The over-enthusiastic cyclist

If it involves pedalling then I'm probably into it…

The Way of the Roses

It recently occurred to me that despite a having healthy obsession for cycling and doing an increasing amount of work as a cycle tour guide, I hadn’t really done that much touring myself. Of course I do a lot of long solo rides and I cycle with the clients, but I’d not actually done much touring for leisure purposes. I’m working as a guide with the brilliant Peak Tours on the ‘Way Of The Roses’ coast-to-coast route next month, so to get familiar with the route (and justify some more time away from home) I planned my own mini-tour.

The Way Of The Roses is another UK national way-marked route from Sustrans, the same organisation that devised other routes such as the original C2C and the Trans Pennine Trail. I already  knew both of those crossings well so was looking forward to seeing how ‘The Roses’ compared. Admittedly, Morecambe to Bridlington doesn’t sound too appealing on paper, though it’s nice to see Sustrans continuing their theme of linking English coastal towns that are past their best, either from a tourism or industrial perspective. No offence meant to any of these towns, as maybe it’s just growing up near Blackpool that’s clouded my judgement. But rejuvenating as the route is to these towns, the main event for us cyclo-tourists is the stunning countryside that lies between. Red Rose fans may be disappointed that the route leaves Lancashire after only 20 miles, but that’s what you get for starting at the thin end of the county, with the remaining 150 miles taking you through some beautiful and diverse Yorkshire landscapes. I was blessed with clear blue spring skies, and if it’s as fine in July then the world is in for a visual treat when Le Tour passes through.

Most people, including our clients, ride it over four days though you could do it in any number of days you wanted. You could do it in a day if you were so minded, but it all depends on how you want to balance having enjoyable holiday with a gruelling physical challenge. With limited time and my usual over-enthusiasm, I did the route in a day and a half. There’s a train station at Morecambe, but the route start is only 4 miles away from the main line station at Lancaster so I got off there and pedalled to the start as a warm up. There’s also a station in Bridlington but I chose to pedal another 50 miles down the coast to Hull so I could catch a direct (and cheaper) train back to Manchester.

Bike and tyre choice is often a dilemma for these routes due to the use of quiet lanes and the occasional off-road cycle path. I took my Planet X Uncle John ‘cross bike, looking very grown up with mudguards and panniers, though it still had 23mm winter road tyres on. The tyres survived ok, but I’ll be getting myself some decent touring tyres for when I do it again next month. I reckon some decent 28 or 30mm Marathons from Schwalbe should provide a little more comfort and security when cruising down a tatty lane.

Cycling with loaded panniers took some getting used to. My brief test last week of riding to the shops and returning with panniers loaded with bottles of wine hadn’t really prepared me for long rides with the extra weight. The bike had a massive inertia; getting out of the saddle felt more like being on a turbo trainer and some hills had me reaching for lower gears than the 34/28 I had. It’ll be good training though and getting back on my Boardman should make me feel as spritely as Alberto Contador, if not actually as fast.

So what’s the route like then? Absolutely superb! I found it less convoluted than the Trans Pennine Trail and even more picturesque than the C2C. Signage was good throughout, even as it takes you through York city centre. The route’s only a few years old so maybe it’s popularity will grow, but at the moment it’s very much the unsung hero of the Sustrans stable. It starts nice and gently through Lancashire, warming you up for the climbs through the Yorkshire Dales. A few of them are quite tough, but they’re not relentless enough to break your spirit and there are plenty of picture postcard villages to rest at if you need to. After the drama of the hills, emerging onto the Vale of York is a striking contrast. Being obsessed with hills, I’m usually dismissive (and sometimes quite rude) about flat areas, but this made me reconsider. It’s not quite Texas, but it definitely has a ‘big sky’ feel to it on a nice day. They like to grow stuff round there, and you’ll be taken through some tiny little lanes that zig-zag their way through the fields, bringing words like ‘idyllic’ to mind. The final phase is through the Yorkshire Wolds which was a new area to me, but Sustrans guide you through the gently rolling hills on yet more almost deserted roads. The choice of roads for the whole route is so good that after I finished the trail and made my own way down the coast to Hull it just felt ‘wrong’ somehow.

