Thursday, April 30, 2015

Who Needs a Power Meter?

Who needs a power meter?

You do, of course.

Or at least, that's what some people would like you to think. You can't pick up a bicycle magazine, or click on a bike industry cheerleading blog without reading about the latest power meter that's "guaranteed" to take your cycling up to a "new level." If you aren't measuring your watts you're just pedaling around, and what's the point of that?

Crank based, pedal mounted, or hub-based -- power meters come
in all shapes, sizes, and styles. Why limit yourself to just one?
I know that a lot of pros out there are measuring their power output, though I have no doubt that even among their ranks there are at least a few who see it as a waste of time and probably do it only to fulfill some clause in their contract. But the pros do it, so you should too. For a lot of riders out there, that's all they need to know. So they plunk down maybe another $1000 on another electronic gadget that will spit numbers at them -- numbers they can track on computer programs and combine with all the other numbers they get from their heart-rate monitors, and speed and cadence sensors -- numbers that should, if anything, just remind them that they are not professional cyclists, which is of course exactly why they don't need a power meter. What they need is to get a grip on reality.

Maybe they spend so much time watching their performance numbers that they forget to look at the numbers in their credit card statements?

You can never have too much data.
The funny thing, though, is that to the performance addicts for whom this stuff seems important, $1000 is a "bargain" for a tool that they believe will give them an edge, no matter how small and meaningless. If they're a mid-pack-finishing Cat. 4 racer, they're still going to be a mid-pack-finishing Cat. 4. Measuring increasingly intricate data won't change that. Or if they're really successful they might temporarily bump somebody out of a Strava ranking. Temporarily.

Searching around various bike blogs, I've found examples of performance addicts for whom having just one power meter wasn't enough. For something as important as measuring watts, you can't necessarily trust one type of meter to give you the most complete performance picture. You need meters of different types so you can compare the results. Get the numbers from the crank, then compare them with the numbers measured at the hub. Crunch the numbers through a computer program. Add in heart rate and everything else, and guess what? You're still an amateur, but an amateur with a lot less money.

I liked this quote from one of the blogs, Why You Need A Power Meter: "So why should you get a power meter? The short answer is that you simply are more likely to achieve your race goals by training -- and racing-- with a power meter than without. It is the most affective (sic) tool you can get to go faster on a bike."

In fact, that blogger would recommend a power meter over "fast wheels" -- "every time." "When it comes to speed the engine is always the most important part. A power meter will help you develop a bigger one. With sleek wheels you still have a small engine."

Except that for the performance addicts, it's not a question of one or the other. It's both -- or all of the above. It's the $1000 power meter and the $3000 wheels. The $6000(+) bike. It's the heart-rate monitor. The computer programs. The off-season stationary trainer. The dietary supplements. Oh, the humanity.

Ultimately, with all this data -- the obsession with numbers and incrementally miniscule (and meaningless) performance gains -- a bicycle just becomes a really expensive training device, and gets farther and farther away from what makes a bicycle great.

My advice? Forget about watts. Unplug and just enjoy the ride.

Monday, April 27, 2015

Death Knell for Rim Brakes?

The UCI, the organization which regulates professional bicycle racing, has finally "embraced" disc brakes on racing bikes -- which just might be the beginning of the end for rim brakes. It probably won't happen overnight, but now that the pros are switching over, the industry marketing machine will go into overdrive to make sure everyone makes the switch.

The UCI decision will introduce disc-brakes on a trial basis later this year as "all teams will have the opportunity to use bikes with disc brakes at two events of their choice during August and September." The testing period will continue through the 2016 racing season, and then the brakes will be introduced officially in 2017. According to the UCI announcement, "The aim is to eventually introduce disc brakes to all levels of road cycling."

Like I said, it's only a matter of time.

What I find hard to swallow in all the discussions about disc brakes, road bikes, and racing, are all the various claims being made. Take this claim from UCI President Brian Cookson: "This step is part of the UCI's desire to encourage innovation in order to ensure cycling is even more attractive for spectators, riders, bike users and broadcasters."

How exactly does this make cycling "more attractive" for spectators, or bike users? Does anybody watch bike racing and find themselves wishing that the bikes had disc brakes? Are there people out there who think, "I'd love to watch bike racing, but not until they start using disc brakes"?

As for "bike users," they've been able to get bikes with disc brakes for years now. Other than providing some kind of meaningless "validation" to their braking choice, what difference does it make if the pros used them or not?

The benefit for broadcasters is obvious. Everyone will "need" a new bike, which means more ads for the "new" and "superior" disc brakes, and the bikes equipped with them.

Of course, nobody benefits from the decision more than the makers of bikes and components. And the World Federation of the Sporting Goods Industry (WFSGI) was on hand when the UCI announcement was made earlier this month. "This decision will further develop innovation and create new possibilities for the bicycle industry as well as additional performance for the riders."

Look at some of those claims. Additional performance for the riders. Really? Apart from anecdotal evidence, I have yet to see anything that convinces me that disc brakes are remarkably better than rim brakes (which, functionally speaking, are disc brakes too). Performance in the rain is somewhat better. And one can apparently reach maximum braking with less lever effort. But the lever effort on modern rim brakes is pretty light, and the modulation is great. If the only experience one has with rim brakes is of the crummy old stamped steel calipers on steel rims of old low-budget bikes, then discs would have to look pretty amazing. Modern brakes, even some of the cheaper ones, work remarkably well. The only downsides to them are that they're light, simple, and effective.

There are other drawbacks to discs that don't get mentioned much. The components are downsized so much in an effort to reduce the weight, that overheating becomes an issue. People sometimes talk about rim brakes getting so hot on a long descent that tires could burst. That is true, but with hydraulic systems, the same scenario can result in the brake fluid boiling, leaving the user with no brakes at all. Too much heat can also warp the discs. It happens on cars with their massively thick vented brake rotors -- how can anyone argue that it doesn't happen on bikes with their tiny 1/8" (or less) thick discs?

Another issue, one that barely gets mentioned, is that disc brakes put tremendous forces on a fork at the ends where the fork is weakest, instead of near the crown where it is strongest. What this means is that the fork needs to be "beefed up" for disc brakes, making it less flexible, which in turn affects the comfort of a bike.

