Photo by Jason DeVarennes



Thursday, November 22, 2012

Building Community

A few years ago Rob Vandermark, founder of Seven Cycles, possibly in an attempt to fill every hour of every day with work, opened a shop near us that combined two of my passions, coffee and bicycles. But the Ride Studio Cafe is so much more than a coffee shop that sells bicycles or a bike shop that sells coffee.

I initially starting frequenting RSC because they were serving up some pretty darn good espresso drinks. Ride Studio Cafe came into being, at a time when I could list on one hand, the other cafes in Massachusetts where I could get a properly pulled shot of espresso. And like any other endeavor that Rob undertakes, he approached this one with passion and the desire to do it right. So naturally there would be a proper espresso machine and properly trained baristas. Now it seems, all the big coffee chains have switched over to using super-automatic machines so they can hire a few ambivalent high school kids, in need of some money to pay for ipod apps, to press buttons and make consistently mediocre espresso, which is then drowned in large enough quantities of overly steamed milk, so as to hide any remote essence or flavor of coffee.

The sight of ceramic mugs warming atop the La Marzocco machine gave me the first indication that I would like the place. I hate paper cups. Espresso drinks do not belong in paper cups. Espresso cups must be properly warmed. Timers and thermometers and real tampers are another key sign that the coffee may be good. If you arrive first thing in the morning, you can watch the barista adjust the grind, which can vary greatly depending on weather. The grind must be tuned regularly to get the precise volume of espresso in a specific time. If you see this happening, it's probably safe to order a straight espresso, and then expect to get a drink that is sweet and rich and full of flavor, without adding sugar or drowning it in milk. But don't get me wrong. I like my milky espresso drinks too. Latte art was something we discovered when we lived in New Zealand, where we had the best female barista in the world (judged so at the world barista championships) working at one of the coffee shops in town. Good latte art doesn't guarantee good drink flavor, but it tends to be a good predictor. You really can't get a good pattern unless you have good espresso crema and only have micro-bubbles in the steamed milk. The feel and flavor of a rich creamy 3 ounce cortado or 5 ounce cappuccino will forever spoil you compared to the foamy monstrosities served up by the chains. Which brings me to volume. Quantity is not quality. If you have a milky espresso drink, the ratios should be such that you can actually taste coffee! And this brings me back to the cups warming atop the machine, with no 20 ounce cups in sight!

Within view of the bar is a small collection of very nice bikes, as well as some pretty flashy bike clothes. In the midst of the shop are tables and chairs where one can linger over a coffee, read a cycling magazine or have a conversation with one of the many other cyclists coming in for a coffee or to meet friends to ride, or maybe to take a bike for a test ride. Cycling videos are often playing on a TV screen, and sometimes one can even catch a live bike race, or a replay from earlier in the day.

In the early days on Sunday mornings, a few folks from Seven came out to lead a ride with anyone who showed up. The Sunday morning ride has now become a fixture, along with a Saturday morning ride, as well as rides on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday.

Presiding over all this was Rob, who must never sleep, since he was still running Seven as well as RSC. But there was no pretense. If you didn't know that the guy washing the cups, or pumping up bike tires, was the founder and president of Seven, well, you wouldn't guess it. He just comes across like a really nice guy running a shop. He is very quiet but loves to listen. Rob is one of those people who can make you feel like you are the most important person in the world.

But what is really going on at this shop is almost subtle. Ride Studio Cafe has been building a community. Over time, the RSC club was formed, complete with a kickoff party, cool jerseys with embroidered logos, and regular rides and events. The race team came next with various racers specializing in different disciplines from road to cyclocross to long distance. More rides, more events and more parties followed.

There is a fee for club membership, which includes the very nice jersey and enough other benefits to make it seem like a bargain. But there is no charge for the weekly rides and special events. One of the first events was a wonderfully hilly ride and party to celebrate the Giro hill climb time trail. I also remember getting the chance to meet an elite world class cyclocross racer at one of the parties and a couple of pro mountain bike racers at another, as well as getting the chance to ride with bike designers from Seven on the Sunday morning spins.

