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What’s the Deal with Gravel? (In a Jerry Seinfeld voice)

So I feel like the kid in the 1950s pot commercial; I rode gravel once and now I’m hooked and my whole life has been turned upside down. I just can’t see the road the same. I now see cars and replace them with trees, signal lights are now steep hills, cement streets are now dirt paths… Everything has flipped and I love it.

I had tried cross and it was plenty fun. Not like every day fun, but fun once-in-awhile-fun. I will/must/don’t want to admit how bad I am on a mountain bike. On a road bike is where I was the most comfortable. Gravel does not come natural for me even if I’ve tried most of what cycling has to offer. For me it’s not the descents because I’m not all that confident in my skills. It’s the views as I suffer and drag my 200 pound butt up these climbs that normally lead to some hike-a-bike situations. The climbing can be brutal but like the Instagram inspirational quote with a majestic background says, “It’s just a hill, get over it.” If you can, then you will get a new perspective; your eyes will open to everything you’ve missed on a road bike or a mountain bike.

On a road bike you ride with your eyes wide shut. That’s the appeal for me, a lot of it is just not thinking and just going; you can zone out on a climb and even forget about the views. On a mountain bike you are more aware but there is still a level of letting the bike do it’s job and going for it. The closest thing to riding gavel (on a rigid bike with drops), in my opinion, is riding a fixed gear bike. On a fixed gear bike you have to be aware of everything around you. From the cars to the road conditions, the signal lights to the pedestrians, you are on full alert all the time. Not having real brakes will do that to you. Gravel is somewhat like that, you have an idea of control but it’s more controlled chaos then precision.

The real beauty of gravel [(…and I get a ten-cent commission every time I type G R A V E L)- Gravel] riding is that it’s not just about riding, hiking is also a big part of the experience. On a road bike you can take another route, on a mountain bike you have a lot of gearing and a more capable bike, so when you get to a section that’s above your pay grade you either push yourself or hike-a-bike. You go on a ride and you really don’t know if you are going to be able to ride every section of it. How much of a route you can manage changes as you improve and get more confident/stronger. I tend to fall more on the climbs than the descents. I’ve also done a lot to improve my gearing.

Nonetheless, gravel is my new obsession. So much so that this summer I am planning a Summer Adventure Gravel Series (SAGS) around the San Gabriel Valley in Southern California. The adventure part is that there will be no routes given out. We will have to stay together, this will help avoid douchebagery. This is not a race. This is not about being first, fast, or better. This is about the people next to you, the landscape that surrounds you, and the route in front of you. Aside from maybe the Cannondale Slate [(with a gearing upgrade) no pun intended] there will not be a perfect bike for every situation. After, I hope we question our bikes but not our time in the saddle. I’m currently doing recon for the S.A.G.S ride- details will come.

The struggling cyclist.

Before I explain where I am let me mention where I came from.
I was always an outsider to sports. I had the determination and heart but I never had the raw skill. In golf they use the term L.O.F.T. Google it . Baseball, football, soccer, whatever, I was not really very good. I came into cycling after an injury. It was meant to be rehab for my back. That lead to the idea of commuting. Well, what it would lead to  was an obsession. At my lowest point I was fighting multiple addictions and cycling was what kept me going the streight path. I began racing and riding daily. I would race for a few years for a few teams and even for myself (unattached) when I lacked the fitness to race for a team .

Fast forward 10 years, I’m now married, a father of 3, and I have a dog to boot. In many ways I have what I want. I still have the drive to go out and test myself when I’m riding but there are many weeks that I just can’t ride, some weeks I’m just too tired, and yet others I’m not willing to make the sacrifice to get a ride in.  The fire is still there but the time/motivation/will is at times lacking. I set goals but get confronted with realities. Sure I could ride Saturday but one son has practice and the other has a soccer game. Did I mention my two-year old? So my choices are 4am ride or no ride. I made my choice before I typed it.

I don’t think I’m alone in my position nor do I think I need a small violin playing “sad romance”. What I need is a spark, something to convince myself to ride when it’s difficult to get going . As it turned out that spark that made me want to ride was a ride. That and something I heard on a podcast, something about second degree fun. It’s fun, just not from the idea or start. Like a climb, not really fun as a idea but as you get to the top, you can look back at the climb as a good time. Albeit a miserable, painful, good time .

