Tuesday, May 3, 2016

Roll-on bike service on the Hiawatha, and soon the Empire Builder

Update 2016-07-06:
After talking to a friend who recently rode the Empire Builder with his bike and was skeptical about the prospects of walk-up service coming soon, I contacted Amtrak through their website. Here is their response: 
Thank you for contacting us regarding walk-on bike service on long distance trains.
[...] Currently, we have no information regarding projected dates in 2016 when walk-on bike service will be expanded on long distance trains, including the Empire Builder. Expansion of this service will be announced on our website, www.Amtrak.com at the News & Media link at the bottom of our homepage..
We hope this information will assist you.
In other words: Don't hold your breath...

Good news for cyclists in Wisconsin and Illinois! As the Bike Fed reports, starting May 4 Amtrak's Hiawatha line, which connects Milwaukee to Chicago, will start offering walk-up service for bikes. Previously your bike had to be partially disassembled and go into a box, whereas now you can just roll up your bike to the train and it will travel in the cab (after having made a 5-dollar reservation). This is not quite as good as the "walk on" service where you yourself roll the bike on and off the train, but it still is an improvement. Another, related limitation is that bikes can only travel between the respective downtown stations; all intermediate stops won't be served because the car in which the bikes travel will be locked.
Amtrak's Hiawatha at May Street Crossing

For Madison residents the practical relevance of the new service is probably limited. If you want to go Chicago, instead of riding the 140 kilometers (85 miles) to the Multimodal Station in Milwaukee, you might as well bike approximately the same distance to Harvard, IL and take your bike on the Metra train. However, the ride to Milwaukee is arguably nicer (about 90 percent on trails), and Metra allows bikes only during off-peak hours. On the other hand, Metra is only $10.50 (no extra charge for bikes) versus $30 one way on Amtrak (including the $5 bike fee).

Amtrak to Sacramento

What is maybe more exciting for the Madison adventurous touring cyclist is that the Empire Builder will soon also offer walk up service for bikes. The Empire Builder travels between Chicago and Portland/Seattle, with attractive stops such as Glacier National Park in between. It's only about 50 kilometers (35 miles) to the Amtrak station in Columbus (Wisc.), and not having to deal with boxing up the bike makes a long-distance trip West seem much more attractive. There is no firm date yet for when this is going to happen, but hopefully it will still be this summer.

Next step: Get walk-on service on the train to Madison. Oh, wait...

Saturday, April 30, 2016

First impressions: Giro Rumble VR, a casual, vegan bike shoe

Winter was coming to a end, meaning that I'd switch from my Lake MXZ-302 boots—with cleats that no longer allow me to clip in—to my Mavic Rush MTB shoes—with a sole worn enough to make them a safety hazard. It was time for a new pair of shoes. This time around I wanted something that didn't outright look like a bike shoe but would still allow me to use clipless pedals. The non-bike bike shoe market segment has grown quite a bit over the years with companies such as DZR, Mission Workshop, or Chrome, and now also more mainstream bike clothing brands.

I'm vegan and have pretty big feet (size 14 US/48 Euro), though, constraining my options a lot. After some searching and reading reviews, I found the Giro Rumble VR, which checked all boxed: No leather, not looking bikey, available in size 48, generally good reviews, and pretty affordable. I ordered the blue/gum model (the other option is black/red) for $80 from REI, thinking that if they didn't work out I could easily return them.

I've worn the shoes for a few weeks now and am generally happy. They look great, sort of retro sneaker style (and matching our living room rug...), and I can even wear them to work. They're definitely large and wide enough for my feet. The laces are slightly short when you lace them through all the holes. Since that made them too tight for my liking anyway, I just leave out the uppermost hole, resulting in just the right length of the laces. For cycling shoes, laces can be problematic, but the Giros have a little elastic tab in the middle of the shoe's tongue that allows you to safely tuck away the laces. I have the suspicion that the elastic will eventually wear out, but we'll see. The outsole is made by Vibram and features a removable panel under which the four screws for installing SPD cleats are hidden. In contrast to many other cycling shoes, the panel is secured with screws and therefore you could theoretically go back from cleat to no-cleat. As you can see below (even though it's difficult to capture in a photo), the cleats are recessed, but not very far. This makes me concerned about the longevity of the shoes. But again, we will have to see.

