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Steel vs. Aluminum, similar bikes with different frame on same route (NOVA)?

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Steel vs. Aluminum, similar bikes with different frame on same route (NOVA)?

Old 09-11-10, 10:45 AM
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Steel vs. Aluminum, similar bikes with different frame on same route (NOVA)?

The single biggest dislike of my commute is the bad trail quality on my commute which starts on the W&OD in Falls Church, goes on the Custis Trail in Arlington and then down the Mt. Vernon trail across the 14th St Bridge into DC.

Currently I ride a heavy touring bike, Novara Safari, with 26 inch wheels. I used to ride on 2.0 Conti Town and Country but now have 1.75 Conti Travel Contact. The frame is aluminum but it has a steel fork. I do have bike shorts and good gloves.

As I said the single biggest impediment to the enjoyment of my commute is the horrible quality of the trails. I'm frequently lifting my bottom out of the saddle in anticipation of bumps. I believe that the stiff aluminum frame of a touring bike, which I admittedly do not ride fully loaded on my commute, exacerbates the sensation of the bumps on the trail. However, never having ridden a bike with a different frame material, I cannot say for sure.

I have talked with a coworker who has a few bikes, one a road bike with an aluminum frame and carbon fork and another a cyclocross with a steel frame and (he thinks) a carbon fork but he was not sure. He thinks the steel frame one is a bit more comfortable but that may also be because it has wider tires.

I have been eyeing a steel frame, carbon fork commuter (Jamis Coda Elite) that I may get as a replacement at some point next year.

However, given that my current bike is good condition, I would hate to buy a new bike and not notice a markedly improved riding experience. Also, it is hard to find this possible new bike to test ride and I think that while a test ride helps you dial in fit, it is hard to get a feel for how a bike rides on a short test ride.

So my question for you awesome forum members, have some of you done the same commute on bikes with different frame materials but perhaps similar geometries, and noticed a marked improvement in ride quality? In particular if one of you had done the same commute I have in Northern Virginia, I would find your experiences interesting. I don't mean this to open up the steel vs. aluminum debate but really want to hear about personal experiences.
Thanks!
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Old 09-11-10, 11:43 AM
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My alu crosser riders just as well as my cromo MTB.

You'll get mostly junk replies. Most people don't understand that

1. Frame properties are not material properties - tubing diameter and wall thickness matter combine with material to set final properties; you can get an alu and steel bike to ride exactly alike depending on how these are varied

2. Geometry trumps materials - an extra few mm of chainstay will remove a lot of shock

3. Tyre width, compound quality, and pressure trump everything else. If a frame could out shock absorb tyres you'd *see* it flexing.

Fit a tyre with a high threads per inch and drop the pressure a little, which you can afford to do if it is made out of low hysteresis rubber. 2" Marathon Duremes sound about right. Set them on low pressure and you should get almost an inch of shock absorb. If that isn't enough then a good suspension seat post would make more sense than changing frames.
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Old 09-11-10, 12:02 PM
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To add to Meanwhile's excellent post, Your technique of lifting your butt out of the seat is actually correct, and is the way to provide active "suspension" in the form of your flexible body. The routine can actually be a very pleasant one - work to smooth out the transition out of and into the saddle and feel the bike pivoting below you as it undulates over the terrain. Your legs and arms become the springs in the suspension system and your "quiet" body provides stability and momentum.
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Old 09-11-10, 12:24 PM
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Yup. Meanwhile is right.

I have four bikes. All of them have carbon forks. One is cheap aluminum, one is good aluminum, one is good steel and one is good titanium. The cheap aluminum rides like, well, cheap aluminum. The other three ride about the same. (Heresy!)

Don't get me wrong, there are noticeable, if subtle, differences between the three bikes that ride about the same. I can tell them apart blindfolded. But I cannot say that one rides significantly better (or worse) than the others. They're just different in how they deliver a nice ride, is all.

If anything, the tires seem to make a bigger difference than the frame material. All my bikes run Continental Grand Prix 4-Season tires, three of them in 25mm, and the good aluminum one in 28mm. That bike rides a smidge (just a smidge) better than all the others, including the steel and Ti.

