Sunday, October 15, 2017

A Cheap Bastard’s Guide to Inflating Tubeless Tires

NOTE: This post is rated PG-13 for mild strong language, coarse humor, and mature themes.


This post is about how—and why—to build a soda-bottle human-powered air compressor for inflating tubeless bicycle tires. For a few dollars you can create a non-electric equivalent of that giant, loud, coin-operated air compressor that you might use at a gas station.

I freely acknowledge that I did not invent the soda-bottle air compressor, nor am I the first to showcase it on the Internet. But I’ll give you a more thorough account than you’ll get elsewhere, which might a) prepare you for the kinds of difficulties you might encounter (since I encountered them all), and b) give you the opportunity to laugh at me. You’ll also get some safety tips.

Why build your own compressor?

My friend Peter (“Uncle Peter” to my kids) is like a superior version of me, except that he can’t be bothered to blog. He introduced me to the human powered air compressor concept, via an e-mail to John, Dan, and me, which included this photo:

Uncle Peter wrote, “I went riding with some jackass this summer and we were on a dirt road and he flatted twice thanks to pinch flats ... the humanity!” He was of course referring to me, and this ill-fated ride.

John and I were cycling teammates in 1981 and have been friends ever since. (He lives way far away and my kids couldn’t pick him out of a lineup, so he’s not yet an honorary uncle.) He replied to Uncle Peter’s e-mail: “So many questions… First, this looks like a home brewer’s still, not an air compressor. What are the details on this contraption? You can buy an actual air compressor for about $100 —why go this cheap route?”

It’s very tempting to take John to task for being a yuppie, not being resourceful, etc. but I would just sound bitter. Probably he was baiting me, and if so it worked—I’m a cheap bastard, allergic to throwing money at a problem. It’s not that $100 seems like a lot to me (though it does); any time I buy anything I feel a sense of defeat.

Meanwhile, there are non-fiscal reasons to make your own compressor. For one, electric compressors are loud and take up a lot of room in your garage, whereas you can throw the soda-bottle generator in the trunk of your car. (Perhaps John is reading this and thinking, “You can buy an actual portable gas-powered generator for about $400 to power your compressor with—why go this cheap route?”) Dan replied, “I love the idea of pulling up to the pre-race parking lot extravaganza, where everyone is pretending to not be checking each other out, but that is exactly what is happening, and then pulling out this plastic bottle thing. You would automatically get a call-up at a Cross Crusade race I think.”

Now, regarding a portable non-electric solution, some reader is going to bring up CO2 cartridges so I’ll head him off at the pass. Yes, there are little disposable CO2 cartridges that many people use to seat tubeless tires. But I hate this solution. First of all, it can take several tries to seat a tire (especially a new one) which means potentially going through a lot of cartridges. Plus, we embrace how hard cycling is … why be wusses about it and clutter up landfills with these cartridges? And, they cost money.

Naturally that won’t be good enough for some of you, so I’ve done a little homework about another downside of CO2: it leaks out of your tires faster than air. Someone told me this has to do with the size of the molecules, but I wasn’t sure I believed it. In fact, as described here, the size of molecule isn’t important, but “the leakage rate of CO2 is huge, and the reason is that it is actually soluble in butyl rubber and is thus not constrained to normal permeation loss; it can transfer straight through the bulk rubber resulting in severe tire pressure loss.” This explanation, and the empirical tests confirming the theory, are corroborated here. But I wasn’t sure if this phenomenon applied equally to tires vs. tubes (i.e., to a tubeless setup) until I read this article. It not only gives the same explanation—“CO2 is actually soluble in butyl rubber—it essentially melts right through the material without having to wait for permeation”—but the writer tested CO2 vs. air on tubeless car tires. Despite the thick rubber, the difference in leakage rates was demonstrable.

Which leaves the final alternative to this soda-bottle compressor: one of these fancy new tubeless-specific floor pumps with an extra chamber that compresses the air in advance. (That is, it does the same thing as this soda-bottle compressor but without being kludgy.) What’s wrong with this approach? Well, this pump and this one are butt-ugly. They’re also really expensive—even more so than a compressor. And this (also expensive) Lezyne pump looks really nice, but I already have five Lezyne frame pumps and two Lezyne floor pumps and don’t want another. My most recent Lezyne purchase was a high-volume pump that supposedly can seat a tubeless tire. It cannot. And, after the first time I used it on a Schrader valve, its over-designed chuck—which is supposed to work on either Presta or Schrader—doesn’t work at all, on anything. Don’t get me wrong, Lezyne pumps are really nice, when they don’t suck like this. I’m almost as bitter about this pump as my wife is. (She doesn’t know a pump chuck from a hole in the ground, but she can count, and I have more than ten bike pumps in all—she wouldn’t stand for another.)

A final note on these pumps. The marketing people must think they’re pretty clever with the naming:  “Flash Charger,” “Pressure Over Drive,” “JoeBlow Booster.” You know what, guys? If you wanna get really edgy, I dare you to name your next pump “Blow Job.” I double-dog dare ya.

How does this homemade thing work?

I’ll answer both interpretations of this question: 1) what is the method for building and using this contraption, and 2) how well does it work?

Even after the basic justification for this compressor was supplied, John replied, “But I still don’t understand—is there water in the bottle? Or do you just fill the bottle with air (using a standard pump) and then connect that piece of fish tank pump tubing to the valve on your wheel? For some reason I’m thinking there would be some water in the bottle, but I’m not sure why (the incompressibility of water would help for some reason…? Boy my physics knowledge and intuition has totally atrophied…).” Before you malign my friend, consider that he has a Ph.D. in geophysics from UC Berkeley. But that didn’t stop me from ribbing him: “No, there is no water! Stop trying to turn everything into a bong!” (This is an inside joke: John, Dan, Uncle Peter, and I are among the seemingly rapidly collapsing minority who don’t smoke weed.)

