Time to Start Planning Your Asheville, NC Spring Break Getaway

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Spring Break is an annual migration ritual in the midwest that clogs the I-75 corridor from Dayton, Ohio to Atlanta and all the way, I think, to Cuba, though I’ve never followed it that far. We simply can’t handle that last fifteen minutes of winter, a season of cold mud for us, and plenty of folks spend a full day of their vacation driving to southeastern resorts dense with other midwesterners on a busy interstate for blanket-congested beaches.

So we veer east to Asheville. The drive is shorter, your neighbors didn’t beat you there, and they somehow fit more outdoors into North Carolina than any three midwestern states combined. And now, before all of the mini-van and Airbnb rentals have been claimed, is the time to start planning and dreaming for this trip.

I should warn you: Asheville has already been discovered. It is possible, in fact, that you have already heard of it. Still, it is nice to pretend that you are not the typical tourist, that you have a special status somewhere between pottery-shilling local and carpet-bagging northerner. So here is how we create this fantasy for ourselves:

It helps to go with an Airbnb rental in a leafy neighborhood somewhat removed from downtown. Our favorite by far is in West Asheville, a marginally gentrified neighborhood where we moved last spring into a home designed by two globe-trotting architects. When a fellow customer at the West End Bakery referred to Asheville proper as “Disneyland,” we were able to respond with knowing nods that communicated our solidarity: Yes, here in West Asheville, we alone have found what the old Asheville used to be. (Something about aging hippies?)

Or don’t stay in Asheville at all; try Brevard. This is where the mountain biking paradise really starts, after all. We like to rent at The Hub and ride in nearby Dupont State Forest. The single-track is fun, the climbs are not punishing, and you get to frolic in waterfalls that were featured in The Hunger Games. We love to stay at The Red House Inn in Brevard for its full English breakfasts and the local cycling knowledge of owners Daniel and Tracie Trusler.

Asheville, NC
Photo: Scott Hill/Element.ly

Eat at the same restaurant more than once. It is the familiarity of repeated visits that make you feel at home and less like a tourist anxious to fit in as many different experiences as possible. Destinations worthy of return trips for us have been The Square Root in Brevard, and in Asheville, places like The Laughing Seed (vegetarian), and All Souls Pizza. But in a foodie place like this, it is difficult to go wrong.

Cultivate a relationship with a local guide. We love the spirit and professionalism of the folks at Fox Mountain Guides, who are great with kids and for the past few years have revealed to us the hidden joys of just-off-the-path rock-climbing in the area.

Try to stay for a full week. When you have been there long enough to have chance encounters with waitstaff from last night’s dinner while browsing the stacks at Malaprop’s Bookstore, it makes the world feel a little bit smaller.

One last trick: try applying for jobs. You may like your job back home, but there is something about throwing your hat in the ring that makes the fantasy feel real. And who knows, you might get lucky.

Asheville, NC
Photo: Scott Hill/Element.ly

How an E-Bike Got Me Back On the Road After 18 Years

The Faraday Porteur S e-bike in Portland
The Faraday Porteur S on my morning commute. Photo: Keith Axline/Element.ly

TLDR: After happily being a car and bus commuter for over a decade, the Faraday Porteur S e-bike made a biker out of me.

Before turning 16 and getting a car, I biked everywhere. I lived in Eugene, Oregon, one of the most bikeable cities in the U.S., and trekking across town was a breeze. My parents were divorced and lived on opposite sides of the Willamette river, so I did this often.

But you can’t take girls on dates or friends to parties with your bike, so I moved on to car-hood and never looked back.

That is until now. I’ve just moved to Portland from San Francisco and I’m trying to embrace the local lifestyle. And that means biking. Biking is definitely part of the San Francisco scene as well, but too many of my friends were injured while doing it for me to consider it while I was there. In SF the auto vs. bike dynamic is a borderline blood feud. Portland feels more like Eugene in its vehicular temperament, so I’m open to giving it a shot.

Not only is biking in line with the environmental ethos of PDX, but it’s almost a necessity. I’m part of a larger migration of people moving here from all over the country (for which I feel extremely guilty. Sorry, Portland), and we’re all clogging up roads that were never meant to accommodate so many commuters. Main arteries are jammed up for blocks during commuting hours and, shockingly, the locals are telling me it’s getting exponentially worse.

So not only do I not want to be part of the problem, I also don’t want to sit in traffic on the way to work—a headache I thought I was leaving that behind when I left SF.

But this presents a huge problem: Which bike to choose? It’s a daunting market and culture to get into, with so many brands, features, and variables to consider. Ugh.

E-Bikes FTW

Fortunately my laziness and predilection for tech toys have guided the way. Many people like myself would consider biking if we didn’t have to show up to work dripping with sweat, smelly and exhausted. These people—my people—also like biking but don’t identify with the seriousness of Bike Culture. We just want something fun, easy, and practical.

Electric bikes are growing in popularity for precisely this reason. They weren’t an option for me last time I was riding regularly so I was excited to try one out now. Getting an e-bike also seemed like a very “Portland” thing to do.

Faraday Porteur S

When I asked around, one of the most recommended models was the Faraday Porteur S. The company started out with a Kickstarter campaign and this is their second model ever produced. They’ve cut back on some of the materials to make it a bit less expensive than the first one ($3500 for the original, $2800 for the Porteur S), and the new slate gray color rather than the green is a little more inconspicuous. I actually prefer some of the downgrades, like the metal fenders instead of wood. Its biggest selling point for me was that it didn’t look like an e-bike, just a retro-looking commuter. Beyond that, I really didn’t know what to expect. How do these things work anyway?

I popped into Clever Cycles on Hawthorne, Portland’s premier e-bike shop, where Eva hooked me up with the tester from Faraday. She handed me the charger, showed me where the On button was, adjusted the seat, and sent me on my way.

