Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Fort Hill, Amherst Mass

A great bike adventure doesn't have to take you hours from your front door. I discovered one last week just 20 minutes away, and you can, too, if you live near Amherst, MA. Fort Hill is near the center of town, but it's amazing how quickly it gets beautifully pastoral.

Everyone knows about the Norwottuck bike trail, which runs from Northampton through Amherst and out to Belchertown. Right off that trail, very close to Amherst center, is a small network of dirt roads and trails where I've managed to string together a good 15 or 20 minutes of fun for that moment when I'm passing through town and want a real nature break.

To access it, turn off South Pleasant Street/Route 116 into the driveway for Amherst Farmers Supply, and take an immediate left onto the bike trail.

About a mile east on the trail, at the very end of the Amherst College tennis courts, turn left onto a wide dirt road, and then follow the main road, bearing right at the maintenance shack you'll see in front of you. You'll start climbing, and also playing with the various surface ingredients -- wonderfully packed dirt; loose, marbly gravel; and packed, flinty stones. (I recommend at least 28 mm tires.)

Keep climbing past the small pen of adorable pigs, and then 'round the bend after the buzzing beehives:

About 50 yards later, you'll top out and receive your reward: A panoramic view of the Amherst valley and the Pelham hills, from a lovely clearing with a picnic table.

The worn stone steps I found at the opposite side of the clearing made me wonder if Fort Hill had an actual military structure on its summit at one point. 

The table is in a nice shady spot with a light breeze, which dispels the heat and mosquitoes. If you return to the main road and continue down the other side of the hill, you'll end up at the junction of Southeast Street:

I recommend, however, retracing your path back down the hill a little, just past the piggies, and finding the opening in the trees on your left. You'll enter a small network of walking trails that creates a swoopy descent back down to the bike trail. One of the trails will dump you onto the bike trail right where you left it; enjoy poking around until you find that one. 

From there, take a left onto the other end of the main dirt road. Soon, you'll see a gate set in the trees on your right. Take this delightful little trail through the woods back up to the entrance of the Farmers Supply, and voila! You're back where you started. 

No muss, no fuss -- you don't even have to break a sweat to get a little dirt action, quietude, and a splendid view, right off the center of Amherst, on a nice summer day. 

It pays to poke around.

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Saturday, July 27, 2013

The Joys of Wrenching Your Own

When I started riding again six years ago, and it became evident that I was in it for the long haul this time, I set my mind to learning to repair my own bike.

Wrenching at home eliminates a trip to the bike store -- where I might have to wait a day or three for my bike, and pay a nice chunk for the privilege. It increases my confidence on long rides, knowing I'm less likely to be stranded.

Perhaps most precious, it's a feast for the senses.

it puts my hands on something material and finite, a small metal and rubber puzzle waiting to be manipulated, twisted, aligned. It replaces rushing and talk and noise with the quiet tapping of metal on metal and the measured click-click-click of the freewheel. The heft of the bike as I put it in the stand, the cool feel of steel and aluminum, the balanced weight of a well-made tool in my palm, the satisfaction of dirt, grease, and grass disappearing beneath an old rag. The bouquet of quality machine lubrication, a scent I often leave on my hands for the rest of the day, to bring a smile as I sit before my computer or my clients, groping through the realm of abstractions.

Here's what I've been able to learn so far, in no particular order:

  • Repair flats, in all the many varieties
  • Apply handlebar tape
  • Install/remove pedals
  • Remove, replace, adjust front and rear derailleur
  • True a wheel with either traditional or bladed spokes
  • Straighten derailleur hanger
  • Remove/replace handlebar stem
  • Lower/raise handlebars
  • Adjust sidepull and mechanical disc brakes
  • Install/remove fenders, rack
  • Properly fit a bike -- seat height, bar reach, etc.
I'm proud of this list because it took years to compile. I'm not essentially mechanically oriented; Mrs. V. does almost all the repairs around the house, having been raised by a very handy father. 

About the only items that caused long-term frustration were the front and rear derailleur adjustments. I went years before I realized the role that the limit screws can play in easing a shift up to the bigger ring in the front. I was setting the screws by the book -- allowing a minimal clearance between derailleur cage and chainring -- and then trying to make the cable do all the work. Allowing a bit more play in the limit setting allowed me to ease up a bit on the cable tension and nail that shift. No mechanic, including the one I'd paid to teach me, ever mentioned this. Perhaps it's not even kosher -- but it works like a charm, every time.

