Category Archives: reviews

A Real-World Review: Rapha Grand Tour Shoes

Some filler while I’m in Amsterdam, land of 10 million bicycles, 99% of which are squeaky, creaky pieces of shit. Understandable, because the local residents use them strictly as transportation and lock them outdoors 24/7. They don’t have the kind of attachment we do to our finely tuned road machines, at least not to the bikes they use for riding around town.  This is my first time here in 6 or 7 years; in fact, the last time I was here it was before I really paid attention to bicycles, so it is shocking to see bicycle traffic jams.

I am happy in my corner of the Catskills, and I was also happy in New York City, but Amsterdam is one of the few other places in the world in which I could happily live, and not just because of the bicycles. It is a beautiful, cosmopolitan city. The Dutch are awesome, and—I don’t know quite how to put this—they seem happier and better adjusted than the people in other major cities I’ve visited worldwide.

If I moved here, though, I’d have to start a campaign to encourage them to oil their goddamned chains.

Before I begin, some perspective on my reviews:  I’m an average athlete, and I am not an expert in anything bicycle related. However, since I started the blog I have received many e-mails asking for “expert” advice on bicycle-related topics. My favorite was a guy asking for advice on nutrition: as the people I ride with will tell you, I sometimes forget to eat until I’m shaking and almost falling off the bike.

My reviews might be useful for the average cyclist who rides longer distances, or one who wants to. Those of you have been reading along know that I like to ride long. I’m not necessarily fast, but 12-, 14-, and even 18-hour days (or more) in the saddle are an at least weekly event for me. Even during the week my rides average 2 to 3 hours. I don’t have to sell ads, so I won’t give you any Bicycling-style bullshit. Please remember, however, that there is an inherent bias in my reviews, in that I will take the time to write a review only if I really like something.

Now, the review:

There is a lot that can go wrong at the interface between the body and the bicycle on a 200+ mile ride. A rough seam combined with a poor fit on a bib short can saw a bleeding gash in your thigh. A pair of sunglasses that clamp too tightly can cause intolerable headaches. A pair of shoes that is acceptable for 6 hours can cause long-lasting nerve damage after 18 hours in the saddle. All issues that need to be avoided, particularly if you don’t want to take a week to recover between rides.

That brings me to Rapha, which is often the subject of considerable derision among experienced cyclists. However, I’m a fan. I love almost everything I’ve ever purchased from them. Not only does it fit well, but it lasts under extreme conditions. I still have jerseys from when Rapha had, if I recall correctly, 4 or 5 products on their website (maybe that was 2008?). They’ve been washed hundreds of times, and still look good and fit well.

I’ve also heard complaints about Rapha’s clothing being sized for, um, bigger gents—you know, recreational cyclists who aren’t serious. I don’t know how the people doing the complaining are built, but I am 6 feet tall and 145 pounds on a (very) fat day, and a standard Rapha medium fits relatively closely. It is not an aero race jersey, and it isn’t meant to be.

I’ve used Sidi shoes almost exclusively since early 2008. I’ve also had brief, tragic experiences with Shimano and Specialized shoes. The Sidis are great shoes, but they caused numbness after 6 or 7 hours of riding. I could never get the ratcheted strap to a tension that retained my foot properly but didn’t cut off circulation. They provided excellent power transfer and I had no issues riding short distances, but it was always a relief to take them off at the end of a ride.

I was looking for something better. I flirted with getting some custom-made shoes, but the molding process put me off—it would be fine if there was someone local to do it for me, but doing it myself seemed like a recipe for an expensive disaster.

Ultimately, I decided to try the Rapha Grand Tour shoe. Here’s what the Rapha website has to say about them:

Rapha en Giro presenteren de beste wegschoen ter wereld, die ongeëvenaarde comfort, duurzaamheid, kracht en stijl biedt. De handgesneden bovenlaag is gemaakt van exclusief jakleer en is gecombineerd met de beste pasvorm en onderdelen – allemaal ontwikkeld en getest door Giro in Californië.

No, I don’t know what that means either. But if they are “de beste wegschoen ter wereld” they have to be good, right? Anyway, I frequently fail to understand even the English-language version of the Rapha website.

I wanted black, but they flew off the shelves so fast that they only had white pairs left in my size. When they showed up, I opened the extensive (and wasteful) packaging, unveiling something that resembled a rather dumb-looking golf shoe. Yeah, I knew what I was getting myself into, and anyway cycling is the new golf, you know.