The final run into Bridlington was initially underwhelming – I couldn’t even see the sea, but one last turn and you see it glistening through an old medieval archway. Rolling towards the finish on the promenade, I was flooded with memories of childhood holidays at English seaside resorts. Of course if you’re unlucky enough to arrive in less favourable weather conditions your emotions may be adjusted accordingly…

I’m totally sold on the idea of touring now and I’m already thinking up future routes (and excuses) so I can get the panniers on again. I probably wouldn’t tackle 135 miles in a day with the panniers again, but I reckon 60-80 miles would make pleasant days for me, depending on terrain of course. So if you’re looking for a good few days pedalling then give it a go, wherever you’re from. If you want to avoid carrying your own luggage, dispense with the logistics and generally get thoroughly looked after then get in touch with Peak Tours, otherwise, just get your panniers on and get pedalling!

At the start

At the start

The following afternoon...

The following afternoon…

Why do I do it?

That’s the question I asked myself at one point during today’s 104 mile fixed gear training ride. I’d been going well, but found myself going through that phase where everything just hurts and the end seems like a very long way away. I’ve been doing some big training rides recently. Last week I did 70 miles of mountain biking, intentionally biting off more than I could chew and suffering so badly in the last 20 miles that having a quick sleep under a hedge started to seem like a good plan.

So what the hell am I playing at? Is this rational behaviour for a man now in his 40′s? I’m not deluded enough to think that I can turn professional - I should have thought about that at least 25 years ago - but I’m obsessed with trying to push my body to some higher level of fitness. I’m not the only one either, there’s a lot of us at it.

Sometimes when I get home with wobbly legs and too exhausted to properly explain myself, my wonderfully tolerant partner looks at me more with a mixture of pity and bewilderment than any admiration for my athletic achievement. “Are you insane?” Did you have to do that much?”. Both valid questions, but I’m a man on a mission. I like to set myself a goal, even if it’s just beating my best time at an amateur challenge event like the Fred Whitton. It gives me a sense of focus and something to throw my energies at. Admittedly, devoting myself to charitable causes could be more spiritually rewarding or putting the same energy into my career could be more financially rewarding, but it’s the cycling for me.

But there’s more to it than that, it’s everything that goes with it. The euphoria of powering over the final climb and sprinting back home, the contrasting comfort of the hot shower afterwards, there’s a sense of adventure to it all and it keeps this 41 year old feeling alive and well. Some people go out to night clubs and take pills to get their endorphins going - and it’s not for me to say that my way is better - but the cycling works for me. I have been known to get a cycling come-down mid week though…

Graeme Obree recently said that “there is no better vehicle for obsessional behaviour than a bike” and whilst I’m not quite as afflicted as him, there’s nothing better after a ride than some Strava analysis to see check of your performance improvements. Likewise with the bikes themselves, there’s so much to learn about (and spend your money on…) that I just don’t seem to get bored of it. I’m sure there’s worse things in life to be obsessed with.

So next time I ask myself why I do it, I’ve got my answers ready. I can’t ever remember regretting doing a hard session on the bike and the memories of even the grimmest and toughest of rides soon fade away once you get out of the shower. So keep pedalling, it’ll all be worth it!

Spring: finally…

After a brutally wet and windy UK winter, this weekend’s fine weather seemed to mark the start of spring as far as us amateur road cyclists go. The Peak District’s roads get a decent amount of cycle traffic every weekend anyway, but there were subtle differences this time. Overshoes had been left at home, thermal bib-longs were replaced by standard lycra and there was even the sight of bare arms and legs. But the weather was clearly the signal for everyone to bring their ‘best bike’ out of hibernation. It’s been my first year of having a dedicated ‘winter bike’ with full mudguards, but I’m completely sold on the idea. The Planet X Uncle John’s dealt with everything the winter’s thrown at it and has gone above and beyond the call of duty. As well as letting my beloved Boardman Pro Carbon avoid the worst of the weather, it’s got me out pedalling when I previously wouldn’t have.

