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.

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. 

 

 

 

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… 

 

 

 

 

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 3T Exploro. The Next Big Thing

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Gravel bikes are now a thing. But then again, gravel bikes have always been a thing, even before there was any other kind of bike. Once upon a time, all roads were gravel and bikes rode on gravel, so they were gravel bikes. But then again, those truly good old days were before the blight of cars. Now days, gravel roads are the last frontier of relative peace from the bogan car terrorists who are more dangerous to we cyclists than a swimming pool full of Taipan snakes all riled up and ready to strike. Which is why, I guess gravel bikes are once again, a thing. People love the idea of taking to ‘roads less travelled’ to reconnect to cycling with a minimum of swimming with tin-top-Taipans.

Not to worry, I am enjoying this latest attempt to repackage something we always had into something ‘new’ and ‘big’. This marketing push is, at last, delivering a great and growing supply of tyres and related bits that were otherwise always hard to get.

The first point to make about gravel grinding is that gravel grinding can be done with mountain bikes, cyclocross bikes, touring bikes or even road bikes with bullet proof tyres. it has always been thus. However, riding gravel roads on cyclocross bikes (real ones, as in ready to race) is an exercise in dedicated fortitude and the heroic overlooking of pain. Just bounce down a 20km bumpy descent and you will soon know about wrist pain and Martini stomach (shaken, and stirred). It can be fun but it is rarely comfortable. But much more comfortable than trying the same on a road bike! At the other extreme, mountain biking on gravel roads is an exercise in overkill. Comfy for those declines but way too ponderously slow and heavy for all those sealed road bits that tend to interrupt just about all gravel road routes. Taking a mountain bike on a long gravel road ride is like touring in a truck. You can do it but it’s not a holiday. Riding a touring bike on gravel rides is the traditional approach and is just the thing if you want to carry bags; more sensible than riding a road bike and less obese than riding a mountain bike, but much more road bike than cyclocross. Touring bikes love long, slow trips on the tar.

Which brings us to the very definition of a gravel bike. I am definitely not going to evoke the word ‘hybrid’ here. Gravel bikes, by definition, are designed, ground up, for riding on gravel roads. Using a mountain bike on a gravel road is a hybrid activity. Riding a road bike on a gravel road is a hybrid activity. Gravel bikes have geometry that is definitively purpose-designed for gravel roads. The seat and head angles are a touch more relaxed than on a road bike, and a cyclocross bike, but no where near as relaxed as a mountain bike. Chain stay lengths are also longer than on most road bikes (but not as much as on a mountain bike). Bottom brackets are higher than on a road bike but closer to the ground than on a typical cyclocross bike. The closest bike to a gravel bike, geometry wise, is an endurance road bike, but with more endurance built-in. Depending on the gravel road we are riding, it’s probably reasonable to propose that a dedicated cyclocross bike will be faster than a gravel bike. My Giant TCX Advanced SL is a weapon on the dirt, but after a fast extended ride, you do need a rest. But if I put some heavy Gatorskin tyres on my Giant TCR, I’d still be riding sometime into next week on an otherwise two hour ride. And have broken wrists for the rest of the month. I can also ride my favourite gravel routes on my outrageously up-specced ultralight hardtail KTM mountain bike. That’s generally as fast as most gravel bikes but the ride feels … fat.

For years, and years, and for years some more, I have used either my Pinarello CX or my Giant TCX cyclocross bikes for gravel road rides. Its fun, satisfying and spectacularly free of cars and their often psychopathic drivers. Plus, by way of context, I should claim that I live in a place where gravel roads are the only option I have if I ever want to ride in nice big loops. Eighty per cent of my local roads are unsealed. I live in rural Australia on a sheep station where the closest town is an hour’s ride by the only sealed through-road I have access to.

About two years ago, we started hearing murmers about ‘gravel bikes’ from the US of A. That ‘thing’ has now become a ‘thing’ here in Australia, mostly since the start of 2016. Now we are hearing about gravel grinding everywhere. For the first time ever, we have had gravel grinder reviews in both of Australia’s main road bike magazines (Bicycling Australia and Ride). The US magazines are full of reviews of this kind. Even mountain bike magazines are starting to report on gravel grinder bikes – sometimes without apology. We are on a wave! At last.

Let me pick on a prime example of the new genre of gravel grinders now surfing this new marketing wave. The Niner RLT (available in an aluminium and in steel versions, with the heavier steel version commanding top spot in terms of price and prestige). This is a bike without pretensions to racing (but could be raced in cyclocross if you want), and is festooned with bottle cage mounts and places for bikepacking bags. I had the Niner steel RLT on order when it was released here in Australia, back in late November 2016. But I changed my mind at the 11th hour, as we shall see below.

