Sunday, December 11, 2016

His & Hers Folding Bikes

A few years back we converted from a timing chain to a Gates belt drive on our tandem. For those who don't know tandems, the rider in the rear generally is pedaling a traditional drivetrain with chainrings, chain, derailleur and rear cassette on the right, but also rotates another chainring on the left side of the bottom bracket that is connected by another chain to a matching chainring turned by the front rider's crankset. The Gates belt conversion replaces that front-back linkage with a carbon belt and two matching rings. Here is how it looks:

This belt drive is great! It is light, quiet, clean, and maintenance-free. The only improvement would be if we could somehow do a similar conversion for the other chain, but that would involve modification of the bike's frame, and replacing the rear wheel hub with an internal gear hub (IGH). The best of those hubs (Rolhoff) are very expensive. In addition, IGH is typically heavy and roughly 10% less efficient that a regular chain drive. Still, it probably would work well on a bike meant for lower speed use, like commuting, casual trail riding, or perhaps even touring. I tucked that idea away in my mind.

A year ago, or maybe it is two, my wife Kathy took her second recent fall while riding her road bike. A few years earlier she tore some shoulder ligaments; the last time she broke her wrist. Back when we were in grad school, she rode her 10 speed everywhere, but since we returned to cycling about 18 years ago, she has not managed to regain her old confidence. These two accidents made matters far worse. She thought maybe she would be more comfortable in a more upright position, perhaps with flat bars. I dutifully converted her road bike to something of a hybrid with flat bars, flat pedals without clips, and a twist shifter (not such an easy project, by the way) but she was still very anxious when riding. It wasn't enough of a change. She thought that MAYBE fatter tires, a lower top bar and a lower seating position might work, so that idea also got tucked away in the back of my mind.

One of the things we would like to do over the next few years is to do long road trips in the US. I have long wanted to share some of the places I experienced on my bike tours in the west (Colorado, Wyoming, Montana, Idaho), and there are plenty of compelling areas of the country that neither of us has visited. It would be terrific if we were able to bike in many of those places, too. Kathy has no interest in multi-week bike tours like the ones I have done, but if we could somehow bring the tandem along with us... OK, that idea went into the brain warehouse with the others. 

Over the summer I stumbled across, or maybe deliberately started googling, foldable bikes with belt drives. Most all folders have wider tires and low top tubes that would appeal to Kathy and, it turns out, some even have belt drives coupled to wide-range internal gear hubs. I was shocked to find that some of these bikes are very reasonably priced. In August I found Downtube Bikes ( which has just such bikes for $699 each. These bikes take about 30 seconds to fold and unfold. Really. Watch the video.

That URL was saved away for future consideration.

While we were in the UK (primarily Edinbugh, plus a few days in London and Bath) for a non-bike vacation in October, I was impressed by the number of folding bikes zipping around. We were getting around on foot and public transportation, and I found that bikes with wheels up to 20" were accepted on trains and buses. Huh! A pair of folders would be more portable than the tandem and give us some options for bike travel on our future trips.

By now, you know where all this is going. Here are our new bikes:

We started with just one because I wanted to be sure that Kathy would be comfortable. At this point she has only 5 hours or so on it, but is already much more comfortable that she ever was on her road bike. I myself love it. I had to make peace with the idea that I was going to be travelling significantly slower than on a full-sized, chain-drive bike, but once over that hurdle, it has been great fun. 

A couple of things I would share: 
  1. These particular bikes from Downtube when new have an issue with the plastic dust seal between the rear sprocket and the hub. The bike's 22 tooth sprocket rubs against the dust cover leaving you with the first impression that there is something seriously wrong with the bike. I remembered reading something on the Downtube web site about it, though, and the suggested fix worked fine. All you have to do is to back-pedal for a few minutes to wear away the lip of the hub's dust seal and you are good to go. Coasting and freewheeling down a few hills finishes the job.  
  2. Belt tension is important, and the belt was overly tight on both our bikes. Gates has phone apps available for both Android and IOS to check belt tension.
  3. The Shimano IGH units, including the Nexus 8-speed hub on this bike, loosen up for improved shifting and easier pedaling over time. We have noticed the improvement in the short time we have had the bikes, and apparently it will continue to improve over the first 1,000 mile or so.

Monday, June 6, 2016

National Bike Travel Weekend: Fanning Springs - Cedar Key Loop

Between 2008 and 2015 early June generally found me on a long distance bike trip somewhere. Last year's trip to the UK did not exactly go as planned, and neither my touring buddy Fred nor I were motivated to put something together for this year. Still, I have recently felt a need to do some kind of trip, even if just a night or two. A previous plan to do a little tour with Mitch earlier this spring fell apart, mostly on my account, but then I noticed that Adventure Cycling Association had declared June 3 - 5 to be National Bike Travel Weekend. It is the latest of ACA's continuing effort to make bike travel more approachable to more people, legitimizing "bike overnights" and trips of just a couple of nights.