Grand Tour

I purchased them in my size (according to Rapha’s sizing guide) and they were WAY TOO TIGHT. They felt like they were at least half a size too small, maybe a full size too small. So I returned them and sized up half a size—still quite tight, but acceptable. At that point, I was riding 300 miles a week and didn’t feel that it was the time to try something new, so I put them in the closet for a few months to age like a fine tubular tire, only breaking them out when I had worn out the cleats on my Sidis.

When I tried them on the second time, again my impression was that they were quite tight. I wouldn’t say that my first rides with them were a revelation. They provided adequate power transfer, but I still ended up with numb toes after about the 6- or 7-hour mark. No worse than the Sidis. No better, either.

Did I just purchase really expensive golf shoes?

As it turns out, after 20 or 30 rides, including many in the rain, they began to stretch. The stretch was easily quantifiable because of the ratcheting mechanism on the buckle—every week or so, I had to tighten them a few notches. Eventually, they stretched to the point where I bottomed out the strap. No more clicks. I was annoyed, but I came up with a solution: aftermarket footbeds have considerably more volume than the supplied footbeds. So, I put in SuperFeet, and the shoes fit well again.

In fact, they are now among the most comfortable shoes I’ve ever owned, including regular street shoes. Am I perfectly comfortable after 16 hours? No, but I have yet to experience any numbness, and there is a little room to ease off on the straps to accommodate my feet as they swell. I think that’s all you can ask from a shoe, right? The stretching has stopped; with the aftermarket footbeds I have 2-3 more clicks left on the ratcheting mechanism.

In summary, I really like these shoes, and—apart from getting customs—I do not see much room for improvement. The looks do take some getting used to. If you decide to try them, I’d suggest you either 1) buy according to the Rapha size chart, and accept that they will be extremely tight for a dozen rides or 2) size up half a size so that they are more comfortable initially, and then after 20 rides put in some aftermarket footbeds. If you need orthotics or aftermarket footbeds, definitely size up. I’d also purchase them in the late fall or early spring, so you can break them in as your mileage increases. You don’t want to try breaking them in mid-season!

Update December 2013: Still great!

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John

medicalwriter.net

Peekamoose Times Two

You may have noticed that I am not adhering to my twice weekly posting schedule. There are a couple of reasons for that. This blog is not meant to be my personal diary; instead, it’s meant to first be a resource for intermediate- to long-distance cycling routes in the Catskills, and second to provide real-world reviews of cycling products from the perspective of a rider who likes distance, dirt, and inclement weather (yes, I actually enjoy riding through rain, sleet, and snow!) There are very real differences between brands of bib shorts, shoes or even tires that don’t become evident until you ride a century with them. A great example of this was some Pearl Izumi bib shorts that seemed fine until a 150-mile ride, when poor fit and a rough seam conspired to saw a bleeding hole in my thigh.

I am especially careful about random posts because so many people are now getting update e-mails every time I post, and I don’t want to waste anyone’s time. That said, you will be getting a few pet picture posts over the winter. No complaints, please.

I’ve spent considerable time over the past few weeks reprising the old standbys. Yesterday marked my twentieth time over Peekamoose since we moved here last year–that’s about 1200 miles on this route alone. Next week I’m planning to ride Slide Mountain again. I will document that trip and write a full post since I haven’t yet been over Slide in the summer.

Over the next week, I’m going to review Rapha’s Grand Tour shoes, bib shorts for distance riders, and follow up on my long-term review of the Rivet saddle. And, if I can find my chain tool to shorten my chain on the English 700C, I’ll provide some initial impressions of the new Grand Bois Extra Leger 26 mm tires. And of course you’ll get the Slide Mountain post.

Until then, here’s the GPS for a new 72-mile Peekamoose route and a few pictures.

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John

medicalwriter.net

Grand Bois Extra Leger 26 mm Tires

Since riding the Grand Bois Extra Leger 32s on my winter cross bike, I’ve been waiting for a 25 or 26 mm Extra Leger tire to fit the English 700C. True, the 23 mm tires were available, but 25 mm is the minimum I’ll ride on the crappy roads in my area.

A few weeks ago I got my wish, and I installed them today.

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If you’re wondering why my rings are silver: I recently geared down–34/25 wasn’t a useful low gear for my usual rides, which generally include 10,000+ feet of climbing with extended 12% to 22% segments. Although the climbs were survivable, I was wrecking my knees. I couldn’t get the rings I wanted in black, so I’m making do with silver.

Back to tires: The fit is tight in the THM Scapula fork, which is only rated for up to a 25 mm tire. Nevertheless, there is some room to spare.