Back in the Saddle

The first few minutes were spent just getting used to riding a bike again, period. Fortunately the cliché is a cliché for a reason. Next came dealing with traffic in an unfamiliar city and suddenly feeling like an unprotected meat sack. It was about 5:30 pm on a Tuesday and cars were angrily piling up on Hawthorne. Not only that, but I could feel the other bikers rolling their eyes at my n00bishness. And wait, where was I going again?

I decided to get off the busy street and figure my shit out.

Once the traffic noises receded, I could finally focus on the bike. The almost imperceptible whir of the wheels and chain. The firm support of the leather seat. Now it was time to try the motor. In the e-bike world, there are generally two types of motors: Pedal assist and throttle. Pedal assist waits for you to pedal before it engages and the throttle gives you the control. The Porteur S is a pedal assist motor with two levels of power.

While pedaling, I flipped the switch on the handlebars to the lower setting, using my left thumb. There was the briefest instant of “Is this thing working?” and then zing! It felt like an invisible hand pushing me along. It was immediately fun.

The Faraday Porteur S e-bike in Portland

Photo: Keith Axline/Element.ly

The Faraday Porteur S e-bike in Portland

From top to bottom: Power button, tail light, charger connector. Photo: Keith Axline/Element.ly

The Faraday Porteur S e-bike in Portland

The head light automatically comes on when the bike is on. Photo: Keith Axline/Element.ly

Cautious to Reckless

I was flying through back streets at 20 mph on the higher power setting, with barely any effort. I know it’s 20 mph because that’s when the motor cuts out and you can feel that it’s just you pedaling. This speed clip is artificially added so that you can still ride the bike in areas designated for normal bikes. If the motor can assist you past that speed then different laws apply to your bike and you lose some of the freedom of where and how you can ride.

The Porteur S has five gear speeds which you can change from the handle opposite the motor control. I really only used gears four and five (the hardest to pedal) but the others are nice to have for steeper hills.

As I rode, I tried to think of the last time I experienced such a clear win with no downside. With the Faraday, it seemed, you get all of the fun of biking but without the effort (I know, I know, for a lot of people the fun is the effort). Also, there’s no noise or exhaust from a gas-powered motor. The bike isn’t as light as a normal commuter, but at 42 lbs. it was still relatively easy for me to carry up the 10 stairs to our rental. It’s one of the lightest comparable e-bikes out there.

The next morning was my first commute, and I’ve never been so excited to go to work. I found a route that would avoid traffic and allow me to eat up the blocks without stopping. I pressed the button on the casing behind the seat and the built-in front and back lights automatically turned on. After a few blocks I developed the habit of kicking on the motor whenever I was accelerating and then cutting it while coasting or braking. I don’t think this actually saves any battery life, but it made me feel efficient and it helped me think a few moves ahead. No regenerative braking on the Porteur S, but the disk brakes provide more stopping power than calipers so they’re ideal for city riding, especially in Portland’s rainy weather.

When I did have to get back on Hawthorne to go over the bridge, I was able to fly past three blocks of solid cars. Waiting at a light with six other cyclists, I peered out of the corner of my eye to see if anyone was scoping me out. No one cared. The hipster camouflage of the Porteur S was working. Though it might’ve tipped my fellow commuters off when I beat even some of the cars off the line. Accelerating quickly is probably where the motor helps the most.

Having ridden the bus into work for a couple of weeks, I noticed I got to the office in half the time. If you consider the need to park while driving a car, I even beat that commuting time. I’ll admit that this is due to some illegal riding on my part—running red lights and stop signs—but I don’t think I’m alone in that respect. When the coast is clear, I’ll go.

Can I Keep It?

I left the bike charging in the sitting area of our office while I worked. I got a lot of questions and impressed comments. Mostly people wanted to know what the motor assistance felt like and how powerful it was. I was still looking for a reason that not everyone was riding one of these things, and the cool factor wasn’t it. The guys at the office were into it.

The Faraday Porteur S e-bike in Portland
Charging at the office. Photo: Keith Axline/Element.ly

One of the few negatives I could conjure about the bike was that the battery charge indicator on the handlebar is pretty difficult to read. It’s an e-ink display and even in direct light I couldn’t tell where it was at. I would estimate that I could do three days or more of commuting without charging, but I didn’t want to get stranded so I just charged the bike whenever I could.

So let’s do some math. If I save 15 minutes each way (a conservative estimate for sure), that’s 30 minutes a day. 2.5 hours per week. 10 hours per month. If I’m actually working during that time instead of traveling, then I’ve paid off the bike in under a year. Not to mention the $5/day bus fare I’m saving. Plus there’s the immeasurable value of daily exercise and actually enjoying the commute. I’m sold. Did I mention I’m good at rationalizing big purchases?

Don’t Just Sit There

Even after a week of riding, I still get a thrill when the motor kicks in. If you’ve enjoyed riding a bike at any point in your life and you commute to work, consider picking up a Porteur S or similar e-bike. Do the math and see if it’s a win for you.

Especially if you sit all day for your job like I do. Bike commuting is a great way to combat the health risks of an otherwise sedentary life. And e-bikes make it so it’s not a huge effort. Even if you’re feeling lazy, you’re not going to dread getting on your bike in the morning because you can get where you need to go with minimal effort.

Don’t let the “bike brohams” psych you out either, saying it’s cheating or somehow not real biking. That is just sour grapes. It seems they may have cornered themselves into an identity preventing them from enjoying anything that doesn’t involve some sort of pissing contest of machismo. Just do you.


From Bikepacking to Car Glamping at Bodega Bay Dunes

Bodega Bay Dunes campground.
It’s easy and fun to get lost in the weeds if you’re a nine year old. Photo: Erik Mathy/Element.ly

For the past few years, all my camping has been on a bike. Bikepacking, or bike camping, or bike touring, whatever label you want to use, enforces a minimalist approach simply through a lack of space. Oh, and the rider’s ability to haul weight.

