Tuesday, March 22, 2016



After eight years and more than 400 posts documenting my explorations and unfoldment as a cyclist and student of life (and boy, but those two things fit together so nicely), I'm closing the doors on Velophoria today to open up shop at my new project, More Sky Better.  I invite you to stop by for a cup of thoughtful words, carefully prepared and patiently simmering for you.

I think back tonight with warmth and tristesse over the many good friends I made here, both online and off, and the crazy, exciting, fun, hard times encapsulated herein. End of an era, and all that.

The latchkey's always out for you here; feel free to explore.

Meanwhile, it's that time, so I'm mounting up and pedaling onward.


   The Velosopher

Wednesday, December 23, 2015

A December River Rondo

In the middle of a lay-low, stay-at-home vacation week, characterized mainly by 50-degree rainy days, we finally got a three-hour window of dry skies today. I saddled up the Pivot and nosed around the dirt, sand, and muddy clay track between the nearby Connecticut River and the farmfields that line it.

Through the lens, I began to see moody compositions arranged just for me in a subtle solstice palette, instead of dreary weather. The more I shot, the more I saw, and the further I sank into a familiar, lank comfort with the land.

Ripping can be fun, but December is for browsing.

Sunday, December 6, 2015

48 Hours of Wendell-bury

Just back from a full weekend of December bike-tripping in the hills of Shutesbury and Wendell, Mass. My first time traveling on a bicycle since 1980—believe it.

See the discussion here about whether this was bikepacking or touring or bike-tripping or bike-cabining -- and whether it matters. (Hint: Doesn't matter).

Despite following the advice of a lot of ultralight travelers out there, my beloved Salsa Vaya ended up feeling very heavy indeed on some of the ridiculously muddy, rocky steeps on the way up to Shutesbury. However, I'm pleased overall with the ease and convenience of packing the (borrowed) panniers and handlebar bag, and the Vaya was extremely stable and well-mannered on its first loaded touring jaunt.  Extra-wide 45 mm Vee tires helped with the copious double-track and primitive roads we were unable to pass up.

I booked a small cabin at Temenos, a longstanding retreat center in Shutesbury on the former site of a hotel that offered 19th century visitors restorative dips in the nearby mineral springs. The center is at very tippy-top of Mount Mineral, at the end of a rugged and ridiculously steep dirt driveway off a dirt road.

We stayed in the small, comfortable Mu cabin (named for the ancient Zen concept of "neither one nor many").

Proof of the eponymous iron and manganese in the mountain is in the color (and taste) of the waters drawn from the large hand-pump. I'm betting my red blood cell count is up after this weekend.

After dark, the cabin is lit by kerosene lamp, and heated by a small (but very efficient) wood stove. I spent the first night alone, planning our route and dreaming of the riding to come.

Friends Will and Josh arrived the following morning, and we headed out for the meat of the trip: an attempt to hook up as much gravel as possible from our cabin door. It was an easy search: there's a large network of dirt roads throughout Shutesbury, which we sampled to get warmed up. After, we headed north to Wendell State Forest, a place I've lovingly explored with my Vaya before; we tried out new dirt on the north end of the park this time, then gradually wended our way back toward Shutesbury. We had a genuine bluebird day, sunny and nearly 50 degrees on December 5(!).

We hauled our carcasses back up the mountain just as it was turning dark, fired up the wood stove and got dinner going. Liberal overeating and libations soon followed, and Josh instigated a game of poker for matchstick stakes. Will burned the first batch of popcorn (then mastered the rest like a boss). Yours truly? I won all the matchsticks. Just ask the boys.

This morning, we slept in, ate, and cleaned the cabin to a sparkle. We loaded up, posed for the requisite heroic team photo, then rode our loaded bikes like rocket sleds down the mountain. There's no way I remember as many downhills on Friday as there appeared to be uphills today, but when all's said, I'm warm and funk-free in my house tonight, summing up this delightful adventure for you, dear reader.

Six weeks ago, the whole idea seemed like it might be a bit too much effort to be worth it. And, as usual, the reservations, coordination, and packing were, indeed, burdensome. However—as always—the rewards were manifold. The stories alone were worth the price of entry, and will oft be exaggerated around campfires in the future.

