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It took me a very long time to decide but in December I bought a new commuting-to-work bicycle. It’s a Trek 520 touring bike, the Taiwanese version, not the American version which means it has a different kind of gear-changing and brake-lever system and it is $200 cheaper.

I thought I’d post about it here because I used the web a lot in my research and I learned a lot of stuff that I didn’t know before.

Actually, I tried to buy a cheaper Fuji touring bike, from a shop in Brisbane (web site not worth a link at this stage) but they couldn’t get one and were not always too good at getting back to me on the phone, and I talked to thebike shop in Sydney that fixed Tom Worthington’s broken bendy bikebut they don’t do email all that well. And their site is very long on obscure cool, pictures of bikes and loads of jargon, and very short on information – my first email to them was to ask if they sold actual bikes, ’cos I couldn’t really tell.

In the end I went to the LBS (the Local Bike Shop) and bought the Trek 520 having only seen a smaller one in a shop in Sydney that must have been last year’s model. It’s not the kind of thing they keep on the floor of their shop in Toowoomba. Ordering, I hoped that the back wheel would not be untrue (ie bent) like the one on the $320 worth of Chinese mountain bike, now my shopping bike, which I bought from the LBS five years ago.

The 520 is called a touring bike, but I use it as a commuter. There are plenty of complaints out there on the web that it’s not a real touring bike; ie not suitable for riding over big mountain ranges with 50-plus kilos of gear in panniers front and back and a handlebar bag, and a rack bag on the rear. People have concerns that the wheels and the rack might not be strong enough for that and the gears are not low enough.

I think of the touring bit more like the touring in GT – ie Grand Tourer, built to be comfortable for long distances at reasonable speed, not designed to be a truck – although this reviewcalls it a tractor. Actually, it’s just an old-fashioned bicycle.

If I do any tours in the short term I would take no more than what fits in the rear panniers anyway.

The new bike has done about 450km, most of it in multiples of 7.6km which is the shortest distance between work and home, and has been for its free service with no problems and the wheels remain true. I do prefer it to any other way of getting to work. I’m expecting to do about 3000km a year on it…

I bought it because…

It has a big frame…
…and so do I and it has drop-handlebars that mean I am bit more aerodynamic.
It has a 3 * 27 drivetrain.
Triple chaining in the front and 9 gears at the back, making 27 gears. The highest gear is fast enough to be scary for me, although I am getting used to going quicker as I learn to trust the brakes and the tyres. The lowest is 30 / 32 – meaning that one revolution of the pedal is nearly a revolution of the wheels.
It is designed for, and comes with, a back rack.
I go to work with office clothes, lunch and a computer in a pair of old green Wilderness Equipment Super Tour panniers that I love, and more often than not stop to buy milk, bread, meat, veges on the way home from work, often adding up to an extra 10kg or so. Other people have complained online about the rack on the 520 but it looks OK to me and comes with a very nice little elastic strap.
There are little holes to mount a front rack if I need it for a longer tour, like I’m going to get a chance to do that.
The frame is made of a steel alloy.
I assume the frame will last for a long time and will flex a bit and not crack like some aluminum alloy frames.
It is a good quality bike…
…with good components that work properly together and will not fall apart after a few thousand kilometres like the components on the last bike where brake levers and rear axle have needed replacing and other parts are getting dodgy. At least the theory is that they will not fall apart.
It’s an ordinary upright bike.
I looked into recumbent bikes but no matter what they all say on their websites, and they all seem to have a section on how safe it all is, I think that the lower you are the more likely you are to be hit by a motorist of some kind. And they cost more for the same level of components. And they are said to be slow going up hills.

Stuff I discovered later…

Miscellaneous
  • Everything is held together with Allen keys these days, apparently, including making the seat go up and down and fiddling with the handlebars.

  • The tyres are skinnier than the slicks I used to have on my old yellow, much loved Shogun mountain bike that was stolen in the year 2000, and they seem to be faster, but they’re still pretty fat, meaning they are reasonably stable on gravel and not too harsh to ride on.

  • Rides well, whatever that means. People talk about the steel frame flexing and so on, which I really can’t tell, but I find it much more satisfying to ride than the old mountain bike, also steel, and I get where I’m going much quicker.

  • The STI gear/brake levers are a really good idea. Long distance touring types distrust them but they let you change gears and stop the bicycle, from lots of different positions on the handlebars without shifting your hands around.

  • The much maligned saddle seems alright to me, but I have never used a really good one, and I have not spent more than about an hour at a time on this bike, usually much less.

  • It has mud guards (fenders) to stop the rider and his hi-vis green shirt from getting too wet and muddy should it ever rain again in Toowoomba. Daniel De Byl from the ICE projectsays they make it look like a girl’s bike, but then his nickname is Kylie (doesn’t like being called Danny). I like them, even if they make me look like a girl but the website doesn’t mention them.

Pedals
I didn’t consider this at all until after I had put down my deposit, but the bike comes with special Shimano SPD clipless pedals (have a look around Sheldon Brown’s site, very very useful and entertaining).
I gave it a hundred km or so with no toe-sticking-on-device at all, which feels very very dangerous after years of riding with old fashioned toe-straps that stop your feet from slipping off and give you a bit of extra power. Then I bolted on some $8 KMart toe straps while I considered spending more money on fancy shoes.
During this phase I found that both sans-straps and with the toe straps my feet would often hit the front wheel when maneuvering at low speed; annoying and possibly dangerous. But this problem went away when I finally bought the Specialized Body Geometry Comp MTB shoes ’cos the other Toowoomba LBS **** had a pair in size 48 that some other person with largish feet had ordered-in and not bought, and they let me have them cheap.
For those of you who don’t know, the SPD pedals come with little bits of metal called cleats. You buy a pair of special shoes with rigid soles, take off the not-special little bits of metal that come screwed to them and bolt on the special cleats in their place. Then you adjust everything with Allen keys so that you can make your feet stick to the pedals by pushing down at just the right angle (kind of like putting on skis mid piste at first) and you can twist your heel to make the pedals let go.

I know nothing about cycle shoes apart from the above but: 1. I have not fallen off, if you don’t count the incident with the already broken plastic table outside our garage and the nonchalant lean-on-the-table-with-the-feet-clipped-in.

  1. The connection with the bike does seem to be effective, and yes they do seem to help with hill climbing.

  2. I didn’t lose all the spare little screws that hold the cleats in place, just a few of them until I figured out to do them up really tight.

  3. They make my toes go numb on the way to work, which is kind of comforting, reminds me of walking boots and climbing boots and ski boots that make your feet hurt while you have fun. Toes don’t go numb on the way home, but that’s mostly downhill. And it doesn’t hurt.

Bad stuff

The only dodgy bit is nothing to do with the Trek 520, it’s the the Sigma cycle computer. I got the shop to put on a model with a cadence measuring feature that tells you how fast your feet are going around in revolutions per minute – handy to know if you ever need to pedal a gramophone I suppose. The little magnet on the crank fell off shortly after I bought the bike, and the LBS replaced it but now the thing doesn’t work even though it is still there. I knew it was still there because it started making a click click click noise about 90 times a minute on the way to work yesterday. It’s not meant to do that, it’s meant to work with magnetism, not percussion. Today it fell apart and there’s a broken thingie inside that must have once been the magnetic switch.



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