May 9, 2007

Getting the steed ready for the big'un.

First off, a big heart-felt salute to the people of Greenburg, KS., where Friday at 9:50PM a EF5 tornado swept the town clean off the map, and claimed 12 lives. The tragedy reinforces why I spot/chase for my county in the first place - prevention of the loss of life or property by providing ground truth. It's a scary reminder of what we train for. Our thoughts are with you.

And therein lies a little insight to one of my OTHER hobbies/passions.

But, I digress, because after all this ISN'T the Scattered Observations from the Storm Spotter blog, is it?

The BIG'UN is a'comin'! The 600K, baby... it looms like a dark cloud on the horizon.... but really it isn't THAT dark. After a successful brevet season so-far, checking off all my goals in green to date for 2007, I am headed into this event with a lot more confidence than in previous years. This year, the voices of self-doubt are quiet, the body is willing, and the spirit fresh. Once all of those things are in place, the only thing really left to mess with is equipment! As the 400K wrapped up, I started making my shopping list in my head. The brake levers that had served so well for so many rides were suddenly giving my hand issues (probably the additional body weight that was absent in 2005, the last time I did this distance.) The saddlebag had dug a couple holes in my backside (but not my shorts?), so a new bag attachment system of some kind was in order. Plus, after years of trusty service, the Lumotec round headlight begins to pale in comparison to it's contemporary, the Schimdt E6. Let the fun begin!

Thanks to an appropriately timed bonus check from work - sometimes corporate america isn't THAT bad - it was time to hit a few of my favorite sources for parts: Rivendell Bicycle Works and Peter White Cycles.

First, the saddlebag support/rack from Nitto, Tokyo, JP. I had this thing in the back of my mind for a long time as a good solution, but had never jumped because it's a RACK. I generally don't like racks - not for any reason other than visually cluttering on the clean lines of a nice frame, but that notion has slowly been evolving into and understanding that the RIGHT rack can actually enhance a bicycle. Aside from that, functional notions took precedence and I simply needed my bags to come off the bike quickly, for commutes. The Carradice SQR system was the perfect solution, and it's been along with me on brevets and commutes alike for years now. Cut to today, and the Kogswell frameset: It's amazing how much of a difference a couple centimeters can make on a set-up, no matter what it is. The SQR system is comprised of a rack-like attachment that fixes to the bag itself, and then a seatpost block that uses heavy steel clamps to affix to the post and hold that rack, which holds the bag. Great system, solid, holds up to 10 kgs (22 lbs!) and keeps the bag from swaying, keeps it off your legs while riding (as opposed to a direct to seat-rails attachment), and promotes easy removal for taking the bag inside once you arrive at work. Unfortunately, this seatpost block's clamps must be able to slide up and down the seatpost for proper placement - and the Kogswell frame has a rather nice, while ornamental, spire on the front of the top of the seat tube. It's a nice touch, but it effectively adds 2.5mm to the top edge of the seatpost, and thus limits how far DOWN those clamps can be mounted. This in turn raises the entire assembly UP. Not a huge deal on bigger frames, or for riders that have a lot of seatpost showing -- in my case, this places the saddlebag attachment point ABOVE the saddle line. Not a big deal, but when seated back on the saddle, there is contact. Unwanted contact. I dealt with it, but after a while (say, 20 hours...) that unwanted contact starts to develop into unwanted SORES. And there is no way to lower the block any farther. Function before fashion also has a limit, and there's no way I'd take a Dremel to that nice ornamental touch on the frame, even though it serves no structural purpose. Some things should stay as they are, because NO ONE does things like that anymore for frames! My solution became clearer when I accepted that fact that since bringing the Surly Steamroller back into daily duty, the Kogswell was no longer a commuter machine, but a randonnuering machine. Why do I need to maintain a quick-release saddlebag attachment?

Enter "Mark's Rack" from Rivendell. Made by Nitto in Japan, this silver Cro-Mo rack is gorgeously made, rock-solid, attractive and SUPER functional. For those that don't know, Rivendell doesn't sell junk. They are VERY particular about the products they offer, and this rack is no exception. Nitto products in general are among the finest bits of anything you can attach to a bicycle, from stems to seatposts, and racks. Installation was easy, and I was pleased to find there was more than enough hardware included, even good washers, lock-rings, and Ny-Loc nuts for the clamps - oft overlooked items with cheaper racks. The clamps themselves are a work of functional art; highly polished, well sized, with rubber anti-slip, anti-mar pads included. Installation was easy, and it was also easy to customize the layout of the struts and stays to get it where I wanted it. After installation, the Carradice bag now sits perfectly upon it's minimalist platform. My spare taillight, which used to be mounted to the rack braze-ons themselves, is now displaced - but finds a home on the taillight mounting plate which Nitto brazed to the rear cross member of the rack. The bag now sits move upright, which helps angle the reflective material more perpendicular to the road, and it's well back away from my thighs, and most importantly it's fully below the saddle, so I can sit anywhere without anything pressing against me. Fully loaded on a test-ride, the handling consequence is actually reduced over the SQR system, mainly because the load is lower, if only by a few inches. Problem solved!