Dan chimed in, “I was looking at that contraption and thinking that you were making moonshine on the weekends! Cheers to that. But you burst my bubble of mirth and raised my curiosity. How did you seal the valve to the plastic bottle? Caulking?”

The answer is, you drill two 5-millimeter holes in the bottle’s screw-top cap, far enough apart that they don’t touch but close enough together that they don’t touch the edge of the cap. You take a couple of old Presta tubes, cut off all the rubber around the valve, shove them through the holes, and then screw down some valve rings really tight with a pair of needle-nose pliers. (For an invaluable discussion of valve rings, and bicycle inner tubes in general, click here.) Thankfully, no caulking is required.

The next step is to remove the valve core from one of the valves. Do this with the little plastic wrench that came with your tubeless tire valves, or with some needle-nose pliers. Now, a quick aside: you don’t need the full tubeless kit that comes with the fancy rim tape. Just buy the tubeless valves, a bottle of Stan’s NoTube tire sealant (or “jizz” in the vernacular), and some Gorilla tape. (Is there a better product than Stan’s? I don’t know and I don’t care.)

You’ll also need a spray bottle full of a water/dish soap solution. And you’ll need some extra Gorilla tape (or duct tape), a 2-liter soda bottle, a pair of vice grips (or some other crimping device), and of course a floor pump. Finally, you’ll need a foot or two of surgical tubing. (What diameter? I asked Uncle Peter what he used and he said, “I think it was 4mm. About the size of your dick.” Nota bene: 4mm is the inside diameter. Of the tubing.)

Okay, because you’ve been so patient with all this text, here’s a pretty picture.

As I’ll get to later, you should eschew the 1-liter bottle shown above and go with a 2-liter Schweppes bottle.

Next, you shove one end of the tubing down over the valve that has the core removed.

The tubing should be a jolly tight fit over the valve. You could use electrical tape to secure it, but don’t bother. First of all, it’s extra work. Second, I have discovered that under sufficient pressure, the tubing will pop off, but this isn’t a bad thing. Think of it like a fuse: if the tubing pops off, the bottle won’t explode. And you really don’t want the bottle to explode. That would be very loud, and possibly dangerous. That’s why you wrap the bottle in duct tape or (ideally) Gorilla tape.

How likely is an explosion, assuming the tubing doesn’t pop off the valve? The good news is, these bottles can take a lot of pressure. I saved you the effort of researching this by finding this video showing how much pressure various bottles can take before exploding. Most 2-liter bottles can handle 150 PSI. The Schweppes bottle doesn’t explode at all; rather, it splits a seam and the air hisses out harmlessly at 140 PSI. That’s the bottle you want!

Fortunately, with a 2-liter bottle you’ll only need about 60 PSI to inflate a brand-new tubeless mountain bike tire, so the explosion risk is quite low. That said, you should absolutely wear safety goggles just in case.

To get a new tire ready to be seated, you should mount it to the rim with an inner tube inside, pump that bad boy up good and hard (the maximum the tire is rated for), and leave it overnight. Then, remove the tire and tube, remove the old rim strip, and tape up the rim with your expensive fancy-pants purpose-built rim tape or the Gorilla tape. If using Gorilla tape, you’ll have to cut so it’s the perfect width for your rim. Use a safety razor blade or a utility knife. If you don’t cut the tape just right, or if you use the wrong width purpose-built tape, then you are not a good person and should take up some other sport, like golf. (That is, you won’t have a perfect seal.)

Then, install your tubeless-style valve but don’t tighten the ring down very tight just yet. Mount the tire to the rim (without the tube, duh), leaving one section open. Pour in the jizz (whatever amount the bottle says—I think it’s 2 ounces?), then seat the rest of the tire. Hang the wheel from something, like your bike stand. Now spray soapy water all around the bead on both sides. This will help the tire bead seat. That’s the name of the game here: that bead has to make an airtight seal all the way around. What makes new tires such a bitch to mount is that they are shipped all folded up, and those creases create giant gaps where air leaks through like a sieve.

(Now, if this all sounds like a total pain in the ass, consider that most of the hassle here isn’t specific to using a homemade human-powered compressor. Tubeless is inherently kind of a hassle, but then so is puncturing during a ride. Obviously it’s worth the trouble or we wouldn’t be here.)

Okay, so this is where it all comes together. You shove the other end of the surgical tubing over the valve stuck in your rim. You pinch the tubing closed with your vice grips, some inches from the valve. And you attach your pump chuck to the valve on your compressor that has the valve core intact.

And—don’t skip this step!—you put on your safety goggles. Here’s the whole setup in one photo:

Then you whale on that floor pump like there’s no tomorrow. Pump the soda bottle up to about 60 PSI, maybe 70 if it’s a really fat tire. Then release the vice grips and—whoosh!—all that air flows in with a quickness, and if you’re lucky, the tire will seat, making this glorious popping sound, and you’re good to go.

Now … did this work for me? No. My first three tries were dismal failures. Look at that photo above: what mistakes can you see, right off the bat? Well, first of all, I used the one-liter bottle that Uncle Peter sent me. (He built my compressor. There. I said it. I was tempted to leave that kind of vague, so you might think I made my own, and frankly I’d planned on making one, but before I got around to it, Uncle Peter mailed me one he made. This astonished me. He hates going to the post office. When I left my helmet in his car once, it took him like 8 months to get it to me.)

