Resisting the urge to scratch that upgrade itch

For my day job, I’m fortunate enough to work for British Cycling, creating website content, shooting video and reporting on events from track racing to mass participation rides. This gets me to some interesting places and gives me access to some fantastic events.

Where I was at the weekend - the British Cyclo-Cross Championships (image by Joolze Dymond)

At the weekend, I was lucky enough to be on reporting and video-creation duty at the British Cyclo-Cross championships. ‘Cross is a branch of cycle sport that I’ve loved for a while – I’ve even dipped my toes in its murky but intoxicating waters a few times myself. However, my visit to Derby triggered an inevitable ‘I need a new bike’ reflex.

It happens all the time. I hire a mountain bike at a trail centre – I drive home believing that need a mountain bike. I test ride a friend’s new road bike and I simply must have one. Inevitably, after watching the ‘cross all weekend I convinced myself that what I required was a whisper-light cyclo cross bike. A veritable frenzy of Googling, review reading, bike website ingestion and price comparison ensued. It only took me an instant to convince myself that I needed a new bike, but it took days to convince myself that, actually, I don’t.

Sure, a cyclo-cross bike is a versatile beast – suitable for road rides, commutes, light to moderate trail riding etc. However, the more I looked at the huge range of cross bikes out there, the more I realised just how honed-for-purpose my current bike is.

Fit for purpose - Resurrectio, thought a bit weighty - is honed for my kind of riding
Fit for purpose - Resurrectio, thought a bit weighty - is honed for my kind of riding

Most of my cycling would be classed as commuting, with the odd trail ride and the even odder longish road ride thrown in. For these purposes, Resurrectio is ideal. Sure she’s more than a little portly – (around 30 lbs without fenders, lights, kickstand, etc) but that weight is a sign of strength – the sort of strength that you need to survive the standard commuting abuse; top tube dents, potholed roads etc. Resurrectio is also unashamedly low key. She’s dull green, she’s got fenders, she doesn’t look fast – therefore she doesn’t attract unwanted attention.

A race oriented ‘cross bike would certainly be a few mph faster and a lot livelier to ride, but I doubt it would be as durable long term and the thought of leaving a blingy bike at the bike rack or in the bicycle compartment on the train just fills me with anxiety. Speaking of anxiety, the majority of cross bikes come equipped with carbon forks…

Resurrectio also been kitted out in a way that few bicycle manufacturers would consider. High mounted drop bars, V brakes, platform pedals, Brooks saddle and my proprietary ‘wide range double and chainguard – triple chainset’.

The object of my illicit affections - the Surly Cross Check

I considered a more sensible frame upgrade – perhaps to a Surly Cross Check -which would be a full 2 ½ lbs lighter that Resurrectio’s burly plain gauge chromo heart. But what’s 2 ½ lbs in frame weight once you’ve dropped a 190lb rider on top? The weight of a couple of full water bottles? The Surly – while undoubtedly the most versatile, elegant, good-value bicycle frame on the planet – costs £299 for the frame and fork plus the necessary new headset, seatpost, stem, front mech and BB to make my current parts fit – so let’s call it £400. I’m sure I could lose 2 ½ pounds of belly fat for less than £400.

So after a few days of Googling, pondering and review reading, I’ve turned once more to Resurrectio, my home-brew country bike, whose plain-gauge, chromo heart cost me a mere £13 and vowed I wouldn’t look at another again. Well, at least for a while…

Hmm - mithril (well, titanium but you get the point) framed wonder-tourer from Sabbath. The frame is stout as hell, plain gauge titanium but only weighs 3.5 pounds - surely the holy grail of touring bikes. Now, just need to find £1600...

Footnote: then I stumbled across the titanium Sabbath Silk Route touring bike on offer at Spa Cycles – now the upgrade itch is even more difficult to quench!

Bring Back the Humble 10-Speed

Our friend above is right to look proud of his Schwinn 10 speed - it's probably still knocking around today.

Some might say that the mountain bike revitalised the bike industry when it arrived in the late eighties. And if you look at the sales figures, it’s probably true. The MTB was a huge shot in the arm for an ailing bike industry. However, at the same time as stimulating bike sales, it put the final nail in the coffin of a bike style that dominated for over a decade – in the US, it was termed the Ten Speed – in the UK is was just called a Racer.

