Poker in the Peloton

I had recently written of the living organism that is the paceline.  I had noted the joy of riding with those that you know.  One of the best parts of riding in a group with those you know is the game of poker that ensues.

Aaron is the best bike poker player I know.  He always, always has a game face.  You never see him suffer.  I’ve seen him riding a bike in 90 degree weather, experiencing food poisoning–game face on.  Going out on a quixotic sprint–game face on.  Subtle smile, no sign of exertion.  He’s so good at it that when he slows a bit, you just assume that he’s bored.  There’s never an indication that he’s slowing because he’s tired.  He’s just grown weary of being at the front, perhaps.

But you start to recognize the signals in other riders.

You see the subtle way that a rider starts rocking their hips more when they’re getting flagged.

You see the move from the drops to the hoods…back to the drops.  The twisting of the wrists as the hands try to grab the bars tighter–to wrest some greater leg strength from the silent carbon fiber.

You see the change in cadence as a rider shifts down, shifts up, shifts down, trying to find a sustainable gear.

You see the hands go to adjust a helmet as a bead of sweat runs down the side of a rider’s face.

You see the rider try to squeeze just a little tighter to the rider in front, working to hide just a little bit better in the draft.

You see a gulp for water–and then the paradox of deciding between quenching thirst by taking a drink, or continuing to breathe as hard as a rider can breathe.

You see all these things and more, and you know what they mean.  You know who will stay at the front until they’re spent, and who will back off and rotate through.  You know who will take a pull no matter the personal cost, and who will languish at the back of the pack and let others do the work.  You know the cards that other riders are playing without having to be told.  And you decide how to play your own cards.

It’s a rolling paceline and a friend goes to the front.  You see the hunch in his shoulders as he starts to burn–the hunting for a gear.  He hasn’t flicked an elbow yet, but you know he’s suffering, so you pull through anyhow and offer respite.  Or maybe that yellow sprint sign is lingering in the distance and you let him suffer…you play him out longer…you wait for the chance to not just pull through, but to blow out the front of the pack with a hard sprint that you know he can’t follow.

You’ve got cards to play too.

Today, you’re letting that build–you’re letting a friend take a long, lone pull.  Hey, they haven’t flicked the elbow, you think.  But behind you, someone is watching your cards.  They see you not pull through.  They know what you’re thinking, what you’re doing.  And while you’re laying in wait, they’re lying in wait.  While you’re setting a trap, so are they.

You get close enough to the sprint that you’re ready to lay your cards out in one effort far harder than you can reasonably sustain, with that full house that you think no one has seen.  And then you go–it starts as you just pulling through, but then you don’t slow and move over–you build and you’re exploding out of the saddle in a whir of gears and legs and sweat and growls.  You’ve played your hand.  Your cards are on the table.  The yellow sign lingers in the distance and it looks as though the pot is yours.

Just as you start to get ready to celebrate the victory, you hear the whir of gears behind you.  That person you hadn’t seen–hadn’t expected–the person reading your cards.  They explode from your draft and push through to the line, blowing your cards out of the water.

In these rides, it’s not about winning or losing.  It’s about playing your hand as best as you can, and playing fair.  It’s about enjoying the game.  It’s about taking a turn as the dealer, and taking a turn as the victor.  It’s about learning your friends nuances so well that you see the subtle indications that they need help–or that they’re ready to be taken advantage of.  It’s about bluffs and team play, and reassessing as the game proceeds.

It’s poker in the peloton.

The Living Paceline.

Sometimes, riding by myself is really satisfying–go out and ride at my pace (usually, as hard as I can ride), on a course I determine.  No being cut off, no one not pulling their weight, no stress.  But much of the time, I enjoy riding with a group–and I really enjoy riding with a group of people I know, or people that I don’t know but who are good riders….riders who know how to work together…who become one organism going down the road.  Riders who become a living paceline.

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You don’t notice it when you’re at the front…you notice it when you’re at the back.  If you’re just a little to the side, you can see the rhythmic pumping of legs in synchronization, as each rider matches pace.

