Shell Ridge at about 100°

Shell Ridge, California at about 100°

In Mid-June I went to California to squint and sweat while my brother, smaller than an ant, walked across the stage at Cal Poly SLO. Apart from my familial duties, I had another agenda for my trip, to trick my brother into driving me up to Walnut Creek, outside of San Francisco, to Rivendell Bicycles’ HQ.

My introduction and subsequent fascination with lugged steel bikes began a little over a year ago, when I was hired on at Gravel & Grind as a barista. I had been cycling as a commuter and mountain biker for about two years at that point, and was totally hooked. I was under educated, but hooked nonetheless. I was curious to learn more about bicycles, and having recently graduated with a Bachelor’s in geology, I was still yearning for the learnin’. My persistent inquiries at Gravel & Grind lead to the formulation of a casual but comprehensive course of study in bicycles that we lovingly refer to as “The Curriculum.” The Curriculum includes reading assignments, essays, pop quizzes (mechanical and theoretical), discussions, lectures on history as well as hands-on apprenticing under day-to-day tune-ups and custom builds. Prior to working at the shop I had stumbled upon Grant Petersen’s  Eat Bacon, Don’t Jog, and Just Ride. I was sold on the philosophies of those two books. However, the curriculum showed me the depth of Grant and Rivendell’s influence on our shop’s aesthetic, and philosophy. We beeswax our bolts, put leather saddles and racks on almost every bike, are concerned with comfort first when fitting, make deliberate choices on the products we stock, pursue innovations at every opportunity, and then pass that information on to our customers.

It was an honor and pleasure to visit Rivendell. Headquarters is tucked away in a little industrial area of Walnut Creek. It fills six pretty sizable storage/garage units.

Lugs, bags, and sardine cans: What more could you want?

Lugs, bags, and sardine cans: What more could you want?

We started with introductions, toured about half of the facilities, played around on a Hubbuhhubbuh tandem and weird tiny bike. Will took me, my brother and his girlfriend out for a toasty ride through Shell Ridge (the closest location to Rivendell for a S24O camping trip).

My bike for the cruise through Shell Ridge. I felt right at home on the Brooks saddle and Albatross bars.

I rode a demo Atlantis for our cruise through Shell Ridge. I felt right at home on the Brooks saddle and Albatross bars.

We returned beet red, and I sat down with Grant Petersen, the founder of Rivendell, in the only room with AC for an interview. Grant was incredibly easy to talk to, a true wealth of information. He spoke just how he writes in the Riv Readers and his books: talking with him felt familiar.  My questions and comments are in bold. The first set of questions were from my time in California, and the final three I sent as follow up questions via email.

There's Grant Petersen on the right in head-to-toe MUSA. My brother Jeremy on the left and Melanie in the middle. Gran't drilling them about their recent graduation, I think.

There’s Grant Petersen on the right in head-to-toe MUSA, Rivendell’s house clothing brand. My brother Jeremy on the left, and Melanie in the middle. Grant’s drilling them about their recent graduation, I think.

How has living in California influenced Rivendell’s frame geometry and design? Do you take into consideration other landscapes and terrains when you’re developing geometry? 

Within a 20 minute bicycle ride from where we are right now (Rivendell HQ Walnut Creek, CA), nobody can out-hill us, we’ve got plenty of flat roads, 11 mile climbs that climb 3600 feet on road or dirt. Almost 360 degrees from where we are (there is good riding) with the exception of directly north. We have really good variety around here…. You’re here on a hot day and the hills are crisp and crunchy and about ready to catch fire but it’s not always like that. March, February, April oh my God, it’s beautiful.

On the east coast we have incredibly hard, rocky, jagged terrain.

Yeah, and I remember Fat Chance Bikes were famous for having high bottom brackets, low drop. So yeah, I guess you could have less bottom bracket drop for something like that, you could also just ride bigger tires. Some bicycle people have the belief that anything you can walk over you should be able to ride a bike over but I don’t think so. I think feet and legs are far more versatile. In my own riding, I don’t mind getting off my bike if its terrain that’s clearly unsuitable for riding a bike over. If you’re on a solo ride, are you going get off your bike or try to pedal it? People tend to do more extreme things in groups. The bike is a good companion for walking. If there’s 30 second descent on one bike and it’s a 23 second decent on another, if you’re enjoying the descent wouldn’t you rather the 30 second ride?

Women’s fit. How do you take that into account with geometry or components as well?  I know the Albatross bars are nice for helping aid in reach, because women tend to have shorter torsos but do you have anything you feel you’ve done specifically with women in mind?

I think a lot of women’s specific design, and “women’s specific design” is a Trek term, I think, actually. But not pointing fingers, I’ve seen a lot of bikes designed for or by women that by my standards would not be good women’s design. There’s this notion of the “typical woman” which I don’t think really exists. Long legs, short torso, short T-rex arms, and the way that is usually addressed in frame design is a shorter top tube and a shorter stem and that is such a simplistic way of addressing the problem. It seems to make intuitive sense, but it doesn’t. There are so many things going on, and to even answer the question I have to say one sentence then attach another sentence to it and another sentence and those sentences should go together and lead to some sort of a conclusion and make sense along the way but when you’re talking about designing a bicycle for women or to fit women I need like 6 mouths and they all need to cover the 360 degrees of this topic because I really don’t even know where to start. But here are somethings: top tube length doesn’t make any difference in moderate lengths. It’s not relevant. The angles and lengths work together. So, raising the bars up effectively lengthens arm because the more horizontal your arms are, the longer they are. Bar height, arm length, and distance to handlebars is totally ignored in the industry.  Almost all women’s specific designS, in a road bike for instance, are going to have at least 74 degree seat tube angles because that allows you to have a short top tube but a sufficiently long front/center. I can’t make generalizations but that’s how everyone does it, and it’s totally wrong. It’s well-intended, and it’s easy to sell because it seems to make sense, but it doesn’t stand up.  (Basically he’s saying that steeper seat angles shorten top tubes, but create other problems, knee pain, handlebar/hand pressure, to name a few.  -James)

A steel frame sliced in half. You couldn't help but learn a thing or two.

A steel frame sliced in half. You couldn’t help but learn a thing or two at HQ.

What are your thoughts on super low gearing? At our shop, we do this thing called “turkey vulture” gearing and its 44/24 x 12/40 or even lower if we can make it happen.

I like it, I think it’s great. Why not? I used to think anything less than a 1 to 1 you might as well walk, but then as you ride steeper things and in the dirt, being tired, and you’ve got a load, 1 to 1 is not nearly low enough. It depends on the rider, the load, the hill, and their whole approach. Our bikes go out with 24/32 or 24/34 or 24/36’s . On my Cheviot I have a 40, and it’s all good.

How about some advice for businesses starting up or creating a brand. How do you keep from compromising image and quality?

I’m pretty happy with the way Rivendell has shaped up and gone. When I was at Bridgestone I had a lot of input. I had by far more input than anyone else (at Bridgestone) on the particulars of the bikes and the frames but there was always a Japanese engineering department that was backing me up. The Japanese understood a lot more, even about marketing, than a lot of the Americans did. And that’s why in general I’m not super enthusiastic about dealers. Because dealers want the same bike that Trek has or Specialized has, but cheaper and they want a whole bunch of co-op advertising dollars to go with it. So, at Bridgestone we had a dealer direct model, not a customer direct model, and if you do that the dealers are your customers. If you are a dealer, and I’m Bridgestone or Rivendell and I have 350 dealers, I would have to ask you “what do you want?” And you’d have to ask what the customers want. And they want what their friends have, but they want it cheaper. There was a lot of that stuff at Bridgestone and I always had to compromise. I wanted bikes that I liked because I was also writing the advertising in the catalogues, so I wasn’t going to design bikes and then lie about them. But they always had to satisfy dealers and the sales reps that are coming by the dealers. Sales reps, they just want easy sales. If you ask a sales rep “if you get me a deore XT bike for under $750 then I can sell the heck out of it”, it’s not the answer, you might have to lose money on that bike just so the dealer can sell a whole bunch of them. When Bridgestone closed, I didn’t want to have anything to do with that. I knew the kind of bikes that I wanted and knew that I wasn’t going to compromise that if I didn’t have to. It’s not a fancy position to take. It’s just practical. For anyone making anything, starting a company or designing something.  Let’s say you designed shoe laces and you have this idea that’s a little bit off, and if you are convinced that it’s a better way and you have somehow talked yourself into thinking those are the best shoe laces out there, and nobody buys them. That’s a little bit of a problem. You can say “hey, people are idiots, they’re buying the wrong kind of shoelaces.” But if you make shoe laces that are just like everyone else’s shoe laces and still people aren’t buying them, then you don’t even like the stuff you have and you aren’t getting the sales. You lose both ways. So we started this because this is the way we like bikes to be, and it’s not because all other bikes are bad. But we won’t do a bike just like Trek does because they’re answering to dealers and when you’re a certain size you have to be ready for anything. You can’t say “oh, we’re going to get back to our roots, Trek is going to get back to steel frames, the way they make them in 1979.”  They can’t do that because they would be stepping on their own bread and butter bikes: the carbon or aluminum. Specialized is the same way. Specialized isn’t specialized any more, they’re quite generalized, but they’re all going to that direction. Specialized is concerned with Giant, is concerned with Trek. And they don’t want to be giant and lumbering.  They want to be big and agile. They want to be the first ones to do anything, but they’re never the first. S/G/T were the last ones to go to 650b mountain bikes. Then Giant went to them 100% and Specialized is still testing meanwhile everyone else is already doing that. When you’re big like that maybe you have to be slow but we don’t have to do that.

