Monday, February 5, 2018

Hill country Hundy 100k gravel ride

I have enjoyed several gravel grinder races in the past few years. I have never entered a race on paved roads, mountain bike trails, a BMX track, cyclocross mayhem, etc. Something about an easy, breezy bimble along miles of crunchy gravel roads with dozens of other freds sounded like fun. Low-pressure competition, endless horizons of countryside to take in, and the challenge of spinning your bike up and down mile after mile of serene country dirt roads sounds like bliss.

Like eating a really spicy curry that ignites your throat and sinuses and makes you question your life choices until you get to the sublime flavor behind the heat, riding gravel roads is bliss after you break through the gauntlet of frozen fingers, numb toes, a sore bum, windburned face, sand pits, cattle guards, corrugated road surfaces, aid stations that always seem one kilometer away, missed turns, cow poops, dust storms, and convent-like solitude that hours spent on a country road. You start to wonder, "where are the 200 other riders who were with me when we left? Did that cow just mock me? Why did I start with 35 psi in my tires when I clearly should have 33?"

I rode my new Traitor Crusade singlespeed cyclocross bike for the Spinistry Hill Country Hundy yesterday. I am sore, as I expected, but the bike served me well.

My official time was 5.5 hours, but my GPS counted about 5 hours because it doesn't count time stopped to pee, take photos, chat with the other riders at the aid stations, and so on.

The bike

"gravel bike"

The Crusade came with a 36 tooth front chainring and a 16t cog in the back. I rode it like that once and decided that gear was too steep for my climbing skills, so I swapped in a 17 tooth rear cog, and then an 18 tooth. 36x18 puts my gear inches the high 50s. It's quite a bit higher than what I have on my mountain bike, but low enough that I can grind my way up some hills at a reasonable cadence. The route took me up over 2,000 feet of climbing and none of the hills made me feel like to was going to rip my knees apart.

I am re-thinking this strategy - choosing a lower gear that climbs well but it not as fast on the flat sections. Perhaps it would be better to use a taller gear so I can make better time on the flats and suffer through a few climbs. I'll experiment with that and report back.

I feared that the stock 32mm Kenda Kommando tires would be too narrow for comfort on the long miles of gravel, but they did OK. The Hundy featured several miles of proper road pavement and a few miles of rough paved country roads. All of the gravel was level, hard-packed, and of a fine grain. I only wanted for traction a few times and was glad to have relatively lightweight tires for the climbs.

32mm tires were sufficient for control on this particular selection of gravel but I plan to put some bigger tires on this bike just so I can use the comfort provided by the extra volume. It looks 38mm is the limit for the rear and I can put just about whatever I want on the front. I think something in the 40-42mm range should be fine. 

Otherwise, the Cowbell handlebars were comfy, the WTB Devo wrecked minimal havoc on my butt, and the Cateye handlebar bell provided moments of whimsy when I needed it most. I carried a Back Bottle (full of Gatorade) in my jersey pocket, a bottle in the downtube cage, and a bottle in the Jannd frame bag. Snacks and my phone stayed in the toptube bag until needed. I really need to find a way to put a seat tube bottle cage on this bike, but, being a CX bike, Traitor didn't bother with seat tube braze-ons. The downtube fender was robbed from a Trek kid's bike and mostly serves to keep road grime off my water bottle spout, cuz no one wants to drink water with a little cow poop in it, even if it's just a lil bit of cow poop.

I carried some home-made goo (brown rice syrup, coconut oil, molasses, coffee), some Clif bars (those suck to eat while riding, no room to breathe in your mouth), and some weird electrolyte pills that I have had forever. I ate a big breakfast of a coconut-chia pudding/ banana/ oatmeal/ protein powder smoothie and scrambled some tofu with seaweed. When the ride started, my belly was still quite full and that slowed me down. I don't know how to go about eating any earlier and I am open to suggestions!

