Archive | October, 2011

Strava – Review

31 Oct

Strava LogoThe luxury of data in cycling—or any sport, really—was once the rarified domain of the rich or professionally supported. Sure, we commoners had cyclocomputers and heart-rate monitors, but they generally only delivered data to a postage stamp screen, and had to be reset between rides.

If you really felt like spending, you might get a blocky device with a usb cable and CD of poorly-written software (PC-only, of course) that turned your speed and HR into confusing looking graphs that you could compare against all your other confusing looking graphs from previous workouts, and not much else.

Thankfully, recent investor interest in social media, and the proliferation of GPS-enabled phones with reasonable amounts of processing power has resulted in a bloom of social fitness sites. The results aren’t universally good—my disdain for the unusable, boggy, UI carnage of MapMyHumanaRide is well documented—but generally speaking, the situation is a lot better than it was. And of all the options out there, I think Strava is the most thoughtfully crafted.

In the interests of full disclosure, I’ll note that back in 2010, Strava provided me a year of free membership and a Garmin 305 GPS unit to review their product. Lest you think I’ve been bought off, those of you who follow me on Twitter will note my repeated issues with the Edge 305 device, from broken buttons to fragile screens to DOA refurbs, and I currently pay full price for membership, and have been doing so since my trial offer expired.

As far as using the Strava site goes, your killer feature will depend on what you’re interested in as a rider. When I first began using it, the buzz was focused on a power-inferring algorithm, which made up watts for rides without power data, based on rider weight, speed, and road inclination. A cost-effective way of measuring power has long been a holy grail of the cycling world—remember the iBike?—but as intelligent readers probably knew going in, Strava isn’t going to take the place of a PowerTap or Quark anytime soon.

That said, while drafting, downhills, windspeed, and rolling resistance all play hell with Strava’s calculated wattage numbers, it does produce startlingly accurate results for any climb longer than a minute or so. Again, it’s not something you couldn’t do with your existing data, a well-crafted formula, and a calculator, but laid out alongside everything else, in a clean, smooth, web interface, you begin to think that this might be a feature worth paying for.

Strava comparison tool screenshot

Indeed, data analysis and presentation is really Strava’s strength—and nowhere is this more evident than in its comparative data segmentation feature. Clocking historical times for a popular climb or TT is nothing new, but being able to spotlight, second-by-second, the moment where the truly talented make the difference is pretty darn cool. And if analyzing your own crushing defeats isn’t your thing, there are (if you pay) age group, club, and weight class filters, so almost anyone can find a combination of criteria under which they are King of the Mountain.

This sort of “competition without a number” at first struck me as self-aggrandizing and self-indulgent. But as it turns out, it’s a pretty useful training tool. Sure, KOMs might as often be determined by wind direction as wattage, but knowing you’re in an understood race against an army of online competitors is a great way to motivate for the extended agony of simulated race effort, and being able to compare efforts against yourself is fantastic training feedback. Maybe it’s just because my idea of a training log has historically consisted of remembering the previous day’s workout, but I found the total climb and mileage stats almost invaluable.

Of course, it’s not all completely rosy. For some time the segment and ride search tools have been pretty iffy—tracking down segments from a previous year’s race, for example, can be tricky. A lot of this is really a cataloging and indexing problem, since people will refer to races in a variety of different ways (Green Mountain, GMSR Stage 2, Green Mountain Stage Race, etc), but timestamps/geolocation should be enough to link the listings. In a similar vein, every long climb seems to contain 3 or 4 segments, reflecting various start and finish points. I’d be great if these could be grouped as subsections of one primary listing.

Still, the site is under near-constant development, and their recently added “Segment Explore” addresses many of the old issues, laying out all the segments by climb category in a given region via map view. The consistent, steady evolution of the site is very encouraging for future development, though I might gripe a bit that a good deal of the recent work seems to have been aimed at running-specific features. I understand the business logic, but I miss the good old days of “Strava is for Cyclists”.

