Monday, October 31, 2016

Seven and a half allroad bikes for $2000 or less

It's Halloween - the only time in the year we let our kids accept candies from random strangers. But that's not what I wanted to write about. Let's talk about candies for big boys - bicycles.

We all know that unless you are into racing, Strava and the general Fredness, road bikes are boring. They really are! How long can you keep riding on a straight, smooth road after all? On the other hand, mountain bikes are fun... as long as you ride them in right places. Often, this means that first you would have to ride your mountain bike several miles to the trail. Ideally, you would want to own both of those bicycles but if your mother, girlfriend or wife keeps reminding you "One more bike and you're moving out!", it may be the right moment to forget about the n+1 rule and look for a single bicycle that would do it all.

Several years ago we've seen the arrival of "gravel bikes" - "designed" for riding on all types of roads, especially those unpaved ones. And even though in the recent years we slowly stopped calling them "gravel bikes" (which was a pretty stupid name to begin with) and now prefer adjectives such as "adventure", "allroad" or "anyroad", their design is actually not dramatically different from the bicycles that have already existed on the market for a long, long time - cyclocross bikes. In this sense, many modern "gravel bikes" are sadly not designed from ground up to serve as lean and mean unpaved road vehicles. Instead, they just seem to be race-oriented, re-purposed cyclocross bikes. Essentially, if you are looking at an adventure bike that comes with a low stack (frame height from the bottom bracket to the top of head tube), high bottom bracket and space for max. 35mm tires - it's not a modern adventure bicycle (even though it could serve you quite well as one!).

Anyway, I figured that it may be fun to put together a list of interesting adventure bicycles available now. My main selection criteria were: relaxed geometry, clearance for 40mm+ tires and multiple water bottle, rack and fender mounts. The point is to find bikes that can be decent on paved and unpaved roads, work well for touring in your summer adventures and commuting in winter time. For the sake of budget sanity I decided to cap prices at $2000 (-ish).

(All pictures come from either manufacturer's websites or related reviews. Used here as examples only.)

Salsa Vaya GX ($1800)
Let's start with Salsa Vaya - the bike that started it all years ago. In its newest incarnation, the Vaya GX comes with a steel frame of relaxed geometry with high stack (>600mm for size 55cm), slacker head tube angle (71.5deg) and lower bottom bracket (75mm drop). It's also adventure-ready with 3 water bottle mounts and rack mounts. Vaya's frame will easily fit tires up to 50mm wide if you don't use fenders. The only thing I'm not particularly fond of is the gearing. The bike comes with a road crankset with 50/34T chainrings, which means the gearing will be too high for off-road riding. Fortunately, the wide-range cassette (11-36T) helps here quite a bit.

All of this can be had for $1800 but if you don't want to spend that much, Salsa offers two other flavors for $1400 and $1100 so there's plenty to choose from. Overall, Vaya is a great bike for someone who would stay on pavement most of the time but doesn't want to be limited to it. I can tell you that it works great and is fun to ride, as I had a chance to test the previous X9 model recently.

+ well-thought-out geometry - relaxed and comfortable
+ plenty of clearance for large 50mm tires
- road crankset with 50/34T chainrings

Salsa Fargo is a bit different animal. While Vaya was still more of a road bike, or an off-road bike showing its road heritage, Fargo is more of a mountain bike wearing road bike's clothes. It's essentially a 29er MTB designed to be used with drop bars. As such, Fargo's frame has a very high stack (>640mm for size M) and slack head tube angle (69deg). This will work well off-road but makes it less suitable for fast riding on pavement. On top of that, the frame is suspension fork-ready, the bike comes with a MTB-specific 38/24T crankset and beefy 29"x2.0" tires.

Clearly, Salsa wants you to choose between Vaya and Fargo depending on your riding style. If you spend more time on pavement and once a while venture off the beaten path, Vaya will be a better bicycle for you. But if you think pavement is boring and those unknown trails are your true call - pick Fargo and it won't disappoint.

+ a true off-road vehicle with suitable geometry and components
+ fits very wide tires (2.0"+)
+ convertible dropouts mean you can use any drivetrain you like - even a belt-driven Rohloff hub
- not as fast on pavement as other bikes shown here

After adventure bikes were introduced on the US market and generated enough interest, big players entered the game. Sequoia is Specialized's answer to Vaya and generally it does the job well. For two grand we get a bicycle with Shimano 105 groupset mixed with hydraulic brakes, wide-range cassette and 48/32T crankset. Add wide 42mm tires, a bunch of accessory mounts and attractive design to this mix and you may get a perfect on/off road machine. However, frame stack is only 584mm (for size 56cm) and bottom bracket sits high (66mm drop), which tells me that Specialized started well, but then forgot it's not a cyclocross bike after all.

