Which Pandemic?

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So we are living through a pandemic. Everything is shut down and the bureaucrats and their political masters are screaming at us to stay home and stop hoarding toilet paper. Everywhere (except Africa, it seems) is in melt down. We are all going to die! Was the Black Death this bad?

I don’t deny that there is a pandemic. It’s just what the pandemic is actually about that’s so fascinating. It seems to me, as a rural person who is socially isolated by definition, as someone looking on from the outside, that this pandemic is all about control rather than biology. 

Knowing that anything anyone might have to say on this topic is likely to offend as many people as those who might agree, that’s not going to stop an utterly inevitable avalanche of exposé books on the subject that will be deluging the best seller lists as some kind of perverse re-appraisal of all those empty toilet paper shelves we now suffer.

Yes, it seems there is a virus let loose out there. But it seems to be kind of inane, compared with, say, the Bubonic Plague, HIV/Aids or Ebola. Indeed, it seems that this Corona virus is essentially a really bad case of influenza. Bad for the vulnerable and inconvenient for the rest. It’s all a question of how inconvenient and how bad this thing might be to different groups and how statistically significant each group might be. It’s all about statistics, it seems, because it’s statistics that are seemingly driving the current global panic. As we economists are taught from day one, when social situations cannot be resoundingly resolved by mathematics, the politicians need to intervene. And intervene they currently are. Decisions over how to weigh up and choose between all the alternative medical management options out there (‘herd immunity’ or ‘lock down’ being two glaringly different choices) can be made on the grounds of economic impact, but no one is going to like the advice economists might make in this regard let alone be prepared to live through the consequences. So, the politicians and their legions of ‘public service advisers’ have been given free reign, constrained only by the boundary conditions for utter global economic collapse, or what we understand those boundary conditions might actually be (how much damage is ‘society’ prepared to accept without invoking a revolution or civil wars). It’s a tough game. 

One thing we are likely to find, when the exposés are written and deconstructed six months or so from now, is that the entire decision framework applied to advocate ‘lock down’ and the knowing decimation of the world economy, has been informed by the world’s most dodgy methodological charade: modelling. Yes, all those deterministic objectivists out there are busy working their black boxes to churn out disaster scenarios that are, essentially, nothing more than an extension of the extraordinarily uncontested assumptions those boffins feed into them. I spent going on thirty years as an academic ecological economist railing against these ‘expert system’ modelling exercises. Mainly because of the black box character that most experts seem to apply. Modelling does not need to be black and opaque. Modelling should be about learning; modelling should be nothing more than an exercise aimed at stimulating learning, reflection and systematic thinking. Modelling should be about the learning journey, not the destination/answers that models might provide. Modelling should be a learning tool for policy makers and their political masters. Not some kind of ATM answer machine. So, we end up with predictions of millions dead etc etc and an ensuing scare campaign. That’s appallingly bad policy making and that’s what we are observing all around the world right now. One thing I am sure of is that the ‘deconstruction literature’ that’s going to hit the shelves six months from now will be savage on how free a reign all those black box boffins have been given through this pandemic show. And how astoundingly naive have been our politicians for putting so much confidence on the confidence trick that black box modelling actually is, and has always been.

I have supervised over 18 Phd’s around the stupidity of decision making that works through boffin boxes of the kind now being employed. There are alternatives out there (the System Dynamics domain, for starters) that are, as usual, being totally overlooked. Why? Because that raft of tenured academics who keep on keeping on refusing to retire to a life of endless golf are maintaining their stranglehold against critical thinking and learning-based, genuinely collaborative and certainly transdisciplinary decision making, for reasons largely to do with wanting to be seen as more relevant than they really are…

I have yet to be impressed by any of the decision making being applied to this ‘situation’ in evidence, anywhere in the world. Houston, we have a problem!!!

It’s just a bad case of the flue, people!

Yes, the vulnerable are vulnerable, but they always are and always have been. Why not lock the vulnerable down and provide them with protection rather than the other 90 per cent of the human race? 

I was once advised by a psychologist student of mine that the process of unleashing critical thinking is not a total win-win for everyone involved. Critical thinkers can be a bit hard to manage when their managers think more like robots or a self-automated linear thinking machine (a bit like some local council planners and ATM machines…). People are usually less ‘behaved’ than traditional assumptions about human behaviour might otherwise predict. Traditional economic models of human behaviour, for example, completely collapse when people get all excited or confronted by phenomena like, say,  empty toilet paper shelves. And we can’t have that! As the old mantra goes, if reality diverges from the theory, change the reality back to fit the theory. People almost always operate with more chaotic behaviour because they are almost always less informed or capable of informed behaviour than policy makers would like. The usual (and utterly wrong) political response to chaos is a good dose of control. That’s exactly what our politicians and their policy makers are currently doing.  Critical thinkers know that control never, ever works the way the boffins expect or would hope. Control uninformed by intelligence begets more control; via a never ending spiral to utterly unsustainable autocracy. The only winner is law enforcement and those who really, really enjoy wearing enforcement badges and ‘security’ tee shirts in public. 

Via critical thinking, the current world responses to The Pandemic are a real head scratcher. I have never, ever, seen such a breathtaking display of astounding naivety (about human behaviour) as has been evident so far. 

Goodness me, who would have predicted the run on toilet paper?! 

Actually, anyone who’s watched basic human consumer behaviour on the eve of public holidays and the like could have predicted the hoarding binge that is emptying our stores of the strangest things. Toilet paper, flour, tinned food and the like are always go first whenever a cyclone, flood, drought, or plague of locusts hits town. Let’s consider a bit of history here shall we. There’s nothing chaotic about chaos. People do what people always do: operate contrary to the models that modellers need to ensure well-behaved models to advise those in charge. Always have, always will. I am singularly unimpressed by those corporate supermarket spokes-people who claim to be caught by surprise. Garbage. The real story is about inventory and just-in-time stocking regimes. No corporate interest wants to inventory stuff just in case. 

But the big eye opener about this current crisis is its character as one gigantic experiment in social control. This has been one amazing drill in global crisis management. It’s a pity that this experiment has not been previously invoked for a real crisis, like, say, global warming. Or, perhaps seemingly at a more mundane level, in controlling the sheer holocaust-level assault on human society that cars and their drivers have become. More people die from death by cars (or more precisely, car drivers) than by the current Covid Plague. Let alone via the secondary impacts of car polluted air and the toxicity of an oil-based economy. I am an Ecological Economist, you should expect me to say such things. 

The last time society was so centrally controlled as it is now was during the second world war. And then people were being bombed and bombs seem more real than the plague to which we have currently surrendered. It’s not exactly at the stage of ‘bringing out your bodies’ as per the Bubonic Plague. Yet… my detractors might be orgiastically seeking to interject…

Ah well, one thing is good from all of this. We cyclists who are still allowed to ride outdoors are having a really, really, great time! The thrill of no cars is a wonder to savour. It’s a precious thing to not be run off the road by road raged bogans in two tonne boxes that serve to validate fantasies of importance rather than the necessities to transport a load. 

I have a statistically unvalidated proposition that cyclists are vastly more endangered by the drivers of cars than we are by Covid 19.

Making Sense of Gravel Biking

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I suspect that the collection of memes now gravitating around the generic term “Gravel Biking’ are as nebulous and contestable as those collecting around that other ‘new’ dimension of e-biking.  

As with most concepts emanating from humans, what we end up with by way of a definition (of anything) is kind of an exercise in the survival of the fittest set of memes that are collectively the least offensive to the most number of people, at the end of the day, and all days thereafter.

It’s all about context and the context here is the ‘world view’ of the beholder. There are a bunch of ideas underpinning this ‘world view’ thing. That can get anything from a touch difficult through to pathologically difficult – academically philosophical; so I will put the disc brakes on any further travel down that particular path; mainly because any attempt to get philosophical usually causes the vast majority of readers to suddenly feel the need for iPhone consulting (usually while crossing a road or driving a car…). Suffice it to say that if world view/mental model/hermeneutic circling/ego identity self-validation interests you, I recommend enrolment in a university philosophy degree (but not at the University of New England, which is  rubbish…)

Anyway… 

The thing that most people overlook when seeking opinions on things is that, well, everything they turn up is actually just that: opinions. And opinions are shaped by the vast collection of biases, prejudices and limited (always limited) perceptions of individuals who are more than keen to push their own views enroute to self-validation.

This is the essence of critical thinking. They (the education bureaucracy and its coal face practitioners) should teach more of that at school. But that might cause the young and impressionable to develop ideas of their own that might, gasp, be in contradiction to the views of the ruling public service mantras in charge (which are collectively described as the wisdom of the Politically Correct).  

So let’s try to apply critical thinking to this game we have come to describe as gravel biking.  

For starters, gravel biking is, actually, the oldest ‘discipline’ of cycling there is. Back in the 1860’s or there about, gravel biking is what people did on bicycles because there were only gravel roads. Apart from racing penny farthings around Paris back in the good old days, bike racing back then was cyclo-cross and cyclo-cross bikes were and are what most intelligent people wanted to ride or race on gravel, dirt and maliciously unmaintained roads like those around where I live in the New England Tablelands.

We rural folk have been living on and near gravel roads from rural settlement days right through to today. I live on a sheep station and there is only one sealed road out to the nearest town. In the other direction, we have, literally, endless gravel roads. Real one-car-a-day remote gravel roads that go anywhere from high mountains down to the sea, through National Parks and State Forests, through to places where you’d go to witness duelling banjos being played on verandahs (which, come to think of it, is only 5km down the road from where I live….) 

I’ve been riding bicycles on these roads for 35 years. It’s only in the past few years that I have come to understand that all this is called gravel biking and that I am a gravel biker. Which must kind of mean that I ride gravel bikes when I am doing this gravel biking thing (which I’d hitherto just called cycling…).

Let’s get one thing out in the air and all clarified. Riding a mountain bike on gravel roads (as opposed to trails and assorted ‘bush bashing’) is a total misery. Too heavy, too BIG, too cumbersome, too much overkill. Mountain Biking on gravel roads is like paddling a cruise liner up a creek rather than a canoe. For starters, most mountain bikes weigh at least 11kg plus, which is 3kg too much, at the very least. While fat 2 inch plus tyres are great riding up a mountain track, riding 2 inch plus tyres on a gravel road is looking for a fight. You are fighting your fat wheels all the way when you take a MTB on a long gravel road ride. Yes, I do realise that not all mountain bikes are fat and cumbersome when the going gets fast (as it does on a gravel road as opposed to single track, by and large). A good Cross Country racing hard tail is a reasonable compromise. But, you are still stuck with flat bars and flat bars have only one hand position. Drop bike bars give at least four hand positions to spread the pain around (and gravel roading does cause pain, when you do a lot of it). Plus, the steeper frame geometry of a road bike-like design is going to give a faster, more nimble ride on a good gravel road than any slack angled mountain bike could ever provide. (Context Alert: I am a roadie by way of background as must be, by now, obvious). 

For 30 of my 35 years of gravel road biking, I’ve been using cycle-cross bikes. I still do, to a degree. 

So what is the difference between a cyclo-cross bike and a gravel bike? Not a huge amount, but different enough for the difference to be real. A cyclo-cross bike is, by definition, a design constrained by the UCI (because cyclo-cross racing is governed by the UCI and as for road racing and UCI controlled mountain biking, the UCI dictates what is and is not allowed for the bikes people race in UCI controlled races). One thing that the UCI mandates for cyclo-cross bikes is tyre width, which can’t exceed 33mm (on 700c rims). Many cyclo-cross bikes, therefore, are designed to take up to 33mm tyres and nothing much more. Cyclo-cross bikes are also pretty steep in terms of frame angles (73degrees head and seat tube angles are pretty common – much as for road bikes). Cyclo-cross frames are designed around high ground clearances (higher than for road bikes and even higher than many mountain bikes). Cyclo-cross frames are designed around fast steering (rather than the long trail Harley Davidson-like cruiser geometry of mountain bikes… which is great for stability on untracked trails, but not for the road – which is kind of why I sold my Harley Davidson in favour of a Ducati but that’s a different story). 

Which all implies that this thing we now call a gravel bike is a bike that can accommodate tyres of at least 40mm, is still pretty upright in terms of geometry (but slacker than a road bike), most definitely has drop bars, still has a road bike like stem, is high but not as high as a cross bike, and steers something like a road endurance bike on the gravel (slower than a road bike but faster than a mountain bike). Note that I have not mentioned suspension here. 

Suspension basically defines a mountain bike. Mountain bikes are all about suspension. Almost no road bikes have suspension (except the Specialzed Roubaix and the Pinarello Dogma FS). I am not talking about rubber/elastomer suspension like they use on all those strange ‘endurance bikes’ like the Trek Domane, the Specialized Diverge and the Giant Defy et al. The new Roubaix and the FS have actual springs…

And it’s here that we are getting to the actual core of the design brief that defines a gravel bike. Suspension is unnecessary and, indeed, reduces the efficiency, speed, tractability and even joy of riding a gravel bike on a good gravel road. I will repeat the most relevant bit of that last attempt at definition: a GOOD gravel road. A good gravel road is a fast gravel road. As in a good gravel road is pretty smooth, without ‘too many’ pot holes, corrugations and rocks. Where I live, a good gravel road happens from day zero through to about six months after a good grade by the local council. After which that gravel road becomes a corrugated nightmare on a bike without suspension. If you can imagine a graph of cycling bliss you get from riding a gravel bike vs a mountain bike on an unsealed road, there is a point where those curves cross over. From day 0 through six months after a proper grade, gravel bikes are the way to go, By the time you get to 1.5 years after a good grading, mountain bikes are what you need if you are still intent on surviving a ride (or at least your wrists are so intent). 

