Car Less Ohio

Promoting the bicycling lifestyle in The Buckeye State

Where is the soul of a bicycle?

Ask just about anyone, and they would say the soul of a bicycle resides in the frame. Tires, brake pads, chains, cassettes, and chainrings are worn and replaced. Shifters and derailers get upgraded as we experience component group envy. But the heart and soul of the bike remains the beloved and recognizable frame.

I would usually agree with this assessment, but my experience with some of my favorite bicycles over time tells a somewhat different story.

Early in my life as a “serious” cyclist, I obtained my first decent mountain bike, and a few months later, my first decent road bike. For a few years, I thought I had all the bases covered.

About six months into my career in the bike industry (around March of 2005), the snowy Northeast Ohio weather started to break, and I began to consider how I would commute to work by bike. Since the 7-mile route from my apartment to the shop was all on-road, my road bike was the natural choice.

The first day I rode to work, we happened to get a freak late-season snow shower (one of many to come that year). I saw how sketchy a 700×23 tire can feel with even a light layer of snow. I also quickly realized that even with a day’s worth of cargo consisting of lunch and a change of clothes, a pure road bike really sucks at hauling around any amount of cargo.

The next time, I tried my mountain bike. I handled varying weather and road conditions much better, and even with just a seatpost-mounted cargo rack, it was a little better at carrying stuff. But the wide, knobby tires just felt like such a drag, even for short trips. I ride real mountain bike trails on a regular basis, so constantly swapping tires wasn’t a viable option.

Any person who decides to live the “bicycling lifestyle” comes to the conclusion that you need a “practical” bike. A bike that is relatively light, but not too light so as to get noodly when hauling stuff. Something that can fit relatively wide tires, but not too wide. A bike that feels just as good for a quick jaunt down to the store as it does on an all-day slog.

At the time, my shop carried Bianchi bicycles, and one of the best-sellers was the Volpe.

The Volpe was marketed as a “cyclocross” bike, but in reality, it was more of a light-duty touring bike. Triple crankset, Shimano Tiagra STI shifters, 9-speed mountain cassette, and un-flashy but dependable Shimano Deore rear derailer. It came with WTB All-Terrain 700×35 tires, which rolled well on pavement despite their aggressive appearance, but also had enough tread to handle dirt, gravel, and other mixed-surface riding before anyone had ever come up with the idea of a “gravel bike.” With a tall head tube, the bike’s geometry provided an upright position for long days in the saddle, well before “endurance road” geometry was “a thing.”


The stock 2005 Bianchi Volpe

The color of the bike was a pale green called “Dirty Celeste,” a riff on the traditional bright-blue Bianchi Celeste that said this wasn’t a thoroughbred race bike; it was bike that you could play in the dirt with. This bike was your buddy that you’d go have a beer with.

The Volpe proved to be the ideal commuter bike that I was after. To my surprise, though, it didn’t take long for it to become my go-to bike for any ride that did not involve being timed by a clock or somebody counting laps. That summer, I rode it on my longest single-day ride ever, 151 miles from Chagrin Falls to Pittsburgh. The fit and feel of the bike encouraged exploration, heading out when you never know where the road might take you, or where the road might even end. I ended up doing more bike commuting that year than probably any year before or since, logging many days of my 7-mile route between Chagrin Falls and Solon, sometimes going for two weeks at a time without getting in my car. I swapped those stock WTB tires out for Continental Gatorskin 700×28, which were a little more zippy for pure road riding, and adequate for unpaved trails like the Towpath.

Later that year, I rode the Volpe in my first Dirty Dozen in Pittsburgh. In 2006, I shipped it out to Seattle for a weekend mini-tour for the Adventure Cycling Association’s Leadership Training Course. I rode it in my first and only RAGBRAI. I rode it 120 miles to my mom’s house one day and back the next day. I borrowed a cargo trailer and rode it to Kelleys Island and back.

