Friday, April 1, 2011

La Chica gets a spruce-up: a review of the Salsa, two years in

Before I get to the big unveiling of La Chica's spring makeover, I'd like to announce that as of yesterday, I've sold all of the first bike jersey order. As a result, I was able to donate $170.11 dollars to the South Plains Food Bank farm this morning; part of that was from the sales of the jerseys themselves, and part was from a little extra kicked in by one of the donors. Brothers and sisters, we are well on our way. Woot!

And now, on to the business at hand.

It's been a while since I reviewed my Casseroll, La Chica, and since my counter service tells me that people frequently come to my blog through a search for this particular Salsa model, I thought I'd provide an update. I built this bike up about two years ago as a city commuter (seen in this post), and during that time, I've tinkered around with different components, trying to find the best combination for how I actually use it. Two years of steady use also has allowed me to think about the Salsa Casseroll frame, too, and how well it is suited for a commuter, so I'm ready to share some thoughts on that.

The Casseroll frame was designed to be nimble, sturdy, and versatile. You can build it up as a fully-kitted randonneur with 35mm tires, or a skinny-tired road bike, or a fixie (though I'm still baffled as to why someone would pass on the chance to use gears), or anything in between. I've been pleased with it except for a couple of things. First, the paint is a little overly-delicate and tends to scratch anytime you lean it against a post or hook it over the top of a cheap bike rack (sorry, sometimes a body just doesn't get a choice in where she locks her bike), or even if you just look at it wrong. But I bought the bike to be a work-horse, not a coddled show piece, so this doesn't actually bother me.


Second, the rear has horizontal dropouts for the wheel.

I think the intent on Salsa's part was to make it easy for people wanting a single speed or fixie to adjust the tension of the chain by simply moving the wheel back and forth. Or something like that. What it creates, though, is a wheel that is difficult to remove when you need to work on it, as well as one that has an annoying tendency to slip sideways on a hard crank unless you tighten the skewer down really, really, really hard. Seriously, I use a rubber mallet to hammer the quick-release closed in order to get enough tension on the skewer. Maybe this is not so bad for people who don't have middle-aged, slightly arthriticky hands, but all I'll say for myself is that then when I need to open the quick-release, I usually have to look around for something to use as a lever. Goodness help me if I'm stuck somewhere on the side of a road with a flat and not a tree limb in sight to use for a lever. I'd have to send Lassie out to tell Timmy I'd fallen down a well. Or something.

Honestly, I've found the horizontal drop out thing so aggravating lately, I'm not sure I'd buy this frame again, had I to do it over.

On the other hand, it is indeed a versatile beast, and that lets me try out various configurations in accordance to my whims, boredom, imagination, need to tinker, and general inability to let well enough alone. I think the desire to bling up my bikes stretches all the way back to my childhood, when I used to spend hours and hours in the garage, decorating my hand-me-down Sears special for the New Mexico State Fair parade:

That's my younger brother standing in front of me with his bike. He didn't get a hand-me-down, because he was the only boy in the family and had to have a boy's bike, whereas I had two older sisters and so had a bike that was someone else's first. I ask you, does he look happy that he has his own bike? No, not at all. But I'm not bitter, and that's what important.

Also, for La Chica in particular, I am probably subconsciously trying to re-create something from the schoolyard. We all used to park our bikes along a fence at Del Norte Elementary, in a sort of bike corral, and they all looked more or less the same, which is to say, a gangly blend of single-speed Searsy-Wardsy-Green Stampy-Huffyishness. And then one day, this kid shows up with an English three speed that he'd gotten for Christmas, and all of us who cared about the fine things in life were struck dumb with awe. It stood among our ratty heaps of rust as a champion thoroughbred stands among donkeys.

Plus, it had gears.

My envy knew no bounds. Even today, thinking about that bike makes me want to weep with desire. It was every bit of smart, funny, classy, pretty, fashionable, stylish, popular, etc. that I was not. I mean, look at that picture of me at the parade to see what I mean. QED, my friends. QED.

It is fair to say I haven't worked out all of my childhood issues.

Here then are the components, in no particular order, and my thoughts on how well they work for zipping around town with a light load:

Right now I'm running Vittoria Randonneurs 28mm, which are plenty fast for commuting, but nice and cushy, too. I started with Gatorskins 25mm and made the change when winter rolled in this year, thinking that the tread on the Vittorias would be better for wet conditions, should the heavens ever decide to send us some drought-relief. I like the ride of the 28s so much, I'm probably going to keep them.

I started with mustache handlebars, but they had me too stretched out. So I switched to drops, which I used for the better part of a couple of years and was happy enough with, but as time has gone by, I've grown tired of the gymnastics it takes to see traffic conditions. More recently I tried Nitto North Roads, which allowed me a more upright seated position, the better to keep an eye on things. The North Roads were too wide, though, and made me feel all wobbly and vertiginous, so I switched to Nitto Doves, which, as Goldilocks would say, are just right.

