Two Wheels - Six Strings

Random news and thoughts about various two-wheeled projects and music, especially my band, Skull Full Of Blues.

Friday, March 31, 2017

Hey, Jon ... Why Don't You Have a Suspension Fork?

There's a question I hear more than a few times a year. And, I understand why.

The current State Of The Art in mountain bikes includes not only a long-travel suspension fork on the front, but equally long travel on the rear end of the bike. According to the pundits, you simply must have the springs if you are a "serious" mountain biker.

So, I guess the easy answer to the question of why no "sproinger" for Jon would be that I am not a serious mountain biker. The problem with that is that I do, oddly enough, consider myself serious about mountain biking. What I am not serious about is mountain bike racing.

 How serious am I about racing? This is the bike I used for the Golden Giddyup Enduro, last year...

Regardless of what the bicycling industry and press might lead you to believe, suspension components are not a necessity for enjoying a mountain bike on the trail. They are only necessary to stay competitive in racing.

But, you say, suspension allows you to ride farther with less fatigue. And, that is somewhat true. I personally think that subtracting the added weight of the suspension components, on climbs, removes a bit of fatigue from the ride, as well. Fatigue is part of riding off-road. If your riding partners are suspended, and wearing you out, then you are back into the racing mentality of keeping up with others. At that point, yeah, you need to buy some plushness. Or, maybe, ride with other people...

I know that a lot of my old group no longer even considers inviting me along for rides, since I don't have a "serious" bike. They feel that I won't be able to keep up with their rigs. The truth is, I wouldn't keep up with a lot of them, on any bike, just because I have slowed down quite a bit, these last few years. 

As I tell people, my brake levers slow me down a lot more than my rigid fork does. I just don't have the desire to experience (or ability to recover from) high-speed crashes on the downhills, any longer. My collar bone has been broken enough for one lifetime ... or two.

That's why bikes like this appeal to me so much, nowadays. This bike is all about getting away from pavement and enjoying the ride, not about getting somewhere in the shortest time possible. The big tires allow me to ride though conditions that would leave me pushing the bike with 2.3" tires, and they also take up a lot of the small shocks you encounter on the trail, alleviating a little of the fatigue. (Of course, they add back the weight I lost by eschewing suspension. But, you can't have everything.)

If I want to ride (relatively) fast, this is the bike I reach for, currently:

Actual upright bars! Speedy 650bx2.3" tires!  Chromoly steel frame and fork!

You have to realize that when I started mountain biking, in the late 1980s, there were no commercially-available suspension forks available, and we rode our bikes off-road just as seriously then as now. It amuses me when people comment that my rigid bike is probably just fine for the more mellow trails. I wonder where they think it is that all of the "serious" trails came from. The majority of the trails in Moab and Crested Butte and any other long-term mtb destination site you can think of were built by guys on rigid bikes, with 15 or 18 speeds and crappy brakes.

 When I started working in a bike shop, in 1993, we all would sit around and debate the need, or lack thereof, for suspension forks. I maintained then, as now, that you only "needed" suspension if everyone else had it and you wanted to compete with them. That got me labelled as a "Retro Grouch" by the group.
I wonder what they would all call me now!

During my tenure working in shops, however, I did run suspension; at first on the front, then on both ends of the bike. I was, at that point, fairly serious about racing, even though I knew I would never win a race. Still, I wanted to be competitive. Plus, as a shop employee, I needed to promote the products we were selling.
It's somewhat telling that, toward the end of my time working in shops, I mostly rode my cyclocross bike on mountain bike rides, with 700x35c tires. That was about the time that I started realizing that I enjoyed "under-biking" more than I enjoyed keeping up with the mtb arms race that was ramping up, even then.