But I also get to meet and ride with plenty of other enthusiast cyclists like myself. These are folks who just love to ride bikes, enjoy having a good coffee and like having a place to hang out. At some point, a friend bragged that our bike club had a clubhouse! And I have come to realize she is right.

I can show up any time on a weekend and find friends. I can show up for the various scheduled rides, or come in later in the day and it is highly likely I will find someone or even some group to go ride with. I know the baristas by name and they know me by name and what I drink. It's like Cheers, but with coffee and bikes!

Patria joined after the first year and has brought so much energy and enthusiasm. While Rob is the quiet hard-working guy in the background, Patria is the exuberant face of the shop.  She's helped to expand the rides and events, and is so warm and friendly and welcoming to everyone. Like Rob, she seems to thrive on working way more hours than anyone should, and like Rob, she brings a love of cycling and a way of building community that just make this place special.

Thanks to Patria and a growing dedicated staff of baristas and bike folks, Rob is able to spend a bit less time at the shop midweek, but he's still there on weekends and holidays and still comes out to do bike fittings and still seems to work every hour of every day. But he also is able to get out and ride occasionally. We always love to see him out on a bike. He has earned that reward!

We've had some really great rides and events this year. The Studio created some training events for the Rialto-Trade Pan-Mass team, and invited others to join in, thus helping raise awareness of their fund-raising in a subtle and friendly way. Another special event was for the randonneurring community. A ride and party gave folks who had never heard of randonneurring or had some interest in these longer rides a chance to learn more and meet some randonneurring celebrities. For cyclo-cross, there are early (as in wee hours of the) morning parties to watch European events and the world championships and eat waffles. Lots of events, lots of food and drink and lots of fun - always.

I recently wrote about the Fall Five, a truly fun, individual, group race that brought out the competive spirit in a few non-racers like myself. This was a solo - race at your own time effort, but many of us still ended up connecting regularly at the shop. Racing together without racing together. And of course it concluded with another great party and some pretty awesome prizes.

Last Monday, I took a day off from riding my bike. I was running some errands (in the car) and happened to be in Lexington. I stopped in RSC to pick up coffee beans and saw a couple of friends who'd just finished a ride. A short while later, two more friends came in and ordered coffee and sat down. Next thing I knew over an hour had passed. Then Wednesday before Thanksgiving, Rob posted a note on the blog and facebook that RSC would be open at 7 on Thanksgiving serving up free porridge for anyone who was riding, along with a note about a last minute group ride at 8:15. The community came out in force, and the place was packed when we arrived. There was Rob behind the bar, making porridge and espresso for lots of grateful cyclists wearing their Ride Studio Cafe jerseys and vests.

I believe Rob is brilliant. He didn't just open a coffee shop or a bike shop. He has created a community and a community space and I for one am quite thankful for that.

Saturday, November 17, 2012

Because Sometimes the Road Goes Up

Hello Mountains!

"Because sometimes the road goes up" - This was my gut reaction recently when, after posting these photos on facebook, a friend asked about the advantage of the nominal mountain bike derailleur on a road bike. I did think the "Hello Mountains" caption was pretty clear, but it seems it wasn't.

Crisp Shifting

Might as well get that shiny cassette dirty!

Eighteen months ago, when I got my new Seven frame, I transferred most of the parts over from an older bike, which I promptly turned into a dedicated mountain climbing fixie - since it seems that I can never have enough fixed gear bikes, and I might as well have one that is dedicated to climbing Mt Washington. But this post clearly is not about a fixed gear bike.

I've made no secret of the fact that I am hopelessly unable to find shifters unless they are mounted at the end of my handlebars. Apparently you really can't teach an old dog new tricks. Over the years I've tried various different integrated shifters, but my hands just expect the shifters to be at the ends of the bars, and I will move my hands from the brake/shifter lever to grasp thin air in a vain attempt to make it easier to pedal up some hill. I'm also a bit frugal. Now this may seem at odds with the fact that I have a bunch of bikes, including the afore-mentioned Mt Washington fixie. But the reality is that I am a great bargain hunter and I recycle and reuse old parts for as long as they are functional.

