Sunday, December 4, 2016

Norco Search Review: Full Season of Riding

Short Story:

The Norco Search is a great all-around road bike, but its limited tire clearance (barely clears 40c tires) make it less than ideal for gravel and CX, meaning its not quite the ‘one-bike-to-rule-them-all’. None the less, an excellent bike that I’m quite fond of.

Long Story:

Some Background:

When I was shopping for a new high-performance "gravel" bike, reviews where hard to find. So now that I've had one myself for a full riding season, I thought I'd offer my own review.

The Search has replaced 2 bikes for me. I had a monstercross bike (a 29"er with drop bars) that I was using for gravel, cyclocross races, and on a couple occasions endurance MTB racing. I also had a 2007 Schwinn Peleton road bike. Despite Schwinn's questionable reputation as of late, I found the Peleton to be an excellent road bike, stiff and efficient, but also forgiving, comfortable and stable. This made it a great bike for covering long miles. Like most road bikes, it only fits up to 25c tires.

I really loved the Peleton for what it was, but I was longing for a bike with a bit more versatility. Often I'd want to go off-pavement, follow an intriguing path, or just put in a few miles on a limestone rail-trail as part of my journey. The Peleton was clearly not ideal for this. My monstercross bike on the other hand was a bit of a kludge, it did a lot of things, but none of them well. Thirdly, I wanted to reduce the number of bikes in my fleet. Despite the "n+1" dogma, I found that owning and maintaining 8 bicycles cost a lot of time and money.

So I took a big leap and tried to find 'one-bike-to-rule-them-all'. Basically, I was looking for a bike that would perform at least as-well on pavement as my Peleton, but also be able to apply to gravel roads and cyclocross racing. I narrowed it down to two carbon frames: the Jamis Renegade and Norco Search. The Renegade is only available as a complete bike. Since I wanted to use my old parts (two bikes worth!) to save money and configure the bike just the way I like it, that ruled out the Renegade. 

The Bike Set-Up

Freshly built, ready for its first long ride.
So, I'm only reviewing the frame and fork here. For components, I went with a Thomson cockpit, Katie Compton CX bars mated to a 90mm X2 stem, and Elite Seatpost. I'm a fan of Fizik Arione saddle and am quickly becoming a fan of the ESI bar tape. 

One thing that I think a lot of "gravel bikes" lack is gearing low enough to actually allow you to ride up what are often quite steep gravel road climbs. And on loose gravel you can't just stand up and power through a climb. So you need lower gears to spin up a hill. 

My bike runs SRAM Rival shifters and front derailleur, with a 50/34 compact chainring set-up, but uses a SRAM XX rear derailleur. Unlike Shimano, SRAM's mountain and road groups play well together, allowing me to run a 11-28 cassette on my "road" wheelset and a 11-36 cassette on my "gravel/CX" wheelset. The 34x36 low gear is proving to be sufficient for the steep hills and deep valleys of the Driftless region, but I think I’d want even lower gears if I lived somewhere more mountainous. One issue with running a mountain derailleur is that the internally routes shifter cable exits the frame in a way that makes for a real awkward curve to feed it into an MTB derailleur. I think this may have killed my shifter due to the friction in the cables and force being put on the shifter. So I came up with a… unique solution.

That's two Rollamajigs and a Travel Agent, if you're counting.

For the moment, I'm running some wheels with carbon hoops borrowed from a very generous friend, with 28c Compass tires as my road wheels and a Hope/Stan's Arch wheelset with 42c (that measure 39mm) Continental Cyclocross Speed tires for gravel.

The Actual Review Part of the Review

I had a fairly low bar for the performance of this bike on pavement: it just had to be as-good as my previous road-racing designed carbon frame. It has greatly exceeded my expectations. As a road bike it is considerably stiffer and more efficient than my previous bike. It felt like it was almost a gear faster. The super supple Compass tires and stiff carbon rims probably help this a lot. Overall, it handles in a stable manner. It's easy to sit up and ride no handed to rest or eat. Despite the short stem it descends with confidence, the wheels feel tacked to the ground, I can rail corners harder than ever before. It accelerates rapidly when you put power into the pedals and it blasts up hills when climbing out of the saddle, at least as much as the engine can push it. I worried the longer wheel base would make it a less-capable climber, but this has not proven to be the case.

