Sunday, May 25, 2008

SOMA Fabrications Smoothie ES Update

It’s been just over a month since I brought home my new road bike, I’ve got about 200 miles on it, so I figure it is time for a proper review. First off, I have to mention that I have not bought a new bike since 1994, when I bought my Specialized Stumpjumer, a bike I still own and use as my daily commuter. So when I made up my mind to buy my first real road bike, I wanted to do my research, because I knew I’d probably be riding this bike for a long time. I am signed up to ride the Pan-Massachusetts Challenge in August, so this was my motivation for buying a new bike. I wanted a bike that would be comfortable for long rides, capable of doing 100+ mile days, while at the same time still suitable for commuting. That meant tire clearance for fenders, and longish chainstays so my heels wouldn’t rub if I added a rack and panniers at some point.

My first thought was to get a cyclocross bike, something capable of handling the daily grind of commuting, but still suitable for long training rides and the PMC. After some internet searching, I narrowed it down to a Surly Cross or Bianchi Veloce. These two bikes are similar in many ways- steel frames, Shimano Tiagra components, cheaper wheel set, and both priced at around $900. I had ridden a Cross Check and it was my first choice, though I found a Veloce online for $675. I was tempted to pull the trigger on the Bianchi, but I just wasn’t sure a cyclocross bike was for me. Cross bikes are great, for cyclocross racing. I never had any intention of riding my new bike off-road, and was never going to enter a race, so why was I looking at a cross bike? The Cross Check and Veloce are marketed as “do everything bikes”. Yes, they can do everything, but not everything well. The bike I was looking for was somewhat unique- I wanted a steel road bike with relaxed geometry (but not as relaxed as a touring bike), plenty of tire clearance and room for fenders. Bikes like these exist, but they are usually custom frames, and I knew that wasn’t in the cards at the moment. As a compromise, I decided to buy a steel frame and build the bike up, handpicking the components.

I had stumbled across the SOMA site while searching for bikes online, their frames seemed similar to the Surlys I was looking at- both made in Taiwan, and both priced about the same. The SOMAs are made with a little better tubing (Tange Prestige vs. plain old cro-moly), and they retail for about $50 less (paid $365 for the frame). That made the decision easy, a SOMA it was. After getting fitted at the shop (highly recommended), I decided on a blue 58 cm Smoothie ES frame. SOMA describes the ES frame as an “ideal choice for multi-day charity rides, centuries and credit card touring.” What really sold me on this frame was it’s versatility. It fits 32c tires with fenders, and has rear rack and fender mounts. The frame has less aggressive road sport geometry than a traditional road frame, making it better suited for all-day riding. The rear end is beefier than other road frames I had seen, which must add some rigidity to the bike. I am a fairly large guy (6’0”, 185 lbs.), and I haven’t felt any flexing in the rear end. I also have to mention the color of the frame. While maybe not as stealth as the trademark Surly black, the Cobalt Blue on my SOMA is very sweet. The blue has some purple undertones that really shine in the light, and the decals are subdued and not too flashy. The paint quality is good, better than the Surlys I've seen. The paint does seem a little thin around the bottom bracket shell, like they forgot to do a second coat down there. On a sub-$400 frame you can't expect perfection.

I was originally going to go with the steel fork that SOMA sells on their site, but the bike shop had a new Bontrager carbon fork that was taken off another customers bike, so I scored it for less than the steel fork would have cost. I’ve only ridden road bikes with steel forks before, and the carbon really sucks up a lot of the road vibrations that are normally felt while riding.

My next decision was what wheel set to use. Because of my budget, I knew I had to skimp a little on the wheels. We found a good deal on some Salsa Delgado Cross wheels, laced to Campagnolo hubs. The wheels are not the lightest, but they are bombproof. In the future I may save up for some lighter wheels, but in the meantime it is a lot easier to shave a few grams by laying off the dessert at night.

I wanted decent components that would hold up over time. I dig the Italian design and tradition of Campagnolo, and unlike Shimano, when a Campy part breaks, you can rebuild it versus having to replace the whole part. I knew I couldn’t afford a Record or Chorus group, so I settled on the mid-range Mirage line. From what I can tell, the biggest difference between all the Campy groups seems to be weight and the amount of carbon bits that are present in the higher end components. A complete Mirage group, minus brakes, was less expensive than the similar quality Shimano 105. Call me a snob, but having an Italian drivetrain I couldn’t bring myself to slap Shimano brakes on my bike. Campy brakes were too expensive, considering I needed 57 mm long reach calipers, and were not available in the Mirage line. We found some Tektro calipers that are similar to Shimano, but the fit and finish appears to be a little better. I’m not completely satisfied with the brakes though, there is some irritating chatter and squeaking that happens from time to time, but it could be simply a matter of swapping out for some better pads.

