Thursday, December 5, 2013

DIY Embrocation

Even if you're not into bike racing, you may have heard of embrocation. These are wonderful aromatic balms that racers -- especially those wacky cyclocross folk -- love to rub all over their legs so they can strike fear in the hearts of competitors at the starting line by looking crazy enough to ride half-naked in the snow.

Ever since embrocation caught on a few years ago, enterprising hipsters have been brewing up fiery batches in their basements and garages, sometimes going so far as to offer their product for sale online, in bike shops, and to cognoscenti around the world via the Webs.

So, yeah, racers are swearing by the stuff, but the beauty of embro is not restricted to the local cheetahs on featherweight bikes. Everyday fogeys like me love to rub some in before cold-weather rides, three seasons of the year. The old-world ritual alone is worth the effort, but there are other benefits, too.

Clearly the most alluring thing is the scent. Pop open one of these jars and you'll be wafted away to forests deep in the Belgian Ardennes, or the aromatic hold of an ancient spice island trade ship. The fragrances open the sinuses, stimulate the nervous system, and are said to have a salutary effect on the circulation and responsiveness in muscles, especially when applied with vigorous massaging.

Racers leave it on thick enough that it also repels cold air and moisture, but you don't need to. I put tights over mine (very déclassé) and it works great. Just beware if you're using the popular capsicum-based, heat-generating type: friction on the skin over the course of hours will definitely singe your synapses.

There's much press out there about what to buy and how to apply, so I'll skip that. My point today is, why pay twenty or (in Rapha's case) thirty dollars for a four-ounce tin, when you can roll your own for a fraction of the francs?

I recently completed a bunch of research on the web and then brewed up my first batch. I sent off a sealed parchment by carrier pigeon to the Division of Fabricated Nomenclature, forever reserving rights to the name Novembrocation™. (And don't even think about Septembrocation™ or Decembrocation™.)  I'm mighty pleased with the results, and have been applying the balm the same way I vote in every election: liberally.

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The basic recipe is simple: gently heat olive or other skin-healthy oil in a double boiler (or, in my case, an aluminum mixing bowl placed on top of a pot of simmering water). Add a portion of pure beeswax. In a few minutes, the wax melts like butter. Take the mixture off the stove, and let it cool just a touch. Add assorted essential oils.

(These are not hard ingredients to acquire. The beeswax and oils can be gotten at any health food store, including Whole Paycheck (er, Foods). They can also be ordered on-line.)

Pour the mixture into containers you've gathered--old tins for lip balm or mints, canning jars, etc. -- and let sit overnight, covered loosely. In the morning, sneak into the kitchen, open that puppy up, and take a scintillating sniff of heaven. You'll want to go pull on your wool jersey and jump on your bike straightaway.

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What's that? You want to know my recipe and ingredients? Sacre bleu! You must take me for some imbécile who just had zee fall from zee proverbial turnip truck. (No, that's not a clue. Don't try turnip essence. Really.)

All I'll say is, I steered away from the traditional menthol and mint (too cooling for this time of year) and yet did not go the ever-popular route of adding capsicum (and thereby creating lobster-red skin when the sun comes out or my tights rub too much). I used oils which smell wonderful, stimulate the circulation, and reduce inflammation, but you're going to have to do your own research, mon ami. That's half the fun. (I will divulge that I included a healthy dose of arnica oil, because it's a miraculous anti-inflammatory with which I've healed everything from bad bruises to torn achilles' tendons nearly overnight.)

Bottom line, when you open the jar, Novembrocation wafts you away to a chill forest deep in the Ardennes -- well, you know.

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Sunday, December 1, 2013

Reviewed: Banjo Brothers Handlebar Bag

If you troll the web too much for bike stuff, as I do, you'll eventually stumble across a particular sect of cycling fanatics: hypernostalgic europhiles wishing they were some mid-century French gentilhomme,  pipe firmly set in teeth, casually wheeling over a Gallish col on a ten speed crafted lug by painstaking lug by his grandfather's best friend, and painted the hunter's green of a sparkling new 1952 Citroën. These good folk have convinced themselves that suitcase-sized, handstitched handlebar bags costing more than your latest laptop are the very best and only way to transport goods on a bicycle.

