cyclofiend.com - peripheral thoughts & notes

December 2007
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The Hilsen Cornering Project
Filed under: general
Posted by: The Cyclofiend @ 9:52 am

A few months back, I sold off my open-wheeled racer and added an A. Homer Hilsen.  In one sense, it’s a curious type of bicycle and I’ve found myself explaining it to folks - both cycling knowledgeable and not - using very non-standard phrases, at least as far as typical bicycle hoo-haw verbiage is concerned.

That’s because its design - optimum clearance for big honkin’ tires, tough enough to handle diverse and rattly terrain, versatile enough for CX racing or brevets, errands or just toodling around - isn’t very standard these days. It takes a little more description for people to understand; most can easily comprehend or test “light”, for example. But, if you tell them that the design allows for large diameter tires, you probably have to explain why that’s a good thing, which usually uses the example of taking the bike offroad, which quickly has most (sane?) folks wondering aloud just why anyone would want to do that with what seems to be a road bike.

Sometimes I get them to understand the “why” of that - afterall, life does not end at the edge of the paved areas, and the best rides always seem to be the ones which start at your backdoor. Since I’m lucky enough to live somewhere the roads end at trails, and the trails continue unabated, the versatility makes complete sense. You just need to point that out to them.

Riding more once again, I’m starting to learn the Hilsen a bit. The more rides and miles I put in with it, more things reveal themselves about the design and resulting behaviors. It’s a bit like when you first listen to an album - on some, everything sounds good and nice and accessible. You find youself humming along with songs you’ve never heard even before they end. All those songs are often quickly forgotten. Others start off a bit more opaque - you probably didn’t buy it just for the single you heard on the radio. After a first listen, you probably aren’t wild about it.  But, there’s enough there that you go back a few times, begin hearing and enjoying the dissonances and pauses, make some sense of the impenetrable moments. It continues to demonstrate deeper layers, and all-too-rarely, becomes supremely important.

Which is kinda what Homer seems to be doing.  It started out comfortable and stable, one of the traits that I’d enjoyed on the Quickbeam.  I didn’t really have to make any corrections, other than relearn shifting a bit. (Flip-flopping a rear wheel is a much more specific act…)  Just before getting sick/injured and off the bike, I began to push things a bit, bringing a little more speed into corners.  Invariably, the clear thought rose up while exited the turn, “…could’a held a little more speed through that….”

Now, I’m not encouraging anyone to try cornering in a way that makes them uneasy or is beyond their skill set. In fact, diving into corners is a quick way to get an asphalt-assisted dermal abrasion treatment. Bicycling rarely takes place in a test lab, and streets have oil, sand, glass and more, while tires and tubes can fail.

But, riding bikes in my geographic area means that you spend some time going downhill through turns. You either get passably good and reasonably comfortable with it or have such a witty demeanor that ride partners will wait for you to catch up.

November brought a minor hiatus in learning the bike - Homer’s been waiting for me to catch up. I’m past the “laying off the braking” step and am beginning to actually pedal harder into the corners. On Sunday’s longer ride and Monday’s post-work errand runs two things became pretty obvious - 1) Grant’s design - with a nice low bottom bracket height, balanced rider position and favorable dimensions - really handles well, and 2) big honkin’ round profile tires utterly rock.

The design part probably has enough variables to be beyond my ability to ken. The result, however, is like a refined tool. As with any tool worth using, there’s a bit of technique involved. But, when the two mesh, things move effortlessly.  It’s like swinging an axe - done right, the axe seems to do all the work. (Of course, you end up a little sore the next day…)  When I’m heading down Camino Alto, only minor inputs are necessary. It seems to carve corners easily and still isn’t breathing hard, patiently encouraging me along, trusting that I’ll make sense of things the more miles we share.

Tires play a big part in this, and Jack Brown is becoming a name I trust. On the last two rides, I’ve looked down to recognize what is clearly a reasonably silly amount of lean angle, but the tires stay tacked down and smoothly transition from side to side during S-turns. The ease with which the bike drops into the turn, then swaps side for the opposing turn feels like a motorcycle - I don’t feel like I need to give any power input at all, and the momentum just smoothly sings through weight shifts and changes of angle.

So, there I am, still increasing velocity into turns while the bike just patiently replies, “is that all you’ve got?” We’re definitely developing a connection - not in any airy-fairy way of auras and such (although I won’t discount that possibility - I mean, what happens on long rides stays on long rides….). More like the memorable album, where you keep finding more that you like with each repeated listening.

I’m liking this bike.