Ahearne Cycles

Written By Hand

Joseph Ahearne2 Comments
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One thing you might not know about me is that when I sit down to write I often begin with this weird old method of putting a pen to paper. Maybe it seems archaic, but for me it works. I hand write the words, think about them, maybe scribbled edits, and then I transcribe them onto my computer. I guess it makes sense, because I seem to be the kind of person who uses his hands to make stuff. Like a lot of things in my life, there’s a story behind my preferred writing method.

Once upon a time I wrote a lot of letters. I was a traveler, meaning, I rarely stayed in the same place for more than a few days, weeks, months. I lived like this for a lot of years — you probably didn’t know this about me, either. I lived as cheaply as I could, and I’ve done a lot of jobs, lived in a lot of places — Portland, Seattle, New York, Kansas City, Boulder/Denver, New Orleans, Texas, Alaska, New Haven, and then in Ireland for a year, mostly in Galway; Barcelona for a few weeks; a couple of years in Italy, mostly in the town of Padova. I’ve also spent a bunch of time in Mexico and Central America. Just wandering, mostly. It’s a long story, which, I’m getting to it.

This was about a dozen years of my life, and for the first few years I hadn’t even heard of email (yes, I’m that old). I don’t remember exactly what year it was that I got my first email account, sometime in about 1995 or ’96. I wasn’t necessarily slow to take to it, but there weren’t often internet cafes in the places I went. In fact, my preference was to go to places where there wasn’t even dependable electricity. The way I kept in contact with people, mostly, was through letters. It made sense to me, because all I needed was a notebook, a pen, an envelope (which, in a pinch, I could make one), a stamp, a friend with an address to whom I could send it.

This was also before digital cameras, and I had some interesting ideas about photographs. I told myself (and others, if they’d listen) that I carried all the images I needed in my head. I said that cameras were just laziness, an excuse not to pay close attention to what you were looking at. I argued that if you exercised your mind, and looked carefully you wouldn’t need a camera, that memory is only as strong as you make it, and only functions well if you use it. I thought remembering things was like exercise, like you could take memory to the gym or something, force it into shape by doing reps, squats, crunches. I was kind of a dick about it. It was a bull-headed, pre-Instagram notion that I’ve mostly gotten past. I see what my point was, but still. I’ve learned that if you make yourself unlikable people probably aren’t going to listen to you. And besides, age has taught me about memory loss, and what few photos I have of my traveling days, I cherish, wishing I had at least just few more.

But so instead of photos I wrote letters. And one of my goals with letters was to use words to describe the scenery. Being like any other young traveler, I was searching for myself as much as I wanted to learn about this planet on which we live, its people and places. I was very existential, so a lot of the landscape I described in my letters — too much, I’d say — was located on the inside of my head.

The important point here isn’t that I may have been a crappy, self involved writer. What’s important is that my thoughts were transformed into words on the page, and these pages were artifacts, whether I thought about it this way or not. I think these letters were my first real practice of hand making something that I shared with others. And I like to think I got better at it over the years. In any case — I think this is the same with any practice — the more I wrote, the more I learned how to write. And the reason I kept doing it was, first, because I enjoyed it. Not always, but in my best moments I took a lot of care in the writing, and I mean a ridiculous amount of care, and I did learn that when I really put myself into what I was writing it maximized the joy I got out of it. And I’d like to think that it was these careful letters that my people connected with most, got the best imagery from, the most accurate portrait of how I was, where I was, and who, in whatever crazy situation I was in. Sometimes, but not always, I got it right.

The practice of writing by hand has stayed with me. I think the reason I still do it is that I’ve learned, over all the years, how to slow my thoughts enough that my hand can grab hold of their wings and lay them on the page. There’s more to it than that, of course, and it goes the other way, too: The speed of my hand helps rein in the spastic nature of my thoughts. It gives them some parameters so they’re not bouncing all over the place. If you’ve ever read anything about Buddhist philosophy you’ve probably heard mention of the concept of ‘Monkey Mind’. I feel like this is about the best metaphor for my thoughts — they jump around, get into things, are rabidly curious and impulsive, toss stuff aside, break the delicate things, swing from the rafters, eat all the cookies, crap on the counter and then run off, etc..

