Cycling to the Opera

Dharma Dawg Blawgs

Experimenting with a Front Disc Brake, Part 2

Last year, I had installed a mechanical SRAM/Avid BB-7 front disc brake on my fixed gear road bike. I used the existing Campag carbon fiber brake lever, added compressionless cable housing, and bought a new Wound Up carbon fiber fork designed for disc brake use. The fork was semi-custom-built, as I required a 367mm axle-crown distance to match the ENVE road fork I had been using during the summer.  There were many other carbon fiber forks designed to handle disc brakes, but with one exception they were designed for cyclocross, with 380-400mm axle-crown dimensions. This would have thrown off the bike’s trail measurement, affecting its handling. The one exception was the ENVE carbon disc brake fork, with 367mm axle-crown, but it only came with a tapered (1 1/8” to 1 1/2”) steerer tube. I also investigated having a lightweight steel fork built, strong enough to handle a disc brake, with the standard Post mount, but the weight and cost of such a fork was pretty much a wash with the Wound Up carbon fork, both in the $500/650 gram range.


Figure 1: Avid BB-7 mechanical disc brake

The result was very positive. I went thru only two sets of disc brake pads last winter, the original Avid pads and a set of Brake Authority replacement pads (available at Mountain Equipment Co-op in Canada for just over $21). Each pad lasted between 3,400 and 3,900 km, and I think there’s still some life left in the Brake Authority pads. Both sets of pads wore smoothly, and because I was almost exclusively on the front brake (rear brake used only on snowy/icy days), the rear caliper pads lasted all winter. When I switched back to the ENVE summer fork with Campag caliper brake in March, the front wheel was still absolutely pristine. No wear at all, of course, on the Argentine-made aluminum rim. The sealed SRAM hub still spun smoothly, and I only had to replace one front spoke (fortunately one that laced to the outside on the side opposite the rotor, so I didn’t have to remove the rotor to replace the spoke).

Braking performance was very consistent regardless of wet or dry weather; the only complaint was brake squeal on rainy days, but this seemed to disappear with greater use and water being removed from the rotor. I was so pleased with the performance of the disc brake that I built a second front wheel, based on the Shimano 525 front hub with 6-bolt rotor mounting (rather than their proprietary threaded center-lock method) laced to a cheap Chinese-made carbon fiber rim. I was curious to see just how compatible hubs from different manufacturers were with respect to the position of the disc caliper – would it need readjustment? I also wanted to build a winter wheel with standard cup and cone bearings, as I think cartridge bearings are a technology misapplied to bicycle hubs, which are subject to thrust, as well as radial, loads. Bikes that are rocked side to side on climbs are more subject to thrust loads on the hubs, so it’s less of an issue for me now, as my climbing now is more of a forward-back motion, but back in the 70’s when I climbed Burnaby Mountain every day to get to school, using lots of side-to-side bike rocking to drive the cranks, I could go thru a set of Phil Wood hubs in a month of winter commutes.  I also resolved to upgrade to a hydraulic front disc brake this winter in order to confirm (or deny) the accolades given to such brakes over their mechanical counterparts.

Last year, SRAM was busy fixing their hydraulic road brakes, which had a problem with their seals at low temperatures and had to be recalled. Shimano had also introduced its hydraulic road disc brakes (R785, RS785). Both, however, were intimately connected to their brake lever shifting systems. In order to get the brake, you needed to get the lever and then remove the shifting crap if you rode a fixie. (Note: you can now obtain the RS785 caliper separately, and for a very reasonable price.) At least SRAM provided a right/front option. Most manufacturers assume that your left lever goes to the front brake. This is an idiotic convention that permeates US bike culture, and like “lawyer tabs” on the forks assumes that bikes are ridden by idiots.

“Lawyer tabs” assume that you are incapable of properly adjusting the front wheel quick release so that the wheel doesn’t fall out while you’re riding. In over 42 years of riding, I have never had this happen, and I am always gentle with closing the front QR. The first thing I do whenever I buy a new bike or fork is to file off the dumb tabs, new UCI regulations be damned. I have not done so with the disc brake fork, hearing wild tales of front wheels being ejected by rigorous application of the front disc brake (which is reportedly in the exact position to maximize wheel ejection). From my experience so far, covering over 10,000 km on the disc brake fork, I am inclined now to go ahead and file off the tabs, obviating the need to spend the extra time to unscrew the “quick” release to get the wheel out. So far, my QR has come nowhere near the tabs after long days of riding and heavy brake application using the front brake only.

Left-front braking assumes that you are right-handed, and that in an emergency (often downhill) braking situation, you will slam on both brakes hard. Because your dominant hand is usually stronger, the story goes, if the front brake lever is under the right hand, you will presumably lock the front wheel and be catapulted over the bars. This has never happened to me. In fact, if you are right-handed, you want the right lever to go to the front brake because the front brake does most of the braking, and you need to ease up on the front brake if you feel the rear tire skidding (easing the rear brake does absolutely nothing and in fact will lengthen the stopping distance, so you want to maintain rear brake pressure, even as the rear tire skids). You want the hand with the best motor control to be over the front brake!

I knew that TRP made a hydraulic brake, the HY/RD, but this was hydraulic only at the caliper. Between the lever and the caliper is a mechanical cable. This cable is subject to dirt and resulting cable binding, to which a hydraulic line is immune. The primary reason for using a hydraulic disc brake is the mechanical advantage you get between the master cylinder in the lever and the pistons at the caliper. At Jan Heine’s October Bicycle Quarterly “Un-Meeting” in Packwood, WA, I was standing at the evening campfire chatting with some VERY knowledgeable cyclists, and one of them mentioned the TRP Hylex, a hydraulic brake designed for road bikes that don’t need brake lever shifting. Rumor has it that this brake was going to become an aftermarket hydraulic disc alternative for Shimano Di2 systems, but Shimano’s own hydraulic Di2 quashed this.

