Monday, March 24, 2014

Cool bike hunting

Six years ago I made an impulse buy, to give my sentimental favorite beater frankenbike a rest from daily commuting. The new bike was muscular but sleek and sexy, good with a rack and fenders, good stripped down to bare wheels, good in sloppy weather, good on perfect days: it was good.

Cannondale Bad Boy Ultra

But it had a flaw disguised as a feature, a super-proprietary front end that hardly any shop can maintain. This year's cold and snowy weather fully revealed that flaw, and the bike that was meant to carry me wherever I wanted to go whenever I wanted to go there turned into one I dreaded HAVING to ride. Especially on cold days, when a few minutes into every ride the suspension would collapse and the handlebars would drop 3" - more than enough to drastically change the handling. It had to go. I had to get a new bike.

I turned to my twitter friends with the open question: what bikes should I consider? The feedback was great.

Many think cyclocross bikes make excellent commuter bikes. I agree with that a lot, and had previously replaced my stolen fancy fixed-gear with a reasonable facsimile of a steel cyclocross bike. Maybe I didn't need a new bike at all... But I've occasionally commuted on it and it very much likes to be off asphalt. I certainly could adjust the setup, or get another and build it just for that, so it's not completely out of the question - but not what I'm looking for.

Others suggested starting with a basic hybrid or road bike that's rack and fender ready. This also is a great idea for some, and I have a couple of frames that could be the basis for such a beast. They still might be, someday, if I need another beater - but again, that's not what I'm looking for to replace the Barge Boy.

I also visited a few shops and asked friends there what they liked for an uncompromising all-around commuter. The answers were as varied as the places: full-custom Ti as long as I didn't mind waiting and picking each component, or semi-custom boutique possibilities. The names thrown out included some that were familiar from my years and years of bike lust...

One of the suggested bikes was described in marketing materials as a "Pacific Northwest Commuter". The more I looked at it the more I liked it - many details were absolutely great - but they still looked just like all the rest of my bikes with drop bars and "performance" somewhere in the description. I was thisclose to riding off on thisbike, the Traitor Cycles Ruben:

Then I noticed one key spec that broke the deal, that the recommended maximum tire size with full fenders was only 30mm, smaller than my cyclocross tires. (Also, the full build has the same mechanical disc brakes I disliked on the Barge Boy - along with adding full fenders and a rack I would be swapping those out immediately.)

So close, but not close enough. I started my search anew, building out from the PNW Commuter idea and taking a fresh look at what I wanted this bike to do: all weather, minimal maintenance, maximum utility, disc brakes. The Barge Boy had flat bars, to which I added bar-end extensions. The Barge Boy had frame clearance for 26" wheels up to 2" wide, or 1.5" with full fenders. What else would go well with that overall idea?

Essentially I wanted to keep everything I had ever liked about any bike, and seek improvements on everything I had ever disliked about any bike. What in the world - bike, frame, components - could do that?

The answer came from an unlikely place. But first, a small diversion into my love-hate relationship with DC's bike shops...

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