The over-enthusiastic cyclist

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

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More Spanish riding

After a long summer of guiding cyclists from Lands End to John O Groats, I was ready for a holiday myself. We were off to Andalusia in Southern Spain again, though further up the coast in the region of Almeria this time. The bike chosen to gatecrash this holiday was my Planet X Uncle John, giving me off-road options as well as the usual road miles. It’s not always easy to find route info before you go, so if you’re heading out that way for some cycling here’s three decent rides that I‘d recommend:

The Ruta TransCabrera 
This route crosses the Sierra Cabrera range. The South side is off-road, climbing up from Sopalmo to the top (or descending if you’d rather) whilst the North side is a quiet tarmac road with some steep sections. The locals seem to do the gravel road on short travel hard tail mountain bikes, but my ‘Uncle Juan’ was ideal and made the tarmac less tedious.
I’d been really excited about this and it didn’t disappoint. 8 miles of a winding gravel road with stunning views, what’s not to like? I admit that the first mile with its 10% slopes had me worried, but it slackens off to an average of about 5%.

When you finally get to the junction at the top, turn left and left again to tackle a punishing 25% climb to get an amazing view from the 3000ft summit of the range. It’s been freshly tarmacked and feels a bit like Hardknott Pass, which is great if you’re getting a bit homesick. Don’t pinch my Strava KOM though.

Bedar and beyond
Putting the slicks back on, it was time for some road riding. This time I headed inland and once I’d got off the busy (but totally safe) A370 I was climbing past Bedar on a stunning road with superb hairpins before finally dropping down towards El Marchal. I rode on further to get the distance in, but even if you then just climbed back up and descended back past Bedar you’ll have had a decent ride with a proper climb.

Though much of rural Spain is in a state of crumbling decay, these roads are immaculate. Wide, quiet and flawlessly surfaced in that light grey tarmac that the Spanish seem to produce. On a weekday morning I probably saw one car every half hour, if that. It’s almost like the roads are bigger and better than they need to be, but it makes for amazing cycling so I’m not complaining. In fact I’m already scheming when I can get out there again…

El Cortijo Grande / Sierra Cabrera
Heading out through Turre and up towards the little mountain resort of El Cortijo Grande is a road that has become my favourite climb ever. The road takes you up into the hills and apart from a short section that is more like a farm track, the surface is superb. It’s well signed for ‘Sierra Cabrera’ so just sit back and enjoy the views and intricate hairpins. In an hours worth of climbing I saw one car and one man herding his goats. At one point you climb between a few houses in a remote little village then you’re back in the wilderness again. Eventually you approach the junction of the Ruta TransCabrera so you’re obviously obliged to tackle the extra section right to the top. I descended down the Ruta Transcabrera road to Turre to make a loop of it, though this loop in reverse could be equally rewarding.

Get yourselves out there. It’s great riding and the weather’s far better than the UK…

Uncle Juan at the top of the Sierra Cabrera

‘Uncle Juan’ at the top of the Sierra Cabrera

Back to winter again

Like most outdoor enthusiasts, cyclists tend to be acutely aware of the changing seasons. It doesn’t seem long ago that I was raving about the joys of spring and riding my ‘best bike’ whilst exposing my pale arms and legs to the sun. That’s all drastically changed in the last few weeks. After a transitional period wearing arm and leg warmers, the lycra has now been totally replaced by thermal bib longs and jackets of increasing thickness. Short finger gloves have been replaced for long, with over-shoes, buffs and under-helmet hats all brought back into play after a summer at the bottom of drawers.

And then there’s the lights. I often put a set of little LED blinkers on in case I’m late back on a summer evening, but now it’s back to charging up the big light before evening rides. In an effort to embrace the winter months, I’ve given the Planet X Uncle John some attention – it needed some! After a summer of touring with clients and then some big off-road adventures it deserved new cables, bar tape and 25mm winter tyres at the very least. The last thing you want is to be stopping on top of a dark hill trying to fix your bike in the shivering cold.

Though I’ve been night-riding for a few years now, it still takes some adjusting to. After hammering around on a lightweight carbon racer, hauling the Uncle John up hills with its heavier tyres, full mudguards and a weighty battery felt like hard work. But these rides aren’t intended to trouble the Strava leader boards, they just need to keep me lean and keen till the spring rolls around again. The old-school roadie logic is to just get in a large volume of steady miles over the winter, but I’ll be throwing in some high intensity muddy fun on the mountain bike whenever I get chance.

