Contact points maketh the bicycle

If you’re a veteran of  bike reviews in the cycling press, you will have noted that there’s an awful lot of hogwash spouted therein; “the inherent springiness of steel”; “one can feel the shock absorbing qualities of those titanium saddle rails”; “the space age nano-technology in that silica tyre compound makes for a plush ride, even at 120psi”.

I’d like to say that, given more than a minute to think, no-one would buy this crap. A whole psuedo-science has sprung up around frame materials, tyre compounds and the like, which detracts from the glaring if unglamorous fact that what affects the perceived ride quality of any bicycle are its contact points; and by this I mean the bits that are in contact with the ground and the rider.

Despite the received wisdom of the bike press, the plushness you feel when riding a quality steel frame probably isn’t coming from any inherent properties of the frame itself. More likely it’s the thick bar tape, the cush in those 32mm tyres or the shape of that well worn-in B17 that’s isolating your lower back and wrists from the ‘thousand natural shocks’ of an average ride.

As much as tyre manufacturers would like to convince you that the highly evolved rubber compounds and mithril-like tyre casings of their expensive, top-end tyre is giving you that magic-carpet, perpetual motion feeling, it’s more likely that it’s the cheap-as-chips air inside the tyre that’s providing that feeling of cush.

I’m an natural-born bike tinkerer and this has led me to try many different combinations of handlebar, tape, grips, stems, saddles, pedals and tyres on my bikes. This experience has taught me that you can completely change the comfort and dynamics of a bike by changing its contact points.

A recent case in point: I’ve just swapped out the original quill pedals on my junk-shop find ten speed Peugeot, replacing them with a pair of my favourite pedals – DX style concave platform pedals. This is the last in a series of changes I’ve made to the bike – a low-end ‘racer’ bike from the late eighties, made from plain old steel and with bottom of the pile but honest to goodness components. All of the changes I’ve made to the bike (bar a wheel swap due to a dodgy rear wheel) have been to the contact points:

  • Gel padded bar tape for shock absorbency
  • Leather saddle for tailored comfort and breathability
  • Wide as the frame will allow 35mm tyres – enabling me to run them at around 60psi, as opposed to 100psi for 25mm hoops
  • Wide, grippy and supportive pedals which approximate the size of human feet.

These upgrades are all ergonomic – they’re all to do with interface between the bicycle and I, and the bicycle and the earth. I feel sure that these modest upgrades to this modest bike have more effect on comfort (and therefore ‘performance’) than a host of high-tech, weight-weenie indulgences.

10 Speed Dreams – Part 3 “Ten to the Dozen”

Since swapping out the steel rimmed wheels for a pair of period 1987 Weinmann rims on Maillard hubs my ten speed has inadvertantly lost ‘essence’. Problem is, my ten-speed is now a 12 speed.

The original 5 speed block - plenty of room betwixt bottom cog and dropout.

Ten-speed has become a generic term (especially in the USA) for a low end road bike of the 70s and 80s, rather than a category of bicycle defined by its number of available cogs. However, the ten-speed purist might baulk at the thought of this upgrade – or indeed the idea of any kind of upgrade. Indeed, my purist streak was troubled by the swap from 5 to 6 rear cogs, but my tight-arsed streak won the day – I was buggered if I was going to buy a freewheel remover to take the lovely old Maillard-Huret 5 speed freewheel off the old wheels and put it on the new wheel.

The wheel swap also threw up a few minor technical challenges, which caused a few delays but in doing so, deepened my knowledge of old bicycle lore. My Peugeot is of 1987 vintage, at which point most low to mid road bikes had moved to 6 speed and the corresponding 126mm rear hub over-locknut dimension. Genuine 5 speeds of the 60s and 70s ran on 120mm spacing (like modern track bikes). However my Peugeot, being the entry level road bike of its day, was downgraded to 5 speed to save money, but ran on a 126mm axle setup, meaning that there was a healthy gap between the smallest rear sprocket and the rear dropout – enough room for a fender nut and bolt.

