Groupsets and Guilt

Well, I made a decision. Decided on a frame, clicked a digital box, paid invisible money. It will be here in a couple days.

I went with the Cannondale CAAD 12 Black Inc., which seems to offer the light weight, race geometry, and badass looks of the Canyon I had planned on buying, at a similar price. From what I can tell, the whole “Black Inc.” thing doesn’t really mean much; it’s the same as the CAAD 12, but with a cooler paint job. Works for me–a paint job doesn’t make a bike, but it can certainly break one.

So, with a frame and wheels figured out, I’m on to the final step: groupset. I know I want to go electronic–I made that decision when my shifter cable snapped 60 miles into a century last winter. I waffled between Sram Red eTap and Shimano Ultegra Di2. eTap is more expensive, but there are no wires to deal with, and even a mechanical novice like me can supposedly install it. Di2 is about half the price and offers many of the same shifting advantages, but isn’t cable free and is reported to have some issues with cables popping out of batteries and the like.

I’m leaning towards eTap. Here’s why

  1. This is the last bike I will buy for a long time. As Donna says, treat yo’self.
  2. I spend more hours per week biking than on any other voluntary activity (work does not count as a voluntary activity, since the purpose of it is to accumulate money and vacation days to spend on biking.)
  3. I’m getting a sensible aluminum frame and aluminum wheels, not elitist, fragile carbon, so I can allocate money elsewhere in the build.
  4. Shifting is the aspect of riding I notice the most, so why compromise?
  5. Cables and seat tube batteries intimidate me. I want to be able to (mostly) put this bike together myself, from scratch. I want to actually attach all the various pieces I’ve assembled, to see the bike go from a collection of objects to a fully functioning machine. That’s one of the main reasons I opted not to buy a complete build. While I suppose I could figure out how to install Di2, it seems a hell of a lot more complicated.
  6. Early adopters look cool when the technology becomes ubiquitous.

But these could all just be post-hoc justifications of my wanting something that is maybe a little too nice, a little too expensive, a little too unnecessary. Rationalizing a want, rather than wanting something rational. For the difference in price between Di2 and eTap (or between either and a perfectly good mechanical groupset), I could literally save children’s lives in Africa by donating to the Against Malaria Foundation (one of the world’s most effective charities that distributes anti-malaria mosquito nets around the world). That fact is not lost on me; I am aware of my own selfishness. Yes, I already donate monthly to charity, but I could donate more and spend less on this bike without affecting my own happiness in any substantial way. Peter Singer’s famous analogy gnaws at me because I know I could do more, because I know that lots of what I buy is by any definition unnecessary.

Or, think of it this way: for the $1,000-$2,000 difference in price between groupsets that are ultimately 95% similar in performance, I could buy more than 10 Buffalo bikes for people who need bikes to go to school and retrieve clean water, needs which make mine (things like “my mental health” and “getting a good workout in”) seem pretty puny. The truth is that any of us cycling-obsessed people could. All the money spent on kits and racing and bikes, most of it to look cool or be a few grams lighter, doesn’t really make us happier. It could do more good elsewhere. Ultimately, I think we would still enjoy cycling with vastly less stuff. Fewer bikes, fewer jerseys, fewer wheelsets. If everyone had a perfectly decent aluminum bike with Shimano 105, we wouldn’t stop feeling the wind in our faces or seeing beautiful vistas or laughing with friends.

I’m not lecturing. Just plumbing my own guilt. Because despite knowing these things, I am still going to get eTap. No doubt, it will be crisp and wonderful. But it won’t be morally defensible. Not really.

Canyon Let Me Down

I’ve eagerly anticipating the Canyon USA launch for months now, waiting to order the Ultimate ALX frame which I would then build into my beautiful new road machine. I already have the Mavic hoops, leaning quietly up against my wall, waiting for some pavement to roll smoothly along. Handlebars, saddle, pedals: all ready to go.

And, as promised, Canyon did launch in “late summer.” I was thrilled to check the website today and see the text below the close-up of Tony Martin’s face during a staged time trial had changed, announcing that they are finally open for business stateside. I grabbed my credit card, excitedly navigated to the Ultimate page, and found…four carbon bikes. No aluminum, complete or otherwise. Their other offerings were similarly limited.