Back to the advice for starting up. I was lucky that we didn’t make any big mistakes early on. One thing you do is don’t copy people who can out price, distribute, promote you or squash you. By doing lugged steel frames, who’s our competition? I personally prefer that kind of frame and even if we had all kinds of competition we would still differentiate ourselves with the kind of lugs, and the design of the frames and other things. But just lugged steel frames in 2017, who’s our competition? Giant? Specialized? Trek? No, no, no. But for building a brand, you have to pick something that whoever your competition might be, is not interested in. For us lugged steel is perfect. Because for them to have lugged steel they would have to sell it against their other bikes, and to do that they’d have to say “steel is safer and is going to last 20-30 years.”

It would be contradictory to everything else that they’re doing

Yeah, so they can’t do that. Which is fantastic! So, who is our completion? Is it Surly? They build like 40,000 bikes a year and they’re good, sort of down-and-dirty, no nonsense bikes. But basically, we’ve recommended Surly for the last 15 years because if you can’t afford one of our bikes but you still want a safe practical bike you get a Long Haul Trucker and put Albatross bars on it. Fatties Fit Fine, up to 35-38, that’s not a bad bike! But I think it’s good to pick something you aren’t going to get beat up on. And do a good job. And a lot of it is the people. Like we’re at Gravel & Grind because of Will. There was general attraction, but Will is a great guy and he does a pretty good job with communication, Roman is super good too. You have to have a niche and then you have to have good people who understand it and communicate it across age boundaries.

Some of the demo bikes in the showroom at HQ,

Some of the demo bikes in the showroom at HQ.

If you had to own just one bike what would it be?

The Appaloosa.

Do you want to elaborate on that, are there any specific things about that bike?

I can put a 2.3 in tire in there if I want, but I just ride the stock tires. I can ride trails on it, I can commute on it, it’s fast enough that I can ride it on the road. I realize that was a fast answer, but 5 months ago I would have said my Clem 52, but I can’t quite say that because it doesn’t have all the lugs that I really like. The best riding bike that I probably have is a Cheviot 60, because it’s got a long wheel base which just makes everything fantastic. I like all the bikes, but I would say the Appaloosa.

If you weren’t selling bikes what would you be doing? Also, when you’re ready to retire what’s in the future for you?

I don’t know what I’d be doing. I’m not one of those guys thinking “ah, I could have made so much more money if I had gone into another industry!”

You’d do it all again the same way?

How far back could I go? If I go all the way back to high school I’d say, with the benefit of hindsight, I’d be more academic and might have gone into teaching. I might have gone into metallurgy, I like it a lot and I know quite a bit about it for someone who’s not a professional in that field. I like writing a lot, it’s tough to say. I’d be a free-lance writer. I like metals…I like reading, you can’t make a living reading…

Yeah, you wouldn’t be an editor, certainly not. (me laughing at my joke falling flat…)

Yeah, bikes work out for me. I really like it so I think I’d be a sad hobo without bicycles. I wouldn’t have the money to do anything else, I don’t know where I’d be living, I wouldn’t have had two children. I might not have gotten married, but I probably would have,. When you get married you ideally have some sort of path planned ahead of marriage, like how is this going to work? So, bikes gave me that, and I really like bicycles too. It’s my business and my livelihood. But I really, really like bicycles, riding them and everything about them and I think they’re fantastic and I’m happy to do it. And I’d be a hobo without it.

I feel that. So, what about the future, what do you think?

I’m not ready to retire, I still like coming into work. If I had 5 million dollars I’d still come into work every day. I don’t know, my wife would like us to retire. She works with the business, she does the book keeping and the legal stuff and all that, pays the bills. But she’s cool with the way things are going. There’s no pressure, she’s great. What I’d totally like for Rivendell, the young guys here could take over the business and not mess it up, and I don’t think they will, I would like them to eventually own the business. But they don’t have enough money to buy me out. And I wish they did. I don’t want to waste their time here. You know, if they’re in their late 20’s now, I don’t want them working till they’re 35, then we close up and they don’t get anything out of it. And their resume makes it look like they’ve been messing around with bicycles their whole lives. And bicycles are a great thing to mess around with. But it may not look good on a resume. But they’re all doing more stuff now than they were doing last year, each with a lot more responsibility. I don’t hoard all the fun stuff. Will, Roman, Mark all designed frames—but it has to be a Rivendell frame, not just going crazy.

Will was telling me about that with the Roscos, it was kind of a low-risk stab at frame design?

Grant took this, and he did a great job not making it awkward at all.

Grant took this, and he did a great job not making it awkward at all.

Yeah and they’re all really good. And I would love it if Rivendell was going on in 20 years and those guys were still here, and I don’t care what role I have in it. I just want them to have good jobs for a long time. And for them to make more money. And it’s tough though around this area. They can’t buy a house here, it’s sad because I bought at the right time with some help from my sister, and eventually bought her out, but you should be able to work at Rivendell, it seems like, and buy a house. I would like us to move to Silverton, OR. It’s an hour from Portland, good hiking, beautiful streams, good biking from what I’ve seen. I would like everyone here to move there, and buy a house and keep the business going with less rent on more space. And since we’re mostly mail order anyway, it could still work, we would maybe miss some walk-in traffic, but maybe not. We could give up that anyway. But Silverton is a town of 10,000 people. And we would have Riv-Velo nearby.

So you think Rivendell could thrive somewhere else?

Yeah, but I don’t know whether these guys would move—and some of these guys have just given up on getting a house. But that’s what I would like because I’d like Rivendell to continue. I think we’re making good bikes and I think bikes are important, and that it’s fun. In 40 years when people are looking at 40-year-old bikes there’s not going to be a lot of 40-year-old bikes that are still safe and I want ours to be that.

Explain “trail” and it’s implications.


It’s my least favorite bicycle topic, because I know what I think about it but not how to talk about it. It’s not the same. It doesn’t work to just blurt out what I think, because it gets out of control so fast, and the next thing you know I’ve drawn a line in the dirt and demanded people pick a side, and the thing is, I don’t care where anybody stands.  I care about  people, I just don’t care where they stand on trail.

I’m a normal trailer, and all Rivendell bikes are that way, too. When I get on any of our bikes, I think holy cow, this is how a bike should be. I don’t pat myself on the back for designing it, I don’t swell with pride, I just think, my god, this is perfect. So why steepen the head tube angle and increase the fork rake so the trail number drops into the “low” category, so we can please those who prefer, for whatever reason, low-trail numbers.

Besides, it doesn’t make sense to talk about trail isolated from the rest of the bike If a wheel goes wobbly, the bike goes wobbly, and for whatever reason that happens—the wind, a bump, how the bike is loaded, the resistance in the headset—whatever makes the bike go wobbly, or even have the tendency to go wobbly—well, trail is a guard against that.

I think it’s a control issue and that makes it a safety issue. The low-trailers say if you load the bike heavy up front, less trail (35mm or so) makes the bike easier to ride now hands or at slow speed up a hill.

Years ago we had an adjustable-rake fork made , so on the same bike, we could make it normal, high, or low trail. I think you can get used to anything, but the low-trail adjustment felt strange to me on fast descents, and no better on slow steep ones.

