Mid-priced bib-shorts reviewed: from Sportful, dhb, Castelli and Alé

MY INTRODUCTION TO SERIOUS CYCLING was around 1974, a time when shorts were roughly knitted woollen affairs with real chamois, just a millimetre or two deep, sewn in to them. Riders then as now complained about a lot of things, but I don’t recall shorts being one of them; in  short, we just got on with the riding – hours and hours of it, using braces to keep shorts in place as the  bib-short as we know it today wasn’t introduced until 1998 (by Castelli).

The mid-70’s was also a time when just 6 new pence could buy you a Fry’s Chocolate Cream. So even today, the idea of paying £140 for a pair of shorts, maybe Assos-branded, is an outrageous one to me.

Nevertheless this summer I’ve spent £261 of my own money on a quartet of bib-shorts from Alé, Castelli, dhb and Sportful. My thinking? That surely, even in 2016, £75 should be sufficient to get a well-made, well-fitting, comfortable and long-lasting pair of bib-shorts? Let’s see.

table

Now I’m no chunky-monkey (only today a chap said of me that he’d ‘seen more meat on a butcher’s knife’) – the circumference of my thighs and waist is only 34″ and 18″ respectively (87cm and 45cm in pre-Brexit metric measurements) – but all of these shorts fit snugly in the modern ‘compression fabric’ way, forcing you to wonder if they’ll even fit over your calves let alone thighs as you begin the contortion of hoisting and cajoling these garments over the knee and up towards the hip in an imitation of Widow Twankey doing a bit of sartorial re-arranging.

Sportful's Giro bib-shorts

delicate grippers on Sportful’s Giro bib-shorts do an effective, but ultimately unnecessary, job

Sportful Giro – Sportful say I’m a ‘Large’, so that’s what I now have, after their ‘Medium’ size proved too small and were exchanged. Their Giro shorts are still snug though, a bit too snug after a couple of riding hours, I’d say – you certainly wouldn’t forget you were wearing them. However they look nice to my eyes, being well made (in Croatia, if you care) and modern without appearing fussy.

The dhb Aeron Speed bib straps are of a lay-flat design

The dhb Aeron Speed bib straps are of a lay-flat design

dhb Aeron Speed – The Aeron Speed from dhb, even in the ‘S’ for small size that I ordered, have 32cm of material from my hip bone down to the bottom edge of the shorts. This is a centimetre too long for me and the result is that the leg elastic (a piece of material with what’s described as ‘silicone particle grippers’) has no leg to sit against and so curls untidily and unaerodynamically at its lower edge unless hoiked up a bit. Note that the Italian-made Alé PR.R 2.0, at 31cm for the same distance, are perfect for me in this respect. The straps and mesh backing of the Aeron Speed ape the higher-priced Alé PR.R 2.0, so quite ‘premium’ then, and comfortable. Made in Bosnia-Herzegovena, btw.

Castelli Evoluzione bib short

Castelli sew this label on the back, but like it or not, it’ll almost certainly be hidden by your jersey

Castelli Evoluzione – Despite being made in Romania, Castelli’s Evoluzione’s are almost 25% more expensive than the Sportful or dhb shorts, and would just about justify their price were in not for some threads coming away from the hem after just a couple of wearings and washings. A sign of things to come, or nothing of consequence – it’s too early to tell. The pad was great though, which meant that like a good saddle I just forgot about it as it  didn’t intrude into my consciousness – and with this article in mind I was actually trying hard to think about it!

Alé PR.R 2.0 – The £74 Alé PR.R 2.0 shorts, by contrast, had a pad that I felt was just trying a bit too hard. At times it felt more of a nappy than a garment to help fast endurance cycling. I should probably consider lowering my saddle a few millimetres when wearing them, but of course that ain’t never gonna happen. They are nicely made though, with interesting materials for the webbing and straps, and have great wardrobe appeal.

'Chamois' pad of Alé PR.R 2.0

‘Chamois’ pad of Alé PR.R 2.0 is more of a nappy, truth be told

Each of these shorts weighs in at around the 167 grams mark (about 10g less than my previous generation shorts), and after two or three machine washes for each of them so far (30 degrees, synthetic, non-bio, no conditioner, air dry) they all still look good.

