A Bike for the Solstice Ride

During the summer solstice, Ryan Francesconi led a group of 14 friends on a truly amazing adventure: We took the train to Klamath Falls on the border between Oregon and California and then rode back to Portland on forest roads and trails traversing the Oregon Cascades. It was a 2-day, 640 km (400-mile) ride that challenged riders and bikes to the max. Not only was our route 90% gravel and single track, it also was anything but flat.

A highlight was climbing on deserted gravel roads to the top of Crater Lake (above), but even more memorable were the countless gravel climbs and descents. On a ride like this, you live entirely in the moment – just you, the bike and the other riders. I’m grateful to have friends – and a bike – that enable me to do rides like this.

What bike to ride for an event like this? We were heading into the country of the Oregon Outback – where my Rene Herse’s 42 mm tires already had proven a bit marginal in the past. The Herse’s ‘road’ gearing also wasn’t quite low enough for the steep gravel climbs that Ryan had scouted for his route.

So it was natural to take my Firefly. Equipped with ultra-wide 54 mm tires, it seemed an ideal choice for this ride. It’a bike that is completely dialed for riding fast and long on rough surfaces.

On a ride this long and challenging, small things make a big difference. Having handlebars that offer multiple comfortable positions is key for me to enjoy a ride this long. The Firefly is equipped with our Rene Herse Maes Parallel bars, which were perfect for this ride.

A low Q factor helps my spin and allows me to put out power, hour after hour. The Firefly has perfect clearances for its 54 mm-wide tires, and its beefy chainstays appear to be one reason why it climbs so well. Combining these features with a Q factor of just 148 mm is something I didn’t want to miss on this ride.

I reinstalled my 42×26 chainrings, so I could ride most of the time in the 42-tooth ‘big’ ring, but still had the option of dropping into the 26-tooth when the trails got really steep. This allowed me to run a tight 12-27 cassette with small steps between gears.

Having a favorite saddle is important, too. This Berthoud Aspin has been on many adventures, and it fits me like the proverbial glove. It works perfectly with the Berthoud saddlebag, but for this challenging two-day ride, I knew I’d need more capacity.

The Firefly’s fork is equipped with mid-fork eyelets intended for low-rider racks. The low-riders don’t work well on singletrack, as the panniers get caught on obstacles that are close to the trail. So I decided to use a handlebar bag instead. I installed a Rene Herse UD-1 rack to support the bag. Mounting the rack took all of five minutes.

The Berthoud GB-28 handlebar bag sits on the rack. Its soft bottom conforms to the shape of the rack, locking it in place.

At the top, I added a Rene Herse bag stiffener to make sure the bag didn’t move on the rough trails of the Oregon Cascades. The bag’s cavernous interior had more than enough space for the clothes, tools and food I needed for this ride (plus water filter, emergency blanket, backup power supply for the GPS, camera, and a few other things). Everything is easy to access, which is another big plus. I placed some heavy items that I didn’t plan to use (tubes, tools, rain jacket) in the saddlebag.

There aren’t any decaleurs for the Firefly’s four-bolt stem that have proven themselves on really rough terrain. So I used the bag’s leather straps to attach it to the handlebars. Together with the bag stiffener, this creates a very firm and reliable connection: The last thing you want in the middle of nowhere is your bag flying off. (This happened to one rider in our group, when the straps of his brand-new bikepacking bag broke.) Strapping my bag directly to the bars did not leave any space for my hands between bag and bars. On the road, I found that I could still use the on-the-tops handlebar position by sliding my hands underneath the top flap of the bag.

Three water bottles are useful on a ride where resupplies can be many hours apart. The Firefly is equipped with two lightweight Nitto 80 cages. For this ride, I mounted a Nitto T cage under the down tube – the only cage that has never dropped a bottle from that position during all my rides.

The first night, we arrived at our destination – Oakridge – just before sunset, but we knew that our second stage – more than 200 miles to Portland – would require riding at night. I needed lights. It would have been nice to build a wheel with a generator hub for the Firefly, but I didn’t have a spare 26″ rim. A battery-powered light would have to suffice. Fortunately, the nights during the solstice are short.

I usually strap my light underneath the handlebars, where it’s neatly tucked out of the way. However, that position was obscured by the bag now. The Maes Parallel bars are long, so I mounted the light on the end of the drops. I still could use all hand positions, but there was a problem: The bars angle slightly upward, and I want the light to illuminate the road, not the sky. A sliver of wood formed a wedge that allowed me to align the light by sliding it into the clamp as far as needed.