The frame does seem a little too stiff at times when riding on the pavement. Again, some of this is probably from the stiff wheels. But even with the 28c tires, I seem to feel every crack and seam in the pavement. You could argue that I get a lot of feedback from the road surface, but I was hoping the bike, which is designed to absorb some vibration and impact, would smooth things out a bit more for me. I suppose this is the cost of a high-performance frame. 

My solution to this issue will be to switch to the 35c Compass Bon Jon Pass tires as soon as possible. The Bon Jon's are tubeless compatible, and running them as such I should be able to smooth out rough roads, reducing rolling resistance, increase traction and reduce flats, all for only 10-20 grams of increased weight. This upgrade should truly make this bike handle any road well, provide great comfort for long rides and be even grippier in the corners.

Gravel and off-road performance have also exceeded expectations, and really, what I thought was possible on a bike with skinny tires and drop bars. The bike is stable and comfortable on gravel despite the limited tire size. On surfaces that aren't really roads any more, 2-tracks, ATV trails and singletrack, it continues to dish out. I have been just shocked by the stability and control this bike has provided on rocky, rooted singletrack and one particular thousand-foot, loose, rocky, double-track descent. This is where the "ArcEndurance" frame compliance feature come into its own. It doesn't do much on road surface irregularities, but when you hit a rock, root, or pothole the frame softens the blow considerably. It honestly rides off-road as well as any fully-rigid mountain bike I've even been on, better than some, in-fact. I even had a few sharp pieces of granite pop up and strike my downtube with no notable damage, so the ArmorLite frame coating seems to do its job well.

I've never taken a drop bar bike through a Forest Service trail gate before the Search.

A few things could be better:

Overall, I'm LOVING this bike, but it does have a few weaknesses. The internal cable routing was a pretty significant challenge to set-up. I'm a fairly experienced mechanic, but it still took me 8 hours to run the run all the cables. To be fair, this was my first time running internal cables, but I found getting the length on the exposed cable sections correct to be a trial-and-error affair, and I had to re-run the cables through the labyrinth inside the frame each time I cut an inch or two off the cable housing leading from the brifters, in order to test how they fit.

Speaking of cables, the way the rear derailleur cable exits the frame does not work well at all for mountain bike derailleurs. I know this is an “all-road” bike, but being able to run a bigger cassette on a bike like this is a valuable feature that should be considered by the bike designers.

The head tube is a little tall. I'm sure they were going for a more upright riding position and fewer headset spacers. But riders who prefer a more aggressive bar position will have a hard time getting their bars as low as they'd like. Fortunately for me, my bike is a little small for me, and I've gotten fat and old so higher bars work for my current fitness level.

Search’s Achellie’s Heel

These tire measure 39mm and  just barely fit.

The only real failing of this bike is the minimal tire clearance. The manufacturer claims the frame will clear 40c tires, and it will, provided you never get any mud on those tires. My tires measure 39mm wide and clear the frame and fork with just 2mm on the sides. I realize that the designers of this bike have got to work the chain stay around the chain, chainrings AND the tires, while maintaining a good chainline and low q-factor. But from my non-bike-engineer perspective, I've got to wonder if they could squeeze a few more mm of clearance on the drive side... Couldn’t the non-drive side be asymetrical, offering a little more clearance yet? Why on Earth is the tire clearance at the seat stays as tight as at the chain stays? 

Furthermore, the fork actually has LESS clearance than the rear of the bike. This is exasperated by the routing of the front brake cable housing which comes a little too close to the tire for my comfort.  Really, there's no reason why the fork shouldn’t have significantly more tire clearance. A lot of people like to run bigger front tires for a little better shock absorption. Alternately, If I'm going to have my wheels fill with mud and lock-up, I'd really rather have the rear tire lock up first. 

