Cyclocross Chronicles

It’s been a couple of weeks since I decided to play around with my beater bike and try cyclocross. Here’s the scoop.

What I did:

When my knobby 32 mm tires came, I glued them onto the wheels I built last summer.

Cyclocross - 02

Aren’t those gorgeous? Plus, for traction, cyclocross tires use much lower pressures than road tires. Low pressure = comfort. These have 40 psi in them, and that feels perfect for all kinds of terrain.

I removed the water bottle cages.

Cyclocross - 09

The cages would get in the way when you have to put your arm through the frame to carry the bike on steep or unrideably-muddy stretches. Since the longest cyclocross competition lasts about an hour, there is no need for hydration en route.

I switched to a shorter stem and raised the bars a bit from where they were before.

Cyclocross - 04

Because the speeds are so slow compared to road rides, there is no need to maintain a streamlined aerodynamic position. Also, the shorter reach helps to maintain control over rough sections.

Because I had to remove the old handlebar tape to change stems, I replaced it with cotton twill cloth tape.

Cyclocross - 05

Where has this been all my life? Granted, after a half dozen rides it is starting to look dirty, but this is not about style. This tape gives me incredible grip without feeling tacky or spongy like others do. I like the feeling of firmness and control.

I changed the saddle.

Cyclocross - 03

I took this one from an old mountain bike. It’s not leather, but in cyclocross the tires constantly throw mud and water up onto and under the saddle. The synthetic composition of this one will withstand the elements much better. Also, this saddle has a narrower profile than the ones I use for road cycling. This makes things easier when I need to dismount to run or remount after running.

I swapped for the double-sided pedals that had been on my mountain bike.

Cyclocross - 06

Because cyclocross necessitates transition from riding to running and back so often, I thought it was much more important to have these on this bike than on my mountain bike.

I left my gearing alone.

Cyclocross - 07

Combined with a 39-tooth small chainring, this 14-28 five-speed freewheel gives me all the range I need.

I kept the moustache bars.

Cyclocross - 11

These are much wider than those I would use on a road racing bike. but the wide stance gives me lots of control and stability on downhill and technical sections. Also, these bars put your hands in a great position for climbing, much better than drop bars.

So there she is:

Cyclocross - 12

(Gratuitous shot of bike and new-to-me workstand.)

I’m so proud of her. So now that I have a dozen rides under my belt, what are my thoughts on cyclocross so far?

Things I like:

I stay warm. For one thing, he speeds are much slower than those of road rides. There is no easy riding on a cyclocross trail. You’re either riding through grass, thick mud, or snow, and when you can’t ride any more you pick up the bike and run. Also, the trails are generally narrow openings in woods, protected from most of the wind. In all the years I’ve been cycling, I have never found a way to keep my hands and feet warm while riding on the road in cold weather. You name a glove or boot or overshoe that is guaranteed to keep you warm, and I’ve tried it, unsuccessfully. On the other hand, this past weekend I finished a ride having worked up a lather sweating, while wearing normal wool socks and thin running gloves. When I checked the temperature, I was shocked to discover it was 34 Fahrenheit. I never could have lasted if I had been on an open road at 17 or 18 mph.

The rides are shorter. Bicycles are such efficient machines that it normally takes three or four hours to get a worthwhile workout. That’s fine in the summer, but winter evening comes much earlier, and I like to pack in as much activity as I can in a day. Because you work so much harder just to maintain your forward momentum in cyclocross, you can get a decent workout in an hour.  For me, that means being able to go home, clean the bike, shower, read for a while, and still go out with my wife for sushi before it gets too late.

There aren’t the usual road hazards. Whether it’s traffic, glass and other detritus, or red lights and stop signs, there are lots of things that can break up road rides. I’d much rather avoid a tree root that nature put in my way, or stop for a family of ducks to cross my path, than deal with anything man-made.

 

Things I don’t like:

People walking unleashed dogs. In the state where I live, dogs must be on leashes when they are in public. But no matter where I go, there seems to be someone who can’t be bothered to leash his pet. So here I am, trying to maintain control of a skinny, light bike on a technical trail, and along comes Fluffy, running into my path and jumping up on me when I stop so I don’t hit him. Invariably, the owner lollygags around the bend and says, “It’s all right. He’s friendly.” Well, you might be friendly too, but if you jumped on me, that would be assault, pal. I love dogs, but you don’t know that. It takes a really selfish, entitled person to assume someone else doesn’t mind being jumped on by a dog.

