My journey through bikes to find my Nirvana
Remember my credo (from my most recent post): a brevet bike is one you use on brevets with little or no hassle or pain!
I promised at the end of that post to tell you about my bike...
As I tried to emphasize in that previous post, any bike that fits well can make a good randonneuring bike. I mentioned a few things that one might do to make a bike more comfortable for the long rides, like adjusting the fit to really suit, mounting the fattest tires that fit, attaching some kind of fenders, affixing some sort of bag to carry stuff and mounting whatever type of light is needed for the event/distance.
I included options for the most basic needs as well as some more elegant or customized approaches that one might consider down the road. This is what I can do with what I've got now and these are options I might consider on some future bike. For example I mentioned some fenders that will work on any bike as well as full coverage fenders that require more clearance.
Part of the reason I offered so many options is that I have taken advantage of the various options many times myself!
For my first PBP in 1987, I used an inexpensive sport touring bike which I bought a few short weeks before the big event. I had been planning to ride tandem that year, but my tandem partner (at the time) and I decided after all the qualifiers and training that we just couldn't tolerate being together on the same bike for that long. Fenders were still required in 1987, and I couldn't get them onto the (single) bike I had. So I ended up trying to quickly put together a new bike that would take fenders on a tight budget. In the first 100 miles of PBP, I had some problems with a series of punctures, thanks to having ridden through lots of broken glass before the event and then suffered double snakebite flats after following a line of cyclists across a recessed manhole cover just a few miles into the actual ride. I have since learned better how to boot a tire with big cuts or cuts in the sidewall, as well as to carefully check the tire to find all the damage the first time. At the time, however, I had much to learn. One lesson I learned the hard way is that the folding Michelin tires I bought at the first bike shop on the route, to replace my now-very-cut-up tires, required the rim to have a hook or they would simply blow right off. Suffice it to say, I did not have a successful ride that year. Today, most (if not all) modern clincher rims work fine with foldable tires. The message to take away here isn't specifically about tires and rim incompatibility, but rather about using your equipment lots before the big event, so you can work out any kinks and discover the issues long before the big show. It was unfortunate that I did not ride the brevet series on that bike, or I would have found the problems and solutions prior to going to France. It is best to avoid the need for a brand new bike right before the big event! You should ride the bike you plan to use throughout the season and work the kinks out early. That said, every 4 years, I hear about some poor soul whose bike doesn't make it to Paris, who then scrambles to get a working bike hours before the ride start. I've even heard reports of success. It can be done, but is still best to be avoided!
So since that bike didn't quite meet my no-hassle criteria, I moved on.
I really loved that Vitus. It was actually a gift from the aforementioned former tandem partner, maybe in hopes that we would do better riding together on separate bikes. This bike was comfortable and fit me well. We set it up with a triple crank and a narrow block cassette to give nice wide range of gears with small steps in between gears. With aero-bars and lights attached to the handlebars, I chose to carry all my gear at the back of the bike. I adapted a handlebar bag to work by mounting a stoker stem/bar to my seatpost. (I didn't know about Carradice bags at the time!) This gave me a large well supported bag in which I could carry all my gear for a 1200 km brevet. This was a non-custom bike that happened to fit me well, which I adapted and accessorized to make suitable for brevets. It was light enough so that after weighing it down with all that extra gear, it wasn't unduly heavy. As I mentioned in that previous article, it did have some big limitations with regards to using wider tires with fenders, but I was living in the land of smooth. dry roads, so it was fine for my needs at the time.
I treasured this bike and logged over 50,000 miles on it (including both BMB and PBP) until one day in 1993 when a loose farm dog crossed my path. The collision resulted in lots of road rash for me, and bent top and down tubes along with a crumpled fork for my beloved Vitus. As non-sentimental as I claim to be, that busted frame still sits in our basement, waiting to be converted into a picture frame of sorts!
After that, I tried a few other bikes before I picked up the Independent Fabrications Club Racer that featured in my BMB 2000 article. This was a sporty road bike designed to use medium-reach brakes (57mm vs the 49mm found on most race bikes), providing ample clearance for cushy tires with fenders. It also had eyelets for mounting those fenders as well as eyelets for racks. It even came with fenders and a nice rear rack. The chain stays were slightly longer to accommodate the bigger tires, but not as long as found on a classic touring bike. This bike was relatively light and nimble and responded well to a hard effort. I bought the bike second-hand (from the actual builder no-less), but it fit me perfectly and I used it on many brevets for several years. At this stage I was living in Massachusetts, land of potholes and puddles, so I really appreciated both the wider tires and the fenders.
