New Sustainable Clothing: Wama Underwear

Ever since I found a pair of Wayi bamboo underwear a few years ago, I’ve been all about sustainable underwear. Really, my whole sustainable clothing interest goes even further back – all the way to the time I tested the Tasc Performance line of bamboo workout clothes.

My underwear drawer also has its fair share of bamboo socks – and other random brands of bamboo underwear (including a few pairs I picked up at a market in Hanoi, which have a fit that’s a bit more banana hammock than I’d prefer).

And now, Wama Underwear has emerged as another sustainable clothing brand. But instead of bamboo, this underwear maker focuses on hemp underwear. I am a huge fan of of hemp clothing: I’ve already abused hemp shirts from Onno and Satori. My go-to weekend pants are the unbelievable (and sadly discontinued) INI Cooperative Escargo pants.

sustainable clothing
A peek at the factory that makes Wama Underwear.

Recently, Wama Underwear got in touch with me to send a few pairs of its boxer-briefs in for testing. They also threw in a cool little drawstring bag, which you can get free if you order a 10-pack of the briefs. The briefs are $24, but first-time shoppers will be prompted to get a 20 percent discount.

The price on the 10-pack is $200, and it’s not clear if the 20-percent deal applies to that price. They’re made from 53 percent hemp, with the remainder being organic cotton and Spandex.

They also come in versions for men and women.

Sustainable Clothing – Why Bother?

Before we go any further, let me tell you why I’m so nuts about sustainable clothing like hemp and bamboo. Both seem to get softer with time, and they are both awesome at resisting stink. This is doubly important if you travel and wind up wearing the same clothes for days at a time.

I once wore a hemp t-shirt for a course at the Aboriginal Living Skills School. Despite sweat, river water, hanging around a campfire and various other stuff, the shirt didn’t stink at all after the course (I gave it a sniff once I got back to civilization and had a shower).

sustainable clothing
Thirty-six hours in that beige ONNO hemp shirt, and still no stink. But I was too low on calories to be as enthusiastic as Cody Lundin.

[UPDATE: The next few paragraphs are outdated because apparently US farmers now have the green light – no pun intended – to grow industrial hemp. Still, I’ll leave the paragraphs for context. It will be interesting to follow up on this in the future to see how many American crops have started planting hemp.]

Will wearing sustainable clothing save the planet? It’s one small choice you can make. To make a bigger difference, it would help if US farmers could grow hemp. But they can’t, as I summarized in an earlier post about hemp clothes:

They’re unbelievably comfortable and seem to resist all my attempts to make them stink while hiking, camping or traveling. Unfortunately, the U.S. government still prohibits commercial hemp growth for the moment – I suspect this is ultimately because the cotton industry and its lobbyists can’t handle the thought of any textile competing with its interests -- and I suspect the same people are behind the flat-out lies that equate hemp and marijuana (which is a subject for a different blogger to tackle). I wonder what the hemp farmers among our founding fathers like Thomas Jefferson would say about this.

Being able to source US-grown hemp would cut down on emissions from transit, which would help the sustainability cred of hemp. I can’t say I’m an expert in farming, but I wonder what rotating hemp in as a crop would do for the soil. I also am unclear on its water needs versus cotton or other textile-producing crops. But that would be an interesting bit of information.

Oh, Wama has an FAQ page that dives into questions about ethical sourcing and certifications.

Getting the Right Size

The president of Wama, Shakib Nassiri, gave me some fitting advice that I’ll pass along to you: The sizes seems to run a bit small. I’m 6’2 and about 185. He advised me to go a size larger than I normally would. So I ordered an XL instead of my usual L.

When the package from Wama Underwear arrived, I found that Shakib’s advice was spot-on. The fit was perfect.

sustainable clothing
Just in case you were wondering why there are no photos of me modeling the Wama hemp underwear … I couldn’t find my bearskin rug.


My first impression of the Wama Underwear was that the fabric had more heft than any of my bamboo underwear. They had a heavier weight that made me wonder if they would feel hotter or stiffer.

Nope. Once I put them on, they seemed to disappear. The fit was supportive without being annoying. Wama Underwear makes a product that is the polar opposite of some underwear that seems to have that one spot that pokes or feels to loose or itches.

Granted, I’ve worn and washed each pair just twice. It will take a few months of long-term flogging to render a definitive judgement. They’ll need to perform through the hot Arizona months. From the first impressions, though, my bet is that I’ll still like the Wama Underwear as much as I do right now.

Right off the mark, they fit considerably better than the Wayi brand I mentioned earlier, which doesn’t seem like a good choice for anyone familiar with squats or deadlifts! None of my undies from that brand gets the waist/thigh ratio right.

Rendering a Verdict

I wouldn’t mind a few more colors, but I suspect that will come in time. Personally, I’d also ditch any green leaf iconography. Hemp already has the perception problem being linked to marijuana, so I’d recommend that sustainable clothing makers stay away from the leaf symbols.

sustainable clothing
Women can have their cool Wama hemp underwear, too.

But on pure merit, Wama Underwear has a sustainable clothing winner. It’s a product that proves that sustainability doesn’t mean sacrifice – it’s better than any of the non-sustainable products I own. At this point, I recommend picking up some Wama Underwear if you needs some boxer-briefs.

They’re comfortable, and they’re a little something you can do to show your support for sustainable options. And that could be the catalyst that prompts more companies to offer greener, cleaner products. All of this can add up.

DISCLAIMER: Wama Underwear sent me two free pairs of boxer briefs and a drawstring bag. As usual, free stuff doesn’t equal positive reviews. I won’t recommend anything that I wouldn’t buy myself. And I always buy items that I recommend. 


Recap: 2018 Tour De Tucson

The 2018 Tour de Tucson started to go pear-shaped for me about 20 minutes before the start.

As I walked my bike toward the start, I heard a "whiiiiiiiirrrrrr" sound from the front wheel. Disc brakes problem? I was sure of it, until I notice that the zip tie holding the brake cable to the fork had broken. My wife solved that problem by pulling out a roll of clear packing tape.


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Sending my dad off for El Tour De Tucson. Once this goon is on his way, I’m going to the zoo. #cycling #bikes

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Then, as I rolled to the start, I got caught being a wise guy. There was a line of people waiting to go under a tape barricade to get to the start. "A-ha," I thought, "I’m on a gravel bike!" So I popped onto a landscaped parking lot island, went around them and grabbed a nice spot in the line. Great success, right? Well, I noticed the goat head thorns in my front tire, then in my back tire. I pulled them out and spun the affected parts of the wheel to the bottom until the tire sealant did its trick. Thank you, tubeless wheels and tires! (And yes, they held for the entire race).

Then I went to turn my wrist-mounted heart rate monitor on. And it refused to wake up. I thought I’d charged it, but you know how that goes. So I’d have to rely on the Force.

2018 tour de tucson

And We’re Off for the 2018 Tour de Tucson!

Things got way better from there. My mid-pack starting spot saved me much of the frustration of passing a bunch of people, and it gave me and a work friend a chance to tag onto some faster-moving groups.

The 2018 Tour de Tucson had a different starting place for 75-mile riders than in the past few years, and it was definitely more convenient than it’s been in years past (please keep it, but sort the road signage out so we know we’re allowed to drive to the staging area). It routed us past a bit of the AMARG airplane graveyard – which also hosts a 10k run in the fall that you shouldn’t miss.

Desert Boneyard 10k
Hell, yes, I did the Desert Boneyard 10k in a frilly pirate shirt!

Being sans heart rate monitor, I had to rely on how my legs felt. I was a bit distressed to feel that electricity-like jangle high in my quads. I’d hit the electrolytes hard all week. I made a mental note to keep an eye on that situation. Within 10 miles, though, it was gone. Last year, I rode a tiny bit conservatively because of the crampfest that my first Tour de Tucson had been in 2016. This year, I wanted to really open in up a bit. So I did, which involved working with other riders for as long as possible until one of us wanted to slow down or go faster.

New Bike Comes Up Aces
Lynskey Urbano November Wheels
My Lynskey Urbano sporting its November Bicycles wheelset.

It was also my first race on a new bike – a Lynskey Urbano, which leans more toward the cyclocross side of the geometry spectrum. It’s longer than the LeMond Zurich I rode for nearly 20 years before, and it can accommodate some wide tires (I was on 30C tires after a summer training on 40Cs -- and the LeMond always had 25C). This made the Urbano super-stable on the fast descents. I was also riding with disc brakes and a flared handlebar, which made for great braking and a nice variety of hand positions. Part of the 2018 Tour de Tucson also goes through a wash (just like in years past). Rather than dismounting and walking, I rode the whole thing – Schwalbe S-One HT tires, for anyone looking for the right tire for their mostly-road-but-sometimes-gravel bike. Fast on the road, but still capable of getting you through some dirt with confidence. I’m also very enthusiastic about my November Bicycles wheelset.

After the gravel section is the short, steep climb where spectators love to gather. That would be a good test to see if that electrical pre-cramp leg tingle would come back. Nope, no sign of it. Strava would later tell me that I beat my best time handily, as it would for most segments of the ride.

I was worried about the wind. The ginormous used-car-lot American flags along the route were stretched taut on their poles. And it appeared to be headed opposite our direction for the final stretch of the ride up Silverbell Road – or Silverhell, as I like to call it – and along the I-10 freeway. Oddly enough, that meant the wind should’ve been at our backs as we headed north. But I couldn’t feel any benefit from the wind – I rode that part with a fast, experienced rider who seemed to know everyone on the course. Super-smooth bike handler, too. We’d been near each other off-and-on for the first 35 miles, and teamed up for about 15 miles. She finally latched onto a fast-moving group of dudes right around there.

Feeling too Groovy to Stop

I was also skipping aid stations. No need for a bathroom, and my two 20-oz bottles and little 16-ouncer filled with Nuun tablets and Trace Minerals magnesium tablets were doing the trick perfectly. It was also pretty cool out, so I wasn’t sweating up a storm. Every 45 minutes, I ate a fig bar. That and the electrolytes kept me sorted out.

2018 tour de tucson

I’d planned to refill water bottles at any stop around 40 miles, but I skipped it. I blew past the 50 miles stop. I stopped for the first time in the race at 61 miles to use the bathroom, fill bottles and get my EFS gel shot ready for use. By that time, I’d slayed the Silverbell dragon. Oddly enough, there wasn’t much wind. I grabbed onto a passing group as I left the aid station – they were some of the faster people in the 42-mile category, which made them pretty sprightly. I wasn’t able to stay with them, but I did team up with some guys who got bounced out of the group along with me. We all took turns at the front, but they couldn’t stick with me. Another guy on a Lynskey was a huge help for a few miles until he tagged onto a faster group. It was only about two miles to the finish at that point.

Those last few miles went well, and I sailed into the finish line about 35 minute faster than last year. I wasn’t really sure about how this year would go. I’m not sure why I rode that much faster, but I have some thoughts:

I’m 10 pounds lighter than I was last year. I’d ridden 500 miles more than I had by this point last year. Since August, I’ve done regular HIIT workouts at TruHit and switched up my routines a lot more. In August, I did plenty of squats at higher weights and lowers reps … and I experimented with the keto diet. I couldn’t stick with it … and I know I’m not being scientific here, but shaking my eating habits up temporarily did something.  

