Of all the parts of a bicycle, it is the wheel that can do the most to impart a different experience. Put on a pair of heavy wheels and you’ll feel invincible on descents, but also like someone robbed you of your sprint. Put on a light set of wheels and your bike will handle quicker and accelerate like you added a supercharger. Put on an aero set and you get free speed. Lace up a set of 36-hole Ambrosio tubular rims, tie and solder the spokes and you can ride across Damascus at 40 psi. And now we’ve got a tubeless technology for those wanting the ride of tubulars in a form that is no less difficult to address should you flat.
It’s quite a menu. And therein lies the challenge. No one ever thinks about frames and says, “I want the handling of an old Moser, the weight of a Cannondale, the stiffness of a Specialized and the aero performance of a Cervelo.” Well, almost no one. The thing is, frames don’t have swappable components that have encouraged us to think this way. However, I’ve often thought that I wanted a wheel with the aerodynamic performance of a set of Zipp 404s, tubeless technology, a power meter and built well enough to survive California fire roads.
Well, a new partnership between PowerTap and Wheelbuilder is taking us a good deal closer to that. Of all the wheels I’ve ridden in the last five years, the best build I’ve encountered was performed by staff at Wheelbuilder. They were easily better than anything from Zipp, and writing that pains me. While Zipp wheel builds are usually good, they have yet to be flawless, and on one occasion the wheel build was definitely sub-par.
Granted, I’ve ridden only one set of wheels from Wheelbuilder, but I checked them for true when I pulled them from the box, checked them after my first ride, and checked them again at the end of the review. They hadn’t moved. Easton takes a lot of flak for hub and bearing issues, but I can say that I’ve seen no OEM or aftermarket wheel maker that produces a more uniformly tensioned and true wheel than they. Wheelbuilder, I’m finding, is every bit as good.
It only makes sense. Wheelbuilder’s only product is its labor, well, that and its ability to do custom builds of any selection of components you might want. But because its product is fundamentally a service, the build needs to be better than OEM; otherwise, what’s the point?
So PowerTap, in an effort to increase its appeal to buyers, has struck an agreement (I refuse to say “partnered”) with Wheelbuilder. You can now get Enve, Zipp and HED rims laced to a PowerTap hub. It’s not a huge increase in selection, but the point is, you now have more options and you don’t have to sacrifice build quality to get it; on the contrary, the build is likely to be better than what you might otherwise have been able to find locally.
Power-measuring devices have changed training the way that heart rate monitors did 20 years ago. The proof can be found as simply as by attending a group ride. Every group ride I do is faster than it was 10 years ago. While some of that can be attributed to smart training and nutrition, the fact is that the riders who have gained the most in their fitness are the ones able to talk one-minute power, five-minute power and 20-minute power. There was a time when talking power was like trying to eat sand; it was just a fancy number most folks didn’t know how to digest. Thanks, in part, to pro riders talking about their numbers and their training, the average joe has a much better working understanding of wattage and how to use those numbers.
It’s fair to say the market for power-measuring devices is heating up. Between SRM, PowerTap, Quarq, Stags and now Garmin, consumers have a great many choices. How you might go about choosing between those various systems isn’t the point of this post. Just which system you go for depends on how many bikes you have, how many wheels you have and how often you switch bikes and wheels. Whether or not you think there’s a right answer, the only obvious assessment is that there are no easy answers. I’m partial to PowerTap because it’s the only power measuring system that’s easy to move between bikes. That said, I know plenty of guys who have one bike and lots of wheels, so for them it’s not nearly as useful a system as something like SRM.
We (assembled members of the media) went for a ride when we met with the folks from PowerTap and Wheelbuilder. Naturally, I took the opportunity to check my wheels when they were first installed in my bike. One thing I’ve learned from years of building wheels (so long ago it was practically a different life) is that whatever re-truing is required following a set of wheels’ first ride will tell the story of those wheels’ life. If they don’t move in that first ride, they’ll last a long time (barring crashes). If they need a fair amount of re-truing and re-tensioning after five miles, they will only last a season. The wheels I rode didn’t budge even though I rode across all the rough and broken pavement I could find on our ride. Damn fine work.
