Knoxville to Chattanooga on USBR-21

United States Bike Route 21 has a proposed route that extends from Jellico at the Kentucky border to Chattanooga on the Georgia border ( ).  USBR-21 is already established from Chattanooga Atlanta, and there is an “AASHTO identified corridor” and a proposed route through Kentucky.

Nearly all of the touring I have done in the past included camping.  This trip was an exploration of credit-card touring, with comfortable lodging and good food cooked by someone else.

Camping options are limited.  There is a development district campground about 60 miles down the road from Knoxville, and an RV campground near the freeway in Athens.

I headed out Monday morning.  I joined USBR-21 at the intersection of West Ford Valley Road and Neubert Springs Road, 96 miles from the Jellico terminus of the route, and 145 miles from the Georgia border.  I was familiar with the roads for the first 65 miles or so, from my regular peregrinations and from event rides.  Scenery that was new to me started at Madisonville.

out the door

I left the route in Athens to get to a hotel over on US-11 at 85 miles from home.

On Tuesday, I rode another 75 miles to the hotel in Chattanooga.  Wednesday was a recovery day and an opportunity to explore the changes to Chattanooga since the last time I was there, including the bike infrastructure in the downtown area. Ate some great food within walking distance from the hotel  (Public House on Tuesday and Alleia Wednesday).


I headed back up the Great Valley on Thursday, facing the challenge of reading a cue sheet backwards. I landed back in Athens after 72 miles.  It was not my preference, but I went out to the freeway interchange to get a little nicer hotel than my previous choice.  Downtown Athens is struggling because it has been choked off by a highway bypass (US-11) and later the freeway (I-75), and the merchants have moved with the transportation changes.

Friday was the long day, at 92 miles. Total mileage for the trip was 333 miles, including messing around in Chattanooga.

The route choices were good. I appreciate the fact that it seemed to choose to go through old downtowns, and it would be great if bike travel could contribute to revitalization of these city cores.

The topography is unremittingly hilly,  but the only significant climb is Mahan Gap, about 121 miles from Knoxville (mile 211 from Jellico).


Scenery is East Tennessee Pastoral, with agriculture in transition.



Getty’s woolen mill


McClatchey-Gettys house

The biggest improvement I would like to see to this route would be navigation signage.  I traveled with the cue sheet, and there were many ambiguous intersections, at which I had to confer with Google.





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A frame project

I decided I needed a sporty bike with wider tires than will fit on the Early, so I built a new one.  I equipped it with a few new parts, but mostly items scrounged from the Early and the brown bike.

It is pretty much full Heine Kool-Aid.  Toptube is .7/.4/.7, downtube is .8/.5/.8 (True Temper Oxplatinum), and it uses the Kaisei fork blades and Grand Bois fork crown (and braze-on centerpull brakes) sold by Compass.  I couldn’t find a True Temper chainstay with a curve I liked, so I went for Columbus Life cyclocross units.  The frame design is conventional sport/touring 73° parallel with 17 inch chainstays.  But the wide fork crown and curved chainstays, along with appropriate blade length and bridge locations, means that it will fit 42 mm 650b tires and fenders.  It has a low bottom bracket and low trail.

The best analogy for its ride is a like a candy that is soft on the outside with a firm caramel center.  The initial ride impression is cushiness, but it feels fast, handles very well, inspires confidence on descents, and there is no feeling of excessive  flex, even under as much power as I can muster.

I will continue tweaking the components.  The Turbo saddle in the picture is already gone, since it causes significant pain after 40 miles or so, and I borrowed the Early’s B17, which is much more comfortable on an extended ride.  It now has a front rack and a new Berthoud bag.

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More thoughts on tubing specifications and ride qualities

In a previous post, I noted that some highly respected people in the bike world assert that the frame tubing specifications make little or no difference to the ride.  However, in my experience, there are some circumstances in which tube choices make a huge difference.

