Back from Vegas. My second trip served to reinforce my initial impressions: Though the nearby canyons are spectacular, Vegas itself is a stink-hole. Even if you hope to put your sensibilities on hold to appreciate the famous "decadence and depravity", its just not there. Rather than luxuriously elegant opulence or exotic frontier edginess, the casinos feel more like dingy rundown malls filled with stale smoke, empty gambling machines, overpriced gas station food and a handful of American obesity epidemic poster-grandparents. If you get a chance, go, it'll make you appreciate home, and everywhere else.
So, why'd I go? Interbike, North America's largest bicycle trade event and show. It's a business-to-business event, so I attended in my official capacity as the Supreme Commander of the Ministry of Information Technology Services at North Road Bicycle Imports' Yanceyville-upon-Dan Operations Centre. This was my first Interbike, and I'm not a gadget geek (all my bikes are steel and I haven't even used a bike computer in years) so I am NOT well positioned to identify trends, spot "new for 2009" offerings, or differentiate bike-show biases from the true Zeitgeist. But that won't stop me.
For example, the color white is everywhere—tires, saddles, handlebar wraps, brake pads(!), etc.. Even ol' Brooks is in on the white thing! Gilbert says, "Looks like 'white' is the new 'black'," so I guess it's a trend, though I have my doubts: bike clothes and parts are traditionally black for a reason—black hides grease, oil, dirt and sweat. I once wore a pair of blue jeans on top my bike shorts for Big Dog Bruner's bitterly cold winter century in north Durham and confirmed that a leather saddle will indeed impart an unsightly black stain upon one's derrière. Perhaps white will be sold as the best "salt hiding" color?
On the other hand, black is terrible for safety as it works toward invisibility at night. As you'd expect there were plenty of lights on display, including Rock the Bike (Berkeley)'s long neon tubes—the "down low glow". There was a deafening air horn, powered by an air bottle you inflate with a bike pump. The rep said he inflated his in the Fall and it still had plenty pressure in the Spring. I'm sure plenty vendors refuse to locate next to that stall—this is a horn that should NEVER be used on a group ride.
Monkey 'Lectric (Berkeley) had a nice animated graphic spoke light system, like the old “Hokey Spoke” system. I never saw the Hokeys in person, but I'm told the Monkey system is a vast improvement. I asked the rep if they paid royalties to HS, but he scowled and protested that this is entirely different technology. I was disappointed that there's no way to customize and upload your own images, but otherwise it looked nice. Retails about $70.
Blackburn has some new, tiny, rechargeable lights called "fleas". Weighing only 17g including the built-in battery, you could even mount them on your helmet comfortably. They come with these little wires that have magnets on the end so that you can recharge your flea off a 1.5V flashlight battery.
I sought out Cat Eye to try to get an answer on their TL-LD1000s which, in my experience, are seriously plagued by a dangerous propensity to turn themselves off in use—a very bad thing for a taillight. The rep denied any knowledge of a problem. The 1000 is superseded by the 1100, which looks the same, and the always reliable skinny TL-LD600 has been superseded by the 610, which now has those lens bulges over each LED (like the 1000/1100). Cat Eye is a good company with great customer service, so I suspect the problem is fixed.
Back home, we'd been discussing the white goop on most new tires and how it's been known to cause crashes if not scrubbed off the tire before mounting. The conventional wisdom is that the nefarious substance is "mold release compound" —applied at the factory to the steel tire mold to prevent the rubber from sticking to the mold, kind of like spraying pam on a waffle iron—and is also reported as a problem on motorcycle tires. The Schwalbe rep. denied the existence of mold release compound. The Michelin rep. called it “silicone”, and the Panaracer rep called it “talc”. The <insert name> rep. said he did not know what it was, but they wash it off and then Armor-All the tires on display; he showed me a "knobby" which had white residue in the corners, and offered to contact the factory to investigate the issue.