“Trail” has become a graduate course topic among bike riders who thought they had the rest figured out, and now here comes this new morsel with ties to ancient bikes and ancient wisdom. I’m not reverent enough for that. Also, there’s another steering/bike handling parameter that probably matters more, although it’s far less well-known than trail is. Everybody at Rivendell knows what it is, we have a name for it, and all of our bikes are designed with it in mind. That’s true whether it’s me designing a new model, or Will or Roman or Mark working on a limited-run Rosco Bubbe. Everybody here knows, but I’m not going to say what it is, because it’s another can of worms, and it’ll attract the meanest mathematicians and physicists on the internet. Why do that?

Rivendell stashes their lugs in one of the 6 units, but I won't tell you which one!

Rivendell stashes their lugs in one of the 6 units, but I won’t tell you which one!

What are 5 frame innovations or component specs that Rivendell has popularized?

Five things. We didn’t invent any of them—of course—but I want to make it clear that I’m no claiming otherwise. We just helped popularize these six things:

  1. extended head tubes
  2. lugs and steel
  3. baskets and bags
  4. bike camping
  5. normal clothes
  6. double-sided pedals and normal shoes or sandals
Advice from a sardine can

Advice from a sardine can: first, eat a lot of sardines. Second, tuck your shirt in when you’re cold.

What books are you currently reading? And what’s the best book you’ve read in the past two years?

Reading right now, simultaneously, all of these:

  1. White Trash. The Untold History of Class in America. (by Nancy Isenberg).
  2. When Breath is Life (by Paul Kalanithi). It’s by a brain surgeon who gets cancer and dies. His wife finished the book. It’s famous. I’ve already read it once, but I got a copy for Will, and on the way home from the bookstore I started reading it again (I was on BART), and I’m going to finish it again.
  3. Ike and McCarthy: Eisenhower’s Secret Campaign Against Joseph McCarthy. I’m on Ike’s side.
  4. And last week I finished, for the first time, Anne of Green Gables, by L. M. Montgomery.



About halfway up the climb, my toes went numb.  Wiggling them in my boots was like rattling little frozen vienna sausages around in my sock.  They felt disconnected, green beans dancing in a freezer bag.  The moon was a tiny smear of lard in the night sky, a crescent that was barely there, but the stars and moonlight lit the forest and cast dark voids between the oaks and elms.  My generator light was barely on. I was climbing so slowly that it was running mostly on reserve power, and when I cut across the road to lessen the pitch, it flickered out entirely.  The dim beam caught Chad, who was standing on the side of the road, on the edge of a spring that looked more like a dark oil slick, slowly gurgling out of the ancient crumbling rock face.  His hands were clasped in front of him, voice carrying over the percolating spring, giving thanks to the water that seeped between his feet. The man never donned a jacket, just a fleece and some Carhart pants that he hand waxed and some wood shop safety goggles.  It was about 10 degrees out, and the temp was rapidly dropping.  

hamburg ride2

The primary road was paved and clear but the fire road climb to the camp was loose and snow covered.  The snow obfuscated the terrain, hiding tire trashers beneath benign looking drifts of docile powder.  Loose rock chunks and slick snow: we all eventually took to our feet despite big tires and low gears.  We parked our bikes against a willing oak, the wind picked up, biting through our thin riding gloves and light clothing.  Hands went painfully numb.  We stashed our bikes (average weight, loaded, 75lbs) at the foot of a steep and loose pile of rocks, held together with lichen, mountain laurel roots, and gravity.  The path to the camp went straight up the remnants of a geological feature, so old it can not be measured by the human experience.  It was a hands and knees job in the summer but now, in early January, with a heavy pack, numb feet and hands, it was a whole ‘nother bag of worms.  About halfway up, Tracy’s sleeping roll slipped out of her hands and tumbled down the rocks, bouncing and twisting through the air, only coming to a stop at the field at the bottom of the incline.  I breathed a sigh of relief.  It could have easily been a person, smacking and rolling from rock to rock.  

Back in town, it was Saturday evening.  The bars were filled.  The restaurants packed despite the chill.  At home, people curled up to binge watch dubious TV shows.  Dinners came out of ovens and microwaves.  We pitched our tents in a wind insistent on launching our tent components into the dormant mountain laurel.  I got mine up, sort of, and loaded it with my sleeping bags and mats.  Tracy’s fingers had become so cold that she could not operate the clips to put her tent together.  We had to collaborate and use our combined remaining dexterity to finish the job.  

hamburg ride

There used to be a fire tower here, this was a great vantage point to look out over the rolling woods to spot smoke.  It’s a high spot, exposed to the constant battering of the wind and rain.  The fire tower was guyed out with huge steel cables, leavings of which you can still trip on with a dim headlamp.  It’s a place to visit, not to live, but it was our home for the night.  We expected temps to drop near zero.

Why be out there?  To answer that, you have to know why you are anywhere.  And to know why you are anywhere, you need to first ask the question:   Why?  Everyone has their own reasons, but I think many folks don’t actively seek out understanding why they are anywhere at all. They just are.  We were out in the cold wind, huddled around a smoky fire, not talking. Drinking hot stinging nettle and cinnamon tea laced with cheap bourbon, because we had asked the why and we were seeking the answer.  Finding and understanding nature and its sublime power is important.  To understand our place in the world, we must more deeply understand our world, and recognize how small our place in it is.  


I wrote this in my tent, late at night, as my candle lantern swung around, the tent poles gently bent in the wind.  

It’s hard to talk about why you wanna go freeze your bits off in the woods when you could be at home with a hot cup of tea and some warm slippers. But life is often lacking in perspective. We spend our days with faces buried in work or social media or faux friendships and really we just need to remember that the world keeps turning and seasons keep changing and that being outside in that world is the reason to be. It’s between 0 and 7 degrees out right now and I can’t feel my left foot. The wind is beating across the tree crowns like semis on a turnpike. A whoosh and a roar and the snow spitting across the lightly flapping fly. Freezing is important. Discomfort is important. Being alive is more than just Netflix and heated bathrooms. I can’t exactly pin point why I’m here. But I am. And I’m glad of it.  

As a parting note, here is a recipe, in anecdotal form, that we accidentally concocted on our trip. It was born out of necessity and availability, and it was perfect. This is don’t freeze your bits off food. Caution: Don’t try this on a warm night while car camping.  

After deep frying some tortillas and cheese and pork jowl in the fat from a pack of bacon, we had to get rid of the giant vat of fat somehow…. here’s our camp fire recipe for Gravel & Grind Signature Zero Degree Taco Surprise: take ten corn tortillas. They can be store bought. Fry up a pack of good bacon over some coals. Eat it all but leave the pool of fat in the pan. Dump in 20 slices of Pork Jowl and lightly fry. Leave the jowl stewing in the fat. Add a tortilla, dunking it in the fat then tossing on some good cheddar. It’ll be all shifty slidy but use the force and it’ll be ok. Before you do all this, boil water for an hour before realizing you forgot to add the lentils and rice. This is important. Make the lentils and rice. Half cup each. Bob’s Lentils and Goya yellow rice with the MSG packet. Prepare roughly as recommended. Dump lentils and rice on tortillas. Grab. Eat while scalding hot. Cover expensive gloves in bacon juice. Repeat as needed. Serves 3 hungry folk.

Go ride.  Ask why, then answer yourself with an adventure.  


This Journal entry has too much stuff in it.  Here’s a quick table of contents:

Alley Cat Announcement, too late, but better late than never.

Recent Builds, including a Rivendell Sam Hillborne and a Rivendell Hunqapillar.

A short essay about the loss of a dirt road. 


Gravel & Grind’s 2nd Annual Halloween Alley Cat n’ After Party, SATURDAY the 15th!!!

Alley Cat Scavenger Hunt Bike Race starts at Gravel & Grind 7pm sharp so get here at 6-6.30 so we can check you in and take your money.

What’s an Alley Cat? Scavenger hunt on a bike with challenges at different stations that are usually gratuitously gross, difficult in someway or weird. You can ride solo or in a 2 or 3 person group. Each rider’s gotta pay the entrance fee though! Sub 15 miles, all in town, no big hills. Winner gets rad prizes. Winning is a combo of speed, audacity, wits and weirdness. Extra points randomly awarded. Don’t take this event seriously. People who take it seriously will be doused in fake blood.

Party at the shop starts at 9pm. Fire Pits. Roasted Peeps. Trash cans full of candy corn, the good kind with the brown tip. Not really, we can’t afford the brown ones. Hangs. It’ll be good.

