Tour de Jazz KC

Only a few days ago I found myself riding through the gloom of an early, overcast morning. The air was cool and thick with humidity, the sky promising rain that – perhaps – wouldn’t actually come. The day itself emerged as hot and sultry and sticky.

But this was still morning and I ascended a long, but not especially steep hill, shifting down one gear so as not to vary my cadence appreciably. Ahead of me in the distance a yard light flickered and quietly emerged as a glow, faint yet distinctly separate from the dusk.

Pedaling past a house with a fenced in front yard, a tiny dog rushed forward, fierce with possibility. On the front porch sat a very large, sloth-like man, wearing naught but a pair of whitey-tighty briefs. I saw him pull deeply on a cigarette as I approached. The embers suddenly glowed brightly, then not. He slowly exhaled a stream of murky smoke and leaned to the floor of the porch to grasp what I imagined to be a coffee mug. In a voice muffled by misty air he hushed the dog.

And I continued up the hill, leaving house, dog, and raspy cough behind me in the almost night.

The weather took a change for the better over the weekend. As an interesting change of pace I joined a charity ride that departed during the late afternoon. With a steady breeze and almost cool temperatures, this event was very unlike most that I ride during the desert months of Missouri August.

My decision to register for the Tour de Jazz KC was a very last minute one. Much as I hate -absolutely hate – all of the rides that are christened with “Tour de …”, I was happy to support the jazz community. We have a great jazz tradition in Kansas City (think Charlie Parker, the Count, Benny Moten, etc.) and the ride promised live jazz music at all the rest stops along the way. Plus, the weather promised to be phenomenal for a Saturday afternoon in late August: no humidity, no heat, and a nice breeze. I’ll be darned if I’m staying home and watching the last of the Juice Olympics on such a day as this!

Most of the local rides take you back over the same tired routes around town, so I was pleased to discover this event was anything but the the samo samo. We headed into a part of town that one might charitably refer to as downtrodden. One might also be apprehensive about cycling through those neighborhoods, but my personal experience was that there were lots of people enjoying the day on their front porches. They all waved and smiled. I waved and smiled back. Some wanted to chat, so I chatted. OK, a group of ten year old boys did cheer us on and then pelt boulder sized gravel at us, and I did have one especially large rock bounce safely off my helmet. But after bellowing out my trademarked grumpy old man yell, they ran off, giggling the entire way.

Most charity rides are flat and marked well. This was neither. A cluster of cyclists that I found myself in discovered we’d gone off the route on numerous occasions – once we had to double back up a hill, fully five miles behind the pack we’d started with. And the hills! Man, I usually don’t shy away from them, but we hit one relatively short climb that appeared to be straight up. For the first time in probably five or six years I found myself walking (barely) the final hundred feet.

Our route took us to the gravesites of jazz greats Charlie Parker and Bennie Moten. It also took us right through the heart of traffic entering Kaufmann Stadium for a Royals game. I weaved through the throngs of cars with my heart catching in my throat. I noticed a few others in my mirror dismounting and walking that mile or so along landscape with nary a sidewalk in sight.

But the best part was the rest stops. Local jazz artists and session musicians were jamming at every SAG station. I love jazz, and these guys – many of them pretty long in the tooth – were just hammering it. I made a few quick reference sketches and took a couple of photos with my iPhone so that I could make the illustration pictured above this afternoon. Of course, I listened to jazz classics in the studio while I drew.

Why not?

About a month ago, I raised a rhetorical question on The Early Morning Cyclist when I asked “Why 650b?” I answered my own question with a couple of photographs of two pathways that pass for roads in this part of the world. As much as I bitch about the condition of our roads – and rightfully so, I might add – it’s a little bit disingenuous for me to imply those two photographs represent all, or even a majority of our thoroughfares. And while I’ll often encounter epic craters of moon-surface-like proportions, and more chip seal than original tarmac, the majority of our roads really are paved.


From time to time I’ll wander off these semi-paved surfaces. Without question, 650b excels on gravel and on crummy pavement my bike floats over conditions that would have me skinny tire slaloming to avoid tearing up a wheel. Lightweight, supple, wide 650b tires provide me with a good riding experience. Over time I have gradually been moving toward the widest tires that can safely be mounted on each of my bikes. (Caveat: Skinny racing tires are mounted on two race bikes. Chubby tires won’t fit, and besides that they would just looks silly.)

I knew from having done a test fitting a few years ago that I could get 700 x 38 tires onto my Raleigh International without a problem. Compass produces a supple tire in that size; I really like the narrower Compass version that is on my Boulder; I had a little extra in my PayPal account from having sold off a few components on eBay. So why not?

Adequate room in the back and between the stays to run the wider tires, even with fenders installed.

I use MAFAC 2000 center pulls on this bike, and they wrap around nicely. Disconnect the yoke, and there is lots of wiggle room to remove the wheel without deflating.