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The image of the monkey on my head badge was taken directly from this concept. It’s a symbol of all that runs wild in my head, but do you notice how calmly the monkey sits? And that piece of his own tail in his hand? I like to think of it as a symbol of him holding a pen, of him writing with his own body, a way of recording himself, his stories. Although, it could be that it’s a pacifier of sorts: Holding onto a piece of himself as a reminder that he exists. But come to think of it, is there any real difference?

The forced effort of sitting with a pen can help calm my erratic thoughts. It gives them a job to do; it allows freedom through some sort of discipline — I can write about whatever I want to write about, but the deal I’ve made with myself is, if I’m going to make the effort, then I don’t want to write gibberish. If I translate my brain’s erratic mess directly to the page, if I could write or type at the speed of thought, there wouldn’t be anything worth reading. It’d be like a Rorschach blot, just a splash of language without any through line. So my hand writes as fast as it can and still be legible, and my mind slows the language down enough to be comprehensible, and somewhere in the middle the twain shall meet, and throw a little party.

Pinion On Tour

Joseph Ahearne3 Comments
 Pinion On Netarts Bay

Pinion On Netarts Bay

There seems to be a lot of curiosity about the Pinion system.

I’ve recently received several questions from people wanting to know how it functioned on my last bike tour. A couple of weekends back the weather looked promising and Brian and I decided to ride the Trask River Route to the coast. We both have Page Street Outback touring bikes, and we put our bigger, knobby tires on, because most of this route is on gravel, and some of the roads are fairly remote and rocky and unkept. 

A quick run-down of the bikes we rode:

My Page Street has the Pinion 18 speed gearbox on it- the P1.18 - and a belt drive system by Gates Carbon Drive

Brian’s bike has a 1 x 11 chain drive with a Gevenalle shift adapter. He’s got a Box Components derailleur and an 11 - 46T rear cassette. His front cog is a 32T on White Industries cranks (best cranks and rings in the world). We both have Velocity Blunt SS rims, Schmidt SON hubs up front and White Industries CLD or XMR rear hubs, Paul “Klamper” disc brakes. I ran Continental XKing 27.5” x 2.3” tires, and Brian rode Schwalbe “Thunder Burt” tires, both of us riding tubeless. 

I only say all this because in many ways our bikes are similar. The main difference being in the drive train: Gearbox vs. Derailleur.

Side Note: Tubeless Touring

 Toward the Clouds

Toward the Clouds

I haven’t done much touring on tubeless tires, but after what riding I’ve done, I’m pretty much sold. I’ve been carrying a spare tube with me for a few months now, thinking if I do get a flat, I’ll just put in a tube. But I haven’t yet had any reason to use it. A couple of weeks ago I was on a ride and from the shoulder of a busy country road something punctured my tire pretty seriously. I heard the pop and hiss and as I rolled to a stop I found the hole. Whatever had caused it was no longer lodged in the tire, and I rolled forward until the hole aimed down towards the ground. Sealant bubbled and squirted out for a bit, slowed and then stopped, and I stared at it like, “Uh-uh,” disbelieving a tire could heal itself. But sure enough, even when I refilled the tire with air, there was no more leak, and I was riding again before my leg muscles had a chance to cool down. It almost felt like cheating. That was a first for me, and watching it in action was enough to convince me to keep riding tubeless. 

Ride With GPS: Pay Attention!

 Despite the Pain, Our Surroundings Were Beautiful

Despite the Pain, Our Surroundings Were Beautiful

I won’t go into too much detail about the route we chose. Let’s just say Brian and I took small mis-steps that had massive consequences. For example, if you’re going to use RidewithGPS.com (which, by the way, I HIGHLY recommend), and download a pre-existing route, do yourself a favor and look closely at the elevation profile to assess how much climbing you’re going to do, and check this before you start riding up the first hill. Make certain the route you’ve chosen wasn’t designed out of maliciousness, spite, or created by some maniacal jaw-gnashing EPO-fueled ape as a form of self punishment, S &/or M, or straight up self destruction.

Side note: If you’d like to get a look inside the world of athletic doping, the documentary “Icarus” is very insightful.

