Monday, April 24, 2017

Black Kettle Gravel Ride

April 22, 2017:

Cheyenne, Oklahoma:
There is really no better way to celebrate Earth Day than to commune with Mother Nature, rollicking through the wilderness of the most unseen parts of her Earth, and to do it on a self propelled mission, without disturbing a fern on her skin. A non polluting vehicle to carry us delicately and gently over the hills and valleys and into the most private areas seen by few just adds to the experience. A back country route traveled by bicycle over routes that included much privately owned land, land seen by only a few, is an experience granted to only a few. Think of it as an erotic experience with Mother Earth! Mother Nature got in a bit of the experience as well, treating us to high winds as well as the visceral experience.

It certainly didn't start out as a "Hot Time In The Old Town Tonight" thing ..... cold ..... cold wind from the north, with temperatures in the mid 40's and winds approaching 20mph (they would get higher) even early in the morning, brought the wind chill into the low 30's. A chilly start to our day brought out the winter riding togs for many of us.

This ride was held in the small community of Cheyenne, Oklahoma, in the wilderness of the western part of the State. Home to the Washita Battlefield National Monument as well as the Black Kettle National Grasslands, a large expanse of land through which our ride traversed and where the name of our ride originated. Our ride also coordinated with Cheyenne's Old Settlers Reunion, which is held every five years. On hand for the festivities was the 7th Cavalry, Troup J from Ft Sill, Oklahoma, who came with their complete encampment.

The 7th made sure our ride got off with a bang ...... literally ..... a very LOUD bang as they fired off their artillery with much noise and smoke ....

And off we went ...... directly down the middle of Main Street, Cheyenne with a police escort!

There were a total of 42 riders at this event ..... a good turnout for a gravel ride the day after a heavy rain, and with high winds predicted. This was a first time for this ride, and I'm sure if he has another, the turnout will be much larger. Several distance choices,  a 100 mile, 50, 25, with a 37 mile paved option certainly made it a ride for everyone. 
Starting out with wide open expanses of territory, looking much like it did in the days before settlement.

I made sure that Shadow Rider was along for the ride.

I had thought that there was only one other rider behind me, and that he was well behind, so when I stopped to snap this picture, I didn't bother looking back ..... caught this young lady by surprise. She did manage to avoid me without incident, however, and we later became friends.

In fact here is Sue, admiring the wind farms that were all over this region. This is notably a major oil producing region, but now is also producing power with the abundant wind in the region. Some say non polluting, and I guess that is so, if you don't count visual pollution, and the impact on wildlife .. (notably birds).  

Water, Grass, and Wind ..... Oklahoma's version of Earth Wind and Fire. It was in this area that I had noticed a howling sound and after a bit realized it wasn't coming from the turbines, but rather from the wind itself, joining us this Earth Day, and serenading us along our journey.

Part of our local Shawnee Peddler's Club. There were a total of around ten of us from Shawnee there at this ride, almost 25% of the total riders. A good turnout from our little riding club.

Beautiful roads and stunning vistas.

The hills and scenery (I like to stop and enjoy the scenery and take pictures) eventually took a toll on our group, and the faster ones went on ahead. Our group eventually became four, and we were all compatible in riding style and speed. No one in a hurry, just enjoy the beautiful scenery and time spent together.  

Big Sky and Endless Earth come together dramatically in this photo.

Our first rest stop at mile 26 provided a pleasant respite from the wind and a chance to get off the bike for a bit and use their facilities. Water and cookies available too.

The road into Skipout Lake was a short, but enjoyable diversion.

We finally found some of the red dirt roads that abound in this area.

I also found a 1947 John Deere model "D". This photo op brought out the two four legged protectors of the farmstead, but they turned out to be more curious instead of protecting. With much tail wagging, they allowed me to take my photos and then leave unmolested .... I think they were sorry to see me go.

It was starting here that we got our first taste of  private ranch land and  what a wonderful experience awaited us.

It is this sort of thing that bicycles were made for!

Exploring new territory, and doing so under our own power .... an unforgettable experience!

A small spring fed stream.

I never tired of the diversity of scenery

The views were endless

An over-the-shoulder shot of our group including our ever present SAG vehicle following behind.

The hills seemed never ending as well. This ride had right at 3,000 feet of climbing, (a friend's GPS noted 3,046) most of it into a 25-30 mph wind. This was much steeper than the photo shows it, it was a brute of a lowest gear climb up out of the valley you see below. These are just ranch roads, so gradient control is non existent.

Toward the end of the private area we were reminded that this is primarily an oil producing area and the large truck traffic had really torn up this section of road going in and out of a well site.