I’ve been riding this bike a lot lately. Whenever I have a new build, I get excited about it. In my mind, I tend to exaggerate all the characteristics as “the best ever.” I know this about myself, and I also know that it takes a fair amount of riding before I’m willing to allow myself to be fiercely judgmental of the choices I’ve made, to be honest with myself about the build. The question is: Am I choosing a bike repeatedly because it honestly feels great to ride, or am I captivated by the newness factor? And if I’m entirely honest with myself, right now I’m still in the honeymoon phase where everything seems great.

So I’m going to throw a few observations out here, knowing full well that I may wind up having a change of heart as time passes.

  1. I have three bikes built up in a similar fashion, i.e., racks and fenders, comfortable for distance randonneur or fast, light touring style bicycles. The list includes a Boulder Brevet, 650b Cycles Toussaint Velo-Routier, and now a 1971 Raleigh International. I like all of them, but I tend to carry the Toussaint with me when I travel mostly because I don’t like carrying my Boulder on a rack on the back of the car. The Boulder is my preferred bike on just about any ride other than over gravel.
  2. Until now, the Toussaint exhibits the greatest sensation of “float” when I run low pressure. The geometry is not at all aggressive and encourages a leisurely approach to riding. In this sense, it is a very “French” bike, despite a Canadian birth. The International is more laid back than it’s racier brothers, but not as laid back as the Toussaint.
  3. With low pressure, the Compass tires provide a very similar sensation of float to that of the 650b. Perhaps it’s my imagination, but this wheel/tire size combination doesn’t seem to spin up quite as quickly as the 650b. By comparison, the 650b doesn’t spin up as fast as the 700 x 30 tires on my Boulder. Tire size, different bikes, different components and chain ring specs, and varying conditions probably account for some of that. The difference is negligible, when comparing these three bikes but significant when comparing to one of my nimble “race bikes.”
  4. On my rims, the 700 x 38 Compass tires mic out at 700 x 36-ish.
  5. If I didn’t already own my Boulder Brevet, the International, built up as it currently is could easily be my “go to” bike.
  6. I like the ride quality of 700 x 38 Compass tires. I don’t feel any regret for the purchase.

Ozarks Rambling

My main takeaway from last weekend was man, how fun the short, steep descents are in the Ozarks Mountains of extreme southwest Missouri.

The Tablerock Lake area is one of our favorite places to disappear into. Woods, water, hills, sparsely populated sections of the Ozarks – what’s not to like? I’ve transported several different bikes with me to ride these hilly roads. My 650b Cycles Toussaint has kind of been the “go to” bike for these trips because the gearing and tires fit the conditions in the area very nicely. It was the bike I’d planned to take with me last weekend, quite frankly. But having just finished adding fat tires to the Raleigh International rebuild a few days earlier I wound up reaching for it when I packed the car.

The ride quality of these Compass Barlow Pass 700 x 38 tires is the most startlingly dramatic I’ve experienced. It took a little experimenting to find the sweet spot for tire pressure, but even when they were inflated above what turned out to be the optimal they still felt darned good. Once lowered to the right front/back combination for my weight and pedaling style, the road got really fun to ride. They simply soak up the rough stuff.

Descending to lake level, I found myself at Baxter Boat Dock pedaling around the campground. I paused at water’s edge for a few minutes. Rain seemed to follow me this weekend, but this spot was dry as a bone.

Pedaling back up the hills I was soon engulfed in thick mist. The gravel was saturated with water, perspiration mingled with moisture infused air and dripped off my face and arms. My shirt was saturated. The humidity was about 300%, and thick enough to cut with a knife. S

Sounds gross, right? But I was enjoying the ride so much that it was easy to ignore the atmospheric conditions.

So, the bike. The tires. The build. Yeah, I’m confident things have really gone very well. The whole package has come together really nicely, what I would describe as a harmonious build. I’m happy.

Addendum: I was curious to see how accurately my 700 x 38 tires actually measured out. They’ve been on the rims for about two weeks now, so one would think they’d be stretched out by this point. Right now they measure a solid 36.

The Third Life of a Phoenix

“The Phoenix.” Hmm. I typed that title on a whim, but I like it. Maybe I need to have that in subtle, elegant calligraphy across the top tube? It’s a thought.

Why “Phoenix,” though? Well, I consider this the third life of my 1971 Raleigh International. She came to me a few years back in pretty sad condition, paint flaking off in strips, generally abused and neglected over time. The previous owner rode it as a touring bike for many years, through all sorts of conditions. He had eventually aged out of the bike and out of riding, and she sat in his workshop for a long time until  I adopted her. Her second life was as a long distance three-speed.

This morning was the inaugural shakedown “third life” ride following last week’s rebuild. During her second life she was a wonderful reimagining of a club racer – a venerable British lightweight drop bar frame with a three speed internally geared hub. I’ve loved that configuration, but in honest self reflection I find that nearly all of my riding is done on my Boulder Brevet. I asked myself why that was, and the answer – not surprisingly – was: Fit, gearing, build, and ride quality.

Hence, the third life is a return to the roots of this bike, with more than a few nods towards those things that make my life feel better on two wheels.