Conclusion

Are the Alé shorts worth the 30% uplift on the Sportful Giro’s? Does the unobtrusive Castelli pad make up for the fraying hem after just a few rides? I have to say, if you can live with the dhb logo (and its ‘own-label’ proclamation), and if your femur is long enough, then the Aeron Speed is the one to go for. I’d put the Sportful Giro in last place only because they are so damn tight, but if you’re super slim or prepared to test their sizing (which goes up to XXXL) they’d make a good buy. Otherwise it’s swings and roundabouts between the Alé PR.R 2.0 and Castelli Evoluzione, with the less obtrusive pad of the Castelli’s edging it into favourite place for me, despite the PR.R 2.0 begging most strongly from the wardrobe. It does seem though that I may have to move up a price-point next time around, although the idea of a £100+ gamble is less than appealing.

 PR.R 2.0 bib-short

The PR.R 2.0 bib-short has strong wardrobe appeal

 

 

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Shallow wheels: what goes around comes around – quicker

UNDER ANY OF THE PROS, on the first six stages of this year’s Tour de France, will be deep-section wheels. Should then the veteran road-racer follow suit? Is the sub-30mm rim now a useless thing for everyone except grimpeurs? And is it especially useless for British road-racing?

I say ‘non’ to both questions, and here’s why.

The higher stiffness and lower drag of deep-sections wheels comes at the cost of weight. They weigh about 25% more than an equivalent shallow wheel**. So even before taking into account deep wheels making riding in a straight line more difficult in crosswinds (since they transmit more side-forces), a 50mm rim will be around 130 grams heavier, and that’s not ‘static’ mass but revolving mass as far from the axis of rotation – the hub – as it is possible to be. This is important not just if you’re climbing a French col for kilometre after kilometre, but also in any situation where either acceleration is important to you, or enjoyment (responsive handling) is.

ACCELERATION IS WHAT’S RELEVANT

For the less powerful competitor especially, whose ambitions might not extend much above staying with the bunch, in my opinion a shallow wheel is great in a road-race. For such a rider, being able to repeatedly accelerate hard just to stay in the race is what really matters. Often such accelerations will be needed on a hill, where mass matters even more. Certainly in bunch races on the road or even the velodrome, overall race time just doesn’t matter. So all the talk about shallow wheels being faster, saving you four or five minutes over twenty-five miles, may be true, but is irrelevant.

What is relevant is giving yourself every possible chance of being in the mix lap after lap, hill after hill, attack after attack, when those moments of pure pace injection (usually from riders able to exert more force on the pedals than you can) will determine whether or not you are shelled out the back or manage to hang in there.

OK, if you favour the lone or small group attack as a tactic, and prefer to choose your moment to tap off the front when few are interested in going with you, then a deep section wheel will doubtless give you more speed for your watts (i.e. they are good for tanking along), but for most riders, in most road-races, I think ‘shallow’ has a lot going for it.

905g of 82mm carbon wheel

My 82mm carbon front tubular wheel, even with just 16 Sapim CX bladed spokes, is much more susceptible to cross-winds, and takes more of my limited power to accelerate, than an otherwise similar 24mm rim

FUN

Shallow wheels are also more fun. For while deep wheels might BE fast, shallow ones FEEL fast. They spin up nicely, so even when you’re not racing you might find more enjoyment (and a bit more comfort) on a shallow hoop. They also handle better, particularly for lighter riders, as they respond to steering input more easily because there is less mass (the rim and spoke nipples) and air to have to push around. Try it for yourself if you don’t believe me; leave your 50mm wheels at home tomorrow and take a twenty-something one. One wheel will feel a little sluggish and one will feel exuberant, and which would you rather be your companion on a lumpy fifty-mile ride?

QUICK, IF NOT FAST

My advice is, don’t sell those shallow wheels if you have them, and maybe even buy some if you don’t –  their time is, for non-timed events and rides, nearly all of the time.

**A front Shimano Dura-Ace 9000 C24 weighs 480 grams, and the Fast Forward F2R is listed at 490 grams.

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On track – three progressive challenges

SO YOU WAKE UP THE day after another wet and windy road-race with ‘I want to have a go at track racing’ in your head. An indoor track, given the circumstances of an English summer and now, post 21st June, a looming winter.

What to do next? Broadly speaking, to meet these three challenges;

  1. find a velodrome
  2. get ‘accredited’
  3. get a bike

The velodrome bit is easy as there’s only six indoor ones to choose from and you either are, or are not, in or near Manchester, Newport, Derby, Southampton, Glasgow or East London. For me, twenty-seven million pounds worth of Derby Velodrome is but an hour away, so that’s now ‘mine’.