I hadn’t even ridden the Boardman since the Tenerife trip back in November, but once I’d dusted it off and got going, everything fell right back into place. The slightly racier position, the higher spec shifters with lighter wheels and tyres, it all felt amazing. So did the lighter overall weight and the responsiveness of the carbon frame compared to the Uncle John’s aluminium bulk. The Uncle John’s taken the blows all winter though and there’s been rides so windy that it’s extra weight has allowed me to stay upright when the Boardman would have been blown right off the road. It almost felt unfair that the ‘posh bike’ should emerge victorious to grab all the glory and Strava achievements, but I suppose that’s the point; I’ve been slogging up and down the hills on a heavy bike all winter and still performing well, so once I got back on the light bike it felt like I’d let the handbrake off!

I won’t be forgetting those winter rides though – the time’s I’d be shivering and numb at the bottom of a descent, that time I got caught in snow and fog and feared for my safety – I appreciate now that they were all worthwhile. I’ve paid for my spring and I’ve earned the right to race around in the sunshine on a high spec bike with a big grin on my face. No offence to anyone who’s only now decided that the weather’s good enough to cycle (and it’s not my style to discourage anyone who wants to get out pedalling) but do they truly appreciate what they’ve got?

Character building (or sometimes just “stupid”) is what people might call those winter rides, but despite some tough conditions, I can’t say that I’ve regretted a single ride. I used to just rely on fixed gear riding and mountain biking for winter rides, but thanks to the winter bike I’ve put in more way more distance and climbing than I usually would have by this point in the year. Things are surely looking good for the Fred Whitton in May!

Spring: worth waiting for.

Spring: worth waiting for.

Keeping your costs down

The term ‘financial crisis’ gets over used these days, but anyone putting in a serious amount of riding will be familiar with that sinking feeling you get when you spot yet another impending repair bill. Threadbare tyres? Worn out drivetrain? Seized up bearings? It all makes you realise that the bicycle has more consumable parts than we’d like, and too many of them wearing out at the same time can feel like a mini crisis.

These were my thoughts when a close inspection of my winter road bike revealed that the braking surface on the rear rim was becoming perilously thin, after less than 2000 miles. Having survived an exploding Mavic Open Pro rim before, I know that the need to buy a new rim and rebuild the wheel next month is inevitable. Still, it’s money I wasn’t planning on spending and means that the elusive ‘month without spending any money on bike stuff’ will have to be postponed again.
Some people keep fit by spending a portion of their wages on gym membership, I just keep a bunch of hard-working bikes running.

I’ve learnt some strategies to minimise these costs over the years though. So for the benefit of those just realising the horrors of bicycle repair bills (and to reassure my long-suffering fiancé that I’m not purposely spending all my money on bike parts), here’s what I’ve learnt:

DIY
My first error when I started mountain biking many years ago was not knowing how to carry out even basic repairs. Every time a spoke snapped or my gears didn’t work I took it down to the local shop. Within 2000 miles of riding my £2000 bike, I’d handed over another £2000 to the shop. It’s embarrassing to think about it now, but shortly after that I invested in a tool set and a couple of good books. There’s now very few jobs that require any outside intervention and the cash savings are only matched by my sense of satisfaction. If you were to make a mess of a job yourself then you could always take it to your local shop to put right, though the inept and often dangerously bad work done by some shops I’ve used makes me even more determined to finish the job myself.

Careful shopping
Without wanting to totally condemn your local bike shop to bankruptcy, the other way to keep your costs down is through careful online shopping. Once you get to know your favourite brand/model of chain, tyres cassettes etc you can keep your eyes open for bargains. If you see them on offer, get them before you need them – you’ll be thankful when you do. Some things are worth buying in bulk, so there’s no point buying the smallest size bottle of oil or tyre sealant. I’ll never buy a single inner tube either – buy a pack of ten and halve the price as you know you’re going to need them eventually. You’ll also get to learn which items can be economised on. For example, Superstar disc brake pads are just as good as original Shimano’s but a quarter of the price.

