This is how I want to see Cancellara, Wiggins and Martin do the Hour record

November 25, 2013

Quite a few people are getting terribly excited that Bradley Wiggins, Fabian Cancellara and now Tony Martin could all attempt to break the Hour record within the next few months. But the interest surrounding time trialling’s triumvirate throwing their pointy hats into the ring is surely in inverse proportion to the low level of excitement involved in watching the event itself. Basically, you’re looking at 60 minutes of a man going around in circles – or three hours if they all end up doing it. Watching Strava updates would be more thrilling (although if an attempt fails, you may in theory have witnessed the fastest time for a brand new segment).

So here’s how I’d like to inject some interest into the proceedings: Bradley, Fabian and Tony attempt the record at exactly the same time in their home countries, all linked up by a live simulcast. Now that’s what I call a race.

The Hour, of course, has been attempted behind closed doors, but in an age where we can watch feeds of small, obscure races, that approach would just seem retrograde and not befitting the prestige of the event. Plus, this is a unique opportunity to supply the cycling community with exactly what it craves: an orgy of raw, uncompromising and constantly-updated data. Split the screen into three, show where each competitor’s distance is in relation to the other two and how close they are to beating the record. If that doesn’t get your stat bone tingling, then nothing will.

The combination of what fans love most about the sport – athletic achievement matched by a dynamic use of technology – would make my fantasy Hour record a fascinating spectacle. The Superbowl of cycling, no less. Who’s in?


Evans: an oasis of sanity

November 22, 2013

Going into a branch of Evans often seems to me like entering a bizarre, alternate world of cycling. On Planet Evans, I have witnessed cyclists in full possession of their faculties who are unable to mend a puncture. I have been met with fearful, uncomprehending stares when I have asked for a Garmin stem mount, as if I was demanding that they unearth an Aztec goblet. Most curious of all, I recall a time when a woman said her shopping bike was making a funny noise and looked put out when the assistant correctly ascertained that her chain needed lubrication. She was displeased that the solution required her to actually buy something, as if that wasn’t the done thing in shops.

I am willing, however, to accept that in this context, as in so many others, it is me who is the anomaly. The high street’s green and gold giant has published figures from a customer survey which reveal that only six per cent of people who shop with them are members of a cycling club, and more than 60 per cent never ride with anyone else. So as a proud member of London’s blue, black and orange army who attends one club ride per week, my presence in a branch of Evans is as incongruous as a recumbent in Richmond Park. Or a recumbent just about anywhere else.

The survey shows how sensible Evans Man and Evans Women are in their purchasing choices. The most popular price bracket for a bike is £500-£1,000. Quality is their most important criteria, brand the least. And rather than spend hundreds of pounds on a Garmin, they tend to plump for app-based tracking devices. Which could explain the difficulty of getting a mount for my 810.

When you think about the extremes of high-end cycling which we have come to accept – the £12,000 custom builds, the reverence for the phony authenticity of some heritage bike brands – Evans doesn’t seem that bad. Its customers only pay for what they need. They’re not suckered in by marketing. As alien as they might sometimes seem to my needs, their shops are little oases of sanity in the mad, rapidly-expanding cycling universe.


The main thing I don’t like about the Garmin Edge 810

November 7, 2013

I can tell you exactly when I began to dislike the Garmin 810: it was as I took the left-hand turn that leads you towards Hampton Court Bridge, and the treacherous thing froze. It did exactly the same thing the following week and the next (each time I was following the course of my regular training ride), then it stopped picking up both the speed/cadence and heart rate sensors. A hard reset didn’t work, so back to Wiggle it went. And behold! A new one was delivered to me which, two months later, hasn’t had any of its predecessor’s conniptions. Bless you, Wiggle, and your staggering profits which allow you to mail me a replacement package worth £430, no questions asked.

Whenever I tell someone I have an 810, three things invariably happen. Firstly, seasoned Garministas are mildly amazed that you don’t need to attach it to a computer because it will upload your ride as soon as you finish, thanks to the magic of Bluetooth and an app on your phone. Secondly, they scoff at my enthusiasm for enjoying the company of the virtual partner, which tracks your progress on a saved course against a previous attempt. And thirdly, they’re not at all impressed when I tell them the live tracking facility, which is also linked to my phone, allowed Jen to follow my progress as I cycled up some mountains in France as part of the Challenge Vercors. Giving your wife or partner details of your location in real time is not, apparently, a very good idea.

