So How’s That Kool-Aid Taste?

How much of the mystical, mythical magic carpet ride quality of 650b is hype and how much is reality? I confess that I was fully prepared to be underwhelmed. Instead, I’m more than a little astonished at just how significantly these tires and wheel size improve my riding experience. For one thing, the wheels spin up much more quickly than I had anticipated they would – whether it is the slightly smaller wheel diameter, or the Pacenti Pari-Moto tires, the Velo Routier is not the sluggish beast I feared it might turn out to be. Additionally, riding wide, low pressure tires that are quick is an exceptional characteristic that really does enhance one’s encounter with the road.

This pleasant riding experience resulted in a rare lucid moment of clarity for me: I realized the profound difference between a road bike and the type of bicycle that meets my needs. Road bikes are designed and marketed around racing bike technology. They are marketed to racing wannabes – or, at least, to some twisted vicarious illusion of racing. Walk into any bike shop around here and the conversation is all about speed. Racers ride bikes with the sole purpose of getting someplace fast. As quickly as possible. Think about it, the longer a racer spends in the saddle the less chance there is of winning the race. There’s no real upside to staying in the saddle any longer than absolutely necessary – and that mindset certainly rubs off on many, if not most, riders.

On the other hand, I’m interested in staying comfortably in the saddle. And the kind of bike that fits my needs allows me to do precisely that. An epiphany? Maybe. Profound? Perhaps I’m overstating things a bit. Nevertheless, I am duly impressed with the 650b experience.

The majority of my riding is upon the lunar landscape of chip seal and potholes that is the connective thread we call a “road system” in Missouri. I’ve become quite adept at dodging cracks and holes and all manner of debris that seems to be strewn willy-nilly across the rural highways and back roads of Clay County. And frankly, you just about have to be a cycling acrobat if you want to safely negotiate some roads on 700 x 23 tires.

I gave up on those years back.

Most of my bikes now sport 700 x 28 tires that absorb some of the road crap. I’ve become quite enthusiastic about wider, sportier, cushier tires. And maybe it’s a little surprising that it’s taken so long for me to finally investigate 650b. But as I’m a suspicious guy, and if it walks like hype and talks like hype and smells like hype…well, it’s my experience that it’s generally going to be hype.

Only, as it turns out, it’s not.

And no one could be happier to discover this deviation from human nature than good old cynical me.

So now I’m a proud 650b cyclist. I’ve added a Cycles Toussaint Velo Routier to the herd. The Velo Routier came to me with a full build kit, and (of course) I replaced much of that kit. The MicroShift front derailleur is gone, replaced by a braze-on Shimano 600. The Gyres saddle that looks so nice and is as comfortable as a porcupine shoved up one’s rectal cavity has been exchanged for a 70’s era Brooks Professional. Velo-Orange makes an excellent “add on” for saddles without bag loops, and I’ve installed those to facilitate the hanging of an Acorn bag. What else? Oh, I really like the Velo-Orange Grand Cru Chris’s Rando Handlebar and the Shimano M-324 pedals I have on my Boulder, so those are now on the Velo Routier as well. Unlike the Boulder, this bike requires a quill stem, so I’ve traded the flexy thing that came with the bike for a tall Nitto Technomic with a little extra reach.

I carefully prepared the bars with seven layers of clear shellac over two layers of red Tressostar cotton twill. I like the feel of cotton bar wrap coated with shellac against my hands so much that I seldom wear cycling gloves with this set up. I also appreciate the smooth, matte appearance of shellac-coated bar wrap after it’s been handled by sweaty, ungloved palms for a few hundred miles.

What I like most about my Boulder Brevet is that it just fits me perfectly. That perception is very confidence inspiring. I feel like I can just get up and go, without worrying about anything. I’ve tried to dial in the fit of the Velo Routier to mimic that same feeling, while also being able to take advantage of the qualities of a wider tire.

Part of the process of getting the fit dialed in is simply getting out there and riding the bike in a variety of conditions. (And I’ve no problem with that!) With the number of my free summer days swiftly dwindling, I’ve taken to an assortment of roads and pathways.

