Here Comes the Sun

It’s Spring. Finally the long winter seems to have come to an end; it’s hot enough to wear shorts on the bike, the roads are clearing up and it’s nearly time for the racing season to begin. As always happens at this time of year I’m breathing a sigh of relief.

In comparison to the shambles that was last years off-season training this time round it couldn’t have gone much better. Getting the balance right is always a challenge, there’s a fine line between getting yourself fit enough for a season of competition and overdoing it to the point of burning out. In previous years I’ve experienced both ends of the spectrum. The 2017 season didn’t get off to a fantastic start due to having spend most of the winter doing monotonous endurance rides that did very little for my speed or motivation. In 2018 I had the opposite issue, I’d have a strong start in races following a lot of high intensity work but crack later on due to a lack of stamina.

Finally I think I’ve found the right formula, aiming for four sessions per week. Two interval sessions, starting off with very short ones and building up the length plus an endurance ride lasting at least three hours. In order to help break up the structured training I try to make the 4th session a fun one; if I’m feeling good I’ll ride hard and try for some KOM’s, if not it can take the form of an easy cafe ride. Time permitting I do my best to get in a couple of weights sessions as well, keeping my upper body in decent shape and building core strength. That leaves one rest day on which to get other things done.

Off-road riding has become a key part of my training, it’s something that I couldn’t recommend enough. It’s inevitable that you’ll end 95% of rides covered in mud due to the condition of the roads anyway so why not hit the trails instead? Unfortunately I’ve had to sell my Mountain Bike but my homemade gravel machine is doing the job very well in it’s place. This bike is perfect for winter riding; big grippy tyres, disc brakes & decent mudguards make it fun and more importantly safe to ride in all weathers. Indoor riding just isn’t my thing. In previous years there’s often been no other option but to hop on the turbo trainer and put myself through hard interval workouts that I haven’t remotely enjoyed. Now I have a much better alternative.  From a mental perspective I find off-road sessions much easier to get through , time files when you have to keep your mind wholly on task for fear of falling afoul of a wet root or well hidden tree stump.

The question is what to do with this unexpectedly decent level of fitness. I haven’t completely given up on trying to qualify for the National 10 and TT’s will certainly be the big focus. Sadly the final year of University has to take priority for a while and I won’t be-able to fully commit to racing until early June when my exams will be over. Until then it’s going to be a matter of finding the time to do the occasional mid week club 10 and possibly a few crit races to keep things interesting. The thought of an impending trip to Mallorca in a few weeks time is currently what’s keeping me motivated. Whilst I loved riding over there last year my low fitness level made it impossible to make the most of the training opportunity, hopefully this time round I’ll be better prepared.

In short, it’s all going pretty well for a change. Hopefully I’ll finally manage to take it up a level this year.

Thanks for reading

 

Never again, again.

Hey folks, welcome to the latest installment of my two wheeled adventures. Truth be told nothing much has happened since I wrote the last post. After a long winter I’m very much enjoying the gradual improvement in the weather and quality of the roads. In other words I can start taking my road bike out on a regular basis again. Don’t get me wrong, I love riding my gravel and mountain bikes but nothing quite compares to the thrill of flying along on a carbon fibre thoroughbred.

I decided to mark the end of my Winter training with a new challenge. The century is one of those rights of passage for every cyclist, the idea of riding 100 miles seems completely absurd to most people and honestly I think they have a point. Why on earth would you want to sit on a bike for about 5-8 hours, gradually getting more and more fatigued and hoping you can make it home where a hot shower and massive amount of food awaits? I’ve spent years coming trying to come up with an intelligent and logical sounding answer to that question. It won’t surprise you to learn that I haven’t managed it yet, I come to the same conclusion every time – you want to do it simply because you can. Well, that and it makes for good bragging material.

I’ve done several of these rides throughout my Cycling career. My first one was an experience I won’t ever forget; I was 16 and still carrying a lot of extra weight having only been riding for about six months. Fortunately it was a flat route and we were well supported with feed stations. As century rides go it was probably about as easy as it gets. Of course I didn’t think that at the time – in fact the strongest memory I have of that day is that of an overriding desire never to to do it again.

Of course, after a while I forgot how much it hurt and decided to do another one. Before I started racing I’d usually have a long sportive as my season goal. This culminated in riding the three day Tour of Wessex a few years back, 330 miles covered in three days. Without a doubt I can say that the last stage was one of the hardest rides I’ve ever done. 108 miles on an uncharacteristically hot day, featuring 8,000 feet of climbing and a bike equipped with a 53-39 chainset making it much better suited for flat terrain. That’s one event I won’t be doing again for a long while yet.

Anyway, back to the present. One thing I hadn’t yet attempted before last Saturday was a solo century ride. I’ve always had at least one another person with me. It’s a long time to be alone with your own thoughts, as much of a challenge for the mind as it is for the body. It was with that in mind that the idea popped into my head. It’s an uncertain time at the moment for various reasons and truth be told it’s taken a toll on my mental health. This ride was about proving something to myself. Few things will challenge your resolve as much as 100 solo miles in the hilly Devon terrain.

