September 24, 2009

MS Ride weekend... And the change that comes with it.

Time and time again, here in the midwest, here on this weekend, things change. No, its not really all that cold all of the sudden. No, its not the official arrival of fall that makes any difference - but its close to the mark. There are slips of cirrus at 20,000 feet, icy but beautiful and sweeping. There is a snap to the morning air that almost requires a higher collar... and the high collar feels good. There is a layer of leaves on the bike trail that gives a satisfying wake to the normal silence of rubber on asphalt. The birds are in a rush, and the squirrels. In the west today there is a roll to the skies and a greyness that speaks softly, but clearly. The sunsets are piquing interest, and suddenly it seems there is a reason to pay attention to them: tonight it dips just a degree or two south of due east. The rain tonight feels thick, heavy, chilly. Wool. Coffee.

Like so many years before, I love this weekend. The unabated joy of a well-supported century. Its a great ride, a great cause, and a challenge to keep going. Keep going? Something always changes after this weekend. Something always gets harder, the commutes more strenuous for some reason. Nothing specific... Just "me" more often than not. But, the season - the freshness of it, the chance to wear cycling clothes that not everyone can justify owning, the chance to keep a streak going, the chance to soak up a season the way most people that choose cars won't. Enjoyment and perfection aren't synonymous - just because its raining and gloomy, just because its not 85 and sunny, doesn't mean its a bad time to be outside. Our existance, and what we feel... it is still a gift. It is meant to be enjoyed.

I recommend enjoying it on a bicycle, of course. Get out there.

September 22, 2009

World Car Free Day

World Car-Free Day!

Heck, I just stumbled upon this... unfortunately, if you're already at work - this might reach you too late!
But, join the party... run an errand by bike this evening!

September 14, 2009

What's the big deal?

This webpage, my Facebook pages and posts, and my general presentation to the world, is largely centered around bicycling. I've always had a strong passion for it because of what it's done for me physically, mentally, and spiritually. I have fond memories of it, for the things and places I've seen, for the people I've met along the way - lifelong friends; bonds grown through struggle, sweat, and triumph over odds - and more often than not, simply because we shared something on the open road that can't quite be described. Hard to believe, but there is more to life than riding. I'm good at it, and - yes - it's a part of my everyday life - but there is more to "me", I promise you. Ditching the car and commuting, and occasionally riding a ridiculous distance on a bicycle does nothing more than help define my existence, and makes me a better person. The phrase "it's not about the bike" comes to mind - because, really, it truly isn't and shouldn't be. I love far more what a bicycle does for me, than I have love for the thing itself.

Possibly contradicting this is my passion for old classic bicycles, but it's not really about the physical item there, either: I like antiquity, good design, and the notion that every ounce of elbow-grease you put into restoring a classic bicycle is given back when you ride it. Little else created by man can do that. Perhaps a well-made and tailored suit and the way it can transform its wearer; a classic hand-made car (not the mass-produced, stamped-out throwaways of the last 45 years) and how it can incarnate so much feeling with only a turn of a key; my boundless love for music and the instruments that create it - how a simple wooden tube with holes in it can enlighten an entire village of people; cameras, and how their complex collection of electronics and/or mechanisms and lenses creates nothing more than flat rectangles of tiny colored dots... but, O!, the power of coming across a long forgotten photograph!

I think it could be summed up by saying that I have a vast appreciation for instruments of any kind: anything physical that is well made, well designed, and can be used to create something else which can't quite be described. After all, music is nothing more than vibrations. Riding a bicycle does nothing more than physically move you from one place, to another - and, by today's standards, slowly. So what's the big deal? Ah.... that IS the question. The performance, the feeling, the emotion... the intangible. The very notion that something inanimate can produce something else, unseen and unpackageable, which grows greater in worth than the collection of parts that created it.

This short interview with one of my - dare I say it: heroes? - highlights some of this thinking, and should serve to remind us not to be one-dimensional, not to be about so much what we do - but who we are, and why we do what we do.

There is an 'advertising' sort of feel to this piece, the motivation of the interview drawing on the hopes of a traditional whiskey manufacturer to juxtapose their product with the mystique of the interviewees notions of what defines a "classic". I would greatly enjoy seeing this individual interviewed by someone such as Charlie Rose, for example - but this will do. What is said therein is worth noting, and has some weight to it even if it's been said differently 1,000 times before; the sum total is a repeating theme that I try to use as a mantra for my own journey, in hopes that if someone were to ask me who I am, I could muster an answer.