The large, sculpted levers of the TRP Hylex are more similar to Shimano than to Campagnolo, so there could be aesthetic issues when paired with the older Campagnolo (10sp) lever on the same handlebar, but that didn’t deter me. It’s possible to purchase a set of similar TRP mechanical levers (even a set in carbon fiber) if matching levers are desired. The first issue was that the brake came as a complete lever/caliper assembly connected by the pre-bled hose, but since I wanted right/front braking, I had to order a rear brake to get the righthand lever. Fortunately, front and rear brakes use the same caliper, and I already had the Post/ISO front fork adaptor from my previous disc brake, so the connection to the fork would not be a problem. However, I would need to shorten the hose to the front cable length (approximately 80 cm), which would require bleeding the system, something road cyclists have never had to do (until now).

I purchased the TRP bleed kit, then used a sharp knife to cut the hose, removed the end from the caliper, installed the correct hose into the caliper using the parts supplied in the bleed kit, then hooked up the bleed kit to the brake assembly. The TRP bleed kit had only one threaded fitting to fit the fluid input and output hoses to the caliper and lever, so instead of waiting for TRP to send the second threaded fitting (which they did for free), I used a technique called “burping” to top up the fluid level in the system, while making sure there was no air in the hoses. Fortunately, TRP’s system uses mineral oil as the brake fluid. This is far safer to handle than the caustic DOT brake fluid used in some hydraulic disc brakes, which is a factor because you do spill a lot of brake fluid when you’re doing your first bleed.

With the system closed up and installed on the bike, use of the new hydraulic disc brakes was pretty seamless. It didn’t feel awkward at all to be using two different lever shapes. Indeed, with a front disc, all the braking is securely performed with just the front brake (unless it’s snowing or icy).

On my daily ride to work, the first descent is a 300-meter 12% grade where I’ll typically nudge 50 kmh before braking for the slow turn onto the bike path. I used this section to wear in the new pads, which felt similar to the previous BB-7 on initial use, with sufficient power to slow for the turn at the bottom. Even on rainy days, this was easy to control with just the front brake.  On the flats, I soon became used to one-finger braking from the top of the brake lever hood. The TRP lever curves outward, inviting the middle finger to apply all the pressure needed. I had read that Avid BB-7’s lacked braking power, but I only noticed this as the speed approached zero. The Hylex brakes did not feel significantly more powerful than the previous mechanical disc brake, but it could be that the pads took a while to condition the previously-used rotor.

On very wet days, the brakes squealed loudly unless I started braking early enough to clear the rotor of water (or warm up the rotor). But continued braking caused the squealing to stop. If I didn’t brake for a while, the squealing would start again, but at a much softer level.


Figure 2: TRP Hylex hydraulic disc brake

The original pads that came with the Hylex lasted less than 2,500 km. When I pulled the pads, one of them was completely worn down, with scraped bare aluminum showing on about a third of the pad. The brake did emit a scraping sound and was a little less effective on descents, but I thought this was maybe road grit on the pads.


Figure 3: Worn pads - OEM TRP (top); Shimano M-05 (for M515, bottom)

Replacing pads on a hydraulic disc brake is a little different than a mechanical. This is due to the self-adjusting feature of hydraulic brakes. As the pads wear, the pistons reposition themselves closer to the rotor so that the amount of lever movement required for brake actuation stays pretty constant. This is why you always insert a tiny block between the pads when you remove the wheel for brake bleeding. If you pull the lever with nothing between the pads, the pistons will reposition so that the pads stay together. Which is the same situation when you install new, thicker pads. So before the new pads are installed, you have to take a plastic tire lever and force both pistons back into their wells. Once the pads are replaced, they must again be burned into the rotor.

I replaced the original OEM TRP pads with a set of Shimano M05 resin pads (for use with their older mechanical M515). TRP has standardized on this pad, one that more knowledgeable cyclists regard as an archaic design, across most of their range of disc brakes. The Shimano resin pads provided adequate braking in dry weather, but wore at an alarming rate in the rain. The pads were down to bare aluminum after only 418 km. This is less than a good set of rim pads that cost less. The Shimano pads were replaced with a set of Brake Authority “burly” sintered metal pads, and they are currently in good shape with over 1,500 km, although I have switched the pads around, as the inside pad seemed to be wearing faster than the outside, and the pads appear to be identical.

When I replaced the Shimano pads, I also switched to the wheel with the carbon fiber rim, and with the rotor from the TRP brake. The TRP rotor is heavily scalloped and lightened. After wear-in, I still detect little difference in amount of power required vs the mechanical disc brake for hard downhill stops. All of my braking has been from the top of the lever, using two fingers at most, with no rear brake input. I am happy with the self-adjusting feature of the hydraulic brake, though.

I have been making slight adjustments with the caliper. I started off bolting the caliper directly to the Post/ISO adaptor used for the BB-7, and noted the rotor was wearing a bit far to the inside, so I added the concave washers from the BB-7 to move the calipers more to the outside. I’m not sure how or if the adaptor designed for the Hylex would differ from the adaptor from the BB-7.

The next step will be upgrading the Hylex caliper to the more highly-regarded Shimano RS785 caliper. There doesn’t appear to be anything on the internet that relates to compatibility between the Hylex lever and the Shimano road caliper, or even if the TRP hose will connect to the RS785. More on this later.