Race and Party: $15

MUST bring to the race:

-Bike you can get filthy, or a saddle cover.
-Bike Lights front and rear (please, something that actually is bright enough to read with)
-Messenger bag or backpack
-Costume you can get really messed up
-Bike Lock
-$15 cash
-Clothes to change into after the ride
-Towel. Its gunna be gross. There will be a hose down station post race, if needed.

Spread the word!

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Turkey Vulture Gearing 101: We (the nerds at Gravel & Grind) came up with Turkey Vulture gearing in the fall of 2016 response to a few needs and a few concerns. Issues: climbing with a loaded touring bike on rough steep fire roads, single track, 15% + dirt roads, etc was often not doable without climbing out of the saddle with all of it’s related issues. We live near short steep punchy climbs and have many miles of fire roads and single track around us. Walking a loaded touring bike up a slippery chunky gravel fire road is harder than riding it. How to ride it became a concern. Turkey Vulture gearing is our ultra super wide range gearing solution that uses normal rear hubs, normal rear derailleurs, normal friction shifters. Read on to learn more, there are guidelines and rough rules to follow, but as always, when going outside the norm with gearing or whatever, expect to have to mess around a bit.

Lower gears are the obvious answer to not walking up hills, but how to get those without loosing the top end go fast gears? Traditional touring gear was not low enough. We did not want to go to a 1×10 or 1×11 or 1×12 system. The reasons why include but are not limited to lower chain, cassette and chainring life, higher expense for a given cassette, derailleur, shifter, etc, and less room for mechanical slop, ie less room for imperfect adjustment. Imperfect adjustment is never talked about, but field servicing something often requires imperfection or improvisation. Using a multi tool to realign a derailleur hanger, for instance, which the bike below has had done. Turkey Vulture gearing worked fine for the remainder of the tour. 1x systems also limit your gearing either on the higher or lower end. We did not really want that, either. In short, we wanted a relatively affordable, highly versatile, field serviceable gearing beyond what any one is currently offering. After some tinkering, we landed on Turkey Vulture, so called to poke fun at the highly proprietary and expensive SRAM eagle 1×12 system.

Here’s the basics:
Go lower in the back. A 11-40 or 12-40 works well here. We have a few 9 and 8 speed cassettes in that range (the 8 is 13-40) that work well. The best derailleurs for this application are relatively new Shimano 9 speed mountain derailleurs. Skip plastic if you want to fix it by bending it. Our favorite is the Shimano Deore 9 speed derailleur, with the loaded b spring, not that Shadow 9 speed one. It works better, wraps chain better, costs less. Add a Wolf Tooth Road Link to the top, which drops the derailleur down a bit, which helps with having the pulley not hang up on the bigger cassette cogs. Makes it shift better. It’s tough, I’ve bashed it up, it can hand nasty hits.


Go low in the front. You can use a Sugino crankset, or a White Industries, or a Shimano MTN crankset, but make sure the low gear is either a 22, 24, or 26. We like 24 best. Add a maximium of 20 teeth to the granny gear tooth count you have. Thats how big your big ring can be. IE I run a 44/24. Bigger tooth difference than that, the derailleur can’t wrap it up. You can run it as a double or triple. You can obviously go with a smaller big ring (IE a 18t difference) but the idea here is max gear range for max versatility.


Use a flat cage front derailleur. Not something with lots of bumps and whatever. We like the Shimano CX 70 or old 1990’s road or mountain triple mechs. That’ll make running extreme gearing combos (44/40) easier to do without rubbing.

Your system should be friction, to fit in with the idea of field serviceability. Will Turkey Vulture work with Brifters? Some, but not all. Don’t message me about it, you are on your own there. Each brifter issue is a bit of a nightmare, and I’ll only look at them in person, not try to guess as to why its not working via email. Your friction shifters should have barrel adjusters to make cable tension adjustments easy. Either on the downtube, on the derailleur or inline. Front derailleurs without barrel adjusters are silly.


Use a longer chain, probably. Some set ups with short chain stays won’t need a longer chain, but most will. Here’s what we do: set up a full length chain with a quick link. Connex makes our favorite, because the quick link is easy to open by hand, they are really tough, and they are nickel plated for good silvery looks. If you are rad and get this stuff from us because we told you about it, we sell the other things you need: a few extra chain links, and an additional quick link. Add a few links, and use the chain sizing  technique below to get the right length. It’s not hard, but it might take a few tries. It works though, if you do it to his spec’s.



You can use any friction shifter for this, more or less, but we like IRD’s brake levers with Shimano Bar cons mounted to the front. You can position the Bar Cons pointing up or down to personal preference. I like em up. This is a good solution for Brifter fans who have been feeling the pull of friction shifting.

I love Riv, but I would recommend against using Silver shifters or anything with a weak ratchet. Old Suntour shifters work, Shimano, full friction shifters like Campy downtube shifters… but weak ratchets slip.


Here’s the deal: we stock all of this stuff, or try to. The cassettes, the chains, the levers, the shifters, the derailleurs… We’re a small shop that happens to be a Riv dealer, a fact we’re proud of. If you want to go full Turkey, call us or better yet email us, and throw us some support. We’ll help make your bike more versatile, and make touring and steep roads more fun.  We’ve set it up on a bunch of bikes now, and pretty much know what will work and how.  Go low, don’t walk, fix your stuff in the field.  That’s it.  

I’m James, the mechanic and co owner here. You can reach me at james (at) gravelandgrind (dot) com

Thanks for reading!


Riv and Bridge Social copy

Who:  Gravel & Grind    Contact:  james (at) gravelandgrind (dot) com   301 682 2651

What:  Coffee Outside Ride and Social.

Where:  Gravel & Grind HQ and the Frederick Watershed

When:  August 14th     Social  11-2    Ride  2-8ish

Why:  Because dirt roads, coffee and steel bikes are 3 of the best things in life.

How:   RSVP on our Facebook page or, shoot us an email.  The ride is free, but we need a headcount.  Bring a Bridgestone or Rivendell or a few, if you want to show off a collection of them.

More details:

-Free street parking on Sunday

-Ride will be hilly and challenging, but not insanely hard.  There is a mountain to climb though.  Dirt roads, maybe a stream crossing.  35ish miles

-Gear list:  Bike, riding clothes, a mug/kettle/stove/coffee brewer if you have one.  At least bring a mug, or buy one here at the shop.  We have some rad ones.  Bring a tube for whatever wheel size you have.  head and tail lights are a must, bright enough to descend a steep road in the dark.  200 lumens minimum for the headlight.  400 is better.

-We’ll hang at the shop and drink coffee and nerd out on bikes for a few hours (get here between 11-2) and leave around 2 for the ride.





Long days are perfect for big meandering rides.  We like setting off in the afternoon and arriving back in town toward dark.  The setting sun is a bit cooler, the light is perfect for photographs, and there is usually less traffic.  We get lots of requests for more routes around Frederick.  There are 6 places to ride nearby, but we mainly stick to 3 of them:  Gambrill/Wolfsville and the Watershed, the Middletown Valley, and Sugarloaf.  These have minimal transport stages (boring suburbia) to get through and they all contain hills and dirt roads, our two main criteria for good rides.  The valley south of Thurmont is fine, but it’s higher traffic, has no dirt roads left, and no climbs to speak of.  There are some nice looking Covered Bridges though and plenty of farms.

All of the routes below start at Gravel & Grind. On Sundays there is free on street parking.  The shop address is 124 S. Carroll St, Frederick MD 21701.

Watershed Loop:

The Watershed is a swath of forest 12 miles northwest of downtown Frederick.  It’s laced with trout streams, lichen covered rocks, wandering families of bears and small ponds.  If you like hiking, fishing, climbing, dirt roads, mountain biking or swimming, it’s the place to go.  No maps, besides the Google map, so you just have to get out and explore.  It’s hemmed in by all sides with bigger roads or boundary markers, so it’s hard to get too turned around.  This ride takes you on all of the major dirt roads in the ‘Shed.  You’ll start with a 5 mile climb up Right Fork, passing a tumbling brook, a swamp, and a number of hidden but not far off-the-road ponds.  They’re hiding a 1/4 mile down fire roads, behind red or yellow forest access gates.  Reference a google map while riding to see if you are close to one, and check ‘em out.  They are all worth visiting!


On your way back down through the shed, you’ll do a stream crossing and another big climb. The descent back to the city is fast and bumpy and swoopy:  if you are not a seasoned descender, go slowly and take breaks.

