Preparing for STP

Some of you may have heard that my son Shawn and I have committed to riding Seattle to Portland this year on our tandem. We started upping our mileage the first Sunday in February. A natural question might be why? I think the answer is simply that both of us work better if we have a goal to shoot for. This isn’t the first rodeo for either one of us. I think that we road STP together for the first time thirty years ago when Shawn was twelve. I’d already ridden it several times prior to that, and in fact was one of 64 riders who rode it the very first year when STP was a 200 mile time trial, with no drafting allowed.

View from the back of the tandem during Daffodil 2014 (photo by the editor)

And no we aren’t really riding with the idea of setting a fast time. The sub 8 hour ride I did comfortably in the middle of 150 or so riders is safe. STP was a different ride then, in fact they don’t even keep rider times anymore, which honestly makes me kind of sad. I enjoyed being “tested”, and what better way than a long, hard, fast ride with published times that allowed your friends and acquaintances to compare their time with yours. But we do want to do the ride in what I would describe as in “good style”. And what does that mean exactly? Well I’m sure that it varies from rider to rider, but I think that for Shawn and I it means that we prepare well enough that we aren’t forced to struggle, that we ride strong, and finish stronger, pacing ourselves, but riding close enough to our limits that there is no sure thing.

I’ve already noticed some major improvement. We are riding better and faster. It’s still amazing how a big increase in mileage will provide quick and often big improvement. Sure we’ve suffered some equipment issues and a rash of tire problems but rather now then during a big ride. A couple of things have become clear as well. First off, I still love riding my bike, as hard and fast as I can. And secondly I really enjoy riding and spending time with my son. That I still have both of these pluses in my life makes me a very lucky man.

Mt. Rainier as seen from the course of the Daffodil Classic, 2014 (photo by the editor)

Mt. Rainier as seen from the course of the Daffodil Classic, 2014 (photo by the editor)

Finally, I think all of us who live in the Northwest need to take a deep breath and look around. Last weekend, as part of our STP warm up Shawn and I went up to Orting to ride the Daffodil Century. Neither of us had ridden it for a few years, and they have changed the course. I’d heard some grumbling about too much traffic and rude drivers, and frankly it isn’t perfect. But damn what a great place to ride a bike. It was the first really nice day of the year, but it wasn’t just that. It looked like you could just about reach out and touch Mount Rainer which certainly helps but it wasn’t just that either. It’s finally Spring in Washington and everything is growing much of it in that special green of each unique species that you only see in the Northwest in the Spring. And finally there really is no place nicer than our region to ride a bicycle anywhere. You heard it here “ The nicest place to ride a bike anywhere”. What cars?

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Dan Henry

Ever wonder how the Dan Henry arrows we use to mark courses got their name?You can get the lowdown here-

http://www.bikescor.com/dedication.html

Thanks to Alan Woods for pointing us at this article!

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The Same Mistakes All Over Again

The author at the front of a pace line

The author at the front of a pace line

One of the most painful things about getting older is watching a new crop of riders making the same mistakes that you watched one or more previous generations stumble through. Case in point, recently I was out on an evening ride. As is often the case, I was using the bike path to get out of town. Just as I was re-entering the bike path after jogging around the grade school I ran into two young bike racers of my acquaintance. It was a fall evening, and while the sun was out at that moment it had rained earlier in the day. I’d call the conditions “sticky” the trail had a lot of leaves and fir needles on it and was still wet. My young friends were riding their race bikes without fenders. One of them had his helmet strapped to his handlebars. I’m sure they thought they looked very “Euro”. They didn’t, and in fact looked cold and foolish. Both were covered in leaves and needles from the trail and soaked to the skin. To make matters worse, if that’s possible, their bikes were covered with the same debris that they were.

Don’t get me wrong, I am well aware that to be an excellent cyclist, be it racer, tourist or sportif, you need to ride all year long. Bike racers in particular, need to build a big base of miles during the worst time of year. But to do so, on a bicycle without fenders is a mistake of the highest level. Why so, you might ask. If the rider can tolerate it, why put up with the hassle and extra weight of fenders? The answer is more complex than you might imagine, so let’s bite it off in chunks.

First, and perhaps foremost is that in my experience one of the secrets of becoming a strong cyclist is to avoid illness and injury. Riding in wet and dirty cycling clothes can cause both. One of the secrets of our climate is that it really doesn’t rain that hard, that often. Most of the rain that we do get comes in the form of a constant mist. Unfortunately it collects on the road or trail, and if you ride a bike without fenders this mixture of water and dirt covers you and your bike. Even if you think you can tolerate it and your expensive cycling clothes being wet and dirty (and I think you are wrong)- there are other negatives.

A good fender with a proper flap will protect yourself, your bike, and your fellow riders. (Photo courtesy of the editor)

A good fender with a proper flap will protect yourself, your bike, and your fellow riders.
(Photo courtesy of the editor)

One of the things that I clearly remember about being a bicycle racer was the challenge of juggling family obligations with the necessities of spending a lot of time on a bicycle. To make things worse, I remember finding that the amount of time spent getting in training miles during much of the year was often almost equaled by the amount of time required to keep the bicycle running efficiently. Fenders help reduce maintenance time by directing the flow of dirty water away from the drive train and moving parts of the bicycle. Don’t forget mud flaps that almost touch the ground, front and rear. The rear is at least as important as the front if you are riding in a group.

