By Mark V, obviously
So it’s been over a month since I last posted, and I wish I could say I’ve been having too much fun to write, but that’s not the case. I worked 4x weeks in a row (60-70hrs/wk) with just a single day off. Half of that time I was sick as a dog but still showed up to stand on my feet for 10hrs straight. In the last 24 hrs my neighbors pinched a postal package with a vintage Mavic derailleur that I had beautifully sniped on eBay, my apartment manager raised my rent, I gave myself a painful accidental manicure with a disc brake rotor, the left speaker on my shop sound system blew, and my on-again/off-again girlfriend proved again to be a two-faced backstabber. So I am not in a generous mood when people ask for my opinions.
Shimano introduces DA9000. Eleven speed. Well, ladi-FREAKIN-da! One more additional cog is the least relevant upgrade you can make to your bike. On the other hand, Shimano has seemingly put much effort into making shift levers that show a level of refinement that befits the Dura Ace logo, no doubt as an apology for the plastic and carbon turds featured in the DA7900 group. One can only surmise that Shimano’s R&D bit off more than they could chew during the previous 7900-generation when they replaced the non-aero shift cable routing of the 7800 lever while simultaneously engineering a whole new electronic shifting system, Di2 (DA7970). The 7800 lever was smooth in action, intuitive in installation, and easy to install a cable. DA7900 levers are clunky and getting access to the hardware is reminiscent to poking a tortoise with a stick. With luck, DA9000 will be how DA7900 should have been, though the trade-off is that Shimano had to change the cable pull ratios of both front and rear derailleurs. This is the first time in over 20 years that Shimano has changed the ratio of their road rear derailleur; but more interesting is that Shimano revamped the front even though they had just done that for 7900, another sign that Shimano wasn’t comfortable with 7900’s design statement.
On the surface, it appears that the new DA9070 Di2 should benefit from a “trickle up” of technologies from the second-tier Ultegra. It’s no secret that the current Ultegra Di2 is a more well-thought product than DA7900 Di2, as the Ultegra product incorporated many small refinements that came after (or maybe because of) the original Dura Ace Di2.
When it comes to Dura Ace cranks, Shimano has always delivered the best performance and refinement, with a style aesthetic that has roughly equal numbers of fans and haters. No one makes better chainrings than Shimano, and it is this mastery that allows Shimano to make one crank to fit both compact- and standard-sized chainrings and all popular bottom brackets. Whereas SRAM has an ungodly number of crankset SKUs due to use of 110mm/130mm bcds and BB30/standard BB, Shimano pares it down by having a proprietary 4-arm chainring spider with a small bolt circle diameter (bcd). The extra stout, hollow chainrings make up for the reduced support from the smaller bcd spider when the tooth count is greater than 50T. And so just how does Shimano deal with BB30 and other BB “standards”? They said, “fug you chump, use an adapter.” See? One crank to rule them all.
Also from Shimano are rear derailleurs at the Ultegra 6700 and 105 (5700) level that work with 30T max cassettes, as well as 12-30 cassettes. What I don’t understand is why Shimano didn’t just make a derailleur that would work with a 32T max when they already had 11-28 cassettes. Sure, a 12T first-position makes sense if your big ring is a 53T on a standard double, but lower gearing cassette options are more likely to be paired with compact 50/34T cranks. And just 2 more teeth on the low end hardly seems worth the hassle of more SKUs. Hell, Shimano already makes 11-32T cassettes for their mtb gruppos, but they’ve probably drank their own Koolaid, convincing themselves that the 10sp mtb cassettes would not work with the 10sp “road-specific” chains. Meanwhile, SRAM has made gains on Shimano’s OEM road bike segment, by marketing rear derailleurs that accept 32T max, eating into what was once a triple crank demographic.
All in all, I’m a kinda burned out on NEW HIGH TECH COMPONENTS. It started with getting a new SRAM Red 2012 gruppo in March. Everything was easy to install and worked great….except for the much ballyhooed improved front shifting. Not only was the front shifting not improved….it didn’t shift at all. I mean IT DID NOT SHIFT. EXCLAMATION MARK. No matter what I did, the chain would not lift onto the big ring. If I wrote down every trick and variation on installation that I tried, the resulting essay would make a Stephen King novel seem as short as a haiku. It was enough to drive me to drink, and when the drinking didn’t help I bitched at SRAM until they just gave me a new crank, shifter, and front derailleur. In the end, I figured out that I had gotten a preproduction big chainring on my original crankset; it was missing a portion of the shift ramps. So I should be happy, but there was so much wailing and gnashing of teeth getting that bike sussed out that I didn’t even want to ride it after I confirmed that it worked. Then I was too busy at the shop to ride (see first paragraph).
