Archive for the ‘Products’ Category

Steel’s the Word at Steelman Cycles

August 16, 2010

Brent Steelman works on a customer's frame.

Could there be a better name for a steel-frame builder? Brent Steelman is his name and he works out of his shop in Redwood City, California. His wife, Katryn, manages office details and logistics. Her beautiful photos of Steelman frames grace the office walls.

Brent has been building frames since 1980 and over the years he has built between 3,000 and 4,000. That puts him up there with the icons of frame building in Northern California – Tom Ritchey, Albert Eisentraut (Brent shared an Oakland facility with Albert and Ed Litton), Joe Breeze, and a few others.

His bikes have been ridden by some of the best racers, including Joe Murray (NORBA National Champion), Laurence Malone (Cyclocross National Champion), and numerous other national road and track champions. The mountain bikes used by Gary Fisher’s racing team in the 1980s were built by Brent.

A true artisan
It’s not so much the number of frames Brent has built that distinguishes his business as it is quality and attention to detail. You have to see a bare steel frame to appreciate why frame builders are craftsmen. Brent’s lugged or tig-welded joints are smooth and clean. The tubing’s silver gleam offsets the golden-hued brazing.

You can see right away Brent takes pride in everything he does. He built his own jig to assemble his frames. The jig is the frame builder’s “third hand.” It holds and positions the tubes for easier access to brazing at the precise angles needed. His shop is filled with tools of the trade – drills, saws, and lathes.

Many varieties

Over his frame-building career, Brent has made road, mountain, fixed-gear, track, and cyclocross bikes. Today he says most of his customers request road bikes.

He even built carbon-fiber bikes starting in 2002. As a steel-frame builder, Brent is unique in this regard. Few frame builders have experience working with both materials. Brent says he quit building carbon-fiber bikes after a few years and went back to steel after some soul-searching. “Carbon-fiber building is nasty work,” Brent said. “The chemicals and dust are something I do not miss.”

Bike fit and assembly
What’s unique about Brent’s business is he doesn’t just build the bike. He offers a one-stop shopping experience: fit the customer, manage the painting, procure components, and assemble the bike. “It makes sense for the builder the assemble the bike,” said Brent. “I’ve been assembling bikes for decades and I can eliminate the hassles the owner might experience by taking it elsewhere.”

Brent tells his own story about frame building and his professional career on the Steelman Cycles website. It’s an honest, straightforward story of his life and love of frame building.

As a steel-frame enthusiast, I can’t say enough about the beauty, ride, and longevity of steel. If you’re a dedicated rider looking for a new bike, be sure to check out a custom steel bike, and Steelman Cycles. Find out what owners have to say on the Steelman Cycles Facebook page.

A Steelman frame hangs in the office.

Cargo Bikes are “Ram Tough”

June 1, 2010

There\’s plenty of variety in cargo bikes.

As the Age of Human-Powered Vehicles comes to pass, we are seeing more utility bikes being used for around-town errands.

Many utility bikes are tricycles. I have fond memories of going for a pedicab ride in Kanchanaburi, Thailand. The owner let me try out his pedicab. It was hard going! In the Philippines, sidecars are popular.

However, there are quite a few two-wheel cargo bikes. They’re designed to carry bulky loads that would be difficult to manage by someone riding a standard two-wheeler. Of course, we have all seen images of cyclists carrying immense loads on standard two-wheel bikes, so a cargo bike would be a luxury in some parts of the world.

Cargo bikes follow four basic styles: modified traditional, low-gravity, the Longjohn, and the Longtail.

The Royal Enfield low-gravity carrier bike was popular in the 1930s. It has a smaller front wheel and a front basket. The Longjohn also has a smaller front wheel than the rear, but it has a large basket low to the ground between the front wheel and handlebars. The Longtail is a longer bike with thicker tires and more room in the rear for a rack.

Specialized, a trendsetter in the bike industry, now offers a utility bike.

I recently rode a “performance” cargo bike similar to the Royal Enfield style, built by Dale Saso of San Jose, California. Dale has been building cargo bikes for 25 years. He makes his cargo bikes with quality, lightweight tubing. His personal bike, which I rode, has high-end components. Picasa has more photos of Dale’s bike.

The ride takes getting used to, as is true for any bike. Because the basket covers the front wheel, you lose your frame of reference. The wheel turns independently of the basket. What’s interesting is that as more weight was added to the basket, I found the ride became more stable.

Dale Saso rides his cargo bike.

