Sunday, June 29, 2008


Not the kind you're thinking about... no, these are "volunteer" sunflowers... the product of our (over-?) generosity with bird seed.

Annie planted a lovely flower bed in the yard, neatly surrounded by a circle of concrete segments making up a circle. The tidiness of that arrangement fell by the wayside pretty quickly, as the concrete pieces consistently fell over, and the flowers ended up growing over the border anyway.

Then the "other" shoots started popping up in between the lovely small flowers... shoots that kept growing higher and higher, until it finally became clear that these were sunflowers. Sunflowers that sprouted from the seeds fallen from an earlier bird feeder. Considering that we had planted sunflowers in other parts of the yard, and they are only just now getting close to budding, it's pretty funny to see such a healthy crop from feeder fallout.

Crazy and random as it is, it makes for a lovely sight... the mix of sunflowers and the lower flowers is quite pretty.

Just goes to show, sometimes the unplanned can be a wonderful thing.

Friday, June 27, 2008

Bromptons! (My Next Bike?!?!)

The big news at bikes@vienna is that we received our first shipment of Bromptons the other day. What's a Brompton, you ask? Well, if you look at the pictures, you'll see that it's a folding bike, one of the things we specialize in. We've carried several brands of folder before, most notably Dahon, Bike Friday, and Birdy, but this is the first time we've had Bromptons. There's the whole shipment parked to the left there.

What makes the Brompton so special? Well, the speed and ease with which it folds down into a really compact package, that's what! Take a look at this video:

Sure, this is someone who has practiced it a bit. But having now folded one a couple of times myself, it's really, really easy and quick. And the end result is a very small object you can easily carry in one hand. And as a bonus, they have small rollers that allow you to roll the bike around when folded, if you don't want to carry it. Granted, they are small rollers, so you need a smooth surface, but it's a really handy feature. In addition, the first step of folding is tucking the rear end under the rest of the bike, which allows the bike to stand by itself without any other support, like in the picture below and to the left.

John ordered an assortment of Bromptons, with each of the three major styles offered, in several different colors. The main distinction between models is the handlebars: the M - upswept, like the green one here, P - the sort of "bow tie" look in grey you see in the group picture, designed to offer multiple hand positions, and S - a flat bar design for a "sportier" feel. John figured it made the most sense to get the six speed version for all but the official demo, which is a three speed, and I think that's a wise choice. We Americans do love having more gears, so the one, two, or three speed options didn't seem the best choice. It's pretty ingenious how they get the six speeds... a three speed internally geared hub, from SRAM, with two cogs mounted on it, and a widget that is both chain tensioner and simple two position derailleur. It makes for what seems like a simple and solid drivetrain, and the tensioner prevents dropping the chain when you fold the bike.

Of course, the next question is, how do they ride? Well, all of us who were working in the shop the day they arrived took each of the different variants for a ride, and without exception, we all really enjoyed them. Granted, we only took quick, short rides, since it was a work day, but I have to say, the ride quality of the Brompton is excellent. Would I do a loaded tour across the US on one? Probably not. Would I use it in a daily commute that included public transit? You bet... I think it's perfect for that. What about everything in between? Well, it's too early to tell, but I have to say I think I could have a lot of fun riding one of these bikes for many uses... shopping, commuting, casual recreational rides, maybe even some touring if I needed to easily transport a bike to the start point. And I think it's a great choice for air travel, given the tiny size it folds to.

All of which leads me to the parenthetical comment in the title... I WANT ONE! Okay, those of you who know me, know that I have a "bike problem"... I love bikes and own a LOT of them. And you're right... I don't NEED another one. That doesn't mean I don't want one! I do! We'll have to see what happens financially in the immediate future, but I can easily see myself parting with one of my Dahons and buying one of these Bromptons.

Make mine a P6 in green, please! :-)

Thursday, June 26, 2008

Bats, Lightning Bugs, and Deer

It's that time of year again... my evening rides home from work on the W&OD rail-trail feature an abundance of critters out and about. In addition to the rabbits and local cats that seem to wander the trail most of the year, these summer months bring out an amazing number of bats, which zoom about overhead as I ride home. The sky is also often filled with fireflies, or lightning bugs as we used to call them when I was a little kid... it's quite the show to seem them blinking their way hither and yon. And of course, the deer are quite abundant this time of year... tonight I had two of them casually saunter across the trail, not far ahead of me. They both seemed singularly unimpressed with my presence... a sign I suppose, that they are too accustomed to humans. One actually looked at me with what seemed a bored expression, as if to say "if you expect me to get all excited and get out of your way, you are going to be sorely disappointed!"

