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October 25, 2014

Cycling Tokyo

I was recently in Tokyo and took a bicycle with me. What fun!

I stayed in Shinjuku, pretty close to the train station. I had a weekend plus a day or two during the week to explore the city on two wheels. I really recommend doing such a thing if you can, although I'd say try and learn from my mistakes when doing it.

My first bike ride was on a Saturday morning. I was still pretty jet-lagged from coming to Japan (it is 11 time zones away from home, after all). I woke up at 5am, walked outside to find breakfast. Nothing was open, so I ended up getting some inari, a rice ball, and some Boss Coffee from a 7-11. By 6am, I was getting antsy to start my trip, so I went outside on my bicycle.

My goal was to make it to Sayama Lake and ride around there. The trip was, according to Google Maps, about 20 miles each way. That, plus a bit of mileage actually riding around the lake, sounded like a good day's ride.

Boy, was it ever.

The route there looked pretty straightforward: head up Route 4 until it intersected Route 5, then take Route 5 a ways until I could make my way to Sayama by surface streets. Unfortunately, there are two Route 5s (I hadn't noticed), and I took the first one. I ended up a bit lost south of Sayama. I had a phone with 3G data plan, so I did eventually find my way up to the lake. However a lot of dead-ends, not-so-bicycle-friendly roads, and having to find my way around railroad tracks added a lot of time to the trip.

Tama Lake, looking away from Toritsu Sayama Park

The entire trip to Tama Lake and back (I did one lap around Tama Lake, never got to ride around Sayama Lake) was about 55 miles and took over 7 hours. It was incredibly slow-going through the Tokyo Metropolis as I had to stop frequently to check directions, deal with traffic, dodge pedestrians, etc.

The following day I woke up early again and headed into the depths of Tokyo. This time I decided to follow any fast cyclist I saw, and to figure out how to get home later. It was a good thing, too, as I stumbled upon a neat Tokyo activity that I never would have known about.

The streets around Chiyoda: for bicycles only!

It turns out, every Sunday some of the streets around Chiyoda (the emperor's palace) are closed and only bicycles are allowed on them. One lap around the closed roads is about 2 miles. It was the only place that I could cycle at a normal place on my entire trip to Tokyo. Whereas my normal average pace in Tokyo was about 11mph, here it was closer to my usual 16-17mph on my Bike Friday. Quite a welcome change of pace.

The city even gives free bicycle rentals on Sundays, which is quite nice for anyone interested in cycling but on the fence about buying a bike.

I did way too many laps around this closed road section before heading back. My average pace for the entire day was still only 12mph, because of getting lost constantly on the way home. There was a Typhoon expected on Monday, so the weather on both Saturday and Sunday was quite cloudy, making it more difficult to navigate.

Visiting Ehicle, a local Bike Friday dealer

On this trip I got to visit a local Bike Friday dealer and I bought a Rinko Bag. Rinko is a popular form of cycling in Japan, where you take your bike on a train to get out of the city before starting your ride. In order to keep grease off of the train and its passengers, you're required to put your bike in a bag. I stopped by Ehicle since I figured they would have Bike Friday's standard folding bike bags that would fit my New World Tourist, and sure enough they did. The next time I ride in Japan, it will definitely be with my Rinko bag...cycling is fun in Tokyo, but can be a bit slow-going. Now that I know the ropes and how to get out of town by train, it should be even more enjoyable.

October 20, 2014

Bike Friday, the early weeks

I've gotten to do a few long rides and an airline trip on my Bike Friday now, and figured I would post some initial thoughts on the bike while the memories are still fresh.

I ordered my Bike Friday from Warm Planet Bikes in San Francisco. I was in San Fran on business, and took a NWT for a test ride. I then gabbed with the owner of Warm Planet, Kash, about build options for a while. Since I'm a Good Citizen, I bought my bike through Kash, so that he would get whatever dealer commission Bike Friday pays out. Besides, paying sales tax in California seems like a good thing, since the state needs all the money it can get at this point...

The ordering process was probably a bit more annoying for Kash and Bike Friday than necessary. I was relaying my wishes and hemming and hawing on options and custom bits through Kash. So middle-man communication was slightly higher. I wanted my bike with at least disc brake tabs. Kash also showed me the Brompton Bag mount option which could be welded onto the head tube. Having drooled over Bromptons for a while, I really liked their front bag mounting system -- no need for a front rack, and it keeps the handlebars free for a good light and bike computer, so I got that option too. The costs for the Brompton tab was $45, and the disc brake mounts were a $60 upcharge at the time of this writing.

