Pride Goeth Before a F…lat.

So Wednesday night, I was all waxing poetic about the beautiful conditions…

And immediately after posting that, someone flatted.

Nicely done.

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Salsa Carbon Beargrease wins Eurobike Award

I’m either posting this because: a) I greatly value the thoughtful contemplation of European bike judges as to what new and innovative products are worthy of praise; or, b) I can’t stop looking at pictures of the Carbon Beargrease XX1.

You decide.

Oh, and also, the Salsa post calls out some of their staff responsible for the bike.  Me thinketh that they are also the persons responsible for the amazing aesthetics on a whole slew of recent Salsas.  If so, kudos to them.



Brompton Update

So it’s been a few months since I woke up one morning to find a Brompton in my garage.  In the interim since then, I’ve put a few miles on the Brompton.  Some of those miles have been alongside the companion Brompton of my wife, Ms. RG.

Some of those miles have been pulling my daughter on her bike, with a Trailgator.

And some of those miles have been just bombing around.

The Brompton rides happily in the back of my car, ready for action.  The small size and portability are great assets, and enable me to sneak in a bike ride many times when otherwise I’d be driving or not exercising at all.  I’m still evaluating, but here are some early thoughts:

  • I upgraded to the 3 speed hub, so it’s a 6 speed Brompton now.  If I was doing it all over, I’d have started with the 6 speed.  For around town and commuting use, the added weight and complexity is outweighed by the gearing.  Sure, fewer speeds are simpler and lighter–absolutely.  That lightness and simplicity is pretty irrelevant for me…I don’t go long distances carrying the bike.  When riding, however, the ability to shift (usually to a lower gear) is a godsend.  Being able to shift down means that you can ride comfortably without having to work hard at it.  That’s important for a recreational/commuting bike that is not intended for exercise.  I don’t want to sweat if I’m going for a mid-workday ride to Chipotle.  Gearing means I can get there in comfort.
  • For what I ride it for, if I were doing it again, I’d probably do one of the sub-gearing options (smaller chainring, to reduce overall gearing).  I have NEVER been maxed out in the highest gear…but I spend a LOT of time in the slowest gear–riding with my daughter, etc.  The Brompton is so incredibly stable at low speeds that it’s a joy to ride…so even if my daughter is riding her bike solo (without the Trailgator), I still often take the Brompton, because it’s so comfy to ride at a 5 year old pace.  Because the center of gravity is sooooo low, it’s a great ride to accompany a junior biker.
  • The Trailgator works really well with the Brompton in some ways (super easy to adjust, etc.), but it does have a tendency to turn the saddle on the Brompton if you turn too tight.  It would be more ideal on a ‘regular’ bike.
  • When it’s hot out and I’m in dress clothes, I’m still driving instead of biking.  I can’t spend my work days in a suit looking as if I’ve been out biking when it’s 90 degrees out.  I’m hopeful that the cooler fall days will give me some more flexibility.
  • The integrated generator hub lights are a godsend.  To date, I use them more for “being seen” than for “seeing”, but they’re fantastic.  It’s great to be able to hop on the bike and ride, without worrying about switches, batteries, or visibility.
  • I continue to wear a helmet at all times when riding.  I feel really strangely naked without one.
  • The front bag I have for the Brompton works really well, and surprisingly doesn’t have an adverse impact on handling, even when really loaded down.  It does create some additional frontal area that is noticeable when trying to hustle on a windy day.  (Sorry.  I’m a nerd).
  • The stock Brompton saddle is amazingly perfect for riding in normal clothes (i.e. without a chamois), and has been very comfortable for all of my riding thus far.  Unlike a Brooks, it is also impervious to water or poor conditions.
  • The stock Brompton tires roll well, hold air well, and have reasonable traction on all surfaces.
  • The stock fenders are very resilient.  They do not like gravel.  For that matter, the small tires don’t like gravel either.  This is not a gravel bike.
  • Converting from 2 speed to 6 speed gave me a chance to consider and understand all of the inner-workings of the Brompton, including how all of the shifting mechanism works, how the wheels come off, etc.  I’d strongly suggest learning this all in a comfortable environment, before you have to learn it with a flat tire.
  • I haven’t had any flats, and the tires hold air for a very long time.  Schrader valves are easy to fill, and the included frame-mounted pump is easy to use.
  • The ‘raw lacquer’ finish is awesome.  I wouldn’t go any other way.  Except for Ti.  Ti is always an acceptable choice.  My wife’s orange is nice too.  But not as nice as raw lacquer.
  • My wife has the H profile (higher) bars.  My Brompton has the standard bars.  The H gives a noticeably more upright riding position (a little over 2″ higher, perhaps).  I’m comfortable on either.  I don’t really have a strong preference on this one.  The wife finds the H more comfortable because it puts less weight on her wrists.  That may be of interest to other non-cyclists.
  • One of our bikes has the extended seatpost, and the other has the dual-telescoping seatpost.  The regular seatpost is just fine for persons up to about 6′ tall.  For me, I use the dual-telescoping, and fully extend the main section, without adjusting the second section.  That is perfect leg extension for casual riding.  For “fast” riding, I could raise the second section about an inch and get aggressive…but I don’t.  My wife’s bike has the extended seatpost, which works fine…but doesn’t let you fully collapse the saddle down to the frame.  In retrospect, I probably would get the standard seatpost on both, unless I was contemplating loaning the bike to an incredibly tall friend.  At the other end of the spectrum, if I tip the bars back a bit, my 4th grader niece loves to ride the bike.
  • I have the “firm” suspension block, and my wife has the “soft”.  You can see hers moving noticeably over bumps.  Mine just barely takes the hard edge off.  As I’m more accustomed to bikes, the firm is just fine for me.  When I ride her bike hard, I can notice just a pinch of unwelcome frame bobbing.  But for her, the soft block helps take the edge off of tiny tires.  Since she doesn’t really go out hammering on her Brompton (who does?), it’s a worthy selection for her.  I’d stick with Firm for me.
  • The folding mechanism is brilliant.  It’s incredibly easy to use.  I wouldn’t say that it’s intuitive (I spent a good 10 minutes cursing it the first time I tried to unfold it), but once you learn, it’s easy.  Oh, and remember to make raising/lowering the seatpost the first thing you do when unfolding, and the last thing you do when folding.