However, moving to 6 speed meant a wider freewheel block had to fit into the same space, meaning that the chain fouled the fender bolt when on the smallest 14t sprocket. After a little cussing and head-scratching, I found a solution – replace the wide nylock nut with a narrower one and pop a spacer washer behind the allen head bolt of the fender nut, buying me the few mm I needed to allow use of the 6th sprocket.

With new wheel and 6 speed block installed - tighter clearance between 14t sprocket and dropout but just enough with narrower fender bolt.

It’s funny how tiny little issues like this can render a bike unrideable!

Another delay to getting the new wheels on was finding a rear quick release of the right length. Buy a standard QR skewer for a rear wheel these days and it will be the right length for a 130 or 135mm hub and won’t have enough thread to wind down to the right width for an older 126mm hub. However, after a bit of online searching, I found an aesthetically appropriate QR with enough thread on the skewer to do the job, and after trimming the excess skewer off with a hacksaw, the upgraded twelve speed was ready to ride.

The result? The bike is now a full pound lighter, I’ve got quick release wheels, slightly tighter gear ratios, no more annoying buckaroo antics from the back wheel and vastly superior braking. Despite my purist reservations, I’m happy with the outcome.

As a footnote here are a few links which helped me with this task. Sheldon Brown was, as always, the go-to resource for archival knowledge on ‘obsolete’ technology, and the excellent Old Ten Speed Gallery has given me the feeling of not being alone in my ananchronistic ‘other life’. You’ll lose a few hours in both sites. Enjoy.

More than a double, better than a triple?

Create your own theeverydaycyclist approved ‘Double/Triple Everyday Chainset’

Here’s my dilemma. I don’t need the duplication and complication of a triple chainset. However, the range of an MTB or touring triple makes for super-versatility. However, I also want the plug and play, wear-your-normal-trouserage compatibility of a chainguard, without suffering the aesthetic indignity of an afterthought plastic chainguard disc. They look ugly when brand new and get even uglier once they get beaten up with daily use.

After years of using compromised chainsets I decided to make my own killer chainset for everyday all round riding. And here’s how to do it:

  • Take one used road triple chainset (with 130mm bolt circle diameter – BCD) – it doesn’t matter what state the rings are in, because you’re going to lose them.
  • Remove the existing rings and dispose of ethically
  • Buy a 42t and a 24t ring (yes, believe it – a 24t ring will fit on the 74BCD small spider of a road triple!)
  • Also buy a 130BCD aluminium chainring guard, available, amongst other places, here (link to SJS cycles)
  • The chainring guard replaces the outer (52t ring) and the other rings slot into place.
  • Operate the front rings with an MTB front derailleur

The result? When teamed with an appropriate cassette, you get practically the same gear range as an MTB, with all the high and all the low that you need.

What you don’t get is the overlap and duplication of gears that comes as standard with most triple setups. Old school soldiers with scorn the lack of ‘crossover gearing’ found on closely spaced front chainring setups. But, we’re not racing here and today’s 8 and 9 speed cassettes have ratios spaced closely enough to render crossover setups (eg 38/44) obsolete.

Worried about the big jump between the 24 and 42 tooth rings? Don’t be, it works just fine (with a ‘trimmable’ front shifter – like a downtube or bar end lever. (Sorry folks I can’t vouch for STIs triggers/Gripshift etc).

Think of it as an extension of the compact chainset idea, but with more appropriate gears for everyday riding, and the unbridled luxury of a trouser guard.

What kind of riding is this for? Commuting, loaded touring, recreational cyclo cross, trail riding, real world road riding (I’ve ridden sportives on this setup and never missed the dinner plate ring once). Anyone who isn’t racing who thinks that a 52/11 top gear combination is necessary is living in dreamland. I use an 11-32t nine speed cassette – the 11 is rarely used but useful for fast, tailwind-enhanced flat roads. Another fringe benefit of this setup is that your big ring is effectively in the ‘middle ring position’, which means you can use the full range of rear gears in the 42t without chain crossover problems, saving your 24t crawler for the really steep or heavily laden stuff.

