Confessions of a Cycling Journalist, Part Four – The Luddite’s Revenge
September 5th, 2017
September 5th, 2017
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As the founder of Rouleur, who edited the Magazine for nine years and wrote bicycle reviews for 15 years, as well writing many cycling-related novels, it's safe to say that Guy has learned a thing or two about bikes, but after retiring from the magazine, he needed to buy a bike of his own. Simple eh? Well, apparently not. Hence we've broken Guy's pop at the industry into a whole series. Enjoy!
Out on a bike ride and Willie Nelson pops onto my playlist. I started thinking that Willie Nelson definitely wouldn’t use a Garmin. The guitar he plays is unique and his songs are so simple, so uncomplicated. His guitar solos are almost comical at times, but it serves a purpose, it’s all a part of his unique sound. Sure Willie’s probably not the best guitar player on the planet but his music is so sweetly effortless.
Most professional musicians will have a favourite instrument that may have been made many decades ago or in the case of violins even centuries before and although a modern one might be technically better, the old familiar one fits in their hands just perfectly. As a result it quite often sounds better and over the hours of practice the two develop a unique sound together.
Willie Nelson’s old Martin guitar is called Trigger (a great short doc about it here) and he jokes that the guitar will outlast him, but more significantly Trigger is regarded as being one of the band, it’s not just a dilapidated pile of rosewood and cat gut. I’m thinking that a hand-built bike is pretty much the same, the connection of fit and expression somehow makes bikes and musical instruments objects that have a soul. Well at least they should have.
All you really need to know is that it doesn’t really matter what bike you have as long as you want to ride it. That it fits and is robust and reliable and with badly made frames being less of an issue these days, it’s hard to buy a bad one to be honest. Keith Bontrager’s classic component conundrum of “Strong, light, cheap” pick two still applies to all things bike and I’ve seen enough cheap carbon parts fail to know that I don’t want my life resting on cheap stuff. And when it comes to frame geometry Richard Sachs’ comment that you just need “two wheels in the right place” is a truism that everyone should adhere to, because frame builders know best …
But both those issues aren’t quite as straightforward as they sound and bike frames are complicated, which is why we respected websites and magazines have experienced riders testing all the latest bikes for you. Which is a good thing. First of all what the bike testers tell you is, in the main, perfectly true and sensible, in that; Carbon is light, strong, responsive, stiff and fast … Steel is heavier, easier to build in custom sizes, cheaper and mostly comfortable. Aluminium is the poor relation, the black sheep if you like. It’s perfect for race bikes because it’s stiff, strong and light. Expensive aluminium can be comfortable too, but builders need to heat treat it and that starts to get expensive. It also doesn’t last as long as steel and is the hardest to repair. All factually correct and all you need to do is decide what works best for you and your budget. However, ask any bike tester which bike they’d buy and the answer would very definitely be, “That depends. What’s it for?” The truth is that these days there isn’t only one bike for cycling, and I reckon there’s at least ten. Here are the ones currently languishing in my shed (most in various states of disrepair):
- Road bike
- Road training/winter bike (very used and filthy)
- Commuter bike (with mis-matched wheels and one broken mudguard)
- Fixed wheel road bike (with brakes and mudguards)
- Track bike (for track racing and essentially unused these days)
- Touring/bikepacking/gravel bike (aren’t they all the same thing?)
- Cyclocross bike (as above, really)
- Time trial bike (with two flat tubs and a lot of dust)
- Mountain bike (with rigid forks and very rusty chain)
- 1980s road bike (mostly used for going to the shops)
The dusty mountain bike in the shed is of a 2002 vintage and it’s still very lovely to look at. It rides well off–road, the last time I rode it was five years ago and all was as well as can be expected. My skills are the only thing that prevented us from matching the pace of the youngsters on more up to date bikes, at least that’s my version of what happened. Looking at it shows how much mountain bikes have evolved and the mountain bike developed massively in an astonishingly short period of time. The first ones resembled a postman’s bike mixed with a road bike and a cyclocross racer, they were horribly heavy and over-built, but kinda fun. The technology came in a tidal wave of developments, if you had a mountain bike in the 1990s you’d be changing a part, a fork or a tyre almost every week. It was the biggest melting pot of ideas and innovation to hit cycling since the war. As a result road bike technology stalled, but that was OK. Road bikes had been the same for decades, so change was slow but to say road cycling requires piles of technology to do it well is like saying that to be a good chef you need to work in the best equipped kitchen with every time saving aid known to man.