So what keeps you going? Do you ever need a break or time to miss riding? Are you the type of rider who just wishes they had more time to ride? Let me know as that’s one of my motivations (I love hearing about others passion to ride).

Wanna race?

And it starts like most races do with a little hesitation, some trepidation, and a lot of anticipation. I roll out and set a steady tempo. I know my fitness is not where it used to be so I decide that a long range attack allá Contador is the way to go. I’m receiving information and it’s telling me I have a 30 second gap. I’m holding steady pushing about 20 miles per hour. I have some luck on my side and I have not had too many reasons to slow down. As I’m approaching the first climb, my first true test, my breakaway has gained me 2 minutes.

The climb shines light on the cracks in my foundation. I’m coming undone and I’m starting to Pedal in squares. The 2 mile climb is pushing my heart rate to 190 beats per minute, I’m bleeding time and fading fast. This climb that tops out at 7% and has taken my two-minute lead down to one minute. In the last mile of climbing I’ve fallen apart and this climb has taken its toll and although the major climb is over there is still more climbing to be done.

I’m feeling confident that I can get some of the time back on the upcoming rolling section. The problem is that this section is much less rolling then I remembered it. The next half mile has not a single negative grade and an average grade of 3%. I begin to lose more time and when I reach the two-thirds marker I’m only 20 seconds ahead. Those 20 seconds dissolve into zero, zero grows to a negative. My second best effort on this section is still about 1mph too slow.  I’m now 20 seconds behind, I’ve been caught, and I don’t have much left in the tank.

My strategy might seem to have failed me but I’m exactly where I want to be. I limp up the rest of the climb and utilize one of my best skills. The descent is my playground. I slowly see my deficit disappear and I even make up a few seconds. In my aerodynamic tuck I’m able to gain one minute and 30 seconds as I turn right, right into the last real climb. From here Colima is only 0.3 miles but with an average grade of over 6%, it can do some damage.  This climb is no test, this climb is a deal-breaker, make or break, win or lose.

My 1 minute and 30 second Advantage disappears yet again I get out of saddle I give it everything I have left to no avail. I’m riding like a man possessed but I’m two minutes behind. In 2 minutes I’ve lost 2 minutes. My lungs feel like raisins, I can feel the burn down my esophagus, my legs are begging me to stop, I consider sitting up. But for every climb there is a descent, so I hold my pace steady and continue up the climb. 2 minutes and 15 seconds is what I have to make up on a 2 mile descent.

I rearranged myself about 3 times trying to find an aerodynamic position I can hold for the entirety of the Hill. Colima Road flattens out and it’s now up to my legs pushing at times 28 miles per hour, holding my threshold as long as I can. I look down and realize I’m 3 minutes ahead. All that is left is to maintain my lead. I want to do more than maintain though, so I push each pedal as hard as I can for the remaining 2 miles. Little by little I’m gaining time, three minutes turns into four, four minutes balloons to 5, and by the time I’m at the finish my lead would tell a different story than my body. I’m a wreck but I’m feeling like an accomplished wreck.

My first race in sometime was not against a Peloton or a friend, it was against myself via my virtual partner on my Garmin 520. I had no idea that this is going to be so much fun, so competitive, and so inspiring. At the time I didn’t think twice I just thought “oh look what I can do” with my Garmin. It seems like my commute has found yet another way to keep my interest.

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Book Review: Bicycle Design: An Illustrated History

Bicycle Design: An Illustrated History fills in the gaps on how the awesomeness that is the bicycle came to be.

Up-front confession: this book was not featured (so far as we know) at Interbike!

However, it DOES chronicle pretty much all the innovations throughout bicycling history, so rest assured that the predecessors to many of the “new” things there are mentioned in it!

Bicycle Design: An Illustrated History is by Tony Hadland and Hans-Erhard Lessing, and in the authors’ words seeks to fill the neglected gap addressing the technical aspects of the history of the bicycle. It starts out with… well, actually it starts out with ice skating and wheelbarrows… but it quickly moves on to velocipedes and draisines, the predecessors of the bicycle.