A flap that reaches nearly to the ground is almost as important as a good full coverage fender. (Photo courtesy of the editor)

A flap that reaches nearly to the ground is almost as important as a good full coverage fender.
(Photo courtesy of the editor)

Recently, on a Sunday ride I was riding with a friend who had fenders. He doesn’t often ride with other people, so he hadn’t realized the effect of not having a quality rear mud flap. When I got home from the ride, I not only had to wash my bike, but every piece of clothing that I had on including the “Bar Mitts” that cover my brake levers to keep my hands warm. I know some of us have achieved some unwanted notoriety for complaining about the quality of other peoples mud flaps (Byron…) but it does make a big difference. Unnecessary gear washing not only takes time and energy, but shortens the life expectancy and waterproofness of cycling clothes and gear.

The punch line is simply this, rider health and comfort, results in more and a higher quality of miles. So put fenders and mud flaps on your bike. If your bike won’t accept fenders get another bike. It rains for nine months of the year here, your winter bike will undoubtedly get more miles than your “Sunday” race bike, or at least it should.

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An Interview with Shawn Stevenson

Recently we sat down with frame builder Shawn Stevenson.  He’s one of the primary writers for Cycle Sportive, so we were interested in seeing what makes him tick.

 

Our Interviewee

Our Interviewee

CS- If we read your sales material we know your father is, “The Greatest Unknown Frame Builder.”  What’s your story?

My dad was already very seriously involved with cycling and frame building when I was born in 1972, so I’ve always been around bicycle culture.  I was riding in a trailer before I can remember.  I started riding on the back of a kid back converted tandem at four and ‘rode’ my first century before I was five.  I literally grew up in the bike shops and frame shops my dad worked at.  Family vacations were always cycle tours.  Some of these involved my riding hundreds of miles on the middle of a fully-loaded triple with a trailer.

The author and the editor on a tandem with kid back conversion circa 1975 or 1976

Shawn on the back of a tandem with kid back conversion circa 1975 or 1976

As I got older I did some club riding on tandem with my dad.  At some point teen rebellion took its course and for me that involved trying to build my own identity away from cycling for a while.  I still had a few part time industry jobs in high school- driving a broom at Fisher and doing shipping and receiving at Alpinestars and I rode bikes for transportation.

I had a series of jobs representing Taiwanese bicycle companies in the U.S. during my early twenties.  I also started to ride seriously.  This was mostly what I would call cycle sportive riding.  I did a lot centuries and some double centuries.   I dabbled with road racing, rode a lot of club time trials, mountain biked, and did some randonneuring.  In late 1995 I started building frames with my dad.  I mostly did frame finishing work, bike fittings, and a good chunk of the frame design for a while. This went on for about five years.

I went back to school full time in 2001; got my BA and put in three years towards a history PhD.  I worked some summers selling bikes at The Bike Stand here in Olympia.  In 2008 my life was in chaos.  My partner at the time had some serious health issues that were very stressful to deal with.  I needed a change.  The opportunity to take on a management role at The Bike Stand presented itself and I jumped at it.  Working as a manager and buyer for a good size, full spectrum, bike shop was a lot of fun for a while.  Unfortunately, the economy tanked about the time I came on.  We were insulated from that here in Olympia because the state government is such a big employer, but it eventually had an impact.  REI came to town and really hit our associated outdoor business hard.  When the business was looking ready to crack a million dollars in sales it made sense to have a second buyer.  When it had been trending the other direction rapidly for over a year that wasn’t really wasn’t the case anymore and I was dispensable.

 

CS- This was fall of 2012? 

Yeah.  That’s right.

 

CS- Then what happened?

It took me a while to figure out what I wanted to do.  Dad had been building, as a hobby the whole time and I’d helped out with that occasionally.  It was pretty clear to me for a long time that frame building might have a lot of untapped financial potential.  I philosophically wasn’t very excited about taking on another boss.  I also really liked the idea of getting back into doing artisan work where you make something concrete that you can look at when you go home at night.  The idea of putting myself in a situation where I might carry on my dad’s legacy as a frame builder was also on my mind.  I approached him and suggested that we put the frame operation back on a business footing, start promoting it, and see how it went.

 

CS- How has that played out so far?

I’ve been able to bring a lot of energy and enthusiasm to the project.  We’ve got a new web site; we’ve started a separate cycling blog focused on cycle sportive style riding and culture.  I’ve set up dealer accounts so we can do complete bikes in addition to just frames.  I have also put a lot of effort into compiling some professional photography.  We are lucky to have supporters like Doug Rosenfield, Alan Woods, and Paul Reynolds who are both amazing photographers and generous enough to share some of their work with us.  Working up a business plan and model has also taken up a lot of my time.