In the debates over disc brakes in pro racing, a claim I have heard more than a few times dealt with the danger over mixing disc and rim brakes in the same peloton. People would say that if some riders used discs while other used rim brakes, it would lead to a dangerous situation in the mountains and in the rain. Any time I've seen independent tests of brake performance, there is so little difference between rim and disc brakes that I'm convinced the concern is overblown. It makes good marketing, though.

The real issue with rim brakes in pro racing is not the brakes, but the rims. So many racers are switching (or have switched) over to carbon rims instead of aluminum -- and the braking on those, especially in the wet, is known to be lousy. It's no secret, considering that the carbon rim makers tout their best rims as having braking performance that rivals that of aluminum. That right there is probably the biggest reason for the push to disc brakes.

For most people, and in most conditions, it makes little difference.

If I were buying a new bike and it came with disc brakes, it wouldn't be a deal-killer. But nobody should get the idea that rim brakes are inferior, or necessarily obsolete. Given the simplicity of rim brakes, their solid reliability, and the versatility of having widespread brake-pad compatibility, I see no reason to make a switch. How much longer will I have the choice?

Friday, April 24, 2015

Totally Legit 100% Guaranteed Zero-Creak Bottom Bracket

Much has been written, and many curses uttered, about creaking press-fit bottom brackets on expensive state-of-the-art bicycles. Here on this blog, I take an almost perverse glee in the problem. Just last month I wrote about a couple of new entries to the bottom bracket market that were supposed to silence the issue -- the BBInfinite, and the Enduro TorqTite.

Now there's another new solution that has its makers so bold and so certain of success that they promise it to be 100% Guaranteed Zero-Creak, and it comes from a company called . . . (wait for it) . . . Legit Engineering. What seems somewhat less than "legit," however, is the fact that it's impossible to find a website or any other info about the Taiwanese company. In fact, it might just be impossible to purchase one here in the U.S.

Nevertheless, Legit has a solution, and other writers are calling it "ingenious."

What's so ingenious about it?

It's a threaded bottom bracket that fits into a press-fit shell. The two halves thread together in the middle, while the flanges tightly sandwich the frame between themselves, locking it together to eliminate creak-causing movement.

Actually, the Enduro TorqTite is also a threaded bottom bracket solution -- but the Legit unit also incorporates compressible nylon rings at the flanges that are supposed to make up for any possible variables between the BB unit and the frame, and serve as a buffer to further silence the problem.

I find it hilarious that the solution for these problematic press-fit bottom brackets is to install threaded bottom brackets -- even as the industry keeps telling people that their mind-boggling myriad of press-fit BBs are so much better than the old-tech.

What's next?

My prediction:

The next and final solution to press-fit bottom bracket woes will be a fully threaded bottom bracket unit that is tightened into matching threads cut into the frame's BB shell. Carbon frames will have an aluminum shell bonded into place, with precisely machined faces, with threads cut into it. The industry will declare it "revolutionary" and treat it like something brand new. Somebody will come up with a catchy new name for it. ThreadTech™  or something similar.

Not only that, but aftermarket companies will offer products to properly and permanently convert current press-fit BB frames to the new threaded system (and I should probably patent it right now, and I'll be able to retire early)

Here's how it will work:

A machined and internally-threaded aluminum sleeve is pressed into the bottom bracket shell with a headset press. Instead of loctite, it will be coated in permanent "aerospace bonding adhesive." Don't worry about removing it later -- why would you want to remove it? It's a permanent fix. Once the threaded sleeve is bonded in place, a proper threaded bottom bracket (sorry, ThreadTech™) can be installed. It's just like what should have been done right from the start.

Now that's legit.

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Curtis Odom - RuthWorks SF Tool Roll

Maker of exquisite vintage-styled hubs, and friend of the Retrogrouch Blog, Curtis Odom is giving cyclists a sneak peek at a new item -- a tool roll designed by Curtis, and made by RuthWorks SF.

The fabric on the inside has almost a whimsical splash
of color and pattern -- though when rolled up, it has a more
neutral "goes-with-any-classic-bike" look.
"I really like this item," Curtis wrote me. "I wanted to make a tool roll and thought about it a long time. I wanted a Ghurka bag quality item." The new roll hangs from the seat rail and seat post by a stainless steel backbone bar. When unrolled, it stays attached to the bike, and everything is easily accessible.

Curtis told me the first prototypes were made by Eric Hjeltness, who restores vintage Mercedes cars in Escondido, CA. Hjeltness's shop is not set up for production work, however, so he suggested Curtis talk to Ely Ruth Rodriquez, of RuthWorks SF, who is building quite a reputation as a maker of beautiful and functional bike bags. I don't currently have any of the RuthWorks bags, but I've seen some really gorgeous work and been reading very good reviews. Go to the RuthWorks website to see a range of drool-worthy bike luggage. Curtis tells me that the bag, which is just about ready for production, will likely retail for about $125. That might be dear for some, though keep in mind it is a hand-made item, and I understand the quality, like other RuthWorks bags, should be outstanding.

One thing you'll notice about the tool roll is that it attaches very compactly, tucked in between the saddle rails and the seatpost -- keeping it very narrow and unobtrusive. In that way, it reminds me a little of the way we used to cinch a spare sew-up tire under the saddle. I might suggest, though, that the roll have two ways to mount. One, in this more vertical orientation as shown, which is great for saddles that don't have bag loops, but maybe another option where it would mount horizontally, with the straps passing through the saddle's bag loops. Just a thought -- not a criticism.

By the way, if you click on over to Curtis' facebook page, you can see some other projects he's working on, including a wine stopper and corkscrew set, which should also be ready for production very soon.
The rando bike shown, which is owned by Ely of RuthWorks, was built by Winter Bicycles in Oregon. The leather saddle is by Rivet Cycle Works -- a U.S.-based maker of leather saddles and other bike accessories.
The tool roll looks like a stylish, but useful accessory, particularly for those times when someone is riding light and not needing (or wanting) to carry a load. Check with Curtis Odom, or with RuthWorks for availability.

Monday, April 20, 2015

Nikola Pedals: Pedal Like a Skater

You've been pedaling wrong.

I know what you're thinking. You probably thought it was enough that you pedaled in circles, and maybe even "ankling" like all the bike magazines used to say you should (do they still say that?). You might have even switched to clipless pedals that allowed more "float" to protect your knees. But none of those things is enough.