Inevitably my bike was in need of some attention beforehand. Cutting short a long story which I’ll discuss in another post it’s needed a new BB and rear brake. Bearing in mind my trusty Specialized is now 5 years old I can’t really complain. I toyed with the idea of going home and getting my race bike to tackle the ride but decided against it. For all its good points that machine is not ideal for long rides, the position is too aggressive and I’m deeply afraid of it getting damaged. My old faithful on the other hand is perfect for the job.

As per usual there was a mad dash to get everything ready the night before. With rides of this length you need to be well prepared. I made sure my light was charged, loaded the course onto my GPS, packed my saddlebag with the essentials, checked my tyres for flints and finally stocked up on gels and bars. After a surprisingly good nights sleep I awoke to the sound of my alarm at 7AM signalling that it was time for it to begin.

After wolfing down the mother of all bowls of porridge I set off. The first 15 miles were on familiar and fairly straightforward roads. My legs felt okay but far from their best, having only recently finished a three week training block this wasn’t unexpected. Unsurprisingly the weather was a bit of a concern, for the first half hour or so it looked as if some serious rain was on the horizon. It’s tricky to describe the magnitude of  the feeling of relief I experienced when the clouds finally cleared.

Soon it was time to turn off, having plotted the route using some fairly rudimentary software I had no way of knowing what the roads ahead might hold. As it turns out, potholes. Between miles 15 and 30 I longed for my comfortable gravel bike with it’s 35mm tyres and disc brakes. A particularly nasty surprise came in the form of a long, steep climb which turned out to be much worse than it had looked on the route elevation profile. Heavily exerting yourself too early on in a long ride can spell disaster but when you’re presented with a 25% gradient you don’t have much choice.

I’ve always found miles 25 to 75 the hardest from a psychological standpoint. You’ve gone far already and can feel the tiredness gradually creeping in but don’t yet have the consolation that there’s not far to go. My favourite strategy is breaking it down into five mile segments, thinking only about those next five to as greater extent as possible. This is also where the boredom tends to set in. You can never tell quite what’s going to pop into your head. This time round it was a variety of thoughts and feelings; everything from surprisingly intense anger about something that happened a few weeks back to trying to come up with the ultimate takeaway pizza order (texas BBQ with extra jalapeños and a stuffed crust if you’re interested). Focusing on these thoughts rather than the ride in question sometimes helps, making you forget the pain in your legs.

At mile 60 I hit a spot of bother. It had been a while since I’d covered any decent distance on a Road Bike and my back was seriously protesting. It was a slightly surreal experience, stopping in a lay by and spending five minutes doing stretches to try and get everything back on track. That, alongside taking on some extra food seemed to do the trick. The next ten miles were some of the most challenging of the whole route, more narrow and poorly maintained lanes. Progress felt agonisingly slow at times, every time I crested one hill the next one came into view. It’s the small, sharp rises rather than the long climbs that really take it out of you.

Mentally, the real test came along at mile 72. At this point I could have very easily cut the ride short by 15 miles and taken the straight, flat road home. Somehow I managed to avoid the turning, I’d made a point of telling a few friends about this ride in order to give me a degree of accountability. I didn’t want to have to explain that I’d given in. What came next was a serious physical challenge for my tired legs, two long climbs that I hadn’t quite fully anticipated when planning the route. It was the perfect storm, a strong headwind coupled with what would have otherwise been a very manageable gradient made it much harder going. Fortunately, having cycled up a fair few european mountains I knew how to pace these kind of efforts. In my head I broke the climb down into kilometre long segments. Rather than using power or heart rate I rode on feel alone, the only fields I kept an eye on were distance and cadence – trying not to let the latter drop below 80 rpm so as to spare my knees.

Once I crested the top of the last big climb things got a bit easier. The weather brightened up at precisely the right moment which did wonders for my mood. Being a Saturday afternoon the roads were relatively quiet by this stage and mercifully they’d flattened out. I ended up taking a wrong turn and riding on a busy main road for a few miles, fortunately it had a decent hard shoulder and disaster was averted. Miles 85-98 were relatively painless, returning to familiar surroundings. Unfortunately there was a sting in the tail, a steep hill that was completely unavoidable aside from the option of a long detour to get back into Exeter. Going up the other side of it at mile two was very easy, at mile 99 it was a different story. It took an age to summit and I had to tap into the very last reserves of strength remaining in my legs. Nonetheless I just about managed. Never has getting home felt so good.

Having had a while to recover and take stock I’m feeling quite proud of myself. It’s taken a lot of work to get myself to the stage of being physically and mentally capable of taking on such a task. Having a ride like that in my legs will certainly help when it comes to racing season which at the time of writing is just around the corner. As per usual I’ve promised myself I won’t ever attempt a century again, I give it about three months before I forget how much it hurts and start thinking about the next one.

Thanks for reading.

Not another one

I’m back, which is to say I managed to survive the first term of my final year of University. Having unpacked, eaten at least double my bodyweight in chocolate and survived the hangover resulting from the obligatory end of term night out I can finally turn my attention to Cycling.