Strava Explore Screenshot

Finally, and despite pouring some time into creating an API, Strava doesn’t play particularly nicely with others. Their API seems to be focused on allowing other applications to make changes within Strava, without necessarily freeing up any of the data it uses for cool new tools or external analysis. After much user bellyaching, they finally introduced a GPX export feature, but it’s pretty rudimentary, lacking many of the data sets collected by the site, and without the ability to export segments or your performances across them.

So in the interests of interoperability and data liberation, I’ve built two web tools to get your data off Strava the way you want it. One, the GPX Exporter, is not new, but remains the only way to export data for segments and efforts alone, or to get a GPX containing heartrate, cadence, or temperature. The other, a Strava to TCX export tool, ports everything—yes, including power—into Garmin’s bloated, mangled, propriety TCX format.

I didn’t build these tools just for users. As a product, Strava needs export, and probably a route creation feature. After all, what good is a great Explore tool to find a new routes and climbs if users need to handwrite cue sheets to get themselves out there? The fear, I suppose, is user exodus, but at the end of the day the data is cheap, and usability—which Strava has in spades—is the best guarantee of user retention.

This is why I pay for Strava, even though I (and all users) get the site’s most useful features for free. Don’t get me wrong—the things you get for a paid membership are very cool, but what I really want is continued development of data analysis tools with the same eye toward cleanliness and ease of use that the site currently has. And the five-dollar-a-month user fee seems a pretty fair investment to make for pushing things in that direction.

Tubeless For Cyclocross – The Complete Saga

19 Oct

A flat Maxxis RazeA little more than a year ago, I was riding through the local trail system, over rugged MTB terrain, entirely unhindered by the fact that there was a ‘cross bike between my legs. I was railing loose gravel corners, and clawing my way up steep, bony trails, enjoying plush compliance and plier-like grip. I was plowing over rocks, roots, through streambeds, etc., all without pinching or having my seat punch my backside up into the air. I was thinking “this is amazing—it is totally going to change the CX world”.

This is the real tragedy of tubeless cyclocross set-ups: when they work, they’re awesome. The problem is that for racers, they don’t reliably work. There are plenty of instructions out there, and lots of positive stories. Unfortunately, I can’t say this is one of them.

From the Beginning

In 2009, I had a pretty miserable run of it on clinchers. Some bad luck, some bad riding habits, and some unwillingness to suffer a jarring, high-psi ride left me as a DNF in one out of every five events I started. So after flatting out of a grassy practice race at the beginning of 2010, and being unable to afford the expense and hassle of tubulars at that time, I decided to give tubeless tires a shot.

I ordered a Stan’s Conversion Kit for the Easton Ascent II wheelset I had from road racing. It was with much trepidation that I drilled out the inner wall valve hole to 7/16″, but the wheelset (running standard road clinchers) held up just fine through the 2011 road reason—impressive considering its age, let alone the enlarged hole. I will say that the rims are on the “tighter” side of 700c, and I couldn’t mount any tires with the conversion kit and the factory rim strip in place. Even with just the Stan’s rubber strip on the bare metal, it was a tight squeeze.

The tires I chose—Hutchinson’s tubeless-ready Bulldog CX’s—only made it on to the rim with a tremendous amount of effort and a few broken Pedro’s levers. Once I’d wrestled the tires on, I’d expected my lack of compressor would be a liability, but the front tire, with some soap, a half-cup of Stan’s, and a floor pump, actually inflated pretty handily with the valve core removed (others have had similar experiences). Once I’d set the bead, inflating with the valve core in was no problem.

The rear proved more difficult. No matter how much Stan’s/suds I used, air stubbornly kept slipping out faster than I could put it in. Even at the local garage, the (max 85psi) air pump couldn’t keep up with the leaking. Only after I gave up and removed the tire did I notice that the left-side bead had snapped, leaving a flaccid indentation that refused to hold the rim, even when mounted with a tube.

