Archive for March, 2012

The Frame Game

March 28, 2012

Words: Ian Cleverly Photos: Andy Waterman

We go to a lot of bike shows in this business. Mostly they are a chance to meet and greet, schmooze and press the flesh. Rarely do we actually spend any length of time looking at the exhibits. And rarely do we see anything that gets the pulse racing.

Bespoked Bristol was different on both counts. Brunel’s Old Station was jam-packed with beautiful objects of a two-wheeled nature. Everywhere you looked, something gorgeous drew you in and left you drooling, even a confessed non-techie like myself. Mostly, the person who had actually created said object of desire would sidle over and chat – not in a high-pressure salesman kind of way; just a chance to take you through what they did and why they did it. Framebuilders are an engaging bunch of people, so it was a genuine pleasure to be on the receiving end of some sales talk.

The other big difference from my point of view was I am in the market for a new frame, a daunting decision that has been put on the backburner more times than Jamie Oliver’s skillet. The sun is shining, the temperature rising, and still no bike has been ordered. With no schmoozing to be done, Bespoked seemed like the ideal opportunity to get it sorted once and for all.

First stop was Mercian and happy memories of the very first lightweight frame I ever purchased, made by the Derbyshire craftsmen but bought in Overburys, just down the road from the bike show in Bristol. Too retro, I decided. There’s no going back now.

Then it was Ricky Feather’s rather sumptuous collaboration with Rapha that caught my attention. A stunning machine and worthy winner of the Best Road Bike award. That’s a maybe. A bit black, though… Or the great Dario Pegoretti, perhaps? Crazy guy, crazy paint jobs, crazy wait for delivery, maybe?

Rouleur photographer Ben Ingham mischievously pointed me towards his fave rave, Donhou, another relative newcomer to the field and a class act. The Donhou frames were lovely, but Ingham was too pushy.

Condor’s Super Acciaio was already on my radar and ticked all the right boxes: steel, none too heavy, damned attractive and a bloody good deal. Ben from Condor nearly had me there.

But my heart was already set on an American import, something I’d seen in construction on a trip to Portland (coming up in Rouleur 31) back in February with photographer Andy Waterman. We visited Chris King to talk about the Portland scene generally but all they wanted to talk about was their Cielo framesets – a funny little story about King knocking up these frames back in the day then forgetting all about them, discovering a container-full in a corner of the factory years later. It turns out they are rather good, but then you would expect nothing less from a man of his talents.

And so Chris King – a man who looks for solutions to problems with the eye of an inventor; a company renowned for those parts of a bike we try not to think about too hard – became a manufacturer of frames. Lovely frames, as it happens. I’m smitten. Our friends at Mosquito bikes happened to have a couple of examples of the finished article on their stand. That was all the confirmation I needed.

Cielo may not quite be the one-man operation, totally individual, made to measure frame of my dreams, but it is affordable, will hopefully be built up in time for the summer and I’m happy it suits my purpose. As for the other head-turners in Bristol, it was great to be swayed. Don’t be surprised if I’m back next year asking more inane questions, probably about ‘cross frames, mud clearance and disc brakes.

Eddy and me

March 21, 2012

Being the youngest of four children, hand-me-downs were a fact of life – not that any of my siblings ever got a new bike either. Uncle Ted would scour the local tip for abandoned frames and wheels, take them back to his workshop and somehow fashion usable machines from piles of junk. Scrapheap Challenge had nothing on Uncle Ted. His creations were invariably painted in the same disgusting shade of green paint liberated from his workplace, sported Sturmey Archer three-speed hubs and weighed more than dad’s Mini, but they did the job.

Until I joined a cycling club, that is. Then it became abundantly clear that Uncle Ted’s clunker would have to go and be replaced by something racier. Much parental badgering ensued – threats issued, tantrums thrown – until they relented and allowed the princely sum of £50 to be withdrawn from my savings. Cash in pocket, I headed for the nearest decent cycle emporium in the glittering metropolis that is Swindon.

A host of gleaming lightweights awaited, mostly too big or too costly for a 13-year-old, but the smattering of machines within my price range looked adequate. Falcons, Raleighs and Carltons vied for my attention. They were all distinct possibilities. And then the Swindon Cycle Centre came up trumps. The moment I saw it, I knew it was the one.

The shade of Molteni orange paint used for its 19-inch frame is a colour that remains deep in my affections. Steel-rimmed 26-inch wheels didn’t so much spin as grind their way round, but Weinmann centre-pulls were a step up from the stopping capabilities of my old clunker. It had those curious ‘mudguards’ – lengths of dull silver metal extending a few inches either side of the brakes that deflected no road muck but rattled incessantly. Five gears, courtesy of French company Huret, seemed plenty to me.

But none of these things informed my choice. What counted – more than the wheels, more than the gears, more than those infernal chrome guards – was the picture on the headtube: a diamond-shaped sticker, framed by World Championship bands, containing a portrait of the greatest rider in the World, the impossibly handsome Eddy Merckx. The sticker repeated on the downtube for good measure.