As we said when we raised our glasses at the end of a hard day yesterday: Here's to bikes in the woods!

Sunday, November 22, 2015

Salsa Chowchippers: 30-mile review

It seems bike guys can't resist scatalogical animal humor
In the four years I've owned my beloved Salsa Vaya, I've had three different handlebars on it, and none of them felt exactly right. The  Ritchey Biomax it came with (used) were inexplicably swept back, and Salsa Woodchippers—as rad as they looked—were flaired too wide for comfort. When Salsa brought out their Bell Lap, I switched to those and stuck with them. They were perfect on the hoods, but the drops were too deep and I rarely went low on them.

I stopped by Hampshire Bicycle Exchange this month to order the Salsa Cowbell—the bars which took the place of the Bell Laps in the Salsa catalog, and since have become popular cyclocross and gravel bars. However, Paul at Hampshire Bicycle Exchange tipped me off to Salsa's newest gravel-oriented bar: The Cowchipper. As you can guess from the clever name, they're meant to slot in between the Woodchipper, with its crazily flared and spread-eagled drops, and the Cowbell's more narrow and sedate profile. 

Image © 2015, Salsa Cycles
I did my research and the few reviews online were strong, so I placed an order. Last week, Will Sytsma, friend and Bike Exchange owner, installed and wrapped the bars for me. He even gave me trade-in value on my Bell Laps.

A "flare" for rough surfaces
Moss-green tape will call just a flicker of attention to these unusual bars
I took the rig out yesterday and rode it on my favorite nearby gravel-and-trail testing grounds, and then today for a longer jaunt in the hills and swamps of Shutesbury and Wendell, MA. I rode every surface: primitive roads that really called for full-suspension, lots of gravel and dirt roads, a smidge of tarmac, and a few miles of trail. (Yes: it was a heavenly ride.)

Captured in their natural habitat
In general, the bars deliver handsomely on their promise.

They're very comfortable and the wide drops do, indeed, provide very useful leverage on choppy surfaces. They're also great for grabbing on the super-steeps to get power from the glutes and keep the front end down. I've been wanting bars with a short drop forever (these are 116 millimeters, just a hair deeper than the hyper-shallow Woodchippers), because my lower back just isn't that flexible, and these seem to provide about the right amount. The curves of the hooks and angle of the lower extensions fit my large hands just like gloves; I found a delightful variety of places to rest down there. 

As with any bar, it's a bit tricky finding the perfect place to secure the hoods: high enough to provide a natural wrist angle when on top, but low enough that at least your index fingers can cover the brakes on crazy descents in the hooks. This balance is made a bit easier by the shallow drop. I don't even have to jam my hands all the way forward to scrub a little speed. 

The benefits of the very wide flare became obvious as soon as I turn down the trailheads that proliferate beside gravel roads. Neither bike nor bars were made for single track, as my middle-aged neck and elbows are reminding me tonight. But I just couldn't resist—especially once I found that I was more agile on the trails than I've ever been on this bike. 

But it's on the gravel that these bars shine. Comfortable on the hoods and restful and stable in the drops, I could see racking up some long, dusty miles with them. I could be wrong, but the width of the drops (especially on the straight rearward extensions) seemed to absorb some of the ever-present chatter.

I look forward to putting more miles on these, and will check in about them when I do. 

#     #     #

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Just Strap Some Stuff to a Bike and Go

Away back in 1980,  I lashed a sleeping bag and some clothes to my boat-anchor Japanese bicycle and followed my American Youth Hostels trip leader (barely older than the pubescent punks in his wake) over the length and breadth of New England. I liked it enought that, the next year, I rode the northern Pacific Coast the same way. In those Jurassic days, few Americans knew about this thing we called bike touring.

The author in July 1980, somewhere off the Pacific Coast Highway
Fast forward 35 years. After decades off the bike, I came to my senses and spent the last nine years buying and riding every kind of bicycle I could get my hands on. I've ridden on everything from glorious mountain roads to overgrown, unrecognizable double-track, to buff and sinuous mountain trails. All along I wondered if I would, at some point, return to the touring fold. People were certainly still doing it. Mostly very young people…

I looked at the pictures and thought, "Who would want to load a beautiful bike down with 40 pounds of luggage? It's so much more beautiful and spritely without it."