I graduated to Monstercross, eventually (700cx2.0" or bigger tires, with drop bars on a rigid bike). Nowadays, Monstercross has morphed into, simply, drop-bar mountain bike, since 29er (700c) wheels are now the norm for mountain bikes. Most of my bikes, now, fall into that old Monstercross setup, but are now what we call, simply, drop-bar mountain bikes. Twenty-nine-inch tires have become the norm for mtb, so 700x50-60c (2.0-2.3") tires are no longer considered large cross tires but, rather, normal mtb tires. And, old-school 26" and 650b/27.5" tires work just as well with the drop-bar setup, for me.
Budgetary constraints come into play, as well, of course. The cost of a decent suspension fork, on the aftermarket, nowadays is more than the cost of any of the bikes I currently own. The only way to affordably get a decent fork is to invest in a new bike, which would cost at least 150 to 200% of my current most-expensive bike. Even if I wanted to add the complexity and maintenance to my ride, I really don't feel like it's a good investment, anyway.

So, why do I not not have a suspension fork? Basically it just boils down to not wanting/needing one enough to spend the money and time it takes to buy one and set it up.  For those of you who do run them, rock on! Build up and ride the bike that works for you, and I'll do the same.


Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Perfection Is An Elusive Moving Target, and I have Just Fired Yet Another Shot At It

 Recently, Chris at the Pondero blog built up a new bike, which he referred to as related to his vision of the perfect bike, which he had formed in the 1970s, and Adventure Bike. Read his post, and check out his bike here.

Over the years, I have had more than one distinct vision of what would make the perfect bicycle. When I was 10, I wanted a bike with 26" wheels and a basket. I t was my understanding that big wheels would be more efficient than the 20" wheels on my Sears Spyder Bike Stingray clone. The basket would allow me to carry some food and water for all-day excursions. I got that bike, and it was perfect ... for awhile. Then, I started feeling the need for variable speeds, and better brakes, and the ability to ride through the woods and on gravel roads. The 10-speed road bikes of the day would not suit for that. Basically, I wanted a mountain bike.

But, in 1971, there was no such thing, on a commercial scale. Oh, sure, there were a few outside-the-box thinkers around the world who had married Schwinn 3-speeds and cantilever brakes into "woodsie" bikes, and such. And, the buffalo soldiers made their famous cross country trek in 1896, but there was nothing remotely like a purpose-built mountain bike available in the early 1970s.

John Finley Scott's "Woodsie Bike" from 1953

Eventually, bicycles took a backseat to motorcycles, in my world, and I only returned to pedaling through riding a 10-speed Triumph bicycle in college. Then, one day in 1985, my wife and i were at a book store when I spied the cover of  The Mountain Bike Book, by Rob Van der Plas:

The bike on the front cover of that book spoke volumes to me. It looked like human-powered dirt bike, to my moto-centric way of thinking. The mountain bike looked like the perfect bike, to me, at that point.

Not long after, I had my first mtb under me. It was an inexpensive Motiv, from Sam's club, and i loved it. From it, I moved to a Cannondale SM800 Beast Of The East, thence to a Specialized M2 Stumpjumper, with a Manitou 2 fork on it. Perfection was morphing from a standard, rigid fork and frame mtb, to suspension fork, then full-suspension, equipped machines.

In the late 1990s, my image of perfection took an odd turn toward the cyclocross bike. Drop bars and 35c tires on wide 700c wheels suited me just fine. This setup was a lot more efficient on the road, and still allowed me ride off-road and on gravel. The "perfect" combination of attributes for a bike.

Then came the 29er revolution, and the advent of drop-bar "monster-cross" bikes; essentially 29" mtb's with lower bottom brackets and off-road-oriented drops or variations on the mustache bar. They were not quite as easy to ride on the road (if you ran knobbies), but the ease of off-roading was greatly improved over that of the cyclocross bike.