On the rear, I strapped a small rechargeable light to the seat tube, in the same position where our Rene Herse taillight mounts. With the lights’ run time somewhat limited, I turned off my lights when they weren’t needed, for example, when I was riding in the middle of a paceline.

The photos show the bike after I returned from the big ride. As expected, the Firefly performed flawlessly. Inflated to just 18 psi (1.25 bar), the big Rat Trap Pass Extralight tires soaked up the bumps and vibrations – even washboard – without fail. They floated over the loose surface where the narrower tires of the Herse had sunk deep into the gravel.

The low-trail geometry and handlebar bag worked great on the fast gravel descents. I used every single gear on the bike, from the 42×12 to the 26×27. I drank all my water during one particularly hot stretch. And when we returned to Portland at 4 a.m. after two days on the road, I had no aches or pains thanks to the comfortable saddle and ergonomic handlebars. The Dromarti leather shoes did their part, too – since wearing them, I no longer suffer from hot feet no matter how hard the ride and how hot the temperature.

The Firefly is one of my favorite bikes, and I was glad I could transform it from a stripped-down racer to a touring rig. Having the right bike made this challenging ride even more fun!

Click here to find out more about Rene Herse components.

 

About Jan Heine

Spirited rides that zig-zag across mountain ranges. Bicycle Quarterly magazine and its sister company, Rene Herse Cycles, that turns our research into the high-performance components we need for our adventures.
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30 Responses to A Bike for the Solstice Ride

  1. jon h says:

    I love the Maes Parallel bars especially with Campy 11sp & 12sp controls. If I could ask, would you ever consider offering these anodized in black? Thanks!

  2. Alan says:

    Did you sleep/nap any?

    • Jan Heine says:

      Yes. The first night, we arrived in Oakridge around 9 p.m., had dinner, stayed at a beautiful bed & breakfast, and left at 7:30 in the morning. The second day, we only reached Portland at 4 a.m., though…

  3. Jimmy says:

    What was your route? I was out with some friends on the Oregon Backcountry Explorer route that weekend. Did you pass through Ashwood, OR and get snacks from the ‘fridge?

    • Jan Heine says:

      The route was quite different and much more varied than the Oregon Outback route. Rather than stay east of the Cascades, we rode more or less down the crest of the Cascades. Ryan will publish the route once all the kinks are ironed out.

  4. Sukho in PDX says:

    Jan I’ve never ridden a Ti bike, so of course I’m very curious on the ride quality for a long/brutal ride like this, especially vs steel. How does Ti feel over some of the high quality steel that you’ve ridden? Where does Ti fall on the weight spectrum vs top quality steel? Also, your Firefly has a steel fork, which combined with the Ti frame (and super supple tires) must be a very comfortable combination for long days/nights in the saddle.

    • Jan Heine says:

      The Firefly rides very much like my Herse, which isn’t surprising considering that the guys at Firefly made the bike based on my preferences. The fact that they got it so right without ever meeting me is impressive – they really know what they are doing. However, I can’t say that in all the bikes I’ve tested – steel and ti – that there is a difference that can be attributed to the material, rather than to what the builder did with it. Tubing diameters, wall thicknesses and other factors seem to matter far more than the material.

      And by the way, the ride wasn’t ‘brutal’ – it was the most fun I’ve had on a bike in quite a while.

  5. Brendan says:

    Is there an online photo album of the ride?

  6. Clark Fitzgerald says:

    “Strapping my bag directly to the bars did not leave any space for my hands between bag and bars.”

    I use a small piece of dense closed cell foam for a spacer between the handlebars and the bag. It works well.

  7. Justin Hughes says:

    I don’t understand what I’m able to do differently than you that makes my Berthoud decaleur hold my large Swift Hinterland Ozette in place even on truly rough, singletrack descents. It is seriously secure bolted to the Ritchey WCS stem and adjusted to exactly the right spot to meet the bag.

    • Jan Heine says:

      We’ve had the Berthoud decaleurs come loose on multiple occasions. When we brazed the screws to remove the adjustability, the entire decaleur broke. I hope yours stays together.

      • Conrad says:

        I use a Berthoud decaleur. They do have a tendency to come loose. With loctite mine stays put pretty well. They are easy to tighten on the fly. I have a ton of miles over several years with mine, no breakage.