Old homesteads like this remind one that the area once had a few more people than today. Most of these old home sites were abandoned during the dust bowl and eventually taken over by larger and larger ranches. I enjoy seeing the historical references and they add a lot to my enjoyment of a ride like this.

I thought we were so slow .... turns out, it was only Wayne and myself that were slow. The two ladies in the group took second and third finisher's awards for the women's 50 mile distance.

A nice tee went with the ride. One could not have asked for a more beautiful and unusual bike ride if you had designed it yourself. We were so fortunate to have a local rider who organized this ride and was able to obtain permission to use all the private roads and traverse through all the private property that we did. Properties seen only by a very few lucky people, and today was our day!

Who was that old man anyhow?

He didn't leave any silver bullet ... but I think it was "Rich" himself!!

As I told one of the riders, reflecting on the difference between a road ride, and a gravel ride.  When you finish a long road ride .... you think .. "well, that was nice, I finished".  When you finish a long gravel ride, it's "WOW ... I'm AWESOME" ... Tired I was for sure after this ride, but feeling very fulfilled. Just a note of interest here about technology .... one friend's GPS unit said 48 miles and 2826 feet of climbing .... another friend's GPS unit had 3,046 feet of climbing and 50.4 miles .... I just had a mechanical speedometer, so I couldn't measure the feet of climbing, but my distance was 51.3 miles ...... three different units of measurement, two touted as the most accurate ever, and all three with different readouts .... so which is accurate?

Thursday, March 16, 2017

'Nother New Bike

March 16, 2017

N= +1

The above is a formula for the possession of bikes "N" being the number you already own .... plus one more .... and it seems to work that way. Although in this case, one will also be sold, so the number will stay the same. 

When I bought my Cannondale Quick CX4 3 1/2 years ago, gravel racing was still in it's infancy, with no clear trend apparent. Most were opting for cyclocross bikes because they looked like they would work the best. The trend has since moved away from cross bikes to a more gravel specific bike, with different geometry and gearing.  I always rode gravel on a mountain bike in the past, and felt that a bike that leaned more toward that spectrum would suit me better.

 As with any time that something is a hot commodity, the price escalates rapidly, and so it seemed with 'cross bikes .... quickly pricing themselves out of my budget. I didn't want to have to mortgage the house to try something new. And, for 3 1/2 years, the Quick served admirably, not only as a gravel bike (admittedly slow, but steady) but also as my daily rider. The result was, after 3 1/2 years this bike accumulated many miles, a lot of them in dusty, gritty conditions,  and was getting due for a drive train overhaul. After riding several cross bikes a couple of things became apparent.....
 'A":   I didn't want cross geometry, but ...... 
 'B': the drop bars, with the right frame geometry were very stable.  First, I thought, well, as long as I'm going to rebuild the drive train anyway, I'll just go with a road bike setup. After measuring, and finding the top tube on my Quick was set up for flat bars and measured 61 cm, I had a feeling it wasn't going to work. So, one day, I took an older set of drop bars I had, and bolted them in place on the bike just for a trial fit. Just as I suspected ..... I would have to grow a longer torso and much longer arms..... so back to the drawing board. More thinking ...... and finally realizing, that I could just rebuild the bike as is, or if I wanted to change it over to what was rapidly becoming a growing trend in "gravel specific" bikes, I would be better off investing a something new. 

Again, after doing a lot of searching, and watching prices on bikes made for this "hot" new part (New? When I was a kid, gravel was all we had to ride on) of cycling escalate before my eyes, I just put it all on the back burner for a while. I used the time, however, to come up with some idea of what I really wanted, and what would do, and what wouldn't. Maybe I'd end up keeping the Quick. After doing some serious thinking, I realized, that I'm not going to engage in 100 to 200, or even longer races on gravel. What I really wanted was an "all-rounder", a bike that would do whatever I asked of it. In real world terms, a bike that is impossible to find in today's specialized bike market. Again, after searching what is available, it almost sent me to the idea of building a bike up from a frameset, or having one custom built, or building one myself from a tube-set. The easiest of those choices is a ready made frameset. So, I searched those ..... and found that I would have to compromise my ideals with them all. So, nixed that idea after a bit. Custom built is beyond my budget, but I have the tools and metal working skills to build one, but in the end, decided that I really wasn't so sure of the frame geometry I needed, and the tube kits had lugs that determined the geometry more or less anyway, and those were mostly road racing geometry.
I also didn't really want to mess with the headaches of bike construction. After much thinking and looking, and comparing geometry, I decided that while the prices on some cross bikes were attractive, Giant's TCX being one, the gearing was all wrong for gravel, and the geometry was just not what I wanted. I finally found most of what I wanted in a "gravel specific" bike. Unfortunately, there aren't too many of these on the market. There are two, however that seem to be the benchmark against which all others are measured: The Salsa Warbird, and the first gravel specific bike, the Raleigh Tamland. Both of those rapidly were pricing themselves out of my budget. So, I sat down and made a list of what I wanted, and what I insisted I had to have, and it looked like this:

1:  Gravel specific geometry, which includes a more relaxed headtube angle, a bit more relaxed front fork, a longer headtube, a bit shorter top tube, longer chainstays for stability and a longer wheelbase. I wanted to be able to use an extra large frame, so I could drop the seatpost down to shorten my reach, and have a short enough top tube that allowed for a comfortable riding position. The geometry had to produce a stable ride in all conditions. Gravel riding is unlike anything else you have encountered. Conditions can change six times in a mile, and back again just as fast. Smooth hard pack, soft sand, large rock, small rocks on top of hard pack (think ball bearings on a marble floor) deep loose rock, brand new fresh gravel that is soft and deep, and well, you get the idea. Stability is so important, and hard to design into a bike for such changeable conditions. Oh yeah ....and mud .... we don't even want to talk about mud....

2:  Gearing .... Cross bikes are all geared way to high for me with the type of roads we have around here. Gravel roads are not built to "standard" gradient percentages like paved roads, they simply follow the lay of the land. Some have gradient percentages exceeding 20%. Too much for an old man with the high gears of a cross bike. Standard gearing on cross bikes normally are 46/36 cranks, with an 11/28 cassette, and I'm just not crazy about destroying my knees struggling up the many hills we have around here. 
So, we are busy looking for lower gearing. Again, gravel specific bikes seem to be offering what I'm needing  with gearing in the 46/36 and 11/32 range. Maybe close enough. My Quick had a triple crank with 48/38/28 rings, and a cassette of 11/32. I kind of wanted to get away from a triple crank, however.

3:    Utility:   It has to be a do everything bike.  Beside gravel riding, I wanted a bike capable of light weekend touring, it has to fit a rear rack, or bike-packing bags .... although a sturdy rear rack would be better because I already have panniers. I also wanted a bike light enough to take on some of the 50-70 mile tee shirt road rides I like to do, and be able to do the ones that have hills steep enough to really make me work on my carbon road bike. It would also be nice if it would fit fenders. I want an everyday rider. A bike built well enough to stand the rigors of high mileage and every day riding. The riding position has to be comfortable for any distance I decide I want to go. Three water bottle bosses on the frame would be a plus. Comfortable drop bars, wide enough to offer stability in sketchy riding conditions. I wanted to stay with a Shimano groupset, mostly because I am familiar with that brand, and I am used to the way they work. I have come to prefer disc brakes, and specifically I demand mechanical not hydraulic, for simplicity and ease of maintenance. So, the list is growing back toward the impossible again. Still I found that a couple of bikes filled the bill, or at least very close. The Warbird, and the Tamland. Neither of which I could afford, both approaching the $2500 range. The Quick is looking better all the time.  Both of these are following a trend of the gravel bikes with utility, relaxed geometry, and metal frames. So, back to looking for something that was very close to the two of those. I finally found one in a corner of the bike market I would have never thought I would be looking. 

Enter Fuji:  As you can see, by the time I got around to taking photos, I had already had it out for a trial ride or two.

 Specifically, the Fuji Jari, a gravel specific bike introduced amid much fanfare at last years Sea Otter Classic, and a new direction for Fuji. Fuji started out building hand made bikes in the late 1800's, and progressed through hand made racing bikes, TDF team bikes, and high end tourers throughout the 20th century. During the 80's the mountain bike craze caught the Fuji company completely by surprise and the demand for high end road and touring bikes declined to the point where the company closed their doors in 1995. The company was purchased by Advanced Sports International .... a buyer of struggling companies. Unfortunately, they took the name in the completely opposite direction and turned it into a department store bike brand. Not good. ASI finally realized this and has been hard at work restoring the image once again. This bike is a good example of their new image. Frame .... custom butted (a good indication) A6 aluminum. Headtube, long and with internal bearings. Custom shaped tubes for comfort and practicality, even a little pad under the top tube in the event you might want to portage the bike a ways. A full carbon (including the steerer) front fork helps out in the ride comfort. The geometry is just what I would have specified if I had had it custom built, giving me a very comfortable riding position, and a very stable great handling ride.  12mm through axles (all the rage right now, but I really see no actual benefit). And a full 105 group. The 58cm bike weight without pedals or any other accessories, was 21 pounds 14 oz. A bit heavy for a road bike, but these bikes need to be built a bit sturdier, and so a bit heavier. It is in line for weight, with Salsa's Warbird 105 level bike, in the same size, which is built very similar to this one. A weight savings of 3 pounds over my Quick, weighed without anything on it.