I understand that this particular bike and subsequent demand for this type of bike may have well saved 57mm brakes, as apparently Shimano was considering discontinuing them at the time the Club Racer was introduced.
Now after going on in that previous article about how you don't need a full-on custom bike to do any brevet, and especially your first, I hope I don't sound like a hypocrite as I describe my current steed - which actually is a custom bike.
After 25 years of tweaking and refining various non-custom bikes, I had compiled a long and detailed list of all things I wanted in my ultimate bike. And thanks to increased demand from like-minded folks, a few manufacturers were starting to offer the style of bike that met many of my desires, so I could get lots of things on my list without going to a full custom bike. Then what pushed me to custom? It was a combination of wanting couplers as well as a geometry tuned to my riding style while eliminating/reducing the dread toe clip overlap (TCO).
We have traveled overseas with our bikes using full size cases many times. However due to the size of the cases, we can't take advantage of cars or standard taxis to get to/from the airport. When trying to continue from an airport to somewhere accessible by train, we can't take the high speed TGV, since some full size cases can exceed their size limitations. The in recent years, it got to be even more difficult and more expensive to travel with full size bike cases. For some European trips, we had to carefully check for bike fees on different airlines as some were charging as much as $200 per bike, each way.
Since we had couplers on our tandem, we would usually travel with the tandem. However, one day when looking over photos from a recent trip, we noticed that many were of me holding up the tandem (and looking bored). If we had single bikes, we could have action photos.
So we started talking more about couplers on our single bikes...
At the time I wasn't so much thinking about traveling off to do far-away grand randonnées, as I was thinking about traveling off to do European gran fondos, and credit card or supported tours. But travel is travel, and while packing a coupled bike might take a wee bit more mechanical know how and confidence than using a full size case, I was pretty comfortable with my mechanical and puzzling abilities, thanks to having packed the tandem so much.
At around the time we were starting to think about coupled bikes, Rob Vandermark, of Seven Cycles, opened a cafe/bike shop in Lexington called Ride Studio Cafe. Those who know me well, know that this was an irresistible draw - a bike shop where I could hang out with other cyclists while drinking a proper espresso. Fear Rothar and I became regulars and over time, after lots of casual conversations with Rob (who happens to be the most low-key, almost anti-sales person you will ever meet), we finally understood that Seven is all about custom bikes! Prior to our meeting Rob at RSC, we mistakenly thought Seven just built high-end racing bikes. But what they really build is a bike for you - whether it's a featherlight belt-drive fixie, or a super versatile dirt road bike or an adventure travel bike. My new bike wasn't just to be a coupled bike with fender mounts. It would be completely tailor made for me - with my size and style and features.
Rob and I had a few meetings where we talked about my desired ride qualities and fit issues, which also included the wish to eliminate or reduce TCO, along with features like wide tires and fenders. After going through my list, Rob took lots of measurements of me and my current bike. He set me up on a trainer on my current bike and watched me ride. We talked about what works well now and where I might want changes. We talked about my quirks, long ingrained after so many years or riding. We discussed things that I should change and things that we wouldn't try to change. Did I have pain that needed to be addressed?
Once we'd spec'd out the measurements and fit issues, we went through the detailed specs including desired tires size, mounting points/clearance for fenders, and what kind of components and gearing I'd use. The funny thing is, I wasn't trying to design a brevet bike! I really thought I was designing a bike to take to Europe for gran fondos and supported or very light touring. But randonneuring seems to be in my DNA, since the features I sought make this bike ideal for brevets too.
First and foremost, it fits. 'Nuf said.
And it flies. With couplers, I can travel with very little hassle.
Since the frame is made from titanium, it is tough and durable, with a bombproof low maintenance finish. I opted for no paint, based on previous experience with fancy paint jobs on coupled bikes. No matter how carefully the bike is padded and packed, inevitably the paint will get chipped, due to all the other sharp pointy things packed in the case with the frame. Scratches on this unpainted frame can be easily buffed out with a Scotchbrite pad! Riding on gritty, salty roads in New England, it's also nice to eliminate any possibility of corrosion. Titanium allowed me to get custom geometry in a lightweight frame that tolerates a lot of abuse!
In the previous article, I talked about wide tires overshadowing any effect that results from frame material or butting. That said, one can still fine tune ride quality with geometry, material and butting.
To be totally honest, I can't really quantify what is different about the ride of titanium, but there is something subtle that causes me to prefer this bike over others. Rob selected the tubing, butting and geometry to match my goals. I just told him I wanted to ride comfortably all day and all night and be able to dance up climbs like Pantani and descend with the confidence of Roche. And while I haven't taken any KOMs from Pantani, this bike has met all my expectations in the ride quality department. And even with couplers and pretty standard, non-stupid-light components, my bike came in at under 20 pounds with the fenders! This is most important when lifting the case off the luggage carousel at the airport.