In my continuing personal exodus from the psuedo-racer ranks, I, too, have been experimenting with ways to carry stuff conveniently on the bike for over a year now. Last winter, I decided to try out the handlebar bag pudding to see if the proof was indeed (as the ancients avowed) in the tasting.

As often happens in the winter, I over-researched, over-indulged in the opinions of others, and, finally, overspent. I bought a beautiful Arkel handlebar bag I thought might last me forever, but turned out to be simply too much bag. (Hit me up if you're looking for a cheap, waterproof, bomb-proof, highly-engineered, 7-liter bar bag.)

This fall, I decided to try again. After more days of research than I care to admit, I settled on Banjo Brothers' Medium Handlebar Bag. Even though they have a quick-release version of the same bag with a snappy plastic handlebar mount, I wanted to try something that didn't project so much from the bars. My version attaches via simple-yet-sturdy Velcro straps, and is vertically secured by slim straps that plunge down to hooks which one mounts in the fork eyelets.

Being a bit esthetically neurotic, I wasn't crazy about the extra straps, and assumed I would end up jury-rigging a less visible way to keep the bag from rocking. However, after mounting the bag (which, by the way, is dead easy) I decided they are sleek enough, and now view them as the mark of a cyclist who is ready to ride anywhere. Any visual clutter they create is offset by the low profile of the bag itself, which (in the Velcro version) sits snugly against the bars and is small enough to more or less disappear into the overall handlebar picture (especially if you're sporting black bar tape).

The size of the bag was a deciding factor for me. There are very few 4.5 liter bar bags out there (most are much larger or smaller) and that was what I calculated would hold the stuff I need to reach all the time: jacket, phone, camera, snacks, sandwich, a small lock, and maybe a couple other items. It turned out I was right -- it's the Goldilocks size, neither too large nor too small.

The bag has just the right amount of structure. Whereas the Arkel bag was heavier -- custom-made for a grueling two-month tour with all kinds of abuse -- this one features enough stiffness to protect my camera and phone, but is still plenty lightweight.

Flip up the front flap, and you'll find a nifty hidden map case. Secure it with a metal snap near the bars, and you're navigating in style (the background fabric is a deep scarlet, a very stylish touch). The map case is smaller than the giant pocket the Arkel offers, of course, but should easily meet the needs of any day tripper.

It also feature a zip pocket underneath reflective trim on the front side:

Borrowing a leaf from much more expensive bags, the main compartment is lined in a bright crimson, which makes finding smaller or darker-colored items easier. There's a hefty, clear plastic pocket big enough for most phones or digital point-and-shoot cameras -- even for both, depending on size. The outside of the front flap also has a flat zip pocket, where you might hide money, extra maps, thin tools, and so forth.

One reason I chose this modestly-sized bag was my intention to pair it with a saddlebag of a similar size. My plan was to spread out the load, keep it light both front and back, and yet have plenty of room for any extra gear I might need for longer or colder rides. This way, I wouldn't have to deal with an over-sized, over-priced, painfully-authentic French bag perched pretentiously over my front wheel on an otherwise useless rack. I would have all that capacity, but twice the flexibility.

I found just what I was looking for in Banjo's small saddle bag in their Minnehaha canvas and leather line. (See second photo, and stay tuned for seat bag review soon.) Even when full (and that's about 9 liters, for those keeping score at home -- a lot of stuff) bike handling seems totally unaffected. Mission accomplished.

When a bag of this quality costs a paltry $29.00, it's hard to complain, but I feel obliged to mention a few points. Craftsmanship does not rule here: the Velcro handlebar straps are off-center on my model (see first photograph), and have thus worn away the electrician's tape on one inside edge of my bar wrap. If I leave the bag on, it's not visible, but the bar tape is effectively destroyed and needs to be replaced. I'll have to devise some remedy or other for the sandpaper effect of the straps.

