Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Griggstown Grinder - 20110830

Almost the last Grinder of the summer. Diane plans a couple of shorter rides, at a slightly earlier time in September.

But this was the last full on Griggstown Grind of the year, 22miles/35km with 1350ft/410m of climbing.

Hurricane Irene meant that several roads and bridges in the area were closed or hazardous, so just to make up for it Diane led us up Dutchtown-Zion Road, 300ft/90m in 1mile/1.6km.

A nervous descent over the gravel section brought us to the further climb up Long Hill Road and then on to the Spring Hill Road descent. Once again, the descent was rather fraught. Most of us expected tree debris in the road, but it was the amount of gravel washed down into the corners which caused us to keep the rein on speed.

Further bridge closures meant the return to Belle Mead was rather improvised. The cut through Skillman "village" revealed that all the old institution buildings had been demolished in the last couple of weeks, a pity because good brick-built construction is rare in this area.

Once again, dusk fell very quickly, necessitating a speedy return to the cars.

The evening was brought to a convivial conclusion with pizza and beer ... thanks to Diane and Dave.

See you all next year!!!

Sunday, August 28, 2011

Blinky Lights - be seen in the gloom

Blackburn Mars 3.0
On my recent group ride in the Sourlands, it became more than apparent, that even when you think you're never going to cycle in the dark, eventually you're going to be caught out.

Indeed, the group I was riding with seemed well aware of this. I don't think I've seen so many flashing rear lights in action on a ride with the evening drawing in.

The last few years have seen a transformation of bicycle lighting. Systems which give bikes the lighting power of a car are available, if somewhat expensive. But every year sees the amount of available lumens doubling and the price halving. Until recently each lumen cost around usd2.00/ukp1.50. This year the ratio has inverted and cost is about 2 lumens per usd1.00/ukp0.60.

Blackburn Flea
Most road rides can manage with a rear blinky light. Of course a front light of some sort aids conspicuity too, but, at least, you can see trouble coming at you from that direction and take appropriate action. Even on summer rides in bright sunlight a flashing rear light is useful to draw attention to you as vehicle drivers wearing dark sunglasses come up behind you in deep shade, under trees and so on.

Planet Bike
Superflash Turbo
Most bicycle rear lights have a series of modes from constant on to a variety of flashing and strobing effects. Some sequences have been specifically designed to be the most eye-catching to motorists.

But don't forget, you might not want to subject other riders in your group to a blitz of intense, flashing red light. Some of the more expensive rear blinkies are very bright indeed and employ random or even psychologically tested strobe patterns which can be very unpleasant indeed if you've a dozen or so riders in front of you. So think of using a less conspicuous setting and let the fact there are several riders on the road attract the attention of passing drivers.

Princeton Tec
Swerve 2
Lastly, don't stint on batteries.

Modern LED lights are very efficient and a set of batteries will last many hours. But it's still common to see good, potentially effective, live-saving even, rear lights barely glimmering through the gloom because they need a new set of batteries.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Griggstown Grinds Lindbergh Hill

Summer evenings are certainly drawing in. Last evening's ride ended a little after sunset, but dusk fell fast, and cycling sunglasses added to the dark.

But, as usual, Diane led another exhilarating Tuesday evening ride through the Sourlands. Never were the Hollow Road, Longhill-Zion and Lindbergh climbs more, well, challenging.

Jen, our usual assessor of hill-worthiness, wasn't able to judge the ride's F-Factor, either because of running out of expletives or total exhaustion, so I guess it was a tough one. But even Lindbergh's final close to 20% grade at the end failed to dent the beauty of a fine evening in central NJ.

Steve and I were off the front when the rest of the group threaded through the Brandywine and Kildee neighbourhood rather than take the direct route along the appropriately named Sunset Road, so most riders did a little more than the posted distance.

Never were blinky-lights more useful.

