Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Ultimate commuter? Quite nary but close

When my wife and I agreed to drop one of our cars we knew I needed reliable transportation.  At the time we only had my 1988 Trek 800 that I had converted into a dropbar mountain bike and then hodge-podged a bunch of pieces together on it.  I affectionately called it The Dirty Gertie:

There's Gertie in all her Century riding glory!

There is an up close of her better side
While Gertie was a fun bike and a great learning experience in bike repair, and the black hole that a bike can become for the dollars and time, I realized she was inadequate for what I needed.  To get her into fighting shape for the winter she needed a complete overhaul of her drive line, and what it cost was more than I wanted to spend.  So off to Village Cycle Center to talk about commuter bikes, and off she went to greener pastures and newer butt cheeks.  

I like to think of myself as an educated consumer, however I sometimes wonder if I am annoying to a sales person.  I hope not!

I really like Trek bikes, whether vintage or brand new, and I knew I wanted a 26" mountain bike because I already had 26" studded tires for the winter.  Plus 26" bikes were waaayyy cheaper than the 29er and Fat Tire siblings.  And the 650b bikes....what the crap is that about anyway?  Whatever.  I poked around Treks website and found their 3500 series bikes came with a high (numerical) range of front chain rings which made more sense because I was commuting and not climbing mountains on the bike.  I also wanted disc brakes, which they came with a basic mechanical set; empowered with this info (or armed if you are in bike sales) I went to VCC and started asking questions.

What I found online is the 3700 series and the 3500, but the 3500 was cheaper and the gearing just made sense, in fact I mentioned this to the salesman and he pulled 2 bikes to verify.  We both learned something that day; he learned the 3500 is geared for flatlanders, and I learned that I am glad I read before walking in.

Because when in doubt shouting "I'm ridin heeryah" is better.
I REALLY liked the 2014 3500 because of the coloring.  It is a screaming green with orange and black accents.  I figured I already like to border on the obnoxious so why not go all the way.  However they didn't have my size and weren't getting them in, so I dropped back one year to the 2013 3500 Disc.  I got fitted and took a 19.5" frame.  Looking back I should have gotten a 21.5" since I fit over the frame, now the seat height on my 19.5" is all but maxed out.  However it is still comfortable despite the smaller frame, and if I ever took it out on a dirt trail I'd have frame I won't bottom my nuts out on.  (silent shudders abound)

Sexy matte paint and stickers
Being my first disc brake bike I was interested in seeing the differences between rim and disc brakes.  To say it is night and day would be a lie, there are some differences but honestly I am not comparing apples to apples.  My Trek 1.5 has the Tiagra levers and a nicer caliper for the rim brakes, whereas the 3500 has a bottom shelf mech-disc brake setup that works but I couldn't honestly compare to the better brakes.  While it does stop the same despite any external (read: weather) circumstances and influences, they are lacking in the all out power.  I can lock the brakes up, they are relatively quiet, and the are responsive.  Perhaps I wasn't ready for the level or modulation on the brake levers but I cannot complain, just sometimes feels like I pull more to stop.

The paint is by far my favorite aspect of the bike.  I really like the matte black, green and white.  I really feel Trek does wonders with their color schemes, even for the low end bikes.  I could honestly see myself keeping the frame and outfitting it down the road with all new components.

"Ronto" in all his commuter glory.  And yes the taillight is turned, because 2 year old that's why.
I have named the bike Ronto, yes after the Jawa's transport animals in Star Wars....again geeking out into the Force.  But he is a tough bike that will roughshod over any terrain, at least those scary curbs in Chicago.  The shifting is done with the Shimano SIS Tourney line and is relatively responsive.  I ride this everyday, Monday thru Friday, in all weather conditions.  And with the winter onset in Chicago as I type this, this will become my main transportation when our car is unavailable....which is like always.  But the shifters and derailleurs keep right on clicking, needing minor adjustment at times but nothing noteworthy.

The front suspension fork is a nice perk most of the time, however it is chincy but works for a street ridden transport-use bike.  I have ridden on some minor dirt trails, but I don't see the fork handling too much.  I have thought about going to a solid fork but for now I'll ride with it, after all I do have the Trek Care Plus coverage on it.  The only thing I don't like about the fork is it is a spring loaded fork so it tops out easily, even when "crawling" down a curb or bump.  Also under a hard kick off pedal I have found myself hanging a front wheel because it will kick so hard.  I know I could lessen the pre-load in the spring, and I have, but I am by no means a small man, so less preload means my nose is sagging.  Literally.