Another point: this bag doesn't advertise itself as waterproof, and it's not. I rode home once through a torrential storm with monumental winds, and the outer fabric was drenched. However, everything in the inner plastic zippered pocket was dry, and everything else was barely damp, if at all. It was, however, a brief ride. If you want a hermetic seal, hit me up for that Arkel bag. It costs more, but even baby chicks would arrive warm and fluffy after a ride through Noah's Flood.

Finally, there will obviously be less room on the 'bars with the the Velcro version of this bag. My hands (admittedly large) fit just a little behind the outside corners of the bag for a somewhat centered bar position, but I will not be protecting my cold fingers from the wind behind the bag's modest bulk, as I could with the quick-release model. Nor will I be mounting a bar-clamp for a headlight. The good news is, this trade-off bothers me far less than I thought it would.

In all, I am very pleased indeed. With the two-bag set-up, I no longer have to pay style dues and jam all my snacks and layers into straining jersey pockets. (Really, who first thought that look was cool?) I've ridden hundreds of miles and felt totally prepared and light as I need to be.  It all sits quietly tucked away, readily accessible, with little-to-no performance penalty. And there's room for an apple from that farmer's market I pass, or a bottle or loaf of something I pick up for my loved ones waiting patiently at home.

The perfect set-up for an adventure-loving cyclist.

Saturday, November 9, 2013

Message to Bike Hipsters

Once upon a time, people put on some clothing and went riding on a bicycle.  I would three times rather ride with this posh and ragtag bunch than with the spiffiest rider in this year's Rapha catalog.

Sunday, November 3, 2013

Cycle-Smart International Cyclo-cross in Florence, MA

Yesterday was day one of the Cycle-Smart International Cyclo-cross event in Florence, MA -- just down the road from us. I've been talking up 'cross to Junior V for months now; how fun it is, how hard it is, how much he'll like it. Hence, excitement charged the air as we loaded up the Velomobile early and shot over there to start the day with some spectating. The weather was decided un-'crossy (70 degrees and mostly sunny), but the upside was a huge crowd and lots of bonhomie.

A few quick shots of grown-ups, run-ups, and hand-ups, then on to the main event: The children's race. About which I will simply say: Junior V's first bike race ever... (wait for it...) and he got third place

Perfect grimaces
A heroic shot of an unidentified racer
See the donut dangling from the string in the center of the shot? Award for most original hand-up. 
Every 'cross event needs a little Belgium. Van Dessel's
bus also features a disco ball in front of windshield.
Junior V, in red jersey, lines up with his age group
In second through the S-curves 

Monday, October 14, 2013

Pioneer Valley Sketchbook: Autumn Overfloweth

This weekend, another feast of images from the gorgeousness that is Western Mass in October. First, a few appetizers from yesterday's brief trail ride:

The reservoir at Earle's Trails, off of Bay Road, Amherst

From atop Fort Hill, Amherst

St. Brigid's Cemetery, Hadley

Then, the main course: a feast of images from today's road ride:

Mount Warner, Hadley

Mount Warner Road, Hadley

South Main Street, Sunderland

In Sunderland 

Fosters Road, Montague

Crows, Smiarowski Road, Montague

A repast at the Lady Killigrew, overlooking Saw Mill River, Montague

Tobacco barn, Montague

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Sunday, October 6, 2013

Pioneer Valley Sketchbook: October Hadley

Pioneer Valley Sketchbook is a new feature I'll be experimenting with here on Velophoria. It's an idea I've been toying with for a couple months. In my endless peregrinations about the Valley, I experience so many sights, sounds, tastes, etc. that are emblematic of the rich community we have and its beautiful environment. They spark thoughts, and appreciation for where I live. 

The skechbook is an attempt to pass on to you some of that treasure.

