Karma?

I had everything planned out.

It’s getting time to change my tires and I had prudently ordered new ones several weeks ago.  With the great weather this week, I decided to forego the precious minutes required to change the tires and use them to ride.  It was supposed to rain on Friday and I would swap them out then.

So last night after work I hopped on my bike for one last ride with my old tires.  It would be a pleasant farewell after months of faithful work.

Six miles from home, I flatted.  Oh, the irony.

Although annoyed and slightly amused at the irony of having a tire flat on its final voyage, I was not concerned.  I am, after all, an exceptionally experienced cyclist, especially in the field of flat tires.  I calmly walked my bike to a grassy area and began to change the tube.  It was peaceful.  Birds were chirping and the weather was nice.  I even found a large log to sit on while I did my work.  I was in no hurry.  It is never good to flat but rarely are circumstances better than this.  I looked up to the sky and thanked Madonna del Ghisallo (patron saint of cycling) for my good fortune.

I found the source of the flat, a nasty piece of metal about half an inch long.  It was encouraging to know that my Continental Grand Prix Four Seasons only failed me after being impaled by such an impressive thing.  I put my new tube in place and began to screw my CO2 canister into the cartridge which I would use to dispense the gas.

At this point, I learned several things in rapid succession:

1.  Before screwing a CO2 canister onto its cartridge, you really ought to ensure the cartridge remains in the “closed” position where you put it 14 months ago.  Otherwise, it may have jiggled open and all the gas will escape as soon as you screw on the cartridge.

2.  It’s probably a good idea to have more than one CO2 cartridge with you in case something unfortunate happens to the first one you tried to use.  Otherwise, you won’t have any way to inflate your tire.

3.  If you don’t have another CO2 cartridge, it wouldn’t hurt to carry a small tire pump with you, just in case.

4.  Life gets hard when you’re six miles from home with a flat you can’t repair.

5.  Rather than thanking Madonna del Ghisallo, I should spend more time getting acquainted with Saint Simeon (patron saint of fools).

It is raining today as forecasted.  I think I’ll swap out my tires tonight.

First Impressions: Continental Grand Prix 4 Seasons

The winter cold hit Northern Virginia this weekend.  With temperatures hovering around freezing, I gutted out a 17 mile ride on Saturday.  Today’s highs were to be a few degrees colder than Saturday.  I pondered whether  or not to head out.  I probably would have passed but for two things:

1.  I was keenly aware that you all were desperate to learn my opinion of my new tires.  It would not be fair to keep you waiting any longer than absolutely necessary.

2.  I went out to dinner last night and things got out of control.  I needed to ride to counteract the effects of copious amounts of fried foods and key lime pie.

So I pedaled another 26 miles today, giving me 43 on my new Conti 4S tires.  By the way, “Conti” is an abbreviation for “Continental” (which all the cool cyclists know) and “4S” is short for “Grand Prix 4 Seasons.”  I realize “Grand” is omitted in the acronym.  I have no idea why – some things defy explanation.  The uber-cool cyclists further abbreviate this to “C4S.”  I shall therefore use this term.

So what do I think of the C4S?

- I think it’s damn near impossible to evaluate a tire when you’re trying to avoid frostbite.

- The ride seems to be a little more comfortable, but that could be all in my head.

- On a couple of turns, it seemed like I cornered very fast, almost “ziplike,” but that could be in my head.

- The tires felt fast, but there was no evidence of that in my times, but that could be because it’s difficult to ride at fast speeds when you are trying to avoid frostbite.

- The tread pattern looks neat, but I’m pretty sure it’s useless.  Unless, of course, the nice cornering is due to the tread.  I suspect cornering performance has far more to do with the composition of the rubber than a millimeter-deep pattern on the tire.

The tires performed splendidly in their most important functions, namely staying inflated and staying on my wheel rim.  In the end, that’s what I really hope for and anything else is just gravy.  Here’s hoping the perceived improvements are not just psychosomatic.  Time (and warmer weather) will tell.