For example, there was a Monark Siver King at Stu’s for repair.  It was an American balloon-tire kid’s bike, the frame of which was made from 1” round aluminum tubing.  If I remember correctly, the bottom bracket deflection could be measured in inches as you pedaled, yet it had a surprisingly lively ride.  My time with it was short, and I did not try it with a load, nor did I dive into any tricky corners; I suspect that with that much flex the handling could have been challenging.

Close to the same time (early 1980’s), I was at a Portland cyclocross race.  Jim Merz, then a Portland frame builder, brought a bike to the race that appeared to be nearly as flexy as the Monark.  The frame was steel (I think), and I don’t know anything about the specifications, but it must have had very thin walls.  He was using the flexibility as a substitute for suspension and he was riding over some of the obstacles that made the rest of us dismount.  He said something at the time about a good competition bike being “on the hairy edge of breakdown”.  I did not ride the bike, and I don’t know how long that frame survived.

I have ridden two tandems that had frames that were clearly too flexible.  Tandems are an extreme example because of the long tubes, double power input, and double human payload compared to a single bike.

One tandem was an American coaster-brake balloon-tire bike with 1” steel tubing, which usually means low strength steel and thick walls.  While riding placidly it was pleasant enough, but anything other than a gentle change in direction would cause the frame to twist, bend, and buck and generally become a challenge to keep under control.  Another tandem, a Gitane of traditional-diameter (unknown wall thickness but possibly tandem gauge) Reynolds 531 was better, but still could be a handful at low speeds and when cornered hard, and there was a lot of flex when accelerating or climbing.  On the other hand, I have ridden tandems built with oversize and presumably heavier gauge tubing that handle just like single bikes.

In this vein, Mr. Weiss, over at  Bike Snob NYC posted a  link  to a magazine article published in 1996 (back when steel was still taken seriously). The article is an account of a blind test of seven bikes with different frame tube specifications but otherwise identical design. It is remarkable that they assembled this group of bikes, but they could have made more of the opportunity.

In fact, they blew it.  This group of bikes could have been ridden by a group of testers whose pooled observations might have yielded some real insights.  And they could have performed some objective testing, like keeping track of lap times and measuring frame deflection.  Instead, one rider/writer recorded his hurried impressions.

The writer, Alan Cote, had a great deal of trouble telling the tube sets apart by their riding properties. With only one observer (contrary to the impression given by the graphics accompanying the article), this could either mean that differences were truly too subtle to distinguish, or there were too many bikes and too little time to sort out all the sensory information, or maybe that Mr. Cote was not a good observer.

Cote reaches some preliminary conclusions, then appears to second guess himself when he is informed of the construction material of each bike. “I think my ride impressions were essentially random”, he says after he discovers that the tubing specifications do not necessarily correlate with his initial ride impressions.

All of these tube sets are steel, so the specific steel alloy (or associated tensile strength) makes essentially no difference in tube rigidity, and the alloy, by itself, should make no difference in ride qualities.  Ride characteristics are determined by a combination of tube diameter and wall thickness.  Of course a higher-strength alloy does allow thinner walls and lighter weight without reducing the total strength, so the alloy characteristics can influence the long-term usefulness of a frame.

Using my  previous analysis  and a subjective analysis of the other frame specifications, most of these frames should have similar characteristics, but there is enough of a range that differences should have been perceptible, at least in the frames at the extremes.

The most flexible frame should have been the one constructed from SLX tubing.  It has the most flexible main triangle and the lightest chain stays, seat stays, and fork blades.  Cote identified this bike as the “softest”, apparently only for power transmission.  I don’t see any reason it would not also be the softest in its over-the-bumps ride.

I am surprised that he could not distinguish the straight-gauge (Aelle) frame.  Unless we have been defrauded about the value of butted tubing over the last 120 years (a possibility I cannot entirely eliminate) there should be a noticeable difference between this and the other bikes.  I found my Schwinn Sports Tourer, with similar tubing, harsher and less lively than comparable butted frames (though I recognize that that perception could have been because I knew it was straight gauge).