Truth be told I haven’t given a great deal of thought to the 2019 race season yet. I know better than to put a lot of pressure on myself to perform well at this stage, much like last year I suspect the best races will come towards the end of the season once the University year has ended. Realistically my original goal of qualifying for the National 10 might be a step too far. I’ll be happy with going under the 20 minute barrier in a ten mile Time Trial and hopefully winning some mid-week club events. I’ll do a few road races if I feel like it but they won’t be the priority.

Over the last few weeks my training has been inconsistent to say the least. Bad weather and deadlines are not especially conducive to getting out on rides. On the flip-side I haven’t struggled with the repeated colds that made last winter such a disaster. I’ve done what I can; gone running when I haven’t had time for a ride or it’s been too wet, made time for two weight training sessions every week and done my best to get some riding in when circumstances have allowed. My overall fitness level isn’t bad but there is still a lot of work to be done on the bike in order to get racing fit again.

My homemade gravel bike has well and truly proved it’s worth. I’ve had some bad experiences with Schwalbe tyres in the past but can’t praise the G-One enough, the 35 mm tubeless setup hasn’t missed a beat so far. Somehow these tyres manage to be fast rolling on the road but grippy enough to handle muddy bridleways and even stand up to being taken down the odd Mountain bike trail. At some stage I’d like to make the switch to hydraulic disc brakes but for the time being the trp spyre cable operated ones that I bought second hand on eBay have done a perfectly decent job. I’m not convinced that 1x drivetrains are the future for road bikes but for gravel riding they make perfect sense. The clutch mech on the rear paired with a narrow – wide chainring has performed flawlessly, the chain hasn’t come off once despite all that’s been thrown at it. Investing a considerable amount of time and money to put that bike together to a very exact set of specifications has turned out to have been a good decision – winter rides are no longer a chore.

Now, speaking of bikes. It’s time for something of a confession. With a mountain bike, TT bike, road race bike, winter road bike, summer road bike / spare race bike and finally a gravel bike I’d decided that enough was enough. The N+1 rule had reached its limit. Maintaining all those machines has been a real headache at times, both financially and logistically. I’d even toyed with the idea of selling one or two of them.

That was before I made that classic mistake of having a casual look on eBay.  I couldn’t help but see it. A very unloved 1980’s Peugeot; down tube shifters, threaded headset, 5 speed with 27 inch wheels – the works. Worse still it was only £35 and located 10 miles away from where I live. I repeatedly told myself that it was a stupid idea. Restoring this bike would probably cost more than the worth of the finished product. It would involve a lot of elbow grease; stripping the frame down having to remove various seized components in the process, painstakingly repainting it and finally having to source compatible parts to complete the build. Overall a bad idea. The bike is now of course sat in my garage awaiting the overhaul it probably should have had 10 years ago.

I’m now in the process of making up various excuses to justify the purchase. It’s hard to beat the look of a classic bike from a time when power meters hadn’t been invented yet and nobody had heard of aerodynamics. With time and patience there’s no reason why the bike can’t be bought back to it’s former glory. Hopefully I’ll learn a few new skills along the way which might well come in useful at some stage in the future.

So in short it’s all business as usual. A slow start to my winter training, continuing to discover the joys of gravel riding and taking on another project bike. There’s a distinct possibility I won’t get round to writing another post till the new year so to that end I wish all readers a happy Christmas and good 2019.

Thanks for reading.

All Access

Hey folks. As per usual let me take the time to apologise for how long it’s been since the last post. It turns out the final year of a University degree is actually very difficult in more ways than one. It’s taken a full two weeks to get round to properly composing this post after the original idea came into my head. Anyway, lets get to it.

Here’s a photo I posted on Instagram a few days ago (@jl1297 on the very slight off-chance that anyone is interested). I decided to take the gravel bike on a mini-adventure. No time limits, no training plan and no Garmin to look at. It was one of the most enjoyable rides I’ve had in a while, despite a few very dicey bridleways. Being of my generation I of course felt obliged to put it out on social media. My news feed on various platforms is full of photos of a similar ilk. People riding in exotic places, showing off new bikes, winning races, shredding trails, etc etc.

That gravel ride was in actual fact the sole high point of the week for me. What went on during the rest of it? I had a horrendous head cold for the first few days which made it next to impossible to get any Uni work done. The remainder of the week was therefore spent madly trying to catch up on everything I’d missed, not forgetting the three important deadlines approaching. That, coupled with some slightly tricky personal circumstances which I won’t go into on here made for a fairly torrid week.

At the moment the real picture stands in stark contrast to that glossy photo. You know what – it’s been bloody hard. Difficult to try and fit in any training at all around the pile of work I have building up. Tough being single when most of my friends are in happy relationships. Next to impossible to get enough sleep and eat healthily if I also want to have a social life. To be 100% honest with you all, I’ve just about had enough of this term.