What about comfort? On the bike I initially experienced some numbness even on relatively short rides (25-40 km/15-25 mi). Part of that was probably due to lacing the shoes too tight, and the fact that it was pretty cold on those rides possibly contributed as well. The numbness improved with looser lacing and warmer temperatures, but some of it remains, as well as hot spot issues. I will experiment with cleat placement and see if that helps. Even when laced not particularly tightly and mashing or spinning on my fixed gear bike, they securely stay on my feet. Off the bike the shoes are fairly comfortable—but not quite as comfortable as they look. The sole is very stiff. Walking or standing in the shoes for extended periods is not that great, even compared to my Mavics. After all, the Giro Rumble is very much a bike shoe.
In conclusion, I really like the looks of the Giro Rumble VR, as well as the fact that they're made from synthetic materials. What remains to be seen is if I can improve the on-bike comfort and if the shoes turn out to be durable. To be revisited later.

Update 2016-05-03
A couple additions from things I forgot and feedback I received:

  • A friend who also tried the Rumble VR says that they did not work out for him because of the foot bed: "I owned a pair for a week. They killed my arches. It's possible that I just have really high arches, but I've never had a cycling shoe mess with me this way..." Giro offers adjustable inserts to vary the arch support, but they are rather expensive.
  • I forgot to mention that because of the snug fit and the lack of a loop at the rear, I use a shoehorn to put them on. Without that, you'd have to loosen the lacing quite a bit to comfortably get into the shoe and/or possibly destroy the heel cup prematurely.

Thursday, April 28, 2016

Magnum Photos: "Cycling"

BELGIUM. Antwerpen (Antwerp), 1984 © John Vink

I love cycling and I love photography. So it's exciting to see that probably the most famous photo agency, Magnum Photos, is releasing a book about cycling. Based on the pictures I've seen on Amazon and elsewhere, this looks very promising. Guy Andrews, founder of Rouleur, selected the images from Magnum's vast archives and provides the text. The photographers featured include names such as Henri Cartier-Bresson, Robert Capa, John Vink and Harry Gruyaert. I'll probably preorder the book (release date is June 14) and report back once I have it in hand.

Saturday, April 9, 2016

Wahoo RFLKT+: Great concept, poor execution

For the past two years or so I've ridden without a bike computer. This was very much not out of some sense that have a real time display of how fast and far you go somehow ruins the cycling experience. Rather, the bike computer ran out of battery, and I somehow never got around to replacing it. In addition, I had finally replaced my smartphone to one that was able to run Strava, and I've been logging pretty much every ride with that. Strava is great for logging miles and analyzing rides after the fact. But unless you mount your phone on the handlebars—something increasingly difficult given the size of current smartphones—you don't have access to real-time data. And real-time data can be nice, for instance, for following a cue sheet or to avoid speed creep when riding in a group.

So when I read about the Wahoo RFLKT series, the basic concept seemed great. It is basically an external screen for your smartphone fitness tracker, similar to a smartwatch. It also has a few additional sensors embedded (see below), and the buttons on the unit allow you control certain functions of your phone. This makes a lot of sense: Many of us already own smartphones, and those are incredibly powerful computers and have good-quality GPS receivers. What they lack is robustness and a display that can easily be read outdoors without quickly draining the battery. Fancy bike computers with integrated GPS, such as the Garmin Edge series or the Sigma Rox 10, address those downsides, but a) they lack some of the functionality that a smartphone-based app offers (e.g., automatic upload after a ride) and b) have to duplicate a lot of what your smartphone already can do and therefore end up as expensive or even more expensive than a smartphone. The RFLKT concept is a middle way that in theory nicely fills a gap.

So with my birthday near and REI having their annual 20%-off member sale, I decided to give this middle way a try. In my usual modus operandi, I spent a lot of time reading reviews and figuring out what exactly I wanted. First, RFLKT or RFLKT+? The RFLKT is the original version and about 20 dollars cheaper than the Plus-version. Other than that, the two main differences are: 1) In addition to Bluetooth, the Plus also supports the ANT+ protocol (meaning that it can interface with a wide range of other sensors such as heart rate monitors). 2) The Plus also comes with a barometric altimeter and a temperature sensor. I didn't care much about the temperature sensor, but the altimeter is useful because elevation data based solely on GPS is notoriously inaccurate. In addition to choosing between models, there are a number of additional accessories one can buy, most importantly a crank-mounted wireless speed and cadence sensor. The speed sensor is important primarily for logging workouts when your bike is on the trainer—GPS obviously doesn't work in that case. The cadence sensor did appeal to me, but between me never riding indoors and the additional cost, I opted for the RLFKT+ but against the sensor.