The genus of bike we’re talking about here is the lugged steel, drop handlebar bike, with clearance for reasonable tyres (28-32mm) and provision for mudguards and a rack. It wasn’t made of exotic materials (usually hi-ten steel) and basic models came with steel wheels and low end components – however, the bikes themselves were robust, cheap, and unlike the entry level MTB and hybrid of today – efficient, fast and fun to ride. Tour de France winners they weren’t, but as everyday bikes, they excelled. So much so that many survive to this day – hand-me-down machines serving out life sentences in the hands of students looking for a cheap and funky way of getting around.

Since the death of the ten speed, a process of velo-diversification as occurred – the MTB arrived in the bicycle-gene pool and eventually mutated into various different sub-species – cross country, downhill, freeride to name but three. The hybrid bike was a further mutation of the MTB and a nod back to the big-wheeled efficiency of the ten speed – but the ‘beige slacks and sensible shoes’ image of the hybrid has been hard to shake. Road racing bikes have undergone a renaissance since the MTB era but the template of the rugged 10 speed racer has been lost and forgotten.

However, a few manufacturers remembered the 10 speed/Racer with fondness and have recreated neo-ten speeds, or at least something close. Minneapolis based Surly Bikes have created a range of rugged steel road bikes, the Pacer, Cross-Check and Long-Haul-Trucker, ranging from lightweight road bike thru to expedition tourer. But these bikes aren’t cheap. Sure they’re great value, quality cromo-framed machines, but they’re not the cheap-as-chips, lock-and-leave everyday bikes that the old ten speeds were. Similarly, Rivendell Cycles’ range of practical road bikes, the Sam Hillbourne, A Homer Hilsen, Ramboiullet and the Bleriot have all rekindled the spirit of the ten speed, but in a boutique, high-end format. What we need is a rugged, no-nonesense ten speed for a new generation.

Modern day fixed wheel bikes are perhaps the closest modern day approximation of the 10 speed ideal – tough, low key steel frames, yet light and nimble enough to be a fun ride in the city. I wish that just one of the multitude of fixed gear producers would just slap a derailleur hanger and some gears on one of their low end steel fixie frames and reinvent the ten speed – I’m convinced they’d sell in container loads, to a huge swathe of riders, from baby boomers to jaded fixie riders whose knees are crying out for some lower gears for the hills.

Ideal Spec: Neo-Ten Speed

So what’s the blueprint for a modern day ten speed? Here’s my stab at an ideal spec:

Frame – lugged steel (and I mean plain old hi-tensile steel) – skinny, round tubes, horizontal top tube, clearance for 32 mm tyres, braze ons for rack, guards and brake bridges positioned for deep drop brakes calliper brakes.

Fork – lugged crown steel with a classic curve

Wheels – tough 36 hole rims (wide enough for 32mm tyres) on sealed freehubs – nothing fancy.

Brakes: Tektro deep drop callipers with separate (i.e. no STIs) brake levers

Gears: Bar end/down tube shifters (with friction option)

Bars: Traditional round bend (i.e. not anatomic)

Stem: traditional quill

Tyres: 32mm Panacer Pasela or similar

Saddle: Brooks B17

The whole bike would weigh in at around 30 lbs and combine ruggedness and speed in a way that modern bikes just can’t match.

Examples of the breed:

Raleigh Winner: early 1980s

Image by rodcorp on Flickr: http://www.flickr.com/photos/rodcorp/3560756408/

Object of desire for 70s kids like me – available everywhere from bike shops to mail order catalogues – remember putting an ambitious felt-tip ‘x’ by it in the leadup to Christmas. Steel frame, steel wheels, Weinmann brakes, Simplex gears – drop bars, suicide levers and a bottle and cage thrown in. A winner in every sense

Falcon ‘Team Banana’

image at http://www.retrobike.net

Lugged steel bike in the classic ‘team replica mode’. Fast, fun and hugely robust for a bike with skinny tyres. Got me to and from my first job twice as fast as an MTB – cruelly stolen from me one summer day…

Falcon Eddy Merckx – 1970s

Inspired by the great Belgian Cannibal, made in Brigg, Lincolnshire - image from here: http://www.kichline.com/chuck/bikes/default.htm

Lugged steel, Rigida Supercromix rims, Simplex gears, Weinmann Brakes – orange and blue team replica colours – tough as nails, my first ‘racer’ – ignited a lifelong love affair with the bike.

