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Learn to Tinker with Your Bikes; Being Able to Make a Bike Fit and Quiet is Worth the Headache

I had a great week going, as mileage goes – especially for October.  The weather was fantastic, lows in the 50’s, highs in the low 70’s (20 C), and sunshine was plentiful.  My buddy, Chuck and I, had a fun, easy Monday 19.9 miles.  Tuesday, a perfect day as weather goes, was 31 miles for our fastest club ride ever (unassisted by the A Group – and just four tenths of a mph shy of that).  Wednesday was an easy, 23-miler – perfect conditions yet again.  Thursday was my first day in the dirt since spring and it was glorious – another perfect day, too.  Unprecedented for this time of year – and the good weather was supposed to continue, but with a big drop in the temperature.

Being a weather guy (I’m almost as avid about the weather as I am about cycling), I know the temp can’t drop 20-ish degrees in a day without a storm – the volatility created by the cold front just won’t allow it.  I was hopeful, though.  Well, my suspicion was confirmed when I checked the weather Friday morning.  I knew I wouldn’t be riding that afternoon.

I love to tinker with bikes on rain days.

My wife’s gravel bike, a Specialized Diverge, had a bum wheel.  The rim cracked at several spoke holes and was a mess.  Our local shop got Specialized to cover it under the warranty and the new wheel was in.  When my wife got home, I taught her how to take the disc brake wheel out and remove the tire so we could take her old wheel in.  Unfortunately, the old wheel was a six-bolt disc and the new one was a spline, so we left both wheels at the shop so they could fit an adapter.  Whilst there, I got to talking to the owner about the setup on the bike my friend loaned Mrs. Bgddy… the setup was a little off (reach was long), so he suggested just making it right rather than see if she’d be able to ride as it was…

So rather than mess with her trying to “get used to” the extra stretch, I went out into the bike shed and grabbed the proper stem.  I pulled my friend’s stem and replaced it with an 80mm 6° that changed the reach to match my wife’s gravel bike, and I took three spacers from the bottom as well, while I was at it, to match the drop (saddle nose to bar).  Now it should be perfect.

Prior to heading to the shop, while I was waiting on my wife to come home, I decided to work on my gravel bike a bit, specifically looking at dirt in the bottom bracket area.  The crankset was full of dirt where I wasn’t able to get at it with a towel… it just needed a good cleaning.  So I went to work.  I didn’t have any creaking when I rode, but I had a funny feeling I didn’t have long before I did.  That crankset was gnarly.  I’d just gotten everything apart and cleaned when my wife strode through the door.  After we tinkered with the loaner bike and her wheel, I finished up on my bike…  I won’t be waiting so long to clean that crank again.  What a mess.

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Next, the Shimano Sora equipped gravel bike as always been a little off as the shifting goes.  The components shift perfectly (surprisingly, almost as good as my 105 and Ultegra equipped bikes), but there’s some rubbing going on in the highest gear – and I hate that.

Well, after a whole lot of farting around, I finally found the biggest problem.  The extra-wide derailleur cage was just barely rubbing the the crank arm when the front derailleur was trimmed out for the higher gears.  Of course, all of the barrel adjusters were maxed out, too, so I simply went to town on it…  I loosened everything, took the whole front shifting system apart, cleaned and lubed everything, and put it all back together so the derailleur cage was better lined up with the chainrings and I had some adjustment in the barrel adjusters again.  It went back together perfectly.

However, because I’ve always gotta make a stupid, noob mistake when working on that bike, I turned the barrel adjuster for the rear brake instead of the shifter at one point and had worked some rubbing into the back end of the bike.  That took a minute to figure out and I actually laughed out loud when I realized what I’d done.  Oy, that bike.

With that out of the way, now the bike’s ready for Sunday’s gravel ride.  It should be a doozy.

The owner of our local shop suggested, years ago, that I tinker with my bikes.  He said, “You can’t brake it bad enough we can’t fix it”.  So I did… and I put that statement to the test, too.  It turns out he was right, though, and the knowledge paid off.  Being able to tinker with our bikes and keep them in tip-top shape has been fantastic – and my God, do I save a lot of money that way!

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The Quick, Down and Dirty Bike Setup Transfer; How I Set Up a Road Bike in 15 Minutes

A friend of mine has more bikes than… well, he has a lot of bikes, so he let my wife borrow one of his gravel bikes because it never gets any use – it’s been sitting in his basement for quite a while. This is great for me, because I’ll still be riding my 24 pound behemoth while she’ll be sporting a sleek, 16 pound rocket – I’m going to get a workout this gravel season.