  8. Scott Bontz says:

    Is that my fixed-gear hero Kent Peterson second from right in the opening photo? Did he ride this course fixed?

    • Jan Heine says:

      That is David Wilcox (formerly from Portland and now from Berkeley), and he rode the course with gears. On this course, fixed would have meant a lot of pushing!

  9. Marvin Fickle says:

    Two hundred miles/day on gravel, with just a handlebar bag? I presume you were supported, or did you ride all night in the saddle? Shelter and sleeping bag? Food? I guess there are the gods of the trail.

  10. I think you’ve mentioned the “beefy” chain stays on your Firefly a couple of times, either on the blog and/or Instagram. Presumably they’re pretty stiff (the similar sized ones on my titanium bike certainly are) and help to stabilize the bottom bracket. How does this relate to flexible frames & planing? (A genuine question, I’m not being snide.)

    • Jan Heine says:

      What matters for ‘planing’ appears to be the balance of frame stiffness – stiffness and flex in the right places. Many of the best-performing frames have relatively flexible top tubes, stiffer down tubes and quite stiff chainstays. This applies to classic steel as well as modern carbon frames.

  11. Jacob Musha says:

    Jan with a GPS! I never thought I’d see the day. I would always feel a little bad reading most of your ride reports, when you would inevitably get lost due to missing road signs, incorrect directions, or other mix-ups. For me, getting lost when I have a specific route planned is not part of the fun. I want to think about navigation as little as possible when I’m riding. I used to use my GPS exclusively, but because it’s a Garmin Edge Touring it’s an avalanche of bugs and errors that none of their useless software updates can fix. Lately I’ve been using the GPS as a backup and making detailed paper maps that use for most of my navigating. It’s more work ahead of time but nicer when riding.

    • Jan Heine says:

      For me, the route finding is part of the fun. Often, we explore roads that simply look promising, seeing where they go. That said, on this ride, GPS was essential, as most of the dirt trails aren’t marked in any way. Navigating by topo maps would be interesting, but it would have taken too much time. Even so, when my GPS reset itself and I couldn’t reload the course while out on my own, I had to navigate by intuition, and fortunately, I was able to get back on course that way.

    • vankempf says:

      What are these bugs and errors you are suffering from? I have now been using a Garmin Edge 800 with OSM maps and Komoot for almost 5 years and have not noticed any bugs. The only serious issue I have had was the unit overheating in the subtropics in Kyushu and showing “a test screen”. I powered it down and after a short break in the shade the unit could be powered up again. The few issues I have are normally caused by “overriding” Komoot and then finding that there is actually no accessible trail.

      I have to admit that I have used a friend’s Garmin Edge Touring once and found it not as user friendly as the older 800. As result I have not upgraded.

  12. Blake Anderson says:

    Jan, looks like a great bike and an amazing ride, thanks for sharing! One question though: in the past I think you would have been unsatisfied with such an “un-integrated” bike with no fenders, no dyno lights, no decaleur. When are we going to see a fully integrated enduro all road with 55+ tires? I doubt I’m the only one holding my breath!

  13. John Clay says:

    “Tires for the Solstice Ride” is more like it. It’s the tire. The impressive quality/performance of everything else is tertiary. Build any reasonable, conventional bike, with parts you can get out of dumpster, that accommodates that tire and you’re at 99.9%. I’m sure I’ll ride my BSP bike again but for the last few months I’ve only reached for the identically framed and equipped RTP bike. Every ride has roads & trails in soft/med/hard sand, , mud, crushed shell/rock and pavement, in roughly equal proportion, sometimes wet. The broad and high performance envelope of the RTP is simply better than anything else I’ve ridden.

  14. Can you show us a map of this route? I’d love to see where you went, our bikepacking posse might want to give it a try.

    • Jan Heine says:

      Ryan will publish the route once all the kinks are ironed out. It’s a truly great route if you like climbing, descending, gravel and single track. With the jog up to Crater Lake, it’s incredibly scenic, too.

  15. Malcolm Walker says:

    Hi Jan. I’m looking for an all-purpose “gravel” and cyclocross tire to ride year round on the other side of the Salish Sea here on southern Vancouver Island. I think I’ve got my heart set on a pair of Steilacooms, but unfortunately your website displays that the ‘endurance’ casing iteration is currently out of stock. Do you happen to know when these will next be available? Thanks a lot.

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