For a road tire, whose pressure is higher but whose volume is way lower, a one-liter bottle is probably fine. It also worked great when I removed and re-seated a used mountain bike tire. But it’s not enough air volume to mount a new mountain bike tire. Don’t even waste your time. Just buy a two-liter bottle to begin with.

What else did I do wrong? The wheel wasn’t hanging from anything. The deformation of the tire, where it touched the ground, surely hurt my cause. Man, what a waste of time and spirit. I had my daughter making a video of all three efforts, which wasted her time too, and surely eroded her respect for me (a precious, rare resource). A neighbor friend even happened by to witness my disgrace. Damn. I called Uncle Peter and he pointed out all the mistakes I’d made. “Man, you’re the worst student I’ve ever had!” he jeered.

So, I headed to the grocery, bought a 2-liter bottle (alas, I hadn’t seen the video and didn’t know Schweppes was the ticket), drank a glass of (grossly cloying) ginger ale and dumped out the rest, taped up the bottle, hung the wheel from my Park stand, summoned my camera operator, and tried again.

This time it didn’t work at all. Something was horribly wrong. Finally it hit me: I’d forgotten the vice grips. I wasn’t compressing anything. Easily solved. I clamped those bad boys down and tried again.

This time the tire came a lot closer to seating—it actually got some shape to it—but alas, the flow of air wasn’t quite fast enough and found a way to leak out. For a terrifying moment I battled despair and was on the verge of rending my garments, gnashing my terrible teeth, and roaring my terrible roar—but my daughter was there filming. So I confined the profanities to my interior monologue and made one final tweak to my setup: I removed the valve core from the valve installed in the rim. This would, I hoped, speed the flow of air into the tire.

Did it work then? Well, check out this video!

Yeah, baby! It’s not the greatest camera angle, and you can’t hear the bead popping in, but that’s for safety’s sake. I had my daughter stand way back and use the camera zoom, because I only have one pair of safety goggles. Suffice to say, this time the compressor worked like a champ! Alas, when I pulled the tubing off, the air rushed out fast enough that the tire unseated. So I had to inflate it one more time, and this time I was ready with my thumb when I pulled the tubing off. I managed to get the valve core back in without the tire unseating, and my long ordeal was finally over.

Now, I’ll give you one final word of advice. Once you’ve got the tire seated, you shouldn’t just leave it. You should put the regular pump on there and inflate the tire to its maximum rated pressure. Then tighten down that valve ring (you left it loose before in case the base of the valve fought with a tire bead). Then you need to give the wheel a good spin, and shake it back and forth (like you are trying to bop yourself alternately on the forehead and then the belly with the tire), moving your hands from place to place. Here is a good video of that process. Then bounce the wheel on the ground a whole bunch of times. Then set it horizontally across a trash can for a few minutes before flipping it over. This sloshes the Stan’s jizz around in there so it coats the whole inside of the tire.

But even if you do all that, you still might not be done. The first time I installed tubeless, I did all that, and even bounced my wheels on the ground for several blocks while walking home from the auto repair shop. Everything seemed fine, even the next morning, but by afternoon when I wanted to ride, one tire had lost its pressure and puked jizz all over the floor of my garage. So I highly recommend you go for a short ride once your tire installation is complete, to spread the Stan’s around even more. If possible, take your camera operator with you on the ride, if he or she is your offspring, so you can justify the project to your spouse as “quality time.” If your offspring is shy about being photographed during this victory lap, snap an artsy photo like this one.


Is there an even better compressor out there? Well, consider this user comment to one of my blog posts:
Great device. I think he don’t feel tension who has a Kensun AC / DC Heavy Duty Air Compressor Tire Inflator Review. Because it is portable and anywhere we can carry this for pumping tire and best air compressor I have ever seen in market 

Note: I can’t vouch for Charles’s knowledge of compressors, or for Charles being an actual human.

For a complete index of albertnet posts, click here.

Saturday, October 7, 2017

Biased Blow-By-Blow - Il Lombardia 2017


Il Lombardia is the last big classic on the World Tour calendar. I’ve never bothered to watch it before, despite its being one of the “Monuments”—a word the press came up with when they decided “classic” just wasn’t impressive enough. Remember when “the media” was called “the press”? Those were the days.

Il Lombardia used to be called Giro de Lombardia, which made sense. But then the organizers changed it to Il Lombardia, so they could laugh at the stupid American journalists who call it “The Il Lombardia,” which is as bad as “the L’Alpe D’Huez.” Which is as bad as “TCBY Yogurt” and “ATM machine.”

Anyway, this race is a big deal. And I’m going to report it as I see fit, which means pulling no punches when an obviously lubed rider (e.g., a Team Sky rider) does something “not natural.” That’s where the “biased” bit comes in. Because I’m biased against dopers. I can’t help it. It’s just how I was raised.

Il Lomardia – Bergamo to Como, Italy – October 6, 2017

As I join the action, Manchester United is doing a great job of moving the ball up and down the gridiron.

Wait, something’s wrong. That doesn’t look at all like cycling. And yet it’s somehow familiar. Oh, yeah! It’s that other sport, football! Something is wrong with my live Internet feed … as usual. But good news: I just found another one, which is blurry and grainy and in French, but it’ll do for now. I gather that as I join the action, there’s a breakaway of nobodies with a decent gap over the peloton. The climbing is just beginning in earnest.

It’s just so blurry, I can’t even tell how far from the finish they are. I think it’s 50 kilometers.

OMG! Laurens de Plus  (Quick-Step Floors), one of the breakaway riders, has gone over a guardrail! You see that shiny thing at the top of this photo? That’s his fricking bike!