Speaking of, I just went out for my first gravel ride of the post season last evening and it was spectacular. I picked up some new tires, 32’s (the widest that can fit on our gravel bikes), and they’re excellent – much better that the Espoir Sport slicks that came on the bike.  The dirt section of the road I live on was absolutely gnarly last evening and I was still able to hold 19-ish mph.  With the old tires, I’d have been happy with 15 because I’d have been all over the place.

So back to the post. The bike showed up last week but we haven’t had any time to mess with the set-up but we’ve got a big gravel ride coming up on Sunday so I had to deal with it last night so my wife could test it out today and we could tweak it after my ride this evening if necessary. I’ve got her old gravel bike, so I’ve got the dimensions I need – I just had to transfer them over.

First, I measured and set the saddle height. My wife is easy; 36″ on the nose. Next, I took out my 4′ level and set the edge at the nose of her saddle, plumb to the floor, and took the measurement from the edge of the level to the center of the crankset – 1-7/8″. Fortunately, the saddle on the loaner was set perfectly at 1-7/8″ once I’d raised it the inch and change. From there, I check the reach. In this case there’s a bit more reach on the new ride, but it’s not like we’re putting a new stem on someone else’s bike, so we’re going to see if my wife can live with an extra 1/2″ reach.  That’s a bit of a stretch – I like an extra 1/4″ myself, but a half inch is a lot of extra reach.  We’ll see.

From there, I eyeball the drop from the nose of the saddle to the handlebar. Normally, I’d take that 4′ level and set it on the saddle of the original bike, finding level, then measure from the edge of the level down to the handlebar. On the new bike, I’d do the same and swap spacers from below the stem to above the stem to lower (or vice-versa and raise) the bar to where it needs to be. In this case, with the extra reach and a little bit of stretch, we’re going to see how my wife likes it where it’s at, then lower it from there – with the extra reach, we won’t need as much drop.

So there it is, the fifteen minute set-up transfer.

Now, if the reach had been a little closer, and I’d dropped the bar to match the original gravel bike’s set-up, that might have added two or three minutes to the process… but then the Title would have been “How I set up a road bike in 17 minutes”… and that just doesn’t have the same ring, now does it?

No, of course not.

Garmin Varia Round Seat Post Mount; The Answer to Standard Frame Mounting Problems

I’ve written before about my Garmin Varia radar/taillight and how much I love it for solo rides – and more important, how I use it to keep from getting buzzed.

My wife is happier when I use it on weekend club rides, too, but I’ve run into problems when I want to use the radar with a saddle bag on my Trek 5200. Now, this is about to get highly technical, so try to stick with me, and I’ll do my best to clearly describe the issues with using the mount that comes with the Varia on a standard road bike frame versus a compact road frame.

First, on a properly sized compact frame, which has a sloped top tube and extended seat post, I can use the regular “rubber band” mount because I can get the Varia low enough it won’t interfere with the back of my legs when I pedal (I do have to use the aero post adapter and I had to cut out quite a bit of material with a razor knife to make it fit, but it works).


With the 5200’s standard frame, with a top tube parallel to the ground, I’ve had to mount the Varia high, so my legs don’t hit it with every pedal stroke which can move the light, changing the radar’s angle and effectiveness at picking up traffic. Under normal circumstances, this isn’t a big deal because I don’t use saddle bags on my road bikes – I prefer a pouch I can put in my back pocket (and that’s just a personal bike snobby preference – my bikes look “cooler” without the saddle bag). Yes, I know. No, I don’t care if it’s a bit snobby.  Yes, I’ll be able to live with myself just fine, thank you.

From time to time, though, especially getting into the cooler months, a saddle bag is a necessity so I have a spare pocket to store clothes that come off as [or “if” as often is the case] it warms up throughout a ride. Last weekend was a perfect example. My wife and I loaded up the camper and headed up north to join a friend on his birthday ride. The forecast called for some seriously cold weather, with eventual warming throughout the day. I needed the pocket room so the saddle bag went on and my Varia stayed at home, which meant my wife was a little bummed.

Thus enters the expensive but useful round seat post mount.

