My new "big box" bike - Excalibur Thruster 2900

For close to 3 weeks, I've been stopping in at Dunham's Sports in the Schuylkill Mall to look at a particular bike that caught my eye -- a 21-speed 29er for only $279, marked down from $399.
What could I do? I've been looking for a single-speed 29er for trail riding on Thursday nights, but everything I looked at was way too expensive. Now here's this big box bike staring at me for a steal. Then, after I finally decided that I would buy it, I discovered that it was on sale and that I had a discount coupon that ended up dropping the price even lower. When all was said and done, the final price was $237 after taxes. I couldn't resist.

Now, I feel a little bit guilty.

Don't get me wrong, it's not the bike's fault. It has a few flaws and some odd design choices (disc brake in the front, v-brake in the back. WHAT?) but I'm happy with it. I gave it a shakedown ride on some rough terrain, really taking advantage of the freshly fallen blanket of snow that we got yesterday, and just having a great time. And maybe that's the problem.

I want to support my local bike shop. They're good people and I try to buy whatever odds and ends I need from them, but I'm not made of money. The bikes they offer come with a warranty, sturdier components and a happy shop owner who might be willing to help out with some maintenance when things go awry, but they also cost more than twice what I can get from a "big box" chain store.

"Big box" stores like Walmart, Dunham's and Dick's can afford to offer huge discounts and low prices because they don't just sell bikes. Meanwhile, the bikes they do sell tend to be of a lower quality, engineered to be cheap and cost less to produce. Another drawback to using chain stores is that they aren't as knowledgeable or helpful when it comes to things like fit, upkeep and repair. I tried talking about certain technical aspects with one of the sales associates at Dunham's and they looked at me like I had a pair of lobster claws for hands. It just wasn't the kind of service I needed, yet I went ahead and bought a bike from them, anyway. Yup, I'm a jerk.

The only saving grace I have is that I still fully intend to buy the Giant Defy that I test rode a few months ago. When it comes to road bikes, I'm willing to spend the extra money because I've seen the difference between a cheap road bike and an expensive one -- I know what I'm getting. On the other hand, what I mostly want from a mountain bike is something I won't feel bad about abusing and possibly breaking on a regular basis. Even if the bike I bought became a total write off, I wouldn't feel nearly as bad as I would if I'd spent a grand or more on it. That allows me to open up, have a lot more fun and not "baby" it like it's a cherished heirloom. It might not be as nice a bike as I could get for much more money, but I'm willing to bet it's still just as fun.
Read more

Thursday Night Trail Ride: Sloppy Seconds

Waiting to go through the tunnel.
Thanks to a Monday night rain storm that ended in a dusting of snow the next morning, my second trail ride with Valley Cycles was a muddy, sloppy mess this week. Lots of slipping and sliding through turns, getting the wheels stuck in ruts and almost completely bailing a few times. Hey, not that I'm complaining... It's those few seconds of sheer terror when you don't know which way the bike is going to go that make it fun!

How many times do you have to do something before it becomes a habit? I don't think I'm there, yet, but I'm definitely developing a healthy obsession with mountain biking. It's something that is equal parts the thrill of the ride and the group I'm riding with. I don't think there's anyone in our group who doesn't genuinely love and live for this stuff. If that doesn't make the experience magical, I don't know what does.

Someone fixing a flat, early on in the ride.
One thing I definitely want to invest in very soon is a powerful light for my helmet. But that's another post...
Read more

"Faster, faster!"

One of my favorite Hunter S. Thompson quotes, and a mantra I recite to myself on steep descents, through heavily wooded trails or just when pedaling my ass off.

Photo credit: me. I shot this picture while biking the Lehigh Valley Gorge and super-imposed the text using an iPhone app called "Over."
Read more

As seen on

Yesterday I had the very fine distinction of my blog being featured in a post on is a great resource that is tying all of the blogs here in Northeastern Pennsylvania together. I've been looking forward to being featured and was very excited for it to finally happen!

There are plenty of bloggers in NEPA working on great projects and who have interesting stories to tell, so definitely add to your blogroll or RSS reader to keep up with them all.
Read more

I'm eager to get my feet on these Grand Cru Sabot platform pedals

I hate to admit it, but clipless pedals scare me -- especially in a trails setting where I might need to touch down to keep from falling over. It happened quite a few times when I was out riding in Kirby Park, but what bothered me even more was how often my shoes slipped right off the platforms. I could probably get a lot further if I had shoes with a non-skid surface, but even the pedals on my bike get slippery the moment they get the slightest bit wet. Time to upgrade?

