Monday, June 3, 2013

Aluminum vs Steel: A Test with the Trek Lexa SLX

Last summer, I wrote up some thoughts on my personal preferences and experience while testing out a carbon road bike. I admitted up front that I am a lover of steel, but I wanted to see and feel the differences for myself and what I could be missing out on. More recently, I've been frustrated with what I'm able to find in a steel road bike - more specifically, that I cannot find something that fits well and is lighter/faster (and, of course, somewhat affordable). We've tried building up our own versions a few times, but it just hasn't gone well at all. Ultimately, I don't want to spend all the "good weather" months hunting down a bike. I want to spend the time riding my bike.

The idea was to go and try out a bunch of road bikes in shops. I was going to leave all my pre-conceived notions about what a road bike should be, what I like and don't like, and what material the bike should be made of at home. That was a little tough for me, but I was willing to play along to see what sort of bike could be best for me.  We found a really great sales guy (actually the assistant manager) at a bike shop and after a quick chat about what I'm currently riding, what I like and don't like, he suggested a bike for me to try: a Trek Lexa SLX. It was not a Trek-specific shop, so I didn't feel as though there would be any pre-determined idea on the part of the shop-boys (and girls) as to what I should try. My immediate issue with this pick was the fact that it's an aluminum frame. As with my test ride of carbon, I have nothing specifically against aluminum, but I've had aluminum bikes in the past and they have caused incredible pain - so much so that I had sworn off aluminum bikes for any future potential bike purchase.
*Image from Trek
I reminded myself, however, that I was keeping an open mind. The assistant manager told me he has severe hand/wrist issues and he can ride the aluminum just fine because of the carbon fork. He explained how the aluminum tubes Trek now makes have changed and off I went on a test ride. Sam's first comment was, "Woah! You just got on and went... crazy!" He was referring to the reality that typically when I get on a new-to-me bike the first time, I'm always a little hesitant. It didn't happen with this bike. Score 1 for aluminum. After riding in a circle to test out positioning, Sam joined me on a ride to see what I could do on this bike.

Immediately, I was impressed with the positioning. I didn't feel overly leaned forward, nor did I feel too upright. The handlebars seemed unbelievable perfect, and I loved the gearing on the bike too. The only complaint I had was the saddle (but that's to be expected on a short test ride). Sam claimed he was having to push to keep up with me (I don't know how true that was, but I felt fast enough, so I was satisfied). We switched bikes at one point so Sam could get a feel of it, and then rode back to the shop.  All had gone well, but I had the nagging of my past experiences with aluminum poking me - though just a bit.

We walked away from the shop to take a look at some other things, but ultimately came back. We were assured that we had 30 days to test out the bike on my own and if it didn't work, we could bring it back. I liked the fast feeling, I liked the positioning, so it was hard to not take him up on the offer. After some idle chatter, we decided to take it home. After bringing the bike home with us, I took it on a few rides: one with Sam along so that we could make adjustments as needed "on the fly," and two others on my own.

I was on a buyer's-high, for sure. I couldn't believe how fast I felt on this bike, and was excited to get out on the road. We tried out one of my already-owned saddles on the first half of the ride and then switched to another. It was a great way to feel immediately which one was working better. After the saddle change on ride one, all was going well. My hand and wrist were giving me a bit of a problem, but I assumed it was due to over working them over the prior several days. Not a big deal, I thought. I would carry on.

The second ride, I went on alone. My hands were still bothering me, but because the days were back to back and I was already experiencing the pain, I assumed that it was just something that needed to heal over a period of time. The ride was fairly short (under 15 miles), but my hands weren't doing great and I was tired, so I decided to head home early.

The last of the three rides, I set out with the intention of going on at least a 35-40 mile ride. I'd purposefully given myself a couple of days to recover from the over-use of my hands the prior week, so I thought this would be a better indicator of how the bike was working for me. This bike wasn't purchased for purposes of longer distance riding, but I wanted to know that it would make it through a solid ride, and I didn't think that 35 miles was an unreasonable distance to expect out of a faster, lighter bicycle. At about 4 miles into the ride, my "bad" hand was in extreme pain and going numb. My other hand was also having some buzzing sensations through it, but I could tolerate the uncomfortable feelings on that side. I stopped early on to shake out my hands, thinking that I might just need a quick break, however, the pain and numbness continued to increase the longer I rode. By mile 12, I had pain shooting up through my entire arm, to the base of my shoulder on the bad side. The oddest feeling to me on this ride is that I was entirely comfortable with the positioning, the set-up, the saddle - everything was great, except for the pain in my hand/arm. The problem was (and is), I can't be in that much pain every time I want to ride.