A totally new pedal design that incorporates a completely different movement has recently been developed by Nikola Innovation. At first glance, they don't appear to be much different from any other Look-type clipless pedal, but the Nikola pedals utilize something the company calls "Zivo Technology" which is a fancy, copyrighted name that means that the pedals have about 25 mm of lateral motion on the spindle.

The pedals come from Cleveland, Ohio, and were developed by Nick Stevovich who has a background in speed skating. After studying the motion of speed skaters, whose leg movement takes a lateral path as the leg extends, Stevovich believed that if a cyclist could achieve a similar movement, then they would put more muscles into the pedaling motion, and they would see more power output as a result. An added benefit is supposed to be that it might offer a more natural movement which could ease knee and/or hip pain for some riders (that claim is currently being studied).

The pedals have been tested by the Human Performance Lab at Cleveland State University in a study involving 50 riders. According to Nikola, 70% of the riders showed a 2% improvement in efficiency, and 7% more peak power. And of course, they can tell you how much time that translates into for a 40km time trial (because you always have to know how many seconds new tech will save in a time trial): 135 seconds. That's supposedly more time saved than using aero bars, a skinsuit, or an aero helmet. Okay - obviously, I couldn't care less about performance claims. But if there is actually something to the biomechanical benefits of the movement that might benefit people with hip or knee problems, then that might be worth looking into.

(from Nikola Innovation)
There are currently two versions of the pedal - one made with stainless steel for $339, and a titanium version which sells for $549. The company claims the skating-motion pedals will benefit not only racers, but also commuters, and stationary bike users. Unless the prices come down, though, I don't imagine too many commuters seeking these out.

The Nikola pedals are definitely not something I've seen before. Time will tell if they're a success, but I do know that the pedals are getting a lot of attention in the cycling press and blogs. As with most new technologies, I'm a bit skeptical -- but having never tried them, it's hard to be too sure. Would the side-to-side movement feel natural -- or awkward? As it is, I've long happy enough with traditional toe-clip and strap pedals that I don't see myself plunking down big bucks to try to pedal like a skater. Any thoughts?

Friday, April 17, 2015

Please Don't Call Them Bikes

A platypus has a duck's bill, webbed feet, and lays eggs. But that doesn't make it a duck.

Not a duck.
By that same principal, just because something has wheels and pedals does not mean it's a bike.

Not a bike.
The Raht Racer is billed by its creators on Kickstarter as the "World's first highway speed bike." Nice, but No. The Raht Racer is a small, lightweight, electric car that happens to be equipped with a pedal-powered generator to extend its battery range.

From their Kickstarter page: "If you're a die-hard bike commuter who rides in all weather, that's commendable, but most of us have a hard time riding when it's cold, wet, and dark, not to mention, in heavy traffic." In other words -- biking is great, but what you really need is a car. And let's just be honest folks -- despite all the company's references to this vehicle as a "bike," the Raht Racer is a car.

The makers of the Raht Racer talk quite a bit about safety, noting that "there are more than 40,000 bike-car accidents every year." They describe the Raht Racer as "safer than a motorcycle, or bicycle on a busy street" and tout its "integrated roll cage, reinforced carbon fiber body and automotive safety features like headlights, tail lights, seat belts & air bag." All very nice -- but don't all those "automotive safety features" basically make it a car? Small and efficient maybe -- but still a car.

By the way -- not to sound nit-picky -- but the makers of this vehicle seem to make the same mistake made by many car-centric thinkers: to believe somehow that cars are safe. They note 40,000 bike-car accidents (they don't cite where they got that number, and I can't confirm it, but let's just go with it). Those accidents result in roughly 700 cyclist deaths per year. According to NHTSA, there are an average of more than 5 million vehicular accidents every year, resulting in well over 30,000 deaths annually, and about 1.5 million injuries. If I'm getting hit by an SUV, I'd rather it happen in my car than on my bike, but that doesn't mean cars are necessarily safe. There are all kinds of ways to get killed in a car.

The Raht Racer has some interesting features that make it an innovatively efficient zero-emissions car. For example, the pedal power is connected directly to a generator that recharges the batteries and extends the vehicle's range. It's worth noting that in no way do those pedals actually propel the vehicle. Like I've said, it is NOT a bike. Not only that, but all-electric drive is available at the touch of a throttle button, and the batteries can be recharged with a regular household power outlet. Pedaling can extend the range, but it's apparently unnecessary.
An admirable project for a zero-emissions car. Please don't call it a bike.

However, unlike most cars, one can, if they wish, get some exercise while they're on their way to work. Even when sitting at a light, apparently one can keep pedaling, and the car's computer can run a workout program. "You could be driving the flat lands of North Dakota, but experiencing the hills of San Francisco, even while stuck in traffic."

The makers also claim a top speed of up to 100 mph, and a range of about 50 miles. It seats two (though only one provides pedal power -- it would be nice if both could) and weighs a claimed 570 lbs. They expect it to be priced between $35,000 - 45,000. That might put it out of reach for many people, though there could be EV subsidies available to make the cost more manageable.

Don't let me come across as too negative about the Raht Racer. All one has to do on a typical work commute is look around them to see how the vast majority of vehicles on the road only carry a single occupant. A compact, lightweight, pedal-generator electric car would probably be a great option for many of those drivers. And I'm sorry to say that, based on the fact that they are less than half-way to their fundraising goal with only days left to go, they're unlikely to make it happen. Too bad. As a car, it's pretty cool.
Crispin Sinclair with the Babel Pedal-
Assisted Electric Vehicle. (from BabelBike)

Just don't call it a bike.

Taking a somewhat different approach, the Babel Bike is touted by its creator as the most significant innovation in bicycle safety "since the 1884 Rover Safety Bicycle." I suppose it is still technically a bike, but it stretches the definition. Maybe something like this should be called a "Pedal-Assisted Electric Vehicle." There is apparently a non-electric version, but I don't imagine anyone who would be interested in such a vehicle as this would buy it without an electric motor. It is currently seeking funding on Indiegogo.