But enough from me – let us know your ten-speed memories. Would you like to bring back the ten speed? Share your dream ten speed spec (remember, nothing expensive or exotic).

Thoughts on ‘Fast’

When in comes to cycling, ‘fast’ is a slippery notion. Fast has been massaged by a cycle industry hell bent on making us all ride 16lb carbon bikes and dress like slightly porcine versions of Tour de France riders. ‘Fast’ bikes look fast standing still – they look fast in the shop and on the pages of magazines. Fast bikes are light, bright, hi-tech and brittle…

Fast? Yes, but is it relevant for real world riding?

But for mere mortals like me, riding to work, riding for relaxation, riding for fitness, I’m not convinced that riding a ‘fast’ bike makes me any faster. I’m not convinced that sport-infused bikes are relevant for real world riding, whether we’re talking about the daily commute or an all dayer in the hills.

This growing realisation has recently led me to give away my 20lb aluminium/carbon road bike. The bike had all the usual proto-race bike features -23mm tyres, tight clearances and a carbon fork. It’s also bright red. It looked fast and it felt fast; it felt light when you picked it up (something which always seems to impress non-cyclists and some hard-of-thinking cyclists who fail to factor in the effect of parking around 13st of rider on top).

With the fast bike gone this means that I’ll do 95 percent of my riding on a 30lb steel touring bike with 35mm tyres and high mounted drop bars. It’s green, it doesn’t look fast, it’s got full mudguards and a front rack – it looks like a classic road bike from around 1955. The italics are there to emphasise that back then, ‘road’ didn’t mean ‘race’. Clubmen and women would ride big distances on efficient, yet comfortable, bikes. The same bikes would be used for commuting, youth hostelling, camping and club runs.

A real world 'fast' bike - a vintage Rene Herse randonneur bike.
A real world 'fast' bike - a vintage Rene Herse randonneur bike.

Here’s some (admittedly anecdotal) evidence. I’ve ridden an extended commute from Liverpool to Manchester (around 37 miles) on the ‘Fast’ bike and it took around 2 1/2 hours, depending on the wind direction. I arrived rattled and stiff necked, with dirty fingers from at least one punture repair. I’ve done the same journey on the ‘non-fast-looking’ bike a number of times and it took, well, about 2 1/2 hours. It didn’t feel as fast (probably due to the 35mm tyres cushioning vibration – which we all associate with speed). I probably wasn’t going as fast up the hills – a 10lb difference ‘is what it is’, especially uphill, but the trade-off was marginal. But everywhere else I was just as fast – if not faster on the rougher sections of the route. The ‘slow’ bike was definitely faster when you take into account time spent at the roadside fixing punctures – an inevitable fact of life on practically every long skinny-tyred ride I’ve ever done.

As referenced earlier – none of this is groundbreaking stuff – it’s just that this unfashionable knowledge has been lost by the current generation of riders and manufacturers (save for an enlightened few). ‘Cyclotouristes’ have long known the zen-like joy of the efficient fat tyred road bike – with French manufacturers like Rene Herse and Alex Singer perfecting the ultra distance bike. These designs have been resurrected by modern day manufacturers like Rivendell, Surly and Kogswell to name but three, while the much ignored ‘touring bike’ has never really gone away.  Such bikes, to the untrained eye, look sedate – but are efficient, tough, comfortable and practical for a whole range of uses, from daily commuting to Paris-Brest-Paris.

Resurrectio - The Everyday Cyclist's weapon of choice.

To prove this, I’m going to pilot Ressurectio around a brace of Sportive rides this year. I’m not going to blend in among the peloton wannabes – I may even get scoffed at. I’m also fairly sure I’m not going to be the quickest but I never was on the ‘racy’ bike. But I’ve got a hunch that the time margins will be small and the comfort margins will be huge. And the bike that’ll carry me around the sportive course will also work faultlessly on the daily commute, the overnight camp and the fireroad trails.

Further Reading

Bicycle Quarterly has an excellent summary of the key features of the randonneur bike, and a excellent article on high performance fat tyres here. If more proof were needed, here’s another testimonial on what can be achieved on ‘cyclotouriste’ bikes.