Goodbye Gravel, Hello Grind

I’m back!

[Sound of crickets]

Usually we head upstate for a family vacation at the end of August, and this year will be no exception. However, what with the Pando and all, we decided to gift ourselves an early bonus week in June. So that’s where I was.

Every year, as the day of our departure grows nearer, I walk around muttering to myself like a homeless person in a subway station as I deliberate over which bike to bring. (During this period, my family also treats me like a homeless person in a subway station, in that they occasionally shoot me furtive pitying glances, but otherwise they studiously avoid looking at me.) This being a family vacation and not some sort of bike-fest bro-down (not like I’ve ever even been a part of a bike-fest bro-down, but I know they exist) I don’t head out at the crack of dawn and then vanish into the horizon until sundown. Instead, I head out for a couple hours in the morning and then spend the rest of the day swimming, grilling, and lollygagging. So until this year I’ve always brought a road bike, since road bikes make it easy to measure your cycling intake. This is because there are roads pretty much anywhere, so it’s easy to go as short or as long as you wish.

Last year however I discovered there were some beguiling gravel roads that had been hiding right under my nose for the past five years, thus opening up the possibility of regular morning non-epic gravel jaunts, and I told myself that this year I’d bring a bike with fatter tires and lower gears so that I could ride them. (I did manage to scout them out on the Litespeed with its 25mm tires and 25-tooth low gear, but it was less than ideal.) For this reason, my mutterings were mostly along the lines of: “Jones or Rivendell? Jones or Rivendell?” Ultimately I decided on the Rivendell, since I figured that, of all my bikes, it was the one best-suited for both riding steep gravel roads and tooling around with the kids while wearing flip-flops. Also, it’s my newest bike, and I need to wear off that new bike sheen. So that, I figured, was that.

But it then transpired that my wife expressed interest in bringing a bike along herself for her morning workout. Alas, her own bike, a WorkCycles, was not exactly ideal for an upstate getaway. So my thoughts turned to the American M-16 from Classic Cycles:

With its ample gears and nimble proportions, I figured a quick saddle change and pedal swap would make this the perfect bicycle for her to hop on and go when the mood took her. Plus, this would also be my back door to the ultimate indulgence: taking two bikes on my vacation. Not only would she have access to a bike, but I’d have access to another bike in the event I felt like riding something different. So I swapped the Concor saddle for a Cambium, removed the Hite-Rite to facilitate quick saddle height changes, and screwed on a pair of flat pedals. She found the test ride quite favorable, and so it was settled.

My first vacation ride on the Rivendell confirmed that I had made the right choice:

In addition to being fantastic on the road, it’s also quite at home on the gravel, and is in all respects what the kids today call a “gravel bike.” The only thing I’d change if I rode actual mountainous terrain like this with it regularly would be the bars; while I absolutely adore the Nitto Choco bars, if you’re going up and down very steep roads repeatedly then standard drop bars are probably a better choice. This is because when you’re going up a steep grade drop bars allow you to rock the bike more, and because when you’re going down the other side it’s easier to stay on the brakes. (To cover the brakes on a fast descent with the Choco bars you’ve got to keep your hands a little further back than you’d like; it’s a little like peering over a ledge.) However, these drawbacks are quite minor, and since I only ride mountainous terrain on my all-too-infrequent vacations I remain quite satisfied with my choice.

After a few days of hitting my little gravel loop from both directions with the Rivendell, I decided to see how the M-16 handled it:

Overall, the Rivendell won in my own little personal gravel bike shootout. For one thing, it’s got a 24-tooth little ring in the front and a 32-tooth large cog in the back, and even accounting for whatever the difference in effective wheel diameter is between the two bikes, that’s still lower than the 26-tooth granny and 28-tooth large cog on the M-16. Also, the Choco bars afford multiple hand positions, whereas the classic mountain bike bars on the M-16 force you to keep your hands in the “showing off your knuckle tattoos” position at all times. However, the M-16 did have an edge when it came to descending, since having the brakes within easy reach while displaying my imaginary knuckle tattoos encouraged me to cut loose a little bit more–though “cut loose” is relative because I’m an extremely cautious descender, which is another way to say that I’m a woosie. Also, the aggressive tread pattern on the Velociraptors further inspired confidence on loose terrain, though I suspect that was mostly psychological as the GravelKings on the Rivendell are nice and supple and offer lots of traction.