By mile 18, I didn't think I would make it home without a rescue phone call, but because my body was comfortable, I figured I would do my best to keep my hand off the bars and make it home. At just under 30 miles for the ride, I was in severe hand and arm pain when I returned the bike to its spot in the corral. I was so upset that I sent an e-mail to Sam telling him that I really didn't think I could keep this bike. I told him I was enjoying it, but my hand just couldn't stand all the pain. That pain continued on for several days, during which I elected not to ride this bike again.

During that same few days, Sam was doing research, attempting to understand why this bike was causing me so much pain - and in just one specific area. I had my own ideas of what was going on - more specifically, that the aluminum frame was causing this mystery pain. Sam's conclusion was a bit different. From the research he had completed, he believed it was the tires on the bike. Lucky for him, I'd already ordered a set of tires (God help me with my white/cream tire obsession!). He postulated that it was both the tire itself and the tire pressure. During the next ride, I would try taking the tires down to around 90 PSI (I'd been riding at 110-115 PSI) to see if that would help.
Trek Lexa SLX with Schwalbe Durano tires
Goodness knows I wasn't exactly looking forward to testing out this theory. After spending several days in pain, I really didn't want the experiment to fail. The first reason being that I really like the bike. While it's not the "look" I would naturally be drawn to, it is comfortable and easy for me to ride. Never in my life have I had such ease when getting on a road bike. I wasn't willing to give up without a fight, so I tried to patiently wait for the arrival of my new tires. Patience is not a virtue of mine, but because it coincided with illness, I was able to wait out the new Schwalbe tires.

The day I set out, I was still recovering from being ill. I felt okay, but was still hacking like I smoke 2-packs a day. In addition, the wind was not my friend. We had a storm rolling in and that always makes for a challenging westward ride here at the base of the Rockies. My intention was to do the exact same ride I had done the week prior, but unfortunately, the wind was making it overly challenging. Instead I opted to do a loop that was close to home so I could come back as/if needed. Unfortunately, even with the new tires, things still weren't going well. Again, early on (just shy of mile 5), the bad hand was going numb and I was starting to experience pain again. The left hand that had experienced a small amount of buzzing during the prior rides seemed to be doing better, however.
I ended up finishing the ride at just under 15 miles because the wind was making everything more brutal than it should have been. By the time I was done, I was experiencing the same pain I had been on the prior rides. Angered by this reality, Sam was determined to figure out why a bike that fits so well was continuing to cause so much pain in just this one area of the body. He contacted the bike shop to see if there was something we should try before we gave up entirely on the bike.

Their recommendation was to lower the handlebars. This always seems a bit odd to me as one would think this would put more pressure on an already bad spot, but I was willing to give it a try because I just didn't want to give up. Sam lowered the bars and I took it on a 3 mile ride just to be sure I could handle it. Things seemed fine, so the following day, I set out on a slightly longer, short-ride to see if my hand experienced the same pain. Just before mile 5, I was expecting to experience the start of the numbness, but it didn't happen. I thought it was odd, but carried on.

Around mile 8, I started to feel some numbness sneaking in, but over 10 miles (a short ride, certainly), there wasn't the extreme pain that had taken place on the prior rides, though I was still getting similar sensations. Could that have actually worked? The only way to know for sure would be to take it out on a longer 20-30 mile ride - which I wasn't exactly excited about, knowing the history of what had happened on the bike.

A couple of days later, Sam and I set out together to do a longer ride. We planned to take our time, stop and make little adjustments to see if it would change anything as we went along. While it was a bit of a nuisance to stop every couple of miles, it seemed like the only reasonable thing to do. We'd stop and adjust one thing at a time and then carry on. We lowered the bars, and lowered them more - then raised them back up. We shifted the saddle back and forth, and tilted it up and down. We moved the brake levers in a bit, and tilted the entire handlebar up and down. By the time we'd finished the 25 mile ride, things felt about the same as when we'd started bike-wise, but my hand was feeling the effects of all of the changes for sure.
(left) Rivendell A. Homer Hilsen, (right) Trek Lexa SLX
Undeterred, Sam suggested pulling out the Rivendell and having me ride each bike up and down the street to take a photo to see if there was a significant difference in positioning. When lining the bikes up next to each other, everything seemed to be at similar heights and angles, and even though the geometry of each bike is different, the handlebars were set at almost the same spot, as were the saddles. The photos are blurry and hard to really see, but it is visible that there is more pressure being placed on my hands on the Trek, and I have a bit more of an elbow bend on the Rivendell.

