The folks over at Spooky Bikes were nice enough to sponsor a really good cyclocross race in Easthampton back in November. They were nice enough to raffle off a frameset. So nice, in fact, that I was the winner. That’s how nice they were.
I’ve mentioned the Spooky Skeletor that I picked up from their awesome workshop over in the Eastworks a few times here on this blog, and since, I’ve noticed that I’ve gotten some hits from people searching the internet for reviews of the Skeletor. There aren’t a whole lot out there (one, two, among some talk on bikeforums calling it the CAAD9 killer), but since Spooky’s star is rising, there are bound to be more people searching for one. So, with a conscious attempt to avoid the absurd slang that’s all-too-pervasive in reviews (laterally stiff, vertically compliant?), here’s my take on things:
If you hold one in your hand, you notice three things about an aluminum frame first off: first, you notice the fancy crap – the paint job, the decals. Then you notice the welds. And third, you notice the shaping of the tubing. Here’s what the Skeletor looks like: simple, rugged. It’s anodized black with simple decals. I like that, despite also owning an ostentatious bike (why yes, those are rainbow sparkles in the clearcoat, thanks for noticing!). The Spooky’s welds are very evenly beaded – more so than my CoMotion, more so than my Felt track bike. The tubing shapes are interesting: there’s a nice, subtle ridge along the top tube near the headtube, the downtube is fat as hell. I expected it to ride stiffly.
I built it up with the stuff I’ve been riding on various bikes for a couple of years: Campagnolo 9 speed drivetrain with Eurus wheels. I bought a cheap carbon fork from ebay. I had an Alpha Q sitting around with a loose dropout, and I was too impatient to leave the Skeletor unbuilt while waiting to hear back from True Temper. The build went smoothly – the bottom bracket threaded in fine, and the Cane Creek headset I bought from Spooky went in with no problems. I bolted on the BB cable guide and put the wheels on it and started dangling parts on it, like you’re supposed to, and the build encountered nary a problem.
Then I got to throw my leg over it and ride it.
Now, first off, I knew I’d like it because it fit me better than my old bike. I’m short. Even small bikes need fairly ordinary-sized headtubes to avoid difficult mitering and welding of the top tube and the downtube, which means that with my fairly low saddle, there’s only so much bar-drop I can set up with. There’s only so much I need, too – I’m comfortable riding long, and with short arms, I don’t need them too far down to get a flat back. That said, while my old bike was comfortable, there was room for improvement, and my fit on the Spooky was an improvement. If Spooky had a 48cm bike, I may have gone for that to get a bit more option in getting my bars 5 or 10mm lower, but they didn’t, and a compact 52cm bike is enough to give me reasonable standover, the reach I need, and a proper bar drop.
I took it out for some sprints and found it stiffer than my track bike. Stiffness has its pros and cons: I found my way on to some rough streets and noted that it bounced over rough pavement. It required some deft handling; using legs as suspension became a bit more important. Some of the stiffness is from the front end, attributed to the cheap fork; I look forward to noting the difference between that and the Alpha Q. That said, for all the talk on the internet about the pain of stiff aluminum frames, I’ve never experienced discomfort from a stiff aluminum frame. I’ve ridden my TK2 all day, and the only pain I got was from riding steel handlebars with no cushion on the tops. I’ve ridden my CoMotion all day with no problems. I don’t expect pain or discomfort from long rides (though anything involving cobbles or “unpavé” may impart its own pain). The rigid ride of the Skeletor might makes for some wide-eyed moments over rough stuff; I wouldn’t recommend it to somebody who’s looking for an all-around bike – this is a race bike. With that in mind, I wouldn’t expect its stiffness to be much of a mark against it in the long run. Again: I look forward to putting on the superior carbon fork.
I like the bike’s handling a lot. My old bike was fairly longlegged, with a very stable, predictable front end. The Skeletor is quick and nimble – with a little bit less trail than I’m used to, it wants to dance around. But taking it down some descents, it sort of evens out and feels more stable than I’d expect. It wants to dive into corners and lean steeply – it asks me to lay it over much more quickly and readily than my old bike did. Oh yes: this is how a race bike should handle. Remind me to let out 5psi, to accommodate the rigid ride and to make sure I’ve got enough grip leaning as sharply as it wants me to… especially with so much sand still on the roads.
So there you have it. A product review that hopefully doesn’t read like industry lubricant. I think that Spooky is a company with decent stuff between its ears. I like my Spooky Skeletor.
Today is the second anniversary of the death of Sheldon Brown.