Prevention better than cure
The best way to stop parts wearing out is to keep your bikes clean. If you leave your bike covered in mud and grime between rides then you shouldn’t be too upset when you find your derailleurs and chain seized solid next time you want to ride it. Ideally you’d do the full wash/dry/lube routine after every dirty ride, but even a quick wipe and lube of the chain at the end of a wet ride will ensure that you’ll be able to ride again when you need to. Suspension always deserves some particular attention to avoid a costly repair bill, even if it’s a quick wipe and spray with some lube, though it’s well worth learning to do a lower leg service yourself.
I also employ the sneaky old road cycling trick of replacing the chain as soon as it stretches. As a chain stretches it wears down the teeth of all your sprockets, and if you leave it too long you’ll find that a new chain won’t be compatible and you have to replace the whole lot. Depending on the spec of your bike, that could be an expensive job. I like my lightweight, good quality and expensive cassettes and chain rings so I use a mid price chain and use a chain checking gauge and change it before it costs me money.
If I’d cleaned the brake pads on my winter road bike between every ride then the rims might not be so worn down (though the brief trial with the cantilever brakes of death probably took their toll on them…)

Maybe it’s just this wet British winter taking its toll, but I still seem to be spending money on worn out parts every month despite these strategies. It could be worse though, I could be paying for a gym membership and exercising indoors.

Cyclist on the run

There’s always been mixed opinion about how much cyclists benefit from doing other disciplines, or cross training as it’s become known. When the great Eddy Merckx* was once asked for some training advice, his three suggestions were: “Ride the bike, ride the bike, ride the bike”. Not all cyclists are such purists though. The winter sport of cyclocross, with all it’s muddy running about with a bike on your shoulder, was originally devised as winter training for the pro’s. Nowadays there’s even more riding options being explored in the ‘off season’ and personally I reckon it’s hard to beat mountain biking as an all round workout. I’ve heard that Norwegian cyclists such as Edvald Boasson Hagen get stuck into some cross-country skiing every winter, but ski’s would be a poor investment for where I live.

But what about running? Triathletes obviously do their share of pavement pounding, but what about those of us who who prefer to class ourselves as cyclists? I did a lot of running in 2010 as part of a conscious effort to train for the Etape du Tour and I still suspect that it was my fittest year as a rider. I’ve done the occasional run since, but I’d let the trainers get dusty for two years until deciding to pull them on again yesterday.

There’s a school of thought that claims that running damages the body and I admit that if I’ve not ran for a while, my legs ache for days afterwards whilst they adapt to the different stresses. Yesterdays run got off to a particularly bad start as I hurt my back bending down to pull my running pants on – maybe it’s true?

I was surprised at how fit I felt though. I wasn’t running hard, but my heart rate was nowhere near as high as even a moderate ride, though I still remember hitting my highest ever heart rate as I wobbled across the line of the Manchester 10k run a few years ago. I’ll be entering it again this year so there’s plenty more running ahead of me.

Right now I’m so sore that I had to cut todays ride short and can barely get up and down the stairs. But will all this running actually make me any fitter? Who knows, I suppose I’ll have to wait and see…

* so dominating was Eddy Merckx during his time as a professional cyclist, that it’s pretty much obligatory to precede his name with the word ‘great’ or at least refer to him by his nickname, ‘The Canibal’

Keswick to Windermere, MTB style!

Having prematurely posted the introduction before even starting the ride, here’s the full post now I’m safely back home!

As soon as I spotted the opportunity to be dropped off in Keswick with my bike on a Monday morning, my head went into overdrive to plot a route across some untried bridleways towards a train station that could return me back to civilisation. Despite it being the depths of winter, I had a craving for some old fashioned hike-a-bike adventure. Maps were spread across tables, the internet was scrutinised and train timetables were studied. By car, the route route between these popular Lakeland towns is a mere 20 miles by the A591, however my plan involved the Stake Pass bridleway, which promised to offer a pretty gruelling day out.

I’m a big fan of using trains with the bike. There’s nothing wrong with doing a loop, but there’s something about a point-to-point ride that makes it a proper journey. I’d booked a train from Windermere at 5pm, with the aim of arriving at dusk and having time to grab a chippy tea to eat at the station. To make the 3 hour return journey (and probable sleep from exhaustion) more comfortable, I’d packed lightweight clothes in a dry bag. There’s a time and place for worrying about carrying too much weight, but these kind of rides are not such occasions. On a winter mid-week day, miles from the nearest road or house I might not see another person should I run into difficulties so maps, compass, food, water, tools, extra layers and survival blanket all took the backpack up to 6KG. It’s all good for the legs though. I’d also cunningly put Stake Pass near the start of the ride, so that if it took more time/energy than planned I could tarmac it back to Windermere and skip the rest of the off-road sections I had lined up. It might all sound a bit dramatic, but I didn’t want to be another mocking incident on the local Mountain Rescue web site.