Here’s a link to the route:

Don’t miss:

  • The Mountaindale Convenience Store on Mountaindale Road.  Ice cream sandwiches, cold water, coke in a bottle.
  • The rock formation at mile 14.4 on your left.  It’s across a small stream, last we checked there was a log bridge to get back there.
  • The fire road and pond on your left at mile 16.4.  The pond is a few hundred yards down a bumpy trail.  Walk it if you are unsure.


  • Plenty of water.  Only place to get more without a filter is the Mountaindale Store, and it’s pretty early in the ride.  I’d bring 3 bottles, at least.
  • Tools and a tube or two.  It’s rough and fast and dirt!
  • Lights that you can safely ride with after dark.  A 200 lumen headlight minimum



Sugarloaf Mountain Loop:

Sugarloaf Mountain is a privately held, publicly accessible mountain a few miles south of Frederick.  It’s surrounded by good dirt roads, and the mountain itself has a nice wandering climb to a summit with good views and places to eat lunch.  We particularly like eating at the weird old fort-like structure at the uppermost parking lot.

The ride heads south out of Frederick on a wide road.  Ride it on a Saturday or even better a Sunday morning or afternoon for the lowest traffic.  The transport stage is flat and fast, and a small group can knock it out quickly if they do some light pace lining.  The transport stage is prettier than most, once you clear the city you are in farm land.

As soon as you get off the main road, the riding becomes hilly, crossing the Monocacy River, passing by a Lily Pond farm, and climbing a steep paved section of Park Mills Road.  The climb is rewarded with a fantastic descent down Peters Road, one of the coolest dirt roads in the area.  It ambles along a small stream where heron are often seen fishing.

As you wind around the mountain, you’ll be on and off small dirt roads.  Sugarloaf Mountain road is long and straight and well covered by trees.  It empties into a small parking lot a the foot of the mountain.  There’s a water fountain in the parking lot.  Fill up and start the climb up the gated mountain access road to the over looks.  The first over look is on your right, but the main one is at the top of the climb.  Descending is fast and twisted, use caution.

The journey back to Frederick involves a bit of back tracking, but it’s well worth it.  You get to fly down Flint Hill and cruise next to a particularly scenic section of the Monocacy River.  You also pass thru tiny historic Buckeystown before returning to a transport stage and the city itself.


38 mile route here:

Sugarloaf has a longer than usual transport stage, but once you get there, the ride is worth it.

Don’t Miss:

  • Lilypons Water Gardens, if they are open.  Call ahead.  The grounds are worth a stroll.  On Lilypons Road.
  • Heron Watching on Peters Road, especially toward evening or early morning.
  • The fort at the top of Sugarloaf Mountain is a great place for lunch.  Or bring a light lock and hiking shoes and hike to the summit of the mountain.  It’s steep and filled with stone steps.  About an hour hike, with great rocks and views at the actual summit.

Things to know:

  • Ride this route in a small group for better visibility on the transport stage.  We’d also recommend using day time visible tail lights.
  • No stores along the route mean: bring water and food
  • Rough roads, bring tools and tubes


Middletown Valley: Dirt Roads and Steep Rollers

Middletown Valley is like the Thurmont Valley but arguably more scenic, hillier and it has dirt roads.  The dirt roads are just about as well manicured as dirt roads get, so this is a great ride to take a new dirt road rider out on.  You could ride this with 25mm tires, but we like fatter tires for more comfort, even on smooth roads.


Take a ride past downtown’s Baker Park before starting a few mile transport stage to get out of the ‘burbs.  You have to cross route 40, but you’d do it at a light, and it’s a long enough light to safely cross.  Once you take the left on Mt Phillip Road, it’s all country.  The big rollers start immediately, and they are tempered by even bigger extended climbs and some nice flat sections, especially down along Poffenburger and Richard Remsburg Road.  You’ll summit Teen Barnes Road for a great valley view and a screaming fast short descent.   Poffenburger and Bennies Hill Road both ride alongside a small creek, and there might be some secret swimming holes for the adventurous types.  You’ll cross two historic bridges and 4 gorgeous dirt roads before coming into Middletown, where you can snag Ice Cream Sandwiches before heading back.  The return route is dirt free but has some great wide open country roads and more rollers.  The Transport stage back to town is varied, so hopefully it feels less like a transport stage and more like a meander through town.

Route link here:

Don’t miss:

  • The old bridges on Bennies Hill and Poffenburger
  • The underground house on Harley Road
  • The view from the top of Teen Barnes Road
  • Ice Cream at the gas station in Middletown or Coffee at the Main Cup


  • All the usual ride stuff like tubes and tools.  There’s a water stop, so extra water isn’t a huge deal.


Wild places are simultaneously alluring and terrifying.  The enlightenment philosophical concept of the sublime sought to define these entwined concepts.  Kant, in the late 1700’s, wrote that the sublime was a separate thing from the beautiful.  The sublime is found in formless, boundless entities.  Nature and the wilderness can be sublime, not say, a flower, or even a park full of flowers.  Schopenhauer postulated that for something to be fully sublime, it also had to be unpredictable, potentially violent and harmful.  A mountain and it’s weather system, a storm in the Atlantic, and a grizzly bear in a meadow all qualify as sublime. 


Turner was a master of painting the emotional essence of the sublime.

Humans are drawn to the sublime.  Sometimes it’s through a book about survival or an arduous trek, sometimes it’s art (Frederick Church, Turner) or music (black metal, Beethoven), and sometimes it’s through direct experience.  Rowing across the ocean.  Solo AT thru-hikes.  Racing the continental divide bike race. There are degrees of the sublime and wilderness experiences.  Not all backcountry experiences are equally dangerous, even if they all have some level of danger.  The trick is to find experiences that are going to give a feeling of the sublime without leaving you stranded in a bivy sack on the side of an ice waterfall waiting for a rescue chopper.


Frederick is pretty close to a number of quasi wilderness areas.  I say quasi, because there is very little true wilderness left on the east coast, but there are plenty of stretches of trees cut only by a thin dirt road.  They’re called state forests, and there are a bunch near by.  Michaux State Forest is less than half an hour away, and is a current shop favorite.  Green Ridge is under 1.5 hours away.  Savage River is just over 2 hours.  Buchanan State Forest in PA is 1.5 hours.  And that’s just to name a few.  State forests generally all share the same key attributes:  They are all well mapped, they generally lack ‘organized activity facilities’ like normal camp spots, pavilions, swimming pools, etc, and you can back country camp in them.  The maps and the back country camping are the elements that make these places are super cool.  You can ride on back roads, fire roads, single track, find a good place to plunk down for the night, and ride some more in the morning.  You find a quiet dirt road to ditch the car, orient yourself with the map, and head out.  The forest links above all have downloadable maps, but paper maps are the way to go if one is available.  Michaux’s paper map that the DCNR prints is close to perfect.  


The lack of recreational facilities in state forests means that most folks stay away, preferring the edited experience of a State Park.  You won’t find too many people willing to go recreate somewhere where they have to make up their own plan.  It’s work, and there’s chance involved, as well as risk.  What if you take a wrong turn down a long mountain road and end up in some boggy marsh?  Here’s the thing: if you venture off the beaten path, sometimes you’ll strike out.  That’s ok, it’s part of the experience.  You can’t always find some rad overlook, or summit some amazing mountain.  I’ve summited plenty of mountains only to find the top completely covered in trees and no view in sight.  The thing is, when you do stumble upon a great view, or a winding trout stream, you are filled with a genuine sense of discovery and wonder.  Discovery & wonder don’t exist when you already know what’s coming.  You’re just turning the page on a book you’ve already skimmed.  


Here’s what you’ll need to head off into a state forest for some wilderness exploration:

A good map.  USGS topo maps are great but often outdated.  Combine an electronic USGS topo map like the excellent Gaia app with a real, updated trail map.  Most local DNR offices have one.  The Michaux map is particularly excellent; it’s big, easy to read, and updated with lots of trails lacking from the 1994 USGS maps.  Just call them and ask for them to mail you one (expect to pay a few bucks for that) or snag one from the DNR office. 

