Sunday, September 2, 2012

The Towpath Scorcher: my Country Road Bob

I've owned any number of bikes over the years, but probably my favorite has been the Van Dessel “Country Road Bob” in its various incarnations. I got the frame used from a local racer seven or eight years ago, and had actually had it off the road for nearly a year, as some parts were worn out and others got scavenged to build up my Cannondale road bike, but recently acquired some new wheels, cranks and bars to build it up again. 
Not a bike for the shy.

Van Dessel, for those not familiar with the company, Van Dessel is a small company based in Mendham, NJ that designs and distributes some unique – and uniquely named – performance bicycles. Most of their bicycles, such as the “Gin & Trombones” (cyclocross), “Drag Strip Courage” (track) and “All Systems Go” (time trial) are pretty race-oriented, but they've always had one or two models like the now-discontinued “Country Road Bob” and it's spiritual successor, the “Whisky Tango Foxtrot” that were a bit weird, but extremely versatile.
The Bob I have, a 2002 model, is a singlespeed-only frame, with horizontal track-style rear drop outs (“fork ends” for the purists), and features a moderately zippy cyclocross geometry, carbon fork and a very distinctive look brought about by a curved tubeset and bold green paint job. 
A 3-inch drop from saddle to bars makes for a  nice sporty ride. .

The joy of the bike, other than it's “look at me” style, is that it's such a great go-anywhere, do-anything machine. I've normally had it set up as a fixed gear, and formerly had road bars on it, but would use it for everything from commuting and sporty pavement riding to cruises down the D&R Towpath to some light singletrack (sometimes I'd flip the wheel around to use it as a freewheeling singlespeed for my off-road jaunts, but more often I'd just keep it on the fixed side).
Not long ago, I was given the gift of a Surly “Open Bar” handlebar, which is a nice wide steel handlebar with about a 50-degree sweep, which is designed with singlespeed bikes in mind. I also acquired a set of fixed/singlespeed wheels and a few other bits and pieces, so I decided it was time to get the Bob back together. 
The curved parts of the bar also make for a surprisingly comfortable secondary hand position.

One of the less-ideal things about the old build, with dropped handlebars, was that it relied on centerpull cantilever brakes, rather than mountain-bike style linear pull brakes. The rear brake, in particular, with its long continuous cable housing and too-low cable stop never quite had the stopping power a big guy like me was looking for. When riding fixed this wasn't a problem, but when the bike was set up with a freewheel, I never felt confident in the brakes when riding at speed.
The new build uses mountain-bike style levers and a set of Promax linear-pulls, which offer much better stopping power.
The swept handlebars and curvy tubes put me in mind of the path racers ridden by turn-of-the-century “scorchers,” as aggressive cyclists were known back then, so I decided to run with it and put on a leather saddle and cork grips. 
Cork grips after a quick dunk into Bullseye Shellac

The saddle is a Velo Orange “Mod 1,” which the company is selling at a discount. I have a black version of this saddle on my road bike, and not only do I find it extremely comfortable for long rides at moderate effort, it has saddlebag loops which allow me to hang traditional-style saddlebags of various sizes on the back, rather than mounting a rack and panniers or trunk bag. For daily riding I just use a small tool bag, but for long commutes, day trips or touring I can add on my Carradice bag. I find that on bikes with sportier geometry, not only does a Carradice-style saddlebag look better but by putting the weight closer to rider rather than on the wheel, the handling is less affected. 
A Minnehaha saddle bag makes the perfect tool bag for day-to-day rides, a Carradice College bag works for bigger loads.

I went with a honey-brown saddle this time, purely because I thought it looked cool, and shellacked the grips to waterproof them and make them match the saddle better (again, rubber grips work just as well, I just think the cork is comfortable and looks cool). 
32mm tires roll over most stuff with no problem

42x17 gearing and 700x32c tires give me just shy of a 67-inch gear ratio, which gives me an on-pavement cruising speed comfortably in the high teens but still leaves me the leverage to get up hills and ride light off road. Right now the as-yet-unused freewheel side of the hub is also a 17-tooth, but I may find a slightly larger cog to give myself a better bail-out gear.
Fixed on one side and a short freehub on the other, with hard-to-find 135mm hub spacing. The wheelset came from a Marin singlespeed.

 Since I've got good brakes and don't need to rely on back-pedaling to help me stop anymore, I no longer feel the need to ride it with clipless pedals, so I have a pair of big, grippy Shimano BMX pedals to keep my sneakers from sliding off. 
Truvativ cranks do the job with just fine.

I've had it on a bunch of short rides and one 30-mile towpath jaunt, and it rides wonderfully. I intend to do a bit of light touring with it this fall, and look forward to seeing where my favorite bike takes me.
Where are we headed today?