All in all, the bike has the feel of craftsmanship to it.  It feels like a piece of quality.  The welds are beautiful.  The handling is impeccable, and belies the small size of the wheels.  The accoutrements are beautiful to behold and joyous to touch.

What would I say if you’re ordering one?  GO AHEAD!  But seriously:

Get the 6 speed.  Consider going to a lower-geared 6 speed, particularly if you will be riding with kids/riding with loads/riding on hills/riding slowly.

Get the H bars if you’re tall, if you like sitting upright, or if you have wrist issues.  Otherwise, get the standard.

Get the hub generator/light package.  It’s unobtrusive, and there when you need it.

Get the Ti.  (If you want.  I didn’t, and I don’t miss it, but it’s Ti.  I’d feel wrong not telling you to get Ti).

Get the firm block if you’re over 200#, if you ride exclusively on smooth roads or if you’re an active cyclist.  If you don’t meet those criteria, consider the soft block.

Get the stock Brompton tires, unless you’re going to be racing.  And if you’re going to be racing, get a different bike.

Get the front luggage block.  It’s cheap, and at some point, you will want a front bag.

Get the fenders and easy wheels.  They take away an excuse to not ride, and make ‘folded bike handling’ easy.

Don’t pick an ugly color.

Try the stock saddle first.

Try not to smile too much.  People will think you’re smug.

Night Bison Gravel Nocturne, September 1, 2013

From the dawn of mankind, the transition from summer to fall has been a special time for cyclists. Some of the earliest cave paintings show primitive men and women undergoing a critical, seasonal transition in training. You see, in primitive days, these pre-civilized cave-people would ride their road bikes after work during the summer, when the sky was illuminated from the great glowing ball of fire. But as the days progressed towards fall, the great ball of fire started to hang around less and less. Eventually, it got dark early enough that they couldn’t ride road bikes after work. They had to start riding gravel.

The earliest adopters of gravel did things like ride mountain bikes, or road bikes with fatter tires on them. These were heady times. They hoped that the great ball of fire would return the following spring, and thus they would gather in a mass-ritual of appreciation for the sun, and the darkness. They would share in the social experience that was gravel-grinding. While some archaeologists and historians disagree, there is evidence to suggest that these early cycling “group rides” were the foundation for a fundamental shift in human existence, from solitary individuals to small social groups that were the precursors for society and civilization.

Here at Axletree, we’re huge suckers for history. And thus, we are honoring the prehistoric roots of gravel cycling with our second annual Night Bison Gravel Nocturne.