A compass.  Learn how to use one, and not just how to point yourself north.  Electronics fail as often as they work, and if you don’t know how to use a compass and a map to navigate, you should either learn or stay away from backwoods wanderings.  One dunk in the creek and your phone is shot.  Here’s a great resource on how to use a compass for orienteering:

Screen Shot 2016-06-04 at 8.44.01 AM

A course. You can just get out and randomly wander.  I’m all for that.  But a general idea of where you want go (check out a lake, a stream, etc) is usually a good idea, and gives you a basic goal, as well as a point of navigation.  I like, which is a free mapping website that auto generates cue sheets after you make a route.  You can save them and reference them later.  It has a handy USGS overlay that lets you find small remote streams, weird old jeep trails, avoid populated areas, etc.  I use this, a paper map and Gaia to navigate.  I draw the route in orange marker on the real map, and follow along on Gaia, or download the GPX track from ridewithgps to Gaia.  It’s easier than it sounds, just read the tutorial.  I pick routes based on water features, road names, tiny-ness of the road, or mountain features (names like “Dark Hollow Vista” are usually good indicators of something rad).  After a basic route is picked out, realize you are probably going to deviate from it.  Flexibility and on the fly rerouting is often key, as old trails disappear into the leaves, bridges are washed out, or trails are impassible with a touring bike. Set realistic goals for yourself.  40 miles of riding in Michaux is really difficult, and will leave you wasted in a way that 40 miles of normal road riding never would.  25-35 miles a day is a realistic goal, especially with a load of camping gear.   


Rough rows, top to bottom, left to right: First Aid kit with bandages, pain killers, tweezers, etc, vaseline soaked cotton balls for starting fires, a sharpening stone, stainless opinel No 8 knife, compass. Row 2: Rubber band, glue sticks (melt with lighter for gear repair) and a needle and electric tape wrapped around a spare cell phone battery with Paracord, chap stick, chlorine water drops, char cloth and strike anywhere matches in a tin. Row 3: Zippo, spork, headlamp, all on a sturdy paradigmatic handkerchief.

Overpack on food and water.  You’ll eat more than ya think, and drink more water too.  I bring 90 oz or so of water, and expect to have to treat water at least once while in the field, choosing natural springs when I can, and moving water when springs are not available.  If you are heading out for multiple days, you’ll probably have to snag some dehydrated meals from your local backpacking store.  When the meal says two servings, think one.  When it says one serving, buy two.

Obviously you need lots of other things.  I never head anywhere remote without a basic survival kit (fire stuff, knife, first aid kit, water purifiers, etc), proper layers, and appropriate shelter, even for day trips.  You don’t know what’s going to happen, and a pound of survival gear goes a long way if things get bad.  Food, water, and tools are all musts as well.  I carry a comprehensive tool kit, a kettle that I can also use as a stove, a mug, rain gear, and my front hub can charge my phone. 

Some caveats:  always check local camping regulations. Most state forests have simple regulations: no car camping, no horse camping, no extended stays, no big parties.  Keep groups small, keep fires small, completely clean your campsite after packing up, and fully extinguish your fire.  Check with the local DNR office about fire danger. If it’s been raining, you’re probably ok, but summer time is often a good time to skip a fire and stick with a stove.  Back woods riding is dangerous.  Things can bite you, you can twist an ankle, crack a collar bone, etc.  It’s best to travel with a partner; let someone know where you are going.  That sorta thing.  Be safe, go rad places.


The Michaux Scrambler was a lump of butter balanced on a hot thin wire of made out of stress. Weather reports varied wildly day to day. We called the ride a ‘go’ with a fairly favorable weather report, ordered all of the food, then the next day the weather forecast called for hail and severe storms. Awesome. We searched around for some valium, couldn’t find any, so we just drank lots of coffee instead.

Dawn on Saturday: deep azure sky, clouds made out of cotton balls, warm air… After a monster climb followed by coffee outside in a meadow, followed by another monster climb, we heard from a guy wandering around on the road that the weather was about to turn into a bucket of mud. As Mike and I waited at the top of the climb, we saw the sky turn to a putrid liquid lead color. The wind slackened. We hastened to retrieve our rain coats, and barely got them on before the drops started in earnest.


The riders plowed on, undeterred and undaunted by the storm, fenderless riders looking like they had been in a mud eating contest that had ended badly. Lunch was spent under tall pines, huddled around a wet but effective fire, munching on huge damp sandwiches. Despite being borderline hypothermic, we had to descend off the mountain, cold air whipping at soggy rain gear.

The weather broke, and we headed deeper into the woods, cruising old fire roads, smooth and slick dirt roads and some rocky snow mobile trails. After climbing one more big chunk, we bombed into the valley, back to camp, only to immediately get hit with high winds and driving rain. Riders hunkered down under lowered EZ ups and chugged beer that we rescued from the stream cooler.


Tired but diligent volunteers Mel and Kelley whipped up an awesome dinner of sausages and veggies and fire baked cobbler. We passed around a bottle of Buffalo Trace as Dave played his Dobro and sang traditional songs.

Sunday morning was spent degrossing the bikes, getting the grit out of drivetrains and pads. We drank copious amounts of coffee, ate sausages and yogurt and fruit and headed back out. The first climb was a true soul crusher, with no end in sight. Luckily, it was followed by another even harder climb, on loose terrain, that had many riders pushing their bikes. Rewards quickly followed, with a 5 minute burning fast descent down a groomed ATV trail. Rewards are always followed by punishment though, and we spent an hour and a half climbing back up after the amazing descent.


Lunch was a rushed affair in a gravel parking lot, original plans foiled by ‘the man’ and time. Day light was running low, and leg strength was being slowly depleted. A quick reroute past a sparkling reservoir and over a dusty dirt road found us back at camp before 6pm. We broke camp and went home to sleep for 12 hours. Or at least I did. 12 and a half, really.

We had a blast putting the event on. We’ll do it again next year, but differently. It’ll still be rad, hopefully more rad. If you rode, look for a survey soon about what you liked and didnt like. If you took cool pictures, share em. If not, Jay will have a full album on flickr soon that we’ll link to.

All pics here by Jay. Catch all the rest of ’em at his flickr stream, here.  John, who rode as well, also has an album worth checking out, here.


Bikes are put together in a bunch of different ways with a bunch of different materials.  A quick, (ok not quick, it turned out to be really long) run down looks like this:

Aluminum.  Most bikes sold in the US are aluminum.  Sometime in the early 90’s, aluminum became cheaper by the foot than steel.  At the same time, robot welding was getting really good, and fat aluminum tubes took kindly to robot welding.  Aluminum typically is TIG welded, a welding process that involves super heating the tubes together with an electric current.  There’s a gas involved, but for the sake of simplicity, think of the tubes getting so hot via this electrical current that they melt together.  That’s what’s happening at a basic level.  Aluminum TIG welds are big and fat, and good ones look like a stack of dimes spread across a joint.  TIGs themselves are light weight, and because you are just melting two tubes together, you can put the tubes together at any angle, which is a good thing.  Good TIG welds are very strong, the idea being the weld will be stronger than the surrounding tubing, and the tubing should fail before the weld.  You know someone or something messed up when you see a cracked weld. 

stack of dimes aluminum weld

Aluminum has to be oversized to get any stiffness out of it.  If an aluminum bike had steel bike sized tubing, it would ride like a wet noodle, and indeed, early aluminum bikes did and do ride like day old Soba noodles.  TIG welding is really hard on tubing, because the tubes are melted together.  Melting isn’t a gentle process, unless you are melting butter in a cast iron pan and not thinking about it on a chemical level.  Melting involves immense heat and that heat can distort tubing.  This is important to note with all TIG welded materials, Steel and Ti included.  Because of this heat, tubing needs be thicker at the ends of the tube, where the weld happens.  This thicker tube resists distortion but affects ride quality and tube weight.  Thicker tubes are stiffer and heavier. 

Aluminum has a finite fatigue life, and parts that are hanging out on a shelf, getting lightly banged up, are aging just like parts on your bike do.  Interesting, anodizing, which was designed  to protect and strengthen aluminum, speeds corrosion when the anodizing is scratched.  A raw aluminum part will last longer than anodized or painted part, but no one makes raw aluminum bike parts any more.  They did in the 70’s though.  Most aluminum bikes are on borrowed time after a decade.  Same too with handlebars, rims, anything extruded.  Stems and cranks tend to last way longer, if they were designed well. 

Aluminum does not suffer dents well, and, like Titanium or Carbon, is compromised and generally just waiting to break after it’s dented.  Steel can be dented as long as the dent doesn’t result in a sharp edge, and retain all or almost all of it’s strength.  It’s the only material that can do that.  That’s a good thing, for steel. 

