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Saddle Height, Leg Length, Cleat Shims… and the 10-Second FREE Alternative to Addressing Having One Leg (Slightly) Longer than the Other.

My wife and I both have a one leg shorter than the other. Ironically, mine’s the left. My wife’s is the right. I don’t quite know how that would throw a tandem off kilter, but we manage. Happily. To an extent.

There are two things you can do to address one leg being shorter than the other on a bicycle; lower the saddle height so the shorter leg gets its proper extension, or shim the shorter leg by putting a shim betwixt the cleat and the shoe sole.

For me, I can live with lowering the saddle to my left leg’s length. That doesn’t work for my wife. The issue is that with the saddle lower than you’d like, when you start putting power to the pedals, you tend to sit harder in the saddle which creates all kinds of bad interactions with the saddle. With the saddle high enough for her left leg, her right hip socket bothers her immensely. That meant we had to go the shim route.

Now, shimming a cleat works a treat for a road shoe where you duck-walk with exposed cleats anyway. On a mountain shoe, shimming the cleat exposes the metal to the ground instead of the sole lugs. That, my friends, is no bueno. If you’ve never tried to walk metal on rock, tile, hardwood, laminate or concrete, that would be because you’re smart or lucky (or both). This makes shimming the cleat on a mountain biking shoe a little more dangerous… and that’s what we use on the tandem, so it was suggested, rather intelligently by our local bike shop owner, that we simply take an insole from an old shoe and slide it beneath her cycling insole. Brilliant!!!

Now, me being me, rather than get my wife an insole, I bought her a new pair of exceptional cycling shoes. They’re not top-end, but they’re a fair bit nicer than mine. Then, I took the insole out of her old mountain bike shoe and slid it into her new shoe beneath the new insole.

38 miles later and my lovely wife reports the hip pain is gone. I may update this post if we run into problems in the near future, but those of us who have put an obscene amount of time in on a saddle will tell you, generally speaking, you know when you get the saddle right. My wife is one who puts an obscene outstanding amount of time in on a saddle.

Note: While the additional insole is a fantastic idea, it’s not exactly a scientific remedy to a short leg… for instance, what if the width of an insole is too much shim? We could be throwing too big (or too little) a fix at the issue and create another. However, free is worth a try to see if it works.

Dealing with a Loose Spoke… and a Jinx

My friend from Ireland, the Unironedman, called it when I wondered in an earlier post if I’d jinx myself by touting my luck with zero mechanical issues so far this season in a post I’d written about some maintenance I’d done on the fleet. I knew I was pushing my luck, of course, but the Unironedman knew by exactly how much: 100% Jinxed. One part of the maintenance I was referring to in that post was rotating the tires on the tandem.

After work Wednesday, I readied the tandem for its duties. We had our last nice, warm day of the summer upon us and we wanted to make the most of what could turn out to be our last shorts/short-sleeve ride of the season (doubtful, yes, but it’s pretty stinkin’ cold out here right now – you never know).

We pushed off to go and immediately heard a strange “clinking”. Actually, “tinking” would be a better word if it were a word. It certainly more aptly describes the sound – and in the world of the mechanicary, it’s all about aptly describing the sound (think apothecary, only with bicycle mechanics – Shakespeare would be proud, I like to believe).

I tightened up the quick release skewers on the ride, the proper first thing to do. That appeared to help at first, but in the end, the tinking sound was still there. I knew for a fact it was one of two things; a ridge had developed where the spokes cross and there was a spoke or two loose that would create tension every revolution or bump in the road and release, causing the “tink”, or it was simply a loose spoke.

For the first, you simply spread a little bearing grease/lube betwixt the spokes and squeeze the spokes where they cross to work the lube in. You’ll go from that tinking sound to almost nothing when you squeeze the spokes together. In really bad cases, you have to file the ridge out.

In my case, that didn’t completely fix the problem, though it helped, so I knew I had a loose spoke.

Now, I’d like to think I have enough miles on bikes to know how to diagnose an inappropriate sound emanating from a bicycle, thus bicycle mechanicary, however the second I truly believed that to my baby toes, I’d run into one that I couldn’t possibly diagnose. It is the way of things, just as I jinxed myself in an earlier post.

