There’s a new addition to the Velorage, which brings the number of bikes owned by my partner and myself to. . .well, an obscenely large number. Perhaps this is why the walls of the Velorage are beginning to bulge outward. This is only temporary since I’m going to start selling off a couple of the former steeds. They are all in good condition but I just don’t ride them anymore and can’t see that that will change anytime in the next couple of years. By which time bike technology will have advanced and it will be time to buy new bikes!
She’s not really that spooky; the tires have a nice reflective safety strip on them. Here’s a better photo, au naturel.
This is a 2014 Surly Disc Trucker, a version of their popular Long Haul Trucker that incorporates (bet you would never guess) disc brakes and a slightly wider hub spacing front and back to accommodate the disc wheels. Otherwise, in terms of geometry and construction this is the same as the LHT. The LHT is an extremely well-reviewed bike that has been popular with randonneurs and touring cyclists; it is rugged, comfortable, rolls well, and has braze-ons and attachments to enable you to carry three water bottles, a pump (remember those?) and even spare spokes, plus a huge quantity of gear. It is currently equipped with Continental Contact 37mm wide tires, and while this particular model has 700c wheels, you can also get models with 26 inch MTB wheels. While my friends might gasp at the idea of the width of its existing tires, the frame will accommodate tires that are a lot wider than that: up to 45mm.
A Change of Pace
This is certainly a lot different than the kind of bikes that I’ve ridden for the last few years. This is not a bike designed to haul ass; it is designed to haul your ass long distances in relative comfort. I’ve bought it primarily for randonneuring but I also want a bike that will enable me to start to dabble in unsupported touring at some point so it seemed like a good idea to invest in a bike that would work for both kinds of riding.
While my experience with randonneuring is still relatively limited, I have done 3 brevets so far this year, done a lot of reading and research, and am going to step up my distances next year. I’ve mentioned this before when talking about randonneuring but it bears repeating (especially since I will probably resort to this to justify my slow pace on occasion): randonnees are not races. The goal is simply to finish within the allotted time. What specific time goals you set are up to you; if you finish ten minutes under the cut-off your brevet is as complete as it is for someone who finished five hours under. This, of course, is theoretically true when it comes to Ironman, but that doesn’t stop a whole lot of people (i.e. almost the entire population of SlowTwitch, from what I can see) making snarky comments about people who can’t knock out a nine hour Ironman. But because the distances in Randonneuring are more extreme and the events less formal, the riders I’ve met so far have been a lot more relaxed; when you are riding for 600km there really isn’t any way you can spend all that time in the Testosterzone without poisoning yourself.
This means that when it comes to a bike there are two primary criteria that it needs to fulfill (and two secondary criteria): your bike needs to be sturdy, and it needs to be comfortable. And if anything goes wrong, it needs to be relatively easy to fix and/or replace any problems on the road. And in the service of meeting the two primary criteria, it helps if the bike gives you a lot of flexibility in fitting. Sure, you can lard on a bunch of other possible factors (it should be light! it should be aerodynamic!). But there is no one bike to rule them all. You are always making compromises and concessions. And after a lot of research (and some not inconsiderable experience riding a fair few bikes over the years) I’ve come to the conclusion that when you start trying to address those additional desires, you start making compromises in the key areas relevant to randonneuring. This is unsupported riding: there is no one around to pick you up when your carbon wheel shatters or your fancy bladed spokes break; while lighter wheels and skinnier tires might in one sense make you faster; in the final analysis nothing makes you slower than fatigue, and skinny tires beat the crap out of you over the long haul. I consider my R3 a very comfortable road bike; it is certainly toward the plush end of things. I’m not sure that I’d want to be riding it for much longer than 130-150 miles, well short of the next brevet distance jump for me, 300k.
So what are some of the aspects of this bike that made me choose it for randonneuring and adventuring?
When it is the worst of times, you want the best brakes
If you have the choice of fitting disc brakes to any bike, do it. If you’ve ever ridden disc brakes you know that they offer the best stopping power, hands down, period, end of story. They are particularly amazing when it is wet. It is one of the things I really missed when I switched from commuting on my Cannondale mountain bike to the road bike. I suddenly felt much less safe, certainly in the wet, but also just dealing with the general mayhem on DC streets which even on a good day can resemble the zombie apocalypse: people wandering across the street at random, cars that seem to be driven by drunk two-year olds, and the like.
