The Flathead

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The right bike for the job is the one you are riding.  I fly into Whitefish under darkness.  Over a hundred paved miles from Fernie, B.C. to Whitefish, MT, I had not envisioned making it to town that night but I need to reach Missoula in several days.  The light and the night is right, and the road is wide open.  When I made the decision to reach Whitetfish, the sun was low and fifty miles lay ahead.  As I arrive, twilight had just turned to dark.  Pushing eighteen, twenty, twenty-one miles per hour in my aero position, I remain on the bike as the sky turns to fire.  In town, cheap cold beer and live American music are right where I left them last year.

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Taking the day to swim and visit friends, I meet Jason.  He intends to see a concert in Missoula, and suggests that he could ride there.  I sense bravado and his bluff, ordering that we arrange to meet the next morning.  Agreed.

Of his three race bikes– a Specialized Stumpjumper, Crux, and Tarmac– he selects the Crux,  a true cyclocross racer.  His previous experience with multi-day bike travel includes a trip around northwest Montana with his dog Cody, towed in an old Burley trailer.  The marriage of the race bike and the vintage trailer is inevitable, and ironic.  I suggest that he simply strap a sleeping bag to his handlebars, but the trailer is his “system”.  This is fine by me.  I am riding a purple snow bike, so I don’t have much to say.

We are up early, only to waste the morning with coffee and internet and bike preparations– none of which is really wasteful.  Leaving at two, we pedal a brisk ten miles and stop for ice cream and bananas.  Leaving late and eating ice cream is my M.O., but Jason is skeptical of our progress.  Back on the bikes, we wind along perpendicular valley farm roads to the shores of Flathead Lake.  He establishes a pace, I follow; I lead, he follows, and within the hour we are twenty miles down the road.  We stop for groceries and local Flathead cherries, spitting pits and pretending like the miles ahead of us will ride themselves and the day will last forever.  Finding a riding pace with a new partner is a challenge, but to find a rhythm and a rapport off the bike is harder.  With words, we dance towards a solution.

Should we ride?

If you want.

We can wait.

Well, we could go.

Ok, let’s ride.

A Pugsley with touring tires and a race bike and an old kids trailer is a whole lot of bike.  We could win road races and ride through a winter and carry around a family and shoot off for a quick two-day ride to Missoula.  These are real touring bikes.  Ten, fifteen miles later we stop for a swim.

Pacing along the shoreline fifteen more miles or more and we swim again, spitting cherry pits into the grass.  From here, we can see the topography that suggests the city of Polson, although the structures and the golf course are out of view.  Must be another fifteen miles or so, yeah?  “Probably.”  It doesn’t really matter, but neither does the weather or politics or anything.  These are things people talk about.  We roll into town by seven.  The cherry festival is wrapping up for the night.  We ride up the hill past houses and empty grassy lots.  We come upon an old cemetery.  This is the kind of town that doesn’t really care if you sleep in the grass; there is plenty of space and not enough people to fill it.  This might be the America that people are looking for, but this is the Res– the Flathead.  Tomorrow we ride to Missoula.

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Ride one bike

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The greatest asset that any cyclist can bring to a ride, except fitness, is familiarity with the machine– with the exact moment that the tire loses traction in a turn, the precise action to avoid pedal strike through rocks, and the best way to hide from the wind when the Cateye reads more than 20.  Riding one bike will foster a connection with the machine that is lost when multiple bikes are in play.  I’ve heard of riders with as many as five different mountain bikes who must know which trail the group is planning to ride to be able to select the appropriate machine.  There are such things as training bikes and racing bikes, and road bikes for paved roads and different road bikes for gravel roads.  There are true cyclocross bikes and cross-type bikes that are marketed as light-touring bikes and commuting bikes and hybrid bikes.   Yesterday’s downhill bikes are today’s all-mountain bikes, while yesterday’s cross-country bikes aren’t really even mountain bikes anymore.  Snow bikes have stable geometry at slow speed while trail-capable modern fatbikes are faster handling and feature higher bottom brackets.   This week, both a carbon fatbike and a titanium full-suspension fatbike have been released.  Every year, there are more bikes for more disciplines of riding.  Pick one.

Hybrid has become a dirty word, spoiled by uninspired comfort bikes with low-quality suspension and remarkably upright riding positions.  However, the concept of a hybrid bike signals a versatile machine that can find its way through a variety of conditions.  Historical hybrids such as the Trek Multitrack and Specialized Crossroads give credit to the genre, although few people realize the value of these older models.  The same bike with a drop bar would compete with a Surly CrossCheck or any off-the-peg touring bike, for a fraction of the price.  But nobody wants a bike that doesn’t claim to be great at anything. Fortunately, I demand a bike that is good enough at everything.