Derby Arena

250m of Russian spruce forest for me to play on

Accreditation. One can’t just turn up to race, or even to train these days unless a track has you on their database as having been deemed a confident and safe rider by their own coaches. So there is a process to follow, which for an experienced road-racer might be a bit of a bore but is at least financially undemanding and certainly gives you a chance to ease yourself in, and ask lots of questions. At Derby, accreditation is five hours over four sessions and if you can navigate through their booking system then you can get it all done and dusted within twenty days or so. Add in a few training sessions after that and you’re ready to choose your race series.

The hardest of the three challenges is actually moving off of a hire bike and onto one of your own. Well, I say hard, that is if you don’t want to spend ‘too much’. The main problem is that at a thousand pounds or so, every bike bar one comes with clinchers/pressures, when in fact every serious track racer uses tubular tyres.

The ‘bar one’? Planet-X do a track-ready bike with deep section tubular wheels at a grand. It was high on my list, top of it in fact, until I asked around and found that for indoor work the cognoscenti dismiss Planet-X, preferring the geometry of Cervelo, Dolan, BMC and Cannodale it seems. The 75-degree head angle of the Planet-X Pro Carbon Elite bike is apparently the stuff of which excessive twitchiness is made. I wasn’t willing to make a thousand-pound mistake, so where did that leave me?

I could’ve bought any number of bikes with clincher wheelsets, for example the well-regarded Giant Omnium with its 73.5 degree head angle, but with each of them requiring the expenditure of at least another £600 for deep section tubular wheels (a bit less for shallow rimmed affairs from Mavic or Ambrosio) I’m then looking at a minimum of £1,600 for a sport I’ve not really even tried yet. So I asked around and found a second-hand Dolan – it had seen better days but for £300 it would be churlish to complain. The tubes are straight and dent-free, the chain isn’t stretched and the paintwork looks okay from a few feet away. New bar tape and wheel bearings, a new tyre for the front (scrubbed-in via five laps on ‘the blue’ aka the Côte d’Azur) and a CNC machined 50T chainring to replace the 48 it came with, and off I swish on the Siberian spruce, sweating over the 15-sprocket.

 

 

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Cranks: the long and the short of it

172.5, 170, 175; do the millimetres really matter when it comes to the vertical distance between your bottom bracket spindle and your pedal spindle? Well apparently the length of one’s crank is as important as saddle height and tyre pressures, and lately it’s all over the news.

Of course crank length used not to be news at all; any length you want as long as it’s 172.5mm was the situation for most people for many years. Indeed I’ve just bought a brand new bicycle from Giant for my girlfriend, a Thrive 2 in ‘Small – 42′, and it was fitted with 172.5mm cranks. Doubtless that’s for reasons of mass-production economies, but even so, why the current debate?

Crank Length

Never mind the teeth, what about the length?

According to Paolo Slongo, trainer to Italian champion Vincenzo Nibali and a man now riding 175mm, “a longer crank should give more of a push when you have strength…he has a long femur, so it works out. It hinders your attacks, but helps in other areas”.

And Australian professional Adam Hansen not only agrees, but cranks things up quite a bit: “I don’t understand how everybody thinks that riders should be using the same crank lengths. Most climbers are small, but they ride the same crank-arm length as us tall guys. In comparison to their legs their cranks are 25-percent longer than us, meaning that the tall riders are effectively on shorter cranks. At 100 rpm on 180mm cranks, compared to 100 rpm on 172.5mm cranks, the leg speed is faster on the 180mm cranks”, he reckons. “A longer wrench levers more power. Okay on a bike it makes acceleration harder, but over the course of a race it makes things easier.”

Hmmm. That brilliantly fast individual Graeme Obree doesn’t see it that way at all. “Your crank length should be 9.5% of your height in millimetres, give or take a handful of them”, is his view, and he addresses Adam Hansen’s point about leverage with these words. “Beyond a certain length there is a drop-off in the amount of pedalling circle that can be used effectively. I am 1.8m tall and use 170mm cranks. I went to 172.5mm and found they were too long. If you do triathlon then it’s even more important to be on shorter cranks since over-long cranks promote a slower cadence and more pushing force from the muscles, which is not a good thing before the run.”