Well, kind of.

I had read the fine print about a launch of “some” of their products but they never said which ones that included, so I assumed my dream bike would make the cut. Guess it didn’t. I called Ian in customer service, feeling sorry for him because I’m sure they are being besieged by calls right now from Americans starved for German-engineered bikes made in Taiwan or wherever, and he said that they don’t envision selling aluminum framesets in the USA anytime soon.

So. What to do?

I’ve spent most of the day reconsidering my options. I could get an aluminum frameset from Trek or Cannondale (Specialized offers one, but it’s an aero crit beast, not a well-rounded lightweight style I’m looking for) or find a boutique aluminum frame maker like VYNL, or switch my path altogether and go with a handmade steel frame. There’s no shortage of great builders. But my wallet isn’t bottomless, and I really hate the look of external cable routing. Call me vain.

I probably shouldn’t decide anything yet. Sit on it for a couple days, sort through the different possibilities.

But, come on Canyon. I’m disappointed in you.


Times like these, home from a fun ride on a gorgeous late summer evening, I realize how many things I love about cycling. How grateful I am for everything it adds to my life, how lucky I am to be able to ride. It can be far too easy to take a strong heart and pain-free joints for granted.

So here are some things about cycling I love, the transcendent parts of riding that make all the boring and painful parts worth it. We’ve all seen lists like this on websites and in cycling magazines. They seem a little too easy, a little clickbaity. Maybe this list will sound like that. I don’t know. All I know is that I mean these things.

Quiet roads along quiet creeks.

The way light from a sinking sun shatters though the treetops, bright but not blinding.

The unspoken agreement to pause a conversation on the descent and resume it seamlessly at the bottom.

Pre-ride panckakes. Post-ride pancakes.

Two-hour loops with a little bit of climbing but not too much, where you get a workout but still feel fresh when you get home.

Swooping through shady spots, feeling the rush of cool air.

Waving at old men on porches who would normally never wave at a man in lyrca, and seeing them smile and wave back.

Talking about rides you’ve done. Planning rides you might never do.

Riding two or three wide in the middle of the road because you know there are never cars on it.

Coming back into town after rush hour.

Seeing the light change to green just as your faux-track stand is about to peter out.

Riding with friends, sometimes.

Riding alone, sometimes.

Discovering a perfect new road.

Forgetting your heart rate strap, and realizing you don’t miss it.

The first pedal stroke. The last pedal stroke.

Pressing “save” on your Garmin.

Realizing a hill wasn’t as steep as you remembered it.

Taking the bike path back to your neighborhood, even though you say you hate maneuvering around pedestrians, because sometimes it’s nice to just  ride a bike like a kid would ride a bike.

Thunder, Gravel, Questions

“This is so stupid. Why do I do this? What was I thinking?”

I half-gasped, half-yelled these things (and other, more unprintable things) into the forest, slogging up the shoulder of a ridge on a gravel road beneath a bruised afternoon sky threatening rain. No more gears, no end in sight. Seventy-something miles already in my legs, over seven thousand feet of climbing. A loaded seat pack hanging like an anchor off my saddle, empty water bottles clinging to the frame.

I haven’t gone on a true bikepacking trip since last November when I rode out to Michaux State Forest the week before we somehow elected Trump and spent a lonely, somewhat scary night in the woods. I figured my first experience, the surprisingly overwhelming physical/mental/emotional wallop it packed, wasn’t unique. I figured future trips (in the summer, not near-winter) would be a lot easier. Less stressful, more fun. I’d be more confident, not intimidated by the prospect of sleeping alone in the forest. The daylight would be longer, the air warmer.

This weekend I found out that I was both right and wrong.

I put in time off for Friday and mapped a 130-mile loop out to Tuscarora State Forest. Mostly pavement to get there, gravel roads in the forest. Eleven thousand feet of climbing. I packed the night before, feeling that rush of excitement that comes before embarking. Tent and sleeping bad in the seat pack, spares and tools and a bag of dates in the frame bag, a loaf of banana blueberry bread and some polenta cakes in the handlebar bag. The heat made a sleeping bag unnecessarily, and the likelihood of rain made the tent a more sensible option than my bivvy.  On Friday morning I woke up, lingered around the house, ate a big pancake breakfast. Then I lugged the bike down the stairs and out the door.