The stiffest frame should have been the Thron, with stout oversize tubing and heavier chain stays and seat stays.  This frame should be 30% or more stiffer than the SLX, a difference I would expect a rider to feel both in lateral flex during pedaling and over the bumps.  Cote called this the best at shock absorption, an impression that is surprising.

Cote’s favorite (which he called the “stiffest”) was the Neuron frame, made from tubing that used a complicated elliptical butting pattern.  Based on its specs, I would expect that it should be only incrementally stiffer than the SLX.  It is possible that the unique butting patterns provide a noticeably better ride, but if so, that fact did not save Neuron tubing from being eliminated from the Columbus catalog.

For a wine drinker who is happy with generic white wine, the difference between chardonnay and pinot gris is too subtle to bother with.  But a wine journalist worthy of the name would easily identify the two, wax poetic about the contributing tastes and mouth feel, and maybe tell you what vineyard the grapes came from.  A bike journalist should have a similarly well-calibrated sense of the contribution of frame construction to ride characteristics.  Maybe the differences between these frames were subtle, and maybe any differences really don’t matter when it comes down to the overall riding experience, but I have a hard time believing that the differences were indiscernible.  Bike journalism is driven too much by manufacturers’ (advertisers’) claims rather than educated, calibrated experience.  This was a unique opportunity to improve the writer’s ability to judge ride characteristics (maybe bike magazines should have a stable of test bikes with known and validated characteristics for training aspiring writers).

Or, if a panel reached consensus, this test would have reached a defensible conclusion that frame material really doesn’t matter (at least within this range).

Instead, it was a lost opportunity.

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A little more about tires and rolling resistance

Bicycle Rolling Resistance is a website run by Jarno Bierman in the Netherlands.  Jarno* uses a roller to measure tire rolling resistance.  The attraction of Jarnos’s work is that he uses a consistent method for a large number of different tires, and he uses a textured roller in an effort to account for energy loss from vibration as well as tire flex.  The consistent test procedure gives me more confidence in his results than I have in roll-down test of just a few tire models, and the textured roller presumably approximates a real-world road surface better than a smooth roller.

However, he focuses on a narrow range of road tire sizes, staying close to 25 mm width. He treats stouter touring tires as a separate class, and he sticks to tires of around 37 mm for that group.  Road and touring tires are all 700c.  He has not yet directly explored the characteristics of wide light and supple tires.

He has, however, compared the rolling resistance of a particular model of high-performance road tires in different widths and concluded that the widest (28 mm) had the lowest rolling resistance (conti GP link ) .  And he performed a similar test with a touring tire, showing that the 37 mm tire had lower rolling resistance than the 40 mm or 47 mm tire, while the 32 mm version had the highest rolling resistance for this tire model (Marathon link ).

However, the real outlier is in the mountain bike category.  I am a little dubious of the usefulness of this test on knobby mountain bike and fat bike tires (since the knobs are larger than the roughness elements on the test roller — it seems to me that a more pertinent test would involve a rougher roller**), but the relatively smooth tires in this category should behave like road tires.

The best-performing tire in the mountain bike class  has a rolling resistance that is competitive with the best 25 mm road tires, even with each class at inflation pressures appropriate to their widths.  As one might expect, it has a very light tread and casing but measures 47 mm wide.

These results seem to show that wide/light/supple tires can be as fast as their proponents claim.  Jarno has a long list of tires that he wants to test and not a lot of capacity to do the testing, but I would love to see him test some performance-oriented tires in the 38 mm range.



*I understand that you go straight to first names in the Netherlands rather than referring to someone with an honorific (e.g. Mijnheer Bierman) as you might in English.  I prefer that informality, but I don’t want to sound disrespectful, and I apologize if I am incorrect.

**I think it might be useful to test tires on a series of rollers with different size roughness elements, comparable to Nikuradse’s experiments with pipes.  This additional experimental data might provide some insight about optimum tires, width, and pressure for different surfaces.

