Friday, May 31, 2013

Spied on Ride

Early morning ride sightings:

1) Sun and mist on Mill River.

2) Plentiful mud from recent rains on trail by Mill River.

3) Turtle the size of a giant watermelon right in the middle of Mill Site Road, which turned out -- much to my surprise -- to be a snapping turtle.

4) Agitated neighbor wondering why I was riding on her land, which I mistook for open space. (We made friends.)

The best stuff always happens on the days I leave the camera at home.

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Monday, May 27, 2013

All Things Green

What I learned this week:

When you do your civic duty -- like attending a town Conservation Committee meeting -- you might find out about some secret access points to the Connecticut River (the center line through the Pioneer Valley).

Using all your skills to maneuver your dirt-road bike along old tractor roads, you might see some beautiful scenery between the access point and the river.

You might find a beach you never knew existed, which you'll plan on returning to in the hot months.

On your reconn mission, you might end up poking around a neighboring town, and see a road block with graffitti which says, "Bridge too purty for yr car." (True, by the way.)

On your way home, you might even see a convoy of local tractors hurrying to take their places in the town Memorial Day parade.

Help your town save the local greenery, and then go out and ride your bike to see it all.

It might be worth it.

Monday, May 20, 2013

You Must Watch the Giro D'Italia

There are many, many reasons, but here are 25 irrefutable ones.

A taste. Please do click to enlarge:

Thursday, May 2, 2013

Gore Bike Wear Phantom 2.0 SO Jacket Review

Back in January of this year, trying to get some winter base miles in during a frigid spell, I did a 30-mile ride with temps in the 20s, damp air, and steady winds. Thinking I was being cautious, I wore a spring-weight vest over a spring-weight jacket over a mid-weight Merino baselayer. I was cold much of the day, and later that week, I came down with a dreadful cold.

That was when I decided it was time for a serious softshell bike jacket. Softshells are supposed to repel wind and water, do a good job of insulating, and yet still breathe relatively well. This is not an easy balance to strike in activewear.

As usual, I did a boat-load of research into all the options before I pulled the trigger, and I ended up with the Gore Bike Wear Phantom 2.0 SO Jacket.

The Gore Bike Wear Phantom 2.0 SO Jacket

I've had the jacket three months, through bitter winter, the relentlessly windy early New England spring, and, for the last month, more moderate early-season temps. Now that it's being shelved for the season, I thought I'd let you know what I've discovered.

The Ups

The Phantom looks sharp, especially in the royal blue. I sometimes wonder about the wisdom of wearing that color instead of screaming yellow during the dark, wet months, but I'd worn hi-vis stuff for so long, I was just sick of it, and reasoned that, during any truly low-visibility days, I'd be fitted out with blinkie and reflective clothing anyway. (The small reflective stripes on the jacket aren't bad, but are too minimal to be relied upon by themselves in low light conditions.)

The fit runs true to the Gore sizing chart, and I find it perfectly suited to just a tad of extra winter weight around the middle, while still being snug enough to be considered aerodynamic.

In short, I like the way it looks a lot.

The soft-shell material does not disappoint. It sheds light moisture well; I haven't yet tested it in heavy rain or snow, but it's fine for everything up until that point. It stops the wind well, but not completely. I found myself adding that hi-vis wind vest over the top on those damp Northeast days with persistent winds and temps below the 40s. (In New England, spring winds averaging in the teens and gusting up to the 30s are very common.)

I'd be delighted if, for all that money, the jacket stopped the wind entirely. However, I suspect that would mean the breathability would suffer, and I have to say that this aspect of the jacket is terrific. Even on long, hard climbs, I rarely found myself bathed in sweat underneath my layers. (A wool baselayer will help loads on that point.) Descents in the winter are usually torture, because you've just worked up a great sweat, and now you're at the highest and coldest point in your route, about to plummet to unprecedented speeds without working to add any warmth. With relatively little moisture against the skin and fairly good insulating capability, the Phantom definitely made chilly descents a lot more enjoyable.

Rear pockets are spacious and well-placed -- not as common a grace as I'd like in cycling clothing. Zippers seem sturdy. The fabric feels bulletproof against rips or abrasions. There is a nicely snug collar of about 1.5 inches; drape a wool balaclava or neck gaitor over this, and your chin and neck are snuggly warm.

The Downs

It's saying a lot that there is only one drawback to this jacket, and, though it's important, it's not a deal-breaker. It's the sleeve system -- an odd place for a problem area, all the more so for being quite well though-out -- mostly. Gore had a great idea in making the long sleeves completely removable. Although I was quite dubious at first as to the utility of going sleeveless on days cold enough to demand this jacket, in fact, I've used it more than a few times, and been glad to be able to have more ventilation on my arms while still keeping the core plenty warm.

As another considerable benefit, you can unzip the lengthy bottom half of the two-zipper sleeve attachment nearly all the way and get a pretty good approximation of the pit-zip effect. Bonus ventilation options are always great on the bike, especially in the cold weather.

So far, so good. Here are the problems:

First of all, don't get the idea you can remove or, especially, replace the sleeves on the move, as you would with simple arm warmers. Even crazy Italian pros who adjust their own rear derailleur on the fly couldn't work these sleeves without stopping; part of the zipper system is too far out of reach. And replacing the sleeves is a real puzzle; the first few times, it took five minutes, and a couple of frowning moments staring at sleeves hanging backwards off the shoulders.

Okay, so I stop to remove/replace the sleeves, and take some time to memorize the process better. No biggie.

However. Under the long sleeves, Gore permanently sewed a pair of heavy short sleeves to the vest shoulders, to try to make the "sleeveless" garment into a jersey. These short sleeves, when squeezed between the long sleeves of the jacket and my winter base layer, bind my shoulders and underarms, and I can feel it even when I'm not moving my arms much -- e.g., in the riding position. Perhaps the worst part is that the short sleeves deeply limit the benefit of unzipping the bottom sleeve zipper for extra air under the arms.

I got mostly used to the constriction after a while, and there is something to be said for the extra warmth through the shoulders, which often get colder than the rest of my torso. However, I don't understand this design decision from a company so highly-reputed for their thoughtful products.  Not many people want a jacket-weight jersey, but if Gore had eliminated the short sleeves, the result would have been a great jacket/vest combo, no binding, and full pit-zip functioning. Win-win-win.

(Note: Although I'm not super-muscular in general, I am thicker through the shoulders than most guys my height and weight. If you're not, this issue may never bother you, and the extra shoulder warmth may be all upside for you.)

January 2014 edit: One additional problem has cropped up in the last few months. The hem on the sleeves at the wrists have started to separate quite noticeably from the sleeve material. Mrs. V. was king enough to re-sew one of them; we'll see how long it holds. This is the kind of fail doesn't expect from Gore gear not even a year into the garment's life.

The Lowdown

Overall, I'm quite pleased with the Phantom 2.0. The look, the warmth, the fit, and the high utility are all worth the money. (If you factor in the discount, I paid roughly 135.00.) It kept me at the right temperature through bitter winter and chilly spring. I do rue the shoulder and sleeve-end situations, but not enough to search out another jacket. I would recommend this jacket to a friend, with a caveat.