Thursday, October 30, 2008

The Great GP speaks!

Forwarded to me by a reader (thanks Carl!), a podcast from bikescape with The Great GP. It's a little dated (January 19th, 2007), but new to me and maybe new to some readers here.

Click here to go to the link and listen to the podcast.

Acorn Bags - Part 1

Here's a little Epicurean Cyclist exclusive for you all. I contacted Ron of Acorn Bags to do a short interview to give a little behind the scenes of his business. I'll be following it up with a review of two his products in a few days. For those that don't know about Acorn, you're missing out. They are a US made (in Los Angeles...practically my neighbors!) bicycle luggage maker that specializes in traditional style bike bags. Just up our alley!

What kind of riding do you and your wife like to do?

You can usually catch us commuting around the South Bay on our KHS Tandemania. I've also converted an early 90's Scott and Miyata mtb into city bikes. (I guess we pass the "car-lite" test, since gas was around $4 the last time I filled up ;-)

Bike touring is another passion. I have 3 vintage touring bikes -- a '83 Cannondale ST500, '85 Raleigh Kodiak and '85 Schwinn Le Tour Luxe.

After college, a couple of buddies and I did a loop starting at Santa Monica, up to the Canadian border and back down to L.A. You could call it a National Park tour, because we tried to hit every park on the way. It just so happens that most of the parks are along the spine of the Sierras and Cascades, so I really didn't know what I was getting myself into. But we survived and I was hooked!

Since then, I've taken quite a few shorter tours. My favorites would be L.A. to the Grand Canyon...and San Francisco to L.A, which was my wife's first tour. I like the low maintenance kind of tour where you take off or arrive at your doorstep.

One of these days I'd like to do a coast to coast tour, if I ever could find the time...

What inspired you to start the business?

I'm a designer by trade, my wife's a seamstress and we both love it was natural for us to start making bags.

When I first started graphic design, hand skills were an important part of the process. After the switch to computers, I lost that connection. It's nice to come full circle and use my hands once again...this time crafting bags. I'm glad I kept my T-square and X-acto knife.

How has it met or exceeded your expectations?

It's exceeded our expectations tenfold. About a year ago, we started out selling a couple of bags a week on eBay as a hobby. Early this year, I put up the Acorn website to better explain our philosophy and products. At this point in time, we hate to turn away orders but there's only so many hours in a day to make bags. We have no desire to expand; we're satisfied being a 2-person shop.

What has been the response been from customers?

We're really amazed at the outpouring of support. I'm glad there are customers who still appreciate stuff made in the good ol' U.S.A. There's a renaissance of sorts going on with all things handmade and we're glad to be a part of it. It makes me all warm and fuzzy when I see our bags strapped onto our customer's bikes. Doesn't matter if it's a thrift store find or top-of-the-line custom bike...they're all beautiful to me!

Any surprises with the business?

Yea, I'm surprised at how fast word got out on our bags...gotta love the internet. I know we're just a speck on the wall compared to Carradice or Berthoud, but it makes us proud to be mentioned in the same breath with them. I really respect those companies.

Who buys your bags? Tourists? Commuters?

While most of our customers are commuters and vintage bike enthusiasts, I'm impressed by the number of long-distance bikers--especially randonneurs--that use our bags. The fixed gear/singlespeed crowd also have been buying the smaller Acorn bags. It's great to see our bags cross over to so many biking styles.

Any new gear you guys are cooking up in the future? Panniers? racktop bags?

We've gotten a lot of requests for a boxy rando front bag, so this is our first priority. We should have something to show in a month or two. It'll have a traditional look, kind of like the old French TA bag.

Some smallish panniers will hopefully come next year. An extra-small bag as well as an extra-large touring saddlebag might be in the works as well.

Anything else you want to share? anecdote?

We joke that it feels like we're living a hundred years in the past...pounding rivets, punching holes in leather or cutting canvas duck. But then I think none of this would be possible without the internet. It makes strange bedfellows.