Having the double strike of being both skinny and out of shape, this means I generally try to use a pretty light setup. Bivy sack, 6 oz tarp, space blanket ground tarp, fuel tab stove, etc. For the trip down the Lost Coast, my gear without food or water came in at around 14 lbs. Which isn’t a whole hell of a lot, as these things go.

Because of this, I’ve developed a deep-seated aversion to heavy, bulky gear. Car camping means just that: Coolers, dishes, utensils, firewood, spare clothes, inflatable mattresses, all that stuff!! That isn’t camping. That’s … glamping.

I wasn’t ever going to go car camping, until last weekend. My better half had enough of my avoidance and booked a weekend with friends at the Bodega Bay Dunes campground. Using a borrowed SUV, we packed in more than I could have ever imagined. Things actually reached the point that there wasn’t enough space for me to sit in the passenger seat. In an effort to make room for myself, I pushed a bag into the back of the SUV, which created an avalanche of gear onto the top of my son’s head.

Bodega Bay Dunes campground
There is room for forks in there somewhere. Photo: Erik Mathy/Element.ly

Yet, once we arrived, it all kind of worked. The tent, which is more of a palace that can sleep at least 6 and is tall enough to walk in, set up as advertised. Which is to say, literally one minute once I figured out its fancy auto-erecting mechanisms. There was a box for kitchen stuff, a box of food, a cooler for, um, cold stuff. Whenever someone needed something, it was there.

With the exception of forks, which were somehow missing from the equation.

And that gave us the luxury of not only having to not worry about much, it also gave me the luxury of relaxing. With more minimal bikepacking, there is always the nagging voice in your head that’s asking questions. What food do I have that’s going to go bad first? Has it already gone bad? Is there clean water nearby? Where in the world am I going to go take a dump? Speaking of that, how is my supply of baby wipes? And where did I stash that avocado, because all of a sudden I am starving!

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Bodega Bay Dunes is one of the prettiest of the Northern California coastal campgrounds.

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Little boys can find all kinds of things on the beaches of Northern California.

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Driftwood. We have alot of it!

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Seaweed + pen = AAAARRRGGGHHHH!!

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Glamping leaves more energy for carrying tuckered out newborns.

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Some trees are made for climbing.

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Things that would never go bikepacking: Propane, plates, rolls of aluminum foil, coffee pots...pretty much everything on this table, in fact, would never go bikepacking.

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S'mores are always an acceptable way to make up for burning the living Hell out of dinner.

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Don't forget to look up once you get out of town.

Without that voice in my head, I could climb a tree with my son, pop open a sea weed root to see what’s inside (air, by the way), and watch the teenagers attempt to start a fire with Adam helping. We burned the heck of of dinner, ate s’mores to make up for it, sang Adam “Happy Birthday” using a Minion Peeps as a candle, drank cider, sung along with Jason as he played his guitar and tried to make coffee with boiling water, coffee grounds and an egg like my Pops had told us his parents used to do. (For the record, even though it looked gross, it kinda worked. Kinda. Some raccoon probably got the caffeine high of it’s life after scavenging that coffee ground/egg patty out of the garbage can afterwards. We sincerely apologize to whichever park visitor got greeted by that sight!)

Bodega Bay Dunes campground
Crack an egg, add coffee grounds, boil. That’s what my Pops said they used to do. Photo: Erik Mathy/Element.ly

After cramming everything back into the SUV, we drove home, picking up lattes on the way to make up for the egg coffee experiment. Sipping my latte, relaxed and watching the scenery go by, I came to the realization that glamping wasn’t so bad after all. Except next time we needed to remember that forks are not optional.


How Park Tool Keeps the Bike World Running, One Blue Handle at a Time

Park Tool CEO Eric Hawkins. Photo: David Pierini/Element.ly
Park Tool CEO Eric Hawkins. Photo: David Pierini/Element.ly

Pegboards full of blue-handled tools—nipple drivers, caliper wrenches and the like—cover nearly every inch of wall, and the floor is a kind of obstacle course of repair and truing stands.

It is the showroom and final stop on the tour of Park Tool’s 85,000-square-foot facility in Oakdale, MN and when CEO Eric Hawkins leans against it’s newest repair stand with a hydraulic lift, this seems to be where the tour will end.

But Hawkins likes to end the tour where the story of Park Tool actually begins. He walks over to an odd sculptural piece on caster wheels. It is made with the base of a dining room table, a shell casing filled with cement, a ’37 Ford truck axel and a broken hockey stick.

Hawkins never tires of showing his father’s creation, the very first bicycle repair stand.

The first repair stand made by Park Tool founders Howard Hawkins and Art Engstrom. It consisted of a dining room table base on caster wheels, a shell casing filled with cement, a truck axel and a broken hockey stick. Photo: David Pierini/Element.ly
The first repair stand made by Park Tools founders Howard Hawkins and Art Engstrom. It consisted of a dining room table base on caster wheels, a shell casing filled with cement, a truck axel and a broken hockey stick. Photo: David Pierini/Element.ly

Two Sore Backs

Bicycles, whether in the peloton of the Tour de France or meandering along some state park bike path, are likely on the move because of Park Tool. Bike mechanics in more than 70 countries grab the tools to change break pads, spoke wheels, and adjust front and rear derailleurs.

That Park Tool rose up from a local fix-it shop in the Hazel Park neighborhood of St. Paul to having a 90 percent share of the global market for bicycle maintenance tools is a great American business success story.

“With us,” Hawkins says, “we have been in the right place at the right time with the right thing.”

The story, however, did not start with ambition. It began with two sore backs.