August has been an interesting month here in my New England home. The weather, for the first time in a long time, was mainly cool and dry, so a lot of riding happened, and I enjoyed it an awful lot. Not being too hot/cold or wet allows you to do your best riding, as it turns out.
That said, this month also sees the end of my focus on the road. I have all but stopped heading out to pile up paved miles simply for the sake of doing so. As I mentioned last week, local trails are calling my name, and while I have been riding them on my road bike lately, the mountain and cross bikes are also calling my name now. With the mornings growing darker (and chillier) I can see that it’s time to switch it up, and find some new fun.
My mind has turned to warmer clothing, the eternal search for the right winter cycling glove and a frank assessment of my lighting options. I’m not quite ready to put any of those things into regular use, but I do hate to wake up on that morning I need them and not know what I’m doing.
My friends who race cyclocross haves started their strange, cross-related rituals, mostly leaping over sticks and cones in public parks, like so many two-wheeled LARPers. Soon enough, I’ll be straining to hear the announcer over the rumble of a generator, and wondering who in the hell fixes the grass after a cross race.
Meanwhile the pros are winding down their season. La Vuelta, Worlds and the Giro d’Lombardia sit at this end of the calendar, a few remaining shots at redemption for those who have not quite met their “objectives” yet. Though those big races remain, it’s hard not feel as though a corner has been turned. This guy knows what I mean.
And while the summer is mainly over where I live, my friends in the southern hemisphere are undergoing the opposite shift. They’re gaining the light and warmth we are losing.
So this week’s Group Ride is about that shift. Is this a month of change for you? If so, what does that change look like? Are you pulling on arm-warmers yet? Or stripping them off? Are you switching from one bike to another, or training for a new kind of riding/racing?
Image: Matt O’Keefe
If there was a truism about reviewing a Giro helmet it’s that readers expect you to review the latest, greatest of their road offerings. So maybe the thing to do is to start with the elephant that isn’t in this particular room—the Giro Air Attack. I’m not going there. At least, not this time. They’ve taken some knocks for that design, fast or not; it may be that after it’s on the market a bit longer we will become a bit more accustomed to its look.
I bring the Air Attack up for two reasons. One is to demonstrate that Giro is unafraid to push boundaries in design. The other is to point out how Giro isn’t afraid to reach back, either. The Air Attack was the name given to the helmet that Greg LeMond endorsed at the height of his career. And what is the Reverb but a riff on that old design. With its nine vents, solid sides and vaguely cereal-bowl shape it looks a bit like the first-born of the original Prolight and the Air Attack because, to be perfectly accurate, the original Air Attack had a bit more of a tail to it.
Even the name of this helmet, the Reverb, carries some underlying meaning; reverb is a bit like an echo. It’s a number of very short echoes, too short to give a separate repetition of the original sound. It’s reaching back, but not too far back.
So why review a helmet that looks like it’s old enough to vote? Well, it answers a question friends of mine keep asking. As more and more of us ride bikes with our kids and for errand-running, more and more of us are asking the question, “What helmet can I wear when on a beach cruisers/three speed/bakfiets without looking like I’m wearing jeans and an air filter?”
You get my drift.
Three years ago, there weren’t many options. You either wore your Ionos or whatever, or you wore something that looked like a skateboard helmet, but not that skateboard helmet. And frankly, the skateboard helmets and whatnot that were available looked like Moe’s haircut from the Three Stooges. By that I mean uglier than the sound made by kids in a garage with the sheet music to Stairway to Heaven.
I could go on about tech this and fit that, but I’m going to spare you. I
like love this helmet for two reasons. First is the simple fact that it goes with jeans. My Aeon doesn’t do that. Hell, I don’t have a another helmet that is remotely compatible with cotton. Second is how I have an emotional connection with my own past thanks to this helmet. I wore the original Air Attack and recall to this day how I had a conversation with my parents about the wisdom of a someone in grad school spending $60 (my price with shop discount) on a helmet. My answer included the terms “bike race,” “descent,” “guaranteed 50 mph” and “feeding tube.”
They laid off.