You see the subtle sway of shoulders as the pace increases.

You see how a crosswind hits the group and the whole group moves over a few inches, and crabs into the handlebars in response, in unison.

You see how the front rider drops some fingers to call out a roadside imperfection and moves over ever so slightly, and then watch the gesture and movement be mirrored from the front of the paceline to the back.

You see each rider staring intently at the rider ahead of them, and beyond, watching for the nonverbal communication that controls the pace of the group.

There’s a ripple of words as someone calls “car back”, and the message is conveyed to the front of the group.

There’s the flurry of hands going up and down in the universal ‘slowing’ motion as we approach the intersection–the pivot of heads back and forth looking for traffic.  The click of gears being dropped.  The shout of “Clear” echoes back through the group and then everyone is out of the saddles, in unison, accelerating through the intersection and back up to speed.

The ride continues like that–balanced.  Strangely silent.  Perfect communication without  a word.  Some small transgression is committed–a rider gets too close pulling through the front of the line perhaps, and that transgression is instantly forgiven with eye contact and an apologetic nod.

The world is a silent whir of wind and chains.  Of skinny tires on hot pavement.  Only the occasional hazard penetrates the silence of the paceline.  The group spins through, front front to back, in perpetual rotation, in perpetual pedaling.

And then in the distance, the yellow “stop ahead” sign looms.

Hands move from hoods to drops.

As quietly as possible, riders try to shift their gears.

The group working together–the pulling through–it all freezes as people subtly try to position themselves for the coming sprint.

And then one rider goes.  The paceline–that common organism–instantly splits apart into a long string of independent riders.

The front rider goes out hard and tries to drop the group, but those who were well-positioned take the draft and wait for the right moment.

Suddenly, one of the group moves left and sprints hard–and then another moves even further left.

The world starts to go blurry.  Vision narrows to a skinny little round tunnel, a tiny patch of pavement just beyond the yellow sign.  Breathing as hard as possible.  Pedaling as hard as possible.  Out of the saddle, pulling up on the bars, pushing down on the pedals, hips rocking, bike rocketing forward.

The invisible City Limits line is crossed and people collapse back into their saddles.  Short-lived glory for one rider as the group coalesces again.  Back into a silent paceline.  Slowly into conversation.  Less organization.  Less effort.  Less strain.  One organism again, but filled with entropy and lactic acid.

The living paceline.

DSP Lizardskins Bar Tape

Going all the way back to my first ‘serious’ drop-bar bike (the Vaya), I’ve run DSP Lizardskins 2.5mm tape.

Why?

Well, on my first real bike, Tobie didn’t ask me what tape to use.  He just used DSP.  I’ve had it on the Vaya, the Ridley, the Madone, the Moots, the Moots, my ‘retro-Trek’, etc.  Yeah, I’ve used other tape in the interim–cork, other rubber tape, various brands…but I’ve always gone back to Lizardskins.

About a week ago, I was doing a hot 60 mile loop on the Moots and I looked down at the bar tape.  The Moots was built up in January of 2014.  In the intervening 2.5 years, I’ve ridden 5 figure miles on it.  I don’t know exactly how many, but a lot.  There were many, many gravel rides.  There was a ridiculous amount of training for Dirty Kanza.  There were exploits of all forms.  I looked down and, holy crap.  That’s still the original bar tape.

Yeah, it’s a little worn.  A lot of times, when I’m motoring along, I’ll pull my hands back to the bend at the tops of the bars–back where the center part of the bars bends 90 degrees forward to the hoods…I put my hands there and pedal.  I squeeze there when I’m hurting.  I languish there when I’m lamenting.  I relax there when I’m spinning.  I rest there when I’m riding solo.  Right there, in the crook of the bars, you can see where the gloss on the tape is gone.  You can see the outline of countless hours in the saddle.  You can see the investment of time that I’ve made in my legs.  You can see the past glories and the ignominious defeats.  You can see shades of the Kansas mud in the creases, from miles walked with a bike on my shoulder, one hand on the bars.

