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Friday, May 29, 2015

Make it Single Speed

So, you're just riding along.  All of a sudden, you're pedaling, but the bike's not moving.  For some reason, your rear derailer no longer works and you're out on some gravel patch miles from any cell coverage, let alone a coffee shop.  What do you do?

Riding remote on back roads is rough on your drivetrain.  Among other things, muddy, small pieces of gravel can easily wedge between chain links and jam inside rear derailers, resulting in broken chains, derailers or derailer hangers.  This is not an uncommon end to many attempting gravel races.  Equipment choices and rider attentiveness reduce the likelihood of such a catastrophic failure, but ride long enough in bad conditions and stuff happens.  See prior post: Mechanicals

But a broken derailer does not have to end your ride, if you can convert your drivetrain to a single speed.  It's not hard.  And the resulting self-sufficiency and peace of mind is priceless.  Here's how.

Geared Black Mountain Cross bike quickly converted to a workable single speed. 
Start with a thorough reading of the writings of Mr. Sheldon Brown, the Pied Piper of single speed and fixed gear conversions.  See: Sheldon Brown Single Speed Conversion  His articles provide the conceptual framework and detailed procedures to handle most any technical issue.  Look there for step-by-step instructions.  This post is just an introduction and some gravel related fixes.

Generally, one must remove the chain, align the chain in a relatively straight line from a single chain ring to a single gear, shorten the chain to an appropriate length and tighten the chain to an appropriate tension.  That's it.  It really is that simple, if you have done it a few times and have the right equipment.  Off you go.


To start, remove the chain and clean it as best you can, even if you have to use some precious water.  Examine it closely.  You will be shortening the chain considerably and may as well remove links that are clogged or twisted or otherwise questionable.  Even in nasty conditions, you should have more than enough good links remaining.

Align the chain in a relatively straight line from a chain ring to a single gear.  For a given chain ring, you can usually choose one gear of two, maybe even three, on the rear cassette to get a sufficiently straight chain line to work well enough.  Remember that you're looking for a short term solution to finish the ride, not necessarily an optimal single speed set up.  With two front chain rings, I plan to use the smaller one.  If the conditions are bad enough to cause this problem, I'll need the lower gear.

To keep the chain on track, shoot for a relatively straight chain line, parallel to your line of travel.  Here, this chain line is slightly off center, although I think it would probably hold up.  The front derailer will help, so you have a little leeway, if your chain is in good shape.  A better chain line here would be at least one cog in, and probably two.
Wrap the chain around the chain ring and gear, draw the chain together to determine the appropriate length, remove unwanted links and close the chain.  All done, right?  Not so fast.

The final step is a deal breaker for many:  tighten the chain to an appropriate tension.  That means the chain must be loose enough to operate, but not so loose as to slip off.  The operational tolerance here is not high.

On a typical modern bike, the rear derailer provides this chain tension and the rear wheel simply slides into a vertical slot on the frame.  However, without a working derailer, or similar chain tensioner, such a frame has no capacity to adjust the chain tension because it cannot change the fore/aft distance between the chain ring and the rear cassette.  The likely result is a chain tensioned too loosely and/or a chain running at a poorly angled chain line.  Maybe you can limp home that way.  Maybe not.

Enter the archaic, old school semi-horizontal dropout, yet another thoughtful design feature of the Black Mountain Cycles monster cross frame that played a significant part in my purchase decision.  See prior post: An All Road Bike  With such a dropout, the frame itself allows enough fore/aft adjustment to tension the chain for a single speed conversion.  A sturdy quick release skewer will firmly hold the rear wheel in place in a steel frame, even under hard pedaling.  Issue solved.  Ride saved.

