Thursday, January 3rd, 2013
5:48 pm - Skewering the Wannabe Culture  
Just Ride: A Radically Practical Guide to Riding Your Bike — Grant Petersen

Real cyclists don't wear underpants. At least that's what the biking magazines have been telling us for the last thirty years or so. They also wear spandex shirts*, shoes that clip into bindings on the pedals, and bike shorts with padding in the seat rather than getting a more comfortable saddle. They fret over every single ounce of weight added to the bicycle or their person. And they pay through the nose for all of this gear.

* Often covered with logos providing free advertising for megacorporations.

In Just Ride, Grant Petersen, a former bike racer and now a bike designer, argues that the reason for all this nonsense is the overwhelming negative influence that bike racing the sport has on bicycling the activity. You see this every weekend as the local bike club does it weekly ride, little pelotons of modestly overweight men looking like overstuffed sausages in their bright yellow spandex shirts and black bike shorts, all dreaming of being Lance Armstrong. Instead they look like a herd of mutant bumble bees.

But for adult bicycle riders, the main influence is professional racing. For the most part, noncompetitive, recreational riders wear the same clothes. pedal in the same shoes, ride the same bikes as racers do. Most rides are training rides, and we're always trying to improve our times. Along the way, we may spend a lifetime pursuing goals that always seem just around the corner. This kind of riding is more work than fun, but even so, nobody is getting skinny doing it. Tired, yes, but the strong-legged, potbellied high-mileage cyclist is now a cliché.

This influence is particularly true with the bikes themselves. Modern bikes made of space age materials are half the weight of the steel bikes of my youth. The problem with lighter bikes is that to make them lighter, compromises are made in other areas.

Carbon scores off the charts in mechanical properties and aces laboratory tests. Carbon is sold on its image of high tech and its phenomenal strength-to-weight ratio—the best of any frame material. But its record in the real world is dismal. Carbon's weakness is its failure mode. The difficulty—and sometimes impossibility—of detecting defects or damage in the multiple layers of carbon fabric can lead to a sudden failure.

Of the common frame materials, carbon is the most impressively strong when it is perfect but is the most dangerous when it isn't. The flaw can be almost anything from almost any source. It may be a material flaw, or contamination introduced during manufacturing, or a small wound from an accident, or even degradation and exposure over time to sun and salt. The point is, carbon fiber is the least tolerant (think "most overreactive") of any common frame material.

This, combined with a propensity to snap rather than to dent or bend (as metals do), makes it a dangerous material for frames and bike parts.


This statement caused considerable consternation here at Casa Machina considering that my main bike has a carbon fiber front fork, and has been in accidents both major and minor. It's also got close to 10,000 miles on it, and I, alas, have a very vivid imagination about the consequences of the fork snapping at speed. And the thing is, the only people who can even use that lightness to their advantage are the racers. Racers also don't have to worry about having their investment hold up for years and years. They always use new bikes and bring spares with them. For "unracers," as Petersen calls the rest of us, it's just added expense with little benefit. That said, it is a lot easier this old man to hoist his aluminum/carbon beauty up into the truck than the steel tank that is my 3 speed, which weighs almost twice as much. OTOH, the 3 speed is at least 45 years old...

Bike Pants

Petersen is sort of the west coast version of the late, great Sheldon Brown. The book is made up of a lot of very short chapters, grouped by general subject. Many were originally published as blog posts at Petersen's bike shop website, Rivendell Bikes**, so there is some repetition. On the other hand, that makes it easy to read the book in small chunks. There is a lot of good material here, especially for someone who is thinking about getting back into riding, but is a little intimidated by the prevailing culture. He skewers a lot of conventional bike wisdom while providing good alternatives and helpful hints on everything from frames to clothing to sports drinks. I don't agree with everything he says, and I think that sometimes he gets a little overreactive, but most of the time I found myself nodding, along with the occasional "Hell, yeah!"

** Yeah, I know...

---
Meanwhile, back at the bike path, I had a singular year...

On the one hand, I not only beat my old previous best for mileage in a year, I beat it by over 500 miles. I also beat my previous bests for each individual month. 2271 miles all told. The two main reasons for this were the good weather last winter and spring, back when I was still employed, and my unemployment, which let me ride pretty much whenever I wanted to in the second half of the year.

Mileage 2012

On the other hand, I also got a little caught up in the whole goal attainment thing later in the year. Not fifteen minutes after an accident that was serious enough to eventually put me of the shelf for a couple of weeks, I was back on the bike for one final lap of the bike path to ensure I beat my previous best for July. Then in August, I was doing 27 miles a day, every day, to make up for the lost time from the accident. It wasn't healthy. As in the bit I quoted above from Just Ride, this kind of riding is more work than fun. Next year will be much more relaxed. I've already decided to put the bike in the basement until March.

At some point, I also need to replace the drive train. It turns out the rear gears are only good for about 10,000 miles, and y bike is approaching that. I hoping it won't be too expensive. Meanwhile, I keep imagining what would happen if my carbon fork were to snap.

---
Volleyball tonight, for the first time since I got sick back before Thanksgiving.