Another confession: I haven’t read the whole thing. I did read all the bits about velocipedes and high-wheel bikes and wire wheels and the development of the safety bicycle (aka a bike having 2 wheels of the same size), but after that concluded that this wasn’t really meant to be read straight through – and yeah, it took me a bit longer to figure that out than it might take most people, but what can I say… I’m a bit of a bike nerd!

 

Apparently we should call these draisines!

So after some deliberation, I’d consider this more of a reference book: the next time you wonder, “when WAS the first bamboo frame made?” rest assured that this is the place you can find that answer! (page 178: 1890’s, patented in 1896. Calfee wasn’t exactly the first!).

The first 5 chapters of the book detail the history up to the invention of the diamond-frame steel bicycle. After that point, it diverges into chapters on different aspects of bikes, such as transmission, braking, and lighting. It also – at the end – includes specific sections on “racing” bicycles and mountain bikes, folding bikes, and military bikes (an interesting chapter!).

Overall this is a very informative book, and I say kudos should go to the authors for assembling all of the information in a scholarly fashion, complete with TONS of references at the back (if anyone out there needs to write a term paper on anything about bicycles, this should be your starting point!).

My one minor (major?) complaint about it is that it reminds me of several of my history classes in high school. How so? No, not because I fell asleep… I like history, and this book is written pretty well, so I didn’t do that during either high school or while reading this! It’s because in high school I had several years of history classes where we spent a ton of time on something early in the semester… and then gradually less and less time per topic, until by the end we rushed through the 1960’s on in only a couple weeks (I don’t think I had a history class that ever made it to the decade we were in!). Bicycle Design reminds me of this: it spends a lot of time on early development, but we get to the end and there are a scant 10 pages on mountain bikes. Two paragraphs on disc brakes. Two pages on suspension. Etc. etc. Yes, these are relatively recent in the scheme of things – but they’re BIG things right now, they involve some pretty neat increases in bicycle capabilities, and they deserve to be included… not lumped together in a hash that includes everything from the 1970’s til now in a handful of paragraphs.

Gripes regarding recent history aside, this is something every serious bicyclist should at least flip through sooner or later. I highly doubt many people (apart from the authors) have a good grip on all of the developments mentioned in its pages, so you’re guaranteed to learn something (and probably something interesting!). At $20-something on Amazon (for a nice hardcover), it’s definitely worth picking up for the coffee table, or for the bike-themed coffee shop, or for the bike shop, or for a stocking stuffer, if Santa’s real nice and someone you know has a stocking that can accommodate a 564-page volume.

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

 

Review: Virtue Encore 5M

Over the last few weeks I’ve been testing (with some help from our very own Ghostrider, whose profoundly enlightening viewpoints will be revealed later on in this post!) the Virtue Encore 5M from Virtue Bikes. Virtue is a San Diego-based company offering stylish city and transportation-oriented bikes at affordable price points. The Encore 5M is their standard men’s frame with a 5-speed Sturmey Archer hub.

Google+ auto-edits FTW! This bike looks right at home in an “old” photo.

Right off the bat, this bike gave me some difficulties… on my first ride, the rear hub locked up suddenly and I almost got dumped in a ditch! Thankfully I had only gone a quarter mile from home… but after inspection, I was unable to determine the issue with the hub. My LBS took a quick look at it, and advised me to request a new wheel from Virtue – so I did, and a few days later I got the new wheel. After a couple weeks delay on my end (family vacation etc.) I was able to install the new wheel (though with a little grumbling as the new wheel was sans rim tape and I had to install my own “rim tape”). A few more tweaks, and it was finally ready to ride!

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This is more like it.

Where is my hand supposed to go??

First up: this is a nice-looking bike. Second up: whoever made the decision on where to put the shifter either has no right hand or never tried riding the bike. Not kidding… check this out:

Yeah. So I fixed that. Nothing too tough… just required moving things around a little bit. The way I’ve got it now still looks fine (IMO) but is actually functional, and allows me to put both hands on the bar!

This type of issue, where looks trump function, seems to extend through some of the component choices on the rest of the bike. The grips look great, but the cushion is really soft, so after a few miles my hands were getting uncomfortable because of the pressure from the bar. Maybe I just have wimpy hands… but I don’t usually have that issue.

Similarly, the saddle looks nice, but after about 5 miles on it various parts of me start to go numb! Not cool! Finally, the flat pedals are single-sided; they look nice, but there’s not really a good excuse to have ones that aren’t double-sided on a city bike.

