Sunday 28 March 2010

Coasting: All Washed Up

Two years ago, I wrote in this blog (here) about a new concept, "Coasting," that Shimano had come up with:  to attract non-cyclists to riding, the company engineered an automatic transmission and it ended up on bicycles made by Trek, Raleigh and Giant in 2007, followed by four other firms in 2008.  The idea was that the 161 million non-cyclists in America could be lured onto the roads if they had simple, fun and relatively inexpensive bikes.  Although it seemed at first that sales were good, it now appears that the program has ended and no Coasting bikes are being produced anymore.

One of the fascinating aspects of Bicycle World is the endless inventiveness as people try to improve the Perfect Machine.  Coasting owes its origins to a design firm, IDEO, which received a brief from Shimano in 2002.  To a man with a hammer, every problem looks like a nail and to the IDEO people the problem seemed to be the bicycle rather than the environment.
Trek's Coasting bike, the Lime, won the Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum's People's Choice Award in October 2009 but that was not enough to save it.  In addition to the error of applying a technological solution rather than addressing the real problem of why people don't ride bikes, the marketers also priced the bicycles at around $500, which would make them very unappealing to extremely casual cyclists-to-be.  For that money, there are plenty of good bikes (admittedly some that need to be shifted) with practical features such as racks and fenders and wheels that are easily removed for tire changes.

Of course, if you are really not very picky about your bicycle, you can go to Wal-Mart and pick up a Mongoose commuting bike for US$119 (marked down from US$132!).  This is not a typo.  On the other hand, you have to assemble it yourself and will probably have to change the innertubes before the first ride or the plastic pedals (according to a surprising number of reviewers), but, still, 87 reviews of 113 gave the bike at least 3 out of 5 stars, and 34 of those went for the 5.  It seems to me that many of the reviewers were not "hardcore" cyclists but were just looking for cheap transport and were willing to accept parts that fall off sometimes.

The word "fun" does not appear in customer reviews of the Mongoose once but the people who bought Trek Limes seem to really like them.  I guess there were just not enough of those customers.

Saturday 27 March 2010

Why Time Trialling is Useful

Here is a clip from today's E3-Prijs race in Belgium. Watch what happens at the 56 second mark, as the leading group of Tom Boonen, Juan Antonio Flecha and Fabian Cancellara splits up. Great stuff, and remember that you just can't ride away from these kind of pro cyclists. Unless you are very, very strong. Very.

Saturday 20 March 2010

Cycling Greats: Humour by Keith Anderson

Here is a very witty piece by an American custom framebuilder. This is for those of a certain age, or who grew up with a lot of television re-runs. The frame is quite beautiful as well!

For those unfamiliar with the character, it is all 'splained here.

Friday 19 March 2010

Helping To Make Streets Even Less Safe: More Stupidity on the Airwaves

When I lived in Washington, DC, there was an incident when two DJs on the Clear Channel network suggested that running over cyclists was the best way to deal with them in traffic. There was a nationwide uproar about this and now it has happened again. A well-known sportscaster, Tony Kornheiser, talked about plans to put a major bike lane down Pennsylvania Avenue and, well, you guessed it, he says that cyclists should be run down since "roads are meant for cars." After the notorious case in California where a motorist slammed on his brakes, causing two cyclists to crash in order to "teach them a lesson," I am surprised that this kind of sentiment continues.  (The excerpt below is audio only.)

There has been an immediate and strong response from the cycling community, and Lance Armstrong called the sportscaster "an effing idiot' on Twitter.  Kornheiser has apparently apologized and Armstrong will actually be on his radio program this morning, I suppose making the argument that cyclists belong.