But you can also see the salt from the ride to Madison.  You can see the spots where my grip has tightened down on a Wednesday night sprint.  You can see that spot where I just barely clipped a tree when doing a little singletrack CX action.

The tape feels as good as when it was new.  I probably should replace it, just for aesthetic reasons, but there are a lot of memories there…and there’s nothing wrong with it, other than a little wear.

It’s grippy when it’s wet.  It’s comfy when it’s hot.  It’s compliant, even when it’s cold.  It doesn’t draw attention to itself; it just silently performs its job.  I haven’t maintained it because it hasn’t called for it.  And so it’s become one of my favorite products.  It’s much the same on the Madone–I’ve been riding it for nearly 4 years, all with DSP tape.  Truth be told, I swapped bars on the Madone and treated it to some new tape a couple years ago, so it’s not all-original like the Moots…but it still has a lot of miles on it.

Some time, I’ll throw some new tape on the Moots.  Until then, the DSP will keep doing its job, silently.  That’s the trait of an excellent product.  That’s why I love my lizardskins.

Salsa Horsethief: Split Pivot, Split Personality

I’ve had the chance to spend time on both the 29er wheelset and the 27.5″ wheelset.

IMG_5016

The 29er wheelset is Sram Roam 30 with Schwalbe 29×2.3″ tires, tubeless.  The 27.5+ wheelset is Stan’s Hugo with WTB Bridger tires, set up with tubes.

In 29er mode, the Thief is lithe and nimble.  It climbs, it shreds, it descends, it jumps.

In plus mode, the Thief is a bit more terrestrial.  At least in my incapable hands, it doesn’t like to get as airborne.  On the other hand, on the ground, it plows through anything.  I haven’t found the limits of the tires, because their limits are higher than my confidence level.  In corners, you can just keep pushing harder and harder.  Brake less and less.  Pedal more.  It just rails.

Surprisingly, the Thief feels more tail-happy with the plus tires in corners.  By that, what I mean is that the Thief will pivot or slide the tail through a corner more readily with the plus tires.  I’m not sure if it is the greater grip up front, or exactly what causes the sensation, but it’s very palpable.

I’m running about 15/15 in the plus tires, compared to about 26/27 in the 29er setup.

The plus setup is noticeably heavier to pedal–but that comes with the extra rubber and tubed setup.  I’m looking forward to trying the plus size setup this winter, as well.

If I was doing a no-holds barred, top speed shredathon, I’d rock the 29er setup.  If I was exploring a new area I hadn’t ridden, I’d ride the plus setup.  I’d say that the plus setup is better at hiding my riding mistakes, but the 29er setup is faster on Illinois terrain.

One note on setup: the plus size wheelset weighs appreciably more than the 29er setup.  From a suspension perspective, I run the same pressure, but I set the rebound dampening a bit slower–about 2 clicks.  That makes a significant difference, particularly in the rear.

All in all, it’s amazing that the bike has both capabilities–and it’s a significant upgrade from my previous rides.  The Boost spacing front and rear gives a lot of flexibility.

 

 

Salsa Horsethief Split Pivot

Of late, I’ve had a good opportunity to put some miles on the Horsethief that I picked up this year.  Mine is a Horsethief Carbon GX1.  It’s predominantly a stock build, which consists of Sram GX1 1×11 drivetrain, Sram Guide R brakes, Sram Roam 30 wheels, Schwalbe Nobby Nic 29×2.3 tires…my non-stock additions have been a Thomson dropper post (with stealth routing) and a set of ENVE RSR carbon handlebars that I had laying around.  I’m also using an Ergon SM3 Pro saddle as per my standard practice.

I also picked up a set of Stan’s Hugo wheels and WTB Badger 27.5×3 tires, as shown in the pictures.  My Sram/Schwalbe 29er combo is set up tubeless, the 27.5+ combo is set up with tubes (although both are tubeless capable).
IMG_5016 Lots of tire clearance with the 27.5+ setup. IMG_5018

IMG_5021 Salsa’s surprisingly good lock-on grips: IMG_5022

Cable routing for the Thomson (more details below):

IMG_5023 Front cable view. The tension adjuster is on the Thomson. IMG_5025

Downtube housing view. Note the crossover where the Thomson routing comes from the right side of the headtube and goes to the left side of the seattube.