Yes.  September 1, 2013.  We’ll depart shortly before 8pm, from the parking lot immediately behind North Central Cyclery.  To participate, you must have:

  • A bike suitable for 50+ miles on gravel.  That could be a gravel bike, a mountain bike, a touring bike with big tires, a fat bike, a unicycle, etc.  You likely will not be happy on a road bike with 23c tires…this will be loose gravel and B-roads, at night.
  • A helmet.  All riders must wear a helmet.
  • Headlights so you can see where you’re going.
  • A taillight so others can see where you’re at.
  • Tools, tubes, CO2, etc., that you may need.  This ride is self-supported.  There is no SAG and no on-course rider support.
  • Food and hydration for 50+ miles.  (See prior note re: self-supported).
  • A desire to have fun, and the ability to ride safely with others.

Because the ride is self-supported and at night, we recommend riding in groups.  We’d suggest bringing a cell phone, but we won’t have anyone for you to call (we’re all riding), so if your bailout plan is a phone, make sure you have someone to call.

Mid-ride, it will look something like this:

And here’s a little video review from last year.

We’ll have some special surprises this year.  I guarantee that we will have at least 3 2 of the following 5 elements present:

  1. A complimentary Moots Titanium frame for each attendee.
  2. An unsanctioned, unlicensed, not-associated-with-Axletree-in-any-way-mid-route-fireworks-display.
  3. A giveaway of special swag from Knog and Gemini.
  4. A post-ride celebration of gravel.
  5. A guest appearance by Fabian Cancellara.

Remember…3 of 5.

Last year’s inaugural Night Bison was awesome.  This year’s Night Bison shall be better yet.  Come and join us!

SRAM Red 22 Hydro Review

Update:  With SRAM’s recall, my Moots is now unrideable as-built.  Consider my enthusiasm about these brakes tempered.

So the gents down at North Central Cyclery knew I was interested in the new SRAM Red 22 Hydro setup.  Apparently, they were as excited as I was….because I received a call the first day that the kits hit the warehouse shelves.  The next day, I was touching a groupset for the Moots.  How’s that for service?

I’ve had SRAM Red Hydro on the Moots for about a week now.  I didn’t run right out and write this blog post, because I wanted to get a few miles on it first, and provide a slightly more informed opinion.  I’m clearly not ready to talk about long-term durability or reliability, but with a shade over 100 miles on it, in varying terrain, I am ready to start a dialogue.  That dialogue goes something like this:


I’m a huge advocate of disc brakes on some drop bar bikes.  With Illinois’ relative paucity of elevation changes and descents, I don’t need disc brakes on my Madone.  But for the varied conditions that I put my Moots through (as the replacement for my Vaya), disc brakes make sense to me.  They’re superior in rain and snow, they offer greater stopping power, better and more consistent modulation, greater durability, more flexibility in selecting rims, and a host of other benefits.  I’m well aware of the contingent out there that talks about the stopping power of a “well-adjusted set of Cantis.”  I think discs are superior in this application.  But this isn’t a “disc v. canti” post, this is a disc v. disc post.

Before the Hydros, I was running Avid BB7s.  I loved their functionality, but I had some criticisms of them.  For starters, even with adjustment on both sides of the pad, I felt like I was always chasing the perfect tune.  Too tight, and they’d stop like the dickens, but rub on the rotors.  Too loose, and they’d be silent, but wouldn’t offer reassuring stopping power.  When they got dirty, there was a lot of mechanism there to clean and lubricate.  But when they were properly set up, they worked awesome, under many varying conditions.

In the interests of full disclosure, I will say that going from the partial housing of the Vaya to the full-length brake housing, front and rear, on the Moots, made an appreciable difference in the brake maintenance department.  The full-length housing made the brakes more consistent in feel, and reduced the need for adjustment.  If I were building another gravel/CX/whatever bike with cable-actuated disc brakes, there is no doubt that I’d demand full-length housing.

So we’ve established that: 1) I like disc brakes; and, 2) I wanted a more consistent brake that required less maintenance.  I’ve written close to 20 blog posts over the past year talking about hydraulic disc brakes for drop bar bikes…and anxiously awaiting their release.  The time is now.  I had no complaints about the functionality of the SRAM Rival front derailleur, Red cranks, X0 Rear derailleur or XX cassette on the Moots…but to go to hydro brakes, I had to go to the new standard of 11 speed…which meant SRAM Red 22.

Instead of my usual, “glossy, clean bike” pics, I put in some miles first, and then shot the bike.  It still looks dreamy.