One of my other big goals was to reduce TCO that is common on bikes for smaller riders, without having to go to a less common wheel/tire size. Rob designed my frame and fork so I got the most toe clearance, while still getting a stable, yet spritely ride. Seven uses dropouts with different offsets to achieve different rake using the same fork blades. I'll admit the fork with the extended dropouts looked a little different at first, but I really love not banging my toe off the fender when I turn.
The Seven mid-reach fork claims clearance for 700X28mm tires with fenders. In fact, it works perfectly in that configuration. Recently, I tried pushing the envelope by mounting a Grand Bois Cypress 30mm tire with a fender, but found I couldn't properly use the brake quick release to easily remove/install the wheel, so I went back to a 28. BTW, in the dry season (i.e. without a fender), there is plenty of room for that 30mm tire.
In my initial conversations with Rob, I foolishly said the biggest tire I'd use with fenders was a Grand Bois Cerf 700X26, and the clearance in the back (chainstay length) was built to that spec. I was quite happy with this choice for the first two years, only once regretting that limitation, when we were riding over some bumpy muddy tracks in Ireland, when I envied John's choice of a 30mm tire with fenders.
I thought if I had access to a time machine that I should go back in time and ask for clearance for a bigger tire.
Then this fall, after I broke my back, I really wanted access to that time machine. But since I couldn't change history (and skip the ride on September 8), I asked Seven to rebuild the back of my frame (extending the length of the chainstays to correspond with the max tire size afforded by the 57mm brakes), and I can now use a 700X30mm tire with fenders on the back. The cost of doing so was not cheap, but also not prohibitive and I'm positively thrilled with the results. I just wish I'd saved some money and spec'd it that way initially. This is one of the reasons I tell people to take their time to really work out what they want before going full-custom.
Shortly after getting my modified frame back from Seven, Portland Design Works released a new wide full metal fender, the PDW City fender. Thanks to the increased clearance, I was able to mount these elegant fenders and love them - see this post for more details. Incidentally, I have SKS Longboard Fenders on my Seven Fixie, and (because the frames are essentially the same) can easily swap them between the two bikes. In fact, for travel, I will likely take the Longboards, since the plastic fenders are less likely to get damaged when packed into an S&S case.
Because people have asked, I will include details on my components and in some cases why I selected a particular item. This is what works for me today. Remember, this is a bike tailor made for me!
For gearing, I use a Shimano Ultegra (because I like the dark grey color and sleek lines) compact crank (34X50) with a wide range SRAM cassette (12-36), giving me a low enough gear that I'm not intimidated by any climb! Remember John's Motto: Better looking at it than for it! Well now I look for bigger harder climbs, because I don't have to look for lower gears!
I use SRAM 10 speed bar-end shifters (to go with the SRAM Apex front derailleur and X9 long cage rear derailleur). I like bar-end shifters, since I can tell by feel what gear I am in at night and they are very reliable. Over the years, I've tried other types of shifters, but my hands seem to expect the shifters to be at the ends of the bars, so that's where I put them! The range of this gearing is as good as any triple I've used in the past, without the finicky front shifting. I have no problems with the size of the spacing between gears. Remember I ride fixed a lot, so am well used to varying my cadence.
Tektro 539 57mm brake calipers mated with Cane Creek levers stop the bike. Both the calipers and the levers have a quick release, which really helps with the fat tires. The Tektro brakes were chosen because their shape works better with fenders than the Shimano calipers I initially used. Since I use bar-end shifters, I can chose from any non-integrated levers (sometimes called single speed brake levers) and I really like the shape of the Cane Creek models, along with having the additional QR in the lever.
My Salsa Pro Road Small 2 handlebars are quite narrow (36cm center to center), have a shallow drop and short reach. One of my frustrations with production bikes is that even in small sizes, the bars are usually quite wide. The rule of thumb is that handlebar width should match shoulder width. A few years back, I realized that I could actually wrap my old handlebars around my shoulders, so I tried narrower bars and what a revelation. No longer riding spread-eagle-like eliminated so much pain for me. Then when I discovered shallow drop, I finally found myself using the drops a lot more. This is not to say that you should get these bars. It's more to point out that bars come in all shapes and sizes, with various length reach and drop. These work great for me.
While on the subject of contact points, I use a Terry ladies Butterfly saddle with a cutout. There are probably more saddle choices than any other component on a bike.
My wheels have pink Chris King hubs laced to Velocity Aerohead rims, hand-built by Fear Rothar. I also have matching pink King headset and bottom bracket, just because!