So far, the main conclusion I can draw from my disc brake experiments has been that you don’t need to buy a new bike to enjoy disc braking on the road. This is because you really only need a front disc brake. Unless you are racing cyclo-cross, a rim brake is perfectly adequate for the rear, and is much lighter than a disc brake. All existing bikes can benefit from a front disc by merely swapping to a disc brake fork and buying the appropriate front brake setup. These usually come pre-bled, with lever matched to caliper and shifting system. It would make sense for aftermarket fork vendors to make disc brake forks available in 367mm axle-crown spacing for road discs, as well as in the current 380-400mm cyclo-cross forks.

Another observation is that equivalent pads seem to wear out faster with a hydraulic disc brake. Whether this is due to pad/piston design, or to the additional power of the hydraulic pistons is so far undetermined.



Equipment for the “Heroic Bike” – Cino Heroica 2014

The classical stuff wasn’t all it's cracked up to be

By Luis Bernhardt

Currently trending are “retro-rides,” where you show up on a classical/vintage bicycle, dressed like a classic/vintage rider, to ride over conditions prevalent in the heroic dawn of cycling. L’Eroica in Tuscany (over the fabled Strada Bianca) is the best example. Closer to home, there was the Cino Heroica in Kalispell, Montana this past September (, where you ride from Kila to Hot Spring over 90 km of mostly gravel roads, then return over 80 km of gravel and one long climb the next day. Halfway thru each ride, there is an Italian potluck lunch (“pranza”) where you can drink beer and wine and eat salami and cheese and whatever other robust delicacies participants may bring. And on the Saturday evening, everyone dresses up like Fausto Coppi in Italian designer suits and all sit down to an al fresco gourmet meal.

Aside from all the pretty bicycles, these retro-rides have a downside. They underscore everything we didn’t realize we lacked as cyclists back in the 1970’s when we first seriously got on bikes. Like clipless pedals. I put old school pedals with toe clips and straps on my steel-framed fixed gear Rodriguez in order to comply with the “heroic bicycle” requirements specified for the Cino. I forgot just how much I hated those old style pedals, and after completing the two-day ride, I couldn’t get the pedals off fast enough. Combined with the old-style cleats on my modern cycling shoes (the cleats had screws that fit into two of the three Look-pattern bolt holes in the sole of the shoes), they had to be tightened with the strap, else they’d pull out at the worst times in the middle of slippery gravel climbs. And when you wanted to pull out, you’d have to remember to pull back, not sideways. And even then, the modern Velcro shoe straps would get caught by the clip or strap, delaying the disengagement slightly. I can see why clipless pedals would be such a hit amongst off-road riders; it’s a safety issue!



What constitutes a heroic bike? The Cino Heroica organizers require your bike to comply with any three of the following features:

-        Built in 1987 or earlier

-        Steel frame

-        Non-indexed shifting

-        Downtube shifters

-        Toe clips and straps

-        Fixed gear

-        Single speed

-        Tubular tires

My 2009 Rodriguez had the steel frame and the fixed gear, so I could only add the toes clips and straps. I have tubulars, but they’re for track use and I didn’t want to destroy them on the gravel roads. The bike also had a carbon fiber fork, brake levers, and handlebars, an aero carbon fiber seatpost, compressionless cable housing, a crank-based powermeter, and a Garmin as well as a standard bike computer, but they got thru inspection with no problem.



Wool jerseys on a hot day were another irritation. I recall riding with a small group of Berkeley Wheelmen very early in my cycling apprenticeship. We were in the East Bay (across from San Francisco) on an early-season training ride, it was a chilly day, and we were bundled in our wool jerseys and long tights. One of the juniors remarked that he “couldn’t wait until it got warm enough to wear the silk track jerseys!” Wool jerseys might be comfortable on cool days, but they’re scratchy and uncomfortable on a hot, dry climb! I wore a full-zip lycra jersey on the second day (after spending the first in an old short-sleeve wool jersey with a short front zipper) and was MUCH more comfortable, thank you!

The domestic bicycle clothing industry back in the 70’s was nothing to write home about, either. Yes, you could get wonderful Italian tube-knit wool jerseys from Sergal, and comfortable wool shorts with thick chamois from Vittore Gianni, but you could also get badly-styled and/or ill-fitting crap from Kucharik and other US clothiers who knew zip about cycling. Kucharik made the ugliest leather hairnets in that era (lots of padding, but looking like you had sausages on your head). One guy at the Cino admitted to wearing his Kucharik shorts from the 70’s on the ride. They looked pretty bad; they fit him as loosely as baggy shorts, with serious sagging at the crotch.

I wore modern lycra shorts with synthetic chamois and was perfectly comfortable and stylish. I remember those natural chamois of the 70’s. They were great until you washed them. After drying, the chamois would turn to rough cardboard, and you had to knead and tug them smooth, applying liberal amounts of chamois cream. Today, you just chuck the synthetic shorts into the washer, hang them to dry, and put them on without even touching the synthetic chamois.

Ardent cyclists will give rapturous lip service to how beautiful the bikes were prior to 1987 (the generally-accepted cut-off date for heroic bikes), but aside from top-level components by Campagnolo, most of the equipment used on bikes of that period were poorly-finished crap. “Ergonomics” had not yet been invented, so the most egregious examples of industrial design could be found in the brake levers of the period. Although some of the levers were covered with rubber hoods (Campag, Weinmann, Universal), most had no rubber hoods, or might have a strip of rubber across the top (Mafac). Manufacturers didn’t seem to acknowledge that cyclists rode mostly on the tops of the brake hoods, not in the drops, resulting in the unwelcoming shapes of the levers.