The ride

There were fewer riders in attendance than I expected after seeing the crowds that gather for Chainring Massacre and Castell Grind, but it was at least 100 riders. We started at 9 a.m. with what was supposed to be a slow, neutral start. The escort car took off and I found myself quickly falling losing positions. The mangy peloton went through downtown Llano and turned onto a country road. We were five miles and some change before we hit real gravel.
endless miles of cenTex dirt
This is Texas Hill Country. The moniker is appropriate. Hills because of the elevation. I climbed over 2000 feet, but the 100-mile route was over 3000 feet of climbing. As much as I enjoy a challenge, I am glad I turned off at the split where the 100-milers left everyone else.

There were also cows on the road, along with the cattle guards and cow-landmines. Cow poops are easy to avoid if you're not sleeping or texting while riding, but cattle guards must be traversed on the bike. Get some speed, stand up, and let the bike bounce and float under you as you cross one. The rails of the guard make a cool "bzzzzzip" noise as your float over them.
Guess who left that there!
dozens of these things on the route
The best part about these country gravel events is the views. You can enjoy them one of two ways: pace with another rider and chat or set off on your own like a monk and just soak it in. The droning crunch of gravel under your tires, the passing clouds above and sandy-dry riverbeds under your path make you forget about everything else for a few precious hours.
This crossing was high and dry as they get. Others were wetter.
As you float over the crest of a hill, you can live momentarily in an infinite row of undulating hills that stretch into infinity to roll forever.
Riding this event was worth it for this slow coaster of hills.
I met the Chumba guys around 1/3 of the way into the route and they had bananas and pouches of liquid calories (aka Capri Sun). I stopped for a moment and talked with Vince about obscure bike-adventure magazines. When I have the money, I'll buy one of their bikes because they make cool stuff nearby and support fun events.

The rest was a weird trip. Cows, sand-river crossings, rolling hills, and I kept passing and getting passed by the same 5-6 people. The temperature was well "sweltering" but not quite "warm" either. There was ample cloud cover but some stiff headwinds. The result was that you sweat enough to dehydrate quickly, but not enough that you notice it until it's too late. The dry air and wind would wick the sweat off and let it do what sweat is supposed to do: cool you down.

The result is that you dehydrate without knowing it. I started to drag around mile 48. I knew I was getting to the home stretch, but I was starting to feel like I could barely move my legs. There was a water/snacks station around mile 48 and I noticed that I still had an almost full water bottle. That's a sign that I was rationing my water too closely. I started drinking water more heartily and, within a few minutes, I got a second wind and felt like flying.

I rounded out the last few miles of pavement in a blur with my newfound strength, provided by the magic of H2O. I nearly missed a turn at the convention center where the race started and triumphantly pumped my fists in the air as I crossed the official finish, for an audience of 4 or 5 people who were milling about. I had a chat with Kevin from Spinistry and he let me stand on the "fast" box of the podium. I felt "fast" but not faster and certainly not "fastest."
recovery sammie- PB, jelly, smooshed banana. X2.

Wednesday, January 31, 2018

new singlespeed CX bike

I have never raced cyclocross, nor do I have any drive to do so. It sure looks like fun, but I am not a competitive person, and I can't imagine devoting enough time to a race schedule, so I don't bother. I do, however, love the feeling of exploring on long rides that involve a mix of pavement and dirt, and there's something that feels fast about riding skinny tires and drop handlebars, although I can't be certain that I am actually faster.

I've owned a few drop-bar bikes over the year and enjoyed all of them to some degree. I try to have two bikes at all times: one with skinny tires and drop bars for riding roads and unpaved roads, and one with flat bars and big ol' fat tires for technical trails. I sold my last drop-bar bike, a Soma Double Cross Disc, over a year ago and really started to miss the snappy feel of a cyclocross bike under me under me ever since.

I was dedicated to building a "monstercross" Frankenbike out of a mid-'90s Specialized Cross Roads hybrid, but gave up on it when I realized that the expense of the thing would result in a sub-par compromise of a bike. I checked used bikes all over the region and considered a few other Frankenbike options until someone pointed me in the direction of the Traitor Crusade bike, which had on closeout for $500.

yup, I bought it.