Okay, so I'm reading too much into a deer's mind. Hey, I have to keep myself entertained somehow!

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Amazing Skies Lately

We've sure had some amazing skies here in the DC area lately. Seems like the wild thunderstorm season has come upon us sooner than usual, and more active than usual. It makes for some inconvenience and trepidation when you commute by bicycle (I don't mind the rain, it's the kajillion volts of electricity that bother me!), but it also has given us some excellent visual spectacles. I hope the photos do it some kind of justice.

The one on the left was taken Sunday, June 22nd, as clouds were whirling and gathering around the shop as I contemplated my ride home.

The other was taken on Monday the 23rd, when we were treated to a lovely double rainbow right by the shop. Enjoy!

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

"Mine goes to 11"???????

So, the buzz is all over the 'net now...

Campagnolo, the venerable and venerated Italian bicycle component maker is introducing drivetrains with ELEVEN sprockets in back. And of course, there are rumors Shimano is going to do the same.

Okay, those of you that believe that in bicycle gearing, more is better, and latest is greatest, you may as well tune out now, because I'm going to voice opinions you don't want to hear.

Maybe... just maybe... for a serious, competitive cyclist... like a professional racer... the extra two or three "gears" (depending on whether you have 2 or 3 chain rings up front) might prove a help for precisely tuning your gear ratio to your most efficient pedaling cadence. But that's only going to make a real, perceivable difference if you really know enough about your cadence and such to take advantage of the tiny difference it might make. Generally, every time the industry has added a sprocket, they've used it to fill in the middle ranges, not add a higher or lower gear. And all adding to the middle does, as I said, is arguably allow you to stay in a more nearly "optimal" cadence range. Assuming you know what that is for YOU, for every possible circumstance.

Then there's the matter of duplication. EVERY derailleur based drive train has, out of the many possible gear ratios, some ratios that are duplicated by different combinations of rear sprocket and front chain ring. Adding a sprocket doesn't solve that problem, so in reality, instead of going from 30 possible useful gears to 33 (a debatable improvement), you're going from maybe 26 or 27 distinct gears to maybe 29 or 30, tops. And that's being generous... if you figure in "near duplicates" it's even worse.

Again, maybe the gains work out for a professional, or even a very high level amateur racer. But look at the story linked above... Campy is releasing the 11 cog system in the top three component groups... which, in addition to the racers out there, squarely targets a LOT of the "enthusiasts" out there. Now tell me, what does a recreational rider, no matter how enthusiastic, gain from the additonal sprocket, in real value? I'm at a loss to come up with a good argument for this "feature" for such riders, and I can name a few arguments against.

First, given that they've made the choice to design the 11 cogs to fit in the same space as the previous max of 10 (which fit in the same space as the previous 9, which fit in the same space as the previous 8), the spacing between sprockets has to shrink. Which means the chain has to be narrower. Which means, for a given material and construction, it will be weaker. But of course, to counter that, the manufacturers will hopefully use some combination of stronger materials and stronger construction... as they did when they made the jump from 9 to 10, or so they say. Okay, that's great... but it also means an increase in cost for the components due to the higher strength. This is already shown in the difference in cost between an 8 speed chain (at our shop, typically $12 for a good, if basic one) and a 9 ($22, for a similar quality), and a 10 (haven't priced it lately, but around $40). And of course, you pay more for the sprocket cluster too. And the shifters. And the derailleurs. All to get a tiny, debatable improvement, that I can't believe is of any real, practical value to a non-competitive cyclist, or even a competitive cyclist at all but the top levels.

But folks will buy it, mark my word. Why? Well, first of all because most of the bikes that would have previously been made with 10 speeds will now be made with 11, and those are the bikes the "enthusiast" buys. Second, because, well, as Nigel Tufnel of Spinal Tap said "the numbers all go to eleven". More is perceived as better, especially in the bike world.

The irony is, that outside of the high end enthusiasts, the majority of recreational riders don't use, and don't know how to use, the gear ranges they have. I can't tell you how many bikes I've worked on or seen where it was abundantly clear that the owner rarely if ever shifts gears. In particular, now that virtually all derailleur bikes are equipped with three chain rings up front, you'd think folks would be overjoyed at having 21, 24, 27, or even 30 "gears" to ease their riding. The truth is, most of them rarely shift out of the middle chain ring, making their 21 speed into a 7, 24 into an 8, etc. And there's nothing wrong with that. In fact, I'd rather see the bike companies simplify everyone's lives by simply omitting the third, and possibly even the second chain ring. Or better yet, for many folks, the durability and low maintenance of an internal gear hub mechanism makes a world of sense.