The 2012 Tires

It is now time to unveil my tire purchase for the year.  In 2010, I conducted my first foray into high-end tires and purchased the supposedly indestructible Armadillos for my hybrid.   I made it 40 miles before I flatted.  In 2011, I bought Bontrager Race Lite Hardcase for my Trek’s rear wheel and loved it.  Sadly, the tire wore out and I needed to get some new ones.

This year’s winner is Continental Grand Prix 4 Seasons.

Since liked my first Hardcase so much, I considered buying some more.  After absolutely none of you spoke up on their behalf and other online reviews referred to them as “lead weights,” I thought perhaps I could do better.

I considered Continental Gatorskins, but the Grand Prix is a comparable tire with a reportedly smoother ride made by the same company.  I figured that if I was going to get a nice Continental tire, I might as well go all in.  Reports of problems getting the Gatorskins seated properly on the rim were also mildly troubling.

Schwalbe Marathons were my runner-up.  If the 4 Seasons fail me, I will probably turn to them.  I have no good reason for not getting them, other than I saw the Continental factory in the Robert Penn movie, “Ride Of My Life,”  and thought it was an interesting bit.  So now I have a tire from the same place.  Yippee.

At 220 grams apiece, the 4 Seasons are 50% lighter than the Hardcases.  They get very strong reviews from almost everywhere, including commentators on this blog whose opinions I have grown to respect.  They are light, grip well in all weather conditions, and reportedly last a long time.  Continental is a well-respected company that has been making bicycle tires since 1892.  It’s hard to argue with any of that, so I began my search for a store where I could buy them.

In theory, these tires can be bought in local bike shops.  In practice, that wasn’t so easy.  Visits to two stores and a phone call to a third had negative results.  A  phone call to a 4th store finally tracked down a pair at a cost of $79 per tire.  When I asked the shopkeeper if he would match an online offer of $46/tire, he said only if it came from a “brick and mortar store.”  The website was PhattTire.Com, so he could not match the offer.

And that is how the local bike shop lost my business, which is sad.  I would like to support them, but not at a near 100% markup over what I can find online.  My desire to help sustain the local bike industry only goes so far.  At the reduced price, I could still only expect to travel on these tires at a rate of 65 miles per dollar spent.  By way of comparison, I get about 265 miles per dollar on my automobile tires.  I never did that calculation until this week and was surprised at the figures.  If you ever thought bicycle tires are expensive, you’re right and now you have the facts to prove it.

The tires came in the mail yesterday.  Those who are not as incredibly experienced as I am may be surprised to learn that nice tires often come in small boxes and are folded.  Such was the case with the 4 Seasons.  I posed the boxes for the picture you see on the right, then set about putting the tires on my wheels.

If these tires are easier to put on than Gatorskins, then I thank the cycling gods that I didn’t get Gatorskins.  They don’t exactly form a lovely circle when removed from the box.  The Hardcases easily accepted a slightly inflated inner tube and went over the wheel rims with only the slightest challenge.  Not so with these tires.  Keeping the inner tube inside the 4 Seasons tire was a largely aspirational notion and getting the tire over the rim was a titanic struggle which I eventually won after many tense moments and occasional muttering on my part.  I was worried my frantic and increasingly blunt efforts to mount the tire would tear the inner tube.  Fortunately that didn’t happen.  After 75 minutes, both tires were on the rims.

If I have to do this on a ride, I’m just going to hide my bike in a bush and walk home.

So that’s that.  The tires are on the bike and I’m ready to go.  It was pouring rain so I eschewed a quick test pedal.  I should be getting in a few rides in the coming days so stay tuned for my first impressions.

Tire Talk

This can't be good

A recent tire inspection has caused me to believe there is a very good chance I am courting disaster.  Please see the above picture for the cause of my concern.

My rear tire is missing pieces of rubber.  I’m pretty sure this isn’t how it is designed to operate.  There is clearly an impending crisis in my life and I am struggling to decide how to avert it.

