[I originally wrote this as a guest post for a website that no longer exists. I’m republishing it to preserve one of my more interesting travel experiences.]
Vietnam taught me one important lesson: For every blazing-fast maglev train or smooth-riding KTX or futuristic Japanese bullet train, there’s a Fanxipan Express.
I experienced an overnight trip from Hanoi to Lao Cai and back during my two-week stay in Vietnam. The bottom line – the Fanxipan Express sways its way along the tracks, creaking and lurching … but there’s arguably no better way to get to Lao Cai and then onto the popular mountain destination of Sapa.
Some part of me really enjoyed the novelty of the rickety Fanxipan Express, if only to feel a little better about my own country’s Amtrak; enjoying rail travel in South Korea or Finland can give an American a serious train inferiority complex.
Let’s take a look at my time on the Fanxipan Express.
It’s entirely possible to book online far ahead of time. My wife and I left some room in our schedules, though, so we could evaluate our side-trip options in Ho Chi Minh City and Hanoi. While staying at the Rendezvous Hotel in Hanoi, some references to homestay hiking trips around Sapa — near the Chinese border — caught our eye. We booked through the hotel, with a price that included train travel. The Fanxipan Express website lists a round trip in four-berth “Superior Cabin” as $45 US person, one way. So call it $90 for a round trip per person.
The Rendezvous website lists our trek as $185 per person including fare for the train … but I recall us paying less than that. Nearly every price in Vietnam is negotiable, and you’re more likely to swing a deal in-person.
The Rendezvous staff dropped us off about 90 minutes before our train’s departure time – plenty of time to get acquainted with the train station situation, and overcome any language barrier problems.
Aboard the Fanxipan Express
Soon, we were aboard the Fanxipan Express. The strains of a super-schmaltzy ballad echoed throughout the cars (maudlin sounds of this magnitude transcend languages) as we found our room, a wood-paneled, four-bunk affair we’d share with two strangers.
Well, we lucked out. We enjoyed the company of a teacher and an engineer who spoke excellent English. The four of us chatted a good bit before hitting the lights in an attempt to search for sleep.
I did manage to fall asleep, but the swaying and creaking jolted me awake more than a few times. I spent a lot of time in that gray area just short of full sleep. I’d call it a combination of the train’s swaying and being a 6’2, 200-pound person jammed diagonally into a bunk not really intended for my frame. I was relatively clear-headed when we arrived in Lao Cai, and I handled the next three days of hiking just fine … so I guess I got enough rest.
Conductors checked our tickets, and an attendant with a snack cart rolled by a few times. To be honest, I had little interest in snacks or drinks. I just wanted to get to Lao Cai, so I didn’t indulge.
Don’t Miss This Tip
Now, I need to tell you something absolutely vital about the Fanxipan Express – it’s time to talk toilets. Western-style toilets are getting more common in Vietnam, but you’ll definitely find more squat toilets. The Fanxipan Express has both types, which my wife didn’t realize. She found the squat toilet first, and assumed all the train’s toilets were the same.
So, if you don’t favor a physical task that’s like playing billiards on a roller coaster, keep walking until you find the Western-style toilet on the Fanxipan Express.
Wrapping up 16 Hours on the Fanxipan Express
We returned to Lao Cai on a chilly evening a few days later. There are plenty of cafes nearby where you can enjoy a cafe sua da (the delicious iced coffee with sweetened condensed milk that’s so popular here) before boarding the train. We spent some time strolling about Lao Cai, but didn’t wander too far because … well, we’d just hiked for three days and were feeling the weight of our packs. That, and the clock was ticking.
Our return trip was much the same as the outbound leg. This time, three other passengers jammed into the four-bunk cabin. My Vietnamese-language skills allowed me to offer some greetings, but that’s it. No cross-culture connection this time. The Fanxipan Express creaked, we tried to sleep … and we arrived back in Hanoi. We said tam biet to our bunkmates and headed off to our last few days in Vietnam.
I rarely ever get out to the Phoenix Sonoran Preserve. It’s one of the newer bits of municipal open space in Phoenix, but it’s a bit far from me. Last time I was here, it was also shorter on mileage than I’d like.
In February of 2021, I went back for another look. This time, there were trails south of the major road that leads to the trailhead. I consulted Trailforks and formed a plan of attack with a goal of at least 20 miles.
Let’s walk through it to see what you need to know.
Busy at the Parking Lot
The mid-morning on a Sunday parking situation at the main Phoenix Sonoran Preserve trailhead is pretty brisk. So either go earlier or later, as the season’s weather allows.
The trailhead also has a decently equipped bathroom. I was full on water, so I didn’t bother checking the water fountain situation. Sorry!
As a reminder, I was rolling on a singlespeed hardtail with a 100mm suspension fork. That’s my kind of bike, and these trails are well-suited for it. There are a few super-steep trails that will favor a geared bike, and some chonk on the other side that will be better with a full-suspension bike.
Getting Started at the Phoenix Sonoran Preserve
My ride plan required me to cross Dove Valley Road, which features vehicles regularly traveling at Talladega 500 qualifying speeds, or as close to them as they can get.
Once I got across, I had to follow a dirt road south. And it’s here where you’ll run into a navigational challenge: You need to veer east of a fence about a mile into it so you can connect to the trails. This is currently not marked with a sign.
On to the Real Trails
I spotted more than a few branching bits of singletrack. I made a left onto Cactus Wren, which took me up a steady climb. The trail had an overall nice flow, and I soon had some nice views.
Cactus Wren eventually meets a trail called Great Horned Owl. If you continue south, it’s nice and rideable on any bike. Turn west, though, and this will get steep and rocky.
How steep? Think 300 feet in .2 miles steep.
As you continue on Great Horned Owl, watch for a right turn. If you miss it, you’ll find that it’s barely even a trail anymore. You’ll push your bike up a steep, rubbly mess — about 200 feet in .2 miles.
Great Horned Owl will connect to Valle Vista, which is a stupid amount of fun. I stayed on it, eschewing Desert Tortoise (which I’ll check out next time) until I hit the Dixie Mountain Loop, where I turned left. I might go right next time, not sure.
By the way, opting against the turn onto Desert Tortoise also resulted in a steep, loose, rocky climb. Not as bad as the others, but still tough.
Anyway, I stayed on Dixie Mountain Loop until it became Bobcat, which I took to the end near Dove Valley Road.
Headed Back Toward the Trailhead
I had plenty of options for the route back, including going back the same way I came. I was a bit rankled that my most-direct option was a green trail called Dixie Mountain Bypass. It’s a non-technical trail that climbs slightly heading back the way I wanted to go.
Let me pause with a recommendation for trail runners. This trail will make you very, very happy. It looks, at least to me, like trail running perfection. If you run it, let me know if I was right on this one.
Anyway, it was more fun than I expected from being a fairly straight green trail. You can get a singlespeed into a nice groove.
I soon wound up back at the beginning of the proper trails, where Cactus Wren got me started. I doubled back a little for more mileage, and wound up on the aforementioned steep climb that is Great Horned Owl.
Room to Improve for the Phoenix Sonoran Preserve
Most importantly, I also found a singletrack route back toward the trailhead. This does not appear on the Trailforks site or app. I can only conclude that is because the people in charge of such things at the City of Phoenix are trying to prevent additions to the trail network.
And I get it. You don’t want rogue trail builders doing stuff to mess things up. But most of the time, rogue trailbuilders get busy because they’re frustrated by inaction. I suspect that’s the case with the Phoenix Sonoran Preserve. The south side of the trails are a gem, but the interconnections with the other parts of the network are abysmal.
It’s entirely possible, also, that they might get worse. Why? Developers. And 1,400 more red tile roofs. (If I learned anything from watching copious amounts of Scooby Do, it’s that developers are a scourge. Half a decade as a full-time news reporter reinforced what I learned from the crew of the Mystery Machine.)
I don’t see the addition of homes doing much to help trail connectivity here. Here’s a data point to support that: The unmarked trail I rode back to the road originally went under a bridge. That has since been blocked off my city signs choked with passive voice and bureaucratic prose warning that the area is closed and blah blah blah. That tells me that this wonderfully made and fun connector trail is probably an open secret. The city knows it exists, but it might cost them too much in resources and potential blowback to do anything with it.
Once I got back to the trailhead, I puttered around a bit to bump up my mileage and climbing. The Sidewinder was a nice climb that was entirely rideable on a singlespeed. I didn’t think much of the section of the Apache Wash Loop that I used. I was also less than impressed with the trail manners of some other users.
My totals came out to 24 miles with 1,600 feet of climbing.
Wrapping Up a Good Ride
I had a great time riding these trails. Now that I’m familiar with the lay of the land, I can get even more fun out of my next visit.
If you haven’t ridden at the Phoenix Sonoran Preserve yet, get out there. You’re certain to have fun. If you consider anything less than 25 miles too short, definitely put in some time on the Sidewinder after you’ve gotten your fill of what’s on the south side.
Bike accessories can be just as important as the shiny new bike you’re buying. Here’s a quick breakdown of the categories we’ll cover. Keep scrolling for all the details!
–Stuff to Wear When You Ride –Hydration Supplies and On-Bike Storage –You Break It, You Fix It –Electronics and Safety Gear –Other Bike Accessories You Might Need
You’ve spent tons of time test riding bikes, asking questions, reading and generally obsessing over getting your first good bike. You’re ready to make your decision and you’re glad that’s all over.
Except it’s not.
There’s more to getting into cycling than just buying your bike. There’s a wealth of other stuff you need. And not just gear — knowledge, too.
Let’s talk about what bike accessories you need to be thinking about as you head to the bike shop ready to swipe that credit card.
Stuff to Wear When You Ride
I can’t even fathom getting on my bike with street clothes. Even for a short ride, I’m still wearing at a minimum:
Some sort of bike shorts, though I’ll often opt for casual baggy ones on short rides — I’m used to wearing something with a chamois (that’s the butt pad you see that separates stretchy shorts from bike shorts).
A helmet — I don’t ride anywhere without one. It’s not just good for protecting you in a fall — it also keeps the sun off your head and protects you from branches, bees and all sorts of other stuff that can whack you. I’m serious about bees; you wouldn’t believe how many bees have donked off my helmet. Gloves — Indispensable. One fall without them will convince you. Smart people won’t need that fall to convince them. Eye protection — You probably have sunglasses. You’re good to go.
These are some optional items:
A jersey — Not necessary. You can get by in a sweat-wicking t-shirt. A good jersey can be awesome, especially since many of them have pockets in the back that come in handy. If you decide to wear jerseys, get good ones. Bike shoes — These are a must for people using clipless pedals. If you’re sticking with flats, I still advise avoiding shoes that are super-floppy. Something with a stiff sole works better. If you’re determined to use clipless pedals, buy good shoes. My Sidi shoes typically last 10 years. I seldom got more than a year out of other shoes. If you’re going to ride flats, I can’t offer any good advice. Bike socks — I like them. They fit in my shoes better than my regular socks. But I could do without them in a bike apocalypse.
Hydration Supplies and On-Bike Storage
These two types of bike accessories go hand-in-hand, and I’ll show you what I mean.
On all of my rides, I carry water bottles filled with electrolyte mix. On certain mountain bike rides, I’ll also use a Camelbak — this is especially true of night rides when I might carry a spare battery.
I avoid the Camelbak since it’s a vector for sweat and weight. I suppose I could use a hydration pack for electrolytes, which I used to do — but I let it in my car with a little leftover electrolyte mix too many times and wound up with a gross science experiment in there. And it wasn’t fun to clean out.
The Camelbak helps when I know there’s no place to refill my bottles.