For any readers not familiar with the Lake District, it’s one of England’s most famous and popular national parks. The lakes and hills (or fells as they’re known) make it a favourite playground for cyclists, mountain bikers, hikers, fell runners and rock climbers. Fortunately it’s not all overly congested, partly because most of the tourists prefer not to leave the cafe’s and outdoor clothing shops.

Routes like Stake Pass are ancient traveller and trade routes between towns, and I had a feeling that today would make me realise exactly how soft modern conveniences like the A591 had made us. They’re also not the kind of routes that you’ll find in a mountain bike guide book. Oh no, the only way to assess the feasibility of such rides is to scour the internet for forum discussions and ride reports on blogs like these. So, for the benefit of future riders, here’s how it went: (Strava users can check it out and pinch the route file here)

Keswick to Rosthwaite
I could have taken the obvious road directly there, but I used the first half of the well documented ‘Borrowdale Bash’ route. I’d forgotten how technical some of it was though and getting off to push a couple of sections didn’t give me much confidence for the horrors ahead…

Up Langstrath to the top of Stake Pass:
I’d read that the bridleway on the East side of Langstrath Beck could be boggy, but that there was a rocky farm track that gave way to a footpath on the West side that would be drier. I’m usually a stickler for Rights Of Way, but given that the UK had only just stepped down from flood alerts, another pair of wheels/boots would be the last thing a grassy bridleway needed. Ecological justification.

The farm track was great, a few techy bits but very rideable. I could see the bridleway across the big wide valley and it looked grassy, so I imagine it would have been boggy. All goes well till you go through a gate and wonder where the track went. You’re now on the footpath and the next couple of miles will have you in a sequence of ride/push/carry, but if you’re taking this route on then you’re unlikely to get too upset about this. As you progress up the valley, look for a waterfall high up ahead on the left side of the valley – Stake Pass zig zags up the right hand side of this. It’s a strange moment when you realise this, as a) you expect to be continuing down the valley and b) it looks vertical.

Once you cross the river on the narrow wooden bridge the real climbing begins. The path’s been tastefully manicured within the last few years and is mostly fine gravel and very sharp hairpin bends. With good legs and small gears you can ride quite a lot of it though. Once you get half way up and look down you’ll see that it’s like a mini Alpine road pass, but instead of wide tarmac roads, its a gravel track half a meter wide. Annoyingly, the hairpins are too tight to ride round, which breaks your flow on the way up and would really spoil it as a descent. Eventually you hit the top and you just follow the obvious and mostly rideable track until you catch sight of the Great Langdale valley, your next destination.

Down Stake Pass to the Old Dungeon Ghyll pub:
If you thought the ascent was mad, wait till you see the descent. It plummets down quite abruptly, with rocky step-like zig zags. This was just how I remembered it from a hiking trip last year, though my claims of “Yeah, I reckon I could ride most of this” didn’t come to fruition now I had a bike with me. I know there’s riders out there that are brilliant at this kind of riding, but a healthy fear of injury meant that I pushed the first section but rode increasingly towards the bottom. As you cross the bridge, look back up and you can barely even make out the path against the imposing hills that now surround you. The track through the valley floor is brilliant – not massively technical, but certainly grand, and if you’ve not hurt yourself on Stake Pass you’ll be feeling pretty pleased with yourself, so soak it up. As a guide, it took me just over two hours from Rothsthwaite to the Old Dungeon Ghyll including a few photo stops and a quick sandwhich.

Old Dungeon Ghyll to Windermere:
From here to Windermere are a multitude of bridleway options so I’d planned as many that I hadn’t ridden before. I had to miss out the last one as the light was fading, but the last few miles of tarmac delivered me nicely to the fish and chip shop, just as planned.

I’m not sure it’s the kind of ride I’d want to do every weekend, and I appreciate that it’s hard to convey the appeal of such a ride even to most regular cyclists, but there’s just something special about taking on a remote pass that you’ve never done before. Fortunately there’s loads more in the Lakes for me to start planning!

Nearly at the top, just a few more hair pins...