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Now every bike company has a gravel grinder in their catalogues. Even Wilier! Trek, Norco, Canondale, Ridley and Specialised all have grinders available right now. Giant has yet to jump, and no doubt will for the next (2018) model year. Some makers are pretty obscure but bespoke and dedicated to the cause: Curve cycles from Australia and Lightspeed offer models love-crafted from titanium, Salsa offers one in steel, as does Cube. Some makers are trying to get away with re-badging their cyclocross bikes to join the cause (Santa Cruz’s Stigmata is otherwise a pretty standard cyclocross bike and is, really, the Norco Search).

And then came Gerard Vroomen. On selling up Cervelo, this master of tri-bike design set up an intentionally small scale bike company called Open and launched the rather revolutionary UP (Unbeaten Path). This carbon bike was a step sidewards and even more purposefully forwards for riders who wanted to ride fast on gravel roads. Because, just as gravel grinding has become a ‘thing’ so too has gravel racing, as exemplified by the outstandingly high profile Dirty Kanza race in the USA. This bright orange Open UP is the bike to have if you want to win a gravel road race or just ride flat out, just because you can. The UP has been around for a year. But Vroomen was restless and also invested in the legacy Italian bike parts company, 3T. Like Open, 3T has never made a bike before (and that company has been around since the 1960’s, making, in my view, the world’s nicest racing bike handlebars, stems, and associated bits). Vroomen’s first swim in the 3T pool resulted in the Exploro, the world’s first aero gravel bike. (Aero is now, it seems, a ‘thing’ within the ‘thing’ of gravel bikes). Launched in Tuscany in mid 2016, the Exploro is unique, even against the Open UP, despite these two bikes sharing a common design heritage and template. The Exploro has set up camp at the epicentre of Gravel Racing; a remarkably high-key launch and statement from a company without a previous bike on its books, but nonetheless with a storied heritage in high end carbon master-crafting for the pro-end of road cycling. This is not exactly sneaking a new product onto the market place!  This is launching a rocket from a place where no rocket has ever emerged before. Its a bit like Jamaica getting a manned mission to Mars before the USA, China and Russia even knew they were in the game.

While everyone is talking about the Exploro as the world’s first aero gravel bike, the more relevant conversation is to note that the Exploro is the first gravel bike designed to go really, really fast. In fact, 3T downplays the gravel bike association and up-plays the notion of ‘Gravel Plus’. While the massive ‘sqaero’ tubes are distinctive enough, its the intentionality of designing this bike to go fast on gravel roads that matters most; the squared off trailing edges of the Exploro’s down and seat tubes are Vroomen’s response to that design brief, along with the wonderfully massive, stiff, and versatile BB386 bottom bracket, as seen on such illustrious road racing bikes as the Wilier Zero.7 and Merida Scultura. The Exploro is the gravel bike a pathological roadie would want and that is where this design brief is pitched.

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The 3T Exploro is a design pitched to roadies wanting to do fast loops but frustrated when gravel roads get in the way. This is the bike that allows roadies to keep on going when the sealed roads run out. Or to roadies, like me, who are sick and tired of tin top tossers intent on abusing us off their precious sealed roads. The Exploro is the world’s best-named bike. This is a bike for roadies wanting to explore at the faster pace they like best. It’s a bike that eliminates the traditional dichotomy of road bike geometry and gravel road capability. That is the essence of ‘Gravel Plus’. Unlike just about every other gravel bike (except its first cousin, the Open UP), the Exploro has the same geometry you’d find on a Giant TCR or a Wilier Zero.7. It rides like a high-end road bike. On the road. But it also rides like a bespoke gravel grinder on the dirt. How Vroomen pulled is off is evident when you take a look at the chain stays. The drive side stay is kind of bent! Way bent. Seriously, differently bent. Just like on the Open UP. By being so bent, it was possible to pull off the other major magic trick: to accommodate big fat tyres.

Gravel Plus is all about versatility in wheels and tyres. The frame is designed to accommodate both 700c and 650B wheelsets. The 700c (aka 29er) wheels can carry tyres up to 42mm wide (which is wider than most cyclocross bikes can fit). The 650B wheels can accommodate tyres up to 2.1inches. But here is the thing. A 700c wheelset with 40mm tyres will present the same geometry settings as the 650B wheels with those 2.1 inch mountain bike tyres. The bike feels like it was made for either or both. But the ride across both wheel/tryre options opens up a vastly wider horizon for places you can ride without feeling any kind of compromise.