FOOTNOTE: You can also achieve a similar setup with a 110 BCD triple chainset (e.g. the Sugino XD/Stronglight Impact/Spa Cycles own brand)

Review: Carradice SQR System

Product: Carradice SQR System| RRP: £26.95

The bag and SQR system in full effect - carrying around 10kgs of luggage with ease.

The humble, venerable saddlebag is, and has always been, a great way to carry moderate loads on a bike. The bag sits neatly in the slipstream of the rider, high enough to avoid being snagged on gateposts and undergrowth (if you’re riding off road) and out of the spray and grime (when you’re on the tarmac). Traditionally, saddlebags are attached to the bike by straps which thread through saddle loops on Brooks saddles with another strap which wraps around the seatpost, meaning that you don’t need a rack, keeping your bike a little leaner when you’re not toting a load.

The problem

One downside with traditional saddlebags is the faffing around involved in attaching a reattaching them. Another is that many modern saddles don’t have the necessary saddle loops to attach a saddlebag. Step up the SQR system from Carradice, which makes removing and attaching the saddlebag a two second affair and also allows a traditional saddlebag to be carried on a bike without saddlebag loops.

The solution?

A close up of the rear of the bag with SQR metal frame attached. See how the existing leather straps attach the bag to the frame.

The Carradice SQR comprises two main parts; a strong, rigid, powder-coated steel bracket to which the saddlebag is attached using it’s standard leather straps; and a tough ABS plastic bracket that attaches securely to the seatpost with two stainless steel bands. The bracket contains a spring loaded retainer which means that, once attached, the bag and bracket cannot break free.

The bracket attached to the seatpost. Two 6mm allen bolts tighten the stainless steel bands against the seatpost using the same type of tightening mechanism as a drop bar brake lever. The red button at the top operates the spring loaded retainer that keeps the frame and block firmly attached to each other. Simple, secure, strong and effective.

Two sizes of stainless steel bracket are available; the standard bracket s fit seatposts from 25mm to 32mm, while the oversized version fits post sizes 32mm plus, therefore ideal for folding bikes with large diameter seatposts.

The attaching and detaching procedure is simple. To attach, you just offer up the bottom rung of the bracket to the slot at the bottom of the seatpost bracket, pull back the red spring-loaded retainer, drop the bag into position and release the spring. Detaching, as they say in instruction manuals the world over, is the reverse of attaching. Bottom line is that it’s quick and intuitive.

Once detached, another neat feature becomes apparent when you’re carrying your bag into work/college/shops. The black metal frame incorporates a black webbing carry-handle, making bike to workplace portage a cinch.

If you’ve got more than one bike, you can buy additional seatpost brackets, meaning you can hot swap your saddlebag from bike to bike. The SQR metal frame fits all the bags in the Carradice range, from Barley (tiddly and small!) to Camper (freaking huge!) and other traditional saddlebags that are designed to fit laterally across the bike attached to the saddlebag loops.

Other solutions

The SQR isn’t the only quick release option for traditional saddlebags. Carradice also market the Bagman, which is a more traditional saddlebag support with a quick release. This also allows non-loop equipped saddles to mesh with saddlebags. However (though I’ve never used one) the attach-detach system doesn’t look quite as slick as the SQR and the rack remains in position when the bag’s not on the bike. It does however, give the bag some support at the bottom, which some riders  with low saddles, might appreciate. For me, however, with my high saddle, it’s not an issue.

The boat-cleat trick

A quirky  DIY approach using a boat cleat bought from a marine hardware shop (that I’m too chicken to try), but it might work for you! Check out the YouTube link.

Summary: A simple, tough, cleverly though out solution to a generations-old saddlebag toting problem.

Rating: theeverydaycyclist double thumbs up (that’s pretty darn good)

Link: www.carradice.co.uk

NB: This is a non-sponsored, honest to goodness, ‘I use this every day’ review – not some rehashed product press release.

Back on board, shellac, twine and Carradice Camper Usefulness

Bike? Check. Beautiful evening? Check. Happy Rider? O yes...
Bike? Check. Beautiful evening? Check. Happy Rider? O yes...