But, and now we get to the real nitty gritty, from about 8 months after a good road grading through to that 1.5 year point, a gravel bike with suspension out front is the bike to ride; a touch heavier and a bit more cumbersome than a pure unsuspended gravel bike and quite a bit less cumbersome and way lighter than most mountain bikes. Yes, I am calling it here. There IS a new update on gravel biking that has arrived and is ready for attention. Gravel bikes with gravel bike specific front suspension are a thing and are indeed, the very best thing for the vast majority of the gravel roads we tend to get these days (which means roads that are generically neglected by local bogan councils intent more on financing local car parks and Mayorial Robes than trinkets like road maintenance for us rural folk). 

So far, there are not that many front suspended gravel bikes out there. The first seriously integrated design was the Lauf True Grit. Which we Australians have to buy over the internet from Iceland where that company sits, because there are no dealers here. More specifically, the Lauf Grit started out as just the leaf sprung fork that defines the Lauf True Grit bike. And I have that Lauf Grit fork on the front of my 3T Exploro. It woks brilliantly. With that fork on that bike, I have a Council-neglect proof gravel bike – provided said Council can be persuaded to re-grade our roads before two years between grades, after which, even the Lauf is not enough. I understand that Fox has a gravel biking specific fork out too, but it is way heavier than the Grit and comes with the stiction issues of the hydraulic fork design. What you need for suspension on gravel roads is NO stiction (zero delay or instant responsiveness to the relatively small but constant bumps that define gravel roads). 

Are you getting the picture here that, really, gravel biking is a very dynamic thing? Unlike road riding, where roads tend to remain largely the same in terms of surface irregularity over time, and mountain biking where trails are always different (except, maybe, on bike park flow trails). More than anything else, a gravel bike is a bike that must be designed to accommodate road surfaces that are always more challenging than sealed roads and that degrade faster than local councils ever recognise. One good rain session and you have a whole new road to ride, probably for the worse. And, come a good drought, you end up with roads made of rocks. Loose, coarse, rocks. The challenge for gravel bike makers is a design that delivers compliance and speed over road surfaces that are vastly more variable than you would ever get from sealed roads, and those irregular gravel roads change (for the worse) faster than sealed roads. Which means that the one bike has to cover more abuse than most road bikes, and even cyclo-cross bikes can accommodate.

There is a point, however, when the distinction between gravel bikes and cyclocross bikes becomes very, very unsubtle. This is the point where all those rebadged enduro bikes (with elastomer bits here and flexi seat posts) are shown to be the product of marketing rather than engineering. There is a point where real designers have contributed real, genuine innovation to make gravel bikes distinct. When your favourite gravel roads hit 1.5 years plus out from a grade, or are decimated by floods and drought, or all three as has been the case around here, what do you ride? A cyclo-cross derived gravel bike will start to fail in terms of insulating you from the horrors of a truly bad road. Do you start to ride your suspended mountain bike at that point? No. Enter the genius of Gerard Vroomen, the engineer behind the 3T Exploro and Open gravel bike brands. Here’s where the true gravel bike comes into play: the ability to fit 650b fat wheels for when roads get really rough. When the luxury of last year’s grade has well and truly disappeared, and Council’s ignore all requests and threats to grade again, it’s time to swap out your 700c rims for 650b’s shod with 2 inch plus tyres pumped to 30psi or less. Here you can still get all those geometry benefits from your gravel bike combined with the greater compliance of mountain bike wheels. Yes, fat tyres are harder and slower to push on a gravel road than their 40mm 700c counterparts, but when roads are bad, fatter tyres are better than giving up or breaking your wrists. The capacity to swap 700c rims for 650b’s is not new, having some heritage in the touring bike domain, but it is a feature that needs to be engineered into a bike frame from the concept stage. Vroomen’s solution was to build in a dropped chain stay to accommodate the wider rubber while not compromising that same bike’s capacity to run faster, more nimble 700c rims shod with cyclo-cross derived tyres. The dropped stay gravel bike is a thing of astounding versatility. It will take you out into the territory of truely appalling roads. As you get when your local council prioritises its own payroll over the delivery of services to remote rural communities like ours. It’s at this point when gravel bikes really have become a thing. A genuine thing that’s different by design rather than by marketing fluff.  

It needs to be said, though, that these dropped stay gravel bikes are expensive, and hard to get. I have reviewed a bunch of these in a previous post; most are not directly available in Australia and none come from the major established bike makers like Trek, Specialized et al. They are niche. If, however, you do have access to gravel roads in reasonable condition, you don’t need to extend out past a gravel bike with ‘standard’ 700c rims and tyres fatter than 40mm. The choices you have are vastly greater if you are prepared to forgo a bike with a dropped chain stay. 

Given that, I think there is more life left in conventional cyclo-cross bikes when (relatively slightly) re-purposed for gravel biking than anyone is really giving them credit for. 

Yes, in my view, the ultimate gravel bike has been sitting there, largely neglected and overlooked, all this time. Sitting up the back of your local bike shop is probably the very gravel bike you have been looking for before all that re-badged road enduro bike marketing from the likes of Trek, Specialized et al. started confusing us. 

There are some pure cyclo-cross bikes that need only a wider set of tyres to make a seriously great gravel bike. Specifically, I am talking about cyclo-cross bikes that allow for tyres of 40mm plus. The UCI mandated 33mm is not enough for roads that are some six months out from their most recent council grade. Gravel bikes get their suspension from softer, wider tyres. In my experience, 40mm does the trick, and for my 65kg, 50psi is the max pressure I would ever need. I would present the Giant TCX as the ultimate cyclo-cross bike for transition to gravel biking in this regard. The carbon TCX is one of the world’s most underrated bikes. It is a superb frame. It is rigid, but compliant, fast and precise by way of steering and tracking through garbage road conditions and comfortable for seriously long rides. It is a work of art that has remained unchanged for going on five years. I have two. One is kept as a pure cyclo-cross machine with 33mm tyres and the other is riding on 40mm Schwalbe OneG tyres on wide and light 3T Discus Team carbon rims,  compliant 3T carbon Superergo bars, a top end Giant SLR stem and a carbon railed ProLogo seat. Not cheap, but seriously adaptable to most of the assaults dished out by council road maintenance neglect. So, if you are prepared to tinker, a cross bike with a few upgrades for gravel roading might well be the gravel bike of your dreams. And you will have a bike way, way more sensible for the realities of gravel road riding than any of that marketing derived, elastomer/flexi post enduro road bike nonsense being re-purposed at us from the likes of Specialized, Norco, Trek and Cervelo these days. 

My gravel biking has been defined by necessity rather than through following marketing trends. Where I live, gravel biking is what you do to go for a ride. If you want to go fast, have fun, and last for rides longer than, say, 60km, and on roads even further out than six months past the most recent council grade, your needs, like mine, will get rather specific. After 35 years of trial and error, I offer three perfect bikes by way of recommendation: the Open Upper (below), the 3T Exploro (tamed by a Lauf Grit fork) (photo at top of this post) and a gravel road tuned Giant TCX (bottom of post) (any carbon TCX will do, they all have the same frame. Do not consider the aluminium version; it is nasty). Of these three, the Giant TCX has the lowest entry price (starting at $3800 for the base carbon model, up to around $8500 where I ended up), and the 3T the highest priced (pushing $18k with the Lauf Grit fork). The basic Open UP is around $9k and the UPPER is around $16k specced with all the Tune bits I have on mine. The TCX is a bargain in stock spec. Just add fatter tyres and try to ignore the standard 9kg weight. My modified TCX is down to around 7.5kg. The Open UPPER can touch 6.5kg if I choose lighter tyres. Of the three, the TCX is the most versatile. Fit it with road tyres and you have a good road bike. Fit it with 40mm rubber and you have a great gravel bike for gravel roads in good to reasonable condition (up to, say, 6 months post grading). 

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One Year On My Roubaix Part 2

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As outlined in my previous post, One Year on My Roubaix, the S-Works Roubaix rides on top of something along the lines of a cultural shift. To pay the required AUD$17,000 Specialized are asking for this bike, you are buying into more than a bike and your decision is likely to be more complicated by factors than might apply when looking for, say, the latest Giant TCR, or Scott Addict. 

With that out of the way, I do have some observations on how the bike coordinates with all the marketing hype Specialized uses to explain this bike and what I hoped for from its performance. After riding my 2018/19 version for 8,300 plus km I am in a good position to offer some conclusions.

First to the brief. The performance of any road bike is informed by its collective response to the three core dimensions of bicycle design: bike weight, bike stiffness and bike compliance. Weight, stiffness and compliance interact to define the way a bike rides. Compliance is not often included as one of those dimensions, but it needs to be. 

Weight is easy. Total bike weight is hugely important to how well a bike climbs, and, let us not forget, how well it does other stuff like going down hill and resisting cross winds. So too, let us never forget, is the rider’s weight. There is absolutely no point in buying a fly-weight bike if you are a porker with a 25 plus BMI. That’s just a fact. Fatties are better off buying heavy, and using that heavy to help accelerate body weight loss and only then buying light, once you enter the realm of marginal gains.

Stiffness is also critical to climbing prowess, and to how well you can sprint. It is also a characteristic that can shock your body into early fatigue and misery if you choose to ride on anything worse than hot mix.

Compliance is a design feature that bike makers are finally talking about and designing around these days. You hear about nano tubes in your carbon or rubbery layers in carbon layouts; seat posts designed to flex, and wider rims and tyres to provide for a more ‘airy’ ride. That’s why 28mm tyres are now all the rage. 

I’d propose that absolutely no one has fixated on the compliance dimension more than Specialized in relation to the S-Works Roubaix (and all the other models of Roubaix in that family). No other bike maker is currently offering suspension up front to add compliance to a ride (other than Lauf with its Grit but that is directed more at gravel biking than purely for the road). 

We all know about this bike’s sprung head tube as a solution to riding on rough roads or pave. But Specialized has also been careful to point out that the S-Works Roubaix frame, itself, is the lightest frame they actually make. And, indeed, it’s also proposed to be the stiffest. Even more than for the Tarmac.

Normally, compliance, stiffness and lightness are at some odds. To suggest that you can max out all three seemingly without compromise is an interesting claim. But that’s where the suspension comes in. Without the ‘headshock’ and the strange Z shaped seat post, you would not be able to ride this bike on any normal road; it would be a chiropractic assault after just a few km. Rather, the intention of this bike is to offer a ride that is as un-fatigueing as you’d get from a really good endurance bike, while still being a bike that’s competitive for serious racing. Most people I have spoken to seem to be under the impression that the Roubaix is actually an endurance bike (and thus a bike intended for old guys past it for speed). That’s because of all the focus on ‘suspension’ and a softer forgiving ride. And they are all totally wrong. No, what this bike is about is outright serious pro-level speed enhanced by and, really, as an outcome of all that compliance. You don’t really get this from Specialized’s marketing pitch. I think that is a shame. But I do need to assert, the S-Works Roubaix is NOT an endurance bike. Though it would serve a cyclo-tourist well (and what is wrong with that?), it is primarily intended for racing on rough roads (like all the roads where I live and, probably, where you do too). 

You see, there has been some seriously clever thinking in relation to the suspension designed into this frame. Which explains the link with Mclaren because the design took some serious computing power to figure during its development (Mclaren has some massive super computer grunt to assist with the CAD stages that gave birth to the Roubaix). The key is that this uber stiff frame offers all the benefits you can get from that trait: it climbs like a Giant TCR and you can sprint it like a Propel. Putting the suspension spring in the head tube (rather than in the fork like the Lauf Grit) ensures all that frame stiffness connects directly to the road without any kind of suspended insulation (or suspension caused efficiency losses). Because locating the spring where it is only suspends your wrists, not the rest of the bike. That is clever. You are not going to loose any pedalling efficiency through suspended wrists. The same goes for the flexy seat post design. 

Which is not to say that these suspended disconnections from the road don’t affect the way the bike rides. They do. You do feel some real removal from the spring interface between your handlebars and the furies passing through your forks and wheels. That does feel ‘different’ from what you might be used to with a conventional road bike. Some might find that disconnecting a touch disconcerting and that happens most when climbing out of your seat. You do notice it. Even after, as in my case, nearly 10,000km of getting used to riding this bike. I am a climber and I have always connected climbing with how directly I feel the front wheel is connected to my arms. (The feeling is along the lines of using your arms to grab that road with your fingers and claw yourself up a hill until you pass out; with your forks becoming arm extensions. The notion of sticking a suspension interface between your bars and the forks is a bit like what might happen if your arms turned into rubber enroute; not an attractive thought).  I am used to the sensation of furious rigidity and discomfort as the price of killing a hill. Which is why I so detest riding mountain bikes on sealed roads. All of which kind of describes where it is that a rider needs most to adapt when riding the S-Works Roubaix furiously up a hill. Which is NOT to say that it won’t be riding as efficiently as a pure climbing bike (like, say, the Giant TCR). This is all a mental adjustment thing, not a matter of any inefficiencies. You do need to mentally adjust. But rest assured, the headshock is not going to slow you down or erode your climbing efficiency in any way. It just feels like it does. This is a critical point and a real challenge for Specialized’s marketing challenge to sell this bike. 

So, I do most certainly assert that this is a serious climber’s bike. It as light as any disk brake frame out there despite the suspension bits and it certainly is stiff. Full marks for pulling this astonishing achievement across the light-stiff-compliant arc.

And yes, you are riding a little higher than you might be used to if you usually ride slammed. There is no prospect for lowering your bars because of the sprung head tube. Yes, if you equate riding higher with endurance riding, you might equate this ride with that which you’d get from an endurance bike. But again, that is a mental thing. Yes, riding higher is less aero than you’d be on a full aero bike, but no one said or claimed that the Roubaix is an aero machine. Just like a climbing bike is not an aero bike. Which is why I have emphasised climbing (rather than say, time trialing, on this machine). If you want an aero bike, don’t buy the S-Works Roubaix. I don’t and am glad for it because I live in the hills. It’s useful to keep this context in mind when thinking about the Roubaix.

But you can see why so many people are so quick to write this bike off as an endurance ride. It kind of looks like such a bike, but is most emphatically does not ride that way. Rest assured, you CAN win the Paris Roubaix on this thing (as has been the case in recent times).

