Category: Cycling

Nick & Carry’s Definitive Guide to Buying a Bike

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Road racers. Loaded tourers. Recumbents. Hardtails. Dualies. Hybrids. Cross bikes. Sport tourers. Commuters. Cruisers. Comfort bikes. Tandems. With such a dizzying array to choose from, it’s a small miracle anyone leaves a bike shop with the right bicycle for them.

Chances are you’re reading this because you started looking for a bike and wondering if Model X made by Brand Y is a “good bike.” The answer to that is more complicated than a simple yes or no. To help you knowledgeably pick a bike, Nick and I offer you following tips to help demystify the process of buying a bike.

Before You Leave Home

Grab a pencil, paper and some brutal honesty. Now make two lists. The first is an inventory of your current status as a cyclist or, for first-timers, your fitness level: how competitive you are, how much time you spend riding (or working out) each week, your highest achievements on a bike. The second is your ultimate vision of yourself as a cyclist. Do you plan to do triathlons? Clean up on the local racing circuit? Do bike tours? Commute by bike? Ride off road? All of these pursuits have a feature or two that you might want in a bike. If you’ll be commuting or touring, for example, you’ll want a bike with “braze-ons” to attach fenders and possibly a rack. A sales person at the bike shop can narrow your bike choices if they know more about your intended use.

Fit Is Everything

I can’t emphasize enough how important a properly fitted bicycle is. This will minimize discomfort and possibility for injury in the long run and maximize your enjoyment of the time spent in the saddle. In addition to what size bike you should be riding, figure out the proper seat height, reach to the handlebars, handlebar height relative to your saddle, etc. If you’re not sure what is ideal for you, consider getting a professional bike fit. Once you have these measurements, you will be able to look for used bikes knowledgeably and/or customize the fit of whatever bike you do get. A note regarding saddles: don’t get too hung up if the one on the bike you’re riding doesn’t feel right. You’ll likely end up replacing it (and every other saddle on every other bike you buy in the future) with “your” saddle…the one that’s just right for your butt.

Light. Strong. Cheap. Pick two.

How important is weight? How important is durability? What’s your budget? These three things are interrelated. Generally, the more you’re willing to spend the lighter your bike will be because it will be made with lighter material(s) and equipped with higher end components. Some might argue that these higher end components last longer too. Depending on your tolerance for replacing vs. fixing, you might consider Campagnolo parts over Shimano parts. Nick and I run Campy exclusively. It’s more expensive initially, but when something breaks, we spend $10 on an internal part and fix it, rather than spending $300+ to replace the entire part like you’d have to do with Shimano. All of these decisions come down to how much you’re willing to spend initially.

The Invisible Component – the Bike Shop.

The shop you buy from will probably be the one you take your bike to when you want it fixed. Element Cycles, for example, offers free tuneups for a year with the sale of their bikes. Whoever you buy from, you want to like the people, be able to get to the shop easily, and feel confident that you can get your bike worked on without waiting too long. Some shops have a 3-week waiting list for maintenance. No good if you want to use it the next weekend for an event.

Time for the Test Ride

No amount of bike buying advice from anyone – not me, not the shop sales rep, not your friends – can replace personal experience on the bike. You’re about to spend $1200 or more (yes, that much) on a single purchase, so take some time to ride a few bikes – at least one bike made out of aluminum, one out of steel, one out of carbon, and one out of titanium. You’ll get a feel for how each bike material feels and which one suits you the best. (With the exception of my mountain bike, every bike in our house is made of steel. We love how it feels. Others love the squish of titanium or the zip of aluminum.) Get your hands on a Campy shifter, a Shimano shifter, and a SRAM shifter. The size and shape alone may have you convinced you like one over the other.

Don’t be shy about taking bikes for a long test ride either. Use the first 10 minutes to get acquainted with the bike.  If the handlebar feels too high or the suspension too springy, ask for a fix. And make sure you know how to use the components. If you’re used to Shimano, say, ask for a SRAM tutorial. Then take it out for 30 minutes or so and put it through all the paces. Brake hard, brake slow, corner at different angles and speeds, descend, and climb.