Over the weekend, I was skimming through my blog subscriptions when I came upon 
this post on the Velo ORANGE blog: Sabot Long Term Test.

The pedals being tested in that post are these Grand Cru Sabot pedals:

Between the large size (100mm long x 100mm wide) and the removable pins (rounded pins are included but can be replaced with sharp pins) for extra grip, I'm definitely thinking of giving these a shot. They're even toe-clip compatible, just in case I'm feeling extra paranoid about slippage.

At $90, the price doesn't seem too steep, considering the quality of craftsmanship going into them. I'm sure they'll make the ride feel completely different, but it's going to be a while before I can get a pair. They aren't available yet, but should be coming soon. I'm looking forward to it!
Read more

Sunday's weather surprise - getting my kicks while it's still 66!

After being threatened with a blizzard a few days ago, it only makes sense that it's 66 degrees out today. Hey, I'll take warm weather when I can get it... Whazzat? 66 is warm?

I guess it really just comes down to conditioning. Now that I've finally come around to the idea that riding my bike in temperatures lower than 40 degrees won't kill me, suddenly there's a wide range of climates I can enjoy. As such, today was absolutely beautiful.

I started off taking advantage of the warm weather by cleaning the mud from my bike and inspecting it for further damage after the ride on Thursday. I pulled the rest of the broken chain-guard from the sprocket and gave the pedals a few cranks, just to see if the drive-train was working correctly. All that was left to do was take the bike for a quick spin to dry it off and make sure everything else was ok. After a mile or so, I decided to go another... and another, and another. 10 miles later, hey, where did the time go?

I saw neighbors putting up Christmas lights, teens skating and riding BMX bikes in the skate park up the street, a guy on a motorcycle and a couple of little kids riding bikes around. One even yelled, "Hey! He's got a bike, too!" I pity you if you're not out there, enjoying the weather today.

In other news, I've been thinking about single-speed mountain bikes, lately. My chief concern is that I won't be able to crank fast enough to keep up with the pack while finding the ratio too high to climb some of the steep inclines out on the trail. If I recall correctly, I mostly stuck to the middle ring while shifting up and down only 1 or 2 gears and did fairly well. I know a few of other riders were on single-speeds Thursday night and they didn't seem to have any complaints. Just something for me to think about...
Read more

Thursday night trail riding in Kirby Park with Valley Cycles

As much as I consider myself a roadie these days, there was a time I loved mountain biking more than anything in the world. And I'm not just talking about riding a bike with knobby wheels around on the street, I'm talking about actually going off-road, through trails in the woods and out into the middle of nowhere. It's been an awfully long time since I've done that.

A few weeks ago, I wrote about a new bike shop I discovered called Valley Cycles. Every Thursday night they go out trail riding through Kirby Park, which is only a few blocks from the shop, across the Market Street bridge into Kingston. Last night, I took my bike up to join them and had the time of my life.

The post on Valley Cycle's Facebook page said, "Snow or no, we are riding," so I purchased a pair of wool hiking socks specifically for the event. Along with a headband/ear cover to pull on under my helmet, I was ready. With the temperature dipping into the mid-30s, it certainly wasn't warm out, but I was snug as a bug. It was going to take more than a little bit of cold weather to hold me back!

If a picture says a thousand words, the following video I found online from a previous ride should pretty much cover this blog post, and yet it still wouldn't convey the amount of fun I had last night, nor would it convey the enthusiastic, friendly attitude of the Valley Cycles staff in setting up these rides and introducing them to new riders. Just watch:

There were 15 riders in all, and the sight of headlamps flying through the near-pitch blackness of the woods at night was astonishing. Riding along the river bank, knowing that a slight wrong turn or loss of balance could be the difference between mountain biking and an impromptu swim in the Susquehanna River made the ride that much more exhilarating. But it was the feeling of camaraderie as we tackled steep hills, dips, low-hanging branches and thick brush that made the ride a great time for everyone. And don't think these rides are a young man's game! There was a wide range of ages represented in our group, and several women riders, as well.

As one might expect, the ride wasn't without some consequences. There were a few spills as riders hit nasty sections of the terrain, and I managed to find nearly every puddle of mud along way, slipping and sliding as my thin wheels sank into the softer spots of earth. On one occasion, I bottomed out on a log-over and broke the chain-guard on my front sprocket. If I'd been going a bit faster, I might have been able to get a little more air under the front wheel and cleared the log, but at least the sprocket survived without major damage.

To be honest, I'm surprised my city-hybrid survived at all. I certainly didn't baby it, and though it might have fared better with wider tires, I can't say I had much of a problem getting through the night. I think I held on pretty well, considering this was my first night ride on unfamiliar ground. 

