Festive 500, greater than the numbers.

464 kilometres remaining.

Christmas Eve. 36k down. South of Cape Egmont, New Zealand. A ditch outside a rural tennis club.

We’d rolled out from home and headed south, a light tail-wind kicking at our heels. Alright, it was going to be harder coming back, but there were two of us, and stomping the last leg into a headwind seemed like a declaration of intent for the week ahead. We covered the first ten miles at a brisk pace, kicking up the steep rolling hills on the way to Okato, sometimes backing off at the top, but more often not. There the road turns onto the coast proper. Turn right at any point: next stop Chile, nine thousand kilometres of southern ocean away. With a short hop between the road and the sea, it’s a wind-scoured, shelterless stretch that on any average day can be a soul destroying slog. Today though, the breeze goaded us on, and soon we were time-trialling south, a steady pace in the forties.

Thirty minutes later we turned inland. There’s a lane I’d found a month or so before that I wanted to show Andy. It twists between hedges of box thorn, the crown of the road is green and gravelled. Add a couple of psychotic, half-starved farm collies that have to chase if they want to eat, and we could almost be back in my native Cornwall.

By mutual consent, we dropped in side-by-side and sat up.
“It’s around here somewhere.” I said.
”I’ve got a stiff back after that.” Andy said. “Getting home could be fun.”
I stood up in the pedals to look over a hedge, and then an thunderbolt of pain went down one side – back and leg. I came to a grinding halt and for a long, long time, the air was blue with swearing. I tried a few, ginger revolutions, and – to labour the thunderbolt metaphor, Thor took a few preparatory swings, just to let me know what would be coming my way if I persisted.  I wasn’t pedalling anywhere: my back had gone, right on schedule – just as the osteopath had gone on holiday.

Andy left me on a small patch of grass outside the Rahotu Tennis club and headed inland. The northerly breeze was whipping itself into something much more interested, and the signs were that once again, the weather forecast – northerly breeze later was going to be another of MetService’s gloriously horrible understatements. I sheltered in the lee of the clubhouse where it was warm and still. I tried a little yoga – dog shit peppered the grass, my knees dug into invisible gravel. The pain lessened, a little. I dozed, and then international rescue arrived, my wife and the car.

That, I thought, was that. I drunk a beer or two and tried to be philosophical about it. I broke it fifteen years ago and compared to the view from there that I thought would be my future – the possibility of a life permanently curtailed, pain a daily constant – I’ve nothing to moan about, even if I swear a bit during the daily yoga that’s part of the deal.

I slept in the shape of a question mark; I got out of bed and fell over. The thing won’t get better on its own, so I hobbled the block to the beach and back. A fifteen-degree list is ten by the time I’m home, and I passed the bike in the hallway and allowed myself to think: a spin might help – just a gentle one.

The subject was broached.

It’s your own bloody fault if it goes. Why are you such a stubborn arse?

And then – I’m not driving that far again. Stay close to home.

I spun for an hour and a bit – in the sense of one-legged clod walloping being spinning – then climbed off and lay for another twenty minutes in the shade of a kowhai tree, waiting for my body to get used to the idea of being straight-ish again. A pair of Tui argued around me; the dogs came and licked my legs.

That afternoon, I did it again. It hadn’t killed me, I said. More might make it better I said. And then I didn’t say I was only fifteen kilometres behind festive 500 par – one thing at a time.

And so, that’s how my 500 started – a series of recovery rides, not too far from home. Recovery rides turned, day by day, into something else. To the same loops, I tacked on road-ends I’d never visited, places not on the way to or from anywhere else. I found the best fruit ice-cream, sold from a pink caravan that overlooks the sea, fifteen kilometres from home – often passed, never stopped. The lady there told me I’d missed a pair of humpbacks travelling north by less than an hour, so stopping became a daily ritual, a sugar-and-fat hit while scouring the horizon. I found that the track to the old gold mine at Boar’s Head was closed, that the beetle sculpture that used to raise a smile on the commute never died, it just moved. I logged miles with my son: we sat on the stoop of a village shop washing down a snickers with milk, just as I did when I was his age – on the days when Will Broome used to smash me to pieces on the back road past Hellingly Hospital, half a world away. No, the pain never receded, and the kink never really straightened until New Year’s Day, and a day off. And no, I didn’t end up with the kind of supercharged legs I was looking for, or smash the thing in three rides, but in a very real way I reconnected with the greatest bit of cycling that – amongst all the races, and the time-crunched training, the talk of junk miles, and chasing segments – I’d almost forgotten was there.


