A new series in the DRW lineup.
This new series arises out of one of the most often asked questions I get in my discussions with people interested in riding the dirt roads: What kind of bike should I buy? The answer: The bike that excites you and fits your needs the most. The best bike is the bike that gets you riding day after day. Some people like to ride hard, others like to take it easy. Some like an upright position with flat bars, others want a sleek wind slicing position with drop bars. Some ride for hours, others ride far less than that. Some have bulging wallets, others live more modestly. Often the best bike for the summer doesn’t work during the snowy winter months. We’ll try to sort some of that out by exploring the bikes you ride, ask what you like about them and what frustrates you.
Best of all, we live in a golden era of high quality bikes and great selection. There was a time not too long ago when the choices were few and the bikes were often heavy. When I was a kid you bought a Schwinn. There were a few models to choose from, all steel. Other bikes had a European lineage, cost a lot of money, and weren’t available everywhere.
Now there are many bike companies, many frame types. Even in one category there are multiple options from which to choose, with a selection of many component levels. A road bike could be a hybrid, a commuter, a crit racer, a recreation bike, a fixie, a singlespeed, a tri-bike, or a time trial bike, to name a few. The component choices and levels are also daunting: Sram, Shimano, Campagnolo; Apex, Rival, Red, Sora, Tiagra, 105, Ultegra, Dura Ace, Super Record, Record, Chorus, Athena, Centaur, Veloce. And these are just road components. Mountain bike components are another series all together. If anything, the range of selection is too much for the casual cyclist to keep track of. So, while selection is nearly endless, identifying what you’re looking for is tough.
Hype vs. What’s Right For You
There’s a lot of hype out there. Companies always want you to buy the newest they have to offer. That’s how they stay in business. They push the latest carbon frame, ti frame, steel-is-real frame, aluminum alloy, or a combination of many these materials. It’s up to us to peel away the hype and figure out the most practical bike for our particular needs. It’s probably beyond the scope of this little series to make sense of it all, but perhaps by introducing you to the myriad interests of cyclists out there, we’ll help you learn more about the kind of bike that interests you now and the kind of bike you aspire to ride in the future. New is not always best, expensive is not necessarily right for you, and you might realize that you already own a gem that will work fine. Then again, within limits, you often do get what you pay for. Quality bikes with quality components can make your rides more comfortable and more exciting. They aren’t cheap, but they don’t have to break your budget either.
This is the first in a series of articles on the bikes people use when they ride the dirt roads. I recently sat down for a chat with Mike Solomon and Ben Caldwell, two venerable cyclists who’ve been in the bike game for many years. Even with all their expertise and fine-honed opinions on bikes and components, their one, overriding bit of advice is ride the bike you have. Just get out there and enjoy yourself. When the budget allows, upgrade to the best bike you can afford.
Ben’s dirt road bike(s) will be highlighted in an upcoming article, but for now–and since Mike’s bike was available for photos–we’ll focus on the Salsa. He commutes on it, rides the dirt roads, and takes it on long road rides.
Mike’s Salsa, seven years old, is testament to a used bike that is well built and stands the test of time. Things have changed in those seven years in terms of what’s available in this style of bike, but it was and still is a high quality ride. This particular model is no longer made by Salsa, but at the time of production it was a popular bike.
Mike has modified it a bit as well. He’s a skilled bike mechanic–he works at Sic Transit Cycles here in Ann Arbor–with many years of cycling experience. His interests are fine tuned. He bought this bike new in 2004 and customized it with high end components such as a Dura Ace 7700 gruppo–or group set (shifters, derailleurs, cranks, and chainrings)–which was and still is top notch. The brakes are Avid cantilever. The fork is a True Temper Alpha Q. Though the company has since folded this aspect of its business, this is a very high quality carbon fork, durable and constructed to handle race conditions. He likes the Kenda Small Block 8 tires for all around use. They have enough tread to handle the dirt roads, but not so much that they’re a rough ride on pavement. The wheelset is Mavic Ksyrium, high-quality, light, durable and the go-to wheels for years for various uses.
