“I saw my dream bike today.”
How many of us have said that? How many of us say it a couple times a year? For some of us it is a mantra.
It was my 7-year old daughter who uttered those words, without reservation, to my wife following her first trip to the bike shop to buy new handgrips for her 20-inch wheeled bike.
“You sound just like your father,” said my wife. Of course. I am a cyclist.
The object of my daughter’s desire was a 24-inch bike. It had a single chainring up front and a derailleur in the back – technological progress from her singlespeed. The color was a blue-grey fade, which gave it a look of joyful utility rather than a bike matched to the one-legged Barbie doll that haunts our mud room. Her dream bike had a simple steel fork, like her current bike. The tires were semi-slick and promised to reward effort with speed. Most importantly, it is bigger. That is the foundation of what a child asks of cycling: A smile.
For adults, it is more complicated. More so that it is dream-bike season. Eurobike’s siren song calls to us after we resurface into regular life after giving a month to the Tour de France. This is a moment when we ought to be bound to our bicycles with Velox rim tape so that we are not allowed to lose precious hours sitting in front of a screen staring at the bikes we should be out riding.
Now that my life affords less and less time for as much riding as I desire, I dream of really nice bikes more and more often. The carbon Santa Cruz Highball. A steel Seven Mudhoney. The Cervelo R5. Think of the 50-mile races in Vermont! The beer hand-ups! Riding L’Etape du Tour! The happy binds of daily life make these visions, often coming as I am trying to fall asleep, that much more of an escape.
My dream bikes change with my mood or my outlook on the day. It’s been this way for a long time. Before I could drive, I dreamt of owning rally cars like Audi’s ’84 Coupe Quattro. When I got around to buying my first car, it lacked all-wheel drive, race heritage or a turbocharger’s feral hiss. Instead it had roll-up windows and manual locks and barely enough horsepower to make it through Colorado’s Eisenhower Tunnel. Reliability, not rally nous, won the day. Twelve years later it is still driven daily.
Though the bicycle industry is working towards a one-bike quiver, a machine capable of keeping up with a 25 m.p.h. paceline one day and bombing a rutted gravel descent with the surefootedness that only comes from hydraulic disc brakes and fat rubber. This means it’s a great moment for looking inward at not just what you want to buy, but why. I don’t want a bike like my Honda Accord. I want one like the Coupe Quattro that I never owned – or even drove.
If you could only have one bike would it be a multifaceted machine capable of, literally, any wheeled adventure you dream up? That is what Eurobike appears to be offering up as a preview of next year’s bikes. Or would it be a purpose-built machine with a soul that comes from a singularity of design and intent?
I can speak to the merits of both. I had a jack-of all trades Bridgestone X0-2 that once spent a night in the hands of Corsican thieves. After years of hard duty in West Philadelphia, it retired to a sedate life out back of a friend’s condo backyard in Palo Alto, nestled next to a hot tub. My Redline Conquest Pro, a cyclocross race machine that today looks like it might give me a tetanus infection if I botch a dismount, time and time again continues to free me from writer’s block. It was bought in the weeks following 9/11.
My daughter has yet to think about these questions. We want bikes as complicated as our lives. She wants one as simple as hers. She never asks who designed her bike, or if the tubing is butted, or if she should be on disc brakes next season. She rides her bike because it makes her smile. That is its most important feature.
I also know if she sticks with cycling like I hope she will, someday she too will be thinking of her dream bike. With the way our society is advancing, and bike technology with it, that dream bike may well be her very first one.
The kids started school this week. Backpacks. Lines. Small desks. New teachers and friends. New subjects to daunt and dazzle. They are both, of course, complete geniuses, my boys, masters of all they survey, and I am constantly amazed, both by what they know and also by what they don’t know, which is the inspiration for this week’s Group Ride.
As a card-carrying, check-drawing member of the bike industry, I am, to the average person on the street, an expert in this field. Neighbors come to me to fix small problems or for advice about how to tackle a big ride. I am regularly asked to help with the acquisition of a new bike. Conversations with acquaintances often begin with, “Hey, you’re the bike guy, right?” And I listen and give the best information I can.
And yet, as the years tick by I find that I know both more and less about bicycles and their use. As much as I am adding to my knowledge-base, I am also constantly discarding misinformation, received wisdom, and preconceived notions. I unlearn as much as I learn.
The bike seems to be bottomless. You can’t know it all. Even if you were able to convince yourself that you knew everything there was to know about frame geometry for example, the ride resulting from a given geometry would still be massively affected by materials and construction method. Fork rake, tire width (and volume) and brake style would all intrude on the party. Is there a graduate degree in Cycology? There should be.