Even though I’ve now got an 810 that works, there’s still a lot I don’t like about the thing. It doesn’t show up on my MacBook’s desktop when I plug it in, and it takes ages to eject. Setting up the screen configurations, or ‘training pages’ as they are clumsily known, is a fiddly business. Irritatingly, the app can’t be activated if my phone is locked (although it could before I updated to iOS 7). And although I’ve made a lot of tweaks to the set-up, I can’t for the life of me remember how I did them – such is the counter-intuitiveness of the user interface.

I think Garmins should be like iPhones: simple devices that anyone can pick up and use. Instead, the options open to you are buried amid a stack of headings and pages. I had never used a Garmin before, so I was surprised at how low-tech they appear: the jerky animations, the primitive icons, the bleepy eight-bit fanfare whenever you finish a ride. Perhaps Garmin isn’t inclined to drastically improve the design of their devices because, in the world of sports-orientated satnav, it is practically the only player in the game.

But the main thing I don’t like about the 810 is what it says about me. I’m dreaming of a time when Google Glass takes all the visual information crammed on that plastic pebble a foot below my face and puts it in front of me, which is where it should be. I’m hoping that the tracking facility is improved so I can see, without having to fish my phone out of my pocket and check my email while riding, when people I know are riding in the same vicinity as me. Neither of these wishes even occurred to me before I clicked “buy” on Wiggle. Now I am, essentially, excessively annoyed about living in the present when I should really be grateful that little devices such as the 810 have replaced bulky, laminated maps taking up space in our jersey pockets, and helped reduce the endless stops and self-inflicted misdirections. They’re a turn for the better.


The key to preventing bike thefts

October 31, 2013

I’ve had an idea how manufacturers could help prevent thefts of their bicycles. It’s not going to happen now, but I think it could happen in the future. To explain, I’m going revisit the recent past.

A few months ago I wandered into a shop which sold only electric bikes. The owner’s enthusiasm for his products was tempered by a smugness which I thought was unwarranted. Thanks to his bike’s motor, he could get from his shop to central London within 10 minutes – but then so could I, and I can enjoy the exhilaration of riding a bike rather than the tedium of operating a clunky electric machine. He pointed out all the bicycles in his shop were fitted with a disabling system (which I presume contribute to their two grand price tag). It’s basically a small electronic card that fits into a slot on the handlebars and it functions in a similar way to a car key: without it, the bike won’t start. He said that as a result of the disabler, he had only one bike stolen in the past seven years. Well, none of my bikes have a special electronic key, and I haven’t had one nicked for more than a decade. Maybe knowing where you can’t safely leave your bike unattended is more worthwhile than having an expensive anti-theft device.

I doubt electric bikes will sell particularly well in the UK over the next few years. Apparently they’re the coming thing in China, the Netherlands and Germany, but these are countries that each have had their own cycling cultures for generations, so I suspect a lot of long-term riders are converting to electric when age or its attendant infirmity or injury prevents them from using regular bikes. Countries such as Britain that have recently caught the cycling bug may take longer to convert. Here in London, some of the Barclays hire bikes will go electric for a trial in a hillier part of the capital, and I imagine they will prove popular with the more, shall we say, leisurely rider who doesn’t want to sweat it when the road heads upwards. But realistically, how many Londoners would end up spending the price of a decent second-hand car on an electric bike of their own if they could use one for £1 a pop?

The disabler, though, is a useful idea. I wasn’t aware that such a facility existed – and neither, I suspect, did the thief who threw the shopkeeper’s bike into the back of his van, otherwise he wouldn’t have taken it. Surely what we need is a gadget that can fit onto the next generation of ordinary, pedal-powered, mass-market bikes; that way, every thief would know about them, and its presence would act as a disincentive to theft because the bikes would be much harder to sell on without that “key”. But what would that thing be?

I think it already exists. It’s the electronic groupset. Take the battery out of the slot for Shimano’s Ultegra Di2 and my Ridley Excalibur is not much use. Yes, you can still ride it in whatever gear you left it in, and I’m not suggesting we all buy expensive, Di2-equipped carbon bicycles to go down the shops or get to work. But the prices of electronic groupsets are coming down as their popularity increases, which means, like all kinds of consumer goods, it is probably only a matter of time before they make it into the mainstream. So maybe we could one day see an ordinary commuter bike that a thief couldn’t easily sell on because the bit that makes it fully operable is in the pocket of the owner. That would be nice, wouldn’t it?