Nearly at the top, just a few more hair pins…

The welcome sight of Great Langdale

The welcome sight of Great Langdale

A well earned chippy tea

A well earned chippy tea

The Christmas morning ride

There’s numerous stories of pro cyclists going out for a training ride on Christmas day in the belief that many of their rivals wouldn’t, thereby gaining an advantage on them for the coming season. I can’t claim to have quite the same motivation, but I had been looking forward to sneaking in a Christmas morning ride, something I’ve never previously had chance to do.

It’s not that I don’t enjoy Christmas, but there’s rather a lot of faff and stress that can leave you pining for some quality cycle-therapy, so as the rest of my family headed off to church on Christmas morning, I headed out for some worship of my own out on the hills. Thinking about it, there’s a lot of similarities between cycling and religion, especially the Catholics. They both involve some peculiar rituals and some very distinctive costumes and they’ll both leave you you with feelings of guilt if your devotion lapses. Professional cycling may have a history of drug use, but I’ll take that over pedophilia any day.

I’d imagined that the roads would be empty of both cars and cyclists, but there was still plenty of both. Of course there were no concessions given to the festive spirit by the cyclists, with the usual subtle nod of acknowledgement being the cheeriest greeting I received off any of the solitary riders seeking some peace. I’d considered putting some tinsel on my bike or helmet but managed to refrain from such frivolity in the end. There’s no point getting carried away just because it’s Christmas. By the time I’d climbed up to the Cat and Fiddle inn there was snow on the ground and it was getting cold, so I took a quick photo to mark the occasion and then started the cold descent back down to begin the family fun.

It’s just as well that I wasn’t out to gain an advantage on my peers, as Strava later showed that most of them had been out for nearly 50 miles, making my 17.5 miles look like a mere starter compared to their full turkey dinners. I’ll see if I can get away with a longer ride next year.

Merry Christmas to all cyclists from me and my Uncle John.

Merry Christmas to all cyclists from me and my Uncle John.

Industry influence

On a recent mountain bike ride, I started to feel the benefit of the wider bars and shorter stem I’d installed on the Cotic Soul. I felt more in control and with my weight a little further back it was easier to pull the front end up. This should have been a joyous revelation, but I had a slight resentment that the cycling media had pushed me into this upgrade that I had resisted for so long. One of the reasons I stopped reading MBR was that I was becoming increasingly irritated by their insistence that I upgrade to this wide/short set up. That and their illegible use of tiny white fonts on a bright orange background….

Those that know me well have realised that I don’t like being pressured into decisions*. I’ll often resist all (good) advice in order to stubbornly cling on to the belief that I’ve made my own decisions for my own reasons. I recently decided to go short and wide as I wanted more confidence on the descents – but was it due to years of nagging from the cycling industry and press? The internet has made it almost impossible to ignore peoples opinions on what we should be riding. There’s not just the magazines and their online environments, but internet forums full of people telling you how to kit your bikes out. Blogs are no better, even I’m putting my opinions into your head!

There’s a few examples of this going on in the bike world at the moment, but the one that irritates me the most is mountain bike drive trains. I’m almost universally derided for running a triple ring chainset, but why? I like having a range of gears from 22:34 to 44:11 and apart from the obvious cross-chaining omissions, I use them all regularly. I’ve had friends, colleagues, magazines and websites all telling me that I should be running a double chainset and how it’s so much ‘better’ for years now. I even had a mechanic at Evans imply that I’d specced my bike incorrectly by fitting a triple. Did he not consider that I’d spent hours poring over gear tables to ensure that my dream bike was exactly what I wanted?

Other corners of the industry become even more militant when shouting about having a singe chainring set up. Nowadays that ingenious piece of design technology that is the front derailleur has become as popular as asbestos in the MTB media. An essential piece of kit on a road bike, it is apparently an unnecessary liability on a bike designed to go up and down steep trails. What entertains me most about this development is that companies are now having to get very innovative to overcome the problem that they have created. Companies like SRAM, who have found a way to create a cassette that squeezes in a specially small 11th sprocket, with a sprocket the size of a dinner plate at the other end. Then there’s the obligatory rear derailleur redesign to handle the new freakishly large capacity…. Does this system actually offer any benefits to my ‘retro’ 3×10? I wouldn’t have thought so, but the cycling industry and media need to keep moving forwards to keep healthy, partly driven by professional sport and partly funded by people who feel the need to buy the latest innovation.

