Monday, June 2, 2014

Back on the Road (Bike)

At the end of March 2014 I had knee surgery to replace the torn ACL in my right knee. Luckily (I guess), I had already been through this recovery journey once nine years ago to the day when I had knee surgery to replace the torn ACL in my left knee. Luckily, I say, because I knew what to expect this time. I knew how long the initial sucky part would last, how long until I could run, hike, ski again, and how long until I could start riding a bike.

Working in a bike shop every day it has been hard to watch from the sidelines as this spring has started winding up, as the group rides started rolling out of the parking lot, as the flood of people started coming in to get their bike fixed up, buy a new bike, get some cool new gear, or just to have a little conversation about riding bikes.

The middle of May marked the first step back for me – my first ride. I don’t count the ten-minute warm-ups twice a week at PT on an exercise bike or the random stints on a trainer with my saddle jacked a couple inches higher than normal so that I could push the pedals all the way around. The last time I had ridden outside had been around New Year in the freezing, howling wind, with bar mitts on my handlebars and nearly every square inch of skin covered for protection. So when a lovely, 60-something spring day came along just after a checkup with my surgeon I knew it was time to get rolling once again.

The middle of May also left me without a road bike of my own, and with a store full of options I felt it was a great time to try out 4 or 5 new bikes:

2013 BMC Gran Fondo GF01 Ultegra Di2
$7000 (sale $5500)

GF01 at Fort McClary

Truth be told, I’ve ridden a GF01 before. This is our second season as a BMC dealer, and my first impression when I had first ridden this bike was a pretty mind-bending experience. The Gran Fondo is what some other companies call a “comfort road bike” or “endurance road bike.” We’ve sold similar category bikes for years, like the Specialized Roubaix and Cannondale Synapse, and they have evolved from being cushy 1970s Cadillac-feeling bikes in their first few generations to something that still cushions the bumps, pot-holes and rough spots in the road, but are more responsive and racy. But the Gran Fondo is another evolutionary step forward in my opinion. I first rode it up the hill, through a neighborhood and then blasted down along the rugged railroad tracks, and it sucked up the roughness the way I would expect a relaxed-geometry bike with exceptional vertical compliance to do. But then I got back out onto pavement, grabbed the drops and sprinted to get up to speed in traffic, and it felt just as stiff as a race bike! In fact, it is the bike that the BMC pro team rides in the spring classic races like the Tour of Flanders and Paris-Roubaix, where a bike has to be extremely supple to get over the cobbled sections, but still responsive enough to deliver the racers to the finish line as quickly as possible.

On this first road ride of mine I was not getting to any finish line quickly, but that wasn’t my goal. My goal was just to ride up the coast in Maine for half an hour before turning around and coming home. I knew the Gran Fondo was the perfect bike for this first ride. I wasn’t really worthy of pushing this bike anywhere near its limits yet, but it was a very refined ride that cushioned the blows that our frost-heaved roads harbored, made it as easy as possible for me to get up the hills, and let me concentrate on the mild throbbing that my knee relayed to my brain as it got pushed near its range-of-motion limit with every pedal stroke.

As I pedaled over the Memorial Bridge from New Hampshire to Maine the Gran Fondo kind of disappeared beneath me. It was smooth and supple, but made it easy for me when I needed to put the extra effort in to get up the exasperatingly small inclines along the way. Since we just became the sole New England Mavic Test Center, I had installed a pair of Mavic Cosmic Carbone 40 wheels (CC40’s), and their light, aero shape helped me push my average up to the laughable 14mph average. Five miles up Route 103 I pulled into the entrance for Fort McClary, and rolled along the gravel road, paths and grass lawn out to the fence overlooking Portsmouth Harbor. On the horizon our two lighthouses and the sparkling Isles of Shoals created a perfect backdrop to take a few photos of the bike and a much-needed little break for my knee.

This Gran Fondo is a leftover 2013 bike. We have a handful of them left that we got at the end of the season at a great deal, so we can pass the savings on to customers. It was a brand new model for BMC last year, so aside from the Ultegra Di2 electronic components going from 10-speed to 11-speed for 2014, there really isn’t any difference to the 2014 model. The fact that we have dropped the price from $7000.00 down to $5500.00 has meant that we have sold quite a few this spring, though we still have most sizes left in stock, as well as a few of the mechanical Ultegra version ($6000.00 marked down to $4800.00).

