Thursday, August 19, 2010

What Worked

Recently my brother accidentally crushed a very fine handmade classical guitar.  He'd been playing it for around fifteen years and it had been the conduit for some very lovely and innovative music.  Despite being beautiful, the guitar wasn't perfect, suffering from a tremendous overreaction to changes in humidity among other issues.  Talking it over with him in the aftermath of its destruction, he said to me that he was especially sad to have lost it because after so many years playing it he felt like he'd finally learned how to adapt to its personality and anticipate its quirks.  The process of living with it and using it, and learning to adapt to it, increases the attachment to it.  If it is possible to love an inanimate object, that love is inspired as much by its shortcomings as it is by its successes.

The instruments that let us do what we love to do are not perfect.  Just like there is no perfect guitar, there is no perfect bike.  Find one that has quirks you can learn to anticipate, and learn to love.  Learning how to adapt to the instrument's specific needs and personality is part of the process of using it-- of falling in love with it.  Only once you know the bike well enough to react and accommodate subconsciously can you reach that ideal state when the bike disappears beneath you.

The totally objective bicycle review is predicated on not having any real permanent attachment to the bike itself, not forgiving it for anything.  The totally objective bike review tells you exactly how a particular bike falls short of ideal. It also tells you if the bike climbs like a monkey in a set of crampons and descends like a monkey in a set of crampons being dropped from a helicopter.

I feel uncomfortable writing in that genre.  It seems to feed into that larger misconception that buying new stuff, and fancier stuff, will make you faster and better and cooler.  It's not true.  Bob Mould spent much of his career playing not a Gibson Flying V, but a $200 Ibanez knockoff of a Flying V that Husker Du fans assumed was a Flying V.  He shredded the hell out of that cheap guitar on multiple albums and on stages all over the world.  Long after he could afford the real thing, he kept playing the knockoff.  That's punk rock, and that's true love.

This is a post where I write about some of the gear I used for the Colorado Trail Race, but this is not a gear review. 

Songline is the name I gave my Niner SIR9.  The name comes from one of the great travel narratives of the last century, Chatwin's Songlines, his book about the aboriginal Australians and the process of travel through the interior of that country.  The songline is an invisible conduit across the landscape, a method of traveling great distances, and so is Songline.  If Kanza is when I started to fall in love with this bike, the Colorado Trail Race cemented the deal.  It has a lot of springy soulful feel to it.  I've gotten to the point where I can adapt its quirks in handling and anticipate how it will react to particular trail conditions.  The bike disappears beneath me. 

Bike parts: I have an XX fork on it now, set up pretty stiff, which almost feels as precise as a rigid fork but I can ride it all day.  The combo of the fork, the Ergons, and the big wheels together were plenty cushy for me and I had no issues at all with arm pain and never felt like I wanted more suspension.  The CNC'd aluminum non-drive side crank felt pleasant to the touch over the many miles I carried the bike with the saddle hooked on my shoulder, one hand on the fork, and the other on the crank.  I used some slightly overbuilt wheels due to the rocky trails and extra weight on the bike, and when I heard that one racer broke four spokes the first day I was glad I had made that choice.  George told me the WTB Weirwolf was his Colorado trail tire of choice, so I gave them a go. Although I am no tire connoisseur I was happy with their performance in all the craptastic sandy/muddy trail conditions the race dished out.  Thanks as always to George and Bike29 for the best gear and plenty of opinions, I am super happy to race for you guys!

Other things that worked: the Tomicog successfully performed its role as an amulet to ward off freehub failure.  On the matter of who came up with the fixie fix first, I'll let Dicky and Thad fight it out like Newton and Leibniz bickering over who discovered the calculus.  (Sorry Thad, but I think Dicky is clearly Newton.) The specific bikepacking bags I used were all excellent.  I used 2 Mountain Feedbags, a Revelate frame bag and secondhand CDW bar and seat bags.  The Pearl Izumi X-Alp Enduro shoes were great hike-a-bike shoes and combined with the mini-platform of the Candy pedal were stiff enough not to cause problems.  The 30-hour battery time on my little mp3 player meant that I didn't have to be too sparing with the tunes (note to self for next time: more Go-Gos, less everything else).  Despite the rain, the Hello Kitty stickers on the faceplate of the stem stayed on the entire race as did the weird skeleton-rabbit sticker on the seat pack which came from an all-you-can-eat pizza restaurant on the way to Dirty Kanza.  Good little stickers.

Absolutely filthy Industry Nine rear hub, the morning after I dropped out.  I9 hubs work.

[LATE EDIT: I realized I forgot to mention two other things that really worked well and made my time out there on the CT more fun.  First were the Castelli winter gloves I used for any time when it was raining, which was a lot of the time.  I have really bad circulation and numb hands have been a serious situation for me on more that one occasion. These gloves actually sucked in the rain until I seam-sealed all the seams, now they look crappier but work better.  Second was the Dinotte headlamp that runs on AA lithium batteries.  Perfect amount of light for singletrack and no recharging worries.]

Everyone seems to geek out about who has the lightest setup.  I never weighed my loaded bike but it was not very heavy, it was pretty compact and easy to ride with, and I stayed pretty comfortable in bad weather and at night.  The truth is, you'll never get down to the lightest weight possible just by dropping cash in REI's ultralight backpacking section.  Think outside the box.  Modify your gear relentlessly.  Make your own.  Test and retest.  Adapt your behavior to make lighter solutions possible.  Spend money where you have to (it's good to have a really nice sub-16-oz sleeping bag and some decent rain gear) but cheap out when you can.  Be smart.  There are a lot of people who are happy to separate you from your money, but that doesn't mean they can solve your problems better than you can yourself. 

I almost hesitate to put anything in the category of "didn't work," since I almost never had any problems with gear at all.  The brakes were a bit overmatched on a couple of the really long descents, and the mud was a bitch in the front derailleur, but that's about it.  And frankly, the descents were steep and long and Mono Minis are really lightweight XC brakes not designed for this kind of thing.  Plus, I love them in an irrational way, so I will give them some forgiveness on this matter.  Also, this model is discontinued, so I don't really know what the point is of doing a not-review of them in which I not-complain about them.  The only two real disappointments were the zip ties that broke and allowed my SPOT to fall off, and the Koss earbuds which really never worked right the entire race.


  1. THAT'S IT! I need "Hello Kitty" stickers for the Moots!

  2. Steel bikes rock... Awesome review Emily. Thanks for the inspiration this summer.