You can tell I’m still bitter about this ride, and yet there’s no one to blame but myself. I rode the Trask River route several years ago with a couple of friends, neither of whom are monsters on a bike. We had a great time pedaling through the Tillamook forest. We climbed, we camped by a river and filtered our water, we were deep in the woods, felt as though we’d really gotten away from things. I remember it being a hard ride, and when we’d gotten back to town I felt satisfied, a sense of accomplishment, like I’d done something hard and I’d made it and it was good. 

 Route & Elevation Profile Comparison

Route & Elevation Profile Comparison

Not so this time. It was a completely different route. There are so many old logging roads through the hills, and the route we chose, instead of one, had two major climbs. We only actually rode beside the Trask River for maybe a mile, and then we were headed up once again. Over two days we did about nine thousand feet of climbing, which is twice as much as we did the last time I rode this. That’s no joke. And the worst part, in my opinion, was that some of the roads surpassed 25% grades, so that there was no possible way to ride. Maybe on a mountain bike, with fresh legs and carrying nothing but a water bottle, but for us on loaded touring bikes it seemed impossible. The second day it took us four hours to go just ten miles, much of which we had to hike up while leaning straight-armed into our handlebars and pushing our bikes. My suspicion is that the insane clown who designed our route had done it on a motorcycle. Or maybe I’m just way weaker than I like to believe. Worn out, old, feeble. This is what I was telling myself walking up these hills: I ought to start building lugged walkers instead of bikes. I’ll call my new business Meek or Craven or Hardly. I like that: Hardly Walkers.   

 Going Up: A Speck of Brian on the Road

Going Up: A Speck of Brian on the Road

Enough of that, though, and back to point: the Pinion.

For all the miles we could ride, I can’t speak highly enough of the Pinion system. I’ve got a 32T cog both in the front and the back, so it’s a 1 to 1 ratio. I felt like the gearing for this sort of riding was perfect. My lowest gear made it possible to climb anything that was climbable, and on descents I never felt like I’d run out, or spun out. If I was strictly road touring and on slick tires I might want a hardier ratio, and would likely put a 30T or even a 28T cog on the back. Maybe. But for this sort of demanding off road riding on big tires and lots of steep hills, I would not change anything. 

 Pinion, Belt Drive, Dirt

Pinion, Belt Drive, Dirt

One of the best aspects of the Pinion 18 speed for touring is the gear options. Not just the high and the low, but everything in between. Brian road the 11 speed cassette, and his lowest gear wasn’t as low as mine, his highest wasn’t as high, and he noticed right away that the biggest draw-back to his gearing were the large jumps from one gear to the next. He even said at one point that he kept wishing he had a gear in between the one he was riding. He either had to slow down to match the gear, or push harder to try and catch up to the next. The increments between gears on the Pinion never left me feeling like I lacked what I wanted. There was always a gear that just about perfectly fit what I was riding. 

 Brian’s Bike Is Prettier Than Mine, but…

Brian’s Bike Is Prettier Than Mine, but…




The comparison between an 11 speed cassette and the Pinion P1.18 isn’t quite fair, though, because each were designed to perform very different tasks. The 1 x 11 was more intended for cross country mountain biking; the broad range and big gear jumps more than adequate for quick transitions between downhill and uphill. For touring, though, Brian found that he just didn’t have enough gear options. He said that after this tour he’d be switching to a double up front, so that he can go lower in his small gears, and he will change the rear cassette to something with less range, maybe an 11-36 or an 11-34, so that the jumps between gears aren’t so severe. Which makes sense to me. We’re always experimenting, looking for that best possible set-up. 

My One Criticism for the Pinion & Belt Drive System, If It Can Even Be Called That:

The one down-side to my drive train revealed itself on this trip. With all the dust from the gravel roads my belt started making sounds where it interfaced with the cogs. As I climbed, introducing more torque, it sounded kind of like a small, hungry bird, incessantly squawking to be fed. It wasn’t a terrible sound because it wasn’t loud, but it was there, and because it was friction based, it could be prevented, or fixed. I squirted a bit of water on the cogs and belt and that helped for a short while, but I think the wet attracted more dust, so that as it dried the sound returned, maybe a bit louder. The sound came mostly on the first day, when it was dry and sunny. The second day, as we got into the clouds we had a light, misty rain, and the sound disappeared. 

