Friday, March 3, 2017

New Touring Rig

Post Sexification
I'm relatively new to bicycle touring, having picked it up a couple years ago, and have grown to like it a lot. My previous touring bike was an old cyclocross bike with cantilever brakes, which I converted to a touring setup by throwing on road tires and a rack. As most people who have ridden canti brakes know well, they're simply a suggestion for the bike to slow down. Descending down steep mountain grades, potentially in the rain or dirt, is not something I'd like to do without reasonable stopping power.  

It was time for an upgrade. Thanks to my racing team, Bike Rack Racing, our shop sponsor hooked us up with a grassroots deal with Giant Bicycles that offered deep discounts on their entire line of bikes. I wanted versatility so a cyclocross bike made more sense to me than a pure touring bike since I could change a few things (like tires) and have the bike be at home on asphalt, gravel, or dirt (given the bike's large tire clearance), and it could serve as a pit bike for cross races. I also wanted an alloy frame with eyelets so I could install a rack and fenders without having to superglue them to the bike. Front eyelets were also important so I could install front panniers if and when needed. Finally, I wanted disc brakes, preferably mechanical so I could fix them in the middle of Namibia if needed.

Enter the Giant TCX SLR2, which checked all the boxes that were important to me. The stock version wasn't the lightest out there with heavy components and you could get slightly lighter aluminum or even steel frames, but the deal was amazing and the frame was plenty good. Besides, being ultralight isn't a primary concern for touring bikes given they're typically strapped down with heavy pannier bags anyway.

Here's a picture of the stock bike that I picked up from the shop:
Stock and heavy
Once in hand, the upgrades began almost immediately.

The most important upgrade I wanted was a dynamo front hub. This would eliminate the need for external power for lights and also take care of all garmin/iphone/vibrator charging needs. Given Natasha and my preference for seeking out far flung adventures (e.g. 3-week self-guided bike tour in rural Africa), having an independent, reliable, and consistent source of power was quite essential.

So I called up my wheel-building buddy in NY, Eric Gottesman (who btw is widely considered as one of the best wheel builders in the country), and he hooked me up with a stellar wheel build as well as a nice set of front and rear lights from Busch and Muller -- IQ-X headlight and Toplight Plus Line taillight.
Here's a run down of all the upgrades on the bike:

Out: Stock Giant SX-2 Disc rims with Sport Tracker hubs
In: Custom wheels laced to Boyd Altamont (tubeless ready) rims with Son Delux Disc Dynamo front hub and Bitex rear hub.

Out: Stock Schwalbe Super Swan 700x35 cyclocross
In:  Hutchinson Sector 700x28 tubeless road

Out: Shimano 105 shortcage Rear Derailleur with 11-28 105 Cassette  
In:  Shimano Ultegra mediumcage Rear Derailleur with 11-32 Ultegra Cassette

Out: FSA Omega 46-36
In: SRAM Quarq 50-34 with old style (but still perfectly functional) Cinqo Powermeter. Because I like data.  

Out: Giant Connect
In: Bontrager RaceLite

Out: Giant Connect
In:  3T ARX Pro

Out: Giant Contact
In: Bontrager Evoke 3 

Bottom Bracket
Out: FSA PressFit
In:  Wheels Manufacturing BB86 PressFit

Disc Rotors
Out: Stock 160mm
In:  Shimano XT Ice-Tech 140mm

Out: Heavy ass stock bike
In: Lightweight touring rig. Still *heavy* compared to race bikes but touring is not racing.

Outside of these swaps, I added a few more essential components. First, I wanted clip-on aero bars. Much of our touring is me pulling in the front which I'm happy to do but having another hand placement and some protection from the wind would be welcome. So I asked my crazy ultracyclist friend, Damon, for his advice and he recommended the Zipp Vuka Alumina setup. So I installed the clips and extensions and covered up the whole cockpit with double bar tape for added comfort.  
New Cockpit
The other thing I wanted was an elegant headlight placement. The TCX fork does not come with any kind of bosses on the front so the light would have to be strapped on there somehow. This did not sound like a secure solution to me, so I asked Eric and he suggested a gopro mount with the middle tab filed away so the B&M IQ-X headlight could fit. He was so right! I bought the Barfly TT mount which comes with an integrated gopro mount for the camera to hang under your garmin. After filing away the middle tab, like magic the light fit in there perfectly.
Notice the headlight attached to my garmin mount