Eff This, I Wanna Ride

The thing is, a freshly-mounted tire really makes you want to ride. Especially when, pry as you might, you can’t get it to slurp even the tiniest bit of air as you manually wrench it back and forth at 29psi. So I grabbed an older Michelin Mud2, a cup of Stan’s, and another bucket of suds, and within a few minutes, had a second tubeless tire mounted—to the Reservoir!

That puts us back at the beginning of this story—tear-assing like a boss through trails that I had no business riding on a ‘cross bike, to the point that the hard bottom-outs were beginning to bang-up my a-little-light-for-this rims. Even on the faster, more-CX-like sections, the compliant ride and tear-the-grass-out cornering grip were just amazing; everything I’d wanted but never gotten on the clinchers I’d been suffering with for years.

There was still the matter of the broken bead, of course—I’d purchased through an online retailer and the warranty process was going to take weeks, since I had to send it to them, and they had to send it to Hutchinson, and then the process had to reverse. But the Mud2 seemed to be getting the job done.

Some Cracks in the Armor

After a few more vigorous shred sessions at the Res, I’d only found one situation where I encountered the dreaded burp—remounting. Now, my remounts have never been graceful, and last fall they were particularly bad, but only on the ugliest, most awkward landings—overjumping by seven or eight inches and slamming onto the saddle as much sideways as down—did a small bit of air scoot out of my rear tire. It was, according to my mini-pump, less than 5psi on the first burp, and generally, 2 or 3 were survivable before things got sloppy enough that I needed to re-inflate.

Because of the burp-out issue, I had to run the rear tire at a higher pressure (35+ psi) at last year’s Cycle-Smart International, which kinda defeated the purpose—namely, to pedal, rather than bounce, across a notoriously rooty section at that race. I also found myself reverting to step-‘n-hop mounts to prevent burping, which cost me additional time. While I had no qualms about driving the 30psi front tire through corners, as the grassy, hard-grabbing corners wore on, I definitely felt my rear tire getting floppier—not enough to physically slow me, but certainly enough to sap some confidence.

A day or two before Putney, the sidewall on the several-years-old Michelin Mud2 finally broke, rendering it more or less useless for tubeless. I picked up a Maxxis Raze at the local shop, which turned out to be a mistake. By the time of the B race, most of the course had sticky, hard-packed mud ruts—fairly easy to ride, but they also pulled hard at tire bead on every corner. I went about a lap and a half before totally deflation and tire loss. Not cool.

(The Raze also rolled at Ice Weasels, running with a tube. As a race tire, the Raze sucks.)

A Side-by-Side Test

Warranty hassle rolled inexorably onward with the Hutchinson Bulldog. The online retailer I’d bought through couldn’t get in touch with the company, so I went through a back channel, and finally got the case addressed—though my tire would not be in before the end of the season. So I bought a Michelin Mud2 at the local shop, and restored the tubeless set-up I’d run at Cycle-Smart, without too many issues.

Last year’s Baystate Cyclocross provided some slick conditions and a truly infernal course—great for testing the efficacy of different cross setups. To sweeten the deal, Colin Reuter lent me a pair of FMB tubulars on the second day, so I had something more or less resembling a side-by-side test.

It wasn’t perfect; Colin, being insecure about his baldness, took a swipe at my weight by not letting me run 28psi in his tires, and there was a not-insignificant difference in tire width (31ish on the FMBs and 34 on the Hutchinsons). That said, while I had a pretty dismal showing in both races, the tubeless setup easily matched the bite and cushiness of their $150 European counterparts.

While I doubt I could have dared the 22psi employed by tubular aficionados in the loosest of muck (and I still had to half-ass remounts and deal with the slow-seep from the rear) the results showed that tubeless was closely competitive with more traditional setups, in addition to fixing many of the problems endemic to clincher racing.

Things Fall Apart

As the numerous Stan’s torture videos will tell you, tubeless is great at resealing itself. But at a Waffle ‘Cross ride in Boston a few days after Baystate, I caught a piece of glass that made a relatively normal puncture in my rear tire. I’d seen Stan’s take care of some pretty gnarly things (tree branches, barbed wire) on MTB tires, but for whatever reason, the cut just wouldn’t seal up, leaving me floundering around on a flat tire until some Good Samaritan passed me a tube. While not a race incident, it sure was “deflating” (tee-hee) to see tubeless fail in the very situation where it was touted as invincible.