My Lynskey Urbano versus my Lemond Zurich. The Lynskey’s tires, fork and brakes are heavier. I’m not sure if its titanium frame is that much lighter than the LeMond’s; it’s overbuilt like crazy. They both fit well, but those wider tires and its relaxed geometry allow me to let it hang out on the downhills more.

2017 tour de tucson
Me in the 2017 Tour de Tucson. I’ll update when I get my new photos!

I trained solo a lot. In the summer heat, I was out there training for the 2018 Tour de Tucson. I spent a lot of time riding in the dirt and into the wind on those big 40C tires. I even did a 55-mile group ride with roadies on them, and was able to more than hang.

I started in mid-pack instead of working my way up from the back. This allowed me to team up with faster riders, and helped my first 10 miles go far faster. It’s a huge chore to churn through riders who are slower or – worse yet – not conversant in how to handle themselves in groups of rider (hint: slower traffic stays to the right).

Which of those factors made the biggest difference? I don’t know. Being lighter is, to a point, a good habit to keep up. I hope my Urbano will last as long as the Zurich. And I will definitely make it a point to get a good starting spot in the future.



Lessons From 3 Months of Driving an Electric Vehicle

In early May, I starting driving an electric vehicle. I took the keys (or more accurately, the key fob) to a 2014 Toyota RAV4 EV. No, it’s not a hybrid. It’s not a custom hack job. It’s one of 2,600-ish of them made as a joint venture between Toyota and Tesla, who supplied the Model S battery and motor. It really is the compact electric SUV the world needs – the Nissan LEAF, the Chevy Bolt and most other battery-electric vehicles are all too small. Great for single people, not so great for couples or families, especially those with hobbies or work that includes hauling any gear.

Toyota RAV4 EV concept
Kind of like mine, but this early concept is a different color and a few years older. (Image via Wikipedia)
Driving an electric vehicle has taught me a few interesting things. Some are just little tidbits I noticed, while some are more important points for those considering an EV.

Driving an Electric Vehicle Can be a Lot Like Driving a Manual Transmission

My last car was a 5-speed Subaru Forester. I generally enjoy the manual transmission. And surprise! I can drive the RAV4 EV very much like a car with a manual. EVs can regenerate energy when they slow down – aka "regen." Each brand of EV seems to have its own approach to regen, but it generally works like this: You let off the gas, and you slow down without using the brake pedal. You slow down a lot faster than shifting into neutral -- all while putting a few watt-hours back into your battery. The RAV4 EV requires you to shift – using the console shifter – from D into B (see a few paragraphs below).

driving an electric vehicle
Here’s the shifter of a Toyota RAV4 EV. Notice two things: The B option, which engages regenerative braking, and the SPORT button in front of the shifter, which increases torque and top speed. It’s the RAV’s version of the Tesla Model S Ludicrous mode.

The 2018 Nissan LEAF has the most-aggressive regen I’ve experienced. Its e-Pedal can bring the car to a dead stop, where my RAV EV needs the friction brake to fully stop and stay still. I like the e-Pedal a bit better, but you wouldn’t believe the number of people who shout at the clouds about it every time Nissan posts about it on social media: "Are we really that lazy? Cars should have two pedals! It’s gonna cause accidents! Do we want people too stupid for two pedals driving?" Granted, Nissan’s posts completely miss the point of explaining the e-Pedal, and people seem way too eager to wallow in their misunderstanding of the benefits.

driving an ev
“Dang kids and their regenerative braking!”

Regen is like downshifting a manual transmission. Let off the gas slightly in the corner, and it’s like dropping down a gear. Rather than using the clutch and stick to shift gears, I use the shift knob on the center console, with the occasional push of the "SPORT" button that boosts maximum speed and torque (awesome for merging). The knob moves the RAV4 EV between D (Drive), R (Reverse), N (Neutral) and B (regen braking). Within weeks, I reached the point where shifting is second nature. In stop-and-go traffic, I usually stay in B. The RAV4 EV won’t engage the cruise control in B, so you’ll want to be in D for long stretches without traffic.

I also do a lot of neutral coasting, which is great for squeezing even more range out of the battery.

Driving an Electric Vehicle doesn’t Require a Home Charging Station

First of all, I love online threads where people whinge about people driving an electric vehicle. One guy said "but I don’t wanna plug my car in at night!" Why, will you miss all those intellectually stimulating stops at the gas station? Yeah, who wouldn’t miss the smell of unleaded gas filling our nostrils?

driving an electric vehicle
Here’s a post-trip summary that goes up on the dashboard when I shut the RAV4 EV down.

OK, but back to the main point: Most cars come with a plug-in device called an EVSE, which allows you to charge from outlets – mostly from 240-volt outlets like the one on your clothes dryer. A 110-volt will give my RAV4 EV about 4 miles every hour, and a 240-volt could bump that as high as 25 per hour. Depending on where you live, you might have enough charging stations to delay getting one at home for while. I recommend checking since it includes a variety of networks – and even some friendly home EVSE owners who might let you get some juice.

Here in Arizona, we have enough charging infrastructure to meet the needs of the average person, who drives less than 40 miles a day. That’s well within range for anyone driving an electric vehicle. There are chargers near my office, my home, good local coffee shops and even a decent craft beer bar. I never go anywhere just to charge. I’m shopping, having a coffee, grabbing some dinner – every time I charge. I’ll eventually get a home charger, but I’m holding out for a Zappi, a cool charger from England, to make its way to the US. It’ll take power directly from my solar system.


Getting a 110-volt adapter from AC Works was a game changer. I started charging overnight at home (where I have a photovoltaic array). I started charging at work. This means I started spending even less on charging. Solar generation rates where I am are about 7 cents per kilowatt hour on average. It’s probably even less for charging overnight.

This week, Redline Electric installed a dedicated 240-volt line and outlet. This solves the problem of tripping a circuit breaker if we started pulling too much from the 110-volt circuit I’d previously used. And it’s also considerably faster. I’ll go from about 4 miles of charge per hour to around 12.

Charging Networks Matter – A Lot

Charging networks matter. Chargepoint is by far my favorite. You can start it up with a phone app, but that can be a hassle if you have a bad signal in a parking garage. I much prefer the little keyring cards. I also give serious props to Volta, which sells advertising space on its chargers to provide free charging.

driving an electric vehicle
Here’s a look at the Chargepoint smartphone app. Image from the Chargepoint website.

On the other hand, no network is as bad as BLINK. Their stations are often broken or have illegible screens. Here in Arizona, they charge by time instead of energy use, and the resulting fees are on-par with gas prices -- which is far in excess of the cost per kilowatt-hour. Even worse, BLINK has somehow weaseled their way into many government buildings and snagged exclusivity contracts. I will only use them in an emergency.

One more fun thing to note: When you’re charging on a network, you can usually view how long you’ve been plugged in and how much juice you’ve gotten through a smartphone app.

You’ll Notice Others Driving an Electric Vehicle by Their Habits

Being accustomed to driving a manual transmission, I constantly scan the traffic around me. And I notice the cars all around me that start slowing down early before traffic lights. Sure enough, when they get close enough, I notice they are EVs (usually Teslas). They take advantage of the regen. The Tesla regen is less-aggressive – to the best of my knowledge – than the Nissan, so they were carefully watching the traffic flow to start breaking early. Don’t waste those electrons.

EVs also accelerate differently. Put your foot down on the accelerator, and you’ll feel like you’re on a Japanese bullet train. But it’s more than speed: The lurch you’re used to when a regular car shifts is completely absent.

The quickness of EV acceleration has also helped me catch a few traffic lights I normally wouldn’t make – and generally without going much above the speed limit. It accelerates that much better than a gas car.

Driving an Electric Vehicle is Like a Video Game

EVs are big on giving drivers data. Mine being four years old, it lags behind the current generation. But I know exactly how many kilowatt-hours I’m using, how much I’ve regenerated and all sorts of other stuff. When I shut my motor off, I get a summary of the trip broken into average speed, current cruising range, average kilowatt-hours used and a few things I can’t remember. There’s also a neat map that gives you a range estimate, either for one-way or round trip.

driving an electric vehicle
Here’s the main infotainment console. I usually keep the energy monitor option up there.

You’ll also find that you’ll use quite a few apps for driving an electric vehicle. You’ll use them for finding charging stations, though you’ll eventually memorize all your favorites. But you can also monitor your charging status, charge to cost (which is sometimes free) and a few other odds and ends.

After Driving an Electric Vehicle, the Internal Combustion Engine Sucks

I had to rent an SUV for an out-of-town work trip. I put about 250 miles on a Hyundai Santa Fe Sport. Just sitting it in, the interior felt cheap and overdesigned; there was this weird cage near the center console that I can’t even begin to explain. Then there was the ICE. Noisy, slow to accelerate. Every few miles, I kept looking for a warning light that the emergency brake was one. Nope. The engine is just that crappy compared to driving an electric vehicle.

Hyundai is working its way into the EV space with a few entries, and everyone is pretty excited about the Kona. I just hope Hyundai is better at EVs than they are at ICE cars, because the Santa Fe Sport absolutely sucked. Its interior is noticeably plasticy and low-grade, and that’s coming from a guy who rarely notices that sort of thing. The RAV4 EV isn’t luxurious, but the interior is miles ahead of the Hyundai Santa Fe.

The feel of driving an EV is addicting. I can’t imagine owning an ICE car again.

Need EV Advice? Find Drivers’ Forums

People who drive electric vehicles are pretty enthusiastic, especially online. If you’re considering a particular model, join a forum for it. Read the threads, post some questions. You’ll find a lot of support. The people at the forum have been amazing, and I’ve seen that other boards are just as active and helpful.

Final Word: EV Tech is Already Here

Most drivers don’t realize this, but EV tech is here. It’s feasible and real. You can drive 250 miles on a charge, charge to nearly 80 percent in a half hour and keep going (you need to stop every so often to use the bathroom anyway).

Now, the car industry needs to put it together for most people to start driving an electric vehicle. My RAV4 EV needs a successor: an affordable crossover/light SUV that can go 250 miles and then suck up some electrons through a CHADEMO port and keep going a few times. It would be best to have liquid-cooled batteries, especially if you live in a hot climate. When this happens (and it’s not far away), the internal combustion’s decline will be fast and brutal.

Are there any other new EV drivers out there? What would you add to the list? I suppose you veterans of driving an electric vehicle can also comment. Let’s hear it!

November Bicycles – Review of a Wheelbuilder

November Bicycles solved a big problem for me: trying to pick gravel bike wheels. Nobody seems to agree on what gravel bikes (or their wheels) really are. The genre/category spans everything from touring to 200-mile offroad races, with a few stops like "road plus" in the middle.

I didn’t want wheels that were made for something else. I wanted to buy with complete confidence on that point. When I ran across the blog for November Bicycles, I knew I had the right people.

I don’t even remember what that first post was about because I took an immediate deep dive into their blog content and products. I was amazed at the detail and thought they put into the most microscopic minutia of building wheels.

The Current State of Bicycle Wheelbuilding

This is important because machine-built, pre-made wheels are the norm. And some of them work extremely well, like my original Stan’s Arch mountain bike wheels and my Ultegra WH-6800 road wheels. Good pre-built wheels have made wheelbuilding a declining-though-not-lost art. Go to a local shop, and not all of them will have someone ready to lace up a custom set of wheels.

They’re more likely to push you toward pre-built wheels. Or they might have someone good, but -- a retail bike shop is (to me) not the place to build a quality wheelset. A stream of customers and other demands can turn a build into a stop-start process.