Despite the heavier bike, freezing temperatures and extra wardrobe faffing about, there’s something quite magical about a night ride once you’re out there. The isolation and views can be beautiful once you get over the spookiness of it, and you quite literally see your local roads in a different light. You’ll see some different wildlife as well. I’ve raced badgers down country lanes (surprisingly fast) and had owls flying right in front of my face (quite frightening).

It was mid-March when I was writing about the joys of spring and I’ve enjoyed seven months of summer cycling wear since then. Whilst not a truly scientific test, it would seem that the winter cycling period is still shorter than summer. I’m going to hang on to that positive thought, as once the novelty wears off it’s going to feel like a long slog through the winter darkness.

It's a bit dark on the hills at night...

It’s a bit dark on the hills at night…

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…

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.

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.

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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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.

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The new mature looking Uncle John

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This photo will tell you more than the instructions will

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

Cyclocross bikes – thoughts after a couple of months

It’s a couple of months since I built the Planet X Uncle John and I’ve ridden it all over the place – on and off road, flat stuff, hills, all over the place really. South Manchester turns out to be a great place for such a bike, as there’s an abundance of tracks and trails that are great for a cross bike. Trails that are a bit too tame to justify taking a MTB and sometimes needing some milage on the tarmac to link them up – ideal for a cross bike!

There’s the River Mersey, Bridgewater canal, Trans Pennine Trail, Middlewood Way, Sett Valley Trail and once you head south you’ve got the Tissington Trail, High Peak Trail, Monsal Trail – and that’s just the obvious long routes. What I’m starting to do is plan decent length routes that link some of these up with those little bridleways and byways that aren’t exactly mega rocky but you’d never want to take your posh road bike down.

Here’s my conclusions:

  1. You get a flavour of road cycling and MTB’ing all in the same ride
  2. You can cover more distance than on a MTB but have more fun than road cycling
  3. A slightly technical trail becomes rather good fun when tackled at speed on what is essentially a beefed up racer
  4. It’s a right good work out – you know about it when you come home from a long cross ride
  5. You’ll try out all the little tracks that you’d never plan a MTB ride around
  6. If (for some tragic reason) I could ever own only one bike, it would be a crosser

It’s also created a new genre of riding for me that’s been christened ‘dicking about on the cross bike’ which involves leaving the house with no particular route in mind and just bombing about around riding anywhere that I fancy. (Is it just me or do we all relax our moral sense of rights of way when it’s within a certain radius of where we live?).The Uncle John seems to have a built in cheeky satnav installed that says “Turn left down that little path you’ve never been down”. I get home after an hour having been down new trails and with a big grin on my face.

Highly recommended!

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My first cyclocross bike – Planet X Uncle John

Here’s the brief: a road bike I can use for winter training, crap weather commuting, touring work and light off-road. The Planet X Uncle John fitted the bill and gave me a fresh excuse to spend hours looking at parts on the internet.

Top tip: if you’re going to buy one (frame or bike) get down to their showroom and try one out. I’ve never bought a ‘medium’ in my life, but a large Uncle John would barely have needed a seat post at all.

I built the frame up with a mix of SRAM Rival/Apex, two different wheelset’s I’ve built and some other bits I had lying around. Since SRAM front mech’s only operate on a down pull, Planet X include a little pulley to put on the bottom of the down tube to feed the cable through. After 15 minutes of arsing about, I sacked it off and put on an old Shimano XT triple front mech on. It’s not right, but it works till I get around to finding a Shimano double front mech.
EDIT: it’s a Shimano FD-CX70 top pull double mech you need, works a treat, about £30.

Instead of the usual cyclocross cantilever brakes, I took a punt on the Tektro 926AL Mini-V brakes…

These are great once you do a few modifications: because there’s not much clearance on the pads, to release the noodle to get your wheel out is problematic. The solution is to hacksaw the part of the noodle that pokes through the clasp down to about 1 mm – just enough to do it’s job but short enough to disengage for wheel release. Oh, and the brake pads are rubbish – I replaced with Koolstop Dual Compound within 100 miles. I also put some of those cheap inline barrel adjusters in – they’re meant for gears but work fine for brakes.
EDIT: I later used the Travel Agents to give more pad clearance. Read about it here

So what’s it like? Flipping brilliant! It weighs about 21lbs and rides well on and off road. More to follow. Image