Thursday, April 21, 2016

Mixed Terrain or You Only Need One

Yesterday was an unofficial bank holiday in San Francisco. Since that usually means getting around the city turns into a big old charlie foxtrot, I took the opportunity to get outta dodge and fill up on good clean California dirt.

Obviously Marin County has a lot of good places to ride. Unfortunately that also means that on days like this the popular spots are overflowing with Rapha wearing throwback Oakley types, so I headed south towards Pacifica and beyond.

The great thing about the Bay Area, is it's not too difficult to escape the city on your own power. Hop a train and climb over the first mountain you come to and you'll find there's not a Dropbox shirt in sight. Pacifica is one of those classic Norcal burnout towns. There's a definite hardcore surfer vibe to the place, which helps to counter all the positive vibes from the hippie crystal shops. But in general it's a chill longboards and flip flops kind of scene. Vanagon pop tops outnumber permanent residents.

The great thing about this ride is it's about 50% offroad, so for singletrack addicts like me it's not a miserable hammer fest. The flip side of that is you can't get away with riding a skinny tire road bike if you want to get rad.

And that brings me to my main point. I'm privileged to have a couple bikes to choose from, but in reality I would be perfectly fine riding the same bike every single day. "How can you say that?" "Don't you work for a bike company?"

Bare with me now. Yes, Soma makes lots of different bikes, and yes they're all designed for different kinds of riding. However, if you compare all the bikes in our line with products from Cervelo or Santa Cruz it becomes apparent that they're all closer to the "all-rounder" unicorn than they are purpose built for any particular racing discipline.

For instance, the Smoothie (our "road race" bike) has fender eyelets. How many race bikes even fit 28c tires? You might argue that the Smoothie is in fact more of an enduro road bike to whit I would respond "Who the hell cares what you call it?"

You can always slap a pair of Shikoro tires on and roll pretty confidently over all kinds of marginally paved surfaces. Conversely, you can put 42mm Cazadero tires on either of our hardtail frames and end up with a totally functional offroad touring bike.

Of course there are compromises. You may well get less rolling resistance with 45mm slick tires. You might have better mud performance with a 32mm cyclocross tire. But, we feel that the 42mm Cazadero offers the best overall ride quality for true mixed terrain routes.

For example, I give you the Old San Pedro Mountain Road, aka Planet of the Apes. This is one of those magical abandoned places that reminds you that everything that man has built will fade in the blink of an eye.

This old road predates the recently re-purposed Devil's Slide road that connects Pacifica with Halfmoon Bay. Parts of the route remain mostly preserved, the pavement intact and exposed. Other sections have completely eroded away so that the single dirt high line is all that remains; bordered by jagged rock face on one side and open space on the other.

The road is absolutely rideable on a "skinny tire" cross bikes. No problem. Lots of people do it. But finesse is key. Coming down the trail like you would on a fully suspended MTB isn't going to work so well in the drops.

The trail winds it's way further inland as you climb up through eucalyptus forests and emerge onto windswept ridge tops. For every crest you're rewarded with photogenic vistas and cool breezes blowing up from the Pacific far below.

There are a lot of decent tires that are made for this type of riding. Panaracer, WTB, Maxxis, Kenda and even Surly have good options at reasonable price points. We think the Cazadero is still the very best option for our neck of the woods, because of rather than in spite of the compromises we chose to make when we designed the tread pattern.

An aggressive tread like the Bruce Gordon R&R works fine on loose terrain because the gaps in the tread allow the tire to bite down into soft dirt and conform to irregular rock faces. However given long miles on tarmac it becomes apparent that the soft rubber also creates a fair amount of drag and wears prematurely.

Conversely a file tread like the Teravail Cannonball rolls faster on crushed gravel but fails to afford enough cornering traction on steep, rocky descents.

For the Cazadero we chose to use a connected center tread, roughly equivalent to the width of a road tire's contact area. Inflated to 50-60 lb, they have surprisingly little rubber touching the road, and consequently feel much faster when going flat out in a straight line. Once you air down to trail pressure it feels more like any other mountain tire.

Soma has been working with Panasonic tires for ages, and we are big fans of their classic tire designs. The Fire XC is actually my all time favorite cross country tire, and the first tire I ever bought. Like the Fire CX and XC , the Cazadero employs a reversible tread design which is optimized for steering performance in the front position vs. traction and acceleration in the rear.

We also used a similar side knob design which bites into the ground when you lean into an off camber turn. The knobs are staggered to shift the weight from the sides to the center as the wheel roates forward.

Circling back to my original point; with the right component selection almost any of our bikes can be optimized to suit the riding style of any climate. The Doublecross, Saga, Wolverine, Buena Vista and Grand Randonneur all fit 42mm Cazadero tires with room to spare, but we know you'll probably want to play the field. Pretty much anything made by Panaracer will treat you nice.