The next acquisition solves three problems; the brake levers. For the longest time I have been using the same Shimano "aero" brake levers, model BL-R400. They are simple, and perfect in nearly every way. Solid, and they do as advertised, which is stop the bike. The hoods are comfortable, although a little thin, and in the past I have had to allow for a couple passes of bar tape around and under the hoods to ensure comfort on long distance rides. This time, the Kogswell's journey of discovery continues. Having only had the frame for a little over a year now, it was a completely new set-up from previous bicycles, and while most of the measurements from the old Trek and Bianchi were carried over, things do tend to change, as does one's points of comfort. So, what worked before was downright painful at the end of the 400K, even though it hand;t bothered me much on the 300K -- which could have been because I did the entire 300K in thicker, full-finger woll gloves. In thinner summer gloves on the warmer 400K, the lack of additional padding was apparent after 18 hours of riding. Further, the only design fault I have to cite on these levers is the metal body. Strong, yes - but when tighten against a metal handlebar, there is the possibility of galling or grinding - the latter of which was occuring where the lever body and handlebar were making contact, evidenced by shiny grooves where the brake lever bodies were sitting. That's one benefit of a black handlebar! While not a big deal, tightening didn't fix it, nor did surface grease, and the creaking while riding in the hoods forced me to find other places to put my hands while climbing.

The solution lay with Cane Creek's new SCR-5 brake levers. While brake levers are kind of un-romantic and probably one of the least zippy of bike accessories (save for STI levers, perhaps), they are critical. They stop the bike, provide leverage, a place for hands - but they are taken for granted and overlooked. Cane Creek listened to distance riders and cyclotourists that were looking for a brake lever that could be used on a bike that shifts some other way (bar-ends, or down-tubes, whatever) that was just as "fancy" as high-end "brifters" (Sheldon Brown term). They produced a solid winner with this lever. First point, the levers themselves are modeled loosely around Campagnolo's "Ergo" levers, and the name is fitting - the lever paddles are shaped and have a big, solid, engaging tactile feel. Pull is short, linear, predictable and consistant. The return springs are heavy, and the calipers snap promptly back open after release. The hoods are thick, but not TOO thick, and supple. The "ramp" of the lever is dead flat, compared to the sloped "cup" that the Shimano levers force your hand into, so by contrast the Cane Creek design gives more options for hand placement, spreads weight more evenly, and is ultimately more comfortable for this type of riding. Physically larger, the lever body allows the rider to place the hood surface higher on the bar, without pivoting the entire lever to the point where the paddle isn't reachable from the drops. It's a good design. Additionally, the lever body itself is high-impact molded resin instead of metal, so while weight is not a concern it IS lighter despite it's size, and the metal-to-metal noise issues are completely eliminated.
Additionally, and also borrowed from Campy, there are quick-release buttons on the levers themselves that allow you to open the brakes - notable that most Campy brake calipers do not have quick-releases, so this is essential - but for Shimano and Tektro calipers that DO have quick-releases, this means that I can flip the release at the lever, and then flip the release at the caliper, and BIG tires can now be removed from the bicycle without releasing air, or otherwise struggling to squeeze the tire past the brake pads. This, in reality, was never a "problem" for me, but the addition of this feature made me smile, and now removing the front wheel will take a lot less hassling. A very good design. Problems solved!

The final "issue" I had was with lighting on the 400K. The trusty round Lumotec light that has served me well since it's initial purchase in 2002 (!!) is a terrific light, still is. But, it's never been up against anything better. Only recently have LED systems produced good beams and bright lights to the point to make a genuine decision-making process when it comes to new riders getting a lighting system. It's not as cut and dried as it used to be - but I still like and prefer generator systems for my lighting on brevet. You never have to worry about how far your batteries will take you, if you have to carry or buy extras, and if it's rainy during the day you can run them and not worry about paying the price when the sun goes down. When you ride, they come on. That's about as good as it gets. It's evident that generator systems are here to stay, as technology and improvements continue; LED generator headlihts are now available, and improvements have been made with regards to halogen systems, as well. It's this last point that really tripped my trigger on the 400K.

