Practical Pimping

I recently completed the first set of improvements to the Surly Disc Trucker to bring her in line with what I need for a randonneuring/touring/commuting bike.  Also known as the One Bike to Rule Them All.

But first. . .


After trying out several different possibilities, I’m pleased to report that the Trucker now has a name: Gypsy Rose.  It was originally Gypsy because it is a bike for roaming the landscape, but the Rose just seemed to want to attach itself (initially, I think because of the color).  Not because she really gives off an exotic dancer kind of vibe, but certainly Gypsy Rose Lee was also a free-spirited independent type.  As an added bonus, Gypsy Rose sort of does sound as if it could be a trucker CB handle.

I also found that there’s a name for me!  Doing the odd bit of digging around on forums for randonneuring and touring info I came across an established term for people like me who show a marked preference for old-style bikes and bike gear.  Now to all the people who know me, prepare to laugh it up, I can take it (please Mommy don’t hurt me): retrogrouch.  Yes, I know, too perfect a fit with every other facet of my character.  But here’s the interesting thing.  I’ve noticed that on the forums it isn’t simply a dismissive term of abuse.  Often it is used with an almost grudging admission that the retrogrouches might be on to something.  Yes, you can almost hear some users saying, those retrogrouches might have a point about cassettes that are one louder and are right to suggest that people who spend all their time hollowing out the titanium screws on their bikes to save 0.3 grams should seek professional help.

So there we go, the curmudgeon and the stripper.  Together at last.

Fending off Disaster

One of the first things I knew I wanted to add was fenders.  It was part of the reason why I got a bike with such a “wide stance” in the first place.

Covering up, old school.

Covering up, old school.

These are aluminium fenders from Velo Orange, a company that makes a lot of retro-inspired bike equipment.  These are designed to evoke the look of old-style hammered alloy fenders while still being a lot lighter than the older steel.

Its nice that they have the dents already included.

Its nice that they have the dents already included.

The Velo Orange stuff really is nice; they also made the bottle cages that I have on both Sylvie and now Gypsy Rose; light, stylish, grippy but also easy to get the bottles out.  In this case the fenders are light, but the stays are strong steel, and the mounting system seems robust.  I’ve pounded them through a fair few potholes on DC streets already and there isn’t a  rattle.  I could have had my LBS add them but I’m a big believer in getting to know your bike by working on it as much as possible. . .

. . .a philosophy I began to question about halfway through the entire afternoon it took me to add all this stuff.  The installation isn’t overly complex, but there is a lot of fitting, measuring and marking, hacksawing of stays, reinstalling, bolting this that and the other, making a trip to Home Depot for the one bolt you need which didn’t come with the kit, and so on.  The only modification I introduced was a rubber strip under the bridge that attaches the rear fender, just to ensure that no new rattles would appear further down the road.  That said, I managed to get everything lined up pretty well, and the coverage is pretty good.  There’s also a reasonable amount of clearance between fender and tire, helped by the fact that my 37mm Contacts measure out closer to 34.

Fun fact: it turns out that bike tire manufacturers lie like a politician.  I didn’t know this, but apparently they lie about the widths of their tires all the time.  Why would they do such a thing?  Well, if you sell a 34mm tire as a 37mm tire, it stands to reason that your tire will be lighter than something that is actually a 37mm tire.  So your tire will look as if it is benefiting from some kind of technological breakthrough that makes it lighter than your competitor’s tires.  Sneaky, huh!  But also kind of pointless if everyone is doing it.  Oh well.

All of which raises the question: why put fenders on a bike in the first place?

Well, back in the day, soon after the first bikes were invented, people (they were known simply as Grouches back then, because there was no Retro to be Grouchy about) took the bold step of riding them outside.  And they soon discovered that having an icy cold stream of water shot up your arse was not a lot of fun.  Then the French Grouches (known as Les Grouches) went and invented the bidet.  Go figure.