November Bicycles
One of the nice builds you’ll see on the November Bicycles website. I shamelessly borrowed this from their website.

November Bicycles seemed like people who just might listen to what I’m going to do, make recommendations and then assemble them in the manner of Shaolin monks turned bike nerds. I emailed them to introduce myself and my needs:

  • 6’2, 200-ish pounds, likes beer
  • mostly does weight training
  • building build a road bike that can do canal paths and gravel, but is still speedy on the road
  • likes riding events like Tour de Tucson
  • not so into blingy hubs, somewhat of a cheapskate

First Contact With November Bicycles

Dave from November Bicycles soon replied with a friendly email. He gave me options, asked insightful questions and made some recommendations. He didn’t just recommend, though: He told me the “why” behind his suggestions.

In the end, November Bicycles built me a wheelset based on Bitex hubs and Belgian HED+ rims with Wheelsmith spokes and brass nipples. They arrived neatly packed.

No, not those kind of brass nipples.

After opening the box, I installed a set of 38-c Vittoria Terreno tires. Even without sealant, the tires and rims seated immediately to each other. They showed barely any air leakage as I waited for the rest of my parts to arrive. They didn’t PING with the authority I’m used to, but they’ve seated perfectly. I’ve since deflated them, put in sealant and re-inflated.

First Ride and Final Thoughts

I’ve also had my first ride, which was an exercise in happy riding. Is it the November Bicycles wheels? They’re definitely part of the whole, and I get the impression that their true worth will reveal themselves over time. That’s often the way quality components born of quality labor work. They just keep doing what they do without complaint or undue fuss.

november bicycles

As for the experience of being a November Bicycles customer? I’m largely a local-vore and try really hard to keep my business in Arizona. Most of the new parts on my bike are locally sourced. But the November Bicycles blog showed a depth of thought in the wheelbuilding craft that I don’t see from my locals – at least not publicly.

The way November Bicycles shared their knowledge convinced me that I wanted them to build my wheels. That’s the way to get my money. Good advertising amuses me. But as much as I love The Most-Interesting Man in the World, I would only drink Dos Equis if I was dying of thirst. Blog posts that show me knowledge and absolute enthusiasm for what you do are the most-effective way to market to me. November Bicycles nailed this.

Consequently, I wound up with a wheelset that is exactly made for me and what I want to do on my gravel bike.

Hungry for more gravel bike talk? Here’s my main post about the process of building my new bike. I’ll update it with more links as I kick out more content. 


My 2018 Nissan LEAF Test Drive

This past weekend, I test-drove a 2018 Nissan LEAF SV. I’ll tell you that it was straight-up an extremely cool driving experience. It’s dead-quiet and accelerates like a little beast. It turns well, and that ePedal feature is incredibly slick; seriously, it took me about three tries to get used to it, and then I was hooked.

So am I gonna buy one?

No. And here’s why.

Tight Quarters, Low Clearance

I drive a 2006 Subaru Forester with a 5-speed manual transmission. And I drive it like the rally car in disguise that it is. Even though it only does short trips these days while my wife’s 2017 Forester gets the long hauls, I take it into dirt regularly. I completely disregard rough roads and trails without a thought. The Subaru is a formidable vehicle to replace, with decent space, a tight turning radius and absolute braking and turning confidence.

subaru electric vehicle
My well-loved Forester on an expedition to Arizona’s volcanic fields. I’m profoundly disappointed with how Subaru drags its feet on electric vehicles.

The 2018 Nissan LEAF will do my commuting just fine. Better than fine! But when it’s time to load up a mountain bike and hit the trails? I don’t see being a happy camper. Ground clearance is a huge issue here. It’s hard to come from nearly 9 inches of clearance down to less than 6. That’s going to be a factor in installing a hitch mount for my Kuat NV bike rack.

And then there’s the backseat. The 2006 Forester doesn’t have a roomy backseat. And the LEAF is no better here. When my 3-year-old daughter falls asleep back there (which happens often), it will be a chore to extricate her without bonking her on the head. And the low-slung LEAF will force me to hunch down into an even-more awkward position to handle this routine chore.

Its Batteries, Though

Add this to lingering concerns about the passive thermal management on the batteries and a lease rate that’s way higher than comparably priced vehicles, and I’ve gotta say "no." I am supremely unhappy about this because I believe electric vehicles need to happen right now. I honestly do not want to buy another vehicle with an internal combustion engine (especially after sucking down so much exhaust in the recent Tour de Mesa – we really need to do everything possible to limit ICE vehicle emissions).

electric vehicles
Here’s a Chevy Volt getting recharged. The Volt doesn’t do much for me since I want to kiss oil changes and belts/hoses good-bye.

I’m really not sold on the idea of a hybrid. Part of the appeal with EVs is not having to change oil and worry about stuff like belts and hoses. I don’t like the Chevy Bolt EV, especially since it doesn’t have adaptive cruise control. The Kia Soul EV is intriguing, but also sits way too low to the ground. The only possibility that fits what my Forester can do? Finding a used Toyota RAV 4 EV. Of course, that means going to California to buy one. And then how do I get it back? There are a few stretches on the I-10 where the RAV 4 EV just doesn’t have the legs to make it from charger to charger.

Nissan Leaf EV VW ID BUzz
WANT (Seriously, VW, hurry this thing up)
By Matti Blume – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0

Bah. The year 2020 can’t come soon enough. That VW electric minibus concept makes me swoon pretty hard. But I really don’t want to keep using gas for another two years.

My Nissan Dealer Experience

When I was digging around for availability, I made the mistake of entering my info into one of those "Truecar" sort of sites. Good grief. Take it from me – don’t do that.

Within seconds of hitting "enter," you can expect a blizzard of emails, texts and phone calls. Expect them 2-3 times a day on all channels until you tell them "sorry, the car you’re offering can’t do the job for me." I feel sorry for any women who date these characters because they are straight-up stalkers. And it was all stupid stuff like "let’s schedule a test drive!" or "when can you come in?" (Dudes. This isn’t surgery. I’m not scheduling it. And I’m not driving 80 minutes round trip for a test drive I can do 7 minutes from my house.)

Oddly enough, the dealer where I did my test drive must not be part of that website’s network. They never called. When I asked for a test drive, a salesperson got in the car with me. They didn’t ask for my license nor take any contact info from me. That was straight-up shocking after the autoblitzkrieg of the other dealers.

Nissan really needs to address this. Dealers are the first line to moving their product – and only one dealer made a good impression. They focused more on letting me figure out the vehicle and less time trying to extract information from me.

There’s also a huge product knowledge problem. I have spent a lot of time tracking down information abut the 2018 Nissan LEAF. I’ve looked for everything, from the number of USB ports to the cruise-control options. I used these two somewhat obscure aspects of the LEAF to test the salespeople out. Here’s how they fared:

As we were in the car, I mentioned to the salesperson that I was surprised that a battery-powered 2018 vehicle has only one USB port. He acted surprised, looked in the console where they’re located and said “the SL might have more.” (SPOILER: It doesn’t.)

I asked a different salesperson, who is lauded as the dealership’s EV guru, about the tiers for cruise control. My homework beforehand tells me there are three tiers: A standard dumb cruise control (on the S model), Intelligent Cruise Control (Available on the SV) and ProPilot Assist (available on the SV and SL). The sales dude insisted that Intelligent Cruise Control is only available with ProPilot Assist; this is incorrect, as proven by the Nissan-produced video below.  Is Nissan that bad at educating its sales force, or is this a deliberate attempt to get people to stump up more money for ProPilot Assist? (Adaptive cruise control is awesome, so there are probably people who will pay for it.)

I’m Really Bummed to Say No to the 2018 Nissan LEAF

It just isn’t enough car for my situation. If you’re single or kid-free, have a look. It’s super-cool to drive. It will keep you away from the gas pump. It’s quiet, it’s clean, it’s straight-up suited for city driving.

But I recommend leasing to address that battery situation – and to also free you up when more advanced EVs start rolling out. Watch for better range and more-effective thermal management.


One Last Ride on My 1998 Lemond Zurich

After being my bike since 1999, my Lemond Zurich took its final ride with me this past weekend during the 2018 Tour de Mesa. It deserves a tribute.

Here’s a little story about it that epitomizes what that bike was all about.

I was riding in the Taylor House Century in Flagstaff. Sarah (my wife, for newer readers) and I were both on our Lemonds, and a third Lemond rider joined up with us. We had a nice little group going, but I noticed a nearby rider right from the start and I knew he was trouble. I don’t know if it was the socks pulled all the way up his ankles, the neon windbreaker or his 1970s pornstache, but that guy was full of bad vibes.

lemond zurich
My Zurich fresh back from the paint shop with a little Liberace sparkle.

Sure enough, we encountered him on the roughest patch of Route 66. It was a pot-holed mess, and this guy had no idea how to handle his bike. He was about 50 feet ahead and slightly to our left, and he was just all over the place. My sixth sense told me to back us off a little bit, so I signaled the group that we were gonna slow down. Right then, Pornstache slammed his rear wheel so hard into the trailing edge of a pothole that his tube blew out explosively – as in so hard I could see vapor escape the tire. He tried to turn and head to the side of the road, failing to realize that’s a really bad idea with no pressure in your tire. As I knew it would, his rear wheel slid out from under him.

lemond zurich
Getting advice from my coach before the start of El Tour de Tucson.

And he was headed straight for me, sliding along the ground toward my front wheel. My first thought was that Sarah would get taken out if I crashed. So I had to get around him.

I took us to the right toward the space that Pornstache didn’t yet occupy. I refused to look at him, even when I could hear the spokes of my front wheel chopping at his windbreaker. I braced for the feeling of sliding along pot-holed, cheesegrater pavement.

But I never fell. Sarah and our third Lemond rider sailed right through. No problem.

I’m pretty sure it was really him …

I’d never been that scared on a bike before. I was riding to save not just my own skin, but Sarah’s.

I probably could’ve done this on any half-decent road bike. Probably. But my miles leading up to that gave me a ton of confidence in that bike. And that near-miss made it seem even more unflappable and capable. Really, I am that bike’s only limitation.

Well, that and time. Today, road bikes are a little different. They have cool mountain bike-inspired stuff like disc brakes, through-axles and frame clearance that allows bigger tires (which allow us to venture off the pavement – great for shortcuts and getting away from cars).

lemond zurich
My Lemond Zurich before repaint and reassembly.

My hope is to find a new home for the frame and fork, plus a few of the other bits. The drivetrain will go straight onto my new ride. I know there is someone out there who’d like a classy US-made steel frame.
I’m excited by the thought of riding a capable, modern bike that can do a little bit more than my 1999 Lemond Zurich. But it will always be a special bike to me. It was dependable, elegant and confident in its domain. I hope its next owner appreciates it as much as I did.

Just in case you’re wondering, my Lemond Zurich went out on a high. My time won’t compare well to the top finishers, but it was my fastest 60 miles ever. I’ll have a full race report of the 2018 Tour de Mesa soon – be sure to watch for it!


Gravel Bikes: Advice for Buying and Building

After riding the same road bike since 1999, I’ve decided to replace it. Just a few years ago, I had it — a Lemond Zurich — repainted. And then I put an Ultegra 6800 group on it. I just rode it and loved it in the 70-mile Tour de Tucson. 

