This. This is on deck.
This. This is on deck.
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.
Why 650b? Well, this for one reason.
Oh, and did I happen to mention gravel?
The Good: The birds were singing and the thermometer hovered around 73 degrees this morning.
The Bad: Buuuut, the humidity was 93%.
The Ugly: Just outside Missouri City, my chain broke. I didn’t have an extra link in my bag. And it was an 11.7 mile hike back home. To add insult to injury, I had to change a flat about a mile or so earlier.
The day was shaping up nicely – or so I thought. My top layer had already been peeled off and stowed, and a pleasant sheen of perspiration glistened on my brow. Yet by the time my destination had been reached the sky had clouded over and the winds had whipped into something of a fury. Today’s ride was looking to be shorter than anticipated.
In search of a wind break I left the open road in lieu of a few miles of undulating state park path, encased for the most part by trees on all sides. Leaving the trail I encountered gravel roads, narrow and steep and loose – but also blissfully free of windsheer. Climbing the first hill, I lowered my gears into the granny and yet still found myself standing. Am I really that far gone after a relatively mild winter of slothfulness?
To be honest, I really don’t get the whole “gravel thing” – but to each his own. I’ve friends who live for this stuff. There was a time not so long ago that I thought there’d be greater appeal for me. But alas! That appeal has thus far eluded me.
I far prefer exploring neglected and forgotten back roads, those crumbling chipsealed blacktop tracks that few people except locals have need to travel. And while my Boulder meets those needs quite well, on this day I found myself wandering along, content to be enjoying the benefit of wider 650b tires.
At the top of the very first hill, at the edge of the park, stands a brick structure. The building is a restored one room rural school house. Growing up in rural Missouri, my teen years were often spent in exploration of back roads where my friends and I encountered many a crumbling derelict of a school house. Those abandoned buildings, built by the farming community with great care were now crumbling, no longer of much use as schools consolidated and students moved into larger buildings in the surrounding towns. It’s remarkable to encounter one in this condition.
On the same patch of ground, just adjacent to the school is this intriguing – and to my eye, anyway, rather mysterious looking multi-sided building. I’d like to know more about it, and I suppose it would be easy to find out its original purpose simply by asking at the park offices. I couldn’t help but think what a wonderful painting studio it would make though!
I’m nursing a bum knee at the moment. I’ve no idea what’s wrong or what I did, but things feel all wonky on my downstroke – especially on climbs. So I’ve been taking it easy, avoiding the temptation to overstress the joint and haul it, full tilt boogey.
The thing is, I’m antsy and want to open it up. Y’know, and haul it, full tilt boogey.
Despite these inclinations to do the wrong thing, I’ve managed to avoid mucking things up further, let my knee and all of the attachments rest, and spin for short periods of time over pretty flat territory. The situation has me in a funk; I crave some real exercise.
So, no school yesterday, no one else at home – I’m free. Fat, cushy, supple tires; bum knee; crunchy leaves; overcast sky; cool weather with a brisk wind coming off the lake; leisurely pace; no particular destination in mind. Just about perfect.
This is the kind of day, the kind of path, the kind of riding I built this bike up for. My bike kit is a pair of well worn jeans with velcro ankle clips, a pair of hiking shoes, a gray sweat shirt. The path is very mildly rolling and the surface incredibly uneven. I’m in no hurry, stopping along the way to take photographs as the color, the texture, the muse strikes me.
Squirrels suicidally breach the path, scurrying through brown leaves, scooting past my front tire, chattering in alarm. I’m sure they have something nasty to say about my intrusion. A small group of deer look up, startled as I come round a bend. Slowly, but deliberately, the trio moves off deeper into the trees and then disappear, camouflaged by the underbrush. Birds seem to be as busy as the legions of squirrels, flitting from branch to branch. I wonder if they are preparing to leave for the season? Or just steadying themselves for the looming change?
The sky is overcast, the light is flat, but the day is not gloomy. In fact, far from it. I love these kind of conditions.
I remember the days when I would carry a backpack of photography gear with me, earnestly hoping to make The Great American Image, the iconic and defining photograph of our landscape. These days I carry an iPhone and it’s so much more liberating.
Stop. Compose. Tap the screen. Reposition. Recompose. Tap. Ride onward.
