Category Archives: Gear

How the orange bike came home

So here’s the continued story of Orange Bike. It’s been almost exactly a year since my little orange TransAM was stolen from a public bike rack on the DTES, and if there’s a moral here it’s that it’s always worth holding on to hope.

I never meant to buy this bike. I went out to Coquitlam to pick up a fork for the build I was working on, but the fork was still attached to a bike and the seller convinced me to take that as well for a few extra bucks. It didn’t look like anything much: a very beat up steel frame in a ludicrous shade of orange, attached to an assortment of worn out components and a really nice fork. Still, I figured I could stick one of my old forks on it, sell it, and probably come out well ahead. But when I got home I took the orange bike out for a ride, and even though barely anything on it worked properly (the chain was stretched, the cassette teeth ground down to nothing, the brakes sloppy and disparate) something clicked. Before I even got around the block I knew I wasn’t going to be selling this bike.

I cannibalized the build I’d just finished for replacement parts, and then the orange bike and I went on adventures. It became my go-to commuter, my urban playground bike, my after-work trail machine. I flew it to California and rode the dusty desert singletrack of Fort Ord and Toro Regional Park. It hung out by the ocean where the surf was breaking. It tipped me over the bars on Victoria rock rolls and held its own admirably on Hartland trails in the pouring rain.

Surf's up

It shouldn’t have been a high theft risk. The frame was chipped and dented, the decals peeling and discoloured; only the fork gave away that there was actually an awesome little chromoly trail machine hiding under that battered exterior. And it’s likely the fork that it was stolen for; I can’t imagine anyone bothering for the frame. But it did get stolen, and even though I somehow managed to find another 2011 TransAM – one in far better condition than the orange bike – it was never quite the same. I’ve missed that bike on every single ride it wasn’t there for.

Cut to eight weeks ago. On PinkBike, where I’d repeatedly thought that I should just kill the reward notice I posted and give up hope that the orange bike might ever come home, I got a message from someone who’d bought a battered but surprisingly good quality steel frame at the Vancouver flea market and was a bit suspicious about his good fortune. 10 months on, I did not want to allow myself to hope. I sent him the serial number and tried to put it out of my mind. Until the most surprising message of all came back: the number matched.

It took a while to meet up. Each time we didn’t manage to connect, I reminded myself that this was such a ridiculously long shot in the first place. Then today I got a text: he had a free day, did I want to meet at lunchtime for the handover? We spent a half hour dancing around each other at Starbucks because he had assumed he was looking for a guy. And then he gave me a black plastic garbage bag with a bike frame wrapped inside, and I gave him a Starbucks gift card because he refused to take the reward I’d offered but I knew he liked coffee, and the orange bike came home. Don’t ever lose faith in humanity; there are very, very good people out there.

There’s some rebuilding to do. But the little orange bike, the bike I loved the very most, is back where it belongs. Happy new year.

TransAM redux

Steel is real

Then there was this.

Orange bike

Sometimes you don’t even plan the perfect thing, and it happens anyway. I didn’t mean to buy an orange bike. I didn’t need another bike, no matter what colour it was. But the orange bike crossed my path, and this little chromoly machine turned out to be one of the best things I ever bought. It’s now my every day commuter, my after-work trail ripper, my vacation companion when lock-up circumstances or transport are too insecure for the Banshee. The urban playground continues to expand, and I love every moment I spend on this bike.

Enter the Banshee

Some other things happened after last ski season ground to its miserable end, with changes on the work front that meant I have a lot less free time as I focus on learning and growing in other areas for a while. That’s okay; sometimes the unexpected opportunities that come calling make finding a compromise worthwhile.

So, how did the summer pan out? Well, when you don’t have as much time, you focus a lot more on making the most of the time you have. With that in mind, one of the things I realised early on was that it was time for a new bike. It wasn’t that I fell out of love with the Instinct, but my riding focus shifted quite noticeably away from the all-day adventure rides and into rapid-fire climbs and descents, with downhill skill-building the biggest challenge.