Following that trip to Seattle, I got to thinking that this bike-touring thing might be something I’d like to get more into, so I should get a bike that makes it easier to pack up and ship it across the country. In the fall of 2006, I bought a Surly Long Haul Trucker frameset and had it split in half and S&S couplers put on my Bilenky Cycle Works. I used that bike for several overnight tours over the years, but only ever ended up doing one long bike tour where I packed it up in its travel case and checked it on a flight (a 9-day tour in southwestern New Mexico in September 2007). The Volpe remained my go-to bike for long days in the saddle around home.

I originally built the Long Haul Trucker with a compact double crankset (50/34-tooth), but soon realized that carrying heavy loads, I’d need a traditional touring triple. So, I swapped the crankset, bottom bracket, and front derailer between the Volpe and the Trucker. The compact double was perfect for a light-load-carrying exploration bike like the Volpe. Other minor component upgrades came along: Salsa Shaft seatpost, Salsa Cromoto stem, and Salsa Bell Lap handlebar. At some point, I swapped the stock Shimano cantilever brakes out for Avid Shorty 4, not because the Shimano didn’t perform well (they did), but because I thought the black Avids looked better than the silver Shimanos.

The Volpe’s red logo accents tempted me to bling the bike out with all manner of other red accents. I resisted this urge until some time in 2007 when a co-worker gave me an old GT front mountain bike hub in anodized red. I searched eBay for a matching rear hub, and eventually one from Sun Ringle turned up (the shades of red weren’t exactly the same, but on the bike, it was close enough). I bought a pair of Salsa Delgado Cross rims and had them built into wheels, with red Salsa Flip-Offs skewers to top them off. More red followed … headset, bottle cages, handlebar tape, seat bag, and even brake pads. I had joined the Dark Side of color-matching weenies, and the green and red scheme gave the bike its nickname: Saint Nick. This is the best photo of have of the bike in that setup, with some, but not all of these changes:


I did my second Dirty Dozen Race in Pittsburgh with the Volpe in this configuration in November of 2007. The compact double crank was adequate for humping up all of those steep hills.

Some time in 2008, I had my eye on a Surly Cross-Check, because a few of my friends had them, and it just seemed like a cool bike. Another friend from looking at a new Bianchi Volpe. She test-rode mine and loved the fit and feel, but didn’t like the color currently available at that time. So, I took that opportunity to sell her my Volpe frame and fork. I took all the components and put them on a new Cross-Check frame. The color available at the time was Misty Mountain Grey, which I was kind of on the fence about whether I like it or not. The red stuff looked pretty nice on it, though. At one point, I even had some red fenders on it, plus the Surly provided the opportunity to use a red seat post collar.


The off-white and red color scheme made me choose a new nickname, the “Ghost of Saint Nick.” At this point, the only components that were original from the Bianchi Volpe were the Shimano Tiagra brake/shift levers and the WTB saddle. But, this bike took over duties from the Volpe without a hitch. Surly’s top-rated chromoly steel frame and fork provided the same comfortable ride for long days on the road the same as I’d come to know and love from the Volpe. So I regarded this bike as having the same “soul” as the Volpe.

I rode the Cross-Check on many long rides once again, such as my first Bike MS Pedal to the Point, a ride to the Pennsylvania state line, and others.

Late in 2011, nearing the end of my first season of owning my Salsa Fargo, I found I was using the Fargo for touring, and the Long Haul Trucker was collecting dust. Meanwhile, with fenders on the Cross-Check, and usually a rear rack for hauling stuff around, the Cross-Check was beginning to look more and more like the Long Haul Trucker. So I figured, why not just swap all the components from the Cross-Check onto the Long Haul Trucker, and make the Trucker my “all day road rides” bike? So it came to be.


I had mixed feelings about the red parts on the blue frame … a little too much color. The bike was definitely comfortable, but it didn’t have the same “zip” as the Cross-Check.

Meanwhile, the Cross-Check got converted into a singlespeed:


This bike was fun; I did one cyclocross race on it, a long Towpath ride (Peninsula to Bolivar and back, about 120 miles), and some cruises around the neighborhood.