Thanks Ron for indulging our readers! I'm sure many of them will be looking forward to your new products. Be sure to check out the Acorn Bags site for more product photos and information.

Monday, October 27, 2008

New Poll - What bars do you use?

I've got a new poll up! What kind of handlebars do you use? I personally was a great fan of the Nitto Randonneur bar. It had a great shape. Flat-ish ramps made a comfortable platform, the drops were on the shallow side and flared out for comfort. At one point, each of my bikes had them. Two years later, only my road bike has them and everything else has Albatross bars in some configuration or the other.

For me, I enjoy the rather upright position of Albatross bars. I also find that the A-bar is actually a pretty good multi-position bar. There is a more slow and meandering position near the ends and a more aggressive position near the stem. I particularly enjoy them on loaded climbs out of the saddle. The wide bars give a comfortable and stable handhold to stomp on. When I was using drops, I was mostly on the hoods. With some stem adjustment, I position the A-bars so they are roughly where the hoods were on my drops.

One thing I have discovered (maybe someone who is savvy with frame geometry can confirm or deny this), is that the modern frame is generally not made for swept-back bars. For swept backs to work, for me, I have to use a longer stem (120 to 135mm range), whereas if the bars were drops, I would be using something in the 90mm to 100mm range. What this means is if I were to by a frame and I knew that I was going to use an A-bar or equivalent with it, I would buy a frame that is a size or two larger.

On my cargo bike, I've made a modification to my A-bar. I wanted a slightly more stretched out position (the stem was a little shorter than I would have liked), so I experimented with sliding on some mountain bike bar-ends onto the center of the bar. This gives me something that is like an H-bar. It's great. On long straight stretches, I find myself holding on to the bar ends in some form or the other.

Anyway, what kind of bar do you use now? Has it been an evolution to your current bar?

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Tripping with the Cargo Bike...

I've been meaning to make some small vids from the last few trips I took. I had some time this weekend and put together a short one from my trip to Corvallis, OR with Laura. We were there on business (mostly). She had a jewelry show and I was shooting some food.

Laura was carrying all her jewelry in a Pelican case (you can see it strapped to the back of her bike) and I had my camera gear in a LowePro backpack strapped to the front of the Bilenky.

The train trip took about 28 hours from Los Angeles to Corvallis. There was a slight delay (which seems par for course), but wasn't too bad. In the video, you can see the baggage car zip up with the bike boxes. It takes two bike boxes slipped into each other to fit the Bilenky. You can also see me assembling the rack and wrapping marine safety net around it. It acts as a sling that holds my gear (and adds suspension). It's not the prettiest solution but it works.

When we arrived it was raining. Usually not a big deal, but we were totally unprepared for it. The weather had been pretty consistently hot and sunny leading up to our trip and we assumed that it would last. All I had was wool and no waterproof layers, so it was a test to see how the claim that "wool keeps you warm when wet" holds up.

I had on a short sleeve merino shirt with an Earth Wind Rider bike polo jersey on top. At one point, the sky really opened up. To the point where I could barely see in front of me the water was so dense. It didn't last very long, but it was enough to thoroughly soak us.

We lived. The wool helped. I think we fared a lot better than if we were just wearing cotton or some polypro jersey that doesn't provide any insulation.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Winter Touring and Rivenstuff

It's portrait season for me, so I haven't been able to go out on any adventures the last few weeks, even though that itch is growing and I may have to scratch it soon. I've been spending a bit too much time on CrazyGuy, which usually means some great escape from Los Angeles is soon to follow.

Which leads to this question. Where does one tour during the winter? What kind of winter-specific gear do you bring?

I'm fortunate that I live in So. California (I guess) and have pretty moderate temperature all year. As I write this it's in the 80s! That makes me a little ill-prepared for touring in colder climes. I'm looking at my clothing inventory and there's not a lot of cold weather specific stuff. I have layers of wool, but is that enough? Do people bring down jackets on winter tours? Really, I want to know!

