Sunday, 1 January 2017

My winter bike that turns out to be race worthy

My winter bike that turns out to be race worthy; Specialized Allez with Shimano Ultegra 6800.

I’ve had the idea for a while to build up a Specialized Allez as a training bike, since the frame geometry mirrors my Specialized Tarmac. I reasoned that the bike should be able to give me the exact same position as my race bike, which will make transitions between training and race bikes that much easier on the body and mind.

Scratched up paintwork evident on the top tube.
After months of deliberating I took the plunge and bidded for a frame on eBay. The frame was advertised in a pretty gritty state and true to form it arrived caked in years of London grime. I set to work cleaning it, and after the muck and stains were removed it looked a lot better, although it had a few scuffs and other marks. The frame set me back £100, so I was not expecting it to have a perfect paint job. I also reasoned that for me to be happy abusing this bike in the winter, it was probably best that it was not in pristine condition.

Next I started snooping around for a groupset. I considered buying a new Shimano 105 group, but for only £250 I was able to buy a used Ultegra groupset, so that was a clear winner. This is also the same groupset I use on my race bike, which helped on my mission to make the bike feel as close to my race bike as possible.

The saddle was my next objective, and this was an area where I was searching for something specific. The saddle had to be a Specialized Romin Evo, the same as I use on my other bike. Fortunately I found one in nearly new condition for a bargain price. In fact, it was in such good nick that I used it on my race bike and demoted my old saddle to the Allez. Another £20 hit to the bank account.

The bars and stem I had lying about in the garage, but for the purpose of this article I’m valuing them according to the prices for which I’ve seen them advertised. I finished the bars off with some handlebar tape I’d not tried before, branded as LifeLine, which proved to be a great value discovery at only £5.50 a pop. I will be using this on my race bike too, saving a lot of money I used to spend on Lizardskin handlebar tape.

With Fulcrum 5 training wheels.
Fortunately I had training wheels to use on the bike, in the form of Fulcrum 5 wheels, which came as standard on my Tarmac.

So all in I spent £430 on this project, broken down as follows:

Specialized Allez Sport frame, including seat post: £100
Shimano Ultegra 6800 group: £250
Factor stem: £15
Cane Creak headset: £20
Zipp aluminium bars: £20
Life Line bar tape: £5
Specialized Romin saddle: £20

My custom build Specialized Allez ride review

It may seem ridiculous to give a review to a customised bike, but it is a simple build which I would highly recommend anyone to copy if they want a really decent race bike at a massively reduced price, so that is my reasoning.

Before my first proper training ride on the Allez I took a week off from training. When I then started my winter training on my new steed I was very pleasantly surprised. The bike handles just like my Specialized Tarmac, and feels just as responsive when accelerating on short sharp climbs. I never had the feeling that the bike was sluggish or heavy, which is how I imagined it might feel.

The aluminium frame can feel a bit harsh if you put 100 psi in the tyres, but rising 25mm tyres at 90 psi feels very comfortable and the road vibration is reduced. The potential for a bumpy ride due to the frame’s stiffness is a clue to the rigidity of the frame in terms of translating power input into speed. The acceleration is instant and very satisfying.

While the weight of the frame is not going to get anywhere near concerning a UCI commissaire, it is not heavy by any means. I’d say that the handling and responsiveness of the frame go a long way into compensating for a few 100 grams weight penalty. Paired with some lightweight race wheels you would have a great climbing bike.

After a few rides I noticed that my Strava data was telling me a little secret; for under £500 I had built a bike that was just as fast as my race bike, at least as far as my average speed on training rides is concerned. Now, I must admit that I’ve not gone into data analysis to determine if I’ve been producing more power on average whilst training on the Allez when compared to the Tarmac, but going on gut instinct I would say that the bikes measure up pretty close. I’m considering doing a few winter circuit races on the Allez to see how it feels in battle, and I’m expecting it to do a good job.
Fitted with Zipp 60s I plan on testing the Allez in a crit or two.


