Saturday, November 24, 2012

From Dam to Dam

Got out on Thanksgiving for a quick re-build ride -- I'd been sick most of the week before, and was still getting back into shape. Because I was due to help out with the house before guests arrived, I did a quick 18 miles over one of the most persistently steep hills in the neighborhood -- Gulf Road, in Belchertown. One of my favorite climbs, with a lovely brook burbling beside it almost the whole way up.  A nature preserve rewards me at the top: Scarborough Brook, brought to us by those excellent folks at Kestrel Land Trust. If you live near the Pioneer Valley, please consider helping them; they help ensure that the area stays beautiful and natural.

Scarborough Brook preserve from road

Further inspection revealed an impressive beaver dam and pond:

Beaver leftovers

Beaver works

Yesterday, a longer jaunt down to a human-made dam, on the Quabbin Reservoir:

Local towns were razed and flooded in the 1930s to produce a scenic,  functional reservoir 

The big hill in the middle is the one the loop climbs 

Someone was dissatisfied with the service for the port-a-potty at the top
View from the top, as sunset approacheth

Steel, water, earth, sky

I try to be thankful all the time, not just on Thanksgiving, but it's hard to avoid a special rush of grattitude this weekend for the beautiful place in which we live. It's some of the best riding I've done anywhere.

Thursday, November 22, 2012

Carpe Turkey

The sun is a fat orange ball of promise, sitting on the horizon line, visible right through the trees. It's 30 degrees, I have a closet-full of wool, two bikes to choose from, and a marvelous spouse sleeping peacefully while I breakfast and plan a route.

I sure am thankful.

Friday, November 16, 2012

Jamis Quest: The Power of Comfort

I've owned my Jamis Quest for about seven months now, a full cycling season -- if you don't count the full season that is late fall, winter, and early spring. Love 'em all, I do, but seven months has given me some perspective on the ups and downs of the Quest. Bottom line, I think this is an under-recognized bicycle, and I'm going to tell you why.

Before the Quest, my main paved-road bike was a 2007 Cannondale CAAD 8, a very light, very responsive bicycle with geometry that stretched me too far out to reach handlebars that were too low, even with the stem pointing upward. Riding that aluminum razor blade, I was the fastest I'll probably ever be on a bike, and the handling was hair-trigger responsive, but the price in stiff back and neck were too high. 

I wanted to explore the proposition that I would ride better, longer, and more often on a comfortable bike. My search for an affordable, high quality ride that left me fresh after 50 miles led me to  Hampshire Bicycle Exchange, local purveyors of gently used and sensible but well-made new bikes. I shop there as frequently as possible; co-owner Chris is a true man of the people re: all things two-wheeled. It was he who recommended the Quest.

2011 Jamis Quest Femme 
Just looking at the photo, you can see that the head tube is unusually tall, and leaving the stem at a positive 6 degrees only adds to the height of the bars -- all to the good. The standard Quest also has a "square" geometry (a top tube equal in length to the seat tube's height), and therefore a relatively short reach. However, Chris recommended that I opt for the Quest Femme (which, fortunately, is differentiated only by a dashing red paint job) because the top tube is even shorter --one centimeter shy of the men's version. The resulting 53 cm top tube creates a near-replica of the cockpit of my Salsa Vaya, to date the most comfortable bike I've ridden (but not suited to long paved-road rides in the hills).

The idea of steel appealed to me; I'd owned the Vaya for nearly a year and the feel of its steel frame reminded me of some of the best rides I'd done as a shaver back in the hoary '80s. Steel has flaws, without a doubt (as does every material) but the first few pedal strokes on the Quest's worthy 631 Reynolds steel always make me feel like I'm home. For me, that settles the question of the rightness of any bike.

*     *     *

Over the course of the season, I put the comfort proposition to the test, and it proved true.

As the months passed, I found that the more relaxed fit gave me permission to ride at my own pace. I am a recovering faux-racer; for my first few years on the bike, all rides, even solo ones, were races or served some unattainable, serious training purpose. This season, the Quest and I took the time to sit up and soak in the scenery. This led to a series of rides on which my average speed was glacial, but the pleasure factor was very high. 

In a kind twist, those long, slow rides in the hottest months of the summer led to greatly increased strength and endurance in the fall. Usually I start tapering off distance and intensity in September; this year, that hasn't happened. I'm feeling strong and eager to go here in mid-November. Simply put: Increased comfort --> longer, more challenging rides --> greater fitness. I've even lost more weight over the summer than I usually do. 

This explains how the Quest, a heavier, more relaxed bike than I was used to, got "faster" over time. Proposition proved -- to my satisfaction, at least.

I've been running the Vittoria Zaffiro Pro 700 x 25 tires that came with the bike; they're not bad, stickier than I expected and reasonably well-planted in the corners, and no flats this year. I'll soon be upgrading to some 700 x 28s, and am leaning toward the Panaracer (née Rivendell) Roll-y Pol-ys. I've been doing lots of reading about the return to the randonneur and sport-touring-style bikes of decades past, and I like the ideas; they seem to me extensions of my theory about the long-term benefits of comfort. One of those ideas is using fat, comfortable tires made with the same high-quality, low-weight materials that finer road racing tires feature. (For more on these ideas, see Rivendell's site, or go to Lovely Bike.)