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A list of 650b road tires and some general tire observations

As I am sure all of you bike geeks out there know by now, there are two mechanisms by which rolling is resistance is generated. One is the energy consumed by flexing of the tire as it rolls (hysteresis loss). The other is vibration, which converts forward motion to vertical motion and consumes energy within the body of the rider.

Hysteresis loss can be minimized by using a hard tire. As an extreme example, rolling resistance is very low for steel train wheels rolling on smooth steel track. High air pressure in a bicycle tire can minimize the amount of flex.

Two other factors influence hysteresis loss.  A tire with a light and supple construction tends to lose less energy to flex at any pressure.  Thick tread, heavy casing construction, and puncture-resistant belts all tend to increase energy losses.

A wider tire can lose less energy to hysteresis at the same pressure as a narrower tire because of the shape of the contact patch. However, the maximum pressure a tire can handle is limited by the tire’s width.

Historically, many of the measurements of bike tire rolling resistance have been made on smooth rollers. These measurements ignore energy loss due to vibration and have helped encourage an emphasis on narrow, high-pressure tires for most applications. Recent research has used more real-world conditions and has shown that, because of energy losses to vibration, wider tires at lower pressures can be faster on the less-than-perfect surfaces that we are likely to experience in our daily riding lives. In addition, wider tires provide greater comfort and control, especially on rough surfaces and with heavy loads.

It is worth noting that light tire construction, including both thin tread and a light-weight fabric casing, reduce both hysteresis loss and vibration loss. Thus the fastest tires tend to be the lightest tires, and they also provide the most comfortable ride.

There are circumstances in which the best tire is narrow and hard, but they are restricted mostly to competition on good pavement or at the velodrome. Outside of those conditions, it makes little sense to be stuck with skinny tires that ride harshly, require frequent inflation, and can be steered and bounced by surface irregularities. For riders not involved in competition (and many who are), a 28mm tire is the narrowest that is needed, and tire widths of 42 mm and wider are very practical, and can be as fast as narrower tires.

For those of us who are low-performance riders, low rolling resistance still matters. In fact, because we cruise at a lower speed, wind resistance is lower than it is for faster riders, so rolling resistance becomes a higher proportion of total resistance. The difference between a very fast tire and a slow tire result in as much as 2 mph cruising speed on a flat road for a 100-watt rider.

On the down side, light high-performance tires tend to be relatively easy to puncture or cut and are more prone to stone bruises (broken cords with no external damage). And, as one might expect, they wear out relatively quickly. I get between 1500 and 2000 miles from light tires on the back wheel (3000 to 4000 miles for a pair that is judiciously rotated), and wider tires do not seem to last appreciably longer than similar narrower tires (at least in the range of 28 mm to 42 mm). I don’t have a lot of problems with punctures on the roads that I ride on my weekend peregrinations, and I have the skills to fix them easily when I do, so the greater speed (and therefore greater range) and comfort are worth it to me under these circumstances. However, when I do have flats, some are caused by very small objects, such as tiny thorns or miniscule slivers of glass that would not penetrate thicker tread and casing.

I use stouter tires for commuting and utility riding and accept any loss of speed in exchange for the practicality and reliability. City streets are littered with more broken glass and other sharp things than are country roads. When I have to stick to a schedule and when I am wearing office clothes, I really don’t want to repair a flat, and I seldom need to do so when using heavier tires with protective belts. Most of these tires last significantly longer than performance tires, on the order of 2500-3500 miles, even while hauling groceries and other loads. The Schwalbe Marathon currently on the back of my utility bike has about 2000 miles on it and looks like it just getting warmed up. From an economic perspective, a good quality tire that is heavier and more robust can cost half as much as a light tire and last twice as many miles.

For me, touring is more similar to utility riding than it is to sportier weekend jaunts.  Tires wear faster and are more likely to puncture with the dead weight of a load of camping gear.  Light tires are okay for a fast weekend trip, but a journey to the opposite coast would require tire replacements (maybe more than one) along the way, perhaps at an inopportune time, and the risk of tire failure that would leave the traveler stranded would be increased. And repairing flats on a loaded bike is considerably more trouble. I am still not sure how much priority durability should get compared to rolling resistance.