Most gravel riders like tires in the 40-45c range. Then you need clearance for mud. And if you’re going to race CX on it, you really need clearance for mud.

I used the bike for a couple of cyclocross races this fall. The bike handled it flawlessly. I felt very comfortable on it, descending, climbing, pushing hard through the corners, rough field sections, jumping on and off, etc. But these were both dry courses, and I am sure the minimal tire clearance would have been a real issue on a wet day. I’ll be investing in some skinnier mud tires in the 30c range going forward.

In Summary:

Overall, my only real complaint is this tire clearance issue. That being said, I realize that in any bike design, there are compromises that need to be made. This bike maintains the fit, speed, and efficiency of a road bike, and it also allows you to ride gavel and trails with confidence, comfort and efficiency. The Search accomplishes my goal of 'one-bike-to-rule-them-all’. If it could clear 45c tires it would be the perfect drop bar bike.

Monday, October 31, 2016

I broke a SRAM Brifter Yesterday

I have developed some problems with my rear shifter on my road bike. It was starting to miss shifts up into the largest cogs. The guys at Revolution Cycles confirmed it was really broke, but SRAM wouldn't warranty the issue.  :-/

I have some weird cable routing on the back of my Norco Search since it's set up to deliver cable to a road derailleur, and I have a long-cage MTB derailleur (so that it can accept an 11-36 cassette when I set it up for gravel use). I wondered if friction here was part of the problem, so I spent a good part of the afternoon coming up with a, uh "solution":

For the record, that's two Roll-A-Ma-Jigs and a TravelAgent. Seems to help.

As a result, I hit the road kinda late, but I did get to enjoy a beautiful sunset at the mid-point of my ride:

Finally, the shifter failed completely and spectacularly:

Rode the last 4 miles home on a singlespeed. Well, a 2-speed, but the 50x11 wasn't a particularly useful gear.

I've got a lot more interesting things to post about. Hopefully I'll get around to it soon.

Tuesday, January 19, 2016

Triple-D 2016: Cold. Just Cold.

Every year the Triple-D is a different challenge. There's deep snow, ice, mud, cold, wind, snow groomer machines.... Its tough to say which year was the toughest Triple-D. But this year was definitely up there.

The weather was the primary hurdle this year. It became clear from the weather forecast nearly a week out that it was going to be a cold one, intimidatingly cold. Honestly, I went back and forth over the week, thinking I was or was not going to attend the Triple-D. But on Tuesday night we had some cold weather, and I was able to go out after dinner and ride on a windy night when the temps were around 4F. I tried a couple different clothing options and felt pretty comfortable. That taught me that I could handle the conditions. Experience from previous years had already taught me the rest I needed to know.

I spent most of Saturday packing up my gear. I arrived at the Best Western in Dubuque at 9am on Sunday morning with a well organized kit. Despite a little issue misplacing my wallet, I was able to get everything together and ready to ride in an hour.

"Everything" was a lot:
  • On my feet I had standard synthetic cycling socks, covered with expedition weight wool socks, and a chemical toe warmer for a bit more heat. Over that were my Lake 303 winter cycling boots and over that were a pair of Windstopper booties.

  • On my legs, Endura thermal knicker-bibs, covered by Mountain Hardware Power Stretch tights*, which were in-turn covered by Swrve softshell pants.

  • On my torso my base layer was the Mountain Hardware Power Stretch long underwear shirt*, an old, thick, Pearl Izumi thermal jersey, topped by a Pearl Izumi softshell jacket. Later in the day I would put on a short-sleeve wool jersey and Shower Pass Refuge e-Vent jacket as well.

  • My head had a mid-weight Gekko Gear balaclava and mid-weight Descente skull cap. I also had a Seirus neoprene half-face mask (modified for less air-flow up past my nose to my glasses and a mouth hole for better flow of air, water and food (you know, the essentials of life)) and started the day with my Zeal sunglasses, later resorting to an old pair of Smith goggles.