But gravel bikes have turned my head. Or audax, adventure, gran fondo, road-plus, or alt-road (ick) bikes -- whatever name you call it, it pretty much means more relaxed geometry, clearance for bigger tires, disc brakes and through-axles. Anyway, I’ll keep calling it a gravel bike, even though I’ll ride it on the road a good 80 percent of the time.

Here’s the deal: Drivers are making more and more nervous. They get away relatively scot-free with killing and injuring cyclists. Add to that an improving but still below-par local bike infrastructure -- and a multitude of unpaved canal routes, and you have a perfect place to take advantage of the "go anywhere" capabilities of a gravel bike.

Also, this whole gravel-riding thing just looks fun. They can go off-road and cover ground faster than mountain bikes. They’re in their element on unpaved forest roads, which opens up possibilities to see things and go places that are new to us. So yeah, I’m in.

Niner Custom. #whiteindustries #dtswiss custom wheels. #3tcycling bar and stem with #praxisworks crank #gravelbike #gravelcyclist #roaddisc

Gravel Bikes: Build or Buy?

I considered buying a whole bike – I wanted steel or titanium. I love my titanium Domahidy mountain bike, and obviously the ride quality and longevity of my Lemond are strong arguments for steel. I saw quite a few bikes that I saw – The Milwaukee Mettle is wonderful; the All-City Cycles Space Horse likewise; and Fairdale’s new Rockitship looks terrific. This is just to name a few solid possibilities.

I am not a big fan of the big guys like Trek, Specialized or Giant – not because their bikes are inferior, because they do what they do extremely well. I just crave a certain mojo from my bikes that the bigger brands don’t deliver.

gravel bikes
Gravel bikes and their riders getting ready to launch from McDowell Mountain Cycles in Fountain Hills, Ariz.

I put myself into “scan” mode for a few months. If I found a great deal on a complete bike, I’d do it.

Ultimately, I found a good frame and chose to repurpose the compatible parts on my Lemond; they’re are all relatively new and extremely solid. And I could focus on the filling bits according to my own personal vision.

Few Standards, Many Options for Gravel Bikes

Now, gravel bikes are still a bit of a Wild West. Some have two chainrings, while some roll mountain bike-style with one. Some are for touring/bikepacking and need all sorts of additional places to carry stuff. There’s definitely a learning curve in learning what to look for. That’s why I’m collecting my thoughts as I start this process, and I will share with you whatever I learn.

This post will link out to future posts covering some of the major details. By way of background, I used to work at a well-respected local bike shop. I’ve built and maintained my own bikes since the 90s. I leave hydraulic disc brake and suspension maintenance to others, but handle everything else myself. I’m not quite a cheapskate, but I love a good value.

gravel bikes
This rider is sporting a Lauf fork, a cool suspension fork from Iceland (aka one of my favorite places on the planet). And yes, gravel bikes are perfect in Iceland!

Right now, all I have in my possession is a frame. After a lot of looking at geometry and asking a lot of questions, I landed on the Lynskey Urbano. Now, I was a little bit skeptical because it’s designated as a commuting bike on the Lynskey website. But I spent some time emailing a Lynskey sales rep, and I compared its geometry with my Lemond and with other eligible frames. The geometry is only a bit more relaxed than the Lemond, and its wheelbase is only a smidge longer. Some bikes seemed like limousines! It also has a threaded BB shell, which I prefer.

Just eyeballing the Lynskey, it appears very nicely made – good welds, beefy stays, nicely shaped tubes. It’s set up for flat-mount disc brakes and 12mm through axles, and can accommodate electronic shifting.

gravel bikes
Gravel bikes hitting the backroads of Arizona.

OK, that’s about it for now! Coming in future episodes – these will all have links when the posts go live, so you can use this post as your central Gravel Bikes hub:

  • Picking a fork – and why I am convinced that carbon forks are great, but they’re also a giant rip-off. I know this will be controversial. I’m willing for someone to prove me wrong when I make the case. Sometimes I don’t know what I don’t know.
  • Wheels -- after great luck with pre-built Shimano and Stan’s wheels and spotty luck with locally hand-built wheels, I take the plunge with a reputable company that does nothing but build wheels. Their insightful blog is part of the reason I picked them in particular.
  • Tires are almost as difficult to choose as wheels. What width? What pressure? What tread? Argh!
  • A few thoughts about what impacted my choices beyond specs and prices, from the advice of knowledgeable friends to how companies handle themselves on social media networks.
  • Putting it all together and riding. I’m planning to go with 31c Vittoria tires to start. My big question is whether the do-anything, go-anywhere wheels and tires make my performance take a big knock. I’m determined to do better at the 2018 Tour de Tucson, and I’m curious to see what impact riding a gravelly, road-plus bike makes on my times as I train.

Special thanks to Craig Swetel from the Facebook group Riding AZ Gravel. Not only did he let me help myself to most of the photos in this post, he also is spreading the word about gravel-riding fun. 


Why 2018 is the Year of the Gravel Bike

The year 2018 is going to be the Year of the Gravel Bike. Really, it might be already.

The Ongoing Gravel Bike Mission

This year, many of my rides have had a mission beyond logging miles. I’ve been trying to find as much off-the-road riding as possible. Not off-road, like for a mountain bike. More like paved canal paths and separated bikeways. I was hoping for some improvement in complaints I had years ago about how hard it is to commute by bike in Phoenix.

gravel bike
The All-City Cosmic Stallion is a great example of a gravel bike with everything I like: A steel frame, through axles, disc brakes and a healthy dash of personality. (photo from the All-City Cycles website)

The reason is two-fold. Obviously, cyclists and cars have a hard time dealing with each other in Arizona. And it’s always the cyclist who comes out on the wrong end of that equation. Secondly, I like to get into a nice groove when I ride. On a mountain bike ride, I can literally pedal for hours without interruption. On a road bike, it seems like the traffic lights are actively out to get me every quarter of a mile (I’ve started thinking Scottsdale’s slogan should be City of a Million Ill-Timed Traffic Lights).

Here’s a piece of deep knowledge: Arizona has more miles of canals than Venice or Amsterdam. Many of those miles have bike-accessible, unpaved banks. They are perfect for gravel bikes. Some canal banks are closed off, and it would be good to open them up. Also, innovative projects like Grand Canalscape are underway to make canals better suited for bikes – the biggest benefit will be traffic signals where canal bike paths cross streets.

My mission has led me to two big conclusions: Every piece of decent bike infrastructure in metro Phoenix has at least one big flaw with it. And the gravel bike, in many cases, is a potential game-changer to rectify those flaws. We’ll save the flawed infrastructure for a future post and go straight to the gravel bike.

What the Hell is a Gravel Bike, Anyway?

gravel bike
The Central Arizona Project – Local gravel bike people would ride the hell out of this. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

For those of you unfamiliar with the term "gravel bike”: It’s a lot like a road bike, but with bigger tires, stronger brakes (usually discs), a longer wheelbase and often accouterments for long-distance, unsupported riding. Some people, especially overseas, called it an audax bike. Here in the U.S., marketing nerds position them as road-plus bikes, adventures bikes or — gag — alt-road bikes. They’re more stable than cyclocross bikes.

During my off-the-road explorations, I’d ride a beautiful piece of paved bike path that would inexplicably have a huge break in it. We’re talking a few hundred feet of chunky rubble. Or I’d spot a perfect unpaved workaround that would keep me away from cars.

One day, pointed my LeMond Zurich into one of these unpaved areas. Let’s just say a short wheelbase, aggressive road geometry and 25c tires inflated to 100 psi don’t exactly fit well in that milieu. A gravel bike would cruise through this sort of thing on 30-40c tires and a longer, more-stable wheelbase.

Right now, there are gravel riding Facebook groups swapping secrets. That’s a sign that the gravel bike movement is growing fast. One elite female racer told me that many of her friends are tapping into gravel bikes for training away from cars. And connecting with the overlooked female cyclists could be a huge shot in the arm for the bike shops, the manufacturers and the culture.

The Gravel Bike Can Also Help Transit Planners and Bike Shops

Now, the gravel bike also has implications beyond the users: They also have implications for government transit planners, especially those focused on bicycle infrastructure. It has huge implications for bike shops.

gravel bike
I’m going with a gravel bike for the future, too.

Let’s focus on the bike shops. The bike industry as a whole has a bit of a problem with re-inventing itself. It needs new stuff to keep customers engaged, and it needs stuff that customers will actually use. Too often, these attempts at re-inventing relevance take the form of “innovations” of dubious value.

The Gravel Bike Changes Things

They’re perfect commuter bikes in addition to being great for experienced, fit cyclists looking for a new challenge. The capabilities of the gravel bike were what finally prompted me to pick up a new frame to start the retirement of my LeMond, which I’ve ridden since 1999.

And bikes that can go anywhere means less need for paved bike paths. Planners could designate a stretch of unpaved canal, install signage and add crossings where needed -- and not worry at all about pavement. A perfect example is the Arizona Canal. This stretches for miles on the west side of Phoenix with underpasses and signed crossings.

But over on my side, it goes for miles with no pavement at all. I’ve tried it on my road bike, and it’s completely squirrely. If the road-plus/adventure/gravel bike becomes the standard, that’s something planners won’t have to worry about (though some signaled crossings would be nice still).

Buying a gravel bike is going to be a nightmare of options for customers, especially those newer to cycling. Should your new bike have a one-chainring setup or two chainrings? Through-axles or quick releases? How much air should you put in the tires? Even I’m still working through this as a long-time cyclist. The answers are going to come down to intent. I plan to use mine as a road bike -- but I want it to be able to swing onto an unpaved path and hammer for miles without being a squirrely pain in the butt. I’d also like to commute with it.

Gearing Up a Gravel Bike

As for myself, my new gravel bike – or more Road-Plus, in my case – will be equipped with through-axle hubs, hybrid hydraulic disc brakes and tubeless wheels that will allow far wider tires. It about 3c longer in the wheelbase for stability. I expect it will not only allow me to ride on canals and other unpaved surfaces, but it might even allow me to ride rather than walk the infernal sandy hell that is part of the Tour de Tucson 70-mile course.

And then there’s this Rio Salado bike path. The Mesa side is fairly well dialed in, aside from a ludicrous 15-mile-per-hour speed limit and a really silly break to cross McClintock (they’re working on an underpass, but it will literally be years before cyclists can use it).

gravel bike
These bikeshares are adding more traffic to urban cycling infrastructure. Gravel bikes are a great way for riders to get a little more space to themselves.

The Gravel Bike = Better Experience for All

Having people on bikes that are able to handle any surface also cuts down on the possibility of user conflict. Rollerbladers and dog walkers can be the bane of a cyclist’s existence on a shared paved path. The rise of bike share services have also increased the number of people on bikes – and the bike share users aren’t exactly great bike handlers and haven’t yet learned the situational awareness skills that help serious cyclists stay safe. Spreading the load away from the paved path has huge benefits for keeping us all safe and friendly toward each other.

A little breathing room a la bikes that can ride on more surfaces will definitely be a great thing for all of us. I love bike shares despite some of their flaws – and I welcome any chance to get more people on bikes without waiting years for governments to catch up on infrastructure. The gravel bike is making this happen – and I, for one, welcome our gravel bike overlords.

HEY! I’m building a gravel bike for myself right now. I’m doing it bit by bit, part by part. Once I have it built and get a few rides in, I’ll share what I learned. Follow the blog or my twitter account so you don’t miss this post!