Equipped with a "safety cage" in which the rider sits, the Babel PAEV includes seatbelts, built-in lights front and rear, turn signals and hazard flashers, a loud car-like horn, and huge rear-view mirrors. It also has large U-lock-shaped bars to protect the rider's feet. Basically, this thing is loaded with almost as much "passive" safety equipment as a modern car, lacking only airbags to go the full auto. The inventor, Crispin Sinclair of the U.K., says that the design of the Babel PAEV allows it to "bounce off" lorries (that's trucks to us here in the States) instead of being dragged under them. I have my doubts. If someone gets hit on this thing by a truck, the only difference is that emergency crews will have to spend a little more time extricating them from the cage. I could be wrong. Or maybe just realistic.

The folks at say "There are a hundred reasons why this is a terrible idea. Cyclists shouldn't have to be in safety cages; they shouldn't have to defend themselves against trucks in the first place. If there was proper infrastructure for cyclists this wouldn't be necessary. If trucks and buses had side guards and proper mirrors and well trained drivers they wouldn't crush cyclists." Still, they say, "If every driver was well-trained, alert, sober, kept their eyes on the road and never made mistakes, we wouldn't need seat belts. Passive safety has worked in cars, might it not also work for bikes?"

Maybe. But then, isn't the whole point of a bicycle that it is something active, not passive?  After one adds all that "passive" equipment, is the vehicle still a bike?

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

The Dyslexic Fixie Conversion

Remember when it seemed like everyone wanted a "fixie"? (or at least, dedicated followers of fashion!) Of course, brakeless track bikes were the ultimate fixie ride for urban hipsters, but that didn't stop many many more from taking regular old vintage road bikes and converting them to fixies. At the height of the fad - what, 6 or 7 years ago? maybe more? - just think about how many classic old road bikes underwent the fixie conversion -- some with truly regrettable results. I suppose the fad saved a few classics from otherwise ending up in landfills, but there was always something vaguely unholy about slapping an aerospoke front wheel and sawed-off straight bars onto a vintage Colnago.
Still trying to figure out the saddle angle on this one. . .
Of course, the fixie fad started to decline, and I'm sure part of it had something to do with the fact that people figured out that multiple gear ratios and derailleurs were invented for a reason. But what to do with all those old fixed gear bikes after their owners realized that being able to change gears (and coast once in a while) is a really nice thing?

Well, the folks at Fyxation, from Milwaukee, have the answer: the Six Fyx Conversion Kit -- which turns a single-speed fixed-gear bike into a 6-speed derailleur bike.

The Fyxation kit includes a 120mm wide cassette hub, a 6-speed cassette, shift cables, and a Fyxation-labled Microshift derailleur and bar-end shift lever. There is also a derailleur hanger that works with bolt-on axles, and a 46 tooth chainring. The regular kit sells for $250. For those who don't want to build a new back wheel, a $300 version of the kit has a complete back wheel built with the Six Fyx hub. A 9-speed chain is needed, but not included.

I'd suggest making sure one can add brakes to their bike as well, but then, I've always believed any bike ridden on the street, fixed-gear or otherwise, should include brakes.

It's so nice when things come around full circle. Before, people were turning old road bikes into fixies. Now they'll be turning old fixies into multi-speed road bikes. I'm I alone in seeing irony here?

Monday, April 13, 2015

Zeus Bikes and Components

Basically dead-ringers for Campagnolo Record pedals,
these Zeus Gran Sport pedals feature aluminum cages. 
While going through a box containing some of my old components, I rediscovered this old pair of Zeus pedals that I had purchased years ago for another project, then didn't end up using. They got put away and were forgotten. They're a little dirty, but basically unused. I'm thinking about putting them to use soon.

Zeus was an interesting enigma of a bicycle and component company. There are a number of legends that surround the brand, though it's difficult to parse fact from fiction. They were probably best known as one of several companies making knockoff Campagnolo parts, but they also tried to earn a reputation for innovation, though the results were sometimes mixed. They were one of the few companies anywhere that made not only bike components, but also complete bicycles, including frames. They also made frame fittings, such as dropouts and fork crowns. Back in the '70s one could buy a bike with the Zeus name on the frame, as well as on virtually all the components -- and they were all actually made by Zeus (unlike, say, a Schwinn with "Schwinn-Approved" components, which were re-branded from other companies).

Later iterations of the Zeus pedals would have more of an
"hourglass" shape, and featured titanium spindles and cages!
Zeus was founded in 1926 in the Basque region of Spain, originally making small parts and components, and later frames and complete bicycles. I've read more than once that Zeus claimed to have designed the first parallelogram derailleur in the early 30s, long before Campagnolo, and even before the Nivex of 1938. It's an awesome legend -- but good luck finding any actual evidence to support it. Frank Berto, in his book The Dancing Chain, concludes that it was a corporate myth. Maybe somebody at Zeus made some pencil sketches in a notebook of such a thing, but they certainly didn't make or sell any parallelogram derailleurs prior to the 1950s, when they introduced a faithful copy of the Campagnolo Gran Sport, which they named . . . the Gran Sport. Throughout the '60s and early part of the '70s, the company copied Campy designs almost religiously. Other companies did the same, but the parts from Zeus were at least better than most copies.

A heavily drilled Zeus 2000 crankset, from a mid-70s advertisement.
The arms on later versions wouldn't be drilled completely through. 
In the late 1970s, Zeus got into the drillium craze like nobody else. Their 2000 line of components featured a crank that was milled and drilled outrageously. The rings were just peppered with holes, and the arms were slotted all the way through! The ads called them "ultra-light yet dependable," but I wonder how dependable they were. I read a review of the parts in an old issue of Bicycling where they said the crank could be visibly flexed under hard pedaling. The arms on later versions would be drilled part-way, but not all the way through. The drillium theme carried through to other components as well, including derailleurs, and brake levers.

One area where Zeus tried to out-Campy Campagnolo was in the use of Titanium. As mentioned, they were making pedals with titanium spindles and cages. Their 2000 model derailleur used titanium pivot bolts. The bottom bracket was all titanium (spindle, cups, and bolts), and the hubs used titanium axles and quick releases.