Continental Gatorskin tubular review

I’ve had these sitting on the shelf for ages, as I wrote about in my Ambrosio Nemesis review  – what seems like years ago.  I’ve finally got round to sticking them to the aforesaid rims, so how do they go?  The Continental tubular range doesn’t seem to engender a whole lotta love as a whole, and when I looked around on the internet for other reviews of this specific tyre there really wasn’t much out there.

Firstly, they’re black.  Black with that Continental mesh thing going on on the sidewall.  Visually exciting they are not.  One thing that makes them stand out from Conti’s clincher offerings is the file-tooth tread pattern, as opposed to the funky thing on the clinchers.  Meh.

Excited yet?  No, me neither.

So, first inspection isn’t too exciting.  Conti’s tubs have a reputation for being – ah, a little stiff.  Hosepipe is a word often used.  Handling these does nothing to dispel your fears.  They feel solid – German, in fact.

This isn’t, however, all bad.  My Nemesis’s have normally been shod with Vittoria Paves, and there’s several bloody good reasons why they aren’t being replaced.  The first of these are:

  1.  The variable construction quality of Vittorias of late, specifically the Pave.  Three out of the last four through my hands have had appallingly misshapen base tapes, to the point where letting them deflate – as any latex-tubed tubular will do in about a week – meant the tyre naturally wanted to deform to the point where it pulled away from the glue job.  Yes, they have become that shit.
  2. The Pave has gone up from an official 24mm to an official 25mm.  In reality, the difference feels much bigger than this – it feels faintly balloon-y, next to the old one.  I was happy on the old size; the new one feels like overkill – great on a Sunday best ride, overkill for a race or throwdown.  The Conti is, despite the nominal 25mm size, much more akin in dimension to the old Pave.
  3. Cost.  Paves ain’t cheap and, on the roads around here, I’ll get about 1500 kms from a set.  If my previous experience of Conti clinchers is anything to go by, I expect to more than double that – and the Contis are half the cost in the first place.

The Contis mounted with the minimum of fuss.  They feel well made, the base tapes are even, no humps or ugly joins, no lumps of shit around the valve,  and they’re just – round.  Easy to mount evenly.  Because these are butyl tubed, they stay inflated, so I didn’t have to top them up before I went out to take them for a spin.  I rolled out with 85 psi in the front and 90 in the rear.

First impressions are that hosepipe might be a bit harsh – but plush is pushing it.  The ride is better than pretty much any clincher I’ve ridden, but it’s a way off the Pave magic carpet.   I think I’d run these at 100 in a race or bunch shitfight, and at those pressures the difference in comfort is noticeable, but not painfully so.  Alright, I wouldn’t neccesarily run the ambrosios in that many races these days, but these don’t actually feel horribly slow:  given the relative paucity of 25mm tubs out there, and the shitty roads I ride on,  I’d consider chucking a pair of these on my race hoops and just not worrying for the season.

So I kind ofgot what I thought I would: a cheaper Pave alternative with its own set of compromises and its own set of strengths.  As a Sunday best, plush pair of tyres, there are better offerings out there – think Veloflex, if your last outings with Vittoria have rubbed you up as badly as they have done me.  If you’re looking for a set of reasonable, well made tubs that should last a while, and if pennies and puncture resistance count – then these might tick enough of your boxes to deserve a good look.   They also come in a 22mm width, if you’re that way inclined.