In 2010, I was approached by my friend Darryl Funk, a custom bike builder, about what I thought would be the the "only bike", the one bike someone could own and not need another. In other words, the Perfect Bike. My list of attributes:

Titanium, due to its longevity more than any weight consideration. 
Disc brake equipped for easier wheel-size swapping
Clearance for fat 650b tires, 29" mtb tires (and the ability to run cross or road tires, of course)
Late-1980s mtb geometry with a road bike bottom bracket height
Loads of rack and fender eyelets, just in case

In exchange for drawing up a design, Darryl agreed to sell me the prototype frame at a fraction of the retail cost. So, I drew it up, and he built it:

 The Funk Bicycles "Daily Grind" prototype frame

I made a slight miscalculation on the bottom bracket drop, which resulted in the bottom bracket sitting about an inch lower than I had intended, so I run 165mm cranks on this bike in order to avoid pedal strike. I honestly think it adds to the "perfection" of the ride, but plans were made to raise the bb height up for production. However, no more examples were ever built, and I ended up with the only one of these in existence.

This bike maintained its "perfect" status for a number of years, I rode paved Century rides, gravel Centuries, raced 24-hour solo mtb events, took it to Fruita and Moab for desert fun, commuted and ran errands on it.

Now, it is slightly less than "perfect" due the advent of Plus-sized tires: 27.5 x 3" to be precise. It doesn't have the clearance for these oversized tires, and that limits it, somewhat, at this juncture, when it comes to being the do-everything bike I want it to be. (I dismiss the lack of 4" tire clearance, as I think of that style of bike as being a bit too specialized to be included in the " all-rounder" category).

 This brings us back, at long last, to Pondero's Adventure Bike. He is running 27.5 x 2.8" tires on a sorta-drop-bar set-up. Some of you may recall that I have been experimenting with that size, trying to use an existing frame to create my own Adventure Bike. But, I have consistently been stymied by the lack of adequate clearance for a 2.8 to 3" (my preference) tire between the chainstays.

Chris solved this problem by commissioning a custom frame, sized to those wheels and tires. Unfortunately, I can not afford to go that route, hence the reason I have been trying to modify 29er frames to work for me.

So, I went in a slightly different (180 degrees "slightly different") route and ordered an alloy Plus-sized bike from the infamous Bikes Direct web store. Many people look down upon the BD bikes but, for me, they make a good inexpensive starting platform from which to build what I want. My first 29er frame, which I still have, was a BD frame, and it has served me well for close to 10 years, now.

Here is the bike, as pictured on the website:

Alloy frame, chromoly fork, hideously cheap and crappy bottom bracket and crank ... but it has the bones of what I want: 27.5 x 3.25" tires and room for 26 x 4", if I decide I decide I also need a full-on fatbike, once again. It's basically the BD fatbike, with the now-obsolete 170x135 hub spacing and 100mm bottom bracket, which has been fitted with the 27.5Plus wheels and tires.

Once I received the bike, the modifications began:

The first things to go were the crappy Suntour bottom bracket and crank, along with a really flexible front derailleur. In their place, an LX derailleur ($6.35 on closeout!), and a SRAM X-5 external bearing bottom bracket/crankset. Plus, some cool VP pedals. (I have used this model pedal on a couple of bikes, and I really like them.)
A new 40-degree rise/80mm stem holds one of my Surly Open Bars, with Ergon grips. I left the stock shifters in place, to see if they work out. I've not used below the bar click-shifters on any of my bikes, in the past, but these SRAM shifters seem kind of nice. The brake levers will go as soon as I happen upon some nicer levers at an affordable price.

My old Syncros seat post went in, topped by my Brooks C-17. The bag I already had.

So, there it is, almost complete. I have a tubeless conversion kit I am going to try out on these wheels, and a SRAM X-9 rear derailleur to replace the X-5 which is currently on there. I also want a nicer cogset, but again am waiting to find a decent deal on what I want.

Total outlay, thus far, is less than $800. If I actually ride this bike enough to justify it, I may eventually buy a nicer CrMo frame and swap the parts over, but not this year. That would, at the very least, double my financial investment in the bike.

So, it it "perfect"? Not by a long shot. But, it is serviceable. And, after all, as the ancient Persian rug makers used to say, "Perfection is the realm of Allah."