Here's an example of my often-compelling OCD: the wires that attach the headlight to the dynamo and taillight are quite thin, so I wanted to protect them somehow. I considered running them through the frame but short of drilling holes myself, this would not be possible. So I ventured out to the hardware store looking for some kind of lightweight protective tubing. After a thorough search of the whole electrical and plumbing isles, I hit the jackpot with 1/4 inch vinyl drip tubing that is used for irrigating gardens. Most importantly, it is black rather than the widely available clear tubing!

You can see the tubing in the picture above as well as in the picture below where it runs the length of the bike all the way to the taillight. OCD can be a good thing.
Drip tubing will keep that wire safe!

Other small things I added were some Gorilla carbon bottle cages that I had lying around, Shimano SPD pedals, and my Old Man Mountain Sherpa rear rack. Granted this rack isn't the prettiest thing on the planet, but it is rock solid and fits a disc brake bike without any weird retooling. Besides, with panniers on, no one is going to see the rack anyway.

The final upgrade, which hasn't happened yet, is the Sinewave Reactor steerer tube cap USB charger. Once this sucker is installed, I'll have all the power I need to charge up anything on the fly. 

Looking forward to many miles on this new rig! 
Front view

Monday, November 28, 2016


With love in her eyes, a ball in her mouth, and a wag in her tail, Haley touched the hearts of everyone she met. Most of all mine.

On this thanksgiving weekend when she left us, I have so much to thank her for. Thank you, Haley, for your unwavering friendship, your kindness, your enthusiasm for life, and your never ending quest to catch a squirrel.

Thank you for helping me raise Imaan and helping develop her love for animals. Your legacy will live on in her actions.

Thank you most of all for always, always having my back.

Even in the face of a most deadly disease, Haley, you were stoic. Unflinching. Unwilling to reveal even the slightest pain. But I could hear it. It was time.

Thank you, Haley, for being you.

Wednesday, October 26, 2016

Hut to Hut Hanging Chamois – Mountain Biking Travails from Telluride to Moab

This isn’t just a clever title. More than two months on from this epic adventure with seven friends, and the first thing that comes to mind is the daily hanging chamois ritual. Each day of this seven day trip ended with eight chamois hanging in different parts of the cabin in various states of stink, some dripping on top of bunk beds (ahem -- Jason), while others accompanying us at the dinner table.

Chamois photo bomb
The daily end-of-ride routine

Immediately though, my thoughts shift to what an absolute stellar time we had riding our mountain bikes from Telluride to Moab this past August. This was truly an international gang – four Americans (Kenny, Jason, Adam, and I); two Brits living in the US (Tash and Laura); one Brit living in Britain (Helen); and one Aussie living in the US (Katie). The whole plan was concocted by our fearless leader, Laura, who rallied up Tash and I from DC, much of her MIT cycling team gang now living on the West Coast, and her sister from Britain. We all made our separate ways to Telluride and met up at a rented condo to assemble bikes and start our grand adventure. 

Downtown Telluride -- the whole town is maybe five blocks long
Bikes unboxed and ready to roll
Given the pedigree of the pack (MIT, LSE), there was no shortage of geekdom, with evening conversations ranging from space travel to deforestation and everything in between. This was of course till the lemon drops came out (purchased and consumed legally in CO except by those among us who couldn’t due to work restrictions). Then the conversations shifted to how long it would take a bear to tear down our cabin door or to other urgent concerns such as the mysterious and leaky gas stove.  

While the evenings were relaxing with laughs and good food for hungry cyclists especially with master chef Kenny at the helm, the real fun was the biking during the day. The San Juan hut-to-hut system is the real deal. Its legitimately good mountain biking on singletrack but each day also has easier dirt road and doubletrack options. The huts are filled to the gills with food and not just non-perishables – they have coolers filled with cheese, eggs, meat, and drinks that are restocked on a regular basis. Without the weight of sleeping bags or food and water for seven days, the riding is significantly more enjoyable. Most of us just carried one large handlebar or saddle bag and a camelback. Bikes ranged from hardtail to high end full suspension.