The ideal everything bike does not exist.  For some, knobby tires and suspension are essential tools.  Despite the admonishment of purists, riding around town on a mountain bike isn’t a real problem.  Others may require to keep up with an aggressive paceline on Saturday or to break away from the peloton, and a race bike can certainly ride to work on Monday.  I get passed by Cervelos and backpacks all the time on the bike path, and I’m a little jealous as I bump along on a fresh Nate tire on my Pugsley.  But the Pugsley can do things the Cervelo never dreamed– our needs are obviously different.  Many riders are well served by bikes disguised for touring or cross or comfort.  These are the workhorse hybrid bikes of our time and can participate in road rides with friends as well as long-distance travel on dirt roads, and sometimes even singletrack.  A highly specialized machine has long been the standard of an optimized bike, but it is easy to see how a specialized bike is quickly compromised in changing, real world conditions.  Optimization through generalization will ensure you are never on the wrong bike, even if it’s not the right one for the job.

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Hybrid is not a dirty word.  Neither is comfort.  Ride one bike.

Where the neighborhood ends

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This is out my backdoor.  A gentle ascent across town on a mix of bike lanes and dedicated bike paths leads to a dirt trail alongside a concrete drainage channel, and through a break in a fence.  This is called Open Space and it abuts some of the nicer neighborhoods in town.  Less than a mile from the pavement, a wire fence designates the Sandia Mountain Wilderness.  Lael and I left home after dark with sleeping bags and pads, three beers, an avocado and a tomato.  We picked up three burritos on the way.  Lael brought her new pillow, a luxury she now cannot live without.  The pillow is encased in a T-shirt.  We rode singletrack by headlight for less than 20 minutes, and slept under the orange glow of the city.  In the morning, we made a circuit of the Foothill Trails and returned home by drainage ditch, bike path and Whole Foods.  I live in Albuquerque.

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Tubeless fatbike set-up, coming soon.

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The basis for a new bike

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The new bike will be built around a Velo Orange Campeur frame. I had imagined a proper rigid steel frame– non-disc and not suspension corrected– that would fit a 2.1″ tire and a fender. It does not exist, but in considering the available options with long forks and mountain bike geometries, I reverted to more traditional designs. The leading options for such a bike in a competitive price range are the Black Mountain Cycles Cross, the Surly Cross-Check and the VO Campeur. All satisfy my demands, but with slightly compromised tire clearances. However, as I envision fast riding with a lightweight load a narrower tire will suffice. Living in New Mexico for the winter, I will forgo fenders in trade for increased tire clearance.

Casey and Igor at Velo Orange tell me that the large frame sizes (59 and 61cm) will fit a 700x45mm Panaracer FireCross tire, barely. Given the aggressive nature of this tire and the tall side knobs, I am hoping that a smooth 45-50mm touring tire will fit. I do not enjoy fitting tires, fender and racks where they do not belong, although I cannot imagine exploring the rural dirt roads in this area without at least a reasonable cushion of air. As long as I have the Pugsley, aggressive traction is not an important feature of this bike, but a reasonable tire volume is.

It is my impression that many of the Schwalbe touring tires that I adore (Marathon, Supreme, Dureme) are undersized relative to the advertised sizes, which is good news. Some of these tires labeled 47 or 50mm may reasonably fit the Campeur with some room to spare. On such a tire, on such a frame, I expect dirt roads to disappear under me. Rough doubletrack and some singletrack will be rideable at a passable, touring pace, and pavement won’t be a problem. With 47mm tires, this bike will be much like my Schwinn High Sierra, but with the benefits of a larger wheel. I expect the bike to tackle great distances at speed in rural parts of the state. I’m hoping that this will be a fast comfortable road bike for real roads, in both town and country.

The frame is not yet in the mail and most of the build is not finalized, yet I have found two foundational pieces at a local bike swap. A NOS 36 hole Specialized front hub cost $5, while the Deore LX bottom-pull front derailleur was $2. For an extra $2, I bought a similar front mech for Cass as well. Thus far, these pieces are the basis for the new bike.

See my post from Interbike about the VO Campeur, including lots of live photos.

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Cass has some Schwalbe Duremes that we can play with when the frames arrive. If they do not fit with a reasonable margin for a bent rim or some mud, I will look elsewhere. Here are some additional considerations:

Clement X’Plor MSO, 40mm (actual width, 38.5mm)

Michelin Transworld Sprint, 42 mm

Bruce Gordon Rock’n’Road, 43mm

Vee Rubber XCX, 1.75″ or 47mm