In the 90’s, they experimented with bonding (gluing) aluminum, often to steel or aluminum lugs.  We’ll cover lugs later, but it’s important to note:  no one bonds aluminum any more, because glue doesn’t last forever.  Many of these early bikes developed a weird bubbling of the glue at the joints, and became unsafe to ride as the glue dissolved.  Same goes for early carbon bikes too.  New ones have different problems, and but maybe we’ll see bubbles and weird solvents leaking out soon on 15 year old carbon bikes.  I wouldn’t doubt it.

Aluminum’s advantages:  Lightish (maybe .25-.5 lbs lighter, if you take a tough steel bike and a tough aluminum bike), easy to robot weld, looks fat and tough, cheap to buy.  Disadvantages: ages poorly, doesn’t like to be dented, can’t be affordably repaired, so bikes go in the recycling bin if damaged.  The advantages are mainly ideal for the seller (talking points, it’s lighter, look at my cool graphics, cheaper, shorter service life) not ideal for the end user. 


Titanium is TIG welded exclusively.  You can glue/bond it too, but almost all Ti these days is TIG’d.  Titanium does not have the short fatigue life of Aluminum, so it has the ability to be ridden safely for years, if it is not dented.  It’s an incredibly hard material, so it is hard to dent, but dents do happen.  It’s hardness makes it very difficult to cut and machine, increasing the cost of any Titanium product.  Welding must be done in an oxygen free environment that is very clean.  Ti welds that are exposed prematurely to dirt or oxygen will fail in time.  Ti bikes can be repaired, but TIG welds are hard in general to repair, and most cracked TIG bikes are scrapped no matter what the material is. 

Ti is about half a pound lighter than a comparable Steel frame. 

Advantages:  No rust, looks nice with no paint, bling factor, marginally lighter. 

Disadvantages:  Cost, doesn’t dent well, hard to work with, easy to mess up during fabrication, environmental toll.


On a recent trip to a US factory where high end Carbon bikes are made, I found out why the industry loves carbon.  They can say Carbon bikes are hand made, but those hands are not the hands of skilled laborers.  They are just folks in a room stuffing pieces of carbon in a mold.  Imagine taking a tissue and stuffing it in a dixie cup, then adding 3 more tissues.  Then stick the dixie cup in the microwave.  Now you know how to make a carbon bike.  Carbon is all about engineering, not about workmanship.  There is way more workmanship in the painting, as I saw later in the tour, where much of the paint work is still done by eyeball and hand. 

Companies used to employee craftsmen and women who mitered tubes, filed things, welded things, ground metal, hand aligned frames.  These people were skilled.  They cost money.  They had to go.  Most of the bike industry is not about making great bikes.  It’s about making money. 

Carbon fiber bikes are made of 3 things:  Sheets of fabric called carbon fiber, epoxy (glue) and small chunks of aluminum that are inserted into high wear parts of the bike, sometimes. 

Carbon is placed in a mold, epoxy is injected, it’s pressurized with a bladder to squeeze out excess glue, then it’s stuck in an oven and baked.  The bike is made in chunks and the chunks are later glued together. 

Carbon is incredibly strong but incredibly fragile, like a guy who is huge and super tough until he sees a mouse, then he turns into a screaming wreck.  Wack a carbon tube with a hammer really hard, chances are it will be fine.  Scratch it with a rock that kicks up from the road, and if that scratch gets past the paint, the frame could be knackered.  When it fails, it generally fails without warning, catastrophically.  Think of a glass you drop 3 times.  First two times its fine.  3rd time you spend the next 10 minutes sweeping up shards of glass. 

We don’t fully understand carbon fiber and how long it will last or how strong it is.  When that new giant Airbus jet plane came out, I read in the Post that the engineers didn’t know how long the carbon fiber wings would last, as no one had many any that big before.  That’s on a plane that carries hundreds of people across oceans.  They don’t know how long it will last.  If they don’t know, you know that bike engineers sure don’t know.  Airplanes are tested much more brutally than any bike ever has been.

Here’s what I know, from working on Carbon bikes.  IF they are well taken care of, expect about 10 years of life out of a frame, or 5 years if the headset and bottom bracket are integrated into the frame.  After that, the frame/bearing interface develops play, and the frame is done, unless you want to hamburglar a beer can shim.  I’ve seen two year old press fit carbon bottom bracket shells wear out. They’re happy to warranty a busted frame though, because it cost about 40 bucks to make, and you’ll need all new bearings, seatpost, maybe stem, cranks, etc to make your new frame work. 

Carbon’s chief advantage lies in it’s moldability.  You can make anything out of carbon, which is really handy for dual suspension bikes.  Ironically, carbon and off road use are a pretty poor mix.  No big deal if you race and get free bikes though. 

Carbon’s advantages:  Light (1.5 lbs lighter for a steel race frame and a carbon frame), cheap to make, looks racy, easy marketability, repairable in the right hands, moldability.

Disadvantages:  Short service life, potential catastrophic failure mode, puts skilled labor out of a job, cost (although you’ll see that plummet in the next 5 years, and carbon bikes will be at the 500 dollar price point… not a pipe dream, I heard it from a major brand product developer who is working on said project). 


Steel can be TIG welded (melted together), Brazed or Lugged.  All of these have advantages and disadvantages.  Let’s get Brazing out of the way first.  Brazed and lugged joints have a lot in common.  They both are low temperature, and involve melting brass or silver over a joint to glue it together.  The melted brass forms a metallic glue.  You can overheat a joint with brazing, but in general it’s a much more gentle process to melt brass.  Lower temps mean you can use thinner tubing near the joint, which can lead to a better ride quality if the guy spec’ing the bike takes advantage of brazed or lug specific tubing.   Rivendell takes that to it’s logical conclusion, and has steel tubing custom drawn just for their bikes.  That’s at least part of the noted ride quality of a Rivendell. 

Brazed joints look really smooth.  Most TIG welded bikes, and all lugged bikes, have at least some raw brazing on them, usually at the drop outs or rack mounts.  If you can’t really see how the tubes are put together, chances are it’s brazed. 

Brazing advantages:  like TIG welding, you can stick tubes together at any angle.  It’s easier on the tubes, and you can use lighter tubes.  It’s repairable, you just melt the brass and the tubes come apart.  Disadvantages:  when big tubes come together, it’s easy to make a mess and or over heat the tubes.  Master brazers are rare (Nitto Racks are all Brazed, for the record, by one woman) and most people who have to braze are just serviceable at clean joints, good enough to put a rack mount on, but that’s about it. 

TIG welded steel is a great set up for mountain bikes, industrial production, or when you can’t afford to hire a master brazer or develop a lug set.  Wanna prototype something?  TIG welding is your method of choice for it.  Steel tubing companies have developed special high heat tubing that air hardens after TIG welding.  This air hardening makes the tubing stronger than it was BEFORE the welding took place.  TIG’d steel frames, properly designed, are incredibly strong. 

Steel lasts a long time.  Rivendell conservatively estimates their frames will last 25 years, but that’s an understatement for most of them.  I have a ’93 Bridgestone I use as a daily rider, and there are tons of 1980’s steel bikes still on the road.  My favorite bike is from the late 70’s making it about 40 years old, but it rides fantastically despite numerous dents and generally looking terrible.  Steel bikes, well cared for, will last a really long time.  20-70 years. 

Steel can be dented and remain strong.  It can be bent and unbent.  It can be poorly welded and still hold together.  It can crack and fail slowly and safely, creaking before it fails completely.  Crash a steel fork and the fork will bend before the steel frame, saving the frame.  Bending is good.  Snapping is bad.  It can be infinitely recycled and when you are done with that, just put a steel frame in a field and it will eventually turn back into it’s base elements.   

But… Whatsalug?  Lugs are a really old way of putting tubes together.  Traditionally only steel bikes were lugged, but there are lugged aluminum bikes, lugged carbon bikes, Ti carbon blend, the list goes on.  Simply put, a lug is a socket that a tube goes into.  The tube and the lug (socket) are bonded with brass, just like in the brazing process.  They sneak the brass between the lug and the tube with flux, a soapy looking liquid that you spread on the tube and lug before sticking them together.  The flux draws the brass or silver between the lug and tube. 

Lugs allow for relatively easy frame repair: warm up the lug, pull the old tube out that’s damaged, put a new one in.  They reinforce the tube junctures, making the joint super strong.  It’s like a thick external butt.  However, they allow thinner tubing to be used than TIG welding, so you can fine tune the ride quality through the use of custom drawn lug (or brazing) specific tubing. 

