April 27, 2013

Leather, Canvas, and Aluminum-Gallium-Arsenide

  Checking in from the news desk this morning, instead of from the open road... where, arguably, I *should* be right now, heading north into a non-existent headwind toward Iowa and some terrific scenery.  Alas, another month of "what-happened-to-my-life?" has passed, and school/work/school/school/work has kept me off the bike since the 300k wrapped up; which, still - no matter how many times I think it was only a week ago, it's indeed been nearly a month already.  Still, the smarter money sat with skipping the 400km ride to Iowa today -- as much as I love that route and reeled in delight at the finally favorable forecast, I don't have the miles in me, and there is another factor to consider - which I'll address in a moment.

Not really lamenting here... seems like it, but all things are good, honestly.  My attentions have been temporarily diverted toward other, worthy tasks... but, in the narrow focus of this web-page it feels like I haven't been doing much of anything.

A few of my "2nd quarter" resolutions, however, should take care of things.  More riding - even if it's short duration.  More commutes, because I miss doing it.  Finally pre-riding a 100km route, for finalization of RUSA certification of such.  Putting a few more positive changes into the diet, as I finally creep below the body-weight plateau I've been hammering since December (yea!).  More posts about commutes... since that's the namesake of this blog in the first place, and since I find myself with good things to say about the former "drudgery" of commuting (it's all about attitude... and after months of driving, I'm approaching the activity with new eyes, lately).  All worthy goals... but, nothing too lofty.  On the rando front, I am still targeting a 600km ride in July to satisfy that month's R-12 requirement... so, perhaps a couple longer permanents in May and June are appropriate.  Time to keep that 300k streak going, perhaps?  We'll see.

On the equipment front, I have marvelled recently at some interesting taillights.  I've spent the last couple years in a technological holding-pattern, fat and happy with my 2010-vintage generator-based LED lighting system and associated solid-mode taillight.  I've always stood by Busch + Muller's design philosophy with lighting equipment after having invested in a generator hub over a decade ago, as they have never rested on their laurels.  Many thought the transition from halogen to LED across the bicycle lighting market marked the end for generator lighting - but, it only took them a bit longer to work out some bugs.  A smart company, B+M never looked at LED battery lights as a threat as much as an opportunity, waiting patiently for the right emitters and circuits to accompany their superior optical platforms.  Steadily, B+M has held pace and (in my observations) has consistently out-performed other companies' battery LED bicycle lights, simply through the use of optical reflecting and focusing.  Combined with the obvious world-killing feature of never having to charge or replace batteries, generator systems remain relevant, smart, eco-friendly, and an ultimately economical choice for bicycle lighting.  However, where B+M lathers the competition in the embarrassing bright bluish-white glow of their headlights, they have not quite met with world standards in the taillight department when it comes to the United States market.

Certainly as B+M is a German company, their first directive would clearly serve their immediate non-export markets - and, in their defense, B+M makes the best European taillights you can buy:  battery OR generator-powered (in this reviewer's opinion).  They have specific color, brightness, and distance requirements to satisfy for European road-worthiness, and during the darkest night, the heaviest rain, or the thickest fog here in Kansas, I have never been left wanting for more when it comes to B+M taillight products.  Above all else, B+M also consistently provides a feature that many other companies have long-since relegated to the antique-box:  the retro-reflector.  On that point alone, B+M will likely remain my go-to product as a primary rear light.  Equipped with a good reflector, if all else fails, a car with headlights will still see a cyclist on the road - and that's a fail-safe any rider can appreciate.

What has seemingly taken the place of smartly-integrated retro-reflectors in this part of the world, however, are brighter and brighter LED emitters.  The Race Across America (RAAM), in which I was a crew participant last year, had added rules which dictated the use of at least a 1-watt rear light for all bicycles entered in competition, a product that - even 12-months ago - was barely available.  If I recall, only two products had been listed on the recommended-product list, and phone calls to nearly every local bike shop along the route didn't yield a result until we'd reached central Arizona.  Barely a year later, most manufacturers have at least one offering which hits the "1-watt" market yardstick, with a few leaping to "2-watts."