Hostility on Kensington High Street

October 25, 2013

Rim brakes versus disc brakes. Electronic gears versus mechanical. Froome versus Wiggins. Sometimes, when the entrenched opinions and fierce debates of competitive cycling get too much, I long for a time when cycling was, for me, simply a means of getting about. Surely I would encounter fewer angry exchanges of deeply-held views if I went back to simply being a commuter. Then I disabuse myself of this notion by venturing into the realm of cycling advocacy and cycle safety. A spleen has not truly been vented, it seems, until it is tackling the merits of, say, a shared-use pathway.

Unusually, I found a cycling advocacy blog last week that actually made me laugh, albeit unintentionally. It goes by the wholly unbiased and open-minded title Two Wheels Good, Four Wheels Bad, and the post that gave me a chortle was about the proposed Cycle Superhighway.

It seems council officials are resisting Transport for London’s plan to build a two-lane segregated bike route along Kensington High Street because it would reduce traffic flow to one lane on part of the road and supposedly create an obstacle for pedestrians wanting to catch buses. These could be valid reasons, or they might be excuses from intransigent councillors, perhaps refusing to be ordered about by a much larger body. What’s interesting, though, is Two Wheels’ insistence that Kensington High Street is a “hostile” design for cyclists, and that the Superhighway is the best way to remedy it.

“Kensington High Street is a shopping street,” Two Wheels Good fumes, “not a distributor road, so why on earth should it have two lanes of motor traffic in each direction?!” Well, I’ve lived a few minutes away for almost 14 years, and I’ve found it one of the more pleasant main roads in Zone 1 to cycle on, partly because of its width and relatively low traffic levels. And isn’t it precisely because it is a shopping street with slower-moving traffic that makes a dedicated two-way cycle lane unnecessary?

What amused me is that as I was thinking this, Two Wheels made my point for me with a series of photographs.

kensington high street empty road

“It would be difficult to come up with something more hostile to cycling if you tried,” the blog states, even though the photos clearly show the opposite: the road is wide, there are lots of empty spaces, and cyclists are easily negotiating their way around parked vehicles.

kensington high street cab ahead

kensington high street passing cab

kensington high street walking bikes

“Also important to note is the two separate cases of Barclays Cycle Hire users that felt the road, in it’s [sic] current layout, was too dangerous to use and wheeled/cycled on the pavement instead.” It’s also important to note that he didn’t appear to actually ask them why. Maybe they just like cycling on the pavement. The trio walking their bikes may be tourists. They could’ve been lost. Or maybe they just got bored of cycling around.

Who knows? Certainly not Two Wheels Good. It seems to me that he just doesn’t like the road because it doesn’t have a segregated path and nothing will change his opinion. So yes, there is hostility on Kensington High Street. But its presence is behind the camera, not in front of it.


Four men on top of the world

October 18, 2013

While waiting for the elite women’s race to reach Florence (and I swear to God this is the very last time I’ll mention our trip to the World Championships) Jen and I wandered into a bookshop. We left with a book that goes by the hyperbolic title Fifty Bicycles That Changed The World. I’m not sure that a Brompton is on a par with penicillin, but then again the book is part of series put together by the Design Museum which also includes Fifty Typefaces That Changed The World and – hold on to your fanny packs – Fifty Bags That Changed The World. By “change the world”, I think what they probably mean is Fulfil A Purpose Particularly Well At A Specific Point In History.

Fifty Bicycles is a slim hardback with thick pages. It displays an image of each bike on the right-hand side and explanatory text on the left. You could say the format is a grown-up version of a Ladybird book.

Fifty bicycles that changed the world cover

It’s actually a cracking little read. You can get through it in an hour or so and learn about the major innovations in the 200-year history of bike design as well as some odd cul-de-sacs designers have wandered down, such as Denmark’s architectural Dursley Pedersen which encompasses no fewer than 21 triangles in its frame. It’s basically a bridge on wheels.

Author Alex Newson has squeezed some great little nuggets into his no-nonsense descriptions. The BSA Airborne bike for paratroopers came with its own parachute. The design for the Raleigh Chopper was doodled on a transatlantic flight, literally on the back of an envelope. To entice the more sybaritic consumer, an advert for the Sturmey Archer Roadster from the 1930s featured a cartoon of a chubby chap pedalling away while merrily smoking a fag.