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I’ll report back after a few hundred miles, starting with the 72-mile Peekamoose route, which I’ll be riding tomorrow morning with new companions who haven’t been out that way yet. Peekamoose is a great ride, because you suffer like hell for the first 16 miles; thereafter, it’s high-speed downhill for the next 30 miles.

John

medicalwriter.net

A Review of TRP Spyre Disc Brakes

Edit Dec 7 2013: TRP “has identified a potential safety issue in the lab with the Spyre and Spyre SLC mechanical disc brakes and, as a responsible company, has issued a “stop sell”  notice to our OEM customers and distributors until we have a solution in place. We are working hard on the issue and anticipate a solution very shortly. More information will be forthcoming as soon as possible.”

I’ve removed my Spyres from the English for now. Back to BB7 hell.

This summer has been tough. Lots of work and travel, and not enough time on the bike. I like to put in a minimum of 15 hours a week on the bike, but I’ve been in more of the 10 to 12 hour zone, and a lot of that hasn’t been quality time—just quick dashes around the neighborhood. Good for exercise, but not a lot of fun.

A bright spot, though, was the delivery of my English 650B bike in June. Since June 20th, I’ve put 1375 miles on the bike, and it has revolutionized my back-road riding experience. It handles precisely like a road bike, it is much more comfortable on the rough stuff and no slower on the flats. An unexpected bonus has been being able to descend more quickly. Instead of panic braking and hopping over obstacles—and slowing down because that shadow on the road might be hiding a pothole, I just sail over everything.

Have doubts? Just try a 650B bike, if you can. The only thing that might be difficult is that most are built as vintage reenactment machines, so if you’re used to a modern road bike, it’s a different experience. (I want to note that there’s absolutely nothing wrong with vintage reenactment bikes—I have a few myself and love them. But I realize they’re not for everyone, or even the majority of riders).

Anyway…this wasn’t supposed to be about my English. Instead, I’d like to tell you about my experience with TRP Spyre brakes. Keep in mind that this is an honest, unbiased review–I’m not paid for posts, nor do I reprocess press releases like so many other bike blogs do.

Spyres

I’ve always been of the opinion that disc brakes confer no benefits on a road bike. As many have argued before, the rim of a wheel represents the largest possible rotor, and thus offers great braking performance. I support that position: there is no rational need for disc brakes on a road bike. At least not mechanical disc brakes.

However: If you’re riding a nontraditional road bike—say something with fat tires, like my 650B, or even a cross bike with 32s or 35s, disc brakes are a handy solution. The long-reach brakes that are available now are heavy and not very high quality. Thus, disc brakes represent a reasonable option.

My previous experience with disc brakes was with mechanical Avid BB7s on my winter cross bike, a Lynskey Procross. Awful. Truly awful. They went out of adjustment every other ride, they shuddered and shook, and squealed like crazy when they got even a little bit wet. I guess if you’re a professional mechanic they would be okay, but I don’t have the time or skills to adjust my brakes every few days. Like many other mechanical tasks on a bicycle, I can adjust the brakes to perfection, it just takes me forever. I’d rather be riding my bike, y’know?

Enter the TRP Spyres. After some initial frustration getting them set up right—I like my brakes relatively “stiff”—they have performed admirably. They are simple to adjust, and they do not squeal even when wet. They offer at least equivalent braking performance to BB7s; in fact, on average they offer better braking performance because they don’t require continuous readjustment. Keep in mind that this is from the perspective of someone who flies down mountains almost daily, often in inclement weather (a blessing and a curse, because I also have to climb up those mountains!)

One word of advice: Toss the rotors they come with, or at least hold them in reserve for an emergency, and buy some Shimano Ice Tech rotors. The braking performance is improved considerably and there is little to no squeal. With the Ice Tech rotors, the braking performance is, dare I say it, even better than well-adjusted rim brakes. Again, I’m riding in extreme conditions, the stock rotors may very well be okay for regular use.

The best part? The only adjustments they require is an occasional tweak to make up for pad wear. A matter of a few seconds.

The “power curve” for these brakes is different from rim brakes. I’ve now had a chance to ride this bike, with the Spyres installed, in a paceline with people using conventional rim brakes. I’m happy to say that the modulation is good enough for the occasional feather touch when soft-pedaling or sitting up won’t do. Don’t run out and ride in a fast paceline the day you install the brakes, though.