Bontrager Serano SL review

A few months ago I took myself down the forgotten highway and ended up in arse-searing pain.  My bottom, for so long happy atop a Specialized Romin, demanded attention.  I couldn’t see or feel anything wrong with the Romin, but it seems strange that a partner who for so long was a happy bedfellow was so summarily rejected.  Perhaps it was broken somewhere invisible or perhaps the tectonic plates of my arse had shifted – whatever.  I would quite happily have rolled the dice on that score and bought another, but sometimes it’s good to cast the net a bit wider and see what one can see, not least for the reason that I think it’s also fair to say that whatever little affection I had for the big S has almost entirely disappeared.

I’m not alone in my contempt for some of their litigious and anti-competitive behaviour of recent years.  And as for their effect on local bike shops, don’t get me started.  I mean, I get it that you want me to buy your bikes and shoes, I really do.  It’s all good stuff and all and everything else being equal I’d probably buy some of it, but I quite like my bike shops to offer a choice.   I used to like seeing old French and Italian brands that didn’t have the first clue about marketing and brand-awareness except for tradition, and excellence, and craftsmanship, and that kind of thing. Now I like seeing the survivors from then, American brands and British brands and Taiwanese and Chinese brands too.  It’s a rich landscape for the bike-porn addict out there.  Just about the only thing I don’t like is egomaniacal monopolies.  Rant almost over.

I took myself into the local non-S shop about what they had to offer, which was, to labour a point, MORE THAN ONE BRAND but the Bontragers looked nice and they fitted them there, so I went that way.

I was fitted to something just a little wider to my old Romin (I was fitted for that, too, and I don’t think I’d buy a saddle unfitted these days.  Not at $220 a pop.) and looked through their options.  The Bontrager Affinity looked the most similar in concept to the Romin, but I ended up settling on the Serano.  I seem to have been spending more time on the nose of late, and the shape seemed to my eye to offer the promise of a perch more receptive to moving around on.  I’ve got to say too, I quite liked the look of the classic, Concor-like curves.



Getting technical, there’s some different padding-y stuff going on on top which you might or might not notice from time to time.  Bontrager have got some flashy name for it but really, this kind of concept has been around since before forever, so I’m not going to dwell on it.  I’d say it’s almost traditional, but then the shell’s carbon fibre and the rails are hollow ti, so the weight is distinctly modern.   Bontrager say the Serano shape is for flexible athletes, but I wouldn’t really count myself as flexible.  I’m not quite a sack of spuds, but some mornings I can barely touch my knees.


A couple of thousand k later and I have no regrets.  It’s not exactly plush, but it’s mostly out-of-mind, which is just about all that I ask.  A strange side effect of changing saddle is that one pair of shorts that were favourites on my old saddle are now instruments of torture, whereas another pair that I never thought were up to that much are now soft billowing clouds of loveliness.  The nose is comfortable, and it’s an easy perch to shift around on, if not quite the park bench that the Fizik Arione is – a saddle, by the way, which my arse detests.

The Serano comes in three widths, and as a final observation, feels very nicely constructed indeed.  Bontrager offer a 30-day replacement guarantee if you don’t get on with one of their saddles.  If nothing else, that alone led me to take the chance of trying out a perch a little different than the one that went before.

Of course, that I got to wander around in a bike shop that offered stuff I got to choose between didn’t hurt either.



A cyclist’s guide to surviving christmas and the off-season

Since the end of the season I haven’t blogged at all, mostly because to be blogging about something you’re not doing seems fraudulent: as someone once said, I’m a writer only when I write, and it’s the same with the bike.  I climbed off at the end of October and more or less threw it into the dark recesses of the garage.  On average I’ve done 70k a week, if I’m lucky.  Once or twice I’ve gone for a gentlemanly 40-50k with no thought other than to listen to the birds or atone for the dietary sins which seem welded to this time of year, regardless of whichever hemisphere you happen to be in.

The off-season is tradition, and it  comes with a whole heap of downsides.  Some of my trousers are a little tighter than they were a month or two ago.  The hiatus from racing brings with it a whole being-available-for-DIY issue.  Last, but not least, it takes 21 days to make a habit, apparently, and after six weeks of quite frankly absolutely taking the piss it’s going to be doubly hard to get back on track.  No wonder there’s a slew of tinterweb articles preaching caution and temperance.