Up close and personal with the treads.
The saddle is comfortable, especially since I sit up straighter than my roadie, the X1.  The grips and bar layout is nice, and there is some slight adjust-ability to the shifter positions, but I haven't felt the need to mess with that.  The brake levers COULD be slightly longer, but they reach far enough I can easily get 2-3 fingers on them, or rest one all the time.  The ride is nice due to the 2" tires, and the tread holds it's own unless it is really loose dirt or wet, then you can find yourself spinning the rear wheel or power sliding.  The gearing in the cassette and chain ring is excellent in my opinion, I always have a gear whether drafting a truck and needing some top end, or riding directly into a frigid wall of air pushing back at me.  Dang you wind!!

Like I stated above, the only aspect I don't like is the tires.  The Bontrager LT3s are great for dry pavement, hard pack, and non-wet grass.  However if you throw water under them and you aren't going straight you better be prepared for some sliding.  I have found myself on a specific turn at the bottom of a short, but steep, hill sliding when it is wet out.  Also around turns when I haven't slowed and need to lean the bike.  It is almost as if the tread ends and I am riding on the sidewall.  The tires, at least the rear one, seems to like to eat sharp objects despite my best avoidance.  I have found a small steel wire in the tire and a tiny piece of maybe I just need to ride over bigger pieces?

I have thrown on a top tube bag, run a Cygolite taillight, a Magicshine 808E and Cygolite Metro 360 front light, and Planet Bike's SpeedEZ ATB fenders.  The biggest issue in outfit the bike was finding fenders that fit, and that a rack won't either, but that's for another post.

Overall I am very satisfied with my purchase, more so that Trek has their Trek Care Plus which basically means I am covered for 3 years on anything going wrong with the bike, anywhere there is a Trek dealer.  That's great because there might be some moving about the country in the near future and I am not about to drive back to Chicago to get the bike fixed.

North Branch Trail - Cook County Forest Preserve

Like many on the NW side of Chicago, I use the North Branch Trail, or NBT for short.  It allows a rider limited road crossings, a few bridges to march up, nice scenery and (usually) friendly path users.  I grew up riding from the Caldwell and Devon entrance to the Oakton bridge with friends.  As kids we thought going to Oakton was really far, now I am barely warmed up!

The trail has always been well maintained, and the CCFPD responds to requests for repairs when you call in.  Obviously this being a well used trail means the FPD wants to keep people coming back so they can prove the need for tax revenue.  I haven't ran into any problems other than a few times people will use the trail to cut around traffic....

According to the FPD police these gents are "regulars"

But there are plenty of places to stop and snag a photo that isn't someone being an unsafe imbecile.

Even on crappy, floody, fall days it is still pretty.

One thing to be aware of as a cyclist is the plethora of runners early mornings.  A friendly "on your left" and a "thank you" seems to go a really long way.  Like REALLY long way.  I can't say I have ever had an issue because of that; I have seen other riders go flying past silently without so much as a grunt and scare a runner.  That, in my opinion, is rude and dangerous.  I don't understand the mindset of why saying something is too hard for some, but I can't police the world.  At least not yet....

The other danger is the wildlife.  Many a time I have unexpectedly come upon a deer in the middle of the trail.  Now if you haven't hit a deer before on a bicycle just ride into a short wall.  Go on I'll wait...

A deer will launch you over it's back, glance at you, and walk away with no frogs given.  (See that, keeping my swear surrogates relative!)  I haven't been tossed yet, but I have run into a deer, they are solid beasts, and where there is one there is usually more.  Also the raccoons and their fellow critters are small, but they are darty little buggers that will head for a tire.  That means you have to be aware, especially in the evening times when they are out foraging for food.  I try to remind myself that I am in their house, and I don't want to cream one because cleaning guts off my bike isn't something I am excited about.

Riding later, like the afternoon and early evening, will also mean you are faced with the human critters.  Kids, and many times inattentive parents, can make things troublesome.  That means you'll need to slow down, like way down, almost to a point you are doing the balancing dance as you roll.  Not that this is a big deal, but if you don't plan accordingly your Strava times will suffer.  So just make sure you roll in the early morning.

Overall the NBT trail is a great ride, for fitness or family, and for a picnic.  Just be aware we, and humans, are in someone else's house and need to treat it that way.

And a send off picture from a frosty morning commute on the NBT.