Monday, February 20, 2017

Les Paul Junior Double Cut

Lesley West, Johnny Thunders, Keith Richards, Billie Joe Armstrong ... just a few of the players who are associated with the Les Paul Junior, with the double cutaway body. I've even seen pictures of a young Pete Townsend thrashing one of these.

To me, this is the best-looking body Gibson ever came up with. Not quite symmetrical, but close, the cutaways allow better access to the upper frets than the single cutaway of the traditional Les Paul. A solid mahogany slab of wood makes up the body, with no extraneous decorations or frippery added. It was, originally, the entry-level model of the Les Paul line, so the austere look allowed for a lower price.

A few years ago, I bought one of these (a model from the early 2000's which was a Guitar Center Exclusive) from a guy on eBay. I rarely buy a guitar which I haven't held in my hands prior to purchase, but I was wanting the guitar, badly, and there were none to be had on the local scene.

The guitar arrived, in perfect shape, just as described, but I really wanted to send it back. The paint (the famous shiny Gibson lacquer) did not suit, especially on the neck where it stuck to my skin and made it a chore to move up and down the fret board, and the P-100 pickups (a humbucking version of the P-90) just sounded awful.

But, I really wanted this guitar, so I stripped the finish off of the neck (along with the resale value), and swapped the neck pickup for an actual P-90. It was playable, and I used it for slide, but it still didn't suit.

As it arrived...

I found myself still looking at Jr. DC's on eBay, and other sites, lusting after the examples with either nitrocellulose paint jobs, or the transparent cherry finish. I even entertained the notion of buying a less expensive import model, just to get the look and sound I wanted. But, I had an actual American Gibson hanging on the wall, so that seemed a little stupid...
So, this past Friday evening, I decided to fix that problem, once and for all. I pulled the guitar off of the wall, and started removing the paint ( a tedious, 10-hour process over the course of 2 nights). Then, once the paint was off, I started sanding.

Yesterday, as I worked on bikes in the driveway, I alternated my time with finish sanding and, eventually, applying a cherry Swedish Oil finish.

The light spot at the end of the neck is a maple strip which covers the truss rod. Why Gibson put maple there, I have no idea. The other two light spots are filler, where the wood chipped out as I removed the mounting post inserts for the bridge.

The back looks pretty nice. You can see the seams of the 3-piece body, if you look, but the grains are pretty well matched, and it the seams are not obvious in real life.

Once the finish had dried enough to be handled, I reassembled the guitar so that I could play it at practice, last night. As I did so, I discarded the original P-100 which was still in the bridge position, and replaced it with a Mighty Mite P90 I had purchased last year, for another project. The other project can wait, in order to get this one complete!

So, here is the final assembly. The new bridge pickup is a huge improvement, and the tone of the guitar is more pleasing to me on both pickups, now that the wood is no longer buried under a sixteenth of an inch of lacquer.

The Les Paul Corner of the living room is much more pleasing to me, now!

I suspect that the Junior is going to get a lot more playing time, in the future, than it has in the past.


Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Clutch Lever Repair On The Scrambler

Back in 2012, I broke the clutch lever on the Scrambler, while riding on a trail which really was beyond the abilities of either the bike or myself. (On that same ride, also broke the two front pegs, the shift lever and my foot, in the midst of 7 separate crashes!)

Rather than buy the rather expensive factory replacement for the lever, I ordered some CNC machined levers for the bike, from an eBay seller. I noticed, as I installed the levers, that the pivot hole on the clutch lever was larger in diameter than the bolt which ran through it. After installation, it worked fine, so I forgot about it.

Five years and 20,000 miles later, I noticed that the play in the lever seemed to be increasing. Today, I removed the lever and checked the pivot. Sure enough, the steel bolt was wearing into the softer aluminum of the lever.

So, I looked through the shop building and found an old Suntour cantilever brake arm with a steel bushing in the pivot arm. I pressed it out, and test-fitted it to the lever. It was slightly oversize, so I cut a slot in it with my Dremel, compressed it with a pair of pliers, and got it started into the pivot hole of the lever. Once started, it installed easily with a couple of gentle taps with a hammer.

