Thursday, August 16, 2012

Going Over to the Dark Side

I've become a touring cyclist. To be honest, it was always on the cards. The lifestyle risk factors have long been present: 1. I have a beard. 2. I have a fair and improving knowledge of Real Ale. 3. I prefer holidaying in Morfa Nefyn to Magaluf. It was only a matter of time before I gave in to the urge to strap a makeshift house to my bike and follow those little blue signs around the countryside, with a map, a cheese and pickle barmcake and only a rough idea of where I'll be spending the night. Yes, countryside. Peace, fresh air, and nothing to worry about but turning the pedals. Heaven.

Of course, any new cycling activity requires a new bike. That's one of the coolest things about our sport; every cycling-related purchase is healthy, sustainable and feel-good. It's the guilt-free spending of hard cash.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Cycling Down Under

I'm lucky enough to be in Australia at the moment (Port Macquarie, home of Ironman Australia), and managed to get a three-day pass from my wife to get out on the bike and into the countryside of New South Wales.

I'd looked into taking my own bike to Australia, but the excess luggage costs were prohibitive, and it worked out cheaper to buy a second-hand bike once I was in Australia. I found a Trek 1.1 with Sora groupset and alu forks (beggars can't be choosers) on Ebay for $AUD350, and I was set.

Port Macquarie is on the Pacific coast, and there is plenty of picturesque riding on the coast road. My first trip out on the bike was a 45 mile round trip taking in the local high ground, North Brother, on a twisting forest road which climbs 480m in 5km. The stunning view from the summit was worth the tough climb, and I didn't miss my triple chainset too much. The 47mph descent through the switchbacks shredded my brake blocks. Time to show my face in Gordon Street Cycles, the incredibly friendly bike shop and cafe in Port Macquarie.

What I really wanted to do was get away from the coastal towns and into the countryside. The problem is, there aren't many roads in rural Australia, so you have to choose carefully. Many are classed as highways, built for huge trucks carrying freight thousands of kilometers from city to city. You can legally ride on them, but they aren't fun.

The Wauchope to Walcha road is a much more pleasant proposition. It climbs 4000ft from the coast up to the "Table Lands", a vast mountainous plateau and part of the Great Dividing Range of mountains. On the day I chose to ride this road, it was wet and cold, and a temperature inversion meant low cloud clung to the lower slopes of the mountains. Once above the clouds the views were temporarily spectacular, before the road wound up into thick rainforest. The climb never got above 10%, but the hours of constant uphill riding made this a challenging but exilharating day. The temperature at 4000ft was down in single figures and I wished I'd packed my fleecy bibtights.

Of course, every big climb has a payoff, and after a night and a day spent on the Table Lands, the ride home meant a day descending the plateau from 4000ft to sea level. I did this via the "Waterfall Way", a spectacular, scenic road popular with tourists, which leads down from Armidale through Dorrigo and Bellingen to Urunga.

I rode 50 miles of the road, but the highlight was the 7 miles or so of steep, twisty descent, in which I lost approximately 3500ft of height. In fact, I'd go as far as to say this was the most fun I've ever had on a bike.

One thing has amazed me about cycling in Australia. Firstly, I met no other cyclists, at all, on the scenic mountain passes. If I lived in northern New South Wales, I'd be out on these mountains every weekend! As I say, there aren't many roads in Australia. If Aussie cyclists aren't out on these roads, then where are they?

My time in Australia is coming to an end, and it's time to put my Aussie Trek back on Ebay. I have to say, I didn't expect much from this cheap and cheerful bike, but it completely surpassed my expectations, This bike took on some of the roughest mountain roads New South Wales has to offer, and it climbed, cruised and descended perfectly for my needs. This has made me think hard about how much hobby cyclists like me actually need to spend on a bike. Perhaps we need to worry less about kit and just get out there and ride.

Dunwich Dynamo 2011

I completed this event last month, but due to me being on the other side of the world, I've only just got around to writing about it.

The Dunwich Dynamo is a 120-mile, overnight ride from a pub in Hackney to the tiny seaside village of Dunwich in Suffolk.

The beauty of the DD is in its simplicity: It's free, there are no marshals, no timing chips, no goodie-bags, no motorcycle outriders, no changing rooms, no showers, no results service. You just turn up at the pub some time on the Saturday evening, then set off when you feel like it. This is how cycling should be.

There were route cards given out at the start, but these aren't much use without a map. Fortunately, I'd packed one. The 1500-or-so riders who'd gathered at the start were a diverse bunch: Hipsters on fixies, Sunday riders in club kit, beardies on tourers (like me!) and girls with baskets on their bikes.

Slowly, over a period of half an hour or so, people started to ride off in groups, and I joined one of them. The few miles out of central London were uneventful: in road cycling, there is definitely safety in numbers, and drivers seemed to show patience and respect towards the mini pelotons heading East.

