How to Ride Other People's Bikes

Last Friday, I made an exception.

On ordinary weekdays, I don’t drive out of my way to go on a ride, because I don’t have a lot of spare time, and I have plenty of good riding right out my front door.

But, as I mentioned, last Friday I made an exception.

This exception was due to the fact that Kenny had installed his new belt drive on his Spot 29″ SS, and I — like anyone with an ounce of bike nerd in him — wanted to see it.

And by “see it,” I of course mean, “try it for myself.”

How to Choose Your Riding Buddies
Luckily for me (and not quite so luckily for Kenny), we’re fairly compatible for bike swaps. But what do I mean by “fairly compatible?” I’m glad you asked. Here are the bike swap compatibility metrics.

  • Bike Size: Kenny and I ride the same size bikes. We’re an excellent match this way.
  • Inseam: Our riding height is within 1″ of each other — I’d guess that Kenny’s saddle-to-pedal distance is 1cm greater than mine.
  • Pedal or Shoe Size Similarity: Kenny rides with Eggbeaters, I ride with Time ATACs. (As an aside, I have a theory that everyone who rides with Eggbeaters have formerly ridden with ATACs, but were seduced by the weight savings. My theory continues that everyone who rides with Eggbeaters will eventually move back to ATACs.) This is not optimal, but our shoe sizes are within 2 sizes (European) of each other. I wear a 43, he wears a 45. This works better for me than it does for him.
  • Setup peculiarities: It’s helpful to both parties if neither of you have odd bike setups. This is where I fall off the wagon a bit. I ride with Mary bars, which freak everyone out at first (especially on the downhills), and I have my brakes set up for the middle finger. Oh, and I put my saddle on backwards. Some people find that uncomfortable.
  • Saddle similarity: Kenny and I both ride the Selle Italia SLR. Apart from the fact that mine faces the opposite direction of most people’s (some people call it “the wrong way,” which I find an unnecessary and harsh value judgement), our saddle preference match is ideal.
  • Desirability: Kenny has a bike worth borrowing. If he didn’t have a really interesting bike, none of the other metrics would even matter.

If your compatibility in any of these metrics fails utterly, a bike swap is simply not possible. In which case, I recommend you eschew these non-compatible bike riders and begin to find yourself a more suitable set of riding buddies. Preferably, riding buddies that are approximately your size, use the same pedal setup as you, and who spend lots and lots of money on equipment you can then try out for free.

Bike Borrowing Etiquette
Before I get to my disappointingly short and ill-informed impressions of Kenny’s new drivetrain, first I need to describe the rules by which everyone who trades bikes — whether for a moment during a ride or for a couple of months — must abide.

Rule #1: You are a guest. After riding a borrowed bike, you must, upon returning it, immediately describe said borrowed bicycle as a “really great bike.” It doesn’t matter if it’s true. Say it, no matter what. In fact, say it especially if you didn’t care for the bike all that much. Critiquing another person’s bike is much like critiquing another person’s children, but moreso.

Rule #2: You break it, you buy it. Suppose you borrow a bike, throw a leg over, and turn the cranks exactly twice before the frame breaks neatly into two pieces, which roll — comically — off in two separate directions. You owe the lender a new frame. Don’t argue the point, and don’t try to weasel out of it. If you weren’t willing to take the responsibility, you shouldn’t have borrowed the bike.

The corresponding axiom to this rule is that if someone starts trying to loan his bike out a lot, it’s about to break.

Rule #3: No wiping boogers under the seat. Because that’s just gross.

OK, now I can go on to my short and disappointing description of how Kenny’s bike felt with that fancy new belt drivetrain.

Belt Drivetrain Observations
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I should first make it clear that I rode Kenny’s bike with the new drivetrain for a whopping fifteen minutes, which was quite possibly not long enough to make a full and final assessment. That said, here are the things I noticed:

  • Quick Engagement: It did feel like the moment you begin turning the crank to the moment where you get power to the wheel is a little faster. That is, in fact, the most perceptible difference between this drivetrain and a normal chained drivetrain.
  • Sproinng: You know how when you pull a rubber band tight between two hands you can feel the vibration of the rubber band for a moment? There seems to be a tiny bit of this when you go from coasting to pedaling. Sort of a brief moment of vibration you can feel through the cranks. It’s not distracting or irritating or even audible. Just interesting.
  • Thonk: Under heavy torque (steep climbing), both Kenny and I made the belt hop a notch, causing a loud metallic-sounding “thonk” sound. I think this has to do with the belt Kenny’s got on there right now: it’s too long, so the hub is bolted waaaay back on the chainstay, back further than the tensioners will go.
  • Ssssshhhh. Apart from the “thonk” belt slip, the drivetrain was absolutely silent. I’ve heard from people that it can get squeaky when dirty or riding in dusty terrain. The way Utah is right now — no rain for what feels like months — I’m sure Kenny will find out firsthand whether this is the case.

By and large, though, the belt drivetrain didn’t feel radically different from a chain drivetrain. In fact, I’d call the difference in feel trivial.

Now, that makes it sound like I’m not interested in a belt drivetrain, but that’s not true. I’m still very interested in a belt drivetrain, provided it turns out that it really doesn’t have to be maintained — lubed — like a chain, doesn’t break, and doesn’t start squeaking. And that it doesn’t turn out to be easy to kink or otherwise ruin a belt just through normal hard use.

In other words, the way a belt drive is going to be appealing to me is if its maintenance characteristics reveal themselves as compelling: if the belt turns out to be stronger, more durable, and in general more ignorable than a chain. I don’t expect ride characteristics to be different enough to bring me aboard, at least not for a few interations of the belt technology.

So while I used to be really excited to jump right on this bandwagon, I’m now in a more cautious “wait and see” mode. I’ll be really interested to see if Kenny falls deeply in love with the belt drive and starts evangelizing it. Or if, contrariwise, he shows up some day with the chain drive back on the bike.

In short, the belt drive doesn’t sell itself as a snap decision. What’s going to make it popular — or kill it — will be the long-term reactions of the early adopters.

Holy smokes, I just gave an honest, non-ironic semireview of a new product.

Somebody slap me.

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