My first real shake down ride was on the flat gravel of the KATY Trail. Riding from Pilot Grove to Rocheport, Missouri I started out gingerly enough. I’d experienced several flats while still in town. Even though I diagnosed the problem (some weird holes on the inside of the rim) and had remedied the situation (electrical tape over the holes), I didn’t relish the thought of having to change tubes again and again. My worry was needless; the electrical tape solved the problem, and by the time I had eaten lunch and was on the return jog, I found myself pedaling along at a brisk pace. The tires ate up the gravel and the pace was enjoyable. Time to give things a real test.

I hit the road bright and early. The plan was to navigate into the city, through some industrial areas and across the river into downtown, loop back through a different industrial area, cross the river and head back to the comfort of suburbia.

The roads in downtown are remarkable similar in disrepair to those in the countryside. Stop lights at every intersection, a few hills here and there, and one certainly hopes to be able to accelerate quickly, to stop with assurance. In this regard, the Velo Routier does not disappoint. As mentioned before, the wheels spin up quickly, and I was pleased with responsive acceleration – not race car g-force acceleration, but neither did it feel as though getting going was a chore. Stopping, slowing, and modulation of braking is a pleasure. The brazed-on Dia-Compe 750 brakes work perfectly. I love and prefer center pulls anyway, and these simply confirm the rationality of my affection.

Because I planned to stop along the way at the Cellar Rat to pick up a bottle of wine for dinner, I wanted to make sure that I wasn’t jarring the bottle terribly.

This was a very real concern because from The Cellar Rat, my route took me through some pretty torn up tarmac to get to The Local Pig to pick up something to eat for said dinner. Little good would it do me to select a nice vintage, only to destroy it crossing the infinite crosshatchings of railroad track. High volume/low pressure tires – what a wonderful concept! Magic carpet ride, indeed! I imagine that my bottle of Cab enjoyed the cushy ride as much as I did.


13 thoughts on “So How’s That Kool-Aid Taste?

  1. I concur with your assessment of the 650B wide supple tire. I use Stan’s rim tape. It’s about as thin as electrical tape, comes in different widths, has an ever so slight stretch and seals the rim floor. The Stan’s tape makes installing the tire easier and if desired, one can set up the tire tubeless with Stan’s valve and sealant. My Grand Boise Hetre tires (42 mm X 650B) are setup tubeless. A tubeless setup reduces wheel weight by 80-90 grams where it counts, makes the tire almost flat proof and eliminates the friction between the inner tube and tire casing hence the wheel is about 10-12% faster than the same wheel with inner tube.

    Regarding the bike shop scene, you are absolutely right about selling the racing image. Today, “the industry drives the market, not the consumer”, Georgena Terry. Today’s cycling is about racing and pushing the bike to the beat of Strava. If you are not riding a carbon bike and wearing a kit decked out in advertising, you are not a cyclist. Steel frames, wide tires, leather saddles and fenders are taboo and seal your fate.

    • I’m very interested in running tubeless at some point, Rod. Thanks for that insight!

      Funny you should quote Georgena Terry. I was at the LBS a couple of days ago to see if they might have some cotton wrap in stock (Ha! Not a chance!) and noticed that they had a Terry in the shop. I didn’t ask if it was a customer bike or a trade in, but it was just leaned up against some boxes in a sort of sad forgotten way. I guess it didn’t look like it had enough carbon fibre in it.

  2. Yeah…what Rod said.

    I am amazed by how much my new discovery of things long left behind by the market has enriched my bicycling experiences. Being an odd duck cyclist living in a rural area, I usually ride alone. That means I’m influenced more by what works for my kind of roads and my kind of riding than the mainstream market. Fortunately for me, there are folks out there like you that help create a sub-market that allows products that meet my needs (desires?) to exist.

    Those fast rolling, cushiony tires make for a pleasant day awheel.

    • Pondero, I spent too many years in the advertising business I guess, because I maintain a very cynical outlook when it comes to marketing. It’s far too easy to convince people to purchase based on “want,” all the while framing the pitch under the guise of “need.” I know: I was quite successful at it. It also left me painfully aware of how much of this goes on day in and day out – and how much good design has been left in the dust in the name of progress (translated more accurately as “planned obsolescence.”) I chafe at the thought of marketing defining who I am, or what I “need,” yet find myself occasionally buying into the hype. All the same, I take a certain personal pride in having reached a stage where I’m more confident in my ability to – as you say – allow myself to be “influenced more by what works for my kind of roads.”

