Monday, June 24, 2013

Vaya con Dos: Es Mejor

A delightful extended dirt-road climb and descent yesterday with friend Will, who works at my LBS, the venerable Hampshire Bicycle Exchange.

It was a oven-like, summery day, but these particular roads are well-shaded, and the surrounding burbling brooks and deep glades provided refreshing breezes most of the day.

Will is a perfect ride partner; like me, he enjoys conversation (which we somehow managed to keep up over extended 7% climbs on loose gravel) and, like me, he occasionally likes to wind up the motor and let fly. We spent most of the ride two-up, just chatting and enjoying the remarkable bucolic scenery on Pratt Corner Road in Amherst and Leverett and Montague Road in Shutesbury and Leverett.

For gravel grinders in the Pioneer Valley, you won't find more appealing roads on the east side of the Connecticut River. If you really want to add to the challenge, do the short out-and-back spur on Sand Hill Road -- but make sure your tires are wide and your legs are fresh. It's gorgeous up there, but the grades are real, the road is aptly named.

One reason we had been looking forward to joining up on this route for months is that we both are proud owners of the Salsa Vaya, a bike perfectly suited to mixed-surface rides.

Vaya 2 and 1, descansando in el fresco sombre
33 miles, 2,400', about 70% dirt. A most satisfying afternoon's work.

Dos Vayas charlando 

Sunday, June 16, 2013

Salsa Vaya: (Very) Full Review

I've owned a Salsa Vaya for over two years now, but just realized this month that, despite the many posts here crowing about the bike and the places it's allowed me to see, I've never done a full review. I've put this rig through its paces in many different roles: commuter, wanna-be-29-inch mountain bike, and, most rewarding of all, dirt road rambler. I have lots to say about it, so settle in.

Gravel and Dirt Roads

In Western Mass, we have a bounty of beautiful scenery to be devoured, and the best of it is often down a road that makes pseudo-racers on their $3,000 carbon razor blades shudder with fear.

Back when all I owned was a skinny-tired racing bike, I couldn't resist exploring these byways, and frequently spun out my back wheel standing on the pedals on pebbly 20% ramps. I decided to find something better suited to the terrain. When the owner of my LBS decided to sell his first-gen Vaya, I gave it a test ride on some local dirt, and it was love at first bite.

With 35 mm Kenda Small Block Eights for rubber, the Vaya wasn't too responsive on tarmac, but once I hit the gravel, it was like someone lopped an invisible five pounds off the bike. It just felt right. This is, in fact, the surface the bike was designed for; a few years ago, when gravel endurance events (see partial lists here and here) were in their infancy, the Vaya was one of the go-to rigs for those races. (Now there are purpose built gravel racing bikes, of course. Inventing an miniscule, elitist niche and then exploiting the dickens out of it is the American way.)

The Vaya sings on dirt and gravel roads. If this is your main reason for considering buying one, don't hesitate.


I had never ridden single-track before the Vaya, but my lack of skills didn't stop me from trying. And trying. I found a lot of different ways to fall off a bicycle out in the woods of Western Mass, and a variety of ways to sleep upright on a sofa, crying out in the middle of the night because of torn rib muscles or bruised bones.

Before adult responsibilities demanded I quit, I had a blast out there. It's indescribably exciting to use a traditional drop-bar road bike to thoroughly clean a section of mountain bike trail, with a few log-hops and brook clearings thrown in for good measure.

Don't buy the Vaya expecting MTB performance. But if, like me, you can't resist areasonably smooth trail leading into the woods off of your boring old road route, this bike will serve you admirably.

 Paved Roads

I've ridden the Vaya countless hours on paved roads; if you're not going far, it can be a very rewarding ride. This can include stretches of tarmac which hook up your favorite gravel routes (especially if, like me, many of your dirt roads don't extend beyond five miles).

It also -- perhaps especially -- includes commuting.Adding to the Small Blocks a slim rack, full fenders, a powerful rechargeable light and blinkie, and a good pannier, handsomely prepared the Vaya  rides to work in snow, freezing cold, rain, and yes, even the occasional nice New England day. Though I'm not a bike tourist, this set-up approaches a touring config, and the bike handles well under load.

The bike feels ready to handle all kinds of weather, handles very predictably, just generally feels safe in traffic and on the pot-holed roads that going to work often involves in the Northeast. With the bike in commuter mode, I find myself inventing reasons to ride -- a quick trip to the library, or volunteering to pick up that quart of milk.