The real missing link offered up by this bike is what you get from all that compliance. I doubt that anyone would ever object to a more comfortable ride than you’d be getting from bikes like a Giant Propel or the infamously bone shaking Basso Diamente (or from any modern aero bike). At least some heroic riders might keep such thoughts to themselves if they consider a softer ride also softens their sense of masculinity – the ladies don’t usually bother with inane posturing of this kind. But who, really, would object to surviving longer into a ride than your aero crushed mates? Here is the thing. A more comfortable ride means less fatigue. Less fatigue means you can ride faster for longer. And probably win more races over rough roads or for a course that extends past 100km. Compliance feeds into faster average speed over a longer ride. It’s a mathematical fact. This is one result I have proved over and over to myself over the past year. I have riding logs going back 30 years for the roads I ride. My total ride times are never, ever, longer on the Roubaix than for my more conventional road machines (I have 20 road bikes at the latest count including a Giant TCR, a Propel, a Colnago C59, a Bianchi Oltre, a Wilier Zero.7, a Trek Madone, a Merida Scultura, and three top-end Pinarello’s, none of which are demonstrably faster than my Roubaix over longer rides). 

Actually, I love the way that the Roubaix challenges mental models and smashes convention at every turn. That’s feeding all those anarchical predilections that got me, effectively, kicked out of my academic career (I detest linear thinking professorial bog dwellers who switch off their brains once their tenure has been secured). The Roubaix excites an excitable mind! It’s a regular chaos machine! If you are as exciting as a cabbage, perhaps this is not the bike for you. 

And finally, I can report that over a year of some serious Roubaix riding over our manically marginal local roads, nothing, but noting has gone wrong with any part of this bike. I have no issues to report. None at all. Other than the usuals of punctured tyres and worn out chains. Yes, The 2018/19 Specialized S-Works Roubaix is one magnificent bike. 

It is, though, to be noted that the bike was re-designed for 2020. The new model has a revamped headshock (now with adjustable compression but otherwise basically the same) and a new seat post that looks more conventional but, apparently, flexes even more than before. I can’t comment except to say that I will be getting the new one sometime in the new year. I will report back then, but am not really compelled to write the old model off because a new one offers even more of what makes my own bike so great. That might end up being too much of a good thing? I do think, though, that the newest model looks too conventional for my taste. Specialized have tried to make the 2020 model look almost identical to its Tarmac. I am not sure why. I am pretty sure that every conclusion I have made with respect to the 2018/19 Roubaix will also apply to its 2020 counterpart. Certainly, the inherent iconoclasm of this machine is very much still intact. It’s just that Specialized seem to think it important to do some redesigning to make it seem less radical than it actually is. Maybe they think the new model’s more conventional looks will sell more bikes. That’s a bit of a shame. 

 

 

 

One Year on My S-Works Roubaix

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It’s exactly a year since I purchased my violent orange/yellow Mclaren Special, Specialized S-Works Roubaix: a bike fully dressed in Top-Of-The-Line. On this bike alone, to date, I have ridden 8,625km.

Specialized don’t (just) pitch the Roubaix at feeble old men with bulging stomachs and hairy legs.  But then again, most cyclists I have ever met who do have bulging stomachs and the cycling prowess of an overfed horse with two too many legs, seem to imagine themselves as being in training for the very next Tour de France. Apparently, anyone in training for the Tour de France (and thus, most cyclists who wear lycra without a pro contract) would never contemplate a bike like the Roubaix. Which kind of cuts the market down a bit. Which is a tragedy and a shame. Because, once all the delusional types have self-exited themselves from the market for bikes like the Roubaix, it’s only the pros who do tend to buy bikes such a this. Isn’t that a perversity!. The Roubaix has done very, very well, at Roubaix, but not so much at local club roadie rides… That’s the very essence of what economists describe as a misinformed marketplace. Or as Behavioural Economists would have it, the predominance of behavioural delusions and psychopathy constructing market perceptions out of touch with scientifically interpretable reality. Which, really, is why we have Global Warming and tossers like Donald Trump and his Australian analogue, Barnaby Joyce, empowered to reinforce these negative feedback loops of destruction in the first place. Which also explains how Pinarello can get away with selling so many Dogma F12’s and why so many golfers keep on wearing shirts that are three sizes too small…

It’s also why, probably, the S-Works Roubaix costs so much: too small a market place for too much of a bike. And that Specialized is being a bit greedy. The latest version of the S-Works Roubaix is now at AUD$17,000.  

This bike is a response to a complexity of problems. It’s a solution to a bunch of issues. It’s a bike that addresses the reality of seriously crap roads. 

Bike buyers seem to face a conundrum. They can realise their delusions of podium proficiency through riding the latest Giant Propel or Focus Izalco Max on roads even a goat would avoid, or they can suck it up and match wheels to corrugated realities and ride something more compliant with the roads they ride rather than with the delusions of self-image. I blame Mathew Hayman. 

When Mattie Hayman won Paris Roubaix on a Scott Foil back in 2016, the whole world marketplace for the misuse of aero torture bikes for real world road riding was reinforced and validated. See, you can win Roubaix on an ultra stiff sprinters bike. He did, therefore, so can I. Or so should I, if appearances are to be maintained. All this without considering that Mathew Hayman rode said bike because he was paid to do so seems to escaped the attention of those who ride for image rather than traction.  The fact that Peter Sagan went on to win the same race two years later on the S-Works Roubaix seems to have escaped most folks’ attention. See, Sagan can ride anything! Isn’t he amazing…

Really, non-pros need to stop informing their bike choice though what the pros ride and all go get an Open UPPER instead. There’d be so many more smiling faces in the non-pro peloton via fantasies such as that. 

Anyway, all this fertiliser composts the observation that there are very few S-Works Roubaix’s out there on the roads despite the technical reality that most roads are better suited to a Roubaix than to silly stiff sprinter’s bikes. After enquiring at the two official Specialized dealers covering the region where I live (the New England Region of New South Wales, Australia), for example, I am told that I am, apparently, the only S-Works Roubaix rider in a region the size of a Balkan State… 

Real roadies don’t ride a bike with head tube suspension!  That’s only for blokes with big guts and hairy legs. Despite the fact that I have neither and ride 25,000km per year, which is way more than anyone else around here. And no, that is not pride speaking here. I ride because I can’t stop and by the end of each year, 25k is where it ends up. Or am I trying to project and validate some kind of uber-cool self-objectivity here? Too deep yet? I really don’t mind if you do go out and buy a Basso Diamante and a new set of dentures after the first two sets fall out enroute to your own personal vision of cycling glory.  

I started not to care about this perceptual malaise of keeping up with invalid social constructions of delusion on the day I bought this bike. After a year, if nothing else, my S-Works Roubaix has facilitated me to care even less. Perhaps my Roubaix is all about validating a perverse intent to be a radical or an anarchist. But I don’t think so. Having a stable of top end Italian super bikes all aging away in my shed, I don’t care what anyone thinks about such things, or really, anything at all, these days. Which is kind of why I gave up Facebook and am planning on going full private on Strava from Jan 1 next year. 

Or maybe I should simply abandon all I’ve said above and simply say, when you are forced to ride crap roads, the S-Works Roubaix is the best bike I have ever owned and would probably be so for you too if you had to ride roads like ours to the extent that I do.

So, there you go. If you don’t like thinking deeply, just match your roads with bike compliance/stiffness ratios and buy with sublime technical objectivity. You may well end up with an S-Works Roubaix yourself.   

But I have yet to meet any half-serious cyclist who informs decision making with any kind of demonstrable objectivity. That’s the problem!

We are all unguided missiles in perpetual search of self-validation.  If you are sure that the identity you are trying to self-validate is true and correct against some kind of objective metric, go forth and inform your decisions in accordance with the constructions of your delusions. Because there is no objectivity out there. All identities are self-constructions around delusions. Go reference contemporary philosophy (I recommend a jolly read of Hans Georg Gadamer as a good starting point but that’s a seriously subjective choice in a universe of subjective possibilities…). Or become a Buddhist. 

All you have to do, in the face of philosophical conundrums like this, is to accept that your decision processes are made on top of philosophical oceans of usually unconsidered complexity. Know, simply, that there are infinite realties out there, mostly in conflict with each other and that your own is merely a figment of your imagination subject to the push and shove you open yourself up to whenever you interact with other humans and their own constructions. When you are confronted by n+1, think of where you are going to ride first rather than be guided by what your inner mirror is trying to tell you. 

We philosophically-bent academics call this reflexivity. Or critical thinking. It’s free to do but painful to apply. I have a theory. Most S-Works Roubaix riders out there will probably be happy little Buddhas all really, seriously enjoying their ride… Are you? 

Hence my singular conclusion after 25,000km of riding this year: if your wrists hurt from riding too much on crap roads, do yourself a favour. Go forth and buy the first S-Works Roubaix you can find. You can still win Roubaix. And survive to ride another year. The Roubaix is one fine bike. 

The Search for the Perfect Bike: Context is Everything

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Context is everything.

Every single person on this planet has a unique context; just like the cut of a door key. Except, with people, context changes and adapts through time as opposed to keys, which stay the same.

So, the search for the perfect bike is the search for a key to fit the locks that are binding the current state of your context. The really fun part is that each choice we make goes on to shift that context and thus, maybe, rendering a previous choice to become a key without a lock to call home. Bikes become dispossessed by changing context. 

The only real thing that experience offers is a longer span to try more stuff out and to have had more adjustments to the context of a life that’s always on the move. I don’t subscribe to the myth that age brings wisdom or an innate superiority in intelligence or more knowledge to impart; in my experience, the opposite usually applies. Most folk end up grabbing on to ever more rigid rails with a death like grip until death, indeed, does part the grip… Most of our early life is in search of a rail. Or a rod for the back. The lesson is, only you can find the key for your lock; only you can find the perfect bike. Or wife, or husband, or dog, or place to live…

I guess if you are just starting out, committing to a choice is like finding an island in a sea through which to avoid drowning. Which is kind of why so many younger folk are so vulnerable to picking the wrong lock through which to focus one’s choices. They end up in the wrong place.  That’s been my experience, and I can only speak for me; I am not validating any choices I might have made through the offering up of advice. 

Speaking of context, when I am referring to a ‘bike’, I am equally interested in both motorcycles and bicycles. The insights are the same for both. Which might seem a bit out of character for a blog that’s supposed to be about bicycles and cycling. But for as long as I can recall, I have always had a passion for both. It is, though, amazing how similar and parallel bicycles and motor bicycles are in terms of sensations derived and the character of the choices involved. And no, I am not talking about e-bikes here. I put those things in the same place as wheel chairs and other devices for the disabled. If you want a bike with an engine, get a motorcycle. End of.

It’s a monumental tragedy that so very few people interested in the one dimension (cycling) are interested in the other (motorcycling), and vice versa. We should, though, remember that both came from the same source: the velocipede. People have always tried to stick engines on bicycles; that’s where Harley Davidson came from, and Ducati. From the very beginning, when you install an engine in a bicycle frame, you get something else: a motorbike. NOT a hybrid of both, as is the case with E Bikes. There’s supposed to be a Y intersection at the point of engine meeting bicycle: one path is cycling and the other is motorcycling. E Bikes are a nasty perversion of both parents (like in-inbreeding). That’s a good place to ditch E Bikes from the rest of this discussion. You might think differently on this, but I am reflecting my own context here (what else can I do?).

The fundamental context that needs to be thoroughly deconstructed when choosing a first bike of either kind is the kind of use to which that bike is to be deployed. This is the point that most people get seriously wrong. Here is the basic question: do you want to ride on sealed roads, on unsealed roads, or both?

Once your basic choice is made, we can then cascade down the path we pick. If you want to ride the roads, you are going to need a road bike. Rather obvious, but you’d be surprised how many people can’t even get to this point in the decision tree. If you want to ride off-road, a whole universe of choices opens up. But if you want road and off-road in a single package, you absolutely must be fully versed on the nature of the compromises you are about to be making. 

On the bicycle front, most people seem to avoid any kind of reasoning and simply insist on a mountain bike. They go from start to crash without recourse to intellect. That’s because nearly everyone who picks a mountain bike as the starting point has almost no intention of ever riding that bike off-road. Wrong! That’s kind of analogous to choosing a KTM 790Adventure R as your first road bike. You can ride the thing on the road, but why would you if that’s your real intention? Or to really emphasise the stupidity of taking the wrong first step, how about choosing a Harley Davidson Fat Bob 114 as your bike of choice for mustering up the sheep on your farm? If you think I am overstating peoples’ poor decision making here, just observe how many tragic types are riding mountain bikes on sealed roads these days? Riding a mountain bike on a sealed road is like trying to canoe with a bunch of boat anchors deployed out the back. It’s a nasty experience. Yes, you can ride a mountain bike to a trail for trail riding provided the trail bit is the bit that matters most. Which is analogous to riding a road bike on the trail to get back to the sealed road enroute to home. You can do it, but one bit of that trip won’t be much fun and will be severely compromised. Which is OK if you are clear about the exact nature of that compromise and are willing to wear it (no-one is going to have fun on a downhill trail riding a Pinarello F10. No one. But he or she might still enjoy the ride home once on the tar again). 

If all you have ever ridden is a mountain bike, you won’t know how astounding it is to ride a road bike on a sealed road. Going from the former to the latter is very much like the transition to flight. Most people who ride a road bike after enduring mountain bikes on the road tend to look back to the rear wheel wondering where the engine is. Most people who have only ever ridden a road bike on their local trails will be amazed at the performance they can get from taking up a mountain bike once the trails get serious. Suddenly, the trails open up and go on for ever…

My first ever motorbike was a case study of wrong. I purchased a Harley Davidson two stroke ‘trail bike’ as my solution to riding the sealed roads of Sydney! Two thousand spark plugs later, I ended up with a Ducati Pantah 650. Until I moved to the country and the right choice turned to wrong as soon as I discovered the realities of neglected rural roads. But I did get my first bicycle choice just right: a Vitus 979 decked out in glorious Campagnolo Super Record. I wanted to take up bicycle racing and racing is what I did, and loved for over ten years. Until, as I said before, I moved to the country and discovered rural roads. And gravel roads. 