My goal of qualifying for next year’s National 10 is starting to look less and less realistic. Finding the time and motivation to ride is becoming increasingly difficult. There’s no point whatsoever in trying to come up with a structured training program at the moment, the best I can do is fit in whatever I can on the rare days when it’s decent weather and I can afford to give myself a break from studying. At a stretch I’m doing just about enough to maintain my fitness; two or three rides a week plus a couple of gym sessions and the odd run. Not bad in the grand scheme of things but nowhere near what it would take to start the process of taking my performance to the next level.

In short it’s not exactly been enjoyable recently. I’ve spoken on here before about some of the past struggles I’ve had with Mental Health. Depression is one of those conditions that can creep up on you and sometimes make it very difficult to get on with the life you’re trying to live. Truth be told it’s well and truly started to rear it’s ugly head over the last couple of weeks. If it wasn’t for the medication I’m taking it would be hard enough to get out of bed in the morning let alone train or study. When this semester ends in three weeks I’m going to have to take some time to focus on my wellbeing in order to get back on track again.

So there we have it folks. Probably not the most cheerful thing you’ll read today. Nonetheless I hope that it helps to drive a point home. It’s incredibly easy to paint a rose-tinted picture and pretend to the outside world that everything is fine when in actual fact it can be a very different story behind the scenes. Mistakes, failures and setbacks are an inevitability in Sport and in any other aspect of life. If times are tough take heart from the fact that there’s no way you’re the only one. Oh, and it’s also completely okay to talk about it.

Thanks for reading.

Gravel bikes – What’s the point?

Hi folks. Firstly, let me apologise for the radio silence over the last couple of weeks. I blame a combination of high workload (yeah, turns out the final year of a degree is very hard) and procrastination. There’s not much to write about regarding training at the moment, entirely due to that fact that I haven’t really done any. Three weeks into the off-season and I’m getting the hang of it; eating what I want, only doing short rides when I feel like it and having some truly spectacular lie-ins. For that reason I’m going to go with an opinion post. As always feel free to disagree with me in the comments.

Gravel bikes are very much in fashion at the moment, for anyone who doesn’t know these essentially bridge the gap between road and mountain bikes. To give an example, here’s mine. For more on this bike read this post. It’s got drop handlebars, disc brakes, a 1x drivetrain and 650b wheels coupled with 33c gravel tyres. I’ve seen a lot of machines that fall under the gravel term – everything from an aerodynamic pinarello  to a full suspension offering.   Mine probably sits roughly in the middle of the spectrum.

Now, let’s address the elephant in the room – doesn’t this sound very similar to a Cyclocross bike? Well, yes. But there are a few subtle differences. CX Bikes are designed for racing, they tend to have aggressive geometry and ordinarily won’t come with mounts for racks or mudguards. Gravel bikes on the other hand are normally made with longer days in the saddle in mind. My answer to the question of whether or not it’s just a fancy marketing term used by the bike industry is therefore a firm no.

These bikes have come out of the US where I’m told (correct me if I’m wrong) they have a lot of unpaved roads, not suitable for Road Bikes but not quite MTB territory either. That’s not the case in the UK but speaking from extensive personal experience I can say that a lot of roads over here aren’t kept in good condition. Years of experience have conditioned me to dread the Winter which consists of riding muddy lanes covered in debris from farm vehicles, very often they haven’t been resurfaced in years and sport potholes that can easily ruin a good wheel.

Why not just use a Mountain Bike in the winter then? Anyone who rides both road and MTB should know the answer to this question – it’s boring. If you’re lucky enough to have a trail centre within easy reach then it’s probably a viable option but that’s not the case for most of us. On the road my 13kg MTB is extremely cumbersome, even the worst road conditions I’ve faced don’t demand suspension and a dropper seat post. I do accept however that this might be different with a higher end carbon XC hardtail.

I hope that you can now see why a gravel bike could come in very useful. These machines are light enough to handle decently on the road but have a bit of additional capability that means they can handle the rough stuff if required. So, what’s it been like to ride one for the past couple of weeks?

Bloody brilliant. I’d go as far as to say that it’s the most fun I’ve had on any bike in a good long while. Familiar road routes have taken on a whole new appeal simply because riding them is now a lot easier. Disc brakes are far superior to the rim variety especially in the wet and the larger tyres do a brilliant job of smoothing out the ride when the surface turns rough. Better still I can mix and match, breaking up a road ride with a couple of off-road sections. Fire roads and bridleways that are easy on an MTB become more technically challenging and therefore interesting to tackle on the gravel machine. Another thing, it’s very nice to be-able to switch off and get away from the traffic from time to time.

Now, with that said there are a few drawbacks. This bike is considerably heavier than the carbon road bikes I’m used to and can be very hard work on the climbs, though from a training point of view that’s no bad thing. The smaller wheels accelerate very well but aren’t quite as fast rolling, I certainly couldn’t keep up on a fast group ride on this bike. As for the gearing the 1x drivetrain (38t up front paired with an 11-42 cassette) is perfect off-road but a bit lacking on road descents or even flat sections with a tailwind. I will point out that all of these are issues with my particular bike, it’s perfectly possible to get lighter models with 700c wheels and 2x drivetrains that will be more suited to the road.

