Mini-touring in Mt. Horeb

We’d intended to take a mini-tour the week of my birthday, but because of some extenuating circumstances, we couldn’t make any reservations until only a few days before we might have left.

While I was casting around southwestern Wisconsin for a vacation rental, I came across the Gonstead Guest Cottage in Mt. Horeb. It’s a little closer to Madison that I’d originally wanted, but we made a reservation all the same, figuring that we’d just take a rambling, leisurely two-night mini-tour close to home and enjoy what could be enjoyed.


Beer and sweet potato tots at the Grumpy Troll, the best liquor store around in Trollway liquors, coffee and quiche at Sjolind’s, relaxing under the deep eaves of the cottage during a hard rain on Monday night, the best sound system in any vacation rental we’ve ever had, taking the tour at Cave of the Mounds, screaming downhill on the new Brigham Park connector, sitting on a park bench looking at the water at Stewart Park, tasting surprisingly good wine at the Fisher King, and leisurely riding to and from home on the Military Ridge Trail.

This mini-tour was a good way to ease my into the idea of bike touring. No camping required (and a good thing, given the rains on Monday night), within easy rides of home, and filled with plenty of good places to eat, drink, and poke around in the countryside.

Now she’s talking about planning more adventures. Mission accomplished.

Bike nerdery

K rode her trusty Soma Saga. She carried all of her clothing and other gear in a Rivendell ShopSack (medium) in the matching Wald basket, strapped down with a pair of John’s Irish Straps, also from Rivendell. Add a single Kleen Kanteen and she’s ready to go.

I rode the 650b Troll with a bunch of Revelate soft baggage: Tangle (tools, tubes, lock, map), Pika (clothing), Gas Tank (electronics, wallet), Feedbag (water bottle).

We were both comfortable and well-equipped, but we’ve both decided that we can refine our packing plan somewhat, both for non-camping trips like this, and for camping outings.

The Long Goodbye

Note: This post has nothing to do with bikes, and might make you feel things. Continue at your own risk.

On June 18, 2015–two weeks ago–we said goodbye to Jade, our rednose pitbull. She was nearly 15 years old, and had been with us for nearly 14 of those years.

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Enjoying the newly installed deck. Typical Jade.

Many dog owners will tell you that even if they own many dogs over the years, there’s often one (or more, if you’re lucky) with whom they share a special bond, closer than any other. For me, that was Jade. And the feeling was clearly mutual.

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What?…we’re just having a private moment…

How we met

Jade came to us as a rescue when she was a little over a year old, adopted from a married couple who both worked at the same company I did at the time. They’d just had a baby and couldn’t seem to cope with both being new parents and pet owners at the same time. When we went to see her, Jade was gated into a small entryway with little more than a piece of ratty carpet for a bed, food and water, and a small TV to keep her company.

I walked right up to the gate, stepped over, and sat down on the floor with her. Before I even finished sitting down, she was in my lap. I’d like to say that I decided to adopt her, but clearly the decision had already been made. There was no question that she’d be coming home with us, right then and there.

Love at first sight, you might say.

Of course, she needed training and socialization (our male pitbull Max was still in the prime of his life), but that only cemented the bond that we’d formed. That mostly went well, though she did have something of a stubborn streak about certain things. And I never could teach her to fetch properly–she just didn’t see the point of bringing anything back, if you were just going to throw it again.

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Fetch? What the hell for?

The middle years

The next ten years were filled with all of the typical ups and downs of dog ownership. Walks and trips to the park to chase squirrels, minor illnesses and couple of surgeries, lots of laying around the house–for she was most definitely a dog of leisure–and the odd bout of misbehavior. But there wasn’t a day that went by without her making us laugh in some way or another–whether it was a goofy fascial expression, or the way she’d wedge herself into an improbably small and impossibly comfortable position on some piece of furniture or another, or the lengths she would go to avoid being photographed.

And then there was the way that her big, blocky head would get hot (not just warm) when she was petted or got excited about something–and then give off the pleasing aroma of either jasmine, sweet-tarts, or corn tortillas. No idea why.

About halfway through this period, Max passed on and Jade became an only dog (though she still had to put up with the cat for a while longer). And even though she and Max always got on well, it was clear that she really liked being an only dog, largely because she had us–and especially me–to herself.