There have been some challenges.  The biggest one is trying to take the operation from zero to full speed ahead quickly.  We started out with no backlog of orders.  This means that we are positioned to offer quick delivery, which is a competitive advantage compared to other builders with the amount of time we have in the business.  On the other hand it’s kind of an insecure place to be.  For this to work we need to get to a place where I can count on some regular income.  That means we need to rack up some orders quickly.  I’m working at that pretty hard, but it remains to see when it will start to pay off.

 

CS- Let’s shift gears a little bit.  Do you have your own philosophy when it comes to frame design?

That’s a bit of a trick question.  I’ve been brought up drinking my dad’s Kool-Aid when it comes to bicycles.  We are very much on the same page when it comes to what we like in a frame and what we think a quality frame or bicycle ought to be like.

That said, I can tell you what I think is important and what I like in a frame.  For starters, there’s a reason we build steel bikes.  I own an aluminum bike and I do ride it, but I think the stiffness of that material results in a harsh ride, especially on rough road surfaces.  I can’t get very excited about riding it more than 35 miles on the roads around here- and that frame was specially designed to mitigate the bad characteristics associated with riding aluminum bikes.  I’ve had better experience riding carbon fiber bikes, but they’ve still been less than optimum.  Carbon bikes are light and you can get good stiffness out of them.  Carbon absorbs a certain amount of road shock, so a good carbon bike isn’t going to rattle your fillings out like an aluminum bike.  What I don’t like about carbon bikes is that there is something kind of dead about how they ride.  In the worst cases you get a bike that rides like a dead fish.  Other carbon bikes give a pretty neutral ride.  They don’t have any bad characteristics, but they lack the liveliness that allows you to really get in tune with a good steel bike.  There is also the issue of reparability.  Carbon frames are brittle.  They are particularly vulnerable to point impacts.  They are repairable in some cases, but it is painfully expensive.  A dent from impact with a handlebar in a crash that might cost you $40 and a paint job to fix on a steel bike is going to punch a hole in your carbon bike that will set you back $1000, plus or minus, to repair.  I’m agnostic about titanium.  It’s metal, which I like and low weight is certainly a positive.  Expense is an issue and I just haven’t ridden ti enough to have a strong opinion.

Aesthetically, I like lugs with clean lines and long points.  The kind of look you see on Italian bikes like Cinelli Supercorsas or Masi Gran Criteriums.  I like the graphics on vintage British bikes- pin striping, panels, box stripes, and so on.

Conceptually, I gravitate towards bikes along the lines of the British club bike or French sportif bike- a frame that is sporty, but is designed to work with fenders and a slightly larger tire like a 25 or a 28 on a 700c bike.  I also like a light frame with short chain stays.   Correct fit is certainly crucial.

If I were to put it all together into my ideal frame you would end up with something like the one we built for Alan Woods’s club bike, which we will be profiling soon.  It would be a bike built from the lightest available tubing- like Reynolds 953 or True Temper S3.  It would have clean lugs with long points.  They’d be pin striped.  The bike would certainly have a panel on the seat tube and perhaps another on the down tube.  I might go for box stripes as well.  I might use a curved seat tube to get a little shorter chain stay with the fenders and clearance for a larger tire.

 

Photo courtesy of Alan Woods

Photo courtesy of Alan Woods

 

CS- This is what you would call a cycle sportive bike? 

That’s right.

 

CS- Tell us a little more about what the concept means for you.

I think that the majority of people riding high-end road bikes are enthusiast riders.  They are riding for fitness.  They want to ride fast, and they might race some, but they don’t think of themselves primarily as racers.  They may do loaded touring, but that’s not the majority of what they do on a bike.  They aren’t ultra-distance riders or randonneurs.  They mostly do club rides and organized events like centuries or perhaps the occasional double century.  They ride year round.

This sort of rider needs a specialized bike.  It needs to be comfortable over long distances, sporty, and suitable for riding on wet roads and other bad conditions.  Typically this isn’t what the industry is providing in a production bike.  What you see instead, most often, is a repurposed carbon or aluminum race bike. There is nothing wrong with a light bike with racing geometry.  It just needs to do the other things- be comfortable and able to handle a fender easily.  This isn’t what the big bike companies are building. If you do see a production bike made from steel with adequate clearances it’s probably made from heavier tubing to allow it to be positioned at a lower price point.  What we really want to do at Stevenson is provide people with the most appropriate bikes for the type of riding they are actually doing.

 

CS- Is this a heavy bike?

Absolutely not!  An extra centimeter or two of chain stay with bigger clearances adds minimal weight.  Fender braze-ons only weigh a few grams.  A good pair of fenders weighs in just under a pound.  A top of the line sportive bike should only weigh a pound or so more than an equivalent racing bike.  There is no reason you couldn’t build a sixteen pound sportive bike.

 

CS- So these are racy bikes you are talking about?

That’s what the sportive rider needs.  Performance is a big part of the equation.  If you are doing fast club riding you want all the traits of a good race bike- light weight and good, confidence inspiring handling, good power transfer, and good climbing ability.  That’s what we strive to provide with our sportive bikes.