I put the wattage figures above in quotes, as bicycle LEDs create the same consumer-friendly rating challenges that CFL and LED household lightbulbs do:  A 60-watt incandescent bulb truly uses 60-watts of power to generate its light output:  for the sake of argument let's say it's 800 Lumens.  A compact florescent light (CFL) will produce the same 800 Lumens while only using 13 watts of power to do so, and a household LED bulb will produce that same 800 Lumens while only consuming 6 watts of energy.  All three will light up a bedroom nicely, with roughly the same quality of warm white light - but, the efficiency of each is best told through how the light itself is created.  An incandescent filament actually glows because of the current passing through it, which heats it up.  The emission of energy produces visible light, but also waves you can't see, like heat - which are lost.  CFLs are slightly better, but still produce a spectrum of invisible waves and heat.  LEDs, while still producing some heat, are far more efficient and generally only throw out visible light waves in a very narrow bandwidth - so narrow that one needs specific LED emitters for specific colors - thus, far less power is wasted; yet some heat is always a byproduct of an electrical circuit.  So, while consumer packaging requirements are changing, and the term "Lumens" is entering the vernacular of the every-man lightbulb purchaser (despite having been on light-bulb packaging for as long as I can remember ANYway, albeit in very small print), the popular marketing benchmark remains wattage-based.  The discussion on watts vs. Lumens vs. Lux vs. candlepower is lengthy, but - the short story:  a true 1-watt LED would put out a LOT of lumens... so, rating taillight LEDs in watts isn't really an accurate rating, and not really an indication of how much power a device is really using to generate that output.  You can figure out how much your taillight uses with some math, but I won't bore you with that here.  The bicycle world tends towards tech-savvy people, however, and many packages are indeed headed in a Lumens-based marketing direction.  Having apples-to-apples figures helps buyers make smarter choices, and gives a better indication of a product's actual performance - and you can see that trend in the marketplace.  Just about every bicycle headlight manufacturer shows a lumen-rating on their products these days, which is helpful.  Taillights will likely follow suit, slowly.

During the night-time leg of the 300km ride last month, I rode with Del from central Kansas - a long-time bicycle tourer, he's keen on good gear by consequence of the challenges he pits himself against.  In keeping with this, he'd mounted Cygolite's latest offering - the Hotshot taillight.  MY review can be summed up in two words:  Good Lord.   I simply couldn't ride behind his bike with the thing on.  After some re-aiming, however, thanks to a narrow beam-width, the situation improved ... but, it's nearly comical how bright this taillight is.  I can't give a full review, as I don't own it (yet.), but, it's made my list as a potential candidate for a foul-weather beacon and backup taillight for longer rides.  It has a built-in, USB-rechargeable Lithium-ION battery, and a variety of settings for strobe/flash/solid modes - as well as the ability to vary the light output on steady-mode and speed-up/slow-down the flash frequency in the strobe/flash modes.. which, I think is a product-first.  Self-contained, small, and not too expensive at $40 MSRP - which, though spendy by taillight standards of 3 years ago, is a bargain when pitted against something like a Dinotte taillight set-up. Now, this is not to do Dinotte poorly - their taillight product is truly in its own class, is far brighter, and runs for far longer - but, instead should demonstrate the value of a product which places super-high output LEDs into the hands of a wider audience.  I may have to give the Cygolite Hotshot a try... but, perhaps only if I'm riding alone.  Short of being separated from traffic by biblical fog and falling bricks, I don't think there is any atmospheric condition this light couldn't punch through.  Just don't stare at it unless you want 30-minutes of floating purple dots.  Therein lay the only negative mark I'd give it:  it's a terrific way to get rid of wheel-suckers in a paceline.  This may not make sense to many, but, it's so bright on-axis I can almost "hear" it.  Wow.  Just wow.

