Thursday, May 31, 2012

Sigma Roadster & Tail Blazer Bike Lights: First Impressions

I want to make clear that this is not an extensive review of these two lights. I bought the Sigma Roadster and Tail Blazer yesterday and I've only done a little spin around the block in the dark, so I can't tell you how long the batteries last or how well the lights stand up to months of dark and rainy commutes. I can, however, give you my initial impressions of the lights.

The Sigma Roadster feels like a very well-made product. The Roadster is a powered by 2 AA batteries and is similar in size to other quality headlights like the Planet Bike Blaze or the Portland Design Works Dreadnought. Like those other lights, the Roadster ships with alkaline batteries but works just fine with NiMH rechargeables.

The Roadster comes with a ratcheting bracket that mounts without tools to any handlebar having a diameter of 22 to 32 mm. The bracket has a quick release tab that allows the light to be easily removed and used as a flashlight. Like the Planet Bike lights (and unlike the PDW) no tools are required to change the batteries. The light features an O-ring seal and a rubberized switch and the packaging promises that the light is watertight.

The Roadster features what Sigma calls a two-stage battery indicator, which actually reveals three possible states of the battery. With fully charged batteries a small LED indicator just forward of the switch will remain unlit as the light shines forth with a bright, regulated 16 LUX beam. (A good explanation of LUX and Candellas as measure of light can be found here.) When the batteries drop to a certain point (it's unclear from the documentation exactly what this point is), the indicator LED glows green and the light keeps shining the regulated beam. Eventually, as the batteries deplete, the indicator LED will glow red, and the light will drop out of regulation and dim. The chart included with the Roadster indicates fresh batteries should give 10 hours of fully regulated light with another 10 hours of progressively dimmer light. Experience tells me these numbers are optimistic but I haven't owned the Roadster long enough to get real numbers. I tested the LED indicator light by swapping in batteries I had on hand that were in various states of depletion.

Where the Roadster really shines, so to speak, is in the shape of its beam. I couldn't get any good shots of the beam out on the road, but this staged shot shows light from the Roadster, the PDW Dreadnought and a one-Watt Planet Bike Blaze all pointed at my bedroom wall. The Roadster's beam is much flatter and rectangular, designed to put light on the road and not in the eyes of oncoming traffic.

Iron Rider has some great beam pictures showing the Roadster's larger brother, the Sigma Lightster in comparison with the Planet Bike Blaze. In my brief spin around the dark streets of my neighborhood, I found the Roadster to have the nicest beam (in terms of useful light on the road) of any battery powered headlight I've tried.

The Sigma Tail Blazer is a modern, bright LED tail light featuring a single 1/2 Watt LED and two damn bright smaller LEDs. It can be set to solid or a couple of different flashing modes. It comes with a belt clip and a seatpost clip and with with a tiny bit of additional padding the belt clip seems to work fine for securing the Tail Blazer to my rear rack. The light claims to get 40 hours of solid light (or 80 hours of flashing light) from 2 AAA alkaline batteries. As with the Roadster, the light works fine with rechargeable NiMH batteries. The packaging promises me that the light is weatherproof.

Both the Sigma Roadster and Tail Blazer seem to be good lights at good prices. The German optics (the lights are designed in Germany, but manufactured in China) are very efficient at putting light where it needs to be.

I bought my lights through the shop where I work, but if your local bike shop doesn't carry Sigma lights, they can order them through J&B Importers. And like darn near everything these days, you can find these lights on Amazon.

Keep 'em rolling,

Kent "Mountain Turtle" Peterson
Issaquah WA USA

Whistle Stop Co-op

Image from The Whistle Stop Co-op's website

Gandhi advises that we should be the change we wish to see in the world. Mona Lee and Dick Burkhart are putting that idea into action in the form of the Whistle Stop Co-op in Seattle. Packing a bike shop and a coffee shop together in a small space that Mona describes as "a slightly glorified single wide trailer landscaped all around with little native plants struggling to take root at a busy intersection," the Whistle Stop is trying not to make a profit, but to make a place. Like anything worthwhile, this is not an easy thing to do and Mona honestly chronicles some of her fears in this post on her blog.

On a sunny day last fall, shortly after the Whistle Stop opened, I made my way from Issaquah to Seattle. I unfortunately picked a time when the bike shop wasn't open but the coffee I had was wonderful. If the Whistle Stop was in my neighborhood, I'd be there every day.