As a rider too, I am no great shakes. I am neither very fast, nor very slow. My handling skills are good, but not remarkable. And I have been riding thousands of miles every year for the last twenty or so. I see so much room to be a better bike rider that I almost want to jump out of this chair, shove aside the keyboard and run for the door now.
I read books and magazines. I talk all the time with bike designers, bike builders, and riders of exceptional ability. But I have so much to learn. I’m still a beginner in so many ways.
This week’s Group Ride asks, what is it you can learn about cycling? What can you be better at? What fascinates you about the bike or riding it? At the same time, what did you once believe that you no longer hold true? What have you unlearned?
Image: Matt O’Keefe
I don’t wear windbreakers. That ought to be a problem considering that this is meant to be a review of a … windbreaker. Call it what you want; in my book, all lightweight jackets that aren’t insulated or waterproof are windbreakers. And I don’t wear them.
You may wonder why. It’s simple. Simple in that the-gas-tank-is-empty-so-I-need-gas way. As a category, they are cut so generously, they flap like a flag in the wind. At 25 mph, the sound is as annoying as a helicopter and nearly as loud. So I don’t wear them for my own sanity, not to mention my regard for anyone I’m riding with. As if that wasn’t bad enough, the roomier the windbreaker, the more like a hothouse it becomes. The sweat captured in the sleeves is a feeling as uncomfortable as wet socks.
For those reasons, I’ve been a vest and arm warmer man for … well, it was far enough back that most of us were still on steel bikes. My exceptions to this have been full-on insulated winter jackets and rain capes.
The folks at Gore wanted me to try two of their jackets (I’ll get to the other one soon). That frightened me. Gore makes so many products I like that I didn’t want to be faced with either dodging the review or publishing a review that trashed their work.
But then I realized I needed a jacket for a mountain bike ride I was going to do. I needed something that could fend off fog to the point of mist and a deep enough chill to serve a white wine. And because I was wearing a Camelbak, I wanted something that would be quick to don or remove and didn’t have to worry about stuffing it in a pocket; I could just jam it in the pack.
That I’ve only ever worn the Xenon 2.0 jacket while mountain biking does affect this review in one notable way. I didn’t realize there was a pocket in the back for probably the first dozen rides. But there is one; it’s small and zippered and not something you’ll be able to access while moving, at least, not unless you’re part of a Russian acrobatic troupe. But it’s there.
It’s a feature, that pocket, but I don’t see it as a selling point. But this is: I can do 25 mph on a fire road descent in this jacket and not go deaf. Both the sleeves and the torso of the jacket are cut on tapers to keep them surprisingly form fitting. The particular genius behind the sleeves is that they are articulated at the elbows so that they have a natural bend to follow an arm’s reach to the bar. When you get sleeves cut straight they pull at the outside of the wrist when you place your hands on the handlebar. On the rare occasion that the sleeves are cut slim enough, what usually happens is that they get tight at your triceps. It’s not terrible, but it does restrict movement just a bit.
If this jacket has a liability, it’s that anyone who isn’t in fair form is going to find fitting into this thing a challenge. You can’t be 5’8″ and 175 lbs. and find this a good fit. It just doesn’t feature enough stretch. But that’s not to say it doesn’t stretch at all. It does stretch just enough to allow you freedom of movement even though it features a fit more snug than my most accidentally tight T-shirt. To their credit, Gore tags this as a slim fit.
While the outside of the jacket feels linen light, it’s the inside that’s a surprise. It’s silky enough in feel to be comfortable against bare skin. That, sports fans, turns up as often as a passing comet. Cut from Gore’s Windstopper material, the Xenon is both effective at stopping the wind to keep you warm enough in walk-in refrigerator and compact enough to fit in a jersey pocket. Gore uses a bit of mesh in the side panels as a liner to aid in wicking for high-perspiration areas; it kept the jacket from going clammy and clingy during a sustained climb.
One of the most surprising features of the Xenon is the thin neoprene used in the cuffs on the sleeves. It gives them just enough stretch so that they can be timepiece snug without be restrictive when you want to pull the jacket off. Everyone knows the struggle of pulling off arm warmers when you have gloves on, and this touch is astrophysicist-smart. Best of all, the cuffs prevent the jacket sleeves from inflating in the wind like a blown-up paper bag.