Princeton Sharrows

"Sharrows" have started to appear on some roads around Princeton, NJ
Didn't know what "sharrows" are? Nor did I. I couldn't even find it in the three dictionaries - Webster's, Oxford, - I checked on the interweb.

Basically, it's a device designed to draw motorists attention to the presence of cyclists in the absence of cycle-lanes and cycle-paths.

It's Princeton's, and I assume, NJDOT's response to improving the safety of cyclists on the town's roads which aren't deemed wide enough to support a more conventional cycle-lane.

The principle is to establish the sharrow at a point in the road where a driver should expect to see a cyclist.

A Sharrow
The picture shows a sharrow on Witherspoon St, heading south towards the Paul Robeson Center. The marking is positioned about 3ft/1m out from the parking lane, beyond the reach of swinging car doors, in the space an assertive cyclist would occupy on the road. This device is repeated every 100yds/100m or so.

I'm not aware of any research which would indicate if these are more effective than a cycle lane, or indeed whether they make any difference at all. I would hope there is some sort of statistical review of this measure to check its effectiveness and whether it improves the cycling environment. I would be interested to see if anyone had looked at European towns and cities which have even narrower streets and larger cycling populations to examine their approach.

More information:

There's a map here ... USDOT guidelines here ...
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Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Noises Off - My bike's making a funny noise ...

One of the most frequent reasons for riders returning their bicycle to their local bike shop - LBS - is because they believe their gears are out of adjustment. "It makes a grinding noise when it's on the little cog," and "It's slow to change gear," are common complaints.

Often it's not so much the adjustment of the gears which is at fault. Most bike shops know how to optimise bicycle gears for best performance. Using bicycle gears requires a degree of understanding, if not empathy.

Yes, it's possible that your last bike never complained, and more expensive mechanisms cope with the extremes better, but these systems can cost six times more than your hybrid bicycle. The dérailleur mechanism is an engineering compromise. There's no reason it should work at all ...

I originally wrote this article a while ago. I hope it's still useful.

There is nothing as likely to bring a customer back to the bike store as a problem with their bicycle gears.

Most modern bicycles use variations of a design called the dérailleur; literally, the de-railer, a device which forces the chain from one cog to the next in a very unsophisticated and crude manner. In engineering terms, it really shouldn't work ... but it does.

Modern dérailleurs use all manner of tooth profiles and chain design to enable this to happen as smoothly as possible.

But, just as changing gear on a manual gearbox car needs finesse and understanding of the principles involved, compared to say, an automatic gearbox, changing gear using dérailleurs on a bicycle requires a degree of involvement from the rider, more than just pushing the button and crunching on regardless.

Some modern bikes have up to 30 possible gear combinations - 3 at the front 10 at the rear - but not all permutations are useful either because some combinations of front and rear cogs produce gear ratios which are very close to another or even identical, or are mechanically compromised. More about that later ...

Changing Gear:

The principle of the dérailleur depends on the chain moving forward through the gear change, so when changing gear, continue to pedal forward. However, it's really helpful to the change if pressure is taken off the pedals so that for the duration of the procedure the feet just spin until you sense the gear has changed and take up the effort again.

There are occasions when this isn't possible, but just assessing your gear changing needs ahead of the point where you have to change helps. This particularly applies when you're changing up to a higher gear, for example, on a hill, or changing to an easier gear just before coming to a halt.

People often ask, "How do I know what gear I'm in?"

The fact is, you don't really need to know as long as you feel comfortable and can maintain a good pedal cadence and the drive sounds quiet. But there are some gear combinations to avoid.


The diagram shows the top view of a typical set up. I've indicated the chain line from the extremes of the chainwheel to the cassette. Although exaggerated, it demonstrates the degree of deformation the chain has to cope with in those gears. This tends to cause the chain to track badly, run noisily and the dérailleur mechanisms to have to contend with excessive chain wrap, extension and tension.

In practice, restrict your gear choices as in the diagram above; large chainwheel to outer selection of sprockets, small chainwheel to inner sprockets.