This inclusion of disc brakes on a bike designed for the road (some cross bikes have been using them for a while) is also no longer as strange as it once was. If you’ve been paying attention to all the latest bike geekery trends you’ll notice that some high end manufacturers have been starting to experiment with equipment and frames that will allow disc brakes to be used on performance racing bikes. If they are so awesome why hasn’t the pro Peleton used them before now? Weight. Why would people be considering them now? Race wheels have started to become so ridiculously light that there are some serious problems with overheating and consequent tire blow-outs from rim braking. And when the weather closes in, even high end caliper brakes are no match for discs. The first performance bike models with discs are already in production. And once something becomes legit for pros, the wannabes will want it too. So this may well be one of those things like electronic shifting that seemed a) too expensive, and b) of marginal utility, that will quite quickly penetrate the amateur bike scene.
But for my purposes, if I’m bombing down a sketchy descent in the middle of the night in a torrential downpour, discs are what I want under me. Why would you be stupid enough to find yourself in such a situation? Well, perhaps you should ask my friend, Damon. . . I could get even better brake performance by going hydraulic, but this where both the reliability and the repairability comes in. Now most people who use hydraulic brakes won’t have any problems whatsoever. But I’m starting to realize that part of responsible planning for a brevet is all about planning for as many worst case scenarios as possible: eliminating those that you can, preparing for those that might happen, and making your peace with those elements that you can’t do anything about, or about which you have chosen to accept a calculated risk. In my case, snagging a hydraulic cable could easily end your ride (you’d have to bleed the system, re-seal it, refill the fluid, etc.; I can care a spare mechanical cable and replace it easily).
In the image above, note also the location of the brake unit inside the triangle formed by the chain stays and the seat stays, rather than on top of the seat-stays (the more common place for mountain bike brakes). This is to make it easier to strap racks and fenders on the back.
Hurts so Good
As I always say to my mistress, leather, plenty of it, and the harder the better.
Steel bikes and leather seats are just designed to go together. I’ve had a good result from the Brooks Swallow on my road bike, but it is too compliant for extended touring and randonneuring use. So I opted for one of the favorite seats of people who have their seat firmly planted for hours on end: the venerable Brooks B17. In this case I opted for the Special version, partly because the leather is slightly tougher than the stock version, but mainly for the entirely superficial reason that I fell in love with the look of the hand-hammered cooper rivets and copper-coated rails.
This, however, raises a slightly different issue that is to some extent at odds with everything I’ve been saying up until now. I want this bike to be an attractive bike. Over the last couple of years I’ve started to become fascinated with classic bike designs. I like modern bikes, too, obviously. But the world of triathlon in particular is currently embracing a lot of bikes that are designed around a single purely functional criterion: aerodynamics. And many of them look butt ugly. I also feel the same way about them that I feel in response to skinny women and muscle-bound men: they exude an aura of high-maintenance drama and look as if they would break if you tried to do anything with them except the one thing they for which they are designed.
So I’ve become more attracted, I think, to the rugged beauty of older bikes, ones that didn’t get an attack of the vapors at the prospect of being taken on a gravel road, for example. Here, for example, is one of the other bikes I road-tested before opting for the Surly, the Jamis Aurora Elite:
But I am not blind to the beauty of other kinds of bikes. For example, the following image is of a bike that I was dying to try but couldn’t find a local example. The Volagi Viaje is a really innovative and beautiful design: mostly steel, with disk brakes, and long seat stays that don’t actually join the seat tube, but instead drop down from the top tube.
This is an endurance bike, designed for all-day riding, but also for switching from pavement to single-track. Check out the Volagi website; they have some amazing video of this road bike bombing down some pretty sketchy trails. I would seriously think about this as an alternate road bike. (In the end, it has a carbon fork and no attachment points for gear, so it dropped out of the running for a rando/touring bike).
All of which is to say, there will be future posts where I’ll be describing some utterly pointless pimping of my ride. For example, the Surly is now practically weeping tears of despair at not having leather handlebar tape to match the seat, but that will have to wait until I’m sure that this is the handlebar I want (I have my doubts).