  • On my hands, well, I doubled up on my poagies, I covered my Moose Mitts with ANOTHER set of home-made poagies that Carol made for me (modeled off the Moose Mitts but larger to fit around the On-One Mary bars on my commuter bike). Under all that I had only light knit acrylic stretch gloves, like you'd find at your local drug store. The double-poagies were so effective at insulation that my hands were over-heating, and I spent a fair amount of the day with no gloves on at all inside of them, and I never bothered pulling out the thermal cycling gloves I had in my frame bag.

* I'm a little concerned as it appears these products appear to not be made anymore, these are super-key to my layering strategy as they are the only things I have found that can keep up with my profuse sweating and not feel cold on my skin. Yikes!

I'm not trying to drop names here. I figured some people would like to know what gear works. I've "curated" this "collection" from over 20 years of cold-weather riding experience.

It was about 0F at the start with the wind 10mph and gusty out of the WNW, which was basically the direction we would be traveling. Honestly, I don't normally want to be outside in that kind of weather. But there I was, with over 150 other people.

Mere seconds before the start of the race, I was facing backwards for some reason.

Nick leads the charge during the neutral roll-out, I'm in the back all in blue.

After the neutral roll-out, Lance the race director lined us up into waves: 1) those who were racing to win the 100k race, 2) those were were determined to finish the race and didn't want noobs getting in their way (I included myself in here), 3) people who were riding the race, but who might bail to do the Poker tour, and 4) Poker tour riders. This worked excellently, at least from my perspective, and was a real improvement over the wild melee from last year. The course can be seen here if you want to try to follow along.

I actually was leading a small group of the "finisher" class folks for a while through the singletrack at the start of the race. At the one unfrozen stream crossing I decided to ride through. Some water splashed up on either my derailleur or the cable leading into it, and it nearly instantly froze-up, leaving me with 3 functioning gears in the back. Fortunately they were the three biggest cogs, the most useful ones on a fatbike.

I led this little pack for a while, despite limited speeds on the flats and downhills, but eventually I decided I better pull over and try to work the derailleur back into functional condition. I lucked out, and with some gentile massaging I got it to shift into everything but the smallest cog.

I lost a few spots with this. And a few more shortly after that when I stopped for a few minutes to help a guy who's chain had dropped between his cassette and his spokes. It didn't seem there was much that could be done in his case. A minor issue like this can be a race-ender in this kind of cold. Had it happened a few hours late, it could have been downright dangerous. As for me, I was pretty warm, I stopped in a spot out of the wind to remove my hat and face mask. The lost positions in the race were of no concern, I was there only to survive to the finish.

The next few miles of industrial park, cow pasture, corn field, hay field, hills, valleys and woods went pretty uneventfully. I slid out on an icy section under a railroad overpass. I caught-up and passed people on the downhills. Got passed on the uphills, which has pretty-much been my lot in life for the past couple of years.

After a hike-a-bike uphill through the woods, we were out into a hayfield on the ridge-top, fully exposed to the now 15mph+ wind. Immediately my nose and upper lip became painfully cold. If there is a precursor to frostbite, this was it. I tried to suck it up, I was less than a mile from a checkpoint, but it became clear this was not a good idea, so I stopped and put on my face mask. This was enough to get me to the checkpoint at Junction 21, but I was giving serious thought to quitting.

In the bar, I removed my wet balaclava and put on my dry, back-up balaclava. I also put on my rain coat, face mask and goggles. This made me pretty impervious to the wind, but my glasses fog-up underneath the goggles, so that means I was without my prescription eye-wear for the rest of the day.

The ridge-top paved road section was brutal, but my effort and outer clothing shell kept me warm. I took it easy down the b-road section of Humke. Usually I bomb it, but the course had been a little icy up til then and this stretch has a tenancy to be particularly slick. Perhaps my little fall earlier had made me gun-shy.

