Friday, February 12, 2016

Friday News And Views

SRAM marketing strikes with a new 11 spd cassette that is aimed at 1X riders.
SRAM NX 1 X 11 Parts Announced:

If you've been paying attention for the last few years, you know that SRAM has been pushing its 1 X 11 gearing for mountain bikes quite heavily. I've used it, and it is a fascinating idea that ends up being "just okay", in my opinion. (More on that coming up here.) The biggest issue I, and many others have had, with this format is that (a), it requires a specific free hub body and (b), the cost is outrageous for the cassette. Mostly this is due to the outlandish, wasteful carving of a huge block of steel into a single, 10 cog unit, to which a final, aluminum cog is fitted to. The waste in the material and cost to machine the huge chunk of steel forces SRAM to charge exorbitant prices- anywhere from $260-ish to a bit over $400.00 depending upon where you purchase and what level X-Dome cassette you buy. Compare that to $160-ish for an XTR 11 speed cassette from the UK online dealers, and you can see why xx-1 is a bit of a big bite to chew for riders. That's just the cassette too. You still need a special derailleur, shifter, chain ring, and chain.

The obvious solution was for SRAM to find a way to make the 1 X 11 idea cheaper. They tried the GX platform, which still required an XD free hub, which was riveted together and consists of separately made cogs. However; the barrier of the special wheel was still there. Meanwhile, quietly and in typically sedate Shimano style, the Japanese component giant offered an 11 speed, wide ranging cassette that fit on a standard free hub body. Now, SRAM has announced a cassette which also fits on a standard free hub body dubbed "NX" in response. There actually is a whole suite of 1X parts to go with this. Differences to GX are minor, and the NX crank is almost identical to a GX 1X crank, only made with a different aluminum alloy. To wit: SRAM claims both crank sets weigh in the 680 gram range. Functionally they should be identical. The derailleur is a cheaper version of GX probably with lower level materials, as SRAM is wont to do with their groups.

Shimano's XT 11spd, 11-42 cassette- A SRAM 1X alternative
The big deal here is obviously the cassette, and the ability for OEM bikes to be set up 1X in the Far East, shipped here to North America, and hit a retail price point that should be far more palatable to more budget conscious riders. The NX stuff can arguably be said to be "X-5"-ish quality, which means that the materials and construct of the cassette and components will reflect the $75.00-ish dollar asking price for the cassette aftermarket.

But hold on here. SRAM, by ditching most of their proprietary technology like the XD cassette carrier, X-Dome cassette manufacturing technique, and lowering the materials and construction techniques to almost hybrid bike levels, have put themselves into a playing field where Shimano dominates. Check this out.....

A savvy shopper can source an XT 11 speed 11-42 cassette for under $75.00, which is going to have a far better shifting quality and construction than an NX 11 speed cassette will ever have. No.....I haven't seen an NX cassette, but I have seen and handled a GX cassette, and this NX cassette is one level below that. You have a Shimano cassette for about the same asking price as a lower quality SRAM one, and if you have a Shimano Shadow Plus clutch style rear derailleur, it probably can already handle a 42T cog. Want better shifting quality? The replaceable hangar on a Shadow Plus derailleur can be replaced with a Goat Link from Wolf Tooth components and bang on shifting is at your finger tips. While you're at it, you can grab one of Wolf Tooth's chain rings, slap it on your current crankset, and you have a 1X set up as good if not better than XX-1 at a bit more than maybe a NX set up will cost you. Well.....that is if your rig is 11 speed. Of course, you can easily approximate the same deal in 10 speed for similar amounts of cabbage and have a far better quality set up than NX.

So, a great marketing campaign, a good way to get OE spec, but otherwise, not really all that big of a deal in real terms for the performance minded riders that demand durable, great performing parts. I still think Shimano outperforms this stuff, and that 2 X 11 or 2 X 10 is still a better option for riders. Shimano has front derailleurs dialed, and with a two ring crankset, there is absolutely no way that a 1 X 11 covers the same range of gearing for most technical mountain biking with any appreciable elevation changes. Not only that, but your gearing can have closer ratio jumps between gears, helping to maintain momentum, and cadence speeds don't change all that much, making you more efficient.

Will 1X take over the mtb world? I am rather skeptical of that. Especially when wheel technology and the spaces we have to work in for components is what it is. Does 1X look better? Maybe. Does 1X appeal to the mind as being easier to understand? Most definitely. Is it better for "your motor"? Well, there is the real question, no? I will say that a closer ratio gearing is generally preferred by racing folks, and for a good reason. I think average folk can also benefit for similar reasons, and that's why I am not sold on 1X.

