28 February, 2012

Taipei Cycle Show, What Do You Want?

In a few days I'll be leaving for Asia. It's time for the annual Taipei Cycle Show. Prior to the show Alec and I will be visiting several of the factories that make VO parts. We'll meet with most of our other suppliers at the show.

A really fun part of these trips is seeing what's new at the show. Bike companies from all over the world display their newest and greatest. Manufacturers and factories show off what they can make. We usually find a few cool new products and at least one or two factories with new and interesting capabilities. We also get some great meals and do a little sightseeing. Alec is taking his bike for a 4-day trip through the mountains.

We'd like to ask, as before previous Taipei shows: what do you think we should look for? What products do you need - or just want - that are unavailable? Please bear in mind that these have to appeal to a fairly wide audience and should be the sort of thing that fits with the VO philosophy (no BMX, unicycle, MTB, etc parts).

I thought I'd add some thoughts on the various suggestions here:
  • Lights- I don't really want to get VO into making much lighting stuff. It's a huge category that I'm not an expert in. Maybe in a couple of years, or if we hire some brilliant lighting engineer.
  • Brass or plastic fenders- We have aluminum which is light and stainless which is tough. Brass is neither, so I can't see the attraction. I can see really good plastic fenders on off-pavement bikes, but not on road bikes--I'll keep thinking about this.
  • Stems with integrated hangers- We could do this with the Grand Cru stems, even add knurled caps, but they would cost about $120. Worth it?
  • PBP rims are sailing next week, along with almost everything else that's out of stock.
  • Those new canti brakes will be here in about 4 weeks. You'll like them!
  • Tires- We'll keep looking for new ones. There has been talk of a certain lower-end tire company looking to go high-end... possibilities.
  • We have shifter mounts.
  • We already stock a very nice seatpost in many sizes. I can raise the price to $50 if you like ;<)
  • We looked into making really good freewheels and it would have been far too expensive for us. The Shimano models aren't all that bad.
  • We are already working on a really nice new chainguard.
  • Regarding full wrap fenders, ours are as long as is practical for most folks. Longer and you'll dent them riding off a curb and they won't work without a second front stay or rack attachment, which most of our customers don't want. But we still may make a longer version as a limited run in the future.
  • Our existing Raid rims are much like MA-2s, just a bit wider for the wider tires now in vogue.
  • I'm reluctant to make replacement forks because some folks will inevitably put them on unsuitable frames.

23 February, 2012

Dr Tabata and His Protocol

A few years ago, when between companies, I had more time to ride. I'd do 25- to 50- miles rides several times a week and do a longer ride or a century on weekends. That's certainly not extreme mileage, but it was enjoyable and kept me in shape. Then VO and other projects started taking more of my time.  So I started investigating ways to get good workouts that were more time efficient. I learned about Dr. Izumi Tabata and his protocol.

Dr Tabata is a Japanese researcher who developed a surprisingly effective high-intensity intermittent training routine that was proven to improve both anaerobic and aerobic condition. His protocol consists of twenty seconds of maximum output, followed by ten seconds of rest, repeated eight times without pause. So the total session is only four minutes long! Yet it's been shown to be more effective than a traditional 60-minute cardio training session, such as a bike ride. Of course it's not nearly as enjoyable.

Dr Tabata's original protocol is meant for elite athletes, not guys like me in their mid 50s. Some of us would be on the floor gasping after a full set going to 90% of max heart rate (at least I would be). Fortunately there are less extreme versions and plenty of info on the web about them. I've follow Mark Sisson's method, doing a few sprints on the beach or in a grassy field a couple of times a week. I do similar sprints on a bike. A couple of weeks ago we started doing paddling intervals at outrigger canoe practice.

Interval training can add some extra speed and power to any sport. I find it makes my longer rides more enjoyable. But, sadly, I still don't look or ride like Ottavia Bottecchia in that cartoon. The New York Times recently had an article about the health benefits of intervals.

Anyone else doing intervals or other training beyond simply riding?

21 February, 2012

Head Badges

Every so often the idea of having head badges made comes up. Folks e-mail and ask for them or one of us decides they might be worth investigating. Getting head badges made is really pretty simple. A company in Taiwan makes most of them. Send a drawing and they'll send a box of head badges to our frame factory or warehouse.

I'd long been resistant to head badges on our frames, especially back when we had semi-custom frames. I see head badges as something to decorate a production frame. Most constructeurs, and even most American and British custom builders, used a simple decal on the head tube. Actually, some of the best French customs had the "badge" hand painted on.

But now we make production frames, so my resistance is not as strong. We might even have some made for the next run of frames. What do you think, are head badges cool or just needless adornment?

16 February, 2012

Annette's Bike

Annette, our CFO, has made some changes to her bike that I find interesting. Her semi-custom VO rando (frame #2) was set up with drop bars and brifters and a leather saddle, in typical randonneur fashion. But Annette no longer lives in the countryside with endless farm roads around. Now she finds herself riding in a more urban area or on rail-to-trail bike paths. So she decided to rebuilt her bike to match her new riding style.