Afterwards, kicking back with a post-ride beer and chowing down on a pasta dinner at the River Street Jazz Cafe while sharing battle stories and war wounds was the best way to finish the night. I'm so totally looking forward to next week!

Read more

In Search of Pete's Bicycle Shop

Leonard Nimoy knows what's up.

They said it existed, but I knew otherwise. They needed proof, I found it. The truth is out there... this is my story.

The other day, my friend and I were looking up bicycle shops on, just to see what was out there. That's when I was visited by a ghost...

I'm not sure exactly where ReferLocal gets its information (more than likely Google Local search) but the first hit that turned up was... Pete's Bicycle Shop.

"Impossible!" I said. "He closed the shop years ago!" But there it was. Shocked as I was, I had to see it for myself, I had to know the truth. Had Pete's Bicycle Shop actually closed down? And if so, was it now back? Back from the dead?

What makes this case so compelling is that, as sure as I was that Pete's Bicycle Shop didn't exist anymore, I'd heard from several sources that it did. How could these people have been so misinformed? It had been at 1 W Broad Street in Hazleton for at least 20 years, and though I don't know how long it was there before we moved here in 1990, when a business is that old, you come to expect that it's still there, simply because it's always been there. I had to separate the fact from the fiction, but it wasn't going to be easy.

I remember driving past a few years ago and seeing that the place was empty, and yet, there is photographic proof that backs up the claim that it still exists. Take a look at this Google Street View of West Broad Street. That looks like a shop with bikes in the window, doesn't it? Sure does. What's going on here? Compelling, hard evidence? Time to dig a little deeper.

Never mind the fact that the date stamped on the image is from September 2009 and that Pete's could have closed since then; that's not good enough. The only way to solve this mystery was for me to get out there and see it with my own, two eyes.

In the days since Hurricane Sandy (which spared us most of her wrath, thankfully) the temperature has plunged into the 30s. As threats of a Nor'Easter in the next week loom over our heads, I can already feel the onset of cabin fever. Call it ennui, call it a stubborn refusal to accept that Winter is here, but for whatever reason, I bundled up, hopped on my bike and headed out on the road. I was on a mission.

The ride was comfortable, and though it was 38 degrees, I didn't feel so cold once I got going. I made straight for 309 and headed over the hill to Broad Street, taking the lane like a boss at every intersection. It was a smooth trip, and no one gave me any grief about temporarily being in their way.

My first stop was Jimmy's Quick Lunch for a damn fine hot dog with everything on it (minus onions.) As I walked in and removed my helmet, the owner just looked at me and asked, "Isn't it a bit cold for a bike ride?"
I was actually shocked at my own response when I heard myself saying that it wasn't that bad. Then again, I was bundled up quite snuggly, with two upper layers under a jacket and a scarf around my face. If anything, I was worried about overheating and sweating, as that can make it worse.

I finished my hot dog and was back on the job, making my way up Broad Street towards the building where Pete's Bicycle Shop would have been. As I rolled up to the building, however, I knew I was right all along.

There were no bikes in the windows, or anywhere inside, just a group of people sitting at tables. I decided to head in and see what was going on. What I found was a small headquarters for the Ransom Young campaign in Hazleton, certainly nothing that would resemble a bike shop, but I was skeptical.

I questioned a few of the volunteers, who assured me that Pete's closed down a few years ago, but who knows? Perhaps they were in on the conspiracy? It's only a few days until the election; maybe they'll clear out and return the shop to it's original condition now that they think they've thrown me off the case? Maybe the bikes are neatly tucked away somewhere, and I just need to look around a little more? Something is up, and now that I know local government is involved, this case just got a whole lot more complicated. Maybe this thing goes all the way to the White House?

As I stood outside, I knew there wasn't much more I could do. I decided to whip out my camera and take some photographic evidence of the new front. Unfortunately, a bright light appeared in the sky, and an alien sasquatch ran up and snatched the camera out of my hand. Before I could get it back, Elvis tripped me and tried to steal my bike while a group of Atlanteans zapped me with their crystal sphere, knocking me unconscious. Some time later, I came to and found my camera, but the magnetic interference of the Bermuda Triangle had erased the camera's memory card! There was nothing I could do... So close, yet so far away.

I can't say this case is closed, but I'm walking away, satisfied that I know the truth. I urge anyone who dares to take up this case, to dedicate their lives to finding proof that Pete's Bicycle Shop is gone, to tread very carefully. There's too much at stake, you don't want to end up like I did. I have the proof I need, but you'll just have to take my word for it until you see it for yourself.
Read more