Seattle has a lot of great bike shops and enough coffee shops to make the caffeine levels of the Puget Sound a subject of some concern, but I really hope that there turns out to be room in Seattle for the Whistle Stop Co-op. Places like the Whistle Stop Co-op make the world a better place.

Keep 'em rolling,

Kent "Mountain Turtle" Peterson
Issaquah WA USA

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Shifting Gears: When, Where, How & Why

If you are already totally comfortable shifting the gears on your bicycle, please feel free to skip this article -- it's not written for you. But if you're unsure of what those levers that change gears on your bike actually do and when you might want to use one lever over the other, read on. I was prompted to write these words by the dozens of very smart, intelligent people I've met over the years who have been baffled by bicycle shifting.

First off, let's talk about numbers. Numbers can be very useful in discussing things on a bicycle, but they can also be confusing because numbers in conversation are actually words and words have different meanings in different contexts. When I was a kid, when we talked about a "ten-speed bike", we were talking about a bike with ten different gear combinations. The bike had two gears up front, five in the back and front and rear derailleurs that were used to select the combination. Two times five is ten, so that's how the term "ten-speed" came about. Since then, the industrious folks in the bike industry have added more and more gears in the back and today when we speak of a "ten-speed drive-train" we are actually talking about ten gears in the back of a bicycle that may have two or three rings up front. I'm not sure that this is progress and I wrote a rant on the subject a few years ago. It still is very common for a customer to ask me how many gears a bike has and the response I give most often is to say "a bunch." I then go on to explain the old and new "ten-speed" terminology and that while the bike they are looking at may have X different combinations of gears, it is most productive to look not at the sheer number of gear combinations, but at the range of the gears. Basically, as a rider you want your bike to have a low enough gear to get you up the hills without too much effort, a high enough gear to let you go fast without feeling "spun out" and a reasonable selection of gears in between. I sometimes add "for some people, that's all one gear!"

While some people can do fine with a single gear, most folks like to have some choices. One way to get that choice is to use a bike with an internally geared hub and a good discussion of hub gears can be found at:

While hub gears and single speed bicycles have various advantages, derailleur gearing continues to be a versatile system for providing the rider with a wide range of light-weight, efficient gears. A good, geeky discussion of gear ranges can be found at:

The downside of all these gear combinations and math discussions is that people tend to get overwhelmed by numbers and worry that they're in the "wrong" gear. Over years of discussing gearing with anxious riders, I've found the following explanation of gearing to be helpful.

I'll use my own bike as an example, but any bike with a front and rear shifter will do. I begin by putting the nervous rider at ease by saying "just because you have a bunch of gears doesn't mean that you have to use them." And then I show them a bit of technique and give them one way to think about the gears. I've had many customers come back later and thank me because nobody ever took the time to explain gearing to them before. As bike geeks, it's hard sometimes to remember just how weird derailleur shifting really is.

In explaining the mechanics of shifting I say "bikes don't have clutches. You shift while pedaling, but it's best to shift with very little load on the chain. So you shouldn't be stomping the pedals but instead it should feel like the bike is going faster than you are. Mostly this means scanning the terrain ahead and downshifting before the big hill. If the terrain gets too steep, too suddenly, push hard in your 'too hard gear' to build up a bit of speed, then ease up on the effort and downshift. If you can't do that, get off and walk. Soon you'll learn to anticipate the shift."

Here's how I explain the front shifter:

"You have either two or three chain rings up front. If you have two, think of them as low and high. If you have three, think of them as low, medium and high. Low is for going up hills and easy pedaling. High is for going fast or when you're feeling strong. If you have a middle gear, it's probably the one you'll be in the most. If your shifter has numbers on it, smaller numbers indicate the easier gears. I mainly use my front shifter based on terrain. If I'm going up, I'm using the little ring up front, the one numbered one. If I'm going down, I'm probably on the big ring, the one numbered three. If I'm just cruising around, I'm probably in my middle ring."

In talking about the gears in the back, my explanation goes like this:

"While I pick the gears up front based on terrain, I tend to pick the gear on the back based on how I feel. If things seem too easy, I pick a harder gear. On my shifter the gear is labeled with a higher number, indicating it's harder. If things seem a bit too hard, I move to a lower number, indicating an easier gear. Again, shift while pedaling but without much of a load. Pedal fast and hard for a few seconds, ease up (while still spinning) and shift. By the way, on the back the gears with fewer teeth are the harder ones, while up front it's opposite. You may have noticed that the front and rear shifters work the opposite on your bike. Yes, this is weird. On my bike I select my easy gear up front with my thumb and my easy gear in the back with my finger. I've done this basically forever (and bikes have been made this way damn near forever) and I've gotten used to it, but that doesn't make it less weird. You are not weird if this seems stupid to you."