However, there are huge upsides which are, by my reckoning, severely under-promoted.  By the end of the year my body was screaming at me, fed up with hunching over bars.  Who, after all, does a yoga session or a swim instead of a ride – which one really makes you faster?  Riding does.  Yoga and swimming make you faster for longer, but that’s tomorrow’s problem, and as such they always seem to wait until then.

So my tip for surviving the off season?  Embrace it.  Take the time to make your body hurt less.  Catch up with friends, remember your children’s names, make that pudding you saw on TV and slobbered at back when you could only eat raw carrots because there was a climb that week, and eat it with them.  Take a surf trip or head for the snow.  Pay the debt of gratitude and attention you owe the rest of humanity after opting out of it to ride your bike.

Bike racing at its best verges on the inhuman.   The real point of a well-spent off-season is to remember how to be human.

Happy Christmas, and a peaceful New Year.


End of season blue skies, challenges ahead.

I’ve pretty much finished for the year.  The big race got cancelled, and I was in shit shape for it anyway.  I’ve had a season of sore legs, big efforts, and zero results to show for it.   Anyone who’s raced for more than ten minutes knows that a good ride isn’t always measured by results, but sometimes…aaarrgh!   Anyway, a break is due.  I’ve also come to a point of fatigue where I’m sure that a change of focus next year is what’s needed.

I don’t do weights.  This is for a couple of reasons:  One, I did loads in my teens and twenties.  I reached peak gym boredom, and never recovered from the exposure to all that pent-up testosterone and sexual frustration.   Two,  twenty-something years of surfing hasn’t exactly left me like a pipe cleaner in the upper body.  I’ve been trying to lose muscle, not put it on, for the last few years.  And Three: I have a screwed back, and on the three or four occasions I’ve set foot in a gym over the last decade or so I’ve limped out.

I’ve been pretty dedicated to the cause for the last few years, and over the last few weeks I’ve realised a couple of things.  Firstly, my biking fitness might be good, but my general, athletic fitness frankly sucks more than it ever has.  With my back injury, a strong core and good posture is key to a life without pain and, incidentally, to turning pedals quicker.  Of course, on a day-to-day basis, how do you think this works out?  I’ll take another lap of the block, do another interval, rather than stretch and dig the stability ball out.  The work ethic in that direction’s been…absent.  And secondly, I’m bored.  I’ve essentially done the same calendar of events for four years, and I need a change.

Last week, I did my first run in years.  ITB pain did for me a few years ago, and I’d always assumed it’d flare up instantly if I pulled on a pair of running shoes.  It didn’t.

I hit the pool, too.  Yeah, you can see where this is going.

I’m going to do a few tri’s this summer.  Get some pool miles in, get running.  It’s sufficiently different, and it’ll be great for my general fitness.   It might even be good for my personality to get in a headspace of getting-round-and-doing-my-best, as opposed to being a competitive shithead.

And of course, I’ll be needing a new bike.

The slump before the … what?

The last couple of weeks have been tough.  I did an 80k race, which is one bottle more than I’m used to carrying,  and demanding too, of eating at least something.  I felt good though, and went off the front.  These were roads I know well, so I was able to set myself goals knowing how far I had to go, where the tough bits were, and where I had to get to with a decent gap before I could think about looking for chickens to count.  I never made it, but it was close enough to give me hope:  I was hovered up perhaps 2k before that point.   After 25k out front on my own I was toast and slid out of the peloton willingly, happy with my day’s work, but just a little sad I hadn’t quite had the goods to seal the deal.

So hope sprung eternal, and with a good performance to motivate me I took a day off work and told the kids not to get into trouble while I went to set about some serious miles.  The figures are meh:  130-odd k in just under 5 hours, with 2,900m of climbing.  It’s a tough ride, but perhaps not as tough as I made it feel.  The last hour and a half’s suffering was dante-esque.  What was supposed to be an enjoyable romp on the bike, a confidence-builder for the hundred miler at the end of the month has had quite the reverse effect.  My legs are heavy and – to be brutally honest about this – my arse is killing me.