Old school semi-horizontal dropout, yet another thoughtful design feature by Mike Varley at Black Mountain Cycles.
Addendum 1.  The Black Mountain Cycles monster cross frame comes with a pair of very nice limiter screws so that you can pre-determine a precise position on each side of the frame to more easily position the rear wheel.  That's great for an operational derailer drivetrain and a necessary feature back when frames were built to less stringent tolerances.  For a single speed conversion, those limiter screws limit the amount of fore/aft adjustment and their removal in the field is a pain.

Black Mountain Cycles Monster Cross bike dropout with limiter screws.
(photo by Black Mountain Cycles)
So, I simply removed the limiter screws and slid the rear wheel all the way back into the dropouts.  Maybe that means less than optimal shifting or other negatives, but it opens the entire length of the dropout for fore/aft adjustment to tension the chain.  In addition to simplifying an emergency single speed conversion, sliding the wheel to the back of the dropouts creates more mud clearance by moving the rear wheel a little further from the bottom bracket area.  It also effectively increases the bottom bracket drop from a published 70 mm to my bike shop measured 75 mm, which provides a bit more stability at higher speeds.


Back to geared within a few minutes, with the wheel all the way back into the dropout.
Addendum 2.  If a single speed conversion during an event is more than a remote possibility, I pre-determine the single speed gearing to use, install a cassette with the best gears lining up with the chain rings, and even carry a spare chain, at the appropriate length, with Power Links.  If conditions make such a conversion highly likely, I may just start the ride as single speed.

Friday, May 22, 2015

An All Road Bike

One great thing about riding remote roads is that many types of bikes work just fine.  You probably already have, or could borrow, a bike that would do.  I've ridden 100+ miles of gravel on a front suspension mountain bike, a rigid hybrid bike and a twitchy cyclocross bike.  At gravel events, I have seen all of those, as well as road bikes, full suspension mountain bikes, tandems, fat bikes and even a banana seat Schwinn Lemon Peeler with a 5 speed top tube stick shift.  Run what 'cha brung.  And have fun.

All that being said, the more you ride, the more you know what you like and what works for you.  For long rides on remote roads, I decided to build a bike that worked better for me than what was in my stable.  What follows is a general description of that bike and large doses of personal opinion of what works for me.  For better and worse, I deliberately selected each component and put it all together.  I even chose the light blue color to represent the expansive prairie sky.  It's spot on for me.

Simple, strong, durable.  Black Mountain Cycles Monster Cross bike, fresh off a dusty ride.
 So, last year I built up a Black Mountain Cycles Monster Cross bike specifically for long rides over rough roads, whether pavement, gravel, dirt or rock.  An all road bike.  I did not want a sluggish touring bike, or another road race bike, or another quick, highly maneuverable cyclocross bike, or another bomber mountain bike.   Rather, I wanted a road bike, with comfortable road manners, that could take me on regular paved roads, as well as remote rough roads and beyond, and then bring me back.  As such, the design criteria for the frame, fork, wheel set and every other component focused on long road ride comfort, durability and serviceability.  No catastrophic failures in the field requiring a rescue.

Mike Varley of Black Mountain Cycles designed this steel "monster cross" frame and fork around a 35 mm - 45 mm tire on 700c wheels.  For you mountain bikers, that's about 1.4" - 1.8", which is less than a standard 2.0" - 2.25" mountain bike tire, but much wider than standard 23 mm road tires and even UCI sanctioned 33 mm cyclocross tires.  The Black Mountain steel frame and fork I chose are designed for rim brakes, so I put on Shimano XT V-brakes pulled by Cane Creek drop bar levers.  That's plenty of braking power and modulation for this type of riding.  Yes, I purposely rejected a frame beefed up for disc brakes.  I prefer the smooth ride of a slender, gracefully curving steel fork made possible by the use of rim brakes.  The result here with the Black Mountain is one smooth ride, even on rough roads.