Others have talked about the Bike Friday ordering process in great depth. The process left me feeling like the bike was 'custom-ish', much like my German hand-built Rotor Arsen mountain bike. Frames are pretty standardly-sized with a few sized parts (cranks, handlebars, stem) to make the geometry more-or-less like your favorite bike. My bike was probably more custom than normal only because of the braze-ons for brakes and Brompton mount. I would guess that most Bike Friday frames are standard, and the 'build slot' has more to do with assembling the bike than with actually bending and welding the frame parts.

Some of the upcharges that I ordered I would probably not do again if ordering another Bike Friday. The fenders in particular are a touch disappointing. While they pack well, the Bike Friday fenders have no fender stays. As a result they tend to wobble a lot on the bike, and several times now I have had to stop and tighten the fender bolts as they've come unscrewed. Threadlock might help here, but probably I will order up a set of Planet Bike 20" fenders instead (they're cheaper than BF's fenders, and have stays).

In general Bike Friday charges full retail price for part upgrades. For example the Avid BB7 disc brake calipers were an extra $130 (a set of BB7 brake calipers can be had from Amazon for $60, although adding them to the bike after the fact will require new brake housings, brake cables, and a bit of labor). If I do a second BF, it would probably be a Tikit, also with drop bars. I would probably go more bare-bones on that bike, buying the minimal components and upgrading later.

In all though, I was fine with paying for the upgrades on this bike. I'm lazy, and didn't want to spend a lot of time swapping out components after getting the bike. I probably could have saved ~$500 by buying parts on my own and upgrading the bike after I got it, for nicer brake levers, cranks, derailures, brake calipers, and even wheelset. Upgrading after the fact would leave you with lots of extra parts, which can be useful for building yet another bicycle. There are places in the world where you can purchase Bike Friday frames, too. There is a nice writeup on the topic of BF upcharge practices and frame options here, which has a followup post highlighting BF frame resellers.

My bike took about a month to build, which seems standard for Bike Friday. It's a reasonable amount of time to wait for a custom built anything.

My bike arrived well-packed. Unpacking it was pretty easy -- I honestly didn't read the manual until I was finished assembling the bike, just to be sure that I didn't miss anything. After tearing down and rebuilding so many bikes it was pretty obvious what went where, and I had already played with the stem and handlebar mounting at Warm Planet Bikes. I got mine in a suitcase with the travel trailer attachment. The entire package weights 45 pounds according to my home scale (just 5 pounds under the weight limit for most airlines).

On my initial rides I noticed three things: the geometry was not quite what I had expected (further reach than I anticipated was the biggest issue), the steerer tube was pretty flexy, and the rear brake cable routing is poor.

On the reach issue it became obvious where things went wrong when I pulled out my ruler. The bike friday measurement sheet has you measure many things. One of those items is center-of-saddle to center-of-handlebar-clamp. There's a bit of wiggle room here depending upon your perception of 'center of saddle'. This also doesn't consider the reach of the handlebars, if you are ordering drop handlebars. Strangely, the handlebar reach on the Bike Friday standard road drop bars is much further than my anatomic handlebars on my favorite road bike, so the reach from saddle to hoods was nearly 3 inches further. The distance from center of saddle of to center of stem clamp was spot on, but the hood reach felt a bit awkward for me. I ended up putting a slightly shorter stem on the Bike Friday for now. Down the road I may try some ultra-short reach drop bars on it to see how that helps.

On the flex issue, this seems pretty standard for Bike Friday bikes. Without a top tube to add some rigidity to the steerer tube, you're going to have a little flex here. It was disconcerting on my first few rides, but I've come to accept it. In some ways it is a positive for long rides, as it helps absorb some bumps, making the shock of rough roads less stressful to the hands and wrists. Given the track record of these bikes riding all over the world without problems in this area, I'm not worried about the steerer tube ever breaking or flexing itself to death (knock on wood).

On the cable routing issue, there really is nothing to be done except complain. The shifter cables have much the same issue as the rear brake: the cables go down the main frame tube, then make a very sharp half-circle bend around the bottom bracket/joint. This is both a nice place for water to collect if you end up riding in the rain, and a friction zone that keeps the cables from operating very well. On my old Novara commuter bike, this problem lead to a crash when I rode the bike in the winter. But really, there is no way to re-route this cable without making the bike more difficult to fold and pack. It's just going to be an area of periodic maintenance when riding in wet weather, to drain and lube these cable tubes.