IMG_5026 IMG_5027

IMG_5029 Nice dropper post ‘stealth’ port on the seattube. IMG_5030

IMG_5031 Fox 34 IMG_5032

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Overall impression is that I love the bike.  It’s incredibly capable.  The Split Pivot suspension does everything I remember from test rides–it doesn’t have undue sag or pedal bounce, it climbs like a goat, and it has excellent small and large bump compliance.

The Fox 34 fork has been a pleasant surprise.  It is noticeably more rigid than the 32mm standard fork I last had–it feels as rigid as either the Carbon Lefty or the RS-1 that my two previous mountain bikes had.  In candor, it is not quite as buttery smooth as the RS-1 on small bump compliance…but that said, the Fox 34 is far more progressive.  The RS-1 didn’t really ramp up as much in spring rate as the Fox.  On hard landings, the Fox is smoother/gentler at the end of travel than the RS-1.  The RS-1 was amazing–and surgical in its steering precision–but I’m not missing it.  The Fox also has 130mm of travel, which when combined with the slackness of the Horsethief makes for a very confident bike.  You can point this bike up or down anything, and feel fully in control.

The Sram drivetrain and brakes have been great thus far.  The GX1 shifts ably and confidently under all conditions.  It isn’t quite the “rifle bolt” feeling of the XTR 1x I used to have, but it comes in considerably less expensive, and it’s from a company that I am willing to support.  I haven’t had any issues of any kind with it–it shifts nicely, and the derailleur has prevented event a hint of chain slap thus far.  I also really, really like the ‘derailleur lockout button’ on Sram that allows you to lock the derailleur forward to take away chain tension for wheel swaps.

The Guide brakes have been perfect.  No noises, no issues, no problems adjusting.  Trued the rotors and went.  The Thief has a larger rotor up front than in the rear–which is a new experience for me.  Coupled with the excellent modulation of the Guides, it allows for great precision in braking.  The oversized front rotor really helps make the brakes feel balanced front to rear.  The rear rotor isn’t “undersized,” either–when you want to haul down the brakes or pivot the rear end through a corner, it’s got you covered.  The brake levers are nicely adjustable and work perfectly for single-finger control.

The Salsa lock-on grips are surprisingly good.  When I first started mountain biking, my hands would hurt.  I tried big ‘ergonomic’ Ergon grips and found that it only made things worse.  With time, I’ve realized that sticky lock-on grips, coupled with not using a death grip on the bars is the recipe for happy hands.

I’m still getting used to the geometry, but the BB feels a bit lower than I had expected.  From time to time, I have an unanticipated pedal strike.  Other than that, the geo feels perfect.

The Thomson dropper post merits some comment as well.  The first one I had didn’t work. The stealth adapter doohickey was broken out of the box.  It looked normal, but didn’t do anything.  Thomson dropped one in the mail to me the day I called (great service), and the replacement adapter worked perfectly.  The post works great–it has great modulation and control up or down, and because it is cable actuated, there is no bleeding to worry about.  The last dropper I had was hydro, and caused issues every few months.

The Thief is well-configured for stealth routing, with external cabling on the downtube, and a stealth port on the seattube.  I do need to come up with some cable management up front, as the cables slap and make an annoying sound on chattery surfaces.  My only concern/criticism about the Thomson so far (other than the annoyance of a broken part fresh out of the box) is the cable routing out of the control.  The control itself is great–a quality part, CNC’d to perfection.  But the cable goes straight forward out of it.  In a crash, I have a feeling it will not fare well.  As I’ve looked at Crank Brothers’ new dropper post, their cable routing makes a lot more sense out of the control, and is far more crash protected.  We’ll see how this holds up.

The ENVE carbon bars are great as always–and do a good job of cutting down vibration that would otherwise lead to hand and upper body fatigue.