In the absence of a "big" trip, I latched onto the idea and recruited two friends, Roger and Steve, to join me for a very casual, easy overnight trip in northwest Florida. The starting point I selected was Fanning Springs, a tiny town west of Gainesville. From there the route took us south to Cedar Key, a popular spot for fisherman that also has a bit of artsy, Key West feel to it. The town has long hosted an art festival in the Spring that my wife Kathy and I think we might have attended decades back when we were in school in Gainesville. Anyway, it seemed like as good a destination as any so I created an 80 mile loop that started in Fanning Springs with a night in Cedar Key. 

We left at about 6:30 on Saturday morning, driving the the two hours from my house up to our starting point. Somehow or another, it still took us another hour after arriving in Fanning Springs to start riding. Much of the outgoing route paralleled the famous Suwannee River. About 15 miles into the ride we stopped for a little riverside rest in some shade.

Back on the bikes we found ourselves on a sandy, unpaved road for what seemed like a couple of miles. I was riding my touring bike with the 35mm tires I had mounted for last year's UK trip, so the road surface was a non-issue for me. Steve and Roger, however, were both on 23mm road tires, so we rode slowly and carefully in case of a deep patch of sand that could cause a fall. Eventually we made it back to pavement and we returned to the comfortable 14 to 16 mph pace that we had been riding previously. 

The route was exceedingly flat and there was not much wind, so the pedalling was easy. That is, it was easy for Roger and for me, but not so much for Steve, who, in spite of being the strongest rider in the group, was working hard to keep up. Finally Roger noticed that Steve's rear wheel was WAY out of true -- a pretty sure sign of a broken spoke. It took only a minute to confirm that it was a spoke nipple rather than the spoke itself, but the effect was the same. Every rotation of the wheel rubbed the rim against the brake pad on the bulging side of the rim, so Steve had been quite literally riding for about an hour with his rear brake on. The good news was that a broken spoke nipple is much easier to repair on the side of the road than a broken spoke would have been. Steve quickly fixed the wheel and we were back on our way. 

It was now about noon and it had become very hot under an intense sun with little shade. I drank the last of my water and was starting to feel light-headed, so I requested a stop at the first place that might possibly have a cold sport drink of some kind. About 10 miles from our destination we found a tiny "grocery store" where I drained a quart of Gator Aid and Steve poured a can of Pepsi caffeine and sugar down his throat. He announced that he felt more like he had just ridden a century rather than 30 flat miles. Our final 10 miles were hot but went by without further excitement.

Roger had taken on the responsibility of finding us lodging a couple of weeks earlier and had reserved a two bedroom condo for the night. Lots of places in Cedar Key won't even rent for a single weekend night, but luckily this one did. With the exception of being able to hear way too much noise from the neighbors, it was a very comfortable and roomy place to spend the afternoon and evening. 

Relaxing on the terrace after getting cleaned up.
View from the terrace.

About 3 in the afternoon we headed out to find something to eat. We ended up at a restaurant called Steamers. There was a pretty extensive menu, but all three of us ordered blackened Mahi sandwiches that were tasty and filling, accompanied by two beers each. We returned to the condo for some horizontal time, though Steve, a master sleeper, was the only one who actually slept.

Steve recuperating from his unexpectedly hard ride.
At dinnertime nobody was hungry, so instead we each bought a pint container of ice cream at a nearby grocery and consumed it before turning in for the night.

We were back on the bikes by 8 AM or so on Sunday. It was a near perfect ride. The weather was a bit cloudy, which kept the heat down, there was little to no wind, no traffic, and the last 10 miles were under a canopy of oaks on the Nature Coast Trail. The only unusual event was when we encountered a wild boar crossing the road with a bunch of little boar-lets. Eight or nine little ones crossed the road ahead of mama boar. When she reached the other side she turned and stared right at us. We stopped our bikes and kept our distance, not quite knowing what to expect. A moment later another batch of little ones popped out of the bushes on the other side of the road! Once the second group of youngsters made it across, mama followed them into the brush and we felt safe to continue our ride.

All in all, it was a very enjoyable weekend. One note is that I decided to forego any official riding jerseys on this trip and wear hi-viz technical t-shirts instead. The looser fit made me more comfortable in the heat, I think, and I will probably do the same thing on future hot weather trips.