They’re showing an instant replay and my screen just froze, so I’m poised on the Print Screen button so if it un-freezes I can get a better shot. Here you go:

Is it okay to be wowed by this kind of terrible accident? Should I be looking away? Perhaps, but in fairness, I was also captivated when watching an ER doctor put a foot-long drill bit right through my fricking tibia a few years back. My wife was there and she also found it fascinating. Obviously I’d feel terrible if the guy died or something, especially if by “the guy” I mean myself. Though usually nobody dies from having a hole drilled in his leg, nor from going over a guardrail on a bike.

Okay, I have a clearer feed now but it’s still in French. Not that French is bad or anything. It’s not you, French language—it’s me. I studied and studied that language and I still can’t understand shit.

So it looks like 38 km to go, and the lead rider is Mickael Cherel (AG2R La Mondiale). He’s got like a minute—but over whom, I can’t tell.

An ambulance is tending to de Plus. And now Cherel begins the next climb.

Back in the chase, we’ve got a very dangerous duo: Philippe Gilbert (Quick-Step Floors) and Alessandro De Marchi (BMC Racing Team).

De Marchi is a pretty cool name—I mean, the guy just sounds fast—and of course Gilbert was a major favorite for this race going in. Look at these guys! They’re haulin’ ass!

Okay, I don’t know what the hell this ad is for. Actually, I don’t think it’s even an ad, but a hostile takeover of my video feed by … what? What in the hell am I looking it? Appears to be some kind of pressure cooker. Maybe it’s a special device for sterilizing old, clenbuterol-laden Spanish beef that spent too long in a cooler on its way across Europe?

And now, a tour of a sausage factory, as though anybody ever wanted to see that. It’s easy to see where Roger Waters came up with the conveyor-belt student march scene in “Pink Floyd The Wall”:

What the hell is this? Is Tiz-Cycling doing an infomercial? Or were they hijacked by some macabre factory food channel? This whole Internet coverage thing is such bullshit. You know who ruined it? Those Fubo bastards. Once they came out with their paid service, stopped providing links to free coverage. Fubo must have paid them off. You know what? I refuse to pay for Fubo. They’re banned for life. I’d rather start covering some stupid American “sport,” like video gaming or online poker.

So here’s what’s happening in the race. I lost over 10 kilometers during my side trip to the underworld of meat, and now that I’m back (well, okay, temporarily back—I got about five seconds of coverage before my screen froze again) I’ve learned that Cherel has been caught by Gilbert, De Marchi, and Pello Bilbao (Astana Pro Team), who kind of came out of nowhere. This break could really get somewhere.

Some good news I gleaned from one of these little sidebar chats (that for now are substituting for any actual footage): de Plus, the rider who went over the guardrail, is not badly injured and is alert and chatting with his Quick-Step staff. Whew!

Okay, ten minutes of Internet struggle later, the race is down to 17 kilometers, and Thibaut Pinot (FDJ) is somehow now in the lead. And now Vincenzo Nibali (Bahrain-Merida), a former winner of this race, is catching him!

See that stupid yellow bar blocking the screen? I can’t get rid of it! I click the X and all it does is take me to a new page that attempts to install a virus on my PC. Curses!

Rigoberto Uran Uran (Cannondale-Drapac) is leading the chase. He’s been on the podium three times in this race and has had good form lately. Not sure what the gap is. Nibali and Pinot are bombing the descent. Nibali is a great descender; Pinot normally sucks. But Pinot seems to be doing a pretty decent job today. Wait, no, I take it back. In the span of a huge screen-blocking ad that took 25 seconds to go away, Nibali dropped Pinot.

Okay, I have a new, super-grainy feed now but at least it’s in English and there’s no ad at the moment. There are just under 10 km to go and Pinot is totally isolated. Uran looks like he’s dropped the chase group!

Nibali has 9 seconds on Pinot and 45 on the next chase, which is Uran and now some Sky guy. It’s now 7.5 km to go and there’s at least one more climb. Pinot doesn’t look so good … there’s just something lackluster about his chase. Or am I projecting?

Nibali looks rock solid. I wonder if this race feels scripted to him … this is just like his victory on the same course in 2015.

The Sky guy has dropped Uran Uran. And the commentators have dropped one of the Urans. Everybody used to call him Uran Uran, and now it’s just Uran. Maybe he lopped one Uran off himself, to save weight. Seems to be working out for him. Maybe next season his name will just be Ur.

Nibali is on the last climb. If he does a good job here he should be able to hold his lead on the final descent and the bit of flat run-in to the line.

Okay, Uran has definitely been dropped.

Looks like Nairo Quintana (Movistar Team) is leading the chase—but what’s this? Fabio Aru (Astana Pro Team) drills it and Quintana is going backwards!

Pinot is way behind now, like 38 seconds. He’ll get scooped up by the peloton for sure. And sure enough, here comes Julian Alaphilippe (Quick-Step Floors), blowing by him.

Nibali has only 3.7 km to go and he’s still looking good. But Alaphilippe is solo, and is bombing the descent!

I’m not sure if it’s Alaphillipe or Gilbert, actually. Those guys are dressing alike lately. Maybe both riders are solo. Maybe Alaphilippe is closest to Nibali and now Gilbert is coming up from behind. But I don’t think it matters because Nibali is under the 1 km banner!

I keep checking to see if they’ve fired up their live stream, but I guess somebody called in sick. For the first half hour I was checking, it was a countdown to their footage, but when it reached zero it just started counting up. So here’s what I get instead of live cycling action—a little ticker, just to rub it in how long they’ve been blowing it:

Nibali has got this race in the bag. Whoah, he’s flipping off the crowd! No he isn’t. He was just waving. This feed is so grainy. And now he’s doing something really weird, which makes this the strangest victory salute ever: he’s trying to suck his nipple! Oh, wait, he was just talking into his radio or something. Never mind. And here’s his victory salute.

