and a backpack full of groceries. It just doesn't work. No wonder I never see my neighbors walking.
A bicycle doesn't really solve this problem at all. Riding down the hill on an empty bike with my son on the back seat is obviously not a problem. Riding back uphill on a bike loaded with groceries often seems impossible. Sometimes, in such situations I really wish there was an invisible hand to push me forward. Bionx PL350HT DT L system can work exactly this way.
Bionx PL35HT DT L system (Source:
The bicycle I rode was a fairly typical mountain bike (29er), equipped with a 350W rear wheel Bionx motor, 9-speed freewheel, Bionx downtube battery, a handlebar console and a throttle. The entire systems costs around $1700 and adds nearly 20lbs (9kg) to the weight of your bike. Yes, it's not lightweight, but I don't see it as a problem. It roughly compares to riding with two 1-gal jugs of water attached to the bike. Unless you are racing, you will not notice this much (Not that you would ever want to put Bionx system on a racing bike).
All I could do, was just a short ride around the block so I can't claim to fully test the system, but even that short ride gives me an impression of what Bionx can do. And in terms of performance, the system is simply amazing. There are 4 levels of assistance, adjustable with "+/-" buttons on the throttle. At level 1 and 2 the assist is barely noticeable when riding on a leveled street. Level 3 gives a significant speed boost and level 4 is just plain crazy. It seems to be an equivalent of the "red button mode". Yes, there is a separate red button on the throttle that has to be pressed and held for a quick, strong power boost. I picture this could be very handy when starting at the green light on a heavy, loaded bike or riding up a short, steep hill. But there were no hills in the place where I rode the Bionx bike so after switching to level 4 or pushing the red button, the bike was accelerating so quickly that I had to pull the brake levers in order to maintain control. So, be careful with the red button.
But that's not all. Bionx system comes also with 4 "negative" assist levels, or braking modes. When switched to a braking mode the motor recharges the battery, at a cost of pedal effort. Again, this thing is powerful! On a leveled street, I could tell it was clearly harder to pedal in regenerative modes 1 and 2. Mode 3 slowed me down to a crawl and mode 4... I don't know how to describe it. I think it compares to riding up the hill in a too-high gear while pulling a trailer. Obviously, you wouldn't want to ride your bike in those modes normally. But if you find yourself riding down a steep hill, why not just slow down, let the motor do the braking and recharge the battery at the same time?
One more question I wanted to have answered was how much extra drag the non-powered Bionx motor adds to pedaling effort. In other words, if the battery dies (or the system is simply turned off) would it be much harder to pedal because of the internal resistance of magnets in the Bionx motor? Fortunately, I found out that this is not the case. Riding with the system turned off didn't seem to make a difference. Yes, bike is heavier, but it's not much harder to pedal.
Overall, I am truly impressed with the performance of the Bionx system. It looks like a well-designed complete solution. This was the first time I ever rode an e-bike and the whole time I had a smile on my face. Especially, when I pushed that red button.

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Cities without cars

Remember "Vanilla Sky"? A 2001 movie with the famous scene where Tom Cruise walks alone through the completely empty Times Square in New York? The Times Square is the heart of New York City. It is the place that never sleeps. There is no way to see this place so empty - with no cars and no people. Creators of "Vanilla Sky" showed us the impossible.
Tom Cruise running through the deserted Times Square in "Vanilla Sky" (Source: Google Images)
We are so used to seeing cars in city centers that we can't picture cities without them anymore. For decades our cities have been designed with cars in mind. Pedestrians and bicyclists have been pushed off the streets - out of cars' way. This is the reason our streets have zebra-striped crosswalks painted on them. You are simply not allowed to cross the street anywhere you want. This is the reason why we have designated bike lanes, often separated from car traffic. You must ride your bike on those narrow paths between the gutter and fast-moving cars.
If we want to see how a large city could look with no cars and a calm pedestrian traffic, we must search for those old pictures from 1890's and early 1900's. Cars basically didn't exist back then. When I look at these pictures I see wide, open streets, calm pedestrian and horse carriage traffic, people walking across the street in any place they find convenient. Essentially, the entire city was one large pedestrian-only zone.
Compared to XXI-century cities, the difference is striking. But it's not the buildings that have changed so much. It's the streets. It seems obvious that once cars entered the city, the change of its landscape was enormous.