She switched out the drop bars for VO Milan bars. A new VO chrome stem provides more bar height than the previous Nitto Technomic. The driver train went from Campy 9-speed triple to Shimano 105 10-speed double with flat-bar shifters and a VO compact crank. A new VO Hi-Lo wheelset completes the running gear. Grand Cru caliper brakes provide more stopping power and much better modulation than the previous Tektros. She also switched the saddle from a Brooks B17S to a Terry, which she'd used on another bike and preferred. New dual-sided pedals with SPD on one side, platform on the other side, are on the way and will be the final change. Igor, our new warehouse manager, did the wrenching.

 Annette is thrilled with the new setup and can't wait to get some serious riding in. (Note that when the photo was taken the bar and saddle height had not yet been adjusted.)

This really seems like great compromise between an urban bike and a road bike. It's a sort of ultimate hybrid bike. Who else has switched from drop bars to city bars on a road bike and what's your experience been?

14 February, 2012

On Custom Frames, and Boats

At my previous company I designed small boats and spent considerable time in coastal Maine, the center of custom boat building in the US. Being an avid sailor I was always interested in seeing custom boats and chatting with their owners and builders. While these boats were beautifully designed and finished, I was always surprised by all the technical issues their owners encountered. Despite a cost of half a million dollars or more, there always seemed to be mechanical or electrical gremlins. The best production boats, particularly from the established Swedish yards, had relatively few problems and the construction quality, though not the finish quality, was often equal or better than custom builts.

I've found a similar situation with custom bike frames. Of my four custom frames, three had problems that I probably wouldn't have seen on a better production frame. None were major problems, just little annoyances, but still... Chatting with other custom frame owners, I found that many have had similar experiences. That is one reason that the (now discontinued) Velo Orange custom frames were, in fact, semi-custom rather than fully custom. I knew that making each frame completely different would lead to unforeseen problems. Instead, we chose to make three stock designs and offered only custom sizing, paint, and braze-ons.

Why is it that custom frames, boats, and probably other bespoke things, suffer from issues rarely seen on top end production products? I think the answer is simply experience, both the builders' experience and the fact that there are no prototypes on which to work out the bugs. The custom boat builders have built a few dozen boats at most, each one taking upwards of a year to complete. The custom frame builder needs a week or two to make a frame. The Swedish boat factory builds a hundred boats a year and the top-end bike factory makes thousands of frames a year. They've made most of their mistakes long ago. The guys at the factories who weld or braze are also likely have much more experience than the custom builder. And, despite what you may think, they often take just as much pride in their work. In addition they have the very best mitering, alignment, and other machines.  Now please remember that I am writing about the very best bike factories, not the ones that make mass-market bikes.

In my experience at VO, we have had far fewer problems with production frames than customs. That is not to say that our production frames never have problems. They occasionally do. I once sent back 30% of a frame production run (to a factory we no longer use, but that still makes frames for one of our competitors). And some things can go wrong with any frame, like the fender eyelet that recently broke on one of ours. That dropout is used on both production frames and customs; short of x-raying it there was no way to have seen the flaw. We sent out a new fork ASAP, while the custom builder would have to make one and have it painted to match.

Does this mean that factory frames are better than customs? Of course not. The best custom builders still make the best bikes in the world and have waiting lists many years long to prove it. They are the exceptional craftsmen with a near pathological obsession for detail and decades of experience. Then there are lots of just average custom frame builders. We tend to romanticize the artisanal  object, but just as there are good and bad factories, there is a range of skill among frame builders, boat builders, wine makers...

So, should you buy a custom frame? If you are of average size and weight I would argue that you don't need one; there are enough good production frames to choose from. And, based on my experience, you may well have less trouble with a production frame. A great production frame is usually superior to an average custom. Of course, someone who is extremely tall, short, heavy, oddly proportioned, etc, may get more benefit from a custom.

But, we want what we want, not what we need. Experienced cyclists with refined tastes will derive great pleasure from a custom bike and that may well be what matters most. They should be prepared to look for the exceptional builder, have a long wait, and expect a big bill. My advice is to take your time picking a custom builder. Talk to the builder's clients while remembering that few will admit to spending a fortune on a sub-par frame.

Anyway, that's just my experience with custom and production frames. The point is that the idea that you won't be happy until you own a custom is just as ludicrous as the idea that no one should have one. Anyone who tells you that you will get better quality, performance, or durability, in a custom probably just has a  frame to sell. What you will get, if you choose wisely, is exactly what you want in geometry, stiffness, finish, and those little details that make the frame yours. Not a bad deal really. My two favorite frames are my semi-custom VO pass hunter and my semi-production Ebisu all-around frame. If I damaged either of those frames I'd build up a Polyvalent for myself (I get a discount on those).

What do you think about custom bike frames, or boats?

13 February, 2012

Bike Cafe, a Cool New Shop in Thailand

If you find yourself in Thailand and need a Velo Orange fix, please visit Bike Cafe. This stylish new shop was just opened by an existing VO dealer. Good luck Atta and thanks for making our products look so good.