One method to keep your drafting partners happy, should you use this bright of a taillight, involves hiding it from close-proximity view underneath a seatbag - like the included seatpost mount would facilitate.  From 20 feet back, the taillight remains perfectly visible for approaching traffic; yet, from 10 feet or less, your riding buddies won't be blinded.  This may not be practical for all applications, however, as I find for myself with one of my recent purchases.  Looking backwards through time for my forgotten successful approaches to longer distance randonneuring, I have recently invited something from Nelson, England back into the stable - namely, a Carradice bag.  Correcting an old misgiving, I've procured the smallest saddlebag they produce - the popular Barley model - trying to steer clear of the old adage that having a large bag inspires one to try and fill it (read: with stuff one doesn't need to carry along).  I've grown accustomed to travelling light on brevet, so emptying my back pockets remained the only real improvement I could make to my otherwise successful rando setup.  Now, my relatively heavy phone, a few discarded layers, energy gels and a couple bags of powder will all go inside the waterproof cavern behind me, improving rider comfort and eliminating the fatigue multiplier of having a close collar, sagging jersey, and tender lower back after mile seventy.  The back pockets will remain free for quick eats, discarded layers that haven't made it to the bag yet (but will at the next control), the cue sheet and tiny iPod perhaps.  Returning to a bag also yields faster controls: a couple of buckles undone, toss, and go.  Reverse to add layers later - instead of racks, carefully rolled bundles, and toe straps.  That latter system has worked well - but, it has proved time consuming and limiting.  Now, I can carry along the extra layer I'd been wishing for these last few rides, without worrying about where to put it.  Weight penalty is negligible.  I'm honestly not worried about weight.  I have more to lose from my midsection - so, I'll soon negate whatever I've added to the bike, and the added flexibility will more than compensate.  After toying with camera bags and rack trunks, and repurposing this-n-that for various trial runs --- even partially finishing a Kent Petersen-inspired campaign-sign, duct-tape and zip tie rack box --- I decided on Carradice:  I know their stuff works from past use.  They make a handsome, bespoke product, which I appreciate.  Aesthetically, it keeps with my lugged-steel, knuckle-dragger mojo.  It has smart features which I don't have the skill or patience to replicate.  Finally, I got a good deal on it.  The only mistake I see is having sold off the one's I've had in the past -- but, again, those older ones were too large for what I needed to do, so, forgetting my tendency to make poor financial decisions, this has ultimately become a wise purchase.  The Barley model is perfect -- big enough, but doesn't invite the kitchen sink.  Good to have one of these in the stable again.  Review coming?  Probably not... I envision the bag doing what it had done in the past:  it disappears behind me, is three-fold faster at controls than the stuffed back pockets and clothing-roll routine I've used for the last 2 years, it's waterproof, durable, and will provide decades of reliable use.  That's Carradice - and, in my opinion, it's worth every bit o' quid the conversion rate yields its proprietors.

Leather saddles.... yikes.  I've tried twice with Brooks, and have been left unsatisfied afterwards.  That's no fault of Brooks - each of the two times I'd trialed the fine leather saddles (B-17 and Team Pro), it became a gut-wrenching ordeal letting go of something so gorgeous... but, they proved too expensive to hang on the wall.  Afterwards, I simply put my trusty Selle Italia Flite T/A back in place, and rode on.  Lately, however, over the past 18 months or so -- either I'm changing, or the saddle is.  While the pain has been mild so far, I have transitioned toward reappearing saddle sores and numbness - where previously there had been none.  Photographs also seem to indicate a clear change in saddle profile shape, very slow - but, still, it's there.  A few tweaks, spaced 6 months apart, did yield some improvement - but, the last four brevet-distance rides have left me wondering if 12 years on one saddle is too much.  I have again thrown my hat into the leather saddle ring.  First, I like the IDEA of a leather saddle... that knuckle-dragger's mojo again ...but, more than looks, I appreciate offerings from companies like Brooks because of their staying power.  If you rode a bicycle in 1918, and it had a B-17 on it, you can dust yourself off and start riding again in 2018 with the same saddle (in theory, of course... though if one should live so long, it would indeed be possible, but only assuming the 1918 Brooks had fallen into disrepair.)  My biggest complaint about Selle Italia (my current saddle's manufacturer) is the constant churn of product and design, and, while they could be applauded in some circles for marching ever-forward and advancing the art, being unable to hit their webpage and simply purchase a new-in-box Flite Trans-Am hurts more than the saddle sores my old one has created.  The designs they, and many other companies, offer today depart too far from that which I am familiar - so, I need to start auditioning saddles that I know I can obtain ten years from now -- either via replacement parts, or as complete saddles... (or, purchase two of them when I find the right match).  Further, oft-discussed on many blogs elsewhere, leather saddles have long been the randonneur's choice, and while I don't always follow the trends, if it is ME that has changed, and not my trusty Flite, then perhaps trying a few variations of leather is a good choice now - even if it hadn't been before.  Combined with a 6-month, no-questions, no-problems guarantee, I have partnered up with a popular internet shop near the Gulf of Mexico to begin the process of mount/ride/tweak/repeat.  I figure I have six permanents to figure out if this latest --- and possibly the most-drastic ---- change to my bicycle equipment will work out.  So far... I copy Steve W.'s assessment of his recent leather-club membership:  "Why did I wait so long??"

I'm hopeful, if not a little leery of the break-in period... so, I'm keeping the manufacturer and model in the bag for the moment.  If I do end up trying multiple models and makes, look for a comparison post in the future.  While saddles are ridiculously personal items, and most forums posts concerning them therefore nearly rubbish, I tend not to read saddle reviews...at least not the "this feels amazing!" sections.... so, I'll try to offer readers the courtesy of not gushing too much when I find "the one."  

For now, thanks for reading ---- good things to come!

1 comment:

Monkeywrangler said...

I do not envy you, trying to find a new saddle...

but...you could consider coming over to the dark side, Recumbent! No more saddle sores, no Shermer's Neck, no numbness in your bits and pieces or hands....