I find the War Between Drivers and Cyclists pretty pointless, since the same tired ideas are endlessly repeated, time and again.  Kornheiser wants to run over cyclists because:
  • When they ride three or four abreast in Rock Creek Park (Park!) it inconveniences him;
  • He doesn't drive his car on the sidewalk so cyclists shouldn't ride on the road;
  • Roads are for cars;
  • Cyclists are posers, with water bottles and helmets and shiny shorts;
  • Cyclists dominate the road. 
At least he didn't raise the "I see cyclists ride through red lights all the time!" and "I pay taxes" arguments.  Bicycle advocacy needs a stronger voice and it is encouraging that Lance Armstrong is stepping up on this one, although I am sure it will increase the number of listeners to Kornheiser's program.

You will find a very calm and intelligent rebuttal of Kornheiser's remarks in a video by Bob Roll here.

Thursday 18 March 2010

Sunday 14 March 2010

A Book Review: Sting in the Tail

By Racing Bicycle Around the World (and in a bad mood...)

My recent interest in classic lightweight bicycles, particularly those built under Gerald O’Donovan at Raleigh’s Special Bicycle Development Unit (SBDU), has extended to accounts of cyclists involving these bicycles.  I have already related here the story of the Crane cousins, who took their SBDU bicycles from Bangladesh to innermost China in their search for the Centre of the Earth in 1986, a few years after my own SBDU bicycle was constructed.

I recently saw a reference to a book about another Raleigh-equipped cyclist, Peter Duker, who wrote about his adventures riding his racing bike, basically at full tilt, around the world in 1971-1972, in “Sting in the Tail: By Racing Bicycle Around the World” and got a copy for myself.  The title refers, of course, to the fact that no matter how carefully you plan your route, when you are tired and near the end of your ride, you feel the sting, which could be a brutal headwind or a harder-than-expected climb.

Mr. Duker must have been a bit of a lad.  The grandson of a very successful brewer, who had moved from Scotland south to Newcastle, he appeared to be set up for a future in the family business, but after going through a succession of schools and working in the brewing industry, he threw it aside at the age of 22 to become a traditional jazz musician.  His band still exists.  After doing this from 1955 to 1966, he went through a whole series of jobs, including journalism, and changed his surname from Deuchar to the more easily-pronounced and less-Scottish Duker.  In 1954 he competed in the 1954 Circuit of Britain (as an amateur racer he seems to have been a very good banjo player), and subsequently rediscovered competitive cycling in the 1960s.

Somewhere along this many-splendoured way, he hit upon the idea of taking a racing bike around the world, intending to set records for speed and distance along the way.  He lined up a number of sponsors, including Raleigh, and Gerald O’Donovan’s shop at Carlton, then serving as the racing bike subsidiary for mass-market Raleigh, would provide him with the bike for the job.  Unfortunately, his timetable was set back in 1970 during a training ride near the Goodwood race track, when he was struck by a hit-and-run motorist, and wound up unconscious for 10 days.  He suffered massive injuries but nonetheless recovered well enough to get back on the road and set out from London early in 1971.

In his humourous book, which is based on notes he scribbled during the trip, he tells of rapidly riding through the Netherlands (and stopping to help promote another sponsor Amstel Brewing), before heading into Germany, Austria, Yugoslavia and Turkey.  This all takes a mere fourteen pages and the real story begins when he reaches Iran, and then into a whole series of Third World adventures as he passes through Afghanistan (“the Unspeakable Land”), Pakistan and India, the latter two countries being at the brink of war.

Mr. Duker is clearly a good long-distance cyclist, as he clocks off the mileage at an impressive rate on his trip.  It is not easy as he suffers from various aches and pains, including boils, sore feet and sore hip, and a broken wrist bone.  He traverses bad road surfaces and has to deal with insufficient directions in those pre-GPS days, as well as having to fight traffic into and out of cities.  His progress is remarkable, nonetheless.  However, he is not a very good tourist, and has a great deal to say about the local customs, cleanliness, miserable accommodations and wretched food.  He doesn’t like Western hippies.  He has stones thrown at him in Turkey and at one point is actually attacked by a group of men who jump out of a car and pull branches off a tree to hit him with.  Luckily, riding a Raleigh, he can outsprint them...