As the North American bicycle market of the 70’s became more prominent, bigger and heavier North Americans started stressing European-made bicycle parts that were still built to early 20th century standards, or were designed for smaller and lighter Europeans. I remember breaking two or three French pedal spindles made by Lyotard because I couldn’t afford the more robust pedals made by Campagnolo. I also broke those plastic Simplex derailleurs, of course. And tubular rims (on 36-spoke wheels) would dent at the mere sight of potholes.

When I first started riding in 1972, most racers rode on tubulars. If you used clinchers, you had to buy 27x 1 ¼” wheels, and the lightest clincher you could get was a wired-on Michelin 50. Then you had to re-adjust your brakes when you switched wheels from training to racing (or have two bikes). The tubulars were expensive (relatively about the same as now), repairs were sketchy (you actually had to sew them back together – with an awl if you were clever) – the thread would snap and the thin rubber tube inside would explode, unless the cotton sidewalls rotted first from rainy winter riding.

Then in the mid-to-late 70’s, as I recall, Specialized (then called SBI – Specialized Bicycle Imports) came out with thin 700C clinchers in 700x25 or 28, and you could find Euro 700C rims and build up a wheel that was brake-height-compatible with your tubular wheelsets. But brake spacing was often an issue with the pre-1980’s frames. Many of the British frames were built for 27” wheels, so if you wanted to race on them, you’d have to install a “drop-bolt” for the rear brake just to get the pads to hit the brake track on the smaller 700C and tubular rims.

Because the gaps in the frame were so big, brake calipers had to be longer-reach. Today, we’re reverting to seeing the larger clearances as a good thing, since this allows you to use wider tires, but this also means the brakes have less mechanical advantage. The top bikes used Campagnolo calipers, but they were single-pivot and nowhere near as powerful as the short-reach dual-pivot calipers available now for close-clearance frames.

When I set up my wife’s restored De Rosa, I installed an old Galli sidepull caliper on the front and an old single-pivot Campag Record caliper on the rear. These were connected to the standard Campag Record levers of the day, which allowed for either internal or external cable routing. I should have set it up for external routing, as the internal routing requires the cable to pass over a small plate inside the lever that redirects the cable to the internal housing. I think this adds a bit of friction to the system, making the levers a tiny bit harder to pull. I know from personal experience that the plate causes the cable to break at the bend that it creates after one or two seasons of use. But the major problem is that most levers of the time were made for medium-to-large men with medium-to-large hands, not for short women. She had to sag it after the first protracted gravel descent when her hands gave out.

Meanwhile, I was on the steel Rodriguez fixie with modern ergonomic Campag EC-RE600 Record levers (in carbon fiber) attached to dual pivot Campag calipers (Chorus front and Super Record rear). And my hands were still getting tired over the long, rough gravel descents!

My only inconveniences from the old days were those pedals with toe clips. I also had the fixed gear, but that was the point of the ride, to do it on a fixie. If I had a derailleur, I’m sure I’d be complaining about the downtube shifting (although I did install the paragon of downtube shifter design – the Simplex retrofriction – on Carole’s bike).

I think that we don’t realize just how good we’ve got it now. And just what crap most of those old classic and vintage bikes really were!

Crashing the Charly Miller Society

* After the first day of racing the August 17, 1901 New York Times reported, "The betting to-night is 3 to 1 against Lesna and 6 to 1 against Miller"

I find the legend of Charly Miller to be quite compelling. In the second Paris-Brest-Paris ever held, back in 1901, Charly entered the professional racers category. At that time, PBP was an actual race for the pro’s as well as for a second group of “touriste-routiers,” the randonneurs of those days. The race was held over a slightly shorter course, just under 1200 km, and on what was then the “main highway” between Paris and Brest, following today’s N12, which in those days was largely dirt or cobblestone and more suitable for wagons and carriages pulled by horses, although not as hilly as the current route.

For the long distance professionals of those days, it was quite common to be “paced.” So from the start at Parc-des-Prince, the rider would have a teammate ride ahead of him, over the bridge at Suresnes, and out to Versailles. At the top of the long climb, the first pace rider would pull off, and a second rider would take up pacing duties to the next relief point.

In addition, at each of the controles, the rider’s support crew would hand up food and replace bidons, much like the supported riders in today’s PBP. The crew would hop back in their car and drive to the next controle, and problems with the bicycles would be fixed by the mechanics on the crew.


Charly Miller had none of this. He was a track endurance rider from Chicago, who reportedly didn’t even speak French. God knows why he rode PBP in 1901, but he rode it completely unsupported (and reportedly underfunded). Despite not having pacers and not having support on the road, and despite suffering a number of punctures and having to replace his broken bicycle (he rode the final 350 km on a borrowed bike), he still managed to finish 5th, and against 112 of the top European professionals. To give you some idea, this particular PBP was won by Maurice Garin, who went on to win the inaugural Tour de France two years later. Miller’s finishing time of 56 hours 40 minutes has been enshrined by Randonneurs USA: any RUSA member (I’m not sure if they need to be US citizens as well, but it’s OK, I’m a dual citizen) who finishes inside this time becomes a member of the “Charly Miller Society.”

I find RUSA too lax in opening its membership to the Society to anyone finishing inside 56:40. To me, it denigrates the most heroic aspect of Miller’s fine accomplishment: he did it completely unsupported. He had to stop and find his own food. He had to fill his own bottles. He had to carry all his own clothing and spares, and perform all his own repairs. In those days, assuming Miller was riding pneumatic tires, a punctured tire could take an hour to repair or replace.