To summarise, if you ask me then gravel bikes are definitely worth considering. If you want one bike that can do it all then look no further, with such a wide range to choose from I’d go as far as to say that theres one out there to suit just about everyone. Above all else, they have a serious amount of fun factor. Haven’t you always wondered where that track that you’ve ridden past hundreds of times on your way home actually goes?

Thanks for reading.

In with the new

It’s over. After a hectic few months of training and racing encompassing all the usual highs, lows and laughs the 2018 season has come to an end. By my own admission the very last event of the year was something of a disappointment. Body and mind had both had enough, all I could think about on the startline of that Hill Climb was the tantalising prospect of going home, climbing off the bike and putting my feet up. My rather embarrassing finishing time reflected this attitude.

Fortunately, earlier that week I had received some encouraging news. After hitting a rather worrying 74kg in April I decided that something had to be done. I certainly wouldn’t recommend a calorie controlled diet for everyone but by this stage I know I have a tendency to overeat and that the best solution is keeping a very close eye on my intake to ensure that doesn’t happen, too often anyway. I was pleasantly surprised to step on the scales and see a much more hill friendly 68kg. Next up came a VOMax test, the kind of thing you’re lucky enough to get for free if you’re doing a Sports Science degree. Once again the results were promising, 64 ml.min-1.kg-1, marking a 10% improvement over the last nine months. No doubt there is still work to be done but it’s reassuring to see quantifiable proof that my training has worked.

All of this has got me thinking about the prospect of next season. My main goal is a bit of an ambitious one but I’m hoping it’s going to do the trick with regards to keeping up my motivation over the winter once training starts again. Before this year attempting to qualify for a National Championship would have been laughable. However, achieving some good results in TT’s on what I have to admit was often a less than ideal training regime and whilst being significantly above my race weight has given me some hope that with some hard work it might just be possible. I’ve decided to dedicate myself to setting a time good enough to get a starting slot in next years National 10 (that’s national 10 mile TT champs for those not familiar with the UK scene).

This is going to mean taking everything up a level. More hours on the bike, structured training sessions, regular testing and being disciplined with my diet amongst other things. On the plus side it’s given me a fantastic excuse to bring out the inner bike tech nerd and look into getting some new equipment that ought to gain me a few precious seconds – looking cool obviously being a mere secondary concern… honest.

A lack of riding last winter meant that endurance was by far my biggest weakness. Blowing up prematurely ended my hopes in two road races and my performance in shorter TT’s was much better in comparison to longer ones. Unfortunately there’s no substitute for miles in the saddle. In order to motivate / scare me into getting up early for those long rides over the winter I’m considering taking on a challenge in the Spring before the TT season really begins in earnest. Typically it’s something really brutal that’s attracted my attention. When you see a survival blanket and emergency whistle on the compulsory kit list for an event it’s hard not to take notice. As it stands an attempt at the Dirty Reiver is in the works. It doesn’t get much tougher than a 200km off-road ride in a remote forest, my homemade gravel bike should be up to the task but I can’t yet vouch for the bloke riding it.

My immediate future is not going to consist of hard training. It’s time to rest my legs for a month and focus on other things – namely making sure I don’t fail my degree. Much as I love Cycling, a break from the mental and logistical strain of training and racing is very much needed at the moment. I’ll still ride but only if and when I want to, no hill reps in the rain for a good long while. On that I’ll sign out – time for some cake.

Thanks for reading.

 

Gravel Time

It’s ready. After five months encompassing frustration, much swearing, a great deal of time desperately searching for instructional videos on the internet and last but not least procrastination my second summer project bike is complete. In a post that I suspect will only be enjoyed by the cycling geeks, here’s the story.

Here is the starting point. A 1997 Merlin Mountain Bike frame bought on Ebay for the sum £55. On paper this might seem like a strange starting point but let me explain. Modern gravel bikes are in practice very similar to the MTB’s of old in terms of off-road capability, why not therefore use that as a base rather than spending at least 10x more on a dedicated gravel frame? Actually, to counteract that sweeping statement there are a few reasons against which I’ll go into later.

 

There were a few things I needed to make sure of in terms of compatibility regards the frame. This one ticked all the boxes, the hub spacing was 135 not the older 130mm standard, it would take an A headset rather than an old fashioned threaded one and importantly it was compatible with a Shimano hollowtech II bottom bracket. Another positive was that it was being sold by a bike shop not a private individual, usually a safer purchase.

Once I got the frame home it was very clear that it was in need of a respray. I did debate this because I was a big fan of the original decals and colour scheme, sadly they were too far gone. After a large amount of deliberation I decided to go with a turquoise blue. This went very well with the black fork I’d decided on, a few of you might turn your noses up at going with a steel one but the classic looks and durability of the material were enough to persuade me.

