Wednesday, June 1, 2016

A Pelican to Revive the Past?

At the beginning of autumn last year, a search began. I was longing for a combination of bicycles that I'd had in the past - or at least the enjoyment I had found in the group that once existed in the bike fold. I have never wanted to hoard bicycles, nor do I want an excess number, but there was a point a few years back that, in retrospect, I think was actually the perfect number and combination of bikes. At that point though, I believed that if things were as good as they were, they could get even better (Why do we always believe the grass is greener?), and this thought process started a slew of selling and buying that resulted in aggravation, frustration, and in many instances physical pain.

One of the bikes that I severely regretted selling was my Rivendell A. Homer Hilsen. At the time, Sam had just experienced an emergency room stay and we had some unexpected bills. Even though I thoroughly enjoyed the Rivendell, I had those thoughts of "maybe I can do better" floating through my head. That, combined with the need for cash in the moment, made the decision to sell the bike seemingly a no-brainer. After it was gone, I had nearly immediate regret, and the dissatisfaction with the bikes I was finding to replace the Hilsen grew in intensity over the years.

So, in late September/early October of 2015, I started a more serious hunt to see what I could find to re-establish a relationship similar to one of the bikes I missed. The most obvious choice would be to re-purchase the Hilsen, but I was having difficulty coming to terms with the price I had paid for the frame a few years back versus the current cost of a new frame. New prices are nearly $1,000 more than I'd paid and it just didn't sit well with me. I had a budget (meaning a stash of cash to fund this purchase from the sale of other items), and buying the frame again would mean that I would potentially need to wait to build it up. Even with extra parts waiting to be used, there are always items that are needed for a build.

There was also the possibility of buying the frame used, but I had been searching for months to find the right size and one had not popped up to date (Even before I was seriously considering buying the frame again, I'd been on the hunt - secretly hoping one would be available for such a great deal that I couldn't say no). I realized, however, no one else wanted to get rid of theirs because they were smart enough to know it was a keeper. [sigh]

While I contemplated how badly I wanted the Hilsen frame back and if I was willing to cough up the dough, I decided to start looking for something that might ride similarly, but that would give me a bit of a break in the cost department. One day as I was researching, I suddenly remembered reading about the Box Dog Bikes Pelican (as a quick note in regard to the link -- The current builder is different, the prices have increased -understandably, given the increase in cost for most things- and the smaller size that used to be available appears to no longer be made). I started looking for information on this bike, but there wasn't much to be found. There is a somewhat older article written by Jan Heine in a back issue of Bicycle Quarterly that I happened to have sitting around which was very helpful in many regards, but beyond that, the available information was down to a couple of blog posts from current or former owners and a smattering of online photos.

Ultimately, I knew that if I wanted to try out the Pelican, I'd need to buy it and just give it a go. After looking at my options, I believed this would be the best analog to the Hilsen frame. So, in November, I purchased the last of the Winter-built Pelicans from Box Dog.

The Pelican is meant to be built up with a front load, and this appealed to me for many reasons, but before I got into racks and bags and such, I knew that I'd need to feel out the bike and determine whether or not it would even work for me.

The first iteration of this bike was built up with Maes Parallel bars and bar end shifters. I regret that I never took any photos of the Pelican in this form, so I don't have any to share, sadly. However, it looked like a typical build to be found in a quick online search. The problem I was having was reach (which always seems to be my issue). In order to use this set up, I kept having the sensation that I needed to have the handlebars up quite high with a very short stem, which was causing handling issues on the bike.

It may well have been that I just haven't ridden drop bars in some time and had forgotten what it feels like, but I was uncomfortable with this set up.  Needless to say, having the handlebars so high and close made descents quite hairy and even fairly flat roads a bit intimidating when I'd remove a hand, so I was not excited to go and ride the bike knowing that I'd have a death grip any time the bike wavered in the slightest.

My hand issues have also grown over the years and I seemed to struggle with the drop bars and this set up. It was better than using a brifter set up, but again, because I was not overly enthused about the squirrely behavior of the bike, we decided to change things up. The current set up has butterfly handlebars and mountain bike thumb shifters. The bars are still set fairly high, but significantly lower than they were with the prior bars.
Aesthetically, I am not in love with the looks of this configuration, but I'm also slowly learning to give up some of my visual likes/dislikes in order to accommodate necessities. With this set up, we were able to put a longer stem (changed from 50mm to 80mm) on the bike and set the bars lower, which allows the bike to handle much better.

In some ways, the butterfly bars are just a better option for me on this bike. Made for trekking/longer distances, I tend to use all of the positions on this bar, while drops tend to be a 1-2 position bar for me at best.  Not only do I use all the possible positions on the handlebar regularly, but I still have the ability to set a little more upright, or stretch out a bit when needed or wanted.

The trickiest issue I've run into thus far is front luggage. As mentioned earlier, the bike was designed to be front loaded, so initially  I wanted to install a front rack. The rack I own that is currently going unused seemed like the perfect solution, but it does not work without using p-clamps or doing some serious bending of metal, so it's an item I'll need to purchase if I want to go that route. The problem being that the frame itself is small and the butterfly handlebars stretch to the front significantly, so there isn't a ton of room for a bag as I would like.