But I also need to carry stuff with me — food, tools, etc. That means I need some form of bike storage when I don’t use the Camelbak. My go-to method is a Topeak saddlebag. For really long rides, I’ll add a BeerBabe bag right behind my stem along the top tube. This bag is awesome for races when I want quick access to food without fooling around. It saves several minutes, for sure.
For bottles, I use insulated Camelbak bottles. I haven’t yet found the perfect water bottle cage. I break ‘em regularly.
You Break It, You Fix It
I carry a pretty solid arsenal of bike-fixing tools on every ride. I’ve saved myself a few times … and saved other people on more than a few occasions.
Here’s my complete loadout of my bike accessories for handling repairs:
One pump — Self-explanatory, right? One Innovations in Cycling Bacon Strips kit — I roll with tubeless tires, so this is how I fix the bigger holes. I also love its built-in valve core remover, as well as the spare valves contained within. One Stan’s Dart — Another method of fixing flats. Mostly for races since it’s the fastest way to fix them.
Multi-tool with allen wrenches, screwdrivers, etc.– I have multiple brands I’ve collected over the years. Chainbreaker — I also carry a specific chain tool, even though many multitools include them. I find the dedicated type easier to use. 2 Pedro’s tire levers — If I need to use these, I’m having a bad day. If I don’t have them and need them, I’m going to have an even worse day. 1 Small bottle of Stan’s Sealant — Another potential ride saver for those who ride with tubeless tires.
If your bike uses tubes instead of tubeless tires, you should always carry a patch kit.
It should go without saying that all of this stuff is useless if you don’t know how to use it. The good news: YouTube can demystify quite a bit of this for you. Spend some quality time checking out videos and practicing what you learn before you need to do it on the trail. Still stumped? Get advice from your local shop or other riders.
Electronics and Safety Gear
If you’d told me back in 1996 how much electronic shit would be on my bike in 2021, I wouldn’t have believed you. Here’s what I’ve got:
A GPS computer — Brilliant for tracking miles. Connect it to Strava for all sorts of great data about your progress, speed, calories burned. Hook it up to Trailforks for more fun. The possibilities are endless. I hate riding without it. A Cycliq Fly12 light/camera combo — This is expensive, but invaluable for road rides. It actually makes drivers behave differently around me. Tail Light — Also handy for riding in traffic. I don’t need it as much for the mountain bike unless I’m riding at night. A bell — This sounds irredeemably dorky. But it’s super-handy for both road rides and mountain biking. It’s a friendlier way to warn people than shouting at them. It’s also a nice “how’s it going?” signal to other cyclists.
I also use a heart rate monitor. But that’s hardly necessary unless you’re training and racing.
You should also ride with food. I mentioned electrolytes earlier. The hotter your climate, the more important electrolytes are. Even if you’re a casual rider, why make life any harder than it needs to be?
As for actual food, experiment. See what carries well and feels good during a ride.
One of my co-workers is looking for a new bike, and he asked me for some pointers about how to buy a full-suspension bike. He just moved to a neighborhood near some nice, rough, rocky singletrack – and he wants something more modern and well-equipped than his 10-year-old Diamondback hardtail.
So what should he look at?
I have some ideas. And I know exactly what you’re thinking — “Is he gonna mention my favorite brand?!”
I might. Before I mention brands, though, we’re going to talk about features. Look, I know a lot of us are very brand-focused. I am, too, but in the opposite direction of most (I avoid the Big Three – Specialized, Trek and Giant).
I’m going to start this off with a features-first, brand-agnostic look at what I’d look for in a good full-suspension bike. This is based on my personal preferences and experiences – your mileage may vary.
This is also intended for newer riders. If you’ve been around awhile, you probably have your own preferences. My intent here is to give less-experienced riders a look at my decision process and let them grab some ideas from it.
I realize that spending a few hundred on rentals sounds harsh. But you’ll get real education for how the bike and you perform together.
Also, some bike shops might have free demos. Still others may apply your rental fee to a purchase if you buy from them.
About this Modern Geometry …
This is tough to define. In the last few years, mountain bike stems have gotten way shorter, and the angles of their head tubes have gotten much slacker. The seat tubes also seem to be getting less slack. It can make for some funny-looking bikes.
I haven’t tried this new generation, but riders I trust tell me that these changes to frame geometry have made their bikes more fun.
So if you see a stem longer than 80mm on the front of a bike (maybe even 60 or 50!) that interests you, you might have the wrong bike.
I Prefer Aluminum Frames
I know carbon fiber is cool. Bike shops tout it as lighter and all-around more awesome.
It’s also more expensive, which means you’ll have trade-offs. Compared to an aluminum-framed bike, you’ll get lower levels of components (drivetrain, wheels and suspension forks being the most-important and likely to affect performance). I’d put some extra money toward a nice wheelset from November Bicycles.
I also don’t like the idea of rocks and other trail detritus plonking off of a carbon frame. All those impacts can add up and weaken the frame. If you don’t think this is a problem, just take a look at all the frame protection stuff coming on carbon mountain bikes, especially on chainstays and downtubes. Those are there for a reason.
On the plus side for carbon (aside from weight), it seems like carbon frames can be shaped to maximize space for stuff like extra water bottles (more on that in a moment).
What About Water Bottles?
Look, I know just about everyone mountain bikes with a hydration pack. But believe me, the water bottle is not dead.
I live in the desert, and I do long rides. I sweat electrolytes out like crazy. If I don’t replace them during a ride, I will be the mayor of Cramp City.
Also, putting electrolytes into your hydration pack is iffy. You will at some point forget about it after a ride, leave it in your car and then grow an absolutely hideous colony of funk in there. No bueno.
Here’s another reason I insist on two water bottles: When I race, I don’t want to use a hydration pack. When I do something like the Fat Tire 40, I want to be able to keep the weight down, while also not dying of thirst. Two water bottles are enough to get me through with the electrolytes and fluid that I need, as long as there are aid stations where I can refill.
No Creaking Bottom Brackets
I do almost all of my own bike maintenance. That means I want stuff that works well. Let’s start with the humble bottom bracket – that thing that your cranks are attached to.
There are way too many ways to stuff a bottom bracket into a frame. My favorite is the threaded bottom bracket shell. It’s low-maintenance and relatively fuss free.
For me, 29ers are the right choice. Not because there’s a huge difference between the two. It’s just that I have a 29er singlespeed, and I’m all for maximizing the commonality of spare parts – which is another good reason for the threaded bottom bracket, as well.
But if this is your first “good bike” or the first one in awhile, try them both. Or grab whichever one is a better deal.
I’ve ridden and am fine with either one.
On the other hand, I would never own a bike with 26.5+ wheels. They are ridiculous if you plan to do any climbing. I also don’t like the way they turn. They’re solid going downhill in a straight line.
What about a Dropper Seat Post?
It will make riding in difficult terrain easier, for sure. If you need to save a few clams, go without one. Buy a better one later, preferably from the shop that’s best at helping you out.
Don’t Get Hung Up on Parts
A lot of newer riders get caught up on the parts – especially derailleurs. But drivetrain parts, stems, handlebars and seatposts are easy to change.
Don’t lose sight of the frame, fork and wheels/tires. Those are the bits that really make your bike. I’d rather have a killer frame and fork with mediocre components than a stellar drivetrain on a crap frame and fork.
Keep in mind, Rock Shox makes everything from high-end to low-end. I wouldn’t go any lower than a Rock Shox Recon. Marzocchi and Fox don’t have anything crappy. I’ve had good luck with X-Fusion, too I rarely see Manitou, so I have nothing to say about them.
Who Puts This All in One Full-Suspension Bike?
Based on what I have here, Salsa would rocket to the top of my lists. Their Spearfish and Horsethief bikes check every box. They are also reasonably priced, starting at $2649 for a complete bike. If they had a frame-option for aluminum frames, I’d grab one and start building. Alas, they only offer carbon frames without parts on ‘em.
There are more-expensive options that at least meet the two-bottle rule: The Specialized Epic, the KTM Scarp, a few different models from Santa Cruz and Rocky Mountain. The Orbea Oiz. Also the Canyon Lux, Cannondale Scalpel and the Fezzari Signal Peak.
These are all good bikes. Some, though, are carbon.
A lot of you can disregard my “two water bottles” obsession. I realize it’s a weird personal quirk. You could argue the same about carbon fiber. I tend to keep bikes longer than most people — if you do, too, maybe you’re nodding in agreement.
If you’re going to ignore me about the water bottles, I recommend a look at Marin. They make some super well-equipped bikes for the money. Also, they’re not a direct-to-customer brand. That means you can see one before you buy. I haven’t seen them as rentals, which is a bummer.
But at least you can buy from a local shop and get the support and service you need.
Direct-to-Customer versus Local Bike Shop
I honestly don’t need much shop support. That said, I like to do what I can to support my local shops. They’re important and helpful.
The industry is moving more toward direct-to-consumer, and I’m starting to see hybrids. For example, I can order parts online through the web portals of some stores. They get credit for the sale, and I just need to either pick them up or have them delivered. I like that.
I’m not sure how you’ll be treated if you show up at the local shop needing help for your Canyon, Framed or Fezzari. Old habits die hard in the bike shop, which is part of the reason so many of them fail. A customer is a customer — and not every customer is going to like the bikes a shop offers. They need to do a better job of understanding this, and some are coming around.
That reminds me …
Buy the Shop, Not Just the Full-Suspension Bike
I recommend giving your money to people you actually like. If the shop staff isn’t friendly and excited to get you into the sport further, find a different shop.
Getting the right shop might be the most important part of how to buy a full-suspension bike. Make sure they’ll know how to help you when it’s time to have shocks rebuilt and pivots replaced.
When I buy new bike stuff, it’s usually because I broke something I already had or I just wore it out. And it generally doesn’t require a thousand words to tell you what I think of it. That’s why I’ve concocted some handy mini-reviews of bike stuff I’ve had to get lately.
Here we go!
SIDI Dragon Mountain Bike Shoes
Just a few days before the Frenzy Hills 50-mile race in Fountain Hills, my damn bike shoes were having a hard time sticking to my Crank Brothers Eggbeater pedals.
That’s because the cleats were worn beyond any reasonable belief. I also started taking a close look at the shoes themselves. And I was like “holy shit, these are worn to nothing.” I also shook my head at Sidi, thinking about how they don’t make them like they used to. I mean, it felt like I just got these a few years ago.
Then I thought a little more, and discovered a photo of myself racing in this same pair of Sidi Dominator 4 shoes more than 10 years ago. I hung my head in shame for allowing any dark thoughts about Sidi to cross my mind.
The Dragons have a weird highfalutin sort of clasp with delicate-looking wire things. I quickly figured out how to work everything, and the rather stiff top of the tongue (that sounds terrible) broke in nicely.
The Dragons have a nice stiff sole, replaceable treads and a nice fit. All is right with the world.
And yes, I also got new cleats.
Bontrager Circuit MIPS Helmet
During a nice nearly 30-mile ride on my singlespeed, I was burning back toward the trailhead. This was on by far the easiest trail of the day. My stomach was a-growlin’, and I was thinking about where I’d stop for some post-ride food.
That’s when I drifted too wide in a corner. My front wheel washed upon entering a heap of loose pebbles. I nearly recovered, but it was not to be.
I was cookin’ when I lost it, so the results of this crash were: a gnarly flap of skin peeled of my left thumb complements of my Shimano SLX brake lever clamp; a knock on my left shin; trail rash and bruising on my right upper arm and shoulder; a bloodied-up right knee; and a good knock on the head that left visible signs on both helmet and head.
That’s right — five major body parts … a type of crash I will now refer to as a “starfish.”
My budget-priced Kali helmet laid down its life for me. I bought another Kali on Amazon using a gift card. When it arrived, it was way too small despite being marked as the same size as my old one. I returned it and went to a local shop to get the helmet I actually craved: the Bontrager Circuit MIPS.
