Saturday, April 10, 2010

Hear that Noise?

It’s official!

My tires are slowing me down! I’m slow, no secret there, If you ride with (or should I say past) me you know this. If you just read here you’ve heard about it. But now we know that it’s the tires that are holding me back: “We tested the Rivendell Maxy-Fasty and Nifty-Swifty (basically the 650B versions of the Jack Browns). They were among the slowest tires we tested.”  What a relief to know it's the equipment and not me.

In a discussion thread over on the Google Randon group Jan Heine, much revered maven of all things rando, (tires in particular) revealed that my preferred tire, the Riv Jack Brown is slow! He also noted that the Gran Bois Cypress is among the fastest. I’ve ridden both and while I can’t really speak to the relative ‘fastness’ of these two products, I can say without hesitation that the Gran Bois deliver a much more pleasant ride, orders of magnitude better. So why stick with the clunky, slow, JB’s? You would think I would be on the hunt for every little bit of help I could find in the speed department.

Well obviously, I’m not all about the speed. If that were the case I’d probably just tie my ankles to the big horse and launch off the bow of the good ship MV Hyak in mid-run between Seattle and Bremerton. Don’t get me wrong, I‘d love to be (generally) faster, and when I have a particularly faster than expected ride I revel in it! I once rode a 1000K brevet in 72:29  63:33 (thanks for the reminder Mark)!   No great shakes by ‘fast guy/ girl’ standards but you better believe that ride is emblazoned on the inside of my eyelids; almost 8 hours faster than my first 1000K!

But there are certain other factors about these tires (the JB’s) that keep me coming back. Most significant among them is the fact that these tires are pretty flat resistant. That or they are my-anti flat lucky charm. Either way that’s real important to me for obvious (and not so obvious) reasons. Without any data to back it up I’ll just say I think I have enjoyed a much lower ratio of flats to miles ridden on these than other 'fat' tires I have used. Again, no ’data’ here simply anecdotal evidence. (Do ‘anecdotal’ and ‘evidence’ even belong in the same sentence?) Fewer flats? Obviously I like that. I also really like the ride. The Gran Bois is more comfy, but the JB’s are comfy enough.

The not-so-obvious important factor is that they are very easy to get on and off. So, in those odd moments when I actually do get a flat, it does not take much time or effort to fix. Keep in mind, for slow riders, time represents a different sort of resource than it does for fast riders. Let your mind wander, you’ll get this.

Another thing that I really appreciate about Jan’s work in this regard is his mention of the ‘noise’ in research data, as well as his effort to conduct tests that approximate real world conditions. I’m no scientist, more like the goof in the movie Sideways played by Thomas Haden Church, remember him? ("Tastes pretty good to me...") The truth is I don’t spend a lot of time riding on a glass smooth roller at 26 mph in a wind tunnel: “When we tested 25 mm tires vs. 30.5 mm tires in the wind tunnel, with a rider on the bike, the difference was within the noise (statistically not significant)... We used the same narrow rim for both. Nobody really knows the aerodynamics of wider tires - the only other tests I have seen didn't include the rider. Without the rider, you get cleaner data, but the tests are pretty meaningless, as the rider's legs churning do affect the airflow around both wheels greatly.” Now I can't testify as to the 'scientific validity' of this protocol, but hey, it seems pretty scientific to me, and my legs do churn.

I think the ‘noise’ issue creeps in a lot when people like me say something like “I ride Jack Browns and they seem fast and they hardly ever give me flats!” I have in the past referred to it as ‘the red bike’ syndrome: I ride a red bike, it’s fast, everyone knows that red bikes are faster”. Nice to know there is a more scientific term. Who really knows? I have not quantified, or qualified the miles I’ve ridden, shoot I can’t even tell you accurately how many miles or how many flats! So any statement I might make about the relative benefits of one tire over another are really nothing more than opinion. For all you know this may be no more than flat world thinking (no pun intended) dressed up in modern language. And thus the disclaimer; it’s just my opinion based or a few miles down the road.

In 2007 I got my new bike and fitted it with Gran Bois Cypress tires. I had a horrible run of flats on the first set of tires. This was at a time when I was frantically putting on miles, both in rando brevets and JRA miles off the back porch. Being opinionated, it really colored my impression of the Gran Bois. I’m a tight wad too so could not filtwerout the dollars/mile/flat calculation.  To be frank I believe that my JRA miles are a pretty good test of a tire’s durability and ride comfort. We live out in the sticks and as many of you know rural jurisdictions are cash poor and tend to provide bare minimum (often slightly below) maintenance on most infrastructure, including roads. I’m tempted to say something like: “If they can take it on the rural roads of South Puget Sound Country, they can handle most other rural roads”.  Add in the fact that I'm a big load, even when I'm lean, and any tire that stands up to my real world tests is always worth a secend look.  Never the less I bought several more pairs of Gran Bois and rode them through the season and at PBP in 2007.