This is a chromoly cyclocross bike with a singlespeed drivetrain and hydraulic disc brakes. In other words, it's just what I was looking for. This is a $1300 bike that was on clearance for $500, so I convinced the misses that I "needed" it, and stock on that particular bike was low, so I jumped on it.

Since this bike is no longer in production and might be hard to find (I am under the strong impression that this is built on the same frame as the Transitition Rapture), I don't see the point in writing a "review." Instead, I will just write about and photograph my experiences riding this bike.

After unboxing and getting the bike into a rideable state, I noticed a few things:
1. the handlebar was HORRIBLE. Too much reach, too much drop, giant, round bend. The drop position was usable due to the lack of space on the ends. I researched handlebars and was about to buy a Ritchey Venturemax bar, but a friend came through with a Salsa Cowbell bar, which I have used in the past with great satisfaction.
worst drop bar ever.

2. Rear tire clearance, meh. This is marketed as a cyclocross bike, so 35mm tires seems reasonable, but they could have squeezed an extra few millimeters between the chainstays for a little more rubber. I can force a 40mm tire in there, but the clearance is too tight for comfort. I'd love to run 42mm tires for gravel racing, but sub-38 is going to have to suffice.
segmented fork with ample room for a lot of tread.

Just for grins, I stuck a 29x2.1" tire (Schwalbe Thunder Burt) on this front wheel to see what would fit. It does, but I have no intension of using a tire this big on this particular bike.

lack of rad rear tire clearance. I might be able to shoehorn a 40mm tire in there.

3. One pair of water bottle cages, no rack/ fender mounts. Again, a true cyclocross bike doesn't need these things, but I'll probably have need of them at some point.

Things I like:
1. nice chromoly steel frame with a rad segmented fork. Green!
2. rocker-style dropouts for singlespeed drivetrain with the option to put a 2x - whatever drivetrain. The downtube has some bolt-on cable stops similar to the bolt-on Gyro tabs I am used to seeing on BMX bikes.
lil bracket for derailleur cable stops.
Rocker dropouts, nice touch!

3. TRP Hylex brakes. Hydro drop-bar brakes without shifting nonsense? Yes please!
4. Wheels are alright. Cheap by reliable Weinmann DA19 rims, double-butted spokes, Joytech sealed-bearing hubs. These will do, but will be a giant pain to set up tubeless. I probably won't bother.

Pretty cool so far. Expect a write-up soon about riding this thing!

Monday, October 23, 2017

Beware the Jabberwock, my son!

As I mentioned recently, I ended up replacing my last frame with a Vassago Jabberwocky. I love this frame! Long top tube, reasonably short chainstays, burly steel construction, moderate geometry that is not "yeah brah, enduro!" slack but not dirt roadie XC. modern features like a fat seat tube, 44mm head tube to accommodate a tapered fork, and room for really fat tires.

This is kind of ironic because a bought an older version of the "small" size Jabber in spring of 2013 and sold it after a few short months. For some reason, I crashed on that bike more than I have ever crashed. I suspect it was my error in setting up the suspension fork, but I am happy with the way it played out. I now have a stout, steel, singlespeed XC bike with geometry that suits me, now that I have spent months agonizing over why my back hurts and every "medium" bike I have tried feels cramped.

I am definitely digging this bike. It feels much better under me than anything I have ridden. It could be lighter, that's my only real complaint. If I really wanted a lighter frame, I would probably have had to shell out 3 times as much cash on a titanium frame or get customer steel for even more than that. I can't justify that kind of spending, but I can dream.

In the meanwhile, the weight disappears under you when you're on a bike that fits and handles as if it was made for you.

Sunday, October 22, 2017

bike fittings are not all the same

I purchased a Vassago Jabberwocky from the rad folks at Cycle Progression. Ask me how I arrived at this decision!

I might have ruined this past season of riding for myself if I had not been so stubborn. I spent a considerable amount of money on a chiropractor, a bike fit, and a new frame. In the meanwhile, I worked out and rode through the pain when I could. I am much happier now.