Howard Hawkins repairing a bike on the first production stand he and Art Engstrom made for Schwinn. (Courtesy of Park Tool)
Howard Hawkins repairing a bike on the first production stand he and Art Engstrom made for Schwinn. Photo: Courtesy of Park Tool

Howard Hawkins had just graduated from a technical college, where he learned welding and blacksmithing, when he bought a repair shop in 1956 with a friend, Art Engstrom. America was in the middle of a post-war housing boom and with it came all sorts of things to repair, like radios, televisions, and lawnmowers. Ice skates were in constant need of sharpening during the long Minnesota winters.

The housing boom also meant growing families with children riding bikes. From their shop, Hawkins and Engstrom sold and repaired Schwinn bicycles. The two were growing tired of stooping over bicycles on the ground when they came up with the idea for a contraption that could hold a bike off the ground and rotate 360 degrees.

The Prototype

Even today, the first stand is something to behold. The odd mix of items are smartly arranged to provide a solid, anchored weight in the base, along with a strength to support and balance a bike. Howard Hawkins laid down sure and economical beads in his welds and his first stand still stands ready for any bike triage.

Engstrom and Howard Hawkins repaired bikes with it for a few years before showing it to Schwinn in 1963. At Schwinn’s direction, the two designed a commercial stand that soon took its place wherever Schwinn bikes were repaired.

“He didn’t know anything about bikes, but he learned by putting his hands on things,” the younger Hawkins said of his father. “To him, everything was about common sense.”

Schwinn Stingrays in the office of Park Tool, which originated out of the back room of a Schwinn dealership. Photo: David Pierini/Element.ly
Schwinn Stingrays in the office of Park Tool, which originated out of the back room of a Schwinn dealership. Photo: David Pierini/Element.ly

That Midwest ingenuity began to come up against new challenges in the late 1960s, when the shifting and breaking mechanisms in bikes became more complex. Repairs were difficult because the tools for the new components did not exist.

The Tools

Engstrom and Howard Hawkins began making the tools: wrenches, frame alignment gauges, bracket and cable tools. The tools in the early years were built from scratch with whatever materials were left over in their shop.

Meanwhile, the two were among the nation’s top Schwinn dealers and at one point operated out of three different locations. The demands for tools became so great the two sold the shops in 1981.

Park Tool. Photo: David Pierini/Element.ly
Photo: David Pierini/Element.ly

As the tool line expanded, Park Tool have out-grown a couple of other facilities. They make close to 400 different kinds of tools for bikes and hold more than two dozen patents.

Park Tool tracks the cycling industry and seems to have a tool every time something new is released. Because of its standing, companies often share the specs on new components so that Park Tool can make tools to be available at the time of the item’s release. It has enjoyed spikes in growth thanks to mountain biking, BMX and American success in international cycling.

The company also recognized that cyclists began to learn how to take care of their bikes and has a robust line of consumer products, from folding allen wrench sets to tire patch kits.The Park Tool website is also a repository for informational articles and video tutorials.

Tools get shipped to more than 70 countries. (David Pierini)

Tools get shipped to more than 70 countries. Photo: David Pierini/Element.ly

Bottom bracket tools (David Pierini)

Bottom bracket tools. Photo: David Pierini/Element.ly

Chain whips ready for shipment. (David Pierini)

Chain whips ready for shipment. Photo: David Pierini/Element.ly

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Some of the employees commute to work by bike and factory floor fans are a good way to dry off clip shoes on a rainy day. Photo: David Pierini/Element.ly

Some of the tools past and present in the Park Tool showroom. (David Pierini)

Some of the tools past and present in the Park Tool showroom. Photo: David Pierini/Element.ly

“I think its important for us to take the mystery out of the bike,” Eric Hawkins said. “If you can show someone it’s easy to fix a flat tire, they’re likely to go for a ride. For a lot of people, being able to work on the bike is an ultimate goal. We are happy to give them that education.”

The Heir

Eric Hawkins grew up in his father’s bike shops and learned the business just from watching. He went off to college and came back to work for Park Tool for a while until he could figure out what he wanted to do with his life.

The younger Hawkins started making suggestions from what he learned from college marketing classes. He suggested having a presence at trade shows and other cycling events and his father agreed.

An employee affixes the Park Tool name to a product. Photo: David Pierini/Element.ly
An employee affixes the Park Tool name to a product. Photo: David Pierini/Element.ly

It was Eric Hawkins idea to patent the Park Tool shade of blue, Pantone 2935, which in cycling has become as recognizable as the green of the John Deere tractor.

“What better childhood than to hang out in a bike shop,” he said. “I learned a lot about assembling bikes and without knowing it, common sense. My dad did have any great ambitions, he was content making a living with the bike shops, but to his credit, he let me try some things.”

Park Tool CEO Eric Hawkins. Photo: David Pierini/Element.ly
Photo: David Pierini/Element.ly

Even after both Engstrom and the elder Hawkins retired, Howard popped into the factory a couple of times a week just to check on things. He even helped assemble display boards for the industry’s two biggest events, Interbike and Eurobike.

Hawkins and Engstrom were able to revel in the company’s 50 anniversary celebration in 2013. This past January, Howard Hawkins died in Arizona from a heart attack. He was 82.

Eric Hawkins has done much to modernize the company, but is a careful steward of his father’s legacy. There are pictures and newspaper clipping throughout the Park Tool office and one of every color and model of Schwinn Stingray ever made is lined up along an office, much like it looked in the old Hazel Park shop.

One way Eric Hawkins enjoys honoring his father is with a joke he always told people when asked how many people work for him. When I asked Eric how many work at Park Tool (between 50 and 60), he repeated his father’s line, “About half.”