I really liked that helmet. When I’m out riding with Mini-Shred, this thing gives me a chance to fly my freak flag without anyone knowing. To the rest of the world I look as normal as an adult can hope to look while wearing a bicycle helmet, which I respect is as easy as training a cat to vacuum. (We’ve tried.) But the thing is, because that helmet speaks to something of my past I cherish (did you dig the old-style logo?), I feel cool every time I put it on. Now here I have to admit that getting me to feel cool is a good deal harder than training a cat to vacuum. Or cook. Don’t ask.
The Reverb comes with an interesting extra; a small visor can be added in case you’re going to be riding around in the sun without the aid of sunglasses. It’s a nice touch, especially as it’s short and fabric-covered, which makes it look like the brim of a cycling cap.
While I did my best to gloss over any technical features of the Reverb, there really are a couple of features that makes it notably better than any skateboard helmet, not to mention its predecessor. It includes an occipital device that needs no adjustment; they call it Autolock, and the helmet is features in-mold construction which makes it both lighter and more durable than skateboard helmets. That’s not why I use it as my skateboard helmet, but I tell myself I’m smart for doing so.
The Reverb comes in a whopping 11 color combinations to give anyone a fair shot at looking cool. As most folks don’t suffer my particular setbacks in hipitude, your results are likely to be more successful.
The Reverb retails for a measly $60. Given the original Air Attack carried a suggested retail of $90, it’s nice to know that today you can get a safer helmet for 33 percent less. Despite all it’s retro appeal, that’s progress.
Reviewing shoes induces equal parts fear and exhilaration. Nothing else I review is as fraught with possibility … and pain. A bad cycling shoe can be a device compatible with the Spanish Inquisition, while a good shoe could be confused with a summer day at the beach wherein your feet were sunk to your ankles in wet sand.
I’ll be honest and say that Shimano’s shoes have been all over the map for me. There were times I wore them not because they were the best-made shoes, but because they were the only shoes in my price range that offered anything resembling a fit. It was not unlike hiring a bar bouncer for the Secret Service. It’s a fit, but it’s not a fit, is it? So it can go with shoes.
I can no longer remember just which pair of Shimano shoes I purchased first. Certainly, they were acquired with the assistance of a shop employee deal, but I can’t recall if they were road or mountain shoes. No matter. I can recall at least six pair of shoes over the years. This last stat is significant if only for one reason.
My feet are wide. They have always been wide. The are likely to continue being wide unless I do like that one guy at scout camp who was splitting wood with an axe and went through a log and his boot and just about excised two toes all the way back to the heel. Moving right along….
Over the last 20 years no one has more consistently offered a shoe cut on a wide-ish last than Shimano. No matter what your price range, they’ve had a shoe that works for wider feet. And by wider, I mean those of us for whom all the standard D-width stuff almost work, but not quite. The particular shape of my foot is such that I have to wear a shoe that is technically too long for me, at least, on paper. That helps me a bit with the width, but by any standard, even after you factor out my hammer toe, Morton’s Foot (speaking of missing toes) and arch high enough to park a bus beneath it—and I accept that factoring all that out is a bit like saying rattlesakes are great fun so long as they don’t bite—I still have a wide, weird foot. Depending on who the shoe maker is, I’ve ranged between one and five Es.
You read that right. I have a pair of Italian-made shoes that say “EEEEE” inside.
So I’ve been riding the R320s as a big part of my shoe rotation this season. That part shouldn’t surprise you; after all, this is a review of those shoes. However, this bit will definitely surprise you: Shimano makes these shoes in a standard width and a wide version. After all that talk of how wide my foot is, here’s the kicker: I’ve been wearing the standard width.
When the shoes arrived, I was momentarily dismayed. I’d been dying to try them and they said they’d send the wide. But I got the standard. In one of those “what the hell” moments I pulled them from the box and tried them on. Turns out, they fit at least as well as some other shoes I’d reviewed and as these are part of Shimano’s Custom Fit series, I figured they’d fit even better once we’d done the toaster-oven-vacuum-pump-thingy to them.
And that part was right. I visited Steven Carre at Bike Effect and he took me through the fitting process and I have to admit I was shocked by how much the fit of the shoes improved after going through the fitting. It was most apparent when we took the bag and toe cup off and I was able to stand up with one molded and one unmolded shoe on. I got pretty excited about my ride home.
I’m such a geek.