 

CS- This has been informative.  Thanks for your time.

You are welcome.  Anytime…

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Book Reviews: Rene Herse by Jan Heine and Rebour by Frank Berto and Rob Van Der Plas

herse_cover_med_res1

If I had thought about it at all, which I hadn’t, I’m sure that I would have concluded that my book reporting days were over. Since it had been over forty years since I wrote the last one, you could even say that a precedence had been set. But I can’t help but smile as I sit down to write not one but two book reports! Who would have guessed that we’d be fortunate enough to have published in the year  2013 two books that I am excited enough  about that I want to tell you about them. A good year indeed.

The first book is called Rene Herse: The Bikes, the Builder, the Riders and the text was written by Jan Heine. It is a big beautiful  book with literally hundreds of wonderful photographs. Sadly, like many beautiful books, it is also expensive enough at $80.00 that many of us might not have jumped at purchasing a copy when it first came out. Don’t make that mistake, with the exception that the book is just too big and heavy to handle in the bath tub (my favorite place to read), nearly everything about this book makes it a perfect product deserving of your time, energy, and yes money.

For me the book got off to an emotional start with the dedication to Lyli Herse, Rene’s daughter and a personal hero of mine. Some of you who started cycling around the time I did, may remember seeing pictures of Lyli. A beautiful young French woman, always on a bike, with the caption almost always alluding to some new racing or sportif success. In the pictures she always seemed to be working hard but enjoying herself as well. We often make the statement that so and so “ looks good on the bike”. To me Lyli Herse always epitomized this statement. One photograph is burned into my memory, it shows her on what is clearly a huge climb, riding with her hands near the stem, clearly working hard on an all chrome bicycle. There is a small grin on her face. The caption identifies the climb and event and then says something to the effect of  “ Lyli Herse on her way to establishing a new course record!” A record that still stands by the way. Lyli, who is still alive, also wrote the foreword for this book. It is a touching tribute to her parents, (her mother was also involved with the business) and she supplied many of the photographs from her personal collection.

For those of you not familiar with Rene Herse, most cycling scholars consider him one of the  most influential and talented bicycle manufacturers of the classic era of cycling. He was active from approximately 1940 to his death in 1976 when Lyli and her husband  Jean Desbois  took  over the business, they continued to build bikes under the Herse brand until 1986, when ill health, and advancing age forced them to close the shop. During this time they produced between five and six thousand bikes. The book starts with a brief account of Rene’s work experience and cycling enthusiasm and moves quickly to the point where he decides to build bicycles. Besides complete bicycles Herse also designed and manufactuered  pedals, a beautiful crankset, stems, and an early version of cantilever brakeset. Pictures of early versions of each product are fascinating to compare to the more refined versions shown later in the book. Also interesting are descriptions of how some of the products were produced  with relatively time consuming and primitive methods but with often astonishing results.

A considerable amount of space is given to the description of a unique series of events  which took place in France called “Technical Trials”. The author makes a strong case that these trials starting in the mid thirties and running  thru the mid fifties resulted in the refinement of the bicycle from its early forms to what we now know as  the modern performance bicycle. In fact the author makes  a strong case that the bicycles made by Herse  were and are superior to much of what we ride today and then goes on thru accounts and pictures to make his argument of how this could be true.

And while there are plenty of “bike porn” pictures of Herse bikes many taken by Jean-Pierre Praderes who took the photos for “The Golden Age of Bicycles” relatively quickly we go to talking about people and the events that they took part in. I think Jan deserves particular credit for going out and getting first person commentary from participants, while they are still around. Certainly, there are records of placings for most of the events that are discussed, but first hand descriptions of how things transpired in an event make for a much more colorful and rich recounting. I quickly found myself being sucked into events that happened almost seventy-five years ago. I found the personal profiles of riders that rode for Herse sponsored teams particularly interesting. As was the re-counting of what took place in Paris during the German occupation during the Second World War. I would have guessed that no cycling would have taken place, but in fact a vibrant cycling scene seems to have existed.

On reflection there is one discordant note, Rene Herse is always referred  to as a “constructeur” of cycletouring bicycles, and he certainly was that, however  virtually all of the events and trials discussed in the book are races. There were winners and losers. Lyli Herse was eight time amateur champion of France. She was a bicycle racer, an excellent and elegant one perhaps, with the heart of a cycletourist but a racer none the less. The team that Herse supported was a racing team. Even when riding what we label as a randonneuring event such as Paris Brest Paris, it was ridden as a race. To have the fastest time, to win. Herse built racing bikes for bicycle racers. To deny this is futile. That the bikes would accept fenders and small front racks speaks more to the virtues of race bikes of this era, than it does making them into cycletouring bikes. Certainly it was amateur racing done for fun not money. To me this makes it better, and takes nothing away from the man who built the beautiful machines that allowed racers to win races, and why should it? And why are we afraid to say out loud, Rene Herse made beautiful, thoughtfull, and elegant bicycles that won races? Why are we pretending that he did something else?

