Choosing an Ultra Bike

“Which bicycle would you like to be on for the last half of a double century?”

by Lon Haldeman

Lon Haldeman is a co-founder of both the WUCA and RAAM. He is co-owner of PAC Tour. He is the two-time winner of the Race Across America, holder of the men’s tandem cross-country record (with Pete Penseyres) and the mixed tandem cross-country record (with Susan Notorangelo)

Introduction

“What kind of bike should I buy for long distance cycling?” I am often asked by riders preparing for our cross country PAC Tours. These riders are just as interested in good equipment as are RAAM riders.

Unfortunately I haven’t found a recipe that precisely matches each bike to its rider. There are lots of bike calculations for sizing, frame material strength and overall weight. Too bad these numbers don’t always explain why some bikes ride better than others. Or why two similar riders don’t like the same bike.

During the past twenty years I have ridden an assortment of frame designs across the country. I have done PAC Tour with several hundred people who have chosen a variety of bikes for long distance cycling. Most of my opinions have come from these “seat of the pants” road tests and discussions with similar cyclists.

For the purpose of this article I will define “long distance” as any event over 100 miles. In other words, “which bicycle would you like to be on for the last half of a double century” – distance somewhere after you are tired and sore and still have a long way to go.

The Ride

How many times have you heard someone says “it rides great because it’s really stiff”. Does that same bike feel as great at the end of a double century? Some people like stiff bikes all the time. Some people like gel saddle covers all the time. I think the bicycle should disappear underneath you. Don’t confuse wanting a comfortable bike with wanting an inefficient bike. Aerobars, a good saddle and proper fit all improve comfort while maintaining efficiency. If all you can think about is getting off your bike at the end of a ride, you probably aren’t comfortable or having much fun either.

Frame Materials

“I have ridden many different frame materials on RAAM and couldn’t tell the difference on a dark night.”

What’s better for an ultra bike: titanium, carbon fiber, aluminum, steel? A better question would be “what is the best way to use these materials for an ultra bike?” The frame design in combination with the material will affect how the bike rides. I have ridden many different frame materials on RAAM and couldn’t tell the difference on a dark night. All these bikes were built to be comfortable but also light and strong, so they actually rode pretty much the same. There are many off the shelf frames that are good ultra bikes. If you are thinking of a new frame, if possible arrange a road test or trade bikes with someone at the end of a long ride. After 100 miles decide what you like or don’t like.

Pete Penseyres 1986 RAAM bike was a carbon Raleigh frame was designed after a touring frame with 72 degree head and seat tube angles. So was Susan Notorangelo’s 1989 RAAM record bike which had paper thin steel tubing. Pete’s and my 1987 cross country tandem frame was built with aluminum and carbon tubing. All these frames were as light as possible and would be considered flexible by most riders. However they were comfortable, efficient frames that you liked to ride day after day without being pounded by road shock.

I prefer frame designs that have a stable geometry. My TREK “Y-Foil” has a racing feel yet is very stable at all speeds. If I were designing a custom steel bike I would duplicate the Trek’s front end handling. I also like bikes with chain stay lengths closer to 17 inches than 16 inches. With more room the chain line is better when cross shifting three chain rings. The extra chain stay clearance also helps fenders fit better if you ever have to install mudguards for PBP again – let’s hope not!

Several suspension systems have been successful on road bikes. These designs absorb road shock and improve comfort for long distances. The Allsop SoftRide, Air Friday and Titan Flex all incorporate a cantilevered beam which suspends the rider 12 to 24 inches from the rest of the rigid frame. The beam is made from carbon fiber or titanium which dampens vibration from the rider.

Although these suspensions might feel mushy at first, I adapted quickly to the smoother ride. The TREK “Y-Foil” molds their beam directly into the frame. It is the least flexible beam but still softer than a diamond steel frame. Each of these designs has worked to reduce weight while maintaining strength. Many of the new suspension seat posts or front forks could also be added to your current frame. These suspensions are worth considering for your future ultra bike.

Weight

“If your bike is under 20 lbs and you get dropped on a hill, it’s not because of the bike.”

Weight equals drag so obviously lighter is better. My rule of thumb is that a bike should weigh 12% of the rider. That means a 200 lb. rider = 24 lb. bike or 150 lb. rider = 18 lb. bike. If you are a heavy rider you will have no problem finding lots of bikes to choose from. Buy the lightest you can afford. If you are a light rider you might develop a anxiety complex about how much your 20 pound bike is slowing you down. Don’t worry about it. If your bike is under 20 lbs and you get dropped on a hill, it’s not because of the bike.

Components

After working as a PAC Tour mechanic for 15 years on some very nice bikes, I realized all bikes break. The difference is how easily can they be repaired. For an ultra bike, consider whether you can fix it yourself on the road. If you are riding Paris-Brest-Paris and are standing under a streetlight in the middle of France with a jammed STI shift lever, can you fix it? Fortunately there are lots of good components on bikes under $1000 that work well and can be fixed by human hands.

Every ultra rider should be able to:
•Change and patch a tire and tube
•Install new brake or shift cables
• Change a spoke and true a wheel
• Repair a broken chain
• Realize and fix a problem before you are stranded

If you are not a mechanic, have your bike shop explain the basic adjustments you can make on the road.

More expensive parts are generally lighter and better machined than lesser priced parts. Shimano Ultegra parts work well for the price. Ultegra parts are also interchangeable with less expensive Shimano parts which are plentiful on department store mountain bikes. Most Mom and Pop bike shops will have similar parts which will work if you are stranded. Again, buy the best you can afford but having a working knowledge of how a part works can imp rove the performance of all components.

When selecting the gearing remember to bring lower gears than you think you will need. If the route is hilly you will need bigger downhill gears too. The flatter the route the tighter your range of usable gears. A triple crank set allows you to get lower gears with less weight than a larger freewheel.

Wheels

When I bought my first ultra bike the salesman suggested I might need a second set of wheels for racing. I wondered why anyone would need spare wheels. Twenty years later my garage is packed full of wheels, each for a different purpose – most of them obsolete with the ever changing technology of new components.

A good set of wheels can make a junk frame ride better. Since most ultra events are ridden at low power outputs, many riders can use fairly light but durable equipment. If you are using spoked wheels make sure they are built by someone who understands bicycle wheels and has a good touch with a spoke wrench. The beauty of spoked wheels is that they can be repaired on the road. Even 200 pound riders should be able to travel across the country on 32 spoke wheels with minimum maintenance.

The next wheel upgrade would be a set with deep section rims and minimal spokes. Campy, Mavic and Rolf all make wheels with 12 – 16 spokes which are light and fast. If the design has spoke nipples inside the rim, it is a long process to change a spoke. You have to remove the tire and rim tape to true the wheel. Most of these companies pride themselves that their superior designs don’t break spokes. I’ve seen them all break spokes and have wondered how to fix them on the side of the road. I prefer the designs with spoke nipples exposed that can be fixed with common bike tools.

Spinergy wheels with their bladed spokes have become more reliable the past four years. The early models broke because of glue and hub failures. I haven’t seen one break recently. The hub bearings still go out of adjustment but can be fixed with a cone wrench. If you have a set that lasts the first 1,000 miles, they seem to be fine for the next 20,000 miles.

I feel an ultra bike should be treated as a tool toward results. Lightweight, durability, comfort and efficiency for you should be considered when shopping for your new bike. Buy the best bike for your budget, then learn to use it, learn to fix it, and keep training.