I shan’t make that mistake again, ye jackanapes.

And so, after a bit of mild consternation at not finding the offending spoke, I decided to give it another try before I found the thing by it breaking… and voila! I found two, one right next to the other. After a quick tightening, I checked to make sure the wheel didn’t pull out of true or develop a bump (from pulling the spokes too tight, you can actually pull a rim out of round).

Our next 38 miles on the tandem were enjoyed in utter silence. So shall it ever be. Minus jinxes. I should have known better, but the things I subject myself to so I can call myself a writer…

A Little Rain Day Maintenance; A Couple of Drivetrains and A Surprise Flat on the Tandem

I arrived home Tuesday to reports of rain looming just short of the time we’d be finishing the Tuesday night ride in Lennon. I gave my wife two options; we could risk it and see how things shook out, or we could ride from home just the two of us and have a date on our tandem. I was hoping for the latter and was quite happy that this was my wife’s choice as well. She still had some remote work to do so I went to work readying the tandem. I wanted to lube the drivetrain as well as tend to the water bottles and air the tires… and I knew I was in for a little more than that as soon as I tried to move the bike. The rear tire was dead flat.

I was not surprised.

We hit a train track pretty hard Friday and when I aired the tires Saturday morning, the rear was down to 60 pounds from 100. It shouldn’t have been below 90 pounds. I new a flat was nigh.

I didn’t even bother with the tire irons. 28 mm tires on the Velocity Dyad tandem wheels slip off easily with no tools if you know the trick of leveraging the bead against the rim and rolling it just so… both beads at the same time, too. You just roll the tire right off without having to mess around with tire irons (or plastics, as they are, generally). I checked carefully for any foreign objects in the tire and took the tube in to the kitchen sink when I found nothing. I wanted to know where the leak was. A hole on the outside of the tube (toward the tire) generally signifies a foreign object piercing the tube. A hole on the inside, against the rim, generally signifies a pinch-flat.

I filled the sink a couple of inches and ran the just-filled tube ’round. No bubbles. I ran it again. No bubbles. I discarded the tube in the recycle tub and went about my chores. Chain lubed, water bottles topped… and I started a load of laundry as well. Then I pulled out the Venge to clean and lube its drivetrain as well. May as well while I was at it. Jess was still working. And that’s when the thunder became audible, way off in the distance. I wheeled the bike in from the driveway, leaned against my car. The rain was going to hit us well before 7.

We never rode. The rain came swift and hard. We decided on chicken noodle soup for dinner and Jess commenced to chopping veggies while I folded the clothes that had come out of the drier. Our youngest, driving on her own now, came home from practice while the soup was cooking, having been kicked out of the pool at the first sign of thunder.

With the bikes cleaned and readied and chores done, there was nothing left to do but let dinner finish cooking.

Rain days are a bummer, especially when you plan on being able to beat the rain all day and look forward to the ride.

Making the best of them when they happen, on the other hand, isn’t so bad.

Next it’s time to get the gravel bikes ready! Fall arrives today.

4,000 Miles in This Year and The One Thing I Haven’t Written About: Mechanicals!!!

Maintaining a fleet of bikes throughout the cycling season is no easy task. Between my wife and I, we’re looking at five bikes; two for her, two for me, and our tandem – the tandem being the more important of the five this year as we’re putting so many miles on it. I’ve been writing for something like eleven years (almost twelve) and every year I have at least a half-dozen posts on maintenance issues.

Well, I haven’t written much about that because, and God help me I hope I don’t jinx anything, I have yet to experience a difficult mechanical issue this year. The Trek and Venge are as near perfection as they’ve ever been. Additionally, my wife’s Alias, after getting a new rear wheel, is as close to perfect as I’ve ever had that bike. Then there’s the tandem, which got new cables last year and is just as good as the rest of the stable.