No doubt, my body was out of whack this spring and the chiro helped with that a ton. No matter how perfectly a bike "fits" you, if your body is not fit enough for the kind of demands that cycling, or any physical activity, puts on it, you're going to be miserable. Once I had my back in recovery mode and learned to strengthen more core muscles to support my body while riding, I decided to visit an expert for advice on tweaking my bike.

Every bike fit starts with the right frame dimensions, and mountain bikes only come in a few distinct sizes (not enough increments, if you ask me) for each model, so experience -- yours or that of a knowledgeable advisor -- will be the best guide as to what works for you. In my case, I am learning the hard way.

I visited two fitters over the past few months. One was somewhat useful and the other was worth much, much more than I paid him.

Bike fitting #1

The first fitter charged me $100 and gave me advice that was $25% useful and 75% a sales pitch to sell me some special insoles and more fitting services. He asked me some relevant questions, took a few basic measurements, and watched me ride my bike in a trainer for a while. He made a few valid observations:
  • My handlebar was too close to my hips and too high. This position was painfully scrunching my back, as I was well aware. The compact handling made me very "on top of" the bike instead of "in" the bike. Also, the taller my handlebar was, the more effort was required for me to stand up, and standing enlivens the handling on a mountain bike ten-fold.
  • My saddle was a tad low, which made for poor pedaling efficiency and contributed to the aforementioned resistance to standing up.
  • The fitter thought the cleats under my shoes were in a sub-optimal position and he moved them. This was rubbish advice. More on that later.
When I was done with the fitting session, my saddle moved up about 2.5 centimeters and my handlebar went out 2 and down 4 centimeters by way of replacing my stem with a longer, much lower one. In case you're not familiar with bike fit fiddling, that an astronomical amount of change!

A few weird parts of this fit:

The fitter moved my cleats waaaaay forward, like under my toes. I thought he might be onto something, but he seemed to be moving the cleats that wasy to get my knees plumb over the center of my pedals, using the old KOPS method. As I have said before, KOPS works for some kinds of bikes for some riders. For modern mountain bikes, it's generally nonsense. That put up several big red flag for me: 
  1. If you're going to fit a bike by KOPS, you do it by moving the saddle fore/aft, not by moving the cleats around. He didn't change the saddle position at all.
  2. My frame had an eccentric bottom bracket, meaning he could have rotated the BB forward and gotten the same knee/ankle position without putting my cleats under my toes
  3. Most riders in every cycling discipline are trying to find ways to push cleats and shoe positions back, closer to center on the pedal for a more balanced foot position. He did the opposite, putting a lot of strain on my calves. He also rotated my cleat to accommodate for the "duck-footed" right leg that tends to twist toe-out, which is also medical nonsense.
Most bike fitters are not medical professionals and even the ones with medical bona fides have to admit that there's a little voodoo involved in the process. But I rode the bike with the new fit once on my local trails and found that, while the saddle height and handlebar position made the bike fit much more naturally under me, the handling was awkward. Worse yet, I had to stop and move my cleats back to their old position after my numb toes and cramping calves forced me to stop.

I asked the bike fitter at the shop about this and he told me that I would have to buy some $30 insoles from him to be sure that my foot is level. If that didn't solve the problem, I should come back for a $250 fit session on top of the $100 I already paid.

Instead, I put my cleats back into a rational position and kept riding.

On a more general note, I question his wisdom in "slamming" a negative-stem and putting such a long stem on an AM hardtail with a 30-inch wide handlebar. I know he was trying to work with what I have, but I explicitly told him that I wanted to know if I should buy a few frame that fits me better but make what I have work in the meantime. What he did with the reach was probably the best thing for me on that frame, but he insisted that there was no reason to even consider a different frame.

There's some controversy among the mountain bike community about this, but generally, a stem determines how the bike handles with the fork and handlebar, not how it fits. That can work differently for different riders, but putting a long stem on a bike that was designed with s short one in mind is kind of like buying shoes that are a size too small and cutting a hole in the front so your toes can stick out and calling it good.