She took her sweet time growing out of puppyhood–it always seemed in retrospect that she only spent a couple of years as a serious-minded adult dog before she started to get old. But as she reached about 12, it was clear that she was starting to age more quickly. She got even lazier, developed some small health problems, started to lose some muscle mass, and got a little hard of hearing.

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Speed ears.

Old lady dog

In the last year or so, she started to age much more quickly. She went fully deaf (it was prescient on my part to teach her hand signals as well as voice commands all those years ago), developed a low-grade but treatable digestive condition, and began to lose muscle mass more quickly than before. She also became more and more arthritic, which we also treated the best we could.


Dog of leisure, becoming one with the couch.

Because of these infirmities, she spent the bulk of the last year of her life relaxing or sleeping on one piece of furniture or another (remember: dog of leisure). She came to favor a chair that my wife had trash-picked and refurbished. Many of the photos of Jade from the last year of her life find her in what I’m confident will always be known as Jade’s chair–even though my wife refurbished this chair for me.

And as tottery as she became, she never lost the ability to quickly and quietly get herself from one end of the house to the other and onto our bed (and my pillow) in the space of time it took to get the mail or take a shower.

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Hey, you’re in my spot…again.

The end

A few weeks ago, she began a more precipitous decline that we knew only had one outcome. On the morning of June 18, we scheduled a house call with our veterinarian and then bolted home from work to spend the rest of the day with our sweet girl. We spent some time letting her wander in the yard and gardens, sniffing whatever she liked–but for the most part she was content to spend the day–to no one’s surprise–laying on a comfortable cushion in the shade on a piece of patio furniture, dozing and watching the world go by.

The vet came at 3pm and a half-hour later Jade passed with one of my hands stroking her big, meaty head and the other on her heart. I felt her last breath, her last heartbeat, and saw her out of this world the best I could. Not that it could ever be good enough.

And I’ve been gutted ever since.

This one was special. For me, like none other. And because of that, I’m not sure whether there will be another dog, at all. We’ll take some time to let things settle, to mourn our sweet Jade’s passing, and to see which way we want to live.

RIP: Jade, 2000-2015.

The Bearskin

This past weekend, we went north for the annual summer gathering of my wife’s family. They live a bit west of Rhinelander and very near some fine mountain bike trails, as well as low-traffic paved and unpaved roads, and one of my favorite rail trails in Wisconsin.

I’d originally intended to ride some single-track at the Washburn Lake trails, but the recent wet weather–including a fair amount of rain on Saturday–made the trails just too wet to ride responsibly (even though I was riding the fat-bike).

So I opted for a run up and down the Bearskin Trail from the trailhead at Hwy K to Minocqua and back. I rode the northbound leg full bore–in part because it was raining a bit, but mostly to blow the cobwebs out of my legs–and my head. On the return trip, I rode at a leisurely pace, stopping on some of the many trestle bridges for photographs, water-gazing, and liquid refreshment.

You can see why this is my favorite rail trail in Wisconsin–at least of the ones that I’ve ridden. It’s all woods and water and trestles.

Finding the Groove Again

The past six months or so–or perhaps longer–have been somewhat unfocused when it comes to cycling (and quite a few other things, for that matter). It turns out that a little more structure is better than no structure at all.

A few weeks ago, I helped my wife make a training plan for a 25k trail run that she’s shooting for in early October. Since I was at it already, I used the same template to make myself a somewhat structured training plan using the Heck of the North as the target.

After a couple of weeks of getting used to the rhythm of this plan–and a holiday weekend during which I was riding the Bear 100–I’m starting to find my groove again and riding in more focused and concentrated way.

Besides daily commuting, riding the long way home at least three times a week, one fast hilly ride in the middle of the week, and the Saturday morning coffee-outside ride, I have a longer ride scheduled for Sundays.

Yesterday found me riding east and south of Madison on some of my favorite country roads for a 55 mile loop that I covered solo at 15.7mph average. Respectable, especially given that the wind was blowing from the ENE in the mid-teens and gusting to twice that much of the time.

And then I drank some beer, grilled corndogs (and other sausages), and sat around the firepit well into the evening. Recovery is just as important as training, you know.

The Bear

For the past couple of years, I’ve ridden the Gravel Metric on Memorial Day weekend. It’s a well-run event put on by an excellent group of people. But this year I was looking for something different–something not in farm country.