The positives for the ride are many. I've read a few writeups expressing disappointment at the ride due to the small wheel size. Frankly I have no such complaints. Riding my NWT over rough roads feels about the same as on my Surly Disc Trucker. My Disc Trucker has 700x32 Continental Gatorskin tires, which I usually ride at 65-70PSI. My NWT has Schwalbe Kojak tires, which are 406x35. I tend to ride these tires at 75PSI. My guess is that the tires offer a slightly harsher ride on the NWT, but that the additional frame flex from the extra long seat tube and steerer tube work to balance out the shocks and vibrations.

On my first overseas trip with the bike (Japan), traveling was no issue. The bike packed easily in about two beers (a little over one hour). I managed to fit a small backpack, windproof/waterproof riding jacket, gloves, lights, and small frame pump in the box with the Bike Friday. On my home scale, this setup weighs 47 pounds. At the airport, the scale there read 50 pounds, so right at the weight limit. On this first trip, I left the trailer parts (12 inch wheels, trailer frame) at home. I figured hauling the trailer around Tokyo would be a bit much, given the traffic.

Unpacking the bike once in Tokyo was cake -- about 20 minutes. I put a little scotch tape on the seat post to mark how high it was adjusted, and things went together well. There was no damage from the trip, shifting and braking work well after travel. My only cautionary item would be the disc calipers. I replaced my calipers with TRP units shortly after getting the bike. The caliper bolts (actually the ISO adapter bolts) were a bit loose when unpacking the box after travel. This could have lead to a bad wreck, but fortunately no harm done as I was being thorough on my bolt-checking. One thing that I did do with the TRP HY/RD brakes was to keep the little plastic brake shim that comes with the brakes. I stuffed this into the front caliper in case the inspectors accidentally squeezed the brake levers while inspecting the bike.

One advantage to the 20 inch tires in that pumping them up on arrival is easy. I deflated my tires during packing, and pumped them with a Lezyne Road Drive bike pump. 200 pumps or so per tire feels good.

My only real concern with traveling would be chain lube. I lubed my chain prior to leaving on this trip. I worry that having a small bottle of oil in the case might set off an airport alarm, so decided against packing any with me. White Lightning chain wax might be the safest thing to pack, as it is less flammable than other lubes.

The BF was a nice companion for my second trip to Japan. I'll write up a little on cycling in Tokyo next time...

September 25, 2014

TRP HY/RDs on Bike Friday NWT

Traveling for work gets me down sometimes, especially when I go to Real Cities. One such trip was to Seattle back in the spring. I rented a bicycle while I was there, and went for a few 40 mile rides on weekends. It was wonderful, although the bicycle was not ideal -- an aluminum-framed hybrid that was in need of a tune-up.

A recent trip to San Francisco left me unable to rent a decent bicycle for under $55 per day. That was too much. While I was there, though, I stopped by a local bike shop that specialized in folding bicycles. I took a Bike Friday out for a spin. It was a pretty nice ride, so I decided to custom build on.

I settled on a New World Tourist with drop handlebars and disc brakes, so that it would match my favorite bike, my Surly Disc Trucker.

The comparison isn't really a great one, of course. My Disc Trucker's 700b wheels can take a wide range of tires, while the NWT, even with its more-common 406 wheels, has a somewhat limited tire selection. The NWT is a bit more of a 'squishy' bike as well. Lacking a top tube, the steerer tube flexes a lot even on the flat riding in Indiana.

Still, I am quite pleased with my purchase. I'm sure that it will be a welcome friend on upcoming trips to Japan, Hawaii, and Miami.

Of course, I can't stand the stock BB7 brakes. BB7s have that gritty feeling that I've described before, and they also interfere greatly with rack and fenders.

photo 1.JPG
The BB7 on the front fork sticks way out, interfering with the fender mount

As with the Surly, I was a little nervous about fit. I decided to 'test mount' the TRP brakes from my Surly before buying another set. The clearances checked out, so I took the plunge...

photo 3.JPG
Rear wheel clearance. The brake fits just as well as the BB7 here.
photo 4.JPG
Front wheel clearance. The brake is closer to the front spokes, but still fits just fine.

One of the great things about the HY/RD brakes is that they are flush with the outside of the mount that they are attached to. This means that things like racks and fenders fit far better than with BB7 brakes.

