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Monthly Archives: October 2012

Jumping Into the Deep End

With each cheese and potato breakfast taco I thought more and more about getting a road bike.  My hybrid bike with the platform pedals had served me well from the moment I first dipped my toes into cycling.  It had taken me from those early heady days of 20 kilometer rides to keeping up with the Six Thirty group through 55 kilometers.  My fellow riders were suggesting that I join them on organised rides of 80 kilometers and more.  To do that would require a bike more suited to long road rides than my hybrid bike was.  A road bike.  But how to decide on exactly what to get?

I started paying more attention to what my Six Thirty friends were riding.  I took a closer look at the Specialized, Moots, Ibis and Independent Fabrications frames on display at West End Bicycles.  I browsed the Trek and Cannondale websites.  I read online reviews.  The choices boggled the mind.  Carbon, steel, aluminum or titanium frame.  Performance or comfort geometry.  Campagnolo, Shimano or SRAM groupset.   The decisions to be made didn’t stop there.  The options for pedals, handle bars, stems, saddles, seat posts, headsets, wheels, tires and other bits and bobs can and do fill catalogs the size of telephone directories.

As I did my research one thought stayed in my mind.  I had been sold a bike that was too small for me.  Bicycle frames come in a range of sizes.  Unfortunately manufacturers do not use a consistent method to measure the frames that they produce.  So the right sized frame for an individual of a given height and reach is a combination of stand over height, top tube length, seat tube length, seat tube angle, bottom bracket height and some eye of newt.  Throw in riding style and personal preference and the choice of an ‘off-the-rack’ frame often comes down to selecting from a range of two or three sizes.  Which will it be?  The larger frame or the smaller frame?

The more I thought about it the more attractive a custom built frame became.  A made-to-measure frame would solve the fit problem.  Being able to choose the paint design and other elements to make the bike uniquely mine added to the appeal.  A few of the Six Thirty group rode hand-built frames.  A chat with them convinced me.  I would bypass retail and go straight to bespoke.  It was time to go all in and find a frame builder in the area.  The list of exhibitors at the recent 2nd Annual Texas Custom Bicycle Show was a good starting point.  Some builders were immediately eliminated from consideration because they built only Dutch-style city bikes, or worked exclusively in carbon, or had a long waiting list, or were too far away from Houston.  That narrowed the list down to two or three frame builders.  I devoured everything on their websites.  I drooled over their gallery photographs.  And I made a telephone call to each of them.

The Alchemy Bicycle Company builder profile stood out on the Texas Custom Bicycle Show website.  There was something about the tagline “The Passion to Transform” that I liked.  James Flatman answered the telephone when I called Alchemy.  We spoke for more than an hour about where we were from, when James started building frames, the relative merits of various frame-building materials, what I was looking for in a bicycle, what sort of riding I did, and what else I should think about if I wanted to continue down the path to a custom frame.  I had a good feeling about James.  I was impressed that he devoted ninety minutes to a telephone conversation with a speculative contact.

I took James up on his suggestion to visit the Alchemy shop in Austin.  He asked that I bring my hybrid bike so he could see what I had been riding.  ZAZ, my ‘biker chick,’ came with me.  This bicycle was going to be my birthday and Christmas present from her for 2009.  James and I talked bicycles while he took all sorts of measurements.  He made suggestions about what material he would use to build a frame for me.  I tried out groupsets from Campagnolo, Shimano and SRAM.  We talked about components.  We looked at colour combinations.  After three hours in the shop ZAZ and I had made our choices.  Two months later James delivered this.

He made me a steel frame with carbon seat stays and fork.  He built it up with a SRAM Force groupset.  The sharp-eyed amongst you will have noticed the Red crankset.  There was a problem with the Force crankset and James swapped it out for the higher specification Red crankset at no charge.  Easton EA90 SLX wheels, a Chris King headset and bottom bracket, a Ritchey seatpost and handlebars, and a Selle Italia saddle and Speedplay pedals completed the package.  James and I agreed that a sterling silver head badge would look best.  This cool-looking badge is a blend of the old alchemy symbols for silver and gold.

There is one custom touch that makes this bike unique to me.  A Texas star on the seat tube.

I have pedaled almost 11,000 kilometers on this bike.  I don’t think I have to say any more about what a pleasure this bike is to ride.