Gravel Roads. Now there is a context in need of technology adaptation. 

I live right at the trail head of an infinite network of gravel roads. I could ride for ten years and not see out all the choices I have for great gravel road rides. The trouble is, when I first landed at this trail head, no-one had come up with the concept of a gravel bike. Actually, even mountain bikes were experimental back in those days. I was the first to buy a mountain bike in my local area: a nasty steel Shogun with no suspension and 1.5 inch kind of off road tyres. It weighed about 20kg…

Fascinatingly, way back then, in the late 1980’s, the off road motorcycling domain had this gravel road thing pretty well covered. The solution was the trail bike and everyone had one and there were thousands to choose from. I went through a pile: from a series of DR Suzuki’s, a 450 Italjet (nasty rubbish), a Montessa Cota, a bunch of Honda’s, and even a Yamaha WR450F. I am still luxuriating in this endless choice, the latest being a Honda CRF250Rally. Why did it take so long for the bicycle industry to introduce it’s first suspension mountain bike?! My first was a Cannondale with an ‘aheadset’ sprung fork and a single spring out the back. It worked until hardtails started to enter the scene. Though I did spend a while playing with cyclocross bikes as an interim gravel biking solution until the bike industry caught up. The best gravel road bike I ever had until Gerard Vroomen came on the scene (I reckon he is the real inventor of the bespoke gravel bike) was a KTM Myroon. Fast and lovely, almost as much fun as my Yamaha WR250R trail bike I also had back then.   And then came the Open. The world’s first genuine gravel bike. And I don’t care who might claim what as an alternative first ever in this regard. Gerard Vroomen got this one so very very right. And then came his 3T Exploro. And now the floodgates have opened… Everyone is doing gravel bikes these days. Why? Because riding a mountain bike on a gravel road is ugly in terms of performance, comfort and pleasure. When the context is a gravel road, the right choice is a gravel bike. It’s taken twenty years for gravel bike tech to catch up to my needs here and I am not about to take to mountain bikes on gravel ever again. Try a gravel bike on the gravel and then try it on a mountain bike and you will see! 

Which leads me to that other amazing parallel universe of Adventure Bikes. Adventure Bikes are motorised gravel bikes in my books. Most Adventure Bikers tend to do most of their adventuring on gravel roads rather than across single track and paddock bashing, which all remains the proper domain of trail bikes. Again, I was there when the fad began. My first Adventure Bike was a Honda 650Transalp. Yes, there were others around at the time (Cagiva and Honda’s first Africa Twin) but those were not readily available in Australia at the time. The Transalp was pretty much akin to the Open Upper: perfect for the gravel and capable on the tar. The compromises from all this dual purpose crossing over were and are all kept nicely and precisely in check. So long as you don’t abuse the context and shift too far down the off or on-road tracks to stretch the design brief into territories where more dedicated road or off roaders would be the better choice. 

Adventure Bikes have become absolutely fascinating. This is the biggest growth area in contemporary motorcycling all around the world. It’s not just a bunch of fatties out for a last fling before moving on to the nursing home (despite the fact that this is kind of what most Adventure Bikers seem to look like these days…) Some might claim that the impetus for Adventure Biking came from the Paris Dakar race, and that would be reasonable to assume because that’s where much of the technology has come from. The deal is to ride unsealed roads with a bike that can handle big distances with big bump compliance – which is exactly the same deal that pertains to gravel biking in the cycling domain. To ride big distances you need a bigger bike to take the extra fuel and luggage you will need for camping out (which defines the nature of an Adventure for most). Which led me to my first motorised tank – the Honda Veradero 1000 cc of top heavy biking insanity. I absolutely hated that thing; a whale in pigs clothing. I traded it in on a Triumph Tiger 1050 (slightly less bad) and then a BMW F800GS, which defined the Adventure Bike for me for nearly ten great years. Until I moved back to Ducati again via the new Scrambler Desert Sled and an over-the-top essence of magnificence known as the Multistrada 950S.  So now I have a Scrambler and an Open Upper to do, essentially, the same thing: to enjoy long rides on gravel roads.

I only wish I had decent sealed roads to ride around where I live these days. My Vitus fell apart thanks to the local Bogan Council’s contempt for road maintenance outside of city limits. My Pinarello’s nearly broke my wrists. My Colnago’s nearly sealed the deal (never designed for roads that are maintained once a decade or less). I’ve been through three Specialized S-Works Roubaix’s with the latest doing the trick: it’s Head Shock is the weapon with which to respond to local council malicious neglect. You see, context shifts all the time and always will. It’s exciting to participate in the wake of technology change by way of response. If you get the context right, you can really focus on tuning technology choices to suit. Just don’t do it the other way around! Enjoy the ride. And, if you are a cyclist, give motorcycling a go. The sum of both cycling and motorcycling is much more than just one plus the other. All gravel bikers should give Adventure Biking a try. All Adventure Bikers should give Gravel Biking a go. The cement of synergy from the latter to the former is the extra fitness you will get to advantage both. And the slower more purposeful pace of cycling is a genuine compliment to over indulging 113HP on your favourite gravel roads. The synergy I, as a cyclist, get from Adventure Biking is total indulgence in distance and ridiculous comfort without real exertion – a luxury akin to lots of ice cream without the guilt (which is contained by all that cycling I also do!). Plus, you just don’t get to hear that glorious thundering you get from a Ducati twin when all you have is a bicycle, no matter how much carbon it has or how light it might be… 

 

 

 

 

eBikes and related disorders

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In the beginning, there was the bicycle (or velocipede, to be precise – think modern day kid’s balance bike and make it adult size). Then someone bolted an engine on a bicycle and thence came motorcycles. Then some deranged psychopath decided to add a few wheels and the world became blighted by cars. But the bicycle persists and the motorcycle persists and praise be to that. And the car remains as an instrument for maiming, polluting, killing and the empowerment of hate against all those who more sensibly stopped at two wheels rather than four. 

And now, some marketers looking for cash decided to rewind to 1860 and reinvent the motorised bicycle all over again. Only this time using battery powered engines rather than fuel. Which may or may not seem like progress when your good-for-90 minutes battery runs out wile its fuel-driven engine ancestor could be topped up to run all day, and night, and day and …

eBikes. Everyone is confused. Especially me. Given an origin from the dimension of supply (marketing-driven) rather than demand, the usual routine of understanding market needs to define design and purpose is upside down. Who are they for? How do they fit in? What needs to they address? None of this has really been sorted because eBike market evolution is working in reverse: now it’s first deliver the product and then engineer the demand.  Apparently, we’ll eventually figure it out. That’s the exact same plan that’s worked for the fashion industry from day one.  eBikes are the conception of fashion and have evolved accordingly. A bit like how disk brakes happened for road cycling. Only much more in your face.

I’ve heard this approach to product development as ‘throwing it at the wall to see what sticks’. Or, possibly more cynically, throwing these things at a spinning fan to spread it all around (if you know what I mean). Only economists insist on demand driven supply these days. What would they know!

Well, here’s how I see this particular splatter pattern. 

Drawing from that astounding predilection of newbie cyclists everywhere to go for basic mountain bike designs for urban paved road use, most eBikes are usually dressed to look like mountain bikes rather than road bikes (I am ignoring fleet rental eBikes that are an entirely different story).  That’s probably because most non-cyclist folk contemplating a furtive entry into cycling seem to think mountain bikes are, somehow, safer and more comfortable than road bikes. Maybe they reckon road bikes are too elite or geared for lycra clad pros. Who knows. Newbies rarely seek reasoned advice. Which all explains the insanity of all those ultra heavy mountain bike plodders plonking around on precisely the wrong kind of bike. So, I am guessing that the marketing fraternity decided to pitch their early generation eBikes with knobby tyres and suspension, aiming at those very same misguided faux mountain biking newbies. That these eBikes would have zero capacity to ride off road via their toxic heaviness and a rather poignant lack of charging points out there on the trails… would never become a problem as few would ever venture past the tar. 

But now we have eBike road bikes showing up in the stores. Better late than never but never would be better…  eBike road bikes are a new dimension of dementia. Or more specifically, range anxiety on overdrive. The notion of a road bike is a bike you can ride on long and glorious forays into far away places, across continents, up stunning mountain passes and at speeds that must challenge those with empathy to the politically corrected nanny state.  What exactly is the point of an eBike road bike that can only go for 90 minutes?! Most roadies haven’t even warmed up by then… Three hours should be the minimum charge before we could even conceive of a use for these things for anything but the daily commute or walking the dog and kids down some local cycling path. And if walking the dog is the intent, why do you need a $20k Pinarello eBike (which, to be objective, would probably be heavier and less gainly than any of that same brand’s low end road bikes at one tenth that price). 

Irrespective of eBike design, I still can’t understand why anyone would want one in the first place. If you want to travel faster than a road cyclist, go grab a learner legal motorcycle or even a new eMotorbike or electric moped. What’s the appeal of these latest European icon brand eBikes? Who would want such a thing? Maybe, perhaps, the idea is a bit like a walking frame analogue for disabled roadies trying to relive their Colnago glory days? That I could understand. But why would anyone with an aspiration to fitness or fitness driven road cycling pleasure ever want to be deprived of the empowerment we roadies feel when we self-power ourselves up a hill or go for the thrill of a sprint? The road bike is the mechanical connection between our muscles and the road. Why would anyone want to disconnect the perfections of that connection via the insult of a battery powered engine?  

Let’s start at the core. What is it about serious, dedicated, cycling that makes so many of us want to identify as ‘cyclists’? I am not talking about bicycle riders who ride the occasional bike path or ride because their driver’s licence has been taken away. I am talking about cycling that is life defining for the cyclist involved. I am talking about cycling like blood, like air. Something you can’t possibly live without. I am one of that kind of cyclist. If you are too, you might, perhaps, agree with what I am about to suggest. We cycle because it’s hard. Our cycling reward comes from extending ourselves. A good ride can sustain a dose of smug insufferable superiority to keep us animated for days thereafter. A good riding schedule is the answer to the quackery of modern commercial medicine, of faith healers in stethoscopes and health perverted by symbiosis with your health care card.

Serious cycling is freedom. Freedom from the kind of inanity or delusions that encourage people to subscribe to gymnasium memberships; where those subscribers feed on the meme that health can be purchased and the very act of turning up in leotards to a body odour reeking room to be shouted at by twenty something instructors with way, way too much self-love, is, somehow, an investment in a fit future and membership of the ‘beautiful people’ set for ever more. Ahmen.

Serious cycling fitness is the gold standard: low body fat (7 per cent, let’s quantify a few claims here…), lean, low resting heart rate, flexible, fast up hills. That’s fitness. And it has nothing whatsoever to do with the colour of your gymnasium leotards, or how you appear in your mind’s eye as opposed to how you still appear to everyone else…

Runners can play this game too. Real runners (not necessarily footpath plodders). 7 per cent fat runners. Lean, fit. And lean and fit because of LOTS of work. And nothing to do with how much you might have spent along the way or to which health club is the trendiest in town. 

The main point in here is that genuine fitness is earned. Not purchased. Genuine (as opposed to imagined) fitness is a product outside the market place of money and FaceBook memes.

And here is another point. The entry barriers to Genuine Fitness are not expressed in money, social alignments, or wishful thinking. Anyone can join up and become genuinely fit. 120 kg wheezing fatties can transform into 70kg athletes in under a year. Oldies, younguns, and even insufferable twenty-somethings can all make the grade. You don’t even have to leave your house if you have a treadmill and an indoor bike at hand. All you need is to put the sustained effort in and ignore the garbage of excuses (ohhh, I don’t have the time!, I am too fat to even start, or worst of all, my doctor advises against it). You can’t delude yourself about your progress when you consult your bathroom scales. 

Yes, real fitness involves intense effort. Heart pumping, sweat drenched throat burning effort. A meek twaddle on a treadmill is not effort. A five minute spin on a K Mart indoor bike is not effort. The effort has to, at least eventually, approach to dimension of gut busting. No pain no gain. There is no short cut and money is not going to bring it on quicker or easier. If you have more excuses than willpower, you are not going to make the grade. Tragic but unavoidable fact. You can wail and moan about those excuses all you like, and you might even believe them; most people are extraordinarily committed to the delusions of their excuses. I particularly enjoy the one about lack of time when said time constrained persons are inclined to spend a few hours in the pub wallowing in beer or traffic jammed in Macdonalds drive through queues –  or otherwise engaged in what could otherwise be prime exercise time.

It’s a harsh reality out there in the land of genuine fitness. Not everyone has what it takes, no matter how much they might spend in money or delusion. Remember, you can measure fitness with a pair of fat callipers and a set of bathroom scales. Turnouts at coffee shops straddling the latest Pinarello don’t measure anything. (If you are bulging in your Rapha lycra, you are bulging in your Rapha lycra; sorry, you can’t force the rest of us to see you the way you might prefer to see yourself…). 

Having said all that, it is always going to remain a fact that one of the most active markets on the planet is the merchandising of fitness; or at least, the merchandising of a sense of fitness. The fitness industry is mega. And very much along the lines of a black hole. It’s amazing how powerful are the attractors devised to suck people in. My favourites are the Apple Watch, gymnasium memberships and the ‘sports food industry’. 