When in brevet mode, I use Schmidt dynohub with a Lumotec Luxos U light mounted at the fork crown. This light has a USB port for also powering/charging a device like a GPS or phone. I also have classy, stealth reflective tape from Lightweights on the spokes, seatstays and other places. The bike lights up in car (and bike) headlights. The photo below was taken with a flash to show off the reflectors.
I believe pedals designed for recessed cleat shoes (so-called mountain bike shoes) are ideal for brevets, given the inevitable walking around at controls. The Turkish toilets at the Carhaix control on PBP have to be the best a reason to avoid unstable footwear or cleat covers! (If you've not experienced these, there is a hole in the floor, and a couple of marked footprints. The aim of many cyclists after 600 miles tends not to be so good, and squatting with toe-up footwear can result in cramps, or worse yet - falling in! And really do you want to put those cleat covers back in your pocket?) Spiral marble staircases found in many Italian cafes also offer good incentive for walkable shoes. I use Crank Brothers Eggbeater pedals. I love the easy entry and mud-clearing feature of these pedals. Some folks scoff at the idea of so-called mountain bike shoes, claiming they are flexy or heavy. While some of them are, there are many lightweight shoes with stiff soles that have a recess for the cleat. It's not like mountain bike racers don't want lightweight efficient shoes! My favorite shoes from Dromarti are more classy than light, but they are the most comfortable pair of cycling shoes I've ever tried.
I use a large Ortlieb wedge type seat-bag and an Ortlieb mini handlebar bag. I like this setup because it is totally waterproof. If it's worth carrying, it is likely worth keeping dry.
I keep my valuables like wallet, passport, brevet card, camera, phone, some food and anything I need for quick access in the small bar-bag, since i can easily pop it off to take it with me into controls and cafes. I also keep things I might put on and take off on the move like arm warmers, gloves or a vest, depending on weather conditions. Because my frame is small, I have moved the mount for the bar bag, so it sits slightly higher to clear the headlight.
I keep things in the rear that involve stopping to use and/or don't need to be carried into every cafe, like tools, spare tire, jacket and leg warmers. While one could do a complete change of clothes on the move, I find it more efficient to stop!
I'll also mention that John also got a pretty similar coupled Seven at the same time. As I alluded to above, he was smarter than me and opted for the maximum tire clearance in the back right off the bat. Aside from size and color, the main difference between the two is that his bike also has a take-apart rack, which is mainly intended for light tours. Given our differences in strength and photographic desires, we decided that handicapping him with the gear and the camera would be a great equalizer. I still carry my usual on-bike gear, but he has my pannier with my street clothes. I'm not too proud to accept this equalizer!
And to prove how versatile John's coupled Seven Axiom is, I'll mention that he has used it on numerous brevets and three Green Mountain Double 200 mile dirt road races. He also has reconfigured it slightly to do some hill climb races, including multiple impressive top 10 finishes on Mt Washington. And since travel was the impetus, he has taken it apart and packed it up, along with the aforementioned take apart rack, for several trips, including a two week tour in Italy and another two week tour in France. All this to say, a brevet bike need not be some very specialized machine to be used exclusively on brevets.
Finally, and this might surprise you, is that these full-custom titanium bikes are actually a great value. I recently saw an ad for a fancy steel rando-frame that had been custom-built for someone else who, for whatever reason, didn't take delivery. This frame (not bike) is now for sale for $6,000. Would you pay $6,000 for a custom frame that wasn't custom made to your size or specs? I've heard stories of many-years-long wait lists for custom rando bikes. Without meaning to sound like an ad for Seven, I'll just say that you can get a sized and tuned to you titanium bike (not just frame) this season for less than $4300. Their steel models are even less expensive.
The verdict after almost 20,000 miles for me is that this bike is indeed my Nirvana of brevet bikes.
However, I will admit that, despite how versatile and perfect both these bikes are for our road events and touring and traveling, we have both acquired dedicated bikes that take even fatter tires and disk brakes. While we have ridden our S&S bikes extensively on dirt and gravel roads, disk brakes offer several advantages for this type of riding. John opted for a titanium Seven Evergreen, while I went for a steel Honey All Roads. BTW, I promise that John is working on a post about his Evergreen, and it will be posted some day - maybe before 2015!
And of course, as the fixie_pixie, I have a belt-drive fixie also made by Seven, which I used on last year's flèche as well as last year's races up Mt Washington - a very different kind of endurance event! I was so happy with my coupled geared bike that I wanted a comparable fixie.
And yes, we do still love and ride our tandem on the occasional brevet - for randonneuring with guaranteed company!