In the rear, the magic wand was my new derailleur hanger adjustment tool. It's a beautiful Park Tool piece which cost upwards of $50.00, but was worth every penny. No one ever told me that some derailleur hangers bend when you simply look at them funny, nor that the very slightest misalignment means you will never, never be able to properly adjust your shifting in back. If you're unable to find the sweet spot with your barrel adjuster, and you've got trouble shifting both up and down, and your chain and cassette are not worn out, don't worry: you're not crazy. You just need to align your hanger. Once you do, the thing will shift just as smooth as silk, and your next ride will be soooo pleasing.

Finally, here are the repairs I'd still like to master:

  • Remove/install chain (this one probably just requires an occasion to try)
  • Install/remove brake and derailleur cables/housing
  • Install/remove crankset
  • Install/remove bottom bracket
  • Install/remove cassette (probably just need chain whip)
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(Edit, 9/7/13: Added "apply handlebar tape" to can-do list.)

Monday, July 22, 2013

Review: Just Ride, by Grant Petersen

Like so many cycling fanatics I know, I recently got my hands on a copy of this lovely little paperback, unusually tall, narrow, and well-designed (and released by Workman Publishng, New York, 2012).

I'm familiar with all the Petersen critiques -- he's a fanatic, too militantly unfashionable, too stuck on his own eccentricity. Well, it turns out that, no matter what rules you make up, they'll apply to some folks somewhere, and between his storied history at Bridgestone and his leadership at Rivendell, Petersen built himself a soap-box just tall enough to reach each one of that select few -- and created a sub-culture in the process.

Myself, I'm leery of cults of personality. Petersen's a master marketeer: his copy on the Riv website is enchanting and insidious. It feels just like it was written after hours over a beer and a burrito by a guy who deeply cares how you feel on a bike. Eventually, after one too many mini-articles touting his latest nouveau-retro innovation, I start worrying that my bike is too light, my tires are too narrow, and my handlebars are too low. 

He's got magnetism to spare; it's that Cali surfer-dude allure, shared with guys like Gary Fisher and, well, Jeff Bridges. It just makes the Northeasterner in me suspicious. 

And yet, I found gems in these pages. I like Petersen for his strong advocacy of common-sense bicycling. It supports my ongoing attempts to de-compete myself, to turn into a knowledgeable bike rider who has handsome, useable bikes, instead of a pseudo-racer trying to keep up with the latest guy who burned me. This is the book's main thrust -- the freeing of bicycling from the deleterious influence of professional bike racing -- and, for that, it gets three stars.

Turns out the book is a lot like Petersen: Charming, a touch too self-consciously quirky, and yet, occasionally alarmingly helpful. 

Face it -- sitting through the rantings of a guy who's been taste-making in the bike business for decades is always going to be worth it. I say, go for it. 

If you're unsure, do as I did, and request a copy through your local library. Or, splurge and buy yourself one; when all's said and done. the man runs an honest and passionate business, and that's a value we all need to support.

Sunday, July 14, 2013

The Best Tour de France Ever?

Eight seconds.

After three solid weeks of racing five or six hours a day, over frozen mountain peaks and through humid, blistering valleys, Greg LeMond -- the first, and now the only American to win the Tour de France (and he won it three times) -- rode his guts out into Paris, against all the odds, on the very last day of the race, and beat Laurent Fignon -- the hometown hero! -- by eight measly seconds.

Eight seconds!

Many say it was the most exciting and surprising Tour finish ever.

Last week, whilst tooling about Amherst getting some things done (on my bike), I stopped at the venerable Jones Library to drop off some paperwork. On my way out, I passed a table of ancient magazines recently withdrawn from the collection. I stopped just long enough to notice that they were all Sports Illustrated issues from the late '80s and early '90s. I wasn't overly interested, but I flipped a couple of copies over, and... voilá! Cette:

Hope you enjoy this little rest-day bon-bon. The article is well-written and the photos sublime, so click to enlarge the scans, and then expand the expansions to enjoy the text.

The man was, and remains, a Giant. Chapeau, M. LeMond!

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Saturday, July 13, 2013

Clement X'Plor MSO Review

(NOTE: Please forgive dodgy formatting and mediocre photos. Main laptop is down,and this post was compiled using various devices.)