I saw more steel frames than I expected, which made me happy—I still love steel. Again, being a show newbie, I cannot judge whether this is par for the course, a sign of a resurgence, or if Interbike is biased toward l'Acciaio? So, why steel? Aesthetically, carbon fiber looks like plastic. Aluminium tubes look bloated, and I still don't understand why they don't clean up the welds on aluminium bikes. Even oilfield welders pass the grinder over a completed weld to pretty it up, and expose voids.
Steel bikes are not welded. Steel tubes are assembled with lugs and brass brazing or silver solder. Lugs offer another opportunity for the builder and painter to create beauty and style. More pragmatically, I'm the kinda guy who sticks with a bike for life, so I appreciate that steel is forgiving, steel can bend and remain strong under stresses that would cause any of the other material to develop hairline fractures—fatal fractures. My old eyes are not good enough to spot those cracks.
Lastly, Fausto and Velocio both rode steel.
Speaking of steel, Mr Bayliss (San Diego) had an unassuming stall exhibiting his beautiful work. Though there were many outstanding steel frames from factories large and small, Bruce Gordon (California) and Brian were the only indie artesian custom frame builders exhibiting handicrafts at the show. Bayliss is often regarded as a painter, but I'm told he bristles at the suggestion. You see, he is a reluctant virtuoso—the problem is that he does such remarkable work with paint that other master framebuilders seek him out to paint frames that they build. One grows accustomed to hearing, "frame by so-and-so, painted by Brian Bayliss," and forgets to acknowledge Bayliss as a top frame builder in his own right. Take a look at Dale Brown's Interbike photos and note that he generally did not take more than one photo of the best bikes at the show—yet for Brian's bike he's posted TEN photos to capture the glorious detail.
Did I mention Bruce Gordon? Yeah. He is now partnering with an outfit in Taiwan to build some less expensive frames to his specs. Bruce will build the racks and offer the "BLT" frame with fork and racks for about $1000.
Sillgey frames (Irvine/Taiwan) builds nice lugged steel frames (NOT complete bikes) and does them up in spectacular graphics. I'm told its not paint, but a special sublimated powder coat process, like Velocity (Australia) uses on their outlandishly graphic deep-V rims (checkerboard, eyeballs, skull and crossbones, argyle, camo, etc.). Also, Synergy is now available in good ol' 27". How 'bout a Smith & Wesson bike with Camo Synergies?
Another traditional manufacturer at Interbike whose name evokes sentimental nostalgia is Brooks, who have been handcrafting premium leather saddles in England since 1866—cyclists have been riding Brooks since before we had chains, tubes or bearings! Brooks are a favourite with randonneurs—on many brevets, everybody is riding Brooks. Today Brooks offers thirty leather saddle models, plus six super supple “aged leather” models, leather bags, leather hand grips, leather bar wrap, leather mud flaps and other bits. I'm told they're going to offer one with leather so fresh that its still furry (my grandma had chairs like that) but I didn't see it.
Torelli also had nice Italian leather goods.
Naturally QBP was there. Even if you've never heard of "Quality Bicycle Products," I promise you that you've bought from them indirectly—they wholesale materials to all the bike shops. Ever wonder why Bill's Bikes uses the same part numbering system as Cindy's Cycles? Last year QBP rolled out the Civia brand of commuter bikes. This year they added the "Loring" model with really cool looking real bamboo fenders and racks. Available in any color you like (as long as it's apple green).
Speaking of 800lb gorillas, Shimano (Japan) demoed their Dura Ace Di2 electronic shifting—faster, lighter and more reliable than mechanical Dura Ace. This is NOT the old Mavic system, for one thing the Di2 shifts front and rear and uses conventional style integrated brifters. There's also options for other shift button locations. How much? Who knows! Campy has not produced theirs yet, so I guess Shimano can charge whatever they want for these jewels.