Here are the hydro levers.  They’re taller, sure…but not obtrusive.

Riding, I never notice a downside.  On steep downhills, the extra vertical rise above the hoods is reassuring.  The rest of the time, I don’t notice that it’s there.

Where the magic happens:

If you peel back the rubber cover, here is the fill/bleed port at the top.

Standard tightening mechanism.  Note the hydro line going up to the brakes.

Very similar profile for your hand (compared to the ‘non-hydro’ Red on my Madone).

Brifter reach is tool-adjustable, without need for any spacers.

Whoa, she’s a hottie.

Brake line is detachable at the caliper, and the hose is detachable in the standard fashion (with a little brass ferrule to re-secure it under the pinch nut).

Red 22 Compact Cranks, 172.5mm

Red 11 speed rear derailleur, with barrel adjuster.

Cables are still full-length housing.  Because they take standard ferrules, it’s easy to trim the brake lines (and easy to install them, as well).

Make Mine a…

So…about the brakes.

Cable-actuated disc brakes have more than enough power to lock up and buck you over the bars, when properly tuned.  I don’t need more stopping power.  I do want less maintenance and more modulation.  The Hydros provide both.  What I will do is compare the Hydros to a perfectly-adjusted set of mechanical brakes.

The brakes modulate incredibly progressively over their full range of brake lever travel.  When you clamp on them, they provide full brake power…but the ability to gradually add or subtract power is great on limestone, gravel, wet grass, etc.  Their modulation is superior (i.e. more linear and gradual) than mechanical disc brakes.  They offer the same great stopping power wet or dry, like mechanical brakes.  They are completely consistent and repeatable, even when hammering them again and again down the steepest hills in the area.  They are incredibly confidence-inspiring, and feel great.  I cannot imagine a way of improving upon the modulation and feel.  I was a bit concerned that they would be too touchy–that a tiny amount of brake lever throw would generate a huge brake reaction.  That’s not the case.  The full range of lever travel is useable–and that contributes to the great modulation.

My assumption above is that I’m comparing to perfectly adjusted mechanical brakes.  That is a relatively challenging/rare condition.  To have mechanical brakes them perfectly adjusted, you have to have tight tolerances (because only one pad moves).  That makes them prone to getting out of adjustment.  The hydros, with both pads moving, have no such issues.  Also, because they are hydro, they are self-clearancing.  A warped rotor can push the pad back, so it doesn’t rub.  Mechanical brakes cannot do that.

To adjust the mechanical disc brakes, you…

1)  True rotor; 2) loosen 2 mounting bolts for calipers; 3) loosen mounting screw for brake cable; 4) take up adjuster slack in brake cable; 4) adjust inside of caliper; 5) adjust outside of caliper; 6) crank caliper down tight; 7) tighten mounting bolts; 8) readjust inside of caliper; 9) readjust outside of caliper; 10) apply tension to brake cable, and try to tighten the mounting screw just right; 11) test; 12) start back at #2 and try again.

To adjust the hydros, you…

1)  True rotor.  Once in a great while.  If it’s really bad and needs it.

That’s it.  The Hydros have a huge advantage over the mechanical disc brakes.  HUGE.  I believe they will be even more versatile than the mechanical discs, because they will be more consistent in adverse conditions.  And to clean them, it’s just hosing them down.  No need to disassemble, clean, degrease, clean again, re-grease, and reassemble.

In short, the Hydros have thus far shown to be everything that I had hoped they would be.  I have no complaints and no suggested upgrades.

That brings us to the SRAM Red 22 drivetrain.

From a shifting perspective, it’s like butter.  My comments on the ‘regular’ SRAM Red apply.  It shifts smoothly and with a really nice-feeling mechanical precision.  It’s tactile, and easy to use.  Even trying to throw challenging situations at it, there are no missed shifts.  Wanna cross-chain?  Go ahead.  No trimming necessary.

What about the 11 speed cassette?  Well, with an extra gear on there, I’m riding 10% faster now.  That’s really all it takes.  One more gear makes you faster.

All kidding aside, I have made a significant change in gearing.  I still have a 50/34 crank, but I’ve gone from an 11-32 cassette with 10 gears to an 11-28 cassette with 11 gears.  With the ten speed cassette, I had a lot of gear range.  Dropping down to 34/32, you could grunt up anything.  I’ve come to believe that I can do the same thing with 34/28…and the times when I’m fully geared out are so infrequent as to be somewhat irrelevant.  (The only time I’ve done that this year was at Almanzo).  The middle gears are the ones I use more…and in that useful range, the 11 speed is great.  The gear spread is much, much closer, and that makes hopping between gears useful.  Let’s compare gears.  The ten speed is on top, and the 11 speed is on bottom.

