Friday, March 2, 2007

Choosing a bike

This has been a long and expensive path for me--lots of fun but lots of cash. Recumbents aren't cheap, and I have a penchant for nice gear. It's tough to select the right bike the first time, and then there's the issue of RBA, recumbent bicycle addiction--no known cure. One just has to let the disease run its course. As I said earlier, I did a little touring on a conventional bike years ago and found the experience deeply uncomfortable--lots of numb bits and the enduring joy of saddle sores. Gotta love it. I recently came across two anecdotes that underscore these shortcomings of conventional touring bikes: One fellow developed a severe, deeply buried blister/saddle sore that required surgery to drain. Good grief. This ended his tour. Another rider successfully crossed the country but, twenty years later, STILL has nerve damage in his hands from the constant pressure and jarring he experienced. Clearly, something is wrong with the conventional diamond frame bike as a touring platform. To be fair, many riders "toughen up" to the point where they are reasonably comfortable, but many (most?) do a lot of complaining about discomfort even so. Time to chuck the old "wedgie," as recumbent riders call conventional bikes.

My first bent was a Lighting Phantom, an excellent bike manufactured in Lompoc, California:

I could have stayed with this bike and done well, but I had the bug and couldn't leave well enough alone. What followed was a succession of bikes as I depicted earlier. I've now "settled" on two bikes, not counting the tandem trike that I ride with Jodi, my wife: The Haluzak Horizon (no longer in production) and the Street Machine Gte.

The recumbent platform makes a variety of steering layouts possible. The Phantom, as you can see, is controlled with over seat steering (OSS). However, one can also have under seat steering (USS). This second style is, for me, ergonomic nirvana. Look at the hand/arm positions on the Haluzak photo in my post about panniers. Totally relaxed and perfect for all-day riding. Absolutely no numbness possible. The wide, reclined seats eliminate sore spots on the butt. No saddle sores possible.

C'mon, there must be some drawbacks, yes? Nothing is perfect, is it? True, recumbents are not without their problems, but given the variety of configurations possible, there is a bent for everyone. In no particular order, here is a list of the main problems I've encountered:

1) Recumbent butt: This is a condition where the muscles of one's behind get quite painful during the course of a ride. In many cases, this is at first the result of poorly adapted muscles in the new riding position. Just riding more will solve the issue. In other cases, the relative position of the pedals (bottom bracket) to the seat can be the cause. I have discovered that, for me, low bottom brackets and upright seating, as found on the Tour Easy pictured in my post on panniers and trailers, leads to pretty painful R-butt. I just could not adapt to this riding position. I loved the bike, but it didn't work for my particular body. I need a higher pedal position and more reclined seat. Sometimes, a change in seat padding will solve the problem, too. For me, the question is more about body positioning.

2) Numb toes: Some riders find that they get numb toes after periods of riding, especially with higher bottom bracket configurations. I am one of these riders. This is not much of a problem for me, however, and takes some time to set in during a ride. Just a few moments off the bike, and my symptoms are gone. Hot weather makes this condition worse. For some, changing pedals, cleat position, insoles and the like can help or eliminate the problem. Looser fitting shoes do help.

3) Sore knees: Because a recumbent rider can apply more pressure to the pedals than on conventional bikes (leg press supported by seat) and because the pedal stroke is always the same (no standing on the pedals), recumbent riders can be subject to knee stress that they might not experience on conventional bikes. There are some important considerations here to avoid or deal with this problem. First, bent riders must use lower gears and put a lot of emphasis on "spinning," i.e. using high rpm, low pressure on the pedals. This translates into about 90 rpms or so most of the time. Pushing too hard results in serious repetitive stress. Shift down, shift early. Keep the pressure light. Gears are the key here. Most recumbents tend to come with gearing too high for comfortable riding in hilly or mountainous terrain. In general, most riders will want a low gear in front of about 24 teeth and a rear cassette of no less than 11 to 32 teeth--11/34 is better. In general, you won't be unhappy having lower gears, especially when the load is heavy and the climb never seems to end. Also, take time getting into bent shape. New muscles take time to adapt. We've only got one set of knees each. Take care.

4) Recumbent grin: This is another chronic issue without a cure. Once you've got the right bike perfectly adjusted, you ride around with this stupid grin on your face almost all the time. Oh well, someone has to do it.

