Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Ivan the Functional: A Review of Chrome's Midsize Roll-top Backpack...

Ah, Ivan, if you were a beer, you'd be a Russian Imperial Stout, something akin to Old Rasputin, I'd like to imagine. Robust, a bit heavy, highly satisfying, the one to have when you can have only one. Alas, you are only a pack, which means the closest you'll come to beer is hauling the damn stuff around every now and then. There are worse things in life, comrade, but let's leave that for another post. This one is a product review, so on with it.

A midsize (1680 cu. in.) roll-top offering from San Francisco's Chrome Bags,1 Ivan is a fully waterproof, made-in-the-States backpack whose main compartment is sealed by pinching opposing sides of the pack together and, as the style suggests, rolling the bundle downward, before securing it via a hook-and-loop closure flap. The end result is that your booty (and I'm not talking ass here) remains dry, regardless of what Lady Nature throws your way. Here's the breakdown as I see it...

CAPACITY: The main compartment is cavernous. Plenty of room for two six-packs or a bevy of bombers, along with some grub to soak it all up and an extra jacket or other cycling article you feel naked without, plus a laptop (pic below left shows a load of two sixers and an 18" Powerbook in a protective sheath, with room for a sub, some fries, and a backup bomber, not pictured). To give a better visual, four one-gallon milk jugs will easily fit in the main compartment, with a little room to spare.

The shape is rectangular, so the key here is to stack upward, not outward, being mindful to leave enough room near the top to get a full (180°) roll going, particularly if it's raining—no roll in a downpour means that bounty of purloined panties you liberated from the local laundromat (ya sick bastard!) is gonna get wet and heavy and begin to feel like the owners are wearing them by the time you get home, without the benefits the actual presence of these ladies might confer.

Owing to its slim design (depth), Ivan has a surprisingly low profile when you're hunched over, down in the drops, even when it's packed to the gills. Over-the-shoulder ass glances aren't a problem, as the pack sits low on the back, adding to stability while you ponder the callipygean aesthetic of passing pedestrians.

Overall usable dimensions2 come out to be around 21"x14"x6"—a good size for the solo grocery shopper who doesn't mind a return trip later in the week when the last bottle hits the bottom of the recycle bin.

FEATURES: Ivan boasts five compartments in all, including an LP-cover sized outer pocket and smaller cargo twins (u-lock size) that can be accessed without opening the main compartment. And then there's Chrome's infamous "kilo-keeper,"3 a concealed contraband compartment whose clandestine configuration was conceived to confound cagey constables on all continents who might otherwise confiscate your coveted cocaine cache4. Well, I like to think that's why it's there. The aforementioned LP-cover sized pocket has a seam-sealed zipper closure hidden beneath a storm flap, so that latest issue of Juxtapoz or Bizarre (my audience, such as it is, is nothing if not eclectic) you're hauling around stays tinderbox dry.

Waterproof all over is Ivan. Really waterproof all over. The waterproofing agent is of the truck-tarp variety, overlaid everywhere with a formidable layer of Cordura. Seams are "high frequency RF welded." Bottom line: relax—your crap is DRY. Forget about it and concentrate instead on the SUVs, buses, and cabs looking to squeeze you out of your skin at the next intersection.

Two shoulder-straps, a chest strap, and a waist strap (all adjustable) keep everything on your back where you intend it to be. Unlike some messenger bags, Ivan won't do orbits around your midsection as you spin out on a long, steep downhill. On the back, a daisy chain of three loops runs straight up between the twin cargo pockets like a spine, offering a home for a blinkie or two (though its usefulness is severely limited when the cargo twins are stuffed). Rounding out the utilitarian features are a haul loop near the shoulder yoke and two large, steel D-rings—one mounted near the top of each shoulder strap—so you can dangle your keys (or whatever) hipster-style within easy reach without removing the pack to dig for them.

DURABILITY: Bombproof. Seriously.

Hardware on the twin pockets and shoulder straps is stainless steel, and a beefy nylon waist buckle stabilizes the load nicely around your midriff. The chest strap also comes together via a nylon buckle.

As mentioned above, the whole works is wrapped in a tough layer of Cordura, meaning the pack should hold up well in those unfortunate situations where skin typically doesn't.

COMFORT: The shoulder straps are fairly wide and nicely padded; in fact, I've hauled some heavy stuff around in my Ivan and I've never noticed any discomfort in those areas. The pad between back and pack is just thick and wide enough to keep beer bottles and other hard objects from playing your spine and ribs like a xylophone as you pedal, and it's channeled like a set of chiseled abs to allow a little air flow during the hot summer months.