Okay, enough ranting for one day! Have a great weekend and hopefully you can hit some cycling up where you live.

Thursday, February 11, 2016

Primo Is Now

Trail conditions are perfect now. My Blackborow DS on Marky-Mark
Well, I know I have been sort of harping on this subject here of late, but this Winter has been a very unusual one for fat biking conditions. Unusual in that they have been really, really good. That hasn't been the case since about 2011.

The snows have come, certainly, since 2011, and we have had big dumps at times. However; the consistency of that snow hasn't been any good at all for fat biking.

Interestingly, the local scene has just come around to having enough of an interest that grooming has been undertaken on a wide scale for the first time this Winter. Last Winter a very minor amount of grooming took place for the first time around here. Before that, nothing had been done at all. That's okay, because I am fully convinced that even if we had grooming back then, it would have been ineffective due to the extremely granulated nature of most of the snow we received in 2012-2015. That shifty, unconsolidated stuff was not going to firm up no matter how many times you ran a roller and sledge over it.

But this year is quite remarkably different. The first snow was like much of the past few years, but since then, we've had thaws and re-freezes at perfect times, and the snow has been of a consistency not seen in the area in a long time. This has meant that even some minor snow shoeing can be employed to result in a track that has a fast, hard surface, perfect for fat biking.

How long will it last? I keep thinking, not long now. Spring is coming, the Sun is riding up higher into the daytime skies now, and more direct light can affect snow conditions now even without a warm day. Warmer temperatures will be coming and at more frequent intervals. The best fat biking we'll have is now. 

Better get some while the gettin' is good. 

Wednesday, February 10, 2016


Back in the day, you could adjust, rebuild, and make it last.
Yesterday I was in the shop doing a bike build on a frame/fork that was equipped to handle a BB-30 style bottom bracket. A real BB-30 bottom bracket. The type that has circlips and a precisely machined bearing interface. The kind that spawned the "press-fit 30" bottom brackets that so may riders and mechanics despise, but keep in mind, those Press Fit 30's are not "real BB-30 bottom bracket shells. Many do not even use a 30mm spindle either, which was the supposed reasoning behind that bigger shell anyway. Okay, I'm getting derailed here.....

The thing that made me think here was that the BB-30 uses a pressed in set of bearings which, when they get slop in them, they have to be replaced. That is not necessarily an easy thing to accomplish either. Contrast this with an old square taper bottom bracket I installed the day before. If it developed a little slop, you could adjust the bearing pre-load, without removing the crank set. Let's say something like that was introduced today. It would be lauded as a brilliant, consumer friendly development. Trouble is, it doesn't play into the "stiffer is better" philosophy that many bicycle companies adhere to, and it isn't proprietary, which for some strange reason is seen as being a bad business decision.

Well, I find it ironic that almost every entry level road bike we stock has.....square taper cranks. They use a cheesy, pseudo-cartridge bottom bracket, but still. Then, moving up a notch in spec, maybe you go to a two piece crank with a Shimano cup system. Then, on higher level models, you go to an abundance of stupidly designed, non-serviceable bottom bracket styles. If you are not a racer, which most folks are not, wouldn't it make a lot more sense to use the threaded shell, a serviceable bottom bracket, a three piece crank, and on more expensive rigs, the lighter, easier to remove and install two piece Shimano style cranks? It seems many manufacturers are starting to gravitate towards this idea after several years of nonsensical bottom bracket designs which have not really worked out very well.

The "standards" argument, well.......I am not adhering to that philosophy. I worked in the bicycle business when there were still myriads of serviceable spindles, at least four types of threaded cup variants, and 73mm and 68mm width bottom bracket shells. This required the first shop where I worked to have an eight row wide, four foot high machinists cabinet which was full of different spindles. Cups and lock rings were in another cabinet and bearings in another. Don't tell me how it was better "in the old days". No. It was just as bad, if not worse, when it came to "standards", which I find is a completely different subject than "serviceability", and we won't even get into longevity! 

Tuesday, February 09, 2016

Bontrager Lithos Stormshell Jacket: Update

Some true Winter testing
Back toward the end of last year I wrote a bit of a review on my Bontrager Lithos Stormshell Jacket. Well, at that point we really had not had the bitter cold, snowy, windy weather that we have had the past almost two months since then. I feel as though I need to give a bit of an update now that I have used this jacket in what I would consider as pretty severe cycling conditions.