Today, I took a rain ride on a moody October day. The quality of the light, the damp chill, the empty streets, took my imagination for a ride, too. I brought out Mrs. V's point-and-shoot Canon, which I've been meaning to experiment with. 'Til now, all photos on Velophoria have been taken with a cell phone camera; a decent one, but quite limited. I'm stepping it up just a notch, in hopes of sweetening the visuals here, and perhaps having some fun in my spare time with something -- anything -- other than obsessing about bicycles. I'm playing with settings and post-processing. Let me know how you like it.

These shots were all taken in Hadley (Mass.), a visually enticing town with a deep history. The town common, shown in the first photo, is the longest in the state. Wikipedia (see above link) says,
The landscape of Hadley is largely open-field farming, which was only used in the earliest New England settlements and had mostly disappeared by the 18th century; its survival in Hadley on such a large scale is unique.
You can see some of those storied fields in the third shot, below.

Enjoy fall in one of the oldest settled parts of New England.

Monday, September 30, 2013

Bike Wisdom, Cont'd.

One more piece of velosophy occurred to me today, after that long list I posted last week. Like the others, this one is counter-intuitive and was only learned after time and tide washed away my preconceptions:

The weight of a bike has ZERO direct effect on the enjoyment of riding that bike.

You read that one right; zero.

My "road bike" today is something I would have scoffed at a few years ago, when I proudly called myself a "roadie," with all the sniffy connotations of that word. It's made from steel, the heaviest frame material around. It's got 28 mm tires. ("What!? That's extra rotational weight!" Yup.) As of this weekend, I've placed an oversized canvas saddlebag under the seat, and hooked up, relatively permanently, a lovely little handlebar bag to keep important items handy (more to come on both bags). Extra weight, extra weight, AND aerodynamic loss. Wow. What a Fred!

I may be a Fred and I may not be. But I went on a very hilly 64 mile ride yesterday with a friend (the longest of the season so far) and, whereas my friend often outdistances me on the hills, I was the sprightly one this time. With the extra weight and baggy-ness.

Why? Because I'm in shape.

And why is that?

Because I freakin' LOVE my bike and its setup. It works for everything I like to do on a bike, from fast and short road rides to long, mixed-surface rambles in the insanely hilly country.

So I've been spending more time on it.

So I'm more fit. With or without extra weight on the bike.

Your body's systems adapt to whatever load they are under. Take advantage of this fact and get the bike you'd feel most comfortable on, is most beautiful to you, carries what you need, and goes where you would really like to go, but haven't yet.

Who cares if you're first up the hill? The point is, you'll be freakin' happy!

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Some Bike Wisdom

I realized with a start tonight that I've been back in the saddle -- the bike saddle, that is -- for six years now.

I spent two passionate years as a teen cyclotouring through early '80s America and tearing up the Central Park bike path. Then, college and adulthood distracted me and I let my royal purple Austro-Daimler SE with gold Fiamme rims gather dust in a variety of apartments.

In my mid-40s, turning stale at retail desks and grad school library tables, I finally heard the tiny, receding echo of the beauty of those high school days. I climbed back on a road bike and haven't gotten off since.

For the first few years, those glory days kept tugging at the back of my mind. Somewhere in my unconscious, I was trying to return to form, to be as strong and knowledgeable a rider as I once was. At some indefinable point, I crossed that line and kept going.

In the last couple weeks, I've found myself in my garage fixing three different bikes -- one of my mine, a bike belonging to a friend's son, and my son's 20-incher. All of them needed non-trivial repairs, yet I blew through the work while chatting with folks, listening to music, enjoying the fall sunshine.

Then last weekend, I was out for a taper ride before the challenging metric century I have planned for this Sunday. My season has gone well, I've avoided sickness and injury for the second year in a row, and the resulting cumulative fitness meant that my legs were carrying me faster than I could get used to. It was like riding in someone else's body -- a frequent feeling at the end of a healthy season. As I flew down a dirt road descent on my skinnyish-tired road bike, I felt confidence flow through me like a river. On impulse, I death-gripped the rear brake lever, threw my weight onto my outside pedal, and short-skidded for just a second before momentum jerked me back into my straight-arrow, rocket-sled descent. Hey! I did something new! Felt so good, I did it again. And again. And again.