While at the shop, I was working so many hours that my patience wore really thin. Now, every time I bitch about customers on this blog, it seems some whiner always responds by saying how retail employees don’t work hard enough for their hard earned consumer cash. May I invite you to go to hell? I put up with so much shit that month. So many rude and ridiculous douchebags, but one, in particular, stands out in my memory. This guy and his wife step into the shop early on a Saturday. I greet them and ask if I can help them find anything. He responds that they just arrived in town while on vacation and have forgotten to bring water bottles. So I direct them to our shelf of various water bottle models, but he doesn’t see his favorite. “I’m really picky about my water bottles.” Oh great, a water bottle connoisseur. “Honey, would you use these? I’m never gonna use them after this, I’d just throw them away.” He continues to moan about how he liked that other brand of the bottle; meanwhile, the wife has already pulled out her wallet and is graciously waiting at the counter for her mate to realize that any bottle is better than no bottle at all. And then when the whining finally stops and he sets 2 water bottles to the counter, he looks at me and my boss standing beside me, and asks “Any deals for a fellow cyclist?” I was quite literally speechless. You’re a tosser, and that “fellow cyclist” bit isn’t a line you use in a bike shop; maybe you could use it get an extra shot of espresso because you notice the Starbucks kid has a bike chain tattoo. But this is a bike shop: we expect you to be a fellow cyclist….why else would you be here? Why else would we be here?
Somehow my boss cheerfully says,”That’s all we do here.” Bravo, Mr Davidson. Well-played..
That was far more polite than me pointing out that walk-in vacationers have no potential for being loyal customers and that everyone in the room already knows water bottles are going to be purchased regardless. In other words, there’s no benefit (short term, long term, or even karmic) for us to throw away the profit margin for a git like you, and for god’s sake, it’s less than $10. If you need to haggle over every minuscule purchase on vacation, I’ll nominate your wife for living saint status for putting up with you. I bet your family shuns you at the reunions.
But there are customers whom I genuinely enjoy and even miss when I don’t see them for a while. There’s one guy who has been a loyal customer for years, a big mileage randonneur. He’s pretty demanding about getting the bike just right and done within a specific timeframe, but when we execute the plan he’s ready to pay. I always get a kick out of how much that guy rides our stuff, but he’s been battling cancer for the worse part of a year and I guess he can’t really ride now. If he never spent another dime at our shop, I still fervently hope he will live to ride like he did before and perhaps stop in every once in a while to chat.
Randonneuring has been on my mind a lot lately. Partially because of the randonnee customer contingent, and partially because Bicycle Quarterly’s Jan Heine is a frequent visitor to the shop. Jan is a really interesting guy. People are often tempted to call him a retro-grouch, but the word “grouch” is totally at odds with his attitude. A more positive force in cycling you’re not likely to meet, and his integrity in his writing about cycling is gold standard. If he is a champion of vintage (and in particular French) cycling equipment, at least he has testing to back up his opinions. That isn’t to say that I agree with those opinions and conclusions; for example I despise friction shifting. But after combing over his writings I feel I have a good grasp of his methodology. For me reading Bicycle Quarterly is like eating at a buffet: I take what I want and leave the rest.
The other thing that’s gotten me interested in randonneering is Jan’s ideal of a 650B wheeled bike with a big ass handlebar bag. Classy looking and convenient storage. I’m seriously thinking about getting a lugged steel bike with 650B wheels, furthermore with somewhat vintage parts. And by “vintage” I mean maybe as old as 1985. I even picked up a 1980s Mavic front derailleur on eBay as an early seed for the project, but someone nicked it as lay as a postal package in my building’s hallway. Since it’s key access for the hallway, that means that a fellow resident must have taken it. As much as I want to know what douchebag took the package, what I really want to know is what the fuck they expect to do with a 30-year-old front derailleur. It doesn’t even index, for god’s sake!
One thing I was sure that Jan was dead wrong about was his choice of handlebars. He likes his handlebars with long ramps behind the hoods, which necessarily equates into a long reach forward, so that he can rest his hands there. I have 2 issues with those bars. First is that modern integrated brake/shift levers, having larger, more ergonomic hoods than the vintage levers Jan prefers, largely obviate the benefits of long ramps. Second, the long ramps bump my forearms badly when I wanna hustle in a sprint (Jan admits this himself). But then I realized that a long reach handlebar with a short stem would allow me to scoot a large handlebar bag further aft towards the steerer tube, keeping the weight closer and improving handling. Sure I’d have to use a ridiculously short stem if I switch from a 70mm reach bar to one with over 115mm of reach, but the handling benefits would be worth it. Forearm clearance is guaranteed to be a problem, but I’ll just have to modify my sprint habits (not that sprinting tactics factor much in a randonnee). I decided that I wanted the narrowest bar that still left room for the bag between the hooks, something narrower than the 41cm Grand Bois that Jan sells. On eBay, I found a vintage bar of the very model that Jan favors and the Grand Bois product replicates: Atax Philippe Professional 40cm (which is 37cm at the hoods).
I made an offer to the French-based seller and kept checking emails to see if it was accepted. That’s when I got the email notification from my apartment manager that rent will go up in August. Damn, these digs are getting too rich for me. But I did eventually get a notice that my handlebar offer had been accepted. This time I’m having the package shipped to the bike shop rather than my apartment building. I don’t want to confuse the resident kleptomaniacs with any more obsolete French cycling esoterica.