It was with unbridled joy that I climbed back on board Resurrectio for a dreamy ride down into town and along the waterfront yesterday evening. You know, one of those rides were the wind always seems to be behind you and you just want to keep on rolling. I left the house with the intention of maybe riding down to the Pier Head to take in the sights; the Three Graces glowing in the evening sun, the sleek Isle of Man-bound catamaran, rolling gently on the current, the photographers setting up long exposure shots as the sun set. But I just had the urge to carry on, brisk but never hurried. I cycled through Albert Dock and along Otterspool promenade, blissfully traffic-free, all the way to Aigburth before cutting home through Wavertree; all in all, a ride of about 15 miles, by my crude reckoning.

The ride also gave me a chance to take some snaps of my convalescence handicrafts.

Here’s my twined and shellacked bar-tape trim – hemp twine and two coats of amber shellac.

Here’s my twined kickstand – looks nice, in a rustic sort of way, and protects my cranks from knocks.

How about my gear-cable keepers? Much nicer that wrapping the cable inside the tape for a few turns, to my eye.

And here’s my twined aluminium water bottle. This took a lot of hemp twine and a fair old amount of shellac. Grips nicely in the bottle cage and turns an overtly sporty looking item into something altogether more nostalgic.

Here’s a picture of the whole ensemble, glowing in the evening sun (that dipped below the Welsh hills across the Mersey just a few moments later).

And finally, here’s a picture that follow up on my recent Carradice Camper Longflap review, to illustrate its usefulness and load carrying ability. Today I was faced with the prospect of carrying laptop, charger, two video cameras, digital SLR, lunch, commuting gear/tools and a large heavy duty tripod back into work. The quitter in me was reluctantly saying ‘take the car’ but then I thought “Wait a minute…”

So it was; camera bag on back, laptop, lunch and commuting gear in the Carradice, tripod trapped and strapped under the generous lid. All this and there was no need to deploy the Longflap. Once underway I didn’t notice it was there (just had to remember not to squeeze between tight gaps on the way to the station!

Feels good to be back on the (newly beautified) bike.

Review: Wellgo LU987 Flat Pedals

It's all about the grip pins and the concave platform

Let’s just get something straight. This isn’t a product review in the bike-mag sense of the word. Yet in a way it’s more valid – as it’s based on long term use and the level of ‘buy-in’ that only emerges once you’ve stumped up the cash and lived with a product.

I’ve been using Wellgo’s budget flat platform pedal, the LU987, for around 18 months and feel I’m in a good position to comment on its usefulness for all kinds of cycling.

The LU987 is a large cast aluminium platform pedal, running on standard ball bearings, with around a dozen grip pins on each side. They mimic the classic Shimano DX BMX pedal from the 1980s, with a parallelogram shape and a large concave platform. The LU987 also has provision for clip on reflectors and drillings for mounting toe clips. However, I seriously doubt you’ll need the latter, for reasons I’m about to extol. The LU987 sits near the bottom of Wellgo’s flat pedal hierarchy, which includes models with removable pins, sealed cartridge bearings and other delights. However, in these cash-strapped times of ours, I think I’ve stumbled upon an everyday gem of a pedal.

Another view of the pedal - yes I know - I could have cleaned them before I took the shot... The pins are replaceable and they accept toeclips (if you really feel the need)

Why? Well firstly, the level of grip that the pins (allied with the concave platform) provide is astonishing. Wet or dry, just team them with a rubber soled shoe of any kind and you’ve got grip that’ll make you seriously wonder why you ever entertained the idea of toe clips or SPD (clip-in) pedals. I’ve used these pedals in all weathers, on road, off road, commuting and on long cyclosportive rides and I’ve never once missed the security and (alleged) ability to ‘pull-up’ that clip in/strap down systems are purported to provide. Unlike clip-in/strap-down systems, alongside the ‘grip-aplenty’ scenario, you’ve got the ability to quickly remove your feet should you and gravity have a difference of opinion.

These pedals allow you to wear any shoes you like, saving the bother of getting in and out of cycling shoes. The ability to just jump on your bike in normal shoes is not to be underestimated. Suddenly errand running and bike commuting become a whole lot simpler.