I'm there. I'm the rider I've been wanting to be. And the feeling is delectable.

Below, in no particular order, is a scant sampling of personal wisdom I've gleaned along the way--mostly the hard way. All maxims, aphorisms, adages, axioms, and epigrams are strictly intended for my own reference. If they help you, I'd truly be glad to know about it. If they don't, please don't argue with me. This wisdom was born of the sweat of my brow and the stink of my chamois. You want different wisdom, go find someone whose chamois smells more like yours.
  • Always pee just before you walk out the door for roll out.
  • Let the ride become what it needs to be. Making plans is good, and being flexible is good.
  • Learn to listen to your body; it knows infinitely more than your head.
  • Learning to listen to your body takes a long time. It took me years, and I'm still learning.
  • The foods that work on the bike have nothing to do with what I eat the rest of the time, and that's fine.
  • Caffeine works, and it's legal. Yippee!
  • Happiness is not about the bike. It's about the ride and the rider.
  • A dude I know who rides 30,000 miles a year (yes, you read that right) told me that the longer you ride a bike, the better it fits you. I used to buy or trade for a new bike about every 18 months, but now, I'm beginning to agree.
  • He also said, "The way to get better at riding your bike is to ride your bike." He rides solo centures on a racing bike with 25 mm tires over gravel and trails that would scare off most cyclocross riders.
  • Any dirt road is usually better than any paved road.
  • You don't need a fancy bike to ride dirt roads, or even trails.
  • Pavement is good, too.
  • The fewer cars, the better. The more trees, the better. The higher you ride, the better. The farther the view, the better.
  • More distance is not necessarily better. Adventure can be found three miles from your door. Get on your bike and go find it, before work, after work, between chores. Do it.
  • Average speed isn't just meaningless, it's a pernicious, non-existent lie, perpetrated by bike tech companies and insecure wannabe racers. Throw away your bike computer. (I have no idea where mine is, haven't used it in two years. I manually record my rides on, an excellent way of finding out distance and altitude, the only stats I sometimes care about.)
  • If you're not having fun on your bike, you need to seek professional help. I'm a therapist, and I'm not joking -- you need help. Bikes are fun.
  • Bike blogs are addictive but dangerous. Beware of comparing your fun with anyone else's.
  • A real maxim now: "Fitness follows fun." If you're having real fun, you're going to want to have more. That means more and more riding, which means you get stronger, more skilled, and have yet more fun. That's called a positive feedback loop.
When I think about it, the hardest and longest lesson of all has been weaning myself off of the racing mindset. I'm not fast, never will be, and competition brings out the worst in me. And still, some vestigial part of my brain clings to the pissing contest involved in beating somebody up a hill. When I win, I feel good for a few days, then go back to worrying about the next time I ride with him or her.

Now, the rides that have made me so happy that I swore heaven could not be any better were those in which competition played absolutely no part. The exhilaration of the effort, the thrill of the descents, and the supernal beauty of the surroundings were my all and everything. Strong riders who can vibe with that are rare as hen's teeth, and I do all I can to cultivate friendships with those few. 

The rest of the time, I ride alone. 

Like my (unwitting) mentor, Paul Fournel, I've found that biking is life in so many ways. Today, I say thanks to God and humankind for creating the best machine on earth. It's ecologically friendly, it's beautiful to look at, it's easy to fix, it's affordable transport, it's healthy, and -- most of all -- it's more fun than a roomful of ice cream.

Whatever you ride, however you ride, for the love of everything real, PLEASE: Ride for your own reasons, ride to your own standards, and if you don't know what they are for all the screaming out there about what's important to others, just keep riding and keep thinking, and it will come to you, slowly, in increments. 

Wisdom on the bike is gained just the same way as wisdom off of it.