The cheapest test, then, is to go play with inflation. In run my 25s at 70F/80R and the 28s at 60F/70R. This makes most roadies fall all over themselves telling me I'm stupid for running less than 120PSI. If I want a buckboard ride, certainly I could pump them up to the max. But the max is just that--do not exceed. It is not the "recommended" pressure, it is the maximum pressure.

It doesn't show 26" tires, but the concepts expressed in this article, PSI Rx, are the same no matter what the tire size. I used its suggestions as a baseline from which to begin experimentation.
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Old 09-11-10, 12:30 PM
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i have ridden both materials. Steel does seem to dampen the bumps.

Another thing to consider is change to a more comfortable saddle or add a suspension seatpost. I just ordered one from Nashbar on sale for a AL hardtail MTB but haven't received it to try it out.
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Old 09-11-10, 03:10 PM
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I used to believe steel was the better material, but now I am not so sure. I think more along the lines of meanwhile and tsl now and realize that other factors come into play more than I realized.

When I was testing touring bikes I actually found the Cannondale T2 more comfortable than my LHT (not by much). Both were stock, but with some tweaking I found a happy medium.

Definitely test ride the Coda and make the comparison on your own. I love my Jamis exile, but I mostly ride my LHT.
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Old 09-11-10, 03:21 PM
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Your tyres and saddle will contribute more to ride quality than frame materials as you can make a nice riding frame out of any of the commonly used frame materials.

I have one aluminum bike and have to say that it rides as well or better than any steel bike I own... this comes down to the tyres, saddle, and my trekking bars which all help to reduce road shocks / vibrations. If this bike was fitted with high psi tyres it would beat me to death as it is a very stiff frame with stiff components and a rigid fork and prefers to be loaded up with more than my skinny butt.

If you are riding rougher trails you will probably want to lower the psi on your tyres to offer more shock absorption... if you are riding on tyres at max psi on rough trails the bike is going to beat you up a lot more.

My expedition bike rolls on 26 by 1.5 Marathon tyres and on the road I will run these at 90psi but if I am on rougher trails will lower their psi to 45-50 psi to smooth out the ride.
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Old 09-11-10, 05:41 PM
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Thanks, these are very helpful replies. I have a Brooks Champion Flyer saddle (a sprung B17) and I am pretty certain that my chainstays are 16.9 inches long, Novara (REI housebrand) calls what I think is the chainstay the "rear to center" measurement. In any event I thought touring bikes generally had longer chainstays so that there was no heel strike on panniers.

What is really telling is how over inflated I have had my tires based upon that "PSI, Rx" article from Adventure Cycling. I have excellent Shwalbe tubes that lose air slowly and I have been inflating my tires to 80 PSI at the beginning of each week. The Conti Travel Contacts I use have a max PSI of 90.

That article does not even have a curve for the equivalent of 1.75 width tires but using a 60/40 rear to front ratio, I am estimating that with my width my rear tire should be set to 65 PSI and front should be 45 to 50. I am erring on the side of over inflation here.

If lowering the PSI helps on these tires, then rather than getting a new bike, in a few more hundred miles my Contis will be shot and I'll spend the money on an expensive Schwalbe tire like the Marathon Plus or the Duremes.

There is one frustrating thing about that article, it says you should keep your tire inflated enough to avoid pinch flats but does not really give any guidelines for what the minimum inflation to avoid pinchflats might be. I obviously do not want to get pinch flats. I am going to try running 65 and 50 this week and see how that feels, hopefully better.
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Old 09-11-10, 09:15 PM
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I ride the C&O Towpath, Capital Cresent Trail and Mount Vernon Trail every day, so I'm very familiar with the poor quality of the MUPs and adjoining roads in the area. The tree root ridges are harsh, as are the transitions between roads and trails. My main commuter is an MTB with aluminium frame/rigid cromo fork. This bike has a rack and full fenders and fully loaded is in the low 30 lbs range. I also occasionally commute on my all carbon fiber road bike, with no extra gear/fenders/rack, which weighs around 18 lbs.