As I was getting all excited about the Niner RLT, I found a launch report for the Exploro 3T ( http://granfondo-cycling.com/3t-exploro-first-ever-aero-gravel-bike/ ). On the day my new RLT was designed to ship, I changed my mind and ordered the 3T via the ever patient Mark Bullen of Armidale Bicycle Centre. Which does not suggest that I think less of the Niner, but reflects the hook the 3T presents to an obsessed roadie like me. If you don’t fancy remodelling your roadie habits of speed and taking your bike (and yourself) to the limit, the 3T is the design for just that kind of fix. I have tried hard over the years to adopt a more civilised leisurely pace for my rides. But Strava keeps calling and frustrations keep mounting whenever I try to enter the gentle nobility of touring speed. It’s not that I am fast; but I am habitually connected to road cycling via a thirty year habit that’s going to be hard to break. Thanks to the 3T Exploro, I don’t have to and my local Council’s eccentric notions of road maintenance can recede on my scale of things that cause me grief. The Exploro is the antidote to manically incompetent road maintenance and neglect. A cause our local council considers to be its grand crusade.

The Exploro is only available as a frameset. Which is a shame! Even more so considering that comes from master bike component maker, 3T. I can’t begin to imagine the logic behind this particular marketing plan. Especially considering the fact that 3T launched two wheelsets custom designed for the Exploro at the same time: the Discus 700c and 650B. Then there are the 3T Erganova bars and ARX stems. They even make a stunning line of handlebar tape! Indeed, it is possible to set up your Exploro frame with 3T parts for everything other than the drive train (and even then, they make what is probably the world’s best crankset, under their THM brand). But I guess Mr Vroomen wanted to maximise the options we might like to consider. Even if, like me, you’d rather the factory made the choices for us from the start. Not to worry, my Exploro is dressed in 3T from beginning to end (except for bottle cages, which look like they’d spill a bottle out on the road after the first bump; so I got some Scott Syncros cages instead). All of which did not remove the necessity to agonise over what kind of drive train to install or tyres to fit. At it’s launch in Tuscany, the Exploro was kitted out in just about everything; 2 by 11, 1 by 11, Shimano or SRAM. I chose SRAM 1 by 11 but with the more constrained but polite 11 to 36 rear cluster as opposed to the 10 – 42 I’ve got on all my mountain bikes. I figured the gaps would be too big when riding on fast roads with dinner plate gears installed. I also opted for SRAM Red levers rather than Force. My cranks are Force because there is no Red yet for one by cranks. And my derailleur is also a Force but mid cage for the tighter cluster I have installed (I figured I’d be hitting fewer rocks with a shorter derailleur cage). I also opted for the mid range carbon 700c Discus wheels and the aluminium only 650B Pro’s. For rubber, I went for the WTB Horizon 47’s that 3T is promoting by association in all its advertising and as per most of the reviews I have seen. A great choice! These are super special tyres (47mm fat slicks set up as tubeless; they float over bumps almost like a fully suspended mountain bike!). Here in Australia, rubber is going to be a real pain for a while. Almost no one carries 700 x 40mm gravel road-specific tyres (like the Maxis Nano). And no one carries or says they ever intend to carry the WTB Horizon 47’s. So it’s going to be internet ordering for a while until wheels like these take greater hold in our local market place. The other big choice is between the Exploro LTD or the Team. The white Team is the cheaper and heavier frame at 1200 grams. The LTD is in black and weights 950 grams via higher modulus carbon and a different layup. The Team frame costs a massive $4,000 here in Australia and the LTD an eye watering $6,000. Which translates to around $15,000 or a fully set up Exploro LTD and $13,000 for the Team. This is Wilier Zero.6/Pinarello Dogma F8 territory.

So how does it ride?

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Like nothing else I have ever ridden. But you have to open your mind to a wider horizon than you might have ever considered before in order to appreciate a bike like this. Gravel Plus really is a Thing. To riding on the dirt, Gravel Plus is like Colour to Black and White. Together with a 60 inch wide-screen TV vs. watching an epic on your iPhone. For bumpy, poorly maintained gravel roads, the fat 650B wheels are akin to riding a mountain bike with speed-unlimited electric assist. These wheels float this bike over washboard and potholes akin to a fully suspended XC bike that managed to loose half its weight. My ultra exotic Scott Spark 900 SL weighs in at 9.5kg, so I have an interesting benchmark to compare. My 3T Exploro LTD is just a touch over 7kg! On our lousy local roads, this Exploro is an impossible cross between the dynamics of a seriously top end XC racing bike and the nimble perfections of a super light climber’s road bike. On roads with a greater mix between sealed and dirt, the 700c wheelset transforms this bike into something like a pro-level road bike wearing hard case Continental Gatorskin tyres. While the road-dressed Exploro will never match a pure climbing bike like the Giant TCR in the hills, it is very akin to the dynamics of, say, a Giant Propel but with a vastly more compliant ride.