The bikes we rode as kids had fenders, as I recall, a necessity that was never questioned.  It was only when bikes began to aspire to the condition of Kate Moss that fenders started to seem like so much unnecessary luggage.  But hey, most modern cyclists say, you are going to get wet riding in the rain anyway.  Well, there’s wet and then there is trashed.  Without a rear mudguard you get the familiar rooster tail of water thrown up by your rear wheel, which would be fine if water was all it was.  Around here (particularly up in Maryland) during the winter they lay down so much sand that you would swear you were at Waikiki.  I’ve finished rides, pulled off my helmet, and had sand cascade out of it.  The more important fender is arguably the front one, because it stops water (and oil, and god knows what other chemical residue that bleeds off a wet road, particularly in the city) from being blasted back onto your drivetrain.

These fenders were not in fact my first choice.  From the time I knew I was going to get the Surly I’d had my eye on a beautiful pair of Grasshopper bamboo fenders made by Planet Bike.  I liked the idea of the sustainable material (when we reach peak oil our bikes are probably going to be made of bamboo anyway, so might as well get a head start on some of the components) and also the way the color of the wood meshes with the classic leather of the Brooks saddle.

A Thing of Beauty: A Surly Disc Trucker with Planet Bike Grasshopper fenders.

A Thing of Beauty: A Surly Disc Trucker with Planet Bike Grasshopper fenders.

However, you can see the problem with these fenders straight away.  They are longer than many fenders out there, but still too short.  The front one in particular doesn’t extend either low enough, or far enough out in front of the wheel (being short at the front means that if you have a light mounted on the fork crown, as I intend to, you are going to get a lot of spray thrown up in front of it when riding on a wet road at night).

The major drawback with fenders is of course that the mere sight of them gives weight weenie cyclists heart palpitations.  Of course, they are secretly envious and wishing that they could be just a tiny bit retro so they would haven’t to scrape sand out of their butt crack after every ride.  Well, now, in fact they can embrace the retrogrouch spirit in a futuristic way!

There’s a UK company called–inasupiciously, I’ll admit–Crud Products.  They make all kinds of mudguards including one called the RoadRacer.  I first came across this because some randonneurs and trekkers uses these if they travel a lot.  These fenders are designed to be attached to wispy carbon bikes by an innovative mounting system, and they weigh less than 200 grams.  Best of all, they deal with the major problem with fenders on a modern road frame which is the lack of clearance.  Add a fender and there’s a good chance that a tiny gum wrapper will get jammed between mudguard and fork, causing the mudguard to fold into your wheel with some less than desirable consequences.  But if you check out the product website you’ll see some amazing videos of the designer trying to jam every conceivable object up into the frame and the mudguards are so wispy that they simply fold out of the way.  Of course they have neither the width nor the length of real mudguards, but they could go a long way to making your average roadie’s winter a lot more comfortable.

But for even greater comfort. . .

Talk About Mudflaps, My Girl’s Got `Em!

Fenders by themselves aren’t enough.  For practical purposes that front fender just can’t go low enough to stop all the spray and debris.  Enter the humble mudflap.

Everything droops as you get older.

Everything droops as you get older.

These are oiled harness leather (again, from Velo Orange); they were cheaper than the Brooks version but also seemed a little more rubust; in truth, the mudflaps are heavier than the actual fenders.  My friend Phil, an experienced cyclist, was a little shocked at how low the front flap was, but if you Google touring bikes (or simply bikes and mudflaps) you’ll see that this is really common.  At that position there isn’t much that is getting past.  That is also one reason why I opted for leather rather than the plastic options that are widely available.  Slung that low, you are going to clip the mudflap a lot when hefting your bike over curbs and the like; the leather flexes.  (That, by the way, is also the reason you can’t have the actual fender curve that far down).

There’s a mudflap on the rear as well.  Now this one isn’t absolutely necessary.  That fender comes down far enough to stop the anal wetting problem.  But while configuring a bike like this will ensure that almost no one I have regularly cycled with in the past will want to be seen on the road with me, there are nevertheless a few like-minded souls who will.  And when the weather turns foul, having a rear mudflap is a pleasant courtesy to your fellow randonneurs because it keeps your backspray out of their face.

But the great thing about this kind of cycling is that apparently there is no limit to the bike pimpery.  I was in at Bicycle Space (the area’s most awesome bike shop) recently discussing Phase 3 of the Rando Bike Project (more on that at another time) and one of the mechanics flicked my mudflap and said: “You mean you haven’t carved a hand-tooled design into that thing yet?  You want me to go get my kit?”  The thought had never even occurred to me.  Now, of course, it has.