This picture illustrates a rear mechanism coping with chain wrap. This would be more excessive with a triple-chainset.

Modern gear indexing systems control the movement of the dérailleur, often to a tolerance of 0.1mm, less than 1/100th inch. One of the prime reasons for gears to go out of adjustment is cable stretch, particularly with new cables, so if you've recently bought a new bike, or installed a new cable, return to your LBS to have the adjustment done if you can't do it yourself.

Another frequent cause of poor shifting can be a bent dérailleur hanger, the component which connects the rear mechanism to the frame. If you suspect your hanger is bent you will need to visit your LBS where they will have an alignment device which can check and adjust the hanger. The hanger will need to be adjusted in three planes so it's not really a job you can do at home.

But adjustment can be affected by using excessive force, either through the gear changer or through the pedals while changing gear causing elements of the drive to distort or just go out of line, so learn to coordinate your changing/pedaling skills as outlined above.

A well adjusted gear mechanism will produce easy and smooth changes. However, it does need some input in terms of timing, sensitivity and skill from you, the rider.

Another article about pedalling ... Cadence

Monday, August 22, 2011

Tonight, I Am Mostly Reading ...

Map of a Nation : A Biography of the Ordnance Survey

Rachel Hewitt, Granta Books; First Edition 2nd Impression edition (7 Oct 2010)

The United Kingdom and Éire are probably the most accurately mapped countries in the world..

How this mammoth project came about is covered in this fascinating book. The reason wasn't so that walkers and cyclists would an have excellent resource to guide them through the highways and the byways of the countryside, oh no. The clue is in the word "ordnance".

So this book traces the origins of the Ordnance Survey, where mathematicians and engineers performed incredible feats of mathematics, measurement and trigonometry to compile the nation's map when the nation's armed forces weren't quite certain on whose heads they would be dumping all that ordnance.

But engineers and surveyors had to cope with everything from plumb-lines which didn't hang vertically because of neighbouring mountains - Newton sorted this one out - to natives who mistook them for French spies checking out invasion routes - the local constabulary sorted this one ... sometimes.

I'm pleased to say that Plymothians and Old Boys from my old school feature in this. I can't say I knew them. This was over 200 years ago, but it's nice to know Plympton Grammar School played its part. I'm so proud. And so would "Ned" Nicholson, MA (Cantab) my old Headmaster. And we all know what "Cantab" means, don't we?

Anyway, for me, a map addict, this is a compelling read. Thank you Linda, for finding it for me.

Speaking of Pedals ...

One of the biggest hurdles when new riders consider their first "serious" bicycle is the question of clipless pedals.

Various fears associate themselves with this component of the modern bicycle, but greatest of all is ignominiously tumbling to the ground because you cannot release your feet from the pedal.

The history of clipless pedals, that is a pedal which physically engages and retains a cleat on the sole of the shoe, is longer than you might think, but until about 20 years ago, the most common means of securing the foot to the pedal was by a cage and straps.

The first clipless pedals did engage the shoe, via a cleat, very positively, and sometimes required a button being pushed or lever pressed before the foot could be disengaged.

Most riders using cages and straps also got used to cinching the bindings as they set off, and loosening them as they prepared to stop. Cycle shoes had a ridge on the sole which engaged the back of the pedal to increase the sense of engagement.

Cages and straps are so secure, that even now track racing specialists use them in preference to clipless pedals because they guarantee a solid connection to the bike. It also helps that they usually have someone to catch and support them at the end of every event ...

But even now there is a perception that old-fashioned cages are easier to get out of than clipless pedals, when, in fact, a properly adjusted pedal is easy for most people to disengage from.

Most clipless pedals have a tension adjustment which determines the amount of effort required to disengage.

Typical double-sided pedal | Typical platform pedals
Tension can be adjusted by a screw, usually an Allen bolt.There is usually an indicator to direct you which way to turn the adjuster.

