no one line

Spooky Skeletor
February 8, 2010, 3:43 pm
Filed under: bikes, products, road bikes

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.

A New Build
December 8, 2009, 7:57 pm
Filed under: bikes, products, road bikes

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?”

Promoter: “Sure!”

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.”

Me: “What?”

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.

Slogfest 2009
October 25, 2009, 2:19 am
Filed under: products

Tonight, weathering the storm at my parents’ house in New Jersey, a weather alert scrolled across the screen, interrupting a sentimental moment by George Clooney in The Perfect Storm. Flood alert, it said. I nodded, knowingly and wearily, because earlier in the evening I had ridden from Brooklyn to Northern New Jersey, with the rain going from a dreary drizzle (Williamsburg Bridge) to a steady rain (West Side Bike Path in the 30s) to a torrential downpour (90th street or so until I got to my destination).

In Bergen County, roads were flooded near where I went to middle school; the descent down Fort Lee Road was utterly terrifying as I gripped my brakes and squinted my eyes, trying to keep water out and my contact lenses in. And when I got to my destination, twenty minutes after I had started to shivver in my soaked pants and thin top layer, a defensive skunk blocked my path, raising its tail any time I tried to pass, keeping me in the rain a few more minutes while I waited for it to clear off.

When I shed my sodden layers in my parents’ basement, I realized to my relief that the book my sister had lent me was still dry in my Ortlieb messenger bag. Sure, it’s old and beaten up. I got it used, and there was a small tear near the bottom of the only compartment, a big bucket of a sack. The velcro is worn and weak, and I had assumed that the flap would roll open and water would get in in my twentyfive mile soaking wet slog through New York City.

Nope. Dry as a bone inside. I don’t often plug products but I felt that this was worth it. If you need a bag that’s waterproof, buy an Ortlieb.

Fixed Gears at Interbike – Winners and Losers
October 7, 2009, 2:56 pm
Filed under: bikes, fixed gears, frame design, products, Recycled Content

Instead of thoroughly scouring the internet for pictures from Interbike, I made do with following Hipster Nascar‘s coverage (which is too exhausting for me to link each post).

In the past several years, amid the fixed gear boom, companies have rushed to market consumer or budget-end fixed gear bicycles, occasionally completely confusing themselves about whom they think will ride them – track races? Stylish types? Commuters?  People who like to purchase uniqueness in the form of pre-customized bikes?

Snideness aside, I think that a lot of bike companies are scrambling to meet new demands, but frequently wind up trying to put too much into one bike. What all too often starts out as a basic road fixed gear turns into a mish-mash when a company hopes that it will look both classic and modern, be simple, sleek and be utilitarian, be customizable and already match its bar tape to its rims. A lot of these bells and whistles conflict with each other – track drops, brake levers, brake callipers, annodized and unmachined rims – and the resulting bikes are a mess.

With the hopes that this post avoids Bike Snob mimicry, here’s my take on some of the winners and losers from Interbike, with thanks to Hipster Nascar for having attended Interbike and taken and posted so many photos.

Fuji: a smart lineup of bikes; maybe a few models on the budget end are stepping on each others toes, but for the most part they are distributed nicely along price and performance points.

Rock Racing, which for some reason is making bikes – or at least, has made  a few bikes.


Do name your performance track bike after the local track – a nice nod to the local roots.

Do make sensible, dual-brake-equipped SS/FG bikes, but don’t put cross levers on track drops, don’t put crazy handlebars on anything, and don’t put two brakes on annodized, unmachined rims.

Don’t equip all-purpose fixies with seatmasts.


Don’t take a storied name in Cycling and do… this.

Velocity, HPlusSon, EighthInch, and other companies: don’t continue the “deepest V” competition.

Don’t do what Bianchi did: call a bike “classic” despite being outfitted with a threadless stem and a straight-blade fork; and then put aerospokes on the competition-worthy Super Pista.

Aero Wheels
September 21, 2009, 2:52 pm
Filed under: pro crap, products

Recently, some good reading on the subject of aerodynamic wheels came up. I didn’t really understand aerodynamic wheels until I read this post and this post by sprinterdellacasa a while back.