The Things They Carried

The rear rack is VO’s Campeur, a hardy (although surprisingly, not all that heavy) touring rack.

Nice rack!

Nice rack!

You can sling panniers on the lower rail, while still being able to use the upper platform for another bag.  There are pegs on one side to enable you to mount a small frame pump, and braze-ons underneath the top platform for a rear light mount.  It looks surprisingly compact on the bike, and I liked the curves rather than the squared off look of some racks.  I’ll be using it with my Arkel Trunk bag initially, and it gets the entire load much lower on the bike than I have been able to do using the (nevertheless excellent) Arkel Randonneur rack which will still be pressed into service for the odd ride on the R3.  This rack could in fact mount lower still but by that point I’d blunted the hacksaw blade and couldn’t be bothered to take another trip to Home Depot.

I hear that landing Strips are the in thing

The only piece of really gratuitous bling I allowed myself on the bike was an elk hide chainstay protector.

It isn't going to look this good for long.

It isn’t going to look this good for long.

It was dirt cheap (must be a lot of elk around) and I definitely needed something there; with a gear range this wide there is the chance of getting some chain slap if you hit a bump in some of the gears; more commonly it protects the frame from the ordinary amount of crud shed from your chain, particularly in the wet.  For the moment it matches beautifully with mudflaps and seat.  I give it a couple of months before it is completely black.

Eh Voila!

So Gypsy Rose now has all the mod cons.  Which is to say that she now has all the old cons.

Ready to Roam

Ready to Roam

There are a few tweaks I’d like at some point.  On my recent visit to Bicycle Space no fewer than three separate employees in the shop said “Of course you have to get the leather bar tape.”  I know!  But I’m not going to do that when I’m not completely sure I’m in love with this handlebar.  I made a few tweaks to its position and it is now working a lot better for me; on my most recent 200k I ended up with no hand issues at all despite having to spend a lot of time in the drops into the wind.  Even on my beloved R3 a long ride would still sometimes leave my hands feeling tired.

And there’s no getting around the fact that the bike is now what me dear old mum would call a “strapping lass.”  That weight is going to come into play on the climbs and I’ve got a brevet coming up where I am anticipating suffering like a bastard because of it.  On the other hand, I haven’t even touched the granny ring on this thing yet, and that is there for a reason.  She’s slow, but she’s steady, and now she is built to carry and to survive some pretty mean weather.

This has all made me reflect on one of the huge differences between this kind of biking–what Bicycling Quaterly editor Jan Heine loves to refer to as “practical cycling”–and the worlds of triathlon and road cycling that I am more used to: the high degree of customization.  Stalk the transition area of any Ironman and you’ll see that everyone’s P2C looks pretty much like everyone else’s P2C.  The saddle might be different, and maybe there will be one of three different aero bottle types, but that is about it.  Maybe someone will get really risky and change the color of their brake cables.  If you go a little more extreme as I did (bright blue bar tape with matching blue side-walled tires) it excites comment or skeptical looks (“I dunno man, I hear that blue dye is 0.5 of a gram heavier than the stock tire; over 112 miles that is, like, 2 seconds between you and a PR.”).  There are of course many things you can do; my partner has personalized her bike with stencils.  But most people don’t; it is as if people are terrified that showing a flash of personality will somehow affect the aerodynamics or the handling of their bikes (and it is part of a broader problem: triathletes in particular suffer from having The Most Boring Gear in the World; roadies aren’t far behind: with all the colors of the rainbow from which to choose, most bikes are black, red, white, grey, or some combination thereof.  Maybe that is why roadies feel the need to overcompensate with replica team kits).

With this bike I’ve been choosing beauty and functionality wherever possible.  But this is one of the things that struck me when I went on my first brevet.  I looked around me and there was almost no way you could discern that all of these bikes belonged in the same event.  A wide array of bike designs and even similar bikes were tricked out so as to be almost unrecognizable as the same bike.  It is a reminder that it is a weird, wonderful, and extremely varied world out there.


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