The over-enthusiastic cyclist

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

Category Archives: Fettling

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:

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.


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…



Coming to terms with mudguards

There’s a saying that there is no such thing as bad weather, just the wrong clothes. If you apply the same logic to bikes then you’ll probably end up fitting mudguards. It was this idea of making my Planet X Uncle John an all weather winter road bike that led me to finally confront my aversion to mudguards. I can’t really explain why I’ve resisted them for so long, but there’s just something uncool about them. They’ll turn a sleek and racy looking bike into an old man’s steed and I wasn’t quite that sure I was ready for that kind of bike in my life.

The obvious choice of mudguard
The SKS Chromoplastic’s are universally regarded as the best ‘proper’ mudguards around and I opted for the P45 set so that I could still run my cross wheels with 30mm Schwalbe CX-Pro’s on as well as my winter road wheels fitted with the excellent Durano Plus 23mm tyres. Having fitted the ‘guards this week and tested them in appropriately wet weather on their first ride, I can confirm that they are indeed brilliant. The instructions however, are not worth the very small piece of paper they’re written on and I had to have a look at a colleagues bike to understand how the little plastic hoods work. I also had to get a bit creative with the drill to fashion a fixing to the seat stay bridge on the Uncle John, which seems to be 90 degrees off compared to the fixings provided. Be prepared to spend a while getting all this right, as you’ll probably have to fit the guards without the plastic hoods, then mark up where you’ll need to cut them, then take each side off to cut and fit the hoods. It’s not rocket science, but it’s all a bit fiddly.

The Tektro brakes of death
The installation of mudguards required a change of strategy with the brakes, as my Tektro 926AL mini-v’s didn’t provide enough clearance. The Tektro CR520/720’s cantilever brakes have a lot of fans online, despite the admittedly poor pads. It didn’t bother me though, as I planned to reuse my Koolstop dual compounds I’d been using. They brakes were reasonably fiddly to fit and for some reason, you have to ignore the conveniently placed 5mm allen bolt and struggle with the nut round the back of the yoke. Having spent a week reading reviews and swotting up on mechanical advantage ratios and straddle wire heights, I was confident that they would work well.

That first ride in the wet proved that all my research had been in vain. The front brake had some ability to slow me down on descents, but not enough power to avoid a long guessing game of whether I would stop in time before each junction. The rear brake was even more interesting… Before the rain came down it felt weak and underpowered, but the situation got much worse in the wet. After some scientific testing involving a long descent and the speed readout on my Garmin, I concluded that pulling the brake as hard as I could made absolutely no difference to my speed. I carried on using it, but it was only really working as a placebo brake. After a few terrifying near misses I decided to change my route as there were some steep descents coming up that I don’t think I would have survived.

It was an interesting comparison though, as it was the same wheels, levers and pads – just a change of calliper from the min-v’s to cantilever. I wasn’t totally convinced by the Surly rear hanger I’d bought, which resembled a big paper clip and probably only as strong, but I can’t imagine it being entirely responsible for the lack of power.

But what about the mudguards?
Despite the terrors of going downhill, the addition of mudguards transformed the wet ride. Obviously I was still getting rained on from above, but the lack of spray coming up from the road was very noticeable, with no more soggy backside to soak you through and make you cold. An unexpected bonus was not having to wear any eyewear in the rain, as there was nothing coming up from the road. I also avoided getting splattered in mud when going down some more rural lanes and before long I’d started to lose my ingrained habit of avoiding puddles.

By the end of the ride, I’d come to terms with having ‘guards on my bike. I was now a proper road cyclist; I’d come of age and I was ok with that. If having mudguards encourages me to get out and get more miles in over winter then it’s a positive move. They might have swelled the weight of the bike close to 10kg but it will just make the Boardman feel even more amazing when I get back on it.

All I need to do now is find some cantilever brakes that work and I’ll be a happy winter rider. Suggestions welcome.


The new mature looking Uncle John


This photo will tell you more than the instructions will


Drill a hole in the rear ‘guard and bolt through to the seat-stay bridge

Build your own wheels!

I like wheels. Obviously we all need them and we all know that it’s the one upgrade that you can really feel, but it was only within the last few months that I realised the satisfaction of speccing and building your own. The idea started to take shape after my Shimano RS80 road wheels wore dangerously thin and then discovering that to buy new rims from Shimano would cost more than the wheels did. Shit economy. I also had a well respected shop build my MTB wheels last year – they’re the best spec wheels I’ve ever had but I was forever getting them re-trued…

So why build your own?