On the dirt, a gravel road-dressed Exploro will never be as fast as a dedicated pro-level cyclocross bike (like the Giant TCX). But, once again, it is vastly more comfortable and almost as fast.

Which leads to the final dimension of the 3T Exploro to discuss. This next bit is, for me, the killer that makes it all totally the right bike for me. The 3T Exploro is, quite possibly, the world’s greatest fast bikepacking machine. And yes, bikepacking is also, now,  a ‘thing’. Bikepacking is the new new of touring with your gear. Unlike touring around with unwieldy and heavy panniers, bike packing involves the insertion of bags within and on a frame. Packs are fitted under the seat, within the main frame and on your handlebars. The intention is for the accommodation of light weight gear and touring at a faster than traditional touring pace. Yes, there are also bike-packing races on the agenda these days! Like, for example, racing the US Great Divide (from Canada to Mexico along the Great Divide route). With its traditional large triangle frame, the 3T Exploro is ready for any bikepacking crusade. Now you can hope on your bike and fast pace your way from coast to coast, or simply to the coast via a few days camping out.

In terms of engineering and features, some highlights include the standard inclusion of a 15mm through axle at the front and a 12mm at the rear. The rear axle set up is very unusual. It’s a straight bolt that needs to be tightened with an allen key. The thread enters the rear drop out but that drop out comes off once you take the axle out; it’s intended to and takes the rear derailleur off along with it. This makes changing the wheel rather easy when the bike is upside down as it would be when fixing a flat on the road. But it is a fiddly mess if you are attempting to deal with the dangling derailleur when the bike is on a work stand. I have a suspicion that the frame mount for the hanger might get a touch rounded with lots of these hanger on-off antics over time. What do you do then? Replace the frame?

The seat post is, let us say, idiocentric. The seat post tightening bolt is accessed from underneath the top tube via a hole that requires a long allen key bit for your torque wrench. The bolt pulls two wedges together onto a third wedge in between them. That middle wedge pushes out onto the seat post the more you do up the bolt (to a recommended 9NM!!). The only problem here is that as you undo this seat post bolt, it tends to keep on going until it touches the inside of the top tube, getting tighter and tighter against that tube the more you undo the bolt. So, rather unusually, it’s possible to keep on loosening that bolt via ever higher torque until the frame cracks! Which my first frame did… If your torque wrench works both ways, you might be thinking you are doing up the bolt when in fact you are enroute to destroying your frame. 3T has picked up on this and now offers a warning sheet with the frame to recommend extreme caution when loosening the bolt. The post itself is a zero offset job with an infinite rotational adjustment at the top for your seat angle. This frame needs a zero offset post as the top tube is relatively longer than whatever is usually standard for each frame size, thus bringing your reach back under control. This all works really well. You are advised to select a frame via the reach and stack height specs you’d usually choose for your road bike. Mine is a L and has the same geometry as my M/L Giant TCR, Propel and size L Wilier Zero.7 frames. Riding the new Exploro feels like being at home.

Frame quality seems right up there which is reassuring because the whole thing is made in … Vietnam. It seems someone has built a world class carbon moulding plant in that country and is applying serious quality control. I do confess that seeing a ‘Made in Vietnam’ sticker on the bottom of the ultra weirdly shaped bottom bracket caused me some real anxieties considering the stratospheric cost of this frame.

My last observation is to wonder if there ever been a more versatile bike than this!!!??? It’s rides like a pro-racing road bike on the road and and like an unimaginably comfortable CX bike on the dirt. And it’s all set up for a ride around the globe, if that’s your thing.

And finally, according to that Australian 3T distributor, my Exploro is the first one sold in Australia which makes Armidale Bicycle Centre the first 3T bike retailer in the country!  This also means that this review is the first for Australia as well. Here’s hoping all this bleeding edge pioneering stuff won’t backfire before the Exploro market inevitably takes hold. I cannot imagine a country more suited to a super fast gravel bike than this. Where else are there so many unsealed roads in such astoundingly poor condition, all primed for the retro-revelations of Gravel Grinding 2.0.