(dirt) Road Bikes

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Dirt, road, bikes.  Rock ‘n Road.  Dirt roads are much the way they sound– they are roads composed of local sediments, sometimes groomed and graded and maintained, sometimes abandoned and rugged.  But the variety of dirt roads is greater than the variety of paved routes, which partly explains the great variety of bikes in use for these kinds of rides.  Still, the emergent genre of dirt road riding is finally landing on some common themes– not quite standards– but commonalities in tire size and tread, handlebar concepts, and in some cases, luggage.  Of course, riding on unpaved roads is ancient as far as bicycles are concerned.  But today, greater accommodation of comfort and efficiency on unpaved surfaces is afforded through new equipment.  Specifically, a vast array of lightweight large-volume 700c/29″ tires are perfectly tuned for dirt, road, riding.

Some dirt road rides are self-supported races over many thousand miles.  Others are actually half on pavement to connect the dots of featured dirt segments, and still others are about the pursuit of adventure and reaching remote destinations by the only means available– a dirt road.  We are not talking about mountain biking, which is an exclusive search for dirt trails and tracks and rough terrain.  We are not talking about a brief segment of unpaved rail-trail– yes, I know you can ride it on your road bike.  We are talking about road riding, potentially at a brisk pace, on dirt roads.  Dirt, road, riding.  Common themes include medium to large volume 700c tires, powerful brakes, a range of gears; drop bars, aero bars or multi-posiiton handlebars; and lightweight frames, in reference to true mountain bikes or touring bikes.  The following are a sample of modern concepts from NAHBS:

 

Ellis Strada Fango

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29×2.0″ Schwalbe Furious Fred tires, Shimano CX-75 brakes

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Retrotec Half

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700x43mm Bruce Gordon Rock ‘n Road tires, Paul Racer brakes to brazed pivots

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Soulcraft Dirtbomb

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700x43mm Bruce Gordon Rock ‘n Road tires. Paul Mini-Moto brakes (linear-pull brake, compatible with road levers)

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Steve Potts, w/Type II fork (1987)

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26×1.95″ Specialized Ground Control tires, WTB Roller Cam brakes, and WTB Dirt Drop bars.  One of only two 26″ wheeled bikes in this collection, back when large-volume 700c tires were unavailable.  Several years earlier, a few Marin builders had gotten their hands on some 700x47mm Nokian Hakkepelita tires for use off-pavement, although supply issues forced the concept out of existence.  A year after this Potts frame was built, Bruce Gordon released his 43mm Rock ‘n Road tire.  This bike would have been considered a true mountain bike at the time, but has since informed the kinds of bikes that are popularly ridden on dirt roads, such as the Salsa Fargo.  Marin County is home to many historic fire roads.

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Reeb

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29×2.20″ Kenda Karma tires. Avid BB7 brakes

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Moots Farrhoots

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29×2.2″ Geax AKA tires, mechanical disc brakes (Shimano CX-75?)

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Bruce Gordon Rock ‘n Road

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700cx43mm Bruce Gordon Rock ‘n Road tires, and custom Bruce Gordon cantilever brakes.  This design and the accompanying tire celebrates 25 years in existence.

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Rob English Black Rainbow Custom

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Schwalbe Racing Ralph tires, Avid BB7 brakes

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Rick Hunter Super Scrambler

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Continental RaceKing tires, Shimano CX-75 brakes and vintage WTB Dirt Drop bars.  Check out this thorough post on the Super Scrambler.

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Twenty2 Cycles Custom 650b/700c

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650B Schwalbe Rocket Ron tires, Avid BB7 brakes.  Fits large volume 650b tires or cross-type 700c tires.

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Ellis Inox Rando

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Kenda Happy Medium tire, Paul Racer brakes, dynamo lighting and mini-rack.  This is the narrowest tire of the bunch, but represents what many people consider to be an appropriate tire for unpaved surfaces. This size is fine for graded, hardpacked surfaces without a load.
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Littleford Expedition Tourer

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26″ Schwalbe Marathon Supreme tires, Paul Touring cantilever brakes, dynamo lighting, and expedition-grade racks.  In this instance, 26″ wheels are selected for durability and the ability to source wheels parts all over the globe.