Bikes are not as efficient if the chain is at an extreme angle and that is what happens if you are in the biggest ring up front and the biggest ring in the back or the smallest ring up front and the smallest ring in the back. It's often a gear combination like that people are talking about when they say you are in the "wrong" gear. It is wrong in the sense that you are sending mixed messages to the bike. On the one hand you are saying "I want to be in an easy gear" and literally on the other hand you are saying "I want to be in a hard gear". If your left shifter is displaying it's lowest number and your right shifter is displaying it's highest number (or vice versa) your chain may be rubbing and your bike may be complaining. With practice, you'll naturally learn to avoid these inefficient gear combinations and you'll almost instinctively select the right gear for where you are riding and how you are feeling.

The bicycle is a wonderful machine and the human mind and body are a wonderfully adaptive. With a bit of understanding and practice selecting the right gear becomes easy. What can be confusing at the start becomes simple with time. As easy as riding a bike.

Keep 'em rolling,

Kent "Mountain Turtle" Peterson
Issaquah WA USA

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

The Bicycle and the Bush by Jim Fitzpatrick: A Review

In an earlier time, I doubt I would have run across a copy of Jim Fitzpatrick's wonderful book The Bicycle and the Bush: Man and Machine in Rural Australia. I doubt that a publisher would print a large number of copies of a book in so special a niche so I count myself thankful for today's digital age where the World Wide Web, Twitter and Amazon have made searching into clicking and this book into bytes. Those technologies have conspired to deliver Fitzpatrick's careful study to my eager eyes and this book is a treat.

Fitzpatrick spent years researching this book, which looks at the bicycle's use in Australia from about 1890 through 1920.  While the book focuses mainly on rural Australia, Fitzpatrick puts the bicycle in its global context and I found myself learning much about bicycling in England and America as well. This is fundamentally a book about technology and how it shapes, alters and integrates into people's lives. Sheep shearers, gold miners, fence runners, clergy and others are all profiled, as are some of the famous racers of the day. Conflicts that we still see to this day, things like bike vs. horse use on the trails and debates of what constitutes proper riding position and attire are traced to their early roots.

I found myself highlighting nearly a hundred passages in this virtual book, subjecting my Twitter followers to a stream of "hey did you know?" updates from my Kindle at odd hours while I stayed up devouring this fascinating document. And the pictures that Fitzpatrick found in old magazines and journals are terrific. I've included some cameraphone shots taken from my Kindle screen below to give you a sense of the book. And my notes and highlights can be read here.

Fitzpatrick's book isn't perfect. At one point he breaks out of the time period of the bulk of the book to discuss a modern day human powered strawberry picker. I actually found this bit of the book fascinating, but it did seem out of place.

Grant Petersen, whose book I reviewed last week, would love chatting with Jim Fitzpatrick. Near the close of his book Fitzpatrick laments that many modern bikes have lost the versatility (thing like wide tyres and comfortable upright riding positions) that made the bicycle such a valuable tool in harsh conditions. I think Fitzpatrick would be encouraged by the current existence of companies like Rivendell and things like the rediscovery of the usefulness of frame bags by the current generation of bikepackers.

In The Bicycle and the Bush: Man and Machine in Rural Australia Jim Fitzpatrick has done more than write a great book. He's basically built a time machine to transport the reader back to an earlier age. And that is something nearly as wonderful as the bicycle itself.

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Just Ride by Grant Petersen: A Review

Grant Petersen is one of the great souls in the world of bicycles. He's been called a retro-grouch but I've never actually found him to be grouchy. The retro label fits better but in an industry obsessed with faster, better, lighter and newer, a considered consideration of the notion that some old values might still have value is a welcome perspective. For years, at Bridgestone and more recently at Rivendell, Grant Petersen has provided that consideration and put products out into the world that he finds to be "simple, practical and proven."