What I hadn’t done before this trip was to spray my belt with conditioner. You can buy a can of belt conditioner from any auto parts store. Made for fan belts and alternator belts etc., it’s a silicone based spray that reduces friction and keeps a belt quiet. I’ve been riding this bike for three years now, and this would only be the second time I’ve needed to condition the belt. 

Brian, on the other hand, forgot to bring chain lube, and after the first couple of hours on the first day his chain became pretty raspy, and with all the dust his shifting became less than optimal. With the Pinion, my shifting never faltered or hesitated at all. And to be honest, if this is the worst I can say about the Pinion drive train, that the belt can squeak when dusty and dry, then there’s really not much wrong. That’s pretty small.

 Above the Clouds

Above the Clouds

During and after each tour I do on my Pinion bike I become more convinced of its usefulness and functionality, and I further appreciate how easy it is. There’s very little to think about, or to worry about, or to maintain. The Pinion pretty much always has the right gear for the moment, and the shifting feels positive and solid. 

Please don’t think I’m over the bike chain, though. I’m a traditionalist, too:

 Break Time. Again.

Break Time. Again.

There is something very satisfying to me about maintaining a chain-driven bike and keeping it running tip-top. There’s a sound and a feel that you become attuned to and that is unique to each bicycle. It requires the rider use a certain finesse when changing gears, a way of paying attention and interacting with the bike that is a sort of dialogue, and gives a very personal relationship between rider and machine. And you know, just by the way it talks to you, when your bike wants adjustment, cleaning, and love. Lucky for me I have another bike, a bike with a chain that I ride quite a lot, satisfying that part of my cycling life.  

The Pinion bike is different.

 The Final Mile Was the Most Beautiful

The Final Mile Was the Most Beautiful

I don’t like to compare them, saying one is better than another. Each of my bikes is a tool that I use and care for. Bikes have a lot of tradition and romanticism and story around what they are, what they do. But in the end, what a bike is, and what it does can’t be separated: In it’s simplest form it is a tool that we use to help us get from this place to that place. Every well made tool has its function. It shines and is a pleasure to use when used as it was intended. And, better still, there is room for everyone in this. Everyone’s experience is subjective, so that what I like about one type of bike may not match what you or someone else has found works for them. It’s not a question of who is right or wrong, it is a question of what your experience has taught you. 

For me, for the kind of riding I do, I’ve found the Pinion to be a tool that does its job very well. When I’m touring I feel like I’ve got enough to think about with my route and where I’ll get food and fill up my water and where I’m going to sleep and how I’m going to make it over this next ass-kicking hill. I really don’t want to fuss over my bike if I don’t have to. If it will function well and continually and give me what I need to get from this place to that place without too much hassle, then this concern minimized, and it leaves more room to enjoy other aspects of the trip. Or to brood over my lousy choice in routes. 

But that’s another story. 










Stainless Steel Bicycle - A Construction Story

Joseph Ahearne9 Comments
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A lot of bikes I build have details that are unique; one-off design features that may or may not be visible at a glance. And then there are, periodically, bikes I build that are striking at a distance, and just seem to light up as you come in for a closer look. This is one of those bikes. 

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A lot of people have come through the shop over the past eight or nine months, and seen this bike at various stages in the build process. Without seeing it first hand, or building a stainless steel bike for yourself, it's hard to fathom the time and labor involved in its construction and in the finish work. I may build a stainless bike once every five or so years. It's not an easy material to work with, both physically, and spiritually. 

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For this bike I used mostly Reynolds 921 work hardened stainless steel tubing. I chose this tubing because the walls come slightly thicker than much of the other stainless tubing available. Running 27.5" tires at almost three inches wide, this wasn't meant to be a race bike, so weight wasn't the first concern. I wanted stability and comfort. And too, putting a rack on a bike stresses a frame differently than having just a rider. 

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The man who commissioned this build is relocating to Colorado, up in the mountains. He told me he wanted something that could take all the various conditions that he might encounter: Roads, single track, snow & ice, dirt, gravel. We talked it through and he said, "I want something special," and he gave me license to interpret that in my own way, limited only by the parameters of what the bike would need to do, and where it might go. I told him it would be a long journey, and I'm not sure he believed me at first. Or, like many others, he just wasn't sure exactly what this sort of "long journey" would look like. How long, really, could it be? 