Banshee detail

I did my research (always a librarian at heart) and settled on a bike that’s way out of my league, but that will serve me well for years and years to come: a Banshee Spitfire. My bike stable has been pretty Rocky-centric over the past few years (with a brief Cannondale intrusion) but it felt like time to move to something new. And I really liked the idea of supporting a North Shore company, with bikes that were made for riding here.

Banshee - Born on the Shore

It wasn’t easy. The production run of small frames was short this year, and I tried every supplier in Vancouver, Squamish and Whistler without luck. Finally Cap’s in Richmond said they were able to get hold of a single raw frame, and I slapped a deposit on it as fast as I could. The shop staff convinced me to upgrade the suspension to the CC DB Inline shock, which hadn’t been on my radar – I’ve had no issues with the Float previously – but I figured since I was (for once) forking out for a brand-new bike, I might as well go all in. The final build looked lean, mean, and ready for anything.

Banshee - CC DB Inline shock

It’s important to start as you mean to go on, so I loaded the bike onto the car and headed for Half Nelson. It was unsurprisingly somewhat weightier than the Instinct on the climb, but the 1 x 11 drivechain didn’t make as much of a difference as I’d expected. Then I pointed the nose downhill, and set off on the best joyride of them all.

The bike was brand-new. I hadn’t dialed the suspension in, or adjusted to the very different geometry. On that first run I dropped two minutes from my usual Half Nelson time, and was in the air so much I wasn’t sure whether I was riding or flying. The DB shock was soft as butter, and the more compact, slacker geometry sent me dipping in and out of corners and riding high on the berms with shocking ease.

Spitfire in the woods

When you don’t have as much time, you make the most of the time you have. Suddenly the summer seemed full of a whole new kind of promise.

Raynaud’s vs. Chaval

As skiers, we’re constantly out in temperatures well below freezing. We often spend days at a time in places where there’s no source of external warmth, nowhere to hang out but on the snow. We learn strategies for staying warm, layering, using down insulation to stay toasty when we’re no longer generating heat through movement.

I’ve always felt the cold badly, and had serious difficulties keeping my extremities warm. So it wasn’t a big surprise when I was diagnosed with Raynaud’s a few years ago. It was, however, a huge problem: the circulation issues that I experience in my fingers and toes aren’t ever going to improve, and in fact will – and have – increase as I get older. And I’m a skier. I can’t have a condition that could, eventually, jeopardise my ability to spend time in the mountains.

I haven’t found the cold feet to be as serious an issue in the backcountry, where I’m warming up substantially on climbs rather than cooling down on a chairlift between runs, but over the past year or so the condition of my hands has become grim. Transitions, especially if I need to remove my gloves, are particularly hard. There’s a point where the cold in my fingers becomes incredibly painful, and promises a good case of the screaming barfies when they eventually start to thaw. Plus these repeated chillings to the point of intense pain can’t be doing me much good in the long term.

Over the past couple of seasons, I’ve tried many strategies for dealing with this. Hot pockets, better gloves, layered gloves, thermoses of hot tea, wild windmilling. Everything helps a little bit, but not really very much. And so I started to explore a possibility that I’d previously ruled out due to cost: heated gloves.

Chaval XRT

I have to admit, I was hesitant. Firstly because I’d read really mixed reviews of some of the products on the market, secondly because of the expense, and thirdly because it seemed…well, kind of wussy to be a backcountry skier with battery-powered warming gloves. But needs must, and my hands are not getting any better.

And this has been a gamechanger.

I’ve taken my Chaval-XRT gloves out every day since I got them, including one resort day. For the resort day they ran steadily from first chair to last, and my hands never started to feel chilled in spite of the bitter wind that whipped around us on the chair.

Conditions in the backcountry have been tremendously variable. On a couple of warmer days I thought I wasn’t going to need the gloves at all, but then got careless on the transitions and chilled my fingers badly. I put them on for the downhill, kept them on through the second transition back to touring mode, and kept the heat on until I’d warmed through fully from the climbing. Then I was  good to turn them off till the end of the next transition. This kind of intermittent warming worked really well; there was still lots of power in the gloves for the final run back to the car as darkness neared, but I was able to keep my hands at a good temperature throughout the day with minimal demand on the battery.