I wanted this one because of its Blendr magnetic mounts for lights and cameras. Yes, it’s also a comfortable helmet with a great adjustment system. But I wanted a more-secure accessory mount after my light got ejected (from a different Kali helmet) just minutes into the first lap of the Aravaipa Jangover ride.
I tested it on one ride with my Ofi OneFive camera on it, and it started to ride a little low on my forehead. I think wearing a headband under the helmet might lock it in a little better. Watch this space for more updates on the Bontrager Circuit MIPS.
Supacaz Fly Bottle Cages
I rarely spend any time riding at Trail 100 in the Phoenix Mountain Preserve. One day, I corrected that by heading out to the far-west side of it.
During that right, I broke one of my Planet Bike mountain bike cages. That was the second one I killed — the last one was during the Prescott 6er race.
I really wanted some Wolf Tooth cages because those things look like they mean business. But they were sold out everywhere. I found that Spartan Rides AZ had a cage that might be worthwhile, so I plunked down for a few of the Supacaz Fly cages they sold.
After two months, I am not thrilled about these cages. They’re made from a thin aluminum that flexes and widens after a few rides. I’ve caught my bottles on the edge of being ejected more than a few times. I cannot recommend these for any reason unless they’re going on a road bike.
Boie Body Scrubber
I know what you’re thinking: “Hey, this isn’t a bike product! This is something for taking showers!”
That’s where you’re wrong. Getting clean after a ride is vitally important. You NEED to have something to scrub the muck away.
I ordered this Boie Body Scrubber hoping for something moderately abrasive, yet also easy to clean and re-use.
Unfortunately, this soft silicon scrubber simply doesn’t have the grit I need for regular showering. It also does a miserable job of producing suds.
But here’s what the Boie Body Scrubber is absolutely stellar at: cleaning out cuts and abrasions from those moment when your speed outstrips your skills.
After the crash mentioned a few mini-reviews ago, I had a mix of open cuts, scrapes, blood, leg hair and dirt all over my knee. The Boie Body Scrubber did a perfect job of gently cleaning everything out without making my blubber like a toddler.
For normal showering
For cleaning out groady scrapes and cuts
Wrapping up the Mini Bike Gear Reviews
I’m not surprised that the Sidi Dragon 5 shoes were awesome. What DID surprise me, though, is how crappy something simple as a bottle cage can be. Huge disappointment from these.
And here’s a thought: If you’re testing something new and want to say a few words without writing “Moby Dick,” I’m more than happy to interview you to get your thoughts to add to this post of mini bike gear reviews. Hit me up!
Here’s a handy roundup of advice for people buying a bike in 2021. Here’s what we’ll cover:
This post is inspired by a message from one of my high school friends:
“Any advice on buying a bike? I haven’t ridden since freshman year of college. I’m just looking for something casual (like 2-3 times a month) that I can ride on suburban streets but also dirt roads/trails (but not crazy off-road mountain biking). I’ve heard of gravel bike or hybrid bikes.”
The person asking this question mentioned the Co-Op Cycles DRT 2.2, which goes for about $1,800, as a possibility.
I figured he’s not the only person considering buying a bike in 2021. So rather than dump all my thoughts into email or FB messenger, I’ll just turn it into a blog post to help out anyone else facing a similar situation.
Are Hybrid Bikes Any Good?
Let’s tackle the hybrid question first. Hybrids as we knew them aren’t as big a slice of the market anymore. They were the wimpy offspring of a road bike with skinny 700c tires, swept-up handlebars, a short wheelbase and a very upright seating position.
I hated them during my bike shop days. Now in 2021, bikes like the Kona Dew with their 26.5/650B wheels, disc brakes and more-maneuverable geometry have totally crushed that same corner of the market: the person who mostly rides city streets, but also wants to hit unpaved paths. With a change of tires, the Dew and other bikes like it will let you ride some trails without killing you (keep in mind it doesn’t have a suspension fork). I like the Dew so much that my brother and I pitched in to buy one for our dad – he absolutely loves the thing.
I suppose there are probably some 1990s-style hybrid bikes out there. But they’re really not good for anything.
Either way you slice it, I love gravel or all-road or whatever. They are super-stable on the street next to a road bike. They’re in their element on unpaved paths. And in the right hands, they can chew up singletrack mountain bike trails. (I don’t consider myself the right hands — I still prefer a mountain bike for that sort of riding.)
I wouldn’t feel comfortable telling someone who hasn’t really ridden in 20 years to get on a gravel bike to go forth and shred the singletrack, though. That is best left to experienced roadies or mountain bikers who have their handling skills down pat.
Gravel Bike Recommendations
So for my friend here, I’m gonna say that a gravel bike is great as long as he really has no intention of hitting real mountain bike trails. With that said, I’d recommend the State Bicycle Co All-Road Black Label.
The standout specs to me are the 1X chainring setup, carbon fork, tubeless wheelset and excellent Vittoria tires. I’m pretty sure the shifters and derailleurs are made by Microshift. So it’s serviceable more than spectacular.
Still, it’s a lot of bike for the money. A lot.
A few hundred more bucks brings the All-City Cycles Space Horse Tiagra into the frame. (Tiagra, by the way, is the grade of Shimano components on the Space Horse, which is available in various build options. Tiagra is a lower-end Shimano group but still solid – the next levels up are 105, Ultegra and Dura-Ace. Below Tiagra from low to high are Claris and Sora. The gravel-specific GRX group exists in three flavors: RX400, RX600 and RX800. Which sounds a bit like a weird pharmacy, but whatever. )
I love the steel frame on the Space Horse — a lot of old bike dudes love the ride of steel, plus the durability. As a brand, All-City Cycles also oozes personality. Their bike just look f-in’ cool. One concern I have about All-City Cycles is that they can be hard to find at a local bike shop. Many bike shops can get them, but it’s unusual to see them on the showroom floor.
What if I Want a Mountain Bike?
If my friend decides to go for a mountain bike, I will always say that if you’re spending less than $2,000, you should buy a hardtail. Avoid rear suspension below that point!
I also favor telling less-experienced riders to go with a mountain bike. Yes, they’re not as fast on city streets. But the maneuvering and fit is more-forgiving than a gravel bike.
What I’d look for in this price range is a Shimano Deore build kit. I’d avoid SRAM’s SX group. The general consensus on SX is “plasticy shite.” SRAM’s mountain bike component levels start pretty much at SX, then NX, then GX and then into fancy stuff with so many Xs you’d swear they were shooting porn.
Shimano’s minimum level of competence starts at Deore (which is actually fantastic stuff for the $$$) and progresses to SLX, XT and XTR. Alivio is below them all. Avoid it.
Fork-wise, you’re really not going to get anything great here — a Rock Shox Recon is the best you can hope for. The Recon isn’t actually bad, though.
When it comes to getting a lot of mountain bike for the money, the brands that are my top-of-mind for me are Salsa, Kona and Marin. They not only offer good value, but they seem to be plugged into what’s going on with modern geometry. They’re also relatively easy to find at local bike shops, which is important.
One concern: Every bike in the price range seems to come with tires that are a minimum of 2.4 inches wide, with some non-plus sizes going to 2.6. I typically ride a 2.3 (usually something like a Continental X King). When those tires wear out, I’d opt for something less chubby.
So what bikes have this?
The Salsa Timberjack was the first one to come to mind. It seems Salsa no longer has a Deore version of the T-Jack, just the upper-level SLX and XT stuff. One of the reasons I like the T-Jack for my friend is that it has mounts for EVERYTHING. This guy is a hiker – I could see him getting bit by the bikepacking bug, and Salsa had exactly these kinds of shenanigans in mind when they created the ‘Jack.
Now here’s an outlier: If my friend wants to keep it casual, maybe he doesn’t even need gears at all. Maybe he needs an overgrown BMX bike like the Kona Unit.
A singlespeed can do a lot. You can use it for coffeeshop runs … or you can race the hell out of it like I do with my Domahidy.
Plus, if he hates it, he can revel in using all the dick puns in his Craigslist ad.
But I’d predict that nobody can hate a singlespeed. They are versatile, capable and low-maintenance. I’ll also add that Kona has a knack for frame design and geometry. The Unit is also so cheap that he can slap a good suspension fork in it the very day he buys it — he might even be able to swing a good deal on that upgrade since he’s buying a bike, too. Can you imagine that bike with a new-generation Marzocchi fork on it?
I really wish State Bicycle Co. still offered their Pulsar model. That 29er would’ve been PERFECT for my friend.
What About the Co-Op DRT 2.2?
The Co-Op bike mentioned earlier doesn’t do much for me. I’ve not enjoyed riding a 26.5+ wheel/tire size at all. Those huge-volume tires can smoothly roll over a lot of stuff, but they are serious work to pedal. They also don’t like changing directions with near the agility of a non-plus tire. The components are decent SRAM NX stuff with Shimano brakes — an astute pairing. I’ve never had a problem with SRAM shifting, but I’ve never loved their disc brakes. I’ve always preferred the feel of Shimano disc brakes.
Going with Co-Op also men’s that REI is going to be your bike shop, which doesn’t sit well with me. Aside from a few flagship stores, the accessories and parts sold at most REI stores are substandard. You’re also going to find better mechanics at specialty bike shops. REI does sell Salsa at some of its stores. Again, though, REI just isn’t outstanding at bike stuff.
I’m not recommending “direct-to-customer” brands in this case. A new rider is going to wind up needed shop support. For best results, I recommend buying local from a shop that makes you feel welcome. You’re buying the shop just as much as you’re buying the bike.
It’s also important to budget for other stuff: hydration (pack, water bottles/cages or both), bike shorts, tools, etc. This can get in-depth, so I won’t cover to many of those variables here. I might actually have to do a “shit every new rider needs” sort of post.
What About the Big Brands?
You’ll also notice that I didn’t mention the big brands like Specialized, Trek, Giant or Cannondale here.
To me, they don’t offer near the bike for the money that these other brands do. Aside from the brands I’ve mentioned in this post, I’d also look at Marin, who has lately proven they know how to offer some real value.
Not only do I find the big guys a lesser value, I also just find them boring. As one of my friends observed long ago, a bike is like your personal X-Wing fighter. Go with something that offers some panache and individuality — and maybe support a company that has some spirit.
The Used Bike Question
Buying used can get you some extra bike for the money. At least, most of the time. The bike industry is going through some serious supply chain issues right now, and used bike prices are higher than you might expect.
Also, buying used is a tricky proposition for someone who hasn’t spent a long time working on their own bikes. If you’re considering this route, it’s best to have a friend who’s a serious bike nut to help. This is also a good time to plug for a singlespeed — they just have fewer vectors for serious problems.
Final Thoughts on Buying a Bike in 2021
I’ve done the bike advice dance many times before. My friend probably didn’t expect this much of an info dump, and it will probably spawn follow-up questions. I’ll update here as the conversation evolves.
Knowing what I do at this moment, though, the bike I recommend is the Salsa Timberjack. It’s an excellent value from a reputable brand. The State gravel bike is a great value, but the handling qualities of a gravel bike present a steeper learning curve than a mountain bike like the ‘Jack.
Also to come in a future post — another buddy asked me about buying a full-suspension mountain bike. So we’ll break that down in the future.
Mountain biking in the Estrella Mountains near Phoenix is, for me, a lot like eating at one of the ubiquitous fast-food joints with “berto’s” in their name. A few years will go by and I’ll think “hey, why don’t I ever go to Filiberto’s/Aliberto’s/Philbertberto’s?”
Then I get myself berto’s quesadilla or carne asada burrito. Hours later, I’m on the toilet regretting every decision I ever made in my life.