In the interval between Waffle ‘Cross and Ice Weasels, things really started to wear out. My rear Stan’s rubber strip failed around the valve hole—or more precisely, the valve ripped free of the rest of the strip. I was able to create a usable seal by reinserting a valve stem cut from a flatted tube through the inside of the hole left in the strip, and bolting it against the rim. However, there rest of the conversion strip hardly seemed in better shape, as it had small cuts and deformations due to the spoke holes.

So I set up what the Internet glibly refers to as the “ghetto rimstrip”—essentially, half an innertube split open and laid down inside the rim bed. This would prove to be a bad decision. While it worked reliably on the trails, on the hard packed corners at Ice Weasels, it slowly leaked air on every hard bend. The demise was slower than Putney, and I managed to get to the pit before total failure, but the tube just isn’t thick enough to seal off the tire under racing forces and pressures.

During the winter, Hutchinson finally came through with the warranty tire, and I was like “effing finally”. After all, running a tubeless-ready Hutchinson with an intact Stan’s rim strip had been great on the front tire all season long. I’d never managed to test it against the arguably more tubeless-unfriendly forces on the rear tire, but there was reason for optimism. That was, until the bead snapped (again) during installation.

It might seem a little defeatist to give up on tubeless, having never simultaneously run tubeless-ready tires without a proper conversion strip on both wheels. But the fact is that the only tire that seemed to be able hold air to the forces of for-real cross racing—the Hutchinson Bulldog—broke before I could set it up almost every time.

To their credit, Hutchinson has backed-up their product, sending me replacements and alternative tires, but [SPOILER ALERT], they’ve given up on producing tubeless-ready rubber for 2012 because their solution, the low-flex carbon bead, can’t stand up to the forces of installation across the variety of rim diameters out there.

We Must Never Forget That There Is Hope

My own relatively frustrating experience doesn’t mean I think everyone out there having a blast on tubeless tires is a liar. For shredding trails on a CX bike—which is awesome, by the way—tubeless was never a hassle for me. And if you’re a for-fun racer with clean remounts who doesn’t mind backing off in the corners a bit, I think you could even get away with doing some less crowded (so you can pick a clean line) CX events on a tubeless setup.

I think there’s also something to be said for rim choice. Both Shimano and Stan’s make what I’m told are very legit tubeless rims. Unfortunately, unless you already own them, it means you’d need to go out and buy a new set of wheels, and the ability to re-use an existing road wheelset is one of the major reasons people race ‘cross on clinchers (and thus inevitably look to tubeless because clinchers aren’t competitive).

Shimano and Stan’s also ship these tubeless rims/wheels at a prices well above Williams’ much-heralded entry-level tubular wheelset. If money is a concern, tubulars (mindbogglingly, considering how much most tubular tires cost) remain the cheaper option.

Mavic’s Ksyrium and Ksyrium-like wheels, which are certainly more broadly distributed within the peloton than either Stan’s or Shimano’s tubeless offerings, might also provide some hope. The rims are free of air-leaking, rim-strip-slicing spoke holes, and as a co-developer of the UST standard, you’d think they’d have the most respect for a solid tire-rim interface. While the company has stepped away from an “official” road tubeless wheelset in recent years (because weight weenies ruin everything), I’m not the only one who thinks it might secretly already exist.

A Note On Tubulars

A lot of people seem to think I view tubeless as some sort of evolutionary replacement for tubulars. I don’t. If you don’t mind dealing with tubular setups (or can afford to pay some other bastard to deal with them), I see no reason to ever switch over to tubeless. Tubies are indeed a complicated, outdated, dirty, resource-intesive, brute-force solution, but they have one singlar, massively compelling argument in their favor—they work.

