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Interbike 2010: Smart City Bikes

On display at the Interbike 2010 trade show were many fully-appointed city bikes — bikes that would be quite suitable for utility cycling trips such as lengthy commutes, light cargo-hauling and all-around transportation. A lot of the bikes we noticed in this category come with fenders, rack mounting points and other features that make them quite desirable for someone looking for a versatile rig. Take a look at some of the bikes:

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This one from Salsa Cycles comes with a nice front rack and mounts for fenders and a rear carrier. Nice!

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Here’s an Electra Ticino in a “mixte” style…beautiful hammered-finish fenders and all the mounting points one could ask for.

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Another Electra Ticino…this one in a more traditional diamond-frame format. Same great features as the mixte bike above.

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This is a Velo Orange “Polyvalent” frameset…but one that could be built up into quite a versatile machine…rack points front and rear, upright and stable rider position and great looks without being too flashy.

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Pashley had a huge display…while their bikes are rather expensive, they come with a lot of desirable features such as generator hubs and lights, racks and full-coverage fenders.

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Our friends at Urbana had a great display…all the colors of the rainbow in their sturdy, versatile bikes. We did a review of one of their models a few months ago, and with a little luck we will be testing their electric-assist version in the coming months. A quick look at the e-version suggests it’s going to be a hit — they didn’t cheap out on the e-assist kit they chose.

There were many many more…and I’ll get photos up in the coming days. Things are hopping for the urban utility bike segment!

Review: Velo Orange “Squeal Free” Brake Shoes and Pads

Brake pads. Those little devices are something we generally don’t think about until something goes wrong…squeaking and grinding against our rims or being unable to stop when needed. I faced both of these situations within my commuting fleet, and so it was with great interest that I agreed to test the “squeal-free” brake pads and V-brake shoes from Velo Orange.

pads

VO wasn’t terribly forthcoming with details about the pad compound…they had some research documents as they were developing these products but didn’t share them with us. So, I don’t know anything about the compound used and the hardness rating (durometer). I can say that the pads feel about as firm (using the trusty “fingernail test”, which really doesn’t tell me anything) as other major-brand pads in my parts bins.

The black brake compound has tiny flecks of a tan-colored material mixed in…I don’t know what that material might be or if it improves braking ability; it’s just something I noticed. The pads have the required shape to fit modern Shimano-style pad holders, including the little scalloped depression at one end for the holder’s setscrew.

pad

The V brake shoes have the same tan-flecked black material and come stock with orbital washers and spacers to simplify toe-in. These are the threaded-post models; straight-post models for traditional cantilever brakes are also available.

shoes

In the spirit of VO, I installed the pads on a genuine French bike…my 1971 Astra citybike. This bike is equipped with the original Weinmann sidepulls, which aren’t particularly powerful even on a good day. Luckily, I had some spare Kool-Stop pad holders and bolted the combination right on. Here they are installed and ready to accept a wheel:

installed

I installed the V-brake shoes on the front end of the hardtail mountain bike I occasionally commute on — this bike was in DESPERATE need of new shoes as you can see here:

shoes

The VO shoes have a bit more overall length than the stock pads being replaced. I thought I might have some fork leg clearance issues, but didn’t. That extra length had a positive effect on braking performance, too…everything felt more solid up front.

The conditions I ride in are fairly flat, and at this time of the year very dry. Most of my riding consists of stop-and-go city riding and a good bit of “urban assault” riding in the green spaces, parking garages and city structures when time allows. Come summertime, I expect to spend a lot of time slogging through torrential rainstorms.

Well, how do they work? I’ve ridden both bikes for a couple months with pads and shoes installed, and I can honestly say that I’ve noticed a pretty big improvement in braking performance. Both bikes stop more quickly; in the case of the mountain bike, I don’t get any of the banshee-like wail I was used to with the old shoes. On my Astra, the anemic Weinmann sidepulls now feel like they’ll actually stop me in a panic situation! In both cases, there were no squeaks or squeals from the very first ride…some other pad/shoe brands tend to squeal for the first couple rides until the pad is broken in. I haven’t had an opportunity to ride either bike in the rain yet, though, and this is often the best way to truly test a brake pad for performance. I’ll report back once I’ve had a chance to get wet with them.