Buy the book. It is a great book- clearly a labor of love on a wonderful virtually unwritten upon subject and era, a monumental project with a style and grace that I’m sure Rene would appreciate.

 

REB

 

 

The second book that I’d like to report on is much more  modest in its scope and ambitions. The book is called simply “Rebour” and is a collection of illustrations in pen and ink by the French illustrator Daniel Rebour. Authorship is claimed by Frank Berto and Rob Van Der Plas, though the only text is what I would call captions near the drawings, some of which are inaccurate, or editorialize needlessly.

For those of you not familiar with Daniel Rebour’s work he was a regular contributor to several French periodicals, often providing drawings of “best of show” kind of products from the Paris, London, and Milan bike shows. He also Illustrated catalogs for Rene Herse (one of which is shown in it’s entirety in the Rene Herse book), Alex Singer, Milremo, and provided some images for the Ron Kitching handbook, among  other publications. Rebour’s  style is ultra realistic and  intended to provide a very real look and feel of an object, with black ink on white paper. I love Rebour’s work, but I was disappointed that there were no new images here. Arranged and formatted differently but all stuff I’d seen before. Coupled with the inane and offensive “captions” this is fifty bucks I wouldn’t spend again.  If you already have previous publications of Rebour’s work such as The Data Book, I certainly can’t recommend you run out and purchase this book.  If you don’t have those earlier books, I recommend you seek them out instead.

Reviews by W.D. Stevenson

 

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The Joy of Pace Line Riding

Yesterday I had the wonderful experience of running into a couple of my riding buddies about fifteen miles from home at an espresso stand in the beautiful little town of Littlerock Washington. The espresso stand is called Hillbilly Beans and makes the best unsweetened mocha you will find anywhere. We stood around talking and drinking coffee for quite a while. When we got back on our bikes and headed back to Olympia, it became clear that not only were we on a relatively flat road, but that road was nicely lined up with a fairly stiff tail wind. Well, one thing leads to another. It started off slow enough, three of us taking short pulls, each one going just a little bit faster than the last one who’d been at the front. Soon we were going fast, just inside each of our comfort zones, working hard, but not struggling. It doesn’t happen this perfectly that often, but when it does, it is truly a wonderful experience. Sort of like hitting a baseball on the sweet spot of the bat and watching the ball just go and go, further then you ever thought you could hit one.  To me this is the essence of “Sportive” riding, friends riding together, going fast. Close to their individual limits, but going faster than any of them could have gone by themselves because they are riding together as a group.

The author at the front of a pace line

The author at the front of a pace line

Part of what made this great experience possible was that I’ve been riding with both of these guys for over a year and they have learned how to ride safely and efficiently in a group. Frankly, when I first started riding with them they were both a little scary. Green, really fit and strong, but either new to cycling or been away from it for a while. Both persevered. They learned the lessons, and picked up the secrets. After I got home yesterday I ask myself if there was anything that I could have done to make that process easier and perhaps quicker. I don’t think there is any way to short circuit the technique and fitness part of cycling besides getting on the bike and putting in the time, but the knowledge part, maybe we can pass that along. And in fact perhaps it’s my dues payment to those poor souls who showed me the way.

For something that is so hard to learn and to do correctly the sad thing is that the directions are painfully simple:

1. Ride straight, never change direction quickly even to avoid road hazards. Better to run a group through a chuck hole than to chop someone’s front wheel out from under them by swerving into them. If you are at the front of a pace line try to anticipate road hazards far down the road and move the group away from the hazard gradually.

2. Always ride directly in back of the rider in front of you. While riding in echelons makes sense in road racing (where riders in effect ride in the wind shadow of the rider nearest the direction the wind is coming from) this type of riding doesn’t lend itself to riding on public roads that are not closed to traffic. In addition the horrendous condition of many of our shoulders makes even relatively small variations in track potentially disastrous. In addition part of what makes a pace line work is the assumption that each rider is directly following the person in front of them. Failure to do so can create huge problems as riders move from the front to the back.

3. Never accelerate or decelerate quickly any place in a pace line. Even coasting or tapping your brakes can have very ugly results.  Smooth and steady should be watch words for this kind of ride.

4. Remember that this is a “Sportive” ride and is not a race. When you go to the front of the pace line, if you think that everyone in the group can go a little bit faster, leave enough time for the rider who just pulled off to get firmly attached to the end of the pace line  and then gradually accelerate. Turns at the front should be short, usually about one minute in duration, certainly no longer then two and one half minutes, and always rotate to the left and all the way to the back. If you are just hanging on take a short pull, maybe fifty pedal strokes and fall back. Not only have you saved some energy but you’ve notified the rest of the group that your just hanging on, so that no accelerations are called for. Remember that this is a Cycle Sportive” ride not a race. The ideal scenario is that everyone that starts together finishes together. If someone overspends there “energy checking account” someone, usually the ride leader, should ride in with them, which is often why the ride leader rides at the back of the pace line and doesn’t pull thru, so that no one can get dropped with their departure not being noticed. A good indicator that someone is struggling is that gaps are constantly opening and closing. Often a small reduction in speed and effort is all that is required to allow things to consolidate. The weakest rider on the ride needs to have the best technique. I know it is unnerving to ride close to another rider but it offers the biggest advantage and needs to be taken advantage of, especially if you are struggling.