I also benefit from the fact that Fear Rothar doesn't throw away old parts. He files them away in meticulously labeled boxes.  We have a box labeled bar-end shifters and within that box, are bags labeled 7-speed, 8 speed and 9 speed. For a long while he was a 7-speed guy, while the rest of the world had moved on to 8 and 9 and 10 speed options. Then one day he woke up and made the leap to 10 speed SRAM, and never looked back!

In the meantime, I stayed with 9 speed Shimano and my bar-end shifters to a point that might border on retro-grouchery, but honestly is just me being cheap and lazy. But a little over a year ago, I began to notice a rattle in my rear shift lever. It was especially noticeable on chip seal, and especially aggravating on long stretches of rough road, but I tried to ignore it for as long as possible. After our tour in Italy last year, it was getting louder and Fear Rothar pointed out that the rattle was because a plastic bit on the shifter had come loose and would eventually break and my indexing would no longer work. I looked for the box of shift levers and found a spare lever in the bag labeled 9 speed. I removed the rattly shifter and got special permission to throw it away, rather than refile! I then installed the new (well let's call it replacement, since it was used and of unknown age and wear state - while he labels them well, he doesn't include details of what it came off of and how many miles were on it) shifter and was again able to enjoy the sound of actual birds chirping instead of the sound of the shifter rattling! This worked well for almost a year, but the rattle started up anew while we were touring in France a few months ago. When we got home, I sought out the meticulously labeled box of used shifters and found one last 9 speed bar-end shifter. While replacing the shifter, I noticed that the derailleur was also showing some age, and the pulleys were rather pointy. I didn't find a box of 9 speed pulleys, but I did find another box with used rear derailleurs and found a matching derailleur. Rather than rob it's good pulleys, I just swapped the derailleur! But maybe I should have taken the pulleys...

I no longer had the annoying rattle, but I didn't have nice precise shifting either. I knew I had let the chain get a bit worn in the past and it could be that I needed a new cassette, but I was also having issues with chain slap when back-pedaling, which I tend to do after I unclip. I began to suspect that maybe that derailleur wasn't so healthy and that maybe I should just get some new pulleys for the original one and swap back. But all these parts were really of an unknown state, having been previously discarded, possibly for a very good reason. They likely had substantial mileage on them, and at the very least, they were rather old, noting that 10 speed has been around for more than a decade.  So I was looking at buying a new cassette, and chain and pulleys, and I'd likely have a rattling shifter again in a year, so... maybe, just maybe it is time to buy some new parts!

Or I could just switch over the fixed for the season and wait until spring!

But I just kept finding reasons to ride with gears, and kept dragging this bike out, until I finally couldn't take it any longer and decided to order some new parts.

Fear Rothar had converted to SRAM a few years ago with great results. When we got the new tandem this past spring, he selected SRAM shifters, rear derailleur and 12-36 cassette, mated with Shimano tandem cranks. The shifting has been great, and the giant cogs on that cassette have meant that we rarely need to use the little chainring! In fact, the only time we've even used the granny so far was racing up Burke Mountain in September.  I realized if I used a 12-36 cassette on my own bike, I could change to a compact double (34-50) and have the same range of gears that I currently have with my triple. Front shifting with a triple can sometimes be finicky, so this would simply things.

The real question was would I be bothered by the larger jumps between gears. I would be adding 6 teeth, but also an extra cog by going from 9 to 10 speed, so I decided the gaps wouldn't be that much of a change. I also started paying attention to my shifting patterns, and realized that likely due to my fixie-riding, I tend to adjust my cadence more and shift less, so I really shouldn't have any issues with the gaps in this wider range cassette.

But I'm still somewhat frugal, so I only replaced the parts that were dependent on each other: the cassette, rear derailleur, shifter and chain. I kept my triple crank and front derailleur, with plans to get that compact double in the spring. What this does mean is that I currently have a stump-pulling low gear on the bike, although I don't think I could keep the bike upright pedaling a 28-36!