Part of Park Tool's 85,000 square-foot facility near St. Paul, MN. Photo: David Pierini/Element.ly
Part of Park Tool’s 85,000 square-foot facility near St. Paul, MN. Photo: David Pierini/Element.ly

Capo’s Corsa SL Kit Brings the Joy of Compression

Capo Kit

I’ve been thinking about compression lately. As summer fades into shoulder season, the word connotes loss—shorter days, earlier sunsets, busier schedules, less time to ride. But on the road with your kit, it’s a must. Compression means more than support, more than forestalling fatigue; without it, my legs feel slack. My arms feel noodly. Lightweight is fine, but I still need the kit to fit. And “club” is not a fit. (Not to get all Velominati on you, but I mean, c’mon.) Somehow, Capo’s Corsa SL kit manages to walk that tightrope perfectly.

My first ride wearing it was a scorcher. It clocked in right around 50 miles, but it was a hot, mid-August afternoon in the shadeless hills of the East Bay. Three Bears, Pig Farm, up Reliez Valley. And my abiding thought the entire time was why are these bibs so comfortable? That’s not a usual thought when it comes to cycling apparel. Generally speaking, if you’re thinking about your clothes while you’re riding, something is wrong. The goal, I’d always thought, was to forget you were wearing kit at all. But this was better: I knew it was there, it just felt good. The wide leg bands stayed put like they were painted on, but without a hint of chafing. The shoulder straps were secure despite being gossamer thin.

Capo Kit

Up top, the zipper moved when I wanted it to, but didn’t when I didn’t. I’m generally partial to a certain scorpion-accented company, but its zippers have always left something to be desired; not these. Heat management became like a game to distract me on climbs. Getting pitchy, let’s take it down a few inches. Almost there. Over the top, time to cinch it up for the long tuck. Even the sleeves played their part—long without being too long, and compressing without squeezing. (Granted, I’m in possession of two of the skinniest arms since Chris Froome, and as such fall squarely into Capo’s decidedly Euro fit parameters; your mileage may vary.) There was a bit of room in the midriff—less than I’d expect from what the company terms “a more relaxed fit,” but when the next step up is basically skinsuit, one brand’s “relaxed” is another brand’s “race.”

Add in a pair of socks with blue accents to complement the stark black/white motif of the kit, and the triptych became my go-to over the next six weeks: Everything from a 20-mile pre-work spin to a solo 90 on the weekend, in temperatures from the high 50s to the low 90s (the former with an early-morning vest, the latter with a base layer that looks like fishnet stockings). There wasn’t a ride I could imagine that wasn’t right for the Corsa SL. It might be smack in the middle of the company’s product range, but there’s nothing “value” about the fit, form, or function. And now, even as I can tell those warm sunny days are numbered and the rest of my life compresses, I’m pulling out the armwarmers to get just one more ride with it before I move on to something less summery.


Why I Got Back to Mountain Biking, and How You Can Too

Specialize Stumpjumper
Photo: Bradley Hughes/Element.ly

I have been what the community calls a “Roadie” since 2001. That was the summer the entire country watched Lance Armstrong win the Tour de France for the 3rd time. I was in awe. Cycling was just beginning to have it’s time in the sun in the U.S. I traded my Rockhopper for an entry-level road bike and never looked back. Boy what a mistake that was—I was too young, no one had taught me the n+1 equation yet.

I’m older (and wiser?) now, and have learned that balance is important. Road bikes on Saturday, dirt church on Sunday. In the spring of 2012 I got my grubby hands on a sweet new squishy bike through the fine folks at Scott. I rode that piece of plastic as much as possible for the two years I had it. Raced it into the dirt. Tore it apart in the most abusive ways imaginable (I was relearning how to mountain bike, which can get a little messy). I got really comfortable on trails again. I cursed that younger version of myself, for what seemed like stripping away years of adventure and thrill seeking in the woods.

I enjoyed that bike every day up to the one where it was stolen from my garage. Greedy bastards. They stole my adrenaline fix.

Bikes are expensive, and I was low on cash, so I simply resorted to riding road bikes again to fulfill my need for speed. I won’t go into how burnt out I got riding roads over the last couple years, but if you’ve biked a fair amount, you can probably imagine. I unknowingly missed the woods. I wanted to stay in bed and sleep rather than go out for morning rides with my club. It was time to get back on the trails again, and so here I am doing just that.

Specialized Stumpjumper
Photo: Bradley Hughes/Element.ly

Here’s a few things I’ve learned going through this process.

The fitness benefits are superior.

I struggled for a long time to gain back the level of fitness I had that summer. I wondered why I was so fucking slow. Where had that effortless zip gone? I had been riding road bikes a lot, putting in hours, trying to stay fit. But I was still feeling sluggish, heavy, slow.

Then it occurred to me that it was because I wasn’t riding trails. The ups and downs—the intervals—that’s what was missing. Mountain biking gave me that adventure I’d always been looking for and a much more intense workout—a combination that was more powerful than anything I had found road riding. I enjoyed the intensity, the thrill of the downhills we’re great, but I was just as into the work put in to get up there in the first place.

When I was riding dirt, my brain shut off and my body went to work. It was fun, and I rode as much as I possibly could. All these things allowed me to reach a peak level of fitness—without ever checking my heart rate or chasing a KOM.

Buy a fun bike.

It’s important that you kickstart your way back into the sport. Test ride a lot of awesome and ridiculously expensive bicycles. Make it a fun project—over do it. This will give you a sense for what each bike does well and how each of them is suited to your interests. Then you’ll be able to make a good decision. Make sure you take the time to find what’s right for you in your price range.

Lately, I’ve been riding the 2014 Specialized Stumpjumper FSR Expert. This is the Evo model, which in my opinion has far too much travel for a trail category bike. Unless you are Gee Atherton, you have no business floating on 150mm or more of travel. You’ll just get lazy.

Having a bike that will roll over just about anything is fun, but it doesn’t allow you to practice a ton of technical skill. I ended up locking out the suspension often. I didn’t need all that travel—even on the more technical trails. And I swapped the stem for something more angled which brought my riding position and center of gravity down a bit. It’s not the most elegant climbing bike, but a little customization helped me climb better.