The Xenon 2.0 goes for $199.99 and comes in four colors; in addition to the white and black edition you see above, there’s also red/black, blue/black and, of course, all black. Why companies make all black top is beyond me; it decreases the visibility of someone who really can’t possibly be too visible. It comes in five sizes: S, M, L, XL and XXL; I’m wearing the M.
I’m not exaggerating even a little bit when I say this is the best fitting and most comfortable wind breaker I’ve ever worn, that it has taken from me one of those lines in the sand on which I derived a certain snobbish pride. I can’t say I don’t wear windbreakers anymore. I almost miss that status.
As a latecomer to both the industry and riding at 28, I dove in during the spring of 2010 with the unbridled enthusiasm of a five year old at Disney Land. I wanted to learn everything about everything, immediately. My first lesson?
Lighter is better, carbon is lighter, therefore, carbon is better.
Cycling also turned me into a fierce competitor; someone who was obsessed with going faster and getting stronger—than other people. That was key. Going faster and getting stronger than other people. And to do that, I needed the best bike. I needed carbon.
And I did get faster, and I did get stronger, and eventually, I started to become the rider I wanted to be.
Very soon, I scored a job at an amazing bike shop in North Carolina, owned by a man renowned in the biz as The Vintage Expert. When he talked about the old racers and the old bikes, his eyes became brighter, his gestures grander. We sold carbon, but his first love was steel, and so the shop burst with his personal collection. An all original Masi Gran Criterium hung next to a 1950s Hetchins track bike that hung next to a Schwinn Paramount. I spent slow winter Tuesday afternoons studying them, honing my eye and discerning what made each one unique. I came to appreciate an even weld and a well-executed lug.
I even dabbled in vintage steel myself, scoring a beautiful red Gios with SLX tubing. I painstakingly pieced together an entire Dura Ace Black drillium grouppo for it, hubs and all. I found a Nitto Pearl stem and Sakae bars. I felt a true connection to that bike, but I still never rode it. I didn’t see the practical point, since it wouldn’t make me faster, stronger, or the rider I wanted to be. Eventually, I sold it to get money for a new carbon rig, sad at the loss but knowing it was for a greater good.
After moving to California in 2011, I found the state played the game at a whole new level. In my opinion, I had become a pretty good rider, but as soon as I saddled up on the West coast, not a single group ride went by that I wasn’t shot off the back. And so I had to up my game. I rode more and rode harder. I bought a newer, lighter carbon bike so I could benefit from every advantage and stay on track to become the rider I wanted to be.
But steel never went away. I bought a purple vintage Rossin off ebay. I loved the way it rode and preferred it to the feel of my race rig, but still treated it just a nice lark to play around with on rest days, an eccentricity. It wasn’t carbon, so how could it possibly help me be faster and stronger?
Because I was sure the carbon bike had a large part to play in my progression as the cyclist I wanted to be, and as such, I continuously looked for ways make it lighter and faster. Last year’s bike became disposable and next year’s bike became coveted in an endless cycle of discarding and wanting. It felt empty, but also necessary.
Then, my crusher friends Steve and Jason invited me on what would be my first cyclocross/road ride in the Santa Cruz mountains. I accepted, excited to be included on a ride with such strong company. Still, I felt that I needed every advantage possible, and so borrowed the lightest carbon cross rig I could for the occasion.
We started riding.
Two hours later, completely cooked, I looked up at my friends riding 10 meters in front of me, side by side, their hands resting lightly on the tops of their bars and a conversation clearly on their lips. We were one mile into the three mile Empire Grade Road, a name synonymous in that area with steep, unrelenting stair step climbs.
I looked up at their bikes, now 12 meters in front of me. Jason rode an emerald Gunnar, a bike he had for ten years and rebuilt several times, the parts a mash up of forethought and whatever he happened to have in the garage. Steve rode his all-time favorite bike, a red Rock Lobster built for him by his good friend Paul. He painstakingly chose each component, making sure the overall picture was simultaneously beautiful and utilitarian. You could tell that each bike had a relationship with its rider, and you could tell that both bikes were loved.
Then I looked down at my bike. High modulus carbon, lightest of light, stiffest of stiff. But it wasn’t a bike I chose because I loved it. It was a bike I chose because I thought it would make me faster and better. Except it wasn’t. Jason and Steve rode away from me, while talking, because no bike could hide the truth: they were simply stronger riders than I.
But as their relaxed, upright backs disappeared around a switchback 15 meters ahead of me, that fact was suddenly OK. They were just enjoying their ride, and it was OK to not be as strong or as fast they were. It was OK to simply be the rider I was at that given moment, and to enjoy the ride with them.