The current ‘health watch’ craze is endlessly amusing. Apple, for instance, is overtly selling a relationship between ‘health’ and wearing it’s ‘health monitoring’ watch. The link most people are making these days is that the very act of wearing such a ‘device’ is an investment in health. Somehow, the one thing is positively correlated with the other. We spend hours perusing and parading our readouts. Comparing resting heart rates, measuring our sleep, and being beeped to stand up now and again. Standing up has become an act of competitive posturing for the boardroom and barista bars.  We wear fitbits to feel fit. The reality is actually perverted. What you might be measuring is, actually, how unfit you are; a good look in the mirror is all you really need and you can save $759!. If you are a six foot male kitted out in size 38 jeans, you are not fit. You are fat. I don’t care if you think all that bulk is muscle. You don’t need an Apple Watch or a Fitbit to quantify what should actually be obvious. And if you are actually fit, why do you need a watch to tell you so? Perhaps the main argument used in this merchandising charade is that all this monitoring puts us on a path towards fitness; it’s a friendly helping hand, an electronic fitness instructor. Garbage. It’s all about the dodgy presumption that spending money on fitness is correlated to fitness outcomes. Nope. Exercise and diet are the only pathways that matter. All you need are bathroom scales and a mirror. And a pleasant surprise when you downgrade from size 38 to 32 when shopping for your next pair of jeans. 

While the fitness watch thing is funny, the ‘sports food’ scene is most definitely not. That one is as insidious as telephone scammers or self-proclaimed religious cults. How, exactly, does swilling a litre bottle of sugar juice (aka Red Bull and the like) have any kind of positive correlation with health? How exactly does eating a bowl of sugar lollies dressed up as ‘ironman food’ have anything to do with becoming the image of the muscle junkie on the box? Here’s the nasty inescapable fact: if you are overweight, you do not need to eat so called sports supplements like jells and ’sport bars’. The aim is to redress the imbalance between energy in and energy out, expressed in terms of you being too fat. The only people who actually need supplements like jells are athletes who have no real fat reserves, who take these things mid-ride to avoid passing out. Is chocolate milk a health food? Are you stupid or what!

Which brings me back to eBikes…

There’s one other marker of my personal fitness that I hold dear (other than what the bathroom scales tell me) it’s my ability to drop other cyclists on hills. There, I said it. And I don’t feel bad… I don’t get a buzz from making others feel bad, I get a buzz from making me feel good. Hills, for cyclists, are where it’s at in terms of the place where push turns to shove, were rewards return to effort, where day in day out riding manifests in some kind of demonstrable, deliverable, result. And these days, you don’t have to drop someone in person, you can do it all on Strava! You can be all clandestine and still play the game. If you are concerned about excess ego gratification and the evils that might entail, you can pursue others on the hills and keep your KOM efforts private. Not that many of us do. But you can, if you are going for the Buddhist priesthood or suchlike…

You can pretend all you like. You can pretend it does not matter, that it’s the joy of company that matters most, or the rewards are in the scenery, or that just being out there on the road enjoying the moment is all. Garbage. Every cyclist loves to drop other cyclists on hills. Every cyclist hates being dropped on the hills. End of. It’s just a cyclist thing. It’s not an exercise in nastiness or about an urge to humiliate. Blitzing a hill is a certifiable cycling reward. If you don’t agree, you have probably never left the cycling path. It’s because of our predilection for taking hills that the good folk at Strava invented Strava. 

As we fade out into wobbly ageing cyclists, our hill taking might fade with time. That’s OK. We can remember, we can recall the glories of the past to spice our cycling into our nineties and beyond. We are an accumulation of our memories. If we once had that KOM, it’s still a little bit ours even after a pro takes a holiday into your local hills to take it all away. The investment in glory lingers on… 

But eBikes have arrived and the game is about to change. Inevitably, the merchants of the marketplace that seeks to convert effort into a product available for sale are now selling technology to take our hills without the guts or glory of effort. Now we have motorbikes fashioned on bicycles powering fatties up hills faster than the best of us can pedal. It’s perverted. It’s sick. It’s blasphemy in church. 

I can deal with all this by simply discarding all eBikers as motorcyclists and, therefore, as outsiders to the core game of cycling (which is dropping other cyclists on hills). I can do this. If I really try. But there is a difference between being overtaken on your favourite hill by someone on a BMW F800GS and some fat guy passing you on a bloody eBike. Especially when that fatty on the eBike is overtaking you with the pure, overt intent to rub your nose in his (always a ‘his’) prowess as an electronically assisted athlete enroute to taking your KOM away. If this were not the case, any decent eBiker would hold back, out of respect. Respect for the fact that you are intent on a climb on the merits of hard won unassisted prowess to which said eBiker can only ever aspire. Otherwise, said eBiker would be on a real bike and investing in the equation of effort equals reward rather than trying to dump on that mathematical reality through the shortcut of his eBike perversion diversion. 

I don’t mind eBikes on the flats, especially on longer rides because it’s always funny when they run out of battery and then have to ride their monstrously overweight toys back home again. Perversely, that is probably the only way an eBiker can become a real cyclist; riding one of those things without power is a really great workout!

eBikes remind us how motorcycles came into being. I love motorcycling. I love adventure motorcycling way out further than I generally travel on any of my gravel bikes. I love riding a giant American cruiser on highways that would hold little interest for cycling (being able to overtake caravans on a motorbike is a whole bunch more fun than being overtaken by those turkeys when you are on a bicycle).  Motorbikes don’t pretend to be bicycles. They never have. One is an evolution of the other. Not a replacement or an improvement. Motorcycles were developed to extend the concept of cycling, not to replace it.

eBikes are walking frames for folk who are otherwise unable to ride. That’s great. eBikers can do positive things like annoy car drivers just like we cyclists can. All good. eBikes are great for casual cyclist commutes. That’s great too. Keep them on cycling paths and off the road! They are great for the oldies or the partially disabled to enjoy mountain bike trails. That’s great. No eBiker is likely to be planning on entering a World Cup cross country event any time soon. More power to them. Battery limitations are likely to keep the eBikers out of our hair when we cyclists are going long. That’s the way the world balances things out. All good. 

But show some respect and don’t try to drop a real cyclist on a hill. That will only showcase you as a certifiable dork.

Sealing the Fate of an Iconic Gravel Road

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The Headline reads ‘Jumping for Joy’. The occasion is an apparent win in securing a $4.5million State grant to seal the ‘worst’ bits of the Kempsey Road in northern New South Wales. The jumpers are the current State member of parliament for the region and his local Council counterparts. You can read all about their victory on the local member’s web site (but read it quick as the next election is in two weeks…). So I am in a protest movement of one. Just me. Possibly. Because, as is the case for every story, there are two sides to this particular situation, I am targeting myself through suggesting what a voice to the contrary might suggest. I’ll probably get run off the road by way of response. I suspect that these joy jumpers don’t even conceive the merest possibility of a dissenting view. 

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There’s a good reason to keep outlier positions to yourself: the most obvious being the likelihood to be singled out as a ‘fringe dwelling nutter’. But then again, who’s going to read this post on an obscure cyclist blog. Just by being a cyclist, I am a fringe dweller, hated by caravan drivers, beer fuelled truck drivers and bogan four wheel drivers who really, really, don’t like to share gravel roads with cyclists. But here’s the thing. I don’t like sharing the road with them, either.* 

But there is much more to this and similar stories than might meet the eye. 

On the surface, sealing a road the condition of which has rankled car drivers and caravaners for decades looks like a simple win win. Hence the public claims to fame via the (for the moment) local State member for The Northern Tablelands region, Adam Marshall. Junmping for joy. Indeed. This guy is up for re-election and this photo is all about why he lost my vote. I don’t like the presumption that simple problems are never explored for their more complex dimensions, and as such, are never opened up for public debate. The first I knew of this road sealing caper was the occasion of my most recent ride down that particular road…today.

Let’s air one basic presumption underlying decisions like this. More or better access for car drivers is always good. End of. 

Is it?

In this era of drive-through everything including four wheel drivers running over kids on the beach, isn’t it time to actually question this basic presumption? Are there places that actually deserve the space and relative solitude of access rationed roads?

The Kempsey Road links the coastal city of Kempsey with the urban hub of Armidale in Northern New South Wales. It’s a road of around 160km that is around one third unsealed, where all the unsealed or gravel bits being the most spectacular, scenic, remote and wild places along the route. The 22km gravel stretch between the stunningly idealic family camping hotspot of Georges Junction and the forestry centre at the Styx River is known as the ‘Big Hill’. That hill is an official Hors Categorie or HC hill in cycling terms. It is a wonderful climb; cutting through almost pristine wilderness wth sheer drops off to one side and a windy but relatively constant gradient of around 8 per cent with some 20 per cent bits to keep the KOM record sheet honest. I held that KOM for around five years until a recent crop of adventurers decided to upgrade the challenge (the curse of Strava…). The Big Hill, and most of the rest of the road on either side is trafficked at a pace of around one car per hour or so. If that. Caravan drivers are officially advised to find an alternative route. Trucks are not keen. Urban cars are a dodgy proposition. This is 4WD, adventure motor bike and cyclist territory, It’s all worked well since the days of the horse and cart. 

The unsealed character of the road has defined the identity of the place and the entire route. People seek out the camping at Georges Junction because it is remote. The (Upper Macleay) river is unspoiled. Most of the route is way, way outside of mobile phone range (and texting terrorists). There are no shops, places to buy fuel, or, really, not many signs of humanity at all along the section between Georges Junction and Wollomombi. This road is a facility for escape. 

Ride

The alternative, main route joining the coast with the Northern Tablelands region is further North: the Waterfall Way via Dorrigo. Nice scenery, but infested with caravans and speeding car drivers intent on overtaking everything and anything in their path. The Waterfall Way is a road for motorists who want to get someplace. The Kempsey Road is more about the journey and less about the destination. Where the Kempsey Road is the road of choice for 4WD drivers and adventure bike riders, the Waterfall Way is the route for Hyundai shopping cars and Harley Davidson cruisers. Not that I object to Harley cruisers, given the 2019 Fat Bob in my shed… But these routes are two dimensions apart in terms of character. Let’s just say that one is a poor and scary choice for cyclists and the other is the perfect ride. So perfect is the Kempsey Road, that over 400 cyclists ride it’s entire route every year via the Tour de Rocks charity ride. I am pretty sure there’d be no takers for a similar ride down the Dorrigo route…

Junction

So, in the context of the place as a route of natural distinction for gravel cyclists and wilderness loving 4WD enthusiasts enjoying a caravan/bimbo box free drive, let’s take stock of what it is that road sealing is about to destroy. Yes, the handful of locals living en route will have faster and more secure access to the facilities of civilisation from which they have been less than perfectly connected for so many years, but we can safely assume that traffic on the road is about to go through the roof when, ultimately, the entire road is sealed. While the windy, steep and probably always more remote landscape en route is unlikely to attract the traffic of the more northern Waterfall Way route, it is going to rise by way of outcome. From one vehicle per hour, we are going to approach one per ten minutes or so. I am, of course, guessing here; if you have a better estimate, leave a comment below.  Worse, the caravan set are going to infest this place, along with, god forbid, tourist busses and similar assaults. I’d put money on the remote perfections of the Georges Junction wild camping site being closed to the public even before the tar has dried. That place is a pastoral lease, barely tolerated by the lessee even now. There will be deaths on the hill once its natural gravel speed trap character has been removed under hot mix. Crash barriers and tar are going to encourage speeding and nut job stupidity from inept motorists as never before. The 500 metre sheer drop is going to attract kamikaze mistakes. There’s nothing like a blind hairpin bend and a sheer drop to assert the incompetence of a driver otherwise deluded to be en route to the podium of a Formula 1 Grand Prix. A sealed Big Hill is, most definitely, going to become a hoon road route for motorists who get a thrill from driving or riding too fast. 

Wildlife is going to suffer most. There are lyre birds, wombats, koalas, kangaroos, echidnas all about to meet their demise once the tar is put down. Road kill follows cars wherever they go. Cyclists don’t leave road kill. 

Cyclists become road kill. I can see it now. Guess who is going to go over the cliff first: the bogan tin box driver with dodgy brakes or who considers his car as a penis extension or the cyclist with nowhere to go? Go on. Guess. 

I am pretty certain this road sealing plan will mean the end of the Tour de Rocks annual charity ride. The dangers will rise to a level that the organisers will be unprepared to accept. Millions in cancer charity fund  raising will disappear. 

And how will those locals who have, apparently, lobbied for road sealing for so many years fare? Will they enjoy life on a new highway where once they lived on a remote rural road? Really?

Without a doubt, the Macleay Valley is going to change once its road is sealed. Without a doubt, its current character as a remote, rather wild place with little in the way of casual tourist opportunity or amenity to Point A Point B commutes is going to become something else. Have all these ‘jumping for joy’ road sealing advocates really considered what it is that they have now unleashed? For me, it’s the announcement of the death of a loved one; a favourite place is about to become yet another stage of adulation to the curse of the automobile and the drive-through lifestyle of those who drive them.The world is about to lose a towering iconic ride. I, for one, am not jumping for joy nor will be voting for those who are.   

* Here’s how this post is almost certainly going to be interpreted by road sealing advocates, cyclist haters, the Local Member (if he ever actually reads stuff like this) and the local Council clique (in the unlikely event that they ever read anything at all from local rate payers): ‘cyclist wants Kempsey Road all to himself’. Or ‘selfish cyclist wants to kill progress for his own riding pleasures’ Etc etc etc. One thing is guaranteed, none who end up concluding this will have actually read what I said above. Such is life and the reality of community discourse…

 

Decision Made Easy: the 2018 S-Works Roubaix

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 Way back in the early 1980’s, our Local Council (called Armidale Regional Council these days), did some maintenance on our local sealed road. We only have the one… And it resembles a single lane cycleway gone to the weeds; also resembling Cormac McCarthy’s post apocalyptic road of desolation in his book, appropriately called The Road.  Riding on this road has killed my wrists (well, that and riding on the same Council’s endless gravel road network – which did not help). For decades, I’ve followed the alluring and evidently compelling social construct that, for a road bike at least, stiff is good and stiffer is better. Part of this construct is that the very best road bikes are a statement of frame inflexibility, but with, perversely, and probably via wishful thinking, with just a touch compliance as well. It is a compelling argument, at least if you don’t think to critically. Frame flex means that all your super powers are absorbed in bike bending rather than being thrust into the road like the interstellar rocket launching pad most of us seem to think we need. Bike bending bad. Stiffness good. 