Unlike the Surly, the TRP brakes feel a lot more squishy on my Bike Friday. I think this has a lot more to do with the lever than anything. My Surly has Tektro levers and barcon shifters, while the BF has Sora/STI integrated shift levers. The brake cable on the Sora levers sits much lower inside the brake lever housing, meaning that the brake lever does not have as much mechanical advantage as the Tektro levers. I will have to test out the different levers and see how much cable they actually pull in order to verify this.

I'll have a more thorough review of the Bike Friday once I am done breaking it in...probably while I'm cycling around Tokyo with it.

August 30, 2014

TRP HY/RD on Surly Disc Trucker

I bought a Surly Disc Trucker last spring. It's been a wonderful bike. I've taken it on quite a few long distance rides. So far my longest has been with a local Randonneuring club, riding a 200k Brevet. The bike was extremely comfortable, and the ride was quite enjoyable.

One of my complaints about the bike has been the lackluster brakes. It came standard with Avid BB7s. I didn't know much about maintaining these brakes until recently -- I rode the bike for over a year (a few thousand miles) without doing any maintenance on the brakes. Oops!

It turns out BB7s need to be adjusted pretty regularly. The outside pad is actuated by the lever arm on the caliper, and the inside pad stays still. The inside pad wears away, until it is inside of the caliper body, and then your braking is happening because the rotor is being pushed against the caliper body! Not a good situation. You have to 'regularly' check the inside pad and screw it in (requiring a torx screwdriver) as it wears. The brakes very rapidly lose their braking power as they go into 'rotor rubbing against caliper housing' mode, since the metal caliper housing doesn't provide very much friction against the rotor.

BB7s are also pretty noisy, and have this gritty feel that I just can't stand. It's as though sandpaper is being used, and the feeling runs right up the cable to your hand.

I guess BB7s are a decent brake, all things considered. They are cheap, and as such are introducing disc brakes into the lower end of the bicycle market, which means that said cheap bikes get disc brake mounts. This is a nice thing for me, as I'm a fan of disc brakes. I've worn through many wheelsets simply because the rims wore down (the hubs were still fine). The cost of rebuilding a wheel (or paying to rebuild a wheel) versus the cost of just an entirely new wheel is always a concern. Since it is cheaper to replace a brake disc and/or pads than an entire wheel, I'm a big fan.

Anyway, I recently came across TRP HY/RD brakes from a friend, Kevin Harvey (he builds the most amazing bicycles, check out his website). They use cable brake levers and have the brake caliper and master cylinder on one little unit. He uses them on his custom touring bikes, which frequently have S&S couplers. The TRP brakes are wonderful there, since he puts a splitter on the brake cable. This allows the bicycle to break down more easily.

Since I have no intention of buying road hydraulic brake levers (they are still extremely expensive), I bought a pair. I was a little bit nervous: I was not really sure if they would fit on my Disc Trucker, as the Trucker uses one of those annoying 'brake caliper inside the rear wheel triangle' designs that made my Novara Fusion dangerous. I also read reviews of the brakes concerning the lever pull -- some people reported that they had to pull the brake lever almost to the handlebar to get good braking from the brake. So, I was a little bit tepid, but figured, 'it's only money.'

The rear brake. It fits fine inside of the rear triangle.

The rear wheel, showing potential cable rub. I bent the brake wire towards the wheel to save my paint.

Thankfully the brakes fit very well on the Disc Trucker. My Surly is a 56cm frame with 700c wheels, so your mileage may vary.

There are two tiny caveats to installation. The first is that the TRP brake needs just a little more cable to work with than the BB7 did. I didn't want to trim my cable housing, as i figured the current housing provided plenty of maneuverability. Both the front and rear cables were just slightly too short (like 1/2"!). So, I bought a new cable for the rear brake, and re-used the rear cable for the front brake.

The other tiny caveat to the fit is that, on the rear brake, the tail of the brake wire rubs against the seatstay. Surly is notorious for their cheap, crappy paint jobs (part of their 'rusty bike mystique'), so I would recommend putting some thick tape or wrapping a little bit of old tubing around this spot if you want to save your paint. Or, save your paint another way by just bending the end of the brake cable in towards the wheel (but not too much, there isn't a lot of room until it's hitting spokes).

The front brake. It fits better than the BB7 with a fender.