Other recumbent considerations: Besides steering, one must consider a couple of other factors. Because recumbent tricycles are so wonderful (and growing in popularity), I had to look at those, too. Since I ride a tandem trike as a captain, I'm familiar with the feel of such vehicles. They're great fun, super stable, and make excellent touring rigs. I may own a single trike some time in the future. For me, however, I really like the feeling of riding on two wheels and banking into turns. Also, bikes are a good deal faster, which often times doesn't matter, but I can average 3 to 4 mph faster on a two wheeler. That kind of speed difference really adds up over the course of a day, a week, three months crossing a continent. So for now, two wheels for me.

With recumbent bicycles, another major factor is the wheel base, basically long and short. There is a mid-length size called a "compact long wheel base," but it's still long. How do these compare to conventional diamond frame bikes? In general, short wheel base (SWB), is identical or a little longer than standard bikes--between 39 (rare) and 47 inches. Both of my SWB's are about 42 inches. Long wheel base (LWB) can range up to 70+ inches, real Cadillacs. Besides my need for a higher bottom bracket (a few LWB's have fairly high pedals), I went with the SWB layout because of the ergonomics of the handle bars, the sporty feel of a shorter bike, and the fact that I can put both of my bents on conventional transit bus racks. This last concern is huge for me because I often ride a 44 mile one-way commute to my job. Coming home up the mountain is a huge undertaking and one I rarely have the time for, but I can ride down, get a good-but-not-extreme workout, and then take the bus home--a perfect arrangement. If taking public transit is one of your concerns, LWB's are out as well as any SWB's beyond 42 inch wheel base. A final point is that, in general, SWB's tend to climb a bit better than LWB's. The shorter wheel base means they handle better at low speeds, and the higher bottom bracket translates into better power. I climbed many big hills on my Tour Easy (LWB), but the steeper they get, the more I appreciate a SWB.

So, when I finally took the plunge and decided to ride the big ride, I came to the conclusion that a new bike was needed to properly honor the event. I could have easily ridden my Haluzak as I've found it to be an excellent performer, but I'd always had a desire for a sleek, European recumbent, so HP Velotechnik was the obvious choice. The company optimizes their designs for utility, especially touring. The Street Machine is famous for durability and comfort. Check out Rob's journals for the ultimate Street Machine journey: My Street Machine was purchased from Bent Up Cycles in Van Nuys, California. Dana, the owner, did a fantastic job and is always a pleasure to work with. He's always happy to work with customers to customize and make that perfect bike. He's one of the biggest HPVelo dealers in the country.

For a narrative on my first tour with the Street Machine, check out my journal "Sliding Down the Coast" under my links section.

Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Panniers vs.Trailers

This is an old debate, but I might as well throw myself into the fray, too. I've toured on both and like both. So that's all there is to say? Hardly. I can't say that I'll never go back to a trailer for touring, but I now find myself firmly in the pannier group. Let me explain my experiences as they may be useful to the rest of you tourers out there in the ether.

I toured a little on a conventional bike some years ago, and this involved panniers. The experience was acceptable but for the usual discomfort of diamond frame bikes. I did not really become a cycle tourist until I started riding recumbents. I've toured on several different types of "bents" so far:

Tour Easy:

Haluzak Horizon:

Greenspeed Tandem Trike:

As you can see, the Greenspeed has a little of everything. We added the trailer for our faithful hound, Django, who trots alongside when the hills go up. This is a slow rig for a host of reasons, but it's a fine touring platform nonetheless.

My principle experience towing a trailer on a single bike comes from a tour I did across California and Arizona. As pictured above, I pulled a Burley Nomad behind my Haluzak Horizon. The trailer performed flawlessly and offered a few nice advantages: First, it packed easily, and once you popped the cover, everything was easy to find, just like a suitcase; second, when I parked to go shopping, and I was nervous about leaving it unattended, I could easily unhook the unit and drag it with me into the store whilst I procured my kippers and beer; third, it seemed to encourage a bit wider berth on the part of passing motorists. The wider, strange stance might have had something to do with it. And, least of all, it is kind of cute.