A few months ago, NYVelocity posted an equipment review of rental deep carbon wheels from Revolution Wheels. Using Zipps as a familiar point of reference, NYVelocity concluded, “These wheels are maybe 95% as good as Zipps, for 42% of the price. Unless you’re lighting cigars with twenty dollar bills these babies are hard to beat.”

A few months later, Zipp’s lead engineer gave a very open interview to NYVelocity in response. It offers some interesting insight into Zipp’s R&D as well as the industry’s copycat process. Plus you get to learn some juicy details about ceramic bearings.

Now, another response comes from Steve Hed, who apparently wants to clarify some of the Zipp-v-Hed issues brought up in the interview with Zipp’s engineer. Hed picks apart some of the claims and illustrates a chicken-or-the-egg rivalry going on between the two companies: The fact is that since Zipp acquired our patent (sometime in the late 90s) their wheels have changed shape to more closely mirror the wheels we started selling 18 years ago. We have continually improved them since then, but the underlying aero shapes are still similar. As Zipp’s wheel shapes have changed to more closely resemble ours, it only follows that their wind tunnel data is more like ours too.

It’s a good read for the nerds who enjoy not only technical data but industry sparring as well.

ELVS rims
May 27, 2009, 4:05 pm
Filed under: products, the cycling world

I’ve recently gone from underemployment to overemployment, and my schedule fits together like tetris pieces. That’s part of the reason why a wide-open morning for a lovely ride – fast and hard in parts, but sans-computer and without a hard end time – is such a welcome rarity.

One of my jobs is working in the laboratories of Laek House, run by Ethan Benton, a local cyclist and all-around great guy. Laek House specializes in semi-technical cycling clothing, and Ethan’s niche is printing patterns with retroreflective ink: the Enhanced Light Visibility System. Shine a light, see the bright.

The particularly cool innovation he’s made is applying a retroreflective treatment to Velocity Rims – see photos here and video here.

The rims are a great choice for bikes with hub- or disc-braking systems (rim brakes will ruin the treatment). They are incredibly bright, and given the dangers inherent in riding in and around the city, extra visibility is always safer.

I’ve been working with Ethan, treating Velocity rims with the retroreflective application, so to be clear, this post is obviously a plug for the Laek House/Velocity ELVS rims. They are a smart product and deserve exposure. Check them out! You can order them through your local bike shop, which can place an order from Velocity or from Quality Bicycle Products.

H Plus Son rim failure
November 24, 2008, 2:41 pm
Filed under: products

Do you know what that is? That’s a picture of a bad component going badly. The story is here, but the abridged version is: some kids were riding on poorly made rims, and one failed impressively.

A few months ago, an unheard-of company called H Plus Son started making deep dish aluminum rims marketed toward the fixed gear crowd. The rims are an even Deeper V for the crowd who enjoys matching accessories on their street-fixes.

Since H Plus Son’s rims were only made in 32 and 36 holes, I speculated that they weren’t made to be aerodynamic, but rather that they were just made to be a bigger rolling surface to match to your toestraps or grips or saddle – or whatever. Had they made rims with 20, 24, or 28 holes, I would have considered lacing up one to a front wheel for track use.

H Plus Son also boasted that they’re lighter than Velocity’s Deep V, which is known to be something of an anchor. But what happens when you make aluminum thinner, longer, and lighter? Stories of rim sidewall failure are surfacing already, which actually doesn’t surprise me as much as the fact that internet forums are somehow already calling these rims “durable” – presumably because they’re riding the coattails of the Deep V’s only arguably deserved reputation.

The lesson here is that companies with no reputation who surf trend waves into style scenes should be viewed with skepticism until they prove otherwise. Admirable performance over prolonged use is the proper vetting process when new bits and pieces hit the market. To jump to claims of durability and performance is, well, a bad choice.

Photo and inspiration from Flickr user ganring, with thanks to John Prolly for the link.

EDIT: Update – more information from the event; generous skepticism from Prolly; words of warning at Bike Albany. If I hear more stories about other manufacturers’ rims failing like this because a tube blows, well, I would back off a bit. But I haven’t. That’s not to say that it doesn’t happen – I’d be learning something.

