Category: Uncategorized

In Praise of the Bell

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Is there a more wonderful sound made from metal than that of a brass bicycle bell? I’ll admit that the triangle in orchestral arrangements sounds quite lovely. But the brass bell takes the cake. In many cities around the world, ringing bicycle bells in traffic define the acoustic environment. I sometimes find it difficult to ration my bell use. Bells ought to be used like horns – to let other cyclists, pedestrians, and drivers know of one’s presence. But I often bounce along, crying wolf with the little lever in a rhythm recognizable only to me. My 3 year-old daughter shows more restraint.

Most commuters use bells very well. Sometimes they say hello, often they ding to signal their presence. This makes sense because most commuters navigate traffic relatively deftly, and have their own survival and safety as paramount concerns. The bell is a wonderful way to help insure one’s well being and to participate in the sonic zeitgeist of the city.

More cyclists should use bells. For road riders or tri-athletes riding for “training,” the bell might consist of too many grams to tolerate. I don’t think carbon fiber would have a nice ring to it. More likely, however, is that the brass bell doesn’t fit the aesthetic of the space-age race machine. But I’m not sure if there’s a category of cyclists who could use a bell more than these riders. They are the ones doing the rapid riding, and there is nothing more polite than a nice, well-timed little ding to make another rider aware of one’s immanent pass. The bell is more delightful than “on your left,” and preferable the terse and rather unfriendly “left.” In the place of these words and phrases, one might substitute a “hello” or “nice bike,” or “what a day, huh?”

And certainly, without exception, increased bell use would help remedy the problem of no signal at all from passing cyclists. More often than not, on my rides up the coast when I am passed – often uncomfortably close – it occurs without warning. This is not only rude, but also dangerous. I usually remark, “on your right” to try to hammer the point home that I could have easily veered my bicycle into their hidden vector, causing great trouble for all involved.

When on road rides, I use my bell when passing other cyclists. Interestingly, the action usually garners a cross look from the aero bars of the other ride. In the East, a car horn functions as a tool. In the West, honking works as a last resort, taken by honkees (no pun, please) as an offense. Perhaps bells work the same way on road riding courses. I will, however, continue to use my bell. I hope more folks will do the same.

Into the Wild


I’ve been doing a bit of Mt. Laguna singletrack on Friday evenings with a colleague and his friends. Some conflicting feelings about trail riding have kept me from the mountains for a while. As transportation cyclist, I have issues with driving a car and burning fuel to, then, ride a bicycle. But some phenomenal recent rides in our backcountry and in Los Angeles, Redlands, and Orange County have shaken me from my do-gooder green funk. There are trails I ride to regularly from Central San Diego: Los Peñasquitos Preserve, San Clemente Canyon, Tecolote Canyon, and Rose Canyon. The road-wear on my rear knobby tire testifies to this. But I’m now all for driving out to a ride – carpooling preferably – if it means getting out into nature.

San Diego County contains the most biodiversity of any county in the lower 48 – and our mountains – a mere hour from downtown – are full of pine, cedar, oak, and many critters. One such critter is the mountain lion. There are also rattlesnakes. And cows.

I got a late start to meet my group at 5pm, but I figured some spirited driving would get me there within minutes of the start. Then it rained while I passed on Interstate 8 through Mission Valley, and traffic seized up. I arrived 15 minutes late, and the group had already left. The group spoke about the diminishing daylight this time of year after our last ride, and I hoped they’d begin without me, as I didn’t want my tardiness to delay the ride. Indeed, upon arrival, I discovered they had already begun. I was relieved.

Without much thought, I got my Rawland off the rack and started a long downhill before turning into the forest for technical singletrack. The Rawland is not a mountain bike, per se. It as a rigid all-rounder fitted with 650B (27.5) Pacenti Neo-Moto 58mm knobbies run at about 35psi. I love this bike on trails, as the larger wheels roll over most things and the old-school approach makes finding a line more important than bombing over everything, which dual suspension facilitates.

Once I entered the forest and the technical stuff, I had a thought. “Aren’t there mountain lions around here?” Then I had a couple more thoughts: “Don’t they hunt at dusk?” and “Aren’t trail users advised not to ride or hike alone?” Its kind of like spear fishing or snorkeling. Once a white shark enters one’s thoughts, it cannot be expelled.