Living with this meme is something else. Especially if you ride LOTS and ride on roads like the one I am forced to ride (because, as I said, it’s the only sealed road we have around here). 

Living with this meme and doing the kind of miles I do (25,000km per year) is pushing the meme way past it’s event horizon of reason.

I have ten wonderful road bikes, each, at one time range toppers and a statement of road bike art. So long as you live on great roads and ride more sensible miles. 

So, I have two broken wrists (or so it feels) and every bump is a jolt of piercing pain. This is killing my Strava KOM’s…

I checked out the local medical scene for advice and the advice I got was along the lines of re-building my wrists via something along the lines of a Dremel saw. Quacks.

It then seemed compelling to self-medicate via procuring a more ‘compliant’ bike. 

My explorations along these lines started to reveal some fascinating insights into the ‘prevailing road cycling wisdom’ that, for so many, has each and every manifestation of a serious and genuine religion. Here are a few core tenants:

  • Elite cyclists need an elite bike or at least something that looks like one
  • An elite bike is defined by how stiff it is, and by how many pros ride it in pro races
  • Stiffness equals speed
  • Compliance is nice so long as it does not, ever, compromise speed
  • Road bikes and their riders can be sorted into different camps, with road and endurance cycling as the two main cults that are, emphatically, not the same
All these elements of roadie culture mesh to drive bike choice. But when you do some deconstructions around the tenets, we might all be free to make more lateral choices when we decide to buy a bike. Take the elite cyclist thing. Almost no one would claim to be elite but most of us at least aspire to be so. The real test is how often you find yourself race facing cyclists plodding along in the opposite direction or those you pass via a humungous burst of ego-fuelled speed. Race facers are usually attracted to highly conventional bike choices: whatever the pro teams are on is what they choose to be on too. The chances of an excited race facer of even looking in the direction of the new S-Works Roubaix are virtually zero. Unless all you have around your place is pave. 
 

Fullsizeoutput 1e31I admit to total failure over the meme concerning the utter necessity for a ferociously stiff bike. Yes, I did buy a Giant Propel. Yes, that would have to be the single dumbest thing one could ever choose when all you have are desolation roads like those where I ride. Yes, a high tech aero bike is a thrill on hot mix. No it’s not on potholes and patched-up roads of neglect. Lesson learnt and no, I am not going to ever buy a Pinarello Dogma F10 or a S-Works Venge. But here’s where things get complex. Think on this. The S-Works Roubaix is, actually, the stiffest frame Specialized have ever made. Yes, really. But, it is designed around compliance at every single interface between that frame and the world around it. That’s also the story for my number one favourite bike, the Open UPPER. That gravel bike has a seriously stiff frame, as does the 3T Exploro. But these gravel bikes are also designed to mesh with compliance at every interface to present a superbly controlled, compliant ride. So, frame stiffness is kind of a deeper, more complex story through which to select a bike. It really shouldn’t be the number one metric of choice. 

An ‘endurance’ bike has become, in the popular mythology of cycling, a euphemism for bikes that ‘real roadies’ would choose to ignore. Or, in whispered-so-as-not-to-offend terms, endurance bikes are for slow riders, old riders, slow old riders, riders who do not make the ‘grade’. The presumption is that an endurance bike is a slower bike, a heavier bike or a cheaper bike: a bike on the losing end of the old Fast-Strong-Cheap, choose two equation. However, just like bike frame stiffness, the concept of endurance versus road (racing) bikes and their riders is a touch more complex than you might think. Someone who rides a Curve Belgie from Perth to Sydney in one go is, by definition, an endurance rider and that bike is an endurance bike. I bet he or she can outride me, or you, unless you are into that continent crossing game as well. It annoys me when bike retailers try to partition off endurance machines when they smell an interest in riding criteriums. I have been directed away from endurance bikes time and time again by misinformed bicycle retailers. I blame them for the state of my wrists…  Are there any $10,000 plus endurance bikes out there? Does Peter Sagan ride an endurance bike?! Actually, the answer to both those questions is yes! And the answer is the Specialized S-Works Roubaix. 

I should have remembered all this as my wrists started to disintegrate via the continual, never ending road-shock of too many miles on abject roads. The re-birth of my cycling obsession some ten years ago happened via a Specialized Roubaix Comp.Knowing no better, I started out on this bike because I thought it might handle our appalling local roads better than my old Vitus 979 racing bike (hail be its name, for ever and ever, amen). Which was seriously true. I put in over 10,000km on that bike and lost 30kg in the process (in six months). They were good days. But then I got religion and decided to follow the mantra of Italian Carbon and got into the cult of Pinarello. Somewhere along that story line, I must have had a heretical regression, because I recall buying the first of the S-Works Roubaix’s sometime between one Pinarello and the next. That was the old Zertz (elastomer) insert machine (with the strange lightening bolt shaped forks and seat post). It was the lightest bike I ever owned. But Zertz was a fiction perpetrated by marketers of the most cynical kind. That thing was anything but compliant. But it was fast and light. And definitely not cheap. Memory fades. I recall lots of frame creaking and a recall on the Mavic hollow carbon spoked wheels. And then it was gone. But I can’t recall to who or how. It just faded out of my Italian carbon fixation of the time. It left little impression.

By the end of 2018, I was lined up to buy the latest Bianchi Oltre XR4, with frame additives for compliance, or so the advertising suggested. This very bike did so well in the last grand tours, and, impressively, at Paris Roubaix (my favourite race of all). It’s a climbing bike, a sprinters bike, an everything bike. Lovely. That’ll do. But there was a small voice floating around my cult-of-the-road bike mind. Who won Paris Roubaix in 2018? What did he ride? Yes, you know too. Peter Sagan on an S-Works Roubaix. The voice faded and Bianchi fever built, along with the pain in my wrists. Even I started to wonder about the prospect of being forced to give up cycling. Despite ordering a Lauf Grit front end for my 3T Exploro Ltd gravel racing bike…

In mid December, I picked up the phone. Rainbow Cycles at Coffs Harbour was the local Specialized dealer. Yes, there was one Roubaix left in size 56. It was a Mclaren special and the last of its kind in stock. Reading a credit card number out over the phone is so very easy…

I decided to merge the concept of buying this left-field bike with a holiday at the coast. And so it was. And here are my impressions. 

I have travelled a paradigm shift. Again. 

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The first insight is to ignore the advice you’re going to get when thinking about an S-Works Roubaix (or the more sensibly priced Specialized Comp Roubaix if you are happy with Ultegra and a lack of pretension towards glow-in-the-dark orange yellow – or Mclaren Classic Orange to be precise).

No, this is not a classical road racing bike. Yes, it is. Yes, it has leanings towards endurance geometry. No it doesn’t. Yes, it has real suspension between the handlebars and the frame. Yes, you can feel a touch of spring when you hero attack the hills via an out-of-the-saddle assault. No, this does not, in any way, take away speed or the application of power to the wheels. Yes, it is and does look different (to, say, a S-Works Tarmac or, indeed, a Bianchi Oltre XR4). But what road bike does not look different to other road bikes when it’s owner passes over $10k plus? You might not like the Lord Voldermort lightening strike shaped scar of a seat post. But it grows on you. You might not like the Cannondale-like Head Shock inspired Future Shock under this bike’s handlebars. But it grows on you. Or maybe you hate the look of Specialized’s strange storage box that straddles the bottom bracket junction rather than hanging off the saddle like on every other bike. Or perhaps the notion of a 15mm winged rise on the ‘Hover’ handlebars is just too much hearsay for your purist roadie inclinations. It was for me. But hey, this IS a paradigm shift we are riding here…

What is this bike supposed to be?!

Between you and me, it’s not really a dedicated solution to riding the Paris Roubaix race or cobbles anywhere else for that matter. A gravel bike is best for that, or a standard road bike when enough pro rider pay compensates for the aching wrists you’re going to get when your dreams are to be a rouleur. 

No, despite its name, the S-Works Roubaix is not a dedicated cobbles racing bike. But the name is suggestive of the bike’s real intent. This is a bike for crap roads. Or aching wrists. Or aching wrists from crap roads. Or, in other words, it’s just what I need.

My bet is that Specialized is using the Roubaix handle to emphasise the fact that this machine is a seriously competitive racing bike. It is not a toy. It is not a bike for roadies who have given up or have yet to arrive. It is a bike that retails for $13,500. It is dressed with the best including the latest Dura Ace Di2 and disc brakes. It is state of the art. It is also odd. As in different. Which explains why most folk don’t really know what to make of it. It’s not the bike you’d usually put on your short list if that list includes bikes like, say, the Bianchi Oltre XR4 or a Giant TCR Advanced SL 0. Or a Pinarello Dogma F10, or anything else exotic enough to race up the Col du Tourmalet. 

I am stunned by this bike.

The Future Shock front end really works. And that is not just me trying to validate a left-field purchase. Or pretending like I might have with the old Zertz inserts on Roubaix’s from the past. The Future Shock is a testament to engineering brilliance. It removes the pain from road shock but preserves all your power and speed. I am unable to detect a compromise. You still get the full measure of ‘road feel’ and ‘connection’. It’s not like riding a mountain bike on the tar. Nothing at all like it. This shock is above the frame. Unlike a mountain bike fork, the frame takes in all the shock of the road and transmits all your power back. It’s only your hands that are suspended. This magic is where the Mclaren deal came in. The computing grunt needed to work out the astounding precision of a shock absorber that absorbs shock but not power or feel was provided by the Mclaren team (and their super computer). This is not a trivial achievement! It’s actually, a bit of an Everest peak. Well done, Specialized.

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And let’s definitely not forget the similar achievement of that oh-so-strange looking seat post (the one like Harry Potter’s forehead scar). This thing looks like nothing else so is bound to put the purists off-side. That’s how paradigm shifts work. But it works, just like the Future Shock on top of the head tube. If you look closely, you will notice that the seat post clamp is in an odd spot: way down under the top tube, operating via a series of slits in the seat tube. It is unique. It’s purpose is to provide ‘lateral flex’ (as opposed to the axial action of the Future Shock). Just like the flexy posts on the Trek Domain and the Giant Revolt (and even the flexy rear end of the KTM Myroon hard tail MTB if you want to extend the analogies), the Roubaix’s post flexes with the road. Again, it is also precisely engineered to remove shock but neither power or feel. It’s a perfect rear end to match the brilliance of the spring up front. I can’t begin to imagine the amount of testing and calculation this suspension design has involved. All I can say is that this bike is sprung by engineering rather than marketing. For once, the engineers have had their say and this bike’s looks is what a bike looks like when engineering is given free reign. 

The bike tracks like any of my other exotic roadie machines. It descends with a precision that removes all thought of the need for brakes. It climbs like a pro climbing bike. It climbs as well as my Giant TCR Advanced SL 0, and by all that’s holy, that Giant is brilliant at climbing. At least once you acknowledge that there will be touch of ‘spring’ at that point where you stand to power your climb. The sensation is simply different, not of lost power or inefficiency. Just different. There is no cost to climbing power. 

Yes, the dedicated roadie will notice, at first, being just a bit higher on the bars. Not to the degree of a usual endurance ride. More like, say, riding an H2 Trek Madone. If that means anything to you. You get so used to this slight elevation that you stop noticing it after a few minutes acclimatisation. I do notice that I spend more time in the drops when riding this new Roubaix than I might than on my Wilier Zero.7 or my Giant TCR, but as I said, this position is about the same as when riding my Trek Madone. 

And then there are the wheels! At least on this S-Works version. Those Roval CLX32’s are a match made by the same engineering team that gave us the rest of this bike’s astounding ride. Especially when you clad them with Specialized’s Cotton Turbo 28mm racing tyres. Oh yes. These are good. And testimony to the concept of the total design integration this Roubaix evidences all over and every where else. 

I do continue to care that my local Council refuses to maintain my single sealed road. Especially when I pay them more in rates per year than my new S-Works cost. That bothers me. A lot. But I am not feeling like I am held hostage to this Bogan Council’s contemptuous road maintenance regime. My road rage, in this regard, has been suspended via a rather perfect engineering work-around. My recommendation is that this Armidale Regional Council should be forced to provide an S-Works Roubaix to every cyclist who lives along my road by way of compensation. But then again, there’s only a handful of us so that would be a cheap fix for that mob of Mafia wannabes.  Well done Specialized. You have hit the target this time around. Pass with High Distinction. 

The dangers of cycling, the safety of motorbikes and the perfections of the motorcar

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To paraphrase ten million pages of deep, dense, philosophical wordy meanderings (enough to fill a million academic careers), every person has an opinion on everything, and most of the time, those opinions are in violent opposition to the opinions of everyone else. Like, for example, the topic of the stupidity of cyclists to be, or not to be, on the road. Where the cars are. Who’s drivers are the kings of the universe and owners of the tar.

What we can get from the philosophical domain of, say, a place called Epistemology (look it up), is that the prospect for organising or otherwise arguing for a uniform view on debates like cyclist access to the roads, is zero. 

The problem is that every single person out there sees the world through his or her own perspective and that perspective is always a work in the making based on his or her accumulative experiences and genetically programmed leanings. One thing is shared. We all pretty much devote our entire lives to seeking out validation for the positions we might hold and thus search for a reward of enhanced self importance through which to energise our search for yet more self-validation. 

When we know about this stuff, and know it might be shaping the way we attach to any particular argument, we call that ‘reflexive thinking’. But almost no one is a genuine reflexive thinker, except, maybe, the Dalai Lama. Everyone might claim to be a Trump-level genius at being reflexive, but almost no one actually is. Just like most people claim to be ‘good drivers’ or even ‘open minded’. Very, very, few people ever are. Including YOU. Or me. 

To paraphrase a certain odious person I once knew: ‘enough of that nonsense, let’s get to the real matters at hand’. And thus miss the entire point and prospect for that rarest of all things: an intelligent conversation.