 Jari:   According to what I've read, it means "Helmeted Warrior" Not sure what that has to do with a bike, but here it is. This bike rides far too well to be called jarring ....

 Another first for me ..... TRP Spyre brakes. Unknown before now for this rider. As much as I admire the Avid BB7's this brake is much superior. The disc brakes I had on the Quick and the BB7's I have on the Fatbike have one moving pad, and one stationary pad. The moving pad moves against the rotor and deflects the rotor into the other pad. The TRP brakes are like a two piston brake. Both pads move and clamp the rotor between them. A bit tricky to adjust the first time, but when you get them right ..... they are super nice. 160mm rotors front and rear provide more than enough stopping power. In the photo below, you can see the rack mounts are through frame rather than tacked on the outside little nubs that could break off if abused with a bit too much weight. These are strong. Also, below the rack mounts are fender mounts. I hadn't put the lever on the through axle yet, it has a lever like the front does to unscrew it.

105 group, the workhorse of the Shimano road bike line. Been around since the 90's and always a steady performer.

Another plus .... no shifter cables sticking out of the sides of the shifters to get in the way of bags, or bikepacking rolls. Much cleaner appearance as well. The handlebars are from a wholly owned ASI accessory company called Oval Concepts. An almost copy of Salsa's Cowchipper bars, these also have one other feature I've yet to see on a road bike drop bar ..... a 4* backsweep. If you look closely, you can see it looking along the top of the bar. At first, I thought .....hmmph .... another gimmick, but it does actually lend comfort to riding with the hands on the top of the bar. The top of the bar is also ovalized, which makes it more comfy to rest your hands on top, and come wrapped in super comfy cushy tape. The ends are flared 26 degrees, but the drops are mostly parallel to the ramps on top. It has taken me a bit to get used to the wide drops, but I'm liking it more and more, the more I use them. 

 Here you can readily see the flare of the bars. It may look a bit awkward, but actually, for most riding positions, turns out to be very comfy. The wider hand placement on the drops makes a very stable platform to offer a lot of control when conditions become less favorable.  The saddle is another Oval Concepts offering which seems to be quite comfy on the backside. My longest ride to date, however, has only been 40 miles.

 FC 440 ..... Full Carbon. When ASI purchased a portion of Ridley Bikes, this fork came along with the deal. ASI also owns all of Kestrel bikes, as well as Terry, and a few other bike related companies.

 WTB wheelset, 23mm wide mountain bike rims and 14 gauge spokes. The wheels are probably a bit heavy, but I would rather have strength than light weight on a gravel bike. One of the things I had to replace early on with the Quick was the original wheelset, just was not up to the abuse generated by gravel roads. I like the wider rims, 23mm inside width, with the wider tires on these bikes, it makes for the ability to run lower tire pressures without so much worry about pinch flats. The downside is if you wanted to use skinny tires, the rims more or less limit you to 28mm minimum.

 A third water bottle boss, outside bearing and inside the frame cable routing all make a nice package. Now for the crank. The crank is an FSA gossamer unit with some unusual gearing. I could have this crank in either a 48/32 (which I chose) or a 46/30 ... (I felt that maybe the 30 would be a bit too low for normal riding. I spend a lot of time on gravel roads on the small ring. If I'm wrong, I can get an entire new crank in the other gearing size for less than the cost of a pair of 105 chainrings. So far, it seems as if the gearing is working out fine.

 A 105 derailleur and an 11/32 cassette rounds out the drivetrain giving me a high gear of 48/11 and a low gear of 32/32, or 27 gear inches. Low enough to climb most hills I care to try.

Lots of tire clearance on both front and rear. The stock tires are Clements in a 700/35 size. The factory claims there is room for 700/45 without fenders, or 700/42's with fenders. My normal tire for gravel and all round use is the 700/40, so it should be fine.

 Have I found the perfect bike? There is no such animal, but it seems I may have found a bike that seems to check off all my boxes. Time will tell how well it works out. One thing that is apparent is that quality is built in, not just tacked on. Fuji has indeed come a long ways. This was last years bike, and I got a sale price on it which lowered the total by $600, making it a grand less than either the Raleigh or the Salsa. Plus ...... I like the color!! 