Enter the Bear 100. Either 100 miles or 100 kilometers (or 25 miles, if you just want to dip your toes) of Nicolet National Forest roads, jeep track, and ATV trails starting and finishing in Laona, Wisconsin.

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And it doesn’t hurt that we can combine the ride with a visit to the in-laws, who live just a bit west of Rhinelander.

The plan for race/event day was as follows:

  • Get up at 0430, do the morning thing, and drive to Laona from the farm.
  • Ride the ride at a sporty tourist level of effort (it being very nearly the longest ride of the year so far–and certainly the longest gravel ride).
  • Get some lunch, drive back to the farm.
  • Drink beer and eat grilled things.

This turned out to be a perfect plan that went perfectly. I finished the 100k version of the Bear in 4:33, took in some beautiful national forest roads, trees, and water and then proceeded to execute the rest of the plan.

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I’d even brought a growler of Panthro porter from One Barrel Brewing Company for post-race rehydration.

Bike Nerdery

I rode the newly built 650b Troll with a Revelate Tangle (for tools, tubes, and other such things), a Revelate Gas Tank (food), a Mountain Feed Bag (water bottle), and two fork-mounted bottle cages.

2015-05-22 13.38.40-1Not pictured: the cuesheet holder I whipped up with two zip ties, two binder clips, and a plastic bag.

The Troll proved itself to be a fine all-road, all surface rig. It handled well no matter the surface: pavement, gravel forest roads, jeep track, ATV trail–even the long stretch of fresh, uncompacted red granite on the Rat River Trail.

The water system was something of an experiment. Even though it’s reasonably easy to reach and drink from the bottle in the Mountain Feedbag (I’d either swap in the other bottles or refill from them, depending on where I was), it’s still quite a bit easier and more efficient for me to drink from a water bladder that’s stored in the frame bag. I have a full frame bag that fits this bike, so that’s probably what I’ll do in future when riding this bike in longer events.

The Jones Loop handlebars remain favorites, but if I’m going to use them for anything that’s longer than 4-5 hours, I need to wrap the entire bar so that I can more effectively use all of the possible hand positions–though it might just make more sense in the end to use dirt drops (like Salsa Woodchippers) instead.

Oh, and it’s not the best idea in the world to ride 100k on gravel forest roads on a new Brooks B17. It wasn’t disastrous, but the saddle was starting to tenderize me just a bit after about 55 miles.

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New Bike Day: Surly Troll

A couple of years ago, I found myself with a yellow Pugsley frame (in addition to the Pugsley I already had). At some point, I reckoned (incorrectly, as it turns out) that I didn’t want a second Pugsley, so I traded the yellow frame-set with one of the fat-bike fanatics that works at my LBS for a black Surly Troll.

Before I took it home, I had them prep the frame and install a green King headset. And then, like many of my bike projects, it hung in the shop for some time. After a year or so, I even made a half-hearted attempt to sell the frame-set + headset, but didn’t have an serious inquiries. Back on the hook it went.

And then, over the winter, I finally decided to get it together. This is how it turned out.

2015-05-16 12.47.59Even though the Troll is designed for 26-inch wheels, I decided to do something a little different and build it up with 650b wheels.

Now, 650b versions of the Troll aren’t all that uncommon, especially now that there are more good 650b all-road tires and plenty of 650b/27.5 off-road tires. But most of the time, this sort of conversion is done using disc brakes.

But anyone who’s been around here for long will know that I’m not a fan of discs, especially when there’s another option. The Troll has both disc mounts and cantilever posts, so clearly disc brakes weren’t warranted.

And I knew from reading something that Nick Carman wrote on the VO website a while back that it was possible to convert a Surly Long Haul Trucker to 650b using Tektro CR720 cantilevers. I figured the Troll’s axle to post distances would likely be the same.

So that’s what I did. I paired a set of black Tektro CR720s with a set of Velo Orange 650b wheels (handbuilt locally by Earle Wheels).

The front brake pads aligned with no trouble at all, but the rear pads didn’t look like they’d ever line up–until I stepped back and gave the geometry of the rear end a little more consideration. That’s when I realized that while the pads would never line up (there’s not a lot of leeway in this setup) with the wheel all the way forward in the weird Surly horizontal track-ends, it was likely that it would work if I moved the wheel back a centimeter or so.