Front end ready for action, with clearance below for mud and above for lights and bags.
Consistent with my design criteria, I selected a strong wheel set with a wide rim profile:  Shimano 105 hubs laced with 32 spokes to H Plus Son Archetype rims.  These wheels are noticeably livelier and lighter than the Shimano Ultegra/Mavic CXP wheels on my cyclocross bike.  The 23 mm wide rim profile also flattens out the tire contact patch for those wide 35 mm - 45 mm tires, which further smoothes out the ride.  And 32 spokes?  I'm not about to go bouncing down a rock strewn, gutted dirt road, hours from any town, on some go-fast, low spoke count race wheels.  Just me.

For a lot of folks, that's a lot of spokes.  32.  And that's just the front wheel.
My all-purpose gravel tires are 38 mm Schwalbe Marathon Racers.  Marathons are pretty hefty, but the Racers are the lightest of the line, roll well and, most importantly, have excellent flat protection.  A set of 35 mm Schwalbe Kojaks, with the same flat protection but no tread, is on deck for later this summer.  No, I do not run tubeless road tires.  I just don't have flats on the Schwalbe's, even with my advanced mass, and I'll let that tubeless road technology sort itself out a bit.  I occasionally run 43 mm Bruce Gordon Rock 'n Roads for increased traction on really rough stuff, although they have significantly less flat protection and I have significantly less confidence in them.  Tubeless for the Rock 'n Roads is probably a good idea.

I chose a simple, strong, durable 2 x 9 drivetrain, with Shimano LX/XT derailers, a 50 x 34 compact road crank set and a 12 - 27 cassette.  This drivetrain is a proven survivor of nasty conditions, like the 2014 version of Odin's Revenge, where only I was one of only six finishers ahead of a long trail of broken chains and derailers.  Also, this gear range has proven to be more than enough gears for me on long gravel rides and events, including Odin's Revenge, Almanzo Royal and Dirty Kanza.  For the BackBone, I'll keep the 2 x 9, but will switch to an 11 - 34 cassette to gain a couple of easier gears, due to the length and difficulty of the route and the weight of all the additional food and gear.

Yes, that's a vintage top pull Shimano XT front derailer, which eliminates the necessity of wrapping shift cable around a low hanging pulley.  That's one less thing to clog, misfire, malfunction or break in muddy, gravelly conditions. 
For pedals, yes, this is a road bike, but it will take me places where sometimes I may have to walk a bit.  And I'm not about to walk on rough stuff on road style pedals with exposed cleats.  Time ATAC pedals have adorned all my mountain bikes and cyclocross bikes for 15 years, working flawlessly in all conditions, especially in mud.  Never an issue.  No reason to change.

Rivendell Silver bar end shifters fit the simple, durable, serviceable design focus, as do the Thompson seat post, collar and 4 bolt stem.  But, really, bar end shifters?  Yep.  I kept with the design focus and did not follow racing technology dictating lightening fast shifting.  Bar end shifters work in practically all conditions and will more likely survive mishaps that would take out shifters located on the brake levers.  Besides, as a confirmed single speeder for 15 years, I don't shift much.  As a bonus, the cable routing along the handle bars clears out the front end for lights and bags, and is one less thing to snag.

My other bikes are single speeds.  And this one may be one, too, after the BackBone.
A 44 mm Salsa Cowbell handlebar completes the build.  With its relatively short reach, shallow drop and slight flare, the Cowbell is simply the most comfortable road bike handlebar I have ever used.  Bar none.  Double wrap the bars around Cane Creek brake levers, add a silver Crane bell and the Black Mountain Cycles monster cross is set.

Simple, strong, durable.  Ready to go remote.  Let's ride.


Sunday, May 17, 2015

Spring Snow

With over a foot of heavy snow accumulating in Rapid City last weekend, I conducted some route reconnaissance of the Black Hills BackBone on some of the higher elevation roads, which happen to be pretty remote.  Three days after a spring blizzard, the area around Deerfield Lake still held 4-6 inches of snow on much of the ground and several inches of snow on top of saturated gravel and dirt roads.  I could not drive on the route very far from Deerfield Lake, either south on Williams Draw Road or north up to O'Neil Pass.  Now would be one tough time to ride this thing.