Some guys are sprinting in for the minor places. They don’t actually care and neither do I. My inability to get good, clear, consistent footage was just way too distracting and I never really got into this race. Stupid fricking sport. You know what? I think I’m done with this blow-by-blow tradition, and with trying to watch bike races at all. If I followed something like American football, I wouldn’t be nine hours behind, and I could watch it live in a sports bar in the evening, on a big flat screen, in the company of fellow Americans who would yell at the screen and thump me on the back and gloat with me (provided we were rooting for the same team) and we’d be drinking good, watery American non-craft beer and it would just be so fun. Instead I’ve got like fifteen screens open and I’m just fighting to see something, like a little kid stuck behind a bunch of grownups at a parade.

Speaking of parades, here’s a true story. I was with my family at the Christmas tree lighting-up ceremony in Ashland, Oregon many years ago and Santa was standing on this balcony officiating, and he was completely drunk! Slurring his words, poor motor control—I actually thought (and half-hoped) he would fall off the balcony. So, needless to say it, was the best civic event ever in Ashland. Fast-forward a few years and I’m there at the ceremony again, this time with my brother and his family, and we’re all super-excited because hey, drunk Santa! But there’s no Santa this time, just a stupid parade, and it’s lamest parade in history. Each float looks like it was thrown together in about five minutes, and the music is coming from a single weak battery-powered boom box. Somebody is throwing candy, but such a paltry amount that it’s causing small children to fistfight in the gutters. As we leave, cold and dejected, and begin the long walk to the van, my four-year-old niece says, “Well, that parade pretty much sucked.” My brother glares at me, and I glare at my older daughter. There’s no question where my niece has picked up this new expression. My daughter looks back sheepishly and says, “Sorry Dad.”

So, yeah. That Lombardia pretty much sucked. Here’s the top ten. Like I care.

For a complete index of albertnet posts, click here.

Friday, September 29, 2017

From the Archives - Pushing the Envelope


Here’s a little something I wrote back in college. Looking back, I find it laughable that I’d thought the movie “Gleaming the Cube” would give society a lasting new cliché (i.e., its title). I never saw the movie, but people must have been talking about it and tossing around the phrase “gleaming the cube.” Boy does this movie look stupid. “Brian’s skateboard became his weapon,” the trailer declares, “in a deadly game of international smuggling, murder, and revenge.... When getting even means risking it all: gleaming the cube.”

Pushing the Envelope - January 26, 1989

Modern cinema has popularized several great terms: “pushing the envelope,” “walking a tightrope,” and most recently, “gleaming the cube.” The latter has a specific skateboarding reference, but they all relate to one basic theme: living on the edge. Going to the very limit of safety. In short, pushing your luck.

I enjoy living my life according to this bold notion. No, I don’t climb mountains, or swim across channels, or jump in almost-frozen lakes bare naked. And I certainly don’t often push the envelope in a bicycle race. While many a criterium was won by the rider with the biggest balls, I’m not about to risk a handlebar in the ribs. However, I do enjoy taking risks that involve less physically debilitating consequences.

Here’s an example. Recently, I felt really lousy while on a training ride. So lousy, in fact, that the boredom of meager speeds was threatening to drive me stark raving mad. This was along US 101, a highway not offering any particularly interesting terrain. I thought about cutting my ride short, but that just didn’t make any sense. I mean, being out of shape was the problem here, and nobody ever got into better shape by slacking off. So, I pedaled on, and out of desperate listlessness, I decided to collect every single unbroken Botts Dot I saw. I’d bring them home, I decided, and figure out something useful to do with them.

[Note: my brother Geoff also collected Botts Dots, or, more specifically, Raised Pavement Markers, which are those cool road bumps that have built-in reflectors. We didn’t have these growing up in Colorado, because the snowplows would rip them up, but while in California we collected enough to line our basement floor with them back home. We glued them down, one long strip down the middle, and boy did it look cool. I cannot now remember whether, on this Santa Barbara bike ride, I was gathering plain old Botts Dots or Raised Pavement Markers. –Ed.]

The project became more of a hassle than I had ever imagined, because I managed to find an amazing number of Botts Dots. What’s more, I was wearing an old-school wool jersey that didn’t ensconce the Dots very snugly. When the total number of Dots per pocket reached five or six, my jersey sagged badly enough that it threatened to drag on my rear wheel. Plus, I was trapped in the saddle because my jersey would snag on it if I tried to stand up.

Soon I found a cardboard box in a ditch, and carried the Botts Dots in that. It was slightly wet, very old, and the bottom threatened to give out at any time under the crushing weight. I knew that I would have to be crazy to trust the box, which is precisely why I chose to do so. Granted, the risk factor wasn’t as high as that of hang gliding, but if the box gave out I’d probably run over its contents and face-plant. In the end, I managed to avoid mishap.

Carrying groceries on bicycle handlebars is a favorite way, in my family, to gleam the cube. Geoff and I, when we lived in San Luis Obispo, used to compete: who could carry home the largest amount of groceries in one trip? (I believe I still hold the record: $80 worth.) Recently, while on a massive fridge-stocking mission in Goleta, about four miles from home across a freeway overpass, I discovered a shocking new challenge to bike-grocery-schlepping: the plastic bags, which have always been the sketchiest part of this activity, have become even thinner and flimsier.

I noticed this mere seconds after leaving the store. When I was only halfway across the parking lot, two bags burst simultaneously, sending tuna cans, apples, tomatoes, and onions rolling across the asphalt while I attempted in vain to stabilize the load. After bystanders (touchingly) ran to my aid from every corner of the lot, I took out the two spare bags I had brought along.