With that decision made, I read specs and reviews to ensure that everything would work with my setup: LG G3 Android phone, interface with Strava (even though some limitations were mentioned), no other devices to connect to. Pretty standard. Reviews on Amazon and REI.com were middling, with the major complaint being connection problems between RFLKT and smartphone. Pretty much all of those seemed to stem from the distance between the two devices: Bluetooth LE signals aren't particularly strong, and the human body absorbs them well. So when you have the phone in your rear jersey pocket and the device on the handlebars, connection problems aren't that surprising. In my particular case I figured this wouldn't be an issue: My phone lives in the handlebar bag, less than 20 centimeters from where I planned mounting the RFLKT. So I went ahead and ordered.

Regret came quickly once the device arrived. Yes, it looks slick, and it's actually smaller than I had expected: Much smaller than my old Garmin Etrex Vista (but with the same screen size) and not that much bigger than my even older Sigma BC1606.

From left to right: LG G3, Garmin Etrex Vista HCx, Wahoo RFLKT+, Sigma BC1606L
But from here on it was all downhill. Because it was late and my phone low on battery, I first read up on how to connect the RFLKT+ to Strava. Well, you don't. Unless you use an iPhone. The Android version of the Strava app does not support the RFLKT+, and from the support forums it looks like Strava has no intention of changing that anytime soon. Given the ubiquitous advertising/cross-marketing for Wahoo on the Strava website, this came as quite a surprise. Well, I figured this wouldn't be a dealbreaker, as apparently using the native Wahoo app has some advantages anyway and allows to sync your rides with Strava after the fact.

The serious problems began when I tried connecting the RFLKT to my phone. For initial setup, you download the Wahoo Fitness app to your smartphone, go to the devices page and then hit a button on the RFLKT+ to start the pairing process. For a few seconds everything looked fine: The device indeed showed up on the smartphone. But after a few seconds, the RFLKT turned itself off and the pairing process stalled. I tried it a couple of times, but the problem persisted. Reading the Wahoo documentation and support forums, I now learned of more limitations: Yes, the there are some Android smartphones that work with the RFLKT, but the list of explicitly supported models is pretty short. My LG G3 was not on the list; it's predecessor, the G2, however, was. Alas, pairing also didn't work on my SO's G2.

So what's going on? Explanation 1 is that the device is simply defective. The packaging that the RFLKT came in looked like it may have been opened before, and so maybe I got a returned item that didn't work for the previous owner either. Explanation 2 is that the Android versions on my and the SO's phones are incompatible with the RFLKT. We both run custom ROMs, and looking at the short list of compatible phones, I can well imagine that the RFLKT has very specific requirements as to what operating system is running on the paired smartphone. At any rate, at this point I've already had enough. Given all the limitations, I wasn't interested in doing an exchange for another device. Back to the store it goes.

In summary, while the concept of the RFLKT is a great idea, the execution is very much lacking. The dependency on very specific hard- and software makes this a solution way more finicky than it should be. In my mind, the use of standard protocols such as Bluetooth or ANT+ would make seamless integration easy, but apparently that assumption was naive. I can imagine that for iPhone users the situation is better as it takes some of the variables out of the equation. But Wahoo explicitly advertises the RFLKT as an “iPhone and Android bike computer,” and I think they should be a bit more straightforward about the limitations of the Android part of that.

Personally, for now I will probably just got back to my jumble of old devices: LG G3 smartphone with Strava in my bag, the old Sigma for real-time speed and distance; and the Garmin for when I need a map display or more accurate recording. To be revisited later.

Thursday, January 21, 2016

Madison Winter Biking Survey

Bike racks in front of the Wisconsin Institute for Medical Research

If you live in Madison (Wisc.) and bike in the winter (or would like to but are deterred by something), please take the time to fill out the annual winter biking survey. The survey is run by Grant, a local bike advocate and member of several winter-bike-related city commissions. Having better data on where the problems of winter biking lie—and what works well!—will help improving the conditions for getting around by bike at this time of year.

Link to the survey

Tuesday, January 19, 2016

Biketinkers Union Founding Chapter

I think I might only qualify at the novice or apprentice level, but I do strive to become a full member of the Biketinkers Union as envisioned by Philip “Bike Tinker” Williamson. Now you can show your allegiance by preordering one of these great patches, made by Philip:

Five bucks a piece, one dollar shipping. Or get the bulk pack with 60 patches.