Although the general tendency is for lighter tires to be faster but more fragile, manufacturers seem to be able to do some tricks with rubber compounds and casing design that make some tires behave differently than expected looking at only weight, or at least mitigating the performance impacts of added weight.  Some of the tricks seem to be expensive (tire costs range by a factor of four or more), and it appears that you get what you pay for to some extent if you are discerning about ride quality.  I would recommend doing further research about any tires you are considering.

The renaissance of the 650b tire has paralleled the rediscovery of the advantages of wider tires. The 650b size allows a wider tire to work with a traditional road bike design, whether as a retrofit on an existing frame or on a frame designed for that size. Under the marketing designation of 27.5”, the size has become quite popular in the mountain bike world (and now on fat bikes), but is still not entirely mainstream on road bikes. However, there is now a wide range of 650b tires available, from extremely light tires that roll fast and float over rough surfaces to massive and possibly bullet-proof trekking tires. There is also some bleed-through from the off-roaders, providing road tires that fit those 650b mountain bikes.

I have assembled a list of  650b road tires available as of late November 2016, posted below. I expect that assembling a list like this in the future will become an impractical undertaking because  the number of options will continue to increase. I probably missed a few in my searches, but I hit the major tire manufacturers and marketers of this tire size. I cut off the maximum width for the list at 50 mm because there are few road frames that accept a tire any wider than that and because there are very few road tires that are wider. I did include some all-surface knobbies in the list, up to the 50 mm Continentals.

Finding all of these tires on the manufacturers’ web sites illustrated the lack of standardization for tire size nomenclature. Tires were listed as 27.5 (inches) x width in inches, 650b, 650 x zzb) (where “zz” is the width in mm), zz-584, or 26 x 1 ½ (with some other number to designate the actual width). Even in the same web site, it could take multiple searches using these different designations to locate all of the 650b tires.

Because I am too lazy to add references to the text of this blog, I will leave it to the reader to search out the details.  Here are few links to get you started.


Roller data

Roues Artisinales

Rolling resistance tests


Heine 1

Heine 2

Peterson on 650b

Yet another useless marketing term: Road Plus


And here is the table of 650b road and all-surface tires

Model Width (mm) Series Advertised Weight (g) Comment
Schwalbe One H 462a 25 Evo 215
Schwalbe Pro One HS 462 25 Evo 225
Schwalbe Durano 28 performance 405
Panaracer/ Compass Cypres 32 Extra Leger 261
Panaracer/ Compass Cypres 32 standard 285
Panaracer/ Rivendell Nifty Swifty 34 406
Schwalbe Kojak 35 performance 410
Schwalbe HS 159 37 active 580
Continental Tour Ride 37 580
Panaracer/ Pacenti Pari-Moto 38 300
Panaracer Gravelking 38 310
Panaracer/ Compass Loup Loup Pass 38 Extra Leger 333
Panaracer/ Compass Loup Loup Pass 38 standard 354
Panaracer/ Soma B-line 38 380
Maxxis Detonator 38 480
Panaracer/ Soma Xpress 38 410
Panaracer Col de la Vie 38 500
Panaracer Ribmo 38 520
Schwalbe G-One HS 473 40 evo 420
Schwalbe Marathon plus HS 440 40 performance 920
Surly Knard 41 465 knob
Panaracer/ Rivendell Fatty Rumpkin 41 green label 480
Panaracer/ Rivendell Fatty Rumpkin 41 force field 620
Panaracer/ Soma Grand Rando 42 SL 300
Panaracer/ Pacenti Pari-Moto 42 330
Panaracer Gravelking 42 350
Panaracer/ Compass Babyshoe Pass 42 Extra Leger 362
Panaracer/ Compass Babyshoe Pass 42 standard 390
Panaracer/ Soma Grand Rando 42 EX 390
Schwalbe Marathon supreme HS 469 42 evo 470
Panaracer/ Soma Cazadero 42 470 knob
Panaracer Pasela 42 fold 480
Panaracer Pasela 42 wire 520
Maxis Overdrive 42 535
Panaracer/ Soma Grand Rando 42 Blue label 610
Continental Tour Ride 42 650
Panaracer/ Bruce Gordon Rock n road 43 520 knob
Schwalbe Marathon Cross 44 performance 620 semi knob
Schwalbe HS 159 44 active 645
Schwalbe Marathon HS 420 44 performance 820
Kenda Kwick Journey 44 954
Kenda Kwick Seven.5 45 834
WTB Horizon 47 515
Panaracer/ Compass switchback hill 48 Extra Leger 413
Panaracer/ Compass switchback hill 48 standard 478
Continental Race King Performance 50 580 knob
Schwalbe Marathon supreme HS 469 50 evo 600
Schwalbe Hurricane HS 352 50 performance 670 side knobs
Schwalbe Big Ben 50 performance 745
Schwalbe Marathon Almotion HS453 50 evo 750
Schwalbe Marathon Mondial HS 428 50 evo 780 semi knob
Continental Double Fighter III 50 845 knob
Schwalbe land cruiser 50 active 900 semi knob
Kenda Kwick Seven.5 50 950