One nice thing is that the TRP brakes are less bulky horizontally. I was one of the suckers who bought SKS Longboard fenders for my Disc Trucker, and fitting the fender stay around the BB7 brake was...not ideal. I am happy to report that the TRP brakes provide a lot more room for the fender mounts.

I've ridden the bicycle with the TRP brakes for a little while now. My guess is that TRP has taken some of the reviews about lever pull and made their brakes with shorter throw. I found the lever pull to be about as tight as I had with my BB7s (once I started adjusting them). The lever feel is a huge improvement. I no longer get that gritty feeling when I pull the brakes. Instead it feels a lot like my hydraulic discs on my mountain bike (old-style Hope Mini disc brakes). The hydraulic fluid does a great job of uncoupling the brake pads from your hand.

I recently ordered a Bike Friday New World Tourist folding bike with disc brakes (BB7s!), and I think my first upgrade will be to replace the brake calipers with TRP HY/RDs. But, that will be a tale for another day.

June 19, 2013

All Great Books

I just returned from my grandmother's memorial service.

I am shattered.

I have stored in my hippocampal cells more lovely and loving memories of my grandmother than I can recall in a day. She was one of the more grounded members of my family: a well-educated teacher of English at Rutgers University, an avid bicyclist, a connoisseur of fine foods, a lover of the written word, a corrector of the family's grammar.

A lot of people like to think that their grandmother is (or was) perfect, but they are in error.

Only mine was.

It's the truth.

My fondest childhood memories all revolve around our times in Stone Harbor, New Jersey. Each summer I would go away for a week or two to stay at "Gam's House," my grandparents' cottage on Stone Court. It was just a block north of the Stone Harbor bird sanctuary, a few quick blocks from the ocean, and a dozen or so blocks to Bob's Bikes and Stone Harbor's main strip.

I would spend hours each day boogie boarding and swimming in the Atlantic there. She would soak up the sun while reading a book. Often I would be out swimming so long that I would come back to find her asleep, her tiny, bunioned feet buried in the sand. In later years we would talk about Shakespeare (which she loved) and Star Trek (which she hated).

We had a wonderful times in Stone Harbor, always. Whether it was time on the beach, time spent bicycling with her up to Avalon, time spent catching hermit crabs in inner tidepools, or hours spent just sitting around the cottage and reading my silly sci/fi books in the shade, we always had fun.

Even the best books eventually come to their conclusions and run out of pages.

The best thing about the festivities of this weekend had to be the post-Memorial-Service Memorial Service...we wandered to the south tip of Stone Harbor with a portion of her ashes. Each of us picked up a small sea shell from a collection gathered at her other ocean home and filled it with said ashes, then walked into the ocean to dispose of them as we saw fit.

I was practically paralyzed at this. I grabbed the first shell that my hand came upon. The bag of ashes came my way. They were so white, with small fragments of I could only assume bone. I felt uneasy.

I am not religious or even particularly spiritual. I know that her views were fairly similar to my own. My unease was primarily over the idea that this was, two weeks ago, the material that composed my grandmother's then-living body. Flashes of Heinlein's Stranger in a Strange Land entered my head. Thoughts of eating the dead out love. Touching the dead out of love, at least. I cast aside notions of grossness because...well...I love her. The idea of scooping her up into my hands is a bit odd, but carries an intimacy that I will cherish always.

I collected a small portion and began to walk into the surf. My eyes watered. I stopped being able to breath. This was, in a weird way, going to be the last time I went swimming in the Atlantic with my grandmother. I dwelled on this thought for a moment. Part of me was tempted. Oh so tempted. To. Just. Keep. Going.

My jeans were soaked. So was my face.

Breath, I remembered.

I sank my hands into the Atlantic, and I watched my grandmother go, off to swim on her own.

The shell, I thought. If I keep it, does it become a white elephant? Some silly memento of this moment that I spend too much time of my life futzing over?

All things are impermanent, just as my grandmother was, and just as I shall be. Perhaps I should let it go. Cold waves continued to lap up my jeans, soaking me from the bottom, while hot tears kept coming, soaking me from the top.

What would she do, if our roles were reversed?

I guess that's not important now. What would I do?

I decided to keep the shell. She is gone now, but not forgotten. I held the shell in my hand for a while, and walked down the beach in hunt of something interesting while hoping that my face, maybe even my pants, would dry off.

Honestly, I'm actually not looking forward to a time that I can think about our last swim together without getting wet.

Further back...