Some testing proved this to be the case, and I was in business. And just to make sure things stayed where they need to be, I installed a set of Surly Monkey Nutz. Crank bolts also work in a pinch.

As for the rest of the bike, it’s basically a poster-child for many of my current preferences and fetishes: 1×10 drivetrain, Jones bars, Brooks saddle, King headset, lots of Paul bits, and no decals whatsoever.

I’ll add fenders and a front Surly rack after I ride it on the 100k version of the Bear 100 this coming weekend. Until then, it’s either running naked or with some combination of Revelate soft bags (both the Tangle and the framebag from the Pugsley fit fine).

For the full specification, head on over to the Troll’s very own page.

Some Polyvalent Thoughts

Two things occurred to me on the ride to work today:

  1. I’ve been riding the VO Polyvalent for a little over a year. It’s mostly seen commuting and errand-running duty, but there have been several short, relaxed day tours and one S240–and it’s become the go-to bike for the weekly coffee-outside ride.
  2. It’s exactly what I want in a utility bike–almost. To be precise, the very thought that ran through my head was “I want a bike just like this one, only different in a few key ways.”

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The Frame

The biggest problem with the Polyvalent, unfortunately, is the frame itself. While the geometry of the Mk1 Polyvalent is very good, it’s also one of the most flexible frames I’ve ever ridden. This provides a certain amount of comfort, but it also means that a 200-pound sometime-masher like me can easily cause an auto-shift when pedaling hard in the smaller cogs, especially when I get out of the saddle.

The Mk1 Polyvalent frame also lacks certain niceties that VO added in later editions: mid-fork mounts, downtube cable stops, a third set of bottle cage braze-ons, and a rear cantilever stop. At one point or another, I’ve missed–and wished for–each of these things.

Solution: a different frame with the same geometry, a stiffer bottom bracket, more braze-ons, and a few other things I’d require if I was going to switch (vertical dropouts, internal cable routing, etc.). Not immediately likely, but something to keep in mind.

The Drivetrain

I’ve become a big fan of 1x drivetrain configurations. Losing the front derailleur as well as a shifter and a cable saves weight and complication while providing as good or better function (as long as the gearing is well-chosen).

The biggest problem with the current setup isn’t actually the drivetrain itself (though I wouldn’t mind a type-2 derailleur), but with the shifter. While the friction Retroshift mounted to the stem works well in most circumstances (not to mention looking really cool), there are some crucial times–especially when riding in the city–when being able to shift and brake with both hands is very useful. This is especially true when riding a frame that does not necessarily behave well when pedaled in masher-mode.

Solution: I’ll just move the shifter (or another one) to the handlebar. Perhaps I’ll even move into the modern world and indulge in some kind of indexed shifting (as long as it has a friction option).

The Brakes

The VO Grand Cru cantilevers sure are pretty–but they were an absolute bitch to set up and the front brake continues to be a little fiddly, now and again. It also turns out that wide-profile brakes don’t play nice with mounting panniers on the Soma Porteur rack–something that I’d like to be able to do for short tours and heavy-duty errandizing.

Solution: narrow-profile brakes such as Paul Touring Cantis or Paul Mini-Motos for lots of stopping power and no interference with the rack/baggage.

The Racks

The Soma Porteur rack works well for the most part, but it does have a few foibles that make for some minor annoyances. The mounting tangs are very thick and square and very nearly interfere with the front hub QR. And, because the rack mounts to the braze-ons at the axle, instead at mid-fork, it prevents the fork from flexing as it should under load and sometimes transmits impacts through the rest of the front of the frame.

I also sometimes think that a regular front rack (e.g., a Nitto 34F or a Surly Nice Front) with a large platform and a big Wald basket would work better–especially since I’ve become totally enamored with my large Rivendell ShopSack.

I just haven’t gotten around to figuring out what rear rack would be suitable. I want something small, low profile, and little more than a saddle-bag support (I loathe carrying panniers in the rear) but that also allows hard-mounting to the fender.

Solution: A little bit of milling on the mounting tangs of the porteur rack would go a long way. As for the rear, the VO Constructeur seems a decent solution, if a bit more than I want. Other front rack options require other braze-ons and mounting points, so I’ll have to leave that for another time.

All the Rest

The rest of the bike–saddle, cockpit, wheels and tires, pedals, etc.–are all just about where I want them to be.