Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Ian Murray, Real World Racer

At first glance, Ian Murray appears to be the quintessential Hollywood version of an elite athlete and coach. His athletic career as a triathlete includes eleven years on Team USA without a single “DNF” (“Did Not Finish’). He has competed in many ultradistance triathlon events, including Ironman Canada, Austria and Hawaii, as well as the first-ever off-road Ironman event. His coaching resume is even more impressive. As a USAT Level 3 Coach with the Triathlon Training Series (TTS), he was named Developmental Coach of the Year for 2006 by USA Triathlon. He has coached world champions, movie stars and many, many other promising triathletes.

Murray in full coaching mode

However, what makes Murray truly “Hollywood” is the company he keeps. Not only does he coach movie stars, he married one. Alexandra Paul is glamorous, active in environmental causes and “in demand.” From her starring role in the television series “Baywatch” to her recent appearances in the documentary, “Who Killed the Electric Car,” Paul embodies the public’s perception of a superstar.

So, given his “lifestyle of the rich and famous,” one might expect Murray to get around in a stretch limo, or at least a Tesla electric supercar. Anyone who had such expectations, however, would be disappointed. What is Murray’s preferred vehicle for basic transportation? It is an old Japanese bicycle frame built up as a fixed gear commuting machine! Murray is living proof that all that glitters is not dependant on foreign oil! I wanted to get inside his head, so I offered him the chance to speak to Cycloculture. His honest, “down-to-earth” comments surprised and impressed me.

Q: How and when did you become interested in cycling? Did you start out with competitive aspirations, or did you start out using your bicycle for transportation?

A: I grew up in Aspen, Colorado and, as kids, we LIVED on our bikes in the summer time. Initially my bike simply meant freedom to me, it connected me to friends and experiences. It was just a joy... My first bike was a Schwinn Scrambler and what I remember most about it was its demise – I laid it down in the driveway behind the family jeep and, naturally, it got backed over. In grade school I started racing BMX on a red Mongoose that I had on lay-away at Sherpa Sports of months (Sherpa sports was owned by the Grewal family, Alexi won a gold medal in the Olympic road race, Los Angeles 1984). We’d have to drive crazy distances to get to the nearest BMX track to race so I got this wild idea to propose that the City of Aspen build the local kids a BMX track. I must have been 12 or 13 when I stood up in a City Council meeting and pitched my idea. I was so nervous that I could hardly read my notes the way my hand was shaking. In the end, they gave us a bit of land behind the city pool, they gave us two days use of a bulldozer and an operator, my step-father built a phenomenal start ramp and we held a ABA sanctioned event soon after.

Q: Is it hard to transition from a lycra-clad cycling god to a "normal Joe" who is riding his bicycle to the grocery store?

A: Not really – the bike is the essential element. It’s just the most brilliant device ever. I’ve ridden in a suit and tie and I’ve ridden 112 miles in a swim brief - it’s far more about the roll than it is about the garb.

Murray competing in an off-road triathlon

Q: What bicycle(s) do you normally use for transportation and errands? Do you try to maximize the speed and efficiency of your transportation bikes?

A: I am not a consumer and I don’t own a lot of “things”…. except when it comes to bikes, in that area I’m taxing our resources in a big way and I’d like to apologize to the folks 27 generations ahead.

If I’m just running around town, it’s on my fixie and my fix is a Franken-bike. The current one (we have an epidemic of bike theft on the west side of Los Angeles where I live now, so I’ve been through a few fixies) is a steel C. Itoh (Japanese company that used to build and/or import Bridgestone bikes) that was gifted to me as a rusted, filthy, cob-webbed 7 speed. I stripped it, cleaned it up and rebuilt it as a fix. It’s a hideous mint green but I refused to paint it for one, critical reason. Printed on the down tube is one of those classic, iconic examples of when a bit of English get’s poorly translated – it reads “Tested Finest Bicycle With Precision Mechanism”. LOVE THAT!!!

Murray in the real world

In addition to that I own a Litespeed ti hard tail mountain bike, a Trek, aluminum cyclocross bike, a Cervelo Soloist, aluminum road bike and a Cervelo Carbon P2 TT/ Triathlon bike. I train and race on all of those bikes but probably log more miles on the Soloist than the others.

Q: When you are coaching triathletes, do you encourage them to ride their bicycles for their daily transportation needs?