I really like my Bontrager Race Lite Hardcase tire.  After suffering a plethora of flats in 2010 and another flat this February, I purchased the Hardcase for my back tire and rode trouble-free all year until a few weeks ago when I slammed into a rock at high speed and caused a pinch flat.   The Hardcase performed brilliantly and gave me a summer blessedly free of tire related issues.  Another year of chronic flats may very well have driven me away from cycling, so it is not too much to say that this tire kept me in the hobby.  It was a very good tire, but I am afraid it’s time has come.

You might think pea-sized holes in your tire would virtually guarantee a puncture within minutes.  The fact that hasn’t occurred is a testament to the sturdiness of the tire.  Under the rubber is a Kevlar band which is now unfortunately seeing the light of day.  Still, the Kevlar is doing its job and the tire bravely soldiers on, puncture-free.

I’ve read that some people attempt to patch these holes with Shoo Gloo or other rubbery shoe repair glues.  If you look closely at the photo, you can see the remains of my attempt at this sort of repair, which did not last 20 miles.  It doesn’t appear this is the solution for me.

Initially, I was disappointed that the tire wore out so quickly.  When I read reviews of this tire, I saw several satisfied owners who claimed to have ridden 5,000+ miles on the Hardcase.  When reading the reviews, I neglected to consider two factors:

1.  Online user testimonials are often outright lies perpetrated by vendors masquerading as consumers.

2. I am larger than the average cyclist and therefore tend to wear parts out faster than normal.  So even if the testimonials were legitimate, I could not reasonably expect to see the same lifetime out of my tire.

Tonight I googled, “Average lifetime of a bicycle tire” and discovered several sources which suggest a typical lifespan is 1,000-3,000 miles, depending on the type of tire, road surface, and style of riding.  My tire is currently at 2,800 miles so perhaps I shouldn’t be so disappointed at its performance.

At this point I’m pretty sure I know what you’re thinking.  You’re thinking, “Steve, you dolt, the tire is clearly spent.  Please buy yourself another one before you find yourself stuck in the wilderness in subfreezing temperatures, you cheap miser!”

You have an excellent point.  It’s just that I would rather not buy new equipment for my bike in the middle of winter unless I absolutely have to.  Winter puts a great amount of wear and tear on bike parts and it would be a shame to arrive in the springtime with “new” tires that look far older than they actually are.  So I’m hoping to squeeze a few more weeks out of the old ones, which I strongly suspect will lead to another blog post which will chronicle the results of my folly in extreme detail.  Stay tuned!

My New Toy – Part I

Dear readers, this weekend was a big one for me.  I sprinkled some hints on the blog – new header photo, an uptick on the odometer, and a new entry in the PBR page – but my loyal fan base was asleep at the switch and didn’t pick up on any of these subtle clues.  Clearly I’ll need to be more direct next time! 

Anyway, let me tell you what I have been up to.  I bought a bike.  It’s a road bike.  It’s light and it’s fast and after 44 miles it hasn’t broken.  That’s a nice start.  Here it is:

The Trek 2.1 At Rest

After completing some extensive research on a variety of bikes, I walked into Revolution Cycles in Stafford and asked to speak to the manager.  There would be no floor hand for me this time.  This time, I went straight to the top – the “top” being a young man named Joe.  I told Joe my story and informed him that I was not in a pleasant mood.  I asked to test ride a couple of bikes that I researched and thought I would like: the Trek 1.2 and 1.5.  Joe only had the 1.2 in stock and I took a spin on it.  I was unimpressed.  A clunky front derailleur was the biggest issue.  I was disappointed they didn’t have any 1.5s, but Joe informed me the ONLY difference between the two bikes was the seat post and the handlebars.  Hmmm….

Joe grabbed the Trek 2.1 and started talking.  I listened.  I was extremely skeptical of just about everything he said,  but I had to admit he did have answers to all my questions.  The 2.1 has improved shifters, deraillurs, and just about everything else that mattered to me.  I had intended to swap out the crummy wheels and tires on the 1.2 and Joe assured me that wouldn’t be necessary with the 2.1.  Therefore, the actual “out the door” cost would be almost identical.  I was VERY skeptical about keeping the stock wheels and tires.  I reiterated to Joe (for about the 10th time) that I was not the least bit interested in having a recurrence of my wheel and tire problems.  Joe swore up and down that these wheels/tires were of very good quality and that he himself uses them on his “back up bike,” which he routinely abuses without incident.  Joe informed me he logs over 6,000 miles per year in year-round riding.  Based on his looks and clear understanding of even the most arcane aspects of the bikes he was selling, he seemed to know what he was talking about.