I was particularly taken by the photo for the Penny-Farthing, which cheerfully attempts to show that it’s the ideal means for delivering mail. Which I suppose it is, if the recipient happens to be standing on the third step outside their front door at the very moment the postman trundles past.

fifty bicycles that changed the world penny-farthing

But the picture I keep returning to is right at the front of the book. It’s an uncaptioned shot of four men on a mountain. Emotionally and geographically, they look like they’re on top of the world, as might you be if you were about to invent mountain biking, which I assume they are on the cusp of achieving judging by their klunker-looking bikes and the landscape.

Howie Hammerman Otis Guy Chris McManus fifty bicycles that changed the world

I know very little about MTB history, and I only recognised the guy on the right as Joe Breeze because there’s a picture of him on page 51 next to the entry for the Breezer Series 1. His name was enough to prod Google Images into surrendering the names of the other three and the location. They are (left to right) Howie Hammerman, Otis Guy, and Chris McManus, and they are on top of Kent Rock, Mount Tamalpais, California, in November, 1977.

I like the expressions of the two on the left: grown men displaying a childlike joy – which, ultimately, is the state to which all cycling should aspire. Did 50 bicycles really change the world? Maybe not. But these four bikes certainly changed their world.


The tifosi at the World Championships

October 4, 2013

toscana 2013 finishing gate at road race

Me and Jen are in the seating area by the finish of the World Championship road race, surrounded by hundreds of bellowing Italians. It’s the final lap of the 16.6km circuit, and they are chanting one name: “VIN-CEN-ZO! VIN-CEN-ZO!” Determined Nibali, with the hopes of the host nation resting upon him, has refused to allow Joaquim Rodriguez to escape on the descent of the Fiesole. Earlier, there were long, deep groans followed by much emphatic gesturing towards the video screens when the Giro d’Italia champion slipped on the tarmac, as if the rain’s treachery had caused a deep, personal offence to each and every one of the tifosi here in Florence. “If Nibali wins,” Jen says, stifling a laugh at the very un-British outpouring of emotion, “we’re going to have to run for cover.” I get the feeling we may have to do the same even if he doesn’t…

Such passion is a contrast to four days earlier when polite applause greeted the competitors as they turned into the corner of the time trial circuit that took them north away from the bank of the Arno. Marco Pinotti got a big cheer, as did podium boys Cancellara, Wiggins and Martin, but that was about it. A bewildered Japanese lady got Jen to explain to her how a time trial works after enquiring in broken English if the event was “a European match”; a British woman who had probably wandered down the road from the Uffizi asked two men if they could move out of the way so she could take a picture (the tabards should have been a giveaway: they were press photographers, dear). It’s fair to say these were not big cycling fans.

But seated here at the incongruously named Nelson Mandela forum, it’s clear we are among those who know their Fabians from their Nairos. When Mark Cavendish slows down at the 150m sign moments before becoming one of the 146 riders to abandon, the Italian crowd instantly give the former world champ a rapturous round of applause; some even stand up for him. (A side note on Cav: I would love to know what an annoyed-looking Geraint Thomas said to the Manxman around half an hour into the race as Great Britain needlessly wasted their energy leading the peloton on the 100km-run to the finishing circuit.) One fan who gets to his feet is a testy blond fella in the front row who is not at all pleased that some of those in the crowd from the seats behind him are now politely jostling for space by the barrier. At one point he has a loud argument with one of the attendants. I’d like to tell him he should cool it: he’s in the one sheltered area of the circuit, unlike the poor wet sods on the other side of the road who have to endure diluvial conditions for hours. But I don’t speak Italian, and he’s got a Vinokourov-like pugnacity about him, so I don’t.

The haves and the have-nots: we have a roof, these poor drenched souls do not.

The haves and the have-nots: we have a roof, these poor drenched souls do not.

Each time the race rushes towards us, I experience a measure of what it must have been like when the first cinema audiences saw the Lumiere brothers’ locomotive seemingly burst out of the screen. One second they are televisual images, the next they are right in front of us, like Morten Harket stepping out of his rectangular, one-dimensional prison into the real world. By the time poor Purito becomes flesh and blood for the last time, it’s clear he is about to lose. The Italians yell and cheer, but they’ve stopped banging on the barriers. There’s a sullen silence moments after Rui Costa raises his arms in victory and then everyone begins to shuffle off, except for the Italian Vinokourov. He’s staring into the distance, making a quintessentially Italian hand gesture: thumb, index finger and middle finger pinched together, tapping the side of his head. The azzuri: what were they thinking? Minutes later, as Jen and I trudge with the crowd under the finishing gate, I want to know what the tifosi are thinking too.