But viewing the state of tubulars on the road, I think the appeal of a tubeless cyclocross wheelset becomes clear. While pro cyclists with pro mechanics and free gear still use tubulars, most broke-ass racers who purchase and maintain their own equipment don’t. While I’ll stop short of saying there’s no difference between a $180 Tufo and a $60 Michelin on the road, I will say that you’re not going to lose a race because the guy next to you had tubulars and you didn’t.

A viable tubeless CX option would make that competitive parity between tubular and non-tubular a reality in cyclocross as well, and that—from the standpoint of both racers and manufactures—should be where the real allure of tubeless cyclocross lies.

On "Cyclocross" Clinchers

16 Oct

Inflate to min 60psiIf you’ve been following the Cyclocosm Tumblr at all, you’ve probably seen a few interesting parts failures over the past few weeks. But today’s post is less about a specific failure and more about a broken philosophy: the idea that any clincher with knobs on it is somehow race-appropriate componentry for cyclocross.

It’s Not All Bad, I Guess

I should be specific here: most cyclocross-branded clinchers work well enough—so long as you have no plans to actually race. And in and of itself, that’s not a bad thing. For decades, a loud and long-bearded contingent of Internet cycling personalities has bemoaned the popularity of race-inspired equipment that is ill-suited to the needs of the casual cyclist.

For rough pavement or all-weather commuting, fire roads, and light trail use, a fatter, slightly knobby tire road tire running a 60+ psi is a great choice, and even the least sophsticated CX-branded rubber is a quantum leap beyond the 800g Cheng Shin monstrosities that spread like an STI in shops and box stores alike during the hybrid boom of the 1990s.

Racing on a Crummy Clincher

In terms of actual cyclocross racing—with high-speed cornering on mixed terrain, there are a lot of clinchers out there that simply aren’t competitive. Sure, if you’re willing to endure a masochistic enough pressure, you can hack your way through a race, and maybe even feel like you’re going pretty fast.

But if you’re really tight-roping the ragged edge of traction, hard tires don’t hold on washy, off-camber bends. Hard tires spin out as you try to apply power at the slightest suggestion of mud or loose terrain. And most importantly, hard tires don’t conform to obstacles, subjecting your body, your bike, and your most fickle components (derailleurs, spokes, seatposts clamps, headset bolts) to hammer blow after hammer blow.

There was a time when I thought this lack of suspension could be overcome by vigilant mechanical work and pure physical toughness. But after a few seasons, it’s become clear that the jarring and abuse is a secondary issue. The facts are that you can’t steer or apply power using tire that’s actively careening off the very surface obstacles that make cyclocross awesome.

Go Ahead. Lower the Pressure. See What Happens.

The obvious solution to these problems is to lower your tire pressure, but it’s a bitterly double-edged sword. With every psi you drop, your odds of catching a pinch flat increase, and the bumpier the course gets, and the more you have to gain from compliant, lower-pressure tires, the less safe it is to go for the low-psi advantage.

In my experience (at a not-particularly-nimble 165lbs) 40psi is about as low as you can go with a reasonable expectation of not flatting—and at that pressure, you’re giving away speed. You can still be competitive against tubulars on anything that’s not too muddy/bouncy, but be mentally and physically prepared to close a lot of gaps—rattling ass-in-the-air over washboard hardpack while your rivals pedal away is a psychological disadvantage that gets worse with every lap.

If We Have to Name Names

That said, cheaper and less experienced riders are more or less stuck with the clincher—even $2,600 race-branded machines ship with them. In a perfect world, I’d have bought every clincher I could get my hands on, and I’d let you know which ones suck and which ones rule. Alas, my masochism has limits—having found a handful of tires that don’t work, and a single one that does, I’m disinclined to further study.

My clincher of choice—for 100% of race conditions—is the Michelin Mud2. It has fantastic traction in almost anything, and supple (if somewhat fragile) sidewalls that make it feel tubular-awesome starting around 34psi (if you’re willing to risk a pinch). Sure, it’s a little knobby for hard-packed terrain, but rolling resistance caused by tread pattern (as opposed to say, pressure) is almost meaningless. Unless your ‘cross races are decided by paved, downhill coasting sections, it’s not something I’d bother worrying about.