It would be stupid to read too much into this.  Often,  my best form comes after my worst.  I’m not going to expect too much from this weekend’s racing, but I’ll be listening to my body with interest.  And it’s finally pushed me into trying a new saddle to replace the Specialized Romin which sort-of-but-not-quite suits me.  I’ve gone for a Bontrager Serano, which is an entirely different concept to the Romin, much more akin to the old Concors and Cinelli SLX’s of my youth.  We’ll see how it goes.  I’ll be reviewing it in the future, well after I’ve given my arse time to get used to it.

In the meantime,  I suspect I’m going to be trying to rack up k’s as painlessly as possible, keeping up the training stress with consistency rather than big days.  It probably won’t be enough to get me to the business end of the Round the Mountain in the right position, but there’s … just enough buts there to keep me hoping.

Not just the one I sit on.  See what I did there?

Chinese carbon wheels – which way to go?

If you’re like me – and judging from the length of the related threads on weightweenies plenty are – you will, at some point, have looked at getting a set of carbon wheels from China.  Providers like FarSports, CarbonSpeedCycle, and Yeoleo offer a bedazzling variety of products.  Wide, U-shaped rims, apparently everything the big boys are offering, and at a fraction of the price.  What’s the catch?

The bike industry is not transparent.  The inrng post who makes what offers a small insight into the bewildering world of cycling brand names.  What gets outsourced to where and who is even more nebulous.

Taiwan’s Gigantex, for example, are known to make carbon rims for plenty of brands with cachet and credibility.   All the Chinese providers listed above offer badge-engineering services.  If you want to start your own wheel label it’s never been easier.  A quick read through the open-mold carbon clinchers thread on weightweenies reveals plenty of satisfied customers.  It also reveals more than a few horror stories.

I’m not going to go into the carbon clincher safety debate here, and I am certainly not going to take the point of view that only the biggest and most moneyed purveyors of carbon hard-on material can get it right.

I know Zipp and ENVE etc spend a huge amount on R & D, and I know too, that Chinese companies are damn good at reverse-engineering (read: stealing) carbon tech in the blink of an eye.  (Your morality on buying copied stuff is your own. You might think there’s more than one big brand got it coming to ’em.  I won’t argue.) And you and I both know there’s lots of cheap knock-off crap out there along with the good copies, and that if your Chinese wheel fails – well, good luck with that warranty.

There is, however, a reason that China has come to dominate the world’s manufacturing base:  more often than not they get it right enough, for the right price, which is what most of us want.  You can get a serviceable wheel from China.

But does it make sense?

I am no expert on carbon fiber, but I’m perfectly capable of adding a few figures together.  A pair of Chinese carbon clinchers with basic but serviceable Novatec hubs runs, near as dammit, $700 NZD delivered to your door.  A quick read of the weightweenie thread I’ve linked to above tells me you should allow too, for the possibility of returning at least one of the wheels for something flawless.  Let’s call that another $100, because it will be.  If it gets lost or damaged, look forward to a week or two of fun with your carrier.

If that equation puts you off, what then?  Do you really have no other choice?

Of course you do. Go secondhand.

For $500, to my door, I got a pair of Reynolds DV46 tubulars with less than a thousand k on them, essentially unmarked.  1315g, 46mm profile.  No weight limit.

$500, all up.
$500, all up.

OK, they’re a couple of years old.  OK, they’re not 11-speed compatible, but I won’t be there myself for a couple of years. How long were you expecting those Chinese wheels to last, anyway?

So far so good.  Then chuck in the almost-brand new Dura-Ace cassette, the brand-new Vittoria Corsa tub on the back wheel, then half-worn Schwalbe on the front with plenty more life in it.  The valve extensions.  The wheel bags.  The nice hope skewers. The envelope with the four barely worn SwissStop yellow pads in it.

I rode these for the first time in a race a couple of weeks ago.  It was pissing down and windy.  Modern wisdom says that these older wheels don’t stop, they fly like a kite and want to do nothing so much as pitch you into a hedge at the first breath of wind.

I’ve got nothing against modern wisdom.  It makes good stuff cheap.

If you disagree, if you’ve had great (or bad) experiences with Chinese carbon, or if you’ve snagged a great secondhand deal – I’d love to hear about it…