Alongside the fork I fitted the headset and bottom bracket, both relatively straightforward tasks once I’d sent the fork to the bike shop to get the crown race fitted having not yet added a headset press to my toolkit. This threw up an unexpected problem, I had an ultegra 6800 crank going spare and decided to fit that to the frame to check the compatibility. Not for the first time the clearance on the frame proved to be an issue, with a 52/36 combination the outer chainring was rubbing the chain-stay. Luckily my plan had always been to fit a 1x drivetrain, nonetheless it did serve as a sign that the project might not be smooth sailing the whole way.

Next up it was time to decide on a pair of wheels. The frame would have been built to take 26′ models, which for anyone who doesn’t know have very much fallen out of fashion in recent years. I took a bit of a risk going with 650b instead. This won’t have done wonders for the handling of the bike but on the plus side it did allow me to go for a set with a SRAM XD freehub. That in turn meant I could run a cassette with a 10 tooth smallest sprocket, partially compensating for the limited clearance up-front. In the end I went with a 10-42 and a 38t narrow-wide chainring.

Unfortunately a rather large bill for the bike shop put an end to the project for another month or so. The soul upshot of this was that I had the time to carefully research the options I had in terms of the other components. I’d heard good things about SRAM Rival 1 components so opted for a rear-mech from that line. In an ideal world I’d have just bought that groupset in full. Annoyingly you can only get one with hydraulic disc compatible shifters and I planned on running mechanical ones. Necessitating the left shifter and right brake lever needing to be purchased individually.

Getting the cables in place took the best part of a day, having never cut outers before I had to go back to secondary school Design-Technology lessons to remind myself of the correct technique for using a hacksaw. A few of my early attempts weren’t exactly the neatest – let’s just say it was lucky I had two cable kits. With the addition of some bar tape it was finally looking like a bike. The following day setting up the shifting and front brake was refreshingly straightforward. As ever there was a small hitch, the 175mm Ultegra crank was very slightly too long and once again was rubbing the frame. I could have gotten around this by fitting a few extra BB spacers but that in turn would have meant over tightening the crank bolts to ensure they stayed in place with a reduced amount of axle to fit them to. I relented and ordered a new 165mm 105 crank which luckily solved the problem.

The last hurdle was sorting out the rear brake. A disc conversion at the front had been very easy, just a matter of buying the right fork. At the rear it proved much less straightforward. The first adapter I bought simply couldn’t be made to fit the frame and the second was so flimsy that it probably wouldn’t have been safe to use. For a good few days I trawled the internet in search of a cost effective option. Thankfully I found one, the only drawback being the humungous postage cost of getting the part shipped from the USA.

I’m sure one question you’re probably asking yourselves is how much all this has cost. Unfortunately my original budget of £1100 was blown spectacularly, the full build has come to £1380. I admit that it would have been possible to get a very decent brand new gravel bike for that money. However this project wasn’t entirely about keeping costs down. Along the way I’ve learned a huge amount about how bikes work encompassing many mechanical skills that will serve me well in the future. Another upshot is ending up with a totally unique machine, one that I know inside and out – hopefully this bike won’t ever need to go to the shop to be fixed.

If all goes to plan this build will make winter training a lot easier. It’s purposely designed for the muddy lanes of Devon with the wide tyres, disc brakes and mudguards making riding on them seem like a far less unpleasant prospect. Now to get off the sofa, turn the computer off and take it out for a spin.

Thanks for reading.

Bike SOS

Hi folks. This time round I’m going to take a break from the racing updates and ramble on about something that should be an equally effective sleep aid for any non-Cyclists reading this. In a bid to improve my mechanical skills and save some money on bike shop repair bills I took on two project bikes this summer – three months later one of them is actually finished, honestly.

Here was the starting point, please excuse the terrible photo quality. A 2016 Boardman Road Sport that had been left outside for a year gathering rust. My aim was simple, restore it back to good working order.

I realised the extent of the task that lay ahead of me when I tried to take the wheels off in order to get the bike in my car. The quick release skewers were so seized that I had to use a pair of pliers to undo them. Upon turning the frame upside down to do this half the river nile came out of the chain stays. I soon realised that the chain was beyond saving – the thing was so rusted that it refused to turn.

It was clear that the bike needed a full strip-down and rebuild if it was ever going to get out on the road again. A long evening was spent taking the machine apart, I was pleasantly surprised by how easy this was – until I realised that at some point I was going to have to put the thing back together again.

The first stage consisted of working out what could be saved and what needed replacing. The bar tape, chain and cables were well beyond redemption. I initially hoped the bottom bracket could be re-used once I’d managed to liberate it using an improvised tool. I then turned my attention to the bolts. Surprisingly all but a few of them were in decent condition barring some surface rust. I turned to an old-school technique and soaked them all in vinegar overnight alongside the chainrings, cassette, headset bearings and any washers I’d managed to salvage.

The next step was reconditioning the components I was planning to re-use. The brakes had certainly seen better days, fortunately all that was required to bring them back into service was some elbow grease. I fully disassembled both callipers, cleaned and greased everything individually and then put them back together. I’ll admit to being very pleased at how nicely they turned out in the end.

