Saturday, January 31, 2009

Vassago Fisticuff First Impression

My 2009 Vassago Fisticuff arrived this week and I was anxious to get it built and ride it ever since I saw the prototype last year. Billed as a Cyclocross inspired multi-purpose bicycle, it can be built as a singlespeed, geared or fixed gear with horizontal drops and derailleur hanger. With 130mm or 135mm spacing on the rear, you can use either mountain bike or road wheels and disc or cantilever brakes. In short, this bike has options: road, trails, paths, urban assault, commuting, trekking, cyclocross and whatever else you can dream up.
For me, I will be using it primarily for cyclocross.
The first thing I noticed when I pulled the frame out of the box was the paint and welds are some of the best yet that I have seen from Vassago. I looked it over well and couldn't find any flaws in either. After the customary face and chase prepwork, I commenced the build. The components are all transferred from the cross bike I have been using all season and are fairly ordinary. Shimano 105 drivetrain (1x9, yes Virginia, I am using gears on this one) Easton bars, Thomson seatpost and stem, WTB tires and saddle, Crank bros Candy SL pedals, King Headset and SRAM cassette and chain. The wheels are either Shimano/Mavic Open Pro basic road wheels that I built a few years ago and are still going strong or on race day, a set of Easton EA 70X tubulars. I switched the Cane Creek brakes I was using for TRP Eurox brakes for their added mud clearance and plus they look cool (you gotta have priorities). Since disc brakes are illegal for UCI and USAC competition, I didn't bother with them.
The complete bike weighs almost exactly 20 lbs which is heavy compared to today's uber-light carbon, ti and bone-shaker aluminum frames. Don't like it, hey maybe this isn't the bike for you but consider this, that extra weight isn't felt once you are riding and that extra weight is this bike's mojo. You can't mess with that. After a one beer build (hey, either I am getting faster or drinking less) I ended up with this:

I had to wait a couple of days to ride it (which was torture) but at the first chance, I headed to Steele Creek Park for a test ride. Steele Creek is a MSG Cross series venue plus there's a bike path and singletrack. I would be able to put it through pretty much everything. After double checking my adjustments and all the bolts, I headed out on the bike path first. From the beginning, I felt the unmistakable quality of a good steel frame. It just felt solid and a lot of the small to mid size bumps and rocks were transmitted through the frame to me as dull knocks as opposed to sharp jolts that you'd feel on an aluminum frame. The Reynolds 520 tubing is used throughout and it's a great choice. While not the high-end 853 or 953, it also doesn't have the high-end price either.

Next came some cross simulation. I went to a part of the park that was a MSG course and went through a mock cross lap, complete with run-up. Sure the people there must have thought I was nuts but I have long since stopped caring what people think. The Fisti handles tight turns and quick accelerations typical of any cross course like a champ. As I pushed it a little harder, I realized I just felt more comfortable than I did on my other cross bike. The numbers for both frames were similar but the Fisti has a slightly longer wheelbase and a little slacker seat and head tube angle. Those combined with the steel had to be the deal. I struggled all season with the other bike (that I am purposely leaving nameless, it doesn't matter). The Fisti gave me the same feeling I get from my mountain bikes - control and comfort. There's no doubt these bikes are brothers. On the run-ups, getting off and back on was typical although I initially worried that the Fisti's longer seat tube might cause some funky remounts, it was a non-issue. My portage technique is to grab the down tube as soon as my foot hits the ground and hoist the bike directly to my shoulder. I did find that the front triangle was a bit tighter that what I am used to even though the top tube and down tube measurements are nearly the same. The Fisti does have a unusually short head tube and that may be the difference. It wasn't a problem after I realized it, I just started grabbing the down tube in a different place. No big dealio.

After a few hot laps on my mock cross course, I set off for singletrack. Singletrack on a cross bike has always made me nervous. The singletrack at Steele Creek is rocky and steep in places and really unforgiving. Starting on a climb with several switchbacks, the bike did fine. In fact, it felt to me like I put drop bars on my Jabberwocky. Where the difference came in was on the other side, the Fisti turns a lot quicker than the Jabber and judging from the numbers, it probably should. I bet this bike would be great for monster-cross. Slap some bigger tires and disc brakes on and Boo-yah.

Hitting some tighter stuff with rocks and roots made me slow down a bit, only because I was riding 32mm cross tires @ 40psi and I really didn't feel like flatting and walking back to my car. As my test ride time was running out, I hit the bike path again after the first section of singletrack, missing the HOD (Hill Of Death). Oh well, maybe next time. I rode a little harder on the bike path (gravel) this time because it was getting dark and there weren't any people around to run over. I learned something else about the Fisti and it is a trait shared by all Vassagos (that I have ridden so far). The harder you ride it, the better it feels. Fast corners inspired confidence (until I found out what too fast was and went into a two-wheeled drift) and the experience put a smile on my face which let's face it, is what it's all about.