Back to differing opinions on handlebars, my contribution to the discussion is that when choosing a handlebar it is important to factor in the handlebar’s reach and how it affects optimum stem length as well as the type of lever you will be using. For my hypothetical bike project, there is an additional factor of a large handlebar bag. But riders shorter than 5’4” who already have reach issues should avoid vintage and vintage-style handlebars like those mentioned above. It would be shear nonsense to hunt down a bike with a sub-53cm top tube and then choose a bar with 3-4cm more reach than the current norm. I ride with a 70-80mm reach bar on a 100mm stem (on bikes without handlebar bags), and all my bikes are 520-525mm effective top tube lengths. And I only use modern levers. You’re lying to yourself if you think vintage Campy NR levers work better, especially since modern levers are far better for braking with the hands atop the hoods. With the older non-aero levers, not only are the lever hoods uncomfortable to rest your hands upon, but the lever’s pivot location means braking from the hoods is dramatically less effective than from the drops. So since vintage brake levers are neither a comfortable hand rest nor an effective braking position, of course, Jan would favor handlebars with long ramps.
As I said, I bought a long reach Philippe Professional dropbar as an experiment. I’ll mount them on a stem that will put the levers in the same forward reach as my current handlebar/stem setups. If I like how that Philippe Professional works out, then the next step might just be to design a 650B randonnee bike. At this point (with the vintage front derailleur lost) I’ll probably fit it with the first-gen SRAM Red I have in my parts bin (what had been on my carbon road bike before I replaced it with 2012 Red) and maybe a Rotor crank. I do love the incongruity of lugged steel with CNC cranks and carbon shift levers; it’s a flavor vaguely like steampunk. I already have most of the drivetrain neatly stashed away in bins. Often times I have bike parts strewn all over my floor, but with my sometime girlfriend back in town using my place as a crash pad I had been keeping the place tidy.
We’d been spending a pleasant week together, kind of slipping into old cohabiting habits. But last night she went out to the party, and around 3am she inadvertently ghost called my phone just as she was talking shit about me. I’m talking deeply insulting stuff. I texted her to let her know that she had just really stepped in it, and after she sheepishly returned, I gave her just enough time to pack her shit up before I threw her out. Five years of dating, breaking up and dating some more, and just five minutes to remove her from my life.
Meanwhile, it’s gonna take the frame shop longer than five minutes to get rid of the old, broke down lathe, but who cares because we already have a new(er) lathe to take its place. (Whether it’s girlfriends or machinery, bringing in something new certainly makes saying goodbye to old easier). Actually, Davidson Cycles also got a new milling machine as part of the deal with the lathe. If you’ve ever visited our shop, you should take note on how the floor layout really doesn’t make moving in big machinery very easy. Bill hired a truck with a boom crane to lift the machines up and into the loading bay. Once inside and on the raised floor, the milling machine was moved into the frame shop at the rear of the building via an industrial pallet jack dolly. The long and unevenly balanced lathe had to be rolled across the floor on metal rods in a manner similar to how the ancient Egyptians moved stone slabs for the pyramids on logs. Four people pushed/pulled the lathe across the floor while a fifth reached down to grab the metal rods from behind the lathe as it moved forward and then quickly reposition them in front of the lathe…..all without letting 1 ton plus lathe crush any fingers. Not an easy task to capture the rods between the feet of the other four people while in the cramped quarters of the shop. Someone fast, nimble, and compact was required….and of course, that meant me. But we got it done, Bill got the lathe powered up (3-phase) today with the help of an old friend, and I still have all my fingers.
Yet while I survived the BIG MOVE IN with all my digits intact, I managed to catch my finger in the brake rotor of a bike while in a moment of inattentiveness. A customer had brought in a brand-new, rather sweet all-mountain rig, but either he had assembled it himself or some mediocre shop had. The thing about new bikes is that owners expect them to be perfect, and the shop’s other mechanic just couldn’t get the rub out of the front brake. After dicking with the brake for a solid 15 minutes my mind drifted for a moment and I caught my left index finger in the spinning wheel’s rotor, ripping a chunk of fingernail right in the middle. I’m a mechanic and my hands are far more valuable tools than anything you’d find in a Campagnolo professional tool kit. That missing chunk of fingernail is going to bother me for the next 3 weeks until it grows out. Of course, that’s not as bad as the time I caught my left thumb in the chainring of a track bike while talking on a phone. The bike was mounted on a trainer with a flywheel, so there was enough momentum to nearly puncturing the thumb through the nail top to bottom. That was unpleasant, but eventually, it healed.
What isn’t going to heal is the speaker of the sound system above my work area. A couple years ago I hoisted up a couple of floor speakers into the rafters of the shop and a subwoofer atop the restroom hutch. The playlists on my iPod are crucial to my day, but apparently, I blew out one of the speakers the other night. It rattles horribly with TV on the Radio or anything with bass. My number one priority is replacing that speaker so I can fully enjoy my music again. In the meantime, I guess I may as well fix some bicycles.
Ed. note: After a good run of 42 issues, our magazine app is no longer available, but we’ve archived the content here on our blog.