So why am I a currently confirmed pannier man? Weight, drag, and complexity. The trailer has all three. There's no doubt. It is a load of hardware to drag around. It's a bit bulky; the wheels provide some resistance on the pavement, and the tires can go flat--though I've experienced only one flat on the Burley and that on a training run. Although the handling of the bike isn't really affected, there is a bit of noise and hassle moving it around at times. Think of driving a car with a trailer and scale back to bicycle size. Turnarounds in tight places can be a chore as well as fitting between tight objects, such as trees, barriers to paths, etc. Ultimately, however, I kept coming back to the weight issue. The trailer, without extra tubes, checks in at about 14 lbs. Now, regular racks and panniers do weigh something and offset the difference somewhat, but I've found the ultimate solution.

The recumbent bicycle offers some serious benefits for touring. In terms of load carrying, one can fit bags under the seat and between the wheels, lowering the center of gravity and leaving the handling of the bike virtually unchanged. See the Tour Easy photo above. That beast, fully loaded for that winter tour in the desert, probably weighed about 80 or 90 lbs, especially with food and water (slosh, slosh). It handled perfectly. Now that I ride short wheel base recumbents (subject of another post to follow), I've found the final solution: Radical Designs bags made in Holland. Although my Street Machine can handle an under seat rack, these bags make it unnecessary. The load is still carried fairly low and forward and in a very aerodynamic shape, fitting virtually in the shadow of my legs and torso. Don't underestimate the value of a slippery design. Wind is a drag, especially a stout headwind that saps the legs and spirit on a long day in the saddle. The power of the recumbent position and these bags was driven home to me on a tour down the California coast last summer. I was leading a couple of Euro's through the wilds south of Santa Cruz when we topped a short climb. I, just a little ahead, eased over the top and simply left them in the dust, vanishing specks in my rear view mirror. I did not pedal. All this talk of aerodynamics my sound silly to the uninitiated: Dude, like, you're on a bike, dude, going really slow. Certainly, we travel more slowly than cars, motorcycles and fighter jets, but cyclists battle the elements in a more meaningful way. Every ounce of drag from a headwind is an ounce of power that must be supplied by the intrepid adventurer's legs. Chrysler and BMW do not provide the power plant. Mile after mile, hour after hour, little improvements can add up to a big difference. Another very nice feature of the Radical bags is that they require no hooks or tightening straps. One just drapes the bags over seat and rear rack and presto, tour ready are we. And the weight? I save fully TEN POUNDS.

I had the interesting pleasure of riding my Haluzak Horizon in both configurations: With trailer as featured above and with a medium-sized set of Radical panniers. This is what nailed the choice for me. It's just a tight package that was a pleasure to ride. Note that currently only the medium size can be purchased with connecting straps sufficient to handle seats as wide as that on the Haluzak. The large size, however, can easily be adapted with some extra buckles and strapping material.

Here's the 'Zak with panniers. These mediums were a little small, so I lashed my tent and pad to the sides of the seat:

Tight rig, Mister!

Each rider will chose for himself what suits his personal style of riding and tastes. Just call me a Radical Pannier Man.

Sunday, February 25, 2007

Ruminations on motivations--fear?

Heed the murderous crone: Screw your courage to the sticking place. Or was it: Stick your courage to the screwing place? No matter. I fear, most of all, failure, injury, accident--not death, the casting off of the mortal coil. I'm worried about the pulled tendon, perhaps a weakness of spirit. I've had great plans scratched before. Who hasn't felt the nagging splinter of an unfinished dream? When I was still wedded to the idea of being a serious rock climber and mountaineer, I had many great goals, and I accomplished some of them, but others reside in the dust-filled bin labeled: "Unfinished Business." What's the proverb? When God wants to punish us, he answers our prayers? True enough. An alpine super hero I was not to be. Dangerous stuff, that. Get killed. My mambo mojo wouldn't samba if I lay broken at the base of some icy north face. I sensed the uncertain resolve in my fingers and the certain resolution should they fail--as fail they must, all of us, sooner or later. But we've still got to get into the game when we can. Burn the candle at least from one end again and again till the wax gives out. Love that well which thou must leave 'er long, eh? Yeah, you betcha.

The run down Bena Rd.

Here's a short video of a section of the long commute to school. This is near the bottom of the Tehachapi mountains.

Here's a shot of the bike I'll be riding

This is the fabled HPVelotechnik Street Machine Gte.