So…have TRP Spyres made me change my mind about disc brakes on a road bike? No, not really. If you’re buying a new conventional road bike, you don’t need them and, even though the Spyres are low maintenance and perform well, they are still more trouble than a rim brake for not a lot of additional benefit.

If you’re buying a cross bike or any other type of bike that may not fit regular road brakes without going to long-reach calipers, they are an acceptable alternative. If you insist on ordering a bike with mechanical disc brakes, insist on Spyres. OEMs would be crazy to specify BB7s instead of Spyres–they are that much better!

I’ve purchased a set of the HY/RD hybrid hydraulic brakes for my winter bike to replace the god-awful BB7s. I’ll report on those later in the year.

BB&

John

medicalwriter.net

Should I?

You’re probably wondering where I am. I’m not neglecting the blog because I’m tired of it; instead, I’ve been traveling. First California, then Anguilla for the wedding, and now I’m back in California and waiting for my 7 pm meeting. I’m only out for a few days this time, although I’m not getting back until 3 am on Sunday morning.

From last Friday to yesterday, however, I managed to get in almost 150 miles of riding on the new English 650B. I took a few glamor shots of the bike. At least I thought they’d be glamor shots, but I took them with my iPhone and they ended up a little blurry. Here’s one photo, I’ll post the good ones when I return.

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I got in a few rides with significant gravel segments. Nothing more than 40 miles, but it was a lot of fun on 650B. I’m taking it easy on my knee right now.

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Speaking of my knee, it still hurts a little. I’m on my way to a second formal bike fitting on Wednesday to see if there’s anything I can do about it. There’s nothing that will change about my reach, which has been optimized through a fitting and long experience, but I’m hoping we can do a little work on optimizing my saddle height and, most importantly, cleat position. I clearly have a leg length discrepancy, because when I ride with a Brooks, only one side of the saddle collapses. The knee issues have only cropped up over the last month because of dramatic overuse–the week that my knee really started to fall apart I had ridden 300 miles with almost 30,000 feet of climbing. That’s a lot when you come from the flatlands of NYC.

I know you want to hear about the English. I can’t write a comparative review because I was off the bike for a week due to the knee injury, and then an additional 10 days because of the wedding. So a direct back-to-back comparison with the 700C English is impossible. I will say this, however: I am definitely much faster on descents on the 650B. My usual route into town has about 650 feet of descending on rough, potholed backroads and gravel. I’ve done it dozens of times, and it always takes me 21-23 minutes. I rode into town twice now with the 650B, and the trip took me 18 minutes the first time, and 19 minutes the second time.

This is entirely to be expected. Because the road is really rough, on the 700C bike with 25 mm tires, there’s lots of jumping, dodging, and panic braking. On the 650B, I just roll right over obstacles that would terminate my Clavicula fork or cause a pinch flat. The good part? The handling on this bike is not different from my 700C bike. Other than providing a lot of extra cushion, it really does not feel or act different, even when pushed relatively hard.

Going uphill isn’t faster (or slower, for that matter). But it is more pleasant because of the dramatically lower gearing on the 650B. I’m going to figure out a way to gear down the 700C bike, because grinding up 15% and even 20%+ grades in 34/25, while feasible, is certainly partly responsible for blowing out my knee.

The paint. Holy shit sparkles! It’s amazing. On one of my rides I stopped to eat, and I parked it by the window and stared at the sparkles instead of reading the paper as I had intended. It’s a lovely bike, at least if you’re not a traditionalist who thinks anything with a less than level top tube is ugly. My only regret is not going with something really bright. Oh well…next bike, if there ever is one, will be fluorescent pink with gold sparkles and a My Little Pony sticker on the headtube. Liberace on wheels.

A note about the Spyre brakes. I originally had weight weenies rotors on the bike. After only a few trips over the mountains, they were pulsing horribly. I replaced them with Shimano Ice Tech rotors, which seem more suitable for the type of riding I do.

What about the Spyres themselves? I regret to report that they have poor modulation at best. I thought it was a matter of getting used to them, but really they kind of suck. I’m going to try a few different models of brakes, starting with the HY/RD hydraulics, then I’ll try Shimano, and if all else fails, go back to BB7s. At least the latter work well, even though I hate them because they require a lot of messing around to keep them from squealing.

Regarding the title of this post: I’ve been seriously contemplating a 4-person team RAAM either next year or the following. If my knee is okay, I’ve decided it’s a go. We’ve got two team members so far (including me).

New and improved routes coming fast and furious starting at the end of next week…and, of course, don’t forget you can Win a Garmin! Now, off to do some stretching. I’m making a concerted effort to improve my flexibility.