I’ve just read a letter to the editor in a mainstream UK motorcycling magazine. In that letter, the writer claimed to be a keen cyclist who had become totally dispirited with cycling through the seemingly unresolvable dangers directed from aggressive and distracted motorists. So he decided to give up cycling and take up the vastly safer option of motorcycling instead. Naturally, the editor felt compelled to provide his personal vote of endorsement and recommend that anyone else dumb enough to be persisting with cycling should follow suit.

Just imagine the retinue of mindless drivel such a sentiment might spark on that great outlet for the semi-if not-totally illiterate, Facebook!

But it all gets worse when we realise, as Donald Trump and his embarrassing Australian counterparts, Tony Abbott, Barnaby Joyce and Pauline Hanson have so profoundly demonstrated, that politicians can be and usually are no further removed from the mindless morons who pontificate on Facebook, only that those particular morons are actually empowered to make decisions (unlike their brethren on Facebook, who, thank your chosen deity, are not). 

Now I am not defining a dumb decision as being dumb on the foundation only of being different to a choice I might have made; that’s the nature of being reflexive! No, but you can make judgements about a person’s point of view on the foundation of how informed that decision might have been. I want to see the track of reasoning and the various resources consulted en route to that position or decision. How much ‘research’ happened in the making of a position. What are the hidden and not so hidden assumptions? What’s the rich context within which that position was formulated? Including that person’s implicit and explicit cultural leanings, implicit and explicit areas of ignorance and knowledge. All our understandings are at best highly compromised and limited in terms of their accounting for available insight and collected human wisdom. No computer can ever determine anything on the foundation of complete knowledge, if only because that knowledge is always changing and shifting. All understandings are imperfect. No one is ever completely right, or completely wrong. In my opinion, and this is a big one, all knowledge is subjective. Which means there is no such thing as objective knowledge. Which means that there is no real truth out there. Other than that that editor who reckoned that we should give up cycling because motorcycling is safer is an idiot. But hey, I am being subjective that that’s objective. 

What I am saying is that I am always deliriously aggrieved whenever some empowered turkey produces rules and regulations from the septic tank of their own context dependent understandings of how the world works. That really, really, annoys me. Why should I be burned off the earth because some redneck in parliament decides global warming is a myth? Or Why should I even be worried about global warming when some scientist boffin has decided global warming is real because his or her own black box algorithms have validated his or her own opinion on that matter as an outcome of his or her own rendering of his or her own opinions via the construction of said black box models! See what I mean by a subjective world…

My dog is so very lucky! He has no problems with the challenges of epistemological reflexivity. He’d do well on Facebook, if he could figure out how to type. 

So, let’s get to that elusive point. I hear the arguments why cycling is bad and why I should desist. I hear the arguments as to why cycling is great and worthy of ever more investment of my time and money (not that that would be possible until I get a bigger shed). I hear the excuses people give to stay away from exercise despite their remarkable similarity to Jabba the Hut and perpetual habitation in Doctors’ waiting rooms. I am told I am doing too much riding. I think I can do even more. I am told cycling is killing me (as I slide off the BMI scale into the unchartered territory of ‘underweight’). I am told it is keeping me alive. I am told motorcycling is bad and cycling is good. I am told motorcycling is bad and cars are much better. It seems the only safe place to be is to take up residence in my doctor’s waiting room. But then again, I reckon the medical profession has become the neo-cult religion of our times (with Hospitals as cathedrals, doctors as priests, and faith healing the terms of trade, because all medical knowledge is incomplete and faith a necessity if you believe in any particular cure, or even in any particular diagnosis). There’s a few serious time-validated propositions I have adopted as objective as objective can be: cycling feels great, so does riding a motorbike so long as it’s a Harley-Davidson. Cars are like riding in a coffin. And are as boring as sitting in said Doctor’s waiting room. Or, as one great motorcycling journalist put it: motorcars are the equivalent of a metallic colostomy bag…which is rather suggestive of what he thinks about motorists who operate within that bag… 

I will stick to cycling on the road until Pauline Trump Joyce finally makes it illegal to do so and then I will continue to ride anyway. Because I don’t believe idiots like that should ever be listened to. At least not by me. 

 

 

 

 

The Astounding Open UPPER – Part 1

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Welcome to the World of Post-Road Cycling

It’s taken the cycling world a century to re-invent the good old days. Back in the day, when cars were preceded by some bloke carrying a red flag, if you wanted to go for a bicycle (or, technically, a velocipede) ride, you rode on a gravel road. Back in the day, before suspension, gears and Strava, gravel adventure happened whenever you went for a ride. Then some idiot figured out how to mass produce cars and the world went mad. The flags disappeared and the roads were taken over by tin box Jurassic swamp juice burning barge carts. The boundaries of society extended as far as people could drive (or travel by train or ship). Only the wild places remained for walkers, horse riders and adventurous cyclocross-tourists.  Wild places were generally defined as those places beyond the reach of the family car; which is pretty much why those wild places managed to survive. (Isn’t it fascinating that all the best  places are places where cars don’t go…).

And so the world of gravel roading bicycles bravely persisted into the era of the automobile. Cycling niched off into camps of track, road, touring and cyclocross. Until a bunch on the Californian fringe decided to play around with fatter tyres to (re-)invent the mountain bike. Which, of course, had existed for going on a hundred years in Europe as the cyclocross bike. With suspension, mountain bikes took on a distinctive identity all of their own. Riders started to venture beyond the road, and even the track – in search of places unspoiled by cars and to escape the road rage that happens whenever people spend too long in a tin box.

All the while, those intrepid cyclocross-tourists persisted with their often outrageous explorations of deserts, cross continental adventures and circumnavigations of the world.  These proto-gravel grinders were generally unencumbered by the compulsive conservatism of roadies and revolutionary enthusiasms of the emergent mountain biking scene. They’d adapt and evolve what they needed to keep their wheels turning and their adventures rolling. Have a read of Bret Harris’s Tour de Oz for a rip roaring tale of Arthur Richardson’s 18,507 kilometre ride around Australia – in 1899 – to acclimatise yourself to the real deal of gravel riding before gravel riding became a Thing in around 2015…

And so the world turned. Like global warming, the roads became more and more defined by cars and less and less comfortable for riders of bikes.  The simmering dimension of escape down roads less travelled fringed ever more into the more obscure outer reaches of gravel and dirt. Until, nowadays, even our tragically neglected rural dirt roads are now trendy! The flags of this revolutionary surge finally woke the interests of the bicycle industry marketing machine. As the 21st  century progressed into its teens, the Next Big Thing became more and more self-evident: The age of the Gravel Bike had arrived. Again. 

To distinguish this latest off roading re-invention from the glory days before cars, or from what we rural roadies have always had to do just to negotiate our neglected local gravel roads,  this latest Gravel Biking era might be described as ‘Post Road Cycling’. 

Fuelled by an ever inflating barrage car driver rage and hate, cyclist attention to riding where cars aren’t has the attraction of a black hole. Despite critical mass rides of protest, political lobbying and superficially rhetorical leash tightening of car driver excesses via essentially worthless new road rules and related policy patch-ups (like ‘improved cycling infrastructure – where the only infrastructure that really works is the de-licencing of moronic car driver psychopaths), the simple seemingly unconstrainable intolerance of car drivers to anything or anyone who might dare impede their progress and psychopathic delusions of self-entitlement is the core culture that is making cycling a misery on public roads. And no one, anywhere, is doing a thing about that neurotic culture of entitlement that car drivers seem to wrap around themselves whenever they drive on roads they regard as theirs and theirs alone. Even a stray cow on the road gets politer treatment than a cyclist who might get in their way. (I get far more bogan horn blasting than cows do on the roads where I ride).  New road rules aimed at sharing the road only increase the rage and, like Australia’s new minimum overtaking distance rules, only tend to encourage even greater escapades of an intentional terrorism of revenge. Especially from trolls towing caravans and embryonic-brained provisional drivers fuelled more by testosterone than petroleum. Ah, it’s hell out there for we cyclists and getting worse every day! It’s no wonder that the great promised land of gravel road or post-road escape has started to draw and collect the entire bicycle industry’s attention these past few years. It’s now obvious to anyone and everyone that the world is now ready for Gravel Biking  as the Next Big Thing. Who can blame bicycle industry marketers from spinning the highest cadence of all time over this new promised land of escape and freedom (if you can, somehow, ignore the insidious predations of the 4WD set). We have lift off. Gravel Biking is here, planted and launched. The realities of rural road adventure has a new paint job (we rural cynics might suggest that all this is a ploy perpetrated by our local councils through which to avoid spending money on road maintenance…). Welcome back to 1880, only now with disc brakes, carbon frames, Garmins with maps, the Lauf Grit suspension fork and Schwalbe G One tyres – and the deliverance of Gerard Vroomen’s Gravel Plus vision via the wondrous 3T Exploro and the Open UP! 

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What is a Gravel Bike?

It is probably time to attempt a formal definition and specification for the Gravel Bike. No one else seems to be doing it so maybe I will give it a go given I have been gravel biking for over 30 years… (a bit hard not to when I live on an effectively infinite network of rural gravel roads starting, literally, from my front door).  But even before defining what a Gravel Bike might be, it would be sensible to describe what at least I mean by a gravel road. Yes, a gravel road is a road that’s not sealed with tar. Gravel roads are roads that are, more or less, maintained by some kind of publicly funded government authority. Road maintenance is generally via running a grader over the road periodically. And it is at this point that the whole show becomes vastly more complicated! The definition of maintenance is kind of idiosyncratic, at the very least. While there are standards, at least where I live, with which Local Councils have to conform, it’s the practical implementation of maintenance that is a bit erratic. My local gravel road network gets a genuine grade once every two years. So those roads range in condition from pretty fast and wondrous a week or so after the grade through to ‘up-yours tell-someone-who-cares’ by the end of year 2. On any single ride, a gravel road can cover a range of conditions that is far wider than anything you will ever see on a sealed road network. Some bits will be fast and well constructed, some others will resemble a bed of loose gravel scree, some will present so much sand you’d think you were riding on a beach, and in some places, the pot holes, corrugations, land slides, erosion gullies and wheel trenches turn the road into something like a black diamond downhill mountain bike run. And all this in the one 70km ride! A Gravel Bike is a bike designed, intentionally, to handle all these gravel road challenges while also keeping things together when your ride is interrupted by a bit of sealed road or maybe a bit of cross country MTB trail in between. The idea is that a genuine Gravel Bike will handle the lot.  And more. The point of such a bike is to allow the rider to ride routes that look good on a map without worrying about frame damage, tyres deconstructing and damage to your anatomy. When the sealed road ends, you don’t have to backtrack or call for help. 

The next point to make is that gravel roads are a feature of some areas more than others. I can’t think of any challenging gravel road networks in any Big City I have visited. But in rural places like where I live, I don’t actually have access to consistent sealed road networks. Gravel roads are our dominant roads. That’s a pretty common picture in Australia, Africa, many South American countries, Canada and the USA. Gravel roads are less common in Europe. However, most people live in the big cities, so most demand for bicycles will be from people who don’t have access to or may not have much desire to ride on gravel roads. In other words, in most places, genuine gravel bikes are likely to always be something on the fringe of the marketplace. Which probably explains why so many of the big bike makers are pitching rebadged or lightly detuned endurance road bikes as gravel bikes. These casual use ‘soft’ gravel bikes are probably all that the majority of the market place wants or needs. Such bikes are just fine for a ride that is mostly on sealed roads with a bit of gravel road in between. But for rural areas, where gravel roads become the dominant road type for any circuit or adventure route of choice, you will be needing a bike that is designed for heavy duty gravel road use – which means that your bike should suit the broad spectrum of road conditions you’ll find on your intended ride. A re-badged road endurance bike or a cyclocross bike will turn a serious gravel road ride into an exercise of misery as ride distance increases.  

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The Open UP: The Hard Core Icon of Gravel Bikes

As far as I can tell, most of the contemporary conversation around Gravel Bikes started with the launch of the Open UP (Unbeaten Path). Open is a hyper small brand established in 2012  by Gerard Vroomen (ex Cervelo designer and co-owner)  and Andy Kessler (ex CEO of BMC). Both Vroomen and Kessler were intent on reinventing themselves away from Big Corporate bike making back to grass roots Small-Is-Beautiful boutique adventure biking – along the lines of a tree change for two of the world’s leading bicycle industry luminaries. The intention for the Open UP was to build a bike that both Vroomen and Kessler actually wanted to ride rather than build a bike to cash in on current market trends (the Open UP happened before Gravel Biking became a Thing because Gravel Biking became a Thing after the Open UP started the craze!).  So, two bike guru’s created a bike from passion rather than as a response to the compulsions of the marketplace. Two boys building a toy for joy! It’s great to be able to build your own sandpit before the accountants and HR professionals start dictating the most cost effective sand to use and the right kind of protective safety gear while playing in it.  The original Open UP (now called the ‘Classic’) came out in 2016 in both orange and, yes, brown. It created a storm in the cycling press. Everyone loved it! This was something new. Something different. Something really, really good. Something that filled a need we never knew we had but then realised had been a need we’d had all along. Perversely, I have to wonder if this might actually be marketing genius on the next level…

So what is definitively unique about the Open UP? If this is the world’s first official Gravel Bike, what makes it a Gravel Bike rather than a bike like the bikes from everyone else? And, yes, I do realise that the Open UP is, actually, not really as unique as I am implying. Nearly everything about it has appeared before (it is not the world’s first dropped stay bike, and is certainly not the first bike pitched for the gravel – as I have said, touring bikes have been around from day one). But, I am not sure that all those predecessors ever managed to slip quite so definitively over the event horizon of marketing fury that Gravel Biking has since become. Perhaps Open are just the first to survive the journey to then sell the tale…

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The definitive Thing about the Open UP is its dropped chain stay enabled capacity to wear two different wheel sets as a blitzkrieg on the notion of versatility and multi-road compatibility. Vroomen and Kessler call this Gravel Plus. Simply, when you stick a two inch knobby tyre on a 27.5 inch rim, you get a wheel with the same diameter (or near enough) as a 40mm tyre on a road bike 700c rim (aka, 29er wheel).  All you need to run either of these wheel options is enough frame space to handle rubber ranging from around 28mm through to 53mm. The dropped drive side chain stay of the Open UP gives us this room while keeping those stays short enough to provide the lively, road bike like speed we need on good gravel roads. In other words, the Gravel Plus design delivers the capacity for road bike speed and response through compliance across a spectrum of road types beyond the reach that either conventional road bikes or mountain bikes can cover. This is not a hybrid bike kind of deal. Hybrids are, by definition, a bundle of compromises that constrain them from meeting the ultimate performance of either parent. The Open UP redefines the space rather than attempts to meet the space between those original markers of road vs. trail. If you consider a gravel road to be distinct and different to either a sealed road or mountain bike single track, the Open UP wraps that gravel space by more than 100 per cent. This is not a road bike you can use in the dirt. Or is it a mountain bike you can use on the road. It is both of those and vastly more. It is a bike designed for ALL the ideosyncracies of gravel roads (bumps, rocks, loose surfaces, mud, cow pats, snakes, water, bits of 4WD’s littered across the road, traction challenged ascents and corrugated death trap descents, and post-rain hard packed smoother than hot mix tar super fast dirt) that can extend its use equation right into sealed road space (you can race this thing in the Paris Roubaix) and way, way, further than you might think, into the domain of singletrack or even mild downhill (if you are game). Gravel Plus is versatility re-defined. Gravel Plus is one bike to rule them all. The Open UP is a definitive statement of Gravel Plus. 