Then about five years ago, the young'ns started crowing about this new thing called "bikepacking." I guess it started out with someone piling a bunch of stuff on their bike—this time, a mountain bike—and riding it into the woods to sleep. While there, you could build a dangerously large fire, have a libation or two, and maybe listen to the owls hooting.

Hmm. Touring in the woods? Interesting.

These folk were folding in the ultra-light ethos of modern backpackers (another ancient pursuit overhauled for the 21st century). Also, moving the weight lower and more in line with the frame. This started to look like a solution for the elephantine nature of touring bikes.

Bikepacking setup  © 2010 The Lazy Rando Blog
Bikepackers also (being busy trying to keep their jobs in an overcompetitive, anemic economy) were very short on time. So they were going out for overnights, or weekend outings, and inventing cute names for them like the s24o and the microadventure. This meant you could pack less than ever on the bike—maybe even leaving it a little bit fun to ride.

My defenses were crumbling.

Finally, a couple weeks ago, I stumbled on this:
Heck, in India I met a Spanish guy who had cycled from Spain (over 15,000km) on a twenty-five dollar used bicycle which he had bought ten years before, and he couldn’t have been happier. If he isn’t proof that any bike will work, I don’t know what is […] The hardest part is taking that first step out of the door to leave, once you have left, the rest comes naturally […] Go out and try it. If you don’t have bike bags, don’t worry about it, just strap your backpack or a duffle bag to the back of your bike and head off for the weekend straight from your front door. 
I'm not too ossified to admit that this twenty-year-old young lady fired me up like a camp stove with this post. It was the last push I needed. I picked a weekend and started thinking creatively about how I could get a bona fide adventure in.

Where to stay? Too chilly for camping this time of year (for my blood), so my thoughts turned to the various cabin locations I've been researching in the area. I decided I could a) sleep warmer and b) haul less stuff if I went that route. I booked a lovely hut pretty far into the woods, with a wood stove, no running water or electricity, and well out of cell phone range -- but also less than a two-hour ride from my front door. Perfecto.

I'll ride up there Friday afternoon, fire up the wood stove and store up a bunch of water from the well. Then I'll make dinner and libations, and settle beside the fire with a book. In the morning, my friend Will, owner of Hampshire Bicycle Exchange in Amherst, MA, is going to join me for the second and third day. We'll spend the long middle day exploring all the dirt we can find, and return to town the following morning.

But wait! I don't have all those fancy bikepacking bags! 

Well, duh. I have a Salsa Vaya, a bike built for dirt road touring. It's got a rack and fender system perfect for commuting. Maybe I won't look like the trendy photos all over the bike blogs these days... but they Vaya been secretly pining to be returned to its natural habitat. What I do have is a huge, waterproof commuting pannier and a big ol' daypack: that ought to fit everything I need and then some. It'll be awkward and a little gooberish, but, yeah… whatever. I'll be riding a bike in the woods! Who cares if it's a little off-balance? 

The point of this exercise is to see if I really like this kind of thing. A bikepacking dry run, if you will. If it leaves me thirsting for more, maybe I'll get hold of some purpose-built bags and ride a fat or mountain bike next time. But if I'm not thrilled, I'll sure be happy I didn't spend $500 on the latest trend without knowing if it's really me.

Since I  got all of that mapped out, I haven't been able to think of anything else. The trip is three weeks away, and I've researched an 85% dirt route to the cabin, got a food shopping list going, as well as a long list of tweaks to the bike set-up to get through before roll-out.

And then, for even more fun, there are the shakedown rides!

Sunday morn, I strapped a simulated load to the Vaya, and took off for all of the gravel roads, double-track, and "is-this-really-a-road?" trails I could find. A few hours later, I was drinking coffee in a local breakfast place and writing down more to-do's. 

If I can't distribute the load a little more evenly for the real trip, I'll just work on my skills
You're never too old to get excited. Myself, I'm like a kid again these days, just thinking about the trip. Isn't that half of what adventures are for—the anticipation?

As the Wandering Nomads say on their blog: If your dreams don't scare you, they're not big enough.