Of course I am looking forward to getting my race bike out from hibernation, but with such an able training bike, it has been a lot easier to avoid the temptation of taking my best bike out over winter.

The thought has even crossed my mind to sell my race bike and use the Allez for the coming season, but this practical and sensible idea was quickly quashed when I next looked at my Tarmac hanging in the garage, as it is indeed a beautiful bike.

So I feel I must let others know about the potential behind the humble Specialized Allez frame. I see so many of them for sale with entry level components and I can’t help but feel sad for the frame, living a life of mediocrity when it could be releasing its full potential, laced with a few upgrades and a rider willing to melt himself on the road.

Saturday, 24 December 2016

Back for 2017

I've not posted on here for 2 years, and recently I've been thinking about picking it up again. In the new year I am hoping to train and race more, after focusing on my work in 2015 and 2016.

2016 has been a turbulent year, with the birth of beautiful twin boys on 30 December 2015, we then tragically lost one of our little soldiers on the 26th of February. The heartache is immense, yet we still have a wonderful loving family unit and life does go on. Losing one of our children has given me a renewed respect for family time, so my riding needs to take this into consideration. I'm blessed to have a supportive wife to help me get some sort of balance in this respect.

For 2017 I will be riding for VC Meudon, starting the year as a 3rd Cat rider again, so there is room to build up and my goal is to regain my 2nd Cat licence. My blog posts will be a mix of race reports, opinion pieces and reviews.

That's all for now, but I will be back soon.

Sunday, 2 November 2014

Wind Tunnels and Wheel Suckers

Recently my news feed has shown up several articles with a headline along the lines of "Research shows you can benefit from wheel suckers, here's how to make them work for you." I duly click through and read about the latest wind tunnel testing and how it is now proven that we gain 5% efficiency against the wind whilst being drafted.

The articles go on to say that the rider doing the drafting is saving a large percentage of his energy, but mostly when he is directly behind the front rider. Then they say we can make life harder for "wheel suckers" by making it harder for them to sit directly behind us. It was even suggested to change your line often.

This smacks of stupid. Firstly, the wind direction is rarely from directly in front of us, meaning that in the real world (unlike in a wind tunnel) the best place to be is usually slightly to either the left or right of the front rider.

Secondly, the article is advocating changing your line regularly, which equates to erratic, dangerous riding. I can only imagine the hordes of novice level riders and sportive heroes that are lapping up this advice and planning their "tactics" for their next sportive.

My opinion is that drafting is a fundamental part of the sport. If you have a problem with somebody following your wheel, ride in the gutter (read on for more on this) or attack from the rear. If you sit on the front of the bunch swerving about to get someone off your wheel I should hope a more experienced rider would have a strong word of advice for you.

The bottom line is that if you are riding at the front of the group, you have made a decision to do so, and if you are pulling hard it is because you want the entire group to go faster, whether that is to catch a break away or to discourage attacks. If you are riding hard at the front and you do not want people tagging along, then you are on a futile mission. Unless you are hammering it up a climb and dropping weaker riders because of the pace to gradient ratio.

Riding in the gutter
The only other time you can ride at the front and cause inconvenience to the riders behind you is in a strong cross wind. A cross wind from the right will mean that the riders behind you will be sheltered best diagonally behind you and to your left. Therefore riding in the far left hand side of the road ("the gutter") when the wind is coming from the right will minimise the draft benefit felt by those behind you.

This tactic is used widely in races that cross exposed areas of countryside, notably in Dutch road races. The phenomenon is less common in English racing because of the hedges that line so many of the country lanes.

I think the lesson here is that racing tactics are best learnt from experienced riders and coaches, not from wind tunnel data and ill informed data interpretation by sportive focused journalists.

Poor man's wind Tunnel
You can learn a lot about your position on a bike by riding down hill. Find a nice long straightish decent and pedal down it. Pedal as if you are riding on the flat, so change to a gear that allows you a cadence between 80 to 100.