His goal is to ride as fast as he can and anything that stands between him and this object, or, surprisingly, between him and his nightly alcohol, is an obstacle to be overcome.  He does not do this in a subtle way.  For example, when trying to cross the Pakistani border, he came across Customs men beating up a local for some unknown reason.  He writes on page 66:
I stood up and in a British Empirical attitude roared out that I didn’t care if they killed the poor twit but would they kindly stamp my card.  Naturally, since the Empire was systematically sold down the Labour river years ago, this didn’t have a great deal of effect, but it was the signal to give this poor wreck of a man another banging.
He is not adverse to punching out the odd border official, or giving a well-placed kick to a too-inquisitive local, but the story is not all grim as he does meet with kindness along the way and lots of enthusiasm from representatives of his sponsors, such as Lipton Tea, Raleigh or the International Wool Bureau.  And his literary style, although not terribly introspective, is novel: “I was told that the road from here to Poona was flat, but it went up and down like a bridegroom’s backside.”

He reached Madras after covering 7,600 miles from London in a record 77 days, and then went on to Sri Lanka (called Ceylon until 1972), where he was busy meeting the press, doing a bit of riding and then visiting Lipton’s tea gardens and factory.  He then rode in Malaysia before flying to Australia for the next leg of his trip.  A quick visit to New Zealand and then he flew to Los Angeles for the last major leg of the trip.

Peter Duker’s arrival in the United States coincided with the ten-speed bike boom, and he learned that “Raleigh Industries of America couldn’t see the point of using me for added publicity, as they had sold their year’s quota of bicycles by the end of January!”, and he was disappointed that there was not going to be much more support.  With £200 left from his original Raleigh budget, he got another £100 from his bank at home and borrowed $200 from a friend to bankroll his attempt to set a record riding across the United States.  He had damaged his bicycle in Sydney (“where they drive to kill”) by riding into the back of a car while training but in California he transferred his Campagnolo Nuovo Record parts onto a new Raleigh Professional frame and set off.

When setting a record, it is helpful to know what the previous one was, but after some effort it was determined that there was an amateur record set in 20 days 8 hours in 1949 but no pro record at all.  Laughing at American bike culture and accompanied by a support team of one man in a car to take photos, he left from Santa Monica to ensure a coast-to-coast record.  He accomplished this, although he had to spend 2 ½ hours riding around Central Park in New York to bring up the mileage, by riding 3,200 miles in 18 days, 2 hours and 30 minutes, thus eclipsing the previous record by more than 2 days and setting a recognized professional record for the first time. In 1990, Michael Secrest crossed the United States in 7 days 23 hours to hold the current record.

Throughout the book, Peter Duker has issues related to publicity surrounding his trip and it seems that the PR end of things went poorly.  When he reached Britain, he had a press conference in Glasgow and commented on the half-hearted reception he received:
It disgusts me still to see that to ride a bicycle is not “accepted” as “nice” by our “peers.”  To have smashed American and world records on the bike cut very little ice with our soccer-slated tabloids, and anyway I didn’t ride a horse or sail a yacht or even own a Corgi, so once again the toughest and most exacting sport in the world was relegated to minuscule mentions...
He did receive television coverage as he rode southwards, and attended fine receptions in Nottingham and Coventry before returning to his starting point in London, 199 days after he began.

This book has been out of print for nearly four decades, and too often it reads as if hastily put together from notes and a wracked memory (except for the section on New Zealand, where he actually lost his notes).  Although there is  an Appendix on the technical specifications of the two bikes he used, along with his hilariously short packing list, there is no timetable in the book, too few photographs and, worst of all, no map.  But, looking at the pictures of “Big Pete,” standing over 6 feet tall and proudly wearing his wool jersey with a Union Jack on each shoulder, astride his Raleigh, there is no doubt in my mind it was a great adventure and often a very funny one.

