30 June, 2021

Bike Commuting - One Month In

by Connor     

    When Igor asked me to start writing posts for the blog, I began to wonder what kinds of things I could write about that readers might enjoy beyond basic technical knowledge. As a bike mechanic of just over 9 years coming over to the manufacturer's side of the industry, my brain still looks at a bike from the technical side of things:

"Is this the right stem length for that bike? How will this drivetrain pairing work? Is this tire going to work well with the internal width of that rim? Those wheels aren't tubeless compatible? Ugh..."

All day.

    And I'm sure that perspective is unlikely to change, but technical jargon doesn't make for good writing, and in turn, doesn't make for good reading. I can attest that riding bikes is certainly more fun than wrenching on them, so I'm going to talk a little bit about this new, crazy, never-before-seen sect of cycling: commuting.

    That's right, someone call the Radavist, make sure they get the early scoop on this one. With the glamour and excitement associated with the Gravel boom keeping the big companies occupied with providing mass-produced 'cross bikes with longer wheelbases and room for a fender, the little guys are simultaneously in a race to make the coolest, wildest looking wide-tire drop-bar bike you've ever seen. Not to mention everyone and their mother is squeezing a gravel event into wherever the state forgot to repave.

With gravel events slowly leeching their way into the D.C. area, I had to try it out

    It sometimes feels like everything else has been left to the wayside. Sure, full-sus bikes now come with travel ranging in increments of 5mm per model, and practically every bike on the Tour this year has disc brakes and tubeless tires- there's a lot to be excited about. But not everyone (and by that, I mean most people) is buying these bikes. 

    As Scott said to me today, "If the bike industry were like the car industry, we'd all be driving F1 cars to work." Ferraris Monday-Friday and mudding through swampy doubletrack in our Rover Defenders over the weekend. But we're not. This is not Car and Driver, I drive a pre-owned Golf. 

    And don't get me wrong, there's much to be enjoyed from the fad waves as they ebb and flow through online forums and bike magazines. Innovation sparks improvement, which is an ethos that we at VO have humbly applied to our bikes in recent years, evidenced by thru-axles, tapered head tubes and disc brakes on currently available models. But I'd be willing to bet that the majority of bike riders (and by bike riders I mean the aggregate of all people who hop on the saddle and pedal) are just out to get somewhere and have fun doing it. Enter cycling's unspoken majority: The Commuters.

    Whether you're a college kid just trying to get across campus, a paralegal trying to get to your city office a few minutes faster in the morning, or you're the kind of person who, like Igor, would feel rather silly getting in their car to drive less than a mile to the grocery store for half a backpack's amount of food, you're a commuter. And it's not all about Ortlieb panniers and waterproof suit bags, either (though it honestly should be... So dope). It can be much simpler than that- Sneakers and a backpack, sandals and a handlebar bag. 

    Having spent my first month here at VO commuting 22 miles roundtrip most days on my 2nd-gen All City Nature Boy, I've had ample time to reflect on my setup, how I got into a morning routine to accommodate the time it takes to ride in, and the benefits I've seen thus far after a month. I started out with some takeoff flat bars (which were too wide), an original Blackburn MTN Rack (which rattled a ton), and some vintage 80's panniers (which billowed). A valiant first effort.

So much rack, so few things

    It was after my first week that a riding buddy of mine was towing me to work one morning, and he goes "Man... that left pannier is like a parachute. Why didn't you take it off? And that right one isn't even full. Why'd you put the rack on there? And you're so upright, it's great coasting behind you." And while I was trying not to over-analyze my commuter bike, I could see he was right. To carry a small lunch container and a change of clothes, I'd bolted on what was likely more than enough equipment to facilitate a 2-day camping trip. And I could definitely tell that the wide flat bars had me in an oddly upright position. So after some scrounging in the parts bin, walks to the warehouse, and a couple days later...

"The Glow-up", as the kids say.

    I have to admit, the build turned out spectacularly. We stripped it down to the frame and put as much VO gear on it as possible; stem, seatpost, headset, saddle, brakes, cranks (a proto with a narrow-wide chainring), and bottom bracket. Splash tape on the Dajia Far Bar and a Safety Pizza for... well, safety. Retro bottle cages add a little flare, and the Rando canti rack, in my opinion, is one of the most innovative and well-engineered things we sell at VO; I frequently admire it across the room at the office. It integrates flawlessly with the Rando bag, which, coincidentally, is the perfect size for a change of clothes, a meal, and your phone. 
    Additionally, I reduced the overall weight of the bike (for all you weight weenies out there), and the swept-out Far Bars feel very secure at high speeds on all surfaces (for those of you who take more adventurous routes). I won't get into the components here, as I'll be racing this bike in the coming months in gravel and CX events, and will have more to say about their durability and performance after more rigorous testing.

Cantilever-post mounted Rando Rack, nestling the Rando Bag up between the Far Bars

Safety Pizza topping the Roadrunner saddle roll

Tall Stack Stem is pretty but subtle enough, you just might miss it

    There's something to be said about looking down and the aesthetic of your bike contributing to the experience of your ride. Not only is your bike doing what you built it to do, but it looks damn good doing it. It's not everything, but I can't deny that it's a contributing factor. 

    I've owned this bike for many years- it's been a campus crusher, a DC city commute brawler, a cyclocross race rocket, and a flat bar, singletrack, do-it-all, beer blaster. This is without a doubt my favorite setup of the bike yet. It's still very light, looks sharp, and holds just the things I need- perhaps the ethos of a good commuter bike. Beyond that, the changes have made the bike much more enjoyable to ride, so much so that I get mildly disappointed if something comes up and I have to drive in, which is a new thing for me.  

    So. Buy that cool rack or that utility bag! It may change everything about your trip to work or the store. One thing's for sure; if you use your commuter bike to get to work every day like I do, even the little improvements go a much longer way than a $300 Kogel pulley on your weekend machine. You're still on your bike, the most important thing is that you enjoy it.

If you're interested in a comprehensive build list, click here: https://velo-orange.com/pages/all-city-nature-boy-gen-1-build-list-lightweight-commuter


Prpl_anodise said...

Good stuff and great rebuild. You have 2 months to get the fenders on :) As someone also returning to commuting with refreshed gear (dropped my messenger sack for VO Porteur rack and matching bag) I agree that gear grooming will improves the experience. Safe shredding!

Julian said...

Neat -- but I'm wondering what's innovative about the rando rack. What am I missing? It looks like a slightly less fancily finished Nitto, which looks like the French racks of the days of yore... What am I missing?

FWIW, I've been commuting on a bike for decades, and you need fenders to make it practical for all weather -- VO has some great ones!