In today’s fast-paced world, what with its touch-tone telephones and remote-controlled televisions, we’ve become accustomed to instant gratification and an almost perverse level of convenience. This is particularly true during the holidays, when we complete all our holiday shopping in like nine seconds on that retail website named after a large river. (I’m talking about MississippiBargains.com, of course.)
Every so often though you want to do it the old-fashioned way, by going into town and handling stuff before buying it. I especially enjoy doing this by bicycle–not only because I like riding bicycles, but also because New York is beguilingly crowded yet desolate by turns; at this time of year lots of people have already fucked off for the holidays, yet there are also large clusters of tourists her looking at stuff. It’s a time of year that’s all about winding down, and a city this big winds down palpably, and there’s something satisfying about the ineffable manner in which that can be palped as you make your way through it by bike:
All of his is to say I had a specific gift in mind from a specific place for a specific someone, and so yesterday I rode downtown to fetch it. While the Pink Faggin is now my designated urban runabout, I knew the sun would start to set as I was heading home, and I also knew I wouldn’t be leaving the bike unattended for very long, so I rode my Homer with its fancy headlight and generator hub. The late-’80s road bars I recently fitted it with are narrow by Rivendell standards, but that’s perfect for riding in traffic, and palming the bar-end shifters while in the drops allowed me to change gears effortlessly and slide swiftly through Times Square like a strand of oily spaghetti:
On my way home, the mighty Hudson shimmered in the sunset:
And my trusty headlight lit the way:
Happy Holidays, assholes:
And yes, that picture with that message is also our family Christmas card.
Anyway, as much as I love a good urban ride, today I was pining for the opposite, and so I headed due north. I’d have ridden the Homer again, but it was supposed to start raining, so I figured it would be wise to ride a bike with fenders. Fortunately I have a wheelbrowed bike that marries the comfort and versatility of a Rivendell with the eagerness to scamper that you find in racier velocipedes:
I received the RockCombo from Classic Cycle in November 2020, and now that it’s been a little over two years with the thing it seems like a good time to take a look at how it has changed and how it hasn’t. Here’s what it looked like as soon as I put it together:
As far as I can tell, apart from maybe the saddle and the pedals, the bike was completely stock. Even the tires were original. I didn’t really know anything about the RockCombo before Paul sent me one, and in fact he faked me out by telling me he was sending me Specialized’s latest and greatest gravel bike. Sort of like the Kestrel, at first I was mostly tickled by its wildly dated appearance and its high irony factor, but the ride won me over in short order. (I still enjoy the fact that it’s a novelty, but ultimately it’s just a really good bike.) There’s a comment floating around the various bike forums in which the guy who designed the RockCombo says the factory changed some stuff and that he was very disappointed with it, but I think it feels great and that it does everything its supposed to do rather adeptly–and you can see what it’s supposed to do here:
Maybe I’m not sophisticated enough to understand what’s wrong with it, or maybe the factory made the unwanted changes because they know exactly what they’re doing and figured they knew better. Regardless, despite its heft it feels nimble both on-road and off, and it’s easy to fender it and rack it up if you want to imbue it with a little practicality and/or four-season capability, which is where I’m at with it now:
Fundamentally the bike isn’t all that different than it was when it first arrived, but I have made some notable changes by way of refining it, thanks in large part to Paul. These include the fancy RapidRise XTR derailleur and the Hyperglide-compatible wheels, which improved the shifting dramatically:
You may or may not be interested in friction shifting, but I don’t think you’ll find a smoother-feeling transmission than this.
The hubs are XT, with an updated freehub in the rear that will accept 8/9/10 speed cassettes while still fitting the bike’s 130mm spacing:
And the rims are anodized, which I always used to think was super cool, even though I didn’t know what purpose it served, and I’m fairly sure now that it served no purpose whatsoever apart from looking super cool:
I’m also still using the Rene Herse ninja slippers, which I really enjoy now that I’ve gotten the tire pressure figured out:
I’m not usually one to fuss over tire pressure, but on such a thin tire there’s a fine line between it feeling nice and smooth and feeling vague and marshmallowy so you need to really get it right. I do think I will probably return to the firmer and knobbier WTB All-Terrains eventually though, since these surrender their traction immediately and alarmingly at the slightest suggestion of mud, and at this time of year there’s always a slick patch here and there where the sun has melted the frozen trail surface. Also, this bike is fully capable as a mountain bike and the WTBs can take you much further into the woods than these can. (I’m also not convinced these are robust enough for debris-strewn winter roads, but we’ll see.) Other than that though the tires complement the bike beautifully and are especially fun to ride on a flat, hardpacked trail just like this.
While I’m currently using clipless pedals (I’ll go back to flats come sandal season), the rest of the frontal portion of the drivetrain remains unchanged:
I wrote an Outside column about this quite awhile ago that they have yet to publish, but I’ve very much come around to the triple–not so much for technical mountain biking, where having to downshift in advance of a climb isn’t always possible or practicable (you can’t really shift a triple under load), but more for all-around riding, where a single front shift is often preferable to multiple shifts in the rear. Plus, a triple is really just a double with a bailout gear, and while I used to think they were ungainly they’re considerably more elegant than what the modern all-terrain drivetrain has become:
And yes, chainsuck can be a problem on those ’80s mountain bike drivetrains…BUT NOT WITH THIS BABY:
I also haven’t changed the controls, with the exception of replacing the rear Suntour shifter with a Silver2 since the Suntour had barely enough throw for the wider eight-speed cassette (plus it just feels better):
While I didn’t change the bars or the stem or the brake levers, I did change the brakes, for old XTR cantilevers:
I’ve never tried any of the super-fancy cantis like Paul or whatever, but of the ones I have used over the years the XTRs have always been my favorite in that for whatever reason they seem to feel the most like road brakes, and they’ve never exhibited any cantilever quirkiness (chatter, etc.) on any bike on which I’ve installed them. I’m sure some Brake Fred will come along and critique the straddle cable height or something, but they feel just the way I want them to so I really don’t care.
I was hesitant to put fenders on this bike because I didn’t want to inhibit its ability to wander off-road (having broken my thumb some years back after a dirt trail stick-and-fender incident I became wary of fendersfor anything but pure road cycling), but probably due to the generous width and clearance these don’t seem to get in the way at all:
A leather saddle isn’t always the best choice for a bike that’s going to see lots of wet weather, but it’s too comfy not to use it plus it gives a little organic class to a bike that is otherwise exhubarntly hued to the point of being saccharine:
All in all it’s by far the best Specialized I’ve ever owned, and I’ve owned a few…
…though admittedly they were all road bikes, including this one, which got the boot to make way for the Combo:
I haven’t looked back.