So how's it working? I'm not sure I'll be allowed to keep the fixie pixie moniker if I keep using gears and posting photos of them, but it is great. The action on the SRAM bar-ends is firm, but precise, and most importantly, there is no plastic part to come unglued and rattle. I haven't noticed any issue at all with the gaps between gears. When I'm at the bigger end of the cassette, it's likely that the hill has gotten pretty steep and when I shift I want a noticeable change! But maybe it is those fixed gear habits where I'm so used to changing my cadence that I can be efficient at different pedaling speeds.

Fear Rothar often uses the 12-32 cassette on his bike, with a compact double, and nominal road derailleur. The road group can work with the 32 with the appropriate length chain, but if you want the flexibility of using the 36, the longer cages on the offroad derailleurs are designed to work with the larger cassette. I selected the mid-priced X9, feeling it was a good compromise of weight, price and durability.

Of course, I'm behind the curve, as SRAM now has the XX1, an 11 speed group with a 10-42 cassette. It took me over a decade after 10 speed came out to finally make the leap, so don't expect to see 11 speed on my bikes anytime soon!

And yes, I will get back on a fixed gear very soon!

Monday, November 5, 2012

Fall Five - Part Two

The fabrication of this awesome trophy!

To my twitter followers - Wondering what all those tweets with the #fallfive tag were all about?

We managed to complete (and blog about) the first three stages of the Fall Five before Superstorm Sandy breezed through the area with a glancing blow. While NJ, NY and CT took the brunt of the damage, we just got the winds swirling above the eye. As a result of all the severe forecasts for the area, and previous occasions where warnings had been ignored with dire consequences, everything was essentially closed down on Monday, while we waited for Sandy to arrive. Around mid-afternoon, we had some impressive rain and wind, and then we heard the loud crackle of a nearby transformer blowing as our power went out. John was working from home, but no power spelled the end of that. We decided to try and get out for a walk to get a little exercise for the day, and very quickly spotted what had taken out our power as a tree had fallen across the street, taking down power and phone lines, and was resting on a neighbors house. We saw lots of leaves down everywhere, but relatively little significant damage, other than this one downed tree.  It turns out this pattern repeated itself lots in the area. There were lots of little pockets of power outages caused by similar circumstances, but nothing major.

We woke Tuesday to sunny skies, but still with a forecast of bands of rain from Sandy. With no power at home, John headed into the office. I normally lead a ride from Ride Studio Cafe (RSC) on Tuesdays, but this week had changed it to a hike, since I really had no idea what I would find on the roads or whether we'd get more rain, and whether anyone would even show up! I headed over to RSC with laptop, phone and tablet, to try and charge a few devices so I could stay connected. I ran into a few friends there also charging devices and getting some proper coffee.

RSC had changed the time spans for doing each stage, allowing folks until Friday to complete all the stages, so no one would feel pressured to ride in dangerous conditions. Stage 4 officially started on Tuesday, but I decided waiting until things dried out a bit might be a good idea. This stage was a circuit-race, with 4 laps of a 3 mile course around a neighborhood in Lexington. It happened that the hike I did also was within this neighborhood, so I got to see a bit of the course. I noticed lots of wet leaves piled up in the corners, but as I wandered about, it really seemed the area had been spared any major damage. There were roads closures just off the course, but the roads on the course itself were open. Still I decided to wait a day and enjoy my walk in the woods.

That night we had a pretty severe electrical storm with a nearby lightening strike. If we'd had power, we surely would have lost it then! Just before the storm hit, I saw a tweet from Rob Vandermark, chief bottle washer at RSC, that he was heading out to do stage 2! I hoped he wasn't insane enough to really go out in this weather, but he was. Rob is a great fan of Ernest Shackleton, so it was only fitting that he do his race in the worst conditions. Read about his adventure here. All of Rob's reports are on his blog and make for a quite enjoyable read.

Not needing to fit my racing in around 18 hour work days like Rob, I headed off to my dry warm bed!

The next morning, I headed out to a nearby coffee shop to recharge phone, laptop and tablet. Once recharged and caffeinated I then came home and pulled out my Seven, with my still worn out drivetrain. Sandy had eliminated any chance that my new drivetrain would arrive in time. But I decided fenders would be appreciated far more than crisp shifting, and besides the bigger chainring might come in handy on the circuit race route. And since I knew exactly which gears were unusable, I could avoid them. I gave a quick look at the fixed-gear machines, but also decided coasting around the corners might help me log a better time.