Call Your Friends
Once you’ve done all of this, then and only then, should you seek the advice of your friends. We’re all well-meaning, but we only know what is right for us. Once you have some knowledge under your belt, you can take our advice with a grain of salt. Until then, buyer beware!

Good luck and happy cycling!

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Photos by Richard Masoner and Dylan Pech, used with permission


Portland 3-day bike tour

Instead of heading to the mountains last weekend, Nick and I took off for a three-day, car-free adventure in Portland. We started with croissants and espresso – the breakfast of champions – before riding to Seattle to catch a train to Portland. We were super fortunate to stay overnight on Friday with two amazing women we connected with through and their sweet cat Thursday. They took us to see the fireworks and enjoyed pizza and salad with us for dinner.

On Saturday we headed out to LL “Stubb” Stuart State Park to camp out. The ride was only 40 miles, but we rolled in exhausted thanks to the heat. We felt much better after cool showers and even had enough energy to go to a ranger talk about skulls and fur! We poked around the fire pit with some other families before heading to bed.

I slept super soundly and woke 45 minutes later than we wanted to the next morning.

We jetted out of the park around 8:30 a.m., riding 3/4 of a mile down dirt paths to get back to the paved bike trail. The initial 10 miles of the ride was downhill and we completed it about half the time that we did the day before. The rest of the ride was a rolly-poly adventure through the blueberry and wheat fields that lie to the west of Portland. One huge, final climb at the end made way for a ripping descent into town. We finished with lunch at the Bridgeport Brewery before heading back to the train for the ride home.

Fun on the JWT – the final day

[This is the third installment in our three-day bike adventure on the John Wayne Trail. Day 1 and two are here and here, if you missed them.]

Monday morning came early. We didn’t set an alarm, but as soon as our eyes opened, we hustled out of bed, wolfed down our instant oatmeal and tea/coffee, and packed up the tent. Temperatures were supposed to top 90 degrees again today and we wanted to get most of our final day of riding done before lunch, if possible.

The John Wayne Trail is interrupted in Ellensburg by the town itself. To pick it up on the east side of town, we had to thread our way on city streets back to the fair grounds. Once there, we picked up the trail, which was actually more like an overflow parking lot for horse trailers going to the rodeo. We threaded our way through horse poop, sticky mud patches, potholes, and other obstacles hoping the trail would improve as we got out of town.

Once we were on the trail proper again, it was much like yesterday – deep gravel with two strips of barely rideable dirt down each side of the trail. And it was still straight.


 This is Washington’s cow country and each of the animals greeted us as we rode past.


I’d like to spin you a yarn about how fantastic it was to sail through desert sage lands to the mighty Columbia, but it was not to be. Not too far east of Ellensburg, we realized it had taken us an hour to cover a paltry 4 miles. What?! Why?

In a word – sand.

Horse hooves had pounded and pulverized the rail trail until it was nothing more than a strip of soft, soul-sucking hell. As we pedaled, our tires plowed four-inch trenches. We had to stop every ¼ mile or so to muster the courage to keep moving forward.

This is the point in the trip where the devil and the angel on our shoulders start arguing:

See that road over there? It parallels the trail. You could take it for just a few miles. It would feel so good!

No! You came here to ride. the. John. Wayne. Trail. not ride some of the John Wayne Trail. HTFU and endure your adventure already!

(I’ll leave you to decide which was the devil and which was the angel.)

We soldiered bravely on for another mile or so until we reached a turning point – a mandatory detour.


I can’t lie. I was absolutely thrilled that we would have to ride on the road for a bit. Just look at that smile!


Not too many miles later, we discovered the reason for the detour. The final railroad trestle over I-90 had no deck! We’ve been known to carry our bike around construction sites and go places we’ve been warned not to go. In retrospect, the detour seemed like a pretty good idea.



The final leg of our journey was another 15-17 miles of trail and then a few miles on road to get back to our car, which was parked behind the gas station in Vantage. After a short snack break, we headed back to the trail only to discover that we’d have to be very careful on this next section. We’d be travelling through army territory!