A: When I launch into a coaching relationship the athlete, I spend a lot of time in the consultation. If I see an opportunity for them to commute on their bike I’ll jump on that. Sometimes the athlete is so tight on time – between family, work, swim, run, etc. that I’ll suggest the bike for daily transport just to make good use of time.

Q: When you are commuting or shopping on your bicycle and you see a bicycle up ahead, do you "drop the hammer" and try to catch him/her, or do you get all your competitive urges out while you are training and competing?

A: If there is a bike ahead of me – I’m in pursuit. It doesn’t matter if it’s a homeless guy carrying 5 bags of recycling, a small gaggle of club riders, a septuagenarian, a mother on a beach cruiser towing a kid in a trailer – I’m on the gas ‘til they are collected and dispatched! I’m even more embarrassed to admit that I have this little voice I do in my head when I see another roadie up the road….it’s probably spun out of Top Gun or something of that ilk. I’ll see them and say “bogey…12 o’clock….time of acquisition 2 minutes, 43 seconds”. It’s ridiculous and juvenile. I’m probably not revealing much – I’m sure I’ve said that out loud on training rides with some of my TTS teammates.

Q: How can a cyclo-commuter maximize the health benefits of riding to work?

A: Firstly plan a head – use some of the tools we have now like Gmap-pedometer or Map My Ride to pick a route that is both safe and appropriate to the workout. It takes time to shift our thinking from “what’s the best route” to “what’s the best route via bicycle” – those are two very different things. You have to aim for roads with bike lanes or wide shoulders or few stops. Consider going at an off time so that the volume of traffic is lighter. Consider a circuitous route that, while longer and forces you to leave earlier, is better for the training. In many cities first time commuters are shocked to learn that riding a bike on an errand or a commute takes nearly the same time as driving.

Q: How can we, as a society, change the public image of bicycles from recreational/athletic equipment to vehicles used for transportation?

A: That’s happening and will continue to happen automatically. Two things are forcing it – transportation costs are rising (mainly due to the price of energy) and the density of population is growing. As people continue to get frustrated by inching their cars forward through traffic jams while paying three, four and five dollars a gallon they will take envious note of the smiling cyclists who are rollin’ on by. Current commuters, the early adaptors, can help to welcome drivers onto bikes by riding legally and safely. We gotta obey the laws of the road as if we were driving if we’re going to be loved and respected.

Q: Imagine yourself at age seventy. What role would you like your bicycles to play in your life at that point?

A: I’d like my wife, Alexandra and I to own matching bikes at that age. I’d like us to ride together often in a peaceful setting and observe the world with experienced and satisfied eyes. The bicycle is a great way to take in a new place so perhaps we’ll travel to small towns we’ve never seen and just ride through, absorbing.

Murray loves bikes and going fast in different circumstances, including cyclo-cross

Q: What else would you like to say?

A: Tire pressure means more than anything – I love to hear folks wax on about how their bike “rides with an oaky flavor and just a hint of cassis” (I’m quoting bike guru, Dan Empfield there – he’s very quotable). And, of course, they say their bike rides that way because it’s steel or because it’s carbon or whatever. Or that say it because they ride tubies or a clincher with an unobtainum bead and 550 tpi or some such drivel. It all comes down to tire pressure. You want less vibration from the road? Don’t rush out and blow your white collar bonus on some trinket, just tweak your tire pressure. You want the bike to feel more responsive? Don’t spend all the money you saved from your quinceanera on new cranks, just tweak your tire pressure. In fact, if you’re so hot to shop and spend, then buy a really good pump with a gauge you trust so that you can get super specific about tire pressure. Whew! It’s nice to get that rant out, thanks!

Q: What do you like for breakfast?

A: I like a mix of low glycemic carbs, protein and fat.

For the past two years I’ve been eating the same meal for breakfast: a quarter cup of oatmeal with a dozen raisins and so much cinnamon that it stirs to look like chocolate. Along with that I’ll eat a half cup of Eggology egg whites with a half an avocado and some sort of funky, mom-n-pop hot sauce whispered across the top. Damn, just writing that makes my mouth water. I hope I never bore of that meal!