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To begin, I had to gather the materials. Part of the problem was, nobody had yet fabricated in stainless steel some of the things I needed for the build. I had to remake the fork crown plates with enough width to fit the tires. The chain stay yoke and front dropouts were made only in mild steel or titanium by Paragon Machine Works, and I had to call them up and beg for them to remake these parts in stainless, which maybe sounds easy, but because of the material, everything has to be reworked and retooled for the job. 

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The first thing I did, after gathering all the materials, was to put together the initial sub assemblies: Seat tube to bb, dropouts to fork legs, and dropouts to chain stays, assemble the chain stay yoke. Then, before I ever cut the first tube, everything was pre-polished. The fork crown pieces, fork legs with dropouts, chain stays with dropouts, the seat stays, bottom bracket & seat tube, head tube, yoke, and all the main tubes. All of it brought to a mirror finish. Then I brazed the crown plates onto the steerer, and re-polished the plates. Then put the fork legs into the crown, and re-polish. Then braze ons, and I installed the fender, and set up to build the front rack. I waited to do the final polish until after the rack was finished. 

Finishing the rack, I moved on to the front triangle. First thing I did was braze on the Ahearne logo. This is the closest I come to making jewelry, since the brazing is so delicate. I have to turn my torch low, and recruit the help of whoever may be in the shop at the time to hold the fragile piece against the tube. You can see a time-lapse video of the process in the "video" section of the website. 

Logo on, I then drilled and installed internal routing for the rear brake housing. With this it was time for to re-polish the tube, and assemble the front triangle. And a re-polish. Add chain stays to the yoke. Re-polish. Put yoke to bb, re-polish. I hand bent the seat stays using the "Roberto" double fork blade bender by Anvil Bikes. Bending seat stays in two planes is tricky, and then to slot and hand miter them correctly takes a lot of time. On this bike that I had to do two sets -- the first set of stays was practice, and taught me how to bend and miter them correctly. Sometimes that's what it takes. I got that first set all finished, but realized I just didn't have the tire clearance I wanted, and this was not a bike to cut corners on. Everything was perfect, except I just needed about 5 mm more on each side to feel like it was right. So I bought a new set of stays, and started the process of polishing, bending, slotting, and mitering all over again. 

The last step of the construction was to install all the bridges and braze ons. Then, at last, it was time for the final polish of the frame and fork. I made the rack from chromoly, so after it was finished and polished I sent it to a chrome plater for treatment. After the final polish on the frame, it was time to strategically mask around the logos, and on the seat tube, and to give it a very light bead blast to etch in stripes and mark off panels. I did this with the help of Black Magic Paint, and the use of Dave Levy's blasting cabinet (Thanks Rudy! Thanks Dave!). Black Magic also masked and painted the stripe on the fenders, filled in the fork crown and painted the stem. After etching stars and panels, I went over the lower part of the frame and fork with a white Scotch Bright pad, burnishing it very lightly to tone down the mirror finish and giving it a subtle brushed appearance. And yes, I wore white cotton gloves throughout all of this. 

Now it was time to install fenders, string up the internal wiring for the lights, and assemble the bike with parts. Much of this was accomplished with the help of Abraham of Abraham Fixes. I heard through the grape-vine that he recently became a father -- congratulations, Sir! With the bike now completed it was time to get some photos, which was way harder than I expected. I'm kind of a hack photographer, and I tried shooting the bike in several different settings, and with varying light levels, and had almost no success. Out of about 500 photos, I got maybe 6 shots that weren't terrible and washed out. I felt like this bike deserved better treatment, so I called in a professional, and Dylan VanWeelden took on the task. He basically had to make a black container around the bike, and to dim the lights way low. A majority of the photos you've seen here were taken by him, and many of them are still raw. I think you can agree, he did an amazing job of capturing this hard-to-shoot bike. I think a few of the shots are breath-taking. A big thanks to you, Dylan. 