So it is with Estrella Mountain Regional Park, which is about 30 minutes from my house. Drive another 10 minutes or so, and I’m at the fabulously fun Fantasy Island North Singletrack. That network is a bit compact, so any decently long ride will wind up repeating plenty of segments.
That’s what convinced me to return to Estrella.
My History of Mountain Biking in the Estrella Mountains
I first rode the Estrella Mountains back in about 1996, in the beginner racing class of the Mountain Bike Association of Arizona series. I remembered it was a pretty fun ride, but not one of the best around. That’s even less true now as the newer, better trail networks have popped up.
I visited the Estrellas a few more times between then and now, including a visit to the Competitive Track, which doesn’t get much love and doesn’t really deserve any. Unless you like sand.
Oddly enough, I didn’t recognize anything at all during my latest ride. It’s like all the trails I rode back in the day have been erased.
Estrella Mountain Regional Park and McDowell Mountain Regional Park are both owned and administered by Maricopa County. McDowell is a great example of outstanding mountain bike trails that have something for everyone.
Estrella is … an example of what happens when sadomasochistic dentists get into trail building.
I took the Rainbow Valley Trail (and I use that word loosely) until it met the Toothaker (yes, that’s the correct spelling) Trail. The early portions of Rainbow Valley were alright. At some point, they got steep and loose, with copious amounts of rubble making it hard to get any traction. These trails will involve some bike pushing, especially if you dig singlespeeds.
I also spent a lot of time on the Gadsden Trail, which is fairly decent. It features some sandy bits, especially when it drops in and out of washes.
My major takeaway, though, is that the Pedersen Trail that connects with what appears to be some social trails over the park’s west border is the way to go.
The social trails appear to be built by the local developers rather than any sort of government entity. Had I more time and fluids, I would’ve scouted that area more to find some better mountain biking in the Estrella Mountains.
My Plan for future Mountain Biking in the Estrella Mountains
Next time, I probably won’t park at Estrella Mountain Regional Park. While the bathrooms are great, the water fountains were too weak to top off my bottles. So there’s no advantage to paying $7 to park there.
Also, the printed trail maps were not a huge help. It seems there are plenty of spurs that don’t feature on the map, which makes navigating hard. I think it would also be wise for Estrella to have a main named loop, and use it as a reference on signage (ie, This Way to the X Loop).
I also lost a few miles to a sign pointing me to a parking lot. I whizzed by too fast to notice that it was the Comp Track parking lot rather than the main parking lot.
Next time, I’ll probably go further into the maze of red tile roofs to try accessing the trails on the west side to go mountain biking in the Estrella Mountains.
One Other Complaint – But About Trailforks.com
A pox upon Trailforks.com. Until recently, Trailforks would let you scout and plan rides just about anywhere.
Sure enough, they hopped on the “pay up” bandwagon right after Strava did.
I have no problem paying for good help. I think, though, that Trailforks isn’t a good value at $36 a year for global trail info.
This is why Trailforks was on my mind: I couldn’t plan my ride, and I also couldn’t use the app to see where I was during the ride. Trailforks gives users a free area – anything not in that area is grayed out on the app.
So if you’re lost during a ride, don’t count on Trailforks to help.
They also say you can change your free area once. I looked up the directions, and it mentions features that don’t appear on my app or in the online version.
Looking for a budget pair of cycling shorts? So was I. Here are some early thoughts on the Black Shorts brought to you by the Black Bibs people.
Black Shorts At a Glance
Decent price of $40.
The chamois reminds me of an old pair of Castellis I had 15 years ago.
The Black Shorts seem a bit itchy at first, with a more relaxed fit than my Assos and Bontrager shorts.
The first ride was OK, some chafing but nothing terrible.
Time will tell. Watch for updates!
I’ve needed new bike shorts for a long time. Like, months.
Since the pandemic started, I’ve rendered a pair of Louis Garneaus and Primal Wears completely useless. There’s an ancient set of Pearl Izumi shorts around that not even a masochist would ride in, along with a pair of Fox baggies that I just don’t like at all.
So really, I only have two go-to pairs of shorts, which are made by Assos and Bontrager. Both are pricey – about $130 each.
My wife, who also rides and understands the value of good gear, discovered that these are pretty much the only shorts I wear. She low-key lectured me about not having enough shorts and not practicing what I preach about not being a cheapskate.
It’s hard for me to buy bike shorts. I hate ordering shorts without seeing them unless they’re a brand I’m familiar with. But COVID has created quite a crunch for anything cycling related. And too many of my local stores focus too much on baggy stuff.
I did some online homework to find brands I hadn’t heard of before to see what’s new. I found the Black Shorts in some listicle. I ignored any article that mentioned the crotch-grater horror that is Bellwether (aka Ballwither) or Canari — you’re seriously better off riding in a Borat mankini.
The price seemed worth a shot, so I ordered a pair and waited. A few days later, they were here and ready to ride.
Are the Black Shorts Any Good?
So to a guy who relies on $130 shorts, can a $40 short be any good?
Well, the first impressions are that they’re OK. I’m planning to update this post as I continue riding the Black Shorts.
But let’s at least give a snapshot of where we are right now.
First, Here’s How I Ride
I split my time between an all-road bike and a singlespeed mountain bike. I rarely ride less than 30 miles, and I logged more than 3,600 miles in 2020.
I do the occasional long event or race, when COVID isn’t screwing the works up.
In the summer, I’ll use some sort of chamois cream to protect my goolies. Those long road rides and hot weather are a prescription for chapping your choad!
Back in Black Shorts
My first impression of the Black Shorts is that they looked a lot like Castellis I rode about 15 years ago, minus the graphics. That’s not a bad thing.
The chamois appears to be a decent quality, but nothing to stand against my Bontrager or Assos shorts. Definitely better than the Fox chamois, though.
When I put the Black Shorts on for my first ride, the material felt a bit prickly, almost a bit wooly. The sensation went away after a few moments, fortunately (I really, really, really hate wool).
They felt a little less constricting around the meat whistle than my other shorts. The cuffs at the bottom of each leg are smaller, as is the waistband. The overall effect was that their fit is either more relaxed, or the material is stretchier.
My First Ride
I figured a quick 30-miler would give me an idea about these shorts.
For the most part of the ride, I forgot about them. That’s a pretty solid vote of confidence if it holds up.
By the end of the 30 miles, my undercarriage felt a bit more like I’d ridden at least 60 miles. There were definitely some abrasions forming, especially on the left side right where the leg turns into the crotch.
I also noticed that, when I first put the Black Shorts on, the chamois was much less flexible than the ones in my other shorts. There seemed to be a ridge right along the center that was a bit proctological for my tastes.
I still think these are a better low-budget short that many. I’m going to keep trying these, both with and without chamois cream to see how they hold up.
I’ll be back with my evaluation of whether YOU should buy the Black Shorts.
This is a major miss, especially as it relates to Subaru.
You’ve probably heard that Subaru owners are a bit like cult members. But the brand’s hold over its flock is wavering. It’s badly misread its buyers, who largely skew toward environmental causes. Subaru is losing big points in its crowd by dragging its heels on electrification. This is largely based on my own conversations with other Subaru owners.
Add the lukewarm Continuous Variable Transmission to the equation, and the Forester looks particularly vulnerable to a similarly-featured electric SUV.
So why can’t any of the coming SUVs steal a huge chunk of Subaru Forester buyers?
The lack of utility comes down to two important specs. The Forester, for all of its gas-powered flaws, is simply way better in these two areas: ground clearance and cargo space.
Ground Clearance is Critical to Beat The Subaru Forester
Look, a stock Subaru Forester is hardly a rock crawler. But it has a decent 8.7 inches of ground clearance.
How do the electric SUVs stack up? Poorly, with one exception.
Nissan Ariya: Not Available
VW ID4: 8.26 inches (this beats my 2006 Forester, which had 8.1 inches)
Model Y: 6.6 Inches
Ford Mach E: 5.7 inches
The Ford Mach E is by far the most putrid in the clearance department, with the VW ID4 coming in the closest to respectable.
When I go camping or just bouncing around the backroads, ground clearance matters. Nobody wants to beat up their undercarriage.
I’ll grant you that most Subaru owners probably don’t beat up on their vehicles as much as they’d like to. But it’s good to know they can handle it should the need arise.
Cargo Space Also Lags
I have a family of three. We do our camping in a 2017 Subaru Forester. It’s the latest in a line of Subaru vehicles for us, and it will likely be our last.
For now, my electric Toyota RAV4 handles all of our in-city family outings, with the Forester handling road trips. The RAV4 is actually laid out better internally, with rear seats the move fore and aft independently.
Still, the Forester gives us about 76 cubic feet of cargo room with the seats folded down, and nearly 31 with the seats folded up. That’s by far the leader among the vehicles we’ve mentioned. Here are measurements for the other electric SUVs:
Nissan Ariya: 14.9 cubic feet behind the seats, total not listed
VW ID4 64.2, cubic feet with the seats folded down, 30.3. Behind the seats
Model Y: 68 cubic feet (no specs on just the rear cargo area, and I’m not sure whether this figure includes the frunk)
Ford Mach E: 54.7 cubic feet with the seats folded down.
Again, the Mach E stinks the place up. It’s like Ford isn’t even aiming to make this a useful electric car. The Model Y appears to come in a close second, but it would be nice to definitively answer the question about the frunk.
It’s also worth noting that these interior room specs are for all-wheel-drive versions of each model. For some reason, the feature eats into interior space.
Final Thoughts on an Electric Subaru Killer
Ford, VW and Tesla all have the tools to fire a serious broadside at the Subaru family of vehicles. They offer decent alternatives to maybe the Crosstrek, but the Forester and Outback offer utility that this bunch of electric SUVs just can’t match.
Why? Maybe they were gunning for efficiency.
It’s possible to solve the interior space issues by using a roof- or hitch-mounted cargo box. Sure, that adds some drag.
Unfortunately, the lack of ground clearance doesn’t seem as easy of a fix. These vehicles don’t look they’d readily accept a larger tire to improve ground clearance.
Here are the main ways to transport bikes safely on a car. This article will break them down in greater depth.
Roof-Mounted Bike Racks
One for the Pickup Drivers
For the Trunks and Hatchbacks
When people start getting serious about cycling, the question of how to safely transport bikes on a car inevitably comes up.
Between being a cyclist for more than 20 years and working in a bike shop, you can bet that I’ve seen every method of lugging bikes around in and on cars. Let me tell you, some of them can be truly terrifying — especially the homemade contraptions made out of two-by-fours, carpet and PVC pipe.
So what’s actually the best way to safely transport bikes on cars and trucks? Let’s break them down. [For Context: I race occasionally, and the 6/12-hour formats I prefer often let riders set up a pit area. I like racks that are helpful for this option. I use my rack for cross-country mountain bikes and road/gravel bikes.]
How to Safely Transport Bikes on a Car
Hitch-Mount Bike Racks
If you have a receiver hitch, these racks slide into it nicely. There is a huge spectrum of pricing and features. I can say for certain that the Kuat NV is excellent. I’ve used one for more than 5 years.
I like its integrated cable for locking bikes to the rack; they’re not enough to stop a determined thief, but it makes them more likely to move to an easier target. The Kuat’s integrated bike stand is also very useful for repairs and quick tune-ups (especially at races). Another nice feature — the NV leans forward to get out of the way if you want to open your rear door/tailgate.
It’s a big, substantial rack, though. It can be a handful for smaller people to mount and remove from a vehicle.
People new to hitch mounts might also find some of the swaying a bit unnerving when they’re driving with a bike. The tolerances in a hitch just can’t be tight enough to remove all the sway. That’s just all there is to it. There’s also another issue: Hitch-mounted racks also cut visibility from your vehicle’s backup camera.