Stopped by the fort in the sun, with just a hint of a breeze stirring the air, it was the first time this year that it really felt like this cold, snowy, lingering winter, both literally and figuratively, was finally releasing its hold. With trees budding, flowers blooming, and just a gentle tailwind to remind me that I wasn’t sweating on a LifeCyle anymore, the ride back to Portsmouth was equally pleasant, and after waiting for the bridge to reopen from a crossing, I even managed to hold most of the cars off from passing me as I “sprinted” back into New Hampshire.

Salsa Warbird 2

A week later I was able to take a ride on the 2014 Salsa Warbird 2. Not a standard road bike, this brand new model personifies the company’s philosophy on building a bike. We just became a Salsa dealer last fall, and after a winter selling their innovative fatbikes, the Mukluk and the Beargrease, and the early spring selling Vaya touring bikes, we’ve already grown to love them. Their tagline is “Adventure by Bike,” and while the Warbird’s expressed task is gravel road racing, it is well suited for many different adventures. Every bike that Salsa makes has disc brakes – every fat bike, touring bike, mountain bike and even road bike. The Warbird 2’s aluminum frame and ENVE carbon fork provide miles of mud clearance, beyond even the 700 x 35c Clement tires.

I looked for an adventurous route, but given my lack of time and still pitiful strength, stamina and endurance, I had to settle for a tour of nearby New Castle Island and aim for as many short gravelly sections and grassy shoulders as I could find. On the road the Warbird felt like a solid road bike. With a 105 kit, Stan’s No Tubes Iron Cross rims and a compact double 36/46T crankset, the bike weighs in at just over 21 pounds, which is respectable given a 105-equipped Specialized Secteur Expert Disc weighs in the 23 pound vicinity. The Warbird also comes as a Titanium frame, Ultegra 10-speed bike with DT Swiss 350 hubs that drop a few pounds off the weight and smooth out the gravelliest of roads, but also nearly doubles the price tag to $4500. The aluminum Warbird 2 felt smooth and predictable, and climbed up the short hill onto the great island with great aplomb (though my fitness left me wheezing a little towards the top).

Taking a hard right onto Neal's Lane, the Warbird seemed to yelp with glee as the tires dug into the loose gravel, but maybe that was just me relishing my first slightly-drifted turn on a bike in six months! The bike chugged along over the bumpy terrain straight as an arrow, took the sharp left turn at the center of the island and accelerated back out to the intersection with Route 1B. Out of breath as I pushed up the small incline back on the pavement, I wasn’t sure if it was from my lack of fitness or the excitement of the last half mile!

My goal was to stop by the ocean at Great Island Commons to take a few photos of the bike, but I was too early in the day, and the gate was locked. So, I continued out to the next left turn and rode out to Fort Stark instead, which felt right. I had just taken an online Game of Thrones quiz the night before which named me as part of the Stark family: Josh Stark, first of my name, father of knee injuries. The gate at Fort Stark was open, and I pedaled across the grounds, skirted the fenced off areas around the hulking fort, and climbed up a grassy, gravelly hill around the backside of the park. I ended up on a high plateau overlooking the ruins of the fort grounds and battlements, with a view of all the boats moored in Little Harbor in one direction and the mouth of the Piscataqua River, Whaleback Lighthouse, and Wood Island in the other.

Riding back into town over the Route 1B causeway into a headwind just a few minutes later than I wanted to be for work, the Warbird felt rock solid as I draped my forearms over the handlebars to milk just another mph or two out of the bike in an aero position. Salsa's Cowbell 2 handlebars are ideal for this bike. Riding on top of the hoods or up top it feels like a regular road bike. But the drops flair out a little bit, so when you are driving along a bumpy backroad you have a wider, more stable grip on the bars. Rolling through Market Square with traffic starting to build I just couldn’t resist the impulse to dive down a side alley and aim for the railway and just a little more rough terrain before dropping down directly into Papa Wheelies parking lot from the woods. Woo Hee!

More to come...