While the carbon fiber bike provides a slightly smoother ride, and is of course much faster, I think a substantial part of the ride difference is due to 15 lbs lower bike weight. A heavier bike does not go over bumps as easily as a lighter bike. Steel frames are generally heavier than aluminum or carbon fiber, so I while you may see a modest improvement in ride quality changing to a steel frame, there are other ways to achieve the same result.

More substantial tires at lower pressure would be my first option if the ride was too harsh. Next I would think about a different saddle and perhaps better grips/bar ends. You also want to work on your technique in riding over rough patches and simply slow down if there are to many bumps.
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Old 09-12-10, 08:12 AM
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thanks Alan. My main bike, the Novara Safari, is very heavy. Stock weight was around 30 lbs but I added SKS fenders and swapped out the saddle for a sprung brooks and ride with a pannier so I am estimating the weight of the bike is in the mid to upper 30s, say 35 to 40 range. I weigh about 175.

I do have a 3 speed Breezer bike with upright position, all aluminum frame, and 26 tires with heavy Marathon plus tires and a B67 saddle, also spring but even wider saddle. This bike is probably about 5lbs lighter and has better tires and I notice that it rides somewhat better than the Safari but still not super on this trail. I am also overinflating these tires but I don't really ride this bike for a long haul commute all 11 miles to DC, I only take it to the subway, 1.5 miles away, primarily in my work clothes where I rent a bike locker to store it.
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Old 09-12-10, 09:34 AM
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https://www.sheldonbrown.com/frame-materials.html
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Old 09-12-10, 10:58 AM
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I ride the trails you mentioned and the surrounding area. I started doing it on a trek 1400 Aluminum, now its a IRO steel single speed. the ride is much more comfortable on steel. I use 28mm Panaracer Pasela tires. I do use bullhorns so I'm somewhat hunched/stretched
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Old 09-12-10, 10:21 PM
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Originally Posted by meanwhile
My alu crosser riders just as well as my cromo MTB.

You'll get mostly junk replies. Most people don't understand that

1. Frame properties are not material properties - tubing diameter and wall thickness matter combine with material to set final properties; you can get an alu and steel bike to ride exactly alike depending on how these are varied
But you can make broad generalities - most aluminum bikes use larger-diameter tubes with thicker walls than are used with steel (higher moment of area, and as we all know aluminum has a lower specific strength but a higher specific modulus). It's a double-whammy for aluminum's rigidity - higher Ixx from the geometry. And don't forget, tubes are typically available in a limited range of sizes, so unless a frame is built by somebody with enough production to build mandrels to make a full-on custom tubeset, it's something out of a manufacturer's catalog.

Originally Posted by meanwhile
2. Geometry trumps materials - an extra few mm of chainstay will remove a lot of shock
Longer chainstays will produce a more stable bike (due to the longer wheelbase) and give more heel clearance for panniers, but they make a vanishingly small contribution to how the frame reacts to impact loads.

Originally Posted by meanwhile
3. Tyre width, compound quality, and pressure trump everything else. If a frame could out shock absorb tyres you'd *see* it flexing.
Watch your frame sometime - you DO see it flexing.

I don't disagree with you that frame geometry and tires are important contributors to ride quality - but don't discount the importance of the frame, including the frame material - it's more important than you realize. The OP may find no difference in going to a different frame, or he may find happiness and bliss - and the only way to find out for sure is to spend some time in the saddles of various bikes.
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Old 09-12-10, 10:51 PM
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Put a suspension seat post on it, that will soften the shocks you don't see in advance
to stand on the pedals .
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Old 09-12-10, 11:21 PM
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Originally Posted by aley
But you can make broad generalities - most aluminum bikes use larger-diameter tubes with thicker walls than are used with steel (higher moment of area, and as we all know aluminum has a lower specific strength but a higher specific modulus). It's a double-whammy for aluminum's rigidity - higher Ixx from the geometry. And don't forget, tubes are typically available in a limited range of sizes, so unless a frame is built by somebody with enough production to build mandrels to make a full-on custom tubeset, it's something out of a manufacturer's catalog.
You can make broad generalities but that will tell you nothing about an individual bike. It also seems to me that there's a lot more experimenting with different tube shapes going on than there used to be. There's three (adult) steel bikes in my garage right now. One from the 80's and two from the 90's. All of them use plain old straight and round tubes for the main triangle.