This wouldn't be a completely unbiased impression if I didn't tell all and I am a tell all kind of guy. Some things to be aware of are: If you use cantilever brakes, you will need a full housing for the rear brake. The frame only has two disc tubing guides for the rear (there is a cable stop at the back though. You will need to add a third zip tie in the middle of the top tube otherwise the brake cable housing will ring against the top tube like a Salvation Army bell ringer on crack. Not a big deal, just something to know. Another thing is regarding the horizontal drops. The drops work fine with or without gears. With gears however, you will need to be mindful of putting the rear wheel in the frame. The tendency is to slide it all the way forward until it hits the front of the dropout but that causes cantilever brake alignment to be really funky and with 700x32 cross tires, the clearance between the tire and seat tube is only about 1/2 inch. I had best results with putting the wheel in the frame and putting two fingers between it and the seat tube before tightening it down. I didn't have any issues with wheel slippage using a quick release but I really tightened it down. You will need a good QR that allows you to get all Lou Ferrigno on it without complaining. Lightning fast Cross style wheel changes may be a problem however. Again, not a big deal, just something to be aware of.

If you are in the market for a do it all frame that has the ability to take pretty much anything you can throw at it then the Fisticuff may be something to think about. MSRP is $579 for frame and fork and that's not a bad deal for a nice riding steel frame with spirit and that Vassago attitude.

Next week, I will be going to the final (for me) two rounds of the Knoxiecross Cyclocross series in Knoxville, Tennessee and I will have a review of how the Fisti feels in race mode.

Until then, surf on over to Vassago Cycles and see about getting one for yourself.

Thursday, January 29, 2009

Cold is a four letter word!

First, I will say that compared to most of the rest of the country, we have it pretty nice here in the south. Not much snow or ice, never seen a hurricane, rarely a tornado, and we have four honest to God seasons. Having said that, winter has just about worn out it's welcome. I am sooo damned tired of cold that I could scream. I will stop there otherwise this will turn into nothing more than a rant about weather.

I have been fairly busy for the last few weeks and training has gotten stuck in wherever it would fit. Lots of trainer miles and core work and a good bit of kettlebell stuff. All of that is no substitute for good old miles. The outside kind on trails and roads. I know it's January and there will be plenty of time to get fit(ter), I am just getting a bit of

You know.........................................

I have been looking ahead to when racing starts an I'm starting to get some stuff trickle in from the UPS guy. Cool stuff like new race wheels courtesy of George at Bike 29.

They are Chris King hubs laced to Stan's ZTR Arch rims with DT Supercompe spokes. Not a lot of bling (okay, some bling) but the really cool and very important thing for me is the super fast engagement of the CK hubs and if I bust one, I can fix it immediately. Most chi chi wheels need special crap and I just ain't got time.

The most exciting thing I have right now is the first 2009 production Vassago Fisticuff (the very first was a prototype that went to teamate Ben last year) that arrived at the world headquarters of Duckman Racing Enterprises yesterday. I am building it up and will hit the trails with it this weekend for a shakedown run before taking it to rounds 3 and 4 of Knoxiecross next week in Knoxville. It's a nice bike and is clearly from the same bloodline as the Jabberwocky and the Bandersnatch. Designed as a multi-purpose bike, it will do quite a bit. Singlespeed, gears, cantilevers, discs, roads, trails, touring, racing. Just whatever you think of.

I will be using it strictly for cyclocross but it's good to know that if I decide to take off on a trek across Africa by bike, my Fisticuff will be waiting. Expect plenty of pics and a review in a few days but for now a few teaser pics from the build up.

Friday, January 23, 2009

Here I am.

My little neck of the dirty South has been in the grip of winter proper for the past two weeks with the temps rarely getting up to the 20's during the day (ok for my Canadian and upper mid-west buddies, gimme a break, I am weak). Consequently, I have ridden my trainer for the last 12 days straight and I am about to go batshit freaking crazy! I went to Atlanta today for work and it was sunny and in the 60's and all I could do was wish I had a bike with me to ride. All the way home, I daydreamt about riding tomorrow (it's supposed to be 40). It's going to rain but I don't care. I gotta get out of this place.