On the most brutally cold day so far this winter, they were amazing. At the end of our initial climb we stopped to dig a pit on a section of the ridge where the windchill was around -20, and as we took turns shoveling I grew colder and colder. By the time we ripped skins and switched to ride mode, my hands were blocks of ice. But once I’d turned on the gloves, it took just a few minutes for life to trickle back into them and by the end of the first descent, they were fine. This time I kept them on right through the climb up and subsequent runs. I was actually comfortable enough to be able to remove the gloves completely to fiddle with a couple of buckles at one point, knowing I could put them right back onto my chilled fingers. This level of performance is honestly something I wasn’t expecting.

The great things about these gloves: firstly, they’re really good gloves. On milder days when I don’t turn the heat on, they’re still better than the gloves I was using previously.

Secondly, the heat regulation is excellent. I was a little concerned that, unlike other models, they didn’t offer an option to adjust the temperature. But the heat delivered is perfect. It’s never particularly intense, so it doesn’t lead to undue sweating; it’s just a steady trickle through all four fingers and the thumb that keeps the fingers from ever getting too cold.

Chaval control buttons

Thirdly, they’re really easy to use. Hook the connectors together, and then all it takes is a simple press of one good-sized, well-positioned button to turn them on and another to pause them. Get home, uncouple the connectors, and plug one into the wall to charge and dry the gloves.

A couple of very small negatives: the thumb doesn’t stay quite as warm as the fingers. (Caveat: even the XS gloves are very slightly large on me; a snugger fit might address this.) And they are bulky. This doesn’t particularly bother me, and certainly isn’t a concern when they’re on the hands, but weight weenies or those with limited pack space might find it an issue.

However, these are tiny gripes. The main thing, for me, is that I’m finally spared torturous hand pain during my ski days. My only regret is that I let the cost put me off getting these for a couple of seasons. If I’d known how much difference they would make, I would have gotten a pair much sooner.

Chaval gloves above Callaghan

Exit the Prestige

A couple of weeks ago I rode the Tour de Whatcom. This was one of my favourite cycling events last summer, and this year didn’t disappoint. Once again it was a relaxed, fun ride with a friendly crowd, and the added bonus that the route had been altered to finish with the rolling curves and beautiful views of Chuckanut Drive. Unfortunately, it also marked the return of a much less welcome part of last summer: crippling shoulder pain.

This brought me to a decision point. The shoulder has been completely settled recently; in fact the only times I’ve experienced pain from it this year have been the days that I’ve ridden the road bike. There’s nothing else we can do to dial in the fit at this point, and it’s become undeniable that the source of the problem is the more aggressive forward riding position.

So it’s time to say goodbye. I’m sad about this. The Prestige and I have had some excellent adventures together, and there’s no question that at one time it was my dream bike. But it’s also true that that time has passed, and that long-distance road cycling is no longer my priority. When I dream about bikes these days, their wheels are always on dirt. Prestige on Chuckanut Drive

Enter the Flatline

Last Friday I took the day off and headed back to the Whistler Bike Park to practice my downhill skills. I’d decided that it would be fun to rent a proper freeride bike for the day, and see how much difference it made to the experience.

Flatline

8 inches of front and rear travel and a double crown fork changed the game completely. I found myself charging over things I would have balked at before, and rattling over washboard entrances to berms at full speed. And jumps! This bike *loved* the jumps. It leapt into the air at the slightest opportunity, and landings – even the ones where I overshot or fell short and came down flat – felt cushioned and soft.

There was no way I was giving that experience up. As soon as I realised the bike shop had the same model of bike for sale at a huge discount (last year’s model, identical except for the paint job) financial restraint was forgotten. I loaded the Flatline onto the back of my truck with a grin a mile wide.

Flatline at Whistler

And so now I own a park bike. I realise I’ll probably only use this bike a dozen times a year, if that. But I have absolutely no regrets. How could I? If Friday was anything to go by, the days I spend on the Flatline will be the most ridiculously fun of all.