Lugs are gorgeous.  They are the best looking way to put a bike together, and even cheap crude lugs generally have a weird appeal to them.  The finest lugs (we’d count Rivendell’s lugs as among the nicest ever designed) are art in and of themselves.  They add strength and beauty and originality, if you are using your own lug designs.  Designing and making a lug is an expensive process, however, and most small builders can not afford to make their own.  A bike consists of 5 lugs, and the 3 main ones generally cost about 20,000 bucks to develop.  If you make your own drop outs too, add more money.  When you see a bike with proprietary and pretty lugs, factor that into the cost. 

You can ID a bike with proprietary lugs without it’s paint, something you can’t do with 97% of all TIG welded bikes, no matter what material they are made of.  Strip an old Peugeot, a Rivendell, a Mercian, a Waterford, and you can figure out who made if you know lugs.  That’s pretty cool. 

Lugs are classic but strong, smart but simple, gorgeous but practical.  We sell TIG welded bikes, and like them plenty, but the lugged bikes we sell are our favorites. 

Lug advantages:  strong, lighter tubing can be used, repairable tubes and joints, low temperature, can make a bike unique in a way TIG welding never can.

Lug disadvantages:  Cost to develop has to be passed on to consumer.  Harder to paint around fancy ones.  Pretty lugs can cover bad craftsmanship. 

Open Source Shifting

Life should not be full of limitless choices.  The grocery store is a great example of what too many choices looks like.  How many brands and flavors and varieties of peanut butter or tooth paste or toilet paper do we need?  How many milk varieties?  There’s too many choices that don’t matter (tooth paste) and too few that do (veggies, for instance).  Limitless choices lead to limitless indecision, or at least too much time spent in the toothpaste aisle.  Choice though, in general, is a good thing, within limits.  When corporations conspire to take away choice, the best thing to do is to subvert them, ignore conventions, and go open source.  Wait.  Let me explain.

95% of all corporations (software companies, movie companies, car companies, music companies, pharma, etc) want information to be private.  Information should be proprietary, held under legal lock and key.  Computer programs shouldn’t be modifiable, cars should drive just the way the manufacturer intended, and music shouldn’t be sampled to make new music.  What does this do?  For starters, it stifles innovation and alternative thinking.  It also attempts to quash problem solving that originates outside of the company atmosphere.  Take new software bugs.  If software is open source, a whole community can contribute potential fixes to these bugs.  Ever used Open Office?  It’s got 95% of the functionality of Microsoft Office, but it’s cross platform stable, easier to use, and free.  Hmm.  There are exceptions to the proprietary information corporate concept.  Burton Snowboards doesn’t patent any new technology, with the assumption that releasing good tech will up everyone’s game, and push the whole sport forward.  Look into the fantastic Creative Commons concept for another example of how open or mostly open creativity spurs more creativity.  Proprietary technology mainly benefits the corporation.  Corporations do not have your best interests in mind.

A Campagnolo Shifter exploded diagram. 30 parts per side. Campy’s proprietary inventions make Shimano seem benign. Shimano doesn’t publish exploded diagrams. When their shifters wear down, they are trash.

Shimano, round about 2003, decided to abandon normal bike riders.  They snuffed the flame on  tourists, casual riders, mountain bikers who have to ride to the trail head, mountain touring, or any one who needed gearing that fell outside of conventional racer or amateur racer needs.  Shimano slowly duped the world into accepting the new norm of incompatibility, forced obsolescence, and unnecessary ‘advancements’ like electronic shifting.  Here’s a basic run down on what Shimano did, and why you should be madder than a bunch of hornets that built a nest over a BBQ smoker.

The Need for Speed(s):

The move from 9 speed to 10 speed was the beginning of the end.  Big deal you say.  Hey, I say! That move did two things that are bad from an engineering standpoint, and one big bad one from a normal folk stand point.  Adding a gear widened the free hub body, which is where all the gears in the back slide on.  That makes the rear wheel weaker by forcing wheel builders to use less even tension, from one side of the wheel to another.  The rear wheel is already the weak link; this made it weaker.  It also meant you couldn’t ‘upgrade’ old hubs to 10 speed, because of this increase in width.  So people with awesome 9 speed wheels just had to throw them away if they wanted new drivetrain bits.  Going to 10 speed decreased shifting tolerances.  Anytime you cram more gears in the back, the spaces between them get smaller.  Smaller spacers are bad, because it takes less slop to get out of alignment.  Less cable stretch, less crud on the cables themselves, less of a bend in the derailleur.  It meant more time fiddling with your derailleur, and less time just riding along and shifting.  Lastly, Shimano (and here’s where you should get really mad) decided to make their 10 speed road shifters incompatible with their 10 speed mountain derailleurs.  That meant tourists were screwed.  Shimano locked them out and threw away the key.  You couldn’t mix mountain bike derailleurs and road shifters any more, and so normal people were suddenly stuck pushing around ‘sport touring’ gearing, not loaded touring gearing, which is bad, unless you like walking up hills.  Now they’ve gone even further, and moved to 11 speed, still with no cross compatibility between mountain stuff and road stuff.  11 speed sprockets and chainrings are paper thin and ‘feature’ about half of the wear life of 8 speed sprockets, if you keep everything really really clean.

8 was fine.

3 minus 1 equals bad news:

Shimano is secretly killing the triple crank.  This is a huge can of worms, and I won’t fully open it, but here’s a peek inside.  Shimano wants everyone to look like a racer.  Magazines want whatever Shimano wants.  Triples are tourist items, or normal person items, or older rider items, and Shimano only wants racers.  Only the cheapest Shimano groups currently come with a triple option.  A replacement triple front derailleur for your nice Ultegra group is only available in the Tiagra level, two steps down in quality.  In a year, it will only be Sora, I bet.  This means if you want to run integrated shifting plus a triple, you can currently do it, with old model 105 10 speed stuff, but the new stuff will phase that out soon, and you’ll be living in a world with no decent quality Shimano Triples.  I’ll bet they do away with the double in 5 years, for everything but cheapo bikes, and go to a 1×13 or some nonsense.  They’re already working on 12 speed stuff, and 105 electronic shifting.

3 >1

Batteries should go in bike lights, not bike shifters:

Shimano is trying to make you plug your bike into a computer, as well as turn your bike into a computer.  With proprietary, not open source software.  Di2 is to practical bikes what a Ferrari is to a daily driver.  It’s the Buck Rogers version of friction shifting.  The main benefit that I’ve heard is that is it will auto correct if you smack the derailleur and bend it a bit.  It will try to run the best chain line possible, given the accident.  Guess what else you can do that with?  A friction shifter.

Make it as simple as possible, but no simpler:

If you wanna opt out, it’s easy.  Cut the cables on your integrated shifters, your trigger shifters, your twist shifters.  Unplug your bike.  Go open source, and bolt on a pair of friction shifters.  They’re easy to set up, the easiest of all the shifters.  You can mix a 10 speed crank, a 5 speed front derailleur, a 9 speed chain, 7 speed rear derailleur and a 8 speed cassette.  You have options.  You can choose what you want to ride.  It’s fixable, at home, with simple tools and no computers.  You can use a derailleur from Suntour, a Cassette from Sunrace, cranks from Sugino and shifters from Diacompe.  It’s all fair game with friction shifting.

7 pieces per side vs 30 per side. Which you gunna trust on a back road?

Here’s a hack we’ve been using for a while now.  No manufacturer will admit that this works, and it’s not sexy to have really low gears, so no one ever will.  We stole a really big cassette from the new fad for 1x drivetrains.  These are drivetrains that do away with all the chainrings up front save one.  They ‘make up’ for the lack of other rings by putting a really wide range cassette in the back.  Way bigger than an old school cassette, down to 44t.  Here’s why 1x’s are popular:  they’re new + they work fine with bulgy weird carbon designs and dual suspension bikes.  They’re a lazy solution to a simple problem.  We put a big wide range (40t) rear cassette on a bike, a big mountain derailleur, and combined it not with a single ring up front, or a double, but a triple.  It gives you a mega wide range of gearing, road gearing to get to the trail head, normal mountain gearing for trail riding, and ultra wicked never before used low gearing for loaded touring off road.  It’s perfect.  And it’s possible because of friction shifting.  We keep this stuff in stock, so you if you want to break out of the mold, we’ve got the tools.

42/36/26 up front and a 13/40 out back. You can go wider, if you want.