Things like heavy, wet snow fall, high winds, and bitter, below zero temperatures. Yesterday was a great example as it was in the lower teens and the winds were 20-25mph with blowing snow and flurries. All of my riding in the jacket during this period has been on my fat bike.

The fit of the jacket is roomy, compared to other cycling jackets, but when the winds howl, you will appreciate the fact that you can layer up underneath without bursting at the seams. I typically can do a wool base layer, a heavier wool mid layer, and then the Lithos jacket is typically my outer layer. This gives me all the warmth I need while being active on the bike. In fact, the jacket is absolutely totally windproof. The hood can be drawn down pretty tight around a helmet, or if you use a thicker cap or hat for Winter, the hood works well to keep out the wind and wet snow.

Speaking of wet snow, I got caught out in a heavy, wet snow, which at 34°F was melting as fast as it fell on me. Essentially making for a good test of the water proof claims of this jacket. Remember, in the beginning the entire reason I went looking for a jacket, and landed on the Lithos, was because another jacket I have failed to keep a heavy rain out and I was soaked when I arrived at home that day. Well, how did the Lithos hold up in equally as wet conditions? Fantastic. Perfect performance in all respects with regard to the waterproof feature.

I also did a ride with a heavy backpack, and one of the claims for the Lithos Stormshell is that it was designed with a hydration pack in mind. I was very impressed with how my big Osprey pack worked with this jacket. As advertised there for sure! 

So, I am increasingly pleased with this jacket, and although it doesn't feature pit zips, it is a very, very good piece of gear for cycling. If it featured pit zips, it would be nearly a perfect score for me so far. Long term, I cannot yet speak to that, but if I can squeeze out several season out of this Lithos Stormshell and get this sort of performance, I will feel very good about my purchase in the long run.

Note: This jacket was purchased with my own damn money and I was not paid, nor bribed for this review.

Monday, February 08, 2016

Slow Cooking This Thing

Beer, gravel roads, maybe some music.......what could go wrong?
Friday I mentioned a bit about this gravel double metric ride I am involved in getting organized and off the ground. Myself and the other gentleman involved with this went and did a little recon of a different type on Saturday after I finished up teaching a mechanic's class at the shop where I work. (There is another class this Saturday, and spots are still open, I believe.) Anyway.....

We went to the town where we want to get this ball rolling and met with a business owner who was very excited about the possibilities for this. Now here's the deal- we are starting small, with reasonable expectations. We want this to not only be manageable, but most importantly, successful. For everyone involved from the town, the businesses, the organizers, and the riders. So, with all of that in mind, the cap for this deal is going to 150 folks for the first year. We feel that will be very manageable, on all fronts. If things look good after year one, it could grow. That will yet to be determined.

Format: The event will have two distances, one 200K course, the other a 100K course. (126 miles and 63 miles respectively) There may be two start times, we'll see. There will probably be timed sections which will account for the "winners" in a couple of categories. Otherwise it will be more like a fondo. You'll go through a town with a convenience store, and we are planning a special surprise in the middle of nowhere for those that get that far. Anyway, after the ride, there will be beer, and we're looking for a way to get a band and food in the mix as well. Oh yeah, the beer will be craft brewed locally, and there will be a special beer just for the event.

Time: September 3rd, which is the Saturday of Labor Day weekend. We figured that gives folks time to do other things and/or get home without having to work the next day.

The "What" will be better defined for you soon, when we know all the details. We are not even sure what we are calling the event yet! That goes for the "Where" of this as well. Well, we know where it is going to be, but we're not saying publicly just yet.

Stay tuned.........

Sunday, February 07, 2016

Minus Ten Review- 5

Ahhhh! My car! Jeff Kerkove reacts to how his Mazda 3 was getting trashed during T.I.V2 recon
Well, this week ten years ago on the blog, I was finally able to get back to regularly scheduled programming when my CPU was wiped for virus attacks and restored to normalcy. Then it was off to far Western Iowa with my then co-conspirator in Trans Iowa, Jeff Kerkove, to recon the planned route for the now infamous Trans Iowa v2 course.

This was an all weekend deal as we would drive five hours to Hawarden, Iowa, on the Western border of the state, and start tracing the route back East. We would get to Jeff's hometown of Algona, stop for the evening to see Jeff's parent's, and stay overnight at their home. I believe it was on this trip that Jeff's mother, Linda, made a pan of Scotcheroos, which had Jeff drooling. This was a big shock to me since Jeff was so anti-anything sweet and gooey normally. It went against his very strict dietary guidelines, but you know what they say about Momma's cooking!