At the end of the day, are you happy? Is your family happy? Did you DO something? Did you feel anything? If the answer to any of these is "no", change it.

Enjoy this link to interview:


September 11, 2009

Axiom Monsoon & Typhoon Storm-Front panniers: 1-Year review

Since the first nomads packed up their things and moved from one place to another, portage has been important. Bags, sacks, duffels, panniers, trunks, steamers, suitcases, etc. I love bags. I love the functionality, the versatility, and the variety. For just about ANY activity imaginable there is an associated "bag" of some kind. Bicycling is certainly no exception, and certainly commuting by bicycle creates the widest array of bicycle portage options. I've tried many over the years, and this most recent set of bags is coming upon its first birthday, so it's time to assess their condition and make note of a few items.

My last set of bags had to do a few things: Be tough, carry everything I needed to handle a two-job commute, be waterproof, and be out-of-the-box visible without resorting to my usual additions of reflective modifications. Ortlieb was certainly on the short list, as was Arkel and my old favorite Carradice - but they were each out of the budget. Further searching found me looking at Axiom's website. A Canadian company, Axiom has been in the business for a while, and seemed to make solid stuff. Their Storm-Front line of bags seemed to hit the same marks as the Ortlieb bags, and were more economical. The panniers in the Storm-Front line up come in two sizes: the Typhoon, at 2032 per pair, and the smaller Monsoon at 1510 per pair.

My criteria resulted in the purchase of the Axiom Typhoon panniers in bright red. My bike is not a true touring geometry, however, and I quickly found heel clearance to be a daily problem with these monsters. I passed these on to a friend, and opted for the smaller Monsoon bags. The storage capacity proved more than adequate for my commuting needs, and the heel clearance issue was eliminated. For the purposes of this review, the only difference between the two bags are their sizes - so I have no doubt that had I owned the larger bags for this same time period with the same usage, the results would have been the same. To be clear, the comments that follow are specifically about the Monsoon panniers.

Waterproofness sometimes comes with compromise, and this is clear with most dry bags and the like in the marketplace. Seams are the enemy, unless specific (and expensive) materials are employed, like I've seen used in the Carradice bags. Axiom uses a roll-top design for their main compartment, which is a proven method for keeping water out. Combined with their use of ultrasoncially welded and lined tarpaulin, the main compartments of the bags operate as-advertised: completely waterproof when closed. After riding through snow, and nearly every gradient of rainfall from sprinkles and mist to all-out downpours and thunderstorms, I have yet to find a single droplet of water inside these bags, or absorbed into anything I've carried inside them. Even on the stormiest mornings I've arrived at work with dry clothes. The trade-off for this kind of all-weather performance is a lack of versatility with regards to storage options in the main compartment. Many bags have inserts of some kind, zippered pouches and pockets along the outside, or similar, and these bags do not. You essentially have one, big pocket on each side of the bike. I was more than willing to trade these features, however, to be able to ride regardless of the conditions without changing anything about my routine. No fumbling with rain covers, seam sealants, plastic bags for the clothing, or rushing to re-pack when storms move in. Granted, many a commuter has had success with non-waterproof bags and combinations of internal protection and covers over the years - but I definitely wanted a no-compromises, weather-proof FIRST bag - and these have met that mark nicely. I'm so routine-based in the mornings on my rides to work, the less I have to fumble with simply because it's pouring rain, the better.

Aside from the main compartment mentioned above, part of the design of the bag involves a large flap that covers over the roll-top closure, offering even further protection to the primary contents of the bag. This flap "completes" the closure of the bag with a large quick-fasten buckle, and is trimmed with a molded-in zipper pocket on the outside, and a sewn-in mesh pocket on the inside.

The inside mesh pocket is handy for storing items that don't mind moisture. Contents are protected, largely, simply because they are on the underside of the flap - but tire spray and simply moving through the air might invite moisture in, so pack accordingly. I use this large pocket for documents (inside a plastic baggie) if I happen to be carrying any, like letters or mail. In one of the bags, I use this mesh pocket for storage of my rain jacket in cooler months, and it's perfect for that. I can stop, undo the flap, and retrieve my jacket without putting the contents of the main compartment at risk, which is really handy.