I’d like to add that I tried the R241B and didn’t like that shoe. For reasons that aren’t readily apparent, that shoe struck me as rather poorly made. The tongues didn’t line up properly and the straps seemed too thin. I know the shoe was meant to be relatively lightweight, but the presentation was disappointing, like finding out your date smokes.
By comparison, the R320 is also a relatively light shoe, at 277g per shoe in the 42 size, but the straps held firm and the tongues ran true. Carbon fiber shoe soles, such as these, are so far improved over what we used to ride on that I really can’t register one as being stiffer than another anymore. The last time I was able to detect a shoe was unusual it was because it had a high degree of flex because it was meant to make walking easier. There’s probably a difference in stiffness between this and, say, the Rapha Grand Tour shoe made by Giro, but they both fall so squarely in the sufficiently stiff range that I have yet to tell them apart, at least, not in that regard.
The shoe is cut from, well, a lot of plastic, carbon fiber and Rovenica, an artificial leather. It offers a degree of elasticity which will increase your comfort in hard efforts, but that also means it won’t stretch. Ever. Stretching is a handy thing for improving a shoe’s fit, if volume is an issue for you; more on that in a sec. On the upside, the material also resists abrasions and because it won’t stretch, the shoes will last longer than some wheel sets. That channel you see in the sole is a big reason why the shoe is as stiff as it is. You need a structure with some edges and corners to generate stiffness.
This is still a production shoe and in that regard it, like every production shoe I’ve ever worn, falls somewhat short in a couple of regards. The insoles simply don’t provide as much support as my feet could use. Adding some molded units to these shoes would take care of that problem, but then they would bump up against the shoe’s other weakness—volume. With an insole providing more support, the amount of volume in the shoe would increase and these shoes really aren’t built for a super-high-volume foot. It may be that this is where the wide shoes would help. I don’t have a lot of contact for the middle, Velcro strap; you can see how little overlap there is in the top photo. Increasing the volume any further may make it hard to keep that middle strap closed. This is one reason I remain a fan of the BOA closure system.
I need to raise a note of caution on those criticisms. They are entirely peculiar to me and unlikely to pose a problem for most riders. Fewer than 10 percent of all people are said to have a high-volume foot. Damn bell curves. I’m always in the shallow end of one pool or another.
Another reason to like Shimano shoes is that they offer a wide array of sizes, wider than many of their competitors. They offer from 36 to 50 in whole sizes plus half sizes from 37.5 to 46.5. The wide last is available in all the same sizes except for the 49 and 50. They retail for $379.99, which seems like a fair amount of money at first blush, but given what I get for $40 at the Vans store, I think a dollar goes a good bit further with Shimano.
Shimano recently came out with a limited production run of blue shoes, as worn by the Argos-Shimano team at this year’s Tour de France. While I tend to like my cycling shoes in either black or white (or both), this is one of the best-looking blue shoes I’ve ever seen.
Given what we used to think were good shoes 10 or 15 years ago, I can say we’ve come a long way. Cycling shoes have improved as much as carbon fiber frames, and that’s an improvement on the order of HD TV. And who doesn’t like HD TV?
He is him, and I am me. This ought to be evident, but for some reason, initially, it is not. He is riding with one bottle, and I have two. His cassette looks like a small pine cone, mine a stack of pancakes. His quads challenge the elasticity of his bibs, while mine fit comfortably.
In the first hour, I try to be him, matching his speed if not his massive, crushing cadence. By the end of that first hour, I ought to have learned the lesson of our otherness, but I am stubborn, nigh on pig-headed, and so I go on pretending I am him and he is me.
We are flying. This is a thing he can do, and I can pretend to do, but apparently not for more than an hour-and-a-half. This became clear as he disappeared up a hill in front of me, still turning a huge gear despite the incline. He drops me without noticing, nonchalant, oblivious. I am an apple core flung to the roadside. Maybe an animal will happen by and carry me off.
But he sits up on the descents and I catch back on, still clawing at the air for oxygen as he turns back to the road, puts his head down and yanks me through the air in front of him. We do this over and over, silent except for the sound of my rasping breath.