But we can't seem to sell that to folks. "It's only got 8 speeds? Why should I buy that when I can get this one that has 21?" Or, in other words... "it goes to eleven!"

Crazy world. At the risk of sounding like a codger, I remember when all the excitement was about "10 speeds"... and we meant FIVE sprockets in back and TWO chain rings in front... "who could possibly want more gears?" we used to think.

Hmmmm... who knew?

Monday, June 16, 2008

They're back!

And who am I referring to?

All of those lycra-clad cyclists who have returned to the multi-use path I commute on. The ones who were nowhere to be seen in January and February... or really at any time since about late October! My guess is they either hang up their bikes entirely for the winter, or use them on an indoor trainer... something I've tried time and again, but never can seem to enjoy. I'd rather be out in the cold and wet than staring at a wall, going nowhere, indoors. But lots of folks prefer the trainer to being outside in the winter, so I end up having the path mostly to myself in winter.

But now they are back, along with lots of runners, walkers, strollers, rollerbladers, and other users of the trail. And it's a mixed blessing... It's nice to have company of sorts, and I do like seeing folks getting out and enjoying themselves. But it's also feeling kind of crowded out there, and now's the time of year when I start seeing bad behavior. It's a pretty broad range, from dogs poorly controlled to moms with strollers in a bunch blocking the path from edge to edge... but the ones that bother me the most are my fellow cyclists. Many of them zoom past others with no warning.... and many weave in and out of other groups of people, with barely enough room to avoid a collision.. if everything goes right! I keep waiting to see someone misjudge, or do something unpredicted, resulting in a pile up. I just don't understand why it is folks can't just wait a few seconds until it's safe to pass. Then again, maybe it just mirrors our behavior in cars... how many times have you seen crazy close calls?

So, I am more alert now... glad for the company... but cautious.

Saturday, June 14, 2008

Indy's back!

Okay, so I haven't ever commented here on a movie. And it's not the kind of thing I'm likely to comment on, honestly. But I saw Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skulls today, and it was fun. Was it the greatest movie I've ever seen? No. Was it even the best of the Indiana Jones movies? No, that honor I suspect will always reside with the first movie, the classic Raiders of the Lost Ark. But it was a good story, well told, with all the basic elements of the genre... which, at times, does make it predictable, but that is part of the fun, I think. You just know someone is going to be done in by their own avarice, and at least one of the key bad guys will be vaporized in some spectacular way at the climax. It's just the way these movies work.

So what was good, what wasn't?

First, let me warn you, if you haven't seen the movie, or read many reviews, there might be some spoilers here. So stop if that worries you. Of course, with all the pre-release info out there, most of it is probably old news.

Call me sentimental, but I thought it was great that Indy and Marion (Karen Allen reprises the role from Raiders) are reunited. I think most fans would agree with me... none of the women in the later films could hold a candle to Marion in terms of spunk, charisma, and just fitting with the Jones character. So while it might seem a bit tidy, even trite, to bring them back together in this film, it worked for me.

The various chase scenes and incredible escapes were classic Indiana Jones material. Fast, furious, and with lots of wacky circumstances and even humor. And the various fanciful locales, particularly the setting for the climax, were as usual, amazing in their inventiveness. Even devices like the gimmick of plotting out Indy's journey across the graphic of a map, interspersed with images of planes in flight, were welcome reminders not just of prior movies in the series, but of earlier adventure films from days gone by. And that's what made the original so great... it was a throwback to a simpler time and simpler heroes.

It was also fun to see, however briefly, New Haven, CT, standing in as the home of Indy's university. The chase sequence through town was a lot of fun for this Yale alum to watch... made me wish I had seen New Haven in the 40s or 50s, instead of the late 80s, when it wasn't really very charming. I spent my three years of grad school there, and it never looked as good as it does in this film.

Finally, I have to say the CG effects, while spectacular, were a little too much for me. Maybe I'm turning into an old fogey... maybe my "retrogrouch" status in bicycling carries over into the film world... but it felt like they were at times doing an effect simply because they could. And in many cases, so much was happening on screen that it all became a blur. I found myself missing the earlier films with a few carefully chosen visual "wow" moments, beautifully done. But what do I know? At 47, I'm probably not the target audience any more.

All that aside, I had a great time, and am very glad I saw it on the big screen. I can't imagine it being anywhere near as good on DVD.

Friday, June 13, 2008

New Pedals!

For the last year or two, I've been using the pedal on the left, the Shimano M324, on several of my bikes. I've also noticed that they are rather popular with customers at the shop where I work. The reason so many people like them is that they give you what many see as "the best of both worlds"... that is, a SPD style pedal on one side, with a variation on a more conventional "quill" pedal on the other. It's handy because you have the option of wearing your special bike shoes with cleats that click into the pedal, or regular shoes that just sit on the opposite side like a "normal" pedal.