Now try different positions:
  • Hands in drops, arms with bend, arms straight.
  • Hands on hoods, arms bend at 90deg, arms straight, slight bend.
  • Dip your head down when safe to do so, but keep aware of the road ahead.

You should be able to feel a difference in speed when trying different positions, and you can see the speed difference if you use a cycle computer. You can learn a lot by experimenting like this. Equally you can learn about drafting by riding with a friend on a windy day. Try to get a feel for wind direction and experiment to see where you get the most protection. You can also experiment with riding in "the gutter" and see what difference that makes.

Friday, 18 July 2014

How to look like a pro cyclist

My team mates have taken to commenting on how "pro" I look. My response is always that it is one thing to look pro, but another thing to ride like a pro! I'm a 2nd Cat rider and I'm not claiming to be anything better than that. With that in mind, I thought it would be fun to put together a little guide on how to look pro! Such fun. Photos by Sarah Theron.
Pro Team Kit
Wearing team kit will help you look pro, but only if you are in the team! Don't wear a trade team's kit if you want to look pro. You’ll just look like a fan. Of course there is nothing wrong with being a fan, but that's another article. Check out this FB page for further discouragement on the matter of wearing pro team kit.
If you ride for a club, get the kit. If you ride without allegiance, wear kit that is not branded to excess. Club kit will look more pro, especially if the club has sponsors displayed on the kit.
Your cycling jersey should fit tightly. Try different sizes until you can't go smaller. Nothing should flap in the wind, unless you've unzipped completely on a long mountain pass climb (very pro). The zip on the front must be full length.
When pinning a race number to your jersey, make sure you pin it over the pockets on the lower back. Do not pin it above the pockets, ever.
Cycling shorts should be the bib-short type. Draw-string or elastic waist bands are a no-no. Again, they should fit well, but comfort is also paramount. Your shorts should be coordinated with your jersey, unless you are wearing a National or World Champion's jersey. This should only be worn if you have earnt it. Despite what that make-up company tells you, you don't deserve it, unless you've won it!
If you are not wearing club or team kit, go for predominantly black shorts.
Arm warmers and leg warmers
Unless you have these issued otherwise, they should be black. Arm warmers should fit well enough not to slide down.
Arm warmers can be worn without leg warmers, but never wear leg warmers without arm warmers.
You can race in knee warmers, but should try to avoid racing in leg warmers, unless it is snowing. You can buy sports balm to apply to your legs for racing in cooler conditions, which warms the skin and muscles and forms a water resistant layer. It also makes your legs look pro (assuming you've shaved your legs, which you must do, to look pro). In warmer weather you can buy sports balm that is not as strong, giving you slick, pro looking legs.
During the spring and autumn, when it gets cooler than 15 degrees Celsius, it is pro to train in leg warmers and arm warmers.
Pre and post race, it is pro to wear leg warmers and arm warmers. Changing into non-team issue casual clothes prior to visiting the podium is not pro. Banging on clean kit with leg and arm warmers and a pair of clean sports shoes is pro. Sunglasses on head, or sponsor's cap if issued.
Race socks should be looking new. That means white socks should be white and not grey. Clean crisp socks look pro. They should be cycling specific and reach at least 2 inches above the ankle.
Compression socks should only be worn off the bike. Do not wear them in a race or time trial.
Wearing a helmet is pro, or at least it has been since the turn of the century when it became compulsory for the pro peloton. Slotting your sunglasses into your helmet at the front or rear is also pro.
Your helmet should be chosen to complement or match your kit's colour scheme.
Make sure the helmet fits with minimum forehead exposure, so as not to look like a character out of Dad's Army.
Sunglasses should be worn with the helmet straps under the sunglasses arms. This means taking your sunglasses off before removing your helmet, but that's just the way things work.
The main thing about shoes, in terms of appearance, is that they are crisp and clean. Wear and tear is fine if it shows that they are well used (indicating that you train and race like a pro), but when they start looking like your dog's been having his way with them, it's time for a new pair.
Shoes should fit snugly to your foot, with minimum bulk. When choosing a shoe colour, you want something that will match your kit, but still be neutral enough to work with different kit, should you change clubs or ride as a guest rider on another team. All black shoes are a bit retro, but white seems to be the modern classic.
A prerequisite to looking pro is to be skinny. This can be achieved by training more, eating less junk and drinking less alcohol. Throwing up after a meal is not pro. Not drinking beer is pro. Making lifestyle sacrifices in the name of your sport is very, very pro.
If you are not skinny, you can go for the Jan Ullrich winter look, but unless you have a Tour de France podium place under the belt it is hard to make this work. In fact, Ullrich did not even make it work...
Tan lines should be preserved and valued. They are like a tattoo of honour, celebrating your hard work.
Your body language can make you look more pro too. Slouching over your bike is pro. Sitting side-on on your top tube is pro. And remember the old adage for a pro, "Never stand when you can sit, never sit when you can lie down."
Lastly, avoid contact between your calf and your chainring. Ovoid it like the plague! The grease chainring mark on your calf is a blazing sign, marking you out as someone who is decidedly not pro.
Your bike
Ride a frame that is slightly smaller, which allows more seat post exposure and a bigger drop from the level of your seat to the level of the handlebars. Slam your stem. This means removing all the spacers from beneath your stem, so that your bars are as low as possible.
Of course correct bike fit takes precedence over aesthetics, but strictly judging by appearance, you want a slammed stem and a smaller frame. The back wheel clearance to the seat tube should be a bard minimum of millimetres. This kind of geometry indicates a frame that will be quick up climbs and responsive to out of the saddle accelerations.