I had to turn my seat post collar around to make room for the mount (see the second photo below), but with the Varia secured, I no longer have to worry about it moving if I brush it with my leg as I’m pedaling. Truthfully, I’d hit it now and again even with it mounted right under the saddle as it is in the photo above. The secured mount is a vast improvement. Again, though, this isn’t a problem with a compact frame, because it can be mounted low enough that the legs can’t hit it.

Now I’ve got it mounted in a place where it’s almost low enough my legs don’t brush it, but it’s secure enough it won’t move even if I do – so now I can use a saddle bag when I’m heading off on the next adventure:

A Most Excellent Road Trip, and a New Series of Posts

My wife and I went on a road trip over the weekend for my friend’s birthday.

It was a fantastic weekend with pile of miles, good food, jokes, and laughs.

The whole weekend went off without a hitch and we had more fun than a bunch of friends should be allowed to have. This got me thinking, it might be helpful to write a new series of posts that really dig into how we set one of these trips up so they come off without a hitch.

Stay tuned.

The Noob’s Guide to Choosing the Right Cassette for How You Ride

One of the easier ways to customize a road bike to how you’ll ride is the cassette.

While many will stick with the cassette that came with the bike, because the big manufacturers usually do a pretty good job of including a decent cassette that matches their bike’s intended use, we can do better for the avid enthusiast.

First, the all-around cassette

One of the most common cassettes out there is the 11-28 tooth 10, 11, and now 12 speed. Paired with the right chainring combination up front, a decently strong cyclist can climb just about anything on that cassette. I prefer the compact 50/34 setup with the 11-28 cassette, however.  Though I’m a decently strong cyclist, I’m not fast enough to get away with the 52/36 or the 53/39 combo with that cassette. The bigger cogs (easier gears) jump too many teeth, so at critical speeds I always felt like I was in the wrong gear. The “hole” shows up between 18 & 22-mph with the 52/36, but at 14-17 with the 50/34.

Shimano Ultegra 11-28 tooth 10sp cassette

The 11/28 paired with a compact crankset, I can ride just about anywhere in my State without worry. This is a great choice for my tour/rain bike. The key, though, is that the cassette perfectly matches my high-end and low-range needs. I can get up to 40-mph before I gear out, and I know from experience I can get up anything up to 22% in the 34/28 front to back combination.

For my race bike, I go with a smaller low (easy) gear. I roll, at least for now, a 52/36 chainring combo with an 11-25 tooth 10sp cassette. The smaller easy gear means only a two tooth jump in gears at the bigger gears.

Shimano 105 11-25 tooth 10 sp cassette

The smaller low-end gears match my normal riding conditions for that bike perfectly. I rarely climb anything that requires the baby ring up front, let alone the 25 tooth ring in the back (Notice there aren’t any wear marks on it? That cassette is a year-old).

While the Venge would be a formidable climber and tour bike (not touringtour), I save that for the 5200. The Venge, with its internal cable routing (including through the handlebar) is a little more finicky when it comes to getting wet and dirty. The Trek, on the other hand, is externally routed and very easy to clean, and if necessary, swap out cables and keep it operating smoothly. Besides, it’s nice having a separate bike for fast days and the tours.

Now, if I wanted to be even more persnickety, I could technically drop that 11-25 tooth cassette down to an 11-23 to get the gears even closer to the near perfect “one tooth drop per cog” where I’d only be dropping 5-rpm per gear in my cadence. There’s one reason I don’t; while I don’t use that last 25 tooth cog very often, I do use the 23. If I were to drop to a true corncob cassette (meaning a cassette that more resembles the head of a corncob, where the gears are close together) I’d want to use that last 23 tooth cog regularly, which would mean I would cross-chain in the big chainring. Cross-chaining, or riding in the biggest cog in the back in the big chainring up front (or the small in the back and small up front) puts a lot of stress on the chain and the drivetrain. We want to avoid that whenever possible. In my case, that means going with an 11-25 over an 11-23 tooth cassette.  Sometimes it’s even important to consider the gears you won’t be using.

Why does it even matter!?

For those who ride solo all of the time, who rarely ride with others, but who don’t “compete” in triathlons (if you’re there to “compete”, then paying close attention to gearing is very important, especially on a time trial bike – if you’re just doing triathlons to have fun and as a reason to train, you won’t need to worry as much), you’ll be able to use whatever you’ve got and being finicky won’t be as necessary.

Most newer cyclists aren’t quite aware that a bicycle customization is possible with something as simple as picking a cassette.  We should take every mechanical advantage to make our ride more enjoyable, and where applicable, faster.  The lowly cassette is one of the better, reasonably priced places to start*.