Speaking of tires, check out the (lack of) clearance on the M-16!

I’ve had this bike since January and yet I never noticed this until last week. In case you’re wondering, those are 2.1s. I’d been thinking of upgrading to 2.2s, but there goes that–unless the tire wears through the chainstay and creates more clearance. By the way, the “16” in M-16 refers to the chainstay length, which was at least an inch shorter than the other models American Bicycle Manufacturing offered at the time, so maybe those bikes offered a little more clearance. Anyway, if you’re one of those crazy millennials riding around on gravel bikes, you’re probably amazed that a mountain bike would have trouble clearing a 2.1 tire. However, believe it or not, in the 20th century a 2.1 was actually considered pretty wide, and people rode dirt on skinny tires with tubes, pushing huge gears whilst shifting with their thumbs, and stopping their bikes with brakes that operated like piano hammers. That’s the sort of thing that puts hair on your chest–and your face:

The beard is a side-effect of the Pando (I stopped grooming myself months ago), and the sweat is a side-effect of it was really hot that day. As for the jersey, it’s a Vulpine Men’s Merino City Jersey, which I’m wearing while far from the city for extra irony points. While riding during my vacation (“vacation” is funny to type since my life is basically a vacation) I alternated between this and the t-shirt, which I also wore almost every day while off the bike, and which I never washed. In this sense, the trip was a breakthrough for me in that, instead of bringing extra shoes and multiple Lycra ensembles, I brought only two vaguely bikey tops and did all my riding in regular shorts and sneakers. So not only did I bring only a fraction of the crap I usually do, but I had just as much–if not more–fun as a result. Who’d-a thunk it?

Anyway, you might get the sense from the way I’ve been talking about the M-16 that I don’t like it. Far from it. The truth is we really bonded during this trip, and not only did I grow very fond of it, but when not riding or swimming or barbecuing I also went down an Internet rabbit hole reading all about vintage mountain bikes–which as we all know the bicycle industry is reinventing, precisely because rigid all-terrain bicycles are awesome:

In fact, the M-16 is going to be staying with me for the foreseeable future, and I’m currently deliberating whether to further gravel-ify it with wider, swept bars and GravelKing tires, or else keep it the way it is and enjoy it as a period-correct time capsule. Certainly there’s nothing like the appeal of a vintage ride:

Alas, that’s not my vehicle. See, as a father who rides bikes I’m contractually obligated to drive one of these:

As of next month the bank no longer owns it! Under 40K miles, make me an offer!

That’s the Saris SuperClamp EX hitch rack, which continues to serve me very well. I did have to lower the saddle on the M-16 in order to clear the extra-wide, extra-swept bars on the Hilsen, but otherwise everything went on without a…well, a hitch. (It’s a hitch rack. DO YOU GET IT???) Oh, and I did have to get a little creative with one of the roof trays in order to accommodate my younger son’s 16-inch bike. (Basically I had to reverse the clamp and move the ratcheting strap to the other side of the crossbar due to the teeny wheelbase.) And if you’re a Car Fred and are wondering what kind of fuel efficiency penalty I paid for having four bikes on the car as well as four people and their luggage inside the car, according to the ship’s computer, I only managed like 20mpg. Maybe when the kids start riding bigger bikes I should ditch the roof rack and step up to the 4-bike SuperClamp.

But hey, just think how much more gas I’d have burned if I’d packed Lycra and a pair of cycling shoes!

Fuck it, I’m leasing a Tesla.

Powered by

Up ↑