That’s it. My dislikes constitute a really short list. Notice, also, that the dislike list has nothing to do with cyclocross itself. Unleashed dogs can ruin any activity I want to keep to myself.

There really is no satisfactory way to avoid the presence of others.

I Spoke Too Soon

I’d like to apologize sincerely to all those inconvenienced by the weather Friday and today. After all, I caused it. All it took was one mention of how warm and dry the winter has been and how I’m looking forward to getting an early start on cycling and this happens:

I Spoke Too Soon - 1

Yeah, that was all me.

I Spoke Too Soon - 4

And that’s where the bikes live.

I know what you’re thinking: “But you love cross-country skiing as much as cycling, if not more. Wax up your skis and get out there.” [Of course my cross-country skis use wax for grip instead of those fish-scale patterns on the bottom. If you’re surprised by that, you’ve learned nothing from these essays.] Well, it’s not that simple.  Right now, there are four inches of dry powder outside with nothing but dead grass (and rocks and tree roots) underneath. Without a base of older snow, the skis go right down to Mother Earth, and there is a reason you don’t see this sport in the summertime. So, yes, there is snow, but it would ruin my day to try and ski on it.

But that’s all right, because I have embraced the precipitation and the mud that will result from its eventual thaw. I have a new project in my life, and it came from a most unlikely source: sporting scandal. It seems that…someone just got caught cheating in a bike race. [Try to contain your surprise.] This time, the performance enhancement came from a motor inside the frame instead of from drugs inside the athlete.

Now, permit me a small digression here. I’m shocked by the shock so many people in the cycling world are expressing. They are so angry that there is a call for a mandatory lifetime ban from the sport for any rider and mechanic involved in using a motor. Riders who have had their victories stripped away because they tested positive for performance-enhancing drugs routinely claim to be clean and re-join the peloton. When they win again, broadcasters praise them for [allegedly] realizing their errors and setting a better example by reforming their ways. But Femke Van den Driessche might as well be projected on a telescreen for the next Two Minutes Hate.

1984-front

And drugs are better than motors?

Anyway, I was less interested in the cheating than in the event in which it occurred- cyclocross. I know this is the hot new trendy thing among people looking to buy still another bike, but I remembered reading about cyclocross decades ago in Greg LeMond’s Complete Book of Cycling.

1989-4th-tappa-Lemond-in-az

[Why did nobody think aerodynamic handlebars were “mechanical doping” in 1989?]

Cyclocross began as a way for European riders to keep fit in the winter months. They would put tires with a little more traction on their regular bikes and ride through cow pastures or along wooded trails. When they came to unrideable sections like rivers or steep muddy hills, they had no choice but to dismount and carry their bikes across or over. Doesn’t that sound perfect for a curmudgeon? “Son, when I was your age, we didn’t have these fancy mountain bikes with all their granny gears. We ran up the hills. And we were thankful!”

1930_champparis

[Real men.]

 Because riders could not go anywhere near as fast as they could on the road, and because they had to run for significant stretches, it was much easier to keep warm and stay happy.

Now, as my hero Bike Snob NYC recommends, I have a metal bike whose configuration I can change around any time I like and try out new stuff. Remember it?

Components2

Because I built light, strong, tubular wheels for it, I can simply put knobby, slightly-wider cyclocross tires on it and give a new (to me) sport a try. The fenders will need to come off so the knobs don’t rub, but they will find their way onto whatever I ride on the road in the rain.

Tell me this doesn’t look like a blast.

Not a doper or a piece of carbon fiber in sight.

 

Sorry I’m Late; I Was Going Even More Retro

I did not post an essay this past Friday because a package arrived via the UPS guy.

New Wheels4

It was 25 inches square and three inches thick. Any guesses? Of course! The new rims to replace my worn-out MA 40.

Wheel1

They were beautiful.

611-101

(Many thanks to Ben’s Cycle for having these lying around.)

Do you notice something odd about these rims and/or look at the listing? That’s right; I went with tubulars for training.

For those of you who don’t know, tubular tires contain the casing, tread, and inner tube sewn up in a single flexible unit. Off the bike, they look like this:

Tubular1

and when you’re out riding you carry the whole thing folded up:

Tubular2

Or if you’re in a time warp back to the early twentieth century, you wear them in some sort of strange fashion statement:

1925-il-vincitore-Ottavio-B

Tubulars stay in place by a combination of air pressure, when inflated, and a special glue applied to the rims. They have a reputation amongst cyclists these days for being tricky to mount, because of the glue, dangerous, if not glued properly, delicate, because the casing is not as tough and rigid as that on most clincher tires, and expensive, because you cannot simply change inner tubes after getting a flat.