It was hardly what you would describe as ‘lightweight’, but Eddy and me travelled far and wide on increasingly lengthy club runs, into the hills of Somerset or the Cotswolds, and we got on just fine. Youth Hostelling excursions into Wales or Dorset were a regular feature once proper mudguards, rack and saddle-bag were added. We tackled five-mile time trials every Wednesday evening, recording PB’s week after week. Come the winter, the gears were stripped off and a donated fixed wheel with 40 spokes and no chrome whatsoever (it appeared to have spent several years at the bottom of the River Avon) was fitted. Not once were we defeated by a climb, although one snowy descent at Easter saw us flying into the hedgerow at speed due to my inability to stop.

But Eddy was with me. We were fine.

My legs were growing ever longer and skinnier. The seat post had reached its limit before long. Me and Eddy would have to part company. It was years later I discovered my bike was made under licence by Falcon Cycles in England and had no input whatsoever from the great Belgian, apart from his picture on the frame. Not that the news clouded my feelings about my first racing bike. Me and Eddy had something special.

But it was over. The next machine would have be a step up: self- assembled, one piece at a time, with every component hand-picked by me. No walking into a shop and picking some factory-built, mass-produced mount. The next time would be different…

Merckx: Half Man, Half Bike by William Fotheringham, is published by Yellow Jersey. Bespoked Bristol, the handmade bike show, runs from Friday, March 23 to Sunday, March 25. 

A Bit of Rough

March 14, 2012

Our man Andy Waterman shot this terrific little film at the Rutland-Melton CiCLE Classic last year, a race Rouleur has always supported and continue to do so for the upcoming edition on Sunday April 29.

If you have never been, make the effort. The combination of dirt tracks and tarmac attracts probably the best field of riders you will see on UK roads this year outside of the Olympics – without the limitations of where to stand and when…

Position yourself outside a pub in Owston village for the day and the dusty peloton flies past on numerous occasions from all directions. What could be better?

Another race we support is the Maldon Dengie Tour ‘Hell of the East’ in Essex on April Fool’s Day – no coincidence, surely. The surreal flat landscape and ever-present North Sea winds of Dengie Marshes make for superb racing. Organiser Alan Rosner has uncovered nine sectors of rough stuff to stir things up and, with the race being included in the Premier Calendar for the first time, Dengie has now made its mark. You’d be a fool not to go.

Mr Waterman is popping over to Dengie this week to check out the course and report back. Expect grainy photographs and wise words from the multi-talented swine – er, Privateer man – soon.

In the meantime, riders: please be careful with our banners this year, will you?

Chute!

March 7, 2012

Words: Michael Barry Photo: Olaf Unverzart

Team Sky’s Michael Barry is the author of Le Métier and Inside The Postal Bus. He crashed and broke his elbow just days after completing Chute! for Rouleur 29.

To win, the strongest teams now strangle the race, force their tactics and try to control variables. The underdog has little chance. Despite increasingly challenging courses, pelotons often remain compact and massive until the final kilometres. Over the last 15 years, the differences between riders’ abilities have diminished because of better training, proper diets, a more international peloton and more aerodynamic, lighter equipment. The races have become more predictable. Often, only the injured or ill fall off the pace.

When nearly 200 riders charge down a narrow, twisting, rural road three metres wide, crashes are inevitable. Cameras can’t capture the chaos in the belly of the bunch. The peloton rarely relaxes. Within it, we ride inches apart, our elbows rubbing, our shoe buckles clipping sharp spokes, our tyres brushing up against another rider’s. There is precious little room to manoeuvre. Behind the first line of riders every inch of the road is used. To get to the front of the peloton, we’ll accelerate up the dirt shoulder, a driveway, a sidewalk or a bike path and dodge spectators, parked cars, utility poles and potted plants. In our hasty dash to the front, we jump kerbs at 50 kph. Crashes are inevitable.

The constant live feed of news from a race, which streams over the internet and television, has increased the tension. A decade ago, seasons began progressively. The early races were often slower, and riders used them to gain fitness. Now, the first race of the season has become as important as the last. Training camps are held in December to ensure we’ll be in top shape by the end of January. From the first race of the season in January until the last in October, entire pelotons of 140 to 200 riders fight for attention. Often we are considered only as good as our last race. The battle is relentless.

In the one day cobbled Classics the fight for the front is furious. Every rider knows his chance of victory could end if he is too far back in the peloton. From a four lane highway we funnel onto a dusty or mud-coated rural cobbled lane. In dry weather, the peloton kicks up a dust cloud, which blurs our vision. In the rain we slip and slide to find the best line around riders who have fallen on muddied stones. But the worst crashes often occur before the most technical bits of course, when the peloton stampedes through the countryside like frenzied cattle towards a chute. On smooth tarmac, the speeds are higher and the peloton a compact mass. One rider’s error will bring down a multitude. Not only do larger pelotons lead to more crashes, but the racing is also more controlled. Breakaways have less chance of success against multiple eight to nine man pursuing teams. Rules downsizing teams to fewer riders and shrinking the peloton would make the racing more animated and less dangerous.

The worst crashes aren’t limited to the Classics. In a Tour de France stage, where the stakes are highest and every kilometre has value, the fight for the front is relentless. In the first week of the race, every rider seems to be aiming for a chance at victory, the yellow jersey or simply a few flickering moments on television. As a result, crashes are more frequent in the first third of every Tour. As the race wears on, the effervescence yields to fatigue, every rider finds his spot in the physical hierarchy, and the race becomes safer. Changing the format of the Tour by adding a time trial or mountain stage in the first week, to create greater time gaps earlier, would reduce crashes.

Extract from Rouleur 29, on sale soon.