John

medicalwriter.net

A Chariot to Cycling Nirvana

In a past post, I detailed how to get from Poughkeepsie over the Shawngunk Ridge to my immediate area by bike. But what if you want to get right to the good stuff? There are a few options. You could drive up from New York City or New Jersey, or you could take the train to Poughkeepsie and then rent a car (tough to do on weekends, especially since the car rental place isn’t open on Sundays for returns), or you could get a car service to pick you up and drop you off somewhere more pleasant.

Those of you who know me know that I travel a lot. In order to do that, I have a 2-hour car trip to and from Newark airport. We only have one car, so I use a car service (kindly paid for by my clients, thank you). I tried one car service and it was a disaster. Then I found Chariot Airport Transportation/Northeast Transport Services, and they’ve been completely reliable for the 15 trips to and from the airport and the 5 or so trips to and from various meetings in NYC and New Jersey that I’ve made since we moved here in September. Plus, their drivers are great—nothing at all like the gentlemen from Carmel or Delancy!

On my last trip, one of the co-owners, Ryan, drove me to the airport. We got to talking, and I found out that 1) they have SUVs that can accommodate up to two bikes and 2) they have a combination of two vehicles that can accommodate up to ten riders and ten bikes. So, an option would be to take the train to Poughkeepsie, and then have them pick you up and drive you to the start point of your ride. You could either return to Poughkeepsie, or have them pick you up.

I’m not a big fan of driving to ride, but I can totally see where, if you’re coming from the city, you might want to start right at the foothills of the Catskills (for example, Slide Mountain might best be accomplished from a starting point in Shokan or Phoenicia). I recommend Chariot highly if this is what you want to do.

And before you ask, I didn’t get a free ride from them in return for this–I don’t need it since I don’t pay for the trips anyway! It’s just a pleasure to give a plug for a locally owned business that I know is highly reliable, reasonably priced, and a pleasure to deal with.

Their phone number is 845-876-3000, and their website is here.

John

medicalwriter.net

Incoming!

I live a fairly simple life: books, bikes, and work. The balance varies based on weather and client needs, and of course I like to spend time with my girlfriend as well. But overall, everything balances well (with the exception of this week: if I work until 9 pm tonight, I will officially have worked more than 100 hours this week!)

The one area where I might have an issue? New bikes. What can I say, it’s less expensive and a whole lot healthier than a lot of things people do with their fun money. It’s not like I’m dissatisfied in any way with my current bikes (well, except for one)…I just like ’em. And all seven bikes get ridden, last year ranging from no more than 50 miles on the vintage Teledyne Titan with fork of death to >3000 miles each on the English and Herse.

So…I have two coming this year. The first is being built as we speak, and hopefully will be arriving in early May. It’s a–wait for it: sub-15-lb 650b bike being built by Rob English. Enve rims, Calfee barstem, SRAM Red, Clavicula crank, and (hopefully) Spyre disc brakes. Of course, I’ll be using the Hetre Extra Leger. This one is going to be bright & sparkly. Grey paint with rainbow sparkle, and ENGLISH in Olde English font. And let’s not forget the infinitely tasteful top cap on the Extralite headset.

I need one bike that’s a little crazy.

Now, the second: Peter Weigle unexpectedly told me I was next on his list. I hadn’t planned on any more bikes for a few years, but how can I turn down the master? The best part: The bike he is building for me is going to be going to two shows, one in the US and one in Rome. It will be one of Peter’s usual spectacularly beautiful creations…

…but we’ll be using semi-modern 9-speed Record on it. I love French style, but I’m not going without my modern conveniences. This bike will be, perhaps surprisingly, a 700C bike. It just didn’t make sense to have another 650B randonneur when I have the Herse. I’ll be using the 32 mm Extra Legers.

I’m hoping to talk Peter into shaving a set of Extra Leger Hetres for the English, even though the bike he is building for me is going to be a 700C. I feel like my life will not be complete without having a chance to ride a pair! Yes, I have simple needs.

I will need to sell a few bikes soon. As much as I want to be a bicycle horder, the bikes that weren’t built specifically for me have to go. I have a beautiful 58 cm Boxer Randonneur that needs to go (yes, the one that was reviewed in Bicycle Quarterly), as well as a sweet 80s Moser. I could also be talked into selling my 58-cm green Toei for the right price (it’s a lovely bike, but IS NOT what I ordered…long story).

Let me know if you have any interest.

John

medicalwriter.net