Typical hut exterior
And interior
Master Chef Kenny hard at work (Photo Credit: Jason Sears)
Laura resting after a long day of riding. Tash is asleep on top bunk (Photo Credit: Jason Sears)
The riding did not disappoint! Although I must admit the first day was tough. I recently discovered that I don’t deal that well with high altitude without proper acclimatization so I knew that starting out in Telluride (at 9,000 feet) and going up to Last Dollar Hut (11,000 feet) on the first day was going to be difficult. But the views were magnificent and the weather cooperated and we made it up to the hut with plenty of daylight still remaining.

Day 1 crew. Others were either ahead of behind
Views weren't bad

Stopping for pictures (Photo Credit: Jason Sears)
MTB Camaraderie (Photo Credit: Jason Sears)
The fun part of riding all day is that at the end you can pretty much eat anything you want and not feel guilty about calories. We took full advantage of all the food available and got creative with pasta, potato, and meat dishes – all great with the clear exception of Kenny’s Spam charcuterie platter one day which wasn’t a hit. Not surprising as spam tastes like, well, spam.

Day 1 musings (Photo Credit: Jason Sears)
Planning out the next day's ride (Photo Credit: Jason Sears)
Sunsets were spectacular (Photo Credit: Jason Sears)

Given the international crowd it was fun to compare uncommon terms used in different countries. For example, what we call an outhouse in the US is called a longdrop in Britain. Quite literal, these Brits, as it is a fair bit down to the compost pile from where you sit. Note to self: never use an instadrop!

Day 2 brought rain and thunderstorms with plenty of lightening. Tash and I trailed off to put on rain gear and saw at least ten lightning strikes in the distance. Thankfully, weather in the mountains moves very quickly and soon the dark clouds were past us and sunshine returned. There wasn’t much singletrack along the way, however there were options available to ride after we reached the second hut.

Several of us went off without bags and had a blast. The trails in this part of Colorado are fast and flowy until they’re not and you quickly find yourself in the middle of rocks. The unfortunate truth about riding rock gardens is that you can clear them better if you ride with speed and power, but many newbies struggle with speed on technical terrain so it can be a double whammy. But fun was had by everyone. It was quite amusing to watch and wait while Laura dutifully pulled out and consulted her paper map at every trail intersection, highly suspicious of the GPS track loaded on my garmin. Needless to say the garmin was always right.

MTB selfies
Kenny showing off
There was also a bear encounter when an overenthusiastic cub ran across the trail in between Helen and the rest of us behind. Mamma bear couldn’t have been far so we decided to make loud noises to ward her off. Sadly our collective brain bank couldn’t come up with any songs that we all knew so we resorted to singing happy birthday loudly to the baby bear. Imagine coming across that scene in the woods!   

Day 3 was perhaps my favorite as Tash got to ride a lot of singletrack and enjoyed it quite a bit. There is a personal sense of accomplishment to see your partner become a better mountain biker. Or maybe its just serving my own interests as now we can go on more mountain biking vacations! Other interesting aspects of day 3 were Jason and Helen getting lost and almost freaking out but not quite, separating from Adam and Katie, re-finding them at a later intersection and eventually making it to the third hut where the rest of us had prepared a yummy meal for all.  

The train is on its way
Lunch stop on Day 3
Not a bad place to meditate
Just cruisin...
Day 4 was in many ways the opposite of Day 3 in terms of Tash’s enjoyment of singletrack. The trails were really narrow with lots of brush or exposure on both sides, plus some of them were pretty wet and muddy. Plenty of cow poop was also inadvertently consumed by both bikes and riders, which eventually resulted in a bleach-athon at the hut in the evening. The good news was that this hut offered hot showers, which were much needed – deodorant doesn’t do much after four days of sweat and muck. Helen managed to convince the others to ride every available singletrack option that day, even riding back up the road to tackle something they missed. Spirited one for sure!