Backcountry safety 101: your phone is not a beacon

I don’t often use this blog as a platform to rant, but this horrible article from Outside Magazine warrants a good one. In it, they look at whether smartphone apps are a viable low-cost alternative to avalanche beacons.

I see what you did there, Outside. You opted for a neutral presentation of the cases for and against, with the app developer vigorously defending his product and experts from the CAC and AAA highlighting its technical flaws and limitations. But by taking the “both sides of the argument” approach, your article implies that phone apps are something that should be given serious consideration as an alternative to beacons. This is misleading, irresponsible, and quite frankly dangerous.

Phone apps are NOT beacons. These are the facts:

  • All transceivers operate on the same frequency, meaning that any brand can be used to look for any other brand. Phone apps will not only not recognize traditional transceivers, they’re not even able to recognize other kinds of avalanche apps.
  • Transcievers operate on the 457kHz frequency because it transmits well through dense snow and isn’t deflected by objects like rocks and trees. Apps use WiFi and Bluetooth for transmission, both of which are significantly weakened when they pass through snow and are prone to deflection by solid objects.
  • The 457kHz standard is also extremely accurate, allowing precise location of buried victims. GPS, which is used by phone apps to locate a signal, does not come close to this level of accuracy.
  • Transceivers are subject to rigorous durability and performance testing before being released for purchase. A smartphone is far less robust than a made-for-purpose transceiver, and is not subject to any standardized performance testing for this kind of field use.
  • Transceivers are designed to operate in cold environments. Phone batteries drain more rapidly in the cold, and unlike a transceiver have multiple sources placing demands on their power.

Now picture this. You’re caught in a slide, pummeled by debris, and fetch up buried against a tree and awaiting rescue. Did your relatively fragile cellphone survive the ride? Do the folk who are searching for you on the surface have enough battery life to keep going while they work their way across the debris field? Wait, did they even download the same app that you have? At what point will they realise that your apps are incompatible and they’re searching for something they’re never going to find? How’s your air pocket doing?

It’s an ugly, messy scenario, and yet it’s close to a best case if a group using phone apps finds themselves in a companion rescue situation. It could be much worse. Anyone who’s been through AST training knows the level of confusion and ferocious intensity of a multiple burial scenario when you’re using completely standardized equipment; now imagine that with a profusion of devices and incompatible apps. I think there is a very serious risk that these apps will end up endangering more lives than they save.

The arguments on the pro-app side are nonsensical, and should not have been presented without qualification. The most irresponsible and misleading statement is the app developer’s claim that apps aren’t competing for the same market as beacons because they are “only meant for day trips,” as though the need for proper safety equipment is dependent on the length of the journey and has nothing to do with the kind of terrain you’re traveling through. Using his own decision not to buy a beacon to try and make a case for the apps made me cringe. Anyone who considers the $300 cost of a beacon not worth paying should not be in avalanche terrain, period. It’s not just your own life that could be in the balance, but your ability to assist in rescuing someone else if things go wrong.

The problem with the article is that it lends credibility to the idea that phone apps can be used in place of a beacon. By not taking a position in the debate, a magazine as influential as Outside runs the risk of having inexperienced backcountry users conclude that they don’t need to invest in proper safety equipment and training. It’s all very well to try and present a neutral and balanced view of the two sides of a particular argument, but in this case there shouldn’t even be an argument. There’s far too much at stake.

Edit: anyone who’s tempted to buy into the “only meant for day trips” argument should read this post. http://www.wildsnow.com/9980/  “You step out of your car, and about twenty feet later you are crossing below an obvious avalanche path. A few hundred yards south, you step onto the slope that killed the five individuals last weekend.”

I sold my Soul for a Bad Boy

With biking season rapidly approaching, I’d been pondering some changes to the bike stable. Since I added the full suspension ETSX at the start of last winter I’ve been conscious that there’s a lot of redundancy between that and the hardtail, and the poor Soul was relegated to commuter bike status. As commuters go it did a good job – the front suspension made for a very comfortable ride – but was unquestionably slow and heavy.