I remember when it first became available, the Schmidt E6 headlamp. It's pricey: $110 compared to the Lumotec's $40. Initially, since I was not able to see if for myself, my impression was that is can't possibly be $70 brighter than what I've got... it's got the SAME light bulb in it, a 3W, 6V halogen bulb, just like mine, and it runs off the same hub. No fancy circuitry, no tricks - how can it be brighter? I kept right on using my Lumotec. It's GREAT. It lights up the road, on-coming traffic dims their brights for me on dark country roads - I know they seem me, and I can see reflectors on bridges and cars nearly 1/4 mile ahead of me when it's aimed properly. At the 400K in 2005, four other riders crowded behind me and Spencer (another Lumotec user) for the final 40-miles back to Grandview, because our lights were THAT much better. It's a great light. Can the Schmidt E6 POSSIBLY be better?

Finally, randonnuering in this area is taking off. More riders are riding distance, and that ups the chances that you will see a wider range of gear being implemented. While many still depend on battery lights and multiple LED headlamps, many others are springing for generator systems. Once the benefits are realized and the math performed on battery costs, they start to make good sense for riders that will continue to do long rides into the night. This was the case this year - in prep for PBP, riders showed up good numbers, and there were many different lights to see, including the Schmidt E6. One randonnuer has a gorgeous Rivendell Romulus with TWO Schmidt E6 lights, one primary, one secondary, mounted low on the fork. This was my first time seeing the E6 in full darkness on a non-streetlit road. At first he only had the primary switched on, but it was already apparent. The pattern is tight and bright. I mean BRIGHT. Yes, the optics are the key - and while the Lumotec has terrific optics and produces a good pattern to see the road, with the top of the beam being brighter than the bottom for good even lighting, the Schmidt takes this even farther and the result is a trapezoidal beam pattern with a sharp horizontal cutoff at the top - you literally get a lane-sized polygon of perfectly even and wicked bright light right where you want it. Then, he turned on the secondary light for a downhill. Twice as bright - the road was illuminated as to give the same confidence on a downhill that one would have in bright daylight. The edges of the road were clear, the darker spots on the pavement were easily shown as just that - spots - as opposed to potholes. With the secondary aimed slightly higher, the pattern on the road was excellent. There are motorcycle headlights that don't do this good a job. Seriously.

Later that night, I was teamed up with Dale and Ed, and Ed also had the Schmidt E6 mounted up on his handlebars. With the higher mounting point, I expected the pattern to suffer a little, as is normally the case - but again, I was simply shocked. riding side-by-side down MO-58 in the dark, I could not even discern MY headlight beam because his was so overpowering. FROM THE SAME BULB and HUB. Keep in mind, all things indeed are equal in this comparison: we are both using the Schmidt SON dynohub, and both lights use Philips 3W,6V light bulbs which are interchangeable between brands of light. The Schmidt is simply THAT much better.

I figured the best of both worlds was in order, for my solution. Never having something to compare it to, I was completely content with the Lumotec by itself - but now I MUST have a Schmidt - but to minimize costs I opted for the E6-Z secondary light to run in tandem with my Lumotec. With proper aiming, I can have an effective "lo-beam" with the Lumotec, and really kick things up at speeds above 10 MPH by running both lights. In essence, I can have twice the light, at the same effort, simply utilizing the over-voltage from the primary light with a switched series connection to the hub. After mounting, aiming, and wiring it's confirmed in practice on a local street where, conveiniently, this week the streetlights aren't working. Good test, and not too far from home. Like streetlights would matter! The Lumotec alone is barely visible in street-light conditions. The beam density simply isn't high enough to be effective - but that's ok because you have streelights, and after years of commuting I've never faulted this issue. I've never hit anything I wasn't looking out for, and the headlight beam has never left me wondering. Now, however, by switching on the secondary Schmidt I don't have anything to balk at. The beam is fully visible in streetlit conditions, and on dark roads it's seriously difficult to tell if the Lumotec is even turned ON. I had to return to the garage for a little re-aiming, to maximize both beams and get a good even pattern - but still, the light is so bright from the E6, it makes me wonder if a primary E6 is in my future, too. It's a landmark of design and optics. The Lumotec has been dethroned, but still trumps the E6 in safety overall by having a built-in reflector -- but that's the beauty of a mixed dual-light system -- I truly CAN have it all now. So, is the Schmidt E6 $70 brighter than the B+M Lumotec? Yes.

So, with the lights, the rack, the handlebar bag and saddlebag, the Kogswell looks as if it's arrived where is was designed to be: it's a full-on randonnuering bike.

Bring on the 600K -- mentally, physically, and now mechanically - I'm ready.

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