Later we catch on with a larger group, and I am glad to see him go off on his own with faster riders. And yet somehow I still don’t have the sense to be myself. I ride to the front of the slower set, bridge the gap to the front, and then I’m on the back of his group again. It makes sense to me in the moment, as though I am just doing what’s in my legs to do.
This goes well for about 10 miles.
Then I am the yo-yo, straining at the end of the string, the leaf blown from the tree, drifting alone in the wind, finally there in no-man’s land by myself. I think to sit up and wait for the shelter of the slower group, but I resign myself to own this loneliness, to learn the lessons of my many mistakes.
That’s when it first occurs to me that I am me, and he is him. Training will not make me him. Persistence will not make me him. Cleverness will not make me him. He could be anybody who is constitutionally stronger than I am. It doesn’t matter.
A headwind kicks up and I am just crawling against the steepness, taking it full in the face. I concentrate only on moving forward. I question why I ride bikes. What business do I have even being here? I deserve to be alone (this much is true). A half-an-hour of slow pedaling and dark thinking pass in what feels like two hours.
And then he is behind me again suddenly, yelling a cheerful greeting that scares me very nearly off the shoulder of the road. They have taken a wrong turn, looped up and around and back onto the route, and they are with me again. I smile and curse my luck but resolve not to follow them again, to let them go and simply get back to my hard, lonely work.
But it doesn’t go that way. Apparently, I am not the only one who is not him. Two from the lead group have cracked, and they sit in with me, and we shamble onwards. Shamefully, I am buoyed by their suffering, and as I choke down synthetic calories and finish my water bottles I begin to rally.
I am still not him, but finally being me is not as painful as it has been. We all ride together to the end, some of us more happily than others. And then we’re eating cheeseburgers directly from the grill, swilling sugary sodas. The smell of hops takes the air. Feet go up.
The second group shows up an hour later, and by then I am mainly human again. We swap stories of suffering and joy. After the ride, we are all each other, and I suppose this is what’s important.
So a couple of weeks ago when I posted about the Felt Media Day, there were two models I wasn’t supposed to mention—at all. One was the complete redesign of the AR model, while the other was the introduction of the IA, a brother to the DA. The IA is a triathlon-specific aero bike. Naturally, what makes the IA tri-specific are its tube shapes that in many cases exceed the 3:1 ratio set (arbitrarily) by the UCI.
I suspect that even now Pat McQuaid is dispatching goons to the corners of the world to make sure that no Cat 4 enters a local time trial on such a dastardly invention. All snark against the UCI aside, the IA is a pretty fascinating bike because it falls in the tradition of a great many bikes from companies like Lotus and Colnago, bikes that were responses to a very simple question: How aerodynamic can a bicycle be?
It’s a fair question and the UCI’s meddling in innovation hasn’t actually resulted in safer riders. Worse, it has stifled genuine innovation. I’ll also take a moment to add that the UCI’s claim that they restrict designs (and created the bike approval process) to ensure the safety of riders is silly for the simple reason that going to market with a bicycle that can’t pass the CEN standards is essentially impossible and there is no stronger motivation against marketing a shoddy product than the black eye that would come from having your bike disintegrate on worldwide television. Talk about powerful motivators.
For roadies, the biggest news is that the company’s aero road bike, the AR, has been completely redesigned for 2014. They scrapped the existing design and built a new bike, one tube at a time. Dave Koesel, Felt’s road product manager, reports that while the new AR isn’t as stiff in torsion as the F bike, it is significantly stiffer than its predecessor; it now matches the stiffness of the Super-Stiff layup of the previous generation of F. This is the bike that most Garmin riders were riding. While the AR is a better sprinting bike, the company’s testing has shown that it is much more comfortable than most aero road bikes. Comfort-wise, the AR is said to fall between the F and the company’s grand touring road bike, the Z.
Irvine is but two hours from the San Diego Low-Speed Wind Tunnel. If another company has spent more time there testing and developing new designs, I’d like to hear who it is. Among their many trips to San Diego, Felt took aero bikes from its competitors and after building up each bike with the same components and wheels in an effort to make the tests as fair and equal as possible and then “blew” (as the engineers at the SDLSWT like to say) each bike. Felt says the AR was the fastest bike of the set.