The basic design of the Zeus 2000 derailleur still owed a lot to Campagnolo. Zeus claimed that it was lighter than Super Record, though from what I've read, it was actually about the same, or slightly more. However, its pivot body sections were steel, so it's surprising that it was even close. The upper pivot bolt was titanium (why not the lower?), and as you can see, the pulley cage was heavily drilled. (photo from Classic Rendezvous)
An ad from Bicycling magazine, circa 1980. Notice the crank is not drilled all the way through anymore. According to the ad, the bottom bracket was all titanium, as were the hub axle and quick release. The crank used a smaller BCD than Campy, and could accept chainrings as small as 36 teeth. Also shown in the ad is the alloy freewheel, which preceded the Campagnolo version by a decade.
I had to search through a lot of old magazines to find an ad for one of Zeus' complete bicycles, but here's one from 1980. The Zeus Victoria was probably a nice enough racer in its day for someone on a budget who was trying like hell not to buy Japanese. The "New Racer" components were a lower-cost group, and fairly crude compared with similar priced options from SunTour and Shimano of the time. No mention in the ad about what the frame was built with, but the bike was fully equipped with Zeus parts -- even the frame pump (yes, they made a pump, too -- basically a knockoff of the Silca Imperio).

I still think the Zeus track fork-end is one of the
best looking ones out there. Much more graceful
than the Campy version.
Unfortunately for Zeus, embracing drillium and titanium weren't seen as innovative enough in the face of very serious competition coming from Japan in the late 70s and early 80s. The company tried to revamp their derailleurs and other components cosmetically, but in their basic architecture, they were still little more than copies of Campy designs that could trace their heritage back to 1950. Just imagine how they looked -- and performed -- compared to an indexing Dura Ace, or a SunTour Superbe Pro in the mid 80s?

By the end of the 1980s, Zeus was apparently finished, though the name was purchased by fellow-Spanish company Orbea, which still uses the Zeus name for things like stems and seat posts for their carbon-fiber framed racing bicycles.

When talking with vintage bike enthusiasts, you'll find that some people get fairly passionate about Zeus, and some get bristly at the suggestion that they just made Campy knockoffs. Some will tell legends of how Campagnolo contracted with Zeus to make some of their components (I've heard the same said of other companies that copied Campagnolo designs, like Ofmega), or that Zeus supplied the titanium pieces that Campagnolo used in their Super Record parts, or that Zeus would have been much bigger and better known than Campagnolo if not for the Spanish Civil War (there could actually be something to that one, but nobody will ever know). But that's what I mean when I call Zeus an enigma of a bicycle company. There are lots of stories, but it's hard to find any real evidence to support them. Ultimately, they are remembered (by those who remember them) mostly as one of the better Campy copies, with the occasional dash of flair that set them apart from the others.

Friday, April 10, 2015

Pininfarina Fuoriserie: Bicycle, or Fashion Accessory?

The car designers are at it again, building bikes for people who don't really like to ride bikes. This time, it's the Italian design firm of Pininfarina, which is probably best known for designing cars for Ferrari, collaborating with boutique bicycle builders 43 Milano, to offer this 2-wheeled fashion accessory for the über-wealthy: The Pininfarina Fuoriserie.

The Fuoriserie is said to be inspired by the "tailor made cars of the thirties" and is described by its makers as a "jewel on two wheels" that combines "tradition with innovation." It features a frame built from Dedacciai chrome-moly steel, lugged and brazed (!) then chrome-plated. (By the way, the automotive writers out there keep calling it "welded," demonstrating how much they know about bicycles). The saddle and bars are wrapped with interlaced or woven leather, inspired by the leather interior of a 1936 Lancia Astura Bocca. The inexplicably curved top tube (maybe "bent" would be a more accurate description -- it's not so much of a curve as much as it's a dog-leg) is wrapped in burled walnut. I suppose to recall the look of a vintage car's dashboard? It's another element that says this bike is more about style than anything else.

The Pininfarina Fuoriserie comes with an electric-assist motor in the rear wheel hub (it just wouldn't do to have any plutocrats arriving at the café in a sweat). There is also a generator hub in the front to power the lights and charge the user's phone (an absolute necessity for those who both move and shake!). The battery for the motor is not shown in most of the pictures, but I believe it is kept in a leather "purse" that straps to the top-tube.
That top tube is wrapped in a burled walnut veneer. This is not a bike on which to get caught in the rain. Other bikes from the 43 Milano works feature frame tubes wrapped in wood, leather, or even crocodile skin.
I can't find any confirmation of it, but I have to assume that the battery is kept in that leather "purse" strapped to the top-tube. Most photos of the bike are taken with the pack left off. And what's up with the rim brakes? I thought all the "innovative" bikes were using discs nowadays.
The $9800 bike has an $80 stem from Velo-Orange! (the bars might be V-O, too). The folks at Pininfarina and 43 Milano apparently decided not to mount a bell to the little boss provided. Maybe they thought a bell would be an unnecessary frill? That, and the bell would push the price to $9810, and that would just be ridiculous.

From the 43 Milano description: "Pininfarina Fuoriserie is a fully innovative bike that features the typical lightness and retro appeal into smooth riding under any condition. While it is versatile and easy to handle in the city, it also performs well when used for tourism purposes. . . Pininfarina Fuoriserie is indeed a cult object that does not go unnoticed, as well as a faithful riding companion. This brought to a new exclusively, innovative, refined product we are proud to introduce to the market."

Okay - I'm going to assume that's just a terrible translation. I'm not sure what they mean by "tourism purposes," but if they mean touring, then I have to wonder about the lack of fender attachment points, or racks. No, this is a "faithful riding companion" for short rides to the café only on clear, sunny days.

Only 30 Pininfarina bicycles are being made, so it's a cinch they'll be exclusive. And at about $9800, they're strictly for the 1% club. But that's okay -- people who actually use their bikes have lots of options with far more function for far less dough, and the plutocrats will be spared the indignity of bumping into one of the great unwashed masses riding the same bike.

Thursday, April 9, 2015

My New Old Brooks

I just got a new old saddle for an upcoming project for which I'm currently gathering parts. It's a honey-colored Brooks B17 Standard, which is probably my favorite all-around saddle. Prices for new B17s are around $120 - $130 nowadays.  (The first one I ever bought was probably little more than half that). The "Special" version, which has a skivved lower edge and larger, finished copper rivets, sells for around $180. Watching eBay auctions, I've found that good used B17 Standards sell for anywhere from $50 - $100, depending on how "broken-in" they are (Specials can go for a little more, obviously). This one has a slight mark on one of the rails that says it was once mounted to a bike, but otherwise it shows no sign of having ever supported anyone else's butt. No Proofide has been applied to it, either, so I didn't feel too bad paying an even $100 for it. It's basically new.

