How to buy a bike… Jamison style

A couple years ago I decided to start looking for a fat bike. It took me almost two full seasons before I pulled the trigger on a used Framed Wolftrax. I was methodical in my analysis and spent hours looking over frame geometry and specs. In the end I decided to settle on a price I was willing to pay, and then based my choices off of that, based on the models I was interested in.

Fast forward a bit and I just bought a new gravel bike to act as my daily driver. This is another purchase that has been about a year in coming. I once again pulled out spreadsheets and calculators to go deep into what makes each bike unique. I also availed myself of sites like bikecalc.com and bikeinsights.com to help me do comparisons, and get into the nitty gritty of gear inches and “speed at cadence”. This is all on top of test riding bikes whenever I got an opportunity. In the end, I test rode around 8 bikes before deciding what to get. More on the bike later, and in my full review, but I wanted to shed some light on the process I went through, as it might help others, or just help my friends understand me more.

I had first heard of gravel bikes through various YouTube channels. At first blush they look like road bikes with bigger tires, but there’s actually a lot more going on. I would actually classify gravel bikes as closer to touring bikes, but with more aggressive geometry and maybe a few less mounting points.

What I was really looking for was something to replace my daily hybrid bike that I had been using for 9 years with something better. It had to both serve my desire to commute by bike more often, and my desire for adventure. The idea of bike packing takes multiple things that I love and puts them together. No longer am I restricted by how far I can hike in a day, but I could actually lay down some serious miles before camping for the night. At least that’s the dream right now.

This led me to start my analysis by looking at the gravel bike market and learn what makes these bikes tick, and how the different brands are approaching the product space. First, I started looking at the basics of frame geometry. There appears to be a couple different directions that manufactures are going. One of them is closer to the road bike world with bikes that are more aggressive in their wheelbase, trail, and chainstay length. These bikes seem targeted at folks who want to go fast… off-road.

I tried a couple different models of these, notably the Trek Checkpoint and the Specialized Diverge. Both feature a fast, aggressive geometry that lends itself to power. When I first tried the Trek Checkpoint I really enjoyed it, as it was a comfortable ride and the feeling of speed was awesome. The Diverge was similar, but due to the lower end model I was testing, I was left with a poor taste in my mouth.

Soon though I got to try some gravel bikes on the other end of the spectrum which were more relaxed and supple, yet had a geometry that was still much, much closer to a road bike than my hybrid. One of the first ones I got to try was the Raleigh Tamland. This was a steel frame bike that was on clearance from 2018 at a local bike shop. It had a nice soft ride, and great components for the price, and after riding it back to back with the Diverge, I knew that it was the style of gravel bike I was looking for.

Sometimes though we have criteria that aren’t based in specs and measurements. As silly as it sounds, I had two decision points that were purely aesthetic. One was that the bike should be from a Midwest manufacturer, preferably from Minnesota (Raleigh is west coast). Secondly, it needs to have a frame color that appeals to me. On both of these counts the Raleigh was mediocre.

Because I was interested in Minnesota bike makers I then moved on to test some Salsa’s. Salsa is a part of the QBP empire which is headquartered in Bloomington, MN. My first exposure to their gravel bikes was when my wife got to test ride the Journeyman. I also took out a Journeyman for a test ride and we both agreed that these were really great. They had a nice feel to them and were off-road and long-haul focused. Additionally, for my wife, they fit really her really well.

After a couple of test rides at a couple different shops my wife decided on the Salsa Journeyman Sora in a lovely bluish-teal color. She found a size that worked well for her, and she was quickly able to identify what she didn’t like about the other bikes she tried in comparison. That left me, the one who originally was the one looking for a new bike, still taking my time and contemplating what I wanted to do.

This is where things get a little silly. Despite enjoying the Journeyman there were a couple things that I didn’t care for. First, I was not the biggest fan of the drivetrain options. The high end model was a 1x SRAM Apex 1, and despite some folks loving these, I just don’t enjoy their double-tap shifters. I’m sure I’d get used to it soon enough, but it was certainly a mark against the bike for me.

The second item that was a problem was the color. The Journeyman color I absolutely loved was the olive green model. However, it only came with a 2×8 Shimano Claris drivetrain and that just did not appeal to me at all. My hybrid was a 3×8 and I wanted something that was markedly different. There was a lighter teal frame that wasn’t bad, but it was the Apex 1 groupset that I wasn’t 100% sold on either.

I decided to sit on things for a bit as there were still a couple more bikes I wanted to check out. Two of them in particular were the Salsa Vaya and the Salsa Warbird. I happened to find both of them in stock, in my size, at a local bike shop and so I headed out one afternoon to give them a try.