Anyway, I stumbled upon some cool Rivendell related posts the last few days. Firstly, posts their initial ride reviews of the new Riv. Bombadil, which I must confess, I have been lusting over. Something about that raw metal /clear coat combination that exposes the brazing and the lugs gives me the tingles. Plus the double top-tube! The darn thing looks like the touring bike for the apocalypse, something Mad Max would ride after he's all out of that oil thing.

Another neat find (for me) is the Rivendell Flickr group. It's easily another way to get your wallet in trouble, if you know what I mean. After a few years of tinkering with my bikes, I've discovered that it's actually NOT more bikes that I want, but I constantly need a project bike. A bike that will always be indefinitely unfinished so I can twist and tweak it to the full extent of my bike geekiness.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

A great piece of writing...

If you're not a reader of Kent's Bike Blog, quickly add it to your bookmarks or feed reader. His current post "A Philosophy of Adventure" is wonderful reading. Not only because it is about bikes, but it because it is well written with great gems of prose.

One observation he makes that I have recently come to realize is this:
My friend Mark and I have often noted the inverse relationship between information and adventure. You need only a goal to get going and general skills to get back, but too much planning and preparation ensure only that you execute a plan while loosing out on adventure.

The first few bicycle trips I took were pretty rigidly planned. We knew where we were going to eat and where we were going to sleep and what we were going to see during the day. However, the last few jaunts I've taken, I've left things a little more open ended. I had a "broad plan" as Kent likes to refer to it and the gumption to go. Usually a general map of the area and an idea of where I'd like to be. However, I keep myself open to serendipity.

It's sort of like knowing how a movie is going to end. Once you know who lives and who dies, you're just burning film and time until you get to the credits. But if you're really in suspense, every detail is a possible clue, every bit of dialogue is imbued with meaning and that escape from mundane reality into adventure is achieved.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

1 Pump....3 Bikes (or the magic expanding pump)

In an industry that sometimes confuses carbon fiber with innovation, it's nice to see some original thinking with a real simple bicycle product that does not involve fiber weaves.

The pump.

My pump usage trajectory has gone something like this: mini-pump, CO2 pump, mini-pump, frame pump. I think like most modern cyclists, we're seduced by the promise of a smaller lighter pump. Hence, the mini. But sometimes, small and light aren't enough, we have to pump our tires in record speed. Hence CO2 pumps. But then maybe one day you get caught on a ride and run out of CO2...back to the mini-pump. Then maybe, a few weeks after you're back to the mini, you wonder what happened to those large beastly frame pumps that went the way of the dinosaur and you start messing with frame pumps.

I started looking for a frame pump a few months ago but got stuck because my frame sizes were all just different enough that ONE frame pump wouldn't work for all three.

Enter the Park Dial Adjust Frame pump or what in Park nomenclature is loving called the PMP-5.

What sets this pump apart from other frame pumps is it's magic-like ability to expand and contract and therefore able to fit in multiple frames.

Here's a look at the magic.

Its most compact setting...

Just like the bean stock!

The "Whoa is that a pump in your pocket?!" setting.

As you can see, the barrel end has a little tab that jogs between notches on the handle. You adjust the rough distance using the tabs and the spring on the valve end takes up the slack.

Easy as pie.

The handle end also has a hole in it for frames that have pump peg braze-ons.

Here it is on three different bikes.

The spring/notch mechanism is simple and effective. I haven't had the pump bounce off a frame even when it's not secured with a strap of some sort.

The pumping action itself, I admit, is a little different from a normal frame pump but it works efficiently to get a tire to proper PSI. When you push the handle in, there's a moment when you compress the whole pump (that's the spring action that tension sets it in the frame). It's not terrible, just different.

As with all modern things, I have my concerns with breakage surrounding the plastic moving parts, namely the plastic notches and the handle that flips out. Time will tell, but I'm sure it will survive given proper care.