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Monday, September 23, 2013

Cycling Amherst Road and Pelham, MA

I come today to sing the praises of Amherst Road, a byway somewhat neglected by cyclists, perhaps because of its miles-long, steep climb, or the thickness of traffic. The truth of the matter is that, once you get a couple miles up, the traffic slims out, the road grows smoother, and the long, steady grades reward you with timeless New England beauty and history.

I also use this road to tune up my climbing legs, if I've been away from the grades for too long. Fuel up before you go, because the "up" is constant.

To get there, ride through Amherst Center on Main Street, cross South East at the light, and you're going due east on West Pelham -- which quickly turns to Amherst Road once you cross the town line.

Genteel colonial farm houses with stone fences line the road

Perfect pond and shady glades

At the top of the hill, Pelham Historical Society, with lawns for sitting and snacking

Right next door, the old Pelham Town Hall, built in Revolutionary times
Daniel Shays, who led a rebellion of overtaxed farmers against the government, lived in Pelham.

Perhaps Shay's likeness, now hidden in a barn. Note facial expression:
Don't tread on me!

The cemetery behind the Historical Society features featurless
gravestones, eroded by time and hilltop New England weather

A sylvan resting place for tired settlers

She lived to see the Revolution begin -- but not end

A very worthy road, easily combined with others for a nice fall ride. You can turn left on Route 202 (just past the Historical Society) and another quick left onto Shutesbury Road, a rolling delight. From the end of that, you can turn right for Shutesbury Center, or left to fly down the famous Shutesbury S-curves -- a delicious reward for all that climbing.

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Sunday, September 15, 2013

Chesterfield and Westhampton: Hills, hills, and more hills

If you live in the valley and you want to suffer through some steep climbing without going all the way out to the Berkshires for your woe, I found just the route for you today. My first time up in these two towns, and when I say, "up..."

Well, read on.

I crossed the Connecticut on the bike trail first thing, and rode up to Williamsburg the back (steeper) way, via Audubon and South Streets, always a good check on the thigh status. I wish I had refilled low supplies at the stores in Williamsburg, since there were no such pit-stops for many miles after.

I turned left off Route 9 onto Route 143 just after Williamsburg and began a steep six-mile climb into Chesterfield. Think of Wendell Road, the long, hard climb from Route 63 to Wendell center -- but harder and longer. On the way up today, a fellow cyclist went whizzing by me on the way down; I waved, and he replied, "Woohoo!!" That'll give you some idea of the climb.

Great lunch spot on 143

Good enough for a closer shot
After lunch, I pulled into Chesterfield and glanced around -- and that's all it took. It's a tiny little crossroads, though a few of the houses are so perfectly colonial, I half-expected to espy a mother in petticoats and a bonnet in the yard wringing out the breeches and flouncy undergarments. Right out of an 18th Century print, it was.

Left on South Street at the intersection there, and I was rewarded with a swooping descent -- briefly. Then the descent becomes crazy rollers leading down overall -- but involving lots of up, too. Seemed cruel at the time. "This place hates me and wants to hurt me," muttered I. However, the scenery was rustic New England all the way; great stuff through there.

I went with my gut and took a right on King's Highway (more evidence of Colonial times?). Steep, curvy, gravel downhills, pretty well graded, thank goodness. Fun and scary and fun.

Check out the mailbox. Figured no one'd believe me, so I took a picture.
A quick stop at the KOA General Store in Westhampton for a Diet Coke, and then a left on Route 66. (The reader will here notice my admirable restraint in not making lame references to the song by the same name.)  A new road to me; I'd been avoiding it because it's a highway and I expected over-development. However, most of the way back into Northampton, it was pleasantly rural, very smoothly paved, and with a very cushy shoulder. Recommended as a connector route for anyone passing through.

Take note of Outlook Farm on 66 in Westhampton, a surprisingly large farm stand/grocery store (think Atkins Farm-size) with plentiful food/drink options, and picnic tables and benches strewn about.

Nuthin' beats local produce for fuel
From "Hamp," as locals call it, I made my way back across the river and home again, home again, jiggety-jig.