However, changing the angle of the upper body on a bike also means that all the other angles change, too. So it took me several days of messing around with the seat and cleat positions to find the sweet spot where hands and knees didn't hurt.

I've added leather washer grips, and wrapped part of the handle to allow me to change hand positions on longer stretches of a ride to avoid fatigue (see above, in re arthriticky hands). I had cork grips, but the washer grips have more, well, grippiness, and they are big and fat, which feels good to my creaky hands. These are not the pricey Brooks washer grips, but a set of cheap knock-offs I found on Amazon, and as far as I can tell, they are just fine. This has been a very good combination so far. In general, in fact, I am liking this handlebar and grip configuration better than any I've tried on this bike, in spite of all the tweaking it took to make my knees happy.

The upright position does make me tad slower than when I use drop handlebars, probably as much to owing to the change in leg angle as to catching more wind. But since the purpose of this bike is for commuting around town, I'm happy enough with that. If I ever wanted to take La Chica on a real randonneuring ride, I'd switch back to drops so that I wouldn't be left behind.

I rode with plastic SKS fenders for a couple of years, but always liked the look of hammered metal ones. (I'm pretty sure that had they been around forty some odd years ago, that English three speed would have had hammered metal fenders.) So a couple of weeks ago I ordered some Velo Orange fenders and switched out the SKS. 

While I was able to put the SKS fenders on in an hour or so, it took me the better part of half a day to attach the Velo Orange. After riding around with them for a few days, I can say that while I think they look very elegant, I'm probably going to swap them for the old SKS. The trouble is that the metal fenders are noisy. They have a rattle that I can't seem to get rid of, no matter how much I tighten everything down, and when they pick up a stone, it clatters around like you're shaking a drunken banshee in a tin can. 

Now, it is safe to say that about most things in life I am pretty relaxed when it comes to tidiness--one need only to see my kitchen counters to see that this is true. But when it comes to bikes, I'm a bit obsessive compulsive--gears have to shift properly, brakes must stop on a dime, and the seat position must be just so. So a misplaced squeak or rattle means that something isn't working perfectly and in a very short while, it can drive me batty. I'm going to give it one more shot this weekend to see if I can't tighten things down; after that, they're going the way of the dodo.

Of course, working on it this weekend will mean looking for a lever to open the quick-release skewer...

Seat bag:
It has taken me a very long time to find a bag that suits my needs. Part of the problem has been the Brooks saddle that I use, which is a Champion Flyer S. I adore my Brooks (yes, I do), but between the saddle's springs and the "lip" of the rear rack (you can just barely see it in the photo), nearly every bag I've tried winds up getting wedged under the seat in such a way that I can't actually pull things out of it very conveniently. Furthermore, in order to get a bag to fit, it has to be fairly small, and while I can usually pack a flat kit, that's all I can pack. So, if I want to add a headlight or tail light for those times when I get caught out after dark, or pack a sandwich or a camera for a picnic ride, I have to add a pannier of some sort.

I bought this Acorn bag a week ago, however, and to my delight, it was instantly just about perfect in every way. It sits out over the lip of the rack and in front of the springs, so it is easy to get in it. It is also large enough for my flat kit, my emergency lights, and a sandwich from Which Wich, all at once. My only complaint is that feeding the leather straps through the Brooks attachment loops was not at all a party. Well, unless it was the kind of party where you end up sitting next to a loud drunk. With aggressive politics. And the onion dip has run out.

If you want to try attaching one for yourself someday, I'd suggest using needle nose pliers and holding your mouth just so, while thinking of imaginative ways not to curse.

The attaching problem is as much the fault of the narrowness of the loops on the saddle as it is of the bag. Even so, you have to pull the leather strap out of the bag and re-thread it after running it through the saddle loops, and by the time you are finished, you are really finished, as in, "Well goodness. I'm never doing that again." In all other respects, the bag is well made--extremely so--and rather classy looking. I love this bag. I can picture it on the three speed.

There you have it. I'm fairly happy with La Chica. The things that bother me about the bike are really pretty minor, though if I wore skirts more often than once every geologic epoch, I'd probably need a mixte instead of a men's frame. As it is, I can always use Annette the Xtracycle (which has a mixte frame) for those rare occasions when I have to dress up in what my friend Terri calls a "credibility costume." But as La Chica is now, she's quick and nimble, while providing me with a smooth, comfortable ride. She makes a boon companion on runs around town.

1 comment:

  1. I wasn't searching for the Salsa, actually, I was looking for fenders. I just bought a Cross-Check and am in love with the way the Velo Orange hammered fenders look. However, I do live in Chicago and deal with a lot of potholes and uneven roads. A friend of mine suggested the SKS because of the rattling issue.

    I'm sad to see it confirmed here! It looks like you had the SKS in silver, is that right? Does the plastic look cheap and are you happy with their looks? I'm sure they will preform well...


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