  • Your bar tape should match your saddle.
  • Your bottle cages should match your frame.
  • Spokes should be black or silver in colour.
  • Do not use a saddle bag.
  • Do not use a frame mount for your pump.
  • Do not fit a number of any sort to your handle bars. If you are riding an event that requires you to fit a number to your bars, then you are riding in an event that makes you look un-pro.

Follow these guidelines and you should be well on your way to looking a little more pro.
To ride like a pro will take a bit more effort, but at least you can make a good impression before that race starts!

Saturday, 7 June 2014

Specialized Tarmac SL4 Comp from South Downs Bikes

Recently I found myself without a bike as the Cube I was riding suffered an untimely death.

After weighing up my options and speaking to Martin from South Downs Bikes in Storrington, I was soon picturing myself on a Specialized Tarmac. A bike I've admired from a distance for some time now.

South Downs Bikes and Specialized have been very generous in their support of Army cycling and I would like to give them a big thank you for supporting us.

Martin was very helpful in sourcing me a bike which has all but disappeared from stock, and went on to assist by making changes to the bike to cater to my needs.

On reflection, this is the first time in my life I've ever bought a complete, new bike! Previously I've always replaced frames or components or ridden loan bikes. It is a new and rather nice experience.

Pictured with PowerTap rear wheel.
The 2014 Specialized Tarmac SL4 Comp features a Fact 9 carbon frame. This is the current entry level carbon from Specialized, but the frame is still rigid and responsive, probably largely due to the Tarmac's geometry and method of putting together the carbon.

I opted for a 56cm frame based on the comparative similarity of the measurement of the horizontal top tube length to the 60cm Cube Agree I was riding previously. The 58cm frame would require a really short stem and I prefer a slightly smaller frame for weight saving and the extra rigidity it can offer.

The 2014 Comp model comes with 11spd Ultegra, except for the crankset (FSA Gossamer 52/36) and Axis brake calipers. I opted to swap the compact chainset for Ultegra 53/39 as this would give me a gear ratio better suited to racing in the UK.

I also swapped the 42cm wide bars for a 44cm shallow drop alternative.

I'm getting used to the Body Geometry Toupe saddle. I had to fight my bias towards the Fizik Arione I've been riding for the last year and a half, but I now find the Toupe comfortable and it looks a lot lighter and more streamlined too.