Wine, cheese, and bearing grease.
November 3, 2008, 4:38 pm
Filed under: bikes, products, the cycling world

Cycling is on the rise. To hear about greying locals talk about the sport twenty, thirty, or forty years ago, it was a blue-collar sport. Al Toefield was a cop who managed Olympic Teams, got the Kissena Velodrome built, and founded the Kissena Cycle Club; David Walker was a cop too, working in community relations, who started one of New York City’s biggest and most enduring races, the Harlem Skyscraper Classic Criterium. Pete Senia, it seems, organized most of the races in the 70s and 80s that laid the foundation for the cycling scene. I hear stories of these men driving vans full of young, aspiring racers – just kids – to the races in the pre-dawn hours of the morning. The scene consisted of a lot of dedicated, working-class men, a lot of immigrants. Circling Prospect Park on a Saturday afternoon, there are still groups of older Caribean men, and mustachioed Latino men, riding bikes from the 70s and 80s – Nuovo Record, downtube shifters – wearing faded colors, muted kits from bygone days.

The working-class flair that local bicycle racing had matches the technology from the time – when you’re talking about a lugged steel bike with 32-spoked wheels and downtube shifters, there’s really not a huge technological gap between entry level and high-end (leaving out, of course, the 1970s era Bike Boom’s drive to create cheaper and cheaper frames and components). Sure, there were ways to ramp up the cost of a bike – get the frame custom made, rely on Cinelli and Campagnolo parts – but at the end of the day, the manufacturing process and the final product between basic and bling were going to look a lot alike.

These days, the price-to-quality graph looks a lot more exponential – the higher you climb, the faster the prices increase, and the less you get for these increases. Campagnolo’s new Super Record 11 groupset – cranks, cogs, front and rear derailleurs, brake/shifter levers, and brakes – cost upwards of $2,000, while last year’s midlevel groupset, Veloce, sells for around $600. One can get a great frameset for well under a thousand dollars – indeed, just several hundred if you’re looking for somethins used – but high-end, specialty carbon fiber framesets can readily run to several thousand dollars, even climbing over the $10,000 mark. The higher up on the scale you go, you pay more and more for smaller and smaller improvements in performance, quality, or manufacturing – a rapidly declining value system.

Ironically, the growing popularity of cycling is turning it into a more exclusive sport. Case in point – I was recently at an event featuring one of the world’s greatest cyclists. As the event’s attendants inconspicuously crowded around and waited for a pin-sized gap in the conversation so that they could speak to (to, not with) a consistent high finisher in the Paris-Roubaix, the conversation somehow turned to high finance, and almost everybody in this circle – barring myself, a journalist, and Big George Hincapie – chimed in. Not just everybody bearing an opinion about the collapse and the bailout – instead, it seemed that everybody present was in the industry. “Oh, so you must know so-and-so at Big Firm, then.” These are the consumers in the new cycling industry, an industry of “it goes to eleven,” of this year’s model, of custom carbon fiber, of powermeters and high-end aero wheels for the casual racer.

Threads on the internet asking when you know your frame is obsolete. Though people know that while the industry churns out “improvements” each year, the bike that you bought two, four, or ten years ago is still just going to rely on the juice that’s in your legs – and yet, the industry plows on and people buy the bikes with the newest graphics. Friends, it’s an economy of wine, cheese, and bearing grease, but unlike wine and cheese, I fully plan to turn this to our advantage by looking at the resale markets of so-called “obsolete” components.

Bicycle Consumption
September 30, 2008, 9:17 pm
Filed under: bikes, products

I have a friend from my more torn-clothes punk-rock past; I fear her reproach. She lives half in my head and half in the real world – which to say it’s entirely possible that I’m imagining the things that she would say, engaging in too much speculation. That I’m using her as a way to externalize my conscience.