The owner of this bike is moving to Colorado in the next few weeks, and asked that I wait to ship it until he arrives. A wood crate is ready at the workshop, and I'll be zipping it up soon. I was grateful for the extra time with the bike to get the photos, and also because it allowed me to put it on display. I wanted to give people a chance to check it out in person. I got ahold of Sky at Velocult Bike Shop and he agreed to let me keep it there for a month or so. Thank you Sky. 

The entire construction of this bike, including all the polishing and the final treatment of the frame, parts assembly, etc., took about six months. As a comparison, a regular, non-stainless version of this same bike would probably take me about two weeks to construct, would be at the painter for around a month, and would take a few days to assemble with parts. So you'll hopefully believe me when I tell you that I've had about a 12- 15% increase in my gray hair count over the course of this bike's conception and birth.

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I love the craft of bike making, and if I didn't push my own boundaries sometimes, I'd eventually feel stagnant in what I do. But a bike of this magnitude takes its toll, as well: When I send this one out, I'll be sending out a piece of myself along with it. In a way, I think this is how a person like me stays in touch with the planet we live on, and how I search myself for my version of what it means to be alive. 

To see the complete photo set, please head to the Ahearne Cycles Flickr page. Thanks for reading, and I hope you've enjoyed it. 

A Lighter Pinion Bike?

Joseph Ahearne2 Comments

A man named Dylan contacted me with questions about a Pinion build. Among other things, he asked about the weight:

"Is there any wild chance that this Pinion build can be made as a lighter-ish bike? Crazy talk?"

A couple of thoughts on this: Pinion offers four levels of gearing: 18 speed, 12 speed, 9 and 6. I’m only going to talk about the 18 speed vs. the 12 here. 

There are two factors involved; gear range and weight. The 12 speed C-line weighs a hair over 4.5 pounds (2100 grams), and has a 600% range from top to bottom. This is wider than most traditional 10 speed triple drive trains. The 18 speed weighs just under 6 lbs. (2700 grams) and has a 636% gear range, which means it doesn’t have a lot more range than the 12 speed, but with smaller jumps between gears.  For the weight, there’s about a 1.5 pound difference between 12 and 18 speed. The question is, how much does this matter?

12 Speed Pinion

I ride the 18 speed , and one thing I’ve noticed is that for my general around-town needs, there really are too many gears, and they’re too narrowly spaced. I often find myself skipping gears, shifting through 2 and 3 at a time. But, this is commuting, where I’ve got a lot of stops and starts, ups and downs, cars, stoplights, other cyclists, etc. Which is different from a multi-day tour. On tour I appreciate the gear options of the 18 speed because I can find the exact right gear for whatever situation I'm in. Gradual inclines, wind factor, weight, how tired my legs might be; it doesn’t matter, there’s always a gear. But would the 12 speed work for me? Fewer options, bigger gaps? It might, I’m adaptable, so long as I have a low enough gear to still pull big hills with all my stuff, then I’m guessing I’d probably be just fine. 

My other thought on this is, my bike is first and foremost a touring bike. Yes, I may take day trips into the hills around Portland, but I need this bike to be stable and sure when carrying weight for multi-day trips. Tent, sleeping bag and pad, stove and food and water, rain gear and appropriate clothes. A book. Camera. And I don’t always buy the absolute lightest gear. Just because it’s feather weight doesn’t mean it’s the best for me. Everyone has their own ideas on comfort vs. what they want to push around, which, you’ve got to figure that out for yourself. What I’m saying is, when touring, weight isn’t the first issue, and so I’m not going to worry about the difference between 4.5 lbs compared to 6 lbs in the gearbox. That doesn’t matter to me at all. 

Touring or Commuting?

This leads me to the next obvious question for anyone thinking about what kind of bike they want. I believe you have to look honestly at what sort of riding you intend to do. Do you want to go on light tours, maybe 2 or 3 day trips, possibly staying at hotels along the way? Do you want to do long day rides on a lighter bike carrying minimal gear? In these cases, I’d say yes, go for the 12 speed and let me build you a bike with lighter tubing. But if you want this bike to serve you well on longer tours, then the bike has to be built for that. If you compromise, you end up with a bike that doesn’t work optimally under certain conditions. In this case, the weight of the gearbox doesn’t matter as much as what it offers in range and gear choice. 