BTW, if you have a cool shop that carries a nice selection of VO stuff, please send some photos.

07 February, 2012

Idea Day

VO customers are pretty amazing. Not only do they keep us in business, they send us great idea to share. Check out the items below. All of these were in our inbox yesterday.

Phillip sent us a video of his very clever folding bike mechanism. If VO ever makes a folding bike this might be the way to do it. He writes:

I designed it a while ago, but over Christmas I finally got around to making a prototype. The idea was to create a folding mechanism that could be applied to many types of triangular framed bicycles. Think of it more as a "its raining so I'll get the bus home" rather than a Brompton rival!
Peter did a great job building up his '83 and '84 Lotus Classiques. Not only are there lots of VO parts, but checkout the great leather bits. Peter's comments are in the captions.

The toeclip leathers obviously lend themselves very well to being laced up as covers on brake and shift levers.The handgrips were only a little bit trickier.  I tripped across a pair of pleather-covered ergo-style bar grips at my LBS that were just too cheap to avoid experimenting with and VO just happened to be out of stock of the cork grips I had originally planned to use.  I stripped off the obnoxiously slippery pleather covering, mounted the remaining shaped rubber grips on the handlebars and laced a set of your city bike elkhide bar covers over the grips, using toeclip leathers as extra gussets on the underside so the covers could be laced up around the much bigger diameter.  I think the pictures pretty well show how it's done.  I would expect that VO cork grips would work just as well under the elkhide covers.

 I first discovered VO looking for something to replace the early-version Brooks leather bar tape that faded from its original rich honey color to a sickly-looking greenish gray in little more than a week - despite liberal wiping with Proofhide and very little exposure to sun or weather.  I ran across a vintage Italian original-equipment leather-covered handlebar on eBay and started hunting for some kind of lace-up leather product (like, maybe steering wheel covers) that I could use to make a similar handlebar.  For quite a while I wasn't finding anything until VO launched its elkhide handlebar and toeclip covers.  A sidebar VO blog item about somebody in Japan making leather covers for brake-lever hoods appeared about the same time - which weren't available here.  And I put two and two together and fabricated my own leather brake hood covers using toeclip leathers for gussets and some extra bar-cover leather.

And the toeclip leathers also worked well as pads to quiet any rattling of the SS water bottle from VO against the cage.  VO of course wasn't making bottle cages back then.

Peter also sent us this link showing how he used a VO Rackaleur to support an OYB bag. And how to use that bag as a saddle bag.

Speaking of saddle bags, George got a Minnehaha medium saddle bag to use as a front bag. We tried it here and it works very well, at least on small-to-average sized frames. Everything I need for work, including my 12.5" Thinkpad, just fits. Might be a nice commuter setup.
The back-strap on the bag fits over the front rack's "backstop" or integrated decaleur.

03 February, 2012

Super Rack

I took this rack photo at the 2007 Cirque de Cyclisme and just came across it while looking for something else. It's on a French constructeur demountable frame. This thing has to be super sturdy, and super expensive to make. I can't help but wonder if it isn't overkill; that's a lot of tubes. The removable mini platform on top is cute. Anyway, such a cool design that I thought you'd like to see it. Wadda ya think?

02 February, 2012

The Elk Are Back

Espresso-color elkhide bar cover
We use elkhide for our handlebar covers, city grips, and toe clip covers. Unfortunately we sometimes run out of them, particularly in the espresso color. Elkhides are often in short supply, especially the highest grade, which is what we use. Our elkhide comes from from a small California tannery that buys most of its stock from recreational hunters. They tan and dye the hides and ship them to us. The covers are actually cut right here in Annapolis. It's a tough job since the usable part of the hide is not that large. A lot of thinking goes into deciding how best to utilize them. We need to work around the bullet holes, scars, and rough areas while trying to waste as little of the expensive leather as possible. Since each hide has a slightly different color shade, thickness, pliability, and elasticity, we carefully match the pairs of covers. But these are wild animals, not farm raised cattle, so there will always be some inconsistency. Such is the nature of the beast.
We've thought about switching to cowhide, but the soft feel of elk hide and it's ability to conform to the bends of a handlebar convince me not to. Cow hide is also not as "spongy" and shock absorbent. If we can't get the larger supply of hides we need as we continue to grow then we'll switch. We've already had a run of cowhide covers made as an experiment. They were OK, but not as good. There is another artisinal tannery that we work with, they tan the leather for our mud flaps, and we'll see if they can come up with a custom tanned cow leather that's closer to elk.
City bar grips
To my eye there are two types of handlebar bar treatment that really stand out, elkhide covers and shellaced cloth tape. Leather bar tape is my third choice. Both the covers and shellaced tape are a bit of work. Put aside a couple of hours to do a really nice job on bar covers. It's pretty simple, but repetitive work (I do my covers while watching a movie). Full directions can be found here. Matching bar covers, saddle, fender flaps, toe-clip leathers and straps really bring a bike together. Vegans may not agree.

We just got a shipment of elkhide and have a small quantity of covers in all colors in stock. We'll be making more over the next week.
Leather covers on my old VO rando bike