But here’s a good sign that hitch-mounted carriers are The Way: Go to your local bike shop. Look at the employees’ cars. You’ll notice that most of them opt for hitch-mounted.
If the Kuat NV is a bit bulky for you, the 1UP line of racks is extremely popular among people who know their stuff.
Roof-Mounted Bike Racks
Roof-mounted racks are not something I ever recommend when people ask me how to safely transport a bicycle on a car. They have absolutely zero redeeming qualities. They’re so bad that I’m going to have to give you a bulleted list.
Roof-mounted racks are tough for shorter people. I’m 6’2, so this doesn’t affect me. But I’m a Man of the (Short) People, too. With vehicles seemingly getting bigger all the time, this problem isn’t likely to get any better.
These racks are also a prescription for destroying bikes. You would not believe how many times I’ve had someone come in with a crumpled head tube and a sob story that starts with “I was just riding along – can you warranty this defective frame?” As if I wouldn’t notice the paint streaks and woodchips that are the telltale sign of a cyclist/driver pulling into their garage after completely forgetting they had a bike on their car’s roof.
The drag from roof-mounted bike racks will put your gas mileage in the shitter. Your bike will also get coated in squashed bugs. There are actually companies that make shields for this, which reeks of treating the symptoms instead of the disease.
I had one of these on my old Jeep, and I’m still thankful I never destroyed any bikes after a day at the races.
One for the Pickup Drivers
Drive a pickup? You can snag a pad that lets you haul your bike in the bed with the front wheel dangling over the tailgate. The pad prevents the bike and the truck from getting all scratched up.
I suppose this is an OK option. You definitely won’t want to linger over your post-ride pizza, of course.
It’s a relatively low-cost option, and it does take advantage of your vehicle’s attributes.
For the Trunks and Hatchbacks
This last option is for the cheapskate, I suppose. Don’t get mad at me — this describes me during my college and post-college years. I ran around with my bike(s) on my Chevy Celebrity station wagon.
I was not able to drive more than 427 feet without nervously looking in my rearview mirror to make sure that the straps hadn’t loosened and dumped my mighty Pro-Flex 855 onto the pavement to get squished by a Peterbilt.
I haven’t used one of these for years. The rack-mount option is just too good, so I’m not inclined to jack around with this. If you’re hauling cheap bikes, fine. But if your bike is at least as much as a good down payment on your vehicle, opt for something better. Hmmm, I better check my math – my Pro-Flex probably was nearly as much as my Chevy Celebrity!
A Final Way to Safely Transport a Bike on a Car
These days, I drive a weird Tesla-powered Toyota RAV4. It’s perfect for hitting all the local trails.
That’s because even my monstrously huge 29er hardtail fits right in the back. I just need to fold the seats down, and it’s a perfect fit. For races, I can slide a cooler, a repair stand, and all my other gear into it with room to spare.
It’s super-secure, doesn’t screw up your gas mileage and you’ll never ram your bike into the wall above your garage.
This doesn’t work if you ride with other people or your ride is part of a family road trip, of course. Unless, I suppose, you’re driving a Sport-Utility Hearse the size of an Imperial Star Destroyer.
Final Thoughts on Hauling Bikes
When it comes to how to safely transport bikes on a car, it’s obvious where I stand: Hitch mount or stuff it into a CUV or SUV.
I realize that this won’t work for everyone. But I’m still going to stand firm on my anti-roof rack stance. I’d go for the trunk/hitch mount any day. They just don’t have near the potential to turn a moment of inattention into a destroyed bike.
As you’ve noticed, I’ve barely mentioned brands here. There are too many out there to adequately cover, aside from those I’ve already mentioned. Yakima and Thule also have good reputations and are widely available. Just avoid the DIY variety made out of PVC pipe and duct tape, and the odds will be ever in your favor.
I’ve used a cork yoga mat since 2015. I bought it after being fed up with using regular mats in a hot yoga studio. Hot yoga people always have to use towels with a grippy back to avoid sliding all over the mat when things get sweaty.
As one of the sweatiest of the sweaty, this never worked for me. I did some reading and discovered Yoloha cork yoga mats. At $119, it was a pricey proposition.
But it worked. I didn’t slip and/or slide. It was by far better than the other mats I’ve used since started taking yoga classes in 1999.
Just shortly before the pandemic kicked in, I did something stupid. I left my mat at the studio where it disappeared before I could return and bring it home.
Now, Yoloha was one of the first ones making a name in cork yoga mats back in 2015. I wondered if anyone else caught up.
I also had some credit on Amazon, so it turned out to be pretty much free. There’s a character in one of my favorite movies who says “Anything free is worth saving up for.” That’s not so true in the case of this yoga mat.
I noticed when I got it that it was far lighter than my original Yoloha, and the grain of the cork was far smaller. It was also a far thinner cork surface. This worried me right from the get-go.
The VIRGIN PULP proved my instincts right. While it was decently grippy, the cork surface started to flake nearly immediately. It was so bad that I took the rare step of writing an Amazon review to warn people away. Here’s what I had to say:
After only three uses, pieces of the cork are flaking to reveal the material underneath. That’s right – three hot yoga classes, and it’s already coming apart. See the gray areas in the photos.
Also, this mat is about four inches shorter than I’d prefer (I’m 6’2). It’s also very squishy and lightweight, so it tends to move around and even fold.
My last cork mat was from one of the more expensive brands. It lasted seven years, and the cork layer was far thicker. That made a more durable, stable cork mat.
On the plus side, this mat is very grippy when wet.
But wait, there’s more: The VIRGIN PULP mat doesn’t absorb water well. Sweat pools on the surface, which makes all manner of farty noises when you’re doing anything that involves being on your back. Look, I DON’T NEED MORE FARTY NOISES IN MY LIFE!
My fury at the VIRGIN PULP mat did not go unnoticed. Since my birthday was coming up, my wife grabbed a Yoloha Original Air Cork yoga mat for me.
When I opened the box, I was a little concerned. It was way thinner and lighter than my old version of the same mat (seriously, that old mat was a TANK). It wasn’t much different in weight than the VIRGIN PULP disaster. One thing that gave me hope was that the cork grain seems much larger
and sturdier than the bargain-basement brand.
I managed to get in a few hot yoga sessions at Hot Yoga University before the COVID-19 pandemic shut everything down. They recently opened under new management – and with some awesome new practices that will be good even after the pandemic days.
It’s as grippy as the original, and not a single piece of the cork surface has flaked off. The grip is superior to the VIRGIN PULP cork yoga mat, but maybe not quite as grippy as the original. I wonder if this is because its thinner surface doesn’t absorb sweat quite as easily. Like the VIRGIN PULP mat, the current iteration of the Yoloha Original Air allows more sweat to pool. This again results in some questionable noises emanating from my mat; it’s not quite the beans/broccoli/eggs diet sound of the cheaper mat, but it farts noticeably.
Another nice feature: It’s a few inches longer than the VIRGIN PULP. Great for tall people!
The Verdict on the Best Cork Yoga Mat
The Yoloha Original Air Cork Yoga Mat is superior in quality to the cheaper alternative. My last Yoloha lasted years rather than weeks, so spending more is a wise decision.You’ll wind up keeping it far longer. And if you’re debating a cork yoga mat versus a regular matt and a quality yoga towel, the prices aren’t that different from each other.
That said, I’m open to anyone who wants me to put their cork yoga mat to the test. But if I’m spending my own money, I’m sticking with Yoloha at this point. It just seems to be the best cork yoga mat out there.
All of you people searching for info about the Lemond Zurich and various other steel road bikes have inspired me to give you something new to chew on. I already wrote about what were then “modern steel road bikes,” but things change.
Let’s have a look at what advice I’d give someone buying a steel road bike in 2020 – or a road plus bike or gravel bike.
What’s Changed About Steel Road Bikes?
A few months ago, I ran into a friend during one of my favorite road rides. These days, I ride a Lynskey Urbano. It’s a titanium cyclocross frame built up as a “road plus” bike.
My buddy was on a steel Bruce Gordon frame built up also as a road plus. Now, he and I often disagree on things. But we’re united in our belief that the road plus bike is the best damn thing to ever happen.
So what’s different about a road plus bike versus a typical road bike like my Lemond Zurich?
Huge Tire Clearance
These days, I roll on 32 or 38c tires. My buddy was on 40s, and we can both go even bigger. This tire clearance is the first feature that allows a bunch of other magic. A road plus bike can shape-shift from a fast roadie bike to — if you have enough braze-ons — a touring rig. And let me tell you, a fast downhill section on 38c tires at 60psi is so much more confident-handling than 25c at 110psi.
I love disc brakes, especially the hydraulic variety. The difference in stopping ability between my Lemond and Lynskey is astounding. This is great for handling everything from traffic to squirrely cyclists.
I’m sure I can find someone to argue with me about this – but I love thru-axles. It may seem like cork-sniffing to some, but I can definitely detect a more solid feel on thru-axles bikes. That’s especially true when I’m really stuffing the bike into a corner.
Relaxed Fit and Handling
I always loved the feel of my Zurich. It felt like a monorail. Then I put that Lynskey together. The angles are ever-so-slightly more relaxed than the Lemond. That means the Lynskey holds a line with even more confidence; I never feel like I’m fighting it. Still, it manages to go where I need it to, when I ask it to.
Big Head Tubes
My Lynskey has a tapered head tube versus the skinny, old-style 1-inch straight head tube of the Lemond. I can take this or leave it. I don’t detect a profound difference there — though I notice a big difference in stiffness between newer 31.8mm bars versus the old 25.6 (did I get that right?) of yore. The real factor here is that forks for tapered headtubes are far easier to replace. It’s not easy finding quality, reasonably priced stuff for the 1-inch steerer tube.
Got any Recommendations for Steel Bikes for 2020?
Look, if you’re looking for steel bikes, you probably already have some strong opinions. You might even know everything I’ve already mentioned. I’m really just hoping to reinforce what you’re thinking, and maybe introduce you to some stuff that flies slightly under the radar.
So you know that bikes from the afore-mentioned Bruce Gordon are gonna be pretty awesome. What if your wallet is somewhat less fat?
Here is what tops my list at the moment. I went for the more reasonably priced stuff because it’s easy to spend way too much money.
The All-City Cosmic Stallion
All-City Cycles does something few bike brands do – they imbue their bikes with some personality. From names to color schemes, they pour some mojo into their bikes. That matters to me.
It’s a go-anywhere, do-anything sort of bike with an MSRP of $2,700 for Shimano GRX, a carbon fork and tire clearance up to 47mm.
The Fairdale Rockitship is only available as a frame and fork, so how it takes shape is ultimately up to you. For $700, you’re off to a good start with a steel frame and an ENVE carbon fork.
You get massive tire clearance (at least 45mm) along with 12mm thru axles. It also has three water bottle mounts – a nice touch, for sure.
When it comes to flying under the radar, Milwaukee Bicycle Company is practically Area 51. I wandered across them a few years ago, when I priced a steel 105 road plus/gravel build for about $3,000. That’s definitely a higher-end proposition than All-City or Fairdale, but these frames are built in the US.
You also get your choice of color, which is pretty rare these days. And I’m not just talking about a few colors. They have quite a smorgasbord.
Right now, it looks like the Milwaukee Bicycle Company website is under construction. If you’re buying a steel road bike (or road plus, or gravel or cyclocross or whatever), I recommend that you hang tight or give them a call to see what’s up.
Steel Road Bikes for 2020 — What Did I Miss?
So that’s what I have. Are there any cool, reasonably priced steel road bikes for 2020 that have you excited? Let me know about them. It’s always good to put the spotlight on the less-big brands.
I don’t have the numbers to prove it, but I’ll bet COVID-19 has done wonders for camping. Without the option of easy air travel, my family looked close to home. And we set a record for camping this year.
