Introducing. . .

It occurred to me recently that I’ve been so busy riding (and riding long) that I haven’t had time to introduce the new mistress.

Previously, on Alchemy. . .
As you may recall, Ginger, the beloved Cervelo RS developed a crack in the bottom bracket and although she survived long enough to get me through the Death Valley ride, she has now been sent to the farm.  Because Cervelo no longer make the RS (perhaps because of the aforementioned manufacturing defect; it wasn’t just a problem with my RS) in fulfillment of the lifetime warranty they sent me an R3.  Even though this is a well-reviewed bike, and the geometry is very, very close to the RS, I was still a little concerned.  It is a bike I hadn’t ridden before and therefore I wasn’t sure it was even a bike I would have liked enough to consider buying in the first place.  Then there are all the complex individualities of bike fit that make a perfectly acceptable bike just not quite work for you.

But so far, the match seems to be working very well.  So, without further ado, let me introduce Sylvie.

New Bike

Sylvie on Skyline

So, why the name?  Well, partly the color, obviously.  I’m enjoying having the first bike in a while that isn’t white; riding within even 50 feet of a puddle ensured that the RS became dirty in sympathy.  The red accents are also pretty subtle; there’s a nice flash of red on the inside of the front forks, which you can only see if you are looking for it.  Stylish but understated.  A lot like me.  Not.

But the name also evokes the ride: light, sylph-like.  This is a very comfortable bike that manages to combine the feeling of being extremely stable (after a couple of high speed descents recently down both the smashed pavement of Catoctin and the manicured sweeps of Skyline this bike feels planted to the road)  with that “think it and it happens” maneuverability that is such a joy to ride. . .and which also enables you to avoid sudden potholes or roadkill without careening into a ditch.  There are still some things I miss about the old RS.  The leaf-spring design of the RS seat-stays was a great piece of bike engineering that made it ridiculously comfortable, especially at high speed over borked pavement.  But this bike is still pretty compliant and it just feels lighter somehow; several times now I’ve found myself at the end of a long ride with the feeling that I’m just floating along, barely putting any effort into the turn of the pedals.  I’ve also repeatedly had the feeling that I’m struggling–up a climb, into a headwind–only to look down and be pleasantly surprised at how fast I’m actually going.  The bike accelerates quickly and over rolling terrain in particular it feels as if it doesn’t so much accelerate as just float into speed.  I can definitely see why so many people love this bike.

The only significant technical difference between this bike and the RS (apart from a bottom bracket that hopefully won’t shatter into a million slivers of carbon) is a tapered steerer.  Now I’ve always been a little skeptical of innovation in the biking world. In fact, I’m skeptical of innovation in any realm.  Because most innovation is in fact not innovative at all; it is merely incremental change designed to produce largely cosmetic differences to persuade us to buy more stuff.  I’m particularly familiar with this in the world of videogames: “No, this isn’t the same first-person shooter you’ve been playing for the last decade.  Dude, the camouflage on the uniform of the final boss is different. It is a game changer, man!”

The world of cycling is rife with this, filled with jargon-laded descriptions of supposed technology breakthroughs.  Claims are made for this, that or the other carbon lay-up, dramatic performance gains made from a weight-reduction that most riders could achieve simply by letting go a solid peloton-clearing fart, and so on.  Most of the performance improvements from these “innovations” will only be realized by professional riders already riding at the limit of equipment and bodily optimization.  But bike frame and component manufacturers of course do not make their money from those people.  They give those people money to lure more money out of you and I, the people who inhabit a fantasy world where a new bike or a new, lighter derailleur cable will suddenly transform us into the next Cancellara.  The latest example of this is the absurd level of excitement over the new 11-speed cassettes.  Cue the Spinal Tap “It goes to 11” video.

So my first response to this bike having a tapered steerer was: Pffffft.  That goes right up there with Reese Witherspoon’s drunk driving on the list of Things I Don’t Give a Monkey’s Nuts About.  But I have to admit, there is a noticeable difference in the steering.  To be sure, I think I’m only noticing that because I’ve been able to spend so much time on two bikes with almost identical geometries, where this is the only major difference.  But the steering feels a lot more precise, the front-end a lot less jittery, and the recovery from sudden maneuvers a lot quicker and more predictable.  So in this case I’m prepared to concede that this one might be a nett win for the average Joe and Jane bike rider.  That doesn’t mean I’m about to plonk down any dosh for an 11-speed cassette, however!