First Impressions of a Titanium Mountain Bike

I’ve wanted a titanium mountain bike ever since I started mountain biking. Of course, 1993 Justin had no idea that, when he would eventually get his ti fighter, it would have 29-inch wheels, a single belt-driven gear and a tapered headtube. But that’s the form my long-awaited ti bike has taken.

titanium mountain bike
My first ride on a titanium mountain bike.

My experiment with belt-drive singlespeeds started with my Raleigh XXIX, which I built in 2013 as a leftover model from 2011. It convinced me that I could deal with a singlespeed on many of my local trails, and that belt drive is a very cool alternative to using a chain. The fun factor of the XXIX made me consider a nice steel frame -- I’d look for specs close to my Raleigh but with a touch more standover height, swap out the parts and call it good.

The Long Road to a Titanium Mountain Bike

I actually tried twice in recent years to buy custom steel frames (I’ll unspool those stories at a later time). I also considered a Burmese-made bamboo frame, but the company never quite convinced me on the quality front; I had a constant "caution" light flashing in my head.

In mid March, I stumbled upon a Domahidy Designs ti hardtail. The company is now known as Viral Bikes, and their only product at the moment is a titanium Pinion Drive hardtail called the Skeptic. They were (and probably still are) selling titanium frames from their previous incarnation as Domahidy Designs. The company owner and namesake, Steve Domahidy, also has a great reputation from his previous work as co-founder of Niner Bikes.

The price was super-attractive, and the build quality and handling had a very good reputation from all I could find online.

titanium mountain bike
Steve Domahidy committed to the belt drive … which was a big draw for me.

About the price – I could find ti frames slightly cheaper, but they’d require an upcharge and some time to build as a belt drive-compatible frame. I ultimately chose the Domahidy for two very big reasons:

First, I had more confidence buying a frame that was purposely designed as a belt-drive bike from the word go. I have a feeling that Steve Domahidy’s belief in that system will ultimately make this a “keep forever” bike just as much as the fact that it’s made from titanium. My gut tells me that he’s considered aspects of the belt drive’s impact on frame design beyond “sure, we can add a belt drive splitter.” That gives me a lot of confidence.

The second factor is incredibly important: When I shot an email to inquire about the frame, Steve replied within hours. He was enthusiastic and friendly through the entire email change, and he personally handled my order. And that’s to help a guy rooting around in the bargain basement of his offerings. This is sadly atypical in my experiences with other companies. An example: A few days before finding the Domahidy deal, I emailed another well-known titanium frame maker to ask about the possibility of getting one of their models in a belt-drive version. I didn’t hear from that company until after I’d placed my order with Domahidy. When they contacted me, I thanked them and explained the situation – and said that I’d always liked their bikes, and would keep them top of mind when it’s time to replace my 1999 Lemond Zurich road bike.

If I were in their position, my reply would’ve been something like “No worries, good luck with the new ride and we’ll be here when you’re ready for an awesome road frame.” But they actually didn’t reply. Since I never heard from them … well, it’s a little harder to get excited about them as a company. The takeaway here, Frame Makers, is be prompt and be friendly. Seriously, Be Like Steve. (I’ve since replaced my Lemond road bike with a Lynskey road plus bike — and not from the guys I’m talking about here.)

titanium mountain bike
The etched-into-the-head-tube approach to a head tube badge is quite cool.

As for the rest of my experience, Steve walked me through the process and set me up with a headset, extra dropout adaptors (allowing me to switch between hub and axle sizes) and a headset adaptor to allow my straight-steerer tubed fork to fit his tapered headtube. My titanium mountain bike frame was on its way!

It arrived about a week after placing the order, expertly packed and equipped with everything I needed to start. And it is an absolutely beautiful frame. How beautiful? I took it to a local shop erroneously thinking the headset needed to be pressed in – yes, it’s been a long time since I built a bike, and a few of the cool new standards are throwing me for a loop. This is a shop where it’s rare to see any bike with a pricetag less than $5,000. As the mechanic put it into the stand, nearly every other rider in the shop clustered around, saying stuff "Look at those welds!" and "That [drive-side] chainstay is badass!" This was a serious bunch of bike cognescenti, definitely not the sort of people to get excited about ho-hum bikes.

The Build

Holy cow, this thing went together so easily. I love the internal headset because you don’t need a headset press to install it. The brake line guides and routing are in the perfect place. The belt drive is the hardest part to set up, but that’s to be expected. I notice that the CenterTrack system is considerably noisier when it collects some dirt, where the previous version was dead silent. Maybe some wear to loosen the interface between that center ridge and the belt will help.

All the bolts related to the belt drive splitter and dropouts are big and solid. The frame tubes themselves are a larger diameter than you might usually see for titanium, looking almost like aluminum tubes rather than steel (the welds, of course, are a dead giveaway that it’s ti). There’s a “built to last” vibe about it all.

titanium mountain bike
Beefy hardware, clean welds. That’s what you’ll get with a Domahidy or a Viral Skeptic.

There’s just one thing I wonder: The bike is designed so you can add derailleur cable routing to the bottom of the downtube via what looks like water bottle bosses. Would it have been possible to add another one so that there could be a third water bottle boss? I’ll bet the long-distance hogs who would be interested in the Viral Skeptic would dig that as much as I would.

Hitting the Trails

So far, I’ve had it on a few rides. And I have had an immense amount of fun on both – the Domahidy handles beautifully. I don’t need to muscle it around nearly as much in the tight, technical stuff. I’ve noticed that it likes aggressive countersteering, pointing the knee into turns and aiming a bit more with the hips. It also has a remarkably gentle ride. It’s a subtle feeling of small shocks dissipating before they go shooting up the seatpost.

titanium mountain bike
And there’s a look at the drive splitter.

I have a pretty good amount of Strava data on both rides. On one 2-mile climb on the first ride, I beat my previous fastest time by 1:20. I wasn’t trying to – I was just riding at the pace that seemed right. Same deal on another 7-mile section -- about two minutes faster, and that’s with climbing and extending sections of downhill. It was solid on tricky, twisty downhills, too – I PRd my time on a 1.2-mile mostly downhill run by about 2.5 minutes. This was all apples-to-apples singlespeed-versus-singlespeed data.

What about pitting the Domahidy against my Santa Cruz Superlight? I recently did the Six Hours in the Papago race, so I had a lot of data about the area. I wasn’t willing to ride the duller bits just for the sake of collecting data, but I did have some interesting takeaways: fastest-ever time on a 1-mile downhill by about 20 seconds; second-fastest time up the steepest climb on the course (keep in mind we’re also talking about geared versus singlespeed in the steep stuff); 20 seconds faster on another steep hill. I doubt I could sustain this through multiple laps, but I still think these numbers are a good indicator that the bike fits well and makes me better in certain situations.

Want more comparison data from Strava? I did a head-to-head test with the Dohamidy and the Santa Cruz. It’s pretty enlightening!

More Than Just a Great Titanium Mountain Bike

After all the years drooling over them, I’m excited to have a titanium mountain bike. Its differences are subtle but noticeable, adding up to a riding experience that is definitely what I hoped it would be. I’m also glad I found the Domahidy – buying from the company now known as Viral Bikes was a very positive experience. Steve clearly cares about the quality of his products. If you’re considering a Viral Skeptic, you’ll feel very good about spending money with Viral just because of the service. And you’ll like them even better after you spend some time riding one of their bikes.

And let me add this: I trashed the rear wheel (the third WTB wheel I’ve mangled in recent history). Since ordering one from a local shop, I’ve been waiting. And not being able to ride the Domahidy has made me a little … testy. Sure, my Santa Cruz is still solid. But there’s just a little extra fun about any good new bike – and the titanium magic seems to take that up a few notches.



Riding Hard with Fuel100 Electro-Bites: A Review

For the first time in a few weeks, I did a long mountain bike without a stash of Fuel100 Electro-Bites. I’d run completely out of them, so I dug back into my extensive stash of gels.

And here’s the weird thing: My latest ride wasn’t that much longer than the previous weekend. The temperatures weren’t that much hotter. My route actually had a little less climbing. Yet I spent the rest of my Sunday feeling pretty whooped.

Could that be the Fuel100 Electro-Bites versus the gels? That’s a tough conclusion to attribute to just a difference in on-bike fuel. But there are some things I can definitely, conclusively, unequivocally tell you about Electro-Bites.

Fuel100 Electro-Bites
A convenient size with just the right amount of fuel inside.

A Welcome Change from Gels

For years, gels have been the THE way to refuel on a bike. They’re pretty super for races. But it has its drawbacks: Gel from open packets tends to get all over the place. And honestly, I can only handle so much sweetness.

The more-savory taste of every variety of the Fuel100 Electro-Bites seemed to please my tastebuds far more than gels.

I tried all the varieties: Simply Salty, Salty Vanilla, Apple Cinnamon, Salty Vinegar and Pumpkin Spice. Each flavor has the same core taste, which is very earthy and salty. That makes sense considering that potato starch is the main ingredient. The vinegar and apple and pumpkin flavors are all pretty subtle. I actually didn’t wind up with a favorite flavor.

Fue100 electro-bites
Inside, puffy little savory nuggets await to keep you topped off with energy.

Aside from the flavor, the texture might be my favorite attribute. The Electro-Bites are small pellets that have a nice crunch, but they also dissolve pretty quickly. That means you won’t be chewing for a long time and you won’t be distracted; even though this product was developed by runners, that’s great for mountain bikers who want to pay attention to the trail.

An Idea for Improving Fuel100 Electro-Bites

Packaging is one of the best attributes of gels: I use electric tape to attach packets to my top tube and handlebars, making it really easy during races to grab one, eat it and stuff the empty pouch into a jersey pocket.

That’s a challenge with the Electro-Bites packaging. There are riders out there who are skilled enough to manhandle a package of Electro-Bites, eat them and still not slow down. I’m not one of them – so I’ll have to ponder some ideas to innovate on a way to carry them. I figure there must be some sort of flip-top container I could stash in my jersey or in a stem pouch.

Fuel100 Electro-Bites
Rolling out to the trails with my last remaining packet of Fuel100 Electro-Bites.

Bottom Line on Fuel100 Electro-Bites

My experience with mountain biking dates back to the days when dudes would rip up a PowerBar and stick them directly to their stem and handlebars. I don’t miss those days at all, let me tell you. We’ve been through a lot of innovation and evolution with fueling up during exercise and races, and I really like what Electro-Bites has done. I like the taste, I like the texture and I like that they work well – possibly better than gels. I know just about every other rider (especially those without sponsorships) is always on the lookout for the next big leap in sports nutrition, and Electro-Bites are a worthwhile entry to the list.

Their price isn’t even out-of-line with other products, with a six-pack going for about $13. Chances are you’ll need to order them from the Electro-Bites website since they’re still finding traction with retailers. If you put in the effort to order some, I think you’ll like them.

Speaking of that, I need to place an order to get more – and they’ll be a go-to for races and long rides for the foreseeable future.

Disclosure of Material Connection: I received Electro-Bites for free from Fuel100 in consideration for a gear review. As always, this is not a guarantee of favorable coverage. The product still has to earn its praise honestly.



Is the Olfi One.Five Camera Better Than a GoPro?