I'm sure you will want to know how this all works out. I was not disappointed. This bike is the best riding bike I have. Not sure why it rides this good, but it just does. The other day..... 22 mph over light washboard and loose rock and it just went ..... straight, true and fast!! The handling is superb. Straight line stability over literally any surface was like it was on rails. Coming down off the hill near my house with a 20mph tailwind gave me a top speed of 43mph when I hit the bottom, and still stable and rock solid. So, I would say the high speed handling is pretty good too. I think if you wanted to go fast down winding switchback mountain roads at high speed, you might find the handling a lot slower than something like my Super Six Carbon bike, but then this Fuji is made for an altogether different purpose. My average speed falls between the Quick and the Super Six, just about halfway, so I'm happy enough there too. Never thought I would own a Fuji, but so far, I'm happy I looked there. 


Saturday, March 11, 2017

The Gravel Slayer

October 29, 2016: 

Elk City, Oklahoma:

Better late than never, I guess. Procrastination has overcome me lately. It's not that I haven't been riding, it's just that I haven't been writing. Call it writers block, if you will. So ..... my apologies to Jack Christian and his family, the founder, promoter, and all round do everything people to make this event happen. They deserve better than they got from me. But .... finally ..... here is my effort. This was a wonderful event, the route was just spectacular, challenging, but not impossible, scenic, and most of all, just plain fun! 

The poster that Jack made up for the ride. Each rider received one of these. A nice touch, I thought. Jack is a super photographer, and has an eye for the unusual.

 Yours truly at the start.

 A gorgeous early morning start to a beautiful ride. Headed north.

 Alexander ..... who drove all the way from Phoenix, Arizona to ride this one with me. This was the first time I had met him in person, and his company made the ride truly memorable. Lots of fun!

 The roads were beautiful, well maintained, no large loose rock, very little sandy or washboard sections. Super fast going north, with the wind. The wind was an issue on this ride, sustained at 35, gusts to 45 or so. Made going out lots of fun, and quick .... one and one half hours to the turn around point three and a half coming back. Ah well, more time for scenery.

 This is indeed Big Country!  So different from my part of Oklahoma where one is always surrounded by trees. Here, you can see forever!

 I kidded Jack after the ride that it might have been a little better if he'd turned off all the fans. Truly, the wind was a beast. Wonderful going north ... coming back ..... not so much. Just another added challenge. Slow down, kick back, and enjoy the scenery.

 I couldn't get enough of the wide open roads, hardly any traffic, and groomed gravel. This was about mile 20, and I think we might have met three vehicles up to this point.

 Al was nice enough to take a photo of your author and his illustrious Fat Steed.

 Jack's son and daughter-in-law hosted a very welcome, and well provisioned rest stop at about mile 31. I had a need to relieve ..... so I asked if they had an outhouse ..... the lady just laughed and said ... just go out behind the barn .... the cows won't care .... And I did.

 The Fatbike proved to be a popular attraction, even Al took a turn or two riding it.

 The three mile pasture section. I truly wished it could have been much longer. This was my favorite (and I think most of the rider's favorite as well) part of the entire ride.Notice the grass along the road, leaning wayyyy  over.

 The road got more and more interesting the further we went.

 Truly, like old west explorers following along on a wilderness trail.

 Amelia, one of a small group that we seemed to have formed. It usually works that way on most rides. Eventually, you keep seeing the same riders over and over, and pretty soon, you just become a small group of your own, and new friendships blossom. 

 An Oasis Of The Plains.

 Road? Yes ...yes .... there it is!!

 Amelia, Kelli, and Stephanie. These gals provided great company, were super fun, and made the ride even more enjoyable.

 An old homestead. Maybe from as far back as the Dust Bowl days....

 Old Man Cotton was king here at one time, now, just a field or two left here and there.

 The Tee that went with the ride.

 This was just a super nice ride, through some country I had never taken the time to appreciate before. I had spent some time out here working, but when one is working, it's difficult to truly appreciate your surroundings. This time, I had the time to be able to travel leisurely through the area .. (I was on a Fatbike .... leisurely is generous) and great friends to enjoy it all with. Just a super nice ride, and I'll be looking forward to riding again next year!  Overall, I think the part that impressed me most about this ride, and the part that will live longest in my memory, is that it wasn't just a bike ride. Jack and his family treated us all like one big family reunion. We all felt like we were really just a part of a big family. And that, people, is what makes this sport unique and so captivating. Gravel riders, are just one big family after all.