The only thing I would change on the bike, apart from the crankset, is the adjustable stem system, which seems an unnecessary added weight. Of course race wheels are an obvious upgrade as well, but the Fulcrum Racing 5's that come standard are awesome training wheels in my experience.

Once again I'd like to give a big thank you to Martin at South Downs Bikes. Check out the shop on FaceBook and if you live in West Sussex I encourage you to pop in to the shop, either in Storrington or Worthing.

For the location and contact details for South Downs Bikes, please click here.

Thursday, 24 April 2014

Best Road Pedals Under £50

Most people know the importance of saving weight when it comes to choosing a bike, or any piece of cycling kit for that matter, but another important thing to look at is the smoothness of bearings. You would not like to ride with your brakes touching your rims, so why would you want to ride with bearings that were not smooth and added resistance, sapping precious watts from your power output.

Pedals, along with hubs and your bottom bracket, are a great place to improve the potential speed you can get from your bike. Ideally you would probably buy ultra smooth ceramic bearings, but if you are on a tighter budget you need to make smart choices.

Below are a selection of pedals that you can pick up for under £50, and because of its low weight and the relative quality of its bearings, I have chosen the Look Keo Classic as the best buy in this price bracket. I have excluded Speedplay pedals from the selection purely because they cost considerably more. 

Exustar E-PR16 Pedals 
Exustar E-PR16 Pedals 
These entry level pedals use Look type cleats and can be picked up pretty cheaply, probably cheaper than any other road clipless pedal. The pedals I tried did not have smooth bearings, and felt rather stiff. That being said, I’m sure they would loosen up with use, and they are very cheap. You can get them for as low as £13 online.

  • Rigid die-cast aluminum body. 
  • Large platform design for power efficiency. 
  • Cr-Mo axle Fiberglass reinforced thermoplastic binding with adjustment screw. 
  • Fully adjustable binding tension with tension gauge. 
  • Weight 328g  

Shimano R540 SPD-SL Pedals
Shimano R540 SPD-SL Pedals
You can get these pedals for under £25 and they do the job fine, but will probably only last a year or two before they start to get worn and tired. If you want to save a bit of money on pedals there is nothing wrong with these, except their life expectancy.

  • Wide pedal platform for improved foot/pedal stability 
  • Low maintenance sealed cartridge axle unit 
  • Weight - 330 grams per pair 

Shimano R550 SPD-SL Pedals 
Shimano R550 SPD-SL
On the next step up the Shimano pedal food chain are the R550 pedals, which will cost a few extra Pounds, but come in at the same weight of 330g as the R450 pedals.

  • Weight: 330g 
  • Low maintenance sealed cartridge unit 
  • Wide pedal platform for improved foot / pedal stability 

Look KEO Classic Pedal 
Look KEO Classic Pedal 
This is my pick for the best value pedal, especially if you can find it on offer for under £50. Made from injected Polyamid, the pedal is light and stiff. With a Chromoly axle and the Polyamid (plastic) pedal body, this pedal comes in at 140g, making it less than half the weight of Shimano 105 5700 pedals.

  • Weight: 140g 
  • Injected body saves weight compared to its alloy alternative 
  • Adjustable spring tension mechanism for a smoother release 

Shimano 105 5700 SPD-SL Carbon Road Pedals 
Shimano 105 5700 SPD-SL
Carbon Road Pedals
Shimano 105, as I have said in other posts, is a great value groupset. The pedals are no exception and the performance and reliability of these pedals is, well, reliable. If for some reason you prefer Shimano cleats over Look, I would go for the 105 pedals.