It’s easy to understand how I wound up with an Olfi One.Five camera: I like sticking it to The Man. I have never owned a Gibson guitar or Marshall amp — Carvin guitars and Fryette amps for me, thanks. And no "Trekalized" bikes for me, either -- when I worked at a bike shop and Santa Cruz came on the scene, I yapped at the owners about the then-emerging brand until they became a dealer and that’s what I’ve preferred since. I also love laughing at MacBook sheep from behind the screen of my Linux-based laptop.

Olfi One.Five
A screen shot from the Olfi One.Five.

And let’s face it: GoPro is The Man when it comes to action sports cameras. It’s the one brand you know even if you don’t know anything else about action sports cameras. I’ve been using an older Hero model for years, and time has taken its toll. When I started looking for a new action sports camera, I started looking for GoPro alternatives to assuage my iconoclastic buying habits.

That led me to the $150 US Olfi One.Five. I now have enough time using the Olfi One.Five to assess whether it’s a potential GoPro killer – and whether you should by the upstart or simply stick with the man. My aim is mainly to make more and better mountain bike videos, along with fun silly stuff like sledding, skiing and other crazy stuff that crosses my mind.

Camera Test: The Olfi One.Five from Justin Schmid on Vimeo.

Olfi One.Five by the Numbers

On paper, the Olfi slaughters my old GoPro. It has 4k video, wifi controls, an LCD screen and a very solid protective enclosure; it also includes a slick carrying case. It’s also inexpensive at about $150 – you have to fork over a lot more for a GoPro with the same features.

Compare all this to the 720 resolution of my old GoPro. That thing doesn’t have wifi, and the enclosure is frankly on the shitty side. It’s also about twice the heft of the Olfi.

Olfi One.Five
The Olfi One-Five, ready for action.

Here’s a dose of reality, though: 4K is nice, but I — and most other action camera users — make videos for YouTube. The Olfi wifi controls are so wonky that I quit trying to use them. The LCD screen shortens the battery life dramatically.

The Olfi One.Five produces decent video at 1080 resolution, though. That enclosure is also a beauty. It stays in one piece, so you won’t lose bits of it. The mountain parts are also compatible with GoPro accessories, which is great if you have a drawer full of them.

The form factor is idiosyncratic: It’s a rectangle like GoPro, but mounted vertically instead of horizontally. I’m not sure how I feel about it, to be honest. I’d rather have the mounting parts on top of the camera so it can dangle below the mount. But that would make the controls harder to reach.

Olfi One.Five
A sharp screen grab from the Olfi One.Five. And yes, this is Arizona!

Care and Feeding of the Olfi One.Five

The Olfi One.Five also has some annoying habits. Its battery life seems to drain just sitting there: I’d charge it immediately after a ride. I’d come back a few days later, head out to the trail, turn the camera on and it would have 25 percent battery life (and yes, I checked immediately after charging to make sure it was fully charged).

I also had problems with the date – I set it, and it seemed to reset to factory defaults a few weeks later. There were also incidents where I thought it was recording video – right down to the flashing red lights – and I’d go home, plug it into the computer and find absolutely nada. It failed to record, and I just don’t know why.

I leave open the possibility of some sort of user error – still, I have never had a single problem with my old GoPro Hero. It simply works when called upon, end of story.

Olfi One.Five
Taking a look at the Olfi One.Five from a different angle.

Here’s another advantage for GoPro -- its GoPro Studio editing software. It’s free, and does a really nice job for basic movie making. Unfortunately, it only plays nice with GoPro footage. The Olfi One.Five footage wouldn’t import. Being able to use GoPro Studio is a nice little advantage.

Where the Olfi One.Five excels is in a few little extras: The package includes a nice carrying case complete with high-density foam that features cutouts for the various pieces.

The protective plastic case that protects the Olfi One.Five from on-the-job damage is also far superior to the GoPro case: It snaps shut with a reassuring sound, and it’s all one piece (I’ve lost pieces of the closing mechanism on my old GoPro).

Verdict on the Olfi One.Five

Look, I don’t hate the Olfi One.Five. But I wouldn’t buy one again. I’d find an entry-level GoPro (and no, I wouldn’t miss the LCD screen one bit – it’s entirely possible to frame a good shot without it) for about the same price and call it good. My old GoPro sets a precedent for reliability, even if diving into its options is a bit clunky because it lacks an LCD screen.

But I rarely adjust that stuff anyway. The advantages of the One.Five just don’t overcome what GoPro offers, especially from ease of use and editing (which is the most-laborious part of the process for me).

I hate to say this, but sometimes The Man is The Man for a reason. And Olfi is in no danger of taking GoPro’s place.

Think your company’s action camera can beat the Olfi One.Five and the GoPro? Let’s talk!


When Should You Get a New Mountain Bike?

new mountain bike
My current full-suspension bike – a Santa Cruz Superlight.

When is it time for a new mountain bike? If you’re the bike industry, the answer is "every time we come up with a new wheel size or standard" -- both of which they seem to be doing with ever-accelerating frequency these days.

If you’re a guy like me, the answer is a bit more complicated. Here’s what I mean by "a guy like me:" I go out on frequent rides and love nearly every damn thing there is about the bikes I’m riding. But I also know that everything has a limited lifespan, especially stuff that gets pounded by a 200-pound dude plowing over rocky terrain with -- let’s say not exactly the most deft of skills.

I want to start a fun conversation about how we decide it’s time for a new mountain bike. I’ll start off by talking a bit about my bikes and my impressions of riding them. It would be great to get your thoughts, and also to hear about your thought process for deciding to retire a mountain bike.

Bike #1 is a 2012 Raleigh XXIX that I built up largely piece by piece -- back in 2013, when I scored a killer deal on the frame and the previous iteration of the Gates Carbon Drive singlespeed drivetrain (that’s right, I don’t have CenterTrack).

Continue reading


Review: PRO Packing Cubes and Gate Check Pro XL

PRO packing cubes
PRO Packing Cubes getting tested in the real world!

This summer, I started testing a few new travel products – one for a problem I’ve always had, and another for a brand-new problem caused by traveling with a child stroller.

Getting the Most Out of Luggage Space: PRO Packing Cubes

The first problem is pretty obvious and familiar, even if you don’t travel with a little person: I don’t know a single frequent traveler who doesn’t constantly tweak the way they pack. It’s a constant cycle of stuff like giant, vacuum-sealed plastic bags, stuff sacks, dry sacks, you name it. The PRO Packing Cubes are zippered, vented pouches that aim to bring order to the chaos of your travel luggage of choice (in my case, that’s either a Swiss Army carryon or a Kelty Coyote backpack).

They don’t seal air out like the stuff/dry sacks I typically use. So I’m not trying to find exactly the right amount to stuff in them, which is kind of nice. They simply squish as needed as the luggage compresses.

PRO packing cubes
A closer look at the diferent sizes.

So far, I’ve had the PRO Packing Cubes on several domestic trips and one mega-intercontinental journey to New Zealand. While packing for the New Zealand trip, I let my wife get in on the testing fun, and the PRO Packing Cubes quickly became a favorite (I’ll have to make sure she’s not constantly swiping them from me). Throughout testing, there were absolutely no quality issues: The zippers are still perfect, and there are no rips or tears in the fabric. Also on the New Zealand trip, I started off putting the packed PRO Packing Cubes into dry sacks and sealing them. The shapes didn’t quite align with the dry sack being a cylinder rather than a rectangle. So from then on, I just kept the dry sack around just in case we ran into bad weather that would soak my gear. Otherwise, I just put the cubes straight into the backpack. They still fit with ample room left over.

The PRO Packing Cubes concept isn’t exclusive, and I’ve seen similar products elsewhere. But I haven’t tested them – so though they may be the same conceptually, I can’t say that any brand will hold up as well. I’m inclined to pick up another set of PRO Packing Cubes just in case my wife gets any funny ideas.

Gate Check Pro XL
The BOB Ironman is awesome, but some help during flights could make it even better. Could the Gate Check Pro XL help?

Shielding Your Stroller: The Gate Check Pro XL

It took me awhile to put the Gate Check Pro XL through its paces – many of my trips since this summer have been of the business variety -- so no little person to accompany me. The New Zealand trip meant we had to take our super-cool BOB Ironman stroller for its go-anywhere capability. And that also meant a golden opportunity for the Gate Check Pro XL –  with flights from Phoenix to Honolulu to Auckland to Nelson to Auckland and back, there’d be plenty of legs to test.

On previous trips with the BOB Ironman, I’d fold it up and use any combination of cordage – from bungee cables to camping gear ties to even shoelaces – to prevent it from unfolding. I was more than willing to see what the Gate Check Pro XL could do.

Gate Check Pro XL
The BOB all wrapped up in the Gate Check Pro XL and ready for departure.

I was skeptical: Could this big blue bag contain the mighty Ironman and stay sealed? Would I fumble with it while stuffing it into the bag at the gate. Yes, and no. Folding the Ironman and putting it into the Gate Check Pro XL went quickly and easily – and I never had to worry about it unfolding via the rough ministrations of a baggage handler. Oh, and it was so distinct that I could actually see it being loaded onto the plane from the boarding area (nice to know it will show up at the destination!). It also folds up small enough that I could stuff it into the lower cargo area of the BOB Ironman.

I have absolutely no reservations about using the PRO Packing Cubes or the Gate Check Check Pro XL on future trips of any length.

Love Pro Travel Gear provided these items for review. But rest assured that I’m always ready to give an honest review. The products in this test earned praise by actually being good!


Yes, This is Another Blog Post About Out-of-Control Bike Prices

These tires are way too pricey.
These tires are way too pricey.

I just bought a tire for $90.

Normally, I wouldn’t squawk about that. But this wasn’t for my Subaru – it was for my damn road bike. It was a nice Specialized tubeless road bike tire (I’m typically a Continental guy, but --). And yeah, the shop owner lopped 20 percent off since we used to work together at a different shop. I have a feeling he is happy I don’t work at bike shops anymore, and am thus ineligible to fart his his shop up.

steel road bike
This American-made steel frame ain’t the cheapest thing I ever bought: But nearly 20 years of service elevates its bang for the buck factor higher than any other bike I’ve owned.

But this bicycle tire is literally the same price as each individual Pirelli on my Subaru. And seriously, there is nowhere near as much material on it as what goes into my car tires.

There is really no better reflection of the out-of-control costs of bike parts. Everything associated with wheels seems to be going especially crazy -- it’s not hard to find $2,000 wheelsets (and I just read a bike comparison of "value priced" rides, most of them in the $3,000 range – wtf?).

mountain bike review, x-fusion
Another good example of dollars well-spent: the X-Fusion brand of suspension forks.

It doesn’t take a very big nick or a very little manufacturing defect to sideline this way-expensive piece of rubber and Kevlar. Worse yet, it’s the sort of part that can fail in a way that leaves you injured or stranded. Will it be that much better than a $45 tire? Or should regular slobs – myself included – train a little harder instead of trying to buy a tiny smidgen of speed?

I love riding my road bike, and I’ve had the same one since 1998. I’ve broken stuff and replaced it over those years, and it makes me happier as a rider than the day I bought it. My mountain bikes? Awesome. But I am getting to the point where I have to ask some pointed questions about what I’ll do when the pivots on my Santa Cruz are worn – will I even bother with a new fully suspended bike, or will I go for a nice custom steel frame that I can keep for decades? Even that option is fraught with peril – I’ve tried twice to buy custom steel frames, once from an upstart who I had to shake down to get my money back when he couldn’t deliver, and another time from a respected craftsman who just stopped replying to emails (fortunately, before money changed hands).