Bike fitting #2

I visited Frank at ATX Bikes after he had read about my consternation at my first fit and invited me to come in for a free consultation. Frank has an amazing fit studio with an automated fit bike. Basically, you put your own handlebar, saddle, and pedals on a werid-looking stationary bike, and the fitter plugs some numbers into a computer and viola! the bike moves around to simulate the frame dimensions, saddle position, and handlebar position that he types in.

Next, he put velcro dots on my joints and stuck a wired sensor to it. A camera captured my movements in three dimensions and created an animation on the screen. I felt like Andy Serkis acting out a really boring role where he pedals a bike for the whole movie. The program analyzes the data and saves it for future use.

I had Frank plug in the dimensions of a medium Vassago Jabberwocky, since I had my eye on the frame as a replacement for the ROS 9. We were able to determine that the Jabber would be a good fit for me from a sit-and-pedal position at least, and that was enough to know that it would be a good choice. I now have a printout of the bike geometry that made me feel comfortable and fast. The next step was to acquire that new frame and start riding conscientiously to see what works.

Vassago was very far ahead of the trend, designing frames almost a decade ago with long top tubes and slack headtube angles. The "wet cat" theory was a revelation to many and I hope it will be for me. More will follow on my experience riding the Jabberwocky.

Thursday, July 6, 2017

exploring mountain bike fit

Mountain bike geometry is tricky. Inspired by my love of riding bikes and my body's apparent distain for it, I have been nerding out on how different muscle groups propel the body and how different aspects of bike fit accommodate those motions. I am starting to see how trends in how I set up different bikes for myself. I am finding that some of the conventional wisdom about bike fit is well-intentioned but detrimental to long-term goals.

Words of warning: I am writing this as much more my benefit insofar as "thinking out loud" helps me to process information. Several weeks of riding through back pain and frustration with budgetary concerns have resulted in my birthing this ridiculous collection of words. You're probably not going to read the whole thing, but if you share my obsession with getting the most out of a bike riding experience and my sense of frugality, you'll appreciate it.

I used to overlay the geometry of some bikes I have owned. This is a great tool for visualizing differences in bike geometry to help you imagine how one bike will be different from another. I am using my previous frame, a Soma Juice for comparison because, while it left some things to be desired in the handling department, my back didn't ache after riding it for several hours. To clarify, I doubt that the new frame caused my back pain, the new setup merely exposed an imbalance in my body that manifested as a back ache.

I can observe objectively that my new Niner ROS 9's seat tube is steeper, the chainstays are shorter, the front wheel is further in front of the bike, and despite the fact that the effective top tube (ETT) is shorter on the ROS 9, the overall reach (more on this later) is longer. Throw Niner's eccentric bottom bracket with 8.5mm of adjustment into the mix and you have a very confusing set of variables.

This frame is subtly but profoundly different from my old frame, or so it seems. For example, my previous frame has a slacker 72° seat tube angle and a 16mm offset seatpost, but my new frame has a 74° seat tube angle and came with an inline seatpost. This means that the resulting position of my saddle (saddle setback) is quite a bit forward of my previous saddle position, relative to the center of the cranks. A little basic trig will illustrate that on paper, but I was able to measure it as well.

In order to set up the bike so I don't look like tricycling circus bear on it, I had to put an offset seatpost on a bike that was designed with a super-short chainstay, which puts my center of gravity pretty far over the rear wheel -- a good thing or a bad thing depending on how and where you ride.

Conventional wisdom tells me to put my saddle back to the same position where I had it before, which I measured with the nose of the saddle at 75mm behind the BB on my old Juice. That's quite a lot of setback, and I don't have particularly long legs or disproportionately long femurs, to the best of my knowledge.

To achieve this position, I would need to get a seatpost with what I think is an unreasonable amount of offset and has very few options. in addition, I the resulting position would put my center of gravity waaaaay over the back wheel, resulting in terrific rear tire traction but no control over the amount of traction I get on the front, especially when climbing.

Then I put a 70mm stem on an "all mountain" frame that was designed with a 35-50mm stem in order to get the reach closer to being not "scrunched in there," as one person who saw me on the bike put it. Definitely odd. I tried putting a 90mm stem on it and it made the bike steer with the nimbility of a school bus. Do not want.