The short answer to the question about weight, then: Yes, a lighter bike can be built with a Pinion system. But this question bounces right back at you: How are you going to use the bike? Think about that, and let’s talk some more.

Loaded On Low Trail

Joseph AhearneComment
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A few weeks ago a customer, named Gustav, contacted me who’d taken his new bike on tour. He picked up the bike at our workshop, a new Page Street Outback with a Pinion gearbox, and very shortly after was taking off on a three-day tour through the Cascade Mountains and to the coast. There was really not much time for him to get accustomed to his bike before he left. 

 Pinion Gearbox with Gates Carbon Drive, S&S Couplers

Pinion Gearbox with Gates Carbon Drive, S&S Couplers

When a bike is brand new I always recommend a person ride it for a while before going out on any sort of multi-day ride loaded down with gear, just to get the bike dialed in and the bugs worked out. Short tours are fine, over-night trips or a weekend get-away. But I don’t think it’s wise to commit yourself to too much. Maybe go on some day rides, so you can pay attention to how your body and the bike work together. Bring along some basic tools since you may need to adjust the saddle fore or aft, or to adjust your stem, your pedal cleats, any number of things. You’ll always be able to do micro-adjustments while on tour, but if possible you don’t want to be surprised by anything major while out on a bigger ride. 

After a weekend of riding, Gustav sent me a message telling me about how the bike performed. This is what he wrote:

I’m back from the bike camping trip.  Overall it all went very well.  We did modify our last day of riding to avoid riding back over the coastal range in near 100 degree weather.  Instead we opted to spend the last night further down on the coast at Cape Lookout State park and then we biked back to Tillamook and took the bus back to the Portland area.

The most unfortunate aspect of the tour is that I didn’t fully figure out how to best load the bike with my stuff until the last day.  For the first three days I had the smaller ‘front’ panniers in the front the larger and heavier ‘back’ panniers in the back.  The result was that I often had a shimmy in the front that I was convinced was caused by the exact placement of my front panniers.  After experimenting forward and backward on the bars and even putting the front panniers high on the rack, I concluded that wherever I put the front panniers it made little difference as far as the shimmy.  On the last day by friend, Wayne Johnson, mentioned that my bike, because it has a low-trail geometry, would probably be better off with less weight in the back and more in the front.  Then I remembered what you said about using back panniers in the front and just a large saddle bag in the back, a setup that Wayne actually used on his bike even though it is not low-trail.  Swapping the front and back panniers and putting the smaller lighter ‘front’ panniers on the back rack and ‘back’ panniers front made all the difference in the world.  Much more stable and more fun to ride.  Now I’m kind of kicking myself for not figuring it out earlier.

Gustav’s experience got me to thinking about how we interface with our bicycles.

 Heavy in the back, light in the front: Maybe not so good for low-trail bikes

Heavy in the back, light in the front: Maybe not so good for low-trail bikes

A purpose-built bike will perform optimally under certain conditions, and based on the design and intended function you may find that your ideas about how a bike should perform may differ from how the bike wants to be ridden. 

Gustav went the long way around learning what best suited his low-trail bike, how to load it so it would ride most comfortably, stably, and “intuitively.” Not all bikes, not even low-trail bikes, will handle the same. A bike’s trail is just one of many variables that work in concert. Trail is one of the weirder and more elusive forces to talk about, but it’s very real. Other more obvious variables include tubing material (steel vs. carbon vs. ti etc.), tube diameter and wall thickness, wheel and tire size, tire pressure, rider weight distribution, and so on. 

As a frame builder I work with an individual to design a bike that will function optimally when used how it was intended. But remember, I’m aiming for a target, and there is a lot of interpretation involved, as well as a lot of subjective experience. Especially in regards to touring bikes, I don’t know what you’re going to carry, how much weight, and if you’re going to try carrying a camp chair and a charcoal grill, or just a Sterno canister and a spork. 

 Loaded

Loaded

It is up to you, the owner of the bike, to pack it and take it out, ride it and listen to it. In my opinion, that’s part of the joy of a getting a new bike, is figuring out what it can do, and how it responds to different loads and on differing terrains. The more you ride, and especially tour, the more refined your ideas will become, both for what you want out of your bike, what gear you carry, and how you carry it.  Experiment, listen, adjust, enjoy. Repeat.