I’m a huge believer in finding that balance between quality of price -- that nexus that smart buyers call value. It’s where performance and execution matter more than cool factor or flash.

It seems, when a road bike tire costs the same as a car tire, the bike industry at large has forgotten where that nexus exists.

If the bike industry doesn’t believe me, they should read the comments thread following this review of the Marin Hawk Hill, a budget full-suspension bike.


How to Survive Summer Heat in Phoenix – Or Other Hot Places

summer heat
Dress right for the heat – you’ll feel better.

I hate summer heat in Phoenix – and I’m sure I’d hate it in any other hot, desert city. But you know what? It’s not so much the heat that bothers me. It’s the people who don’t know how to deal with it. I’m going to clue you all in based on my experience living here since 1980.

Stop Obsessing Over the Temperature

Right, that’s it: No more posting graphics about the forecast. No checking the forecast. Look, you don’t need to know whether it’s going to be 95 or 125. In this case, knowledge isn’t power. There is literally nothing you can do as a result of knowing the exact temperature that will make summer heat in a desert any more comfortable or any less challenging. You’re gonna be hot until October, and that’s simply all there is to it. Whether it’s 95 0r 135, you should take exactly the same steps. Repeat it with me: Exactly. The. Same. Steps. The only impact knowing the temperature has is psychological, and it’s demoralizing rather than helpful.

summer heat
Make these your best friend

Drink a Lot of Water, Already

I don’t want to hear anyone say "but you can drink too much water, too." Tell you what – come up with a sourced number of people who have died from hyperhydration  (aka, drinking too much water) in a given year. Then, I’ll reply with stats from the same year from dehydration deaths. Guess which one will be astronomically higher.

I’m now at 6’2, 198 pounds. I usually drink north of a gallon a day – more if I do anything outdoor. Oh, and it helps to know how to drink water. Don’t sip it: Pound a quart per sitting if you can. Read Cody Lundin’s "98.6 Degrees: The Art of Keeping Your Ass Alive" for the science behind it. Something salty to go with your water or even an electrolyte tablet now and then will also help. I have a post with more advice about hydration.

Get Out In It

If you do nothing but scuttle from air-conditioned area to air-conditioned area, you will never acclimate an iota to the summer heat. You need to spend at least some time in the heat. That doesn’t mean you need to be stupid about it, so dress right, wear sunscreen and – I can’t possibly say this enough – drink your damn water.

What does dressing right mean? On days I head to the office, I wear breathable, light clothes. Fortunately, I work in a place where people won’t think twice about my Eddie Bauer Guide Pro pants and (discontinued, damnit) Mountain Hardware McClane shirt.

On my own time, I favor my Onno hemp t-shirts and -- well, pretty much the same sort of pants I wear to work. I don’t believe in shorts. If I’ll be in the heat a long time, I’ll cover my head with something. And I never, ever hike without a pretty good bunch of gear that works for me; one of the more unusual items is a shemagh, which is great for covering up from the sun or even any sudden dust storms that blow in (yes, that happens in the summer).

Why no shorts? Because I like to cover skin from the sun. If I were really smart, I’d probably opt for a long-sleeve version of my hemp t-shirts. Look at traditional Arab dress – it’s light, flowing and layered. Great for insulation from the summer heat. Oh, and avoid wicking materials. They dry too quickly to cool you. Stick with quality cotton or – as I prefer – hemp or bamboo blends. They’ll keep you cooler and won’t make you stink.


In Search of Good, Budget Mountain Bikes – Part 1

budget mountain bikes
Yes, this crazy-expensive bamboo bike is a real thing.

I might be the world’s weirdest mountain biker: I simply don’t care about super-expensive, shade-grown, organic, gluten-free artisan bikes. There are so many great $5,000 bikes that there’s no possible way to decide between them, even if you divide them into smaller categories – full-suspension, hardtail, steel, carbon fiber, titanium, bamboo (yes, that exists) or what have you. I simply don’t admire anyone’s ability to craft an excellent cost-is-barely-an-object mountain bike.

Instead, show me a $1,500 or less mountain bike that will make a discerning, experienced mountain biker nod in satisfaction. (I realize some people might still find that expensive. Sorry, but every hobby has a price. I realize you can probably find a used car for that price … but it won’t be as good at being a car as this bike should be at being a bike.)

budget mountain bikes
The Rocket 1 is a good-looking, for-real budget mountain bike. (photo borrowed from

This is going to be an ongoing project – to unearth cool, budget mountain bikes and major components that don’t cost a fortune -- gear that’s reasonably priced yet high-performance to stand out in this world of $1,000 wheelsets that the mainstream mountain bike media pushes in front of us. I’d love to test these items, if possible. If not, I’ll 1) evaluate the specs and give an opinion or 2) I’ll rely on guest contributors. If you have a budget-priced favorite bike or piece of gear, I want to hear from you. Now, you might love your cheap gear because you don’t know better; if that’s the case, you’re not the contributor I’m looking for. But if you convince me that you know your stuff and a budget items meets your standards, I’m in.

budget mountain bikes
Proof that not all gear needs to be needlessly expensive.

So let’s get this started with the Schwinn Rocket 1, which is priced right at $1,000.

What I Like

  • The frame geometry is aggressive and quick, perfect for real mountain biking. You’re getting a trail-capable bike in the Schwinn Rocket 1, not a paved-path cruiser dressed up to look all bad ass. Its dimensions are not very different from my Raleigh XXIX.
  • I also dig the 27.5 wheels. I have two mountain bikes, one with 26-inch wheels and one with 29ers. The Schwinn Rocket 1 and its 650b/27.5 wheels seems a very smart point right between the two, offering the quicker handling of a smaller wheel, but the smooth rolling of the bigger 29er.
  • Tubeless-ready wheels! At this price, that’s a really nice bonus. I also like that these are WTB rims, which I trust more than some of the no-name rims you’ll often see on many budget mountain bikes. And what’s the deal with tubeless wheels? Used with tire sealant, flats are pretty much a thing of the past. You can also use less tire pressure to increase traction and smooth the ride out. Maybe in a future discussion, we’ll dive into this more.
  • Lots of durable Shimano stuff on this bike. The Deore group is solid if not flashy. You can count on the hydraulic brakes to be awesome for the money, and the drivetrain is bound to perform well for a good, long time.
budget mountain bikes
My Raleigh XXIX started life below $1,000. Budget mountain bikes for the win!

What I’m Curious About

The fork is one of the most-important parts of any mountain bike. If you visit my garage, you’ll find a Rock Shox Recon Gold, an X-Fusion Slide 29 RL, an old Fox Vanilla and – I’m not kidding here – a Marzocchi Atom Bomb. They all work great. The Schwinn Rocket 1 sports an inexpensive Suntour XCR Air. Aside from the 27.5-inch wheels, this is the part of the Rocket that I’d be most interested in trying. Forks are getting crazy-expensive and extravagant. Could today’s budget fork batter the high-end fork of a few years ago? I’d like to find out, especially with my positive experience with the relatively unknown X-Fusion.

What Do You Say?

If you own and ride a Schwinn Rocket 1, let me know what you think of it. Same if you’ve just ridden one enough to get a feel for it. And hey, if you know of other cheap mountain bikes that can still get the job done, pitch in!


The Great List of Non-Obvious Travel Tips

non-obvious travel tips
Oddly enough, not mentioned in Dante’s Inferno.
Every time I see a list of travel tips, I brace myself to expect the obvious – from the practical "remember your ID" to the goofily gooey "be open to new experiences," I’ve seen every element of a travel tip listicle before.

I’ve set out to create the ultimate list of non-obvious travel tips that goes beyond all the same tired stuff you’ve heard before. These tips will either improve your travel experience, or turn you into a superhero for your fellow travelers. If I’ve missed something, pitch it into the comments.

Parking at the Airport Can Kill Your Car Battery

I recently returned from a weekend getaway to find my car battery dead. Fortunately, Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport has a service that will give you a free jump-start. I was remarking to the person jumping the car that it’s a new battery, and that I couldn’t figure out why it died. He clued me into a little-known fact: Jet noise often sets off car alarms, and a bunch of false alarms can wear a battery out. He told me that it’s a rare day when he doesn’t jump-start a car with a previously healthy battery. So, if you can park further from the rumble of the jets (or get a ride to the airport), you may reduce your chances of a dead battery.

non-obvious travel tips
This plane has lots of middle-seat passengers – be nice to ’em, eh?

Traveling Abroad? Learn Your Metric

I can’t believe how many American travelers have a hard time with kilometers and meters. Look, metric just isn’t that difficult. And being able to convert it will help you communicate when you need directions.

Traveling Abroad, Take 2: Driving a Stickshift

If you’re headed abroad, don’t expect every rental car to have an automatic transmission. Many if not most of the rental cars will have a stickshift. Being able to handle a manual transmission is great for many reasons – not least of all, being able to drive no matter where in the world you go. And do you honestly want to learn this skills on the fly, especially in a country where you’re driving on the opposite side of the road?

Never Board a Plane Without Visiting a Loo

By the way, "loo" is metric for "bathroom." I promise that this simple step will save you from squirming in your seat through a takeoff and climb to 10,000 feet. Not only will you fly more comfortably, but that’s one less time you’ll needlessly climb over other seated passengers.

non-obvious travel tips
Bungee cords can do almost anything.

Bungee Cords and Carabiners

You won’t believe what you can do with bungee cords and carabiners. From carrying a water bottle to securing a folding baby stroller, these magical devices can solve a wide array of problems. And keep in mind – when you need either of them, you need them badly -- and that’s when it’s almost impossible to find anyplace selling them.

Turn Off the Water Works

Before you leave your house for a trip, turn off your toilet valves. Toilet hoses have a way of failing in spectacular fashion. They’ll start to leak or spray, and the toilet will diligently keep the water flowing to try filling the toilet. But since it’s leaking, it never fills. That’s when you return home after two weeks to find your house flooded. That’s a crap way to end an adventure. So shut the valves off. (And seriously, can nobody honestly figure out a way to bring toilets into the 21st century?)

Get Away from the Baggage Return

There’s a special circle of hell for people that park themselves directly in front of the baggage claim. If you step back just 10 measly feet, you’ll make it possible for A) other passengers to see their returning bags and B) get to their bag without bumping you out of the way. You gain nothing by standing too close, aside from the contempt of smarter, more-considerate travelers.

Be Nice to the Person in the Middle Seat

Nobody appreciates a bit of courtesy like someone in a middle seat. Gracefully letting them out for a bathroom visit or letting them have the armrest are really cheap, easy ways to make life better for that more middle-seat flier. That little bit of consideration rarely goes unnoticed.


Win a ZUS and Never Lose Your Car Again

nonda ZUS car finder
The Dude needed a ZUS.

The car’s gone, stolen! We’re stuck!

We’d scoured the parking garage for more than 30 minutes, and there was no sign of our rental car anywhere. This was about to put a serious damper on our vacation plans.

Fortunately, a friendly local happened to walk by. He told us there was another parking garage nearby, and it looked identical to this one. Maybe you should check there … ?

Sure enough, there was our rental. And this is only one of my many Dude, Where’s Our Car? moments – from sprawling airport parking lots to underground garages in Germany. But there’s a chance this won’t ever happen to me again.

That’s because of this little gizmo called ZUS.

nonda ZUS car finder
Shamelessly borrowed from the Nonda website, I give you the ZUS.