I began singing and then talking very loudly, so as not to surprise a wandering lion. I talked about my work: “I need to finish this PROJECT!” Then I talked about the ride: “I’m coming around the CORNER!” When I saw the moonrise, I began making up words to the Creedeence song “I Hear a Bad Moon Rising.” It was a lovely moonrise:

My paranoid ride was nearly complete, after circumnavigating Big Laguna cattle lake and skirting Nobel Canyon. Heading back up to the parking lot, I came upon a few large cattle standing on the singletrack. The rutted trail had already suggested heavy cattle presence. One of these cattle was particularly heavy – a bull. That word seems a bit cartoon-ish. But is there another word for a large cow with a penis and sharp horns? The other cattle trotted off after I made cowboy noises like like the bad guys did in Shane. But this bull just focused on me, and then began huffing and shifting his weight around, kicking up dust with his legs. I stared at him. He was locked in on me. I stood between him and a barbed wire fence. I saddled up, and slowly pedaled by. He never took his eyes off me. I somehow made it past the beast, and then rode like hell up to the safety of my oft-ambling Volvo wagon.

When off pavement, I prefer fire roads and hard-pack trails with an all-rounder fat-tire roadish bicycle, as such riding provides many opportunities to enjoy the view. Sometimes, singletrack focuses my vision too much on the ground, and not enough on the wonderful wilderness I’m passing through. But one of the great things about riding singletrack in the wilderness is that it delivers you right into the wild, and all the primordial fears come with it (fears of a city kid, admittedly).

If You’re Gonna Go Big…

…You might as well go really big:

What a great inspiration build from Banjo Cycles. This “Big Dumb Pug” mixes the concepts behind Surly’s Big Dummy longtail and a fat-tire, Endomorph-clad Pugsley. I love the idea of fat tire bicycles, but most of what I imagine rolls on some Schwalbe Big Apples or Fat Franks. But this looks like so much fun.

I would imaging that riding around town on such a vehicle would elicit a permanent smile and lots of comment. You could go anywhere, and enjoy the view while bumping around with your load. This longtail is not merely a car-replacement, but an armageddon bike.

Driving Us Mad

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I recently drove a morning commute for the first time since 1996. Since then, I’ve been lucky enough to walk, take the bus, train, or cycle to work or school. Currently, my daughters’ nursery school is about 20 minutes away (the cause of great enmity between my wife and I – now mostly resolved), and it was my turn to drive her there. I came home frustrated and angry – and in disbelief that we’ve decided to set up our urban life in such a de-humanizing way.

While preparing to get into our old Volvo and head out, I fantasized about the commute. I would be driving on a cool September morning, hot coffee in hand, with NPR on the radio and my daughter happily looking out the window. I’d be part of the excitement and hubbub of the day – part of the morning rush. We got in the car, buckled in, and headed out.

Initially, my fantasies played out. I enjoyed the meandering drive from my house to the freeway. There was dew on the car, and or neighborhood seemed fresh. Then, we got on the freeway, and I remembered that commute times do not facilitate courteous driving. As we slung on the freeway, cars rushed at us and wouldn’t let us merge to the left. We were almost directed onto another freeway. I got the bird when I finally forced the issue, using the indicator and relying on the old 240 wagon to push its way over in its trademark dorky, no-nonsense manner. Throughout the drive, motorists tailgated, slammed on their brakes, honked, and exceeded the speed limit. There was a sense of danger and dissatisfaction that permeated the experience. People had looks on their faces that reminded me of what one might see among slot players at a third-rate casino – sheer boredom mixed with hopelessness and misery.

We got to school, and I saw my daughter off. Then I headed back home to get on my bicycle for the short ride to work (I don’t have a parking permit). As I drove home, I couldn’t shake the feeling that we are all slaves. Now, we are not slaves, but there is a submission that seems especially acute during drive times – a submission to a system of production and consumption that sustains itself and forms an infinite loop. We herd ourselves to work, consuming fuel, driving cars that cost tens of thousands of dollars, over an automobile-based infrastructure costing tens of millions of dollars, so that we might go to work, make more money, pay taxes that support the infrastructure that makes the commute possible, and earn money so that we might buy more things, like cars and petrol.

