Thursday, January 19, 2012

Mini Reviews: Brooks, Bell, and Brilliant Mirror

This morning brought sunshine and the promise of a good ride ... so off I went in search of clear paths and trails. And then I saw this:

Yep ... path still flooded.  Three days now ... stupid flooded path!
If you read my previous post, you'll know that there's no way I'm heading toward the "Wind Tunnel From Hell" again ... and I didn't really want to ride all the way back to where I started to take a completely different route. So, instead, I took a few photos of some things on my Hunqapillar that bring pleasure to my rides ... perhaps you'll give them a try for yourself.

Here's my disclaimer:  None of the products reviewed here were provided to me by the manufacturer or any retailer for evaluation. Nope. I'm not one of those famous bloggers who gets stuff for free. I purchased everything with my own money, and without any sort of special interweb journalist discount, so you can rest assured that the opinions expressed here are unbiased and come purely through my own experience ... good, bad, or otherwise. That being said, should any manufacturers out there wish to provide some cool bike-related products for ... ummm ... testing and evaluation ... I would likely be open to offering my honest review.

First, there's my saddle.  It's a Brooks B17 Select.  You can get them from many dealers, including Rivendell. The saddle is the same size and shape as the Standard B17 and B17 Special, but is made from organically raised cattle hide, which results in a thicker, more robust and durable (claimed) leather.

From the Brooks website:
This version of the B17 is made with our extra tough, organic leather for high mileage cyclists. It also features our hand hammered copper rivets.
Unlike the other B17 versions, the Select is not dyed or tanned, instead left in its natural color. This is what it looked like out of the box, after one initial coat of Proofide (the Brooks-approved saddle conditioner):

Brooks B17 Select on it's first ride (after 1 coat of Proofide).

And this is what it looks like now, after almost two months of riding:

Brooks B17 Select after almost two months of riding ... aging nicely!
You can see it's a little darker, wearing in to a beautiful tone. That's one of the reasons I felt the urge to buy this saddle for my Hunqapillar. Natural leather ages in a wonderful way and seems to just look better with time. There's nothing wrong with dyed or tanned leathers ... I just like the natural aging process better.

I have some other Brooks saddles, including another B17, a B68 (wider), and a Team Pro (narrower). I like all of them, and originally planned to move one of them to the Hunqapillar when it arrived. But as I was waiting for it to be built, I came across the B17 Select, and something just told me it was the right one for this bike. The beautiful natural leather and hammered copper rivets seemed to be more appropriate, and the description of the "extra tough organic leather for high mileage cyclists" sounded like the right idea.

The choice was not wrong. In fact, I couldn't be happier. This is, by far, the best saddle I've ever owned ... and the most comfortable. Better than any of my other Brooks models, and better than any other brand I've had the pleasure (or pain) to sit on. Although the leather is noticeably thicker and stiffer, it also has a better "give" when I'm riding it. It's difficult to describe, and I can't offer any reason for the sensation. Brooks saddles have a reputation for needing a lengthy break-in period where it will be very stiff as it gradually shapes to you during your rides. I've experienced that on the other models I have, but somehow not on this one. It has been very comfortable from the start, even on longer rides. I can just now see the beginning of the shaping on the saddle top after almost two months, so it is still breaking in ... and continues to be even more comfortable each time I get on.

Another thing I've noticed is that most standard Brooks saddles have a tendency for the side "wings" or skirts to spread out from the pressure when you sit on them. For this reason, like many other Brooks owners, I've had to punch or drill a few holes in the skirt and tie the sides together to prevent the saddle from prematurely sagging, or from just being annoying when the skirts brush my thighs . The Select, on the other hand, seems to retain its shape under pressure. I'm guessing there may come a day far in the future that I may need to perform the same skirt-tying procedure, but I can't see it being necessary any time soon.

In short, the B17 Select is a saddle purchase I will not regret, unlike many saddles before it. The place your bum perches as you ride is critical to your comfort. It deserves some effort to find the right shape, size, and material. If you like leather saddles, and think you might like to give a classic Brooks saddle a try, take a look at this one. It is a bit expensive, but very much in line with premium saddles from any company ... even a bit less than many other top-of-the-line models from quality brands. From what I can tell so far, it will last for many years, and continue to get even better with time.

Next up is a simple little thing that doesn't cost much, but is incredibly useful and always brings a smile to whoever gazes upon it. It is my Crane Copper Bell.

Pretty! Ignore the man in the reflection ... he's trying to be artistic with his photo-taking.
When you need to alert someone that you're approaching, you could simply yell "ON YOUR LEFT" at the top of your lungs, scaring the pants off anyone who might be in the way. I've tried that, and it almost works sometimes ... but mostly just gets me dirty looks. Such a vocalization seems to say "Get out of my way", which is never met with cheerfulness. On the other hand, the quite loud, but very cheerful sound of a properly made bell like the one in the picture above says "Pardon me ... may I pass?" I've yet to have anyone give me a dirty look when they hear my pretty bell. Yes, I said "pretty." Dudes like pretty things, too.