After “Sting in the Tail,” Peter Duker went on to write the first English-language biography of Fausto Coppi and books about the 1978 Giro d’Italia and Tour de France.  In 1982, he co-founded a new age-categorized racing cycling organization, the League International (TLI), which seems somewhat inspired by the rebel British League of Racing Cyclists, not surprising considering Mr. Duker’s views on cycling bureaucracy.  On the webpage of TLI, it notes that around 1986, “Mr. Duker met his sad death.” Other sources suggest that he may have been a suicide: he was struck by a train and his bicycle found nearby .  He would have been 54.

In his introduction to the book, David Saunders, Cycling Correspondent of the Daily Telegraph, wrote:
For an extrovert, Mr. Duker had only moderate success in publicity terms at home.  This was a great pity for, in his own way, and through his own efforts, he can stand alongside a number of other intrepid voyagers.  In modern times his achievements are surely equal to those of...the late Sir Francis Chichester.
Sting in the Tail: By Racing Bicycle Around the World
by Peter Duker
Hardcover, 174 pp.
Pelham Books, London, 1973
Available used from $25 (check, or
ISBN: 072070658

Thursday 11 March 2010

Specialized Transition: Too Fast for the UCI

As an enthusiastic owner of a Specialized S-Works Tarmac, I have long been impressed by the technology and design of this company’s bicycles. Of course, they have gone to a huge effort to market them, including placing them under some of today’s finest professionals. It is on my wish-list for when I move up from my cheap-but-cheerful Leader 735TT eventually.

Three years ago, the company introduced its time trial/triathlon bike, the Transition, and it has appeared with great success in the pro peleton and under triathletes. Of course, for people with access to even more funding or support, it has been supplanted by the Shiv, ridden by Alberto Contador at the Tour de France last year and by Fabian Cancellara in his dazzling ride for gold at the World Championships in Switzerland. However, the first clouds on the horizon appeared when UCI officials made threatening noises about time trial bikes at last year’s Tour of California, and the storm broke with the banning of the Shiv at UCI-sanctioned events in February.

I was nonplussed to see this morning, in our daily local triathlete e-newsletter, no fewer than three not-inexpensive Transitions offered for sale by some of the fastest time trial riders in Ottawa. It turns out that the Transition has been banned as well and although triathletes can ride them, the Ontario Cycling Association will enforce UCI regulations in provincial events. This means that these athletes, who have invested a great deal in buying and setting up their bikes, are pretty much out of luck. The only way to make them legal for time trials would be to saw off the fins that fair-in the area between the head tube and the down tube. The governing body in the United States, the USCF, will allow Transitions to be used by Masters group cyclists, probably because a lot of people own them.

I believe that bike racing should be about the athlete and not the equipment but decisions like this impede the progress of technology, not to mention that for three years the bikes have been fine. The reshaping of tubes to take advantage of aeerodynamics is a minor change but an apparently effective one. The UCI is concerned that bike technology will advance beyond the reach of all but the elite. It is certainly much cheaper to engineer some fins into a tube than to use a disc wheel, for example, but the UCI allows other elements (the disc, aerobars, shoe covers, really goofy helmets) that clearly only have an aero function.

Although I suspect I still will not catch the fast guys in Ottawa unless they ride mountain bikes in the time trials, I feel sympathy for them. I notice that on Specialized’s website, there is no mention of the UCI/Transition problem anywhere, so buyer beware.

Tuesday 9 March 2010

GURU: The Unbeatable Lightness of Carbon

 Michel holding a prototype GURU Photon frame

Yesterday we had near-Spring, with sunny skies and temperatures all the way up to an amazing 9C. I took out the Ancient but Honourable Bianchi Limited and put in 55 kms in morning for my first real ride of the year. With the time change next week I hope to put in morning training sessions soon. There is still a lot of snow around but the roads are good.