An old badge -- pre-bankruptcy.
Something I noticed about the saddle, when looking closely at it, was that it had to be in the neighborhood of 15 years old or more, despite being basically unused. Looking at the name badge on the back of the saddle, I noticed it has an older style brass badge with the words "Brooks England" on it, which was probably last used around the time that internal-gear hub maker Sturmey Archer still owned Brooks. The first B17 I ever purchased was made during that period and has the identical name badge. The Raleigh/Sturmey Archer/Brooks conglomerate went bankrupt in 1999, and Brooks was rescued by some investors who kept it going for a couple years before selling the company off to the Italian saddle maker Selle Royal in 2002. Selle Royal changed the name badges to an embossed design that itself recalls an even earlier design from the 1930s. The saddles are still made in England, but the current badge no longer says so.
Current production Brooks name badge.

That got me wondering exactly how old the saddle is. There was a time when Brooks would stamp a number code into the cantle plate (that's the steel plate at the back of the saddle where the rivets attach) which would indicate the year the saddle was made, but they seem to have stopped doing that. My oldest Brooks saddle is marked "72" and is mounted onto a very nice 1973 Mercian. Nowadays, there is an alphanumerical code stamped into the leather. I've read different explanations (or attempts at explanation) to decipher the code, but I've seen codes on some Brooks saddles that didn't seem to conform to any logical system. That would make sense, since I have read that for a time, the codes on the leather were "batch" codes, but didn't necessarily represent a manufacturing date. However, in more recent years at least, the letter is supposed to represent a month of manufacture, while the numbers indicate the year. My new old saddle is marked "9E9." If the E is a month, then it must represent May (5th letter, 5th month), and the year is probably '99. So this saddle would have been made not long before the company was put into receivership.

According to the Vintage-Trek website, which has a pretty useful article on date codes for a variety of bicycle components, the number represents a year, surrounding a letter to indicate the month. That would mean that 9E9 works out to May, 1999.
A couple more pictures:

And here's what it will look like after about 15 years and I-don't-know-how-many miles:

This one is on my Rivendell Long-Low. Like the one above, it dates to the late 90s. The color has darkened a lot, and it has taken on a nice patina. It is also supremely comfortable.
If readers want to know more about dating their Brooks saddles, or to see some of the changes in the name badges, there is the aforementioned article on the Vintage Trek website, and a useful reference on The Headbadge website. Both are worth checking out.

Some might be wondering about the project I'm working on that I mentioned at the start of this. More will be coming out in bits and pieces in the coming weeks. Stay tuned!

Wednesday, April 8, 2015

10 Most Beautiful Bicycles?

I love articles like this one from BBC Autos: The 10 Most Beautiful Bicycles. Or rather, I love to make fun of them. It's pretty clear to me that automotive writers and editors have very different priorities, and a very different interpretation of beauty. I might describe some of the bikes listed here as "interesting," and in some cases, "useful" or "utilitarian," but beauty is in the eye of the beholder.

So here's the rundown of the 10 most beautiful bicycles to a bunch of automotive editors.

BSG Wood.b Duomatic. Made in France out of plywood and aluminium, the BBC Autos editors call it "closer to art than machinery." Whatever. Wood bicycles seem to be all the rage right now. Why? Sustainability? Okay. Wood can be constructed beautifully, but this isn't. It has all the beauty of a junior-high woodshop project, and it gets even uglier when you find out that it costs over $4200. I'm guessing from the name "Duomatic" that maybe it has 2 speeds? Just a guess.

Pashley Parabike. Now this one is a classic -- or more correctly, classic-inspired. Based on the old BSA paratrooper bikes used by British soldiers during WWII, the Pashley version keeps the bowed multi-tubed frame, but lacks the folding frame of the true paratrooper bikes. Beautiful? Maybe. I prefer to call it "interesting."

Vanmoof S Series: There's something very Mies van der Rohe about the Vanmoof, which might work for modern architecture, but I don't think it makes for a beautiful bicycle.The oversized top tube, which intersects the seat and head tubes (and contains integrated head- and tail-lights) completely dominates the look of this bike, which some people seem to want to declare as the ultimate urban commuter bike. Sorry. Keep looking.

The Donky Bike is appropriately named. With 20in. wheels and cargo platforms front and rear, the Donky is supposed to be a compact alternative to much larger cargo bikes. Utilitarian, and potentially very useful to some people. But not beautiful.
Viks Urban Cycle. Designed by Estonia's Velonia studio, the Viks is best described as industrial minimalist -- right down to its seat-tube-less frame design. Its shape is formed out of two large steel tubes that join together at the head tube. Given the extra wheel-following curve at the "down-tube," it seems like they've more than made up for whatever weight they lost with the lack of a seat tube -- while further reducing structural integrity at the same time. According to the designers, brakes would be very tricky to fit. In other words, this is better suited for hanging on the wall than actually riding.

GreenChamp Original: Made in Singapore out of bamboo (technically a grass, not a wood) that has been infused with honey (?) the GreenChamp is a balance bike for teaching kids to ride. The BBC Autos editors call it "a triumph of design." Why? Kinda looks like a bike that a kid might make out of Lincoln Logs. 

Cherubim Hummingbird. In sort of an art-deco inspired streamliner sort of way, the Hummingbird is, I'll admit, kind of beautiful. From a functional standpoint, well, I suppose it is rideable art, with the emphasis more on "art" than "rideable." One of the truly unusual details is the arching top tube that blends into the handlebar stem (visually - not physically), and continues out over the back wheel. I've never seen it in person, but I understand it is exquisitely made.

Faraday Porteur. It doesn't look like it at first glance, but the Faraday Porteur, from Portland Oregon, is an electric-assist bike. It has a hub motor, with batteries packed into the frame tubes, and offers up to 15 miles of electric assist. The Porteur's look has a certain industrial functionality that makes it better looking than most e-bikes I've seen -- but I don't think I'd call it beautiful, either.

