Touring Bike Trail Trial: Sutra’s Not Dead

Kona 650b at Romero Canyon trail.
Kona 650b at Romero Canyon trail.

[Image gallery at the end of the article.]

I have often asked myself life’s deepest, most meaningful questions in the search for more knowledge: How far can I ride a touring bike on a singletrack trail? Will road plus tires even work on singletrack? When do I get to use the stuff I learned in Algebra 2? Who invented liquid soap, and why? I grew ever more pensive. As I carried my bike over some of the more difficult parts of Romero Canyon Trail, I tried to keep my mind off of my bad decisions…and the flies from the inside of my nose.

The Kona Sutra pictured above is certainly a capable bike. It is even able, with some difficulty, to make it on a trail, provided there aren’t that many loose rocks and dirt. Having converted the bike to 650b last year, the bottom bracket is nice and low, offering the stability of a gravel bike, with the load-carrying capacity of a touring bike. However, the bike, as pictured, is about 35 pounds (15.8 kg)…it’s really heavy. Too heavy to have a good time going up the trail. There were several washouts and debris flows over which I had to shoulder this beast. Once at the top, though, it looked great. So why do it? Research.

Yours Truly with the Kona Sutra at the beginning of the ride.
Yours Truly with the Kona Sutra near the beginning of the ride.

Research, Dear Reader, sounds like an excuse. But it is actually a reason. Not a great reason, but there it is.

Being without a purpose-built mountain bike, I thought it might be a good idea to test out the Sutra on a surface other than asphalt or gravel. The handling and the tire choice were my main focus here. Touring and adventure bikes are usually seen as the best option for an all-in-one bike. However, like a fancy SUV, just because it looks capable, doesn’t mean that it is. I have done quite a bit of touring in my life, and I can tell you that the Kona Sutra is perfect for that. Asphalt and gravel…no problem. Beyond that, I wanted to know what the limitations were for this particular build. Thus, like a Patagonia-Lululemon-wearing-Montecito mom about to drive her G-wagon in the dirt, so did I set out to get some scratches on my exterior.

The wheels of my Sutra are shod with WTB Byway 650b road plus tires. I often get some questions about the capability of these tires from other gravel or adventure cyclists. Some of them want a tire with a little more bite than the WTB Horizons, but not as knobby as the Sendero. I usually recommend running the Teravail Cannonball if they want a little more tread. These seem to be a good go-between. But since I get the Byway question most often, I decided to take my life in my hands and push them to their limits. I had them on there anyway, so there’s that.

What I found after riding the Romero Canyon fire road and singletrack, is that that the WTB Byway is barely capable of handling loose, rocky trail conditions. Loose dirt about half an inch deep was also a problem. There just isn’t enough bite, especially going uphill. Even with decent bike-handling skills, and tire pressure at 20 psi, the tires slid out from under me way too often. Turns out, there is a reason why knobby tires exist: to make trail riding way less scary.

Kona Sutra 650b rocking it on Romero Canyon Trail, Santa Barbara, CA
Kona Sutra 650b rocking it on Romero Canyon Trail, Santa Barbara, CA

The Kona Sutra itself, despite the tires and the overall weight, handled well. There were some slight mishaps involving the too-low-for-this-use bottom bracket and the toeverlap. These problems became more manageable once I slowed down a little and found the right lines. Once on level ground, or even going downhill, the bike seemed to roll over almost everything. There were sections that were rutted and filled with cobble-sized rocks that seemed to pose little problems. Did I get some air on the way down? Why yes…yes I did.

I’m sure that without the Swift Zeitgeist saddlebag and the brass Honjo fenders to weigh me down, I would have had a lot easier time getting to the top of the trail. Again, I was trying to see if I could make it to the top, not how fast or how easily. Imagine those guys who go out with their 4×4 Jeeps, attempting to traverse huge gaps and rocks, just to see if they can. They stop often, look at where they are stuck, etc. That’s what this was like, except I didn’t have a spotter with me. I just went for it and made it from the trailhead all the way to East Camino Cielo. Slowly. It took me about four hours (with rest stops and photos). There were a lot of other bikers who passed me on the way up and asked me how it was going when they were on the way back down.