It is not much more difficult than driving on the freeway and certainly much more fun and rewarding. I hope this helps, if you have any other thoughts or questions please feel free to get a hold of me as I love to talk about bicycles and bicycling. Ask anyone. Maybe by next year you’ll be one of the people that I’ll be talking about having a great ride with!

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Kidback Tandeming

When my first child was born I was only twenty-two years old. I had no intention of waiting for him to grow up before I continued with my life. Modify, certainly, but quit riding my bike? I don’t think so. The first life modification we tried was a trailer. We took several long trips with Shawn in a trailer that I built. My wife, Trisha and I rode a Gitane tandem that we’d purchased for the then princely sum of around four hundred dollars. It seemed to make pulling the trailer less of a drag, and turned cycling into a team/family sport.

The author, his wife, and the editor circa 1974

The author, his wife, and the editor circa 1974

Domestic tranquility didn’t last long however, by the time Shawn was three, he was tired of being a passenger while the rest of us rode. While I appreciated his sentiment there was no way I was going to put a three year old out in traffic. Somewhere I saw a picture of a tandem being ridden with a child on the back. It had been modified with a device called a “kidback conversion”, which was basically a bottom bracket shell which clamped to the seat tube, and could be moved down as the child grew.

Bicycles and bicycling were different in America in the seventies. It was basically a European sport that a few of us were trying to transplant. Nobody knew anything about “kidbacks” or kids riding them.

By this time I’d replaced our Gitane tandem with a new Jack Taylor, so I had a spare Gitane sitting around. Shawn unwittingly became the test pilot. There were no “kidbacks” available at the time so I made one that clamped onto the mixte tubes of Gitane. By the time we realized that Shawn looked like a small frog on the bike because the cranks were too long, Phil Wood had started making crank shorteners. When he looked like he was too stretched out I made an extra long adjustable stem. I found a set of kids drop bars.

The author and the editor on a tandem with kid back conversion circa 1975 or 1976

The author and the editor on a tandem with kid back conversion circa 1975 or 1976

We started to ride the contraption when Shawn was just about three-and-a-half. Frankly I was scared to death. I wondered if he’d fall off? Or if he were to young? I put toe clips on his pedals and tightened the toe straps up tight. I was relatively sure that if he was injured his mother would kill me. I shouldn’t have been concerned. He took to it instantly. He loved to go really fast and complained on long climbs that we could walk faster. Initially, I’d been concerned that if he let go of the bars he might fall off, he learned quickly that not only was it possible to ride without holding on, but you could sit up and flap your arms if you wanted to.

He rode his first century (100 mile ride) before he was five years old. He rode to San Francisco in the middle position of a triple bicycle the summer he was seven and eight years old. About that time he came into the frame shop with a confused look on his face. I ask him what was going on. He told me that his friend John was going on vacation. I ask him what was so weird about that? He said,” Dad they don’t even have bicycles”! One of the few times I felt that I may have got parenting right.

A Recent Picture of the Author and the Editor on Tandem

A Recent Picture of the Author and the Editor on Tandem

Tandeming has always been special time for my son and I. If you read the other article I’ve written for this blog, you’ll see we still ride together, and that Shawn’s now forty-one. He doesn’t need a kidback anymore, and hasn’t for a long time. The time we spend riding together is still a team sport, and very much one on one. A tandem and a kidback aren’t inexpensive. There are other ways of riding with children that are much less expensive, but none of them teach a child to be a cyclist, or are as safe a way to ride with children. I won’t even try and place a value on either, or the thousands of hours of one on one time that can result.

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Tom Miller’s Kevin Sayles Built Woodrup

Reader Tom Miller is the first respondent to our ‘Send Us Your Pictures’ call out.

He’s sent us a nice photo of his Kevin Sayles built Woodrup frame.

Tom Miller's Woodrup is a fine example of the cycle sportive bicycle.  (Photo Courtesy of Tom Miller)

Tom Miller’s Woodrup is a fine example of the cycle sportive bicycle. (Photo Courtesy of Tom Miller)

Tom describes the bike as, “British built frame, French geometry, mixed vintage and new parts.”

It’s a beautiful bike that definitely shows all the identifiers I set out in my recent entry on how we might define the cycle sportive bicycle.

I’d also like to talk a little bit about the use of old and new technology.  This is something I really embrace.  In a recent article on our frame building site I called this nuovo retro.  In part it’s an aesthetic, but there’s more to it than that.  Some old technology is simply superior.  If you want the best combination of performance and comfort, steel frames make sense.  For long rides I’m definitely going to stick with my leather saddles until somebody shows me something more comfortable.  On the other hand, nuovo retro is about not being a ‘retro grouch.’  I’m not opposed to carbon fiber for some applications, I like integrated brake/shifting, and I always try to be open to the possibilities of new stuff coming down the pike.