The last outpost of civilisation was Epping High Street and, with the light fading, we headed on into Epping Forest and the countryside beyond.

There is something beautiful about a line of hundreds of red, blinking LEDs on unlit roads, and something magical about how quiet all those bikes are. To me, this is the whole point of The Dynamo: To experience the darkness, silence and peace of riding at night through countryside.
Contrary to popular stereotypes, rural Essex is extremely beautiful, and we passed through several pretty villages which consisted of a few cottages, a church, a pub and little else.

At roughly half way, there is a food stop at a village hall, staffed by volunteers, at which you can buy bananas, tea, coffee, and hot food. The queue for the hot food was ridiculous, and at the finish I heard many tales of people queuing for an hour to find there was no food left. Me, I just filled up my water bottles, grabbed a quick coffee and went on my way.

Suffolk turned out to be just as picturesque as Essex, and as it grew light my legs were starting to complain, but I knew I'd broken the back of the ride.

Here's the best bit: When I arrived at the finish, at roughly 7am, I discovered the pub was open! I rode onto the stony beach, took a photo then headed inside for a pint of Adnam's and a Full English. Result. It was a slightly overcast morning, but it was dry and not too cold, so I unwrapped my orange survival bag and grabbed a couple of hours' sleep on the beach, along with at least a hundred others.
Now for the worst part of the experience: If you book a coach ticket back, be prepared to wait until the afternoon for your ride back to London. Actually, I was enjoying the sea, the fresh air and the peace so much that I didn't really mind the wait, but even with my post-ride endorphin-rush, I'd rather have gone back sooner.

The coach deposited us not back in Hackney but at Smithfields Market, and the 12 mile ride back to Stanmore (where I'd left my car) was a perfect recovery ride. I was glad, though, to sling my bike in the back of the car and head onto the M1 for the long drive back home to my bed!

My Very Average Cyclist tips for a successful Dunwich Dynamo:

1. Take your own food, so you don't have to rely on the half-way refreshment stop.
2. Take a plastic orange survival bag. They fold up small and are perfect for grabbing a kip on the beach.
3. If you book the coach transport home, be prepared for a long wait on Dunwich Beach.
4. The route is rolling rather than flat. Be prepared for plenty of gentle climbs.
5. Take a map. You can't always rely on the people around you to know the way.

My Dunwich Dynamo kit list:

On the bike:
SST-50, 1200 Lumens front light
2x Smart 1/2 watt rear lights
2x bottles, one containing water and one containing Hi-5
Route card and map (in map case)

In my saddle bag:
waterproof jacket
bananas, flapjacks and a dodgy egg sandwich
spare batteries for lights
2x inner tubes
tyre levers
multi tool
plastic survival bag

Monday, November 15, 2010

My Orbit Gold Medal - The Story of the Build

First things first: I decided I wanted something more robust than my skinny Trek 1.7 for the 15 mile each-way commute to work: Something I could put mudguards on, something I could put panniers on, plus wider tyres. I nearly settled on a Kona Sutra, but by chance I nipped into Cycle Recycle, round the corner from my house, and found this old Orbit frame and forks.

Ah, Reynolds 531c tubing. I remembered that from my teens as a classic strong, lightweight tubeset that wouldn't break the bank. Perfect for my needs. Ben, who runs the place, seemed embarrassed by the "how much?" question, and told me to make an offer. I did. £30, yes, £30, and the frameset was mine.

I had to decide whether to go for a completely sympathetic original build, a super high-tech modern build, or something in between. Well, this was going to be a working bike, not a museum piece, so I had no problem with fitting modern parts like a 10 speed drivetrain and Gatorskin tyres. However, I wanted to keep a classic "chrome" look, went for a quill stem rather than fit an A-Head adaptor, and avoided plastic or black anodized parts. Whether or not I've pulled this off successfully is for others to judge.

The frameset was a mess, but I reckoned nothing that a good degreasing and shotblasting wouldn't sort out. There were other issues too: The rear dropout spacing was 120mm (for an old 5-speed block), whereas I wanted to run 10-speed. Plus, I needed long-drop brakes so I could fit mudguards.

I took the heap of grease-and-rust over to Bob Jackson in Leeds, and spent an hour with them filling out a work sheet: Re-space rear triangle to 130mm, fit gear cable stops on head tube, fit new bridges for 57mm brake clearance + mudguards, drill new set of bottle bosses on seat tube, fit pump pegs to top tube, blast and spray peppermint green with lugs picked out in white, plus white bands (to my measurements) on down tube & seat tube.

Jackons's quoted me a price and reckoned 4-6 weeks lead time, but in the event it took them less than 3 weeks and it came in at 10% cheaper than their quote. Result.

By this time I had sourced all of the parts I needed: Some from Ebay, some from Spa Cycles, a few bits from The Old Bicycle Company and a lot from Ribble. I had long decided I wanted Campag, and especially their carbon Centaur ergo levers. This was my biggest indulgence. A strange choice for a touring bike? Yes, but they are gorgeous and I had my heart set on them from day one.