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Looks are deceiving, this is painful!

All of that said… the bike itself rides pretty nicely. The (chromoly) steel frame absorbs bumps the way you’d expect it to, and the 700×32 tires give enough cushion to smooth out small bumps – which is good, because I think that’s about the max volume tire you can fit in this frame (for the rear at least) – I had to deflate the tire to get the new rear wheel on, and the clearance between the tire and the fender is pretty minimal. The Sturmey Archer 5-speed internal is a nice touch for gearing – that range covers pretty much anything I’d want in a city bike. I will caveat that I never got the shifting to work exactly as it should, but I’m going to put the blame there on my lack of experience adjusting internal hub shifters. I would assume that if this came from a shop, it would be properly adjusted and work nicely. The drum brakes worked pretty nicely too. I tend to prefer the most powerful stoppers I can get, and that’s definitely not drum brakes, but I was able to stop in reasonably short distances with these – pretty comparable with a lot of road-style rim brakes.

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Drum brakes!

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The stubborn drivetrain

Having an internal hub shifter and drum brakes makes for simple lines and simple maintenance – but there is one negative to all of that, which is that if you get a flat while riding this, you’re probably not fixing it right where you are. That is, unless you’re packing (for the front) 15mm and 17mm box wrenches, or (for the rear) 15mm and 10mm box wrenches and a philips screwdriver. This of course is in addition to the normal flat-fixing tools! Not really an issue specific to this bike, just something you might want to be aware of if you haven’t thought about it!

So what do I think of the Encore 5M? Well, in the end I think there’s a pretty reasonable platform here that could be made better with some judicious part swaps. If this was my bike, the previously mentioned grips, seat, and pedals would all get changed out right away – some of that is personal preference of course, though I happen to think my opinions are very reasonable! I’d definitely change out the stem too. The handlebars are pretty close in, resulting in a riding position that’s very upright and occasionally knee-endangering. I think a slightly longer stem would help there. Also, the current stem and bar combo seems less than ideal – I had trouble tightening the bolts down hard enough to prevent bar rotation. In the end I got it where it won’t rotate most of the time, but I can’t tighten it any further because I was starting to strip out the bolts. I’m not sure if that’s a matter of component quality or just making sure the stem/bar are an ideal fit – but I’d want to make it better, and a new stem would likely do the trick.

I’d definitely want to add a rear rack (there are spots to mount one). It would be nice to have a kickstand too – which some of Virtue’s advertisements say is included with the bike, but which I didn’t get with this bike (so maybe I was just unlucky?). Having said all that, none of these changes are very expensive, and I always assume I’m going to want to change out the seat (and possibly other contact points) on any bike I purchase just out of personal preference.

The Virtue Encore 5M has a MSRP of $599, which puts it on the more affordable end price-wise in comparison to other bikes with steel frames and internal shifters. If you like the looks of the frame but don’t need the SA hubs, some of their other offerings come in much lower – $290-$400 for single speed and conventionally-geared bikes with up to 7 speeds.

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Jack’s Thoughts:

I agree with everything Matt said about the strengths and weaknesses of the Virtue. It’s a stylish machine, no doubt, and it definitely has the foundation for a really nice and versatile urban machine. However, some of the parts choices left me cold, starting with the one-sided pedals. A proper citybike should have grippy platform pedals with tread on both sides so you can just get on and go.

The drum brakes were better than other drums I’ve tried in the past — I definitely don’t care for them, in general, as I feel they don’t have enough braking “oomph” for my taste. I tried locking up the rear drum on the Virtue, to no avail. Still, the SA drums seemed to be a bit more powerful than the Shimano drums and rollers I’ve used previously.

I did feel cramped on the Virtue — the swept-back handlebar and the upright stem meant putting the ends of the bars right in my lap. Getting out of the saddle to pedal became a real chore because of that…awkward and unstable. I would like a more stretched-out riding position; that would be remedied easily by a stem swap to something with a bit more extension. This would stretch the rider out some, but not sacrifice the mostly-upright stance such a citybike should have.

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I didn’t like the saddle, either — I like a flat saddle with no cutout, and the cutout on this particular saddle felt like it was taking a cookie cutter chunk out of my nether regions.