11  12  13        15        17  19        22      25      28          32

11  12  13  14  15  16  17  19        22      25      28

The addition of the extra mid-range gears is much more useful for my riding than the extra 32 bailout gear.  And if you need the bailout gear, you can get a Wi-Fli cassette that drops the 16t gear and adds the 32t.

So what’s my thoughts on the 11 speed?

If you’re buying a new drivetrain, go 11 speed.  It’s great.  But is it soooo great that I’m going to sell my group and go 11 speed on the Madone?  No.  Not at this time.  I do think the 11 speed is the wave of the future, and will continue gaining acceptance.  I don’t see a downside to it.  The difference in complication is pretty minimal, and is greatly outweighed by the convenience of either having a lower gear or a closer gear spread.  Function is perfect, as you’d expect from a premium drivetrain offering.

The SRAM Red Hydro 22…is everything I had hoped it would be.  Mark me down as an enthusiast.

And the Moots?  I don’t know where it could possibly go from here.  Moots frame and stem, ENVE bars and rims, SRAM Red 22 Hydro drivetrain/brakes, Ergon saddle, DTSwiss hubs and Ti Skewers, Sapim CxRay spokes, Eriksen Sweetpost, King Cages.  It’s the pinnacle of this type of bike.  And it’s from North Central Cyclery.

Knog Blinder 2 Review & Blinder R Review

I’ve previously written about the Knog Blinders that I use on my bikes.  They are lights of the “be seen” variety, not lights of the “see what’s ahead” variety.  They’ve been great.  I’ve put them through 8 months of hard use, and they’ve been dunked, covered in mud, rained upon, ridden through salty slush, and otherwise abused.  They’ve come through with flying colors.  Particularly as Axletree takes a step towards ensuring visibility of cyclists by using lighting appropriately, I’ve loved my Blinders.  They’re small, light, bright, easy to use, have remarkable runtimes, and super-easy to charge.  They’re fantastic.  I wouldn’t change a thing…or so I thought.

When I demo’d the Trek 520 a few days ago, it had a set of the new Blinders on it.  The Knog Blinder 2 is a front light–a ‘see where you’re going’ light.  The Blinder R is a new version of the Blinder for the rear, with a few updates.  Let’s see ‘em.

This is the Blinder 2:

It has 2 buttons, which control the various settings of the 2 bulbs.  You can have one or both on, with varying intensity, and with or without flashing.  I have not run these long enough to be informed about runtimes.  Knog claims 1 hour on super-high-beam, 2 hours on low-beam, and 6+ hours on flash (‘be seen’ mode).  Because of the varying settings and ease of adjustment, you can tailor your light to your conditions.  Mounting is via the same, simple (effective) silicone strap that my Blinders use.

This is the Blinder R.  See that clear line down the side?  At night, it emits light from that clear line, increasing sideways visibility.  Brilliant.

The top 3 LEDs are your standard, eye-searing LEDs, that are pointed straight out of the light.  On a seatpost, that means they’re angled slightly down.  As with my Blinders, there are multiple settings from steady red to eye-catching flash patterns to disco-dancing.

The bottom LED is a mega-LED which is super-bright, even in daylight.  Amazingly visible.

And here’s the secret of that bottom LED: it’s angled.

Because it is slightly angled, it shines directly back towards traffic when mounted on a seatpost.  This very tiny change in design pays huge dividends.  From behind, there is a very noticeable difference in light intensity based on the angle of the light.  It’s pretty amazing, and a noticeable improvement over the Blinder that I have.  My next taillight will be a Blinder R.

That brings us to the Blinder 2 up front.

I ‘picked up’ the 520 at about 11 at night.  (And by picked up, I mean that I snuck it out of someone’s garage).  It had the Knogs on it.  I was planning on riding during the day, so I didn’t really need them, but they were on the bike already, so I figured what the heck.  I wheeled the bike out of the garage, and looked at the little Blinder 2.  I figured that as small as it is, it really couldn’t be a useful headlight.  I mean a tiny, waterproof, rechargeable headlight?  For headlights to be useful, they must be huge, with wires and battery packs and velcro straps–perhaps a small gasoline engine powering a generator.  The Knog Blinder 2 was self-contained.  Tiny.  Unnoticeable.