  • When a rim wears down you’re just looking at replacing a standard off the shelf part (£40 for my rim of choice)
  • No more company specific spokes that cost a fortune and take ages to order through a shop (Shimano, grrrr)
  • Design them specific to your needs (weight, strength, cost, use, colour etc)
  • Massive potential for annoying your other half by spending hours reading reviews of spokes etc. (“Do you not know everything there is to know about wheels yet?”)
  • You’ll never need to pay a bike shop to spend ages replacing a snapped spoke again.

I always assumed, like most do, that building wheels was a craft that needed years of training to learn. I even considered going on a wheel building course. This is bollocks – just buy ‘The Professional Guide to Wheel Building’ by Roger Musson. This will be the finest £9 pdf you will ever download and he will take you through everything you need to make your own wheels.

I spent a long time speccing the parts for my wheels (I’ve now built three pairs and looking for an excuse to build another) and I’ll tell you what I’ve learned. Obviously these are my own views – much like the rest of the internet – but if you’re of a trusting or lazy disposition then you can benefit from my weeks of research distilled into a few paragraphs.

I spent ages looking at DT Swiss, Ambrosio, Mavic and ZTR, but eventually went with Mavic. They were the most readily available and consequently competitively priced and compare well against the others. I’ve used Open Pro’s for all my builds so far (about £40 and 435g). I was also quite drawn to the CXP33, though I’m not sure how much aero advantage you’d get for the weight penalty. I nearly got the Ambrosio Excelight (few grams lighter for about £10 more) but they seem harder to get hold of.

For my first set I went  ‘tried and tested’ with Shimano, picking up some Ultegra hubs at a good price. Since researching further though, I’ve realised that they weigh an absolute ton (relatively speaking of course) so they have been designated as my cross wheels. My second set featured Miche RC2’s which were cheaper and lighter, making a cracking training set for the road. My third set were built around some unbranded hubs from a Taiwan ebay seller. This isn’t my usual style but they were £75 posted and only weigh 295 grams – I challenge anyone to beat that! I’ve done 350 miles on them and so far so good. I also looked at DT Swiss (a small fortune) and Hope (love’em off road but couldn’t imagine the freehub noise on the road). Ambrosio hubs also looked good quality and value.

Be aware that not all hubs come with skewers. If you want to save weight, the rather wonderful Planet X do some Ti/Carbon models at 44g a pair for the bargain price of £17.50 (at the time of writing)

Call me naive, but I didn’t realise there was so much variation in spoke design… Your two main players are DT Swiss and Sapim. I’ve used DT Swiss Competition double butted spokes for two the first two sets. Roger will explain more about double butted spokes in the book, but be aware that the black ones are dearer (but look ace!) and the best place I found was Rose Bikes in Germany. They deliver quicker than some UK shops, but as there’s a delivery charge, see if you can get as much gear as possible in your order to make it worthwhile. For my ‘posh’ set of road wheels, I went for Sapim CX-Ray spokes. They’re aero, light but still strong. DT Swiss Aerolight seem to be the exact same weight/strength/quality so it just depends on whatever you can get hold of. I got the CX-Rays from, another German site. These were the dearest part of the build… I also invested in some posh nipples (oo-er) – black aluminium rather than the usual silver brass. Dearer, but lighter (there’s a theme developing here…)

Again, the book will go into detail, but I went for 32 spoke 3x on my first two sets. I’m a bit of a fat bastard at 13 stone and for the cross and winter training intentions these wheels were built for, it seemed sensible. For my ‘posh’ road wheels I went 32 spoke 3x on the back and 28 2x on the front. These wheels weigh in at just over 1500g including quick release skewers and cost under £300. I know some people would use 20/24 spoke lacing, but every time I snapped a spoke on my RS80’s the wheel went so far out of true I had to carry the bike to the nearest station. Bollocks to that, for what a decent spoke weighs, I reckon it’s worth using enough so you’ll still get home if one breaks.

I’m right chuffed with my posh wheels, they feel fast and strong, look as good as any factory wheel. All my wheels have stayed in true so far and every part can be replaced cheaply. By me.