Likewise the shifters looked very tired, both hoods were perished and needed replacing. This threw up an unexpected problem, no matter how hard I looked it was impossible to find like for like replacements. The closest I could get was a pair of ultra 6600 covers which unfortunately needed to be cut down to size.

Finally it was the turn of the wheels, surprisingly the freehub was in good condition and didn’t need anything besides a good clean. The bearings on the front didn’t sound quite as healthy but fortunately didn’t turn out to be worn – removing, cleaning and re-greasing them solved the issue.

Now came the bit I’d been afraid of. Sorting out the frame – initially I’d hoped it would only need cleaning and polishing but the condition of the paint work suggested otherwise. I have to admit that painting the frame myself was beyond my skill level, fortunately my Father is rather good with a spray can so that bit was left to him. The process was a simple but time consuming one; sand down the frame, apply primer, colour and finally lacquer.

It was then time to re-assemble the bike. I started off with the easiest sections, installing the reconditioned headset, fork and handlebars before putting the wheels back on so as to make the bike easier to work on. Next came the brakes and rear mech. The bottom bracket itself was perfectly serviceable but when I tried to re-install it I found that the threads on the frame had been damaged. Fortunately I managed to find a threadless model that fitted perfectly and spun far more smoothly than the original.

From then on the process proved relatively straightforward. Refitting the chainset, shifters, chain and front mech was surprisingly painless. I decided to fit the bike with a straight stem I had going spare rather than the positive original – by my own admission this was purely for cosmetic reasons. Next came the job of linking everything together, most of the original cable outers were in good condition though some had to be replaced. Luckily I had a few left over from project bike number two. I will admit there were a few minor teething problems when it came to fitting the cables, having never worked on that type of shifter before – the language on that afternoon soon went from PG to 18+.

The final step was to set-up the gears and brakes. Having done this a few times and made just about every mistake it’s possible to make at some point I felt fairly well versed. Once everything worked with the bike on a stand I took it out on the road, knowing that a few final tweaks would probably have to be made. I wasn’t surprised to find the chain regularly coming off on the front and slightly noisy shifting at the rear. Putting it right was simply a matter of adjusting cable tension and checking the limit screws on both mechs.

So, here’s the finished product. I’d like to think it’s an improvement on the original, though admittedly that wouldn’t be hard. Hopefully this bike will soon be back out on the road where it belongs.

Thanks for reading.

Second hand bikes – Bargain or Money pit?

Hi folks, it’s time for another one of those opinion posts. Before you ask, no I’m not going to weigh in on the disc brake debate for fear of World War Three breaking out in the comments section. It’s a common, and for in my opinion for the most part sound piece of advice that if you’re looking to get a good bike on a budget the best bet is always to go second hand. I’m hoping this post is going to illustrate why I think that might not always be the case.

I bought my first Mountain Bike six months ago for what appeared to be a bargain price of £375. It’s nothing special, just a bog standard aluminium hardtail. Nonetheless to get that spec on a new bike would have cost me at least £900. For that reason I when I saw one for sale for less than half that I snapped it up very eagerly. For the most part I think it’s been a good purchase, off-road riding is something I’d recommend to everyone for reasons outlined in a previous post. However, it’s not been without it’s problems.

From day one the bike had a big problem with the chain dropping, this is a pretty common issue when it comes to 1x drivetrains. My mechanical knowledge was very much lacking when it came to finding a solution to this. Eventually I discovered that the problem was mainly due to the previous owner fitting the wrong type of chain ring. Having now fitted a narrow-wide chain ring with a chain guard added just for good measure the issue is very much solved.

A month after buying the bike I had the slightly scary experience of nothing happening when I went for the front brake whilst riding a particularly technical trail. A google search told me that the brakes probably needed bleeding and a glance at the state of the pads was all I needed to see that they needed replacing immediately. I’ve since had to splash out on a new rear calliper after a piston failed on the old one.

Along the way it’s also needed a new bottom bracket, headset, chain and cassette. Twice I’ve had to admit defeat and leave the machine to the bike shop to sort out, the problems in question being a spongy suspension fork and a snapped spoke on the front wheel. The rear tyre recently developed a rather spectacular split, meaning that too has had to be replaced – by the looks of it the front one won’t last much longer either.

The cost of this maintenance has been pretty significant at roughly £320 and that’s not counting any of the tools I’ve had to buy to do those various jobs. Adding those in I’d estimate the bike has cost me around £750 in total. All of a sudden that’s not looking like quite such a substantial saving anymore. Just to be clear I’m not having a dig at the seller here, as advertised the bike was in full working order when I bought it. Unfortunately everyday wear and tear is likely to be a much bigger problem on a second hand machine.

However, on the flip-side I’ve been able to spread out the cost of putting it right over the last few months rather than having to pay it up-front. In addition I’ve been able to select any new components myself, meaning I haven’t wasted any money on stock ones that I’d have wanted to swap out immediately – something that’s pretty much inevitable with a brand new machine.