I aird up my tires at the bottom of the hill since the rest of the course is less technical and higher pressure makes for faster rolling. Here was my chance to bail out of the race, as I had done in similar weather conditions in the inaugural Triple-D. I could turn east towards Durango and a sag ride back to the start. I chose to head west.

I made it just a bit down the Heritage Trail before I decided to air up my tires a bit more and get a snack. Who comes rolling up behind me but my Madison riding bud Michael Lemberger. We got our collective stuff together and headed onward up the ever so slight upward grade. Michael is generally a stronger rider than me since he puts on a lot more miles than I do, but on Sunday he was riding some Nokian Extreme studded tires with heav, stiff, slow casing and 294 grippy studs. This is a tire that will get you to ride on ice that would otherwise be impossibly slick, but on the well packed trail my tubless 4" tires rolled much faster. I had to drop my pace just a smidge to ride with him, but it was well worth it....

Because, it wasn't long before we hit the dreaded "open section".  Its always at least a little windy on the Triple-D and usually its in your face as you pedal out of this valley, into the open countryside of Iowa just south of Farley, and are exposed to its full force. It was ~0F, with a 15+mph headwind and we were riding at 9mph into it. You figure out how cold that feels, I don't really want to know. Here it was very good to trade pulls back and forth with Lemberger. Even just a few minutes "drafting" at 9mph behind him with a little less wind on me was a big relief.

Along this section the leader of the race went by in the other direction. One of the unique things about this out-and-back format (well, its actually more of a lolly pop loop) is that you get to see all the other races before and after you. It was another 20 minutes later before other Madison buds Tyler and Nick came streaking by in 2nd and 3rd, with a lot of hooting and hollering from both parties. It was another long gap until the next racer went past, and those two would maintain their 2nd & 3rd positions right up to the finish.

As we entered a wooded section on the outskirts of Dyersville I said "well, that was the worst of it". This is not something you should say during a frigid winter bike race. Things went well for a while, but as we passed the grain silos in town, the winds picked up and were perhaps funneled by the grain silos and it felt like we were riding into an ice wall of wind. Fortunately this only lasted for a block or two. Then we turned left to Chad's Pizza and a brief respite.

It took a while, 30 minutes in all to refuel, re-water and get things re-arranged for the return trip. I wasn't particularly cold (my butt was cold, but that was it really) but I was wet. My clothes were saturated. I had already 'used up' my spare balaclava, so all I could do was swap my socks, put in fresh toe-warmers and add a short-sleeve wool jersey and head back into it.

With the tail wind now roughly equal to my forward speed, the wind chill was largely negated. I was able to take my face mask and rain jacket off and wrap it around my waist to keep my butt warm. With the tailwind and the gentle downhill grade I was able to keep a pretty good pace (12-16mph) most of the way to Durango. My outer softshell jacket froze stiff though, making me feel like a snow bike zombie. As I got within the last few miles, cthe amount of ice on the trail appeared to increase. I say appeared to increase, because the sun was getting low in the sky and that coupled with the amber lenses of my goggles and my lack of eye glasses I couldn't tell what the trail tread was really like until I was right on top of it. As a result, I had to cut my speed a bit, just to safe.

I got in and out of the Handle Bar in Durango as quickly as I could. I was cold and tired and had been making good progress, I just wanted to be done and in warm dry clothes. I figured I could cover the last 12 miles to the finish in an hour and a half. I put my rain coat back on and my face mask. Lemberger rolled in as I was rolling out, with his studded tires he didn't need to slow down for the icy section, so he had made up some time on me.

I had been on the bike for over 5 hours at this point, and my longest ride in the past 6 months was only about 3 hours, so I wasn't very well conditioned. I was getting low on energy and not producing as much heat. My hands had been sweltering much of the day, but they were starting to get cold. So I pulled out my Mega Warmers and threw them in my poagies. I probably didn't need them, but the extra warmth just felt good. The 5 miles after Durango were fairly flat with good packed snow conditions, but I was clearly going slower.