I assessed the situation: if those first bags didn’t even last fifty yards, how could I expect these backups to last for four miles? I decided if I had any brain at all, I’d go back into the store and get plenty of extra bags. But then that perverse envelope-pushing impulse crept into my mind, and I knew there was no way to stop it. A grin spread across my foolish face, and I mounted up and set off for Isla Vista with no extra bags.

Throughout the trip, I dodged every pebble in the road, every squashed bug, and every oil spot. When I reached the UCSB bike path, I knew I was in trouble. The path is wrinkled in some places, probably because of some really bad bike accidents. These wrinkles have the effect of a jackhammer on a fully loaded mountain bike with like 90 PSI in its tires. Almost instantly, two bags gave way simultaneously (they tend to go in twos, probably because of Murphy’s Law). The familiar produce dispersal ensued, and this time nobody rushed to my assistance. (I should mention that it was dark by now; naturally, I didn’t have a light.)

After collecting the goods, I put some of them into other already-full bags, and held one ripped bag together with my right hand. The left hand wasn’t free for steering either, because it was clutching the tiny top of a ten-pound bag of potatoes. So I could barely steer, and braking and shifting gears were out of the question. I guided my overburdened machine with my palms on the ends of the handlebars, each finger straining to the limit under with the tremendous weight it bore.

I kept reminding myself of what was at stake: I’d just paid dearly for that food; a lot of it was in jars; the produce would be crushed messily; and the dry spaghetti would be broken. Besides, one more bag failure would leave me with no means of carrying the surviving groceries. Somehow, I managed to keep it together until I was speeding through the bombed-out La Loma parking lot. Then, everything started failing at once. I flew towards my apartment, a ball of boy, bike, and groceries. It seemed my load was staying together only through sheer force of will. No sooner did I get the front door open, but everything rolled onto the floor of my apartment, miraculously unharmed. Not only had I pushed the envelope, but I had held it together after breaking it.

Yesterday, I engaged in this self‑inflicted phenomenon once again. My roommate had been whining hysterically about the four bags of empty jars which had accumulated in the kitchen as part of my recycling project. We also had a bag of crushed aluminum cans, and one of mixed paper. Alas, this whining roommate was the only one with a car, and also the only one unwilling to help recycle. The old bug bit and I had to prove to myself that I could get it all down to the recycling center in Goleta by bike. This being a tedious activity, I decided I had to do it in one trip. On my ride over there, I would be literally encased in glass.

I imagined the outcome of failure: “A 19‑year‑old UCSB student was killed today in a bizarre accident as yet unexplained by law enforcement officials. He was found buried in a mound of broken glass, with the bumper of an AMC Gremlin clenched in his teeth.” Or, “A UCSB student was arrested today by law enforcement officials for vandalizing Hollister Road. The youth was found breaking bottles there, and unsuccessfully tried to pass off his bizarre actions as mere accident.”

Okay, I’m exaggerating. The worst‑case scenario probably wouldn’t involve death or dismemberment, or even arrest, but it would surely involve a great deal of broken glass. But what alternative did I have? I filled my duffle bag and my big backpack completely with jars and bottles, and carried the cans and papers in bags hanging from the handlebars of my Miyata beast of burden.

To keep the duffel bag from swinging down into my rotating legs, I had to sit bolt upright and secure the bag with my right arm, leaving just the left hand to steer and brake. I comforted myself with the knowledge that in a panic situation I could dive for the right side of the handlebar. After about ten seconds of biking, the pain set in. My shoulders, arms, back, and even my toes began to ache. Soon, I was audibly groaning, moaning, and even whining. It seemed as though I’d never make it to Goleta. But as always, I somehow pulled it off ... which means I need to set my goal even higher next time.

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Tuesday, September 19, 2017

Colorado Mountain Road Test - SRAM eTap Electronic Shifting


So, this post will be a bit unusual. I did a Colorado mountain ride with my friend Pete recently that wasn’t quite epic or disastrous enough to warrant its own post. (For epic click here; for disastrous click here.) Meanwhile, I’ve long wanted to blog about electronic shifting, but I’m not sure I care enough about it to devote a whole post to that, either. So here’s a combo: while telling you about a not-quite-epic ride, I’ll share my firsthand experience with top-end electronic shifting. If you care about neither, read on anyway, because I’ll cover food and booze too.

Executive summary

Fun ride, even though my rental bike’s SRAM Red eTap bit the wax tadpole.

Short version

Our pre-ride carbo-load dinner was exquisite. I rented a very high-end bicycle from a good shop. This bike had electronic shifting, which I was hoping to have some trouble with so I could bag on it, which I’m predisposed to do anyway. I did have some trouble, which proves that at least this brand of top-end electronic shifting is still a pointless expenditure. The ride was fun, hard, and involved a gorgeous dirt road. It wasn’t that epic, though, which is my friend Pete’s fault.

Long version

If you know me well, you know I’ll all about fast cars, fly women, and gold chains. Hmmm. Maybe that’s not quite right. I guess more accurately I’m all about fast bikes, fine literature, and saving money.  And when I go to Boulder, I’m all about time-honored traditions like eating pasta at The Gondolier and suffering through long bike rides. Here’s my plate at the Gondo:

Look, I know some wiseguy among you is going to say, “Those noodles are too thick and ropey and don’t appear to be made of semolina flour.” That may be true, but damn it, that’s not the point. These were good enough for me as a teenager when I went every week for all-u-can-eat, and they’re good enough now. Trust me, I know from good pasta.

And look at that beer! Dogfish Head 90-Minute IPA, one of my very favorite beers. (Before I conceived of this post, I snapped this photo for Beck’sting purposes, to make my pals jealous.)