Now, there’s one interesting thread to this story, and that’s my wife’s saddle location on the tandem. As I said I would earlier this season, I’ve put more time into properly locating my wife’s tandem saddle that I did for my whole stable (mountain, gravel, two road bikes & the tandem). It took the better part of three weeks of stopping now and again to fiddle with the height, fore/aft location, tilt or skew (she actually prefers the saddle to skew ever-so-slightly to the left) but we’ve finally got it to the point she’s content. I almost wrote “happy” but we’re not quite there yet. Close, though, for sure.

Her Specialized Alias was an even bigger triumph. For that, we didn’t even mess around with the “now and again” approach. Before DALMAC we took her bike out and I set to fixing it on the road. We took more than an hour to ride eleven miles but we got the fore/aft and tilt just right before we hit the driveway (she already liked the saddle height, so that was one thing we didn’t have to worry about).

I should add, as well, it helps when major components of the drivetrains on my Trek and Venge were replaced last year. While the shifters, cranks and front derailleurs stayed, the chains, cassettes, rear derailleurs and brake and shifter cables (and housings) were all replaced. My wife’s bike got a new chain, cassette, and cables/housings… and the tandem got new chains early this season and new cables last season. There wasn’t much left to change!

Cycling and Carbon Fiber or Aluminum?

Aluminum has its place in cycling. It’s stiff, light… erm… well, it’s stiff and light. Carbon fiber took the world by storm starting in the late 80s and early 90s but really broke metal’s hold on cycling in the late (late) 90s when Trek introduced one of the first production full carbon fiber frames and dominated the road bike market with it’s 5000 series frames (including the 5200 and 5500 frames). Carbon fiber is infinitely moldable, while aluminum is quite finite as a frame material.

So, which would you choose for your bike?

I’ve got a little of both in the stable; aluminum gravel bike, aluminum mountain bike, steel tandem, carbon fiber road bikes.

With today’s trend of wider tires, aluminum can actually make a little more sense with its main feature; stiffness. Now, we’re going to pretend for a minute that you can’t make carbon fiber stiff in one direction but compliant in another by adjusting the layout and orientation of the carbon sheets. The one killer of efficiency in a bike frame is compliance. The more the frame move as one pedals, the less efficient the frame is. If we can do anything with aluminum tubing, it’s make a stiff bike frame. The one downside of those frames in the 80s and 90s was that skinny tires made them terribly uncomfortable. Once we started throwing 28 to 32 millimeter tires on bikes, aluminum’s rigidity was able to shine because the tires could take so much of the road’s chatter away.

For this reason, I love my gravel bike. Sure, it’s heavy, but it’s not terrible at 24 pounds… until I try rolling with someone on a 17-pound carbon fiber gravel bike. That extra seven pounds takes a good bit of effort (not all seven pounds are in frame weight, obviously, it’s only a pound or two… the rest is cheaper components and wheels. I could make the bike 18 pounds if I invested some money in wheels and decent components).

Where aluminum really makes a good showing is in a tandem frame. Carbon fiber, and there’s at least one manufacturer who makes them (Calfee), is prohibitively expensive when you get to something as big as a tandem. A frame alone costs as much as my wife and my full Co-Motion Kalapuya (with a second set of road wheels) – this is enough I wouldn’t even want to afford one… but that aircraft grade aluminum beauty we ordered is going to be phenomenal when it gets here! And with the ability to ride 32s for paved roads and 45s for gravel, I have zero worries about the rigidity. In fact, I’ll welcome it next to our current steel tandem that weighs 42-pounds. The new tandem will be in the mid to upper 20s.

There’s a return to aluminum as the frame material of choice because it’s more abundant, recyclable and it’s cheap. With the wider tire fad of late, this makes that at least reasonable.

On the other hand, I’d never trade in my carbon fiber. When it comes to an awesome ride, carbon fiber is still the best – no matter how fat tires are getting:

Do eBikes have a place on mountain bike trails? A funny take on a charged question (pun intended).

Now, it should also be fairly stated that when we get to this level of purist silliness, the level I’m about to write about, we’re only talking about the wonky end of the spectrum. Mountain bikers are a finicky bunch. They just are. Disagree? Show up in your road kit and sit back on your folding chair at the trailhead… and watch how you’re looked at.