I would have to think that Miller was quite the resourceful bike racer, so he must have had the presence of mind to sit on the wheel of supported, paced riders. Garin’s finishing time of 52 hours shows that reasonable speeds (where drafting is possible) were possible on the dirt roads of the time.

A less influential factor was Miller’s gearing. In those days, pro’s would have been on a single gear, probably with a freewheel (invented for bicycles around 1899), maybe even fixed, as Miller was a trackie. I would say less influential, since there was far less climbing than in today’s more rural PBP.

For these reasons, I am announcing my goal of doing a “real” Charly Miller in 2015: Inside 56:40, on a fixed gear bike, completely unsupported.

I finished the 2011 PBP in just under 65 hours on a fixed gear, but this was with the 84-hour group, starting at 5 am, riding until dark or later (I rode until about 11:30 pm the first day), getting several hours sleep plus sit-down dinner and breakfast, and departing between 4:30 and 5 the next morning.  I had no drop bags and carried everything (pretty minimal – it all fit in my jersey pockets or I wore it), but I spent too much time at the controles trying to find food and supplies. I never got sleepy on the bike, though!

To set a good time, I think you need to start with the 80-hour group in the late afternoon. This ensures that you’re fresh enough to ride the entire first night, and then all of the daylight hours the next day take care of themselves. The first stop for sleep would be at one of the controles on the way back from Brest, trying to complete 7- or 800 km as darkness sets in for the second night. Here, sleep would need to be limited to just one hour before the final 16 to 20-hour rush to the finish at SQY. That’s the basic strategy.

Water bottles can be refilled at the controles, but for this ride I think it’s a good idea to avoid obtaining food at the controles. The lineups are too long, or the dining areas are too far from the bikes or too difficult to find. I think it will be much faster just stopping at “convenience stores” along the route. I was also amazed at how much they charged at the controles for the “energy drinks” that were advertised during the ride! I’m sure I can do better at the epiceries.

There is a downside; in fact, there are a few. The main downside is that I will need to ride about 30 hours before the first sleep break. On a previous 1,000 km ride (geared road bike), I was able to nap about 30 minutes at the 30-hour mark, then finish in 45 hours. But on the Hoodoo 500 (fixed gear), I took a sleep break at about 21 hours, then needed another sleep break at about 25 hours, and then a couple more later. On both these rides, I started hallucinating. On the 1,000, it was after 47 hours, while on the drive home from the finish. At Hoodoo, the hallucinations started at night after about 40 hours. The hallucinations usually involve seeing an overpass above me, like riding on the lower deck of a bridge. The hallucinations are extremely realistic. After the Hoodoo ride, large grease stains in the parking lot turned into discarded umbrellas. I could even reach down with my hand to pick them up, and my fingers would just go through them, but the hallucinations remained!

In conjunction with the hallucinations, there is usually a reduced “will” to continue. On the 1,000, I was ready to quit at the 30-hour mark in Leavenworth, as I still had to get up Stevens Pass, out to Monroe and Snohomish, then up Highway 9 to the finish at Abbotsford. But I wouldn’t be able to get a ride out until the next day, after the controle closed, so I decided that it would be quicker just to ride the bike back, so I finished the ride. And it was quicker than waiting for the car to take me.  At Hoodoo, I spent too much time off the bike after the 21st hour. Having the support car right there was not a good thing; stops were too tempting. As well, once you’re tired, you get disoriented, and that combined with the hallucinations makes you question whether or not you are even on the right route. This is where a very strong and sure crew chief becomes invaluable. Failing this, a working Garmin is the next best thing. For PBP, I’ll have the external battery pack attached to the Garmin. The nice thing about the Garmin 500 is that it lights up when the external power is turned on, so I can read it at night while it’s charging.

So, what do you get when you qualify for Le Societe Charly Miller? A medal? A certificate? No, you get nothing. Zip. Which is fine with me, because the highest accomplishments usually go unrewarded. Prizes are embarrassing; it’s enough to just have done it. And it’s not about me, it’s about Charly Miller, an American about whom hardly any Americans know anything. He is even less well-known than Major Taylor, who would be in Paris the following year during his European tour, racing the best European track cyclists (he had become a World Sprint Champion in Montreal in 1899).  But the legend of Charly Miller is an inspiration worth knowing.

Experimenting with a Front Disc Brake: Results

Disc brakes are pretty standard now on mtb’s, but for the road they seem to be a solution looking for a problem. They provide much better modulation, but mechanical disks don’t provide as much maximum power, and they are heavier than caliper brakes when you factor in that heavy steel rotor. They are a good excuse for using carbon fiber rims, but the major advantage is in saving the front rim in wet and dirty winter riding.

I have been experimenting with a front disc brake this past winter, and I am impressed with its capabilities. I would recommend a front disc for winter riding on the road, but would also conclude that a rear disc is unnecessary and superfluous, unless you are set on using carbon fiber wheels front and rear.


The benefits, after 4,000 km of winter riding in the Pacific NW (and some riding in California):

-       The front rim is absolutely pristine. In previous years, the front rim would be worn down enough to form longitudinal cracks, or even fail when the tire bead would bend the rim from 100+ psi of tire pressure, allowing the tube to expand and explode. This could be a safety issue. Typically, a rim would last 15-20,000 km before this would happen, but lately I have noticed current rims have started to “bow” outward after only 7,000 km. This suggests that the rim manufacturers are using less material.

-       My first set of disc pads lasted about 3,500 km. This compares quite favorably to the 500 km rim pads will normally last in a wet winter before needing replacement. It helps to use sintered metal pads rather than organic pads for durability.

-       Even with a mechanical disc brake (Avid BB7), modulation has been good enough to be able to use front brake only over snow. More on this later.