If you’ve managed to get this far with me, dear reader, I hope you’ll excuse a small side story about bike components. When I started riding, compatibility was not much of an issue. Campagnolo, Shimano, Suntour, Miche, Simplex, Gipiemme, Modolo, Galli, Ofmega and Mavic. They all recognised one another and it all worked well enough. Industry standards were based around simple mechanical issues; you pulled or pushed levers and things responded. Index gears are great, but the incompatibility issue really upset the applecart. Many of the smaller Italian component brands didn’t have the technology to match Shimano’s rise in the road racing ranks. Campagnolo has hung on, but their Japanese competitors kept besting them year after year. Their mountain bike success and Campagnolo’s inability to adapt to the market meant that they benefitted and grew their market share and the market embraced the idea of supplying racing bikes as complete bikes, rather than a frame and components to be built up. As a result the manufacturers used OEM (original equipment manufacturer) gear and much of it wasn’t the best of the best. Or even remotely close. The mountain bike market fuelled the idea of complete bikes and I remember writing something similar to this article in 1994 when it appeared to me that building a bike yourself gave you more control of the spec and (arguably) better value for money. And not much has changed to be fair, so here’s my list of my new bike pet-hates:
The saddle, handlebars and pedals.
All these things on a test bike will be wrong for you, so inevitably changing them over for something you can work with is the first job for a bike tester. (see wider point on contact points). There are times when a bike comes with pretty much your preferred set up but that’s a rare day indeed.
Probably my biggest bug bear during my bike testing times. Some OEM tyres are practically unrideable. Change them for something better quality and see your new bike instantly change. I’d go so far as to say ask the shop to change them for you there and then. Save the ones from the bike for riding the turbo trainer. They’re very often that bad.
As with the tyres budget-end OEM wheels are usually slightly lesser quality than the ones you buy direct from the manufacturers. They will usually be heavy and uninspiring.
The brake/gear levers.
These days this is less of a problem as the ergonomics of brake lever hoods has pretty much aligned. They are all comfortable and tweaked to suit. But I like my front brake lever on the right and not many complete builds come as such (which reminds me of another story on brakes, but for another day).
Again an area where OEM product can be used instead of the real stuff from Shimano, Campagnolo or SRAM. Usually poorly installed too.
The only chains I have broken have been on test bikes. Cheap chains suck. (pun intended)
Road bikes were once quite simple, they all weighed roughly the same, so your buying decisions were based more on colour and brand than they were on new technology. However as a performance gain, then weight is probably the biggest issue that has changed the game noticeably. The ‘best’ racing bikes now have disc brakes, electric gears, Garmin computers and Power-meters and to be frank, I have no need for any of it. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not at all luddite about this sort of technology and I really like the idea that all these wonderful things exist. After all, I have used all of them in the past; I have marvelled at the stopping potential of disc brakes, especially in the mud. Di2 or EPS or E-TAP is a must-have for a serious road racer these days and a Garmin makes for a safer and better targeted cycling experience for many, and a powermeter is essential viewing if you want to be really serious about your cycling. However; I already know how crap I am and how slow I’m getting and I also know where I’m going (most of the time). In short, I just don’t ‘need’ any of these things.
If you are a racer, then there’s aerodynamics to think about, but if you ride around the hills at 20-30kph, aerodynamics are the least of your worries. Sure, I would have a disc brake bike if I lived in a wet climate and had to commute to work every day, but these things aren’t imperative to riding on the road where I live. In the same way it used to be argued that you didn’t really need a full suspension mountain bike if you lived in Norfolk.
My conclusion is simple, next to a good fit, it’s the bike’s contact points that really need to work for you. I’d suggest having clipless pedals, a saddle that fits your arse, handlebars that you like and aren’t too narrow, wide, deep or shallow. The gears and brakes integrated together was a stroke of genius. Elsewhere it’s pretty simple I like fast grippy tyres, lots of gears and a groupset that is subtle and understated, but Shimano, SRAM or Campagnolo, I’m really not that fussy, it all works very well. But I think Campagnolo has the best cable activated mechanical gears right now and I have loads of handbuilt and tasty wheels that fit their sprockets. So Campagnolo 11 speed it is then. At least that’s one decision made.
I started writing this piece nearly six months ago, since then I’ve bought two new road frames, both steel. The one new one was a Cinelli Nemo and then there was one slightly used (there’s a story to follow on that too). Both fit really well, both have that all-important story behind the brand. Neither of them will set the scales on fire or win any wind cheating competitions, but they are both very nice, fit me well and I want to ride them, so job done.
However I’m still searching for that ideal balance between aesthetic simplicity, modern technology and perfect fit. The truth is I don’t really ‘need’ a new bike because I have plenty in the shed that do a good enough job. But the thing that goes through your head whilst spinning through the lanes, planning the next challenge or adventure is that I’m no different to anyone in living the constant +1 dilemma, it’s all about the chase and ‘wanting’ a new one. Like it always has been.
I might give Brian Rourke a call.