In general, I commend Virtue for putting out a line of bikes that is affordable and stylish. I can’t help but think, though, that the company is perhaps too married to their price points, and quality/component spec/overall build suffers a bit for it. None of the parts Matt and I gripe about here in this review are expensive to swap out, but I’d like the Virtue folks to take a deeper look and find more suitable parts to specify for their various bikes.

FTC Disclaimer here.

Intro and Mid-term Review: Dahon Mariner

So a few weeks ago I accepted delivery of Dahon’s Mariner D7 folding bike for review! I’ve been considering adding a folder to the stable, so I was pretty stoked to get the chance to take this for a spin or 20. Because I’ve been all over the place and crazy busy, I’m wrapping the out-of-the-box and midterm reviews into one here, so get your coffee and settle back!

Smaller box than usual…

First off though, some specs. The Mariner weighs about 26 lbs, which for the functionality (including folding) and price point (MSRP $599) is pretty decent. It comes equipped with a rear rack, integrated bungee (snaps into rack), kickstand, and SKS fenders. Sounds like a good fit for Bikecommuters.com! Components are mostly not big brand names, but appear solid. V-brakes provide some good stopping power, and the 7-speed drivetrain provides a decent range.

Out of the box, the Mariner was easy to set up – it came folded and without instructions, but thanks to my insane skills reasonable mechanical aptitude I figured everything out pretty quickly. Unfolding time is somewhere around 20 -30 seconds, folding time a bit longer depending on how it’s been set up. Everything is adjustable – the seatpost, stem, handlebar angle, etc. – and depending on how the handlebars have been situated they may need to be adjusted before folding (they fit in between the two wheels when folded). The seatpost always needs to come down, because the bottom portion of it also functions as support for the bike when its folded. Pedals also fold in, and there is a clip that holds the two axles together when folded; it’s not tremendously strong, just enough so the whole thing doesn’t come open unexpectedly. Once folded, the front wheel still rolls so you can move it around a bit but it’s a little awkward. Carrying it by the seat isn’t that difficult though.

So how does it ride? Pretty well! It took me a few minutes to adjust to the small wheels – they’re definitely much more responsive to small steering adjustments than my usual 700c or 29er wheels. Otherwise, everything was pretty easy: the ride is comfortable, the brakes work well, the shifting works well, and there’s really not an awful lot to think about. The only caveat there is that because everything is so adjustable, it takes a bit to figure out where to set it all to be comfortable – and then to figure it out again the next time. I’d definitely recommend making some sort of marks on it for preferred setup.

All folded.

Because I hadn’t gotten much opportunity to ride it before heading out on a family vacation to Maine, I managed to squeeze the Mariner into the back of the car (hey, no bike rack!) and got a couple rides in while we were vacationing – including one to the grocery store, which was a (very hilly) 9 mile ride each way. I went with my brother-in-law, who was on his Surly Long Haul Trucker, and found out some of the advantages and disadvantages of the Mariner relative to a 700c commuting/touring bike. First, the gear range on the Mariner, while more than adequate for most cities (maybe an exception for San Francisco, but I assume all bikers in San Francisco have massive quads and can deal), was a little less than ideal for coastal Maine hills. I ran out of gears on both ends – so there was a little walking up some particularly steep hills, and then some coasting down the other side of those same hills when I got to spinning too fast in the top end. Standing and cranking really isn’t an option on the Mariner – the geometry makes it so it’s pretty much a seated-only bike. I also have to note that especially when loaded down with groceries in the back, the front end felt very light and twitchy and going downhill quickly was just a little hairy! So adding a top gear probably wouldn’t be very beneficial – but I thought having an 8-speed with a lower low end wouldn’t have been a bad thing. Finally, we both noticed that I was working a lot harder on some of the hills than he was on the LHT – mostly just a function of the wheel size and gear range, I think – but possibly also related to pedaling position (the Mariner is much more relaxed).

Loaded down with groceries.


In terms of carrying capacity, the Nuvo-brand rear rack has a 10kg (22 lbs) max load printed on it, which seems pretty silly to me. Probably a liability thing, but if there’s a rack, I’m going to want to put more than 22 lbs on it! I’m pretty sure what I carried was closer to 30 or 40, and I’d bet a decent amount of money it could take 50+ lbs without too much issue. The Ortlieb panniers I used were a little bit of a tight fit – I had to shove them pretty far back to get adequate heel clearance – but they did work. I’m sure there are other panniers that would work a bit better if you were buying specifically for this bike.