      • Thank you for your insight. Because of the marketing pressure, I sometimes wonder if I should have purchased a carbon fiber bike instead of my custom Boulder All-Road 650B. Rapha is very good at marketing an image of a lone rider or group of riders, climbing into the mountains in terrible weather wearing a Rapha kit. Their message is if you cannot ride like this then you are not a cyclist. When I look at the photo of Paulette Porthault climbing the Col du Calibier on a beautiful 650B in very sensible, stylish clothing in the late 1930’s I come back to my senses. The Early Morning Cyclist also brings me back to my senses – thank you Azorch. My spirit is also restored when I look the the Flicka photo blog “cyclefrance”.

  3. Oh, I totally understand what you mean about Rapha! Their imagery is beautiful and the message is incredibly alluring. It taps into my own psyche in a way that makes me wonder if I’ve really got my priorities straight. Like you, I also admire the common sense of “cycledefrance.” A few others that you may already be aware of: rperks1, velocia, jp weigle (of course!), and somervillebikes. I believe you can tell a lot about a person by the photos they find important enough to make and post.

  4. About 30 years ago, as the summer Olympics were bearing down on Los Angeles, I mentioned the rising popularity of cycle racing to (then) Olympia, Washington frame builder Bill Stevenson. His reply surprised me at the time; it wouldn’t today. He said, “Yes, but the question is; will cycling survive the popularization of cycle racing?”
    The racing domination of the perception of cycling is a world wide phenomenon, even where bicycles are a much more utilized part of transportation. Lovely Bicycle blogger was in Ireland and approached someone with an old three speed outside a pub. She remarked on him being a fellow cyclist. He protested, “No, I’m not a cyclist, I just ride my bike to work everyday and to the pub.”

    • While the comment from the three-speeder would be thought quite odd in this country, I’ve found that to be a broadly shared sentiment abroad. In Scotland, for instance, I was a bit taken aback at the vehemence many had for skin tight, Lycra-clad riders. These comments invariably came from someone astride a bike him or herself, clad in sensible clothing, and who for all the world would never have viewed themselves as cyclists, despite that fact that two wheels may have been their primary mode of transport!

      Be that as it may, it’s not my intention to bang on carbon-fibre, Lycra, or racing – all of which has helped many couch potatoes evolve into healthier individuals. I do reserve the right to march along to my own drum beat though.

  5. Always a good read and I wanted to let you know that it is appreciated and enjoyed. There are thousands of miles of road that separate us geographically however your stories and insights feel as though you are just over the crest of the next hill.

    • And I always love to hear from the folks who read my rambling ruminations. And you never can tell – I just very well might be over that next hill! 🙂

  6. graveldoc says:

    I’m commenting for the first time from “down here” in Cedar County. Enjoyed your words and photos very much! It’s nice there are so many ways to enjoy a bicycle. I’d really like to try the 650b experience one day. By the way, we met at the 2014 Lake Pepin Three Speed Tour. I was riding the Raleigh Twenty.

    • Good to hear from you, graveldoc – I remember you and your Raleigh Twenty from Lake Pepin! I am going to try to avoid being a 650b evangelista – there are already plenty of those to go around, just as there are for carbon fibre, touring bikes, “steel is real,” and so forth and so on. I’ll just say that I am really enjoying the ride quality much more than I imagined possible, that despite the ride quality it’s not going to be my automatic first choice for every JRA outing, and that it’s well worth the time to seek out the 650b ride experience if you travel the kind of crappy roads that Missouri has to offer, or if you enjoy long hours in the saddle. I have found this bike is taking away some of the time that I normally spend on my three-speed drop bar, but if I am honest with myself I must attribute some of that to the “newness” factor.

  7. I’ve found the flavors of Kool-Aid offered by Rivendell, Bicycle Quarterly and Velo Orange to be quite satisfying — since July I’ve been riding a steel-framed bike with racks, fenders and 26″ tires and loving every minute of it.

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