-       Because I’ve used primarily front brake only (especially on dry surfaces), the rear rim pads have lasted much longer than the disc pads.

-       For travel, or for long-distance riding, a set of spare disc pads is far easier to carry than a set of rim pads. The disc pads can also be replaced without tools (at least on a BB7).

For the past several years, I’ve been using a Rodriguez fixed gear bike almost exclusively on the road. The typical summer configuration uses an ENVE carbon fiber fork with Campag Chorus caliper brakes front and rear. In the winter, I typically change out the handlebar/stem and attached brake assembly to Campag Centaur and vintage Record. This past winter, I wanted to experiment with a front disc in order to address the front rim wear problem.

The first issue was obtaining a proper disc brake fork. Most authorities are adamant that a fork must be built to specifically handle the loads of a disc brake. They show pictures of broken forks that are bent just above the disc mount. Another issue is that the force of a disc brake tends to move the wheel downward in the dropout. One hears stories of disc brakes causing wheels to eject from forks. Finally (after years) this justifies the use of “lawyer tabs,” which I have always filed off on all my forks so that I don’t have to mess with the quick release to get the front wheel on or off.

The second issue was finding a fork built to handle a disc that had a 367mm axle-crown measurement. This is pretty standard for a road fork, but most aftermarket forks are built for touring or cyclocross, with axle-crown distances of 380 to 400mm. You would think that product managers would make 367mm disc forks readily available for riders wanting to upgrade their road bikes for front disc/rear caliper use. Especially when used with a hydraulic disc, this setup would allay fears of losing brakes entirely if the hydraulic fluid overheats and causes the brake to fade on a long, steep descent; at least you’d still have the rear caliper brake. But no, the only production 367mm disc fork is made by ENVE for a tapered (1 1/8” to 1.5”) steerer. Most disc forks are built for cyclocross use and provide plenty of clearance, but they also raise the front of the bike slightly (and mess with the resulting rake/trail).

Fortunately, I was able to order a Wound Up carbon disc brake fork, modified with a 367mm axle-crown distance, and with a 45mm rake. The Wound Up disc fork appears to be their standard fork with the attachment of a standard disk brake sleeve (which says a lot about the strength of their standard fork. Wound Up, by the way, is about the only company to make a tandem-certified carbon fiber fork). The fork is ugly as sin, the aluminum crown is still massive and provides just enough clearance to a 23mm tire, and the carbon steerer is reinforced with an aluminum liner so that a standard starfangled nut can be used, but the result is a 650 gram fork (compared to the 350-gram ENVE 2.0. At least, like ENVE, the Wound Up forks are built in Utah, and are not from some unnamed factory in China!

The other preparation required was building a new front wheel. I used the SRAM 506 front disc hub as the basis. Since I like to have the outward spokes radiating backwards (with the rotation), I had to build the wheel asymmetrically. The theory is that you want the outward spokes radiating against the forces being exerted next to the spoke flange (“wind-up”), so the drive side of the rear wheel will have the spokes radiating back. Because the rotor is on the left side, the outward spokes must radiate towards the front (against the rotation); thus, the asymmetrical front wheel, which must also be dished. 32 spokes are sufficient; I’m not sure disc hubs with less than 32 holes are commonly available. I typically build my front wheels (for caliper brakes) with 28 spokes (I weigh 170 pounds/78 kilos).

Because there is so little stress on the front rim, I have resolved to build a second front disc wheel, but it will have a carbon fiber clincher rim!

I was able to obtain compressionless cable housing (highly recommended), and installation of the disc was quick and easy. After mounting the rotor to the hub with the six torx bolts, you install the front wheel in the fork, then LOOSELY attach the disc caliper unit, tighten down the pads against the rotor, and tighten the caliper unit to the fork. This ensures that the pads are properly aligned to the rotor. You then attach the brake cable and adjust the pads so the wheel spins freely, but lever travel is minimal. I didn't even bother to attach the cable adjuster – its sole purpose is to take out any cable stretching. The instructions are adamant about not using it to adjust the lever travel (other than taking out the initial unproductive part). The lever is a standard Campag carbon fiber with the gearshift internals removed. Lever travel is equivalent to a well-adjusted rim caliper.

You then have to seat/wear in the disc pads. This is done by taking the bike down a steep hill and riding the brake for about 10 seconds. My first ride with the disc brake took me down Thermal in Coquitlam in the rain, which requires far more than 10 seconds of braking. I rode only  the front brake most of the way down with no problem. At the last stop sign, I put my gloved hand on the rotor, which immediately started smoking! The rotor does get hot! Later in December, when I took the bike to California and rode up and down Mt. Diablo, the rotor had changed to a darker color by the bottom of the descent!

Since I installed the disc brake, with very few exceptions all of my braking has been front brake only. This was initially to test the efficiency of the brake, but I was so confident with the result that I just continued to use front brake only. Yes, you do need to revert to rear brake only on icy roads, but on soft snow, I've even had the confidence to apply just the front brake due to the disc’s superior modulation. I think the greater modulation is due to the mechanical disadvantage of the disk vs a rim brake. On a standard caliper rim brake, the calipers are located at pretty much the same part of the circle where resistance (ground force on tire) is applied, so the forces tend to cancel each other out, and it is easy to apply too much force to the brake, which causes traction to be lost. With a disc, though, the braking force is applied closer to the center of the wheel circle, and the resistance of the ground is multiplied by the greater distance (moment arm) of the hub to rim distance vs the hub to rotor distance. But because braking force is reduced due to this difference in leverage, it is easier to make small changes to the braking force without significantly disrupting the tire traction. The loss of leverage makes the brakes less “twitchy,” enhancing the ability to modulate braking.

I think the advantage of a hydraulic brake has more to do with the ability to apply greater forces at maximum braking, since there is some leverage provided by the hydraulic reservoir. I think this would provide more uniform modulation across the entire lever travel, including at the maximum extreme, where the mechanical disc’s inferior leverage requires more hand pulling force. But we will find out when I upgrade to a hydraulic disc for next winter.

And if the front disc is good, wouldn't adding a rear disc be better? For the road, I think not, and for the following reasons:

-       The weight penalty of a disc brake and rotor vs brake caliper.

-       The rotor requires dishing. Combined with the dishing inherent in a rear wheel with cassette, this would result in a very narrow base for the rear wheel’s spokes, making for a weaker rear wheel.

-       If the front disc is hydraulic, a mechanical rear caliper would be a better backup option than a second hydraulic disc.

-       There is far less of a safety issue with the rear rim cracking due to pads wearing the brake track than with the front rim failing.

-       The rear brake does not require the same amount of modulation as the front. Basically, it just needs to be on or off, since the front brake does most of the work. In the worst-case emergency braking situation (assuming no ice), both brakes are applied at maximum. The resulting weight shift unweights the rear tire, causing it to start skidding. Rather than modulating the rear  brake, which will have absolutely no effect since the rear tire is nearly weightless, the competent cyclist will maintain the same rear brake pressure, but will ease up slightly on the FRONT brake. Although this will reduce deceleration slightly, it will also reduce weighting to the front, providing equivalent weight to the rear, and giving the rear tire more traction, causing the skidding to stop as the rear tire weights, and rear tire adhesion helps slow the bike. Pressure is then reapplied to the front, which is modulated as needed according to the above to control the rear tire skidding.

-       In my own particular case, with a fixed gear in a track end, a rear disk is impractical because it would be difficult to move the rear disc brake caliper in conjunction with the rear wheel as it is gradually moved further back due to the chain stretching.  As well, one of the big advantages of my particular fixie is that it can be quickly converted for track use by removing the brakes and handlebar/stem and replacing them with a track handlebar/stem. With a front disk, I must also include a fork change, but a useless rear disc brake caliper assembly mounted to the seat stay would make this harder to achieve!

Reflections on Wagner’s Ring, Seattle, 2013

The recent cycle of Wagner’s Ring des Nibelungen (The Ring of the Nibelung) which concluded in August 2013 in Seattle’s acoustically splendid Marion Oliver McCaw Hall, marks the ninth complete live performance of the Ring I have attended. This particular production premiered in 2001, and was performed in 2005, 2009, and 2013, and I have seen all four.

My first Ring was Seattle’s 1995 production of its previous Ring, also produced by Seattle Opera’s general director Speight Jenkins, the most knowledgeable and energetic man in all of opera. There is something of Richard Wagner in Mr. Jenkins, but in a nice, positive way. Wagner tended to be somewhat of a control freak; he wrote all his own librettos, all the music, including orchestration (as did all classical composers – today’s composers of Broadway musicals will write the score, but someone else will arrange it). He wrote extensive stage directions as well as endless tracts regarding his philosophies as reflected in his music. Towards the end of his life, he built his own opera house in Bayreuth to present his “music dramas,” and he was working on lighting when he died in 1883.

Speight Jenkins, now 76, has been producing operas in Seattle since 1983, and will be retiring in 2014. He writes extensive program notes for each opera, gives numerous lectures, does the casting, greets operagoers in the lobby, does commentary for a local radio station during the second Saturday broadcast of the opera then in performance, and answers questions from the audience after every opera, often staying past midnight, among all the other duties handled by the general director of a notable regional opera company. Such is his boundless energy!

Other Rings I have seen include Arizona (produced by Glyn Ross, who produced Seattle’s first Ring, and held at Ardrey Auditorium, which – just like the theater at Bayreuth – has the orchestra pit located under, rather than just in front of, the stage), San Francisco, Los Angeles, and New York City. The latter two Rings were heavily weighted in terms of their designers: Achim Freyer for LA and Robert LePage for the Met. In LA, the characters wore outlandish costumes and sang atop projections of moving clocks, while in NYC, the centerpiece was a pivoting machine that looked like seesaws strung together and changed to suite the scene.

Seattle’s current Ring is more traditional, with an abundance of lush, detailed scenery that replicates the Pacific Northwest. It’s called the “green Ring” because its basic theme is the harm and imbalance brought about by the violation of nature. The scenery is directly contrary to most of the sparse stages often seen in European productions, sparseness influenced heavily by the successful postwar Bayreuth productions of Wieland Wagner, Richard’s genius grandson.

The Ring can be interpreted in many ways, and there is no “correct interpretation.” It is a story of the power of love set against the love of power; of the illusion of free will, the hero’s journey, and the corruption of nature by civilization, among other things. Because Wagner started work on the Ring in the middle of the 19th century, George Bernard Shaw ascribes to it a political interpretation, encompassing the industrial revolution and socialism, seeing it as an expression of Wagner’s youthful radical ideas formulated with the leading socialists of his day (most notably his contemporary Mikhail Bakunin), leading to the Dresden uprising from which he escaped a fugitive.

Originally, the work was to be one opera, called “Siegfried’s Death,” which was to later become Gotterdammerung. Wagner wrote the poem for the libretto, but decided that some explanation was required for how Siegfried and Brunnhilde had got to the starting point of the opera, at the top of a mountain surrounded by fire. This led to the libretto for the opera Siegfried, which required an explanation as to how the young Siegfried came to be in the forest in the company of the evil dwarf Mime. This resulted in the libretto for Die Walkure, which introduced us to Brunnhilde, and to the randy twins Siegmund and Sieglinde, Siegfried’s incestuous parents. And then Wagner decided this trilogy required a one-act opening which introduced the Ring itself, and the main characters – gods, giants, and dwarves (Nibelungen), and how the Ring came to be cursed and an object of such great desire. This was Das Rheingold.

