Friday, April 30, 2010

When Fat is Good

We all know that fat is not exactly healthy.  It leads to all kinds of illness, disease, and a shorter life expectancy.  But there is one place where some extra girth can actually be quite beneficial.  It's in your tires!  No, I'm not speaking of your own physical "spare tire", but in your bike tires.

For many years there's been a trend toward ultra-narrow road tires ... brought on by an industry marketing of racing bikes to the general masses.  Three years ago, I truly believed that if I wanted to be a "serious" cyclist, I needed to have a carbon frame race bike with skinny tires.  That may be true if I was interested in racing ... but for recreational, transportation, and general fitness applications, adding some "fat" rubber to your rims can be quite beneficial to both enjoyment and safety.

I won't get into the physics of tire width, air pressure, rider weight, rolling resistance, and so on ... as there are many resources for that if you really want to research the technical side.  Visit Schwalbe's website for one such study, and while reading it, remember that this manufacturer makes ALL kinds of tires, including skinny ones.  All I can say is that fatter tires are more fun ... at least for me.

My Surly LHT has been fitted with Schwalbe Marathon Supreme tires in the 26"x2" size.  That's a pretty huge tire for a road-oriented bike.  Take a look at the photos and see for yourself:

They fill up the frame nicely, no?  What they provide is a very large volume of air at lower pressure ... which translates to cushion ... which translates to comfort.  Many of the roads here are chip sealed, and not exactly smooth.  These tires really float over all the ragged surfaces.  I like that.  When rolling over bumps, the extra cushion also flexes more like a set of shock absorbers, rather than jarring the bike (and me!) up and over it.  It's for these very reasons that Schwalbe and others maintain that wider tires actually have lower rolling resistance than skinny tires.  I tend to agree with them, having bikes with both fat and skinny tires.

I've also found that bigger tires also tend to flat less than their thinner counterparts.  I'm guessing this is due in part to their lower pressure and ability to flex over objects, but that may not be the science behind it.  The Marathon Supremes do have excellent puncture protection, as well, but I speak from experience with other tires in addition to them.  I have almost never had a flat on fatter tires, both in 26" and 29" varieties, but have had plenty on 700x23 or 700x25 tires (prior to finding Schwalbe Marathon Plus, that is ... but that's another post altogether ... patience, my friends ...).

Another benefit to rubber of the rotund variety is load capacity.  I do some grocery shopping on my bike, and often carry multiple cartons of Silk Milk (the unsweetened organic kind, of course) along with canned goods and other heavier items.  Groceries combined with my own weight can be a lot for a bike to handle ... so a set of tires rated for hauling cargo is a nice thing for peace of mind.  The Schwalbe Marathon Supremes in my size are rated to carry 140kg per tire at maximum inflation.  That's 280kg for the pair, or a total of 616 pounds!!  Now, I doubt that I could ever manage to put that much weight on my bike, but at least I know that the combined weight of the bike, me, and whatever I carry will NEVER exceed the rated capacity of my tires. 

The last benefit to fat tires is lower effort to inflate them.  Yes, that's right, LOWER effort.  High pressure tires may require fewer strokes from a large pump, but those strokes are much harder.  I used CO2 cartridges for flats on the road bike because I could never get the tire up to 100psi with a mini pump.  Getting a fat tire up to 50psi out on the road takes some extra strokes of the pump, but I can always reach the pressure I need with free air and no CO2.  To me, that's important.

Is there a down side to fat?  It depends on your point of view.  If you're all about having the lightest bike possible, then you probably don't want big tires ... they do indeed add some weight.  In the case of the Marathon Supreme, however, they are actually quite light in comparison to other similar tires ... but still not as light as skinny race models.  Some may feel that the additional weight makes the bike slower.  I suppose that may be true, depending on your comparison.  My experience is that I get to my destination in about the same amount of time, whether I'm riding my Surly LHT with big fat tires or my Look 555 with skinny tires ... give or take a few minutes.  The few minutes may matter to you, and that's perfectly fine.  For me, I'm not interested in making the ride as short as possible ... a few minutes more makes for a few minutes more fun!

I've also found that the extra-wide tires don't slide out from my released/opened brake pads when fully inflated on the rim ... they're just a tiny bit too wide.  I have to let a bit of air out so I can squeeze the tire thinner where it passes between the pads.  At first, I was rather irritated by this, but then I realized that the only time I'm removing the wheel from the bike is when A) I have a flat, in which case the tire is not inflated, or B) when truing the wheel or performing some other kind of maintenance, in which case I can let some air out for removal and re-installation.  So, when I really think about it, it's a very minor inconvenience in contrast to all of the wonderful benefits.  But if that bothers you, or if you routinely need to take your front wheel off for bike rack mounting, you may want to consider the clearance between your brake pads before purchasing.

Whatever tires you ride, check them often for proper air pressure, look for any puncture-causing debris that may be clinging to the tread, keep them clean, and then go ride!

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Zen and the Bicycle

According to Wikipedia, Zen “is a school of Mahāyāna Buddhism notable for its emphasis on practice and experiential wisdom.”  Many people associate Zen with the pursuit of greater awareness to achieve perfect balance in their life.  This “balance” is the idea behind VeloZen … and here’s why:

Balance is essential to maintaining all life.  When things are out of balance, something must happen to restore it or else really bad things will happen.  For example, earthquakes are a result of imbalanced pressure at a fault line.  When the imbalance becomes too great, the earth moves to reset itself.  Although we don’t like earthquakes, they serve a necessary purpose, which prevents our planet from completely exploding under pressure (a really bad thing). 