Despite the evidence in our driveway, as I rode over to Lexington, I was pleasantly surprised to find that Sandy had not blown away every leaf from every tree!

In fact there was some amazing color on display nearby.

I also suddenly became aware that it was Halloween! Lexington subjects the local merchants to lots of begging goblins and gremlins and such, as they let the kids go trick or treating at the shops in town. Luckily, I got into and out of RSC initially before the hordes descended, although I did spot this adorable lobster - a regular RSC customer!

I rode around the circuit course once as a warmup and preview, and then started to race. I quickly realized that I may not have picked the best time of day, as the course passed two schools, and school traffic - distracted moms on cell phones -  was starting to come and go. The roads were at least dry, but there were several places still quite thick with leaves. Then I saw the crossing guard. I was thrilled to get past her once, twice, three times, without having to stop. I was working hard and having a good race, but knew it would be just my luck to get stopped 90% of the way through the race. The race timing would only count moving time, but this crosswalk was at the base of the final climb, and having to stop and restart would destroy any momentum and cost a lot of time. I couldn't believe my luck when I actually made it through on the final lap.

Yippee I was done. I was also seriously trashed. I regularly go out and do double centuries. I ride 50-80 miles a day quite frequently, but this little 13 mile race at 19 mph was a whole different thing, and now I was well and truly done. I headed back to RSC, which was now overrun with two and a half foot tall gremlins and gobblins getting coupons for free hot chocolate. I managed to get a cortado in all the chaos and chatted with a few other racers who were trying not to leave chainring tattoos on the costumes of the little beggars!

I managed to get a glimpse of the party supplies for the awards ceremony on Friday night. Time bonuses were being awarded for photos, up to 5 per stage. For any who follow me on twitter and were wondering what the heck was going on, it's called twitter-doping! This also helped me get some blog fodder!

The fenders did come in handy. The generator was overkill though!

John got out on Thursday for a very impressive Stage 4, but had an appointment with his foam roller that evening! 

I took a rest day and did a 90 mile ride out to Lost Lake! When I got back I did a preview of Stage 5, but do to user error managed not to have my GPS running for half the ride. It was just a preview, so not so bad.

Friday was again lovely, which was fortunate since we only had until 5:30 PM to do the final stage. John was leading the GC, and I was actually in second place among the gals who had completed the same number of stages.

John passed me as I headed back over to Lexington. It really wasn't a grey day!

I stopped for a quick lunch, while John and it seemed half the guys racing, were out on the course.

After a coffee and scone and some time to digest it, I headed out for the 7.7 mile criterium course. Pain and deep breathing were the order of the day!

When I got back to RSC, I uploaded my track to be sure I'd completed the course correctly. It was tricky and involved multiple laps in a couple of places and I was suddenly worried that I might have missed a lap. Fortunately all was well, and I was now done and relieved.

Then Patria came in after having completed Stages 3 and 4. She was having trouble uploading and I foolishly helped her retrieve and upload her hillclimb results. 

She had just blown away my times, pushing me down to third on GC for women. I then spotted Katherine kitted up and ready to head out to do the final two stages. She's a very powerful racer, and I knew I was soon to be down to fourth and off the podium. Oh well. it's just for fun. I am not a racer, and 4th is really a respectable showing!

It turned into quite the social afternoon with lots of racers coming and going, getting in that final stage. Eventually, we all headed home to clean up and get ready for the party later in the evening.

RSC hosts the best parties. There is always great food and drink and wonderful people and this was no exception. 

Henry was recognized for his great improvement from last year!

Felipe and Michelle were both recognized for their team spirit.

Leading in team spirit!
Sarah took home all the women's categories, sprint, climbing and overall, with Patria taking second and Katherine taking third.

And despite the fact that his mother really did teach him to share, John took all the men's categories, and brought home loads of great swag!

This was actually an amazing week of riding/racing. I really had a blast and the kind folks at RSC made it fun and rewarding. I'm looking forward to next year or maybe the Spring Six!