I’m being a bit unfair. Our economic system relies on a certain level of conspicuous consumption. But my car commute brought the system into sharp focus. Perhaps, as I do the commute more often, these issues will melt into the background. But I do know that even though I’m riding to work on my bicycle so that I can sit at my desk and do my work, there is an inherent sense of independence, efficiency, sustainability, and freedom that I etch out into my day on the bicycle that I can’t get in a car. Walking is almost as nice. I only wish that more people – perhaps some of the hundreds that I encountered on my motor-commute, might give themselves the chance to feel it.

Steel is Real, Again

As has been noted around the bicycle internets, many of the big, mass-production bicycle makers will offer steel bikes as part of their line ups, and come spring, local bike shops should be full of new “old fashioned” bicycles from the big names. Here are a few:

Electra Ticino:

Fuji Connoisseur:
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Specialized Allez Steel:

Trek Belleville:

These are all mass-market, major names in cycling, and they seem to be paying attention to what’s going on not only on the custom framebuilding scene, but also to utility cyclists who create very practical randonneuring and city bikes from Soma, Surly, Kogswell, and Rawland on the low-price end. Move up the price and quality chain, and I’m sure plenty of inspiration has been gathered from many of the bikes built up by Rivendell, Jitensha, and Waterford and the many excellent reviews in Bicycle Quarterly.

I have read in some places that these new steel bikes are “ripping off” ideas from the insurgent retrogrouch movement (Velo Orange), but most of the good ideas from niche bicycle designers or retailers just borrow from tried-and-true ideas. When people know what they are doing (Grant Peterson, for example), the combination of design knowledge and a reliance on time-tested bicycle ideas can create cycling nirvana.

I hope that these new steel frames create a larger tent for those seeking a more interesting riding experience, although none of them interest me that much (I love the Soma Buena Vista). Maybe that will happen. Maybe when one of these bikes comes in 650B!

Electra Ticino Forthcoming

A lot of people could benefit from coming across a stylish utilitarian bicycle, in the ilk of the British 3-speed or French porteur bike, while shopping for a transportation among the Trek hybrids and Specialized Langster singlespeeds at their local bike shop. A lot of folks coming back to riding are just trying to get on a bike, and maybe a Dutch city bike, with its considerable heft and long wheelbase, may not be the best option (despite what the NYT Style section says). I think vintage is probably the best route for something practical at a relatively low price. Most 80s steel frames – especially the touring Treks, Miyatas, and Bridgestones – and old 3-speeds are as stylish and practical as they come (if you live in a flat-ish area). But some people don’t buy anything “used.” Kogswell, Surly, and Soma offer good utilitarian frames, but you have to know how to build them up.

Anyway, all of the above options are wonderful. But some folks just want something new, and often these are the same people who shop by price. So, they’re not going to support a custom frame builder — just yet.

I’ve always thought the Bianchi Milano was pretty smart. But here, Electra, a San Diego company, is coming out with the Ticino later this year. Inside word is that they will be at Interbike in September, and will be offered at different prices based on the builds (from basic single speed to kitted out randonneur models). They will come in traditional and step-through. Pretty cool, if it serves as a feeder to custom builders.

More information can be found here.

Taking a Different Path

I’ve been following Russ & Laura’s project, and its worth visiting their site,

“In March 2009, Laura Crawford and Russ Roca made the decision to drop out of the status quo and find others around the world who have done the same. Paring down their lives to just what will fit on two bicycles, Laura and Russ are embarking on an extended bike tour throughout the US and beyond…”

The simple pleasures of riding a bicycle can translate well to the rest of one’s life. Riding often begs the question of stuff in general – simplicity, beauty, utilitarianism, and reliability help one enjoy the scenery. Perhaps these same qualities can enhance life and are good guides in choosing the material things that we surround ourselves with.

I’ve done my little part in helping Russ sell his stuff, by buying these Ostrich panniers from him (so much for getting rid of things!):

I’ve only used them for book hauling, but so far I like ’em. Sure, they look good, but they are a bit limited in capacity, especially when compared to Ortlieb packers. Perhaps more on the bags later as I get more experience with them.

Two New 650B Tires in the Pipe

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Good news for fans of 650B, which has a special place among randonneurs and city riders. Over the last several years, many folks have converted vintage road bikes to 650B to add the utility of fatter tires and fenders. The Col de la Vies are a great, cheap tire at about 37mm, and the Hetres have been lauded as the ultimate 650B performance mixed terrain tire. The problem is that its hard to fit Hetres under fenders on most existing 650B bikes. So, Kirk Pacenti and Grand Bois are working on a performance 650B x 38mm tire, which is a nice sweet spot:

From Kirk Pacenti:

“Following the success of my 650b MTB tires many of you have contacted me
asking whether or not I would consider making a 650b tire for the road.
Initially I was not inclined to make a road tire, but now feel the demand
would justify my efforts.