Friday, October 11, 2013

Estabrook Trails

The fall is here. Days are getting shorter and there is not much daylight left after 5p.m. to go for a longer ride. Despite all this, I decided to revisit the Estabrook Woods trails on Concord/Carlisle border.
I have found the entrance to this trail before, from the Red Coat Ln in Concord. From there the trail opens up and leads through the Estabrook forest. After passing Estabrook Rd on the left, the trail gets a bit wider.
Eventually, I reach the Mink Pond on my right. Then I continued north where the trail ended at the paved Estabrook Rd. The full length of the trail didn't take me more than 20-30 min. to ride and I was able to go pretty fast in places, maintaining a speed of about 20km/h (12mph). That doesn't mean that the trail is smooth and easy to ride. There are sections much more suitable for a mountain bike or at least a bicycle with much wider tires and perhaps a front suspension. The trail gets rocky in places so staying focused on the road is important.
My plan was to ride across the forest and find exit to Stearns St but once I left Bellows Hill Rd and entered the next section of the trail, I got lost. I must have taken a wrong path and instead of going north, the path took me south through the middle of Estabrook Woods. It was getting dark so I rode slowly, especially that the trail was even more rocky than before:
Finally, I found a path going left (east) and after a while I ended up at North Meadows Rd. It was getting dark quickly so I decided to go back. I took Monument St to the Reformatory Branch Trail and went back to Bedford.

In general, Estabrook Woods trails are fun to ride but the next time I would stay on the main, western trail only (between Red Coat Ln and Estabrook Rd). The other trails in the forest are just too rocky and riding a bike there is a bit difficult.

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

The Phoenix Bike Project - part 2

I am making a pretty good progress with my old/new Frankenbike. I cleaned most of the components and those few missing, finally arrived. I also had the new wheels built.

The more challenging part was to prepare the frame and fork properly. I have worked on removing the old paint from the fork and found out that even the powerful bead blaster I have is not powerful enough. That powder coating seems to be very hard and durable so blasting it off was just too slow. What worked much better was a simple power sanding tool with 180 and 320 grit sandpaper pads and a Scotchbrite pad for final polishing. For those hard to access areas I used some small Dremel tool brushes with steel bristles. The fork is now shiny and clean, ready to be installed.
I have to work on the frame now and once this is done, it will be time to just put all this together. Phoenix bike will be reborn soon.

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Gravel bikes - a new trend?

I have been reading some Interbike reports recently and apparently, this year the hottest thing is the arrival of gravel bikes. To be honest, gravel bikes did not just came out of nowhere at this year's Interbike. Some companies noticed this newest trend a while ago and introduced dedicated gravel bikes, such as Salsa Vaya.
Salsa Vaya 2 - one of the first dedicated gravel bikes? (Source:
But until now, this "next big thing" was ignored completely by the biggest manufacturers. This Interbike showed that gravel bikes may be the next fixie thing - a trend that is about to stick around for a a while. That's good. While the fixie fashion was in my opinion just plain silly (I would never recommend a brakeless fixie bike for city riding.), gravel bikes are clearly very different animals. Or are they?
I am trying to understand what a gravel bike really is. It seems to be a mix of a cyclocross bike, touring bike, 29er MTB and probably something else. From what I figured out so far, a gravel bike is essentially a cyclocross bike but with a slightly relaxed geometry (longer chainstays, slacker head tube angle), clearance for slightly wider tires on 700c wheels and often - disc brakes. All this makes it very similar to a 29er MTB, but on a bit lighter side. It just seems to me that manufacturers smelled a new, tiny market niche and will try to persuade us that we need just one more bike.
I guess, all this means that we can probably call those bikes we already own, gravel bikes as well. Have a road bike? Put the widest tires your frame can handle and you can likely call it a "gravel bike". Have a 29er? Use skinnier tires, about 40mm wide and swap handlebars to drop bars. Have a touring bike? Just remove all that touring junk (racks, fenders, etc.), put wider tires on and you have a "gravel bike". Have a cyclocross bike? You're pretty much all set, just replace those knobby mud tires with something more suitable for dry conditions.
Interestingly, over the last few years I have been slowly converting my old Lemond Poprad into a gravel bike - not knowing about it! First, I replaced brakes and handlebars, then wheels and tires, and finally the crankset. All these modifications made my bike more off-road friendly and suitable for the conditions I like riding in the most. Now I know how to call them - gravel grinding.
Am I right or am I completely missing the point? Are gravel bikes something entirely new that didn't exist before?