I really love the look of the classic and timeless Japanese bells. They come in brass, aluminum (silver), and the copper you see above. The striking mechanism is available in two styles. The one I have is a very simple tightly wound coil spring with a brass "hammer" end that collides with the bell with just a light flip of the finger ... easy and quick to do whenever a greeting or alert is called for. The other style ("Lever Strike" models) is a rigid metal piece anchored with a wire spring that requires a more deliberate action to press the striker and release. I prefer the simple spring, but either is effective and looks wonderful. There are also different sizes of the bells. The one I have is a smaller model, with a slightly higher pitch. The larger models have a deeper pitch and are a bit louder. Choose as needed for your ringing environment. The clamp that attaches the bell to your bike also comes in different forms. Mine has a simple metal clamp that is secured with a bolt, and will fit any tube from 22 to 26 mm in diameter, which makes it versatile for attaching to handlebars or quill stems as you see in the photo. I've added a strip of cloth handlebar tape under my clamp to prevent any possible scratches on the stem, but this is purely a cosmetic choice, and is not necessary for attachment. The bells are also available with a more modern forged aluminum clamp, pictured here, if you prefer. A third option is for the bell to be mounted on a headset spacer for direct attachment to either a threaded or threadless stem. Velo Orange is the the only source I'm aware of for this option, although there may be others. I've used this method on my other bikes, and it works very well, allowing selective secure placement, much like the clamp version in the photo.

Crane bells are available from lots and lots of bike shops and online retailers. Rivendell carries some, but is reducing some of their inventory, so you may not find all sizes or colors. Universal Cycles and SOMA Fabrications are also good sources for a wide selection of bells.

The ring of a bell is an almost universal greeting that alerts people to an approaching bicycle, and does it in a pleasant way. It's also a great way to just say hello as you pass another person, whether they're on a bike, pushing a stroller, walking a dog, or jogging. It almost always results in a smile. The only possible negative with this particular model is that the bell occasionally rings itself when riding over especially bumpy areas, since the coiled spring is lightly tensioned. At first, it was a tiny bit annoying, but I've grown to like it ... as though my bike creates a little music when the going gets rough. The "Lever Strike" models will not do this, so if you prefer to avoid the phantom ringing, get one of those. I happen to prefer the easier ringing of the spring models, and don't mind the bonus music.

The last item I'd like to tell you about is one of those things that took a while for me to purchase, not because it's costly, but because it required letting go of my insecurity and thinking it would somehow make me less "cool". Once I gave in and got one, I realized that its benefits far outweigh any insecurity I may have once had ... and now I absolutely have to have one on every bike I own. The item of which I speak is the UltraLight German Mirror.

UltraLight German Mirror ... it's aerodynamic!

Another use for a mirror: taking photos of yourself taking a photo ... now THAT's art!
For me, the idea of putting a mirror on a bicycle meant that I would officially become a nerd. At the same time, if I had to negotiate streets with cars and silent hybrids, and bike paths with crazy dogs and even crazier roadies who refuse to announce their passing until they're actually passing, it was something that I felt I really needed to try.

It was Rivendell's product description that put me a little more at ease and prompted me to buy one. It was very easy to install (and remove if necessary), easy to adjust, and stayed put once I got it in the right position. It mounts with a simple flexible plastic band that tightens into a clamp with a brass screw, which makes it adaptable to any handlebar type, as well as other places on the bike, such as a fork leg (seriously!) or even a front rack. The mirror itself is attached to a ball socket joint with a screw clamp for easy positioning.

Although I did have some doubts, it didn't get in the way of my hand placement on the bars. And it didn't look as dorky as I thought it might. It has made my awareness of traffic and surroundings better, with just a quick glance to see what may be coming from behind in the distance. The curvature of the mirror surface is just enough to provide a wide field of view without being too distorted. It is also extremely durable, dare I say "unbreakable" (a good thing with the whole 7-years-of-bad-luck-mirror-breaking problem). I now have three of them, and they have all survived being brutally bashed in doorways, banged on fence rails, and assorted other encounters, with no signs of damage whatsoever. The mirror just pivots on the ball joint and/or handlebar clamp, needing only a re-adjustment back to normal position and I'm back in business.

I still double check by turning my head before I make a move to the left in traffic, just as I would when driving a car. A mirror alone doesn't always reveal everything, and there can be blind spots on a bike as much as in a car. However, the mirror does let me have a more continual awareness of what's approaching behind me and passing. A little extra awareness is a good thing.

If you think a mirror might be your ticket to Nerdville, don't worry. Give this one a shot. It's inexpensive, and easy to remove if it doesn't work out for you ... and who knows, you may just find that you like having a better, faster, wider field of vision without always having to turn your head completely around to see what's behind you!

That's it for today! Enjoy your ride, if you get to go out ... I understand there are some pretty bad storms going on out there, so be careful!


  1. Was your Brooks Select this light when new and untreated? ...I'm just trying to get an idea of how much it'll darken - thanks for the review!

  2. I bought the same Crane copper bell today because of the pleasant "ding" sound it makes (the tone is very much like wind chime). I did tried the brass and alloy version of the bells in the shop and they were also very nicely sounded and maybe louder than the copper version. It could be something potential buyers should be aware of.

    I still end up getting the copper because it looks nicer and I primary want to be as "polite" as possible while on multi-use trail :)