If you are new to clipless pedals, you should wind off the tension. In fact it's usually a good idea to do this even if you're quite experienced when fitting new pedals or cleats. Most pedals have a tension indicator, or a series of clicks on the screw to ensure both pedals are adjusted equally. Don't forget, double-sided pedals have an adjuster on both sides.

At first, ride with the tension wound off to a minimum, but as the pedals and cleats wear in, increase the tension by a couple of clicks at a time, until you feel you have a balance of security and are comfortable disengaging your feet from the pedal.

If you're new to clipless pedals:

  • Use cleats which provide a degree of float. This enables your foot to have a degree of movement on the pedal. Most people find this more comfortable. 
  • Use a bike shop which will provide advice, take a few minutes to ensure you can use the pedals comfortably, measure your foot and use wedges, if necessary, to optimise the position of the cleat on your shoe.
  • Decide which is your landing foot. That is the foot you put down as you stop and probably the foot you launch from.
  • Engage the other foot before you launch.
  • There is no requirement to engage your second foot in the first revolution of the cranks. Wait until you have enough speed to be steady enough to devote attention to comfortably engaging your launch foot. This is fairly easy with double-sided pedals, but requires a small amount of skill with single-sided platform pedals.
  • Prepare to stop by disengaging your landing foot in plenty of time. There is nothing like the panic of stopping and realising your feet are still engaged in the pedals, nor the embarrassment resulting from your colleagues' sympathetic remarks.

Clipless pedals increase your pedalling efficiency, maximise your control of the bike and, if properly fitted help alleviate foot problems, such as hot-foot, numbness and pins-and-needles.

More than anything, apart from, maybe, cycle shorts, riding clipless is most peoples' introduction to being a real cyclist, whether racing or riding recreationally.

Your neighbours will have a new opinion of you ;-)

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Shimano Dura Ace SPD-SL Pedals

For the last few rides I've been lucky enough to try Shimano's new top-of-the-line, PD-7900 carbon composite road pedal.

Most riders first clipless pedal tends to be a mountain bike type, often because they already have a mountain bike, or because walking is an option with a mountain biking shoe. Road pedals usually work with a shoe where the cleat protrudes from the bottom, making walking difficult, if not, on occasions, hazardous.

However, because a road shoe has to make no concession to walking, it can be made a lot stiffer and the cleat, which attaches the shoe to the pedal, can be a lot larger, spreading the weight of the rider and the force pressing down across a larger platform. This keeps the foot free of pressure points, a frequent source of problems, such as pins and needles and hot foot.

So, how good is a pedal which costs more than a quality hybrid bicycle?

Well, of course, needless to say, it is pretty good. The pedal is very light, and the quality of the bearings is extraordinary. The pedal is balanced to hang vertically to enable easy engagement with the shoe, and it does this straight from the box. My old Ultegras took a bit of wearing in before they could do that.

Clicking in is extremely simple and very positive and never required a second thought, other than to contemplate, "That was easy ..."

For me the major selling point of the pedal is its broad platform which supports the shoe extremely well. Before I tried the pedal I wondered if it would be noticeable - I wear very stiff shoes anyway - and was surprised to find it is. If you require a solid support for your foot, and many cycling foot comfort conditions do, this pedal must surely be the ultimate.

And it looks pretty cool too ...
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Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Back On The Chain-Gang - 20110816

It's been a few weeks since I've been out on my road bike, the elegant Giant OCR-c2.

Not that I haven't been riding. I've done a few miles with my son James, but not in the hills. How would I fare?

The evening started badly. I left home in bright sunshine, but a couple of miles up the road the sky had clouded over from nowhere and rain started hammering the wind-shield.

However, by the time I arrived at Montgomery Park only a heavy downpour was visible a couple of miles to the south and the skies were clearing rapidly from the north-east.

A small, but select, band gathered looking optimistically towards the approaching blue sky. Would we get wet?