But I found that I was “missing” having a regular Cross-Check. In early 2013, I bought a Black Cross-Check frameset and put all the red parts on it. The Grey Cross-Check went on the selling block, and the Long Haul Trucker got converted back into a true touring bike (black components, triple crankset, bar-end shifters).

The new Cross-Check welcomed back a familiar feeling; I was happy on the road again, and the black frame murdered out with all the red parts really turned heads.


This iteration of the bike later saw upgrades to a Thomson stem and seatpost, Salsa Cowbell handlebar, and Crank Brothers Candy 3 pedals in red. Plus, just to show it can be done, a Shimano Deore LX rear derailer with RapidRise.

This bike saw many miles and long rides like its predecessors, including the century route on the Sweet Corn Challenge, the century route on another Bike MS Pedal to the Point, and the century route on the first Bike MS Buckeye Breakaway.

Come this year, the black Cross-Check still held a special place in my bike collection, but I found myself with a hankerin’ for something new, just for the sake of it. Basically, what I wanted was the Cross-Check with disc brakes. The Surly Straggler would have been the natural choice, but I thought, if I’m getting something different, it should be completely different. The Salsa Vaya was at the top of the list for a while; I really like the idea of the Vaya Ti, but it was out of my price range. I test-rode the steel Vaya a few times, and like the feel of it, but just wasn’t sold on the idea of it as a worthy replacement for the Cross-Check.

In reading one of the Adventure Cyclist magazines, I took note of one of Patrick O’Grady‘s bike reviews of the Traitor Cycles Wander. This sounded like just the ticket — disc brakes, long and upright “gravel bike” geometry, light touring capable. I got in touch with the guys at Traitor, and they were offering the framesets at a great price. I thought about it for a month or so until I finally pulled the trigger around mid-summer.

When I received the frame, I was a little disappointed in the color; the online photos made it appear more of a pure blue, but in person, it’s more of a greenish-blue or blueish-green. Still a nice-looking frame, though.

Instead of moving the red components and accessories from the Cross-Check, I gave my Salsa Fargo a facelift in red, and moved my blue parts from the Fargo to the Traitor Wander.I think the combination worked out well, and looks pretty sweet:


The first big test of the Wander was a 60-mile multi-surface loop covering roads, paved trails (the Summit Metro Park Bike & Hike Trail, and the Freedom Trail through Tallmadge), and the unpaved Ohio & Erie Canal Towpath Trail. I wasn’t disappointed in the ride and feel of the bike; it delivered the goods when it came to good balance of performance and comfort.

An even better test came when I took it on my second Bike MS Buckeye Breakaway, on the century route from Brunswick to Ashland. This may have been the easiest century I have ever ridden. Maybe it was a perfect storm of good things coming together–my fitness peaked for the season, and it’s a relatively easy route with not too much climbing, but I credit the bike for a large part of that as well.

I originally put the bike together with a Thomson stem and seatpost, but I wanted to rob the stem for my fat bike, so I swapped over a Salsa stem on the Wander, and then a Salsa seatpost to match. The Salsa parts seem to fit the “working man’s bike” character of the Wander better than Thomson.

Since then, I’ve thought that I’d like to “un-bling” the bike even more. As I found when I had the red components on my blue Long Haul Trucker, I think colorful components work best on a black, silver, or gray frame, but a colorful frame should have black components. But I haven’t taken the time for any progress on that project, yet, other than to remove the anodized blue bottle cages and replace them with light blue painted cages that match the Traitor logo, which looks good.

Getting back to the original point of this post, I would normally agree that the soul of a bicycle resides in the frame. But, with the 12-year history of these bikes, beginning with my Bianchi Volpe, through two Surly Cross-Checks, and the Traitor Wander, I feel like they have all shared the same soul. As parts got swapped from one frame to the next, I used the bikes for the same type of riding — long, comfortable road and mixed-surface rides, carrying minimal gear, stopping to smell the roses.

Through all the parts swaps, transfer, and upgrades, two items still remain on the Traitor Wander from the original Bianchi Volpe: the Shimano Tiagra 9-speed shift/brake levers, and the WTB saddle.


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