Dale says that he has ridden his cargo bike to the summit of 4,200-foot Mt. Hamilton (19 miles one way) and loves the way it rides. “It’s great for maneuvering in traffic,” Dale says. “I like this bike more than any I’ve owned because it greatly reduces my need to drive a car.”

Dale’s cargo bike is in a league of its own. Most cargo bikes, such as the Longjohn, are less nimble and will give a completely different ride. What’s unique about Dale’s cargo bike is the front wheel, which has a 20-inch rim and 3-inch tires, found on electric motorbikes. It gives the bike increased stability.

Although everyone asks how much weight can be carried on a cargo bike, Dale insists this question misses the point. “The cargo bike is great for carrying groceries and large items, such as a box of oranges,” Dale says. “It’s not meant for carrying around stuff weighing hundreds of pounds.”

Dale says his cargo bike design continues to evolve. He’s working on a handy quick-release for the cantilever style carrier (bolting to the down tube and head tube) that holds the basket.

Urban Hip Take a Liking to Fixed-Gear Bikes

May 28, 2010

Bianchi's San Jose Flat Bar appeals to the urban hip rider


I’ve been noticing a lot of “fixed-gear” bikes around San Jose in recent months. In my bike racing days I set up a fixed-gear bike and tooled around town, even riding up and down Old La Honda Road. After I got over the fear of having to make a sudden stop, it turned out to be a fun way to ride.

I’ve read that the fixed-gear bike has become popular lately thanks to bike messengers, who have been known to ride fixed-gear bikes.

I think renewed popularity is also a matter of economics and simplicity. Fixed-gear or single-speed bikes are typically less expensive than geared road bikes and easier to maintain. Most of the fixed-gear bikes I’ve seen are steel frames with standard-spoke wheels.

Fixed-gear bikes are probably best suited for younger riders living on a budget who have some athletic ability. Single-speed bikes that look like fixed-gear bikes are more appropriate for a wider audience.

If you’re looking for a single-speed or fixed-gear bike, I’m impressed by what Bianchi offers. The San Jose Flat Bar single-speed looks like it would be an ideal bike for riding around town on flat roads. Bianchi also sells genuine fixed-gear bikes, and track bikes.

If you want to convert a standard 10-speed to fixed-gear, which is what I did, check out the Sheldon Brown website.

Something to Chew On: Bamboo Bicycles

May 17, 2010

Future engineer. John Xia, a Palo Alto high school graduate, made his own bamboo bike.

We’re all familiar with steel, carbon-fiber, and aluminum bike frames, and then there’s bamboo. Classified in the plant world as a grass, you’d never guess as much from its size.

Bamboo bikes have been around for a long time, probably since the first bikes were made, but even today they have a following among cycling enthusiasts.

One of the better known companies is Calfee Design in Santa Cruz, Calif. Many cycling names have come out of Santa Cruz, including Craig Calfee, Jim Gentes (Giro helmets),and Keith Bontrager (mtn bikes and equipment). Craig’s company has been building bamboo bicycles since 2005. He has also traveled to Ghana to show people how to build bamboo bicycles.

Craig was one of the original builders of carbon-fiber bikes in 1989. In 1991, Greg LeMond contracted with Craig’s business to have his team supplied with carbon-fiber frames. Craig continues to sell carbon-fiber frames today.

Equally important, he’s one of the few suppliers in the region who repairs carbon-fiber frames.

I’ve never ridden a bamboo bicycle, but I can imagine it gives a smooth ride, much as the Vitus aluminum bicycles of the 1980s.

Are these frames going to last as long as steel? I’m not going to hazard a guess, but rest assured termites won’t bother them, since the tubes are coated with polyurethane. If you want a bamboo bike, you can build your own and save some money.

Another company that has just started selling bamboo bikes is Panda Bicycles, based in Fort Collins, Colorado. I’m not sure they’re in full production, but they have a website.

Then we have wood rims, but that’s another story…

Share Your Routes in Google Maps

May 5, 2010

You can make your own route and share it with others in Google Maps.


I mentioned that you can make your own routes in Google Maps and share them with others, and here’s how.

First, you need to have an account, typically done by creating an email account. Once at Google Maps click on “My Maps,” then “Create new map.” Give it a title and description, and select whether public or unlisted. I recommend leaving it unlisted until you’re ready to share it.

You’ll work with the three icons in the upper left corner of Google Maps. Select the blue teardrop placemarker to start your route, and give it a name. Select the jaggy line for drawing the route. You can click as often as you like when drawing the route. I recommend selecting “follow roads,” if that’s your intent.