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*Reasonably priced tends to be a matter of opinion.  Some people think it’s nuts to spend $80 on a cassette.  Those people should price a SRAM Red cassette and get back to me.

In Cycling, what’s More Important, Weight or Aero?! For the Avid Enthusiast, What’s Most Important is How You Want to Ride…

If you’re into cycling, you hear a lot of hub-bub about aerodynamic or super-light bikes – which is more important, which is better, which is faster… etc. I like aero over weight by a smidgen. From my understanding of the data, my choice is backed up by the science… but that’s just my opinion and it doesn’t get to the heart of the matter, anyway.

If you’ve got a vast fortune to blow on new bikes, you can do like cycling teams do and get a bike for each days’ occasion. Climbing? Pull out the Trek Emonda. Heading out for a hot, flat ride with the A-Group? Take the Specialized Venge. Time Trial? Take your Cannondale Slice. Feel like going on an adventure, where you ride anywhere, on any road? Take a Giant Revolt Advanced 2.

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Ahem, I don’t have $28,000 to blow on bikes – especially considering it wouldn’t be $28,000, it’d be $56,000 because I’d have to get each type of bike for Mrs. Bgddy as well. That’s a lot of cheese, folks!

As a cycling enthusiast, you’re going to need a gravel bike. That’s a must have. The time trial bike? Unless you’re going to do time trials or triathlons, they’re not necessary – especially not necessary if you plan on riding in a group. That leaves the climbing bike and the aero bike. Which one? Which way to go?! Dear sweet baby Jesus in a manger… Decisions, decisions…

For the non-pro avid enthusiast, there’s one thing that trumps all of the crap; the drivetrain.

My friends, I’ve got it all. A 15-pound aero race bike, an 18-pound race bike and a heavy gravel bike, and the most important part(s) on each of those road bikes is the humble drivetrain.

If I’m going climbing, I don’t take the Venge anymore, the aero (and, ironically, lighter) race bike. The gearing is all wrong for climbing. I opt for the 18 pound Trek for the drivetrain, every time.  It’s the only bike I think of taking on my trips up north to the hills, and you know what?  That extra two pounds and change doesn’t even matter.  Can I feel the difference?  Sure, but the gearing is way more important than a couple of pounds.

So what does this mean? Folks, chain rings and cassette gears.

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Technically, if you really wanted to do it right, you take whichever bike you’ve got and you get two cassettes for it and go with a compact 50/34 crankset. The first cassette, the racer, is going to be either an 11-23 or an 11-25. You’re not going to have much for climbing but you’ll have enough gears to get you by in a bind.

For the second cassette, you’re going to opt for the 11-28 or, if you have the right rear derailleur, the 11-30 or even a 32 (I don’t like having big jumps in the size of the cogs because that creates cadence holes, so I’d never go that big, but if you need the extra gears for climbing, then by all means, have at it).

The rest is elementary.

Now, if you haven’t noticed, bikes have gotten a little bit heavy in the last couple of years.  Light is now 16 or 17 pounds for a reasonably priced climbing bike.  Your aero-bikes are downright weighty:  A Madone 7 disc, costing $6,600 is a whopping 18 pounds (a Madone 6 weighs in at more than 19 at $4,700).  Looking at Specialized, the Venge Pro (a mind-blowing $8,000) should be a little lighter than the cheaper Madone, but not by much.  The Trek Emonda, the climbing bike, is quite a bit better that the Madone, the Emonda SL7 Disc has a price tag of $5,100 and you get a 16 pound bike for your money.  Not bad, but my first gen. Specialized Venge weighs in at less than 16 pounds and I don’t have anywhere near $8,000 into it.

In the end, I really can’t tell the weight difference between my 18 pound Trek and the 15-ish pound Venge when I’m going up a hill.  Not as much as I can tell how much better the Trek is geared for climbing.  And that’s what’s really important when you’re not getting free bikes with your pro contract.

Sorting Out the Difference In Pain Related to Cycling; How I Tell the Difference Between Fit or Fitness

My wife had been experiencing some pain related to cycling.  She’d switched from her normal road/triathlon bike to her gravel bike – she’s technically riding both, probably a little more on the road bike, but not by much.

