March 22, 2006

Steel and Leather

No, no -- it's not the title of Judas Priest's latest album.

Although, it'd be a good one.

I digress. Maybe not – “Hellbent for Leather” would be a good working title for an article on Brooks Saddles, don’t you think?

I’m quickly becoming a Brooks fanatic. After about 60 miles of random rides and indoor trainer sessions on the Team Professional saddle, it’s breaking in nicely – and it’s quite cozy. For those on the fence, well, I won’t push too hard. It's personal.

It took me, honestly, a VERY long time to get here – for lots of reasons. Some valid, some petty. I’m only mildly concerned with tossing away the petty reasons at this point – mainly weight.

It’s well documented that I seriously went through a weird, weight-weenie sorta phase, largely driven by marketing, and the fact that I’m very impressionable sometimes.

When I first started riding, weight was EVERYTHING, and so was racer-culture. My first road-bike ride of any length was in the Fall of 1998 – and I had no idea whom Jan Ullrich was – hadn’t yet heard of Lance – but the trend of racy road bikes and skinny tires was already apparent in my local bike shop, and that’s all I had to go on. Even back then, I’m not sure there was any steel present in the shop – except maybe a few tigged touring frames from Trek on the back wall, looking very heavy and awkward with their racks and fenders. In a room full of Ferraris and Porsches, was it any wonder I didn’t think twice about the Volvo wagons in the back row?

Cutting to the chase, I had weight to lose off my body, but I was finding myself NOT buying a certain saddle because “255 grams is too heavy”. Looking back, it’s like – MAN, you’re an idiot. I also had my handlebars about 5 inches below the saddle nose. There is a picture I have hanging on the man-room wall of me, finishing the 2001 MS-150 on that bike.
I’m smiling – but I can remember why: It was because I was done riding – not because I had enjoyed the ride. That day started out with 50º rain, and I didn’t have a lick of rain gear, or even cool-weather gear with me. I stuffed plastic bags under my jerseys, under my helmet, in my shoes. No fenders, and a REALLY uncomfortable position on the bike, and mud-choked Look cleats from walking around at the deluged rest-stops. Misery. Fenders? Wool? A better bike fit? HELLO???

Sadly, this trend continued – the light-bulbs didn’t even come on after THAT ride. Since I’d had nothing to compare it to, a century ride like that was GOING to hurt, and I was just going to suck it up, 20c tires and all. Yup – I rode a century on Rolf Vector wheels with very few spokes, and 700x20 tires with 135 PSI in them. On an aluminum frame. With a stem that was too long, and too low, and on a 235 gram Flite saddle. In case you’re getting the wrong impression here, that’s an example of what NOT to do…. If you would rather ENJOY the ride, that is. All those things have a place in the racer world, and the triathlon world – neither of which I was a part of at the time, as much as I pretended to be. Make no mistake, the Warbird and I did have a stellar first day on that particular MS-150, however, which I think is still my PR for a century – so we WERE fast…. but I don’t think it had very much to do with the way my bike was set up. The ‘bird was fast because he was always fast – and I was fast because I was drafting him. Period.

Cut to 2002’s brevet series ‘bout six months later, and I was STARTING to learn a thing or two. What was uncomfortable on the MS-150 was downright PAINFUL on brevet. I swapped things out like stems, switched to fatter tires --- ugh, 700x23 this time…. Bold move, ace. A step in the right direction, albeit a very small one. Things got marginally better.
…But not enough to help me finish a 400K that I basically had in the bag. I was just DONE riding, with only 40 miles to go, and the last control completed. You couldn’t have paid me enough to get back on that bike that night. Even the Warbird said it, as he hefted my bike onto his roofrack after picking me up at 255th and Who-knows-what road: “Man, for an aluminum bike, this thing is a tank.”

A few weeks later, I had bought, second-hand, my first lugged steel frameset. A rough, but solid, Trek 720 from about 1982. The lights FINALLY came on. Slowly, the bars started to come level with the saddle, and eventually I had a Carradice bag instead of a seat-pack the size of a silver dollar. Baggage notwithstanding, the whole package – even with fenders – was lighter than that racy road bike I had ridden before. Making things better, my focus changed to ME – and I became a weight-weenie of a different kind by skipping desserts and that “corn-dog for the road”. It helped a LOT.

After a TON of experimentation, and nearly a dozen framesets later, I’m close to finally being “done” with trying to find “it”. I’ve recycled more bikes and parts in the past few years than many would ride in a lifetime, all to get to that utopian “perfect” set-up (for me). With the purchase of this Brooks saddle last week, it’s like the end of a very long journey of personal trial and discovery – yet, at the same moment, the beginning of an even longer journey that starts in the saddle of a bike that fits its rider. I finally hung up that 235 gram saddle, and replaced it with something that is infinitely more comfortable – and the fact that it weighs twice as much didn’t even faze me.

With leather and steel beneath me, I can finally focus on what’s in front of me.

1 comment:

Steve Mohr said...

another great article, thanks. i guess i've been riding so long i have callouses where there shouldn't be callouses or my butt is saddle shaped. i know you ride a lot more than me too. my motive to ride is pleasure, a little training for MS150 and corp challenge and ecology. i ride to work about twice a week: 28 miles per day. i'm used to the low handlebar position. i've ridden a wide range of frames - 19 inch to 25 inch. i grudgingly began using clipless pedals 10 years ago. it's nice to see you approach the subject so technically, tho. it helps me to gain awareness and slow down my thots. i'm a rider out of habit and it's a little hard to change.