Are they the best pads and shoes I’ve ever tried? Well, the jury’s still out on that…I do have a salmon-colored favorite that lives on many of my other bikes, but I would strongly consider these VO models as replacements when my other pads wear out. Besides, they’re a great deal whether you need the pad inserts or the pads/holders or the shoes — substantially less than a couple of the other big names.

The pads definitely work!

nose wheelie

You may notice that when visiting the Velo Orange product page, their pad compound is show as brick red rather than the black of our review pads. VO claims the compound is unchanged; the brick red is just a more appealing color to them.

Please click here to read our review disclaimer as required by the Federal Trade Commission.

Fixed Gear Friday Review: 183rd Street Cycles Frameset

Back in July of last year, the folks at 183rd Street Cycles sent over a frameset for us to use and abuse…they even painted it our choice of colors (dark green with silver sparkles). And we got to keep it once all was said and done. I’m down with that!

frame

I was out of the initial loop as far as talking to the company…I heard I was getting a 55 or 57 cm frame from my boys in California, and either of those fit in my preferred range of frame sizes. From what I saw initially, the frame had a traditional horizontal top tube, so I was sure that things would be ok. Well, 183rd Street measures their frames from center of bottom bracket to the top of the rather extended seat tube, so the 55 cm frameset I got is actually 51 cm when measured center-to-center (the traditional way). Even more crucial to my fit is top tube length…I prefer somewhere around 56 cm as my torso is rather long. This frame measures out at 53 cm. So, in a nutshell, the frame is a bit too small, and that dictated how I was going to build it up. A sleek drop-bar pavement slicer was out of the question since I’d never be able to get tucked in over that short top tube, so I went with a more citybike-style build with a touch of hipster flair.

bike

Building the bike up in this way also gave me a good excuse to try out some of Velo Orange‘s “Grand Cru” product line. I ordered a VO seatpost (with some much-needed setback), threadless stem, VO Milan handlebars and cartridge-bearing threadless headset. All of those parts are finished in what I like to call “high satin”…not quite mirror polished but much shinier than typical silver components.

stem

Color accents were determined by a pair of brake levers that have been kicking around in my parts bins since the early 90s (when colored ano was all the rage the first time) and the blue Panaracer T-Serv Messenger tires I bought for another project bike. Tracking down some blue bits like the grips and waterbottle cage was easy, and I was ready to get this machine on the road.

The 183rd Street frame has fairly typical “track” geometry…short wheelbase (about 3 cm shorter than my road bikes), high bottom bracket and steep head- and seat-tube angles. The included fork has 30 mm of rake and that gives the bike some fairly sharp handling. Tire clearance is tight…the 28mm tires I used are just about the biggest that will fit within the confines of the frame. Here, take a look for yourself:

clearance rear

clearance front

The only concession to road use is the addition of waterbottle cage bosses on the seat tube — otherwise this frame is ready to rip up the velodrome. Although the fork and the rear brake bridge are drilled for brakes, there are no cable guides anywhere on the frame…keep that in mind if you want to run a rear brake on this frame as you’ll need to source some cable clips.

The frame is made of TIG-welded double-butted Tange chromoly tubing, so it’s reasonably light, quite stiff and very strong. But, with the track-friendly geometry, I find this frame to be rather punishing on the rough roads of Tampa. You WILL feel the road’s imperfections…the fabled vibration-soaking properties of steel just don’t apply on a stiff frame like this. Good thing I get some extra cushioning from the bigger tires!

What makes this frame different from other reasonably-priced track framesets on the market? Well, nothing really…I tried to come up with a catchy acronym, but all I could come up with is “JATTB” (Just Another Taiwanese Track Bike)…the frame is made by Maxway in Taiwan and rebadged once it gets over to the U.S. Actually, “rebadged” isn’t exactly the case as the 183rd Street Cycles folks didn’t add any decals to this frame. The only giveway of its origins is a tiny “Maxway” logo cast into the rear fork ends. It’s only visible if you’re really looking for it…see?

maxway
(hint: it’s on the chainstay-side of the fork end…it really just looks like a smudge in this picture!)