Now, normally we’d have the gravel bike set up fairly close to the road bike*, but in my wife’s case, she’s got a mix-use road and triathlon bike, so the geometry is very different between the two.  In my case, the road bikes are really close and the gravel bike is pretty close.  Anyway, immediately my wife thinks she needs to start tinkering with her bikes’ setups.  This saddle needs to be moved back, the other one forward and down…  Folks, that’s a tough spot for me to be in right there, because I tinker with my bikes a lot, and she knows this.  This is different from tinkering, though, and took me a day to kick it around and figure out how to respond, because I didn’t think the issue was her setup.  See, just the week before, she’d been raving about how comfortable the road/tri bike was, how she liked the new wheels, and how “right” everything was.  You just don’t go from being content to having to change the saddle height and location in a week.  I had to gently let her onto the idea that it’d be better to ride through this one.

And I knew this because I do it all the time.

It took tens of thousands of miles and experience to understand what I can ride through and when something’s wrong with a bike’s setup.  The pains are different and in very specific and recurring places if the setup is wrong – and in the case of the saddle’s fore/aft location on the seat post, if the saddle’s too far forward all of a sudden (because you made a mistake putting it back, ahem), it’ll sap your power enough you’ll be crushed and dropped off the back on a long ride.  Yes, that did happen to me on a hundred miler a few years back.  It did suck – and it was quite humbling when I discovered what I’d done.

So, fit vs. fitness…

Fit problems that cause pain are recurring and localized.  In other words, if I’ve got a fit problem, the pain related will be a nagging, stationary pain.  Say my saddle is too high.  This will cause a few posterior problems, but typically on the sides, where my hip bones hit the saddle while I’m pedaling, from the pelvis rocking back and forth so the feet can reach the pedals.  It’s not the sit bones, either, which would be further back.  Too high will also, likely, cause back pain if left alone too long.  How about a saddle that’s too low?  Pain in the back of the knee is generally the first thing you’ll notice that’s wrong… And there are dozens of other pains and causes, that range from a sore neck (handlebar too low), to numb hands (handlebar too high or possibly too close).  Too much reach, if you’re constantly sitting on the horn of the saddle, or you ride on the bar tops more than the hoods and drops.  The point is, it’s been my experience that we’ll have the same pain and problems every time we ride the bike.

My favorite example is the saddle that came with my 5200.  The original saddle was big, bulky, heavy and 155mm wide.  Unfortunately, my sit bones are about 142mm apart (I ride, comfortably on a 143mm Specialized Romin and a phenomenally comfortable 138mm Bontrager Montrose Pro), so as soon as I started riding the bike, I found myself with severe hamstring issues.  I thought it was due to running, but after some time of cycling and running, the issues came back immediately during my first ride back after some couch time.  I had a new saddle within 24 hours.

Now, that first ride back, I could feel the pressure on the sides of my groin, but nothing in the sit bones (because the saddle was so wide, I wasn’t sitting on the sit bones).  That first ride back, the sides flared up something nasty, and I could feel the pain radiate to my hamstrings, and that’s how I knew what was up.  Localized and recurring.

More elusive are the random pains.  These are the pains I ride through.  I will get the odd sore neck or shoulder… maybe a sore knee or ankle.  That I know of, you can’t ride the amount of miles I put in, at the speed I do, and not have a few pains flare up now and again.  It just comes with the exercise.  For these, I take a Tylenol in the morning and a bike ride in the afternoon.  That usually does the trick.  For those elusive, mobile pains, I ride through them until they become a bigger issue.  I don’t change anything on the bike’s setup for these.  They’ve always gone away with time – usually a matter of hours, no more than a day or two.

I’ve built a vast set of experiences in regard to cycling in running from which to pull if I experience something that just doesn’t feel quite right.  Over 60,000 miles and the only time I’ve taken time off the bike for an injury was the wide saddle issue. Still, I’m not (near) always right.  If I run into a pain that I haven’t experienced or already ridden through, that I just can’t put my finger on, I head to the bike shop to consult with the owner and a couple of the mechanics I trust.  I do this before I change anything on the bike, because I’ve been known to make the wrong correction a time or two.  And I know enough, if the pain doesn’t subside after all of that, to go see a doctor.

*I wrote “fairly” close when referring to the setups of the gravel and road bike because quite often the two aren’t exact.  For instance, I purposely have my gravel bike set up to promote a more relaxed, upright posture.  I do this so I can better see bumps and potholes coming because anyone who knows anything about dirt road riding in Michigan, knows to hold on, ’cause it’s gonna get bumpy.  My road bikes, on the other hand, are mainly about speed and aerodynamics.