With that realization came a sense of freedom. I could finally choose whichever bike I wanted to ride, simply because I wanted to ride it. I didn’t have to rely on a bike to try and turn me into something more, or better, of faster. I didn’t have to constantly strive to be the rider I wanted to be; being a rider was enough.
And my God, did I want to ride steel.
Today, I have two metal whips. A Caletti Cycles custom adventure road bike that will double as a cyclocross bike this fall, and the vintage Rossin. The Caletti is a light blue with black decals, and built with great attention to every detail. When I ride it, I feel like it’s a friend who will be with me for the rest of my life. The Rossin is a no nonsense, what you see is what you get sort of partner. It was a solid bike when made in 1989, and it’s still a solid bike today. I built it up with a mix of modern Frankenbike components. When I ride it, I feel like it says to me, “All right, ready to play?” I always answer yes.
Some days I’m strong. Some days I’m tired. But I’m always a rider. And these are my bikes.
I’ve been traveling a fair amount lately, more than usual. Some of these trips have required packing light, packing less cycling clothing than the number of days I planned to ride. Dirty laundry while traveling isn’t much of a problem until you’ve got sweaty polyester to deal with. I’ve had to pursue multiple solutions to saving the rest of my clothing from the ignominy of stinking like my used cycling kit. Zip-Loc bags are a limited form of insurance.
In the past, I’ve taken the Assos wash with me, or Woolite in a small container. However, on two occasions the Woolite solution went awry. TSA took a container that had a threatening 6-oz. capacity from me as there was a chance that I might clean everything on the plane, and then, as must inevitably happen in every traveler’s life, the Woolite container soiled itself and the rest of my toiletries bag. I showered with a foaming bag, twice.
I doubt I’d be taking the time to review a laundry detergent if it weren’t for two details. The first I touched on earlier, the TSA. ‘Nuff said. The second was the kaleidoscopic laundry disaster a friend suffered some years ago at the laundromat. In an effort to limit his time in the purgatory of a town, he pulled his wet clothes from the washer and stuffed them in the dryer. Unfortunately, as you might be able to guess from my earlier descriptor, things didn’t go so well in the dryer. It heated his clothing to a temperature sufficient enough to turn paper to ash and redistributed the inks from his jerseys and bibs, taking them from the brightest panels and Robin Hooding them to less fortunate spots. You could tell he was a fan of Eddy Merckx even when he was wearing our team kit.
Actually, his story isn’t the one that really made a difference to me. That event only confirmed that I shouldn’t put cycling clothing in the dryer, something I already knew to be a bad idea. It was when another friend did laundry while on a tour in Europe—three times in two weeks—his combined usage of heavy-duty detergent and the dryer and clothing that was new at the beginning of the trip was showing wear by the end of the trip.
These are the reasons why I wanted to review the Toko Eco Wash. However, I’m not really sure how to review a laundry detergent. My concerns were whether it got the clothing clean, how many pieces I could wash with a single package and how easy it was to rinse from the clothing. To that end, I can say that I was able to wash six pieces fairly effectively with a 40ml packet. Pieces that hadn’t been hit by mud while mountain biking—that’s a whole different realm of dirty—were easy enough to get clean. And in this case, I define clean as no longer smelling like a post-ride me. Rinsing was easy enough—and quicker than finding something good on TV—with an empty sink and running water.
The “eco” part of the name comes from the fact that this stuff is phosphate-free and biodegradable. You can use it in a river without worrying that you’re killing fish. It’s also purported to be gentle enough for Gore-Tex; to that feature, I can’t speak.
When I hear people complain that their cycling clothing doesn’t last, clothing from manufacturers with whom I’ve had luck, I’m usually mystified. It’s been hard for me to calculate why their experience could be so different from mine. It’s a concern for me because if I take the time to review something and report good things about it, the experience of those who choose to purchase that product as well should be congruent with mine. It was as I was doing laundry in a sink in a motel in Medford, Oregon, that I asked myself if maybe the folks whose luck with pricey cycling clothing was worse than a rookie playing roulette might be rooted in using too much harsh soap. Surely no one is still using a dryer, right?
In addition to this 40ml packet, which goes for $3, Toko also offers a 250ml bottle of the wash for $21.95. By any measure, this stuff isn’t cheap, but the packets, by virtue of being too small to be stolen from you by TSA and coming in a package durable enough to be foolproof for travel makes the $3 a bargain.