Along Deerfield Lake approaching NFS White Tail Campground at about Mile 195 of the Black Hills BackBone.  The snow thinned with a little traffic and sun, but was deeper where more protected.  All of it was very soft.  May 12, 2015.
Many of the Pennington County gravel roads had been plowed, were relatively clear and were only moderately soft.  These likely will be great to ride with a few days of sun and wind.  On the other hand, the National Forest Service roads had not been plowed and were stuffed with snow, with all that saturated gravel and dirt underneath.  Most all of the Black Hills portion of the BackBone travels such Forest Service roads, many of which even the Forest Service calls "secondary."  I could not even drive those this week.

Williams Draw Road (691) south of Deerfield.  Shortly after cresting that little incline, I had to turn around.  
Due to the altitude, remoteness and type of roads, the portion of the BackBone most likely to be problematic with snow is from O'Neil Pass south to Custer, roughly 60 miles.  Next week, I plan to take paved U.S. Highway 85 to the top of O'Neil Pass for a look at the condition of the route going south from that end.  More snow could always fall, but I'd like to know when this latest snow is gone.

Looking up towards Flag Mountain.  The BackBone route comes down this road to South Rochford Road.  Again, this road very quickly turns to deep snow and soft gravel.  No climbing Flag Mountain in the minivan today.
By the way,  l love my Black Mountain Cycles "monster cross" bike, which is basically a road bike designed for really-wide-for-a-road-bike tires (35 mm to 45 mm).  My Black Mountain comfortably carries me through a wide variety of conditions, including 4-6 inches of fresh snow on hard surfaces, like frozen gravel or pavement.  Not this stuff.  I know I would be walking through much of this spring snow on soft gravel and dirt.

Take away:  To ride the BackBone on a gravel rig, check the local forecast.  Snow happens.

Saturday, May 9, 2015

Analog Maps and Simple Cue Sheets

I like maps.  There's nothing quite like a map to fire the imagination.  Throw a bike into the discussion and I'll be engaged for hours.

Jake VanDewater and Greg Gleason kindly produced GPS maps of the Black Hills BackBone for the digital crowd, lifting an annoying technological chore off my back.  Black Hills BackBone GPS Map - HERE  Thanks, again.  That was really good.  I hope that others enjoy the results of their labor.

I prefer hard copy maps, opening up like the morning newspaper over a cup of fresh coffee.  My analog maps span seven sheets of 11.5" x 17" paper, which I plan to carry in a jersey pocket in a ZipLock bag.  I've been up, down and sideways on this route, so I don't think I'll need these for every turn.  But I'll carry them anyhow and likely will refer to them more and more as the ride goes on.

This is the final sheet of analog maps.  The cue sheets follow.  Together we'll get there.
By the way, those little squares simply mark one square mile. They do not represent roads.
As a back up to the maps, and as another mechanism to convey the detailed route to others, I created a simple set of cue sheets.  No fancy graphics.  Just words and numbers.  And not necessarily validated to the extent one would for an organized event.  But I plan to carry these as a back up.  As always, your mileage may vary.  Here's my simple set of cue sheets for the Black Hills BackBone.