It was dark, so I flipped on the light, and was blown away.  I took a quick spin around the block, and was amazed at the light output.

I was so amazed that when I got home, to my neighborhood with no lighting, I went back out for another, longer spin.  In my neighborhood, it’s DARK at night.  The Blinder 2 seriously impressed me.  On the high-beam setting with both lights running, it’s easily bright enough for any kind of night-biking, including high-speed gravel rides.  On that setting, it sports the estimated 1 hour run time, so it wouldn’t be terribly useful for gravel rides…but would be an AMAZING commuter light.  It’s rated at 200 lumens.  That’s either underrating the output, or the beam is incredibly well-focused.  With 2 buttons, it is very easy to control the setting of each LED.  I tried taking some night pictures, but the brightness of the LEDs overwhelmed my camera.

On low-beam, with an estimated 2 hour runtime, it was plenty bright for me to feel confident up to 20mph.  I wouldn’t necessarily want to bomb down a steep hill at high-speed, but flat-land riding was no problem.

On combo low/flash, I had plenty of light to see at any reasonable speed, and the flashing pattern was very noticeable (when looking head-on), but not seizure inducing for me, the rider.  That setting has longer battery life yet.

In the winter, we do a lot of gravel night rides that tend to be around the 2 hour mark.  The Blinder 2 would likely work about perfect in that application.  Heck, as small, inexpensive and light as it is, you could have 2, and run one until it’s dead (and then switch on the second).  The price of 2 of these is still only about half of one of the massive bike headlights with a separate battery.  For that matter, these are tiny enough that they’re a great pocket-light.  When I’m riding solo, I sometimes worry about my headlight dying, or about needing some extra light to effect a roadside repair.  A Blinder 2 would be a great insurance policy.  Throw it in your jersey pocket or saddlebag, and it’s there if you need it. If you don’t need it, you won’t notice it.

All of that said, I think the best application for these is likely town-rides.  When you want to be able to ride to the bar and need to both see and be seen…mounting the light takes all of 3 seconds.  Ride to the bar with great visibility, and pull the light off and stick it in your pocket.  (If you don’t go to the bar, substitute another location.  Ride to the library.  Ride to the Trader Joe’s.  Ride to the local cooperative.)  In between rides, use the integrated USB plug to recharge it just about anywhere.

The design of these lights is their greatest advantage.  They’re tiny.  They’re brilliant (and by that, I mean bright and amazing).  They’re waterproof.  They’re durable.  They’re great.  Their flexibility and ‘pocket-ability’ are huge assets.  Very, very well done.  Pick one up at your local bike shop.  A shout-out to North Central Cyclery for letting me demo these.

Salsa’s Doing it Right

Yesterday, I received a constant contact email from Salsa.  If you want to see the full contents, click here.

In the email, were the following two bikes:

Ti Fargo:

Carbon Beargrease:

Take a minute and look at those two photos.  The aesthetics of those two bikes are just mind-blowing.  They’re gorgeous.

That’s all I wanted to say.  They’re beautiful, and Salsa’s doing it right.

Trek 520 Review

This is a review of the 2014 Trek 520, just released at Trekworld.

So Tobie at North Central Cyclery just got back from Trekworld this week.  I’ve been spending the week looking at pictures of the new Madone, the Crockett disc-brake CX bike, the Farley fatbike, and various other wunder-bikes.  I’m usually Mr. New Technology, preferring things made from carbon and titanium.  So when I saw the 520, I was all like, “Whoa, a steel frame, steel fork, straight-steerer, linear-pull brake, triple crank, bar-end shifter touring frame with moderate components.  Sign me up!”

Actually, not really.  This bike isn’t shouldn’t be my bailiwick.  I should not like this bike.  I should not enjoy riding it.  It’s everything that I customarily would not look for in a bike.

But it’s so much fun to ride.

Before today, my time on a steel frame has been largely limited to the Dummy.  Sure, I’ve spent a few minutes here and there test-riding other bikes, but I’ve never owned one.  I’ve never ridden farther than, perhaps, 5-7 miles on one.  And bar-end shifters?  An anachronism, right?  Triple cranks?  On a road bike?  I keep trying to talk myself into all of the reasons why I, a tech-oriented guy, should not like this bike…but it just doesn’t work.