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Lather and a camping trip

Lather was sixty years old today

And Lather came home from his cage.

He looked at me eyes wide and plainly said

Is it true I’m no longer middle aged?

And I should have told him “No, you’re not old.”

And I should have let him go on…smiling…babywide.

— Apologies to Grace Slick

So I am officially old now, and to console myself and demonstrate that 60 really is the new 59, I took the day off and rode.  I rolled up to Elkmont in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.  The weather was perfect and traffic in this most-visited national park is still relatively moderate in early May.  The ride followed the Little River, which is a serious of cascades and pools carved into bedrock and boulder.  There were also cascades of penstemon and maiden hair fern, and the mountain laurel was just coming into bloom.  The odometer read 99 miles when I got home after about nine hours on the road, including a stop for pretty good burger at the Riverstone in Townsend on the return leg.

A couple of weeks later, a change of travel plans created an opportunity for a camping trip to Citico Creek.

So I loaded up the touring bike and headed out.  The plan was to follow  the proposed route of USBR-21 (with minor deviations) from Knoxville, south to Vonore.  There, my route takes a left off of USBR-21 (which is on the wide shoulder of US-411 at this point) and onto SR-360.  I went straight where 360 turns right, and it becomes Citico Road.  This road rolls eastward for a few miles before picking up Citico Creek, which it follows into the Cherokee National Forest. The pavement ends at about mile 70 on this route, measured from my house.  There are no major climbs, but it is all hilly, and there are some steep climbs.

Camping on the Citico Creek corridor is limited to areas specified by signs, and the two developed campgrounds have limited services.  Most notably, they do not have water, so a bike camper needs to be prepared to filter a lot of water.  If that does not sound appealing, Indian Boundary Campground is available further on down the road and up a significant climb. The bike camper can skip the Young Branch Horse Camp, where a premium is charged for the extra facilities to support horses.  But I find it worth the $6 per night at Jake Best (mile 75) for a table to sit at, and the pit toilet beats finding fresh spots in a field of TP flags.  I have been in this area on busy summer weekends when it was difficult to find a camping spot, so arrive early or visit at off-peak times if you want your choice of a spot.

The ride started with pleasant, cool temperatures, but there was some storm activity approaching and scattered showers during the day.  I was not feeling that great, and after about 50 miles, I considered the alternative of a shorter trip to Abrams Creek Campground on the southern edge of the Smokies Park.  I found a place where I had a connection on my cell phone (which was being charged by the dynohub).  I discovered that, as I feared, Abrams Creek would not open until the next weekend (Memorial Day).  So it was back to plan A.

The rest of the ride was slow but uneventful until it started raining lightly.  For the last fifteen miles or so, there was a light intermittent rain, necessitating bringing out the raincoat.  Being a wool guy, I was comfortable, even when a little soggy.