The outside zipper pocket is smaller, but easy to get to. I use this for smaller, thinner items that I need quick access to once I arrive at the office - things like my ID badge, maybe wallet and phone. That's about all that fits, however, and highlights my first of two complaints about this outside pocket. It is nice to have a pocket of any kind on this kind of waterproof bag, but it's molded into the flap in such a way that only thin items will fit into it. It's not gusseted, doesn't have it's own shape - so anything you try to stuff into it tends to budge the tarp fabric, and then deforms the line of the zipper, making it hard to close. Even if you successfully get something into these outer pockets, it can make final closure of the flap itself difficult.

The second complaint about the outside pocket is the zipper itself. If there was one design flaw, this is it. Designs of water-resistant zippers has indeed come a long way over time, but it's still not a high-cycle device. For the first six months, the zipper worked perfectly, as designed: water never entered the pocket, even fully exposed to thunderstorm-level rainfall. However, water-resistant zippers' tragic flaw is the PVC-coating that is layered onto what is essentially a normal zipper. If you only enter the pocket on occasion, it's fine - but continued open-and-close cycles requires - as is the case for all zippers - the carrier/closure/slider to pass, rather abrasively, over the PVC coating. Over time, this material weakens, a gap is created, and eventually it begins to peel away. This makes the once water-resistant zipper a plain-old zipper, and water seeps in quite easily. I remedied this by taking a scissors to an old PVC rain jacket and making "storm flaps" to cover over the pocket openings. Sure, I could have simply loaded everything into a zip-top baggie, and put it inside the pocket for protection of my items, but the real concern was water getting in, and not drying out. Additionally, it flew in the face of my simplicity plan and routine: having a bag that allowed me to treat my items the same as if I was putting them into the pocket of my jeans was the goal. The added storm-flaps solved the problem, and are the only "repair" I've had to make to the bags since purchase. (I'll qualify that in a moment.) From a design perspective, I don't think a "better" water-resistant zipper is the answer for Axiom, should they choose to address the issue. A factory storm flap would be a good addition, but what might be better is simply an open pocket, slightly gusseted to allow for easier storage access, with a covering flap and quick-snap "Fastex"-style closure. In any case, this would make the pocket more usable, and it would live up to the "Water-Proof" moniker of the bag line. To be plain, however, this is a minor concern - as it should be: this tiny outside pocket is not the main selling feature of the bag, and this issue doesn't detract from the rest of the bag's performance.

Visibility is usually an afterthought for most cycling items, unfortunately, which has always struck me as odd. Granted, some reflective piping here and there is really secondary to a good vest, and proper lighting on the bicycle - so why load up accessory and bag manufacturers with requirements for reflective accents? Thankfully, many companies simply consider it a good idea - Axiom being one of them. They incorporated their logo into the accents, which is a good touch considering branding of a product is something they'd have done anyhow. Since these are waterproof, Axiom was mindful enough to consider that these bags might encounter some rainy rides, so they've been trimmed them on all three exposed sides with healthy doses of reflective material that proves quite effective, even when wet. So reflective, it made taking a photo of it quite difficult. You will notice in these photos my aforementioned "need" to slather just a little bit more visibility gear on whatever I purchase: the hi-vis orange netting that I placed on the "traffic-side" bag is my own addition, sewn into the edging seam on the bottom edge of the main flap. This is not included on Axiom bags, nor are the stickers that I've placed on the outside flaps, which I've blurred out in these pictures. I can't help myself sometimes - must... personalize.... bags!!