The temporary solution has been to use a handlebar bag without a front rack. This particular bag is a Rivendell, and I currently use it on my Hillborne (which works very well for my needs with a similar set up). It was a bit interesting trying to get this to work on this bike though. As can be seen in the photos, the top of the bag is extremely close to the shifters and brakes. It's not an ideal set up, but for the time being it works.
If I want to keep this configuration, I may need to consider switching the handlebars so that the current position in front of me is at the farther location, but I'm still testing things out to some extent to discover what works best.

I am also pondering a set up for lighting. My hope is to eventually install a dynamo-hub for lighting on this bike, which I think will be the most efficient option. For now, I can strap a battery powered light on if I am out a little too late or early and am in need of lighting.

As with most bikes we build, there were past and/or excess parts available for use on this bike, and that is what was used for the most part. I did purchase tires as all of the 650b tires have been sold, given away, or are in use currently and I wanted tires that were a bit lighter in weight than what I use on other bikes. Fenders were also purchased, along with new cabling, a chain, bottom bracket and headset. If, eventually, a dynamo hub is desired, I'd either have the front wheel rebuilt with it, or purchase new wheels with the hub already installed. I haven't quite decided which route makes the most sense.
Even though I've had this bike built up for several months now, I still feel as though I'm getting to know it. It pedals remarkably easy though, and despite the fact that it isn't an exact duplicate of the bike I was trying to replace, the functionality of and enjoyment I get out of it is seeming - at least to date - to rank quite high. The handling is much improved with the handlebars at a lower level (I would actually drop them lower, but then I definitely won't have use of a front bag for the time being) and with a longer stem - which is to be expected. I've debated the thought of going back to drop bars to see if I can get them to work at a lower set point, but since I have found better functionality with these butterfly bars, I may end up just leaving the set up alone.
As for actual parts on the bike, there's nothing particularly odd or different about this build, with perhaps the exception of the handlebars. There's a bit of a mix of things from different makers though, pulling pieces from Velo Orange (fenders, pedals, brakes), Soma (tires), Sugino (crank), and so on, but it all came together quite nicely. The front luggage situation needs to be resolved, but beyond that, I am quite pleased with the ride of the Pelican. It's not a race bike, at least not in the traditional sense, but it's no slouch either, and as long as I'm capable of going, the bike is ready to play along for whatever distance I choose.

While the Pelican is not an exact duplicate of the Hilsen (in some ways, I think the Pelican may actually be a better choice for my wants), it has thus far functioned in a similar manner, but also feels lighter in weight. Certainly, despite being a bit different from one another, either bike could function for similar purposes and with like set-ups.

It's still too soon for me to say with absolute certainty that this is the one that works best for my needs, but I think we're off to a fairly positive start. If I can get my body more functional again for long distance riding, I'll feel better about the possibilities with this bike. In the meantime, I'm enjoying testing the Pelican out and remain optimistic about the future with this ride.

*Note: A link to the Flickr album for more photos can be found here.


  1. What an interesting bike. It's a beauty. You mentioned having to adjust your aesthetic preferences to accommodate bikes that work for you. I increasingly find that a bike that feels good becomes beautiful to me. Plus, when I'm on the bike, I can't really see it!

    I've never ridden a low trail bike before, but have been very curious about how they feel in motion. Is this to serve as you long distance bike? Local transportation? Light touring? I'm eager to hear more as your relationship with this bike develops.

    1. Kendra, I don't find the bike unattractive by any means... I just think that the handlebars look a little odd on it. It is so true though that we can't see the bike while we're riding the bike. :)

      So far, I really like this one. I'm always hesitant when a bike is newer though to gush too much. Even though I've had it for 6-7 months I haven't been able to ride it much through winter, so I'm enjoying getting to ride it more now.

      The Pelican's purpose for me is slower/longer road rides. I'd eventually like to do some brevets, but I've got to get my body whole again before I can think about any of that. :) I think it could do well for any of what you've mentioned though. I look forward to sharing more about the bike as I get to ride it more.

      How are things coming along with your Bianchi? Have you found some comfort with it and your tweaks?

    2. The Bianchi is in a holding pattern. It's definitely a bit too big for me. Right now, I've accommodated for that with a 40mm stem, which looks totally ridiculous and makes the steering a little odd. I've also tipped the bars back a bit to get a better position on the hoods, but this means that the drops are less useful for me. Early on I added cross-top levers since I don't seem to have the grip strength to brake from the hoods. All of these are less-than-ideal solutions.

      In spite of all of those compromises, at some level the bike is working for me. In the first year of owning it, I put 3000 miles on it, more than either of my other two bikes got. It has become the bike I reach for most often. I do sense that I'm on the right track with it. Not that this will be "the one" for me, but that this is the *kind* of bike that will be the one. That's what I'm aiming for anyway: A single bike for commuting, long-distance rides, and light touring.

      In the meantime, I'm sticking with my Bianchi, ugly stem and all.

    3. When bikes are big, it seems to be really challenging to fix (or at least that has been my experience), but I'm glad to hear you are still able to ride the Bianchi. Sounds like you've put quite a few miles on it and I'm glad you feel like you're on the right path to get things to a good place. :)

  2. I'm looking for a Homer Simpson....


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