With a new job meaning that I’ll be spending more time visiting different work locations, the idea of a faster and lighter commuter started to make a lot more sense. I also liked the idea that I’d be able to head straight out from work for longer road rides without having to come home first to switch bikes. And so this past week, I sold the Soul – not without a significant wrench, since I was very attached to it – and used the proceeds to pick up a Cannondale Bad Boy 9.

Cannondale Bad Boy 9I wasn’t sold on any particular model and had about a half-dozen on my test riding shortlist, but the Bad Boy checked every box and was in the lower end of the decent quality hybrid price bracket. I particularly like the downhill riding position, and it has my one commuting non-negotiable: disk brakes.

So far the Bad Boy and I have clocked around 120km together, and I’m extremely happy with it. There’s no question that the rigid fork makes for a harsher ride, but it’s also fast and light while feeling quite different than my road bike. I don’t have the same sense of overlap that I had with the two downhill bikes.

More to come on the Bad Boy once we’ve had longer to get to know one another, but I think this is the start of a beautiful relationship.

Gear review: Salomon Rocker 2 108

As the season starts to wind down, it’s time for a look back at how the Rockers worked out.

Ski specs: 166cm Rocker 2 108 mounted +3 (recommended) with Salomon Guardians.

Rocker 2 108

Me: 5′ 4″, 120lbs, confident but not especially aggressive. Previous daily driver was the Salomon Shogun.

Skiing conditions to date: 25 days total. 8 backcountry tours ranging from meadow skipping to a 1300m climb to the glacier on Mt Cayoosh. Resort days at Whistler and Baker including pretty much everything from deep powder to icy bumps.

At 108 underfoot with full hybrid rocker, this ski was made for softer snow but is proving impressively versatile in a range of conditions. In the soft and deep, it shines. It has a tremendously playful feel, which translates to a surfy ease in deeper powder. In fresh chop and crud, the tip rocker really smooths out the ride and I can blast over stuff that I’m pretty sure would have pitched me around on other skis.

I’m not a cliff hucker by any means, but it’s an easy ski to pop off bumps – it feels comfortable in the air and solid on landings. You don’t need a lot of depth for the fun to begin, either; as soon as it gets into even a couple of inches of softer snow, the Rockers come alive. On PNW cement it just surfs through; in the fluff, it floats. In boot deep or beyond it’s hard to wipe the grin from your face.

The camber underfoot translates to surprisingly decent hard snow performance for a ski of this width. It took a few runs to figure out the sweet spot but once I had it dialed I had no problem getting them up on edge, and they carve a good, solid turn. One thing I did find is that if I didn’t stay on top of them, the tails had a tendency to wash out on ice and hardpack. When I got tired or sloppy I’d find myself sliding through the second half of the turn rather than getting a clean carve. However, the good news is that if the snow is anything other than bulletproof, the Rockers are easy to carve and a ton of fun.

The ski and binding combination I have is definitely on the weighty side for touring, but feels absolutely bombproof on the downhill. The forward mount (+3) felt odd for the first couple of runs, until I got used to it; it likes a more centred stance and isn’t particularly forgiving of lapses into the backseat, when the amount of tail behind you suddenly becomes very apparent. With the right stance, however, this isn’t an issue.

I had originally intended to make this my resort/sidecountry ski, with a much lighter setup for touring, but as the season progressed I found that this was the ski I wanted to have with me in the backcountry simply because it’s such a ridiculous amount of fun on the downhill. I ended up selling my old backcountry skis, and next season I plan on drilling the Rockers for a dual Dynafit/Guardian setup (as long as the mount pattern allows) to provide a friendlier option for longer tours.

The Rockers have proven versatile enough to be a one ski quiver for almost all conditions, and are my first pick on all but the really icy days. They have such a fun, playful feel to them; and for a skier at my level, they’re proving to be a game changer in terms of handling soft, deep snow and trickier off-piste conditions.

Touring on Paul Ridge