More importantly, it may be further exaggerating issues I have had with putting too much stacked weight on my lower back. If I keep going down that road, I will have relegated myself to riding a beach cruiser slowly down a paved path, which would be fine if I were closer to a century old.

Conventional wisdom also tells me to put my handlebar at the same height and distance from my saddle where I had it on my previous bike, assuming that the previous position was a good one. I have nearly achieved that and I am not particularly chuffed with the results. But was it a "good position" in the first place?

I had to take a step back and challenge the premise -- what is the optimal saddle offset for me? What's the best amount of reach and rise for my hands? Was the old setup optimal, or was it accommodating my body's imbalances and thus encouraging them to get worse?

If I could directly translate the old frame's dimensions to the new frame, should I? Time to re-think the whole thing. New bike, new fit!

Confronting Superstitions

A lot of bike fit advice relies on lore that is repeated enough to create memetic inertia. There are weird "rules" like the 40-60 weight distribution guideline, the "elbow on the saddle, middle finger to the middle of the stem" idea, goniometer measurements on hip, knee, and arm angles, and the eyeball-the-front-hub-through-the-handlebar theory, and KOPS or knee-over-pedal-spindle method of determining saddle fore-aft position, which Keith Bontrager calls KOPS a "myth."

Additionally, I feel that most of the bike fit advice accumulated over the years have been more appropriate for road bikes and old school mountain bikes (many of which were essentially road bike with fat tires). All of these ideas have good intentions, but vague results from one rider to another and among bicycle geometries as they evolve for riding conditions.

Why so complicated?

As I was typing all this up, I started thinking: why is setting up a bicycle so complex? All I want to do it take a bike that is designed to fit a rider my size and set it up so I can ride comfortably and with confidence for a few hours at a time, so why am I considering advice on the internet that involves employing lasers, video motion capture software, a stationary trainer, and enormous protractors like you see in those fancy bike fit studios? What made this "necessary," and what do I hope to gain by moving my bike parts around by mere millimeters in one direction or another?

Unless a rider happens to be Vitruvian Man, any amount of calculations and measurements is only going to get within a ballpark of a good fit. After the pain and frustration of my last few rides, though, I am gun-shy about riding my bike at all. Until I get my body and my bike fit sorted, is riding worth the physical pain and frustration that result?  This analysis paralysis might be worse than any amount of injury I could receive from riding an ill-fitting bike.

This is where I quit crunching numbers and moved on to practical matters. I could stare at these numbers all day but nothing is going to substitute for placing my butt in the saddle and considering how the bike fits and handles. Unfortunately, none of the frames I am interested in riding come in a complete bike format to test ride, test rides in parking lots are no substitute for riding on the trail, and manufacturer demo days are few and far between.

I can conclude that the best way for me to fit a bike is to ride the bike mindfully, listen to my body, adjust what doesn't work to something that does work, and ride some more. That requires some knowledge of how my body propels a bike and what adjustments will change how that happens, which is the kind of knowledge I am seeking.

One thing that I have discovered is a better way to look at how a bike fits from a geometric standpoint. I start by dividing my fit into two dimensions based on the idea that all motions on the bicycle start at the feet: pedaling and wrangling.

By pedaling, I mean propulsion generated by the position of the bottom half of your body relative to the pedals. This means saddle height, saddle-bottom bracket offset, saddle angle and so forth. You can tell, within a reasonable margin of error, if a bike will fit you from a pedaling standpoint based on the seat tube length, seat tube angle, and effective top tube or ETT. Getting a solid pedaling position on the bike is essential for just getting around and should not be ignored, even on a mountain bike that is ridden in a variety of positions. This should be pretty straightforward, but of course, it's not.

By wrangling, I mean where and how your weight is distributed when you ride the bike actively based on your position of your hands relative to the pedals. This circumvents the saddle position because riding a bicycle is a dynamic activity, especially on a mountain bike.