  • Stainless steel pedal body plate for increased durability 
  • Low maintenance sealed cartridge axle unit 
  • Weight: 285 grams per pair

Monday, 14 April 2014

Best mid-range road bikes: Good enough to race on

Road bikes can cost between a few hundred pounds and a few thousand pounds, and there are endless choices between frame manufacturers, wheels, group sets and finishing kits from thousands of bike shops and online sellers. Even for experienced riders it can be daunting to choose a bike to spend your money on.
To simplify matters, and to help get the most bang for your buck, let's break down the bike to see what we need to focus on when making a choice.
The heart of the bike is the frame.
Size importance: It is essential to get a frame that fits you, as a frame that is too big will feel like a farm gate and you will struggle to get it to fit properly. If a frame is too small you will also be at a disadvantage and have to use an extra long seat post, stem and spacers on the fork.
Frame material: most people race on carbon fibre these days, and it is becoming more affordable. The majority of aluminium frames on the market at the moment are not built for racing, and as such are not as light as aluminium frames were in the pre-carbon aluminium heyday. That being said, there are some decent aluminium frames available.
Frame geometry and weight are probably the main factors to take into consideration. Bikes that are marketed as race geometry are typically the more expensive ones, although there are expensive bikes labelled as sportive bikes too. The frustration is finding a bike with race geometry at a reasonable price.
With technology trickling down and all the main groupset manufacturers providing 11 speed groupsets at various price points, there is quite a bit to choose from.
Shimano is soon to release their 11 speed 105 groupset, which has a lot of characteristics taken from the Dura Ace and Ultegra offerings, including the new crankset. Although the 105 will be heavier than Ultegra or Dura Ace, the shifting will be good enough to race with and you can upgrade components as and when you can. Another major plus for the 105 groupset is the price. In my opinion it is the best value for money groupset on the market.
Most mid range bikes come standard with a compact chainset, that means the chainrings are typically 50 and 34 tooth options. The compact chainrings allow lower gear ratios, which make riding on hilly terrain a bit more comfortable as you can spin a higher cadence with less power. Coupled with a cassette that has an 11 tooth cog, you can still get quite a bit of speed, if you have the power to turn the gear at a high cadence.
Most racing is done on standard cranksets, with 53/39 tooth chainrings. This allows you to climb faster and go faster on flat and downhill sections, if you have sufficient power to turn the gear.
If you are planning on using your bike for racing I would strongly recommend using 53/39 chainrings, as that is what you will be racing against. Fitting a 12-27 cassette will give you a ratio that will allow you to get over pretty much any climb. That being said, a 12-25 or 11-25 will do you better on most British road races and circuit races.
If you are buying your bike from a bike shop they should be open to switching a compact chainset for a standard one, and also switching cassettes.
Bikes sold for £2000 or less usually cut the price by using slightly cheaper wheels, but you can usually find an option with decent wheels. There is no reason why you can't race on mid range wheels that many would consider training wheels. 
If you can buy from a bike shop, ask if you can feel the smoothness of the wheel's bearings on the bike you are looking at You can do this by taking the wheel out, holding it on the outside locking nuts, and spinning the wheel. It should be nice and smooth. Also check if the spoke holes in the rim have "eyelets" or if they are just clean drilled. Better wheels have eyelets around the spoke nipples.
As a reference, Fulcrum 5's and Mavic Aksiums are a safe bet for sturdy training wheels that will do fine in racing until you can get lighter race wheels one day.
The minimum weight a bicycle can be to race legally is 6.8kg, according to the rules of the international cycling governing body (the UCI), which applies for races sanctioned by British Cycling.
Many bikes with mid range components hit the scales around 7.5kg to 8.5kg.  So even if you have an 8.5kg bike, that's only 1.7kg more than the minimum. Think of this in the context of your combined weight of bike, body and water bottles. It is not much, especially considering you could be paying up to £2000 extra to rid yourself of that 1.7kg difference. Ideally you would have the lightest bike, but you can make do, if needs must.
Some good value bikes to look at
The Shimano 105 5800 (11 speed) is due out in July, so you might like to wait for the new models with 11 speed, or indeed pick up a bargin on a 10 speed bike when the 11 speed 105 is released. To give you an idea of what you can get for your money, have a look at the mid range bikes below, with links to their specifications. The Canyon offers the best value for money by far, although you will need to order it online and probably wait for a while before it gets to you.