What is the bike?  Well, for 2014, Trek has gone to old-school, retro labeling on the bike.  Given that this is actual Trek labeling from days of yore, I think that’s pretty legit, and pretty nifty.  Note that this is a stock, out of the box build.  The only non-stock parts here are my clipless pedals.  So yes, please excuse the dork-disc and reflectors.

Bontrager 700×32 AW1 semi-slicks.

They rolled fast and had nice volume that helped with road irregularities.  They’re semi-slick, so don’t expect anything heroic off-road, but they did just fine on a couple miles of gravel and on some light-grasstracking.

Bontrager Camino wheelset with Deore hubs.  (Editorial note: naming bike wheels “walk” is kinda, sorta not confidence inspiring.  Thankfully, the wheels themselves are bombproof and very confidence inspiring, so it’s just a naming issue.  (Sub-editorial note: the foreign language division here at RATG has advised me that Camino means road or pathway.  That’s a fantastic name for this wheelset, given the varied talents of this bicycle.  Editorial comment withdrawn)).

Some sturdy parts with stainless spokes, for a build that will withstand loaded touring.

Shimano Linear-pull brakes (super-easy to adjust, durable, functional).

I ran over to my secret training grounds and bombed downhill a few times.  The brakes had plenty of gusto, good modulation, and a great feel.  Simple and effective.

Bontrager Race 44cm alloy handlebars.

With my recent experience with 44cm bars, I’ve come to appreciate that they have a place in the world.  On a bike like this, intended for long rides and loaded touring, the 44cm bars felt perfect.  I can imagine that they’d be excellent for throwing the front around with some panniers on a front rack.

Did I mention the delicious vintage labeling?

The paint has a beautiful pearlescent finish.

Deore 3×9 drivetrain.

I believe it’s a 48/38/26 crank and an 11-32 cassette.

Gobs of tire clearance.  35s will fit, no problem.  38s or 40s might even fit.

Obviously, it has plenty of mounts for fenders and racks.

The fork has a bit of rake to it…

Bar-end shifters.

This was my first ‘real’ experience with bar-end shifters.  (That’s probably some kind of cyclist sacrilege).  I actually really liked them–on this bike.  On a bike for hard group rides or faaaaast gravel, I’d keep integrated brifters, so you can shift when hammering, without moving your hands away from the brakes.  But on this bike, the bar-ends made perfect sense and functioned flawlessly.  They were intuitive, easy to use, and for someone who’s a bit A/R like me, being able to tune the front derailleur a tiny bit here and there was greatly appreciated.  You can cross-chain to your heart’s delight.

Some basic Tektro brake levers.

Stock Bontrager saddle.

It had a bit more cush than I’m used to, but was surprisingly comfortable.

Downtube cable-tension adjustment.

It’s a pretty bike.

And of course, it’s from…

As-shown, it’s a little over 25 pounds.

I brought it home last night, and planned on riding this morning.  When I woke up this morning, I was strangely excited about riding it.  I woke up before the alarm, threw on some bibs, and hit the road.  Weather was perfect–upper 50s and sunny.

As built, the bike has a comfortable and confident, upright position.

Here’s a little more of that pearlescence…

And of course, it is…

So what’s it like to ride?

I wasn’t doing touring, so I didn’t know how to ride it.  Friday is an interval day for me.  Should I go hammer?  Should I loaf?  Should I hit the pavement, or the path?  I ended up trying a bit of everything, in 25 miles.

On pavement, the handling was predictable.  The geometry is definitely not aggressive.  Turn-in is comfortable, handling is confidence-inspiring.  The steering is a bit slower, and wheelbase a bit longer, than what I customarily ride.  It was an easy “hands-free” rider.  That said, it wasn’t boring.  I was worried that the ride would be mid-80s Cadillac, all floaty and imprecise.  Instead, it was more like a contemporary Lexus.  You could throw corners at it, and it would roll through at whatever pace you threw at it.  It would soak up bumps and imperfections with aplomb.  I didn’t find its limits, riding on pavement.  If you want to sprint, sprint.  The BB and drivetrain are more than willing to accommodate you, and the huge gear-spread will handle just about anything you can throw at it (up to the max of the 48/11 top gear).  In the lowest gear, I’m pretty sure it can turn back time.  There was no noticeable deflection in the cranks, even under the hardest efforts that my 150# can throw at a bike.  Riding up the hills at my training grounds, you could drop down to the lowest gear and spin effortlessly, or gear way up and stomp on it.  The 520 was happy either way, and walked up anything that I threw at it.

