Sunday, May 8, 2011

The Balance Between Gear and Go

Carbon fiber and aluminum in a smooth spinny configuration

I admit to a certain level of being a gearhead. Particularly back when I was hiking and backpacking avidly, sometimes it felt like three days of hoofing through the wilderness was a forum for trying out new gear, gadgets, apparel, and, well, things. I spent many more hours scrutinizing gear reviews and shopping for gear than I did actually hiking. Looking back on that fact, one word comes to mind: sad. As in, that's just sad.

Some experiences turned me around, though. I had the pleasure of hiking down to Havasupai with an older gentlemen who sported a 1970s backpack he got at Goodwill for $3.50. He used a broom handle for a hiking staff. His aluminum canteens had been providing water for his hikes for twenty years, he said. His boots were worn and tattered, and had been into the Canyon so many times he had lost count. In short, he had struck a bargain with his gear that supported, rather than detracted from, the experience: do your job, stuff, so that you disappear from my thoughts while I am out there, and when someday you become so worn and beyond repair that you cease doing your job, I will replace you with something equally utilitarian and non-distracting, probably something that some gearhead used once and threw away. 

If you want to head out barefoot carrying only a knife that you hammered out of an old leaf spring, that's cool, but I tend to lean more toward taking stuff along to employ for various purposes: carrying water, cutting/chopping/slicing, shelter, cordage, warmth, etc. In the case of bicycles (back to our topic), for smooth and reliable locomotion.

The new rear gear

Reading wheel reviews with anything like a skeptical eye could cause you to chuck nearly every one of them. If you are an elite racer, that is, the one or two percent of people who read those reviews who actually might realize some of the advantages of lighter, stiffer, more aerodynamic wheels, I'm a big supporter of you having access to useful information that helps you to decide where to spend your two grand or whatever on which wheel set. But I am not an elite racer, nor are the huge majority (and you know what I mean by huge) of other readers of those reviews, and so I tend to think that the reviews are intended to separate us from our cash by making us think that buying said wheel set for two grand will cause us to ride like an elite racer. In gas-powered racing sports, there may be a certain level of validity to gear=speed equation, but in cycling, if you can't put the watts into the pedals for hours, and don't have the mega-hours to train to refine your technique and strategy to a razor's edge of competitive hardness, no amount of high-priced gear is going to let the rest of us hang anywhere near the pros.

Every review in the popular bicycling press ought to start off with the following disclaimer: no, buying this will not make you suddenly fast, strong, competitive, or more manly. Any pro racer will still drop you without breaking a sweat. 

Even with the new wheels / aero frame / accessory forged by monks in Italy out of unobtanium, Liz Hatch on a cheap department store bicycle would still ride by me, smile and wave, and leave me behind as if I were standing still. Almost all of us would be the chasing skeletons in the video below, falling behind and exploding into so many fragments of broken bicycle and bones. Happy, smiling, awe-struck piles of crumbling skeletal material. Mr. Skinny, give it up.

Poetry in motion, no? Yes, she is. And while I can't hope to match her in speed, or endurance, I can watch her, and pros at her level, to learn from what they ride, and how they ride. The smoothness of their spin, the relaxation in her hands and arms, the flexible power. And check out her brifter position: validation of the flat bar top and high lever position. Most importantly for the topic at hand, what pros use, abuse, develop and refine on the road yields improvements in materials and design which trickle down to us in slightly heavier forms.

So, finally to the new wheels. My experience in riding them on my tri-city tour to compare with riding the same route on the previous wheels yielded this subjective evaluation of the notable differences, in order of perceived significance: the new 700x25 Rubino Pro Slick tires at 110 psi made much more of a difference than I expected, compared to the previous tires, in terms of road feel and traction, so anything else I noticed may be questioned. Next time I get new wheels and want to compare them to the previous set, I need to make sure to run that same kind of tires to get a fairer comparison. Second, though, it did feel like the bearings in these Ultegra hubs were smoother and superior to the ones in the cheaper Bontrager Race hubs. Lastly, and probably most subjective and uncertain, when I stood on the pedals and sprinted as hard as I could, I could at least start to understand all the talk about "stiffness" and "responsiveness when sprinting", as these wheels did yield a more confident feeling of reliable and quick motion, as if I was not really pushing them up to or beyond their limits--they felt like they had more to give than I could put into them, if that makes sense.

But for me, the new wheels are less about sprinting stiffness, and more about this: urban road riding, Washington Street in Phoenix on a warm Saturday afternoon, a smooth road and a stiff, dry head wind:

Washington Street, bike lane, light rail line on the left

I was riding this sweet stretch of pavement in the heat of the afternoon. My body is still getting acclimated to this year's heat, so I was feeling a little overheated here, but I saw this open road and had to go. Like the guy hiking Havasupai with the old backpack and broomstick, I put my hands on the drops, shifted to the big ring, and was looking for the gear to disappear. I wanted it to do its job well, slice through the wind, and put power to the pavement not because I was imagining myself to be an elite racer, able to hang with Liz, but rather because I wanted to feel what I am capable of, explore my own personal limitations on two wheels, and push them. The heat does that, and let's be honest, the right gear can make some difference in that endeavor. It's a balancing act. One that I test myself on by riding my bicycles every day. As long as the gear shopping, the wrenching, the polishing, the Liz Hatch video watching, are all balanced out with hours of actually spinning on the machine, whether strenuous or meditative (or both, since the two are not mutually exclusive), a certain uneasy balance can be achieved against all the hype, the media, the liability stickers, and the aspirations of an unappeasable ego. Perhaps he shall not be sated, but he can be quieted with hours on the hot road. Even momentarily mellowed. Get up. Go ride.



  1. Purty wheelies all nicey and shiny!
    Hotness of skewerness.

    I am very much guilty of the sickness of blingness.
    That though, is part of the fun.
    I think.

  2. We need to watch out, or soon we'll be posting about how we glued on our latest tubulars.


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