South on Table Mountain Rd (733) 0 0
West (angling right) on Table Mtn Rd (733) 1.6 1.6
West (right) on Ladner Rd 7.2 8.8
Continue South (straight) onto Bullock Rd 6.2 15
West (right) on Bullock Rd 7.6 22.6
Continue West, then South on Bullock Rd 2.4 25
South (continue straight) on Bullock Rd 4.4 29.4
West (right) on U.S. 20 4 33.4
South (left) on Harding Rd 0.7 34.1
HARDING STOP - water 13 47.1
Continue South on Harding Rd 5.5 52.6
Continue South on Harding Rd 1.6 54.2
West (right) on Old Highway 85 10.8 65
GEOGRAPHIC CENTER OF U.S. 13.8 78.8
Continue South on Old Highway 85 0 78.8
NorthEast (left) on paved U.S. 85 7.8 86.6
East (right) on Brooker Rd 0.5 87.1
South (right) on Arpan Rd 7.4 94.5
West (right) on paved U.S. 212 12.9 107.4
South (left) on paved Fruitdale Rd 1.6 109
East (left) on Snowma Rd 2.8 111.8
South (right) on Crooked Oaks Rd 0.6 112.4
East (left) on Sale Barn Rd 5.7 118.1
West (right) on Sale Barn Rd 2.2 120.3
NorthWest (right) on paved U.S. 34 0.6 120.9
West (left) on St. Onge Cut-Off Rd (196th) 2 122.9
South (left) on LookOut Mountain Rd 4 126.9
West (right) on Kerwin Lane 2.8 129.7
South (left) on paved U.S. 85 1.8 131.5
SPEARFISH STOP - WATER 1.6 133.1
West on Hills View Rd
South (left) on paved McGuigan Rd 1.5 134.6
McGuigan Rd turns to gravel 0.7 135.3
SouthWest (right) on Tinton Rd (134) 1 136.3
West (right) on paved U.S. 85 26 162.3
South (left) on O'Neil Pass Rd (231) 1.7 164
South (left) on South Rapid Creek Rd (231) 0.9 164.9
South (right) on Black Fox Camp Rd (233) 11.5 176.4
East (left) on Flag Mountain Rd (189) 5.2 181.6
South (right) on paved South Rochford Rd 7.2 188.8
South (left) on paved Deerfield Rd 1.6 190.4
North (left) on USFS 421 into White Tail Camp Ground 1.6 192
WHITE TAIL CG STOP - WATER 0.8 192.8
West (right) on paved Deerfield Rd 1.2 194
South (left) on Williams Draw Rd (691) 0.5 194.5
West (right) on Six Mile Draw Rd (301) 8 202.5
South (left) on Ditch Creek Rd (291) 0.5 203
East (left) on Custer Limestone Rd (284) 9 212
South (right) on Upper French Creek Rd (286) 5.5 217.5
East (left) on U.S. 16 6 223.5
South (right) on 6th Street - 1 block 2 225.5
HARBACH PARK STOP - WATER
North on 6th St 1 block,
East (right) on U.S. 16
225.6
South (right) on Sidney Park Rd (793) 1 226.6
East (left) on Flynn Creek Rd (336) 4 230.6
East (left) on Rankin Ridge Rd (391) 9 239.6
North (left) on U.S. 87 1 240.6
East (right) on Highland Ridge Rd (NPS 5) 2 242.6
East (left) on 7-11 Rd (101) 11 253.6
IN BUFFALO GAP - South (right) on 4th  5 258.6
East (left) on Elm St 1 blk 258.7
South (right) on 2nd St 2 blk 258.9
Continue South (straight) - WATER

South (straight) on Buffalo Gap Rd to Oral
East (left) on paved Fall River Co Rd 2 8 266.9
South (right) on Ash Rd 1.5 268.4
East (left) on Hay Canyon Rd 3 271.4
South (right) on Sand Creek Rd (FRCo 2) 1 272.4
East (left) on paved Smithwick Rd 4 276.4
South (right) on North Butte Rd (FRCo 2) 0.5 276.9
Continue South (straight) over U.S. 18 8 284.9
West (right) on Milligan Rd 1 285.9
South (left) on old Highway 79 1.1 287
West (right) on Antelope Lane 4 291
South (left) on Hard Scrabble Rd 2 293
West (right) on Black Bank Rd 2 295
South (left) continuing on Black Bank Rd 2 297
Dakota Line Rd - FINISH 9 306

Saturday, May 2, 2015

How to Carry It All

The Black Hills BackBone is 300+ miles of remote gravel and dirt roads, with no outside support and with very few opportunities for resupply of any kind.  Do you need a trailer to haul all that food, water and equipment?  Not even close.  How about racks and panniers?  Nope.  A backpack?  No, siree.  With today's soft packs, I'll carry everything on the bike.  Here's how.