The ride is short. It’s decidedly flat. And I’m not in the least bit tired, at no point am I winded. But my knee warns me not to push things to far, too hard. Dammit. Time to stop and paint for a while.
I’ve carried my sketch kit with me for years, purposely planning my cycling journeys to allow ample opportunity to stop along the way and draw. I’ve even named these outings, referring to this as “bike sketching.” Is that preposterous? Pretentious? Feeling the need to name such a natural extension of my JRA outings? (Oh yeah, I just realized that I acted in similar fashion by giving a title to my leisurely cycling: “JRA.” Just Riding Around.)
Lately, I’ve been painting en plein air in oils again. I figure I’ve been away from oils for close to a decade, the solvents and toxic heavy metals (like cadmium and cobalt) having weighed heavily on my mind. Not long ago I began to experiment with oils that clean up without solvents and are free of toxins. It’s a lot like rediscovering an old friend, and I’ve been carrying my field kit in the back of the car with me.
My ride is a loop, timed to bring me back round to the car just as my knee begins to twinge. Yes, time to stop and paint for a while.
My hands are cold. I’m still getting my chops back with oils and bristle brushes. I have to think deliberately about placing colors, cleaning the brush after each stroke, mixing and matching – which is functionally quite a different process than with the watercolor media in which I’ve been immersed over the past decade. At some point it will all come back to me, to be a natural set of motions – you know: just like riding a bike, as the adage has it.
As I lost myself in painting, I thought to myself that I’m still pretty fast at laying in shapes and colors and values, even if my brush strokes for the moment feel a bit too deliberate. I allowed myself a moment to yearn for those fluid strokes, but also knew that I can be patient, wait, and they will return. Perhaps doing so will ease this parallel wait for my knee to heal.
Yes, my hands were cold and stiff. The wind began to pick up, and I had to chase down a suddenly mobile paint-drenched paper towel. A mist was in the air and tiny water droplets began to appear on top of the oil paint.
Moments later it began to rain, and all was well in the world.
Following the anticipation of my recent conversion of a Katakura Silk to a 650b road bike I was anxious to get all the bolts tightened down and get the bike out for a test ride. The afternoon being a model of wonderful Autumn weather, we loaded up and headed to the paths around Smithville Lake. Smithville Lake has one long and continuous paved path around a portion of the lake’s perimeter that yields about 42 miles of moderately flat riding, there are branches of trail with loose gravel, and about a million miles of forested single track. Add to that the low trafficked and hilly roads, and you’ve got a pretty good choice of surfaces on which to conduct a shakedown ride.
As it turned out, our shakedown ride was a bit shorter than planned but I still managed to put in some mileage on both paved and gravel surfaces, with a couple of steep, but even climbs. (One thing I like to check out on a shakedown ride – but didn’t yesterday – is how a bike handles on undulating climbs.)
I’m always very surprised and happy to ride upon high volume/low pressure tires that are supple and forgiving. I’ve ridden the Katakura Silk on 700c x 25 tires enough that I know what to expect when I get on the bike, so the difference is marked and profoundly startling. It’s truly a “magic carpet ride.” I guess I need to compare known times over a distance, much as I hate that sort of test, but I seldom feel as if I’m going fast on 650b tires. That characteristic is usually deceptive though, and normally I am surprised to discover there’s little or no difference in overall speed. Spin up may be slower and – oddly – pedal strokes on climbs seemed less responsive than I might have otherwise imagined. But fit and comfort are impressive. I need to get out on the open road now to find out how “spirited” the ride feels when I kick things up a notch.
Moving off pavement and onto gravel was a different experience. The first few hundred yards of pathway had very deep and loose gravel, and the bike handling was squirmy. Steering was difficult as I sank into the gravel. Further along the path the surface changed to much gravel and the pack was harder; the bike handled admirably well on that section. Riding off road briefly – not something I do a lot of – the bike handled the transition from gravel to bushwacking to pavement with little fanfare.
There’s plenty more ride testing to be done, and some fine tuning I want to make, but I’m happy this grand experiment has been largely successful. The Katakura Silk is now a more useful member of my bicycle family, a nice compliment to my primary rider, the Boulder Brevet, and to my early morning Raleigh International three-speed rider. It’s nice when a plan comes together.