+ wide tires
+ hydraulic brakes
- low stack (584mm for 56cm size), targeted more towards sporty, fast riding
- high bottom bracket showing its cyclocross heritage

If Sequoia is what Vaya would be if Specialized made it, then AWOL Comp is their (late) answer to Fargo. Similarly to Fargo, AWOL comes with 1.9" wide tires and higher stack for more relaxed riding. There are some key differences though. AWOL does not have a suspension-corrected frame so you can't put a suspension fork on it (which actually makes it look better than Fargo) and it has a much steeper head angle (72 vs. 69 on Fargo). All this means that unlike Fargo, AWOL is not a mountain bike dressed in a road bike uniform but rather a separate, purpose-designed solution. All of which is nice for a total of $2100. Yes, it's the most expensive bike shown here but I thought that the extra $100 was worth it.

+ hydraulic brakes
+ wide 1.9" tires
- steep head angle - 72deg
- expensive at over $2k
- some might complain it's not Salsa

If it happens that you would really like to own a shiny allroad bike, but your budget is severely limited, it may be worth to take a look at Masi Giramondo. The 700C version shown here is a budget version of Vaya (or Sequoia). No integrated shifters, triple crankset, cheaper brakes - you get what you pay for. Still, it should be a fun bike to ride thanks to smart geometry and wide 40mm tires.

+ simple and reliable components (bar end shifters, mechanical disc brakes)
+ wide gearing range with triple crankset
+ inexpensive
- steep head angle - 72deg
- I'm guessing it's certainly heavier than Vaya

For the half of money you need to spend on AWOL, you could have this Giramondo 27.5 instead. It's essentially exactly the same bike as Giramondo 700C except the wheels. By going with smaller 27.5" wheels Massi managed to fit wide, 2.1" tires in the fork and frame. It makes this bicycle very similar to what AWOL offers, in terms of geometry (identical!) and tire width. Of course, Giramondo doesn't have a fancy 1x11 drivetrain nor hydraulic disc brakes, but that's where those savings come from.

+ simple and reliable components (bar end shifters, mechanical disc brakes)
+ wide gearing range with triple crankset
+ inexpensive
- steep head angle - 72deg
- I'm guessing it's likely heavier than AWOL

Kona Sutra LTD ($2000)
Kona bikes often had some fun Hawaiian names. Sutra may not follow this tradition but looks like a fun bike nevertheless. Geometry is appropriate - high stack, low-ish bottom bracket, slacker head angle and longer chainstays for better stability. On top of that, we get hydraulic brakes, 45mm tires and a well-tuned 1x11 setup with good range (36T chainring with 10-42T cassette). What's not to like? Honestly, it's hard to find anything wrong with this bike unless you don't like color orange.

+ good, comfortable geometry
+ hydraulic brakes
+ 45mm wide tires

Soma Wolverine ($630 frame+fork)
And now for something a bit different. Wolverine by Soma is a frameset that had gained lots of popularity since its release a few years ago. You can see why - stable geometry, adjustable dropouts, capability of running a belt drive, plenty of accessory mounts and clearance for wide tires. All this comes with the Wolverine. Unfortunately, it's only offered as a frameset, which means you would have to build it on your own or let your local bike store do it for you. In any case, you should have lots of fun riding this thing.

+ great start to an awesome bike
+ lots of drivetrain options thanks to adjustable dropouts
+ fits wide 45mm+ tires
- not offered as a complete bike

There are probably several other models I missed here. Let me know about them in comments. No matter what you choose, an allroad bicycle should quickly become your new best friend - capable of taking you everywhere, whether it's a trek across Sonoran Desert or just a ride to work.

Tuesday, October 18, 2016

Make America bike again

As I mentioned over a year ago, Americans rarely ride their bikes. This means that what could be the simplest form of exercise or an effective way to avoid traffic is largely ignored by most of people in this country. There are many reasons of this status quo and I'm sure everyone will be able to find own good excuse, but in general, unless you are very lucky and can commute to work through a deep forest or some other uninhabited place, you will end up on road with cars. This road space is supposed to be shared equally between all users but we all know how it works, when we try riding bicycles there.
A friendly reminder for Mr. Motorist who forgets that passing a bicyclist inches away is not "sharing the road".

You may say - that's OK because you're not supposed to ride your bike to work in America. You should drive instead. So you move away from the downtown, into suburbs, far from your daily job and now you have to commute to your office every day. But because there are no other options, you need to drive, which means that you sit in traffic you helped creating and you will likely die there. Not to mention that when you finally get to your office, you have to park somewhere and since space in densely populated city centers is limited, there is no way to provide parking for everyone. This means parking wars, where apparently "even the elimination of four spots has a significant impact on the quality of life". Well, if the quality of your life depends on 4 parking spots, it's a miserable life you're having.