When wrangling a mountain bike over the terrain, the rider is constantly changing the center of gravity to maintain balance and traction while vaulting up ledges, whipping around corners, or bounding down descents. The rider engaged in wrangling the bike is rarely seated, and increasing numbers of riders are using telescopic seatposts (including myself, hopefully, in the near future).

Solid numbers

Yet I still feel the urge to quantify everything, so I am working on learning what matters when it comes to fitting a bike, and what is coincidental. My goal is to record the relevant measurements and make subtle changes so I can look back and remember where I have been on this journey. For the slightly-longer term, I would like to be able to find what I am looking for and make an informed purchase on my next frame, be it a more svelt off-the-peg frame or getting something built just for me.

In bicycle geometry, I find that quantified as stack and reach are more relevant in understanding how the bike will be wrangled, whereas effective top tube better defines the seated pedaling position that you can achieve by moving the saddle position around.

Stack and reach have been defined as the plumb-vertical distance from the bottom bracket to the intersection of a horizontal line that crosses the top of the head tube (stack), and horizontal distance from the center-top of the head tube to that vertical line that goes through the bottom bracket (reach). The intersection point is usually an imaginary one in the air perpendicular to the top of the frame and the center of the bottom bracket This has been explained in great detail by various manufacturers and has recently gained prominence as a standard measurement included with most manufacturers' literature.

Of course, as a bicycle's stack increases, so should it's reach. Tall people are tall because they have long legs, long torsos, and long arms, which is why bicycles get proportionally longer and taller at the same time. For different kinds of bicycles ridden in different ways, one needs to know what relation the stack and reach have to one another across sizes withing a model of bikes.

In other words, this is a fraction in need of a common denominator to make sense!

I played around with calculating effective downtube lengths and making the ratio into a reach/stack percentage, but then I read this blog and found my solution. The author was comparing stack and reach among lines of road bikes as a ratio, with a ratio of 1.5 to be about neutral. anything below 1.5 is "racey" and above 1.5 seems to imply a "relaxed" geometry.

Oddly, bicycle manufacturers seem to have made no attempt to connect these things in meaningful ways for their customers. Either they know that geometry is more complex than that level of simplicity (very likely)  or that the average consumer doesn't have the time, nor the mental capacity to wrap their head around that metric of comparison (equally likely).

If this theory holds any water, I can compare a few medium-sized frames that I find compelling (Kona Unit, Vassago Jabberwocky, surly Karate Monkey, etc) and find that the frame stack-and-reach ratio hover of most XC hardtail frames around the 1.4 mark. Niner's ROS 9 and SIR 9 medium frames are both 1.56, despite the fact that the former is labeled an "all mountain" bike and the latter a "XC/race" bike.

Of course, the end result of how a bike fits (pedaling) and handles (wrangling) depends on the way one sets up the saddle and handlebar position, but getting a frame that best a accommodates that position is a good start. If the frame dimensions do not yield the riding position and posture that suits your riding style, that's the wrong frame for you.

I am at this point: can I balance the fit and the handling of this current frame in a way that suits me and my riding style? If so, great! If not, I am back to shopping for a new frame. Since I am too cheap to just buy new stuff to solve my situation, this will be a long, difficult road.

Friday, June 16, 2017

back pain update

A few months ago, I replaced my Soma Juice frame with a Niner ROS 9. Although the fit was about the same, I noticed back pain after an hour or two of riding. I decided I should explore what's going on with my body rather than try to compensate for it by continually tweaking my bike fit.

I started working with Dr. Bradley Holden at Health First Spine and Wellness and ... wow! I could not ride my bike for more than an hour just a month ago and now the only thing sending me home is the brutal Texas heat and the accompanying dehydration and exhaustion.

Wednesday, May 31, 2017

Valuable lessons in spine maintenance

I have not ridden my bike in about a month. This is partly due to the fact that I was visiting Republic of Ireland and England for nearly two weeks (my brain is still on London time, which explains why I was up and writing this starting at 4:45 a.m.), but mostly because my first few rides on my new ROS 9 resulted in severe back pain.