Another think I noticed about Tom’s bike is the interesting parallels to Alan Woods’s club bike.  Alan was certainly inspired by British built steel to some extent.  I definitely feel like both bikes fit into a British cycle sportive bike tradition that I hope to explore more on this blog in the future.

Thanks to Tom for sharing his beautiful bicycle.  We’d love to see more pictures from the rest of you!

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Who Should Ride a Cycle Sportive Style Road Bicycle?

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Who should be riding a cycle sportive style road bicycle? “Almost everyone,” isn’t a very satisfying answer, so I’ll try to dig into the question a bit for you. There are a wide variety of categories we can put riders into. By looking at a few of them we can see who might benefit from a sportive bike and who might want to pursue other options-

Club Riders

Club riders are enthusiast cyclist that participate in organized cycling events. The type of riding they do includes shorter after work rides and longer weekend rides, including events like centuries that are typically put on by cycling clubs and charities. They ride for fitness and to enjoy the company of their fellow riders. They think of themselves as cyclists. They span the full range of fitness from people that are ‘racer fit’ to people who just like to get out on a bike occasionally. Some of them love to ride hard and competitively, pushing themselves to go just a little faster than their riding buddies, and some of them are disturbed by the idea that you might want to ride like that. They aren’t primarily interested in transportation cycling, loaded touring, or ultra-distance riding, or racing although many of them do one or more of those activities in addition to their club riding.

The word ‘club bike’ can be used synonymously for ‘cycle sportive bicycle.’ These are the cycle sportives, the people that the sportive bicycle was developed for. They need a bike that is very fast and agile, but is comfortable over long distances, able to deal with bumpy roads, and that protects itself, themselves, and their riding partners from sloppy conditions. The ability to carry a light load is often helpful, so excess clothing can be stored as it warms up and food and tools can be carried. The combination of these tasks are what the sportif bike was made to do.

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Alan Woods’s Sportive Bike on the Roadside (Photo courtesy of Alan Woods

Commuters

My opinion is that the optimum commuter bike is not solely defined by its utility. When most new cyclists buy a bike they get what the industry is pushing at them- a hybrid bicycle with flat bars, wider tires, and a fairly upright riding position. Perceived comfort is often a key design input. These bikes share some characteristics with the sportive bike such as fender clearance, the ability to run wider tires, and provisions for load carrying. There is nothing intrinsically wrong with these bikes. They ride fine, do what the commuter needs them to do, and are often affordable.

The sportive bike will do all of these things. The difference is it will do them better.

The wind resistance you have to overcome at 20 mph is 65% greater than at 12 mph. The amount of effort to maintain that speed is almost 80% greater. Even at 15mph you are working 50% harder than at 12mph due to increased effort needed to displace air at the higher speed.1 This means that aerodynamics play a huge role in how hard you have to work to go a certain speed. Drop handlebars and more aerodynamic position allow you to go faster easier by reducing frontal area. Sportive bikes have steering geometry and weight distribution very close to race bikes, so they handle better than hybrids

Drop handlebars allow more aerodynamic riding positions that lower frontal area, allowing for easier riding at a given speed. (Photo courtesy of Doug Rosenfield)

Drop handlebars allow more aerodynamic riding positions that lower frontal area, allowing for easier riding at a given speed. (Photo courtesy of Doug Rosenfield)

Some commuters might argue, “That is all fine and dandy, but I just want a comfortable ride.” This is based on the perception that an upright riding position is more comfortable and that drop handlebar bikes all have an aggressive position. The problem is that these are both fallacies. For starters, it is good to remember that the sportive bike is designed to ride centuries and double centuries on. This means spending hours on the bike. Believe it or not, most sportive riders are ordinary people, not Lycra clad masochist super heroes (although some of them appear to think they are). If they weren’t comfortable on their bikes they’d find something different to ride.

An upright riding position is not automatically more comfortable. As you sit more upright you are stacking your vertebrae one atop the other. This puts the road shock into your lower back as your vertebrae bounce on each other. The weight of your torso is also carried primarily by your lower back muscles. If you stretch out somewhat more, the weight is passed to your abdominal muscles, and road shock is less directly passed into your spine. If you have physical issues that make it painful for you to bend over, then you will need to make adjustments, but in most cases you’ll be more comfortable on the bike over time with a 30-45% bend in your back.

Many people seem to imagine that having a drop handlebar means you ride around all the time with your back parallel to the ground. This just isn’t true. Grant Peterson of Rivendell Bicycles has done a good job of showing how bicycles with drop bars can be set up with very upright positions. My own experience doing hundreds of bike fittings and designing frames has shown that any position you can put a rider in on a flat bar, can be duplicated on a drop bar.

The advantage to the drop bar is that it gives multiple positions. A flat bar has one position on the grips with an additional position or two possible with bar ends. A standard drop bar has at least five positions. These positions also vary more vertically. The advantage to different positions on a drop bar is twofold. Any position will become uncomfortable over time. If you can move your hands you can increase your comfort. The drop position on the road handlebar is significantly more aerodynamic. It allows you to reduce your wind resistance, which means going faster easier.  The intermediate positions also allow you to optimize your bio-mechanics for climbing, comfort, and handling.