After lunch, I went to a little event arranged by Richard Colburn, of Ace Custom Cycles, who fitted me on my time trial bike in January.  I mentioned then that Ace handles some very high-end bicycles as part of the custom process of matching a bike to a rider.  One of the brands that Richard works with is GURU Bikes of Montreal.  Michel Somogyi, a sales representative, was present to talk about the frames.

 Michel and the obviously All-Canadian Chrono frame

The company began in 1993 when Tony Giannascoli decided to build himself a bike and the last decade has been highly successful.  The company, housed in a impressive shiny factory, is impressive for several reasons.  First of all, it builds all of its bikes on a custom basis.  Secondly, it works in a variety of materials, offering frames in aluminum, steel, titanium and carbon fibre, and bikes offered are time trial/triathlon, road and cyclocross.  The artisan approach is balanced by what appears to me to be really cutting-edge technology, using computer-aided design, evidenced in the carbon fibre products in particular.  Amazingly, nothing is outsourced but all done in-house.

When I stopped in, there was a customer's built-up ti time trial bike on display with really gorgeous welds, along with a Chrono time trial frame finished in patriotic Canadian red-and white.  However, what I found particularly interesting was a prototype frame which has now gone into series production (if you can call it that) at GURU. This is the startlingly-light Photon, which weighs in at a claimed 743g, including integrated seat mast, and seems to be very stiff.  The frame uses tube-on-tube construction (rather than tube/lug or monocoque techniques employed by other manufacturers).  This allows construction of a very light frame and you could actually replace a tube in the event of a crash (although considering what these things must cost I would probably not want to survive a crash myself).

The Photon frame, showing where bottle holder bosses are molded in since drilling a frame like this is probably a Bad Thing

The engineering on the frame has resulted in a very stiff unit and apparently Bicycling is testing one that weighs in built-up at 12 pounds and the riders are very confident in its descending. GURU has one at the factory set up as a daily rider that comes in at 10 pounds...

It is hard to conceive of the lightness of these frames.  I recall when Scott came out with its Addict, and everyone was amazed that a frame could weigh only 1 kilogram, and here is a frame 25 percent lighter than that.  In fact, the frame weighs less than my own daily variation in weight.  Picking it up, it shows no sign of fragility but actually looks nicely proportioned (albeit in black black black).

Richard holding a GURU carbon fibre bottom bracket

Of course, this engineering and handiwork is not inexpensive.  The frame runs $5200, so you will not have much change left from 10 big ones once you festoon appropriate parts on it, but it is not out of line with comparable frames, such as the Storck Fascenario 0.7 from Germany.  The lightest version of the Storck, the 0.7IS, actually lists for $8500, and is only available in very limited numbers and with stock geometry rather than custom.  Michel said that there was great interest in the Photon in the market.  That said, looking at the other frames GURU offers, there are some very competitive products, such as a very nice aluminum cyclo-cross frame, custom-built, for $1275.

There is a piece on the bike in Bicycling in the new Buyer's Guide and Michel said that people are showing up at their dealers with the page pulled out of the magazine and demanding a frame. I would not be, ahem, adverse to testing a Photon myself, even if the two hour trip to Montreal would mean that considerable self-sacrifice would be necessary. As a Canadian in the business of promoting exports, I think the frame is an impressive achievement and it is nice to see something like this from a country less noted for bicycle production than traditional ones.

Wednesday 3 March 2010

Macarons! The latest food trend?

While cycling in Alsace in 2007, we discovered the joys of the macaron, the sweet confectionary that seems to be everywhere in France.  Apparently it is coming across the Atlantic to North America now and is being touted as the Next Cupcake, according to this article in Salon.  We shall see.  I do not think macarons lend themselves to industrial manufacturing and I also recall that bagels were going to be the Next Hamburger and that didn't really happen.  In any event, Dr. Chef and I have happy memories of macaroning...