That's not all though. I'd completely fallen in love with the curly Nitto Noodle handlebar, and managed to find one on Ebay. Ditto the retro Bluemels chrome pump, another Ebay steal.The Brooks saddle was a given, as was the Tubus rack. I wanted the best. Given that the bike was to be chrome and steel, I really didn't want to put crappy plastic mudguards on, but fortunately I found the gorgeous Gilles Berthoud chrome ones.

The wheels were a bit special. Strength is far more important to me than weight, so I rang Harry Rowland in Ramsgate. One long phone conversation later, and I had ordered a pair of 36-spoke touring wheels, Exal LX17 rims on Ambrosio hubs. He had built them in less than a week, and I made the 300 mile drive down to Kent to pick them up at 8:00 on a Sunday morning, just before he headed out on his club ride. Harry was a gent, and the wheels are superb. Apart from their structural quality, I love the classic look of the hubs.

Now I had all my components, I headed back down the canal to Cycle Recycle, where I'd booked a stand in their workshop for the day. I should admit at this point: I've never built a bike before. But how hard could it be?

Cycle Recycle is a not-for-profit bike shop. People donate unwanted bikes, Ben and his lads fix them up, then sell them on at cost. He has hundreds of bikes in there, of every conceivable type. This is the way it should be: People working for no other reason than the good of the community.

I was completely unprepared for the prep work that needed to be done on the frame before I could start bolting stuff onto it. I had never heard of facing and reaming, and Ben took care of this. Then headset on, then bars and stem, then BB and chainset, then the rest of the drivetrain. Ben had realised that unless he stepped in and helped out, I would be there all week. Not only that, but it was quicker for him to do it than to show me how to do it! So as the temperature dropped to below zero, it went dark and everyone else went home, I took on the role ofgrease monkey, plus tea and pizza delivery boy. Anything to make myself useful.

The biggest snag we hit was the rear mech failing to adjust properly. No matter what we did, it would jump a sprocket somewhere in the range. Adjusting the tension merely moved the "jumping point" up and down the cassette. We pissed about for an hour. Or was it two? We pondered this mechanical quandary over pizza. Then we decided to check the alignment of the rear triangle. It was a few mm out, which, when you're running 10spd, is enough to make the chain jump. Remedying this by moving one side of the wheel down the dropout a little, we got the gears perfect. Yes, I should take the frame back to Bob Jackson and get them to re-align the rear triangle under warranty. I will do eventually, but I can live with it for now.

It was close to 11pm by the time we got finished, our hands and feet were numb, and all that was left to do was fit the bar tape, computer and lights. I didn't have the heart to detain Ben any more so we called it a day and I finished these bits off at home.

What's it like to ride?

I thought I would miss the light weight of my Trek, but my times for climbing the local hills are practically identical despite the extra weight. The frame is flexy, which is good as those wheels are rock solid. The drivetrain is the smoothest I have ever ridden, and I am gradually perfecting my position. I won't lie - the biggest headache I have is the mudguard clearance. With the frame flex and the 28mm tyres, the mudguards have to be aligned perfectly to prevent rubbing on the tyres. This is a problem that can and will be solved. And once it is, my new bike will be damn near perfect.

What's next?

Well, I've managed to source some original graphics, but am still in two minds whether to fit them or not. I'm quite liking the clean look. And I've a Carradice Barley saddlebag, and a pair of Kendal panniers on order (green with honey straps, naturally) and I intend to do some light touring once the weather picks up. Next summer I have plans for some more ambitious adventure touring, but more about that some other time. In the mean time, the daily commute, and a good hilly Sunday ride, will keep me ticking over.

I've also started customizing my scruffy Time ATAC pedals, but that's another post for another day.

New Randonneur Bike

This is my new bike. It's an Orbit Gold Medal from the early-to-mid-1980s. Stats below:

Frame/forks: Orbit Gold Medal touring frame, mid 1980s, Reynolds 531C tubing. Blasted and sprayed in Peppermint Green with white bands by Bob Jackson of Leeds
Wheels: Harry Rowland hand built 36-spoke with Ambrosio hubs, DB spokes and Exal LX17 rims
Bottom Bracket: Stronglight JP400
Headset: Stronglight 1in threaded
Chainset: Stronglight triple 48/38/28
Chain: KMC
Cassette: Campag Centaur 12-29
Rear mech: Campagnolo Comp long
Front mech: Shimano 105 triple band-on
Brakes: Tektro 57mm drop
Tyres: Continental Gatorskin 28mm
Stem: Nitto 1in quill
Bars: Nitto Noodle
Pedals: Time ATAC
Seatpost: Kalloy alu
Saddle: Brooks B17
Rack: Tubus Cosmo
Mudguards: Gilles Berthoud
Pump: vintage Bluemels
Lights: 2x Electro Nano 9