That’s Pete in the background. He’s my favorite biking pal because he’s way faster than I am but doesn’t seem to hold it against me. He also susses out all the cool routes that invariably feature gobs of climbing and remote dirt roads.

For my rental bike I went to University Bicycles, affectionately known as UBikes, which is arguably the best shop in Boulder (though I also like Vecchio’s Bicicletteria quite a lot). Now, you might not know this, but Boulder is considered a very bike-y place. “Best shop in Boulder” is kind of like being “best brothel in Amsterdam.” (I’m actually not that wild about the comparison I just made, but I don’t have time to go fix it.) Anyway, one cool thing about UBikes is their collection of very cool old bikes like this one.

When I was 13 my friend Nico (also 13) loaned me, for about a year, a Cinelli road frame of similar vintage.  When I think back to how advanced Nico and I were, compared to the current crop of ho-hum teens, I start to sound like an old person.

Last time I rented a bike from UBikes for an epic ride, I waited too long and got a real pile of crap. This time I planned ahead and, almost two hours before the shop opened, reserved a Specialized Tarmac via their website. I got to the shop about ten minutes after they opened and they’d already put on the Look pedals I requested. As the salesman helped adjust the saddle for me, he sent another guy upstairs to “get the batteries.” Batteries? Huh? Oh, wow, this bike sported SRAM eTap electronic shifting! It works like this: there are only two buttons, one per lever. To get a smaller rear cog you tap the right. For a bigger cog you tap the left. To change chainrings you tap both buttons at once.

Is electronic shifting cool? No. I can say that now that I’ve tried it. I have always been tempted to say that without even trying it (kind of like how I can confidently say heroin isn’t cool even though I haven’t tried it, either), but until now I figured I better hold my tongue. Now I’ve tried it and, as I’ll get into later, it’s not foolproof (which of course it needs to be to have any benefit over traditional shifting).

Empirical arguments aside, I will now walk you through why electronic shifting is lame in principle. First, let’s ask the question, what makes a racing bike good? Number one, the bike has got to look cool. Number two, the bike has to go fast. Let’s evaluate eTap on that basis.

Does it look cool? No. Here’s proof.

That Cinelli I showed you a bit ago? That looked cool. Those SRAM derailleurs? With the big hunks of plastic-y material sticking off of them? Those don’t look cool. They look really bad. Now, I know aesthetics are a matter of personal taste, but that doesn’t mean there’s no right or wrong. If you like the look of these derailleurs you are either delusional or have no taste, and I no more respect your opinion than if you said plastic ketchup bottles look better than glass.

Now, speed is another matter. My Giant road bike might not look better than that old Cinelli I had, but overall the Giant is better because it’s faster. That is, the Giant will get me up hills faster, given the same power applied to the pedals, because it’s lighter than the late ‘60s Cinelli. Now, here’s how the whole “is it faster?” question applies to electronic shifting.

(The SRAM Red eTap rear derailleur weighs 239 grams; the SRAM Red traditional weighs 178 grams. The levers weigh about the same between the two types. Etc.)

I guess it could be argued that eTap is better because it’s more foolproof and/or more pleasurable to use. I’ll get to that later.

Just in case you give a shit, here’s the bike I rented.

Great bike. It rode really well … stiff, comfortable, handled well. My only complaint is that it seemed a bit heavier than my Giant. Hmm, I wonder why.

The saddle was pretty comfortable too, which was a relief. You just never know with a rental bike.

I have to question Specialized’s normally spot-on branding here, though. I mean, Toupé? Are you kidding me? Look, marketing guys: since you evidently didn’t grasp this, “Toupé” is one letter away from, and pronounced exactly the same as, toupée, the artificial hairpiece that insecure men wear, which is a front-runner for the most embarrassing product a man could buy. There’s a reason slapstick comedies so often feature a man’s humiliation at having his toupée  blow away or getting it snatched off his head. Given the prevalence of baldness amoung MAMILs (hardly the most glamorous ambassadors of the sport), this is astonishingly reckless branding. If they came out with a women’s version, would they call it the Merkin?

Since I seem to be finding fault with everything, I might as well complain that the helmet UBikes loaned me didn’t have a vent setup that gave me any way to stash my sunglasses. This really surprised me, since every helmet I’ve had in the last 20 years has had sunglasses-friendly vents. But thanks to the Toupé saddle, problem solved!

I finally understand why so many modern saddles have that giant hole in them. (By the way, the above picture provides the only photo evidence that I was actually on this ride. Look closely and you can almost tell what club I ride for.)

But enough about the gear and culture. It’s time to hit the open road! Here’s where we rode, starting from Pete’s house in Golden.

The reason this ride was so short is that although Pete and I both had the day off, he had a noon conference call. I already gave him a hard time about this, but you should pile on. E-mail me your scathing gibes and I’ll pass them along.

We started out by riding up Lookout Road, featured in the US Pro Challenge and, more recently, Phil Gaimon’s successful bid for the new Strava record. We didn’t end up going as fast as Phil. I guess we forgot to hammer. Oh well. We ride Lookout in less than twice Phil’s time, which isn’t bad.

If you’re looking for an open road, Colorado is a good place to start.

I don’t have a whole lot of photos of this ride because I forgot to bring my camera. Fortunately—check this out!—my phone has a camera built in! That sure came in handy.

There was a wonderful section of brand-new bike path for a ways. Then, after another climb, I helped Pete get a new personal record on the Floyd Hill descent. (Actually, we weren’t even thinking about trying to go fast, much less doing anything on Strava. And lest you think we’re daredevils, this was only good for 144th place.)

Alongside the road were some buffalo, or “buffler” in mountain-man parlance. I’m sure these creatures are more majestic when they’re not all fenced in.