The durability of these bags is quite good. After a solid year of nearly daily use, there are few indicators of anything I'd consider to be "toward-failure" wear. The one "scare" I had was when a tiny corner of fabric seemed to peel backwards, but it turned out to be part of the overlap of tarpaulin and PVC-coating, and wasn't really a seam failure like I'd thought. I applied a little silicone sealant, pressed it in place overnight, and everything is fine. The actual ultrasonically welded seam will take a LOT more beatings before separating - it's a terribly strong bond, really, and a good construction choice for this kind of bag. A year of bumps, pot-holes, pavement joints, bike trail maladies, curbs and median jumps, bunny hops, railroad tracks and even occasional off-road and gravel commute detours - with daily commute loads, light errands, six-packs of beverages, wet tents and bike camping gear, and other countless items of odd-ball cargo, these bags have yet to wince. There is mild "staining" from open-close cycles on the grey PVC material - probably from when I entered the bag after a shift at the bike store with greasy hands - and little indicators of where the bag's roll-top feature pinches the PVC tarp, but little else. There are small areas of nylon "fray" here and there, but again - all very, very minor. The only signs of wear that I'm mildly concerned with involve the rubber coating of the pannier's rack hooks - and even that isn't 100% necessary for continued operation of the bags.

The back-side of each bag is the story of what they are exposed to from a year of all-weather commuting. The hardware is solid, but shows a bit of surface rust. There is clear marking from the rotation of the "rack-lock" blocks that help hold the bags in place, and you can tell where the bungee cords have been. All of this is normal wear, however, and nothing shows any signs of wearing thin, or wearing through. Further, Axiom includes a small replacement hardware kit in each bag at purchase, in case anything does become necessary. So far, I haven't been compelled to replace anything. The bottom side of each bag is also holding up quite well, with nothing to raise an eyebrow about. While no pannier is designed to be dragged along the ground, Axiom still chose to employ very sturdy rear corner protectors, just in case.

On my completely off-the-cuff, random, found-less scale of one to ten, I give these a solid 9-point rating - the only sour mark being the failure of the water-proof zippers and associated repair for the outside pockets, and the fact those same pockets aren't terribly useful for anything larger than a deck of cards. All in all, I've gotten my money's worth from these bags, and I fully expect to be writing about them again, this time next year. Highly recommended, a good price, durable, visible, and water-proof. A pair of these and their larger cousins, the Typhoon panniers, would make for a worry-free fall tour in questionable weather, no doubt.

September 1, 2009

Blackburn Flea packs a punch, and packs small.

I'm always on the lookout for good bicycle lights, so when I caught wind of this little light from Blackburn I quickly snatched a set to try them out. Since the focus of this website is walking a thin line between randonneuring and commuting, I'll do my best to consider both realms of use. In the battery light world, there is a struggle for manufacturers to hit big selling points: size & weight, lumens, and run-time. It is indeed a fine balance, because you can generally only get two of these attributes at any one price point. Big lumens and long run-time requires a larger battery, for example. If you want light weight, you have to throw one of the items out - sometimes both. The field is changing, however, with little solutions like the Blackburn Flea.

It's been about nine months or so since I first picked up the Blackburn Flea headlight and taillight set, and I've managed to put it through a pretty good set of trials and paces. Retail price at the time was roughly $50, and at first I gasped because of the size of the lights and the seemingly small array of "stuff" I got in the package. At first glance on the sales rack, one might look at the price, then the lights, shrug, and walk away. Blackburn was smart, either by necessity or consequence, that the units are charged up in the package. The package is designed to allow prospective buyers to take a look at how they operate right there at the point of sale. When light shopping, I've often resorted to wondering, checking the web for beam-shots or photos of some kind, and reviews to know if my purchase was going to be worth a hoot. Sometimes, a bike retailers nightmare, I'd actually rip into a package and put the included batteries into the light and try it out - well,
carefully, so as not to render something un-sellable, of course. Blackburn did quite well with the packaging they chose in this regard, and clicking the lights on and examining the beams right there in the store, my sticker shock was suppressed. Almost blinded myself, and I was thusly sold.

At home, the two hook-n-loop straps, the charge adapter, and the lights all popped out of the package took up literally just a handful of space. This entire kit would fit easily into anyone's bag, seatpack or back pocket. All told, the front and rear lights with their associated straps weighed in at 20 grams each. Right off the bat, nothing is lighter in a rechargeable light. You have your Knog "Frog" lights, your Princeton Tec's, and other CR-2032 powered lights that are slightly smaller, far less bright, and not rechargeable. There are lots of images available via a Google search that have the Blackburn lights compared to coins - a good reference. These are TINY lights. What sets these apart are their power output and rechargeability.