And I’ve heard of a few new-to-camping who are wondering what they need to get started.
That’s a huge topic, especially because smart campers could write massic tomes about “shelter systems” (tents, to the layperson, and hammocks to the slightly-less-laypeople). I’ll get into selecting a hammock in a future post — I’ve been through the beginner learning curve, and I’d love to help some people flatten that curve so they can start hanging with confidence. (That sounded terrible, but there’s no way I’m deleting it.)
I’m going to focus this particular post on the type of stuff nobody really mentions, yet will still be incredibly handy.
Here is my list of items I consider camping essentials, and highly recommend for any camper who is doing some short-range backpacking or car camping. This isn’t for RV people.
Go to the Light
Campers absolutely need light. I recommend a minimum of two types: a head-mounted light that allows you to operate hands free, and a lantern of some sort.
I’m largely brand- and model-agnostic about head lights.
But I am a hardcore fan of the MPOWERD Luci solar-powered inflatable lantern. Stick it in the sun for 8 hours to get about 12 hours of charge out of it. Heck, hang it deflated on your backpack.
It’s waterproof, low-fuss gear that will not let you down. It’s also cheap, with models starting below $20.
Get an Edge on the Nature
A good knife is a camping essential. And no, I’m not talking about a Swiss Army knife. I don’t trust any folding knife at all. I’m also not talking about some stupid phallus extension straight out of a Rambo or Crocodile Dundee movie.
While my personal preference is a full-tang fixed blade like an ESEE-4, they can be a bit spendy. I also like the tiny little ESEE Izula.
For a new camper looking for a good deal, I recommend the Swedish Fireknife, a simple, low-cost, decent-quality knife with a firestarting flint built into the hilt. It’s made by Mora of Sweden, and you simply can’t go wrong with it.
You won’t feel guilty treating it mean, and you can do anything with it. Need to turn a biggish branch into small branches? You can use the FireKnife and another branch to baton that branch into a manageable size. It’s easy to sharpen, and it keeps its edge well.
Keep the Fire Burning (Carefully)
Making a fire (when conditions allow) is a huge part of the camping experience. From cooking your evening meal to simply keeping warm, this is an important skill you’ll need to master.
Good firemaking tools are next-level camping essentials. I mentioned the flint in the Swedish FireKnife, which is great for making fires with one caveat: You have to be skilled enough to make a tinder bundle and have the patience to get the whole thing going.
There’s also weather conditions to consider. Sometimes, it’s hard to use the flint in sloppy, wet conditions.
So I advise keeping a second way to start a fire. REI has all sorts of heavy-duty camp matches that come in sealed containers. If you really want to prepare, bring a few cotton balls and a tube of Vaseline. A dab of Vaseline on the cotton ball can get your tinder going quickly and easily.
An Even Better Way to Carry Water
Right now, I know most people prefer hydration packs for carrying water. Fair enough. They’re handy and hands-free.
But let’s say something pokes a hole in it. You’re in trouble.
Even if you carry a hydration pack, bring two 32-ounce Nalgene bottles with you. They are indestructible. It’s also far easier to refill them from streams and other sources – they also give you a very easy way to disinfect water – a few drops of 2% tincture of iodine (another overlooked camping item) in each bottle and a half hour of waiting is enough to disinfect water from many sources.
You can also get some other uses out of the bottle: If you use a bit of paracord secured to the bottle with duct tape, you have a way to carry extra duct tape for any of thousands of uses. Hang the whole setup from your backpack with a carabiner.
Keep Yourself Covered
Imagine a giant bandana that is software and more comfy than a bandana.
That’s a shemagh, a familiar sight to anyone who has seen news coverage from the Middle East. It is a tool of infinite use, and your creativity is its only limit.
You can turn it into a headwrap to keep the sun off your noggin. You can do an even fancier wrap to cover your face if you’re dealing with smoke or airborne dust. And it’s perfect for hauling a big bundle of pine cones for your fire.
A shemagh can even be a good way to filter water. One of the most-effective, low-cost camping essentials I can recommend.
Tie One On
Sometimes, you just need to tie something up. Like a shemagh, cordage of any kind is only limited by your creativity.
I’ve used it to string up a few LUCI lights to illuminate a campsite in areas with fire restrictions. It’s also helped me secure the ends of my hammock fly to the ground. That’s just to name a few.
“By golly, I brought too many carabiners,” said absolutely no camper ever.
I’ve already mentioned hanging water bottles from them. They’re also handy for hanging my hammock, storing gear inside my tent or hammock so I can find it quickly, keeping my keys where they belong, hanging my LUCI lights at night – you name it.
Be sure to get carabiners that are rated for climbing if you plan to use them for hanging a hammock or anything like that.
Considering that a decent Metolius carabiner is only a few bucks more than a light-duty one, it makes sense to simply go heavy for all of them.
How many do you need? Start with a 10. You won’t regret it.
Cooking Something Up
My home state of Arizona has been absolutely plagued with fires. That means fire restrictions.
That’s a bit of a bummer. But you can still cook with a decent camp stove. I use this MSI Whisperlite setup along with one of their cookware sets. The cookware comes with collapsible utensils. Don’t rely on them. Get a set that’s more durable, even if they’re less convenient.
I’m also a bit brand and model-agnostic on camp stoves. This is the only one I’ve ever owned.
Go to your friendly outdoor outfitter. Get some advice and see what works for you.
Wrapping up the Camping Essentials List
I could probably go a lot further than this in listing some of my favorite camping essentials. Let me know if you want to know about anything not on this list.
But before I go – there’s one camping essential you can’t buy.
All this gear is only as good as your ability to use it. Camp with people who are more experienced and can show you what works for them – in person! A blog post is great to get you started, but working with this stuff hands-on is the way to go.
The answer is the Aravaipa Jangover Ride. The question is, what race starts just a few hours after a long work week and goes to the wee hours of the morning?
I registered for the 6-hour solo category of the Jangover Ride after lunch on the day of. That’s right. Nothing like waiting until the last minute. I could’ve also registered for a single 15-mile lap (too short), a 12-hour (too long, but there are also quad categories in addition to the solo), or a duo 6-hour (not for me). There was no separate solo class, though.
I’ve been riding a lot this year thanks go the coronavirus, so I knew I’d be fairly decent compared to previous versions of myself. I hadn’t been on my mountain since June, either.
Anyway, here are a few random thoughts and observations about the 2020 Jangover Ride.
Good Course – No Surprises
The Jangover Ride uses the well-known, 15-mile Pemberton Loop at McDowell Mountain Regional Park.
I consider this perfect for a few reasons: First, 15 miles is a nice chunk of trail. You won’t wind up riding it so many times that it’ll make you stir-crazy with boredom.
It’s also a well-maintained trail that has that elusive quality known as “flow.” It doesn’t feel like you’re constantly fighting the trail. There are tricky bits that require your attention, but it’s far from super-technical.
And there are bits where you can just let it all hang out. It’s a good time on a mountain bike.
Everything is on Fire … Again
The Sears Fire started earlier in the day. Riders could see the flames on every lap, which made an interesting if unfortunate backdrop.
Also, a water main at the park somehow broke. That meant the bathrooms were out of commission. Fortunately, the Aravaipa crew had plenty of drinking water plus Port-a-Johns.
They had a solid selection of food, though I stuck mostly to my own stash of solid foods. But I was grateful for the Heed electrolyte mix (to supplement my Gnarly Hydrate mix and Nuun mix), the cold water and the pickles/pickle juice. I could’ve grabbed cookies, watermelon, oranges and even a cooked-to-order quesadilla had I been so inclined. There were two aid stations – one at the start/finish line and one at the famous Jackass Junction that locals love so much.
It wasn’t quite as marvelous a spread as the Frenzy Hills race, but it exceeded my expectations for a race in the Covid era.
For non-food amenities, I appreciated the ample number of outlets and USB ports for charging lights. That’s invaluable!
Laid-Back and Friendly
Yet again, Aravaipa provided a friendly quality to an event. They ran out of t-shirts my size (no surprise, I was a last-minute entry), But they still offered to send me one. That’s exceptionally gracious.
They also texted me about moving my start time earlier, and even allowed me to grab a time I liked even better than my original start time.
The riders were all very cool, as well. The super-fast dudes passed safely and where appropriate. The slower people made room when needed. Riders chatted before the event and during laps.
It all just adds up to a good experience.
The start/finish area had tunes playing the entire time – though I’d recommend they start making it a tradition to play “Two Minutes to Midnight” starting at 11:58pm!
Desert Night Riding is Awesome
I don’t often ride at night. But desert night riding is something everyone should experience, especially in the summer.
What I like so much are the weird fluctuations in temperature. Sometimes, you’ll climb out of a ravine and the temperature will jump 10 degrees. Other times, you’ll drop a few feet along a wash and the temperature will plunge in seconds.
And you’ll see all sorts of desert critters – I saw jackrabbits and coyotes. I’ve seen plenty of snakes, tarantulas and scorpions on the Pemberton, too.
Plus the stars came out in full force once the moon set.
How I did at the 2020 Jangover Ride
I figured three laps would be a guarantee. I expected that I’d do two laps back to back, with both of those being at about the same speed. I expected my third lap to be considerably slower, and that I wouldn’t even want a fourth lap.
Well, I did those two laps and stopped for a break. I fought off a little cramp in my left hamstring with help from pickle juice, lots of electrolytes and some protein gel I got at Sprout’s.
I did feel the effect of going racing right after a long work week, and I’d been up since 5am. So I stretched out in the back of my RAV for a quick rest. That was probably a smart move, ultimately, because my third lap was remarkably consistent with the other two. My bike handling was slightly sloppier – possibly because I was having a lot of fun and just hammering a bit harder in the downhill bits.
I had more than enough left in my legs for a fourth lap. Taking that lap, though, meant I’d be virtually useless the next day. So I packed it in after three.
A few things I’ll do differently next time: Take a half-day off to get some pre-race sleep, and also set my camp up along the route to make my battery and water bottle switches faster. I also had a problem with my helmet light ejecting itself from its mount just minutes into the first lap, which cost me some time. I’ll need to figure out what’s up with that.
The Lighting Situation
My main light was an older Nightrider with a lithium-ion battery rebuilt by the super-awesome people at MTO Battery. My backup light was an Exposure Lights Race from Bicycle Haus.
I used the low mode of the Nightrider for the climbing parts of the lap before going to medium for the downhill. The Exposure Race was on some kind of interesting adaptive mode that used a dim setting for climbing, then brightened up as my speed increased. I put each on the charger after every lap.
Pro tip on the Exposure: It charges way faster using a USB3 port. If you have a laptop computer with a USB3 port, bring it for charging just in case. I also mounted it under my handlebar, so I had to cut away a bit of my number plate.
Oh, that other backup light on my helmet that fell off? That was one of my old MagicShine lights from like 2010. That thing sucks.There’s a reason why people who bought then started calling them TragicShine. I don’t know if the new ones are just as bad – but I’d be shocked if you didn’t wind up needing the batteries rebuilt.
It’s ironic: Paradise Valley is a pretty good place to ride a bike most of the time. Yet the town wears that status begrudgingly. The town’s government and residents seem united in a hatred of cyclists.
There is simply no other way to interpret their actions.
Paradise Valley Bike Resources Go Off the Map
More than a year ago, I noticed that every scrap of information about Paradise Valley and its bike infrastructure had disappeared from the MAG Bikeways Map. Now, this map is one of the most-valuable resources for anyone who rides a bike in the Phoenix area. That’s particularly true for roadies who scour it for the best bike infrastructure – especially bike lanes and stuff like the Rio Salado bike path.
I finally have a definitive answer about this from a MAG employee: Paradise Valley residents wanted the information removed from the map. They lobbied town officials for this change, and then town officials carried it to the Maricopa Association of Governments.