Essentially, if you notice a problem here and decide it's time to fix it, you will quickly see that "the system us actually rigged in favor of cars".
Those who try change it often face some serious opposition of those, who think they will solve the issue by approaching the problem, the way I like to say it - "from the ass's end". They will tell you that it's not the crappy street design but the scofflaw pedestrians who don't play well with the system and that they should wear hi-viz clothing to stay safe. Is then the best way to stay safe simply being on the inside of a car? Over 30,000 deaths per year mean the answer is no. Our current car-focused policy is killing us, but if you think that self-driving cars will change that, you're wrong. They may help reducing the number of distracted driving situations (By the way - phone makers could help here... except they won't), but it will still fill roads with single-occupancy vehicles. You can't just solve this problem by putting everyone in a car.

Changes come slowly. Perhaps they best is still ahead of us as it turns out that younger generations generally care about public transportation more than their parents and want to live in cities. Those who do, don't drive to work because they don't have to - over 55% of citizens of Longwood (Boston's district) walk or bike to work and it takes them less than 30min. to get there. Unfortunately, at the same time nearly 80% of people living in West Roxbury choose to drive, even though they are only 9 miles away from Boston's downtown. With some protected bike lanes, dedicated bus lanes and better light rail, they could easily leave their cars at home.

That's nothing revolutionary. We were ready to adopt the best standards 40 years ago but we messed it up big time (and sadly bicycling activists were involved). Now we are trying (or actually begging city governors to do it) to install bike lanes and we face some unexpected obstacles once a while. Like this lane in D.C. that is getting axed because it "infringes upon the constitutional right of religious freedom". If that's not clearly rigged in favor of cars then I don't know what is.

The first step to solving any problem is recognizing there is one. I'm still waiting for the moment when U.S. government announces that the current transportation policy is shit, it's time to focus on public transport instead and make America bike again.

Wednesday, October 5, 2016

Century ride - how (not) to do it

Century ride - every cyclist's milestone to "serious riding". That transitional step when you advance from "baby steps" cycling to the "seriously committed" level.

Yet for most of us, a simple century ride means completely different things. First, the distance. Century indicates a length of 100 units. For me, being a metric person, it's 100km. For most Americans it's 100 miles and I will stick with this "American century" definition for the rest of this page.

Next, there is a question of how you would ride that distance. If you have never tried riding that many miles in one day, perhaps you tried to learn more about the coming challenge from the internet. And that might have been a mistake, because apparently, lots of advice out there is targeted to competitive cyclists who ride a century for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Take this article from Bicycling magazine. Turns out that you should expect pain, suffering, hunger, thirst and a heatstroke. Their list of thoughts you may have on such a ride includes:
"I should have a snack." 
"Why am I out of snacks?"
"I’m in hell. All you people in your cars, with your air conditioning... You have no idea how lucky you are."
"I was crazy to think I could do this."
"I hate my gloves/jersey/helmet/socks/bike. I hate that tree. I hate everything."
It gets better. This video suggests that in order to ride 100 miles you should enter an organized event. On top of that, you will need a special training session to prepare you for the ride.

Fortunately, this is not true. It's doesn't have to be rocket science, especially if you're not planning on finishing the ride in 5 hours, that is - racing. As long as you take it easy, you don't need to worry too much about suffering, thirst or nutrition. Ah yes, nutrition. You can follow the advice from this video if you want to become a drug addict:

... or you can just eat regular food like the rest of us.

The point is - all of these advice may apply to people who want to race over 100 mile distance but are completely unsuitable for the rest of us. As long as you ride regularly and did a few 30, 50, 70-mile rides before, you are ready for a century. Just pick a relatively flat route for the first attempt and a day with pleasant weather. For some of you 90F and humid is pleasant, while for others (myself included) it would be a torture. Pack the basic toolkit, water and a few snacks but don't worry about food - you will stop for lunch anyway.

The most important thing is - take it easy and don't rush. Seems like the how-to showed above applies to competitive cyclists who expect to complete a century before lunch. If you don't race, there is little point in that. It takes me about 11-12 hours to finish a 100 mile ride. That's the whole day of riding,
 but instead of staring at the front tire the whole time, I enjoy the view...
 ... and the open road.

I also take numerous stops to take pictures and eat my lunch. No pills and "products" can replace a juicy burger with good beer.
Then, you can treat yourself with another one after the ride.