So, the inaugural shakedown ride is a short twelve mile route of hills and flats that I use to test new builds. My initial assessment? A/A+…and now I’m REALLY jazzed about  installing 700 x 38 Compass Barlow Pass tires that I can run at lower pressure.  (I’ve got 700 x 28 Gatorskins on the rims at the moment, and while they are definitely the most bullet proof tires I’ve ever ridden, they are far from being describable as “supple.” And they are a total bitch to get over the lip of the rim. God help me if I ever have a frickin’ flat out on the road…)

To say that I’m pleased with this rebuild would be a gross understatement. The bottom bracket is perfectly tuned and the Stronglight 48/40/28 triple yields a very nice range of low and middle range gears when paired up with the 13-30 Ultra 6 freewheel. A Mountech FD handles the jump between 40 and 28 without blinking an eye. And the Mark Pace-built rear wheel turns out to have been an outstanding decision. It’s riding very nicely indeed.

While I wait on tires to arrive I’ll head out to the studio to engineer a nicer looking light bracket. I also need to camouflage/protect the exposed wiring running from the dyno hub to the light unit. That’s (mostly) cosmetic, but I appreciate a well designed system.

It’s the light.

Yeah, it’s the light I think. Heading out in the morning, just before the sun breaks the horizon; the roads are dusky but the light changes rapidly. Mornings like this morning are a gift in a way. The world is shrouded in fog, moisture glistens on my arm hairs as I roll downhill, a bead of it is just visible on the nose of my helmet – then the droplet falls and spins away, lost as momentum propels me forward.

The fog is magical. It turns the everyday into something mysterious. I truly cannot decide whether I prefer the saturated color in which the world is momentarily painted, or the wonderfully smooth gradations of tonality that gets rendered in black and white on this day.

So why choose? I shoot both ways. And yeah, it really is the light.


The Standard “Kit”

I field a fair number of emails originating from readers of The Early Morning Cyclist. Every now and then I get questions about gear I’m using, or my “kit” – the stuff I wear when I ride. With three questions fired at me in as many days I’ll go out on a limb and call this a trend that needs to be addressed.

I don’t write about these things much because, frankly, I really don’t think about them much. (At least not nearly as much as our local groups of matching-kit Lycra roadies apparently do.) Oh, I certainly have my share of jerseys. Some commemorate events, others were picked up as mementos on vacation, and at least one was a gift from my wife and is emblazoned with an “Old Farts Cycling Team” graphic.

I just don’t wear them all that often.

I dress for comfort when I ride. Knickers and sweltered layers when it gets cold. And although my “kit” isn’t set in stone, during the summer it’s kind of standardized:

The Lid. I know I should probably be more diligent about wearing a helmet, but likely as not I’ll be found cycling in a grungy, sweat-stained cycling cap. I’ve got dozens of ’em, but my favorite is a gray cap made by Swift, the same fine craftspeople who made my Ozette bag. I rather think this hat was a “one and done” project, and that they were only available for a really short time. This is why I sort of freak out when I misplace my lid: there’s likely no way to replace it.

The eyes. I need glasses to read signs, or a map, or my phone. A couple years I ago I invested in a pair of prescription Ray-Bans and those have become a de facto part of my outdoor adventures. The other item that I feel a bit naked without is a Bike Peddler “Take A Look” Eyeglass Mirror. I really want to know what that smoke chugging truck creeping up behind me is up to, so I won’t leave home without my eyeglass mirror.

The hands. For short jaunts I won’t wear gloves at all. I really like the feel of my bare palms against shellac-coated bar wrap. But if I’m going to be out for more than an hour, the gloves will definitely be part of my kit.

The jersey. It’s a 100% cotton t-shirt, occasionally stained with smudges of paint, or chain grease, or both. I spent too many years as a graphic designer to be able to stomach the truly awful graphics that adorn most shirts, so I consider the embarrassing designs to be optional.

The legs. Instead of Lycra bicycle shorts, I’m rather partial to lightweight padded under shorts – as in “worn under normal shorts.” I like hiking, camp, or cargo shorts. Lots of pockets for important stuff like money, fountain pen, sketchbook, etc.

The feet. I’ve got a pair of mountain bike shoes for when I ride clipped in. A recessed clip is the only pure cycling shoe I care to wear because it allows me to walk around off the bike without looking like I’m in a Monty Python skit. I also like to use trail runners or my Keene sandals. That way I look semi-normal off the bike, and I can stroll in and out of a diner or grocery store or even a bike shop. I’m kind of picky about socks though, and will avoid cotton at all costs.

What’s nice about this “kit” is that I don’t have to pack a lot of specialty clothing when I travel. My ride clothes and my “everything else” clothes are pretty much one and the same. As a matter of fact, it’s also pretty much what I’m wearing as I type these words, and pretty much what I’ll be wearing when I begin cooking dinner tonight. It’s pretty much the only thing I wear from the time summer vacation begins until the time I report back to school.