When I got to the shop I also tried an All-City Cosmic Stallion, but due to their weird sizing it just didn’t feel right at all. Then I hopped on the Salsa Vaya 105. Immediately I was struck with how nice this bike felt, and how well it fit me. The Vaya is a steel frame bike and comes with a Shimano 105, 2×11 drivetrain. This is exactly the type of drivetrain I’d been looking for. The shifting was smooth, and the 48/32 crankset on the front is a nice balance between the 50/34 road compact double that’s common on gravel bikes, and the more lax 46/30 of the Journeyman.

dsc01587As I took the bike for a spin around the neighborhoods it just felt “right”. The size was good, the geometry was comfortable, and it had just a small bit of aggressiveness that was lacking in my old hybrid. I got back to the bike shop and they had a full carbon Warbird ready for me to try. This bike was way more expensive than I was interested in spending, but I figured this would at least give me a sense of what’s possible.

The Warbird is a really amazing bike. The carbon frame is SO light, and I was climbing hills like they weren’t even there. It did have a SRAM Force 1x groupset, but this was a much nicer component level and I actually didn’t mind the double-tap quite as much in this quality level. I pulled the bike back into the shop and hopped right back on the Vaya for a quick reaction comparison.

As nice as the Warbird was, with it’s light frame and speedy feel, the Vaya just grabbed me. I knew within seconds on my second test of the day that this would be the bike for me. Plus, it had a nice green-teal color frame that really popped. I finished up my test ride and headed home to think about it a bit more. The bike shop I had visited was doing a sale and so I called up my regular shop to see if they’d price match it. They said they certainly would and so the deal was sealed.

I took the bike out for its first long ride last Wednesday on my usual Beer & Bikes casual ride. On the way home I took a route that is similar to my commute home from work and has some substantial hills. When I loaded the ride in to Strava I had clocked 5 PRs, many of them by quite a margin. Not only did I find the bike to be a bit faster, but the challenging stuff was easier and I was able to power through things in ways that I never could on my hybrid.

I’m excited to eventually post a full review once I get a few more miles on the bike. But for now, I’m loving it. I realize that to some, my process might have seemed tedious (I didn’t even mention all the other bikes I tested), or my love of spreadsheets comparing bike dimensions a bit weird. Yet it’s worked for me, and I know that I’m happier with the outcome when I take my time.

Now to decide on more accessories…

 

Fitness week recap – 9/2/2019

Week Starting 9/2/2019
Running:
 13.7 miles
Biking:
 34.9 miles
Steps: 113,348
 (56.74 miles –  43.04 walking)

Impression: This week turned out not to be quite what I expected, but overall it was fine. I knew I had a big pacing gig this weekend and so I kept my running and biking mileage low all week. Thursday afternoon we headed up north for the Superior 100. I was supposed to pace a friend overnight on Friday, but they had some serious injury struggles and couldn’t make the cutoff at one of the earlier aid stations. Therefore, I ended up only running when we got home on Sunday afternoon, which was fine.

When I look at my walking numbers though it’s kinda crazy. I had as many steps as most weeks, but it was almost all walking. That’s mostly due to this weekend when I was captaining an aid station for 9 hours. The next day we also went for a hike, and hung out with people all up and down the Superior 100 course. Needless to say I got my time on feet.

This Thursday we head to Tahoe to pace a friend at the Tahoe 200. Because of that, there might not be an update next week. We’ll see what type of signal I end up with.

Some scheduled blog neglect

You may have noticed that there was no product review this week. That’s because there’s going to be a little bit of blog neglect through the month of September. It’s been a crazy end of August as well, but some of that will be leading in to more content.

One of the big changes at the end of August was that I upgraded my bike. I’ve been doing a LOT more biking this year and after 9 years of my faithful Trek FX I decided it was time to go for something new. There’s a whole story around this bike, and the purchasing of it, but I’ll make that into a post at a later date. I’ll also do a full product review of the bike once I’ve had it for a few weeks.

The other reason for some blog neglect will be the amount of traveling I’m doing this month. This afternoon we head up to the north shore for the Superior 100 (volunteering and pacing), and then after that we’re heading out of town for 12 days to help pace at the Tahoe 200 and the Sangre de Christo 100 race. This is going to be an incredibly long trip, but I’m hoping that I’ll be able to send off a few dispatches from the road. I’m really looking forward to getting out west again and seeing some trails I’ve never seen before.