There have been some changes at Alchemy.  James has left and Alchemy has just moved to Denver, CO.  The company has continued to grow, adding the capability to build frames using proprietary carbon tubes.  If you are in the market for a first-class hand-built bicycle give Alchemy Bicycle Company a call.

Corn Tortillas Please

As my fitness level improved I enjoyed the Six Thirty group rides more and more.  Especially the Sunday morning Ted’s Taco Rides, despite the 7.30 a.m. start time.

The Taco Rides are 55 km / 35 mi or so loops that start from the West End shop on Blossom Street.   The first part of the loop along Studemont Street, White Oak Drive and Hogan Street is reasonably relaxed.  The drag up Elysian Street gets the heart pounding and the breathing gets a bit ragged.  Everything settles down again during the last kilometre to Dona Maria Mexican Café on Navigation Boulevard in the East End.

Photo courtesy of Juan Ramirez

This particular Sunday ride was during a visit to Houston last year.  I took the chance to display the Not Possibles colours outside the Netherlands.

After juice, breakfast tacos and coffee the ride continues along Navigation and right onto West Hedrick Street.  Once the tortillas, eggs and potatoes start to digest the pace picks up through Magnolia Park and Lawndale to MacGregor Park.  The group reforms at the park as riders chat, have a drink and munch on Sports Beans.  Everyone then heads out onto the bike trail that runs along Brays Bayou.  Beechnut Street then carries the riders under Interstate 610 and north of the bayou.  A right turn onto South Rice Avenue signals the start to the last third of the route through Bellaire, West University and River Oaks back to the bike shop.

Have I said I miss those tacos?

. . . Just the Wrong Clothes

As someone once said, there is no such thing as bad weather, just the wrong clothes.

After my plastic bag booties ride the days continued to shorten and the average temperatures fell into the single digits centigrade.  I am a tropical person through and through.  If I was going to ride through the Houston winter I had no choice but to add to my cold-weather wardrobe.  The guys at West End Bicycles equipped me with DeFeet Blaze socks for my eternally cold feet, Endura tights and a jacket for my torso, and Specialised long-fingered gloves.  Icebreaker base layers and a beanie completed my starter winter ensemble.  When below-freezing temperatures arrived I bought a scarf and a balaclava.  This is what kept my head, neck and hands warm.

There were times when I looked more like the Michelin Man than a cyclist.  Dane S took this photo of our Six Thirty group shivering at the start of the 2010 Tour de Houston.  Do you think Skip regretted not wearing a jacket?

By the time I moved to Den Haag my tolerance for cold had improved somewhat.  Even so double socks weren’t enough to keep my toes warm in the constant wind.  So I added a pair of Shimano RW80 Winter Road shoes to my arsenal.  Three of us were wearing RW80s on the Not Possibles Christmas ride last year.  Andrew B’s son on the other hand looks like he spends most of his days in Antarctica.

Where Were You at 2:00 a.m. on November 1st 2009?

I was in front of the George R. Brown Convention Centre in Houston.  Along with about 13,000 other cyclists, many dressed in Halloween costumes and astride bicycles festooned with all manner of coloured lights.  After a couple of months of regular outings with the Six Thirty group I had felt confident enough to sign up for my first organised ride:  The Moonlight Bicycle Ramble.  Confident enough to choose the 20 mile route over the 8 mile option.

I lived 1.6 km from the convention centre.  All I needed was 15 minutes to get to the start line.  At 1:30 a.m. I checked the weather forecast.  It was a chilly 8° C / 47° F.  As the the heat of summer cooled to the crispness of autumn I had added some long-sleeved jerseys to my cycling wardrobe.  Including an orange one which suited the occasion in the absence of a Halloween costume.  A t-shirt under that jersey would keep my upper body relatively comfortable.  I had a hat and gloves to keep my ears and hands warm.  I was still riding in baggy shorts but I wasn’t worried about my knees and calves getting cold.  That left my feet, which are still the first part of my body to get cold when the mercury drops.  My Mizuno Wave Riders had proven that they were not the warmest of shoes.