Well, as it happens, the roads dried very rapidly as we advanced towards the Sourlands. Frankly, I was dreading the climbs, but Hollow Road was ascended, admittedly, a bit slower than usual, but no disgrace, and, generally, although I found the ascents hard, they weren't too painful after six weeks without the agony and the ecstasy of that 10% grade/incline.

By the end of the ride we'd accomplished just under 25miles/40km with 1300ft/400m of climbing. And the weather stayed good; nice sunset and nice and dry

Thanks, as usual, to Diane, and the rest of the hardy crew. See you next week.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

The Flagship : Giant OCR-c2

It's a very miserable Sunday here in downtown NJ. Here was me hoping for my first group ride for several weeks, but rumbles of thunder in the middle of the night indicated it was going to be a very wet morning. And I know that if you didn't like getting wet in the UK, then you'd never go cycling ever. But this is America ... and besides, I don't want to get wet either.

For the past three years my main ride has been the Giant OCR-c2. A full carbon fibre road bike, with SRAM Rival components, and a couple of major upgrades. The OCR-c2 has now been superceded by the Giant Defy Advanced 2 and the Cannondale Synapse 2 would be a very tempting upgrade, but my orange Giant is so dialled in to me, that it's hard to justify replacing it.

My Giant OCR-c2
I originally bought this bike from Halter's Cycles before I started helping them out in the shop. Jason, the owner, transformed my riding position from my previous Trek 1200. In theory the frame is too small for my very long legs so I don't even ride a Large frame (it's a M/L), but the critical measurement in fitting a bicycle is the effective top-tube length. Leg length is easily sorted out with an appropriate seat-pin, but it's harder to adapt a top-tube.

Bicycle Frame Components

This also means the handle-bars have to be stacked up. A custom-built bike would probably incorporate a longer head-tube.

When I first bought it I was pretty ambivalent about the orange, but I've come to love it. There aren't many orange bikes about. An orange Timbuk2 seat-bag (no longer available) and Polar bottles (they say they're gold but look orange to me) and the final detail, orange cable end caps, give it a very together look. I know it's a joke amongst my riding colleagues, but I go for the colour-coded  thing ... okay ... I'm a poseur, I admit it.

Over the past couple of years I have made some serious upgrades to this bike. The most effective was to upgrade the wheels.

Shimano carbon tubeless wheels and Hutchinson tubeless tyres
Of all the upgrades you can make to a bike, wheels are the most significant. Most road bikes can easily be transformed by better quality wheels. In my case I went the whole hog to Shimano Dura-Ace tubeless wheels, matched with Hutchinson Intensive tubeless tyres and Stan's Sealant system.

In close to three years, except for one exception, this combination has resisted flats. The sealant system means I am unaware of any punctures at all. Except, I did have one disaster, when a piece of road debris ripped the sidewall of one of the Hutchinsons. The system worked well in that it could probably got me home, but I was a long way out on a charity event. Now I know how to deal with that circumstance, and I was certainly not really in a worse situation than had it been a regular flat. You live and learn ...

Anyway, otherwise the wheels ride smoother, truer and more responsively than the originals. There is far less rolling resistance and on downhills, the bike drops away faster than most, even with no pedalling input.

Other major upgrades have involved replacing the alloy handle-bars with a carbon fibre version.

Compact drop carbon fibre handle-bars
I also upgraded the seat-pin from a carbon-wrap alloy to a full carbon.

Fizik carbon fibre seat-pin
What is it about this carbon fibre stuff? Firstly, it is light and it is strong. But, for me, it has a unique ability to filter out road buzz/vibration, that makes a ride far less fatiguing.

Many people of a certain age tell me that carbon fibre isn't for them because they're not fast, competitive riders. However, the real advantage is its comfortable, fatigue free ride characteristics. So when you're up for your next bicycle purchase don't rule out carbon fibre as only relevant to competitive cyclists.

