For forks sake

THE FORKS ON MY NEWEST bike were, I’ve always thought, rather flexile. It was something I only ever noticed when out of the saddle, sprinting on the flat or big-ringing it uphill, and as it turns out I’ve spent the last couple of seasons bad-mouthing an innocent BMC SLR01 Team Machine.

 BMC's 'Total Compliance Concept' fork

Unfairly the butt of my opprobrium for nearly two years, BMC’s pretty ‘Total Compliance Concept’ fork wasn’t spongy at all: the problem was higher up

For twenty or so races I’d ignored the issue, but this season I considered junking the frame and beginning again – until a sense of extravagance and disproportionation kicked in, and I began looking into replacing the fork with something stiffer. But good forks, ‘better’ than those already on what was a top-of-the-range frame like this ain’t cheap, and the slight bother of researching trail, rake, offset and what-not put me off that avenue too.

I’d already tried various front wheels in case I was barking at the wrong component, but the problem was manifest whatever wheel was underneath me.

Could it, I wondered, be the stem? It’s on the long side at 120mm as I’d gone for a super-small frame for racing, and it would’ve been little bother to whip it off and try another, I imagined. As it happened my stem was a beautiful-looking but ill-conceived Crank Brothers Cobalt 2 item. It doesn’t have a face-plate, so removal necessitated unwinding bar tape and detaching a brake/shifter before wiggling the damn stem along and off one side of the handlebar – it’s no wonder the £55 retail price of a Cobalt 2 stem is now just a fiver at some online stores. I wouldn’t even pay that for it now, just because it put me through that palaver.

Anyway, some faffing later and a £25 Giant Contact stem installed, was this still going to be the fork in hell?

No it wasn’t, and here’s why.

Despite doing everything ‘by the book’ when installing the new stem, I now couldn’t even get the fork steerer to stabilize inside the head tube – applying front brake was giving me a front-to-back rocking that I knew indicated an insecure stem attachment, and I hadn’t even yet pedalled anywhere to check the fork.

What I discovered, and is really the whole point of this post, is that whether or not you like to have spacers above your stem (perhaps to future-proof yourself against losing your flexibility if you have spacers there, or for a neater look if you don’t), the steerer tube itself absolutely must be submerged about 3mm below the top of the tallest spacer or, if there are no spacers above the stem, below the top of the stem that fits over it.

Without this precise amount of space the headset bearing can’t be properly ‘tied down’, because those 3 or 4 mm mean that tightening the headset top cap bolt with your Allen key pulls the steerer tube up into the head tube, while pushing down on the stem at the same time. Whereas if the top of the steerer tube is level or within 1 or 2 millimetres of the stem or top spacer, there is no way to create the necessary pressure and the top of the steerer would simply butt up against the underside of the top cap, giving that rocking effect when the front brake is held and the bike pushed. Conversely too much space, that is a steerer tube that’s been cut down by so much that there’s 5mm or more between it and the top of the stem and your stem will be insecure – as mine must’ve been these last two seasons. A very stupid person might think ‘fork in hell’, I’ve got a terribly-made bicycle. Which they haven’t.

 

 

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Shake rattle and roll: at Derby Velodrome

“WHAT ELSE HAVE THURSDAY EVENINGS to offer, if not the only veteran’s track league in the country?” asked the rhetorically minded organiser of the same, Leicester’s Rob Muzio.

Which was why I turned up at Derby’s £27 million pound new velodrome myself on September 8th, to have a go. After all the road-racing season is about to end, I’d got ‘track accredited’ over the summer, and training sessions just don’t provide the atmosphere or VO2-max development of a race. So why not race?

In my opinion, every road-racing vet should get accredited and on the M1 to Derby this autumn. However dark, wet and dreary it becomes outside, inside the velodrome the Siberian spruce is always welcoming, shorts are de rigueur, and excitement guaranteed.

Rob’s affair is impeccably organised, safe and competitive. Fifteen British pounds sent to RiderHQ buys an introductory scratch race for those that like to wind things up, an elimination race for the sprinty types, a points race for both muscle fibre types, and a longer scratch race for the now warmed-up wind-up merchants who want to test how much pain they can really dish out or bear. All spread across 3 groups of vets (effectively 40-49 year olds, 50-59-ers, and over 60’s, with a smattering of women assigning themselves wherever they choose) who appear to know what they’re doing and have the national and international medals to prove it in many cases. Rob Muzio himself is an ex-national pursuit champion, medallist in the 1983 points race at Junior World’s and the 1986 Commonwealth team pursuit, and even a late 80’s pro road-racer. The ‘D’ category is full of people with similar credentials, as well as a few humble cyclers like me.

Rob Muzio by Daniel Schamps

A thirty years younger Derby LVRC track league organiser Rob Muzio. We know where to find him pedalling now, but Yugo cars died with the Yugoslav wars. Picture by kind permission Daniel Schamps

Indeed I’m feeling entirely out of my depth to begin with. Giving it some beans during the warm-up my chain wasted no time in falling off –  embarrassing, if quickly fixed. The lesson here is to lift the spinning bike up to the horizontal before going on track – if the chain doesn’t detach then, it won’t detach at all.