I carry a spare tire and that spare, like as not will be a Continental Gator skin in 25, or 28 mm width. These tires are pretty tough and I have probably ridden more miles on them than any other single make, model, brand etc. So when I got my first flat on PBP, less than 100K from the start, I was VERY tempted to switch out the Grab Bois for the Conti. But I didn’t. My rationale was that I was just getting my one obligatory flat out of the way early. The power of positive thinking being what it is, that turned out to be the only flat I got on that ride. The roads of rural France are more akin to what you find in gated communities here than our rural roads. (I also had another Conti in my drop bag waiting for me at Loudeac just in case) I love those tires, (the Gran Bois) but they are probably not best suited to someone like me: A really big guy who rides lots of miles on plus crap roads. Sort of like bringing a knife to a gun fight.

I really can’t imagine myself going back to ‘skinny’ tires (23mm). I am definitely a permanent resident in the fat tire camp. For me the JB’s are the sweet spot. They afford me the comfort that fat tires are known for, they last long on bad roads, they stand up well to my 200+ pounds, and they are a reasonable compromise between speed, comfort, and durability. There are lots of ways I can increase my average speed. When I consider all those things, I think (just my uninformed opinion here) that the difference in speed between Gran Bois, and Jack Browns gets lost in the nose. Once I am riding at my optimum weight, and I am riding more miles per month so that my fitness is back to where it was when I rode that fast 1000K, then maybe I should look into ‘faster’ tires. Until then I’m happy to read about new developments (and evaluations) in tires.

By the way, that fat tire science thread over at Randon google proceeded in a fairly civil manor for a couple days. People share information (some) and opinions (more), they agreed very enthusiastically and disagreed in that way that civil people do at standup parties over chardonnay and salmon pâté with soft jazz in the background. Then after a day or so, someone must have spiked the kool aid because the disagreements took a decidedly ‘sk8tr-dude-internet-forum’ turn. From cocktail party to frat house mudslinging, disagreement about data slipped to arguments about methods, and then of course devolved to name calling about whether or not comments were slanderous and intentionally misleading. Funny but predictable (within a range of one standard deviation!) Cylists and passionate and opinionated and the chat got very 'noisy'.  I’ve been skewered there enough times with the lance of “do you have any data to back that up?” That I have learned (though I often forget) to add the qualifier ‘Just my opinion, no data here’,the cyclist version of 'tastes pretty good to me'.

I’ll take those slow, comfy, beefy, tires out on some real world roads in an hour or so. The sun just popped up and the hoar frost on the grass has turned to heavy dew. Last weekend I made an aborted attempt to route scout a dirt road section that could be the final link in what I like to think of as an ’adventure perm’. This 200K route will make a circuit from the Olympia area by back roads to the little logging town of Morton, then across a hill to Elbe, then north to Alder lake where a Weyerhaeuser company logging road makes a bee line for the town of Rainier. If this last segment works it should be a fun, adventurous and challenging route to add to the SIR permanent catalog.

We’re putting together a number of new routes down here in the south sound which makes it nice both for local as well as other rando rides who live farther afield. Locals won’t have to drive for an hour or two (or more) to get to a perm route (nice for those R-12 hunters November through March) and those from out of the area who want to see some new roads will have more options. Nice all the way around.

I mentioned recently that spring is delivered on the wings of a cold wind. When the sun came up this morning I noticed another harbinger: the swallows are back. I’ve put a few swallow houses up around the place and they usually all get occupied. The plucky little birds all seem to show up at the same time: One day the skies are marked by the passing of an occasional crow, and the next you have squadrons of little fighter jets conducting mock dog fights, presumably with the occasional flying insect becoming food. I like them both for what they are and what they foretell: in a month or so I’ll find time after work to lounge in the park bench out by the fish pond. I'll watch the koi swim lazy circles as the swallows dart and weave above. 

Nice thing is, neither make much noise.


  1. I have read with interest Jan Heine's studies of tire rolling resistance on line and in Bicycle Quarterly. Tires, like many things, are a semi-religious issue in randonneuring. Everyone has an opinion based on personal experience and some are very fervent in expressing their opinion.

    Mr. Heine's methods appear to be sound and he has reached the rational conclusion that if a tire is say 4 percent faster but gets 10 flats which take 10 minutes each to fix over 1000K you will still finish sooner so it is a good trade. I think this overlooks an important factor for most riders. Flats are demoralizing. If I got 10 flats in 1000k I might give up whereas if I was only a few percent slower than I might theoretically be with a different tire it would not really bother me at all. If I missed the time limit it would never occur to me that my tires were at fault, more likely I would blame that gas station burrito I ate at 4:00 AM on the second day.

    You are not the first person from whom I have heard that Gran Bois are wonderful to ride but are prone to flats. I use what may be the opposite of Gran Bois tires - Bontrager Race Lite Hard Case. Not supple, not wide, not very fast, but astonishingly flat resistant.

  2. Hey. Don't sell yourself short. I remember you finishing a sub-64 hour 1000k, way faster than 72:29!