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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…

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:

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.

How to know if you’re an @$$hole in a group ride…

We had a 14-person deep pace-line going on a quiet country road. We were crushing it at about 23-mph when we passed a decent cyclist riding with a friend. Those of us who have put in tens of thousands of miles riding in groups know a legit cyclist from a noob, usually, with just a quick glance.

In this case, the fella may have been a decent cyclist, but he showed himself to be, unquestionably, an @$$hole. All of a sudden the yahoo starts passing up the right side of the pace-line, on the white line with barely enough room to operate. He’d work up the line a few cyclists, then fall back a little, then work up a few more in the line. I saw enough of that crap and decided I’d put an end to it. I signaled and pulled out of the group and headed up on the left (where normal American cyclists pass – right for those in left lane driving countries). I passed the lead cyclist and told him to keep the pace steady as I passed him. I then went to his right as if I’d completed a turn up front. I effectively flushed the jerk out the back. Thinking my job was done and that he’d gotten the message, I got back in the draft of the pace-line.

At which time he announced, “passing on the right”.

I moved right and said, “Like hell, you pass on the left like a normal cyclist, or did you just learn how to ride this year?” He started complaining and I cut him off. Whether he was butt hurt that we passed him or he was just looking to be a jerk, I can’t tell you. I can tell you this, you don’t pass on the inside of a pace-line… and everyone worth their clipless pedals knows this.

Later, same tour, same day, another guy decided he’d join our group. He started at the back but started leap-frogging up a few riders, squeezing into a gap less than a foot between wheels by “pushing” the rider behind him to the right. He did it again. And again. Three people complained to me about what I’d just watched.

I rode up along side him and asked, “You don’t ride in a group very much, do you?”

He replied, “Actually I do.”

I said, “Well if you do, then you know better than to do what you’re doing. You don’t leapfrog the group like that, and you certainly don’t cut off other riders to do it. If you want to get to the front to take a pull, get up there and do it. If not, get back to your place in the pace-line and wait your turn”.

He went to the front and took a pull. We rode his wheel for something like five to seven miles before we wore him out completely. Then, the next guy in line hit the gas and we dropped him off the back of the group.

Later on that evening at dinner, the guy’s dad (the son was just a few years younger than me) complained to a friend of ours in the group that I bullied the guy and made him feel unwelcome. We had a fair chuckle over that – because who would welcome someone who cuts off other riders at 23+mph to leapfrog up the group?!. In truth, he wasn’t exactly wrong… though I was the only one to speak to him, the whole group dropped him.

Now, here’s the point; if you’re in the group for your own selfish aims and you don’t know how to look out for the rest of the people you’re riding with, you’re the problem.

That’s a period at the end of that last sentence. Don’t be that person.

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…

Saddle Tilt and Pain in Cycling

Assuming we’re not dealing with the “more padding is better padding” crowd, who are simply misunderstanding “padding” and how padding relates or “works” in regard to to riding a bicycle in general, I’d like to take a moment to delve into one of my favorite topics of late since I started working with my wife on her saddles, saddle tilt. As I’ve written here before, I consider myself quite picky as saddle height, setback and tilt go. If I’m a millimeter off in either, I can feel it and I don’t like it. Too much height and I feel frontal pressure, which differs from the frontal pressure of having the nose too high. With the saddle too low, I feel back pressure on the glutes. With the saddle tilted too far down, I slide off the saddle and that drives me nuts… but not near as nuts as when I’ve got the nose too high!

My wife is unquestionably more sensitive than I am. She feels pressure at half-millimeter increments. It’s almost a little unnerving, but I’ve taken to the challenge and dedicated myself to figuring this out for her. Once I took the issue on like that, it seemed less daunting because, well, I love a good challenge to be vanquished. Doubly so when my wife is the benefactor of my diligence because being on a tandem, I can’t truly be happy as the Captain until my wife is happy as the Rear Admiral.

I had an extensive Body Geometry fitting on my Venge that took something like three hours after I tried setting my bike up myself with the knowledge I’d accrued watching YouTube videos. The only change the fitting showed I needed was to drop the saddle by about two millimeters. I was really stoked that I’d gotten it that close on my own. From that point I’ve simply fine-tuned everything by feel.

My issue is in translating what I have in my melon to what my wife is feeling, without knowing how to make the translation. It’s interesting to say the least, but we’ve begun the process and it’s exciting.

The key, as I’ve written numerous times before, is in getting the saddle to cradle the rider on the bar tops, hoods and in the drops. How I get to this is simple. First, I know my saddle height; 36-5/8″, give or take. Next, I level the saddle to zero, then drop the nose 2 degrees. From there, I go for a ride and adjust by feel. If I feel pressure at the front in the drops, I lower the saddle nose. If I feel no pressure at the front but feel like I’m sliding off the saddle, I raise the nose a smidge. It’s really as simple as that. Once I get that “cradled” feeling, I’m done.

I’m Back! However, Sadly, with an Uninvited Guest

I’m back to writing today, after what very well could be my longest break from writing since I started – I took a full ten days off.

Sadly, we brought an uninvited guest back with us in the form of Covid. Technically, I don’t know I have it, but I’ve been playing kissy-face with my wife the entire time and she showed a positive test result eleven seconds after the drops hit the “S” reservoir on the test.

I’ve got the tiniest of headaches and a little bit of a scratchy throat. Other than that, if my wife hadn’t taken a test that showed positive, I’d likely put this to allergies or something less sinister (and this is definitely my second time around with Covid after having it in the early weeks of the pandemic, just before everything was shut down, possibly third just this past February). My wife, however, has it worse than I. She’s vaccinated and boosted, like me, but she’s got the full slate of symptoms (sore throat, sinus issues, headache, achy body, tired, etc., etc.), though she seems to have turned the corner enough that she’ll wait out the symptoms.

So, I’ll be write back at it in the morning with a new batch of cycling posts interspersed with some recovery topics I picked up on from my time away…

It’s time for an unscheduled break from writing…

I took yesterday off and I actually worked on a post this morning after sleeping in with my wife till almost 9 am – the latest I’d slept in since we’ve been married (unless I was sick).

It was amazing, but I don’t want to get used to it.

Anyway, I was working on a post and I got to thinking… I haven’t taken time off writing in a while, so now is the time.

I’ll be back Monday July 25th.

Awesome adventures till then!