Speaking of shifting, have you seen the NuVinci continuously variable hubs? "Continuously variable" means there's no 1-2-3…, its analog, like a tractor or a Honda Insight transmission. Or like the volume control knob on your radio—there's min, max, and all points in between. Want gear # 2.539, you got it! This also keeps your chainline always straight, no dropped chains, no missed shifts, only one cable and no finicky derraileurs! At $600, they're about half the cost of a Rohloff. If you shop around you might get one for $400.
Want a cableless shift for the chainrings that's hands-free and maintains that clean fixie/ss look? Schlumpf (Switzerland) has the SpeedDrive—a two speed bottom bracket that you shift by pushing a mechanical button with your foot. Several bikes at the show where SpeedDrive equipped.
Years ago Sachs (Germany) made a coaster brake hub with a twist—by giving the pedals a quick backwards kick the cyclist could shift the internal gearing between low and high. If only Sachs still offered these, you could combine with the SpeedDrive for a four-speed, cable-free, derailleurless system with the clean look and perfect chainline of a singlespeed. But Sachs hasn't made the kickback in many years, so…dream on.
Dream come true—Moulton (England) has found a stash of NOS kickbacks tucked away in a European warehouse just waiting to be paired with the SpeedDrive! Moulton is offering a limited edition of their spaceframe bike with this novel configuration.
Sturmey Archer's (England) newest hub is three speeds, fixed-gear, with bar-end shifting.
Gates, the company that makes belts for your car, introduced their "Carbon Drive" polyurethane belt drive system at last years Interbike emphasizing MTB applications. This clean, quiet and smooth running toothed-belt drive system showed up on a lot of commuter bikes, folders and even a fixed-gear from Fixies Inc (Germany). They say this belt will also last twice as long as a chain, needs no lube and is much lighter than a chain.
Do you pump your tires up before each ride? Not me…I know I should. Ever wish somebody would make a self inflating wheel? Defined Design (San Francisco) has done that with their "Pump-Hub"—and it's really cool! The pump-hub is a machined aluminum tire pump that installs inside a special wheel hub and pumps when the wheel turns. You use normal tires and tubes, the hub connects to the valve using a thin black polyurethane air line. You push a little silver mechanical 'button' to turn it on, and ride the bike a mile or two to pump up the tire to the pressure you've set (adjusting screw). It goes "clack-clack-clack" as it pumps, then when the tire is fully inflated, the pump disengages, shutting itself off. The pump cartridge module adds four ounces to the wheel weight.
If you're looking for a hub that is just a hub, but you want the smoothest and most durable hub that money can buy, Phil Wood (San Jose) has been designing and making them in California since he pioneered sealed bike hubs almost 40 years ago. Not light, nor cheap, these hubs and bottom brackets will outlast your frame. You can consider them a family heirloom. A very conservative manufacturer, Phil Wood only makes changes in response to bona-fide new technology, so it is exciting news that this year Phil Wood bearings got even smoother with the introduction of "Carbonyte" bearings with a new compound that fills in microscopic cracks in bearing surfaces.
Gilbert pointed to a hand-cranked spoke threader at the edge of the booth and whispered, "four thousand dollars." Hunh? "You know how with a regular threading machine you turn and turn the crank? Not with a Phil Wood: One pull and the spoke is cut to length and a full set of threads are, not cut, but cold forged onto the spoke—it does not cut away material, and makes a stronger spoke."
I saw more fixies and single-speeds than I expected. Being a newbie, I can't say if that is in keeping with past shows. They could be catering to the youthful fashions, or maybe builders have always sought to highlight their frame construction by building up without messy cables, levers and derailleurs to distract the viewer's attention? I still like building a fixie up from a vintage steel frame—buying an expensive factory-made fixie just seems a little…bourgeois-bohemian, but some of them some look so nice that I'd definitely like to take them out for a spin, so call me a bo-bo. C'est la vie.