Another reason why I’m sold on these pedals is something quite subjective and that’s ‘pedal feel’. I don’t enjoy the feeling of using stiff ‘cycling specific’ shoes on a bike – they lack feedback – in my opinion you get no sensation of grip. However, the Wellgos, in conjunction with a fairly thin, flexible soled trainer (e.g., Adidas Samba, Gazelle, Converse Chuck Taylors, etc) give masses of feedback without a hint of discomfort. This might fly in the face of the ‘you must wear stiff shoes’ maxim so dear to pedal/shoe system manufacturers, but it works for me.

Durability is also a huge plus. Like I said before, I’ve had these pedals on my all weather, all terrain, all purpose bike for 18 months and the bearings are just getting sweeter and sweeter with each ride. They’re not cartridge bearings and they’re not sealed – however, this doesn’t seem to stop them working well in spite of wet weather riding, off-roading and general neglect.

Lastly, they’re cheap – seriously cheap – I paid around £10 for mine – at the time I had a second bike (A Dahon D7 folding bike) and I got two pairs. The Wellgo’s instantly transformed the ride of the Dahon, giving me way more confidence than the slippery rubber folding jobbies that came as standard.

Any downsides? If you’re commuting in dressy shoes, you might want to sacrifice some grip and go for a rubberised pedal that won’t mar the leather soles of your brogues. Some may not appreciate the looks of the pedal on a classically-styled town bike like a Pashley, but once you try these pedals out, it’s hard to feel secure on anything else.

Availability – pretty much everywhere. If you can’t find the LU987, there are many others out there with the key features, which, to recap, are:

  • Large format
  • Grip pins
  • Concave platform

If you want to go upmarket, there are a number of options, including the DMR V12 which is a CNC machined version with super smooth cartridge bearings. However on an all-duty bike, I regard pedals as a consumable item along with chains, cassettes, tyres and tubes, and I’m happy with the real-world performance of the Wellgos.

Daily Commuting Tip: Is your bike “Ready to Ride”?

My overriding philosophy (don’t you just hate people who’ve got overriding philosophies) for a commuting bike is that it’s got to be ready to ride whenever you are.

Your commuting bike shouldn’t sit there, like that impulse buy home multigym, making you feel guilty for not doing ‘serious’ exercise. It should lean casually in your hallway, like a two wheeled 50s era Marlon Brando, casually ready to ride.

Your commuting bike should never make you dress up for a date. A proper commuting bike should take you just the way you are. You don’t need to put on special shoes or special pants before you’re ready to go.

Your bike should be ready to go at all times and in all weathers. It should have mudguards, flat pedals and bags to put things in (bags on your back are a bad idea).

Your bike should also be ready to stop whenever you feel the need. A built in wheel lock, Dutch style, is the way to go. Flip the lock, immobilise the back wheel, pocket the key and pop into the shop on the way home for those groceries. Swap out that quick release on your front wheel too. Get a security skewer or a nutted front wheel. Seriously, how much longer does it take to undo a nut as opposed to a quick release? You’re not racing are you?

Get a prop-stand. Practicality aside, there is simply no cooler sight that a bike leaning, James Deanesque, at the side of the road, and that jaunty, 10-degrees-off-vertical angle.

The elite level commuting bike will not only have all these utiluxuries. It will be a Plain Jane – it’ll dress down, blend in with the street furniture. Subdued, natural colours and no logos are the way to go. Who wants to be a billboard, when your target audience is are bike thieves?

You can buy bikes like this everywhere, but bike shops seem reluctant to sell them. There is a movement out there, but it’s glacial. Google ‘Dutch Bike’ and you’ll find loads of outlets for quality town bikes.

But, evolved as Amsterdam Black Widows are, there’s no need to go Dutch. Maybe you’ll want a bike that’s good for high days and holidays too? Base your commuting bike around a good, light touring, hybrid or all-rounder frame and you’ve got a true multipurpose bike, ready for day rides and touring, as well as the daily potter to work; highly evolved for commuting, but not too specialised that it’s not suitable for a quick getaway.