The pump fills a tube faster than a mini, but you do have to take caution to not to accidentally snap a valve off. This problem isn't particular to this pump but to long frame pumps in general. It's real easy to pump away and not hold the valve steady, causing you to damage or tear the valve off the tire.

All that said, it's a good pump. If you want a frame pump, but are paranoid about buying the wrong size pump, this is a good one to get.

Monday, October 13, 2008

The Minimalist Shaving Kit

I believe that for most men, shaving is probably a morning ritual that is endured rather than enjoyed. You wake-up (or half wake-up), spray on some strange gel or magic expanding white cloud on to your face and then drag an over-priced disposable razor that is no longer sharp across your mug.


About a year ago, I went to buy some blades for my Mach 3 and saw the price tag and absolutely refused on principal as a sane and capable person to pay the kings ransom for the blades. There has to be a better way, I thought.

So that thinking led me down a strange journey into the world of "wet shaving." It's "wet", because unlike that magic goo in a bottle that doesn't really lubricate, "wet" shaving is based around using a brush, shaving soap and water. The advantages of wet shaving are many, for one you do get a CLOSER shave and it is much cheaper in the long run. For example, I recently ran out of a tub of $10 shaving cream (The Body Shop makes a great men's shaving cream!) that lasted me nearly four months. It didn't use an aerosol or require any strange space-age application device and the plastic tub is recyclable!

The other component of wet shaving (other than the wet and foamy part) is the shaving tool Many wet shavers use straight razors. Imagine that, a razor that you buy ONCE that will last you your entire lifetime with proper care! For about $200 you can get a straight razor, razor strop, soap, brush and sharpening stone. Everything you need for a lifetime of shaving, minus more soap ($10 every four months).

Wet Shaving while on Tour
I don't mean this to be a treatise on wet shaving, but some background was needed. When I'm home, I usually go the whole nine yards with the brush, soap, razor, shaving bowl and all the other accoutrements.

When I'm on tour, I still like to treat myself to a nice straight razor shave every third or fourth day. I have found this kit to be the most optimal for my needs.

Pictured above are a Dovo Shavette and a 1/2 oz bottle of Pacific Shave Oil.

The Dovo Shavette is essentially a folding blade holder that functions like a straight razor but holds disposable razor blades (not the over-priced ones, but the old school ones that you snap in half). For $7.99 you can get a pack of 10 blades that you snap in half giving you 20 edges ($.40/usable blade). The blades are longer than usual so it's closer in length to a real straight razor. Each edge, for me, lasts about 3 weeks of shaving.

With proper technique and good lubrication, you can get as close a shave as with any $500 straight razor.

Which leads me to the curious bottle of Pacific Shave Oil. The packaging boasts that five drops is all you need for a shave and let me tell you it isn't bullshitting. This stuff is amazing! I tend to use five drops per pass (in wet shaving you shave in "passes" - pass one is with the grain, pass two is across the grain, pass three is against the grain). Pacific Shave Oil will let you shave closer than any can of goo will.

Typically, I build up a lather in a bowl with a brush at home, but with Pacific Shave Oil you don't have to. Just wet your face and rub it in. Honestly, I'm a bit of a sucker for the process of building the lather, but if somehow tomorrow all the shave soaps disappeared, all the wet shavers could still get by with Pacific Shave Oil.

So that is my wet shaving kit for on the road.

Of course, this probably isn't for everybody, but if you're a wet-shaver and bicycle tourist, this is a good combination.

Washing your Wool

The days are getting shorter and the air a little crisper (even in Southern California), so that means it's almost wool weather! I have a small fortune invested in wool clothing. I have about 6 or 7 wool jerseys, various base layers, tights, caps and gloves all made from wool that I have collected over the last three years.

Wool, as many may know, is a great fabric for touring. It keeps you warm in the winter and has natural wicking properties that are great for the summer. One of its greatest properties is that it keeps the funk at bay. You know what I mean. Wear a synthetic jersey for more than a few days in a row and you'll be riper than a fallen apple. With wool, however, you can stretch the time between washes and it still won't get as funky.