I got to stay at their place in Algona twice, as I recall. The first and second years of Trans Iowa. I'm not sure which version it was, but one year I got to sleep in the spare bedroom which had been converted into a computer room, and which had a great picture on the wall of Jeff when he was a youginz. I should have snapped a photo of that!

One of the approximately 14 miles of Level B road in T.I.v2's first 75 miles.
 We then took the next day to not only recon the remaining route to Decorah, but we also had a meeting with a couple of Decorah's established bike advocates who wanted to advise and coordinate our efforts along with another event there. We were busy folks that weekend!

I recall that we were in Osage early that morning and stopped at a Casey's where we got our first look at the car since we'd left Algona hours earlier. It was a complete mess. The entire rear end of Jeff's Mazda 3 was obliterated with gravel mud. I remember Jeff saying months later that he was still finding mud and dirt from that trip falling out from under the car or traces of dirt and dust inside of it.

In other postings from ten years ago, I started a series on handle bars and what led me to adopt a Midge Bar for my Karate Monkey. It was a series that ran concurrently for several days with multiple posts per day. Sheesh! I must have had a lot of time on my hands back in the day!

More next week on the Minus Ten Review.....

Saturday, February 06, 2016

A Few Gravel Related Things To Talk About

Things are beginning to ramp up on the gravel travel front. Of course, Spring brings on a tidal wave of stuff, but I'm talking about a schedule of things having to do with Riding Gravel and something local that is "brewing" even as I write this.

First up, there is a new Riding Gravel Radio Ranch podcast up. (HERE) We got the two guys behind the re-birth of the OGRE event on the air to ask them what the event is about and their plans for this year's edition. Don and Josh look to turn this into quite the happening event, so if you are looking for 80 or 150 miles of Southern Missouri gravel goodness, this should be on your radar. As Josh and Don said, it is a perfect run up to a Dirty Kanza attempt, since the event falls about a month ahead of DK200 on April 30th.

The New Ti Standard Rando from Twin Six
Next up is the wheels for my Standard Rando Twin Six rig. I've been talking about these wheels getting built up for quite a while now, but word on the street is that the black anodized White Industries hubs are now on their way out to the shop. Apparently the order was left sitting for a while until a co-worker of mine called recently to ask about the deal. Those laid back Californians just hadn't processed the order, and had no good reason why that hadn't happened.

Oh well.... The important thing is that these hubs are coming and will be getting laced up.......finally! Then I can get that green machine out and about. Not that a delay was a big deal. I mean, I was busy riding fat bikes anyway, so no harm, no foul.

And about the titanium Standard Rando, it is up for pre-order now at Twin Six. If it rides anything ike mine does, only a bit better, because it is titanium, well.........look out! Bonus points for Twin Six spec'ing four water bottle mounting points. You want a killer gravel rig? look no further. I would love to have a bike like that, but I have the steel one, and that'll do me fine for the time being. Either way you go, these are great choices for gravel road riding.

Something new is "brewing".
Today I am doing a bit of research with a co-conspirator for a possible new gravel road based event in Iowa. It will be a very different format than many gravel road races, and it will be more about the "event", having fun, and social aspects than purely a competition. There will be elements of that, but the idea here is to take a different look at how gravel events are typically done.

What I can say now is very limited, but there are a few hard details that can be spoken of at this time. First of all, the tentative date for this is Labor Day weekend. The distances offered would be 63 and 126-ish miles. (Or 100 and 200K) The idea for some social aspects will be taken into consideration. Adult beverages, food, and music are in the mix, but nothing has been determined at this time. Think "Renegade Gents Race" vibe here. The location would be West of Waterloo/Cedar Falls in a smaller community.

A Facebook mention about this idea drew many favorable comments. So, this is being pursued and I am on board as a "consultant" at this point. When and if things work out, there will be a formal announcement. It is hoped that this could be done later in March or early April.

Other than that, I am formulating some travel plans with my partner, Ben, and we may be showing up at a few gravel events this Spring and maybe Summer as well. We have an invitation to stop by at the OGRE event, mentioned above, and we are talking about maybe a couple of other rides where we may show up to......well, let's just wait on that for now. Until the picture gets a little less foggy, I should not say anything more just yet.