Rounding out the rest of the components I used a Bontrager Race Lite seat post, stem, and bars. These were items that the shop had in stock so I saved a little money on them. My only complaint about the bars is I wish the drops were a slightly longer, they seem a little too short for my hands.

The bike weighs less than I'd expected, 21.25 lbs. Not bad for a steel frame. At first the top tube felt a little high, but I think I am just so used to my mountain bike, which has a much shorter frame. The first ride I did on the bike was just under 30 miles, and it felt like 10. I’ve been doing 30-50 mile rides at least once a week, and the fit seems to be spot on. The bike handles great, stability is excellent, and it feels so solid. I’ve had the opportunity to ride some really nice bikes (which also happen to be really expensive), and the Smoothie rides like a bike costing much more. It's hard not to like this bike.

So here's the skinny on all the bits and pieces:

Frame- Soma Smoothie ES 58cm
Fork- Bontrager Satellite Carbon
Crankset- Campy Mirage 34-50
Bottom Bracket- Campy Record
Rear Derailleur- Campy Mirage 10 speed
Front Derailleur- Campy Mirage 32mm
Hubs- Campy Mirage
Cassette- Campy Mirage 12-23
Chain- Campy Veloce
Brake Set- Tektro Long Reach Calipers
Brake/Shift Lever- Campy Mirage Escape
Headset- Cane Creek S-3 1-1/8” Black Threadless
Seatpost- Bontrager Race Lite 20mm
Bars- Bontrager Race Lite 46 31.8
Stem- Bontager Race Lite 31.8 120mm +7
Saddle- Selle Italia Flite XP Trans Am (best saddle ever!)
Wheels- Salsa Delgado Cross
Tires- Panaracer T-Serv 700x28c

Listening to: Pink Floyd- Obscured By Clouds

Thursday, May 22, 2008

CETMA Rack for the Commuter

Even with the new road bike, I am still using my single speed mountain bike for most of my commuting, old habits die hard I guess. One of the problems I am still having is how to get all the shit I need on a daily basis (clothes, shoes, lunch, books, papers, laptop, etc.) to and from work. I usually use a messenger bag or backpack, but now that the weather is getting warmer, I am looking for a way to get all this stuff off my back. I thought of buying a rear rack and panniers, but instead decided on a front-mounted cargo rack made by Lane Kagey of CETMA racks in Eugene, Oregon. His 5-rail powdercoated rack seemed perfect for commuting; very utilitarian, simple, and able to withstand the day to day abuse that comes with riding. A front rack has many pros; the load is up front where you can get to it quickly if needed, and there is no issue with heel rub as there often is with rear panniers. I've been using the rack for about a month now, so I thought I'd post a few pics and comments:

The rack attaches to the handlebars and fork ends. The rack is hand-built by Lane, but the stays and hardware that attaches the rack to the bars appear to be cheap (and heavy) Wald parts that you'd find on a much cheaper rack. I wish Lane would fabricate some better hardware, because his work on the rack itself is top-shelf.

The 5-rail rack measures 11"x11", perfect for strapping on a backpack, 12 pack of homebrew, or a 5 year-old.

The galvanized stays are designed to attach to the axles, but I really wanted to utilize the eyelets on my forks so that I could still take the front wheel off without disturbing the rack. The solution was to use some chainring bolts (as spacers) and rack bolts to connect to the eyelets, and grind down the ends of the chainstays a bit to make room for the quick-release. Super custom.

It took some time to get used to having a load up front, and I am still searching for the perfect bag, but I like having access to everything while on the bike. The rack does add some weight to the front end, which can effect the steering while cornering, but I don't notice it much anymore.

In the future, I'd love to see Lane design some lighter weight hardware and stays, and this may seem minor, but I also wish the stays were powdercoated the same color as the rack. Overall, the CETMA racks seem almost perfect for commuting, the current design is practical, strong, utilitarian, and I do enjoy hearing "nice rack" from other cyclists.

Listening to: The Black Keys- Attack & Release

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Happy Mother's Day

For as long as I've known my wife, she's never owned a bicycle of her own. Her last bike once belonged to my ex-girlfriend, and we all know how that goes over. Needless to say, we sold the "ex's" bike a few years ago on Craigslist, so she has been bikeless for the past two years. For Mother's Day this year we surprised her with this sweet Bianchi Milano; celeste green, Shimano Nexus 8-speed internal hub, and basket. Perfect for rides to the cafe and beach.