I set up camp mostly between showers.  A serious thunderstorm came through at about 4:00 AM.  I could feel a light mist through the rainfly of my MST Hubba tent at the peak of the storm, but I just got damp.

After the storm passed, the weather got very pleasant.  I spent most of day 2 hanging around camp, including a short ride to enjoy the scenery.  For the fluvial geomorpholy geeks out there, Citico Creek goes through the sequence of Rosgen A, B, and C classifications in about 10 miles.

Different route choices on the return trip on day 3 added close to 5 miles. The weather stayed pleasant but breezy.

I was remarkably slow on this trip.  In the past, I could figure on a net average speed of about 10 mph, including stops.  I was just over 8 mph on this trip.  The weight of all the food I could eat in three days might have been a factor. I was not in great shape, and of course I am now old. This was the first time I have traveled with front and rear panniers, and the wind was against me in both directions — the wet weather was coming from the south and southwest and the fair weather was from the north. The bike handled the weight and the distribution of the weight well; it felt solid with no handling quirks.

Wildflowers, wildlife (deer, turkeys, coyote) and great scenery made this a wonderful trip for a long weekend.


citico bike

On arrival at Jake Best Campground


Citico Creek


Small tributary




Galax (Galax urceolata)




Chainguards protect the chain from the elements, as well as protecting the rider from the chain.  I do not know why the software insists on turning this image upside down.


Sundrops (Oenothera fruticosa) and Indian Pinks (Spigelia maralandica).  These are in my home garden, but I saw both on the trip.


Copper iris (Iris fulvens) and Christmas fern (Polystychum acrostichoides) also in my home garden. I have not seen these in the wild.





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The Brown bike

I noted in a previous post that my old touring bike had some shortcomings. The following post goes into excruciating detail about the history of that bike, a history which might be interesting to a few bike-history obsessives, but likely not anyone else.

The Brown Bike was built in 1978 under the tutelage of Gary Hale, who was a fellow employee at Stu’s Bike Shop in Eugene. This bike was intended to be a gravel-road camping bike.

There is, of course, nothing new about riding a bike on surfaces other than asphalt. There were no good roads in the early days of cycling and a lot of roads remained unpaved into the middle of the last century. Stages of the TDF were run on gravel into the 1960’s and maybe later. But by the late 70’s, unpaved roads were retreating into remote rural areas and bike tires were getting skinnier and skinnier. It was common knowledge that wide tires were slow and heavy. An all-road bike in 1978 seemed downright radical.


Figure 1. Anquetil and Bahamontes, TDF 1963.

I think the seeds of the idea of an all-road bike were planted on a backpacking trip when I was about 8 years old. My memories are fuzzy, but I remember bicycle tracks on the back country trail in the Three Sisters Wilderness Area. One of the grownups teased me that we might meet up with the the ice cream dealer making the tracks at any time. As I got older and continued to enjoy hiking and backpacking, the idea of riding into the wild and remote places grew in appeal.

The seeds were watered by Cyclists’ Touring Club accounts of British rough-stuff riding (CTC Link) and the few references that I could find to French touring bikes with 650b demi-ballon tires. I also saw an “expedition” bike around Eugene that was made in Missoula (I don’t remember the builder) that was in the same spirit. The 650b tire size was not available in the US then, American balloon tires seemed too wide, and the British three-speed 26 x 1 3/8 seemed like the best available compromise.
Alloy rims for this size, triple cranks, and cantilevers were all pretty exotic in Oregon in 1978, and it took some looking to find the pieces I needed, but I was happy with the results. The bike rode well on pavement and on gravel, and the gears were low enough for long steep climbs.

I used this bike to explore the back roads, USFS and BLM roads in the vicinity of Eugene, Oregon. And I rode it on the longest bike tour of my life so far, from Nevada City, California to Eugene, up the crest of the Sierra and the Cascades. This trip was all on pavement except for a short segment of railroad shoulder (would have been shorter if I had not missed my turn the first time) to avoid getting on the freeway at Weed.