Better, there’s a question brewing amongst mountain biking organizations where it’s being murmured that e-mountain bikes shouldn’t be allowed on mountain bike trails… because they’re too fast.

They are that. However…

Let’s go with the notion that eBikes shouldn’t be on trails because they’re “too fast”. Never mind that, should you ask your average roadie if an eBike should be allowed in a group for someone past their prime but who still wants to hang with the group you’ll get quite a lot of enthusiasm about it… I’ve seen it. Let’s just forget that for a minute, though.

So here’s what I want to know; are we going to ban fast mountain bikers next? How’s about lightweight mountain bikes? Ooh, better yet, maybe we should have trails designated by class! Yeah! Then we don’t have to worry about fast mountain bikers overtaking slower folks on the trails… because they won’t be there! Then, maybe we could put some form of enforcement out there to hit people with a taser if they don’t comply to the class structure designated for that particular trail! Yeah, that’s the ticket! Then, for those who slip through the cracks, maybe we could have mountain bikers informing the authorities on other mountain bikers. That’d be great!

Oh, wait… where was that tried before? Let me think now… Oh yeah! The Nazi Socialists did that. So did the Marxist Soviet Communists and Italian Socialists… and Chinese Communists. (Never you mind that pattern, it’s all in your head!)

On second thought, maybe we can just let the older folks who still want to ride their mountain bikes have a little bit of an e-assist up the hills, no?

Just sayin’.

Disk (or Disc) Brakes and Bicycles: How to Go From Soft and Squishy to “Holy Crap!” (Even With Mechanical [Cable] Brakes).

I was told, when I purchased my tandem, that the calipers we had were meant for a flat-bar bike and that we might have to swap them for road calipers should the need arise. They were squishy, but they worked well enough that I was never afraid of riding the bike with my wife on it… and I’m about six times more careful with my best friend, wife, partner and Rear Admiral on the back of the bike than I am solo.

On the other hand, it took a second to stop the bike properly and I really didn’t like that, so this past weekend, I took to figuring them out to see if I could improve on what I had.

First things first: Your Rotors

If your rotors are wobbled (and many are – mine were) and if you’re going to keep them quiet while you ride, you have to open the calipers which makes the brakes squishy. Sometimes it’s really tricky the angle you have to be at to see where you have a wobble so I’m going to give a photo at a very tight angle to hopefully illustrate what you should be looking at to see if your rotor is straight.

In the photos above, it’s difficult to get the camera in exactly the right location to pick up the two gaps on either sides of the pads – trust me, they’re there.

You have to pay attention to which way the rotor needs to be bent to straighten it out by looking for light between the brake pads and the rotor. If everything seems to be straight, then you see a wobble to the outside, you bend that exact part of the rotor in. Opposite that if it wobbles in, bend it out. Use an adjustable crescent wrench or a special rotor tool to gently bend the rotor in or out as needed. The rotor should be dead straight when you’re done or this won’t work.

Now, assuming the calipers are properly aligned, you have two adjustments for a mechanical set of brakes once they’re centered. The cable tension/barrel adjuster and the inboard/outboard adjustment at the back of the caliper (or front with a set screw depending on the model of caliper – mine are on the back (toward the spokes). The cable tension sets the outboard pad for my calipers. Once the rotors are straight, look between the brake pads and set the cable tension with the barrel adjuster so you’ve got just a few hairs worth of space between the rotor and the outside pad. Then, turn the dial (or set screw with an Allen key) on the back so there’s just a few hairs’ space between the inboard pad and the rotor.

Give the wheel a spin. If it rubs anywhere, you’ll hear it. Get yourself in a position where you can see the wobble and figure out where the rotor is bent and straighten it. Once it’s perfectly straight, give it a spin and test the brakes. If the pads are relatively clean, it should be quite stout compared to what you had. If not, tighten down the barrel adjuster or the back set screw/dial to get it even tighter.

If done right, there should be a world of difference betwixt what you started out with and what you ended with. The key is patience. Straightening the rotors is a bit of a tedious process.