Poof. No more Paradise Valley bike information.
If the town of Paradise Valley receives any public money from Maricopa County or any other regional agency, the tap should be turned off. This sets a precedent that any other town could follow. No government agency should be allowed to withhold information — especially about transportation infrastructure — from residents.
Paradise Valley Bans Bikes from a Construction Area
“Now they are not only prohibiting bikes from using the normal traffic lane, they have also stationed an off duty policeman there to prevent cyclists from using the sidewalk,” the original poster said.
I couldn’t find a single law allowing this. In all my time riding in Arizona cities, I’ve seen many closed bike lanes (and sidewalks, but bikes really shouldn’t ride on sidewalks anyway).
Every time I’ve encountered closed bike lanes, there was signage indicating that bikes can use the car lane. That is the way road closures work.
I have never seen an off-duty police officer preventing bikes from using a lane.
Also, I saw a police officer enforcing this during a recent ride through PV. The officer instructed cyclists not to turn onto 68th Street as they headed east on Hummingbird Drive. It might still be going on. (I didn’t see an officer on my Sept. 1, 2020 ride.)
I could find no precedent for other Arizona towns taking any action like this.
What This Tells Us About Paradise Valley and Bikes
Clearly, Paradise Valley would put a gated wall around its borders if it could. And bicyclists are persona non grata.
And its elected officials should definitely remember that, if they run for higher office, people like me will be all too happy to remind them of their actions.
There’s not much recourse. But if any like-minded cyclists out there would like to team up for a “Map Every Single Paradise Valley Bike Route and Share It EVERYWHERE” project, just let me know. I’ve got a GPS and I know how to use it!
Have you had any problems as a cyclist in Paradise Valley? Tell me about it in the comments.
Hydration is the difference between a good ride and a low-down, cramp-filled, no-good sufferfest that will make you regret ever getting on a bicycle (or running, or kayaking, or whatever it is that you do). I largely have my regimen set, but I’m always on the lookout for the Next Big Thing. That’s why I was excited when SOS Hydration contacted me about testing their electrolyte mixes.
SOS Hydration sent me a sampler of two each of several of their flavors, including berry, citrus, mango, coconut and watermelon.
Putting SOS Hydration to the Test
I took a little time to crunch the numbers to try getting the liquid-to-’letctrolytes ratio just right.
My typical loadout for a hot summer ride is three bottles:
One 20-ounce one (exactly like the nice one SOS Hydration sent me) with a single Trace Minerals Magnesium tab in it. That 4-gram tablet contains 150mg of magnesium – which I’ve discovered is critical for me – along with 175 mg of sodium and not much else.
Two 25-ounce bottles each packing 1 Trace Minerals magnesium tablet and a Nuun Hydration Sport tablet.
To be somewhere in the ballpark with SOS Hydration, I’d need 1 5-gram sachet in the small bottle and two in each of the big bottles. Let’s break down the comparison between my two big bottles of Justin Formula versus the SOS Hydration bottles. Oh, and I’m also going to list my go-to Gnarly Hydration mix that I use for particularly hot days and races. All serving sizes are 10 grams. (I’m only hitting the electrolytes that are most-important to me rather than the whole laundry list. I also don’t really care about calories.)
*I calculated based on two things: The USRDA of magnesium for guys my age, which is 420mg, and the SOS Hydration label that said that each sachet has 8% of the USRDA of magnesium. That comes out to 67.2mg for two sachets, well short of the 100mg claimed on the comparison page of the SOS website.
That’s not the only discrepancy I noticed. It also appears that the SOS is comparing two servings/sachets of their mix to one Nuun tablet. I didn’t check the numbers on Skratch, which is the only other legit hydration mix for athletes in the table. Pedialyte, Gatorade and coconut water don’t belong, and I’ve never heard of WHO ORS.
My main takeaway from the chart is that SOS is really salty, and it lags in magnesium. Through trial and error, I’ve found that potassium isn’t a difference-maker for me.
So how would it perform?
Testing on the First Ride
I had my three bottles all frozen the day before the ride, and my plans to use my road-plus Lynskey Urbano for a 50-miler want to hell. It had to get some attention from the good people at Bicycle Haus.
That meant it was time for a summer mountain bike ride! Hot weather makes desert mountain biking a real bear, and I had a nasty sunny morning to deal with.
I headed to South Mountain since it had been awhile since I’d been there. Right from the get-go, I could tell this ride would be pretty tough.
Aside from the heat, there are no casual, easy rides on a singlespeed hardtail. They’re demanding bikes that flog their riders pretty hard.
And I just wasn’t feeling it after the first five miles.
I slugged generously from my icewater-filled Camelbak and my two bottles of SOS Hydration mix. My first impression was that this is some seriously salty stuff. There was more than a hint of the Dead Sea to it.
I’d planned to ride at least 25 miles. But I turned around about 13 miles into it to head back to my car. I stopped at a trailhead to drink the rest of my SOS mix, then I refilled them with the sachets I’d brought along.
My ass was well whooped after this short ride. It was a nasty day, to be sure.
So I had to give SOS a more regular test.
Round 2 – Apples to Apples
With my Lynskey back in action the next weekend, I set my course for San Juan Point, which is about a 53-mile jaunt from my house. It’s also a ride I do often, so I have plenty of data to compare SOS and look for any major observations in performance.
I still hadn’t acclimated to the saltiness of the SOS Hydration mix. But I did find that I liked the coconut and watermelon flavors best. I wonder if I like the watermelon so much because real watermelon contains big amounts of magnesium, which makes this guy happy.
I had a pretty solid ride that day, especially since I’d bumped up my tire size from 32C to 38C. The big tires cost me very little time, only about 8 seconds slower than my personal best on a 3.1-mile climb. The very next weekend, though, I set a new PR that was 20 seconds faster with my usual mix.
As per usual, I drained my three bottles (all filled with SOS) and had to refill. Those were the last of my sachets, so I finished my ride with a bit of Gnarly mix. By that time, though, all the serious work was over.
Wrapping Up the SOS Hydration Test
It appears that SOS works pretty well. Aside from that one especially unpleasant mountain bike ride, it wasn’t a liability.
Still, I’m not a fan of the taste and I’d like to see more magnesium in it along with less salt.
I think it would also be a good idea for SOS to double-check the numbers in its comparison chart to make sure they’re measuring similar serving sizes. They should also include more serious competitors, like Gnarly, EFS and CarboRocket Half-Evil. That’s serious stuff that you’ll see at the big races.
And that might be the problem with SOS: It positions itself not just for sports nutrition, but also for hangovers and illnesses. Casting a wide net might cause some of the finer points of more-athletic use to get overlooked.
There’s also something else to note: There is literally no one-size-fits-all formula for every bike racer, marathoner or (insert sport here). This makes me extremely skeptical of their research claims. I know I said this a few sentences earlier, but it bears repeating: The same formula will not work for every single person.
We’re all individuals, and the ratios in SOS Hydration might be exactly what you need. If it fits you and you like the taste, you’re good to go.
Bicycling in Southern California is a real treat, especially if you’re from the desert like I am. Even in June, you can count on mild temperatures, decent cycling infrastructure and some hilly routes to help burn more calories.
If you’re into bicycling, Encinitas is a nice place to get a taste of bicycling in Southern California. It’s a bit removed from the craziness of San Diego, but close enough that you can still get there in about 20 minutes or so.
Here’s some advice for riding in and around Encinitas.
Bring Your Bike or Rent?
If you’re traveling, I recommend renting a bike. It’s one less thing you’ll have hanging off of your car or pack up for the airplane.
The staff was friendly and very accommodating. I actually forgot to bring my personal pedals from home, but they found a matching pair among all their spare parts. They also took time to nail my saddle height, plus they included a small seatbag with a few essentials for fixing flat tires.
I added my own computer bracket to track my ride. And some of the locals hanging around recommended some routes for me. RIDE Cyclery couldn’t have been better at helping me get the most out of bicycling in Southern California.
What’s Bicycling in Southern California Like?
If you’re visiting Encinitas, Carlsbad or any of these beach communities and plan to ride your bike, hit Strava. Look for people holding “King/Queen of the Mountains” records and check their routes.
Chances are, you’ll find some nice options for rides of all lengths. These can be the building block for planning your route. If you’re using a fancy GPS-based computer, you’ll also be able to create turn-by-turn instructions to navigate.
One of my routes took me down the Coast Highway to the north end of La Jolla. The route had some nice fast parts, along with a terrific climb as I headed south.
The Coast Highway can be a bit maddening when you start hitting four-way stops and stoplights. When you’re on the beach, you’ll also deal with a lot of people walking in the bike lanes, especially in the wrong direction.
El Camino Real is also a great street to ride on. I got stopped at traffic lights while riding early on a Sunday morning. But traffic was light and most of the lanes were in decent shape. Also, nice views and plenty of rolling terrain and curves. Good fun!
In Arizona, when you pass riders in the opposite direction, you give a nod or a wave. Not so much in California.
That could be because there’s so damn many riders. If you acknowledged them all, that’s pretty much what you’d be doing the entire ride. It’s actually nice to see that many people riding.
There’s also widely varied opinions about how to handle stop signs, especially when there are no cars around.
Most of the drivers were also relatively civilized, so that was pretty good.
On the down side, more than a few streets had “sharrows,” those infernal arrows that indicate that bikes can use the same lanes as cars. Every cyclist or cycling advocate I know find these sketchy. Give me a good, dedicated bike lane any day.
What About After the Ride?
To me, beer and biking just go together.
The closest spot to get a beer is at the Modern Times tasting room. They have a huge selection of fine Modern Times beers, including many I couldn’t ever access back in Arizona. They also had their social distancing game dialed in. The food seemed to be all vegetarian (but still good).
If you want to go further afield, I recommend Arcana Brewing. They had a delicious single-hop ale called Mosaic Monster that was perfect; moasic hops are among my favorite (along with amarillo, galaxy, simcoe, and cascade). Another standout was a fruited braggot. It’s one of those places that changes its lineup often, so you won’t always find the same selection. It appears they are BYO for food, too.
So that’s what you need to know about bicycling in Southern California. I recommend Encinitas rather than Carlsbad as your base, just for proximity to Modern Times and the great people at RIDE Cyclery.
If you’re thinking about buying a titanium bike, I understand why. You’re probably after a combination of ride quality, cool factor and longevity.
People can debate the ride quality to death – there are plenty of variables that can impact this, especially tire pressure. Also, some people think the stealth fighter look of carbon fiber beats the Cold War jet fighter appearance of titanium.
But nobody is about to debate the longevity of titanium with you. It has impact resistance that you won’t find in carbon fiber bikes. If you can actually get a titanium frame to fail, it’s not going to crack into pieces. It can handle rock spray, hard impact, shitty weather and just about anything else you can throw at it.
As you’ve probably guessed, I’m a titanium bike fan.
I’ll also admit that buying a titanium bike isn’t easy. They’re more expensive and harder to come by than most steel, aluminum or carbon fiber bikes. That makes it imperative that you get the right one.
So here are a few tips for buying a titanium bike. Some are from my own experience, while others are from other titanium bike owners.
He made the bottom bracket area overbuilt to handle all the power output of someone cranking hard on a singlespeed. He got nearly everything perfect.
Then he went and painted it.
Admittedly, it looked pretty for a long time. But mountain bikes go through a lot. And their paint gets ratty over time.
In retrospect, I should’ve had it stripped and buffed before hanging a single component on it.
Double-Check the Seatpost Size
If you’re buying a singlespeed, you’re certain to pour over plenty of specs. And you shouldn’t miss the humble seatpost diameter.
One of my fellow ti bike owners wound up with an oddball 28.6mm seatpost size; he’s having a hard time finding the right replacement seatpost.