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Product Review - 27X1&1/4" Continental Ultra Sport Tires

I had been running 27X1&1/4” Continental Sport 1000 tires on my roadster-style bike for years. I loved them! They were durable and comfortable, and they seemed to roll nicely. So, I was quite sad when a sharp piece of metal debris got caught between my chainstay and my tire and shredded the sidewall. I looked and looked for a replacement Sport 1000, but I could not find one. This model has been discontinued, and I could not find an "New Old Stock" (NOS) replacement anywhere.

I decided to try another 27X1&1/4” Continental tire, the Ultra Sport. I ordered a pair and mounted them. They looked nice, and I was excited about testing them out with a load of groceries in the front basket and my son in his child seat on back. Unfortunately, the beauty of these tires is only skin deep.

I have been riding on the Ultra Sports for a couple weeks now, and I do not like them at all. The rubber on the tread is very sticky. I hear the constant "tink, tink, tink" of road debris getting tossed up against my steel fender with the Ultra Sports that I did not hear with my old Sport 1000s, which just rolled over such debris without grabbing it and flipping it up. I am very concerned that the Ultra Sports will grab something sharp and hold onto it until it punctures the tire. Many of the reviews I have read say these are very flat-prone tires, and I do not doubt it. For now, I am glad that I mounted Mr. Tuffy tire liners inside these tires. They should afford me some protection against the inevitable tire puncture.

The Ultra Sports are also very narrow. I checked mine with calipers, and they measured out at 1.13” (28.7mm) wide at their widest point when mounted on Velocity Synergy rims. They are 1.05”(26.7mm) high as measured from the top of the rim’s side wall to the top of the tire. I have already bottomed them out a few times while riding over uneven concrete sections with my son in the child seat and the tires inflated to 80 psi. Fortunately, I have not experienced any pinch flats, but it is just a matter of time before I do.

I'm going to keep riding the Ultra Sports for a while to see if the rubber loses some of its tackiness. I will run them at higher pressures and hope for the best, but if I had it to do all over again, I would not have bought them in the first place. On the other hand, I love my 700CX32mm Panaracer Pasela TG tires, so I would not hesitate to recommend those in their 27" form. Also, I am looking forward to mounting my cheapo 27X1&3/8" Kenda K40 tires on another bike. These look A LOT like the old “Specialized Commuter” tires used to look, and I think they will work well on bicycles used primarily for utilitarian cycling. I'll let you know how those work out.

27X1&1/4” Continental Ultra Sport Overall Grade: D+

Monday, November 2, 2009

Bring On the Geeks!

Since the early days of Fat City Cycles, the Boston area has been a center for high-end bicycle manufacturing in the USA. Today, bicycle companies and frame-builders such as A.N.T., Seven Cycles, Independent Fabrications and Peter Mooney are all contributing to make this region a vibrant, thriving hub of the industry. Geekhouse bikes is another worthy player in this mix. Geekhouse founder Marty Walsh has developed a reputation for building bicycles which perform beautifully while maintaining a remarkable level of practicality in the real world. The geekhouse “Woodville” is a bike that can do everything from hauling groceries and supplies to touring across the country.

Furthermore, geekhouse has bucked recent trends by switching from overseas manufacturing to building frames in-house. Somehow, they have managed to keep their prices remarkably affordable through this process. Take that, all you Cannondales of the world!

Walsh was kind enough to give Cycloculture his take on the geekhouse Woodville, domestic bicycle production, and a variety of other subjects. Enjoy!

Marty Walsh, geek extraordinaire!

Q: How did you get your start in the bicycle industry?

A: I got my start in the industry at the age of 16 at a bicycle shop. I worked at the shop through college and upon graduation became a store manager. I then worked at a bicycle components manufacturer for a few years before leaving to pursue Geekhouse.

Q: What sets the Woodville apart from other touring/commuting bicycles?

A: The Woodville is definitely unique in its class. While most of our Woodvilles have gone out as the kind of hyper-practical commuter bike, we have the capacity to build the Woodville to near infinite spec combinations. This coupled with our ability to do custom fit geometry means that your Woodville can be personalized to you down to a point. Our Woodville stylings so far have favored really functional commuters, but we are working on two totally custom bikes that will be ridden from Boston to San Francisco next summer as part of an upcoming project. We can also alter the Woodville for Commuter, Touring, Rando, Porteur, and Dutch styles.

The geekhouse Woodville, in commuting attire

Q: Woodville frames start at $1199. Custom frames start at $1299. How do you keep the price so low?