So the $10,000 question: how does it compare to the Fuel?  For purposes of this comparison, I’ll compare the Fuel to the Thief in 29er mode.

The wheels are palpably heavier on the Thief.  I wish I had a set of ENVEs on it.  The Thief is a bit heavier overall–but shockingly, the delta is not that great.  Other than the wheels, it isn’t noticeable.  The Thief feels more confident up front, when pointing up or down hills.  The extra travel and slacker angles help out a great deal.  The Thief also feels more stable on tight switchbacks.  Comparing XTR brakes to Sram Guide, I don’t have a preference–both are perfect.  Comparing XTR 1x to Sram GX 1x (which isn’t really an apples to apples comparison), both have the same level of perfection in their function, but the Shimano drivetrain feels better (more mechanical and more precise) getting there.  I prefer the Thomson dropper to the Rockshox dropper that the Fuel had.

The Thief feels like it has more travel front and rear–it feels more trail oriented.  I think a lot of that is the difference in the front end–with the Thief being more confident up front.  If I had both sitting there and could pick one, which would it be?  In a ‘money no object’ world–wait, no.  We’re in the real world.  In the real world, at MSRP, the Fuel would cost more than double what the Thief cost, and there’s just no way that it’s worth it.  In the real world, the Fuel does not offer double the capability.  Frankly, even if cost were not an object, I have a hard time finding merit in the Fuel that the Thief doesn’t have, other than the ENVE wheels and swanky paint.  The Thief is an incredible bike with a great spec for actually riding.  I don’t miss the Fuel, and don’t feel like I lost any capability.

Thus far, it’s an incredible bike, and I’m looking forward to more time on it.

Chips and Salsa.

I write today with a frown.

Why?  Probably because I overreact a bit.  But it’s because of this.  If you click through, you’ll see that it’s an article from Bicycle Retailer and Industry News about how Salsa is going to start selling bikes through REI.

You know that thing where you get a new bike, and love it, and ride it, and love it, and then one day you see the first chip in the paint?  That’s where I’m at.  That first frustrating chip in the paint.

Earlier this week, I spent quite a bit of time in the saddle on the Horsethief, and I’ve been working on some writing about it.  I went for the Horsethief because I didn’t want a Trek (with their migration towards online sales), and because I really wanted to get a bike from a company that had the LBS ethos that I support.  I now find myself regretting that decision–or at least second guessing it.  I’m in that position not because the ‘thief is a bad bike.  Far from it, the ‘thief is amazing.  No, I’m in that position because I fundamentally do not want to support a company that is pivoting away from local bike shops.

In the article, Salsa indicates that they believe that this move will benefit local bike shops in the long-run.  I’m sure that this is the answer that has to be provided in response to a concern about LBS–but I’m not certain that it is true.  Salsa is starting with 11 stores…”starting small.”  But when REI sells out of their purchase for 2017 (and they will, because Salsas are great bikes), REI will come back and want to make a bigger purchase for 2018.  And if REI, with 145 stores and a massive online presence, wants to buy 10,000 bikes, versus a LBS that wants to buy 20…well, which order would you fulfill first if you were a profit-minded company?  For that matter, how long until REI is selling Salsa online…and then how long until they’re getting sold on Backcountry and the like?  When REI puts the Salsas on clearance at the end of the season, what will their pricing be?  And for that matter, will Salsa sell 10,000 bikes to REI at the same price that they sell 20 to a LBS…or will this become akin to Shimano, where volume equals discount?  If Salsa can sell to REI for cash, will it make sense to sell to LBS that have to buy on credit?

I love REI–I’ve been a member for many years.  It’s a great store and a great resource.  But quite frankly, they just don’t know bikes.  I’ve talked to their bike employees and they simply don’t know what they’re doing.  I’ve watched them work on bikes.  I’ve watched them assemble bikes.  I visit the bike department in ever REI I go to, from Chicago to Denver, because I’m a bike person.  The experience is uniform–they are a retail store that also sells bikes.