Black Mountain Cycles Monster Cross bike outfitted with Revelate Designs Tangle, Gas Tank and Terrapin Bags, along with a Banjo Brothers handlebar bag and a couple of water bottles, carry everything for a self-supported 300+ mile ride.
The key component is water.  Although I use a CamelBack for mountain bike rides, even long ones, I do not like weight on my back for road bike rides, even relatively short ones.  It's just not as comfortable for me on the road, where I'm less upright and less active moving around on the bike.  So, I need a lot of water capacity on the bike.  A Revelate Designs Tangle bag hangs from the top tube and holds a 100 ounce CamelBack bladder full of water.  Two Salsa Nickless Cage stainless steel cages hold large water bottles, one for HEED and one for Perpetuem.  That's 156 ounces of fluids, a solid 6-8 hours for me, which is all I'll carry.  That's about 1 1/4 gallons, or 10 pounds, for you weight weenies.

The CamelBack sip hose clips to cable housing by the handle bar, for easy drink-on-the-fly access that stays out of the way.  The Tangle bag has a second, slender pocket on the left side for the pump, mud shank and cell phone, plus room for a little more.

Easy on-the-fly access to water from the Tangle bag, food from the Gas Tank, and other drinks from the bottles.
A close observer will note that the Tangle bag weight could interfere with operation of the brake and cable shifters running along the top tube of my Black Mountain Cycles monster cross bike.  No worries, thanks to a Shaun Arritola fix.  For each cable, I cut to length a clear refrigerator ice maker hose, made a serpentine longitudinal cut, and snaked the cable into the hose.  By attaching one of the Velcro pieces under the hose and loosely looping the other over the top, most all of the weight of the Tangle bag is then borne by the top tube and the cables run freely within the clear hose.  Slick.

Perched on the top tube by the stem is a Revelate Designs Gas Tank bag, which holds all the Hammer Gel and Endurolyte FIZZ, as well as a medicinal candy bag of Alleve, Advil, Bufferin and Tums.  Everything stored in the Gas Tank is easy to access, even when cruising on grouchy gravel.

With the Tangle and Gas Tank bags, I normally would be set for an all day ride by simply adding a generic, expandable seat bag for spare tubes, the tool kit and a light rain jacket.  Not so for the BackBone.  I'll need much more capacity for the layers of clothing for the wide variance of temperatures, winds and wets that will occur over 300 miles of exposed prairie and forest roads.  So, I'm pulling out the big gun:  a Revelate Designs Terrapin bag with a compressible dry sack.  That will hold all the clothing I want available, as well as the spare tubes and tool kit.

The compressible dry sack easily pops out of the Terrapin bag holster, without messing with the attachments to the bike.
Also, for the BackBone, there's still a bunch of food and some other stuff to carry.  A Banjo Brothers handle bar bag will carry about half of the additional powdered servings of Perpetuem and HEED, as well as spare glasses, contacts, sunscreen, lip balm, ID, cash, and spare batteries for the lights, tail lights and camera.  I'll start with the other half of the Perpetuem and the HEED, as well as the reserve treat of M&M's and peanuts, deep in the Terrapin seat bag.

Clean cable routing makes for easy installation and operation of a functional handle bar bag.
With all that capacity on the bike, I don't have to carry much, if anything, in my jersey pockets.  But I like to keep a camera in the right pocket and a ZipLock bag with maps in the left, leaving the middle pocket for whatever clothing items I want close at hand at the time.

No, I do not know what this bike weighs loaded.  It will weigh what it needs to weigh for the ride.