Come the first race and I’ve really let things get to me – I’m shaking with anxiety. I thought things would improve as the laps fled by, but instead my trembling hands got worse, transmitting their oscillations through to the bars and before you could say 250 metres, my front wheel was wobbling widely and increasingly uncontrollably. I brought the bike in, and sat back in my seat, surprised and horrified. A ‘tank-slapper’ is never nice, and certainly not when you’re surrounded by competitors. I checked for a puncture or broken spokes, knowing as I did so that it was human and not mechanical failure to blame. It really was a case of ‘shape up or ship out’, so I did my best to get my head together and got back out there for the Elimination Race.

The Devil took me early, but so what, at least the machine went where I wanted it and my head was comforted by that. I got no points in the race of the same name, which left just the final race for me to salvage something from my journey. Come the 40-lap scratch race and my legs hadn’t really been tested yet, so as rider after rider was being jettisoned by the contracting bunch I kept powering over the top of the failing competitors and grimly holding the last wheel. My turn for ignominy came with three laps to go – by which time I was happy to have got where I did, and to have done what I had. Shaken and rattled I certainly was, but I ended up rolling over the line smiling.

 

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How to buy a Bianchi Infinito CV

CARBON BIKES AT SIMILAR PRICE points are much of a muchness: if you could ride a number of them blind-fold would you be able to tell a Tarmac from a Madone, a  Propel from a Synapse? As my friend Rob Sharland recently advised, “you may just as well decide whether you want to spend 2, 3 or 6 thousand – then chose the one with the best paint.”

Twice in my life though, I’ve ridden a bike that really stood out from the rest. Once was in the summer of 2013 when I rode a Time VRS, and the other was last month when I rode a Bianchi Infinito with ‘Countervail technology’.

Bianchi countervail

Comfort and beauty in one elegant bicycle: the Bianchi Infinito CV

The Bianchi test came about because my Champion (for my girlfriend’s job title is actually ‘Health & Well-being Champion’) has quickly found the 12kg of aluminium Liv Thrive 2 hybrid she bought earlier this year a bit cumbersome for the longer, faster road riding to which she’s quickly progressed. So we set about finding something more suited to that objective, and here is how the Bianchi Infinito CV came to win the day.

It nearly didn’t. In fact nearly nothing did. We visited eleven stores** and saw umpteen different offerings from the usual, predictable, ubiquitous suspects – Specialized and Trek, Giant and Cannondale for example. None of which passed the first test of striking an aesthetically exciting note.

There was a Ridley she quite fancied, but like so many left-field brands their dealers just don’t have enough depth to their stock, so it wasn’t possible to test ride a target bike. Certainly not from the gentle and quaint Jonathan Atkins of Leamington anyway.

Only Twenty3c in Stony Stratford, the UK’s first Bianchi-only shop, offered a beautiful range of bikes that could be test-ridden, and brilliant customer service. Nothing was too much trouble, and they offered zero percent finance too – which meant that the usually important ‘budget’ discussion never really got a mention.

First up for the Champion’s test from Twenty3c was something called an Intenso, a two grand carbon endurance bike that looked nice but didn’t set her world alight on the test ride through Calverton to Upper Weald and back. “It didn’t feel so much better than my Thrive 2 that I felt I ‘had’ to have it”, she declared. This sentiment quickly changed to a “wow, this is amazing” as she traced the same route, but this time astride 8kg of Infinito Countervail costing a  bit more than half as much again as the Intenso. “There’s bikes and there’s Bianchi, but really all bikes should be made with Countervail”, was her final summary of the test experience.

What does the extra money give you? Ultegra aside, mainly a viscoelastic carbon weave embedded in specific (and secret) areas of the frame and fork and labelled Countervail (CV) Technology, which really does fulfil the promise to attenuate road vibration. So unlike Trek’s banana top tube shapes and mechanical ‘Isospeed decouplers’, or Specialized’s knobbly seatposts and rickets-ridden seat-stays,  CV can’t be seen, but its effects can certainly be felt. Refined, plush, smooth and confidence-inspiring for those who don’t like to be jiggled about as speeds rise. In fact, every road feels like new asphalt on the Infinito CV – I know this because I rode the bike myself while my Champion filled out the purchase paperwork. Incredible – cushioned stiffness that you really should feel for yourself.

Downsides? Only that the Infinito felt a little too placid, too lacking in urgency, for my tastes. But CV is also available on Bianchi’s more racy Specialissima and Oltre, so if I get one or other of those underneath me I’ll report back.

Bianchi Infinito CV

Plan view of Bianchi Infinito CV with celeste colour accents, for a small Champion

 

**Bicycles Eleven

Leisure Lakes, Daventry

Giant Store, Leamington

Newlec, Northampton

Pitsford Cycles, Northampton

Corley Cycles, Milton Keynes

Decathlon, Milton Keynes

Jonathan Atkins, Leamington

Mike Vaughan, Kenilworth

Evans, Leamington

Joyride, Weedon

Twenty3c, Stony Stratford

 

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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.

**September Update: my friend Alastair B did move up a Castelli price-point, to their Velocissimo bibs. He liked the synthetic chamois pad, and the fit, but questioned the durability because, like their cousin reviewed above, after just a few rides they are already showing signs of wear.

 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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