A: The Woodville, like all our custom bikes, are set up a la carte style. We start with a bare bones frame and then you can add a variety of features including forks for $250 and a variety of tubing and braze-on options. In the end most Woodville frame/forks usually end up around $1600 and then we also have the ability to sell them with components. But in the end the price is still lower than that of other builders because #1 the frames are TIG welded which is a much faster process than brazing, #2 because we have the ability to powder coat all our frames in-house saving on the expensive paint jobs and #3 because we purchase many of our tubes in bulk at a discounted rate. Though even with all these reasons, prices are still very low compared with other builders and we will most likely be raising our prices in the near future.

Another Woodville, this one with a step-through frame

Q: Geekhouse used to farm out frame production to an outside vendor. Who used to build frames for you? Was it an overseas vendor or someone in the USA?

A: Initially, in 2003-2006, I just designed the frames and then had them built first at Brew in NC, and then in Taiwan. I also aspired to build frames myself, but I never thought I would be able to do it the way we have things set up now.

Q: Why did you bring production in-house? How has that worked out for you?

A: It wasn't just bringing production in-house, it was a long process of learning the craft and creating a shop out of first just my simple tool box to now a 1000sqft building packed with a variety of large machines. In the end I wanted more control over the products under the geekhouse name. But I also wanted to make this my craft and my trade. I want to build the best custom bikes we possibly can and I want to feel proud at the end of the day that we actually made something beautiful and practical. So, yes, this is working out, and I think things will only get better in the future.

The Wormtown was once made overseas, but it is now made in Boston!

Q: Do you build mostly stock bicycles or custom jobs?

A: All of our frames are built to order so when you order something from geekhouse there is nothing pulled "off the shelf" or anything like that. As for stock sizes (we do a 50-62cm run) vs. custom fits, it is roughly 30% stock sized and 70% custom.

Q: Do you plan on expanding production?

A: Production is currently expanding and will hopefully continue to do so. Within the past year we have added in-house powdercoating and geekhouse-specific front and rear drop outs. We're still a young company but some specific themes will stay with us for the long term. Every month is busier than the month before. We manage a cyclocross team, our new website is less than a year old, and there are near infinite offers and creative outputs for future projects. But while we will be expanding, it's still on a relatively small scale comparatively. I would like to keep it that way though, I don't want to lose ourselves in getting “too big.”

A geekhouse Mudville cross bike

Q: Do you think it would be possible, given today's global economy, for a domestic manufacturer to attain production levels similar to those of Fat City Cycles back in its heyday?

A: I think Fat City was a one-time thing. They started making mountain bikes right at the beginning of the boom and made some really nice models, although most of them were all in stock sizes, which, at the time, was fine.

I think there's at least three factors as to why this won't happen now: #1 With the boom of custom and the large amount of domestic custom builders, there are so many options for people to go to on a beautiful hand-crafted frame. #2 The large manufacturers are doing just about every style of bicycle now, and they're doing them quite well. I've seen many production bikes mimicking what I've seen at the NAHBS show not too long ago. #3 There are even a ton of small US companies manufacturing in Taiwan or importing from abroad and people are eating it up, because most of these bikes are honestly pretty cool.

Q: Would you consider shifting production to an overseas vendor if the demand was there?

A: I think that there are opportunities for us overseas with purchasing components. But as far as frame production, I am happy keeping things in-house and I would like to keep it that way as long as I possibly can.

The name of the geekhouse road bike, the "Fast Chance," is a nod to Boston-area bike builders of the past

Q: What can we do to get people out of cars and onto bicycles?

A: I think the best way to do it is to just get more people on bicycles first on any level. I think the fixed gear boom in the cities is a good start to that. A lot more people are riding fixed gears because they are simple and require little maintenance, and now also they have become “cool” which I'm really excited about. I think that this is a good start to getting people into bikes for transportation that haven't ridden before. I hope that as these people get more into bikes, they will check out other styles and grow on the styles that they ride. I think we're already starting to see this with fixed gear people getting into touring-style rides.

Q: What else would you like to say?

A: Ya, check out our flickr and facebook for up to the day progress on what we're up to:

Q: What do you like for breakfast?

A: Ideally pancakes. But most morning I settle for a breakfast bar and a mug of Earl Grey tea...