WEIGHT: As you might suspect, steel hardware, comfortable padding, and waterproof, rugged, double-layer construction mean Ivan is a bit of a pig when it comes to the scales. Mine weighed in at just under 4 lbs. But on the streets and rolling, the fit and feel of the pack render this factor largely irrelevant. You simply don't notice its comparative heftiness because Ivan cradles your body snugly like a nubile new lover. The load neither shifts nor digs into your shoulders. And all the things that amp up the weight a bit make Ivan one tough Cossack.

OVERSIGHTS: Just three, all of them minor, two of them related. First, the smallest pockets are the twin cargo pockets. These v-shaped spaces measure roughly 12"x8" (width measured at the vertical center) each, so small things get lost in them without effort. A nice zippered pouch inside one or both would be ideal. Second, no key lanyard. Anywhere. If there's no small pocket to stash keys, a key lanyard in one of the outside pockets makes sense. Lastly, the cinch webbing on each shoulder strap is overly long for my torso, leaving about 12 inches to flap in the breeze—just a slight annoyance, really, which I mitigate by tucking the loose ends inside the waist belt. Those with freakishly long torsos may not have a problem in this regard.

The verdict? Ivan is a champ, no question. I love this pack, and I recommend it to anyone who is looking for a comfortable, durable, stable, waterproof bag that will carry everyday loads (and then some) for years to come, and who seeks to avoid the douche-chills that may come with wearing a messenger bag and delivering nothing5 (then again, I ride a fixed gear and I've never set foot in a velodrome, so there you have it).

1. Full disclosure: Chrome is an official sponsor of the Single Speed Outlaw Factory Team (SSOFT), of which I am a member. This influenced neither my opinion nor my review of this product.
2. Usable dimensions account for space lost when the top is rolled closed.
3. My nickname for this pocket, not Chrome's. But I'm sure they wish they'd thought of it. This same secret pocket is a feature on other Chrome bags.
4. This sentence is a pretentious example of a wonderful literary technique—generally reserved for poetry—known as alliteration.
5. The opinions expressed on this blog are not necessarily those of Chrome Bags. No, really.

Monday, December 22, 2008

Utopia Deferred...1

Okay, so, after dragging my ass for a couple weeks, my Salsa Casseroll frame and fork are on their less-than-merry little way back to Bloomington, Minneapolis, without benefit of Santa’s sled. Dropped off the spavined frame on a Sunday two weeks ago at Revolution Cycles2 in Clarendon, only to get a call the following Monday morning asking for an invoice as proof of purchase. Dug up the invoice, delivered it later that week, then got another call later saying the fork was required. Sunday morning, I removed the crown race from the fork, tossed the fork into my Chrome Ivan, and pedaled over to Revolution to reunite torso and forelimbs one last time.

I’m hopeful for a full replacement, but this may be empty optimism. It appears there’s a very small indentation on the down tube that is bisected by the crack, which may or may not have been the genesis of the fissure. It’s so small and smooth that I’m inclined to believe it’s a crimp caused by the folding in of the tube edges against one another as the tube failed for whatever reason. That, or a very small, very soft stone leaped up somewhere sometime and left a very powerful impression. I’ve had the frame for about a year, but I didn’t ride it much until the Cross-check dropout broke sometime back in May. The Casseroll has maybe five months of daily riding on it. I’d put the mileage figure at just over 2K, with all of it on asphalt, save a lone 25 mile jaunt on the C&O Canal Trail. A curb-drop every now and then was the closest I came to ever riding that bike hard and I don't believe it saw even a single winter ride...bizarre.

So the frame and fork are on holiday travel, and I’m left to wonder what the outcome will be. It's all in Salsa's hands, now. If the decision goes in my favor, I’ll be singing their praises to anyone who will listen. If it goes against me, I’ll be looking for a frame and fork from another manufacturer. Regardless, I’ll report the outcome on this very blog. Stay tuned...

1. With apolgies to the late French social theorist Jean Baudrillard.
2. The fine blokes at Revolution Cycles in Clarendon have been nothing short of fantastic during this process. Thanks, gents!

Friday, December 19, 2008

Winter Bliss...

Just when you thought you'd heard the last of the Bootlegger's Bliss bluster for the year, out come plans for a Winter Bliss, courtesy of one DmofoT.