Well, as I understand it, the M324 is being or has been discontinued by Shimano. Don't despair though, because they've introduced a new model, the A530, that I think is even better! Take a look at it in the picture to the right. You can see that the non-SPD side is a very different shape. This new pedal supports your foot with a large, cast aluminum platform, rather than the thin, wraparound steel cage of the M324. As a result, there's more surface area under your shoe, which is really nice if you are riding in a more flexible shoe. I did about 20+ miles today on a set, wearing a pair of Teva closed toe sandals, and they were wonderful! Much better support, and no sensation of the pedal "digging" into your foot. To top it all off, the M530 is lighter than the 324 as well. All in all, a great improvement to a great idea.

Thursday, June 12, 2008

Mixte Makeover

Once again I am lucky to have a bike project come my way that's a lot of fun. And this one isn't even that tough a job.

A woman brought this Lotus mixte-framed bike to our shop for a tune up a few months ago. Then, over this past weekend, she returned, with a new-to-her Brooks saddle and a request for new handlebars for a more upright and comfortable position. A very sensible request, as I think most casual recreational riders aren't all that well served by the typical drop style road handlebars. And it was actually pretty common for mixtes to be equipped with such bars. Many French bikes of the 70s were offered in two versions: diamond ("man's") frame with drop bars and mixte with upright bars.

The word mixte, as I understand it, was originally applied to bikes like the one above... in place of the standard top tube of a diamond frame, two thinner diameter tubes were run from the head tube, passing to either side of the seat tube, then terminating at the rear dropouts. The idea was to provide the ease of mounting and extra room to allow riding in a skirt (or a kilt?), while not compromising away all the rigidity normally provided by the top tube. As I recall, an attempt was made to market them as "unisex" bikes, but that never really took hold in the US, and mixtes more or less vanished from the scene, until making a bit of a comeback, in several variations, recently.

But back to the bike at hand... I took off the drop handlebars and brake levers, and installed some classic "North Road" style bars from Wald, a US company in Kentucky that has been around since 1905, apparently. They are probably best known for their baskets, like the ones on my Miyata 210, featured in earlier posts, but they also make some nice handlebars. Nothing fancy, just well made and practical. ( With the bars, I also installed a set of Tektro 819 brake levers, a nice affordable lever for upright bars. All the bike needs now is the leather hand grips to match the brown saddle, and the transformation will be complete. A very pretty and practical ride. (Well, ok, truth be told, if it were mine, I'd also put on fenders and a rack and/or baskets, but...)

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Le Cirque du Cyclisme '08

"Le What du What?" you ask?

Well, Le Cirque is an annual event where folks who love classic bicycles gather to ride, talk, attend seminars, ogle each others' bikes, and sell, buy, or trade stuff. For the last ten years it's been held in Greensboro, NC, organized by Dale Brown of Cycles de Oro, an amazing shop down there. Dale hosted an amazing 10 events, but decided that last year would be his last. So this year it was in Leesburg, VA, not all that far from me. Woo hoo!

Alas, due to changes in my work schedule, I missed most of the activities this year. But my boss was kind enough to re-arrange Sunday's schedule so I could at least spend a little time in the morning checking out the bike show/swap meet part of the event. It was a blast! The bikes were clustered by time period, so you would see things like "1959 and Earlier" bikes, all in one area, and so on. Some amazing machines all around, and it was fun to see it in a sort of evolutionary time frame. I took a bunch of pictures, but not very many look that great, in part because the back ground of the fairgrounds building was very grey and colorless. Ah well, still a lot of fun.

Probably my personal favorite, at least for weirdness, was the bike above, an Alenax owned and ridden by my friend Harvey Sachs. The odd thing about this one is that instead of pedaling in a circular motion, your feet move in a "stepping" motion, driving a linkage that then propels the bike. Very, very odd, and even odder to watch in action. I don't recall how old it is, but it's very cool. Harvey has a great collection... not huge, but an interesting assortment which includes a classic Cinelli from the 60s with unique "swappable" front and rear wheels (a short-lived Cinelli device) and a Schwinn Paramount track bike from the late 30s with wooden rims. The best part of Harvey's collection is that he rides them all... sure, some more than others (I'm guessing the Alenax doesn't see many rides), but he uses his bikes, rather than simply collecting them.

All in all, a fun event. If you want more info, check out:

If you like bikes, it's well worth checking out the link. And put it on your calendar for next year!