Then it was time to head up the river bluff. The first climb was over 200 ft of ascent, which doesn't sound that bad until its dark, you're exhausted, and your lurching along through snow as the temperature drops to -4F. One cruel section had to be 100' up a 30-degree slope. I had to kick the toe spikes of my shoes in to get traction like an ice climber uses crampons, and then yank my bike up a bit with each forward step.

After that the course got really hard to follow. It was really well marked all day, but here there was no marking to be seen and the snow was too firm to form tire tracks, or else people were riding in the gravel and ice on the side of the highway. I knew the general direction I needed to go but couldn't be sure I was on the route, so I just kept my head down and moved forward, sometimes pedaling, sometimes on foot as I didn't have the energy left to pedal uphill. Plus, I couldn't really see very well, my headlamp is sufficient with my glasses on, but with tinted goggles and no glasses, well, I was almost better off last year when I had lost my headlamp and had no light at all!

The snow was rough too, so I got the brilliant idea to let some air out of my tires. Not only did I take the time to stop to do this, but when I did I let way too much air out, so I was bobbing along with maybe 3psi in my tires just in time to get to the paved bike path section of the course, which runs for about two miles. I just sucked it up and kept moving forward as best I could. The air temperature bottomed out at -6F, but the wind had started to die down.

When I finally got to the urban trail portion of the route in the last 3 miles, I had to stop and air up my tires, they were so low I could hardly control the bike on the fairly firm snow/grass surface. I kind of went into automatic mode once I was on the singletrack. I walked or carefully rode the many icy stream crossings, and slowly plodded along the rest. I took my goggles off so I could at see something. It was both careful concentration and mindless momentum. Some sort of meditation perhaps? There was a lot of swearing.

I had to walk up out of the creek valley, up the street, on pavement even, before things leveled off at the top of the hill, and I was able to ride the last couple blocks to the Best Western. It had been over 2.5 hours since I had left Durango. I got in there and Tyler and Nick were all cleaned-up and in street clothes. The race director Lance, who had done the race on a road bike with 33c tubulars, had finished just minutes before me, nursing a bike with a broken derailleur for the last 5k. He said he saw my headlamp behind him in the distance and had to run and scooter on the bike to stay ahead of me. I'm pretty sure he didn't have to run to stay ahead of me.

Lemberger rolled in about 15 minutes after me. He had stopped to help another racer with a broken chain. We should start calling him Saint Michael.

In the end I finished 14th place out of over 80 people who started the race. This was mostly due to attrition as there were only 26 finishers.

Taken at the finish.

I thought that I would have been icier in the above photo. As it turns out all the ice was inside the jacket. There was an amazing amount of frost on the outside and inside of my softshell jacket. It was cold enough that it didn't melt for at least 20 minutes (the hotel was also drafty I suppose).

Here's a short article about the race, if my write-up wasn't enough.

Overall, I was pretty happy that I was able to stick this out to the finish. Cold like that can make you want to run away and hide someplace warm in pretty short order, and I had to get through more than a few moments of doubt. My hip was an issue, I had to stop several times to stretch it, I really need to look into the underlying causes as to why my S-I joint locks up. This translated into some back pain and a really tight quad. Physically though, I seemed to be able to just keep moving. I really need to get around to doing a solo 24 hour race to see just how far I can push it.

I was also pleased that my clothing kit at least kept me warm enough to be safe. But I was soaking wet and if I for some reason wouldn't have been able to keep riding, I would have gotten very cold very quick. I've had the Arrowhead 135 on my "bucket list" for a while now, but that race would involved riding for possibly up to 24 hours in even colder temperatures. I may just sweat too much to do a race like that, unless I figure out some magical clothing kit that could keep me dryer.

As it was, the biggest issue I had with the sever cold was going out to my car after the race. My core had cooled down, and by the time I had gotten out to my car and back, frost had formed on the outside of my little acrylic gloves. After over 7 hours out in the cold I think I may have gotten frost nip just walking out to my car! My fingers were pretty much OK by the next day though. Maybe a little bit numb now, or maybe I've just been typing too much.