He still loves the bike, but he’s less than thrilled with the scarcity of seatposts in that diameter.
Buying Used? Be Patient
Titanium’s longevity means that plenty of people are eager to get a hold of even older ti frames. Personally, I wouldn’t touch anything that doesn’t have disc brake tabs and thru-axles, both of which are relatively modern.
But some people love the classics. And it seems like they never sleep, constantly scanning and sniping on eBay, SteveBay, Craigslist, and anywhere else people post used bikes.
You might be tempted to settle for “close enough.” Don’t. The right deal will eventually come. If you settle, you’ll be the next person to list that titanium bike and hoping to break even.
Buy the Frame Builder, Not Just the Frame
When I bought my two titanium frames, I didn’t just click “Buy” and hope for the best. I emailed the frame builders and I asked questions.
Going full-custom and made-to-measure just isn’t an option for me.
I waited for good deals to appear, and then I started asking questions. In both cases, I got prompt, courteous replies. This told me that these were companies I wanted to support with my dollars.
They also gave me peace of mind that I was getting the right size and the right frame for my riding style.
Talk to Titanium Bike Owners
There’s no shortage of people who love titanium frames. Get in touch with them and see what their thoughts are on certain brands and models. Find out which ones are re-branded frames made overseas – and also find out which of those made overseas are better.
Along the same lines, there are plenty of American companies selling titanium bikes that don’t actually make those frames themselves. Find out who does.
Check Facebook for titanium bike owners groups to get started.
I also look to Spanner Bikes, which is chock-full of helpful titanium bike knowledge.
Wrapping up Tips For Buying a Titanium Bike
This is all pretty basic stuff that you could apply to buying any kind of bike frame — aside from maybe the part about paint.
But it’s always good to check your enthusiasm, especially when something looks like a great deal. Do your due diligence and get yourself a bike that will last the long haul.
South Scottsdale is nothing like the palm trees-and-golf courses luxury destination you expect it to be. My neighborhood is full of abandoned and disused property. It’s almost like there’s a systematic plan to make the area look crappy so everyone is OK with tearing everything down and replacing it all with “luxury condos.”
I think about this every time I drive around my neighborhood – and I thought it might be fun to preserve some of those memories. So let’s remember some of the abandoned movie theaters of Scottsdale from the days of olde … by which I mean the 1980s.
Back in the 80s, there were two separate malls in what is now Scottsdale Fashion Square. There was Scottsdale Fashion Square and another to the west called Camelview Plaza. If memory services, that’s where the Camelback Theater was.
I definitely remember that Camelview Plaza had a crepe place called The Magic Pan. I’m not sure if I actually saw any movies at the Camelback Theater, but I definitely knocked back a crepe or 50!
If you’re new to Scottsdale, you might wonder why I’m mentioning this when there’s actually a Camelview Theater. Well, that’s not the original one.
Before the fancy version that you know today, there was a much more modest version a few blocks west. It had distinct architecture that I’m not schooled enough to describe. The interior paid homage to Old Hollywood. I loved the place.
One of my favorite memories of the original Camelview was going there with my brother Erich to see Star Trek III: The Search for Spock. In more recent years, the Camelview gave us a place to watch non-blockbuster artsy stuff – which was very welcome.
This more than an abandoned movie theater in Scottsdale – it’s an abandoned concept of the mall of the future. It was called the Galleria, and it was meant to start a new generation of anchorless malls. There’s already reams of copy online about what a silly idea this was.
I can’t recall setting foot inside the Cineplex Odeon, and I’m not even sure what it is today. Unlike most of the others, this one probably still exists within the shell of the Galleria, so
El Camino Theater
Today, I live just blocks from the El Camino, a free-standing theater with just one screen. I know it’s been some sort of weird auction house. Right now, it’s just a fenced off abandoned movie theater with a broken front window. There are signs it will soon be torn down.
I also don’t remember ever going to a movie here.
Fashion Square 7
As part of Scottsdale Fashion Square, this is barely worth mentioning. It’s been repurposed into some art space that’s overpriced. Par for the course.
Like the Cineplex Odeon, the IMAX was part of the Galleria. One of the things I actually liked about the Galleria is that it’s connected to my favorite restaurant – The Famous Pacific Seafood Company. Twelve-Year-Old Me loved eating their shark cooked over wood-fired grills. Dead serious.
I remember going with a date to see a filmed Rolling Stones concert, even though I wasn’t a Stones fan. I also interviewed the first Spanish woman to climb Mount Everest there; she was featured in a movie that showed at the Galleria.
The property that would become the Galleria sure had a lot of theaters nearby, and this is another one of my favorite demolished and/or abandoned movie theaters of Scottsdale.
And it’s the home of a huge movie memory for me: The Empire Strikes Back. Can you imagine what would’ve happened if they had social media when this came out? I can practically hear the outrage at Darth Vader’s claim to be Luke Skywalker’s father.
I also saw ET here, but I was never a huge fan of that movie.
Los Arcos Mall Cinema – My Best Abandoned Movie Theater in Scottsdale Story
Los Arcos Mall is a topic that fired up the southern half of the city. A developer called the Ellman Companies bought the mall with plans to tear it down and build a hockey arena – but it wound up being some weird work-live-eat amalgamation of stuff affiliated with ASU. Its signature funny-looking spaceport thing is still polarizing (I love it).
The old mall had a movie theater in the bottom. I don’t remember ever seeing a movie there.
But here’s a memory I DO have of the old mall:
When I was a news reporter, the local papers were looking for every possible angle to write about the mall’s upcoming demolition. At one point, a bunch of psychics approached me and spun all sorts of tales about hauntings and visitations. Things like apparitions of javelina running around, and specters walking the halls bisected by the floor.
I concocted the idea of spending a night in the old mall with a photographer and whichever of the psychics was game for it. I had to get the PR stooge for the developers onboard with it. He stalled me long enough for demolition to begin, that worthless worm!
I am also disappointed to this day that we never used my photo cutline of the demolition: “Mr. Elman, Tear Down This Mall!”
UA Movies 5/Scottsdale Dollar Cinema
This building still lives on as the Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary Art, which is nice among this list of torn down or abandoned movie theaters. I saw many a movie here back in its heyday as the United Artists 5.
The most memorable?
I’ve only walked out of one movie ever. I was probably 7 years old.
The movie was Without Warning, which was about some alien that threw little pissed-off starfish that sucked people’s brains out or something.
At some point, I’d had enough. Erich took one for the team and walked me to the next theater, where they were showing Middle Age Crazy starring Chevy Chase. Though it may also have been Modern Problems.
You might also wonder why a 7-year-old was watching Without Warning. This actual quote from my mother may explain things: “This one’s rated R – it must be good!”
Looking Nearby For Abandoned Movie Theaters
The Cine Capri was just about five miles away from South Scottsdale on the southwest corner of Camelback and 24 Street. It was an impressive screen, and I’m pretty sure it was the biggest around.
It also had the very hip Cafe Casino nearby. My tween self loved that place for reasons I can’t quite remember. Nevertheless, both it and the Cine Capri are gone.
I remember seeing Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home there – with Erich, you guessed it!
An Outdoor Abandoned Movie Theater
There was also apparently a drive-in movie theater somewhere east of Scottsdale Road on McDowell. That must’ve been before my time.
There was also a drive-in theater in North Tempe, right on the southeast corner of Mckellips and McClintock.
NOTE: I used this cool website to refresh my memory about the names of these theaters.
It’s not even June yet, and I’m already doing my usual summer hydration stuff when I exercise. Beating cramps and the dreaded post-exercise headache is a huge undertaking. For me, getting it right is the result of trial and error.
Not everybody is riding 60 miles in 100-degree heat. But that doesn’t mean you can’t benefit from some hard-won knowledge to stay healthy or to stay alive. Let me share some of my secrets.
Summer Hydration Doesn’t Just Mean Drinking More Water
There’s more to hydration than water, especially when you’re sweating during the hotter months. Sweat leaches your body of electrolytes. And that doesn’t just mean salt. Potassium and magnesium are two other important ones.
You will not function as well if you only replace the liquid and not the electrolytes.
But figuring out which ones isn’t always easy.
What to Know About Sports Drinks
When I say “sports drinks,” I don’t mean Gatorade or anything else you can buy in a convenience store (though convenience stores have some helpful stuff, which we’ll get to later).
I’m talking about the good stuff. Skratch Labs, Nuun, Trace Minerals, Gnarly, Hammer Nutrition and even Sprouts are just a few brands I’ve used.
Over time, I learned what worked well for me. After a ride, you can see streaks of salt all over my face. The muscles in my calves would twitch like there was some sort of alien just waiting to burst out of my skin.
Apparently, that was a sign that I needed more magnesium. So magnesium became the number-one priority in my drinks.
Surprisingly, the sports drink industry doesn’t agree on a ratio of electrolytes. They’re all over the board. Almost all have some salt. Many skimp on magnesium. Others try to say the key is potassium, while skimping on nearly everything else.
I haven’t seen any sports drink maker say “If you have these problems, you need these electrolytes for summer hydration.”
This means you’re in for some trial and error, especially if you exercise hard in the heat.
My Summer Hydration Formula
I’m going to include magnesium per serving here since that’s a big deal to me.
For a typical hot-weather ride, I’ll freeze three bottles three-quarters full with a mixture of one Nuun tablet and a Trace Minerals Magnesium tablet. My ratio is one tablet of each per bottle. You can use any flavors you want, but the strawberry lemonade Nuun and orange Trace Minerals Magnesium tabs pair nicely. I find them both easily at Sprouts. That’s 42% USRDA of magnesium.
Electrolytes in tablet form are also handy – you can take a tube with you for longer efforts. My three bottles won’t get me even two hours in the dead of summer.
For races or other special occasions, I’ll use Gnarly Hydrate. Their orange-pineapple flavor is packed with magnesium, as well as being one of the tastiest drinks out there. It’s pricey next to my other mix, as well as harder to find. I’ve always had to get it online. That’s 23% USRDA of magnesium.
I’ve also had good results with EFS mix, another big-time magnesium monster. My wife digs Carborocket Half Evil, which is especially good for people who don’t like to eat while exercising; it packs 333 calories per serving. Half of 666 … get it? These are 38% and 28% of USRDA of magnesium, respectively.
I still have to be careful: It’s possible to get carried away with magnesium. The result of overindulgence is pooping like a banshee for several hours.
Thoughts from the Grocery Store
Is there anything good you can get a grocery store for summer hydration?
Not so much for during the ride. But there are some great post-ride options. Pickles are amazing for rehydration, and straight pickle juice is almost as trendy among endurance folks as bone broth is among CrossFit bros. Apparently, the real magic is in the vinegar, not even the salt. It’s also more appetizing than it sounds when you’re low on electrolytes.
Then there’s my dirty secret: V8 vegetable juice. The only race I ever won was a three-person, 12-hour relay. V8 was part of my between-laps fueling protocol (along with chocolate milk and Pepsi – it was not pleasant, but it worked for 25-year-old me).
That brings us to a far tastier option. Watermelons are full of magnesium. They also happen to be delicious and versatile. Use them to make your own sports drink, or just devour one after you exercise.
What If I Can’t Find Anything?
In my last blog post, you’ll remember that I mentioned the couple who went for a “5-minute hike” without any water? Don’t do that.
Bring more water than you think you’ll need. Bring something salty, too. Potato chips will do. Just don’t overlook doing something for summer hydration outdoors.
And remember that you may need to experiment to find what works for you, even under the best circumstances. The harder you exercise in the heat, the more likely you are to uncover some specific needs of your own. Plow on, ask for help, look things up on the Google machine (or DucKDuckGo, if you’re the paranoid type). You’ll figure it out!