That's right, while it's just a blurry phantom—that is to say, a fleeting chimera darting drunkenly from axon to dendrite—right this minute in the mind of one willing Nor'eastern, homebrewing, mountain biking, Northern Virginia ex-pat, there is a very real possibility that the damn thing may actually go down. Oh, and by winter, we mean late spring, maybe April?

Keep an eye on this blog and on Fatboy Deluxe over the next few weeks for details. We're talking Massachusetts as the milieu for the mayhem. By the sword we seek peace, my Orwellian ass!

Wednesday, December 03, 2008

Southwestern* Superterraneans...

8. Write what you want bottomless from bottom of the mind
10. No time for poetry but exactly what is
19. Accept loss forever
28. Composing wild, undisciplined, pure, coming in from under, crazier the better

—Jack Kerouac, from a list of 30 "essential" rules of good prose found in his book Belief and Technique for Modern Prose

Writing is nothing more than a guided dream.
—Jorge Louis Borges

Crunch of pine needles and clickclack of broken stone bits and shush-shush of dry leaves up the mountain, up up, turning the pedals slowly, slowly, winding a make-believe clock (mortality), standing leaning arching pushing turning them over and over and over and me as empty inside and duty-dumb as ol' Sisyphus, pulling on the bars and pushing on the pedals where he (cunning king of Corinth or Ephyra really, deceiver of Death and piper-payer) put shoulder to stone with no end in sight, always the turning, turning, turn this wheel to turn that wheel (the one back there) to turn these wheels two wheels like the boulder rolling turning endlessly and up the mountain go I slowly, heart a big ol' triphammer hammering away at sternum inside pounding on the bony door. Thanksgiving over and gone and the mountain keeps giving breathes its cold breath and me breathing mine warmer with every turn painful because of lack of this all year, this riding on dirt, the climbing and everything and trying not to think about it. And me with one speed only, the only one with it choosing hell when there's a choice.

John makes the spot first, the spot of rest where everything dies back a little and the march ends for a little while too (trail runs up straight ahead and also to the right and down another trail) with me the next one to stop. Lean my bike and breathe and breathe more and pull out the camera—click-flash, rob it all in little bits—the magic green-ness of everything around us defiant against the season and also against the brown dead (tho really still living) trail under our feet. The trail a mix of snow now, but mostly shale and pine needles and leaves shows us the way up, the long way that winds back on itself almost (almost Ouroboros) again and again and again to disappear above, to stop and rest too, at the top. Jeff then John (other) and Tim come up behind us, catch us standing around, breathing aloud like us to say (unnecessary) that we are the same, five of us, same lungs breathin' and heart poundin' and miles and miles of irondark blood flowing like the dark trail against the pull of all the world, same right now, near the top of this Allegheny mountain, silent hulk alone but not ever lonely.

We don't wait around long, but move on up, up again then straight for a stretch then winding and up again, repeat repeat and all the while no time for beauty of majestic outdoors, just pedaling onward, up, eyes just seeing seeing what the trail wants them to see. Words gasps for air, just hot breath shudders in cool air until the top, the peak, comes into view. A little more then we rest again and I cover myself with a jacket against the coming cold. This spot is the tipping point threshold between all that beautiful thatside pain and the coming joythrill of thisside heading down, head up, easy and unforced and free, hugging the holy contours buried beneath the leaves. Speed is all, pulling it under control then letting it play then reigning it in again (at switchbacks) then letting it go on the straightaways and it's the fearthrill that takes over now, the dizzying letting go that is everything the reason we came.

STONY RUN to MIDDLE MOUNTAIN to SALT STUMP then PINE TREE and MIDDLE HOLLOW to LAUREL VIEW to BLUE SUCK FALLS and the end and the bits before the end a bouncing blur of tree trunks and silent mountainside whizzing by, abyss now on the left now on the right and back again left, and everywhere leaves fill the trail the ribbon hidden and the tires just being tires rolling under worldly fiat, white knuckles (mine) on the bar white as flecks of snow flying by, and on down to the park road and already I smell the beer I swear right through the glass bottles waiting on ice in the cars, waiting, waiting. But instead bypass the parking lot nowhere near it and head out for the second part, up BEARDS GAP to BRUSHY HOLLOW and down again down WILLOW CREEK and then back to the park road and rolling along asphalt black as the coming night and then the lot, the beer at last the beer, ah yes.

*Virginia, that is. Douthat State Park, to be specific.