Given that you really can get away with riding one bike all the time, then why do we make so many different options? Fair point. I think the Wolverine is so popular because it leave the door open to so many possibilities. But even so, the Saga does a better job with fully loaded panniers, while the Double Cross has more traditional CX geometry. Some people prefer the added junk clearance of the Buena Vista, and not just ladies! While low trail geometry is far from common for offroad bikes, the GR can certainly handle a bit of trail riding as many owners have discovered.

 There's no wrong answer. The good thing is you don't have to choose just one. I have 3 slightly different drop bar touring bikes and I ride all of them. Square footage is precious around these parts, but if you're lucky enough to have a garage then you probably know exactly how many bikes you can fit in it.

Regardless of what kind of bikes you're into you will undoubtedly appreciate the freedom of just walking out your front door and seeing where the road takes you. We're spoiled living where we live, but let me tell you I've lived all over this country and there's always a spot nearby just waiting to be explored.

For you that might mean riding a few blocks to a city park and hanging out on a blanket. Or it could mean 1500 feet of climbing. Or it could mean taking the next 3 months to cycle to the tip of Baja. The point is just ride your damn bike.

If you live nearby, or you plan on visiting California in the near future you can always rent a bike that's already equipped for  where you want to ride. My friends at Best Coast Biking just started a new company for exactly that reason. Check out their video while you're there.

The Devil's Slide is now a closed bike path with some of the most incredible views of the Pacific ocean anywhere. And  you can take as many selfies as you like without worrying about getting run over by a truck.

This route is definitely demanding, so I wouldn't recommend it for your first time out. But there are so many good rides around here. Just check out one of the great bicycle touring resources like Adventure Cycling and Pedal Inn or just ask your local bike shop peeps where they ride.

Hang loose y'all.

Monday, April 18, 2016

Eroica California

It was the Tuesday before Eroica and we hadn't made any plans for how we would get ourselves and our bikes down to the central coast near San Luis Obispo. Our pals at American Cyclery were heading down, but didn't have a booth or anything to show at the expo. We knew it would be a great event. After all, L'eroica only comes to the USA once a year.

Long story short, we rented a van and made it to Paso Robles fashionably late on Friday morning. Several cups of coffee and multiple croissants later our booth was unpacked and we got a chance to walk around the festival a bit.

There were plenty of lust worthy bikes on display, many sporting Soma tires and Nuovo Retro cage plates, as the demanding course the previous year led riders to reconsider their period correct freewheels and sew up tubulars.

Even though the forecast promised scattered showers there were still a fair number of people at the pre-ride show. We ran into several bay area friends from Citizen Chain, Re-fried Cycles out of SF and Stone's Cycles from Alameda.

Of course there was a healthy representation of Italian pride, with many classic Bianchis, Masis, De Rosas and Colnagos on display.

Bianchi also had new bikes including the Eroica signature model, which featured reproduction Dia Compe Shifters, centerpull brakes and Non-Aero drop levers. Even the official bike opted to spec lower gearing to give riders an edge on some of the steeper gravel climbs heading up over the coastal mountains.

Local cycling institution Wally's Bicycle Works was there with almost a full shops worth of classic bikes, apparel and components.

At the center of the event were smaller dealer tables filled will all sorts of swap meet parts and collectibles.

There were also plenty of modern classics about, including this limited edition Soma Triplecross brought by Rivet Cycle Works to showcase their leather touring saddles.

To comply with Eroica California's traditional aesthetic requirements many riders needed to "upgrade" their cockpit with some vintage levers from Mafac, Modolo or Campagnolo. Luckily American Cyclery had an ample supply for riders who failed to plan ahead.

"Is that a Californian or Milano?"

We showed off some Suntour XCD direct mount chainrings for TA, Stronglight and other 50.4mm crank arms.

Here's a beautiful custom randonneur from Fitz Cyclez sporting the full Sun 3 bolt crankset.

In classic swap meet style we brought lots of unique accessories and components for the hardcore bike nerds to paw over.

Eroica is one of the few places where "obsolete" aero bottles get more attention than carbon dream machines. We couldn't feel more at home here.

Maximizing pneumatic suspension was the ultimate hack for riders sticking to traditional single pivot calipers. "Will this clear my fork crown?"

Enigmatic bicycle personalities abound bearing obscure cycling treasures and paraphernalia.

The Soma x AC booth happened to be immediately adjacent to the British Bicycle Co, who were displaying many traditional cycling products from the British Isles. These new Harris Tweed bags got us eagerly fingering the merchandise.

The Pashley Clubman is a newish drop bar offering from the venerable English manufacturer. Like the Bianchi Eroica, it also features Dia Compe centerpull calipers, and traditionally styled components all around. We would love to see how these look with a set of cream-colored Soma New Xpress tires!

Norma from the California Bicycle Coalition came along to help us man the booth and to spread the word about their work to bring bicycle friendly streets to communities across the Golden State. There is only ONE WAY.

Despite the vintage theme of the event we did bring along one or two of our complete Soma builds from the AC showroom. This Grand Randonneur is Eroica ready right out of the box (once the Aero brake levers are swapped out).

