New commute needs a new bike

I just changed jobs and the new commute is shorter and uglier. Rather than the ride I was doing that was mostly along the Bay going from Mountain View to Menlo Park, I now go South into the industrial bowels of Sunnyvale (industrial on a Silicon Valley scale that is). So rather than a mostly quiet and mind-clearing (my wife says emptying) ride through Shoreline Park and along the Bay trail I’ve been taking Evelyn then cutting over to Arques. The other option is Central Expressway but that’s basically riding on the shoulder of a freeway as far as I can tell so I don’t think I’ll be doing that.

Since I have showers and a gym at the new job I can now sprint to work whereas I used to have to avoid sweating. Plus, when I get to the gym I’m all warmed up and ready to tackle that goal of bench pressing 1/2 my body weight (hey, I’m a cyclist!). So the new commute had me thinking of either changing my MTB fixie conversion/town bike to make it faster or figuring out another option. I’m lucky enough to have quite a few serviceable parts around since I’m a part hoarder and I need to maintain bikes for my wife (she also races a bit) and me.

That’s my red fixie in the picture below

red bike with blue bike

The great thing about my MTB fixie conversion is that NOBODY IN HIS RIGHT MIND WILL STEAL IT. I still lock it but it’s not desirable at all like the true fixies you see around. And even if someone parted it out on ebay the parts fit in that nice niche where they are too new to be ‘vintage’ and too old to be ‘modern’. So the downside of retiring that bike is that I might have to worry about the new bike getting pinched. I had a thought that I could convert my old Trek road frame to fixed. So before I went too far, I thought about what I really wanted and came up with this list of features:

  • Fast
  • Able to mount a rear rack
  • Not too desirable for theft
  • Fender mounting option
  • Low maintenance

A fixed gear conversion fits this list pretty well. With skinny 700c tires and tall gearing it would be fast. The Trek frame has sufficient eyelets and other bits to mount a rack and fenders. It might be a bit more of a target for thieves but I didn’t really expect it. I was excited about this option. As efficient as bikes are, one of the areas that is still sub-optimum is the drivetrain. It really hasn’t changed that much since the first derailleur was developed and is due for a design breakthrough. Shift cables need frequent adjustment and get sticky and dirty in wet weather and the shifting performance goes south quickly. If I could avoid having to change gears, I’d still have my low maintenance bike.

However, when I started to shop around for the bits to convert my vertical dropout frame to fixed, I was shocked to find that the cheapest option was about $150. And for that kind of money I could just buy a basic steel track frame. And no, don’t even get me started on using a ghost ring for chain tensioning.

ghost ring

So I had to rethink this. I didn’t want to spend a bunch of money. And, one must admit, the rear derailleur is a mechanical device of great beauty. Plus it is even quiet when tuned well. The front derailleur on the other hand is a compromise. None of the beauty of the little jockey wheels and the exposed parallelogram linkage of the rear derailleur – just a couple of metal plates to push the chain to either side. You don’t really shift the chain on the front chainrings you DERAIL it. The large difference in the number of teeth between small and large chainrings is such a big jump that it can’t be anything but clunky. And you’re prone to dropping the chain if things go too far out of adjustment. So I would build up my old Trek with a single front chainring and use a 9 speed mountain bike cassette on the rear. That would give me a huge range so I could toodle to work on lazy days or drop it down into the small cogs for some good top-end speed for my bike lane sprints. And jettisoning the front derailleur gave me the bit of the simplicity I was looking for.

So over to the parts bin to see what I had. Amazingly I had almost everything – even some nice new bar tape to finish the job. Over a few hours of the long weekend I built it up, took it for a little shakedown ride and had my first commute on it last week. And it was FAST. Well it is a road bike so it should be. But even better, it has already made me think about some other changes I want to make…I just hope I have the parts.

Trek 9 speed

Best Part of My Day


Last night I had one of those perfect moments on the bike that I get only rarely. Left work a little later than usual so it was full dark and cold – just about 40 degrees. Not cold for most of the rest of the country but bracing for the ride home. After the first couple minutes I was at temperature and feeling good just as I hit the bike path on the edge of the Bay in East Palo Alto. Nobody on the path tonight except a little gray fox I’ve seen twice this week. And it was quiet. I only have 2 miles or so on this path and it’s such a relief from the busy streets that make up the rest of my ride. I’m on my converted POS MTB fixie and pushing just the right cadence where it feels effortless but still fast. Night riding away from the city lights always feels fast due to the tunnel vision you experience and this was perfect. And fixies are so quiet – I’m just gliding. I think about one thing at a time instead of having multiple things bounce around in my head like usual and I breathe.

I just got an offer for a better job. As I’m riding I realize the only downside is the commute. Sure it’s closer – 7 miles instead of 10 but it’s all on city streets. I would have to go way out of my way to ride a bike path on the edge of all this quiet. Should I keep my job because I like my bike ride so much? Has anyone ever done that?