Cycling New England: 24

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Sitting at home looking at photos I took when I was hopelessly lost, 30 miles off course, with hours and hours ahead of physical exertion ahead of me before I reached my hotel room is a bit strange. All the fear and exhaustion are gone. The only thing that’s left is disappointment that I didn’t take more and better photos.

Cycling in rural areas without a cell phone or a GPS means long periods of tedium and the fear of being lost punctuated by brief moments of elation. You go for hours in the middle of nowhere (but where everybody still seems own a huge pickup truck or SUV) having no idea where you are. You can’t really enjoy the pretty scenery because you’re so worried about getting your bearings. When you finally run into a sign, it’s distinctly underwhelming. Nevertheless, every once in awhile you came across a stretch of road with no traffic. You sit back and savor the view.

The Giant Contend 1: The Preliminary Review

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The Basics

The Giant Contend 1 is cheap ($810 dollars) aluminum road bike sold by the Taiwanese bicycle company Giant. Giant, which runs a massive complex in Taichung, not only makes its own line of bikes. It also makes frames for more prestigious brands like Trek and Specialized. If you’ve purchased a bike that’s not a $10,000 dollar Italian Pinarello or Cinelli, there’s a good chance the frame was made in Taichung by Giant. There’s an even better chance that most of the parts were made by the Japanese company Shimano.

You could do worse than to think of road bikes the way you think of your desktop computer. A modern road bike is modular. Bicycle companies, like computer companies, are basically design companies. Your computer might have been designed by HP or Dell, but the CPU was made by Intel or AMD, and the hard drive was made by Western Digital or Seagate. Think of Shimano as Intel and SRAM as AMD and think of the bike’s groupset the way you’d think of a computer’s CPU. Similar to the way Intel makes the low-end Celeron and Core i3 and the high-end Core i5 and Core i7, Shimano makes the entry-level Claris and Sora, the mid-range Tiagra and 105, and the high-end Ultegra and Dura-Ace. The winner of the Tour de France is probably using Dura-Ace, but most cyclists no more need Dura-Ace than you need an 8-core supercomputer to use Photoshop.

The Giant Contend 1, which has a Sora groupset is similar to a computer with an i3 and 8 gigs of RAM. If you’re not a professional bike racer, it’s probably all you really need. Tiagra or 105 are reasonably priced and might be more appropriate for an enthusiast level cyclist, but if you want to spend no more than $1000 dollars on a bike, you’ll probably end up with Claris or Sora, and that’s OK. The groupset, of course, isn’t the only part of a bike. Since the Contend 1’s predecessor, the Defy 3, cost $960 dollars to the Contend 1’s $810, you can reasonably assume that Giant cut a few corners here and there to keep the price down. The stock tires that come with the Contend 1 are paper thin. They’re fine for riding around town (if the town has good roads) but if you’re anything more than the most casual rider, you should probably toss them and get a pair of Continental Gatorskins or Schwalb Marathons. Giant also cheaped out on the brakes, the chain and the cassette. The Contend 1 uses Tektro R312 brakes instead of Shimano Sora brakes, an SRAM PG-950 instead of a Shimano cassette and a KMC X9 instead of a Shimano chain. More on all this later.

The Good

Overall: I just completed a 500 mile, unsupported ride through upstate New York and the Berkshires (including a 30 mile terror ride through a driving rain storm) with no mechanical breakdowns.

The Giant SR-2 wheels:  I’m medium large (6 feet and 180 pounds). I ride my bike hard and for long distances over horrible roads, and I’ve ridden over 1500 miles so far without a single (that’s not even one) flat. I’ve hit potholes the size of ditches and haven’t been able to knock the wheels out of true. Even with a pair of expensive Gatorskin tires, the Alex Rims on my old Specialized Allez seemed to bring out all the flaws in each and every tube I used. I got pinch flats every few weeks. On the Giant Contend 1, even on an extended ride where I didn’t always have access to a floor pump and would often let the tires — which should be at 120psi — go down to 90 psi, I was getting so confident towards the end that I would never get a pinch flat or knock my spokes out of true I forgot where I put my spoke wrench and my 4 CO2 cartridges and 3 extra tubes almost felt like just so much extra weight.

The geometry: The Contend 1 has what’s known as an “endurance frame.” It’s built for long periods in the saddle, not for bursts of speed. Make sure you test ride it before you buy. I’m barely 6 feet tall and the Giant website indicated I’d need a “Medium/Large,” but the mechanic at my local bike store insisted that because I have a long torso and the Contend 1 has a slightly more upright position than my old Specialized Allez that I’d need a “Large.” He was right. The Large fits perfectly. Something about the bike’s geometry just feels right, not too racy, but racy enough to let me get down into the drops and build up speed. The Contend 1 is fast enough for me to dodge SUVs and 18-wheelers in city traffic and comfortable enough to ride for 100 miles on country roads without another soul in sight. I’m 51 years old and haven’t had a single upper body ache since I’ve been riding it, even after 100 mile rides.

The brakes: I came down out of the Berkshires in a driving rain storm and lived to write about it. The Tektro R312s seem just as good as the Shimanos would have been. Who needs hydraulic disc brakes?

The cassette: The Contend 1 has a SRAM PG-950 cassette with a wide range of gears. The lower gears in fact are almost like a mountain bike’s lower gears. If you live in San Francisco or Seattle and want a bike that can handle steep inclines, the Contend 1 is your bike.

The Bad

The chain: Only 1500 miles and I’ve already worn out the cheap KMC X9 chain. My bike mechanic blames it on the 30 mile ride through the rain and my less than graceful shifting habits, but be that as it may, the KMC X9 was perilously close to snapping when I hauled the bike into the shop. Had my chain snapped up in the Berkshires or in upstate New York I probably would have had to leave the bike locked up to a tree, and just walked the rest of the way into the nearest town to look for the Greyhound station.

The cassette: While the SRAM PG-950 may have a wide range of gears, it’s tricky to keep in tune. The first week I owned the Contend 1, I had to take it back into the shop twice to get them adjusted. What use is a wide range of gears if they keep going out of adjustment? What’s more, in addition to wearing out the KMC X9 chain, I’ve also worn out the SRAM PG-950 cassette. That wide range of gears also accentuates my bad shifting habits, so much so that my bike mechanic was able to pick out which gear I used the most, the third gear. I don’t really need those two lower ones. So I’ve replaced the SRAM PG-950 with a Shimano branded 11-25.

To Be Determined

The bottom bracket and hubs: I’ve already begun to notice an intermittent clunk in the bottom bracket when I take the Contend 1 up steep hills. This might be that the cheap aluminum frame doesn’t hold up to the kind of stress I can put on it. It might also just mean that the cups and bearings need adjustment and a layer of grease.

(update: The clunk was the rear hub, which I eventually had to get repacked for $36 dollars.)

The saddle: I immediately swapped out the Contend 1’s stock saddle for my leather Brooks Swift. So I haven’t used it.

The Conclusion

The Giant Contend 1 is a serious bike at the incredibly low-price of $810 dollars. It’s fast enough for hellish city traffic and comfortable enough for 100-mile rides through the country. It took me 500 miles through upstate New York and the Berkshires, 30 of those through steady rain, without breaking down once.  Just make sure to swap out the paper thin tires and get ready to replace the stock chain and the stock cassette sooner than you would have otherwise thought.

Addendum

A man in a bike store in Old Saybrook Connecticut (where I stopped to pump up my tires) told me that he’d never spend $810 dollars on a bike, that he still owned the cheap mountain bike he got in college. After another few minutes of conversation, he also told me he owned a boat. We all have our priorities I guess.

Cycling New England: 23

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Not wanting to push through rush hour traffic in the NYC area, I decide to jump on the Metro North. It turned out to be a wise decision. Dodging 18-wheelers and SUVs through industrial New Haven for the last 9 miles from my hotel to Union Station took all the reserves I had left. I sit back and eat breakfast (from Dunkin Donuts of course) as I ride through the One Percent suburbs of Greenwich and Darien.

Cycling New England: 22

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I cross the Rhode Island border into Connecticut, push onto New Haven, and check into my room in a Motel 6 on Route 1. I am back in the NYC Metro area. My bottom bracket is creaking and clicking. The bearings in my hubs need to be repacked. I have pushed my $810 dollar aluminum road bike to the limit. It will need a complete overhall.  Tomorrow I will jump on the Metro North at New Haven, take the the train to Grand Central, then switch to New Jersey Transit for the final 12 miles home. The ride through the Bronx and across the New Jersey Meadowlands will have to wait. There’s no way to schedule it without riding either at rush hour or at night, both of which would involve traffic too dangerous at the end of a long, grueling trip.

I go back outside to buy a bottle of Diet Coke and a can of beer. A women, a middle-aged, overweight, pallid Irish American asks me for change. I give her a single dollar.  She thanks me and tells me she’s homeless and lives in a hotel.  I wonder for a moment if she’s staying at the same hotel I am. I look at her flabby body and puffy cheeks. Oddly enough , at the end of a 600 mile, unsupported cycling expedition through New England, I identify with this unhealthy looking women. Staying in flea bag hotels in the middle of nowhere, eating at McDonalds and Dunkin Donuts, I understand how difficult it is to stay healthy on the road. Having been lost in the chilly, rainy dark of a New England October, and having felt relieved to see my hotel, finally, at the end of the road at Midnight, I wonder what it would be like not to have a hotel room at the end of the road at Midnight. The single dollar I gave the women feels obscenely ungenerous. I dig into my wallet for more, but she’s gone. I will pay a karmic price for denying her.

I also realize I haven’t taken enough photos. Cycling 100 miles a day has made me a slave to the road, and to the obsession with not getting lost. I will take trips like this again, but it be at a slower pace, 40 or 50 miles a day instead of 90 or 100, and I will try to do it as part of a group. I will at least try to bring  GPS or a smart phone. I will also try to find the money for a good steel touring bike instead of s cheap aluminum road bike. Don’t get me wrong. The Giant Contend 1 didn’the fail me once. But I badly needed panniers or a rack trunk. When the weather turned suddenly warm, I realized I did have space in my backpack for both the my flannel shirt and hoodie. I briefly considered tossing one onto the railing alongside the footpath over the Thames River in New London. I am glad I did not. That hoodie, purchased for 12 dollars at a Family Dollar Store in Westfield, Massachussets, is now a precious possession. It didn’t exactly save my life, but it did keep me from shaking violently during the 25 mile ride from Westfield to Chicopee in the driving rain.

I think of that night of fear and loneliness. I think of the woman to whom I gave only a single dollar. I think of King Lear on the heath.

Poor naked wretches, whereso’er you are,
That bide the pelting of this pitiless storm,
How shall your houseless heads and unfed sides,
Your loop’d and window’d raggedness, defend you
From seasons such as these? O, I have ta’en
Too little care of this! Take physic, pomp;
Expose thyself to feel what wretches feel,
That thou mayst shake the superflux to them,
And show the heavens more just.

 

Cycling New England: 18

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There are times when I think Google Maps is just trolling me. Why else would the gods of Mountain View, California decide that my route from the Roslindale section of Boston to my hotel in West Greenwich, Rhode Island would take me on a circuitous route through the most decayed, industrial section of Providence, Rhode Island only to deposit me at a crossroads where Franklin Roosevelt is eclipsed by Robert Taft, author of the most anti-working class piece of legislation in American history?

http://www.u-s-history.com/pages/h1667.html

But Google Maps had a plan, and it was a good one. The gods of Mountain View, California sent me down all nineteen miles of the Washington Secondary Trail, a paved bike, pedestrian, and horse path that starts in Providence, and takes you all the way to rural, southwestern Rhode Island without having to dodge a single pothole or SUV

http://www.dot.ri.gov/community/bikeri

The Washington Secondary Trail isn’t perfect. Roots of trees growing under the concrete can make for a bumpy ride. There are at least ten dog walkers for every cyclist so you often have to take it slow. But by God that was the most stress free twenty miles I’ve ever ridden.