While this process works well enough, it takes forever, if you have a long route. A way to get around this is to pick a destination and then use the placemarker. The program will choose a route, typically following freeways, if nearby.

You can fine-tune the route by selecting the blue line where it diverges from its intended route and dragging it to the desired road. If you’re doing this where there are other roads, you need to be zoomed in and take care in selecting the road segment you want to move.

Another option is to click on “Get Directions,” after creating a map name and enter the start and end points. Google Maps will create a route, again using freeways where practical. If you select “Bicycling” route (in the U.S. only), Google Maps will create a route minus the freeways. Once that’s done, you can drag the end point back to a place that’s closer to where you want to go.

Sometimes it’s a hassle to make things work, but I’m no expert.

Google Maps does not always recognize paths — it’s better in bicycling mode — so you may have to create sections for places that follow paths.

There are icons you can use for points of interest. Click on the Placemark icon and you’ll see the Placemark in the upper right corner of the window. Click on that and you’ll see more icons.

If this doesn’t make sense, just watch their video.
Here are some of my public routes:

Google Man Helps You Find Your Way

April 29, 2010

Drag Google Man, in red circle, to roads highlighted in blue to see what they look like (not active).


If you’re planning a bike trip, your first stop should be Google Maps. There isn’t a better resource for finding a route.

I’ve been assembling a route starting in Barcelona, Spain, heading north to the Pyrenees, then east to the Provence region of France. If you’re like me, you want to know where you’re going to ride.

Bruce Hildenbrand reports on bike racing.

First, you should check with someone who has already been there. I found an expert in every sense of the word – Bruce Hildenbrand. He has been to Europe for bike rides so many times, he lost count. He can tell you every detail about the Tour de France – where LeMond broke away in a specific race, where Lance got tangled with a spectator and fell off his bike, on and on.

Once I had an idea of where to go, I focused on the route. I like to ride point to point, so that means finding my way out of Barcelona. Big cities can be difficult, but Google Maps helps find the best route because you can “see” the road in “Street View” – how wide it is and the amount of traffic. Here’s a nice country road on the France side of the Pyrenees.

The way to do this in Google Maps is to click on the little orange figure in the upper left-hand corner. I call it Google Man (Google calls it Pegman); like Michelin Man only a different color. Drag the man from his position (or Google Gal if you like) and the roads that have been photographed will light up in dark blue.

You can also click on Satellite, Earth (Google Earth), and Terrain. Terrain is located in “More,” which has other neat features you can select.

Most roads have been photographed in many parts of the world. Google uses cars equipped with special cameras that capture everything. It’s amazing technology.

Next time I’ll tell you how to map your route and save it for future use. You can keep it to yourself or share it with others in My Maps.

Note: A powerful PC with a high-speed Internet connection will make your Google Maps experience more enjoyable.

Google Maps for Bikes — Use with Caution

March 20, 2010

Google Maps for bike routes is live. It's a good start, but use with caution.


On March 10, Google Maps went live with its bicycling route option. Choose a destination and Google will tell you the best way to get there by bike. I give them a C-.

Some routes, like Santa Clara (where I live) to Santa Cruz are quite good. Others, like Santa Clara to Half Moon Bay, are downright wrong. Their route includes Old Cañada Road. I’ve ridden this road, but at the risk of being arrested!

Back in the day when I was young and foolish, I rode here with friends. Even then it was heavily patrolled by the San Francisco Water Department and on more than one occasion we were stopped and told to get out. Obviously, Google meant the nearby public Cañada Road. The rest of the route – Hwy 92 – is only advisable at early hours on weekends.

I checked on another difficult route – San Francisco to Calistoga. Conveniently, they include the ferry to Vallejo. Santa Clara to San Francisco, staying near Hwy 101, looks reasonable. Another puzzler was Santa Clara to Pescadero. Why they would include the hideously steep Spring Ridge Road (dirt) instead of Old La Honda Road is a mystery.

Google is trying. They have good intentions, but right now I’d call this a beta release. I’m sure they would agree. Bike routes aren’t easy to figure out. I’ve spent years refining my rides. It’s something that can be learned only through experience. The best algorithms won’t get it right.

They want your input. According to Product Manager Shannon Guymon, they plan to have a feature called Map Maker that will allow users like us to enter useful routes. Whether or not this will fix their algorithms may be another matter.

What I find interesting is OpenStreetMap.org, an open-source map maker’s dream. Founded in 2004, it’s slowly gaining a following. I wonder what affect it will have on Google’s strategy? Like open-source software, open-source maps (think Wikipedia), can be a real game changer. In the end, we all benefit.