Of the AR’s many innovations, one of the more surprising was what the engineering team did with the seatpost. They created a clamp that pinches only the carbon fiber walls of the post, not the whole of the post. The channels you see in the post are what allow the post to slide up and down on the clamp. Once saddle height has been set, there are polyurethane plugs that can be cut to length to fill those slots. The design allows Felt to go with thinner walls for the post, which is part of what helps give the AR its reportedly improved ride quality.
One of the changes that the engineers made in the redesign of the AR was to move the rear brake under the chainstays. Because a few different companies have done that, Shimano has come up with this quick release for the rear brake to make fixing a flat a little speedier.
The brake used on the AR has a very low-profile design and offers plenty of stopping power, in part because each brake arm mounts to its own post, much like U-brakes or cantilevers.
You’ll notice that both the AR and IA have a checkerboard pattern to their layup that is uncharacteristic of other top-shelf carbon fiber bikes. That’s because they use a material called Textreme. So far, Felt is the only company in the bike market to use this material. You can find it on each of their bikes that carry the “FRD” (Felt Racing Design) designation. If the look is at all familiar to you, it may be because you saw the same pattern on the F FRD ridden to four stage victories at this year’s Tour de France by Marcel Kittel.
Textreme is interesting enough to merit a post of its own, but its manufacturer has figured out a way to produce sheets of material that looks much like traditional 3k or 12k nonstructural weave but offer structure while remaining lightweight and still providing a degree of impact resistance. It’s an intriguing material, and so far, Felt is the only company using it.
The bottom bracket area on the AR has been built up substantially to give the bike better handling and a more responsive demeanor under out-of-the-saddle efforts. And naturally, like all Felt bikes, the AR is going to come in a full range of spec, some of which will be remarkably affordable.
I’m going to have a chance to ride the AR soon and I’ll be able to report some first impressions. Even if it’s not the absolute fastest aero bike out there, if it can be reasonably comfortable and stiff enough not to scare me on a descent, I’m intrigued.
Sometimes you just need a new thing. As much as I love riding bikes, I don’t stay uniformly inspired and motivated year round. I get my head down into a routine, and I work it over and over until one day I sit up and say, “Nah. I don’t feel like doing this today.” And that’s when I need a new thing.
That thing might be mountain biking. When I get tired of the swish and swirl of traffic or the bump and rattle of potholes, riding trails can be a good palate cleanser. I switch over to that for a few months, find new motivation and get excited about turning pedals again.
Maybe the new thing is a new group, either slightly faster or slightly slower. The new group rides different routes or stops at different coffee shops. You get new stories and learn new customs.
Here, at the end of the summer, I needed a new thing, and fortunately I have discovered two things in the last month that have me all excited and in love with cycling again. The first thing is that I there are a lot of very small, local trail systems that I haven’t ridden before. These range from simple paths through vacant lots to full, serpentine systems tacked onto the back of reservoirs or parkland. With a pair of 28s on my road bike, I can string these small systems together into a pretty kick ass ride, mostly traffic free. The need to focus most of my energy on bike handling distracts me from the effort I’m making and hours fly by in veritable cyclo-bliss.
A friend introduced me to this style of riding, and I spent some time trying to memorize all the quick lefts and rights that would guide me from one patch to the next. My memory and sense of direction being what it is, this process was proving not as quick or effective as I wanted it to be.
Enter a small GPS device.
Some readers will know that I mostly eschew technology (said the guy called Robot, not at all ironically). I have ridden electronic shifting and found it remarkable, but have no interest in actually using it on one of my bikes. I find most cyclo-computers distracting and discouraging to the point of annoyance. And I probably never would have gotten a GPS unit…
Until I learned that I could chart a course through each of these little trail systems using one. In fact, many of the big mapping sites have even the really obscure trails marked, no doubt the work of my enterprising and technology-loving fellow cyclists. So now, I can wend and wind through all my regular stomping grounds, but on terrain I haven’t ridden before.
It’s like my whole cycling world made new, and I AM PSYCHED.
So this week’s Group Ride asks, what’s YOUR new thing? Or, if you don’t have one, what was the last new thing that had you really excited about throwing your leg over your bike and heading out the door? Maybe you’re just eying a new thing. What is it? And why do you think it might just be the key to unlocking a new suitcase full of courage?
Image: Matt O’Keefe