It seems strange that a bicycle mechanic from Boston would gain international attention to the point that “Sheldon Brown” would become a verb in internet lingo. Its meaning is simple: look it up on Sheldon Brown’s website, because he has the complete information and concise instructions.
What length bottom bracket spindle do I need? Sheldon Brown it. I want to build my first wheel – how? Sheldon Brown. How do I measure chainline or BCD? Sheldon Brown. Always.
His popularity grew in part because of his article Fixed Gear Bicycles For The Road, which was a portal into fixed-gear cycling for many novices. His article had it all: explanations of fixed gears from soup to nuts that managed to be both basic and thorough. No better portal to cycling could be found: the combination of a knowledgeable wrench with a flair for archival and arcane memory, skilled at clear communication; and the fixed gear bicycle, which in its simplicity and unique, unusual ride experience got countless people back into the saddle after long absences, reigniting passion for the bike the world over. Forget rants about hipsters. When I started riding one, I knew that riding a fixed gear was fun and unusual and it was the start of an ongoing love affair with cycling. The gateway to much more.
For that, I have Mr. Brown to thank.
I’ve always tried to approach death and grieving in combination with thanksgiving, and while Mr Brown died before we met (though after several email exchanges, during which he was friendly, open to persistent questions, and informative), I regretted never meeting him and appraising his eccentricity in person. But I’m thankful that when my curiousity was roused and I googled “fixed gear” lo these many years ago, his website was there to greet me and to provide both enthusiasm and a rich volume of information.
What an introduction to the cycling world.
Thank you, Sheldon Brown.
Here’s the deal, world. I will go to my grave insisting that I am a not the new-bike-each-season type of jerk (I say “jerk” out of jealousy, which is a form of love). Now, I know that the evidence against me is pretty staggering. Let’s see – two seasons of track racing on three different frames. Starting my first full road season on my third road frame in a year and a half. But I swear – I’m a cheapskate. There were extenuating circumstances!
And here’s another extenuating circumstance. I’ll race next year on a Skeletor, from Spooky Bikes. I rode home from their facility in Easthampton, MA with the frame over my shoulder, excited as all hell. I won it at SpookyCX in Easthampton, a few weeks ago. All pre-registrants were entered into a raffle, and what happened went something like this.
Promoter: “[Blah blah blah], Category 4 men, to the line, please!”
(everybody scuffles and shuffles forward. I take a spot on the side, in the first row)
Promoter: “As you all know we’re raffling off a Spooky Bikes frame today.”
Everyone: “Whoo! I hope it’s me!”
Promoter: “With Mathmumble Mumblesomesuch please step forward?”
Me: “Uh, was that my name?”
Me: Why am I getting a call-up? Are there call-ups? Did I somehow score points in this series at some point? Seems unlikely…
Promoter: “You won a bike.”
Promoter: “Everybody chase that guy. He just won a frame.”
Me: “What?” I throw my arms into the air, victory-style.
Them: Laughter and raging jealousy.
Me: “Holy shit!”
Even getting called up to several feet in front of the field wasn’t good enough for me to get a decent hole shot, and I settled in ten back as the field rocketed through the fast course. It was the funnest ‘cross course I’ve ever raced – which I can say because I didn’t get a chance to race Tracklocross – and I had a big smile throughout. The course had lots of fast, sweeping hardpack, some good terrain, and I passed more people than passed me, kept hunting a podium spot, but wound up finishing 4th.
Afterward, I settled down near the Spooky Bus to talk things over with Mickey, the mad genius behind the company, and in short order I was convinced that this rag-tag outfit of ruffians really knew what they were doing. A visit to their shop a week later only had me further convinced, and I couldn’t wait to get my hands on my frame.
I’ll build it up classic cheapskate-style – the parts from my CoMotion, of course, and an Alpha Q fork that I got for cheap because it needs a minor repair. Of course, I’ll crow loudly the day it’s finished – probably with pictures from an inaugural ride. It will be a little bit, maybe a few weeks or so, but it will happen pretty soon all things considered.
And I’ll review the bike here on my blog, but you can expect me to be pretty positive about it. I’ve already been given lots of reason to be impressed with Spooky’s business and products. You can take my nonsense with a grain of salt if I’m recommending a frame or a company before even riding their darn frame, but hey – go visit them yourself, spend a half hour talking with Mickey, and see if you’re not in my shoes.