Really, this just confused me more because I am entirely comfortable on the Trek, except for the one hand/arm that refuses to cooperate. At this point, the plan is to try yet again by raising the handlebars back up to their highest point, and tilting the saddle up to see if it will force me to put more weight on my back side, rather than on my hands. If that doesn't work, I'm at a loss as far as what to make of all of this. I've read enough to know that many people believe the frame material in this day doesn't really matter. Many believe it's simply more important to find a geometry and set up that works for the rider. I don't know if the damage to my hand and wrist is just so much worse on one side that there is no fix on the bike. Yet, I still think about the reality that I can ride my steel bike without issue. Is it the weight of the bike? Perhaps it's simply too light and forcing my body to absorb too much of the road, and the frame material wouldn't change any of it. The bike isn't that light, but it's significantly lighter than the Rivendell, and definitely zippier.

Although we are still taking a few days to fiddle with things to see if we can get it to work, I don't have the highest expectations of getting the Trek to work for me - which is a shame because I've actually grown fond of it - or at least the speed - despite the pain. I'm frustrated because I would like to be able to ride a bit faster on some rides, but I just can't quite figure out what to do to get this bike to work with me instead of against me. There's a part of me that thinks I just wasn't meant to have a faster bike, and a part of me that wants to fight to the very end, attempting to find a solution. Ultimately, as stated from the get-go, I just want to ride, and spending the summer worrying about pain on any bike isn't exactly what I had in mind. Hopefully, the solution is just around the corner, but until then, I carry on with the heavier steel bikes. If nothing else, at least I'm comfortable.

*Edit:  After this post, I completed a century ride on the Trek, so we have definitely been able to resolve the issues I was having. In the end, it was just minor tweaks that helped fix the pains in my hand/arm, but patience was definitely needed to get to that point.

9 comments:

  1. I'm still 100% convinced that it's a pressure issue primarily, particularly when I look at the side by side images. Your right hand just can't take whatever pressure is being put on it. We will adjust and get the pressure off, or infuse your bones with Adamantium (maybe both).

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    1. Time will tell. I'm interested to see what happens though. :O)

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  2. Maybe you need a shorter stem? Also, are the handlebars the same width as on your RIvendell?

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    1. It's possible... or the saddle needs to be moved forward. Still little tweaks to be done, for sure, and I'm hopeful that one of them will work. :O) The handlebars are wider/different on the Trek. My Riv bars are touring bars that come in and curve out toward the bottom. The Trek are a WSD product, but actually a bit wider. Again... it's possible that it is just some small adjustment that needs to happen, and I'm still hopeful that it will work.

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  3. That's a pretty sweet looking bike. I do hope that y'all are able to figure out how to make it work for you, shy of the Adamantium infusion... I haven't any suggestions, but I'm curious if riding on the bars or in the drops is more comfortable than riding the horns.

    And a question for Sam: how would the change in tire pressure affect GE's nerve pain? I'd have thought the only effect of lower pressure is potentially making the bike more sluggish.

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    1. I'm still hopeful, Melanie.

      As for the tires, various theories "out there" claim that lowering the tire pressure helps the rider get less of the road vibrations. In addition, the original tires were quite brutal, and I think pumping them up to a higher PSI was making matters worse so that there was no cushion at all. I'm sure Sam will have his own thoughts though. :O)

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  4. I tried wider handlebars on my touring bike last summer because I got ot into my head that they would be better somehow, and I ended up hating them. Everything about the way my bike fit felt off, and I felt an uncomfortable tension in my shoulders that I had never felt before. It wasn't exactly painful, but close. I haven't heard anyone else mentioning physical discomfort due to the width of the bars, but I think it could be a factor. I went back to the original rando bars and all felt right with the world. I also find that if I tilt my saddle up slightly, my rear end is supported better and I feel little pressure on my hands and wrists. I use a Selle An-atomica saddle. Of course, none of this may be relevant to you since our bodies are likely very different, but I thought I'd offer more ideas to experiment with.

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    1. I believe that I've heard/read about others saying that wider bars are supposed to be easier, but I haven't really found that to be the case either. Thanks so much for your thoughts. It's always nice to have more opinions or ideas to try.

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  5. Not sure where you live, but there should be at least one good bike shop nearby that can do a "fit kit" for you for about $100 or so. Here in Boston, there are a number of shops that can do it. They will look at EVERYTHING to make sure that your bike fits you perfectly. http://wheelworks.com/articles/bicycle-fitting-pg337.htm is one example. I apologize in advance if you already tried this.

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