And then Wagner started to write the music, starting at the beginning, with a long, continuous low E-flat that grew into the triad based on the opening note, the motif for the Rhine River and the basis for all the motifs related to Nature, uncomplicated by chromaticism. Wagner introduced the concept of musical motifs, short musical passages tied to characters, things, ideas, and actions, that were repeated and evolved as the drama required. When he got to the end of Act 2 of Siegfried, he reached a mental block (or a romantic diversion in his incessant longing for one Mathilda Wesendonck, the wife of an admiring benefactor). This resulted in the opera Tristan and Isolde, an opera about longing, characterized by the famous unresolved “Tristan Chord” (which changed music irrevocably). Later, Wagner had an idea for a small comic opera that any municipal company could mount. Like most Wagnerian projects, this soon grew far beyond its original scope and became Die Meistersinger von Nurnberg, one of his longest and most expensive-to-produce operas.

But when he returned to Siegfried, Act 3, the difference in musical texture was clearly palpable. Not only had his compositional and orchestral skills enlarged to a point of masterly sophistication, he had also changed his ideas about music. He no longer resisted the idea of ensemble singing, and he saw the voice and orchestra as a whole, rather than parts, where one might be more important than the other. All of it was equally important. The motifs were, at times, cleverly “stacked” on top of each other, rather than played alone in the foreground. Gotterdammerung contained a large men’s chorus, and at the end of the whole Ring, the final motif that tied everything together was a snatch of melody from Act 3 of Die Walkure, at the point where Sieglinde thanks Brunnhilde for aiding her, and this becomes the motif for the redemption of the world, or of nature.

To gather some idea of the influence of Wagner even today, one must only listen to movie music. Wagner was a man far ahead of his time. There are passages in the Ring that, taken out of context, sound like they are from the typical adventure movie, most notably from cliffhanger serials of the 1930’s or 40’s. He would certainly have been at home in the movies, writing the scripts, directing, scoring the music. His concept of the “gesamtkunswerk,” the total work of art, or unification of all the arts, would apply to movies today. During his own time, he created “music dramas” rather than “operas.” The action or the ideas flow continuously, with no break for pretty arias.

In fact, it’s very difficult to identify any discrete “songs” that can be performed outside of the Ring. Even though you often hear Brunnhilda’s Immolation Scene from Gotterdammerung performed in concert by established Wagnerian sopranos, this is more akin to a 20-minute dramatic monologue than to a recital piece. The closest the Ring comes to a hummable aria is near the end of Act 1 of Die Walkure, where Siegmund sings “Wintersturme,” followed by Sieglinde’s “Du bist der Lenz,” as the twins make their love known to each other.

Wagner, though, was also mired in the attitudes of his time, most notably the anti-semitism. But Wagner was a paradox. He was a political radical, but he made sure not to offend the nobility who sponsored him later in his life. He wrote egregious anti-semitic tracts decrying Judaism in music, but he hired Jewish conductors for his premiers and had many close Jewish friends. His music was later co-opted by Hitler and the Nazis, but this had more to do with his wife Cosima (as well as influential members of the far-right-leaning British nobility of the time) than with Wagner’s intrinsic beliefs. I personally believe Wagner would have been apalled at the use of his music by the Nazis, and he would have seen Hitler as an analogue of Alberich’s evil, manipulative bastard son Hagen.

Hitler supposedly admired Wagner’s non-canonical early opera Rienzi, Wagner’s attempt at French grand opera (famously once referred to by the “notoriously tactless” conductor Hans von Bulow as Meyerbeer’s best opera), even having a score with him in his bunker, a score which subsequently disappeared and has never been seen since. (Aside: von Bulow, incidentally, was Cosima’s first husband before she became Wagner’s second wife. As Frau von Bulow, she had been carrying on an extramarital affair with Richard, who fathered the two daughters – Isolde and Eva – during this time.) Wagner disavowed Rienzi, refusing to include it within his ten canonical operas. But there is no doubt that the martial aspects of much of Wagner’s music (listen to the overture to Act 3 of Lohengrin for the best example) would have appealed even to boorish,uncultured philistines such as the Nazi leaders. In fact, Wagner was less interested in German political supremacy than he was with Germanic art and culture, as summed up by Hans Sachs near the end of Die Meistersinger:

Listen to your German Masters (a scandalous line!)

If the Holy Roman Empire should disappear into dust,

There will always be Holy German Art!


And sitting through nine Ring cycles is not enough to fully appreciate the various dimensions of humans and their interactions that are at the core of the Ring. The first time I saw the Ring, when the music was fresh and unfamiliar, I felt acquainted with it by the time I reached Siegfried, the third night. My mind had already become familiar with most of the motifs, so there was a familiarity, sometimes subconscious, with each character’s motivations and meanings. By the ninth Ring, I can recognize most of the motifs at a conscious level, and I’m hearing much more of the beauty and seductiveness of the music. But of course, I continuously hear new things I had not previously noticed. And I’m already looking forward to the next Ring, wherever it may be.




An example of Hans von Bulow’s tactlessness: “The three greatest composers are Bach, Beethoven, and Brahms. All the others are cretins.”  (Alan Walker, Hans Von Bülow: A Life and Times pg. 289, Oxford University Press - USA (2009). ISBN 0-19-536868-1)