In the meantime, I’ll keep trying to post my weekly fitness updates, and work on more new features for the blog. Here’s to an exciting end of 2019! #livingmybestlife

Fitness week recap – 8/26/2019

Week Starting 8/26/2019
Running:
 30.6 miles
Biking:
 70.8 miles
Steps: 113,267
 (57.65 miles –  29.42 walking)

Impression: Due to a crazy work schedule of my youngest kid (working the State Fair) I ended up not getting in nearly as much activity as I would have liked to earlier in the week. I got my first bike ride in on Wednesday with 28 miles of Beer & Bikes riding down to St. Paul.

I then crammed all of my running in to 4 days (Th-Su). I decided to head out to Afton to do a full 25K loop on Saturday because I knew if I stayed local I’d bail early. I needed to get some serious time on feet and Afton (with Mike) is the best way to not wimp out. In fact we actually worked really hard, and I set a new course PR of 3:13, albeit we ran the course backwards. Because of how that changes the different climbs and descents I’ll consider this it’s own PR, but it’s really darn close to my forward-PR of 3:16, so I’m happy.

Sunday was a run with Radek and Lisa to cap out the weekend. However, this was not the end of our adventures. Because my wife recently got a new bike she really wanted to get some time on it over the long holiday weekend. Both Saturday and Sunday runs were followed up with solid bike rides. We did a local loop around to a couple parks on Saturday for a 12 mile ride, and then drove out to St. Joseph, MN to spend 22 miles on the Lake Wobegon Trail (with a stop at a brewery). We’re also planning a gravel ride tomorrow on our day off from running.

Needless to say things get crazy and annoying when schedules are not standard. September is going to be crazy and wild, so it’s going to be a lot more broken up training schedules. However, I’ve got some wild stuff going on in September, and I won’t be taking it easy by any stretch.

Concert Review: Weird Al Strings Attached

My review is a little late this week, but that’s because Tuesday night was the concert I wanted to review!

I’ve been a Weird Al fan for just about my entire life. From his early Dr. Demento days through is modern parodies. However, I’ve never had the chance to go to one of his concerts. That changed on Tuesday night when I got to attend his Strings Attached tour show at the Minnesota State Fair. The last two years the wife and I have combined our State Fair visit with a concert. We head out in the afternoon and get our wandering in, along with a bunch of “Fair food” and beer. Then we stroll over to the grandstand for a show.

This year’s Fair visit started out wild, with a small hail storm blowing through just as we were arriving. We took shelter in a building, but then when it seemed to let up, we headed back out. About 100 yards from any other building the hail started falling again. We ran for whatever overhang we could find, while trying not to spill my beer. Despite this, the rest of the afternoon was just fine.

We arrived at the show around 7:00 and ran into my friend Michael who would be performing in the show as one of the Stormtroopers during “The Saga Begins”. He’s a member of the 501st and this was probably one of the coolest things he’s ever gotten to do. I was a little jealous, however, I did come to discover that he wasn’t actually able to see any of the show while they waited backstage.

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A lot of us did some waiting though. Due to some high winds the start of the show ended up getting pushed back over 30 minutes. The wind was quite chilly, and I was thankful I had thought ahead and brought long sleeves. Despite this, I still wished I had a sweatshirt by the end of the evening. I also learned where not to sit, and next time I’ll be selecting seats that aren’t behind (albeit distantly behind) a pole.

Soon enough the show began and Weird Al broke into his deep catalog songs, including the obvious crowd favorite, “The Biggest Ball of Twine in Minnesota”. The evening progressed with a solid mix of well known popular songs, and vintage tracks that even I barely remember hearing decades ago. There were video clips during many of the songs, as well as during the costume changes, highlighting all the places where Weird Al has made his way into popular culture.

The evening concluded with his encore of The Saga Begins and Yoda, which have been his staple show-enders for decades. However, someone must not have told the State Fair pyrotechnics guy that the encore was two songs, because the post-show fireworks ended up taking place during Yoda. In some ways that was kinda cool and appropriate to end with a bang.

Overall I had a great time at the show. His shows are more akin to theater (tightly produced and choreographed) than a typical concert where the artists just play their music. With video clips, costume changes, guest Stormtroopers, and a 41 piece orchestra, everything flowed in rapid succession from one song to the next, and at times the music seemed secondary to the visuals. It made for a very tightly packed evening that only lasted about 90 minutes (and no opening act). One of these days, I’d love to see a simple unplugged Weird Al show where he just shows off his great voice without the theatrics.

I’ve happy we picked Weird Al for our State Fair concert this year, as it was great to finally get to see him live. He’s an amazing performed with an incredible career. The fact that he was able to pull out songs from years ago and play them like new is impressive, and a tribute to his long creative career.

Next up…  I think we need to plan a trip to visit the largest twine ball in Minnesota…