The pedaling was hard. After Lookout we braved another Category 2 climb a bit over 7 miles long, taking us to about 8,700 feet above sea level.  That may not sound like much, but I donated blood recently. Also, I’m not very strong to begin with.

Okay, let’s get back to that shifting. First impression? Kind of nifty. It didn’t take long to get used to it (though a couple times, near intersections, I tapped the wrong button.) Once I got used to it, and the novelty wore off, I realized it’s not as fun as traditional shifting. I enjoy mechanisms. After all, we’re messing about with PCs, tablets, phones, and other electronic interfaces all day long. As more and more technologies are designed to be idiot-proof and as automated as possible, what’s left for us to do? I miss the stick shift on my old Volvo. Driving a stick is more fun than letting the car decide when to shift. (And operating the clutch of my old car was more fun than using Geartronic, the so-called “manumatic” transmission of my current Volvo.)

What’s wrong with today’s wealthy cyclists that they don’t want cable-type shifters, especially considering how good they’ve gotten? Why do all these dentists and stockbrokers enjoy being coddled with pushbuttons?

So much for eTap being more fun. So does it shift faster? No. Rear shifting has been practically instantaneous for many years so there is scant room for improvement there. And when shifting the front with eTap, there’s a tiny delay when you tap both buttons before you hear this little whirring noise and the motorized front derailleur moves the chain. Granted, this delay is unimportant; the main factor in response time was never in the lever to begin with—it’s dragging that chain up to the big ring, or nudging it to the little one without letting it fall. The SRAM red front derailleur does just fine, but no better than high-end cable-type front derailleurs.

The last chance for eTap to prove itself superior would be in the “foolproof” department. This is hard to test, of course.  I will concede that cable-type front shifting isn’t perfect; everybody throws his chain once in a while. That being said, one ride on eTap without a missed front shift wouldn’t mean anything. I might go weeks or months, maybe a year or more, without my bike’s front derailleur screwing up. So my only hope for hitting the trifecta—ugly, heavy, non-foolproof—would be eTap happening to screw up within the narrow timespan of my four-hour ride.

About 2/3 of the way into the ride, all the planets lined up. Pete and I reached a point where a steep downhill led right into a steep climb, and I wanted to keep as much momentum as possible. This meant big-ringing it until the very last second and then going for the little chainring. What a perfect testing ground for electronic shifting! You can see where we were, about 43 miles into the ride:

I bombed the downhill (leaving a bit of a gap between me and Pete so maybe I could surge by him triumphantly) and tapped the two buttons at just the right moment. And guess what? The fricking chain fell off! And here’s the really weird part: it came off the right side, as if it had overshot the big ring (which it had already been in) instead of the little one. WTF!?

Now, a defender of this eTap technology might be tempted to blame the rider. But that’s silly; there should be no way to get it to mis-shift. But wait, you might say, what if I had accidentally hit the two buttons twice instead of once? Well, I suppose it’s possible I did that, but electronics should be “smart” enough  to handle this kind of user error. That is, the system should ignore a second click if it comes a fraction of a second after the first one, since obviously nobody would want to shift onto the small chainring and right back to the large. Besides, I’m not a klutz—on an old Schwinn I had with no front derailleur (it had broken off) I used to shift by hand—so I’m 99.9% sure I tapped those buttons just once.

I will continue to play the devil’s advocate and entertain the possibility that the derailleur was poorly adjusted. But remember, this was a ~$6000 rental bike that gets tuned up after every ride. It was built and maintained by arguably the top bike shop in a bicycle mecca. If UBikes can’t get it right, clearly the tolerances of this system are too tight—i.e., it’s literally too high-maintenance—to be practical. I for one would not want to own a bike with such finicky shifting (if adjustment is indeed the problem).

Pete, looking back and seeing that I’d thrown my chain, said, “See you back in Golden,” and rode off. Now, when you throw you chain off the big ring on cable-type drivetrains, it’s easy enough to get it back going again—you click the little lever on the left side to move the front derailleur left, then lift up the back of the bike so the rear wheel is off the ground, give the cranks a turn or two, and you’re back in business. It is the same process every  time so you do it without having to really think. But what would I do here? I had no idea why the bike had mis-shifted, and therefore no idea what chainring the front derailleur thought it was in. I had to look closely at the derailleur before double-tapping again, so the failure of eTap was compounded.

In the final analysis, eTap absolutely does not shift faster, nor is it easier or more enjoyable to shift, nor is it (more) foolproof. To my great delight, electronic shifting turns out to be even shittier than I’d imagined.

To those of you who shelled out a lot of money for electronic shifting: don’t feel bad. I’m not trying to bag on you. It’s your bike and your business and you can still feel good about choosing electronic, and I would never expect you to second-guess your choice based on my brief experience with it. But your derailleurs are butt-ugly and your bike is heavy.

Our third major climb, Douglas Mountain Drive, is a Category 2, mostly dirt, with an average pitch of 9%. Very scenic as well.

Some of the sights were more amusing than beautiful. For example, this one:

What’s amusing about that, you ask? Well, look a little closer:

There are grills on both the upper and lower decks! Why would that be? Maybe it’s in case members of the family can’t get along. “Just for that, I’m going to barbecue tonight, and you’re not invited!” / “Okay, fine, I’ll go downstairs and have my own barbecue! I don’t need you!”

What a glorious early evening climb this was. Being dirt, and steep, it didn’t let us climb out of the saddle much. We settled in for some really nice suffering and an even nicer view.

Of course I couldn’t snap any more photos once the descending began. With the exception of a mile-long climb I don’t even remember, it was all downhill, for 15 miles, back to Pete’s place. Fittingly, my tale ends as it began: with a beer.


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