There's one adult aluminum bike in the garage. The seat and head tubes are straight and round but the down tube and the top tubes have very unique shapes. The downtube is fatter and kind of oval shaped near the bottom bracket and then gradually more tear drop shaped as it gets to the head tube. The top tube is tear drop shaped across it's whole length.

This is an entry level road bike. The newer version of this bike has a "bowed" top tube:



I don't know if ride quality played a role in selecting these shapes or if it was aerodynamics or just aesthetics but clearly manufacturers can do a lot things that affect how a frame reacts to bumps and jolts that matter more than the material used.
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Old 09-13-10, 12:03 AM
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Originally Posted by JeffC
Thanks, these are very helpful replies. I have a Brooks Champion Flyer saddle (a sprung B17) and I am pretty certain that my chainstays are 16.9 inches long, Novara (REI housebrand) calls what I think is the chainstay the "rear to center" measurement. In any event I thought touring bikes generally had longer chainstays so that there was no heel strike on panniers.

What is really telling is how over inflated I have had my tires based upon that "PSI, Rx" article from Adventure Cycling. I have excellent Shwalbe tubes that lose air slowly and I have been inflating my tires to 80 PSI at the beginning of each week. The Conti Travel Contacts I use have a max PSI of 90.

That article does not even have a curve for the equivalent of 1.75 width tires but using a 60/40 rear to front ratio, I am estimating that with my width my rear tire should be set to 65 PSI and front should be 45 to 50. I am erring on the side of over inflation here.

If lowering the PSI helps on these tires, then rather than getting a new bike, in a few more hundred miles my Contis will be shot and I'll spend the money on an expensive Schwalbe tire like the Marathon Plus or the Duremes.

There is one frustrating thing about that article, it says you should keep your tire inflated enough to avoid pinch flats but does not really give any guidelines for what the minimum inflation to avoid pinchflats might be. I obviously do not want to get pinch flats. I am going to try running 65 and 50 this week and see how that feels, hopefully better.
I think you are wise to experiment with lower PSIs before getting a different bike. Many folks keep their tires at Max PSI assuming that will be the most efficient even if the ride quality suffers. Depending on your weight a lower PSI is often more efficient anyway.

The likelihood of pinch flats depends on terrain and the load (weight) on the tires. This can vary quite a bit of course so it's hard to be very specific on a minimum PSI to avoid pinch flats. The only pinch flat I've had is when I hit a deep pot hole really hard (around 20 mph) with my road bike. The tires were probably a bit under inflated since I tend to fill them on Thursdays before my group ride and this was a Tuesday. I fill them at other times too but I'm not as good about it as I should be.

Anyway, I've had a set of 1.95" winter tires down to about 30 psi to help with traction.

Significantly lowering your tire pressure is going to make it harder for you to pedal too and you'll start to feel that effect before you get down to a point where you'll have to worry much about pinch flats.
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Old 09-13-10, 02:16 PM
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Originally Posted by JeffC
The single biggest dislike of my commute is the bad trail quality on my commute which starts on the W&OD in Falls Church, goes on the Custis Trail in Arlington and then down the Mt. Vernon trail across the 14th St Bridge into DC.
Thanks for the info on the trail quality. I usually ride the W&OD from Vienna to East or West Falls Church. I find most sections of that ride to be pretty good -- certainly far better than the neighborhood feeder trails and other (street) parts of my ride. For reference I generally ride an aluminum frame, no suspension 'asphalt' bike set up for commuting -- ~30lbs fully decked out -- plus 190 lbs of me, and 20lbs of backpack/gear. When I started riding to East FC instead of West, I noticed that with all the street crossings between Rt. 7 and East FC, I need to use my leg suspension far more than on the smoother/better parts of the trail. OTOH, the worst that the W&OD has to offer is far better than the stretch of Shreve Rd. or Haycock leading into West FC.