Kona Sutra 650b resting on Romero Canyon Trail, Santa Barbara, CA
Kona Sutra 650b resting on Romero Canyon Trail, Santa Barbara, CA

I would have been happier on a bike with suspension and a dropper post. But I don’t have one of those. I’m not that type of guy. This fact became obvious as my back and knees began to hurt from all the rigid-bike-on-a-trail-Spanish-Inquisition torture. It was even more apparent when one group of bikers passed me by, and one of them said to the rest of his buddies, “those are the tires that are leaving those smooth-ass tracks! Crazy!”

My nonconformist cycling style leaves little room for caring. Here is a summary of my research. Drink it in:

  1. Road plus tires like the WTB Byway are not recommended for riding singletrack, loose-rock, and loose dirt trails…on purpose. They can be forced to work if you find yourself there by accident. I highly recommend the WTB Sendero, or Teravail Rutland tires, set up tubeless, inflated to around 20 psi for this kind of trail work.
  2. The Kona Sutra is a seriously rugged bike. Geometry and handling on trails are exceptional. Just go slower than you would on a mountain bike and you will do fine.
  3. Having the right gear ratio is tantamount. The base model Sutra comes with a touring-traditional triple chainring, that would work well. The LTD model comes with a single chainring…having at least a 42-tooth cog in the rear is a must. Anything less would be difficult.
  4. Honjo fenders from Simworks are well-built and can handle this type of riding without rattling. This is only if they are properly installed with more robust M4 bolts and nylon locknuts. The OEM fasteners are not strong enough. Drill bigger holes.
  5. With the lower bottom bracket, using platform pedals, for me, was a must. I had to get off the bike too often to make clipless pedals work.

To sum up: for all the Kona Sutra owners out there, you have an awesome bike. Push it to its limits. Just be sure to use the right tires for the terrain and be safe.

Overreaction to Winter: a Birthright of the Santa Barbarian

studded tires

Studded tires outside the Presidio in Santa Barbara. Sign of subtropical Winter.

Back when I was in college, I met a girl from Oregon. She grew up outside of Eugene and moved down here to go to college. Her first impression of Santa Barbara was what giant pussies we all are when it comes to the weather. She was surprised, for example, that when the temperature dipped below 60 degrees Farenheit, Santa Barbarians would don huge jackets, top boots and scarves. Cyclists around here tend to wear multiple layers of lycra kit on top of arm warmers, knee warmers and the occasional balaclava if they can see their breath.

I guess people from outside Southern California (yes, Santa Barbara is in Southern California) are made of stronger stuff than we are. For example, when it rains, cycling for the most part stops. You might see the occasional Rufus out on his K-mart special going to wherever, but all the serious cyclists tend to hide. I mean, it’s just water, right? How do they take a shower if they are so afraid of water?

I guess it’s all relative. Our perspective is skewed. That girl from Oregon? She kept complaining that it was always too hot. And me? I just spotted a bike outside with studded tires. It doesn’t even snow here. The overreactions are astonishing.

End of line.

The Militarization of the Police Bicycle

This is what cops ride in Okinawa. Mamachari.

This is what cops ride in Okinawa. Mamachari.

Having been all over Japan in the past decade or so has led me to believe that America is a land of excess. We are so used to getting what we want (and easily, at that) that we end up buying things we don’t need. Sure, if you use a bike for transportation, you don’t need an S-Works Tarmac Disc with Dura Ace Di2. But as long as we’re spending money on a bike, why not get the best possible? After all, if we settle for spending less on a lower-end ride, we may “outgrow” it. Case in point: here in the good ol’ USA, when we need to equip our police force, we make sure they only have the best. However, sometimes the best is too much. Kind of like obese people who develop diabetes on account of their excessive diets (and for some reason chefs are celebrities here). Take the Kona Safariland, for instance. It’s a short-drive-train “patrol” bike with an adventurous name Really it’s just a beefy hybrid. The thing is built like a tank and would probably be awesome for touring across the African savannahs. A quick look at the website, however reveals a more segregated market. Only cops can buy them…presumably to run over criminals trying to escape on foot. Event the website for the bike has a popup (as of this writing) that politely informs you that “The Safariland Group, holsters.com, forensicsource.com, tacticalcommandstore.com are all under one roof”. As if websites had roofs. Or holsters. But now that I am here I have been looking for a holster for my .454 Cassull revolver. I need it to crack engine blocks with extreme prejudice.