Open does not exactly offer a wildly diverse model range. There are only two different bikes with a few model specification variants to fill out the range. Open offers a hard tail mountain bike (called the One+) and the UP. The UP comes in three variants: the original ‘Classic’, the ‘new’ UP (with an updated fork and disc brake calliper mounts) and the new for 2017/18 UPPER (which comes in matt black, or, for variety, unpainted so you can paint it yourself). Bravely, the UP is available as a frame only, so you will need to build up the bike yourself or buy it through a dealer with some idea of what fits best for you and the place you live. In Australia, the distributor is EightyOne Spices.  Interestingly, EightyOne Spices is also the Australian Syntace and Tune distributor (stunningly lovely German uber light exotic parts like the solid carbon Tune saddle from the latter and the zero offset flex seat post from the former) and is located right near that other Gravel Adventure icon of Australian Bike Biz: Curve Cycling. Now Curve makes some seriously desirable gravel touring/bikepacking bikes themselves, such as the Curve GMX (a titanium bike used for many an Australian desert crossing and gravel bike race). Curve also makes some astonishingly magnificent wheelsets! The Open UPPER was born to take the Curve carbon wide rims that are centre stage on my own bike. More on that in Part 2 of this feature. Irrespectively of where you live or what bike parts are locally available, Open is prolific in its advice for how to best set up their frames. And UP owners are just as prolific in sharing their builds on the Open website. So there are no real inner circle mysteries attached to how best to dress your new frame. While less convenient than buying a fully specified bike off the shelf, the Open approach opens a seriously ‘open’ set of possibilities for personalising your ride. 

Some Other Serious Gravel Bikes

GeIMG 0152rard Vroomen seems to have stored up some excess energy since selling up his stake in Cervelo. Apart from Open, he more recently purchased a stake in the venerable if not iconic Italian bicycle parts maker 3T. One of his first adventures with 3T was to design a bike that was even more unique than the Open UP. The 3T Exploro was released to the world in 2016. First cousin to the Open UP, the Exploro is an obvious genetic relative, while being very distinctive though its world’s first aero gravel bike frame profile. The Exploro shares an almost identical geometry to the UP and includes the UP’s dropped chain stay. The Exploro is also explicitly another manifestation of Gravel Plus. If it were not for the 12mm front axle of the UPPER and the 15mm front axle of the Exploro, anyone who buys both these Uber gravel bikes could share the same set of wheels. But, alas, such is life… I can most emphatically recommend both the UP/UPPER and the Exploro to any serious gravel biking enthusiast! The Exploro is for going fast and, as such, is all about speed. The Open UP/UPPER is more multi-purpose and cosmopolitan in its anatomy. It’s not an aero bike for a start. And considerably more compliant than the 3T. Succinctly, the 3T Exploro is a gravel bike with leanings towards the road bike domain and the Open UP is a gravel bike with a more obvious heritage on the mountain biking side. Vroomen’s pair are the Everest and K2 of the gravel bike domain. They are, pretty much, also the Everest and K2 in terms of price (think around AUD$16,500 a piece if you include two wheel sets with each). I have both and have yet to feel that I have doubled up. Both are as different from each other as they are the same. When I want an aggressively fast ride on roads that have been recently graded, I take the Exploro. When I just want a meandering ride without a fixed agenda, I take the Open UPPER. I could live with just one or the other but life is better with both! My review of the 3t Exploro was posted to this blog a few months ago. 

Now we have the high altitude of gravel bikes sorted, a brief synopsis of the field might help to complete a picture of this wonderful new cycling landscape. Just about every bike company out there is trying to palm off re-badged cyclocross and endurance road machines as gravel bikes to join in the party; some more seriously considered than others.  Giant, for example, has just released the TCX Advanced SX which is apparently an intentional ‘recalibration’ of its wonderful TCX Advanced SL cyclocross bike towards the wider application of gravel road riding. This is a rather explicit recognition that conventional cyclocross bikes are a bit limited when it comes to taking on the diversity of gravel roads. I have a TCX and love it, but I have not seen the new SX yet, so can’t comment. But this is an interesting admission from the world’s biggest bicycle maker about what’s needed to enter the gravel road market. Specialized has attempted something similar with its Diverge, a gravel road version of the Roubaix. Trek has just released its Checkpoint; a gravel road focused bike which, like the Specalized and Giant offerings, cannot accommodate 27.5 inch wheel sets . Other cyclocross-leaning bikes to consider include the Niner RLT (Road Less Travelled), now available as a relatively high end carbon variant after the original aluminium offering. Santa Cruz offers its Stigmata, which seems to be much more of a cyclocross bike than anything else, and Norco offers its Search (also in aluminium and carbon variants) – again, these Norco’s look and ride like slightly de-tuned cyclocross machines. While any of these bikes can ride a gravel road, they rarely offer the comprehensive versatility needed to cover all the multitude of surfaces and conditions making up the breathtakingly diverse array of challenges that gravel roads represent. In my view, if a bike is not Gravel Plus, it is not a Gravel Bike. Ride anything you want on a gravel road. You will probably survive the ride. It’s all cycling. But if you want to live the full Gravel Road experience, get a gravel bike that was designed for the gravel by engineers rather than one that is pitched and re-painted for the purpose by someone’s marketing department. 

In the category of serious, ‘full spectrum’ gravel bikes, the boutique and small makers have the field all to themselves right now. After the Open UP and the 3T Exploro, I’d put the Curve GXR high on my list of genuine Gravel Bikes. This titanium bike takes, naturally, either 27.5 or 700c/29er wheels. It has a serious track record in both the bike packing and gravel grinder racing fraternity. This is a versatile bike, especially if a frame made out of titanium appeals.

Next, the Merit Plus carbon Gravel Bike looks seriously interesting. It does rather look a LOT like the 3T Exploro… Merit is a ‘small garage brand’ located in the Czech Republic. 

New for 2018 is the South African Momsen R355 Gravel Plus Gravel Bike. Momsen is a mountain bike maker with an increasing international presence. This new engineered-for-gravel bike should be very interesting, especially considering the rather similar gravel road landscape that Australia and South Africa share. Again, I’d love this one in my shed. Or, really, the new shed I’d be needing if I could somehow justify adding even one more bike to my collection… But I do admire the very explicit advocacy this Momsen is making to the Gravel Plus cause. And the, again, rather uncanny similarity of the R355’s frame to the squared off tube set on the 3T Exploro. This one looks like another serious contender for the Gravel Grinder Racing scene (as in Dirty Kanza et al.).

And finally, just to contradict my precondition for Gravel Plus, I simply cannot ignore one bike that has me utterly intrigued: the Lauf True Grit. Made by the Iceland-based company who gave us the Lauf Grit leaf spring gravel road specific suspension fork (soon to be a fixture on my 3T Exploro), the True Grit comes standard with that amazing fork. Which rather suggests that, while without the capacity to host fatter tyred 27.5inch wheels, its gravel road specific suspension might actually restore the full spectrum of gravel road compliance that a genuine gravel road bike should exhibit. I wish I could test this theory out. But, despite trying, I can’t get one of these bikes in Australia. It took me four months just to source the fork (and that came via 3T). I have a space in my shed all ready for this bike. Maybe a trip to Iceland to pick one up is in order…

There are others out there. Enter any bike store and you will soon see ‘Gravel Bike’ plastered over the most amazingly eclectic array of bikes. I am sure there will be a Pinarello and a Colnago gravel bike any time soon… But, again, beware. It’s seriously easy to repaint and rebadge otherwise failed enduro road bikes as offerings into the  ‘adventure bikes’ – ‘gravel bike’ domain. Which is why I most emphatically recommend scrutiny of the genuine articles on offer from Open and 3T (and Merit and Momsen) before contemplating the rest of the landscape. You need a few benchmarks before you can judge anything else that might have floated into this landscape. 

A final qualifier is required. If you are an urban-based rider with limited access to gravel roads or contemplate rides that are in the order of 80 per cent sealed and 20 per cent gravel, any of these re-badged cyclocross or adventure bikes will probably meet your needs for a modicum of versatility. But, it is not necessarily the case that a non-gravel plus machine from Trek-Giant-Specialized et al is going to be cheaper, and will certainly be nowhere near as versatile as a genuinely engineered-for-gravel bike from the likes of the makers I have identified above. Don’t overrate the relative ease of purchase from the big end of town as opposed to spending a little time on-line to explore the more serious options I have identified in this article. I realise that your local bike store is not going to have any of these more serious contenders in stock, or even know they exist (and some will even deny they do). But it’s going to sting when you are out on your new GiantSpecialTrek bike only to be blitzed by an Open UP going twice the speed, with its rider having twice the fun and heading off to places you’d dare not follow. 

 

Beware Ignorant Advice

Just to restate and summarise, a genuine gravel bike is NOT a cyclocross bike. It is also NOT a road bike or a mountain bike. It’s not a hybrid of any or all of the above, either. As with any genuine cycling discipline, a gravel bike is, by definition, a bike designed from scratch to ride on gravel roads. It has geometry that is unique. And, thanks essentially to the design pioneering of Gerard Vroomen and friends, a gravel bike is now generally a bike that should come with two very different sets of wheels. The now default definition of a gravel bike is one that can accommodate both 27.5 inch and 29 inch wheels with tyres aimed at the extremes of gravel road surfaces and everything in between. The technology that enables this versatility of wheels is the dropped drive side chain stay. While Vroomen admits to not inventing this particular feature, he has championed it to perfection on both the gravel bikes he has designed to date: the 3T Exploro and the Open UP (Unbeaten Path). 

For all we gravel roadies who have ridden our roads on cyclocross bikes up to now, riding a genuine gravel bike is a saviour for our wrists, back and teeth. And for all those gravel roadies who rode those rides on mountain bikes, riding a gravel bike on a gravel road instead is like demounting from a Sherman Tank. There is nothing, absolutely NOTHING more miserable than riding a mountain bike long distance on a road. Gravel roads are roads up to the point where even 4WD legends-in-their-own-mind decide to get out and walk. Gravel roads are a misery on a mountain bike. I know this because for going on twenty years, I’ve tried to redress the pains of riding cyclocross bikes on gravel roads through seeking the extra comforts of mountain bikes only to always revert back again as their soft but heavy realities became an even bigger pain. I have five mountain bikes, two cyclocross bikes and two genuine gravel bikes in my stable. My thesis stands. The gravel bike is the bike for a gravel road. The road bike is the bike where tar is a thing and the mountain bike happens where the roads have disappeared. But, I do acknowledge that a good touring bike can pretty well still do it all, more or less (along the lines of something like a Kona or a Curve decked out in bike packing mode). If you don’t need the bags, and even if you do, the gravel bike is king. And just for the sake of completeness, I have tried road bikes with gravel weaponised tyres as a solution for riding gravel roads. I’ve had two Specialized Roubaix’s, including a range-topping S-Works as per the bike that’s won a couple of Paris-Roubaix’s.  Even with Gatorskin tyres, these semi-suspended road bikes are way too nervous and unforgiving for serious gravel riding, even when those gravel roads are in good condition, and certainly when they are not, as most gravel roads usually seem to be.  

I have read and heard the most astoundingly ignorant garbage from bike sales people and biking pundits on the subject of gravel bike choice. The big bike makers are not helping either, with some astoundingly misleading PR drivel through which to re-purpose their old hard tail mountain bike inventory or nasty hybrid rubbish as ‘great for the gravel’. Ask these people if they have competed in the Dirty Kanza or ridden the way-out-back gravel roads of the Barrington Tops, the New England Tablelands or the GravelAide course in South Australia in recent times. I thought not. Ask them about their bike-packing choices. I thought not. Just because it might be shod in Schwalbe One G tyres does not mean it’s a gravel bike. I can stick these tyres on my Giant TCR but that’s not going to make that roadie masterpiece a gravel bike any time soon! My simple advice is to research the places you want to ride and then match the realities of those places to the bikes best designed to ride them. If all you want to do is do ninety per cent tar with the occasional gravel interruption, you probably don’t need a gravel bike. A road bike with robust tyres will probably do. If you want an adventure down roads less travelled, as far from tin box terrorists as you can get, go visit the Open UP website for advice. The Gravel Biking scene is still too new for most bicycle industry ‘experts’ to have caught up yet. And most of the big bike brands have yet to understand the realities of riding serious distances on roads that are locked to the era of the horse and cart. All the best Gravel Biking gear is still being best served from the boutique end of the bicycling marketplace. 

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