The Quest handles surprisingly nimbly for what the marketeers these days are calling an "endurance geometry" bike. Now that the Porsche-like handling of the CAAD 8 has faded from muscle-memory, I find it surprisingly easy (given the weight, frame material, and wheel base) to change my line. One thing the Quest won't do is dive into corners; you could profitably undertake a long, competitive group ride on this bike, but you can rule it out for your local Thursday-night criterium. 

Surprisingly, though, that conservative quality does not translate to rock-solid straight lines. Removing a jacket while riding hands-free works fine on the Quest at speed, but at lower speeds, the front end has a tendency toward wobble that disallows hands-free riding. On the other hand, in high-speed descents, when I grip the front of the bends so as to have a finger on each brake lever, a  shimmy evolves that can be disconcerting.

Another flaw: Looking backward over one's shoulder leads all-too-quickly to the sphincter-tightening realization that one is in the middle of the road, and has no idea how one got there so suddenly. On a bike of this weight and comfort level, I expect better tracking. 

Even with the extra weight of steel, I rather like climbing hills on the Quest; its 30-tooth small-ringed triple has allowed me a cadence I can sustain for the five or six-mile, 6-to-10-per-cent grinds around here. I had a much studlier SRAM Rival 50/34 compact double on the CAAD -- an excellent crankset for the price, but just not low enough gearing for my knees. Note that the Quest is available with the SRAM double). 

Though it is much easier on my neck and shoulders than previous bikes, I still end long rides with stiffness. I'm still working on this problem, which might be remedied by a shorter, steeper stem than the 100 mm/6 degree number that comes stock. I've already replaced the stock Ritchey Biomax handlebars with Salsa's Pro Road 2 bars. These have a smooth, old-fashioned curve with no ill-fitting "ergonomic" bends in the drops, and no befuddling back-sweep like the Ritcheys (a shape I could never understand for handlebars). The Pro Roads have a deep drop which I figured would offset the height I plan to get the bars to, eventually; the large drop will hopefully create the option of a dramatically more aerodynamic position for the famed Pioneer Valley headwinds, or for long chases. I got the bars in a spacious 44 cm width, to see if opening my chest in the more common on-the-hoods position might relieve some of the neck pain, too. I'd say this worked, but results are mixed; the feel good up top, but I have a little too much lateral leverage on the bars sometimes, which might explain some of the high-speed shimmy in the drops. 

Salsa Pro Road 2 bars
*     *     *

In all, I like the Quest very much. It rides enjoyably, and I can ride it longer. It's also very pretty -- and we all know that's at the top of the list of priorities. It features a smooth-shifting drivetrain, with an Ultegra rear derailleur and a 105 front -- good spec for a $1,700 MSRP item (often available for much less). The Mavic Aksium rims strike a good balance between lightness and durability.

In the larger picture, this bike has allowed me to confirm early thoughts about the benefits of comfort. I plan to continue trying to make the Quest even more comfortable, but I suspect that, as usual, I'll reach a point of diminishing returns, and will choose a new bike to follow through on new ideas. 

In the meantime, you'll see me out there Questing. Be sure to say hi!

Note: Now read the review update, posted half a year later.

Sunday, November 4, 2012

Zen and the Art of Bicycle Maintenance

Despite a beautiful morning of chilly temps and (finally!) clear skies yesterday, it was clear before many miles had elapsed that the legs were just not answering the call. Even a stop for a bit of tasty joe to jump-start the neurons didn't do the trick.

I climbed Cave Hill Road in Leverett, the first real ascent I had planned. At the top, I was knackered, so I decided to toss the route for the day and do a long-awaited detour. Right at the apex of the hill, there's a sign for the New England Peace Pagoda, a widely-known worship site for Buddhists and seekers around the country. I'd topped this hill so many times, but never ventured off the road and up the steep trail to the very tippy-top, where devotees have created, I discovered, a small paradise.

The pagoda peeks through the trees on the trail

It's size and sparkling facade make a strong impression 

Walking around back reveals niches in which the Buddha does his thing...

...which seems to include taking a nap. Now there's a path I can get with!

Prayer flags snap in the wind everywhere on the idyllic grounds

A peaceful rock garden has patterns raked into the white pebbles

Many paths, one goal. I often travel my path by bicycle.

After snapping the photo above, I sat to do a bit of meditation in the warm sun. About five minutes in, just as my nervous system was hitting the peace groove, I heard a loud crash and opened my eyes to see my bike blown over by the wind (or a trickster deity; I'm still not sure). I had to bust out the multi-tool and do some surgery on the rear derailleur right there by the rock garden. I tried to work as meditatively as I could. 

I think the lesson was something along the lines of, "Mindfulness includes propping up your bike carefully, Grasshopper."