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12/12/07
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.

11 Responses to “The Hilsen Cornering Project”

  1. Badgerland Says:
    That is great description of the bike handling properties! You may lose a few of the “younger” crowd with your references to albums however. ;) Had the AHH been available before I bought my Atlantis I probably would have bought one. Do you use the Jack Brown’s offroad too and if so, what do your “trails” look like?
  2. Jim G Says:
    I want some Jack Brown greens for my upcoming 700C P/R. And sometime I need you to follow me down Camino Alto and give me pointers on cornering technique — I mostly feel like I’ve no clue what I’m doing!
  3. The Cyclofiend Says:
    Badgerland - Ha! …and I even edited the text so it didn’t say “records”… The trails are a variety of conditions, from wide jeepy/logging/fire access roads to bumpy-thumpy singletrack with jagged rocks. I thread pretty carefully when it gets jagged, as the JB Greens are thinner. This was from one of the first rides on the former.
  4. The Cyclofiend Says:
    Jim G - I’m pretty impressed with them. The speedblends I had were Roughy-Toughy’s in about 27mm or so and I really liked the way they felt on the road. These of course are beefier, but still have a nice feel. As for descending, anytime! (But I think we both could learn some pointers from Carlos…)
  5. Bob D Says:
    Nice analogy Jim. I remember, back in the day, bringing home the latest Pink Floyd or Jethro Tull release and sitting in front of the stereo intently listening while reading the album sleeve cover to cover with my enthusiasm piqued. I thought those days were gone but your blog reminded me that my kid-like enthusiasm has not left, it has just been re-directed. I’m so jealous of you Californians when it comes to riding this time of year. My AHH has been locked in its room for way too long. I got the Hilsen the last week of September and due to Rhode Island’s short days and nasty weather this time of year I have put a mere 100 miles on it. I think my longest ride was 30ish miles, but a really comfortable 30 miles. I didn’t want to end that ride but the sun was setting and I had no lights on my new bike. That was probably my third or fourth time out on the AHH and although the bike felt good on previous rides, this particular ride it was starting to feel great (I was truly bummed out that I had to end the ride). I did a group ride some days later on my Specialized Tarmac (different animal, I know). I really like that bike too and as far as carbon fiber racing bikes go; I guess it’s comfortable although much of the comfort comes from years of riding it and knowing its handling limitations (and mine). I’m really looking forward to putting more miles on the Hilsen and getting to know its capabilities. Thanks for the insight. Bob D.
  6. Philip Williamson Says:
    I think “record” is appropriate. CDs, DVDs and MP3s are all “recordings.” The record I bought today even had two discs, so might count as an ‘album’… and most classic record “albums” came in sleeves, not big albums of records like 78s… The etymology of vinyl nomenclature… boy am I a dork! I remember riding trails in the Santa Cruz mountains with my friend, and we were following a guy on a Rock Lobster. I learned a lot watching his tire. “Oh yeah… flick the bike a little to the left, and keep your speed through that sharp right!”
  7. The Cyclofiend Says:
    We may be the last generation to know what “dialing a phone” ever actually meant… ;^) Following good riders is a huge key to learning.
  8. beth h Says:
    I’m terrible at cornering, have been since I crashed and bailed regularly as a child evading bullies on my bike. I’m a little better at it now. A bike that makes it a little easier really helps. And I do understand how that works. My All-Rounder is delightful to corner with, and the round profile of the Paselas doesn’t hurt either. All this happy talk about Homer makes me wish they’d extended the size range down to a 55. Darn it.
  9. The Cyclofiend Says:
    Sorry about the bullies… If it’s any consolation, Homer is downright surly in the morning before his first cup of coffee, and often takes a second cookie without asking. Gotta keep my eye on him…
  10. beth h Says:
    That’s nothing. The Rivvy (the longlow) demads I make a full pot of jo in the morning just for her… Meanwhile, I did a good deed today. I met with a customer who is 6′ 6″ and simply cannot get comfortable on a 64 cm bike anymore. I HATE watching people try to ride bikes that don’t fit them and cause them bodily pain. So first, I helped him get over his dream (of finding a used bike in his true size for under 700 bucks) and then helped him get over the sticker shock of a — you guessed it! — Homer. I KNOW one of those will fit him. I sent him to talk to Grant et al. Hopefully he’ll like what he sees and hears.
  11. The Cyclofiend Says:
    You did an honorable thing there. Excellent.