I am racing again in two weeks at the final two cyclocross races of the season and then two weeks later the first endurance race - the 12 Hours Of Santos in (hopefully) sunny, warm Florida. Two weeks after that and it's off to Arkansas for the Spa City Extreme, a 6 hour race. After that, I am pretty much back in the cycle (no pun intended) of Ride, Race, Rest, Repeat for the rest of the year. Even though I am racing more this year than last, I am resting more and the races are not all endurance. I am mixing in some shorter XC events, road races, crits and a good bit of high intensity training that will hopefully help round out my fitness a little better. (Last year I ended up with a lot of endurance but not much fitness at higher intensities.

Until then..................

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Knoxiecross 1 and 2

Saturday and Sunday was rounds 1 and 2 of the Knoxiecross Cyclocross Series in Knoxville, Tn. It was also the weekend that the weather decided to turn ugly again throwing down rain on Saturday and temperatures around 45 degrees. For Sunday the rain left and it took with it 10 degrees of warmth leaving us with 35 degrees and a whole bunch of mud.
I am doing the first 4 rounds of the 6 race series for training before I say farewell to the short intense stuff for a while and head off to (hopefully) sunny, warm Florida for the 12 Hours of Santos on Feb 21.
Meanwhile, back to Saturday and the ccccold rain. I wasn't looking to forward to it but after riding my trainer to warm-up for a bit, I decided to bite the bullet and go ahead and get wet. The initial shock of that first cold blast of water and mud up my asscrack gave way to the reality that it wasn't really that bad once you got used to it. The course was total slop and reminded me of some of the images I have seen of cross races from Europe. It was ankle deep in places.

photo credit: Dave Holmes

I got a decent start and was doing well. The climbs were really slick in places making it hard to get anywhere. There was one climb that led up to the finish that was so deep in places that it would stop you cold if you didn't have enough momentum to get through it.

Photo courtesy of Knoxvillecycling.

I got some crap in my eyes mid-race and lost about 3 or 4 spots until I got it all sorted out. I ended up 8th for the day and really satisfied with the whole thing.

Got mud? (Somebody needs a WARM bath.)

Sunday was a new day and the rain was gone. The mud wasn't however and the temperature tanked overnight and it was cold. I hopped on my trainer again to warm up for about 30 minutes and then went out to ride a lap with a friend of mine - Mike Mefford. Mike's a really strong rider and won the day before, there really wasn't a reason he shouldn't do it again (except a flat tire, he ended up second. Still a very nice finish). The course was backwards this time and that meant no place to rest and lots more climbing that the day before. It was going to be tough.

At the start, I followed Mike into the first turn with I don't know how many behind us maybe 20-25). I looked at the first turn before the race and it made me a little nervous. Kinda downhill into a really sloppy turn followed by another sloppy dip and then open course. It worked out fine though and I stayed on Mike's wheel as long as I could. A few racers got by me and there was some trading places over the next lap or so. The pace we made left everyone else so all I had to worry about were the guys in front of me. I was really suffering on the long, mushy climbs but I figured everyone else was too. Going into the last lap, I thought I was alone but looked over in a turn to see two guys gaining on me. I put in a really hard effort on the first climb I came to expecting to open up a gap. I looked back - Damn! Still there. Next climb, another hard effort and that lost one guy but the other was still there. With 1/4 lap to go, I was really feeling the redline effort I just put out and was thinking I might get passed. The final 300 yds was pavement and when I hit that, I downshifted a few gears and hit it hard (as I could). I looked back just before the line and he wasn't pushing so I sat up and soft-pedaled the final 50 feet.

It was fun. I ended up 5th.

Thursday, January 8, 2009

2009 Begins

While some of the elite few travel to exotic places to train during the off season, getting pampered and living under extremely controlled environments, the rest of us make do with what we have. For me, that means training whenever I can, early morning, late at night, lunch hour, in the cold, the dark, wet and sometimes freezing (actually I prefer frozen to wet, it's not as cold). I do the best I can do with what I have to work with.
The elite do it because it's their job, I do it because I love to race and I love the feeling of being fit.
My "off season" is over, my first race of 2009 is Saturday at the first round of the Knoxiecross Cyclocross series in Knoxville. Round 2 is on Sunday then rounds 3 and 4 are in February. I will miss the last two rounds at the end of February because I am going to Florida for the 12 Hours of Santos. Then in March, there is a couple of road races that I will be doing leading up to the start of the "racing" part of my year and the 6 Hours of Warrior Creek and the Cohutta 100, both in April.
These races this winter are all training races and very little priority is given to them. I will be trying some new stuff out and different strategies, especially at Santos and basically trying to get fit for the important races this summer.

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Number 1

Complete torture test results soon........... Stay tuned.