In response to this demand, I have designed the “dream tire” many of you
have been asking for. The Pari-MotoT tire will be a high performance,
650x38b tire with a light, supple casing and fine file tread pattern. This
tire is sure to be lighter, faster and smoother riding than any other
650x38b tire currently available. If I were to start production on the mould
tooling today, the tires should land in the US sometime in late November.
And with the support of all the 650b list members the Pari-MotoT can become
a reality very quickly.

However, I feel I should be explicit in what I mean by ‘support’ so that we
are all on the same page. If I am to produce this tire, I must pre-sell a
minimum of 200 pairs of tires by August 15th, 2009 to cover the tooling
costs. If you believe that this tire should be produced, if you are willing
to place an order in advance, and if you can wait six months for delivery,
we’ll all be rolling around on new tires before the year is out.

The tires will initially be sold in pairs only for $118.00 per pair and be
shipped USPS Priority Flat Rate service for an additional $12.00 anywhere in
the continental US. Foreign orders will incur some additional shipping
charges that can be billed for at the time of shipment. Please fill out the
attached order form and mail it along with your check. If you prefer to pay
by credit card or live outside the continental US, please email me for
details. If you have any further questions about the tire, please do not
hesitate to ask.”

The order form can be downloaded here.

And this from Jan Heine:

“Grand Bois also has been working on a 650B x 38 mm tire. The first
iteration was the Hetre, which turned out a bit bigger than intended.
In retrospect, that is a good thing, because the added width really
does make a difference on broken pavement and gravel roads. But the
down side is that these tires are just too big for many bikes.
With the experience gained from the Hetres, I am confident that Grand
Bois will be able to get the size right on the second try. The casing
will be the tried-and-true Grand Bois casing also used on the Hetres.
The 650B x 38 mm tires should be available early next year, both
directly from Vintage Bicycle Press and through better bicycle shops,
just like all other Grand Bois products.
It’ll be great to have more choices in 650B tires. I still am hoping
some day for a true hand-made 650B tire, like the Challenge
Parigi-Roubaix, but perhaps with an even lighter casing. (650B riders
understand that you don’t need a 125 psi pressure rating, but a supple
casing, to get a fast tire.) In fact, 38 mm probably would be a
perfect size for such a tire, which most riders wouldn’t use for
serious dirt roads, but only on pavement, rough and smooth.”

Rivendell Reviving Classic Production Roadbike


Riding a lugged, steel road bike on PCH usually garners comments of “nice commuter” from triathletes training for…well, whatever it is they train for.

Watching Le Tour evokes admiration for cycling technology from even a relative retrogrouch like myself. Nevertheless, news that Rivendell will re-release a classic, lugged, steel road bike is thrilling. A new production model of the classic competition bicycle can perhaps help more people bridge the gap between fast riding and enjoyment – and maybe take the earbuds out long enough to enjoy the sound of wind flapping at your jersey.

“We’re working on sort-of-a-Ramboiullet replacement, but more of a club-riding bike, so even lighter. It will be called one of these: Rodeo…Roadio…Roadeo. And we’ll offer it in your choice of threadless (for most club riders) and threaded (for more traditionalists). No rack braze-ons, light tubes, but still our bike thru & thru, with our lugs, our design and choice of tubing, all that. We’ll have the prototype by late July, and Mark will build it up and ride it, since he was the impetus behind it. “

Bay Area Riding


San Diego has some of the best riding in the country, but the Bay Area is different and special. California all-around. My riding included: excursions around the chaparral of Mt. Diablo; up the Oakland/Berkeley hills via Broadway Terrace and Grizzly Peak; up to the east peak of Mt. Tamalpias via the wonderful old railroad grade; and through grasslands and redwoods on a 25 mile loop around Pescadero and San Gregorio.

Mt Diablo holds an enormous array of fire-road possibilities. I explored only the trails around Shell Ridge and the Briones-Mt. Diablo trail:



Grant’s directions: DSC_0068

Grizzly Peak in the Oakland/Berkeley hills:

View from the top of Mt. Tamalpias:

After the ride around Pescadero with my father-in-law:

And a nice ride around Napa: