Friday, November 30, 2012

Tested: Dark Speed Works' Speedpack 480 bento box

This week's review: the Speedpack 480 bento box from Dark Speed Works.

Yes, I need to cut the steerer. Just get over it.

What it is: A top tube-mounted storage accessory designed for aerodynamics.

Why you want one: To limit the drag of your rolling buffet (or flat kit, if you're so inclined).

View from above, with the pack empty and zipped.
The front hook & loop straps are helping clean up my front end's wind profile.

Open zipper showing the internal plastic frame.

Duration used: 1.5 years (purchased May 2011)

Price paid/purchased from: $31.05USD (with Slowtwitch early adopter discount) + shipping direct from Dark Speed Works.

Accommodates 6 Hammer gel packs easily - could likely fit a 7th in a pinch.

Yes, all of these fit in there, despite being some of the largest packaging on the market.

What rawks: The Speedpack is simple to use, sturdily built and appeals to the aero weenie in all of us. I can't qualify any of their aerodynamic claims, but the pack does tuck in nicely behind the steerer and looks fairly slippery. The two front straps are narrower than many other bento boxes, making it easier to attach the pack with the obligatory slammed stem. The three bottom straps are easily cut to length to avoid rubbing your knees, and keep the pack in place better than others that I've used that would tilt from side to side and rub on my knees. The front can be left open to somewhat envelop the steerer (as in my installation), with the foremost hook and loop straps used to secure extra brake & shift cabling for a more aerodynamic cockpit. The internal plastic frame helps the pack keep its shape when empty, which is something sorely lacking from most of its competition. The carrying capacity is excellent while zipped, and I've left a standard gel flask in the pack while unzipped without it bouncing out. The zipper closure will not abrade athletic apparel like the velcro flap closure on any competitors (I constantly had issues with my gloves catching on the velcro of my old bento box during training rides). For those who have a non-standard stem or a superbike with top tube bosses, there are models available to fit your bike. The appearance is nicely understated - no huge logos on it, just a tasteful branding. 

700c x 18-23mm butyl tube, Genuine Innovations Microflate Nano head, 16g CO2 cartridge and 2 Lezyne Matrix tire levers.

Tight fit, but it will close.
What sucks: If you put a standard 5oz gel flask in the pack, that's pretty much it for storage - you can fit a few tiny items (salt tabs or electrolyte fizzies, car key or emergency cash) in the rear pointy bit, but nothing else. Most smartphones will not fit in the pack and still allow it to zip, and the pack is not waterproof. Some people have been driven batty by the zipper key jingling around, as it is not a locking type (this hasn't been an issue for me). It's also a bit on the pricey side - at $35, it will set you back about twice as much as a lot of the competition.

A standard gel flask fills the available space almost completely.

Zipped with gel flask inside - very tidy and slippery looking.

What I'd like to see: A version with a locking zipper would be great, but frankly the non-locking has been just fine and I can't see an upgrade being worth it for me. No real suggestions to make here!

What I'm saying: I've been pleased with the function and durability of my Speedpack, and it looks pretty pro on the bike. It holds everything I need it to while discouraging me from trying to pack too much along, 

Whole bike with Speedpack installed.

In action at the Welland Triathlon in June 2012.

For further edification: The Triathlete's Wit and Fun Between Legs have reviews posted, plus there's the  testimonial page at Dark Speed Works' website.

Friday, November 23, 2012

Tested: Dirty Girl running gaiters

This week's review: running gaiters from Dirty Girl (but not the Canadian Dirty Girl).

They're in there somewhere.

Seen in an unnaturally clean state.

What they are: Lightweight ankle coverings that attach to your shoes - incredibly popular among trail and ultrarunners.

Why you want them: Because rocks in your shoes suck!

Heavy-duty cordura and stitching attach the front hook.

Inside out, displaying the band of soft loop-side velcro at the heel.
A solid metal hook attaches to the laces of your shoes.

Duration used: 2 years

Price paid/purchased from: I paid $20 + shipping direct from Dirty Girl herself.

The provided sticky-back velcro is tenacious!
I've only had to replace one piece in two years.

This is what I still have left of the self-adhesive hook tape;
 there's probably enough for another 8 pairs of shoes.

Original packaging - I keep the spare self-adhesive hook tape inside.

What rawks: They're a simple, lightweight and damn stylish solution to keeping crap out of your shoes while you run. The heavy-duty spandex material is durable without being heavy or stiff - you won't even notice you're wearing them - and comes in a sufficiently wide array of colours and patterns to satisfy anyone's tastes (skulls are cool!). The fabric has 4-way stretch, breathes beautifully, and the stitching doesn't chafe. When they get dirty, chuck them in the washing machine; I wash everything in cold water and don't bother with a lingerie bag, but they always come out looking brand new after hanging to dry overnight. They go on easily, but stay put once they're on your foot - I've never had one come loose, and I've used them pretty hard. The installation instructions are so simple a toddler could prep a pair of shoes, and there is ample sticky-back velcro provided in the packaging to do several pairs, plus you can order more from Dirty Girl if necessary. The gaiters are tall enough to provide excellent coverage from low-hanging thorns or burrs, but can be shoved down if you feel they're taller than you'd like. Since they're very thin, putting a timing chip strap on overtop is no problem (unless you already have truly gargantuan ankles, in which case you've probably got bigger problems). Without making any claims to do so, the fabric even blocks a bit of wind, so they're great for protecting that gap that forms between the top of your socks and your tights in cold weather. Furthermore, while originally intended to keep stones and debris from entering your shoes, they do a fine job of keeping your footwear free of snow for those of us in Northern climates who thumb our noses at winter's attempts to keep us indoors. When they do get wet, they don't hold much water and dry quite quickly, so you won't be weighed down. The lack of a bottom strap means there is no interference with the sole or tread of your shoes - since I run in trail shoes that have a flat sole, I would feel the strap of many other gaiter designs at every step. The lack of strap also removes the highest wear area; several other types have non-replaceable straps you will eventually need to purchase whole new gaiters when they wear through.

Put your socks on, then slide the gaiter on.

Hook the front to your laces.

Attach the rear hook & loop and go!

What sucks: These will not keep mud out of your shoes if you step in it - I had a vivid demonstration of that at Horror Hill this year. They're neither wind- nor waterproof (though they do cut the wind a bit), so if you're a weenie about that sort of thing you'll need to look elsewhere for additional protection. They are not as tall and the material is not as rugged as some other gaiters (especially those designed for mountaineering or snowshoeing), so if you're consistently running or hiking through highly abrasive materials they may not be as durable or provide the coverage you desire. The metal hook at the front may interfere with your lace tension, and if your shoes or boots have a cover over the laces you may not be able to use these at all as you must be able to attach the front hook to some type of loop. The exact construction of your shoes can greatly impact the fit, too - I have a pair of trail shoes whose laces start further back on the foot and the gaiters don't work optimally with them. The self-adhesive hook tape can fail - I've had to replace one patch - and if it happened in a race you'd probably be unhappy. Applying the hook tape really requires a smooth, non-fabric area on the heel of the shoe, too, which isn't present on all models. Additionally, when not using the gaiters, the exposed hook side on the back of your shoes can cause abrasion to other items; if you absent-mindedly scratch your shin with your opposite heel, you can seriously snag a pair of running tights, compression socks or calf sleeves, and they can do damage to other items if you chuck your shoes in a bag. The gaiters and additional hook tape are not widely available, so if you need a pair in a hurry, you may be out of luck.

Pre-race at Run for the Toad 2011

What I'd like to see: A heavier-duty version would be pretty keen, possibly even using softshell material to make them wind- and water-resistant.

2011 25k Run for the Toad finish.

What I'm saying: If you run off-road, a mere $20 can make your experience so much more comfortable. I looked at a lot of different makes and models of gaiters prior to purchasing these, and I've never once regretted my decision or gone looking at any others since. The only thing I might do is buy another pair, since they also have skulls on a red background!

2011 Frosty Trail 3-hour trail race in calf-deep snow.

For further edification: iRunFar, Backpacker Magazine and Backpack Gear Test have all reviewed these, plus others.

Friday, November 16, 2012

Tested: Ultimate Direction Fastdraw Plus handheld water bottle

This week's review: taking a look at the Fastdraw Plus handheld water bottle from Ultimate Direction.

Default hand position while using the bottle.
Front view.

What it is: A beverage bottle with a harness that doesn't require you to grip the bottle, and a pocket to carry small items. Probably the most commonly seen handheld at ultrarunning events.

Why you want one: Staying hydrated on long or hot weather runs and racing.

Reflective strap with lots of room for adjustment (or really big gloves).

Duration used: 3 seasons - purchased some time in 2010.

Price paid/purchased from: I think I paid $20 from a retailer at a race, but I'll be stuffed if I can remember which race or vendor.

Finger divots
Thumb divot, with a bit of texture for grip.
What rawks: This thing just works, to the point you never really need to think about it. Fill it up with water, electrolyte solution or sport drink and go - the wide mouth of the uncapped bottle makes it easy to get whatever you want in there, including full-size ice cubes. The harness fits all sizes of hands, has a reflective stripe on the strap for visibility, is incredibly simple to use and fits standard bike bottles as well as its own proprietary bottle. The pocket will fit two of even the largest gel packets (eLoad or Hammer), and the zipper has proved as incredibly durable as the rest of the product. The kicker valve is easy to operate and is one of the best features of the bottle; even when fully open, it doesn't leak under most circumstances. When kicked to one side or fully retracted/closed, it's just about bombproof - I'll happily chuck this bottle in my gear bag with the valve in the fully closed position, confident it won't soak anything. The finger loop on the lid is awesome for quick refills at aid stations - with the strap around my left hand and the loop held by my left index finger, my right hand is completely free to grab cups and dump them in while still moving. You're able to control the amount of beverage you get by modulating pressure on the bottle and the valve, and the thumb and finger indents provide a sure grip. While the kicker valve has iced up on me a couple of times on extremely cold (-10c/14f) runs, gnawing on the silicone valve a bit has broken up the ice enough that I was still able to drink from the bottle. The harness comes in a range of different colours for the fashionistas, and there are larger (26oz) bottles available with the kicker valve if you don't just want to use a 24oz bike bottle (UPDATE Nov 1/13: I've since purchased and used a 26oz bottle, and freakin' hate it. See further explanation below.). If you're concerned about your drink getting warm or your hand getting cold (the latter of which does happen - I've never noticed the former), they sell a version known as the Fastdraw Extreme that features a neoprene wrap for the bottle. The mesh construction of the harness doesn't hold moisture for rainy runs, and allows your hand to breathe well. I've worn the bottle innumerable times with gloves and had no issues, and the harness is machine washable. The bottle itself has no intrinsic taste or smell, doesn't hold on to flavours from sport drink as much as other bottles, and cleaning the valve is accomplished easily with the assistance of a baby bottle brush (which every endurance athlete should own, since they're the best damn thing in the world for cleaning the valve on any kind of bottle). Despite taking a tumble at Horror Hill last month and landing partly on the bottle (putting my hands down to save myself), there's been no damage - the Fastdraw takes as much punishment as I've been able to mete out in almost 3 years and just keeps coming back for more.

Valve closed/retracted - you can just see the cross cut in the top that allows fluid to exit.

Valve fully open.

What sucks: My thumb sometimes goes a little numb in my default hand position, but that's alleviated by moving it a bit. Some people may not like having to bite the valve or squeeze the bottle to dispense liquid, and I've occasionally bashed myself in the mouth trying to open or close the valve. The bottle can squirt out a bit of beverage when screwing the cap on if you fill it right up, but you can reduce the effect if you open the kicker valve before putting the lid on. The strap occasionally loosens off a bit and needs re-tightening, but this may have to do with my washing methods since it never did that before its first trip through the laundry. The pocket isn't big enough to hold a smartphone or gel flask and the material isn't the softest in the world - would irritate skin if used to wipe away sweat. Heat does transfer between hand and beverage due to direct contact with the bottle (resulting in cold hands in winter and warm drink in summer), but this can be alleviated by using the Fastdraw Extreme version. Updated Nov 1/13: the 26oz bottle is bloody annoying to use as the bottom strap of the harness is non-extendible, meaning too much of the weight sits above your hand when the bottle is full. Until you drink at least 1/3 of it, the balance is awful and it does a lot of torquing on your wrist as you run. When you do drink it down - particularly when the bottle is close to empty - the additional airspace inside (vs. the 20oz bottle) seems to mean you need to squeeze the bottle even more to get a decent drink. I actually prefer using a standard 24oz bike bottle instead if I need more capacity than the bottle with which I purchased the strap, despite not having the kicker valve. Yes, it's that annoying.

Outside of the pocket, zipper undone.

Looking in through the zip - one Hammer gel in there, with space for another.

What I wish it had: I really wish I could purchase a top that would fit a standard bike bottle that had the kicker valve, but the 26oz bottle is inexpensive - I just need to get around to buying one (UPDATED Nov 1/13: I finally found one locally, bought it, and hate it. See above). I'd love it if they brought out a version with a pocket big enough to hold a standard 5oz gel flask, as that would allow me to carry everything I need for a 25k/3 hour trail race in one tidy package. I could, however, use their clip-on gel flask holder.

The reflective extends around the bottom of the bottle for visibility while drinking.

What I'm saying: This is my go-to bottle for everything from an hour-long training run in hot weather up through a 6-hour ultra race. It's held everything I need it to, doesn't weigh me down with anything useless, and has performed so well that I'd have to run right out and buy another immediately if mine were lost or destroyed. I tried versions from other companies prior to purchasing the Fastdraw Plus, but have never looked back.

Business end.

In action at Vulture Bait 2012.

For further edification: Philosopher Runner, What Finish Line? and Running on the White Line have reviewed this bottle with similar conclusions.

Friday, November 9, 2012

Tested: Saris Gran Fondo bicycle rack

For the first product review of 2012, I'm going with an item that has resulted in a lot of hits to the blog from searches - the Gran Fondo two bicycle rack by Saris.

With Tanker's Giant TCX2 in size M 'cross bike and my 54cm Cervelo P1
Both bikes are held securely away from the vehicle.
What it is: A rack that holds two bicycles, up to 35lbs each with either 26", 29" or 700c wheels (ought to work for 650 as well). 

Not much in the wind, and lots of garage door clearance.
Why you want one: It complies with European legislation prohibiting bicycle racks from obstructing the rear license plate, but entails less aerodynamic drag (and resultant poor fuel economy) than a roof-mounted rack while dramatically reducing the odds of smashing your bike to smithereens if you pull into the garage. It works with almost any vehicle with a rear hatch - see the manufacturer's site for specific model recommendations.

Our cyclocross bikes mounted.
Duration used: 6 months on our 2008 Honda Fit

Price paid/purchased from: $0I received this rack as a prize in a contest on Slowtwitch. MSRP is $369.99CAN.

Tanker's Giant TCX2 in size M and my Norco CCX-SL in size S.

What rawks: This is probably the most user-friendly bike rack I've ever come across. Assembly is easy using the included instructions from Saris - it took us about 30mins from unpacking to completion, plus another minute or two of adjusting strap lengths for first use. It takes less than a minute to attach to the vehicle once set up, as the top straps will stay at the same length with only minor cinching required on the others. There is a great range of adjustment available to fit multiple vehicles and bikes - we're able to use this for my tri bike (2009 Cervelo P1 - 54cm), our cyclocross bikes (2009 Giant TCX2 - M & 2010 Norco CCX-SL - S), my 26er mountain bikes (2012 Louis Garneau Apex Elite - M & 1995 Kona Hahanna - 19") and even Tanker's 29er (2011 Trek Marlin). It's very easy to mount the bikes on the rack, and while there is some movement the bikes are held very securely even at Tanker's idea of a reasonable highway speed (130kph/80mph) and on bumpy, rutted, washboard dirt/gravel roads. We have experienced no issues with the rack shifting if we only have one bike on at a time, and it is still possible to use the back hatch even with two bikes mounted (though you may not be able to open it all the way without making contact with the roof of the car, and it's a good idea to have a second person hold the hatch while you dive in there unless you want to end up looking like a tacky novelty item). The quality of the materials used in the rack itself seem very good, and we have experienced no durability issues. The rubber-coated strap hooks and feet of the frame have not left any marks on our vehicle, and the rack is well stabilized by the 6-point attachment (2 top straps, 2 side straps and 2 bottom straps). While there is no theft deterrent provided with the rack and the ratchet straps are easily opened, we used a pair of small padlocked lengths of aircraft cable to secure the bikes to the rack (looped through either a pedal or the chainring and around the rack's frame) when we knew the car would be sitting unattended; a standard cable bicycle lock would work as well. Compared to horizontal-mount racks we have used in the past, the view through the rearview mirror/rear windshield is excellent, while still providing a reassuring view of both bikes throughout the ride. We did not notice any change in fuel mileage driving over 400km round-trip to a race with my tri bike and Tanker's CX bike on the rack, but have noted that both bicycles remain fairly clean despite encountering multiple rainstorms while using the rack and not having mudflaps on our car. Removing the bikes from the rack at your destination is fast and easy, but be prepared to answer a lot of questions about the rack along the way!

Fat tires and 29" wheels present a little more surface area to the wind.

What sucks: While the wheel cups do fold down, the rack doesn't really collapse for storage - at approximately 3' x 3' the frame is definitely something you'd be tripping over if you're tight on space. Larger diameter tires (2.2" and up) will settle into the front wheel supports, which can make it tough to get the bike off the rack. It doesn't quite support Tanker's enormous 29er away from the bottom bumper of our Honda Fit (though there has been no damage), and we have to watch ground clearance with that monster on there. It's also one of the more expensive bike racks on the market, and will not work on a vehicle that has a hatch-mounted spoiler.

Ground clearance may be an issue with large 29er frames.

What I wish it had: If Saris would include a couple of velcro or ratchet straps to cinch down the excess webbing, that would be awesome - we tend to forget to tie the excess so it won't flap in the wind, which may risk some damage to the bikes (noone likes scuffed paint). Would also love to see the manufacturer include some anti-theft method.

The rear wheel of Tanker's 29er (left) touches the rear bumper when mounted.

What I'm saying: While we absolutely love this rack, I'm not sure I could justify the cost if I was currently in the market for a method to carry two bikes. If price is not an issue, you have trouble remembering your bike is on the roof before that sickening crunch, or you must comply with European legislation, it's an excellent product that I would highly recommend to pamper your bike (particularly if you wish to avoid stress on a carbon fibre frame). As a freebie, I fully believe we will get many years of happy use from our Gran Fondo, and will continue to enjoy the conversations with fellow cyclists along the way who can't contain their curiosity about its unique construction!

For further edification: and Pez Cycling reviewed this as well, the latter including lots of detail photos.

Friday, November 2, 2012

Stay tuned..

Having now shot past the last race of the season*, you may be asking yourself:

 "Self, what is this moron going to blog about now that there are no more races on which to report? Will we be subjected to endless minutiae of off-season training, or will this space simply go into hibernation until the next ill advised endeavour?"

Fear not, gentle reader - I have a cunning plan!

Over the next few months, I intend to attempt some content that is slightly less inane than my typical self-centred driveling. Product reviews, interesting workout concepts, and possibly even some n=1 experimental stuff. Prepare to have your socks, if not blown off, then at least gently removed and occasionally laundered!

At best, it'll be useful and relevant. At worst, reading it will still effectively pass another minute or two until you're able to do something far more interesting, like watching coverage of the world championships of grass growing.

There may also be more crayon art.

Hard at work to bring you fresh, steaming content!

Until I actually get off my lazy arse and write something worth reading, I'll leave you with this video to keep you entertained - Hitler gets the results of his MRI:

 (There's foul language in the subtitles, in case you're offended by that sort of thing)

I'll be back next Friday with something - stay tuned to find out what!

* Until I stupidly sign up for something else at the last minute.