Salsa is, at least to some extent, a niche manufacturer.  Recognizing the subtle differences between their drop bar frames–one oriented more towards touring, one towards gravel, one towards endurance, etc….it requires some diligent study.  But that’s their allure.  That’s their calling.  The Cutthroat was designed to fill one very specific need.  It’s not the right bike for all applications.  The distinction between the Spearfish and Horsethief–obvious to people that study bike specs, but not so obvious to the mainstream REI consumer.  So this move will result in the dilution of Salsa’s uniqueness and their specific appeal.

I sound all retro-grouch here.  And I know a lot of people that work at Salsa…so who am I to begrudge their success?  If they can start selling at major retailers and greatly increase sales volume, that should be awesome, no?  Maybe they can spend even more on R&D and develop even more amazing bikes.  Maybe this will ultimately benefit riders–maybe it will ultimately benefit me.

But it will not benefit local bike shops.  I’m more curmudgeonly this past year than ever before, because I’ve seen the impact that having a strong LBS can have on a cycling community, and I’ve seen the impact of losing a strong LBS.  I vividly remember many times that people in Chicagoland would drive out to DeKalb to buy a Salsa at ‘the old’ NCC…because NCC was the Salsa rep in the area.  That helped drive NCC’s success and viability.  With the significant changes at NCC, they are no longer one of the few Salsa dealers in the area–a number of other shops are on board now–and I suspect that will affect NCC’s long-term profitability and viability.  But if REI was selling Salsa 5 years ago, in Chicagoland, how much different would that have been?

There are swaths of the country that don’t have an REI…and this move is starting with only 11 REI stores.  But that’s the start.  If the REI experiment is successful, would Salsa restrict sales to REI, or will this trend grow?  Salsa is a for-profit company–this trend will grow.

And so if they are for-profit, why on earth wouldn’t they sell through REI?

The challenge of that rhetorical question is all of the things that you can put after the comma.  Salsa has had a unique appeal to me because of their culture and ethos.  Because they’ve been a “big little company.”  Because they have been such staunch supporters of LBS and local events.  Because their demo events are as much about their people as about their bikes.  Because of the relationships that you build–where you get to know the regional Salsa rep through your LBS, and you feel good about working with them.  If Salsa doesn’t need those things to sell bikes, then why do those things?  Or if you still do those things, do they change?  If the Chicago REI starts selling Salsas and they sell 200 a year, will REI do a bike demo there, or with another area shop that sells 30 a year?  If they are for-profit, which makes more sense?

Sometimes, when you get that first chip in the paint, it’s just one chip.  One little mark of character that doesn’t affect anything else.  But sometimes, that little chip becomes an entree into corrosion that can start affecting the whole frame.  You start to see the paint bubble up around it, and it spreads like blight.  We’ll see which this is.

Crank Brothers Highline Dropper Post

I haven’t seen this in person yet or ridden it, but I’m excited about it.  Here’s the news from Pinkbike.

Based on bad experiences with hydro droppers, I think the cable-actuated makes sense. (It’s also nice that they can be modulated more than hydro versions).
More importantly, it looks like Crank Brothers have put a lot of thought into the design of the actuator lever, and allow for a reasonable installation. While I like my Thomson a lot, I’m frustrated that the cable is designed to come straight forward out of the actuator lever, and has to make a 90 degree turn to go across the front of the bike, and then another 90 to go to the back. This Crank Brothers design is more elegant, and also better protected from trail damage.
 
As far as “only” 125mm of travel, that’s all I need for my purposes…when I’ve had more, I’ve used a limiting collar to reduce travel and allow for hitting known comfortable positions.  Some may need more for different terrain, and that’s great–but to me, 125mm is not a disadvantage.
I do recall the days of the Joplin dropper by CB, and I had a Joplin on my first “real” MTB.  Actually, I had a couple Joplins on there, through warranty replacements.  The last one I had worked admirably for a long time, and is still on that bike to this date.  I’m guessing that CB has done a lot of testing on the Highline to avoid any repeat of Joplin syndrome.
I look forward to checking out the new dropper at some point in the future.