I had already ended a few evening rides with numb feet.  My shoes had open-weave uppers that let in the cold air almost unimpeded.  I didn’t fancy the prospect of cycling 20 miles that night in those shoes.  The temperatures were sure to drop below the already nippy 8° C.  So I resorted to a trick that I had heard some riders talking about during the evening ride the week before.

I rolled away from the start line with plastic bags taped around my Mizunos.  In the company of wizards, witches, gorillas, bananas, hot dogs and other assorted characters.  I didn’t cut the most stylish figure that night.  But my feet didn’t freeze, even during that last cold stretch along Buffalo Bayou.

Alternative Reality

I have been driving on the Federal Highway since the 1980s.  It is Malaysia’s first expressway, and it runs for 45 km from Kuala Lumpur to Klang on the west coast.  During the four years before I left Kuala Lumpur for Houston I lived just off the Federal Highway in Pantai Hill Park.  I drove along the Federal Highway almost daily.  The Mid-Valley Megamall was a frequent destination.  I took my mother for regular medical checkups at the University Malaya Medical Centre.  I ate many meals at the restaurants in the Petaling Jaya Hilton.  A corollary to all those car journeys on the Federal Highway was the number of hours I wasted whilst inching along in the traffic jams for which the highway has become infamous.

I didn’t think it was possible to cycle along the Federal Highway.  But that is exactly what I found myself doing last Saturday morning.  I had agreed to help out with a cycling safety class being run by YC and Albert K. at Van’s Urban Bicycle Co.  So after a brief talk about the do’s and don’ts of riding on city streets  Albert led us from the shop to the motorcycle lane running alongside the Federal Highway headed toward Kuala Lumpur.

Photo courtesy of Albert Koo

Before long we were cycling under the Kota Darul Ehsan arch, which marks the border between the state of Selangor and the Federal Territory of Kuala Lumpur.  From the vantage point of a bicycle saddle it certainly looks like the the biggest arch in Malaysia.

Photo courtesy of Albert Koo

Apparently the motorcycle lanes were originally intended for bicycles.  We cyclists were definitely in the minority though.  Riding single file was essential as we were continually being passed by motorcycles.  You can see them in the distance in these photos.  That motorcyclist on the right in the picture below should be on the motorcycle lane by the way.  The skyscraper is the Menara Telekom.

Photo courtesy of Albert Koo

Less than ten minutes later we were at the Mid-Valley Megamall.  It has often taken me at least three times that long to drive from the Menara Telekom to the Mid-Valley Megamall.  Now I know there is an alternative I’m going to see if there is a place to safely park a bicycle at the mall.

We turned around at the mall and headed back on the opposite side of the Federal Highway.  We took a different route from the highway back to Van’s Urban Bicycle Co.  Conveniently there is a mamak restaurant below Van’s.  Ravi’s Banana Leaf, which as the name suggests, uses banana leaves as plates.  If you read my post about the ride from Bukit Jelutong you already know what we had at Ravi’s.  Teh tarik and roti canai of course!

Photo courtesy of Albert Koo

Reverse Dragon’s Back

I was so excited to finally do my first long ride in Kuala Lumpur today that I could hardly sleep last night.  So it was no hardship to be up at 5.30am for breakfast.  That gave me time to drive the 27 km to Bukit Jelutong.  I got to the rendezvous point at 6.50am.  Mark L. arrived shortly thereafter, followed by Wan A.  By 7.30am we were a Racun Cycling Gang of four roadies and three foldies, ready to get on the road.  We weren’t the only ones heading out for a ride this morning.  The car park quickly filled up with all sorts of vehicles that disgorged all sorts of bikes and riders.

Mark led us on what he described as a Reverse Dragon’s Back ride.  Which meant tackling the six hills that make up the Dragon’s Back at the start of the ride rather than at the end.  A wise choice in my book given the potential for roasting sunshine by midmorning.

As it turned out we were lucky with the sun.  It was humid and fairly warm, but it stayed overcast for most of the morning.  I was glad that I had sunscreen on though.  I picked up some color in spite of the cloud cover.

Riding in Kuala Lumpur reminds me of riding in Houston.  The Houston weather, at least in the summer, rivals Kuala Lumpur’s for heat and humidity.  More to the point, riding in Kuala Lumpur requires cycling alongside all manner of motorized vehicles.  Fortunately I had a gentle reintroduction to sharing the road.  The Sunday traffic was relatively light.  This is Mark coasting down one of the humps on the Dragon’s Back with just the occasional car for company.