The ZUS – or should it just be ZUZ? – is a handy little charger car charger for your small electronic gizmos like cell phones. It’s built for two devices just like my current charger, but it’s far more compact. It’s slightly faster also than my current devices, adding about a percentage point of power per minute.

But the really cool feature is its car locator abilities. All you need to do is download its Android or iPhone app into your phone, hit the “Mark” button after opening the program, and then use it should you forget where you parked. You’ll get updates on the distance to your car every so often.

GOOD TO KNOW: Nonda, the makers of ZUS, won two awards at the 2016 iF Design Awards. THE ZUS and Nonda’s Hub+ earned recognition from a 58-member jury evaluating more than 5,000 entries from 53 countries.

It’s not all automatic.

You still have to remember to sync your location before leaving your car behind. So if you forget to open the app and hit “Mark,” that’s the time you’ll wind up losing your car and forlornly marching around a parking lot somewhere. Also, you need to supply your own cables – which is actually pretty smart for ZUS considering the huge variety of plugs out there. My luck with the device has been spotty in garages any more than two stories underground … but topside, it’s pretty flawless! The user interface is definitely slicker on the iPhone, but the Android version is still workable.

nonda ZUS car finder
Never ask this question again. Well, as long as your smart enough to work a smartphone.

I’ve really enjoyed testing the little ZUS so far, and I think my wife will love knowing that we have a way to find our car in that enormous East Economy Parking Lot at Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport (I still can’t believe how often I forget where I parked).

One of my favorite aspects of the ZUS: You can take it anywhere your smartphone goes, from your personal car to your rental car and just about anywhere else you might buckle up.

Now here’s the cool part: You can get one from me, for free.

I have an extra ZUS to give away. Here’s how you can claim it as your own: Submit your best story about losing your car. If I judge you to be the winner, I’ll publish your story here and ship the ZUS right to you. Just send your story to by April 2 (because nobody smart would ever use April Fools Day as a deadline).

Disclosure: Nonda provided a ZUS for review, plus one to give to the lucky reader with the best story of missing-car woe.


How to Buy a Modern Steel Road Bike

steel road bike
Conan’s dad knew it – steel is what you can trust whether bike or sword.

This post is really outdated. The bikes here are no longer modern. This post has what you REALLY want.

Awhile ago, I let you in on the bike industry’s big secret: the secret of steel, that strong, relatively light, reliable, repairable, smooth-riding wonder material.

Fact is, you can’t find a steel road bike like my 1999 LeMond Zurich growing on trees. The odds of finding one used are ever out of your favor. So what is a steel-curious road bike owner to do? Let me share a few ideas for you. These are the steel road bikes I’d consider if someone swiped my LeMond and I had a bunch of insurance money to buy a new ride. (BEFORE I GO ANY FURTHER: None of the companies mentioned have in any way compensated me for mentioning them. I would genuinely put them on my list. They earned their way here by making products that caught my attention.)

Kona Roadhouse

steel road bike
My Zurich fresh back from the paint shop with a little Liberace sparkle.

The Roadhouse oozes class, even with its many modern accouterments – disc brakes, carbon fork, 1-â…›" headset. a mix of Shimano Ultegra and 105. Of course, the heart of this bike is Reynolds 853 steel tubing. That’s the same stuff as my LeMond. One question that remains is -- where is the frame made? I’m not saying it has to be US-made to be quality stuff. But I like to support American people doing skilled jobs. This is a question I have about many of the frames in this blog post. Still, you could do a lot worse for $2,400-ish.

Ritchey Road Logic

steel road bike
That is a classy custom steel road bike – for a reasonable price.

This is a beautiful, elegant lightsaber of a steel road bike. It’s made from Ritchey-branded tubes. If I’m reading the website correctly, the Road Logic comes with a Ritchey carbon fork for a very reasonable $1,050. The downside here is that it’s frameset only. That might be good for someone out there with a garage full of parts. The rest of us are gonna have a hard time not getting bent on the components.

Curtlo Custom Road

If you’ve been riding bikes awhile, you’ve probably heard a few whispers about Curtlo. It’s a small operation that somehow makes quality hand-made custom frames for a very reasonable price. My guess is Doug Curtiss found the Lost Dutchman Gold Mine, and just makes frames for nice people because he likes to -- and he doesn’t mind barely making money. Or perhaps he kidnapped a bunch of Santa’s elves, and has them wielding blow torches in a dimly lit basement somewhere, subsisting only on fruitcake and eggnog. The frame-only price is $990 for a frame with a single powdercoated color. I think it’s entirely feasible to get a made-to-order Curtlo Custom Road with a mid-level component group and a carbon fork for about $2,500. One custom item I’d be sure to add is pegs for a full-size frame pump.

steel road bike
A fine, classically influenced steel road bike.

Raleigh Record Ace

If you want to go full-on retrogrouch, the Raleigh Record Ace is your bike. Steel fork and Campagnolo parts – none of this Shimano or SRAM nonsense! (Disclosure – I’d happily ride a mid-level group from any of these companies -- Veloce, 105, Rival, whatever.) I have some quibbles with this bike, even at its $1,900 price point. They are: shitty hubs, a lower-end Reynolds 631 tubeset, iffy rims. The wheels are an easy problem to overcome. The tubeset is still decent – but you’re only a few bones away from a better one. And again, where is the frame made?

Breezer Venturi

A few weeks ago, this bike was making me drool with its Ultegra/105 mix and really, really ridiculous good looks. But I can no longer confirm that Breezer still makes the Venturi. It no longer appears on the Breezer website. You might be able to find a few on closeout, but that usually means limited sizes. I’m not sure of the tubing’s origins or where it’s being welded.

Greg LeMond Washoe

steel road bike
This Gunnar Roadie is absolutely stunning.

It’d be wrong not to mention the latest iteration of a LeMond steel road bike. That’s the Washoe, and it’s a US-built Reynolds frame with a top-end ENVE carbon fork. I have to say, though, that Greg might be putting a high value on having his name on the bike: A list price of $3,150 for a bike with a Shimano 105 group doesn’t sit that well with me – especially next to the artisan Curtlo frames. Honestly, there’s something a little off aesthetically, too. I won’t say it’s ugly … but it doesn’t make me drool.

Bianchi Vigorelli

I love the color many people know as Celeste Green. If you feel like fighting over whether it’s blue or green, go somewhere else. That’s not all that’s nice about the Vigorelli, though. $1,750 (Street price, not MSRP) for a mostly 105 group. I’d definitely ask some pointed questions again about where its Reynolds 631 tubes are welded. But I’d almost feel like a heel at that price.

Gunnar Roadie

Oh, these Gunnar Roadie frames are awfully nice: An off-the-shelf frame for $900, with another three-and-a-half Benjamins getting you a full-custom fit. True Temper OS frame tubing, US made. Not bad at all. I see one big downside: You’re on your own for components, or at the mercy of your local dealer. And honestly, it is never as economical to piece it all together. Still, I will not quibble with Gunnar quality, and its frame prices are very reasonable. I also do like the option of selecting my own color.

So What Steel Road Bike Would I Buy?

I love small companies. I like picking my own damn color. So unless the waiting list is 6 months or more, I’d go with the Curtlo. I’d ask him to mirror the Zurich’s measurements because it’s always been a nice fit for me. But – and pay attention, I say, pay attention here – I’d also want Doug’s input for my measurement. For all I know, I might think the LeMond fits me perfectly without it actually being true. Doug’s expert eye would likely notice what I really need versus what I think I need.

Do you have a favorite source for steel frames that working people can actually afford? Let me know if I missed it!


Cool Stuff Roundup – Summer Edition

la compagnie
La Compagnie’s 757s look stylish inside and out.

I just realized that’s in been months since I’ve done a Cool Stuff Roundup. I aim to correct that today with a few very interesting tidbits I’ve culled from various locations online.

Let’s start with some air travel.

You know it’s a favorite of mine – and that I don’t love to hate airlines nearly as much as many people. And an airline like La Compagnie could make us both like airlines even better – it’s an all-business class airline operating between Charles de Gaulle Airport, London Luton Airport and Newark Liberty International Airport, New Jersey (which is the Paris of the Eastern Seaboard -- kind of. OK, not at all). La Compagnie also charges a barely even premium economy price.

La compagnie
Two of these seats for a $2,500 round trip for two? Yes, please.

For example, I priced a flight for one adult at less than $1,500. Word is a couple traveling together gets an even better price. Here’s what you get for that price: A Boeing 757-200 (previously owned by the excellent and meticulous Icelandair) holding less than 80 people; two by two seat layout with 180 degrees of recline; outlets at the seats; wifi; on-demand entertainment; seasonal menus; and a few other niceties I’d like to sample. The only downside I can see is that La Compagnie doesn’t seem to have airline alliances. So I’d have to book my flight to Newark separately, which creates a possible vector for problems. Still, I’d give La Compagnie a try next time I head to Europe. I’m sniffling and whinging a bit since I only found out about La Compagnie days – literally days! – after booking a trip to Europe on another airline for about the same price. In economy class. Grrrrr.

OK, let’s get a little closer to home with some coffee news.

If you’ve read this blog at all, you know that craft beer and top-quality coffee are my favorite beverages. When I was in Portland, I got hold of a super-delicious treat at Stumptown Coffee Roasters: a nitro-charged cold brew. It had the texture and look of a pint of Guinness, but tasted better (look, people, Guinness is mass-produced mediocrity – there are way better stouts out there).

Now, I no longer have to go to Portland for my nitro cold-brew fix: Songbird in downtown Phoenix is now pouring nitro cold brew. And soon, local newcomer Hazelrock will also be pouring nitro. This is a good time to be a coffee enthusiast in Phoenix!

Let’s shift gears back to transportation.

Ready to roll on Amtrak? If you’re in business or first class, you might get free digital newspapers to pass the miles.
Sorry, but I have to mix my metaphors by bringing up trains. Amtrak clued me into a nice new feature for its business and first-class passenger service: They’ll be able to enjoy unlimited access to the New York Times and Washington Post newspapers via the trains’ free onboard wifi; previously, Amtrak had distributed paper copies. Amtrak views this as an environmentally friendly move that will save 25 tons of newspapers each year.

I’d recommend swinging a deal to get the Wall Street Journal – I love that paper for its mix of serious news from around the globe and its often snarky, sly humor. Still, from a green perspective, this seems like a very nice move. Let’s also not forget that the newspaper format is kind of an unwieldy pain to handle – I’ll take it in electronic format any day.

OK, I’ve mentioned planes and trains. Let’s get boats in here – or rather, container ships.

I piqued the curiosity of two of my good friends last night by mentioning that people travel around the world via container ships. Not as crew – just as self-loading cargo. This article makes it sound awfully interesting. I could see this being a very interesting way to pass some time to do some writing, exercising and sleeping without the distractions.

If you just graduated college and you’re looking for something oddball to do, this is your answer. Right here.

The Born Adventurer
Meet the Born Adventurer.

Let’s wrap this up with a look at, a new blog I’m publishing.

This one is about a pretty big change in my life – being that dad to a new little girl who I hope will follow my interest in seeing the world. She’s not even 9 months old, and already has a passport and been camping. This story about her first milestones is really what the blog and my style of being a dad is all about. Give it a look, and spread the word -- I’m hoping to connect with like-minded parents to see what we can all learn from each other.