You can see the gap between the steel and aluminum, where the wear was occurring. The bushing should prevent any further wear.

It's the small victories that make life worth living.


Saturday, January 28, 2017

Travelling Light

From here...  here.

I flew to Western PA, on the 17th, to have an after-the-fact Christmas visit with my family, out there. I simply didn't feel like flying during the heavy Christmas flying season, and just delayed it for a few weeks.

Even without the holiday madness at the airport, I still wasn't particularly looking forward to flying. Last year, at the Pittsburgh airport, I had waited for almost an hour at the baggage claim before my bag finally appeared, and I didn't want a repeat of that.

So, I decided to skip the baggage pickup altogether, and I shipped my clothes and Christmas gifts to my sister's house, via FedEx. I didn't even take a carry-on bag with me.  It was great!

It was very liberating to just walk onto the plane and sit down, fly, and walk directly out of the airport to get picked up, without wresting a bag around in the plane or standing around waiting on bags at the end.

I believe this will be my method for air travel, from now on...


Wednesday, January 04, 2017

Nice, Chilly Commute

Wintertime commuting can be an adventure. Breath freezes in my mustache and beard, eyelashes freeze together, and icy roads present some hazards, as well (mostly dodging cars whose drivers forget that ice can be slick, sometimes).

Today was a good winter commute day.

As I rode home, the temperature was hovering around 5 degrees F, with a windchill in the neighborhood of 24 below, according to the TV news. It was a bit chilly, but I was well-dressed for it (one of the few times I am ever well-dressed), with the exception of my socks. I could have used just a little more warmth on the toes.

The snow was coming down as fine little flakes, and I actually had a tailwind, so the ride was actually pretty pleasant. It's supposed to get colder, overnight, so tomorrow's ride promises to be a little more of an adventure.

Sunday, January 01, 2017

Another solo NYD Ride

For quite a few years I have made a habit of ringing in the New Year by taking a bicycle ride, if possible. I've missed a few because of travel or illness, but I have made a ride on most Jan.-1's since the mid 90s.

For many years, I would invite people to join me, first by personally asking friends and bike shop customers, later by email. In the early years, I would have quite a few people (8-15) show up, and we would take a nice long ride around town.

In 2008, Danny Mac, Rich and Brian showed up for a snowy, sub-10-degree ride.

In 2009, Mark, Brian and Carl (of the blog getinlost) rode with me in mid-50s temps.

Carl showed up again, in 2010, along with Mark and a fellow named Tom (who worked at a local bike co-op), and while the temps were in the 40s, the roads around town were snow-packed.

Tom joined my nephew, Kyle, and me in 2011 for another snow-pack ride.

In 2012, I simply rode to the coffee shop and back. Temps were mild, roads were dry, but nobody was interested in a ride. I spent the warmest part of the day changing shocks out on the Scrambler.

In 2013, I didn't even ride on NYD. I was still recovering from Achilles Tendonitis, and biking was not an easy or frequent thing for me, that winter.

In 2014, I took a solo ride on the Mongoose Beast fat tire bike which I had converted to multiple speeds, and disc brakes. I ended up calling Mark, while I was out, and hooked up for a short ride with him.

2015 was the infamous rib-breaker ride. Not my best day on a bike.

Last year ... I was out of town and I didn't get a ride in. Oh, well...

Today, the roads were clear, and the sun was out, so I took a short 10-mile ride which took me to Kaladi, on the final leg, where I had coffee and a scone. It was a nice ride, though it seemed a little more difficult than it should have. Since I had the flu, a couple of weeks ago, I haven't ridden the bike enough to mention.

I stopped on the low-water bridge over Cherry Creek, behind the mall, to say hello to a few mallards.

Another NYD tradition...

Here's hoping that a nice ride, today, bodes well for the coming year!

Happy New Year, everyone!