Overall, this bike is a blast. It’s not the right bike for me, but I believe downgrading the suspension on a standard Stumpy model would do the trick just nicely. And that bike is a crowd pleaser.

The idea here is to find something that will allow you to fall back into the sport easily without presenting too many technical or mechanical challenges. Get the right bike for you, so you can focus on the ride.

Roadies are boring.

Ok I can say this, because essentially I am one. And when I say “Roadies” I mean it in the true classical sense. You know that guy, you’ve seen him. If you are out there seeking course records or some magic number on your watt-o-meter, you are seeking the wrong thing.

Next time you are out on your bike (no matter road, cx, mtb), take a different turn. Shit, take the wrong turn. Go somewhere you’ve never been before. Ride a fire road or hike-a-bike to some new and unridden place. Seek something more than getting in your workout before you have to go sit in your cubical for the rest of the day.

I think this is the most important lesson I’ve learned along the way. I got in a rut so to speak, because I lost track of why I was out there in the first place. If you incorporate adventure and fun in your rides, they will always be rewarding.

Specialized Stumpjumper
Photo: Bradley Hughes/Element.ly

Campagnolo’s Latest Groupset Is a Mechanical Wonder

Campagnolo Revolution 11+ groupset
Photo: Jim Merithew/Element.ly

Most people like to take it easy on new equipment. Break it in. Get a feel for it. It’s a wise move, because cables stretch. Derailleurs need adjusting. Pads need to bed in. For a new groupset, that can mean a long honeymoon before getting into the rough stuff. It’d be impossible to give an honest opinion of it after just one day – unless you go big. Really big. Like Milan-Sanremo big.

It seemed like an obvious choice. Because what better test could there be for shiny new kit than a granfondo tracking one of the sport’s most iconic—and gruelling—events? Just shy of 300km with a bunch of strangers in rotten conditions and at red-line speed. Real-world testing conditions don’t get a lot more authentic than that.

So, the Friday before the race a Pinarello Dogma was shod with some box-fresh Campagnolo Record and a pair of their Shamal Ultra wheels, and then on Saturday morning it was put on a train for Milan. No time for testing. Just a quick shake in the parking lot to make sure it was all bolted on, and a cursory glance at the quick releases. They said it would be bombproof, and I took them at their word. But more on that later.

First things first: The details. Revolution 11+ is the latest edition of the storied Italian brand’s mechanical 11-speed Super Record, Record and Chorus groupsets. The skeleton brakes stay the same—no need to mess with perfection—but everywhere else they’ve rung in the changes.

The front derailleur gets a big update, with a longer lever arm that requires less movement of the shift lever to switch from little to big chain ring. No trim adjustment is needed in the big ring, but a shorter downshift with an additional extra click for the biggest sprockets all-but-eliminates chain drops. Campagnolo’s shifting has always been excellent in this regard, but every little bit helps.

Campagnolo Revolution 11+ groupset
Photo: Jim Merithew/Element.ly

At the back, you might not notice much difference but using their new “Embrace Technology”, the rear derailleur keeps the chain connected to the cassette for longer, giving better transfer of power and making shifting even better than the previous generation’s already crisp transitions. They also claim that it increases the longevity of both chain and cassette—welcome news for the bank balance.

Up front on the levers, externally there’s not a huge difference other than a slight facelift and a shift to a harder, more textured rubber on the hoods that provides excellent grip even when wet. Inside, however, it’s all new. The internals have been redesigned to work with the new derailleurs, so it isn’t possible to combine the new group with previous models.

The first thing that (envious) onlookers will notice is definitely the crank. Campagnolo have retired their much-loved five-arm spider design in favor of a new four-arm construction, which is supposed to be more aerodynamic. For the average rider, however, of much more interest is the fact that you can now change chainring setups without changing the whole crank, thanks to the new standardized bolt pattern. Switching from standard (53-39), subcompact (52-36), and compact (50-34) chainrings is now a simple job for even the least mechanically minded, providing a welcome amount of versatility—especially when paired with the new 11-29 rear cassette.

Luddites everywhere will be heartened to know that all of these changes have come to the mechanical group first, and though they’ll almost certainly migrate to the electronic EPS range sooner or later, it’s nice to know that Campagnolo are still committed to improving the analogue experience for those of us who have no interest in jumping on the battery-powered band wagon.

So how does it perform? The short answer is brilliantly. On its first outing—that nine-hour slog in wet and cold conditions from Milan to the seaside—it was a marvel, offering razor-sharp shifting under pressure and the reliable, balanced braking performance for which the Italians have long been famous. It could be a personal thing, but for this hack’s money, Campagnolo’s brake modulation is still second to none, and the hood design makes both shifting and stopping an effortless affair whatever position you’re in. Ultra-Shift also remains the only mechanical system that allows multiple downshifts—an undeniable advantage over Shimano and SRAM.

Campagnolo Revolution 11+ groupset
Photo: Jim Merithew/Element.ly

Over the course of the following months, the group continued to impress on everything from Roman cobbles and Tuscan gravel to high mountain passes in the Dolomites and the Alps. There have been a couple of casual check-ups to make sure everything is spot on, but in truth there was no need. Even on a bike that regularly gets chucked in the back of cars, hung up on trains and dragged about in a bag, this is a “set it and forget it” group. Keep it clean and you’re extremely unlikely to run into problems.

Cons? We’d be clutching at straws. Campagnolo might not be able to match its rivals in terms of sales figures, but when it comes to performance and sexiness, the Italians still do it best. At around $2,200 for Record, frugal observers could point to the price, but a good group is a long-term asset—if it’s taken care of it could outlive us all. And in a world where people pay $300 for a pair of bib shorts, splashing out on the ultimate cycling bling for your bike looks like a sensible investment, especially when it performs as well as this.