Now that’s. . .odd
The surly features, barcons, shifting levers located in the end of the bars, something that is pretty common on touring bikes but seen almost nowhere else. Why? Well, these shifters are bullet-proof, out of harms way, easy to fix, and cheap to replace. But isn’t that shifting strange? Honestly, I thought it would be, but after 5 minutes of test-riding the Surly I didn’t notice it at all. I think this is about the fifth or sixth different shifting system I’ve used over the years, so maybe I’m just adaptable. But this also isn’t that different from riding on the pursuits on your tri bike and having to shift. That, however, was actually another reason I opted for this set-up. A lot of riders experience problems with hand numbness on long rides and I’ve occasionally felt twinges of that on the R3. Therefore, shifting your hand position a lot to change gears may take fractionally more effort (although, to be honest, so far I’m finding it easier than using the brifters) but it may pay off in other ways.
Big is Beautiful
The biggest difference between this bike and both my road and tri bikes is the weight. At a conservative estimate this thing weighs twice as much as my Cervelo R3. But it is also geared low: a mountain bike triple on the front (48x36x26) and a 9 speed 11×32 cassette on the rear. I notice the weight a little on the climbs but actually not as much as I expected. I’ve done a couple of reasonable steep climbs on it so far (Mount Nebo, for example) and haven’t yet used the granny ring. Where I do notice the weight is on rolling terrain; this is where the road bike has been so much fun; it carries speed really well. The Surly doesn’t feel sluggish, but it certainly isn’t as sprightly as a light-weight carbon frame.
But while this bike is very different in one sense, it is in a strange way a throwback to the kind of bike I used to ride when I was a kid. Steel frames are the material of choice for long-distance cycling in large part because they are easy to fix (you just need some guy or gal with a blowtorch) but also because steel is a much more forgiving material. I am also a convert to wider tires. Yes, they are heavier, and yes they are not as aerodynamic. The rolling resistance on a larger tire is, counterintuitively, as studies have now shown, less than for a skinner tire. Larger tires are also much more forgiving, especially over fractured pavement, than skinnier tires. I got a chance this weekend to try the bike out on wet, mud-slicked, and occasionally rough roads, and the bike felt sure and amazingly comfortable.
The ride reminds me of my Grandma Ruby. In the latter years when we used to go and visit her, she would take us kids driving in her car, one of those early seventies monsters (I want to say it was an Impala) that Detroit cranked out when it seemed like the world’s oil would last forever. She was a tiny woman, driving a car the size of a small African nation. Riding in a car this big was an extraordinary experience; it was as if everything was happening way out on periphery somewhere, in an area where you might notice it but where it was too far away to be of any concern: hitting pedestrians, clipping buildings, colliding with an aircraft carrier. . .all these things happened as if they were happening in another reality.
Riding this bike over rough pavement is exactly the same. You are vaguely aware that something is happening down there that might possibly be of concern in other circumstances, but it seldom makes its way up to the rest of your body. Very different from the testicular jackhammering you receive on your average road bike. I was thinking about changing the tires for slightly skinner ones (32mm maybe) but for the moment I am very happy, so I’ll be riding these in the next brevet so I can get a better picture.
There is a lot to get used to on this bike; it shifts differently, rides differently, handles differently than any bike I’ve ever known. . .but in ways that are all also strangely familiar. I know I’ll be slower. No more knocking out a sub-ten 200k for me. But that won’t necessarily be a bad thing. I’ve started to realize that maybe one of the reasons I’ve been drawn to randonneuring is precisely to force myself to slow down a bit, take something in my life at a bit more of a relaxed pace.
I haven’t spent enough time riding the bike for her to tell me what her name is yet. My partner has already vetoed the names “Grumpy Fuck” and “Curmudgeon” (to fit with the Surly theme). Her official color is “Maroon” (although I’m sure Surly probably had some disturbing or even profane color descriptor; they are actually known for creating rather insane color descriptions that circulate briefly before someone at Corporate Marketing puts their foot down). So I was thinking, maybe Mickey Marooney? Because I’ve now had so many different rides. Or maybe McKayla Marooney? Because all my triathlon and road cycling friends will definitely not be impressed. One friend got quite carried away with the “Disk Trucker” theme and launched into a string of redneck/country-themed names: Tanya, Charlene, Loretta, George W. Bush. . . Maybe, following the trucking them, we could go with Rubber Duck from the song “Convoy?” After my first long ride I did vaguely think of a couple of names but they were also names of people on the team. And let me just offer this one piece of advice: it is generally not advisable to name something you spend a lot of time wrapping your legs around after a team-mate.
Sooner or later, I will learn the language of this bike, and then if I listen carefully, I will hear the whisper: “You may call me. . .”