Cycle sportive bikes handle better than hybrids, tend to be lighter, and are geared for faster riding. This means they are safer to ride because obstacles can be avoided more easily. It also means they are more fun to ride because they allow you to go faster and are more nimble. It’s like the difference between driving a minivan or a Mercedes touring car to work. One is more enjoyable than the other.

This doesn’t mean all transportation cyclists should ride sportive bikes all the time. If you need to carry a large load, then a bike designed to carry cargo might be better. Even then, I would recommend a sporty touring bike with panniers over a cargo bike, unless you are carrying plywood or surfboards or something large like that. Got young kids? Want to take them to school on the bike? No problem- you can tow a trail-a-bike or child trailer behind (or buy a cycle sportive style tandem with a kid-back).

Tourists

You might be surprised to find you can tour on a sportive bike. Under 24-hour, hostel, or credit card style tours can be done with minimal gear that you can comfortably carry in a handlebar bag and a large seat bag. For trips that take more gear a trailer is an option. I have also done long tours on a cycle sportive bike by adding a support van. This can be great because it allows you to bring a lot of gear while having the joy of riding unloaded bikes during the day.  You can alternate days driving or recruit a non-cyclist to come along on the trip in the automobile.

The ability to do some touring on a sportive bike is important for riders that can only afford one bike to consider. If you are going to ride the bike to work every day and might want to do some sport riding I suggest a sportive bike over a touring bike. What you need to ask yourself is, “Would I drive my Winnebago to work?” A well-designed touring bike is a joy to ride with a large load. Unloaded, it will be heavier than a sportive bike and will have sluggish, sometimes even sketchy handling. If you are riding from Alaska to Patagonia, camping off the bike, get a touring machine by all means. If not, consider your options carefully and get the bike that will meet your needs and be fun for the type of riding you will do on it most of the time.

A well-designed touring bike like this Gunnar comes into its own when carrying a heavy load for camping. (Photo courtesy of Doug Rosenfield)

A well-designed touring bike like this Gunnar comes into its own when carrying a heavy load for camping. (Photo courtesy of Doug Rosenfield)

Ultra-Distance Riders

I believe that sportive bikes are the ideal machine for rides of up to 200 miles on roads you would be comfortable driving a two-wheel drive car with standard road clearances on. If you want to do a ride like Seattle-to-Portland or RAMROD a sportive bike will be lighter and faster than a more specialized randonneuring machine and should be adequately comfortable comparatively.

This is a little bit hard to parse out because cycle sportive and randonneuring bikes blur together at their fringes. For my purposes here, a randonneuring bike is a 650B wheeled bike, running a larger 32mm or larger tire,with integrated lighting and perhaps a front and rear rack. The larger tire will give essential added comfort over distances and will allow the bike to deal with long dirt, gravel, or pave sections. The integrated lighting guarantees you will have lights when riding at night, something that is required for officially sanctioned randonneuring events. The racks allow gear to be added for self-supported riding. At distances over 400 kilometers, where support is prohibitted, or in events with bad road conditions the randonneuring bike is unquestionably the superior steed.

Additional load carrying capacity, a larger 650b tire, and integrated lighting distinguish this Thompson randonneuring bike from the cycle sportive bike for our purposes. (Photo courtesy of Doug Rosenfield)

Additional load carrying capacity, a larger 650b tire, and integrated lighting distinguish this Thompson randonneuring bike from the cycle sportive bike for our purposes. (Photo courtesy of Doug Rosenfield)

On long rides up to 400 kilometers, the cycle sportive bike offers performance advantages at the expense of utility and comfort when compared to the rando bike. It is lighter because of the lack of integrated lighting, a rear rack, and perhaps a handlebar bag with bag support. The 700c wheel has more roll-out, this suggests bikes with 700c wheels are a little faster, although my own subjective opinion is this difference is fairly small. Based on these differences I would be inclined to use the sportive bike for events on moderately well-paved roads, 200-miles or under, where optimum speed is a goal.

Racing

“Surely you can’t race a sportive bike?” This too is open to question. In my opinion, all other things being equal, a bike that is designed for fenders and a little larger tire will perform virtually identically to the same bike with tight clearances and no braze ons. The only unavoidable difference is a longer chain stay, which may adversely effect climbing. Even this is avoidable if you design the bike with a curved seat tube or similar tweak. Why not design race bikes to allow those of us in temperate climates prone to sloppy roads to train in comfort? I can’t think of a good reason.

The Bottom Line

The cycle sportive bike is the best suited tool for a wide variety of road cycling. For some specialized applications it isn’t the best hammer for the job. However, if you can only afford to own one road bike and want to use it for a wide variety of different types of cycling, you are likely to find the sportive bike is the bike for you.

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Send Us Photos of Your Bikes

If you have a nice cycle sportive style bike we’d love to see photos.

Just e-mail them to cyclesportive@gmail.com

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