Later this week I plan to ride the rest of the route you described for the first time, heading all the way into DC, so now I guess I know I need to be hyper vigilant about roots, ruts and bumps. Or is it just more of the same as what I'm used to on the western portion of the trail, such as sharp angle street crossings, concrete lips, etc...?
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Old 09-13-10, 03:24 PM
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Put me firmly in Meanwhile's camp. Your tires, PSI and your bike setup affect ride quality much more than frame material choice.
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Old 09-13-10, 06:03 PM
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OP here. So I did my commute today with 65 PSI on the rear and 50 PSI on the front when I had been running at 80 PSI. It made a noticeable difference. I still was lifting my bum out of the saddle in various really bad spots but on a lot of the smaller bumps I just pedaled through where previously I would have stopped pedaling for a second and lifted my bottom out of the saddle until I got through it.

It seemed as if I was a bit slower on uphills but this may have been my imagination. It was also a bit colder (low 60s) than it had been for several months and I find that makes it harder for my body to go as fast. Also on the way home a headwind kicked up. So it may have been those things that contributed to the appearance of a slower ride.

On the other hand, I was not as fatigued by all the bumps and did not have to reposition my bottom each time a bump threw me off kilter on the saddle. So I felt as if I was making a more even cadence.

I'll continue to run 65R/50F for the rest of the week and then maybe make some adjustments depending on how things feel.

CptJohnC, I don't normally ride west from Falls Church although I have been out that way a few times. I get on the W&OD near Great Falls Street after a few blocks on the streets so my ride from my house is about 1.5 miles to EFC Metro. The best part of my commute is the W&OD. The trail quality is very good, other than the crossings. The Custis Trail starts near the 4 Mile marker of the W&OD. Parts of this starting near Glebe Road are very bad with lots of roots and light cracks in the asphalt, you'll see that it makes the W&OD look great in comparison. It is odd that parts of the on ramps are new and repaved but the actual trail itself is in such poor condition in places. The Mt. Vernon Trail from Rosslyn to Reagan Airport is also only ok, not as good of asphalt quality as the W&OD in my view.
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Old 09-15-10, 01:29 PM
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Originally Posted by JeffC
In particular if one of you had done the same commute I have in Northern Virginia, I would find your experiences interesting. I don't mean this to open up the steel vs. aluminum debate but really want to hear about personal experiences.
Thanks!
I ride similar route often - I get on W&OD trail where it crosses Shreve, then Custis Trail, Mt. Vernon, 4 Mile Run, back to W&OD trail and home. I think trail surface is pretty good. Are you perhaps disliking the tree root "bumps", e.g. on Custis trail? Or wooden bridges? I can't think of any bad surface stretches to be honest. I ride steel road bike with skinny tires (100+psi), and I just "get light" over any bumps - that's it.

I doubt you'd find the steel/carbon bike a huge upgrade in comfort. Steel frame should take an edge off rough roads, but I don't think the difference would be dramatic. Esp. if it's the tree roots you're thinking of. I'd rather get lower pressure tires, and maybe even suspension seatpost (gasp!).

Others may know more though.
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Old 09-15-10, 05:55 PM
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Originally Posted by ch9862
I ride similar route often - I get on W&OD trail where it crosses Shreve, then Custis Trail, Mt. Vernon, 4 Mile Run, back to W&OD trail and home. I think trail surface is pretty good. Are you perhaps disliking the tree root "bumps", e.g. on Custis trail? Or wooden bridges? I can't think of any bad surface stretches to be honest. I ride steel road bike with skinny tires (100+psi), and I just "get light" over any bumps - that's it.
In particular the Custis Trail from the two hills near Glebe Road east to Rosslyn has what I think are some bad stretches although there was an area on this part near Spout Run that was just repaved last year. There are also tree roots at a few other places on the Custis Trail west of Glebe Road but it is generally better. Arlington put yellow paint near several areas of the Custis Trail to mark where the pavement is bad although I am not sure why they did it if they are not repairing it.

It is kind of a matter of comparison. Compared to the surface of the streets in Northern Virginia that I bike on, those aforementioned parts of the Custis Trail are in much worse shape.