Regular readers know that I've been a huge fan of the Kenda Small Block Eight 35 mm tires that were on my Salsa Vaya when I bought it, lightly used, in 2011. For the mixed-surface rides I love in the Pioneer Valley, featuring choppy paved roads transitioning to loose gravel surfaces, they have just the right amount of tread, and are wide enough to offer a bit of cush. They also had plenty of clearance under my 50 mm Civia fenders.
My Eights still have some tread left, but I decided recently to replace them before it was too late. I wanted to be able to keep them in my quiver.
I knew I wanted a wider tire, since I was curious about what more girth would do for ride quality. As noted here recently, there's been an explosion of epic gravel riding events in the last couple of years. This has led to a profusion of wider tire choices. Where there were only a few back in 2011, I found far too many this time around, and took weeks in deciding. 
In the end, a dirt-road ride with friend Will, from Hampshire Bicycle Exchange, made the decision easy. He was sporting a brandy-new Vaya 2 (bought through his shop) featuring Clement X'Plor MSO's. I noticed that, in sections where my tires came up wanting, he seemed sure-footed and relaxed. Hmmm...
And, well, yeah -- they're also a gorgeous tire. Let's be honest: Glossy black rubber with bright, bold graphics can influence a purchase pretty profoundly.
I did the right thing and purchased the tires through the Bike Exchange. They mounted easily, despite the wire bead. Though these initial shots shows that the fenders needed some re-aligning with the new tire, they also demonstrate how much more ample the tire looks, evoking stability and readiness.

And now, the first impressions, formed after a handful of gravel, trail, and paved rides:
Fuggedabout it. Drop-dead gorgeous. Perhaps the crowning touches are the colorful World Champ-style stripes and the accent over the first "e," evoking Clement's storied Continental history.
Tread and Profile
Even though I saved a little scratch by going with the 60 TPI version, I am impressed by the pliant sidewalls, giving the dirt-road feel of a more expensive tire. Yet in all the reviews I saw, durability got decent marks.
The tread surface is nearly semi-circular, and extends well down toward the rim. The tread on the MSO is what differentiates it from its X'Plor USH brother; its chevron pattern features a concentration of small, tightly-spaced parallelograms forming an ample central ridge. When the tire is more fully pumped, this band makes for relatively smooth paved-road riding.
When I let 10 psi or so out of the MSO, though, it's ready for the gravel roads Clement vaunts as its natural setting. The outer edges feature slightly larger, well-designed knobs. At semi-soft pressures, these tend to bite hard-pack and gravel enough to create some security. Yet they're low-profile enough that lowering the pressure yet another five or so pounds delivers a somewhat tubular footprint which flattens out reassuringly over the large, loose stones of Western Mass back roads.  
All of this promises a good balance for my go-anywhere bike and my local road conditions. What I've seen so far delivers on that promise. In loose-to-washed-out gravel, riding about 38 psi in the front and 45 in the back (I weigh about 160 pounds), I found myself surprised by the sureness of grip, leaning dreamily into sharpish downhill turns. 
The paved-road ride is good enough, though the extra weight and less-expensive construction is evident. Every decision involves trade-offs, and I'm hoping this one just needs a little more time to adjust to the natural consequences of a step up in tire size. Much of my time on this tire will be spent commuting, so I'll have more to say about that later. Watch this space for a follow-up review on this handsome rubber.

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Monday, July 1, 2013

Pioneer Valley Summer Magic

A week of short, two-wheeled rambles through the countryside of the venerable Pioneer Valley produced some memorable visuals. I'd have to take up oils again to do them justice, but I snapped away, unable to stop.

First, a folio of Hadley views:

Hadley's Great Meadow -- some of the oldest farm fields in America

Hadley's Honeypot district, adjacent to the Meadow

Honeypot corn

Sculptural clouds above the stately Connecticut

For agricultural and history buffs, from the web site of the World Monuments Fund:
Located on the Connecticut River in western Massachusetts, Hadley was settled in 1659 by English Puritans. The colonists laid out a village, common, and an “open-field” farming system in the Great Meadow. This arrangement of slender, unfenced, elongated land parcels bounded by the river has endured since the time of the allotments to original settlers. Open-field farming was widespread in medieval and early modern Europe, but only the earliest New England settlements set up this type of agricultural system, and most had disappeared by the 18th century. This survival on such a large scale, over the centuries and through American industrialization in the northeastern United States, is incredibly improbable. 

Next, some shots from across the river in Deerfield.

A cool spot by the banks on a blazing day

After a beautiful climb over North Hillside Road, a descent led to more magic

The steed pauses for a drink on a humid afternoon

Waiting out the rain under a tree, five miles from home

There's beauty all about us, if we have eyes to see. Go for a ride today, rain or shine, and keep a lookout for surprises.

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