I remained skeptical.

I took it for a test ride and it clearly handled much better than the 1.2.  The thing ran as silent as a submarine and the derailleur was much smoother.  I was very pleased with the performance, but I couldn’t get past my emotional scaring with my previous purchase.  “Sure it handles just fine now,” I said.  “But what happens after 500 miles when it falls apart like my current bike?”

So we talked.  We talked in detail about rims, spokes, tires, and frames.  We talked about carbon vs. aluminum.  We talked about brakes.  We talked about saddles.  We talked about cranks, sprockets and cassettes.  We talked about the origins of the universe and the meaning of life.  We pretty much covered everything.  He had me convinced that this is a great bike for me and my current goal of 2,000 miles and a couple of century rides per year.  He convinced me that this would be a great bike to “grow into,” meaning if I got ridiculously serious, I could easily upgrade it to further improve its performance.

“Joe” I said, “you’ve convinced me.  But I must tell you once again that I am not a person to be trifled with on this matter.  I don’t know where you live, but I do know where you work.  If what you’ve told me turns out to be anything less than 100% accurate, I will find you.  And that will be a bad day for you.  This is your last chance to reconsider your recommendation on this bike.  No hard feelings if you change your opinion right now.”

I don’t think many customers take this tact with Joe.  He was clearly a little surprised by my line of questioning, but I’ll give the guy credit – he was extremely polite and informed.  He worked with me for over two hours and patiently answered every question I had.  After I bought the bike he put it on a trainer and sized up the seat and the handle bars for me, using a large compass to measure the bend in my knee at critical points in my stroke, and the angle my arms made from my torso.  It was kinda interesting to watch him work.

Having made the decision to get a pretty nice bike, I decided to go “all in” and pick me up some clipless pedals and shoes.  This initiated another extended conversation about the various types of SPD and Look pedals and what would be best for me.  Joe showed me some high-end Look pedals which cost $130.  He then showed me some entry-level models for about a third of that.  I agreed that the few grams of less weight and superior workmanship of the high-end model was nice, just not “$90 of nice.”  We agreed the entry-level pedals made sense for me.  A similar discussion then ensued on the shoes, where I was duly impressed by the $300 models but opted for something a little more modest – a “mere” $100 (plus a 10% military discount!) and I was ready to embark into the world of clipless riding.  God help me.

So I was now all set.  New bike, new pedals, and new shoes.  There was only one item left to be sorted.  It was the one thing that Joe would not help me with.  To be fair, he would have complied with my wishes but it would have broken his heart to do so. 

I asked him to install a kick stand.

Even though I prefaced my request with the words, “I realize this will make me a colossal dork,” Joe was still stunned to hear what I wanted.  Slowly, he looked at the bottom of the bike’s frame and then meekly announced, “I guess I could do it…”  I asked Joe if I would be the only Trek 2.1 owner in North America with a kick stand and he said I could very possibly be.  He was clearly torn between doing what the customer wanted and avoided cycling blasphemy.

“Here’s my problem, Joe,” I said, “I’ve got a busy house with a busy garage.  Over the years, I have spent less on some of my cars than I have just spent on this bike.  I WILL NOT simply lean it against a wall.  It will be knocked over and it will be scraped and I will be irate.  This is certain.  Without a kick stand, what is a guy like me to do?”  Then Joe showed me this:

This thing conveniently attaches to your bike’s lower frame near the pedal crank and thus props up your bike.  When it is set up your bike’s rear wheel is actually slightly off the ground, giving you the added benefit of being able to turn the pedals, move the chain, and spin the tire, which makes basic maintenance much easier.  Happy with the compromise, I loaded everything up in the truck and headed home.