That said, there will come a time when you'll have to wash your wool.

I've tried two things to wash wool, Ivory Snow and Kookaburra Wash. I used Ivory Snow and thought it was great until I got the Kookaburra Wash, which I feel is the better option. Ivory Snow is your run of the mill detergent that is suppose to be milder so it should in theory work great with wool. It does work and leaves a light but pleasant smell. However, you do have to rinse it out a bit to get the soapy residue out. That means more water, more time and more stress on the fabric.

Wool is rather delicate and it fares better when it's not wrung out or excessively pulled (I've torn a few early wool pieces this way). The best way, for me atleast, to wash it is to sort of squeeze and massage it, kneading it like pizza dough.

Kookaburra Wash (formerly known as Wool Wash), contains tea tree oil and lanolin. The tea tree oil gives it a menthol smell (I've grown to love it) and "removes all dust mite allergens." Tea tree oil is also said to have great anti-fungal properties. K Wash contains lanolin and some conditioning agents that are said to return the luster of your wool garments. Another great thing about K Wash is that it is "rinsing optional", you don't have to get it all out of the fabric so no more excessive wringing.

From my experience, the K Wash works well. It doesn't get too slippery and soapy like Ivory Snow does so there's no real need to rinse it all out. Also, the wool comes out with a softer slicker hand than with Ivory Snow. I can only assume this is a product of the lanolin and conditioning agents. K Wash is also super concentrated so it doesn't take a whole lot to do a load. On tours when I have to do laundry I'll bring a small bottle with me and wash clothes in a sink, much easier and compact than a plastic baggie of detergent flakes.

In short, if you have a lot of wool and want to give it a good wash, try Kookaburra Wash out. I highly recommend it. My only wish is that it were more readily available.

You can order a bottle from Rivendell and Bicycle Fixation.

I'm back...sorry for the hiatus...

Just like the title says. It's been a wacky two weeks. Right when we got back from Oregon I hit the ground running preparing an event for the local bike advocacy group. Right after the event (which was a great success), I got sick with an ugly cold that has left me tired and discombobulated (had to cancel a mini weekend tour because of it, so you know it was bad!)

So I'm back and will start up again with more regular updates.

Friday, October 3, 2008

The Train is Great...until it ain't...

I'm back from my week in Corvallis, OR. I managed to get the Bilenky cargo bike to OR and back without too much hassle (more on this in a second). Right before I left, I waxed a little misty-eyed about the train and it is indeed a civilized way to travel. I have to confess though, that our ride back to Los Angeles was a good test of patience.

The train was late. 6 hours late. It made a long train ride REALLY long and that's rather frustrating when you're not expecting the delay. We were scheduled to arrive in Los Angeles at about 10pm. We got in at 2:30am. There was no public transportation back to Long Beach at that time. Our choice was either to sleep at the station or somehow magically get a ride back to Long Beach.

To their credit, Amtrak paid for a taxi back to Long Beach. We had to request a van because we had bikes. They had to lower the two rear row of seats to get the bikes in. Laura sat in the front passenger seat and I squished myself between the lowered seats and the door (praying that it wouldn't pop open somehow).

We finally got home around 4am.

Some things I learned on the train:

-It will ALWAYS be late on the west coast. Amtrak in the west coast leases rail time from freight trains and the freight trains get priority. We were 2 hours late going North and 6 going South.

-I can read about 700 pages in 40 hours (managed to finish "The Raw Shark Texts" and "Bad Monkeys") in the train.

-It's a good idea to bring a small blanket and pillow with you. If you're in Coach, you don't get a blanket and trains (esp. in the winter) get cold (esp. when they're stopped for a few hours).

-For a +24h ride, look into getting a sleeper car. All your meals are covered and it works out to be a better (and more comfortable) deal.

So far, I've only ridden the Surf Liner and Coast Starlight, both of which basically go North and South along the west coast. How are the other lines? Are they any more reliable?