Other quibbles? I’d like to see some bottle cage bosses somewhere on the frame. I didn’t particularly like their choice of grips – I’ve been riding without gloves since I see this as being targeted for riders not all kitted out, and have found that when my hands get sweaty the grips get slippery – not good! Also, the drivetrain was a bit noisier than I prefer when in high or low gears (though functional).

Those nits aside, I’m very much liking the Mariner. It wouldn’t be my choice for a lengthy commute, but it seems quite reasonable for shorter rides and I’ve been pretty happy with how it packs down. I’ll be putting in a final report later, and Ghost Rider will hopefully be adding in his impressions after he’s had a chance to ride it.

All set to ride

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Final Review: 2014 Jamis Hudson with Slidepad Brakes

We’ve had the Jamis Hudson with Slidepad on test for a few months now, and despite a lot of frigid days, and days that look like this (or snowier), I’ve managed to get enough rides in to get a good impression.

 

Average reviewing conditions. March 17th snow in Virginia!

 

 

You’ll remember (or not) that I did an initial review here. Overall, I can’t say that my impressions have changed very much – I still think the general setup is pretty good for the intended audience, and after a decent number of hours/miles (many at slow speed with a 5-year old out in front) I didn’t have any issues crop up. The bike is overall comfortable (though after one 2-hour ride I was getting not-so-happy with the super-cushy saddle!).

There is one significant difference between that initial review and now, concerning the brake setup. After reading my initial impressions, Ian at Slidepad was concerned there might be something wrong with my brake setup. He gave me a call, and we determined that the sliding-pad bit of the brake system had gotten (to use a technical phrase) hung up on something internally – so it wasn’t kicking in full-force. After wrestling with it a bit, I managed to pop it back into place without damaging anything, and voila! I had improved braking performance.

So – that bit of my initial review can be revised. Braking works pretty effectively,the rear wheel does not lock up as much as it was before, and the front-wheel braking kicks in reasonably quickly.

While I was talking with him, Ian also explained that their “improved braking efficiency” claim was made against a bike with rear-brake only (like a lot of the coaster-brake cruisers out there). I’d agree that this definitely beats that setup. However, I think a fairer comparison is against something like the Electra Townie 7D, which is extremely comparable in price (within $20), as well as components (with the exception of the brakes) and general intent. In that case, I don’t think that there’s going to be a big difference unless the rider of the Electra isn’t using their front brake well/at all.

The Hudson in drier (and warmer) times

This brings me to the whole “one brake lever is easier” thing. Yes, it works. Yes, it’s a valid option and frankly I can see it working out for some people (and hey, you have your left arm free to signal turns!). But in general – I still don’t quite buy it. When using Slidepad, it does take a bit of trial and error to adjust to the point where the front brakes kick in, as you go from a light “back only” to a significantly stronger “back and front combined.” When riding at speed, I did sometimes find myself unintentionally slowing much more than I meant to when that front brake kicked in. So in my mind, learning to deal with this isn’t really much less difficult than learning to deal with two brakes. Finally, I really think the whole risk of doing an endo/losing control by means of front brake, on a bike like this, is pretty minimal – the weight balance is so far back that it really takes a lot of effort to get the back wheel to pick up much at all.

In terms of the “simpler” idea on the brakes: my experience with the whole setup having a malfunction didn’t leave me more confident. I was happy it was fixable, but it definitely took more effort than getting a regular set of V brakes set up. Additionally, it’s a lot more obvious what’s wrong with a set of V brakes. I’m sure Jamis dealers will get their mechanics all set up on how this system works – but if an owner of this type of brake system walks into a shop that hasn’t seen it before, I have no idea what their results would be. If all is working fine, it’s not going to be an issue, but I can’t say how often issues might come up.

In the end, this really all comes down to personal preferences (as it so often does!). In this case, I’d prefer independent brake levers for the greater degree of control. However, if a prospective buyer is purchasing from a Jamis dealer, intends to continue to use that shop for service, and likes the whole “one hand two brakes” concept, I’d say go for it.