While the majority of riders used newer derailleur mechanisms, some earlier bikes still sported fixed wheel drive trains, like this beautifully preserved skip tooth chain.

The gold anodized Modolo levers make a fun addition to the mostly silver components on this vintage Singer. (You had better pronounce that right or let me tell you you're going to get an earful.)

As a fan of center-pull brakes I certainly got plenty of opportunities to admire the many iterations of this beautiful Mafac design from several generations and manufactures.

While last years event had a more typical Californian forecast, the dreary start and occasional drizzle gave the event a more temperate feel which allowed riders to pedal comfortably even in warmer wool attire.

Taliah Lempert, an artist well known for making gorgeous bicycle themed art, had a booth set up with many vintage bicycle prints and apparel for sale.

Panaracer skinwall tires like the Soma New Xpress proved a good option for balancing the need for offroad performance with traditional style.

Since Eroica California isn't really a race many riders preferred to wear old school hair nets and caps rather than modern racing headgear.

While the tourists oh'd and ah'd over the flashier Masi's, the true connoisseurs were checking out this rare Oscar Egg from AC's historic bicycle collection. For those not up on California cycling history Oscar Juner was a famous racer from the east coast who later opened American Cyclery on Stanyan street in San Francisco. He epitomized the term "retro grouch" before it was retro. His "Oscar Juner Trophy" still remains in American Cyclery's original store to this day, bearings the names of many up and coming young riders including the only American Tour winner, Reno Nevada's Greg Lemond.

As the riders embarked early Sunday morning the roads were still damp from light rain the night before, and overcast skies compelled us to step up the pace as we road to the first feed stop. The "No wine before nine" rule was not strictly enforced.

The access roads that wind around Paso Roble's famous vineyards gave us our first taste of dirt to come.

Everybody who rode at the first Eroica California last year eagerly awaited the excellent olive oil frites at Olea Farm. We lingered as long as possible, soaking up the delicious home made tomato sauce.

After the first couple stops our group had thinned out as the hammers pulled away and the slackers stuffed their jersey pockets with bananas and tangerines.

Kiler Canyon was the first real test to see who could stay up on their corn cob gearing and who would accept defeat.

As the day wore on and the temperature rose we cruised over the rolling hills and gravel back roads. Occasionally other riders would jump on our wheels and our group would grow for a while until somebody fell off the back or sped up to catch the next group ahead.

Every feed stop presented new opportunities to check out fellow riders bikes and chat about what parts we had chosen for the ride. Mike rode his father's custom Merz touring bike, and even got to ride along with Jim Merz himself for a while.

Bradley, the current owner of American Cyclery, rode his California made replica Breaking Away Masi, built up with period correct Campy parts, Soma Supple Vitesse 28c tires and IRD Defiant 46/30 double cranks. Orange really is the fastest color.

We joked about our customizations, claiming that mechanical doping was a real epidemic on this year's ride.

Looking back from the top of Kiler Canyon we could see dark clouds on the horizon. We knew we would have to pick up the pace if we wanted to arrive back in town before the rain.

Lunch was provided by a classic California style "roach coach". Riders who chose tacos were rewarded with a quick turn around and a flight of local wines to taste. Those that opted for burgers lost some time, but everybody left the old barn feeling satisfied.

We took a break along the final stretch to check out our bikes and review safety protocol. Our triumphant return was met with bottles of the local Olive Oil for those that got all the stamps to complete their route cards.

After the festivities wound down we packed up the van and headed over the mountains to Cambria.

The beach was covered with piles of driftwood and roots which people had used to build ephemeral structures.

Even for native Californians the coast holds a special allure.

The Pigeon Point Hostel is a real jewel. If you've never ridden down the coast you have to make this part of the itinerary. Call ahead to make sure they have rooms or bunks available.

Waking up to the crashing surf on the rocks below the lighthouse reminds us that there is more to life than push notifications and social media metrics.

On our way through Pescadero we stopped for coffee at a little spot that wan't there the last time I came through town.

This excellent old Bridgestone caught my eye because you don't see rod brakes much in the states. Apart from being a bit weather worn, this bike had all the accessories.

A fully enclosed chain case, double leg kickstand and skirt guard!

Inside we found lots of reading material and an eclectic mix of vintage records, cloths and Americana.

When we made it up to Halfmoon bay we had to stop at Cameron's Pub, a chaotic mishmash of British sundries and memorabilia.

Walkers shortbread biscuits are a staple of English bicycle touring. Just add Nutella and you'll be good for miles.

The smoking bus is open for patrons to enjoy a puff safe from the ocean's disdain.

It's not clear how this bus made it's way from it's birthplace in southern England, but it seems a safe bet that it's travels have ended here in California.

Safe and sound back in the city that mostly sleeps, we return again to our real lives. But at night as we lay awake listening to cars speeding along the freeway, we remember a time not so long ago, when heroic cyclists ruled the road and battled for glory, and perhaps a bottle of fine wine at the end of the ride.