Take the image above. The Okinawan Police, like other police forces in Japan are equipped with exactly what they need. Their style of policing is such that this bike is totally adequate. If a perp escapes, he will most likely run into another set of cops two blocks away. Our cops? Who knows how they’re organized? They are truly never around when you need them. “But we are fighting a war on terror and a war on drugs!” you say. “The criminals have machine guns!” True. So do cops. However, I am willing to be that the aforementioned drug dealers don’t have overpriced, tank-like bicycles with which to deal said drugs. So if we are using the “bring a gun to a gunfight” analogy, a bike, no matter how solid and military-esque isn’t going to win any battles against a drug lord and his gang of car-driving thugs.

Oh yes. I was about to mention the cost of the above bike as compared to “patrol” bikes like the Kona Safariland. The mamachari pictured above probably cost the Okinawa Police about ¥20,000 or about US $200.00. The Safariland? Almost 10 times as much. Your taxes at work, ladies and gentlemen. A local shop even had one on display for a while (even though no one but the cops could buy it). It has Shimano Deore/SLX on it. Really. It also weighs like 29 pounds. If you are one of the select few that can buy one, be sure to get your riot gear and body armor (available on the same site)…you’re going to need it when you are doing crowd control on your giant military bicycle.

Why I Ride

Employee Bike Storage

Employee Bike Storage

What motivates humans to do certain things will never be medically or psychologically quantified…at least in an exact sense that covers everyone. Everyone is different. That’s why we hate stereotypes so much. I am a cyclist. I love bicycles. I have no idea why. Maybe I was born that way. With some sort of a willingness to get out on the road and experience the un-conditioned air on a hot day. Maybe I am genetically predisposed to appreciating the taste of sweat. Maybe I have a psychological compulsion to exercise or not spend money on gasoline. Who knows? All I can say is that I cannot stand driving a car. Whenever I do, something changes. I become tense and stressed and I feel a need to mutter horrible things under my breath whenever something doesn’t go my way. So I am guilty of stereotyping motorists. Based on my experience in a car, I default into a line of thinking that all drivers are assholes. I shouldn’t.

Maybe that is why it came as no surprise to me that a reserve police officer in Los Angeles chose to post a YouTube (since removed) about how she “hate[s] cyclists…every single one of them.” Before I start my rant, I have to ask this officer and former actress what criteria she uses to determine if one is an actual cyclist or not. Is it because a persons happens to be riding a bike when she crosses paths with them? That cannot be the case. That would be profiling on the level of the smelliest of assholes. Is it because they are riding a road bike and wearing kit all tight and aerodynamic looking? That certainly can’t be it either as that would be downright discriminating. She did mention that she hates “every single one of them” as if she were grouping all of us into a small internment camp in her mind where she wishes us to suffer the pain of having our bikes taken away from us, never to ride again. So when a child rides her bike to school because her parents work, does she classify her as a cyclist? Does this officer hate them, too? Or does she merely hate those who choose to be a cyclist? If that’s the case, how can she tell.

<rant>Surely she can study a little history (it’s easy these days what with the Google Machine and all) that bicycles actually predate the automobile. They were being used for transportation and racing and general all-around awesomeness for years before cars became affordable enough for the average consumer. Nothing says class unity like a bicycle. Cites that choose to give bicycles more rights than cars have shown dramatic decreases in injuries and, one could assume, stress and depression. Anyone who assumes they are doing anyone else a favor by driving a car by themselves to work, polluting the air and letting their bodies wither away needs to have their head examined. Now I am not saying that bicycles have the right to own the road. What I am saying is that sharing is caring. Realizing that everyone is different and some of us just don’t drive would go a long way to fighting bigotry in our country. Especially by the police. They have enough problems dealing with their authoritarian complexes and their reliance on a government paycheck rather than actually protecting and serving while issuing tickets to cyclists for riding too far into the road (which is not illegal in California, by the way).</rant>

It’s a sad world when the police, after being called out so many times for abusing their authority that they have to take to the internet to complain about cyclists. Use your YouTube chops for something else more important, Blue like crimes that are actually happening. Real crime destroys families and psyches. Cycling makes people happier. Endorphines, you know?

