Wednesday, October 19, 2016

Building a bike for a Tour of the Alps

In my book, Independent Cycle Touring, I refrained from giving specific equipment advice as much as possible. That's because I don't know what tour you might be doing, and to be honest, for most people, there's no reason to buy a new bike just so you can do a tour. Just use whatever bike you have.

Now, if the question is: "I'm going to join you on one of the Tour of the Alps. I know there's going to be intense suffering. How do I reduce it as much as possible without breaking the bank, given that all I have right now is a mountain bike and a low quality hybrid?" Then you're in the situation Arturo Crespo was in earlier this year, and I do have specific recommendations!

For Arturo's bike, I recommended a Rivendell Roadeo geometry in Titanium (he ended up with a Lynskey) built around long reach caliper brakes and a 2x10-speed SRAM drive train. The key contact points were based around carbon fiber brake levers, SPD pedals, and a Brooks C17 saddle. In practice, he never really got used to the C17, and you can substitute SPD pedals for any kind of pedal that gives you a walkable cleat, because I don't stop riding up a mountain just because there's some walking required to get through the pass on the other side.

OK, so what if you don't have the budget for a titanium frame? Dan Wallach put together a spreadsheet with most of my recommendations. Paired with the Soma Smoothie ES and a steel fork, the entire thing would probably cost about $1700 or so. (Note that a Rivendell Roadeo frame by itself is $2200, so don't assume that Arturo went Titanium because he wanted a lighter bike --- he just wanted a faster delivery time than Rivendell was willing to promise. Ironically, after he got his frame from Lynskey, Rivendell sent around an e-mail saying that they were now willing to sell the demo bike that he test rode and wanted to buy! So there's nothing wrong with the steel Roadeo --- it won't be as robust as the Ti frame that Arturo got, but it'll be tough enough)

Key features:
  • Long reach caliper brakes. Disc brakes are not reliable enough (rotors warp). Cantilevers and V-brakes are too finicky. People who think caliper brakes don't stop when wet just aren't using the correct brake pads. My caliper brakes (Tektros) are now 8 years old and I was over-taking people with disc brakes coming down Stelvio in the rain. If you're a poor bike handler, disc brakes won't make you any better. By the way, Arturo says that it took a huge amount of faith for him to go against the hype and marketing behind disc brakes, but after touring with his bike he agreed that it was the best approach.
  • 36-spoke wheels, front and rear with CR-18 rims. These aren't the lightest on the planet, but they're not that heavy. The Shimano hubs have to be overhauled even when new because Shimano lightens their hubs by shipping them with next to no grease inside. The weirdest thing about the wheelset I picked is that the cost to overhaul them at a bike shop ($60) is 2/3rds the price of the wheels! But if you're paying for assembly, the shop will do an overhaul as a matter of course.
  • Integrated brake levers/shift levers. They're not as reliable as my preferred bar-ends, but if you change out the cables on an annual basis they seem to be reliable enough. My friends who ride with them do survive my tours nowadays, so it's probably just that I've had bad luck with them in the past. On the other hand, I only change out my cables when they fray, so clearly there's a maintenance advantage to them. Note that I went with SRAM instead of Shimano: Shimano in their infinite wisdom have made their mountain bike and road bike drivetrain parts incompatible, and if you want low gears you want the mountain bike deraileurs, cranks, and cassettes, but road handlebars and brake levers/shifters are still appropriate for long days in the saddle. Since Campagnolo doesn't make mountain bike parts, that leaves SRAM. Fortunately, SRAM makes all of its parts compatible (road + mountain), so mixing and matching SRAM works great. Note that compatibility is a non-issue if you use bar-end shifters in friction mode. It's only the indexing systems that get screwed up by Shimano's inane design.
  • 10-speed. 10-speed parts are starting to be hard to find. Get them while they last, since 11-speed wheels are weaker because the wheels have to be dished further!
  • Carbon brake levers. Arturo was surprised I bought these, but raved about them on the first cold mountain descent. Carbon is an insulator, and on a cold day, these levers stay warm to the touch, unlike metal brake levers which conduct heat away from your hands. Well worth the money and effort to hunt them down.
  • Ultra-low gears (in this case, 26x36 low)! To quote Phil Sung: "Low gears are the highest bang-for-the-buck suffering reduction purchases available."
  • No high gears. On a tour of the Alps, you're only going up or down. Don't expect to do any flat riding. So a high gear of 39x11 granting only 95 gear inches is plenty. This is not a bike with which to sprint a gentle descent in the peloton doing 45mph is feasible. The regular bike shops will happily sell you those types of bikes. Don't ask me to help you with a bike if you want to sprint or do 4 hour centuries in a pace-line carrying no load.
  • No racks. Saddlebag only. Racks just add weight, and if it doesn't fit in the saddlebag, you have no business bringing it!
It's significant work to buy parts and build the bike yourself. But you end up with a much more "fit-for-purpose" bike. I'm actually jealous of Arturo's bike, since because of the new technology, he has a much better shifting and lighter drive train that's also lower maintenance! He was particularly pleased despite the amount of money he had to shell out --- "I expected to get an incrementally better bike, but I got a much better bike!" In particular, the Rivendell Roadeo geometry is significantly better than other touring bikes or even "club touring" bikes out there. If you have never ridden a Grant Petersen design you owe it to yourself to try the Roadeo (I'm not so much a fan of his 650B wheeled designs, so I'm only going to single out the Roadeo for praise). Nobody else even comes close.
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