(The tires themselves had arrived the day before from Yellow Jersey in Wisconsin. If you take a look at his site, he has a great deal to say about this type of tire.)

So, why did I choose to build this kind of wheel, if there seem to be so many disadvantages? First, it’s traditional. A vintage bicycle deserves to have the type of components for which it was designed, whenever this is possible.

Second, I think they are easier and quicker to change if you get a flat. Instead of levering the tire off of its mounting bead, removing the damaged inner tube, checking the casing of the tire for the debris that caused the flat (I sliced my finger open quite badly doing this during a ride once), inserting a new inner tube, and coaxing the tire back onto the rim, you simply peel off the old tire and stretch the new one on in its place. Riding the brakes lightly for a few minutes re-melts and activates the dried glue, and you’re off.

Third, tubulars feel good in a way that I cannot quantify. Riding on clinchers feels as though the bicycle will do as much as the effort you put into it, nothing more, nothing less. If the road is rough, you notice the friction. It’s pretty much a zero-sum-game. But when you have tubulars on the bike, there is a sense of riding on a coiled spring. It feels as though there is potential energy stored in the bike/wheel system, and the slightest touch on the pedals unleashes what the bike wants to do: take off. I know that the people who measure these things will say that, “These is no evidence that tubular tires have a lower rolling resistance than high-quality clinchers, blah, blah, blah.” All right, maybe not. But I’m telling you they just feel different. And better different, not just different.

Fourth, and probably best of all, other cyclists have priceless reactions when I mention wanting to ride on tubulars. Before I found the rims on ebay, I was poking around in a shop that specializes in restoring vintage bicycles. When I mentioned that I was looking for tubular rims, he looked at me with incredulity, and just said, “Clinchers!” When I talked to the owner of my local bike shop about my project, he asked if I knew what I was doing, and he did not mean building the wheel to be round, straight, and properly-tensioned. He meant using tubulars. People just cannot get their heads around the idea. Look at this discussion, where an amateur in the United States criticizes European professional cyclists for using tubulars in the twenty-first century. Similar incredulity exists because professionals still use rim brakes and not disk brakes on their road bikes. These guys are the best in the world at what they do, and they make a living by riding bikes. But clearly they are mistaken in their choice of equipment. (Really?) I guess I just cannot understand why anybody gets so worked up about the equipment that someone else uses. If you want to use clinchers, carbon wheels, aerodynamic handlebars, and disk brakes, go ahead. It does not affect me in the slightest. But why do people feel the need to tell me I’m wrong for using what I want to use?

I’m beginning to think that nobody today can think for himself. People look to others to justify their own choices. (Why do people in Massachusetts need to say they want their coffee “regular,” when they mean with cream and sugar? Because that’s the normal, correct way to take it, of course. So cream-only would be “irregular?”) If the social media say that everyone rides a certain kind of tire, then it must be true. There cannot be any deviation. This would make a cyclist unsure as to whether his purchasing decisions were correct. I think that, deep down, there is a fear in anyone who constantly follows trends and upgrades that he might have been duped.

What if a guy on a steel bike rides faster than I do on my carbon fiber bike? What if a guy with rim brakes can stop as well as I can with my disk brakes? What if a guy with a wooden tennis racquet can beat me and my hyper-carbon-oversized-widebody racquet? What if a guy with a telescope made of plumbing parts can find deep-sky objects and see them as well as I can with my GPS-enabled, computerized scope? So many people now equate performance with the purchase of new and “better” equipment that they seem unable to understand the two things are not the same. I cherish upsetting people’s worldview when I show up with my retro anything!

Back to my story. Being the World’s Cheapest Human Being, I switched over the spokes and hubs from my old wheels (don’t worry; my local mechanic assured me they were safe), and carefully and slowly, over the course of last Friday, built my new tubular wheels.

New Wheels3

Did I mention that I am the World’s Cheapest Human Being? I went on to make my own tire savers to flick glass, stones, and thorns out of the tire treads before they cause punctures:

New Wheels1

New Wheels2

Over the weekend, I went for a shakedown ride and made some truing adjustments, and the wheels feel great!

I look forward to upsetting cyclists everywhere when they see me using them.