So would I go ride it in a crit?  No…not unless I had to.  The stock wheels are heavy-duty for loaded touring, and were noticeably slow to spin up in comparison to a pair of light alloy or carbon road wheels.  But would I hop on the 520 for a day in the saddle?  Absolutely.  Would I hop on it for a cruise down the prairie path?  Yup.

I’m a competitive person by nature.  I don’t like riding bikes that aren’t responsive.  Even when riding for pure recreation, I like to be able to step on it from time to time.  The 520 is a willing partner.  If you’re willing to push it, it’s willing to go.  And dare I say it, it’s an excellent introduction to drop bar bikes.  I have friends who ask what kind of bike they should get as an intro to exercise biking.  They usually steer towards something like a Trek FX.  I think the 520 is an excellent alternative, both because it’s stable and fun to ride, and confidence inspiring for a beginner, and also because I can see its place in the stable as a lifelong riding partner.  Will it replace a Madone?  No.  Different bikes for different purposes.  But it’s certainly far more versatile than a Madone.  I could ride the 520 in a group ride.  I wouldn’t be the most efficient, but it’s doable.  However, I could not take my Madone for a loaded touring ride.  (Of note, I didn’t ride this with racks/fenders/panniers, but given how it rides and given the component spec, I imagine that it would be a WONDERFUL touring partner).

So on pavement, it handles like a dream, avoids being too aggressive, is comfortable over bumps (thank you steel frame/fork and straight steerer), and has plenty of gear range.

I did a brief jaunt through a grass path, and found that even with the semi-slicks, the long wheelbase and confident geometry allowed me to track through just about anything in comfort.  The frame again did an excellent job of handling bump-absorption duties.

I also did a couple of miles on gravel.  I didn’t have any chunky, hard-core gravel to ride by my house, so it was pretty nice, packed stuff I was on…but again, the combination of confident geometry and steel-cush was greatly appreciated.  As you might expect, the longer chainstays and fork geometry give a predictable ride, and the 520 tracked precisely even over a few loose sections (even on slick 32c tires).  Even when I tried to throw it around or slide through a corner, it would break free predictably, slide progressively, and recover cleanly.

When I rode it, I had fun.  I enjoyed myself.  I wanted to throw different things at it. I can see this being a great companion for long trips.  I can see throwing a pair of slightly more aggressive tires on it (maybe some 34c Bontrager CX0s, or even a set of Clement X’Plor USH), or for that matter, a set of Schwalbe Marathon Mondial tires, and having a bike that is comfortable for gravel grinding, loaded touring, cruising, doubletrack, all-day excursions, commuting, etc.  If you want to ride fast, contemplate a set of lighter wheels and some 25c slicks…and recognize that you’re eventually gonna run out of gearing with 48×11.  This bike will go fast if you push it…but I don’t think that’s its core mission.

If you look at this bike as solely an old man’s touring bike, you’re missing the point.  It’s a multi-mission mount, with an incredible range of versatility.  It looks great, and I’d give serious kudos to whomever at Trek is responsible for its aesthetics.  The combination of the pearlescent paint and retro-labeling was perfect for this bike, and truly captures its spirit.

This particular bike was a 57cm, but it fit smaller than that (my Madone and Moots are both 56s, and this felt smaller than either).  I was very comfortable on it.  The stem is pretty upright (angled up) and it had quite a few spacers under it.  It’s a pretty ‘upright’ ride, so there’s a lot of adjustment to be had.  I typically ride a 56cm frame, and the 57 definitely did not feel big.  Trying one out for size at your local Trek dealer may be a good idea, before ordering (if possible).

I was anticipating writing a blog post talking about the 520 being a model for slow and steady…a great bike for someone looking for a retro look, who isn’t concerned about performance or speed (or their personal dignity, when overtaken by other cyclists).  That was before I rode it.  The 520 made me like it, because of how fun, how pleasant, how rewarding it was to ride.  My garage is full at the moment, but if it wasn’t, I can see how this bike would fit in.  And again, my biggest takeaway is to not undersell the versatility of the bike.  It’s not just for touring and retrogrouches.  I can see it being very capable on a myriad of surfaces, including gravel and dirt, with the right tires.  I can see what a cool, capable bike it is.  Did I mention I liked it?  Because I did.  A lot.

I’m glad I had a chance to try it out, and see how much fun it could be.  You can check one out too.  Thanks to North Central Cyclery for the demo.