Touring is another of the purposes for which the Vaya was created, but Salsa might as well have added commuting in their list. It makes a rock-solid commuting road bike.

Handling and Geometry

The Vaya handles well on dirt, but also suprised me on the road. It tracks ruler-straight; you can fully load a pannier on one side and check constantly over your shoulder for traffic, and when you turn to the front again, you're exactly the same distance from the shoulder. Unloaded, however, the bike is pleasingly responsive for such a workhorse bike. Bars sit high and the reach to them is short, so shoulder fatigue simply never happens.

With just a little speed while on the road, I can use both hands to zip a jacket or open an energy bar. Sometimes I add my heavyish handlebar bag when I'm commuting; if I keep the front load reasonable, steering remains enjoyable.

Now, I've read reports of people riding the Vaya in zippy group rides, day-long road expeditions, and even multi-day tours. While the bike's comfort is prodigious, and I've ridden up to eight hours with none of the typical soreness such length involves, I find the Vaya's solid build and fatter tires -- which make it so wonderful on moderate gravel rides --  make it ponderous for anything longer than 20 miles or so on hilly paved roads.

Disc brakes

My Vaya came with Avid BB5 disc brakes, but more recent iterations upgraded to the highly-touted BB7s. As I was a disc novice, I can't offer comparisons, but I can say that the BB5s were a revelation to someone used to braking on the wheel rim. I find the Avids especially useful on dirt, where smooth, rapid modulation of speed can be a matter of life and limb. And when I want to stop on the road, I stop -- period. It's as if mud and water simply don't exist.

If you have a Marco Polo in you, begging for a true all-rounder bike that will take you wherever you want to go, test-ride the Vaya.  I traded it in once for a fancier bike, and was back at the shop wearing a sheepish expression a week later. Fortunately, the manager took pity on me and traded it back.

I just can't imagine swinging a leg over a better bike when I'm up for adventure.

The Vaya at large in its natural habitat

Monday, June 3, 2013

Velosopher, Jr.

Velophoriacs, meet Velosopher, Jr.

Jr. is our pre-adoptive foster son, who finally moved in with us last Friday after months of exploratory visits and red tape. We're very excited to have him as part of the fold. It was a very exciting weekend, of course, but one of the best parts happened Saturday afternoon.

Shouldn't suprise anyone that, on his first full day with us, I toted him to my LBS -- the redoutable Hampshire Bicycle Exchange -- and got a smokin' deal on a sleek, new-to-us, road bike, A Fuji Ace 24 (rough specs here). It's never too early to brainwash initiate the little ones into the ways of the mystery cult. (You are forgiven for believing that I influenced him, but once he experienced the lighter, more agile feel of a road machine, the clunky kids mountain bikes were quite forgotten in the corner of the store.)

Back at the ranch, Sr. V gave Jr. V a quick Shifting 101 tutorial...

... and JV was off like a rocket. As we say in our world, he rode it like he stole it.

Within minutes, the other boys on our block were out on their steeds, and joined us for a few demo laps in the shade, each paying his proper respects to the new bike on the block.

In the way of boys everywhere, this quickly morphed into a Kul-de-sac Kiddie Kriterium, in which JV's competitive spirit quickly surfaced.

JV fit right in: A good-hearted competitor, smiling whether in first place or last. On our block, competition is fierce, but joy always wins the day.

The apple and the tree:

Since temps were in the low 90s, there were post-race cool-down activities.

Sunday, you ask? Sunday we worked on skills. (I hasten to note that this was at JV's request.). I set up three rags in a row on the cul-de-sac, and had him ride tight crcles around them, mastering his low-speed handling skills. The bike's a bit large for him, so that he might grow into it. Because it's built lighter than the mountain bikes his friends ride, he'll have the option of joining me for longer jaunts. However, the larger size means handling is not intuitive -- yet.

We also worked on traffic skills, taking two five-minute family trips around the block, on the main roads, with Mrs. V. joining us. JV kept a pretty tight line, and did not waver as cars overtook us.  He'll be ready for a 20-miler in no time. Okay, maybe not this month, but no worries: I had more fun directing the bike rally than I did on any solo ride this year.

Family Life: Membership has its rewards.