Campagnolo Revolution 11+ groupset
Photo: Jim Merithew/Element.ly

Interbike Survivor:
Highlights From the Three Day Bike-Geek Bash

Interbike Outdoor Demo

For the VIPs of Outdoor Demo. Photo: Stephen Lam/Element.ly

Interbike Outdoor Demo

Didn't expect Outdoor Demo to be overcast with clouds and rain but it sure made for a nice pretty photo. Photo: Stephen Lam/Element.ly

Interbike: Speedplay

Road? Aero road? Light action? Mountain? Platform? Speedplay has got you covered. Photo: Stephen Lam/Element.ly

Interbike: SRAM RED eTap wireless drivetrain

Everybody loves the new SRAM RED eTap wireless drivetrain. Photo: Stephen Lam/Element.ly

Interbike: Hans Rey (L) shakes hands with Vittorio Brumotti after Brumotti's trials show

Hans Rey (L) shakes hands with Vittorio Brumotti after Brumotti's trials show (on a road bike) at the Crank Brothers booth. Photo: Stephen Lam/Element.ly

Interbike: Camelbak Palos 4LR

Camelbak Palos 4LR pulling double duty as a water gun holster. Photo: Stephen Lam/Element.ly

Interbike: Camelbak's Outdoor Demo pool party.

Camelbak's Outdoor Demo pool party. Photo: Stephen Lam/Element.ly

Interbike Outdoor Demo

There's a pump track at Outdoor Demo if you want to jump around ... Photo: Stephen Lam/Element.ly

Interbike

... Or you can take the shuttle to shred. Photo: Stephen Lam/Element.ly

Interbike: Alchemy Arktos

Alchemy Arktos: More than happy to take one home. It's beautiful. Photo: Stephen Lam/Element.ly

Interbike: Tufmed

Tufmed's athlete body care products. Photo: Stephen Lam/Element.ly

Interbike: Torelli lugs

Lugs! Who doesn't love lugs?! From the Torelli booth. Photo: Stephen Lam/Element.ly

Interbike: Wahoo's new ELEMNT computer

Wahoo's new ELEMNT computer: A new entry to the bike computer segment. Photo: Stephen Lam/Element.ly

Interbike: Maya helmet from Keli Protectives

Flexible and adjustable visor on the Maya helmet from Keli Protectives. Photo: Stephen Lam/Element.ly

Interbike: CYCLIQ Fly 6 taillight with integrated camera

The CYCLIQ Fly 6 taillight with integrated camera ... was the bike cut in half for this demo rig? Photo: Stephen Lam/Element.ly

Interbike

Going to Interbike is a fun job but it's still a job. Photo: Stephen Lam/Element.ly

Interbike

Really digging that comic jersey/bib combo. Photo: Stephen Lam/Element.ly

Interbike

Riding for a cause. Photo: Stephen Lam/Element.ly

Interbike: Thule's Chariot CX

Thule's Chariot CX: You can put wheels and skis on it AND it comes with disc brakes for all you outdoor lovers with a little one. Photo: Stephen Lam/Element.ly

Interbike

I think he was selling fog-resistant sunglasses. Photo: Stephen Lam/Element.ly

Elemently_IB15

The Element.ly crew Photo: Stephen Lam/Element.ly

I survived my first Interbike.

If you’re a bike nerd, Interbike, or IB for short, is one heck of a bike show. New gear is displayed, deals are made, swag is given (and taken). Plus, free beer. I love bikes and gear just like many of you but it’s easy to get overwhelmed by a three-day bike show. Now that the dust has settled, here is my recap in bullet points.

E-Bikes

Whether you like it or not, e-bikes are going to be around for a while. Plenty of e-bike exhibitors, an indoor test track, plus they somehow work their way into just about every conversation.

Socks

Just a small glimpse of the hundreds of different kinds of socks on the Interbike floor. These are from the SockGuy. Photo: Stephen Lam/Element.ly
Photo: Stephen Lam/Element.ly

Oh so many different colors. I am pretty sure I could wear a different pair a day for a year straight if I was given a pair of everything.

Abbey Tools

Abbey tools are totally drool-worthy. It was a small booth off to the side but I actually want every single one of the tools shown. Great guys to chat with too!

Ortlieb bag

Ortlieb's Urban day pack: It doesn't have a gazillion pockets with fancy theatrical names on them but what you get is a minimalist yet highly functional design for your daily commute. Plus, it's made in Germany. Photo: Stephen Lam/Element.ly
Photo: Stephen Lam/Element.ly

Roll-top messenger backpacks have been around for a while but what I dig about Ortlieb’s latest offering is its clean lines and simplicity. No more gazillion pockets. It’s waterproof too. (Check out their current bags here.)

Convertible mountain bike helmets

The latest rage for the mountain bike world. Is today a full face or a regular helmet day? Bell, Uvex, and Lazer have got you covered. So enduro, brah.

Vittoria Corsa Speed tubeless

Vittoria's new G+ Isotech tire compound with graphene Photo: Stephen Lam/Element.ly
Photo: Stephen Lam/Element.ly

The G+Isotech Graphene tire compound is said to be faster, grippier and more resistant to wear. The other cool story is the fact that Vittoria has figured out cotton casing for tubeless road tires. Yes, it looks classy badass but perhaps it’ll be one step closer to bringing the tubular “feel” to tubeless. Can’t wait to test them.

Sir Bradley Wiggin’s hour record Pinarello

Sir Bradley Wiggin's hour-record Pinarello Bolide HR. Photo: Stephen Lam/Element.ly
Photo: Stephen Lam/Element.ly

Absolutely gorgeous.

Strong Lanyard Game

Manual For Speed Photo: Stephen Lam/Element.ly
Photo: Stephen Lam/Element.ly

Manual For Speed has the best decorated convention lanyard.