Strengths & Weaknesses and Enjoying it for What it Offers
Though Mike uses this bike for all kinds of riding, he finds that it is a compromise for long-range road rides. The frame was designed for tight cyclocross courses, with short chainstays and a “quick” feel that’s great for accelerating out of turns and climbing short steep hills. It’s a bit cramped for faster paced road riding and the body feels fatigued after many miles. Mike prefers it for getting around town and for varied-pace dirt road rides. It’s an aluminum framed bike, which some feel is a rougher ride material compared to steel, titanium, or carbon fiber. But Mike likes the ride and finds that it’s not the material itself as much as the quality of the material and the frame maker’s skill that makes the difference. There are good and bad, he says, in all frame materials.
Type of Bike
The cyclocross style bike allows wider tires due to wider fork and frame widths than a standard road bike, a beefier fork, and cantilever brakes, which offer plenty of mud clearance. It also cruises well over the dirt roads and because of its race lineage it’s designed for fast paced dirt riding. It’s still comfortable at a slow pace as well, making it a good all-around choice for varied riding styles.
I gave Mike no notice that I’d be shooting pics of his bike, so you see it just as he rides it, grit and all. Even the saddle has a crack in it. This is a well cared for bike, but one that’s also used on a daily basis.
Frame: Salsa scandium
(scandium is an aluminum alloy that is billed as lighter and stronger than standard aluminum alloys)
Fork: True Temper Alpha Q CX fork
Gruppo: Shimano Dura Ace 7700
Brakes: Avid Cantilever
Pedals: Time, road or dirt, depending on where it’s going that day.
Wheels: Mavic Ksyrium
Spokes: Flat Blade
Tires: Kenda Small Block 8, 32mm
Fits up to 700c x 38mm tires
(Mike thinks this is an exaggerated figure. Things would be tight in the chainstay area with much over 32mm.)
135mm rear spacing
Standard 1-1/8″ headtube
Bottom Bracket: Shimano Octalink, outside bearings
Bottom bracket shell: English 68mm
Saddle: Fi’zi:k Arione (this one’s a bit worse for wear with a crack in its midsection)
56cm frame weighs 2.94 pounds
Color: Dreamcicle Orange
Mike’s Dream Bike
We always have the elusive dream bike that will fit some niche in our riding lives, the bike that is currently beyond our reach, but that might become part of the stable when the wallet opens and there are a few spare bills to put toward that wonder machine. What’s Mike’s dream bike? A light, titanium, 29er with a rigid fork.
Titanium, of course, is expensive. Our dream material often is. It was named for the Titans of Greek Mythology because of its strength and resistance to corrosion. It has a high strength-to-weight ratio and is often touted as a frame that will last a lifetime. The only downside to this is that some of us like the idea of dreaming of another bike in the future and owning ti means that this is no longer necessary. I’m not sure if that works in a strong consumer culture, but we have ways around that, don’t we.
29ers are a very popular choice these days due to their ability to handle various conditions and to roll smoothly over rough terrain. With those large wheels, some feel as if you sit in the bike rather than on it. The wheel size is the same as a 700c road bike wheel, only they take a much wider tire.
The rigid fork is a choice of many who want to keep the weight down (all the mechanisms in a front shock add weight, though I once hefted a Cannondale carbon Lefty front shock that was very light). Rigid makes trail riding a bit rougher, but if trails are just an occasional venture, the rigid fork is a nice option, and often less expensive.
That’s it for article #1. If you have any suggestions for this series, please comment. We’d love to hear from you and welcome the input. If you have a bike you’d like to highlight, contact us and we’ll fit you in. All bikes and all bike riding styles are valid and deserve their moment in the sun. Most of all, ride it if you’ve got it!
This all means that there’s a new section called BIKE GRITS about real world bikes for real world riding on the back roads. Click on the BIKE GRITS tab, or go here to see the full article. As always, thanks for supporting DRW with your presence.