In any case, it’s a fairly low-key frame…subtle details that I like (long point crowned fork, in particular) but nothing that screams “look at me!”. Well, I suppose the silver sparkle I chose screams something, but let’s not go there…

I mentioned saddle setback a few paragraphs ago…because of the short top tube and the backswept handlebars, I needed some breathing room. The VO Grand Cru seatpost has 25 mm of setback and I slammed the seat back almost as far as it would go. Otherwise, I would be completely upright (Omafiets-style)…not necessarily a bad thing, but it gets windy here in SW Florida during the winter and I need at least a little aero advantage.

setback

As sort of a “review within a review”, I just want to mention the VO Milan handlebars again. These bars are great; just enough backsweep to give the wrists a natural angle and just enough width to be stable yet able to negotiate narrow, traffic-laden streets. These Milan bars are hands-down the best citybike bars I’ve ever tried, and I have since ordered another pair for another bike in my fleet (and thinking about retrofitting two others, including my Xtracycle).

Alright, now let’s talk about the commuting potential for this frameset — many folks desire fenders, chaincases and racks on their bikes for the purposes of all-weather commuting, and I appreciate that. Still, there are plenty of people who want something sleek and stripped-down; they may not have much to carry or live in dry areas. While I wouldn’t necessarily choose this frame to build up a primary commuter (it has no attachment points whatsoever for racks and fenders, nor does it have the needed clearances for fenders), I find myself reaching for this bike more and more for my daily commute. I’ve put almost 500 miles on this bike since I finished building it in October…club rides, commuting miles and the occasional Critical Mass ride. Why? Because this bike is a BLAST to ride — razor-sharp handling at speed, stiffness for sprinting and not a whole lot to go wrong or come loose. I like to ride fast, particularly on my way home, and this bike fits the bill for that. I have it geared 44/18 free and 44/16 fixed with both front and rear brakes — suitable for cruising around and also a bit of hammering when I want to. Yes, it beats me up a bit on longer rides, but I’m the sort who will trade a bit of comfort for performance. That’s not everyone’s cup of tea, though.

The frame retails for $399 and the fork is an additional $139…a pretty ok deal for a nice frameset made out of good steel. There are others on the market, but if you’re looking for a basic track frame, this 183rd Street Cycles frameset is worth looking into.

Please click here to read our review disclaimer as required by the Federal Trade Commission.

Review: Velo Orange Anti-Theft Wheel Skewers

A few weeks ago, Perry from Velo Orange sent us a courtesy (read: “free”) pair of their new anti-theft skewers to test out.

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We’ve discussed wheel security strategies in the past, and some of the drawbacks of existing “non-QR” skewers have been addressed by Velo Orange in their design. Read on!

Many of you have noticed that most new bikes (even ones billed as “urban” or “commuter friendly”) come with wheels that have traditional quick-release skewers installed. Obviously, this creates additional security headaches…without a good locking strategy, those wheels are quite easy to steal and could certainly use more protection.

Enter the non-QR skewer — replacing the cam lever with a fixed head that accepts a 5 mm hex key. While not foolproof, these non-QR skewers surely deter casual wheel thieves, but many savvy criminals now carry hex keys to swipe wheels and components off poorly-secured bikes.

Those non-QR skewers weren’t good enough for Velo Orange, so they set out to create an inexpensive alternative to Pitlock/Hublox-style skewers by using a standard “security fitting” on the head of the skewer. The Velo Orange skewer’s hex fitting has a raised “pin” in the center, defeating standard hex keys by requiring a special key with a centrally-drilled hole. Here’s a look at the VO skewer head:

head

And corresponding 5 mm “security” hex key:

hex

The VO skewers are made of chromed steel for the skewer itself and anodized aluminum for the clamping ends. Most non-QR skewers on the market have serrated faces on the aluminum ends, and I’ve experienced quite a bit of slippage over the years using such skewers on horizontal dropouts. VO did their homework on these skewers, as there is a serrated STEEL face pressed onto each aluminum end. It’s an extra touch that means these things will not slip once tightened down. Here’s a look at the nonslip face:

face

As a test platform, and in keeping with the spirit of the Velo Orange company (lovers of all things French), I installed the skewers on my 1971 French “Astra” citybike…well, not quite. Currently, VO offers the skewers in a length to handle a standard 100 mm front hub and 135 mm rear hub spacing. My Astra has a 126 mm hub with a short axle, so I couldn’t use the VO skewer on the rear. Velo Orange indicates that other sizes will be available soon. For now, the rear skewer went onto my Xtracycle (which had a QR skewer with the lever pipe-clamped to the subframe of the Xtra).

The test platform:

astra

As for testing these skewers, I can say this: once they are clamped down, those serrated faces do the trick. The wheel will NOT slip within the dropouts. I’m loathe to test the anti-theft nature of these skewers by parking my bike in a high-crime area, but I’m confident that these skewers will convince all but the most dedicated scofflaw to move on to easier targets.

I only have one negative to include about the VO skewers…only one special hex key is included in the package, and replacement keys are not yet available from VO. So, for now, don’t lose the key!!!

Currently, the Velo Orange anti-theft skewers are on sale for $12.00. They’re worth twice that in peace of mind.

We’ve got some other Velo Orange products in the review pipeline, so stay tuned in the next few weeks for more.

Please click here to read our review disclaimer as required by the Federal Trade Commission.

Just Ask Jack — Quick Release Fenders?

John, also known as Moveitfred By Bike sent in the following question:

“Do you have any recommendations for fenders? I’m looking for something that’s easy on and off for a steel frame cyclocross bike with cantilever brakes. “

My initial response to him was that unfortunately, you can’t have it both ways: you can either have GOOD fenders, or you can have “easy on/easy off” fenders.

For example, the SKS Race Blade — they go on and off very quickly, but they don’t provide enough coverage to really keep you and your bike clean and dry. Same goes with the seatpost-clamping rear fenders. Same with the clip-on front mini-fender that goes on the downtube.

I’ve tried a couple modern brands of fenders, notably the Zefal Cafe models and the Planet Bike full-coverage fenders with integral mudguards. The Planet Bike ones are substantially better (better hardware, more versatile).

The more I thought about it, though, I realized you CAN “have your cake and eat it too.” One trick some folks use to make the fenders go on and off easier is to thread longer mounting bolts “inside out” (from the inside of the fork/dropout bosses toward the outside of the frame) and using metric wingnuts to attach the stays and struts. Still, it’s not a 30 second removal process!

I had stumbled across a photographic tutorial of this setup on the Web several months back, and rediscovered it while I spoke to John via email. Here are the particulars:

Alex Wetmore (an amazing tinkerer… on his blog, check out the “to die for” workshop in his basement!!!) wrote a tutorial on this method on his website…and has allowed me to share a couple pictures of the setup with you. The first is the fender attachment at the fork crown:

attachment at fork crown

The second photo is one where the fender stays attach to the braze-ons of the fork:

Attachment at fork braze-ons

As mentioned earlier, you might have to find longer mounting bolts for the fenders to make this work, but that isn’t too difficult.

If you go for really blingy, indestructible fenders, I heartily recommend either Honjo or Giles Berthoud fenders. Honjos come in fluted, smooth or hammered-finish aluminum, while the Berthoud ones come in stainless steel. The mounting hardware and struts are without peer, and either brand is so gorgeous that you won’t want to take them off!

Either Peter White Cycles of New Hampshire or Velo Orange in Annapolis, MD carry these kinds of fenders…might be worth checking out!

Setting up your fenders this way makes the bike more versatile. On days you don’t need the protection and don’t want to push the extra weight around, just slip the fenders off and ride. Bad weather in the forecast? Pop the fenders right back on. It’s a great tip, and we’d like to thank John for sending in the question and Alex Wetmore for letting us use his photographs of the process.

Have a cycling-related question? Just Ask Jack! Click on the link in the right-hand column to send me your questions.