Almost immediately, the feeling of excitement morphed into something else. A kind of low-grade anxiety mixed with joy. Last time, it was mostly joy–the anxiety didn’t hit until darkness crept in. Maybe it was the heavy sky, or the knowledge of so much climbing ahead of me, or the desire to have someone to do these trips with. Maybe it was just the tedious act of getting out of the city to the actual ride.

From an airplane this part of Pennsylvania looks like a wrinkled sheet, the land bunching itself into ridges. They are snakes,  rippling varicose veins. My route took me towards them and I climbed them one by one, trying to spin in my granny gear, breathing heavy. Miller’s Gap, Rambo Hill, Route 74 out of Ickesburg. They grew increasingly high, increasingly steep. Between them was farmland, rows of GMO corn scalloped into the land, big houses set back with long driveways and big SUVs. The miles ticked past in silence. I stopped a couple times to eat handfuls of sticky dates, once to refill my water bottles. The sky looked like rain but the clouds held back whatever moisture was in them.

You ride differently when you know you aren’t coming home that day. You can’t think about finishing, about halfway points and the other gimmicks that keep you going. You just put your head down and pedal and periodically check the odometer to see miles slowly piling up. A few times the thought of turning back crossed my mind, ending the night with a shower and warm bed. I didn’t seriously consider them, but I was leery of their presence. What did it mean that they arose?

I started bonking a few miles into the state forest, on a spongy gravel/sand mix that made progress slow and frustrating. The mosquitoes followed me when I slowed down. My legs were tired. The road seemed to keep winding uphill. On my Garmin it looked like New Germantown, the small village on the other side of the ridge that  I thought might be a good stopping point, wasn’t too far away. I walked the bike for a while and the dot didn’t get any closer. I weighed the speed vs. comfort dilemma and climbed back on and kept riding. I just wanted to set up camp, eat dinner, lay down, relax in the comfort of the tent. But I didn’t know how long the gravel section would last and I didn’t want to have to confront that unknown in the morning. I hate procrastination; it makes me more anxious rather than less.

More gravel, more hills. My terrible brakes made the descents a white-knuckle experience. Each corner offered the hope of pavement, then dashed it. So on the biggest climb of the day, crawling up some unknown ridge with New Germantown still an invisible oasis somewhere below, I was forced to confront all the questions that had been lurking.

Why do I do this? Sure, these adventures are fun to look back on, but why don’t I thoroughly, completely enjoy them while they are happening? Why does gravel always sound like so much fun, and then sucks once you’re riding it?

I don’t really have a good answer. Why does anyone do anything?

I want to have an adventurous life. I want to push myself outside the comfort of warm beds and electronics, at least sometimes, if only to renew my appreciation for those things. I want to spend time in nature and gain confidence and be empowered. I want to know I am capable. I want to look back on a life spent breathing hard and racing nightfall.

Still, I can’t help but think that other people have more fun than I do on their bikepacking adventures. Or maybe Instagram and The Radavist just make it seem that way. Maybe I just need some friends to go with, and that would change everything.

After another bone-rattling descent I made it to New Germantown, where I camped on the edge of a cornfield. Darkness rolled in, followed by a massive thunderstorm. It rained hard for two hours and the underside of the tent was soaking wet but the seams held. I spoke to Autumn on the phone and she talked me down from my loneliness.

The valley was shrouded in fog the next morning. I woke up, feeling better at having made it through the storm alright. Stuffed the wet tent into my bag, ate breakfast, pedaled away from the sleepy winter-worn clapboard homes lining Main Street. I rode past farms tucked up on the hillsides, cows clustered by fencelines, my neon rain jacket flapping in the wind behind me. Later I was home, returned to the spread gingers of the suburbs and then the clench of the city. The whole trip was 24 hours, more or less. Only a day outdoors, a day away from routines and comfort. Really not much. Hardly anything compared to other adventures.

But I’ve grown a little from it, and I’m a little more confident now, and the memory already has a place in my mind. And I know I’ll do it again even if sometimes I can’t make out the reasons.


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