Ranting aside, I accept that bicycle design should be improving year on year. Even a look back ten years shows a drastic change in handlebar/stem, suspension, brakes and geometry. I must admit that I thought tubeless tyres were a bonkers idea but now I couldn’t imagine riding off road without them. Maybe there’s people still riding trails on aging rigid bikes with 120 mm stems and v-brakes, but all I see are people buying into the latest technology that the industry wants us to buy. Should I be buying a seat post that I can remotely raise and lower? I’m sometimes tempted to get one even though I never actually manually drop my post. The marketing must be working.

I’d also appreciate it if people would stop telling me that my wheels are too small. 26″ wheels work well for me off road and I’m not about to abandon that format to make them 3″ bigger (and no, not even 1.5″ bigger either). Let me enjoy having fun on my little wheels in peace. Maybe I’m too traditional. I can’t even get my head round the idea of a carbon MTB, having recently regressed to steel (though even that was a decision probably influenced by the cycling press).So what about the ultimate solution to a non-existant problem: electronic gears? Maybe cable operated gears will be as obsolete as rod brakes in 10 years, but for the moment I’ll stick with the cables that flawlessly change my gears every time I need them to. Maybe the pro road cyclists will benefit from them? See what Sir Wiggo thinks of them in the video below: .

So what conclusions can I take from all this waffle? Well, I accept that the bike industry needs to keep reinventing the wheel to keep healthy, if you’ll excuse the pun, but I’d rather be left to come round to these ‘innovations’ when I need to. I’d say just buy what works for your own riding and budget and enjoy riding your bike.

And don’t spend as long thinking about it all as I’ve done today.

* There’s an irony relevant to this blog to be told here. My own reintroduction to cycling as an adult 10 years ago wouldn’t have been delayed if it wasn’t for my aversion to peer pressure. My good friend and flat mate of the time nearly put me off trying mountain biking by repeatedly insisting that I come out on a ride with him and even buy his GT Avalanch. Once he backed off, I did ride, I did buy the bike and the rest is history.

Mudguards AND brakes that work

After the recent near death experiences with cantilever brakes on the Uncle John, I had a re-think and decided to somehow make the mini-v’s work with the mudguards. Given the amount of people who arrive at this blog through searching for info on this humble English cyclocross bike, I thought I’d better share my solution.

When I first fitted my SKS Chromoplastic P45 mudguards, it looked like the Tektro 926 mini-v’s wouldn’t clear the top of them (which led to the unsuccessful experiment with the cantilever brakes…) On closer inspection, they can just about clear the top of the guards, especially if you file down the underside of the bit where the noodle goes through. I was always happy with the power of these brakes, but was annoyed at the lack of pad clearance, which was only just feasible with straight road wheels but a rim wearing nightmare off road. With their reinstallation, I decided to try the ‘Travel Agents’ by Problem Solvers to gain more clearance. These little gadgets are as clever as their name, essentially converting the short amount of cable pulled by the lever into an increased amount of travel at the calliper. It does this via a wheel, which replaces the noodle. It may look a little unsightly, and weight weenies will moan about the extra grams, but it works well and has less friction than a noodle.

The Travel Agent seems to do it’s job well and though it didn’t change the pull ratio as much as I thought it would, it was enough to allow a little pad clearance and still have effective braking without the levers hitting the bars. I’ve just test ridden them and the brakes felt as strong as the SRAM Force callipers I’ve got on the Boardman. So I’ve finally achieved my original objective of having mudguards big enough to accommodate my Schwalbe 30mm CX-Pro’s and still get decent braking with my SRAM Rival levers.

To be honest, I should maybe have just gone with disc brakes when I built the bike, but it’s a bit late late now as I’d have to buy a new fork and build new wheels, as well as the new callipers. Maybe on my next ‘cross bike…

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Fixed gear evangelism

It’s an interesting thought that the oldest and most simplistic form of the modern bicycle also attracts the most diverse cultural groups and usage. For those unfamiliar with fixed gear bikes, they have no gears or even a freewheel – if the wheels are moving then so are your legs!