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A brief history and tribute

Credit to Bruce Gordon for pushing the first large volume 700c tire through to the American market, and building a bike to fit it.  And to the 700x45mm Panaracer Fire Cross XC.  Credit to mountain bikes and all-terrain bikes and down-home dirt roads everywhere, and the people who ride them.  Credit to the Surly LHT which is a “real touring bike”, but fits bigger tires and is a gateway bike to dirt roads for many; and the Cross-Check, the monstercross bike of the people; and the Salsa Fargo, which has reintroduced the idea of knobby tires and drop bars to a lot of people.  Surely, credit is also due elsewhere: Grant Peterson and Rivendell (and the drop-bar Bridgestone MB-1), cross bikes, Jan Heine and ultra-plush 650b tires, Charlie Cunningham and the WTB drop bar, Wes Williams, Chris Skogen, Mike Varley and the Black Mountain Cycles Cross frame; Divide racers, gravel grinders, Hemistour riders, the BLM, and the most prolific builder of dirt roads in the world, the United States Forest Service.

Bruce Gordon’s influence is immeasurable.  If you ask Bruce, he started it all.  Note: the BG Rock ‘n Road tire was actually designed by Joe Murray, and borrowed heavily from the Nokian Hakkapelita.

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Does your bike happily ride on dirt roads? rough dirt roads?

The United States National Forest Road System consists of more than 380,000 miles of roads. The types of roads range from permanent, double-lane, paved highways to single-lane, low-standard roads intended only for use by high-clearance vehicles, such as pickup trucks. At this time, a significant portion of this system is closed or use-restricted to protect resources. (USFS website)

Further, 1.3 million miles, or more than one-third of all road miles in the U.S. are still unpaved gravel or dirt roads. (ARTBA website)

 

Imagining the Campeur

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When I speak of the older bikes that I have ridden, I refer to the process of rebuilding the bike as re-imagining.  An older bike made to function is refurbished.  A classic bike made to appear as it once did, is restored.  An old bike, reborn as something new, is re-imagined.  The High Sierra and the Pugsley have both been imagined and re-imagined multiple times.  My new Velo Orange Campeur frame arrived this week along with a bundle of parts, and I’ve begun imagining what the bike will become.  To do so, I must imagine what the bike will do.

The build will be fairly typical in many ways– wide range gearing, durable wheels, and drop bars– but in others, it will reflect my riding interests and landscape.  I intend to explore a range of tires between 40-45mm for commuting and short-range touring on mixed surfaces.  I will be using a wide-range double chainset with 46/30T rings.  In the near future, I hope to have a framebag made to efficiently store packable goods. With such a large main triangle, the framebag will swallow most of my gear on short, lightweight trips.  I expect to strap dry bags to the bars and saddle when traveling overnight.  In town, I will use a large handlebar bag with the VO Pass Hunter rack and VO decaleur.  A well used Ostrich bag is in the mail from my parent’s house in New York.  The Ostrich bag was a reliable companion for a full year of touring and commuting.

A fresh harvest on the farm.

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Most Velo Orange models feature low-trail geometry, purported to handle front loads while retaining a light feel at the handlebars and stable handling.  Trail, also referred to as the “caster effect” such as on a shopping cart, is influenced by head tube angle, fork offset, and tire size.  Fork offset is generally accomplished through the curvature of the fork, or rake.  On straight blade forks the blades make a slight angle at the fork crown.  Suspension forks and BMX-style forks often put the dropouts in front of the stanchions, and build some offset into the crown.

The VO Polyvalent measures 36mm of trail with a 38mm tire.  Trail on the VO Campeur measures 56mm, also with a 38mm tire.  Most touring bikes feature even greater trail; the Surly Long Haul Trucker and the Rivendell Atlantis measure 67mm of trail, as does the Black Mountain Cycles cross frame.  The Cross-Check has 68mm of trail.  The current Trek 520 has 61mm.  The Bruce Gordon BLT measures 62mm.  These numbers are all for 58-60cm frames with a 38mm tire, as I would ride.  Numbers may vary slightly through the size range, and with different tire sizes.

Deciphering these numbers: Notably, all but the Polyvalent feature similar trail measurements.  Although the Campeur is more similar than it is different, it is still designed with lower trail than traditional touring models.  A front load should play well on this frame, especially if you prefer a handlebar bag and front panniers, or a large handlebar mounted bikepacking load.  The low-trail numbers on the Polyvalent are influenced by French touring bikes, and more importantly, by French porteur bikes which were designed to carry bulky and heavy front loads in the city.  The Campeur should exhibit neutral handling in multiple loading configurations.  Neutral handling– steering that doesn’t draw your attention away from riding– is desirable.