Power output: Advertised at 40 lumens. That, for the size of this light, is quite remarkable. The rear light is equally bright. Yes, larger rechargeable lights have more power, but you have to remember that you can't have it all (yet) and the size is the focus here. In that arena, if I could be so bold as to pose a "lumens per gram" fantasy, these are a clear leader. The front light uses 4 Nichia white LEDs, producing an even spot beam that is actually enough to ride by if you keep your speed in check - so in a pinch, this is actually a viable backup headlight, not just a tiny, blinky marker-light or be-seen light - although in flash mode, it excels at the latter. For most commuters, the front light could be enough on mornings or evenings where you just can't get the sunshine to fit your schedule. On street-lit roads, honestly, this light on the handlebars with the included hook-n-loop strap would be enough for most anyone. The remarkable output is balanced by the r
un-time, which on steady is about three hours, slightly more. Sure, not much - but focus back on size vs. output, and it's surprising. It's enough to get you home, certainly, for what most riders would use it for. There is an over-drive mode, which is really handy - but it really eats into the run-time bank, and on one ride in early January I managed to blow through the charge in about half the advertised three hours, alternating between both modes. With tender use of the overdrive feature, however, the three hours on steady was repeatable on many occasions.

Beam quality is pretty good - my only complaint is with the emitters having a purplish tinge to them, which - spectrally - is a little bit of wasted energy. The sealed design of the enclosure doesn't really lend itself towards hacking or swapping emitters like you can do with some lights, so I didn't even try - but that's the only real operational flaw I could find with this little wonder. Head to head against other LED lights, that purplish tinge to the light seems to remove a little bit of the contrast and candlepower. Because of this, I found myself using the overdrive feature probably moreso than Blackburn intended, just to get a better beam - when there is more voltage opened to the emitters, the color improves. Still, I can't fault Blackburn for this: if they'd have come to market with an (estimated) 80 lumen light that only ran for an hour on a charge, it would not have been very useful. More run time at the expense of a little spectral quality, not a horrible t
hing - and having the overdrive function there in a pinch, you can safely navigate darker sections of road, and then return to normal. One thing I've seen in pricier lights is a simple toggle to allow easier movement between high and low power, bypassing any blinking modes until the button is held for 'x' seconds. But, to be fair, this isn't a race light, so having to "go around the horn" and toggle past blinking mode each time I want to switch power is okay, I suppose.

The charging system is brilliant. You use an adapter to siphon current from a 1.5v cell of any size, the size dictating the number of charges you get: about 3 for a AA-cell, roughly 30 for a D-cell. New for 2010, a new version of the light includes a small solar panel and a USB adapter. Unless I'm mistaken, this is a bicycle-light first for out-of-the-box charging flexibility. This is really slick, not gimmicky like one might assume. It works well. Blackburn has always been a solid company with regards to innovation: even the hook-n-loop straps weren't an afterthought: one side has a thick rubbery center stripe, which is meant to hold the light in place on handlebar or seatpost, and it makes for a very solid platform. Combined with their low mass, these light don't move around on the bike at all once in place.

For randonneuring use, the Flea lights make good backups in a pinch. Sure, the rear light is a given: it takes up almost no space in a bag, weighs very little, and will blink for up to 12 hours. For most brevets, if a primary rear light fails this might save you a DNF. For the front, its a stretch: you can see the road with it, but your speed, especially on any downhill, would have to be limited on dark roads for sure. Add in the three hour run time, depending on when your primary light failed, it may not be enough to save a ride. The tiny charge adapter and packing a AA cell in a bag will allow field recharging, but charge times (while really good) are 30 minutes, so every three hours you'd have to stop and hang out. Sure, a primary light failure would mean life on brevet is compromised - but I'm not sure its the best solution for a tired randonneur to be messing with tiny wires and waiting for a charge every 50 miles or so. In this sense the Flea front light might
be best hanging out in the bag as a third-string backup. Using the Flea in this way is indeed WAY outside the original design intent, but, for reading cues, changing a flat after dark, shining on a street sign, its perfect - Strap this to a helmet and use sparingly and you've got a light-weight, tiny beacon that kicks the snot out of anything else its size. Just keep your use in check, and get something different if you want to supplement your primary light during the ride.

All in all, these are an exceptional product, very versatile, and adaptable to just about anything. Commuting, rando backup, racing sunset on a roadie ride, marking your position on a rainy ride. Highly recommended.