Over the years I’ve seen a few other things that have made me cautious when it comes to these purchases. The scariest being a wheel that looked to be in brilliant condition at first glance, when I lifted the rim tape I discovered that the carbon fairing had completely separated from the alloy rim. In other words that wheel was a potential deathtrap.

So, what’s the verdict? For what it’s worth I’d advise anyone to be cautious when buying a second hand bike, expect to have to shell out for some maintenance sooner rather than later. I would certainly recommend going to see the machine before parting with the cash. Check the wear on the chain – if that needs replacing there’s a good chance the cassette is also worn and the chain ring might not be far behind. If you can, I’d suggest taking the bike for a test ride – if there any suspicious noises, particularly from the hubs, headset or bottom bracket I’d steer clear. Sluggish and/or noisy shifting probably means the cables need replacing.

Thanks for reading.

Why everyone should ride a Mountain Bike

I’m going to start by saying that this is very much an opinion post, feel free to disagree and we can have a (hopefully civilised) debate in the comments which I can use as an excuse not to go and wash my bike. During the course of a very long and boring car journey home from my favourite trail centre today I had a few thoughts about the benefits of Mountain Biking – being a stereotypical millennial my first thought was to share them on the internet.

Firstly, it’s really good fun. I must admit that long road rides on my own can sometimes be very tedious, on a Mountain Bike getting bored is next to impossible. In fact most of the time you really can’t afford to switch off for fear of falling afoul of a rock, tree stump, root or whatever else the trail might have to throw at you. Today it was a rather bemused looking cow blocking my path that bought this point home. When I’m not feeling particularly motivated to train an MTB ride is always my first port of call, the time passes very quickly.

 

There’s a real sense of adventure that comes along with exploring off-road. GPS can’t always be relied upon and, in the UK at least, bridleways tend to be poorly signposted. The advantage of this is that getting a bit (okay sometimes very) lost is a brilliant way of discovering new places. Yesterday for example I found myself riding alongside a dried up riverbed which I couldn’t help but go down and walk along. It’s strangely satisfying to know where all those obscure tracks that you’ve ridden past lead to.

 

For me another bonus comes with the sense of tranquility that comes along when you’re in the middle of nowhere. After a long day at work there’s nothing quite like riding to my favourite spot, sitting down and switching off for a minute or two. No phone signal, no cars to worry about and no Strava segments to chase, it’s the perfect antidote to a bad race or any other setback be it cycling related or otherwise.

 

 

My second argument for embracing the knobbly tyres is that it’s brilliant training. Off-road riding is the perfect way to get in an interval session for people who don’t like intervals. Generally speaking you’re either coasting or riding very hard, it’s not uncommon to encounter climbs so steep that you can’t make it all the way up them. You’ll make mincemeat of most road climbs once you’ve negotiated a few 25% gradients on a 15kg mountain bike.

Many of the skills Mountain Biking requires also come in very useful for the road. Here’s an example. When it comes to cornering you’ll often be told to look for the exit of the turn and use that to pick your line and judge the speed, always braking before the corner and letting go once you enter it. In practice that’s not always possible, very often you can’t see the exit of the corner which makes judging the correct entrance speed very difficult – in other words unless it’s a familiar bend you have to brake whilst going round it. That braking will force you to take the corner more slowly than you’d otherwise be-able to for fear of the wheels locking up. In the context of a race that means you’ll often end up having to sprint after the corner to catch up with the riders in front. To some people this is probably intuitive but for me it certainly wasn’t until I started riding trails – if you brake before the corner and then release only the front brake you can safely carry more speed whilst maintaining control should it be needed. That piece of wisdom has made me a much, much better descender on the road – to the point where I was actually able to make up some places on the downhill sections in my last road race. Looking back I’d go as far as to say that I wish I’d ridden MTB from day one.

This next point might not be so relevant for riders who are lucky enough to live in places where the weather is good all year round. Riding on UK roads in winter is often a character building experience, you’ll have to deal with mud, debris, well concealed potholes and from time to time black ice. On a rim braked road bike it’s bloody miserable. My Mountain Bike however tackles that terrain with ease, hell I’ve ridden it in deep snow and managed to stay upright – that humble hardtail succeeded where many cars failed spectacularly. I don’t feel guilty about getting that bike dirty and scratched – it’s what the it’s designed for. Put simply that machine makes winter riding safer and more enjoyable.

Another thing I think we roadies could learn a great deal from is the willingness of the mountain bike world to adopt new technologies. Equipment that has only for the most part only recently become relatively commonplace on road bikes all originated in Mountain Biking; 1x drivetrains, disc brakes and thru-axles are the ones that come to mind. Again, this is purely opinion but in a few years time I bet we’ll see road going machines specced with suspension and dropper seat posts.

For what it’s worth here are my two cents. If you’ve never dabbled in Mountain Biking before I’d definitely recommend giving it a try. In my case it’s revolutionised my winter training and lead to a lot of summer fun. I’ve learned useful skills and discovered some amazing places.  Finally it can be done relatively cheaply – my £375 second hand hardtail certainly hasn’t held me back – at least nowhere near as much as my poor off-roading skills.

Thanks for reading.