Engeenius Cykno. Made in Italy, the Cykno makes me think more of vintage motorcycles than bicycles. I can't tell if that's stainless steel in the frame, or what, but the forks, as well as the radial-spoked wheels, are carbon fiber. It's another e-bike, weighing in at 57 lbs. Lucky that its 500-watt motor and battery pack (tucked inside that leather-wrapped central compartment) give a 37-mile range. Getting stranded with a dead battery on this thing would mean a pretty brutal pedal home. Again, I might describe the look as "interesting" but beauty is in the eye of the beholder. Oh - by the way - this thing sells for about $22,000.

World Bicycle Relief Buffalo. Proving that there are multiple ways to define beauty, the Buffalo is perhaps beautiful for what it does or what it represents, more than how it looks. Basically not much different from any typical utility bicycle, the Buffalo is designed to help provide relief in Africa. The U.S.-based charity World Bicycle Relief provides the bikes to facilities in several African nations where they are assembled by local workers, and donated to various organizations, or sold cheaply to consumers who need them for transportation. 

Well, there you have 'em. The 10 most beautiful bicycles. Any thoughts?

Monday, April 6, 2015

Home - or Stay Home. Hollywood Hates Bicycles

I took my kids to see a movie today -- Home, from DreamWorks Animation. The film is about an invasion of Earth by colorful, vaguely cuddly-looking aliens called the Boov -- one of which, named Oh, is something of a misfit among his kind. Being pursued by his fellow Boov because of his ineptitude, Oh befriends a human girl named Tip, who is searching for her mother, who was taken away with most of the other humans by the Boov early in the invasion. As a movie for kids under 10, it was fine -- my girls enjoyed it, though unlike your average Pixar film, which can work on multiple levels for all kinds of viewers, there wasn't a lot there to keep adults entertained. Nevermind that, though. This isn't really a movie review.
In Home, cars are apparently okay - but bicycles are "useless."

No - this is just another example of how Hollywood hates bicycles.

What's the deal?

When the film opens, we learn that the Boov are fleeing another alien race called the Gorg, who have been pursuing the Boov across the galaxy for reasons I won't reveal here (though it involves a plot twist that my 9-yr. old daughter saw through in the first 5 minutes). The Boov have chosen Earth as their next safe haven, so they invade the planet -- first by sucking up all the humans and relocating them to a colony in Australia -- then by moving into the newly vacated cities. After the humans are relocated, the Boov set about making "improvements" to the cities by getting rid of all the "useless" junk.

And what is the first "useless" thing we see the Boov disposing of? Bicycles, of course. The film shows the aliens sucking up all the bicycles off the streets, including whole racks of them, rack and all.

Now, to be fair, other "useless" items we later see the aliens disposing of are things like sculptures, garbage cans (the Boov must not generate much trash) and human toilets. I'm sure the filmmakers would defend their choice by arguing that the Boov can't use bicycles due to their peculiar anatomy, much the way that their unique biology makes human toilets unnecessary to them. But they also don't need cars, since we see them by the thousands traveling around in little flying "bubble" vehicles (which I suppose are like cars of a different sort). They don't get rid of the cars, though. It's the bicycles that are "useless." In fact, Oh and Tip spend most of the movie traveling in Tip's mother's car, which has been "improved" by Oh so it can fly (fueled by frozen slushie drinks, apparently).

Think about the message kids get from that early scene. Bicycles are useless, but everyone (even aliens, apparently) drive cars. It's just another example of the way that Hollywood reinforces the notion that bicycles are inferior to cars. In this case, they're explicitly "useless." And given that this is basically a film for kids, I have a hard time seeing the message as anything other than blatant propaganda. Teach 'em young, I guess. Most kids don't ride bikes anymore, and I'm not sure they even want to.

Go by the average American elementary school on a typical morning and see the long line of minivans and SUVs dropping kids off for school -- a freakish every-man-(or child)-for-himself clusterf*$k where anyone would be taking their life into their own hands by trying to arrive on foot or bicycle -- assuming they were daring (or stupid) enough to try. Kids don't ride to school, and I'm guessing their hovering parents wouldn't dream of letting them do it because it's been drilled into them that bicycling is unsafe. (Ironically, though, the same parents will sign their little boys up for football). Even toddlers want cars -- in the form of little battery-powered drivable SUVs, just like the ones their parents drive. Kids learn early on that cars equal status.

When bicycles aren't "useless," they are
dork chariots -- the butt of a car-centric joke.
Why is it that Hollywood so often portrays bicycles (and the people who ride them) as a joke? Remember 40-Year-Old-Virgin? The film is about a guy who's such an unbelievable dork that he makes it all the way to middle age without ever having sex. And how does the dorky 40-yr.-old-virgin get around? On a bicycle of course -- the ultimate dork-chariot, apparently. There are lots of other examples too. Bicycles are not to be taken seriously. People who ride them are a joke. They are middle-aged virgins. Or overgrown children (like Pee-Wee Herman). Or sometimes they're pompous, environmentally-conscious douches who need to be taken down notch. Is it only the status thing? Or is it because people in L.A. have built themselves a city in which cars and air-conditioning are king? Either way, a lot of people -- especially young people -- take their cues of what's hot and what's not from Hollywood. And its rare to see anyone in TV or movies these days choose to ride a bike and not be the butt of some kind of joke.

My kids seemed to enjoy Home well enough, and I always enjoy watching movies with them. But I think the best times we have together are the times we spend riding our bikes -- to the library, or around the park, or to have a picnic along the nearby bike trail. I hope that's the message that sticks with them, not the message they get from mediocre movies like Home.

Friday, April 3, 2015

Mandatory Helmet Use - Coming Soon To A State Near You

Many of you probably wear a helmet when you ride, at least most of the time. Great. Good for you. A helmet may protect your head in the event of certain types of falls or impacts.

But should helmet use be required by law?

If you're thinking, "Why not - I already wear a helmet" then you're not seeing the bigger picture. Helmet laws are just the first step in policies aimed at redirecting all blame and responsibility away from drivers, and onto cyclists by adding more and more restrictions and regulations -- supposedly in the name of safety "for their own good" -- until the time comes when cyclists are no longer permitted to ride on the road at all.

Think I'm being paranoid? The proposed laws are already reaching further than just helmets. Don't kid yourself that it won't continue.