Some of the major tollroads have separate motorcycle lanes.  Which of course make excellent bike paths.  Almost like the ones in the Netherlands.  After the Dragon’s Back and a stop for a drink we rode for 30 km on the motorcycle lanes alongside the Guthrie Corridor Highway.  The road surface is excellent and as it was a Sunday there were very few motorbikes out.

What is different here as compared to Houston and Den Haag is the lush and verdant foliage that covers everything beyond the shoulders of the roads.  Vegetation quickly reclaims any cleared land.  In just a few years secondary jungle takes hold.

The route that Mark chose was one that few other riders were on today.  We had long stretches to ourselves, including one 5 km section where Mark and and I were able to cruise along at better than 40 kph.  We stopped at regular intervals to regroup, including at the point where we would leave the highway.  Once back together again we returned to the urban roads.  From there we gently pedaled the last 2 km to where we had parked our cars.  Which just coincidentally was right in front of a ‘restoran mamak.’

These are very popular restaurants run by Indian Muslims.  These restaurants grew out of the roadside stall equivalent known as ‘gerai mamak.’  Some gerai and restoran mamak are open 24 hours a day.  All serve a variety of food and drink, including the ubiquitous roti canai and teh tarik.  Those make up the standard order at the end of a ride in Kuala Lumpur, in the same way a koffie verkeerd and an appelgebak met slagroom put the finishing touch to a ride in Den Haag.

A Sucker for Punishment

I must have been dropped on my head as a baby.  My aborted first ride with the Six Thirty group should have been my cue to stick to gentle solo rides along the Columbia Tap Rail to Trail.  Instead, at the very next opportunity, I planted myself, clad in Cordura and polyester, amongst the others resplendent in their Coolmax and Lycra, outside West End Bicycles.  This time toward the front of the group in the hope that it was not possible to be overtaken by everyone behind me before the first traffic light.

This photograph of some of the group was taken many many rides later, after I had swallowed the red pill and was worthy of wearing the Six Thirty jersey.  Alisa K. is second from the right.  Tom B., who features later in this post, is third from the left.

Most of the group did get past me by the first traffic light.  But not everyone.  Call it competitiveness or plain bull-headedness but I stayed ahead of a few other riders. If I was going to get lost again I was determined to have company.  Apart from the constant struggle to keep the group ahead of me in sight I don’t remember much about the 18 km / 11 mi to the old Houston Scottish Rite Temple on Brompton Street.  I was just glad that it was getting easier to see the flashing rear lights ahead of me as it got darker and darker.  What a relief it was to get to the midpoint of the route and to see the gaggle of faster riders who had stopped to wait for slowpokes like myself to catch up.

Naturally the stronger riders, having had a rest and a chat while waiting, were raring to get going again.  Red tail lights twinkled off into the distance as I leaned over my handlebars, struggling for breath and wondering if the hammering in my ears would ever stop.  Pounding heart or not, I had to start riding again.  I didn’t know the way back to the bike shop.  To get home I had to keep the group in view.  I pushed down on my pedals and bumped and clunked along for a few metres.  I had my first ever flat tire.

A feeling of dread descended upon me.  I was up the proverbial creek without a paddle.  I was in total darkness and had just a small headlight that provided minimal illumination.  I had never changed a flat tire before.  Which was irrelevant because I didn’t have any tools or a spare inner tube.  The prospect of having a flat tire had never occurred to me.  Neither had the notion that I would ever need to call for help to get home.

As I was trying to figure out the name of the street that I was on I heard a voice say “Are you okay?”  Tom B. appeared out of the gloom.  I don’t remember hearing it but he must have been accompanied by the sound of angelic harp music.  Tom changed my inner tube for me and guided me back to the bike shop.  A kindness for which I remain eternally grateful.  He is a very dear friend to this day.

I was at West End Bicycles the very next morning to buy inner tubes and tools both for myself and to replace what Tom had used to get me back on the road.  Before I rode again I practiced taking a wheel off and replacing the inner tube.  And I am happy to say that I have had opportunities since then to make my own contributions to good bicycle karma by helping other new cyclists who unexpectedly find themselves unprepared to fix a flat.