I've mentioned Grant's book, Just Ride, a couple of times earlier on this blog and last night the Kindle version of the book went live on Amazon. These days I prefer getting my books in electronic form, so I'd been waiting for the digital release. One feature of the Kindle is the ability for a reader to highlight and Tweet out links to passages in a book and last night and this morning my Twitter followers found their streams filled with snippets from Grant's book as I quickly and delightedly clicked my way through the virtual pages of Just Ride, highlighting as I went.

I've seen this book in the real world and it's a slim volume but it is packed full of interesting thoughts about bicycles and riding. While I certainly don't agree with everything Grant has to say (I think he conveniently ignores the folks who have fun racing, for example), his perspective is well worth reading. I found myself highlighting many passages.

Folks familiar with Grant's work won't be surprised by the kind words he uses to describe steel as a material for bicycles but may be surprised to find he has this to say about titanium:

"Price aside, it is the ideal material for winter commuting on salted roads. Titanium frames were most popular in the pre-carbon years of about 1990 to around 2003. It’s still a terrific frame material, but it’s more labor-intensive than factory-built carbon frames. Titanium may be the only frame material in common use that doesn’t have either a real or perceived drawback. I’m not saying it’s the best material, and it isn’t my favorite, just that no matter how big a fan you are of steel, aluminum, carbon, or bamboo, you’ve got to like the all-around wonderfulness of titanium."

He's much more cautious of carbon, however:

"Carbon is... the least defect-tolerant fork material. Defect tolerance is a material’s ability to maintain its toughness—and safety—when there’s a defect. Defects may be contamination between layers of carbon fiber, or a gap, or the weave of carbon not being optimized for the directional stresses). Or the defect may be a wound caused by an accident. In any case, because carbon fails so suddenly, a defect in a carbon fork can be disastrous."

Grant espouses a certain aesthetic that not everyone shares. For example, he writes:

"Most panniers come in pairs but can be used singly, and you often see students or commuters riding around with only one. Whatever works is fine, but it’s an irritating sight, kind of like somebody walking around, perfectly content and all, in a long-sleeved shirt with one of the sleeves rolled up all the way."

I can understand his irritation, I feel the same way whenever I see shellacked handlebar tape. I think that's one of the goofiest things ever.

A book that only contains words you agree with is not nearly as useful as one that makes you think and that you learn things from, and Grant has written such a book. He questions things, like helmets and blinkie lights, and comes down firmly in favor of things like sturdy tires. I won't argue with him on that one, his sentiments echo mine:

"It’s easy to buy tires with an extra layer of rubber, nylon, kevlar, or something else between the casing and tread to stop thorns. Every extra bit of protection adds weight that will always scare off racers and others under the spell, but for all-purpose Unracing rides, I like extra flat protection. Why not? I’ve fixed at least five hundred flats in my life, I’m really good at it, and I still hate it. Beef up my tires, thank you."

Grant questions lots of authority in this book, including his own. He's designed many bike frames but he knows there are things he doesn't know:

"Drop is the one area of bike geometry I feel fuzzy about. I have suspicions about it, but no convictions. I’m suspicious of anybody who is as declarative about it as I used to be."

I could go on for longer than the book about this section or that with which I agree or differ but I am not Grant and you are not me so my message here is simple: Read Grant's book. It's good and it's useful. I liked it and I think you will as well.

Here's a final bit from the book that I liked:

"Be saintlike on the bike path. You are the predator, so ride slowly and defer to everyone. Signal your approach with a bell or a “hi.” Pass with at least two feet of clearance and ride at or below the speed limit (usually 15 miles per hour), at least when people are in sight. Keep both hands on the handlebars, because one- or no-handed riding makes nervous riders even more nervous. Stay to the right, pass on the left. If you’re a guy, don’t chitchat with solo women you meet—give them their space. Always use lights at night, because bike paths aren’t lit up, and reflectors won’t work..."

Keep 'em rolling,

Kent "Mountain Turtle" Peterson
Issaquah WA USA

Sunday, May 13, 2012

Lots of nice bikes came to see Grant Petersen in Seattle

On Friday, May 12th 2012 Grant Petersen visited Seattle to talk about his book Just Ride and to just ride with a few folks. An overflow crowd more than filled Free Range Cycles and Seattle did its best to dispel the "it rains all the time" myth. I can't tell you what Grant had to say because I figured it'd be best to let the less claustrophobic and more hard core fans pack into the shop for the talk, but we all had a nice ride afterwards and I took a few pictures of some really nice bikes.

Keep 'em rolling,

Kent "Mountain Turtle" Peterson
Issaquah, WA USA