I've biked 3 days this week and am finding the ride much better with the lower pressure and I do not think it is slower. I think I will keep my bike and just get a 2.0 Schwalbe Marathon Supremes in the rear and perhaps a 1.6 in front in another 1000 miles or so when my Contis are shot.
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Old 09-15-10, 06:59 PM
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Originally Posted by tsl

Don't get me wrong, there are noticeable, if subtle, differences between the three bikes that ride about the same. I can tell them apart blindfolded.
You shouldn't be riding blindfolded young man.
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Old 09-20-10, 07:59 AM
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Originally Posted by JeffC
CptJohnC, I don't normally ride west from Falls Church although I have been out that way a few times. I get on the W&OD near Great Falls Street after a few blocks on the streets so my ride from my house is about 1.5 miles to EFC Metro. The best part of my commute is the W&OD. The trail quality is very good, other than the crossings. The Custis Trail starts near the 4 Mile marker of the W&OD. Parts of this starting near Glebe Road are very bad with lots of roots and light cracks in the asphalt, you'll see that it makes the W&OD look great in comparison. It is odd that parts of the on ramps are new and repaved but the actual trail itself is in such poor condition in places. The Mt. Vernon Trail from Rosslyn to Reagan Airport is also only ok, not as good of asphalt quality as the W&OD in my view.
I rode the Custis and Mt. Vernon trails and I definitely saw what you meant. The overall trail quality is definitely rougher than the western parts of the W&OD. I rode from Vienna to DC, and while most of it was fine, the tree roots and other irregularities were a pain. Not enough to make me want to drop tire pressure, but if I rode it every day, I might re-think that.
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Old 09-20-10, 09:03 AM
  #24  
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Another vote for playing with the tires.

I have two bikes of the same model (t700 Cdales) but different size. One rides Gator 700x28 and the other runs Top touring 700x37. The wheels interchange and the difference in ride between the tires on the same bike is amazing. The larger tires do not seem to greatly effect my speed but do make for a softer ride but the bike almost feels lethargic when putting them on in place of the Gators. I do top off my tires weekly and by the end of the week the lower PSI on both wheels sets does make for a more cusshy ride but It also feels more labored. At 225lb I tens to run close to max PSI to avoid pinch flats.

Steel does have a totally different feel but unless you can find a Aluminum bike and a steel bike with identical geometry you are not going to be able to just say it all steel and not the geometry playing into it. All of my steel bikes have less of a "sharp" feel when I hit imperfections in the road surface. The steel does have more spring and transmits much less road noise to the rider. None of my steel bikes are close enough set up to my Aluminum bikes for me to make a comparison of what one I like the ride better where I can rule out the geometry and other parts.
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Old 09-20-10, 01:47 PM
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Originally Posted by tsl
Yup. Meanwhile is right.

I have four bikes. All of them have carbon forks. One is cheap aluminum, one is good aluminum, one is good steel and one is good titanium. The cheap aluminum rides like, well, cheap aluminum. The other three ride about the same. (Heresy!)

Don't get me wrong, there are noticeable, if subtle, differences between the three bikes that ride about the same. I can tell them apart blindfolded. But I cannot say that one rides significantly better (or worse) than the others. They're just different in how they deliver a nice ride, is all.

If anything, the tires seem to make a bigger difference than the frame material. All my bikes run Continental Grand Prix 4-Season tires, three of them in 25mm, and the good aluminum one in 28mm. That bike rides a smidge (just a smidge) better than all the others, including the steel and Ti.

The cheapest test, then, is to go play with inflation. In run my 25s at 70F/80R and the 28s at 60F/70R. This makes most roadies fall all over themselves telling me I'm stupid for running less than 120PSI. If I want a buckboard ride, certainly I could pump them up to the max. But the max is just that--do not exceed. It is not the "recommended" pressure, it is the maximum pressure.

It doesn't show 26" tires, but the concepts expressed in this article, PSI Rx, are the same no matter what the tire size. I used its suggestions as a baseline from which to begin experimentation.
I just read the PSI Rx article. Fascinating. I think I'll do some testing of tire pressures on a 20 mile trip I take. I don't want pinch flats but I've always wondered about messing with tire pressures. I've been thinking of getting some Riv Roly Polys for when speed isn't my goal. We'll see.
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