There’s a lot more I could talk about – the type of crank, the type of sprocket, the interesting nuances of the shifters.  I’ll get into all of that eventually.  Tomorrow, though, I’ll share with you my first ride on the Trek and my first outing in clipless pedals.  The fact that I am typing this in my home and not in a hospital bed should give you an indication that the worst did not occur!

Tire Talk

Ok, I got ‘em on.  If these don’t solve my flat problem then I will not be responsible for my actions. 

I now own a pair of  top-of-the-line puncture resistant tires: the Specialized Armadillo Hemisphere.  Each one costs as much as a cheap car tire.  In the September issue of Bicycling Magazine, there is an advertisement for the Armadillo in which professional cyclist Jens Voigt declares, “You will die before this tire does.”

We’ll see about that.

I was interested to see how my bike’s performance would be different with these tires.  At 38c, they are actually less fat than my old Continental Boroughs’ 45c (By most standards, this is still a “fat” tire.  Most roadies will use something closer to 25c).  Less surface area means less rolling resistance which means faster rides.  The tire is rated up to 100 PSI, which is 15 PSI more than the Boroughs.  More pressure means harder tires which means less resistance.

Countering this is the fact that the Armadillos are heavy.  Very heavy.  900 grams, to be exact, against the relatively svelte 585 grams of the Boroughs (again, both tires are massive compared to a typical roadie tire which weighs about 150 grams).   There is also a tick more tread in the center of the tire, perhaps adding to rolling resistance.

To find out the difference in performance, I set out on a 13.6 mile route I have done many times as a sprint workout.  This test would not be optimal because it was a breezy day and this would cut into my time.  I also hadn’t cycled in two weeks so I would not be in peak physical condition.  Thank you for not laughing.

The results are encouraging, but still inconclusive.  My average speed of 15.5 mph was one of my slowest times ever – almost dead even with a nighttime ride I completed three weeks ago.  But I hit a lot of stop lights, so if you use my average moving speed of 15.9, I’m only about .7 mph off my fastest-ever ride on this route.  I believe the wind and my decreased aerobic fitness level can account for most (if not all) of this difference.

But let us not lose sight of the most important fact in this test – my tire remained fully inflated at all times.  It is hard to put a value on that except to note that my average moving speed while flatted is 0 mph, while my heart rate (due to very high levels of annoyance) remains extremely elevated.  So, with uber puncture-resistant tires and a sturdier set of double-rimmed wheels, I am once again ready to hit the open roads.

People of Northern Virginia, you have been fairly warned.

And Now For Something Completely Different

Tyler in Spokane wrote me and asked “Steve, I read your entire blog every single day and noticed on your PBR page that your season total for flats is now at 7.  What gives?”  I’m glad you asked, Tyler.  Let me tell you.

Ok, there is no Tyler in Spokane and nobody wrote me about the change on my PBR page.  That was just a little artistic license to get the conversation going and give this space the air of a very important blog.

But I do have another flat.  That is 100% true.

I’ve had a busy week, with late hours every day.   Not to be detoured by something as minor as a 12 hour work day, I dressed for a night ride and strode into the garage to get FORD* ready to go.  I then noticed that the front wheel had gone flat since my Sunday ride.

Did you catch the difference?  My FRONT wheel had gone flat.  That is COMPLETELY DIFFERENT! All six of my previous flats occurred on my rear wheel.  All three of my broken spokes were on my rear wheel.  My front wheel was problem-free, until today.  Totally different!

I took the tube off and found the puncture – a tiny pin hole that resulted in a very slow leak.  I triple-checked the tire where the puncture was made and could find absolutely nothing wrong with it.  No glass, wires, or any other imperfections that may have been the source of the flat. 

I guess we’ll find out how good my patch jobs were on my old tubes.  Stay tuned for my weekend report to find out!

* I have officially adopted the name, FORD (Fixed Or Repaired Daily) for my bike.  A special thanks to Joel in England (who really does exist) for the suggestion.