Helen fueling up at lunch
"Me no likey this trail -- hiss!"
Day 5 had some super fun singletrack. Katie and Tash decided to take the dirt road option and the rest of us went for the singletrack. It did not disappoint. First we descended down some mega steep and technical shoots with lots of loose rock and sand. Thanks to my dropper post I rode this fast and with confidence. Soon the trail opened up in the valley to magnificent views all around.

But moments later, disaster! Or at least a few of us thought so. Adam and Jason had tailed off a bit on a descent and we waited for them a bit further ahead. And we waited, and waited. Then we got really worried. So Kenny and I started walking back to check on them. Thankfully, it was just a mechanical with Adam’s chain really jammed up behind his cassette. No amount of pulling or tugging got it loose.  

We had a cassette tool with us but no wrench so leave it to the MIT engineering nerds to figure out a solution. First they found a rock which had a sufficient crack in it to fit the chain tool. Then they used allen keys to file open the gap a bit more so the tool could fit deeper and more secure. The idea was to use this engineered rock wedge as a wrench and rotate the wheel around it to loosen the cassette. I’d love to tell you that it worked but sadly it didn’t, the rock was too brittle. Finally, a non-engineer in the group (i.e. me) suggested trying to yank out the chain with more leverage. And guess what, it worked! But we had to loop the chain around the crank backwards and then give the crank a big kick and out came the chain. Science: 0 – Brawn: 1.

Adam's got some serious arm strength!
Jason at it again with his camera (Photo Credit: Jason Sears)
We weren’t done with our mechanicals for the day, though. The last part of the day was an insanely steep dirt road descent which pitched down 25%+ in places. I was happily descending like a banshee till my front wheel started squirreling violently. Somehow I managed to slow the bike down just in time for a turn away from the abyss and stopped the bike several feet later. That was a close call. After some flat repair we all made it to the next hut without further incident, thankfully.
The other memorable part of the day was when I decided to give Adam MTB tips on riding with confidence thinking he was a newbie, only to discover later that he is a Cat 1 road racer! He then proceeded to lay the hammer down at every single hill that followed – doh!

Mountain Panorama
What contrast! (Photo Credit: Jason Sears)
Laura dropping into the 25+ percentage grade (Photo Credit: Jason Sears)
Katie and Tash having some fun
Multi-tasking: recuperation and next day planning
I wasn't the only one tired!
We were now close to Moab. Two more days to go. Day 6 was tough. We started down in the valley and had to go over an entire mountain range in order to descend down into Moab on day 7. The climb was entirely on a dirt road but man it was steep. 25%+ in places, only this time going up! It was great fun to watch the time-trial matchup between Adam and Katie as they rocketed up the slopes. Obviously two collegiate national champions going at it was fun to watch. We all met up at a lake at the top to take some well-deserved, though thoroughly freezing dips.

Looking down on the climb
Katie putting down some watts
The lake was SOO cold!
Laura making friends with a friendly ranger

The whole crew
 This was our last night sleeping in a hut and it was bittersweet. While we were all pretty tired, none of us wanted this trip to end. One memorable highlight from the evening was me losing Tash’s sock in the river much to her chagrin. She later claimed it wasn’t too bad, though the widowed sock still occasionally shows up in our bedroom strategically placed as a reminder that I owe her a new pair!

The final day was mostly downhill and promised to be exciting. We were going to ride the Porcupine Rim trail down into Moab. For those who don’t know this is quite a spectacular trail that drops you down amidst steep and bouldery slickrock. Some of the crew opted for the full experience while others rode for a bit and then traversed across to the dirt road. Some even managed to ride the slickrock trail which is a mountain biking rite of passage.

Porcupine rim trail (Photo Credit: Jason Sears)
Approaching Moab
Resting on a cliff
Feeling on top of the world
Finally, we rolled into Moab tired but extremely satisfied. After well deserved (and needed) showers and a celebratory dinner at a local restaurant, everyone disbanded to make their separate ways back home. Tash and I stayed an extra day to go visit Arches National Park, which ended up being a nice way to unwind and relax off the bike.

Delicate Arch
 This was such a fun trip! We’re already plotting to get the gang back together for next summer.

(Photo Credit: Jason Sears)