I'd do the route again, for sure, but I think it would be more rewarding in reverse. 66 would make a nice early-morning warm-up climb, and 143 isn't especially scenic, so would be well-suited to a very long, screaming descent -- as my fellow cyclist testified today. "Woohoo!!" indeed.

All in all, 46 miles and 3,200' of climbing, certainly my most ambitious altitude for the year to date -- but there's a metric century coming up in two weeks which will beat that all to heck. 'S'why I was out beating on my legs today: prep.

Guess you'll just have to stay tuned for that one. Heh, heh.

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Wednesday, September 4, 2013

September Quatrain

September Quatrain

Cool in the dell
Hot on the hill
Hay in the breeze
It's summer still

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Sunday, August 25, 2013

Hadley, Late August

     Hadley, Late August

Under a shade tree I lingered too long
Sipping of summer before it was gone

Heavy of head and dreamily dozing
On soft, fragrant grass that soon will be frozen

The laughter of children resounding nearby
Fingers of breeze from a blue cloudless sky

I lay by my bicycle, resting my legs
And licking my lips for sweet summer dregs

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Thursday, August 22, 2013

Reviewed: Rivendell Roll-y Poly 28 mm Tire

I wanted fatter tires on my road bike.

Not fat -- just fatter. Something that might provide a little cush over the nasty New England pavement. Something that wouldn't blush and giggle every time I pointed them on to gravel side roads for a little exploratory jaunt.

On my Salsa Vaya, I'm running the 40 millimeter Clement X'plor MSO, so I'm well-covered for those long unpaved rides that require some paved connections. Now, I wanted my Jamis Quest to be just as flexible, but in reverse: perfect for long, comfortable road rides, yet more than ready when a dusty byway catches my peripheral vision.

After more research than I needed (mes oui!) I decided to sample tires from the company that has long been championing puffier tires for all. The 700 x 28 mm Roll-y Pol-y is made by the venerable Panaracer (the last bike tire company actually manufacturing in Japan) but conceived and marketed by Grant Petersen and his merry band of geeky bike elves over at Rivendell Bicycle Works.

After a couple hundred miles, I have some reliable first impressions. (I'll update this review in a few months with a more in-depth perspective.)

These are lovely tires, in various ways. The checkerboard tread is quirky and appealing (and probably completely useless). The old school-look of the tan sidewalls is always going to win points with me, a hopeless romantic. Above all, though, the feel of these tires grabbed me within two minutes of riding. Quality tires give a response that's very hard to describe. People mention "road feel" all the time, but misunderstand its essence: It doesn't mean that you can detect every pebble on the road, because that would translate into too much chatter for comfort. It means that the rider can sense the rubber interacting with the surface of the road in a subtle, refined way. This sensation makes me ride my bike differently—or at least with more pleasure.

In addition to lower air pressure, the extra width and beautifully rounded profile add up to very confident cornering and a sense of calm when entering marbly gravel patches on an unplanned detour. I even dropped pressure way down on these and took them to a local gravel/dirt trail to test them out: They took me almost everywhere my deeper-treaded off-road 700c tires do—from nicely-packed gravel trails... chunky, soft turf (though a lot of power is needed in this stuff)...

...and even over sharp, oversized "gravel" (with some pinging and tire deflection):

So, I now have two very different bikes I can ride almost anywhere. Joy!

On the road, the Roll-ys feel much more sprightly than expected. Some reviews state that they're the lightest 28 mm tire out there, but I don't care enough to check. They spin up quick enough for this road-turtle when he feels a bit more hare-like, and they simply "feel quick." This probably has something to do with thread count or rubber compound; all I know is that I now have tires that feel better, provide more comfort, grip better—and don't hold me back. I'm pretty sure my long-term update on this review is going to be very positive.

Curse you, Petersen! You told me I wouldn't turn back once I'd tried quality wider tires—and you were right!

Hmmm... Wonder if the Rivendell Jack Browns (stated width of "33.333333 mm") will fit between the chainstays of my increasingly multipurpose "road" bike...