As far as bad ‘cross tires go, it’s really hard to pick any one offender. There’s the Maxxis Raze that I managed to roll in the SS race of last year’s Ice Weasels. There’s the Vittoria XG that measured 2.5mm narrower than listed and slid six inches sideways every time I tired to pedal it through downhill corners at Green Mountain. And of course, there’s the old “tubeless-ready” Hutchinson Bulldogs that were actually pretty nice, except that their beads broke every other time I tried to mount them.

As always, your mileage may vary. Feel free to comment if you’ve had a good or bad experience with a particular clincher—and be specific about how you’ve used it. I’ve heard good things about a one or two other models, but as I said earlier, there are so many bad tires, and my experiences with them have been so awful, that I really don’t have the stomach for looking anymore.

Suggestions and Practical Advice

If you’re looking for a rule of thumb on what’s awful and what’s not, minimum recommended pressure has been a pretty good indicator for me. Numbers well outside the realm of what’s reasonable for CX—50 on the Raze and 60 on the Vittoria—have always turned out poorly. I’d long considered pressure indications were the result of much legal hang-wringing, but my experience seems to be suggesting that the Mud2 really has been engineered to effectively hold the rim and the dirt all the way down to its 29psi lower limit.

So it seems to me that a great solution this problem would be a little more truth in advertising—namely, not presenting tires with a 60psi minimum recommended inflation as cyclocross race equipment. I understand the marketing imperative of covering the CX niche, but let’s be honest: there are a whole lot more people out there commuting and pleasure riding on 23mm tires who’d be having a whole lot more fun and a lot fewer flats on my Vittoria XGs. Don’t insult consumers and batter your brand by pretending anything knobby is a CX tire because you feel like it needs to exist.

Industry publications could also help the alleviate some of the problem by keeping reader expectations a little more reasonable. While I’ve never been the biggest fan of Matt Pacochia, I give him credit for prefacing this article on CX clinchers by saying (essentially) “tubulars are better” (and also for only including three models, all of which I assume to be race-viable). The cycling press could still maintain its uncomfortably cozy relationship with manufacturers by ranking tires that don’t cut it in actual CX racing under a separate set of criteria to keep the scores inflated (so to speak).

FSA's Bottom Bracket Documentation

12 Oct

I know my way around the end of a wrench pretty well, but at 6am, on three hours’ sleep, in my cramped, poorly-lit basement, with the bike inverted because I don’t own a stand, things can get confusing.

All the more so, in fact, when you’re dealing with a wrecked, seasons-old bottom-bracket, where half the cup teeth have been chewed off, and everything’s sealed with a fresh coat of North Beach mud. I had been pretty confident about the correct direction to turn things, but after a few mintes of struggling, I figured it’d better check the directions. RTFM or STFU, right?

RTFM, amirite?
click for full-sized inspection

See that part, under Item 1 in “BB Installation”, about how “English threaded bottom brackets have a reverse threaded non-drive side cup”? That part that I highlighted in red? That’s not accurate. And I was pretty sure it wasn’t at the time.

But when you haven’t had your coffee and you feel and look a bit like Laurens Ten Dam’s nose, you’re dangerously willing to defer to authority. Needless to say, the extraction process was downhill from then on. Fortunately, the story has a happy ending, thanks to Northampton Bicycle and the newest addition to my dream workshop, an impact wrench. But it also got me thinking.

Over the past few months my circumstances, my day job, and—most destructively—my commute have really precluded me from doing anything creative, either on this page or anywhere else. I’ve been self-medicating with as much riding as possible, but this fall, that’s become more difficult as I’ve encountered technical problems resulting from gear that just isn’t very good.

So, through the end of ‘cross season at least, I’m going kill two birds with one stone and start reporting on the crummy parts that keep me from riding, make patently false claims, or otherwise ruin my day. Hopefully it can stir up some of my old productivity, but if not, at least the Internet will have a fairly extensive record of what just does not work for the budget-minded ‘cross racer.