Life beyond the automobile in Southern California

Archive for the tag “Surly Long Haul Trucker”

Topanga Creek Bicycles

TCB entry

Recently, I got some new handlebars for one of my bikes, which also gave me an opportunity to visit one of my favorite bike shops: Topanga Creek Bicycles (TCB) in Topanga Canyon.

It’s a special bike shop, unlike any other I’ve been in outside of Portland or San Francisco.  The shop is actually an old house nestled deep in a shady recess of Topanga Canyon, right next to whispering Topanga creek.  It’s been converted into a bike shop by owner Chris Kelly, who moved the shop from Hollywood a few years ago, and kept the charm of the house as part of its homey appeal.  But the delightful setting isn’t the primary reason I like the shop.  They make my favorites list, because they’re extremely knowledgeable and they carry lots of hard-to-find, quality stuff I like, such as Surly and Salsa bikes, Brooks saddles, Schwalbe tires, and Arkel bags.

Chris and the rest of the gang at TCB are dedicated to first-rate customer service while preserving a laid-back, friendly atmosphere.  Stop by on any given afternoon and don’t be surprised if they offer you some coffee or fresh-baked banana bread from their kitchen or maybe a hamburger if they’re grilling out back.  The interior of the shop almost feels more like sitting in a bike-lover’s living room than a retail establishment.  If the weather’s cold outside, Chris might have a fire going in the wood-burning stove that sits in the corner of the living room—uh, I mean showroom.  If mountain biking is your thing, they lead a regular Saturday morning ride in the Santa Monica mountains for riders of various ability levels and they’ve built quite a loyal following of mountain bikers.

My initial reason for finding this shop back in 2009 was that I had been looking for a good quality, versatile cro-moly steel bicycle frame to use as a serious urban utility bike and wanted a shop that would take the time to make sure I was properly fitted and, because I wanted to make some changes to the stock components, would customize the bike for me.  I also didn’t want a shop that was trying to push the latest carbon fiber fad or make me feel like I needed to buy clipless pedals and wear spandex if I wanted to be a “real” bicyclist.  I wound up purchasing a Surly LHT from them which they fitted with Soma Oxford bars, racks, and fenders.  Later I had them build a front wheel with a Shimano Dynamo hub that uses the energy of the wheel to power my lights without need for batteries or recharging (dynamo hubs are widely used in Europe where people use bikes for everyday transportation).

TCB shop

Recently, I had the shop order some new Jones Loop H-bar handlebars for my Salsa Fargo.  I got the Fargo a couple of years ago as an on/off road bike for riding fire roads in the mountains above my home, but I’ve lately been using it more as a cargo hauler and commuter.  The stock handlebars placed me in a riding position that was too stretched-out for me and was hard on my back, especially on longer rides.  Once they arrived, I made an appointment to bring my bike in for the installation of the new bars.

Jones loop H-bars

The Jones bar allows me to ride in a more upright, comfortable position, while still affording me multiple hand positions for longer rides and is suitable for on or off-road riding.  My initial review of these bars is that they are much more comfortable for me than the old bars, and as far as I can tell, sacrifice nothing in terms of ride quality.  The Jones bar’s unique shape provides a way to get in an “aero” position when going into a headwind, for example.  Overall, I’m extremely happy with these new bars (a longer review of the setup will be forthcoming).

TCB interior

An added plus was that I got to hang out and chat with the shop staff while my new bars were being installed.  Tanner, the young mechanic who worked on my bike, also showed me how to remove a worn-out chain and replace it, offering a number of helpful tips on chain maintenance.  I got my new handlebars, learned a thing or two about bike maintenance, looked at all the new bikes and gear in the shop, and talked bikes with Chris, Ryan, and Tanner, three really cool guys.  All in all, not a bad way to spend a Friday afternoon.

I know this post sounds a bit like an advertisement for the shop.  Well, in a way, it is—but not because I received any compensation or was asked to.  Think of it as a way to share one of my favorite bike places with my readers.  I wish there were more shops like it (I mean, where else would you find a bike shop with a kitchen?).  But, then again, if there were, I wouldn’t have an excuse to see my friends at TCB.

Bike Baskets and Racks

As I use my bike for errands and everyday transportation, I’ve found the wire bicycle basket to be a great way to tote a variety of small to medium items, increasing the practicality of my bike (pictured is my Surly Long Haul Trucker).  As shown above, I’ve stashed my swim gear in the basket when going to swim some laps and I’ve secured it with a small elastic cargo net.  The basket also works great when I’m at the grocery store or farmer’s market, and if I’m carrying stuff in my panniers, I know I’ve always got room for any overflow in my basket.  I’ve had this setup on my LHT for years, and this review, as with all my reviews, is offered as an unsolicited testimonial about gear I actually use.

The basket pictured is a Wald 139 basket that is 18 inches wide by 13 inches deep by 6 inches high.  Wald is a small family-owned company that makes a variety of bike accessories and bicycle baskets of all shapes and sizes.  They’ve been making wire bike baskets like these with the same quality for over 100 years, and they’ve got a classic look.  Well-designed functionality never goes out of style.  My basket is the perfect size for a camera bag, a couple of small pizzas, baguettes, a couple of bottles of wine, or a laptop, or books . . . whatever, really.

The Wald basket comes with mounting struts that attach to your front wheel axle, but my basket is mounted with zip ties on a Pass and Stow front “Porteur” rack.  This setup works well for me because it’s got a clean look and I can easily remove the basket without removing the whole rack.  So, if I need to carry, say, three extra large pizzas, or take a large box to the post office (both of which I’ve done), I just remove the wire basket and my Pass and Stow porteur rack will handle the oversized load.  Porteur racks get their name from the French delivery bikes of the 1940s, 50s, and 60s that had flat front racks on them, so that oversized items could be carried on the bike.  It’s good to see these practical racks making a comeback (Cetma, Soma, Velo Orange, and Paul Component Engineering also make quality porteur racks, but overall I think the Pass and Stow is the most well-designed).  The Pass and Stow rack is hand made by Matt Feeney in San Francisco.  Matt has designed a sturdy, elegant front rack that will hold up to 60 lbs, and is easy to mount on the eyelets of my front fork.  I’ve carried all manner of cargo on my Pass and Stow rack, and it really increases the utility of the bike.  It’s also got a well-designed mount for a front light, which allows you to mount a light on the underside of the rack instead of cluttering up your handlebars.

In Europe and Asia, where bikes are often used for utilitarian purposes, you regularly see bikes with racks, bags, and baskets, because people carry stuff on their bikes.  Unfortunately, in the United States, most bicycle companies market bikes as purely fitness or recreational toys, and, depending on the bike shop you visit, it can be hard to find bikes ready to buy with such accessories.  However, as more Americans use bikes for transportation and commuting, this is beginning to change, and bicycle companies are offering “city bikes” or hybrids that will accommodate racks and baskets.  Having racks and baskets to carry things with makes it much easier and more practical to incorporate your bike into your “real life.”  And that, for me, is the whole idea.

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