Monday, June 3, 2013

1980: It's a touring bike

"Going to ride your commuter today?"

I don't think any bike is more misunderstood than than my (Matt) Assenmacher hand-built steel touring bike.  That "commuter bike" question is frequently asked when I bring it out for a club ride,  and probably because of the fenders, rear rack and rack trunk, almost permanently fixed to this bike. Don't get me wrong, it is a nice bike to commute on, but since this bike was intended for my (yet to happen) coast-to-coast camping tour, it is very good at carrying a load, and very forgiving in both handling and ride.
It's a Touring Bike  - on tour in 2008

I ordered this bike in 1979, after 6 years of serious riding.  It was almost 7 month's from the order date until the day I brought it home and built it up.  The oddest thing about buying a custom bike, is there is no test riding.  I had sat down with Matt, and talked about what I wanted to use the bike for, and what I liked in the bikes I already owned; a generic Japanese sport 10-speed, and an early `70's Raleigh Pro.

At the time, for a custom bicycle, your first choice was the brand and gauge of steel tubing, and then bike geometry; based on the amount of fork rack, head tube angles and wheelbase. Finally,  you could choose the lug work, fork crown and drop-out style, along with any extra braze-ons for mounting bottle cages, racks, and my case, fenders.  And of course, you could pick a color scheme too.

At it's simplest, the bicycle categories then were criterium bikes (short fork rakes and steep angles for quick handling, and power transfer efficiency) and road racing bikes, with longer fork rake, and slightly easier handling, but still designed for lightweight wheels and with minimal clearance.   The most relaxed bikes of all were the all around sport bikes sold to the average rider.

There were also national tendencies (or customs) in design; Italian bikes were the short wheel base, quickest handling bikes, while British designs were more laid back, long distance road bikes.  French bikes were somewhere between the two.

However, the short fork rake and quick handling of a quickest handling racing bikes came at cost; the steel forks gave a very harsh ride.  Unless you were a rider hooked on speed and handling, you choose a fork with more rake, for more relaxed handling and a gentler ride.

With the development carbon fiber forks, quicker handling could be had without a harsh ride.  However, a quicker handling bike still requires a greater degree of concentration to ride; it is less forgiving of rider mistakes and road hazards. That makes fatigue a factor for long distance rides.  That is just one of the factors that lead to the development of today's "endurance" bikes.

Now along with wanting a bike intended for long distance, day-long touring rides,  I also knew I was going to ride this bike on a lot of long club rides and centuries. The resulting the frame design Matt and I agreed on was actually much closer to a `70's British road racing bike in geometry and handing, rather than to the very laid back, long wheel base steel touring bikes of today.   But it was still built with fender clearance, and with lots of extra braze-on bits for racks, fender and multiple bottle cages.

The end result was that I had an endurance bike about 25 years before I first heard the term.  Granted I don't have the carbon fork ride, I still have that in between handling that is crisp without being tiring.  In fact, my current sport riding bike, a Trek Domane, (an endurance series of bikes from Trek, introduced in 2012), handles almost identically to my Assenenmacher (or vice versa).

And why fenders?  On my second long distance tour, eleven days on the road in September, 1975, I had an unexpected companion; 7 days of rain.  And I don't mean scattered showers, I mean 7 days of riding in the rain all day, 70 or more miles a day, as a tropical storm wrung itself out over Michigan.

The resulting road grit took a terrible toll on my bike, wearing out the chain, and shortening the life the bottom bracket and a rear brake.  It was also hard on my clothing, shoes and packs.  After that trip I decided to have fenders on any bike I would ride in all-weather or when touring; and to avoid, most of the time,  taking any of my bike without fenders out in the rain (or snow and ice).  Fenders look eccentric on most club rides today, but they are very functional, and effective in keeping a bike (and rider) drier and cleaner when riding all day in the rain.

In any case, my Assenmacher is a bike that continues to serve me well, after 33 years and 40,000 plus miles (with over 40 centuries, including a one-day double century, in that total).  Just this April, I was getting ready for spring training century with some friends, and had every intent of riding my Domane.  But that morning the weather turned wet and ugly, and about 10 minutes before setting out, the Assenmacher came down from its hook, I aired the tires, and moved my water bottles over from the Domane.

"Going to ride your commuter today?" asked one of my buddies.   "No; this is a touring bike that was designed for . . ."