Saturday, December 26, 2015

SOMA Grand Randonneur: My review

The post sounded promising: “FS: SOMA Grand Randonneur complete, 65cm.“ I had had my eye on the SOMA Grand Randonneur earlier, especially during the 20%-off sales that SOMA runs once or twice a year. At $400 retail for frame and fork, the GR is a great deal. Much to my surprise, Jan Heine also reviewed it rather favorably in Bicycle Quarterly, at least in terms of ride quality and handling. I had just started a new job, providing some disposable income. My Gunnar Roadie 650B conversion had been quite the success. Which on the hand provided a good reason to not buy a similar type of bike, but on the other hand had convinced that the low-trail fat-tire 650B thing worked well for me. And the SOMA would allow for fat tires and fenders, something not possible on the Roadie. I gave it some thought and discussed it with the SO, but ultimately didn't bite. When the seller lowered the price by another hundred dollars, however, I couldn't see myself saying no any longer.

The build as sold was already very nice: Old Dura Ace hubs laced to Velocity Dyad rims, Nitto stem, bar-end shifters, Nitto Noodle handlebars, CR-720 canti brakes, 36/48 Sugino cranks, Nitto Campee Mini front rack, Compass Babyshoe Pass tires, Miche roller-bearing headset. After throwing on a saddle and pedals, the bike was ready to go. On the first test rides the bike felt okay but quite different from my Gunnar, despite having a similar geometry. I didn't think much of it and just kept riding. On a particularly rainy ride I overshifted, breaking a spoke in the process. In addition, I noticed a grey sludge on the headtube, right under the upper headset cup. From the beginning I had had a hard time properly adjusting the headset, and the sludge incident motivated me to investigate further. The previous owner had told me that the frame and fork had been prepared by Mike Kone of Boulder Bicycle, theoretically ruling out bad frame prep as the cause of the headset issues. Eventually I figured it out: The headset parts had been installed in the wrong order, with the cups and bearings slowly being ground away. Well, that certainly explained my difficulty in adjusting the headset and why the bike handled differently than the Gunnar.

Some 105 DT 7-speed shifters I had in a box, set to friction

Origin8 Classique drillium aero levers: Cheap but pretty good looking

The frame is borderline short for me, requiring a long stem even with long-ramp handlebars

Fender stays, bent the Peter Weigle way (he no longer seems to do this these days)

PDW safety fender tabs

Velo Orange decaleur: So far, so good.

With two coats of clear shellack, the color of the Newbaum's tape came out great

Patch from Falls Creek Outfitters

Unfortunately, shortly after replacing the headset (with another Miche), I had a bad crash, which took me off the bike for two months. And by now, non-studded tire riding season is mostly over. First impressions from riding with the fixed headset: Rides much better but still different from the Gunnar. Whereas the Gunnar feels very precise, going exactly where I want it to go, on the Grand Randonneur I've found myself occasionally running over things that I intended to steer around. In terms of performance, I don't have enough riding in yet to make any definitive claims. It certainly doesn't seem slow, but who knows... I'll follow-up on handling and performance in a separate post after I've gathered more data.

Also topic for a separate post is the wonderful custom rando bag that you can see in the pictures.

Build list:
Rims: Pacenti SL-23, 32 holes
Rear hub: Shimano Ultegra 6600
Front hub: Shutter Precision PV-8
Spokes: Sapim 2.0/1.8/2.0mm spokes
Bottom bracket: ?
Cranks: Sugino XD-701(?) 48/34t
Rear derailer: Shimano RSX?
Front derailer: Shimano RSX?
Front rack: Nitto Campee Mini (front tab removed)
Brakes: Tektro CR-720
Front light: Busch & Müller IQ Cyo Premium T senso plus
Rear light: Busch & Müller Secula Plus
Fenders: Velo Orange Zeppelin, with Portland Design Works safety tabs
Pedals: Shimano XT Trail clipless PD-M785
Seatpost: ?
Saddle: Brooks B17 Imperial
Stem: Nitto Technomic(?)
Handlebars: Nitto Randonneur B-132 (44cm)
Brake levers: Origin8 Classique
Handlebar tape: Newbaum's Lime green, clear shellacked
Headset: Miche needle-bearing
Decaleur: Velo Orange

Weight as shown but without the bag: 12.3 kg (27 lbs)