Edit: The Pugsley measures 88mm of trail.  I input the 94mm nominal measurement of the tire, but the actual measurement may be slightly smaller when mounted and when under load at low pressure.  This explains some of the handling characteristics that I have experienced, in which monstrous rotational weight and traction are also in effect.

Check out this handy trail calculator.  Visit the manufacturer’s website to find your bike’s geometry.

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The Pass Hunter rack, at a mere 250g (claimed), offers a high strength to weight ratio.  It solidly mounts to the fork crown and brake posts, without any moving parts, brackets or hinges.  Also, Dia-Compe ENE bar-end shifters utilize the micro-ratchet mechanism borrowed from older Suntour designs, such as the venerable Sprint series.  The aesthetic is pure Campagnolo, and the mounting pod is borrowed from Shimano.  These VO brake pads offer better stopping power in every condition– even better than the Kool-Stop Salmon pads.  Sheldon would agree.  I used them exclusively on my High Sierra last year.

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Other VO parts include a 90mm stem with 17 deg rise and threadless stem adaptor, a brass bell, and 46 cm Rando bars.  The pronounced flare common to randonneur bars is invisible from this perspective.  The shape is much like the Nitto B135 Randonneur bar that I used on the High Sierra.  Prior to that, I used an SR rando bar on the Trek, borrowed from the Miyata 1000.  This summer I enjoyed the Salsa Cowbell bar which features a similar flare and a shallower drop.

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VO Model 3 touring saddle, shaped much like my beloved Brooks B-17.

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The Polyvalent cranks feature 46/30T aluminum rings and a chainguard on a standard 110/74 BCD.  I will explore this gearing for a bit, with the option to change rings in the future or to make a full triple.  The 30T can be replaced by a ring as small as 24T on the inner 74 BCD.  In building a triple configuration, a 34T is the smallest ring that will fit on the 110 BCD.  Hot off the press, the new Sabot pedals are a treat to handle.  Quality is on par with other modern sealed cartridge pedals I have seen, including Lael’s gold VP-001.  The bearings are exceptionally smooth, like high-end road and mountain pedals.

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VO Diagonale rims are 25mm wide, sized between the Sun CR18 (22.5) and the Rhyno Lite (27.5).  Matching Deore LX derailleurs front and rear were sourced in town, and are the same that were on my first touring bike,  a 1995 Trek 520.

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A built-in barrel adjustor with a rubberized lockring is a nice detail.

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More eyelets, a chainrest for wheel changes, and long chainstays.  Tire clearances are the same all the way around the bike.  Details like these are challenging to sort, either in production or on custom frames.

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Details of the fork: Robust socketed fork ends, like little lugs, are clean and strong.  They are also a labor saving measure and help keep costs down.  The pronounced boxy shape of the eyelets appeals to me, and reminds me of my 1983 Miyata 1000, which had an elegantly industrial aesthetic mated to military green paint.  The smoky grey color on the Campeur furthers the industrial aesthetic.

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Mid-fork rack mounts are threaded all the way through the blades.  Modern cantilever posts are spaced 80mm apart, center to center.  Some older touring frames are narrower.

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The fork crown offers 50-51mm of tire clearance, perfect for a 38mm tire and a fender.  Living in New Mexico for the winter, I hope to fit a larger tire.  The construction of the frame is tidy, and the welds are clean.

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A recessed nut can be used on the back of the crown.  The underside of the crown is drilled and tapped for clean fender mounting, as was common on high-quality constructeur bikes.  Technically, the arrowhead tangs on the crown serve a purpose, but mostly they look nice.

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Of course, you can’t go anywhere without a bell.  In a city full of bike paths, this will get plenty of use.

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These mellow singletrack trails are within shouting distance from my house and will be perfect for tire tests and a quick escape from the urban landscape.

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Note: The frame and fork were supplied by VO for long-term review.  The parts to complete the bike were offered at cost, but are all of my own choosing.  In some cases, availability and finances dictate the use of locally sourced parts including used derailleurs and NOS hubs.  I worked for VO for two months in 2011, sandwiched between bike trips in Mexico and on the Great Divide.  One creative afternoon before this bike had a name, several amusing suggestions were offered.  The Velo Orange Cassoulet, a French dish containing white beans and meat, would have been a nice counter to the midwestern Salsa Casseroll.  Camionette, the French word for a small truck, was offered in reference to the popular Surly Long Haul Trucker.  The Campeur name is simple and apt.