The shorter crank lobby isn’t just comprised of Obree. Phil Cavell, whose CycleFit company performs pre-season bike fits for Trek Factory Racing, says: “With shorter cranks – the length should be dependent on hip ranges , the rider’s torso can be positioned lower because the shorter crank keeps the hip open.” So there’s an aerodynamic advantage too, it would seem. Chris McCann of Inspired Cycling agrees: “Shorter cranks allow you to lower the torso angle of a rider with no negative physiological effect. Hip flexor angles can be eased and this can have a positive effect on the rider’s ability to breathe better at a lower back angle. Also, short cranks can protect riders with knee issues.”

So there you have it. Possibly not worth buying a new crankset for 2.5mm, but if you’re buying a new crankset anyway, go shorter. Or maybe longer.

 

 

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LVRC ‘D’-category national championship 2016

TUCKED AWAY IN ONE OF five emails sent out by organiser Mike Amery for the 2016 national road race championships for riders in their fifty-somethingth year, was a phrase that would shape the experience for the 35 of us D’s who’d collected a dossard on the morning of 22nd May.

The crucial wording? Well it was actually a number; ’17’. Although not appearing in the original email, which described a race of 53 miles over 3½ laps in the Malvern Hills, once the route had been changed to one of 57 miles over 4½ laps there was also a reference to “two climbs on the new route, one of which reaches about 17%” – and turned out to be nearer 20%.

Faster than I’d say ‘yes’ to the offer of extra Tabasco in a Bloody Mary I thought to myself, ‘I’ll not be taking my usual race bike then’. The 52/45 chainrings and close-ratio 11-up cassette on deep section wheels that’s the set-up of my regular race steed would not be suited to this new parcours in Malvern, quite clearly.

Out instead came a training bike with 53/39 – the better to go down as well as up. Out too came my shallow Dura-Ace carbon climbing wheels with their wide-ratio cassette.

In the end it wasn’t enough. Or I wasn’t anyway. The podium ended up looking like this;

1 Graham Balshaw, Team Chronomaster – a man who’d only made his bike race debut in 2015, and had never won a bike race before 
2 Rob O’Connor, Team Jewson MI Racing – two wins out of two 2016 races in the lead-up to this one
3 Trevor Bradbury, Python RT – winner of the 11-round Toachim Vets/PS+Cyclewear Series 2015

LVRC national championships Malvern 2016

2nd, 3rd, 4th, all the way down to 18th cross the line by Suckley Village Hall in the Malvern Hills. Photo: Sarah Page

It was a podium I got nowhere near. I didn’t even make it as a blurry dot in the background of the above image, as on the fourth ascent of that bastard hill I felt my legs begin to go.

MI Racing’s eponymous Mick Ives stood at the pinnacle of that very slope, reserving his encouragement for those in the yellow blue and white of the team he founded, while a few other, less discriminating supporters, were happy to applaud each of us as we creaked, swayed and perspired in painful slow motion a few inches from them.

Okay, so I re-gained contact on the descent but knew I’d be struggling for the finale in twelve miles time, despite husbanding my reserves like the rest of the field. In fact the whole race had been one of circumspection really, that defining hill being merely the steepest of many, while the perilously narrow roads discouraged the waves of attacks that usually pepper an amateur road-race such as this. With the exception of winner Graham Balshaw (whose attack at half distance he himself admitted was “not to plan”) and a handful of other mostly short-lived probes, we all just sat in, lap after fidgety lap, as The Hill took a few riders each time and the bunch slowly contracted in both size and spirit.

In fact if ever a route could have been designed to reward a strong and determined – naïve even – solo attacker, this was surely it. Rarely flat, never straight, unclassified throughout so always bumpy and cramped, and with oncoming vehicles hampering all but the most foolhardy, there was no opportunity for an efficient paceline to develop, or even a rhythm to resolve. All in all it reminded me of the mountain section of the Cadwell Park motor circuit, which I blogged about here when it hosted the British Cycling Championships in 2014.

And so it came to pass. Approaching the killer slope for the last time, and with only three measly miles of 57 to go, I moved tactically on to the shoulder of front rider Paul Stubbs –  he was the only other competitor I’d noted throughout the race trying to spin rather than heave himself up the hill each time. Perhaps I could slide gracefully to, but not out of, the back of the bunch one last time. Ha!

If my 39/30 gearing had been intended to insure just this moment, that plan was exposed as fallacious. For when push came to shove after 4,100 feet of climbing at race pace I had nothing left. Nothing. It was all I could do to turn the cranks enough to not topple over. And when the two following cars passed me, it really was all over. Perhaps if I can lose the three kilos that have accumulated since I last rode these Championships, well, then maybe I’ll give them another go. That is, as long as Crews Lane isn’t on the race route.

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