Rans had some long wheelbase recumbents with massive rear racks and pannier. I like that both wheels conveniently had the same tire size, but the saddles where like regular bike saddles—no back rest!
I had a great time talking to the guy at HP Velotechnik (Germany), he hates Vegas more than I do! If I may generalize, my experience with German salesmen is that they are the least pushy salesmen ever—in fact, if you want to buy something you need to be ready to push them. I was interested in his “Grasshopper FX” folding recumbent, but he said that the one he had was only a prototype and could not actually fold. Still, I wish I had pushed him for a test ride—I'd love to have a traveling 'bent.
"Stepper" indoor exercise machines are turning into outdoor vehicles. No seat, and two big platforms for your feet.
Santana (California) lined their booth by assembling ten of their “Cabrio” S&S-coupled sections into a ten seater tandem! You'd think that has to be a record, but the Orient Bicycle Company (Massachusetts) built and rode a ten seater way back in the 1890s! (Google "Oriten")
Over at the Kool Stop booth, there were two Josef Měsíček (Czech Republic) hand crafted highwheelers (penny farthings) on display. Highwheeling looks like fun, but these looked almost too nice to ride.
Topeak has a cool bike called the Jango with clever fittings for all the stuff you need to attach: fenders, lights, rack, trailer, etc… The idea is that all this stuff installs and removes quickly and easily without tools, and of course its all well integrated, so no more duct tape, nylon wire ties and leather bootlaces holding your stuff together. I keep an eye on Topeak since they introduced a cycling specific camping tent a few years ago—I figure any company that does that, understands how I like to bike. This year Kamp-Rite (Nevada) had their tent-cot mounted on a bike trailer.
There were several vendors displaying electric assist bikes, including "Flying Pigeon" who are one of the top manufacturers for China's domestic market, dating back to pre-Communist days. Under Chairman Mao, FP supplied a working man with a great bike for $15, in any color he wanted (as long as it was black). But Mao is dead, color options are available, and those $15 models go for $150 today. The "Flying Pigeon" name evokes sentimental nostalgia in China, where most of the commuter bikes on the street are FPs or Giants. The electric motorized hub bikes are also very popular in China, perhaps partly because motorcycles are limited to 50cc (mopeds) in China.
In the U.S. these hub motors are limited to about 20mph and operate only as "assist"—you still have to pedal. BionX (Quebec) has some surprisingly lightweight models with regenerative braking that are said to get up to 80 miles on a three-hour charge, but that's assuming you set it on the lowest assist level. 20 or 30 miles is probably more realistic. Cost is about $1500. My buddy Tom Ed tried a few brands, but gave up on them after finding that its too easy to fry the controller unit. Cycle 9 in Carrboro sells the BionX and one of the guys there charges his with solar power.
Need to haul heavy stuff? Madsen Bikes (Utah) has a dump truck of a bike—a rear loader available as a rack or bucket model, either rated to haul 600lbs. Yuba had models set up to haul a quarter ton too.
Oh, and there was a guy doing insane twenty foot backflips on an extreme pogo stick. I hope he stays out of pacelines.
I've always been very pleased with Ortlieb (Germany) bags—durable, very waterproof (they look like kayaking gear), well designed and made. The panniers have a great attachment mechanism—they're very secure, yet detaching when you want to couldn't be easier.
Big front bags were popular this year. Rickshaw bags (San Francisco) was started by the founder of Timbuk2 and makes "zero waste" bags—i.e. designed and cut from nylon in such a way as to not leave any scraps. Detours bags (Oregon) makes bags entirely from recycled plastic soda bottles.
I think I heard that Interbike will open to consumers too in 2009. The really big shows in Germany open to insiders during the week, then to the public on weekends. Vegas isn't my kind of town, but if one is in to mountain biking the outdoor dirt demos might be a lot of fun—there is some spectacular outdoors nearby, and very much a change of scenery from the east coast.
—Adrian "la Paralysie" Hands