Questionable Products

Not going to name names, but it’s a hard sales pitch when your electrolyte supplement is essentially rebadged sea water (no lie, I read the label).

Sapim CX-Carbon spokes

CX-Carbon spoke from Sapim. Photo: Stephen Lam/Element.ly
Photo: Stephen Lam/Element.ly

Time will tell whether carbon spokes are here to stay. Priced at about $16 for a 3 gram Sapim CX-Carbon spoke, it’s probably the most expensive way to shed grams off your bike and the quickest way to lighten up your wallet ’cause who buys a single spoke anyway. But my, they are pretty and cool.

Schindlehauer Ludwig

A Schindlehauer Ludwig chillin' against the wall. Photo: Stephen Lam/Element.ly
Photo: Stephen Lam/Element.ly

Totally stumbled upon one that was leaning against a wall on the last day. Maybe it’s the Brooks saddle, maybe it’s the seattube cutout. Not only did it look stylish but it was also packed with plenty of tech like a belt drive and your choice of an 8 or 11 speed shimano Alfine hub. Slick.


Hincapie Mercury Kit Brings the Heat, Keeps You Cool

Hincapie Mercury kit
Photo: Jim Merithew/Element.ly

There’s a short way to describe Hincapie Sportswear‘s Mercury range: Not for the faint of heart. It’s lightweight, close-fitting, features plenty of mesh areas … and it’s white. This is a kit for your top form, when you’ve shed the winter weight, dialed in the tan, and can afford to draw some attention.

It’s a well-designed kit with plenty of tech in it aimed at riders who are focused on performance. There’s ample amounts of wicking, UVA/UVB protection, heat reflecting materials, and ventilation so it’s perfect if you want to go hard under summer sun.

This particular hack gave the Mercury bibs and jersey a few spins during a week climbing the Italian Dolomites, and it functioned perfectly. The chamois was comfortable all day, the tight-fitting extremities stayed in place, and it stayed cool—even on some exposed climbs where the gradient hit double figures. And the icing on the cake? It received a few begrudging compliments from the bunch.

Check it out the Hincapie Mercury kit at Competitive Cyclist.


Opening for the Pros at the Cyclocross World Cup

Cyclocross World Cup, CrossVegas
Photo: Stephen Lam/Element.ly

The start chute falls completely silent. None of us are friends anymore. The referee’s whistle cues my entry into the most painful 45 minutes I have felt since last season. One hundred of us are grinding away, already turned up “to eleven.” Not even 15 seconds pass and I hear front wheel spokes grinding on a rear derailleur two bikes to my right. Then swearing. Two guys I wont have to worry about again. I adopt the Reagan-era defense mantra of “Trust, but verify.” One hundred of us rolled the start line and I only know two other racers. Some guys have skills, some just big motors. I am hoping that clean technique plays well. I need all the help I can get.

This is CrossVegas, the USA Cycling version. One hundred Category 1,2, and 3 racers have paid to race on a course that will later host a World Cup battle of an international peloton of professional cyclocross racers. For me, however, this is simply about seeing how I measure up to my peers. As a middling Cat3 CX racer, I do not expect to blow anybody’s doors off.

The “real cyclocross” debate will never end. Some people think there has to be mud, or tree roots, or deep beach sand, or epic rain. My experience has taught me there is “fast” ‘cross and there is “technical” ‘cross. But it is never “easy.” After my first warmup lap on this year’s CrossVegas course, all I could think of was Marty McFly. “This is heavy, Doc.”

Thick, ripe, wheel-grabbingly lush Bermuda grass covered the entire 3.4km course, save the two plywood flyovers and five barrier/stairs sections. In other words, no rest for the eyes-blown-out-of-their-skulls weary. The diabolical course designer sent us up and down the ramps of this desert retention basin park walls more times than I can remember. But with each racer who pulled off the course ahead of me, crying “Uncle!!,” I mustered the motivation to pedal on. “I beat that guy.”

Cyclocross World Cup, CrossVegas
The author keeping his eye on the prize. Photo: Stephen Lam/Element.ly

With two excruciating laps down and two to go, the grenades start blowing. Fit, skinny, carbon-bike-riding young-uns start moving backwards. I relish every second. A guy wearing a hydration-bladder base-layer is complaining about the heat. At 85 degrees Fahrenheit, this is the coldest ride I have made in months. But I am dying a slow death, as well. Very shortly into Lap One, my tongue took the form of a wood rasp rubbing on the 100-grit sandpaper of my soft pallate, and a dry hack now interrupts my gasping. This is so fun. I paid money to do this.

With the ringing of the last Lap, the grudge match ensues between the five of us fighting for 50th place. Yes, 50th. I have no idea who these guys are, but the gradual sifting of racers through the grid has matched us as equals today.

I hear the announcer call the Finish Sprint as we are still just half-way through the course. Almost there. Kill me now. One guy jumps, I try to follow, and three fall off. Bury it. Stay clean through the stairs and maintain. Just maintain. I can hear the huffing behind me through the last few chicanes, but I keep my wheels gripping and grind on. I cross the line head slung down, an anonymous also-ran.

The announcers are talking about the ex-ProTour roadie who placed second and the upcoming Wheelers and Dealers race. I am nobody. Just a guy from Arizona who likes to race cyclocross. All I wanted to do was finish “under par.” I started 69th of 100 and finished 51st.

What does it all mean? Regular Joes can’t play a pickup game at the Staples Center ahead of a Laker game. Nobody plays two-hand-touch on the field in Foxborough before the Patriots. But I can race cyclocross before the best racers in the world rip up the course and remind me that I am just a regular guy with a day job. Why? Because it is there.

Cyclocross World Cup, CrossVegas
Photo: Stephen Lam/Element.ly