San Diego: Rubber Legs and Whiskey

Me at rest. San Diego, CA.

Me at rest. San Diego, CA.

I love bicycles. I love beer. I don’t drink beer often enough. During a recent trip to San Diego, staying classy was the last thing on my mind. We were called down there on semi-official business. It seems that F. was needed to translate at a Japanese/American wedding. My friends Chris and Hitomi are definitely made for each other and I wish them all the best. However while they were getting hitched, I was hanging with my friend Lane in Scripps Ranch just outside the city proper. From there, we rode bikes and drank beer and generally misbehaved as much as we could. He has two young boys (3 and 6) so we were limited but not dissuaded from having fun. Indeed, the hijinks ensued as demonstrated by the first picture Lane tried to take of me:

Photobombed. San Diego, CA.

Photobombed by a young metal fan. San Diego, CA.

That’s me, trying to do my best to look cool and hipster drinking an Orion Beer whilst wearing an Orion Beer shirt. In any case, it turns out that photobombs are awesome if done right. Notice the bullhorns this kid is rocking. This picture was taken the day after my ride with Lane and John. Let me explain that situation:

Lane likes to volunteer for the San Diego Center for the Blind‘s Blind Stokers Club. It’s a club within the nonprofit that gets blind people out on the back of a tandem and into the open air, to exercise and have fun. Riding a bike is not something that blind people normally do by themselves, so they have sighted riders like Lane to captain the tandems for them so they can concentrate on riding. It’s actually pretty awesome. John, our stoker, is a great guy. Right after I was introduced to him, I got the impression that he was the kind of person who was super excited to be there. To be honest, this was the first time I had ever seen blind stokering in action so I was very intrigued. Well, my intrigue soon led to my riding a lot faster than I normally do as a bike with four legs that are more in shape than mine is way faster than I thought. Let me put it this way: I saw the back of the tandem a lot.

After riding from Scripps Ranch through Del Mar and into South Carlsbad, we doubled back and took on Torrey Pines Hill. That hill must be some kind of sick joke as I found myself barely able to pedal by the time I got to the top. But I made it (swoon, ladies) and we soon headed to the Torrey Pines Glider Port for some sandwiches and awesome views. It was a great ride and I will never forget it. Well, I am not going to forget how totally out of shape I am and that I need to do some hill repeats to get my confidence back up.

We soon drowned the pain out of my legs that night with a visit to Ballast Point for some spirit tasting. For those of you who follow me on Facebook, you may recall how I drunkenly proclaimed that wine tasting is for pussies and spirit tasting is where it’s at. This is still true. I do not refute that one little bit. After more shenanigans after picking F. up after the wedding, we continued to eat well and reminisce and generally have an awesome time. We capped it all of with a visit to our friend Jerry in Pacific Beach. We ate some empanadas and talked photography and kendo (it’s what we all have in common). San Diego rules. I hope to get back there soon. It’s an amazing place to ride and it’s filled with amazing people. Too bad it’s named after a whale’s vagina.

Uni-Fred

Uni-fred riding a unicycle playing a guitar. Shot on State Street in Santa Barbara, CA.

Uni-fred riding a unicycle playing a guitar.
Shot on State Street in Santa Barbara, CA.

 

The cycling world is filled with some pretty annoying things. Drugs, recumbents, Freds, fat bikes, weight weenies, embrocation, spandex, the list is long. But there is one thing that has been link sandpaper on my brain ever since I saw one lumber awkwardly past me in college: unicycles. To me, they are not just half a bike. To me they represent everything that is wrong with America.

You see, in America, we have this “look at me” culture. We are dying to get noticed. Oh hey, I play guitar pretty well. But so do about a million others around me. How can I stand out? I know! I can play guitar while balancing on some half a contraption usually reserved for clowns and jugglers! Look. I’m not denying that Uni-Fred here has skills. He’s got sweet balancing skills, but his guitar playing leaves little to be desired. So to me, he’s nothing more than a de-frocked clown on a wheel. Did I forget to mention that I hate clowns? Look at me!