We wondered which speed limit applied to us and whether we would actually encounter any tactical vehicles.


Sadly, once we were back on the trail, we found it to be in just as bad a shape as the previous section. We stared, disappointed, down the long stretch of sand. In the distance a woman, walking her dog, approached us. We rode up and down a 100′ or so of trail, and waited for her arrival.

“So, do you know anything about the condition of the trail between here and the Columbia? Is it all sandy like this?” I asked.

“Well, I only went about a mile, but my husband says its pretty chewed up by horses at this time of year. It’s better riding in spring when the winter rains have packed it all down,” She responded.

We sat on our top tubes for a few minutes digesting our disappointment at not wanting to finish the trail with that much suck. We looked at a map. We sighed. In the end we struck a compromise: We’ll ride the old Vantage highway back into town today and come back to finish this section of the trail in the spring.

And let me tell you … it was awesome! Smooth blacktop, beautiful scenery, lots and lots of downhill, oh yeah!






The final verdict on the trip? All-in-all it was pretty good – scenic, informative, and just hard enough to make me look like a genuine Rapha Continental model at the end of photo shoot.


Labor Day fun on the JWT – part 2

On Sunday morning, Nick and I woke up feeling slightly less shattered than the day before, ready to tackle the next section of the JWT. (If you missed the first day’s adventures, go here.) Our day’s destination was Ellensburg where we hoped to catch a bit of the famous rodeo.

Instead of backtracking through the forest to the JWT, we rode a few miles down the road through the old town of Easton to the next trail access point. The 2010 census counted 478 people living in the city, which probably explains why the main street is largely boarded up.


Back on the trail again, it was clear that we were out of the forested foothills and starting to head towards the grasslands in eastern Washington. We pedaled along in the warm sunshine, making predictions about how many people we would see on the trail that day and how many of them would be on horseback. (The JWT is open to all non-motorized travel.)

The quality of the trail was much worse the further east we traveled. The bumpy hard-pack of yesterday was replaced by loose gravel. Still, we each managed to find a narrow strip of hard dirt on our respective sides of the trail to ride along. Fresh legs made it almost bearable and we enjoyed the scenery as it unfolded.


One of the highlights of the journey was riding next to the Yakima River. For some reason I imagined it was much bigger than it actually is. Perhaps it only seemed small because we were still relatively close to the summit of Snoqualmie Pass and it hadn’t had enough time to pick up tributary water.


About a third of our way into the day, we arrived in Cle Elum and found an old electric train depot. Turns out the Pacific portion of the “Milwaukee Road” railway line was the longest electric rail line in the country. It spanned some 600+ miles. The rail line was decommissioned in 1980, and today you can walk the rail yard which is being restored by the Cascade Rail Foundation. There is also a B&B at the Cle Elum Depot. (Imagine sleeping in a refurbished railway car!)


After a quick snack of apples and nuts, we continued on. The gravel got deeper, but the views remained incredible.




Towards the middle of our day, we arrived at the Thorp Tunnels. Unlike the Hyak and Whittier tunnels yesterday, the state did not dedicate any funds to repairing these tunnels. It shows. The concrete at the entrance of the tunnels is crumbling and sections of wall inside have caved. It’s not exactly dangerous, but I wouldn’t call it safe either. Don’t put me in one of those during an earthquake! In a surprising act of reasonableness, the state actually allows you to travel through these tunnels. There is an unsettling waiver of liability they ask you to sign before you do so, however.



Safely on the other side, Nick snapped a pretty good picture of me getting taking a short rest.


One of the things that failed to occur to me before we set out is how straight a rail trail might be. When it’s traveling long distances on even terrain, there simply is no reason to turn…at all! This lack of variation coupled with increasingly-difficult-to-ride gravel took a toll on our enthusiasm.