The very act of riding a bicycle is a demonstration of balance.  After all, if we don’t balance, we simply fall over.  Of course, we must remember that balancing on two wheels is something we all learn through … yes, you guessed it … practice and experience … Zen!!   Do you remember how it felt the very first time you rode your two-wheeler without help or training wheels?  Nirvana, anyone?

The Zen corollaries do not end with the physical act of riding alone, though.  No, grasshopper, there is more to ponder and meditate upon.  Think about riding … and how your awareness becomes heightened … you become one with your bicycle … one with your environment … you feel the wind and sun (or rain) on your skin … you are moving under your own power, magically balanced and moving forward, experiencing the world around you.  If you’re like me, you’ve put forth a great deal of effort in selecting the perfect bike, components, clothing, shoes, socks, sunglasses, helmet, and so on.  Research can be a great help, and there are many resources of great teaching to guide one in narrowing the list.  Even so, nothing replaces the Zen principles of practice and experience in determining what is right for one’s own needs.  It hasn’t been easy, but your Zen balance of practice and experience has led you to the perfect combination to make each ride … well, perfectly balanced Nirvana.  If nothing else existed but this ride, we would live forever in this balanced state.   But, alas, we are adults, and must lead adult lives, being responsible to our jobs, families, friends, neighbors, dogs, cats, hamsters, and so on … another state of being that requires balance within itself.  Therefore, we must pursue yet another balance … the balance between our balanced-bicycle-state-of-being and our balanced-everyday-life-state-of-being.  

This is a complex pursuit of multiple balanced states.  And yet, I find that one balancing act often leads to the self-balancing of the other.  My fiancé tells me over and over that she knows when I’ve been out for a ride, because I’m more centered and productive.  She’s right about that.  Even when my ride is brief and less than spectacular, I return with a peaceful energy that makes the rest of the day easy, and I find it much easier to focus on my task list.

This blog is born out of knowing that I am not the only being in this world to experience this often convoluted path.  I hope that sharing my own observations will provide some enlightened light-hearted views of simultaneously balancing two balancing acts … of course, with a focus on the two-wheeled side of the scale!

Monday, April 26, 2010

My Surly LHT SUV

Having moved to a new house, where it is now possible to do virtually all of my shopping and errands via bicycle, it became evident that I needed a bicycle that’s up to the task. After all, my carbon road bike isn’t exactly suited for racks and panniers … and I wouldn’t feel good about leaving it locked up in front of the store, either. I wanted a bike that’s strong, well-designed, flexible for other purposes (maybe some light trail or gravel road riding, carrying a small camera kit for photo hobby stuff), and one that would accept a variety of optional hardware for modification down the road. So the research began … actually, it began a long time ago … I just had no justification for another bike, and certainly not one of this type, where I previously lived. I read all the blogs … I read all the reviews … really … ALL of them. And I settled on a model that would fit the bill, along with the right racks, bags, bars, pedals, and so on. I then got the approval from the person in the house who maintains a sense of intelligence regarding extravagant purchases … after explaining that I could dramatically lower our monthly expenses by selling the pickup truck and doing our shopping by bike. The green light given, I ordered everything … learned a lot about bike assembly … and here is the result – a 2010 Surly Long Haul Trucker, modified for multiple applications:

It is a stock build, with the following modifications/additions:

Velo Orange Headset
Velo Orange Stem
Paul Components Moto-Lite Brakes
Kool-Stop Mountain Brake Pads
Paul Components Love Lever 2.5 Brake Levers
Nitto B825 Touring Handlebars
Paul Components Thumbies for handlebar mounting of the Dura-Ace shifters
Surly Nice Racks front and rear
Wald Basket zip-tied to the front rack
Kona Wah-Wah pedals
PitLock locking wheel skewers
Velo Orange braided stainless steel brake/derailleur cables
Brooks B-17 Aged saddle
Nitto S-84 “Wayback” lugged steel seatpost
Schwalbe Marathon Supreme 26”x2” tires
Cinelli “Corky” bar tape, finished with natural twine and amber shellac
Rivendell Sackville Shopsack – front basket bag (check them out!!)
Rivendell Sackville Trunksack Large (perfectly fits a Domke F-5XB with DSLR camera kit)
Banjo Brothers Market Panniers for grocery shopping (plastic or paper? NEITHER!!)

The ride is incredibly smooth and stable, via the combination of steel frame and big cushy tires. Even though the Schwalbe Marathon Supreme tires are huge by road standards, they roll fast, grip well, and are surprisingly light. They float over bumpy and cracked pavement, and simply fly on smoother surfaces.

The LHT is a great bike for … well, for almost anything! It’s designed for loaded touring, which also makes it a great bike for carrying a fairly large grocery haul. It’s also a wonderful commuter bike … stable, solid, and able to carry your briefcase, laptop, change of clothes, and lunch without missing a pedal stroke. And it’s just a seriously fun bike to ride … there’s no worry of where you go, roads, trails, whatever … no problem! The design is such that customizing it is easy with unlimited options for drivetrain, controls, racks, baskets, etc. Commute and shop during the week … go bike camping on the weekend!

Is the bike heavy? Well, compared to my Look 555, yes, it certainly is. But then again, one doesn’t buy a Surly bike if weight is a concern. No, one buys a Surly when one wants to haul cargo, go touring, ride the rough stuff, or have all-day adventures. Is it slow? Again, it isn’t a race bike … but it isn’t a beach cruiser, either. Although not fast off the starting block, it does get up to speed well, even when loaded up with groceries, and never feels like a tank.

As many have said before me, if you decide to buy a Surly LHT, you’ll never regret it. I love all of my bikes … but after riding it for only a couple of months, I can also agree that if I had to choose only one bike, it would be this one.