Cannondale and Pedro: They Get It

March 15, 2010

Aptly named the Tulio (Tullio Campagnolo invented the quick-release), this multi-use tool fits on a quick-release.

Recently I wrote about innovation and technology in the bicycle industry and where it’s headed. Lately I haven’t seen much to get excited about, until now.

First, a simple quick-release has been turned into a multi-purpose tool. The Pedro Tulio isn’t available yet, from what I can see, but it’s something I plan to buy. Cost is about $30-$40.

You really have to see it in action to understand what I’m talking about. It’s a clever design and something the minimalist cyclist will appreciate. The quick-release skewer incorporates these tools – L wrench, 4-5-6-8 mm hex, chain tool, flat head driver, and two spoke-wrench sizes. Weight is 99 grams.

Next, we have the Cannondale Simon, a sophisticated electronic suspension. On the Web, you’ll find numerous interviews with Stanley Song, lead engineer for the Simon. He speaks eloquently about the technology and, based on his comments, it has applications yet to be identified. It uses an accelerometer, a technology that turns ho-hum games on the iPhone into something more enjoyable. Of course, it’s the key technology in the Nintendo Wii.

Mountain bike riding is a different animal from road riding, and suspension becomes all-important off-road. The Simon promises to react to bumps in 8 milliseconds, enough time for it to adjust the suspension to the ideal setting.

These inventions were revealed at Interbike, the primary trade show for the cycling industry, which takes place in the fall in Las Vegas.

Ridin’ in the Rain

December 7, 2009

Bianchi Castro Valley commuter bike


I’ll be riding in the rain come Monday and probably for the next several days. I’m not much of a rain rider, but when it comes to commuting, I’ll do it unless the rain is accompanied by strong winds.

My rain gear is, in a word, PVC, or polyvinyl chloride. I have been reluctant to spring for a $100 jacket with “Gore-tex®” properties. I may do that soon and, if I do, I’ll write a report. I’ve read many accounts of how well they work, so I’m not so much doubtful as I am cheap. It doesn’t rain all that often in Northern California.

What I do recommend is fenders. You can live with a lousy rain jacket, but riding without fenders is dirty business. My rain bike is the Bianchi Castro Valley, so named because Bianchi has a U.S. office near that Bay Area community.

The bike was a decent value at $750 when I bought it in 2005. It has a dynohub so I don’t need to worry about light batteries, but the bulb can burn out. A flickering LED serves as backup.
I’ve ridden this bike into the Santa Cruz Mountains, in addition to commuting. It has plenty of gears for hills. I can’t say I’ll ever enjoy riding in the rain, but it’s all part of being a bike commuter.

Squeal Like a Brake Pad

July 21, 2009
Kool-Stop pads up close and personal

Kool-Stop pads up close and personal

Brake squeal has dogged me for decades, ever since I switched to the salmon-colored Kool-Stop pads in the mid 1980s. This is not an indictment of Kool-Stop. I love their pads because they last forever and they offer superior braking.

However, about four months ago I threw in the towel after exhausting all options for getting rid of the front brake squeal and switched back to a set of mint-condition Campagnolo nuovo record pads.

These pads have never squealed, but they don’t brake as well as Kool-Stop, they wear out quickly, and they pick up gravel and rim metal shavings. Faced with trying to locate vintage Campagnolo replacements, (Kool- Stop makes a replacement pad that fits classic Campagnolo brake holders), I decided to give Kool-Stop pads one more try.

I took advice offered by Jobst Brandt and cleaned my rims with a watery paste of cleanser, in this case Comet. I also sanded the new Kool-Stop pads to get rid of any flashing or glazing common to new pads. (Jobst recommends Bon Ami cleaner over Comet because it cleans off gunk without scratching the rim.)

Much to my surprise, it worked! No more squeal. I still think Kool-Stop pads are prone to squealing, so I anticipate I will need to clean my rims this way on occasion. Jobst also suggests riding through a puddle and applying the brakes. The fine grit picked up in the puddle is enough to clean any gunk off the rim.

Brake squeal is most likely caused by some foreign substance on the rim causing stiction, although it can be caused by a loose brake and from the rear of the brake pad touching the rim before the front of the pad. Many pad holders can be adjusted so the front of the pad strikes the rim first.

Most riders I know don’t have problems with Kool-Stop pads. Maybe that’s because their rims aren’t a million years old. I still ride on Mavic MA2 rims with 36 holes. I think it’s going to come down to the wire for which lasts longer, me or the rims.

[Fair disclosure: I have always paid for my Kool-Stop pads.]


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