I was able to ride the Castell Grind 100k without issue, but I have had to cut short all my trail rides after about an hour due to an aching lower back. It was unbearable and the pain would last for a few days. In an attempt to address this scientifically, I started listing variables that could cause this:
  1. new bike is fitted differently
  2. new bike is heavier than my old one
  3. I am overly stoked on the new bike and riding harder/ differently
  4. my body is mangled and this has finally manifesting itself in back pain
I concede that 1 through 3 are possibilities that should be addressed. I might end up paying a professional bike fitter to fine-tune my fit, but that seems like on unnecessary expense in my life right now. The new bike does fit a little differently, and it's slightly heavier, and I have been trying to manual and hop this bike quite a bit.

I took to internet message boards to help me narrow down what is going on and was told to set my bike up exactly like my old bike, fit it totally different, get a longer stem, a shorter stem, raise my handlebar, lower my handlebar, push my seat forward, push it back, get a softer seatpost, lower my tire pressure, and several other bits of advice that contradicted each other at every turn.

I have learned a lot about bike fit as a result of this pursuit, and also learned that everyone on the internet is an "expert," but more on that later.

[I preface everything else I am about to write with this caveat: I possess no medical expertise and an amateur understanding of bike fit and physiology. The following is based on my personal experiences, observations, and bits of knowledge I have gleaned from experts of varying levels of credibility. Take it all with a grain of salt and consult with a medical professional and/ or bike fitter for more information.]

That leaves my body, something better left to a medical professional. I have a history with back injuries from two car accidents, riding BMX for over 15 years, sitting for a desk job, manual labor, etc., and I have had mixed experiences with chiropractors. Despite what some people say about the practice (one person recently told me that they are all "chiroquacks"), I am convinced that no amount of stretching, exercise, "yoga" activity, bike fit adjustments, or painkillers are going to help if the spine is out of whack and a good chiro is the best person to deal with that.

On the advice of several local mountain bikers I know, I visited a nearby chiropractor a few weeks ago. He's a cyclist and his practice does everything, starting with x-rays and getting into adjustments, massage, physical therapy and training and he even does bike fittings. I was not terribly surprised to learn what his exam told me, but it's not terrific news.

My x-rays showed that I have a few issues going on:
  1. my neck does not have a natural, healthy cervical lordosis. Instead, it curves slightly forward (kyphosis) and cantilevers my head in a forward position. It's subtle to the untrained eye, but it's definitely there. Some of the joints in my neck don't move very well and my head tilts slightly to the right, which is apparent in photos.
  2. My lower back has some vertebrae that don't move freely. My lumbar lordosis is not quite what it ought to be.
  3. My pelvis tilts forward and is not laterally level. I have an anterior pelvic tilt, which could be the result of several factors and habits I have.
  4. My sacrum is tilted forward several degrees.

Since I was a child, despite being active and vaguely athletic, I have never been able to bend at the waist and touch my toes. Like many cyclists, have overdeveloped quads (front of thigh muscles that push pedals down) and weak, tight hamstrings, which somewhat explains the pelvic tilt and back pain. (I found an excellent article on Livestrong that describes this exact issue.)

Cycling likely exacerbated the pelvic problem to the state in which I find myself today. The muscles in front of my legs are strong and pulling down, keeping the weak muscles in back under constant tension, like a teeter totter with a really fat kid on one end. When I cantilever my upper body over the front of a bicycle and hammer on the pedals for hours, relying on my quads to do most of the work, it strains the lower back and, surprise!, it starts to ache miserably.

The chiropractor has me on a schedule of adjustments, training with a physical therapist and some home practices that will correct my spine over time and make it last.

Treatment is not cheap and it's unnerving to add this bill to my monthly expenses (I really need to find a way to earn more money, getting old is expensive and expensive is getting old), but I am convinced it's a good investment in my future health. I would rather make sacrifices now than have severe back problems in a decade or two that could keep me from working and enjoying life. At 35 years, I am not old, but I need to be intentional about these things.

In part II, I will explain what I have learned about bike fit and how I am learning to make my bike best accommodate the limits of my body.