We discovered bikes together at the university bike coop, taught each other the hammer-and-duct-tape method of bike mechanics, rode mountain bike beaters around and locked up to street signs and dumpstered miscellaneous parts and frames and pieced together our first fixed gears and, above all, reveled in our bike culture of putting to use the cast-offs from a recklessly wasteful society and building a means of affordable, egalitarian, and secretly subversive transportation. Yes, what I’m trying to say was that those first bikes were indeed pipe bombs.

What would she say now? What would she say to my pretty-but-beat-up classic Italian track bike (with Campy 151 cranks and vintage Zeus hubs)? And what would she say about my aluminum-and-carbon frame that I use exclusively for racing at the track?

There is an inherent strain of consumerism underlying much of cycling culture. This came as a surprise to me, as my main exposure to bike culture was noting that every poor kid in that faded industrial city in New England where I lived after college had a beat-up BMX bike that they’d ride around town, popping and holding huge wheelies. But in New York City, I had easy access to just-out-of-college kids spending whatever didn’t go to their student loans on a new frame here, a new wheelset there. NJS this, Italian that. And meanwhile we’ve got the cyclists who live proximal to Central Park and trot out their Colnagos, Cervelos, and Litespeeds (oh my!) on the weekends, meandering the loop at 18 mph only semi-aerodynamically tucked onto their HED aerobars, looking for all the world like that kid you knew in high school who decided he wanted to learn guitar so went out and got a way-sweet Les Paul and a 50-watt tube amp and struggled to contort his fingers into a bar chord. Or the middle-aged, masters-level racers who show up to Kissena for the first time – “I’m just trying out track racing since I’ve been having a hard time not getting dropped at Floyd Bennet Field” – with their bikes wearing a new set of Zipp 808s.

Why, my friend would be asking me, would you even step close to that? Why do you have three fixed-gear bikes? (But I don’t! One fixed, one track bike, and one extra track frameset…) You can really stick to your ideals and pare down your stable to one or two bikes, can’t you?

Oh, right. This isn’t her telling me this, it’s me telling me this.

I have answers, and they’re answers about how to resist consumerism while still being a bike geek. In these uncertain times, in this uncertain country, everybody spends money and everyone has their priorities. While everything is relative, having a hobby isn’t indicative of conspicuous consumption (having several hobbies on the purchase scale of bikes might be, however). You work for your money and you spend it on things you like. Some people buy nicer food and some people rely on six meals a week of rice and beans. Some pay rent, some squat. Some pay off their student loans faster. Some people drink a lot. Some people give everything they don’t need to people who need it a lot more.

Some people buy right to the top, buy the fanciest wheels for their new toy, go through framesets like they’re trying on clothes for the high school dance. Some amateurs buy professional-level gear. I think that’s ridiculous but can’t say I wouldn’t mind owning some of that gear.

Of the six frames I’ve owned in the past three years, one was bought new – my first, a tough steel all-around commuter fixed gear which I still own and ride. The others have all been used – very well used, in fact, without exception. I think hard about what bike bits I want and need, I consider alternatives, I make plans and I drop them. I buy used; I patiently wait for good deals, and sometimes I impulsively buy things I don’t really need. I sell stuff from my parts bin – usually to friends, with prices falling between “good” and “I’m doing you a favor.”

So I’m not part of it all – not entirely. Or I’m as much not a part of it as I am a part of it. Or, there’s no such thing as being part of it or not being part of it.

Look: don’t buy the best thing you can get. You might not need it. Don’t buy everything you want – you might have some redundant bike issues. Buy smart and buy restrained and make good financial decisions. Buy used, for goodness sake – I’m not too confident in the environmental effects of all that carbon production, that aluminum production, the chroming and painting processes. Buy things that will last you. I think the measure of unhealthy consumption might not be what you have, but what you go through.

If I were living somewhere else, with different habits, I might have one bike – some steel cyclocross bike with a carbon fork (and a steel one in the closet), that I could put some slick tires on and use in the occasional road race, or throw a rack on and go for a light tour.

No doubt that day will come eventually, but it’s not here right now.

Until then, I’m going to enjoy my hobby, and spend less on my bikes than so many people do on electronics, clothes, rent in ugly gentrified neighborhoods, drugs and alcohol, cars and other shitty forms of transportation, and so forth.