The bicycles of Florence

October 2, 2013

I’ll be writing something soon about what we got up to during the World Championships. In the meantime, here’s a quick post about a few of the bicycles me and Jen saw in the shops and restaurants of Florence.

Lots of businesses put on special bike-themed displays.

shop window in florence with bike

My favourite was in Obika, which is apparently a “mozzarella bar” (not sure how that works – “A pint of cheese, please barman!”) nestled amid a number of upmarket shops on the Via dé Tornabuoni. Rather than put bikes behind glass, they stuck their vintage machines in the courtyard which serves as the main dining area.

obika florence bianchi

obika florence bartali bicycle

It was a bit weird going in there, gawping at their Bianchi and Bartali bicycles and leaving without actually ordering anything. My nerves got to me, which is why one of the pictures came out a bit blurry.

obika florence l'eroica

I’m sorry, reader. I’m so, so sorry.

If the bikes in Obika represented one identifiable aspect of Italy – the love and respect of tradition – then the machine in the window of the Salvatore Ferragamo outlet represented the country’s opposite trait: the unashamed pride in showing off. Behold, reader, a gold bicycle in all its glory…

salvatore ferragamo gold bike

Jen wasn’t impressed. That’s her on the left, looking bored. Each to their own.


I’ve written something for the latest issue of Cycling Weekly

September 26, 2013

I wasn’t going to do any blogposts this week as me and Jen are in Florence for the World Championships. So this is just a quick note to say that my review of the Challenge Vercors is in the current edition of Cycling Weekly. I haven’t seen it yet, but apparently it’s in the sportive round-up and it looks something like this…

cycling weekly challenge vercors review

It’s got snow, a gorge and I dun rote it. What else could you possibly ask for? Buy your copy today! (Or tomorrow if you’re busy.)


So I’ve got yet another bicycle…

September 20, 2013

…and it’s only a few months since I bought my Robot Bike From The Future. But I want to make it perfectly clear I am not – repeat AM NOT – having a midlife crisis. I need this bike to get to and from work, and the last one I had broke. Here’s a picture if you don’t believe me.

crack on langster frame

It was a Langster, and I only discovered there was a crack near the dropouts on the driveside chainstay when I gave the dirty old thing a scrub. So there’s a lesson for you, kids: always clean your bicycle on a regular basis, even if it’s just a hack bike, otherwise you might not notice the frame has developed a structural fault that will cause it to snap and send you plummeting towards the tarmac, and possibly A&E.

I’ve heard great things about Specialized replacing frames that are out of warranty, but I didn’t go down that route for two reasons. Firstly, the bike was just a runaround, so I’ve left it unattended loads of times, and who knows what abuse some dozy, bored halfwit might’ve inflicted on the frame? Secondly, as much as I liked the Langster, the aluminium frame and carbon seatpost were only comfortable for short commutes; anything longer was a bit rough on the old knackers.

So for longevity, and because I want to do some long, flat training rides over the winter, I decided to replace the Langster with a steel frame fixie. I used one of the cycle to work schemes, opting to spend £700 (the maximum is £1,000), and voila! This is what I got…

pearson now you see me side

Like my Robot Bike From The Future, I bought it from the Pearson shop in Sheen. It’s part of their own range, and it’s called Now You See Me…

pearson now you see me front

That last ellipsis, by the way, which obviously acts as a transition to the above photo, also happens to be part of the name.

pearson now you see me name

(Also, you may have noticed that to complement the gritty, urban photoshoot which took place just off London’s famous Portobello Road, my team of stylists sprayed the bike with water to give it a rained-on effect.)

pearson now you see me back

I wanted to see how well my Now You See Me… would fulfill its dual role as a commuter and training bike, so for its first outing on Monday morning I did a round trip to Windsor before taking it into town. I am hugely pleased with the results. This bike just rolls. It dives through corners. It’s agile. And I prefer the 48×18 to the Langster’s 42×16: slowing down for a junction is more stride-and-decelerate rather than scamper-and-brake. What I like most about the bike, though, is that underneath the smooth, comfortable ride is a discernible toughness that urges you to give it a bit more welly whenever the traffic opens up to give you a clear stretch of road. The only reservation I have is the saddle: visually, I’ve nothing against the droopy tip, but I feel it might be nudging me further forward than I’m used to. I’ll need to put in a few more rides to judge it properly.

So that’s my impression after four days. And to think I may never have discovered such pleasure if that aluminium frame hadn’t cracked…


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