Historically, fixed gear bikes were the norm until some clever sod invented the freewheel, which then allowed you to ‘coast’ once you were up to speed (very useful when going downhill). Early professional road cyclists used them and track cyclists at velodromes still do. Track bikes also have the distinction of not having brakes, which is also how some people like to ride them on the road. This style of riding, which requires the rider to lock their legs to skid to a halt, became popular with New York couriers before spreading to the rest of the world. The current ‘fixie’ scene combines this often precarious form of riding with fashion, both for the rider and bike and has even spawned the sport of bicycle polo.

So what’s my involvement with fixed gear? Well for me, it’s nothing to do with fashion and everything to do with riding. What started as a cost-effective commuter bike (the obligatory Specialized Langster) developed into a whole new appreciation of pedalling. People often talk about the zen like quality of riding fixed and how you’re connected to the road in a more positive way and whilst I don’t disagree with such thoughts, here’s eight quantifiable reasons for riding fixed.

1. Fitness
If you consider how much riding time you’d usually spend coasting, you begin to realise how beneficial this style of riding is for your legs. In 2010 whilst starting training for the Etape du Tour I spent long, cold, dark winter evenings hurtling round the flat lanes of Cheshire on the Langster, often up to 50 miles and was amazed at the fitness I gained. Coaches refer to a ‘base’ of fitness that you can develop and riding fixed is the old school base building method that’s been around for years.

2. Pedalling technique
Non-obsessive cyclists might assume that there is no real technique to pedalling – your legs simply turn the pedals round. Those of us in the know appreciate that it’s not quite that simple. You should be producing even power throughout the whole circle and riding fixed can help achieve that even pedalling style, even when going downhill with a ridiculously high cadence. For maximum fun, try riding a fixed gear bike indoors on the rollers – it’s nowhere near as easy as the pro’s make it look at the velodrome…

3. Ultimate control in traffic
I admit that I was initially apprehensive about riding fixed gear through city centre traffic. It’s only since doing it on a non-fixed bike that I’ve realised the benefits. Weaving through traffic at slow speeds is so much easier to control when you’re controlling your acceleration and deceleration with your legs.

4. Track stands
It was through riding fixed that I mastered the art of standing still on the bicycle. Not massively exciting, but useful at traffic lights as it saves you having to unclip your feet. This is due to being able to put your bars at 45˚ and control your forward and backwards motion. It’s not just a cool trick though, as the control and technique helps with the mountain biking.

5. Hill climbing
Hills with no gears? Oh yes! I’m not talking long alpine climbs, but any short ramp of up to 15% can be ‘attacked’ on a fixed gear bike in a way that you just wouldn’t on your normal road bike. Maybe it’s the lack of gears to wimp out with, or that if you don’t commit your whole body to it 100% then you’ll grind to a halt and fall over. Strava’s proved to me that my best efforts on short hills are when riding a fixed gear bike and the Monsal Hill climb course record set by Malcom Elliot in 1981 whilst riding a fixed wheel bike still stands to this day.

6. No gears, no hassles
Keeping your gears working well isn’t exactly rocket science, but if you’re going to be riding a bike through city centre grime and winter country lanes then it’s nice not to have to have any to collect muck in. All you need to do is give the chain a wipe and lube from time to time and occasionally re-tension the rear wheel as the chain inevitably stretches.

7. A cheaper bike
Whether you’re building or buying, a fixed gear bike is way cheaper than a geared road bike. If you’ve ever specced up your own road bike then you’ll have realised how much goes on the gear levers and derailleurs. Not a problem on the fixie so you either get a much cheaper bike, or if you spend the same money you’ll get a better quality of important components, such as wheels.

8. The fitness gauge
One thing about having to turn the one same gear is that you know how your legs are feeling, there’s no hiding behind easier gears. I used to commute in and out of town on a 48×17 fixed wheel every day and it was the best measurement of fitness I’ve ever had. If I ever started considering changing to a 16t sprocket then I knew I was on form. If I was struggling to turn the pedals it was time for an easy week…

In summary…
Having already cycled up the height of Mount Everest 12 times this year, it’s nice to just enjoy the rhythm of some flat or gently rolling roads on a fixed gear bike. Too much of anything can wear you down and we all need variety, so the hills can wait whilst I recondition my legs and perfect my pedalling ready for 2014. It’s going to be a good year!

The current fixed gear steed

The current fixed gear steed

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