A Makeover… For Your Old Road Bike? Yes, Please! Part Five – What To Change; Paint and Headset

This is the fun post about getting that old school bike made over… the paint. Now, first things first, you be you. My opinion doesn’t mean a hill of $#!+ next to what you want. That said, don’t be gaudy… and I’m talking 1999 Trek 5200 gaudy. Now, mine was purchased used and the previous owner had un-gaudied it by removing the most egregious decals:

This one wasn’t so lucky:

The postal service bikes, while cool in their old school-ness, were the next best thing to bedazzled with decals and I’d never recommend going for that when there are far better options… unless you actually have a true postal bike in good condition (Klem, I’m looking at you, brother… yours is super cool):

See? Now this is vastly preferable to the bike equivalent of bedazzlement, right? Technically, that’s not a question. That’s more a statement of fact. Of course it is.

The original headset on the bike was absolutely toasted beyond help, so having the frame painted made perfect timing of replacing the headset with a brand-spankin’-new Chris King Holy Grail of Headsets. And so it was.

I loved the old candy apple red over gold flake paint job, but I’m a massive fan of red on black. And that matched my Specialized Venge… so I only needed to worry about red and black clothing! Bonus!

That’s a potent one-two punch.

Choosing your painter can be tricky. I lucked out because our local owner was a frame builder from way back who apprenticed in England and had a paint booth in his old shop. When I was ready to have the Trek painted, where it was getting painted was a no-brainer.

Now, one massively important thing to note before you even bother is this; unless you pick a factory acceptable painter, you’re likely to void the lifetime warranty on your carbon frame and fork. I did. See, you can’t chemically strip a carbon bike so you’ve got to sand the paint down. If you’re not careful, you get into the structural carbon fiber layup with the sanding and you can ruin the frame. For that reason, manufacturers will only trust certain trained professionals. I had absolute trust in the owner of our shop and that was good enough for me.

After that, talk to someone at a local shop and they’ll likely be able to point you in the direction of a good bike frame painter. Expect to pay anywhere from $400 to $800 for a frame and fork with the upper reaches hitting well over $1,200 for a show-stopping finish. I can tell you, a friend has a $1,200 paint job on one of his classics and he got his money’s worth. He shipped the frame and fork to California to have it done and it’s amazing.

My Trek still looks gorgeous after having it painted – vastly better than before it was done. The decals are custom and I’ve got my name on the top tube under the clearcoat. As paint goes, if you’ve got the money and the stomach to either void the warranty or pay a little more for a factory approved professional, a new paint job can make a tired, old bike look amazing again.

Yerp… S-Works

Now that I think of it, in all fairness, the S-Works milk would end up weighing a half-pound less…

Is It Time to Be Done with Specialized Bicycles?

I’ve been an unpaid, walking advertisement for Specialized for the better part of a decade. I ride their bikes (3 – road, mountain & gravel), I sport their kit (mainly because it’s awesome), I ride with their shoes (S-Works & Torch 2.0), their gloves, and until just last year, their helmets.

You get the idea…

Specialized bikes were the best as far as I was concerned. Sleek, aero, lightweight, fast… they seemed to have everything.

They’ve always leaned on our local shop owner pretty hard, though. He was grandfathered in as a Trek and Specialized store, though, so they “technically” couldn’t touch him. They found a way to punish him with the pandemic, though. He hasn’t displayed a Specialized road bike in his store for going on two years. They won’t ship him any. Hardly a mountain bike, either. Oh, he gets plenty of leisure bikes and cruisers, but that’s about it. They’re currently telling him he’s as far out as 2024 for orders that used to take two or three weeks. It feels like they’re trying to choke him.

Now, I’m usually not one for big corporate conspiracy theories, but what’s happening at our local shop just doesn’t pass the smell test.

The rumors are bad enough I’m actually thinking about retiring a lot of my Specialized kit and getting the Venge painted to cover up the “Specialized” and “S” markings. I’d void the lifetime warranty on the frame, but it’d be worth it.

If anyone at Specialized is paying attention, you’ve got a crisis on your hands, boys and girls. You’d better get to work on damage control. If someone as level-headed as I am is thinking about quitting you, you’ve got major PR problems.