From StreetsBlog LA
One law under consideration in California, SB192, proposed by Sen. Carol Liu, would make helmets mandatory for all cyclists in that state, regardless of age. But it would also require high-visibility reflective clothing to be worn after dark. It's worth noting that if the CA law is successfully implemented, other states will likely use it as a model for similar legislation.

Another law proposed in Wyoming, HB 0206, would also require cyclists to wear "not less than 200 sq. inches of high visibility fluorescent orange, green, or pink clothing visible from the front and rear of the bicycle," along with flashing lights at the rear of the bike, and would also require cyclists to carry government issued photo identification.

Just wait -- mandatory bike license and registration will be next. You know, because cyclists supposedly don't pay for the roads (which is actually a car-centric myth that gets thrown around as unchallenged fact). As it is right now, bicyclists use the road by right - motorists use the road by license. If someone drives badly, accumulating too many violations, they can lose their license to drive. But they cannot be prevented from riding a bike. Not yet.
From Outside Online.

But I'm digressing -- because it all starts with helmet laws.

The way I see it, mandatory helmet laws are anti-cyclist laws -- as in, laws designed to reduce the number of cyclists on the roads. And as European cities like Copenhagen and Amsterdam (where nobody wears a helmet) can demonstrate, cyclists are safer on the roads when there are more cyclists.

Many states currently have laws mandating helmet use for children, and those states have seen a reduction in fatalities among children on bikes. However, it is also documented in research that those states have also seen a significant reduction in children riding bikes at all. So it's difficult to know whether those fatality reductions are because of the helmets, or because there are fewer kids riding bikes.

Much of the evidence about helmets saving lives is anecdotal. "I wouldn't be alive if I wasn't wearing my helmet." Maybe. Maybe not -- there's really no way to prove it. There are statistics about helmet use and fatalities, but those statistics are often flawed or incomplete.

People who actually study helmet safety -- the standards and the testing methods -- know that a helmet may protect a cyclist in certain types of accidents, like a basic fall (the kinds of accidents that children and other inexperienced riders are most likely to have). But if that rider's head goes through the windshield of a speeding car, with or without a helmet, he or she is likely going to be DOA. Bicycle helmets simply are not designed to protect in that kind of impact. Cyclists know (or should know) that. Motorists probably don't.

Mandatory helmet laws side-step the real dangers faced by cyclists in favor of the distorted perception of danger by people who do not ride. I mentioned in an earlier post about how for people who don't ride, helmet use is everything. People who drive and never ride ignore the fact that the most dangerous thing they do day after day is get behind the wheel of a car. It is dangerous to themselves, and to the people around them. But in their minds, cars are safe. Bicycles are dangerous. And helmets are the difference. To these car-centric thinkers and legislators, as long as we can get every cyclist to wear a helmet, then we won't have to do anything about the real dangers cyclists face -- from distracted drivers, speeders, and even from bad road design/infrastructure.

Think about it. Where are the distracted driving laws? Texting-and-driving laws? The previous governor of Texas, Rick Perry, was absolutely adamant that he would not sign any anti-texting laws in his state because he didn't want to "micromanage adult behavior." In my state, Ohio, we have what our governor called the toughest texting-and-driving law in the country, yet it is only a secondary offense, which means that it's almost impossible to be pulled over for texting while driving. In other words, it's only illegal if you get caught doing something else. The law has done nothing to curtail the practice.

Recommended Reading - BSNYC
And speeding? And red light running? Look how automotive clubs and advocates have taken to trying to dismantle any attempts at enforcing speed limits and red lights. Look at how those same people have been fighting against 3-ft. passing laws. My state, like many others, is still debating such a law -- and opposition from automotive interests is strong. Some states have passed 3-ft. passing laws, and now the automotive interests want mandatory helmet laws as some kind of tit-for-tat give-back.

In an editorial in the Contra Costa Times, the editors chastise cyclists who oppose California's SB192. "A vocal contingent objects for reasons that are sometimes mind-boggling. Interestingly, even many of them wear helmets . . . They just don't want a law requiring it. We wonder if they felt the same way about the three-foot passing rule, that it's a good idea but motorists shouldn't be required to follow it. Probably not."

See what they did there? It's all equal. You're going to make us pass a law that says we have to use some common-sense caution when we drive our 2-ton weapon of mass destruction, so now you've got to give us something in return. You get your 3-ft. passing law -- but now you've gotta wear your helmets. Like it's all the same thing.

I'm also shocked at some of the cyclists arguing in favor of helmet laws. The cycling blog Red Kite Prayer (which I usually enjoy) had this to say on the subject. "I agree that making someone put on a helmet for a trip to the neighborhood store is kind of ridiculous. Here's my problem with opposing a helmet law: we already have a PR problem with motorists, and opposing mandatory helmets only makes it worse."

So, what is our PR problem? RKP continues, "They see people who run stop signs, weave in and out of traffic, ride in packs, take up a lane, and so on. It's not a pretty picture. Sure, most of us are wearing helmets as we bend rules and traffic laws, but that's not what the pissed off drivers see. So when they hear cyclists are opposed to a helmet law, it only furthers their belief that we are selfish, unpredictable, and dangerous."

The way I see it, this argument is self-contradictory. "Sure, most of us are wearing helmets as we bend rules and traffic laws, but that's not what the pissed off drivers see." Exactly. Drivers see the bad behavior -- and the helmet doesn't make it OK. Want to do something about the PR problem? Stop "bending" the rules. Stop for lights and signs (and that goes for group/club rides, too). Don't weave in and out of traffic. Ride like traffic -- or better.

Keep in mind through all of this that I'm not saying don't wear a helmet. It's a good idea, but don't ever over-estimate what a helmet will do for you. I insist that my children wear them. I wear one most of the time -- though I don't feel the need when I'm riding along in my neighborhood to pick up some take-out, or running to the store. I'm capable of making that choice, and I'd like to keep it that way.

If your state is considering a compulsory helmet law, I'd encourage you to make as much noise in opposition as possible. Don't think for a minute that it's okay to appease them and hope that the legislators will be satisfied with their helmet law and then leave the issue alone. I'm not just talking about "slippery slope" and being paranoid. The other requirements and restrictions -- like clothing, flashing beacons, and licenses and registrations -- are all out there already and being considered. If we allow helmet laws to happen, the rest is only a matter of time.