And there was one particularly epic camping trip on jeep trails on the edge of the Waldo Lake and Three Sisters Wilderness areas.

A few months after the Brown Bike hit the road, Charles Kelly’s article about the nascent phenomenon of mountain biking hit Bicycling Magazine (Clunkers) . This article marked a turning point in bike culture and merchandising and made my attempt at an expedition bike seem a lot less radical. (And of course the more-recent development of fat bikes and the gravel-grinder fad makes this bike almost conventional.)

Later that year (1978), a young footloose man came through town. He tried my bike and loved it, and offered to buy it. I declined the sale, so he knocked out a copy in a few weeks in Gary’s shop. He then disappeared into the sunset only to appear again a year or so later on the cover of Bicycling. That’s him just right of center (under the second “i”) on the orange bike with relatively skinny tires. The scene is Pearl Pass and all the culture heroes of mountain biking are in the picture. I wish I could remember his name. He was obviously an interesting and dynamic person, and I would like to know where he ended up. (The Bicycling cover shot is from Charles Kelley’s site )


After a few years, and after a couple of seasons of road racing, I got the cyclocross bug. The only knobby ‘cross tires available in the early 80’s were sew-ups, which of course are the same rim diameter as 700c. I moved the cantilever studs (including heating the tubing to remove them and heating it again to add new studs) to accommodate the larger rim diameter, and it became a reasonably capable cyclocross bike.

During one cyclocross training session, I hit a big root (or something) buried under the leaves on a trail. The obstacle was big enough to stop the bike and launch me over the handlebars. The result was bent top tube, down tube and fork blades, but not so severely bent that I could not straighten it out again.

Some years later, long after my cyclocross days were over, the bike was again a utility and touring bike. The 700c wheel size limited the width of tire that could be mounted, and I mostly rode 28 mm tires; anything bigger was a problem with fenders. In addition, the extremely high bottom bracket with the larger tires was less than optimum under most conditions. By this time (2005 or so), 650b tires had become somewhat available, promoted mostly by Grant Peterson. In order to restore the bike to its original function, I again moved the cantilever studs and converted to the bike to 650b. This was quite successful, improving the ride and opening the tire options.

I originally designed the bike thinking about some fairly technical riding, and the BB is high to allow pedaling through rough sections. Frame angles are 71° parallel head and seat tube. I figured this would make the bike stable and cushy on rough surfaces.  The chain stays are as long as I could get them with untrimmed Reynolds 531 stays and long Campi horizontal dropouts, and they come out to about 445 mm (17.5”). Of course the main reason for long stays is to get good weight distribution (and heel clearance) for a rear load, but the length of the stays also allows a reasonably wide tire between the plain round-oval-round stays. The original 1 3/8” (about 35 mm) tires fit fine. I can fit a 38mm wide 650b tire, but there is not a lot of room left for mud. The width of the fork crown also limits this bike to a tire not much wider than 35mm.

The high bottom bracket is good for rocky trails, but it makes the bike feel less stable and grounded than would a lower BB. The head angle is okay, but the seat tube is too slack for a good riding position over the BB without sliding the seat all the way forward.
The fork offset produces a conventional amount of trail (60 mm or so), and I would prefer a little less trail. The offset is also small enough that, combined with the short top tube, I kick the front fender at low speed, which is not a critical flaw but it is mildly annoying, and one would think it could be avoided on a 60 cm frame.

The best I can reconstruct from my memory and the Proteus catalog (Proteus catalog link ) , it appears the frame was constructed with a .8/.5/.8 top tube, a 1/.7/1 down tube and probably .8/.6 chain stays, and it has a .9/.6 seat tube.

After 36 years of use and abuse, two cantilever conversions, one major realignment, and a moderate amount of rust (it never got anything better than a rattle-can paint job), the bike still rides great and serves on an occasional tour, but I felt like the bike might not reliable for the long trips I dream of, and it was relegated to occasional use and replaced with the new bike.


Brown Bike, ready to go

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