For the first time in years, I have more geared bikes than fixed gear bikes. The ratio swung quite recently from 1:3 to 4:3, not because I acquired three geared bikes, but rather, I acquired one, sold a fixed gear, and mothballed another (giving it “half a bike status”), giving me two geared bikes and one and a half track bikes – which, yes, are track bikes according to my terminological standards.
If you’ve ever spent a minute on Sheldon Brown‘s website, which provides an ABCs in bicycle education and is part of many neophyte fixed gear riders’ education, you may have come across the quote, “Isn’t it better to triumph by the strength of your muscles than by the artifice of a derailleur?”
That was spoken by Henri Desgrange, the nerd pictured above. The full quote is, “I applaud this test, but I still feel that variable gears are only for people over 45. Isn’t it better to triumph by the strength of your muscles than by the artifice of a derailleur? We are getting soft. Come on fellows. Let’s say that the test was a fine demonstration – for our grandparents! As for me, give me a fixed gear!” and Desgrange was responding to a “test” off derailleur bicycles, which pitted a rider on a fixed gear versus a rider on a three-speed derailleur-equipped bicycle, which the latter won.
Is Desgrange calling me a weenie? An old fart? Desgrange is just a jerk who, as the founder and manager of the Tour de France, just told other people what to do. Well, Henri, all I’ve got to say i, I’m not the guy with a mustache that looks like I toss around a medicine ball with some guy named Finneaus.
Last year, I raced my first cyclocross race – Staten CX. I placed 4th in the B race on a singlespeed with knobby tires crammed in to it, in nasty freezing rain. Obviously, I was hooked, so when I started planning to move to Northampton, Massachusetts, I went about the process of building a cyclocross bike that could replace a fixed gear as an all-purpose bike – this time, with gears, and geared toward racing cyclocross.
Michael Catano, an awfully nice fellow from Chicago, agreed to build my bike, and recently, the custom process – from measuring me and my other bikes, talking about what I liked and what I wanted to change, talking about options and steels and fillet brazing, to ordering the steel and Michael building it in his workshop on his days off from his day job, to sending it out for paint – finally finished, and I received a lovely new frame bearing the logo Humble Frameworks. Michael’s craftmanship is lovely – smooth fillet brazed joints, small reinforcements here and there decorated with carved mustaches; and the whole thing is topped off by a glossy paint job, in British Racing Green, courtesy of Chester Cycles.
That meant that yesterday I could break it in by racing Westwood Velo’s cross race in Mahwah, New Jersey. It handled the grassy, muddy, wet, technical course really well – which is more than I can say for myself. I started too far back, tried to worm my way up through the dense, seething mass of heavy-breathing people clodding their way up a ski slope and down the switchbacks, and never saw the front (though I spent the race passing people in front of me, rather than getting passed).
I’m really psyched about this bike. It’s a lovely piece of equipment that can be used in lot of ways – cyclocross racing for now; winter training when there’s snow on the ground; and, now and ongoing, a comfortable geared bike for errands, around-town use, all-day casual riding, light touring, or just about any other purpose I can think of. And it can be with me for a long time – which is something I’ve intended since the start of this process.
I’ve been waiting to share this for a while, and though it’s finally time, I don’t have the time. More information will be forthcoming, but for now, I’d like to make it known that I have an amazing new toy.
In the interest of linguistic precision, I support a slightly anal retentive delineation between fixed gears and track bikes. It’s a squares-and-rectangles situation: all track bikes are fixed gears, but not all fixed gears are track bikes. However, I liberally salt the earth of this fertile metaphor with the point that some track bikes are not track bikes, but fixed gears.
Fixed gears have a long and glorious history that has little to do with velodromes – Dave Moulton writes about the days of British time trialling, with riders using fixed gears. And of course, an old European racer’s winter training routine was simple: ride 2000 kilometers in a fixed gear, geared between 60 and 70 inches.
What all of this means is that it’s okay to refer to your fixed gear commuter, your every day bike, as a fixed gear, not as a track bike. More importantly, it’s okay to build fixed gear bikes that are not track bikes. It’s okay to forego steep angles, tight tire clearances, brakelessness, and high gears in favor of road geometry, provisions for fenders, road handlebars with one or two brakes, and a sense that yes, fixed gears can be exciting and cool without pretending to be track bikes.
A few years ago, when riser bars became de rigeur, the fixed gear trend took another step away from track bike purism – a mistake if ever there was one – and inched toward practicality. That said, I’ve sold my every day fixed gear, basemented my track racing bike, and the only fixed gear that I’ve got is currently one of these track bike bastards, my lovely Pogliaghi, equipped with clips and straps for around-town riding.