Now, the keen-eyed hardcore roadies out there will undoubtedly have noticed one significant feature that will immediately have caused them to stop hollowing out the titanium screws on their bikes and promptly soil their replica Garmin-Cervelo kit.  Yes, that is a leather saddle.  A Brooks Swallow, to be exact. Big, heavy, old-style.  In fact, I am reliably informed that this seat originally comes from a Sopwith Camel shot down by Manfred von Richtofen, buried in Belgian mud for 90 years, and lovingly restored by wizened craftsmen subsisting only on a diet of Stilton and Porter in a small cottage deep in the Cotswolds.   So the question you may be asking (and many of my biking buddies have asked) is: for the love of God, why?  Why would you do that to a beautiful modern carbon frame?  Don’t those kind of saddles belong on cast-iron Penny Farthings or (their modern equivalent) surmounting the rapper bling of a vanity fixie hipster ride?

The first answer is because the more I ride bikes the more I learn how much what you are “supposed” to do with a bike, especially when it comes to its equipment, is a load of crap (see above on bike consumerism).  The second is because I’m a practical cyclist.  I ride what works, and allows me to use the bike to fit in with my life (rather than the other way around).  If you look even more closely you’ll see I’ve put mountain bike pedals on this bike as well (if any hardcore roadies are still reading they have just started beating their computer monitors with a pair of SIDI’s that cost more than my monthly mortgage payment).

I ended up with a saddle for the tri bike that was OK.  For the road bike I’ve had a couple that were kinda OK.  They have worked up to a point.  I’ve ridden many miles and done centuries and more on those saddles.  But I’ve never had that level of comfort that so many cyclists seem to take for granted.  Things reached a breaking point with the Death Valley ride.  Sure, long hours in the saddle can be expected to yield some discomfort.  But from very early in that ride I was shifting around constantly, trying to find a place that worked, and by the end of the ride I was ready to purchase a gallon of $12 Death Valley gas and set the thing alight in revenge for the similar burning sensations it had been inflicting on me for the past couple of hours.  This was on a bike that in all respects was fitted well with me, and on a saddle that seemed, at first to be a workable replacement for the old one.

The key thing you have to learn about saddles is that they have a distance rating to them.  This is really something that is never factored into discussions about buying saddles, although it should be.  One saddle will be a La-Z-Boy up to 50 miles and then an iron tractor seat afterward.  Another saddle may cradle your nether regions with all the tenderness and care of an expensive call girl for 100 miles and then promptly rip off your testicles when you hit mile 101.  My experiences so far this year told me pretty clearly that this long distance riding was fun, and I would like to do more of it, so I needed to solve this problem.  I wanted, finally, better than OK.

Being a practical cyclist, I looked at the people who go really long: randonneurs. Now obviously what goes under your arse is still highly individual.  But these are people whose ride distances start at 130 miles and go right up to 1200k.  And the consensus in that world generally favors old-school leather saddles, chiefly those from Selle Italia and Brooks.  Clearly there has to be a reason for that.  No one is going to subject themselves to sitting on a pointy metal fence post while trying to ride 1200k in 90 hours.  Randonneurs favor practicality and reliability above all else.  This is the reason for preferring the steel bikes and high spoke count wheels that the weight-weenified roadies love to laugh at.  Because when the roadie’s carbon bike frame shatters in the peloton pile-up, the steel bike will most likely emerge unscathed, or if not, can be easily repaired.  When the a spoke breaks on the roadie’s brand new Firecrest that wheel becomes virtually unrideable; with a higher spoke count wheel you can trim it out and ride on.  Leather saddles fall into this same category, a throwback to the origins of cycling when men were men and sheep were frightened.

And I have to say, this was one of the best decisions I ever made.  I’ve put about 500 miles on the saddle now, including a very fast 200k ride.  It has been awesome.  With leather saddles there is supposed to be a break-in period, and I have felt the saddle gradually becoming a little more comfortable with each long ride, but the saddle felt pretty comfortable to me from the get-go.  The most convincing explanation I’ve heard for this is that leather saddles handle the relationship between your sit bones and your soft tissue in a very different way from supposedly more modern saddles.  And the ride feels very different.  This is not a saddle that “vanishes.”  I find I’m aware that it is there, but that this isn’t because of discomfort; it is hard to describe but it just feels like it is solidly there, providing support.  Yes, there is more effort involved in maintaining a leather saddle; it needs to be proofed occasionally after the break-in period.  They may need tightening from time to time (a simple matter of turning a bolt on the seat).  You also can’t ride them wet, so you need a rain cover for them.  This puts them out of the realm of people who can’t change a tire.  But all this is worth it for the comfort.

So you’ll still me standing up occasionally on the bike, but now this is mainly to stretch tired muscles.  It won’t be because I’m feeling as if someone just squirted embrocation into my shorts.


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