By midafternoon, things were even worse. The temperature, which had risen above 90 degrees, was frying our brains and muscles. We stopped at the Thorp Fruit Stand for fresh apple cider and peaches. It didn’t cool us off enough to motivate us to ride the last 6 miles into Ellensburg through deep gravel, so we cheated a bit and took the Old Thorp Highway into town.

One of the things I love most about visiting small town America – on a bicycle or motorcycle – are the kooky things you see. I really want to know who verified this claim in 1934.


We pedaled lazily to the KOA where cool showers revived us just enough that we could pedal into town for the rodeo. We missed the professional bull and bronc riders by a few hours. Our consolation prize was the local talent show, which featured mutton busting, barrel racing, team-roping, the businessman’s cow milking contest, and calf-roping. It was a real hoot.

We pedaled back to camp just as the sun was setting and collapsed into our tent, not quite wanting to admit that we were exhausted and not looking forward to tomorrow’s ride. Never mind though, we were going to leave early to (hopefully) beat the heat.

Labor Day fun on the JWT

For years, I’ve had the idea in my head that it would be fun to cycle the length of the John Wayne Trail – 110 miles from North Bend to the mighty Columbia River. Any plans I might have had got temporarily quashed in 2009 when state parks closed the five tunnels on the trail because of falling debris hazards. Our legislature was slashing the budget that year and there was no way it would find $9 million to fix them. (Although the state created detours for each one, the routes often went for miles out of the way and in one case involved the unpleasant task of bicycling on Intestate 90. Dumb.)

Flash forward to July 2013…and all the tunnels are open again! Some have been repaired. Others are enter at your own risk. (More on this later.) After negotiating with Nick on a “relaxed” three-day schedule for our adventure, we set off. First stop: Vantage. We needed to drop a car there so we’d have some way of getting home. Then it was back over the pass to Rattlesnake Lake in North Bend.

The drive wasn’t all bad. Mount Rainier peeped at us from behind the hills.


All good adventures have some element of adversity. Little did we know that ours would start before we even left the parking lot in North Bend.


Once Nick’s flat tire was taken care of, we imposed on an unsuspecting day-tripper to photograph the beginning of the journey – that moment when adventurers like us are full of the joy of anticipation.


The beginning of the trail is not easy. Even though the gravel is relatively packed, the first 20 miles go up at a steady 2 percent grade. Just enough so that it doesn’t look like you’re going uphill, but steep enough that you feel like you’re having a bad day on the bike. Our equipment seems to be working well and we only stop a few times to make adjustments to seat height. Before long, we found ourselves near Exit 38 and the local rock climbing crags.


The fact that we’re riding on an old railway bed is not lost on us. We cross a number of dizzyingly high railroad trestles. Fortunately, they all have railings now.



There are also remnants of avalanche tunnels, built to protect railway cars from being jettisoned off the tracks by seasonal snow.


After a few hours, we arrived at the famous  2.2-mile Snoqualmie Pass Tunnel. It’s so long that you can’t actually see both ends as you’re riding through. Powerful lights are a must. Despite the rising temperatures, Nick and I dig out our warm jackets. I wish I had some great mid-tunnel shot, but sadly no. You’ll just have to imagine the blackness.

Safely on the other side, we were all smiles.


East of this tunnel is a section of the trail we know really well from cross country skiing. In winter it’s covered in snow and groomed for winter fun. In summer, it’s not nearly as exciting – piles of rubble and chewed up trail from the groomer. Even though it seemed like we were going down hill a bit, our shoulders and bums took a beating.

Once we were past Easton, though, we reached tunnel #2. This one is much shorter!


Somewhere after this, Nick finally admitted that breaking the trip up into three days was a good idea. Thirty-eight miles of rough dirt had taken their toll and our muscles were jello. We entered Easton State Park, our destination for the night, with some trepidation. We had no reservations for a campsite on Labor Day weekend and were worried that the hiker-biker sites would be full. No worrying was necessary, though. We had the place to ourselves.


After a quick trip to the gas station, we were set up with electrolyte replacements “crafted for explorers.” We definitely felt like explores, and it went down just fine!


Stay tuned for day 2 of our JWT adventure tomorrow!