Of course, some other frame materials can match, if not surpass, carbon's innate characteristics. A well-made, if not custom-built, steel frame springs to mind, but that's a whole different ball-game.

Another significant upgrade has been to Shimano Dura-Ace pedals which are extremely light and have an extra-wide platform which helps to reduce stress on my feet. It's a small improvement, but perceptible.

The bike's mechanical componentry is a mix of Shimano and SRAM. The SRAM Rival drive chain has been a very good element although I like Shimano Ultegra too. If I had to choose it would be a tough call, but I would be more than happy with a bike with either of these components. I guess we're lucky to have such a competitive choice.

A large part of the enjoyment of cycling comes about from a well-fitted, comfortable bicycle which is one you want to ride again and again. For me, my Giant OCR-c2plus, has become an essential element in my enjoyment of this great pastime, which gets me out and about and keeps me fit.

So, it's still p!ssistently raining. I can hear the cellar sump pumps cut in and, across the road, the water is running off the golf course like a waterfall. It looks like today is a right-off. Oh well, let's see what's on at the cinema ...

Monday, August 08, 2011

Schuylkill River Trail - with James

For the past few weeks we've enjoyed the visit of my son James, and even managed to get some cycling in.

Considering he isn't a cyclist, James has completed some decent distances, including a 30+mile/50km tour of the Manhattan Greenway, and, this Sunday, a 50mile/80km route on the Schuylkill River Trail from Philadelphia, Pa, to Phoenixville.

My first mistake was to not realise there is a West Fairmont Park and an East Fairmont Park on opposite banks of the river. Also a huge cycling event had just finished so for the first part of the trip we found ourselves going against the flow of people leaving and also seeking a way across the Schuylkill river onto the trail itself.

However, it wasn't so difficult and after a wrong turn up the Wissahickon Trail we pedalled through Manayunk onto the canal path and on towards our goal, Valley Forge.

The river trail will eventually extend over 130miles/210km along the Schuylkill river, from Philadelphia to Pottsville, Pa. Currently, the trail has to take to the road in one or two places, but we found it generally well marked and in many places very well surfaced and smooth. One or two transitions were fairly rough, and sometimes loose, but the part we did would easily be done on a road bike with a bit of care in one or two places.

James rode my old Trek MTB which is slowly being adapted to being more like a hybrid bike with the addition of skinnier, smoother tyres. I rode my mountain bike, a mistake as it happens. Fifty miles on fat tyres turned out to be quite a drag. My single-speed would easily have coped with this ride. Consequently, James was able to ride much faster than me. I felt that pushing the mtb at 12mph felt more like pushing a road bike at 20+mph. Anyway, that's my excuse.

Bike route 1171922 - powered by Bikemap 

The ride to Valley Forge was about 20miles/32km. However, James was anxious to achieve a target of 50miles/80km for the day, so we pressed on five more miles towards the Phoenixville trail head at Longford Park.

By now we were starting to feel like a spot of lunch. It was disappointing to find no refreshment facility at the park, so we turned to make the ride back towards Philly just as the first spots of rain started to fall.

The bikes@Valley
Forge Historical Park
We made it past Valley Forge, where we paused to refill our water-bottles, but as we approached Norristown it began to pour with rain. When I say pour I should really qualify that. It was torrential.

At first we sheltered under a tree, but we quickly became drenched. So really, we might as well continue riding. We had to take off our glasses because it was so bad, and as we headed into Norristown, looking for a Main St sandwich, the rain was rushing down the road like a rapids. We took shelter at a gas station where we watched the rain continue to empty down while we drank coke and ate "gourmet" bakery products and sloshed around in our squishy shoes.

Eventually the sun started to struggle through, so that by the time we arrived back at the car we were fairly dry, but covered in trail dirt, but very happy at having completed James' goal. I know the map says 49miles/78km, but the Garmin had it at very close to 50miles so it was a win!!!

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