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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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Tools of Terrorism

Here’s two interesting charts. The first shows gun related deaths in Australia over the past few years

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The graph reveals that around 238 people died via firearms in 2016. The stats don’t tell us how these people died, but not all would have been via murder.The stats don’t tell us how many incidents were officially classified as being an act of terrorism.

The next graph reveals car related deaths in Australia over the past few years

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The graph reveals that around 1,500 people die via the automobile each year on Australian roads.  

Cars account for over 6 times the number of fatalities in Australia each year over guns. 

Statistically, cars (or more specifically, their drivers) are more deadly than guns (or, more specifically, those who shoot them). 

Now consider the relative paranoia devoted to curtailing excesses from the use of both these instruments of ‘death’ (guns and cars). 

Imagine if some bureaucrat proposed to advance gun safety by painting lines on the ground to separate gun users from the general public as a primary control. Imagine all those happy public campers: kids, walkers, runners, old folk, all doing their thing on one side of the line while shooters did their shooting a metre or so away via the safety of a painted white safety line. Not likely eh! But that is precisely the kind of inanity that these same bureaucrats have inflicted as a primary safety instrument through which to separate murderous car drivers from insanely vulnerable cyclists all trying to share the same road.  A painted line, is, apparently an OK safety measure through which to separate car drivers and cyclists. But not shooters from the public. Despite the fact that the death rates inflicted by car drivers is more than 6 times that inflicted by shooters. 

And let us not forget the very latest trend in official terrorism circles: the use of cars to intentionally plough through pedestrians as a deliberate act of murder. Consider the furore over gun control after all those shooting incidents in American schools. Look at the venom aimed at just the one company, Vista Outdoors, manufacturer of ammunition and supporter of the the National Rifle Association in the USA. Vista also owns Giro and Bell, two of the worlds largest bicycle helmet makers. Both these bicycle accessory makers have been boycotted by the public for their association with their parent company. 

But did anyone consider boycotting whatever car maker made the cars that deliberately ploughed through pedestrian precincts in recent times? Nope. 

In all my years of being around guns (which, in rural Australia, is quite a bit of being around guns), I have only ever observed one episode of gross stupidity (a person pointing a loaded shot gun around the place claiming his trigger was dodgy – that person was quickly controlled!)

In all my years of being around cars as a cyclist who rides 25,000km pear year (as in, being passed by, passed into by, abused via, cut of by, run off the road by, tailgated by and generally, terrorised by car drivers), I have generally observed at least one moronic car driver exhibit of psychopathy every single ride, which means, every single day. 

For everyday ordinary Australians (which means, non-cyclists), cars are 6 times more deadly an instrument of death than guns. For cyclists, the assault of car driver terrorism is vastly greater. 

I can’t help thinking that it is actually safer for us cyclists to ride alongside a rifle range than a highway. 

I can’t help wonder at the current culture of aggrieved horror and disapproval aimed at shooters by the general public and public opinion makers these days. These days, gun owners keep their passions secret to avoid marganalisation or worse. Car drivers, though, happily wash their instruments of death and terror in the street. They even get their kids to help out. They even allow their kids to ride in their tin boxes of carnage. Just imagine what would happen if a kid even looked in the general direction of someone polishing a gun at home! Child abuse at best…

And let’s not forget the rather asymmetric training and licensing arrangements that pertain to guns vs cars. To get a firearm, you need a licence and to get a licence, you need to proclaim a good reason for having one. Basically, if you are not a farmer, and you want a gun, you will have issues. 

Do we need to present ‘good reason for wanting to drive a car’ as part of the process for applying for a driver’s licence? (Now, there’s an idea…)

Do we need to lock our cars away in a cabinet with at least two locks via two different keys? Do we need to drain our car’s petrol tank after each use and store that petrol in a separate safe?

Are we prohibited from taking our car out in public unless its to take said car off to some controlled venue partitioned off from the public (I wish). 

Do we need to log our purchases of fuel on a police controlled register every time we fill our car’s tank?

Clearly, most readers will be thinking that my arguments here are inane, if not insane. In our culture, cars and driving are a right, a necessity, a passion and an unquestioned backbone of the social fabric. Consider this. When we build a new house, why do we devote around one third of that space to housing our car? Why are we prepared to devote one third of that mortgage to accommodating a car and maybe only 20 percent to accomodate our kids (cars take up more room than the kids under the roof of most houses these days).  Why are we so complacent with the astounding carnage cars inflict on our public spaces through parking and parking infrastructure? Why do we build cities around cars rather than people? Have we all gone mad?!

Compare all that with the furtive timidity of gun owners who secrete their instruments of apparent terrorism in cabinets behind closed doors or keep their guns covered like lepers in shrouds when heading off to the range or the paddock. 

If my argument still doesn’t do it for you, here’s another approach. Go out for a drive on a rural road. Anywhere. Drive along and notice all the road kill. Kangaroo after kangaroo. Possums, echidnas, birds, snakes, wombats (and maybe cyclists): if it moves, it’s likely to end up dead beside the road. All this carnage is via car drivers and their tin boxes of death. Not one carcass would be from cyclists! If all that stinking residue of death and destruction does not reveal a ‘lived experience’ of the murderous character of cars and their drivers, you must be seriously deranged. And that’s just what cars and their drivers inflict on non-humans. Non-human car kills don’t even rate a mention in the car carnage statistics. 

Governments don’t classify all this car driver caused carnage as a scenario of terrorism because no one would vote for them if they did. Or maybe even the perception of cars-as-death can’t take hold in a society that has elevated the car to the status of obsessive reverence. It’s all a bit like a cargo cult. Or a religion. We worship cars. We build our societies around them. And many of those disciples don’t and won’t tolerate anything or anyone who disrupts that flow of reverence, like, say, cyclists – who dare to demand equal space on our roads of automotive worship. Nope, it’s a lot easier to marginalise cyclists and consider them as prospective roadkill. After all, car drivers who kill cyclists rarely if ever face penalties worse than a fine. 

I wonder if someone might consider marketing holsters for guns that fit on bikes? That would mess up a few pre-conceptions and social memes out there…

Twin Peaks

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There is a place with two wonderfully serious hills, one after the other. Two Hors Categorie peaks. Each is seven km or so in length, and about 10 per cent plus to climb and about the same to descend. They are located in a remote river valley with views to remember.  Both hills wind in a most alpine kind of way via a series of bends all the way up (and down again). Both are set within an uninhabited wilderness: just trees, steep precipices and wildlife; no people and best of all, no cars. There’s one of the world’s most spectacular camping sites (and serious Australian Bass fishing spot) on the approach side and there’s a great little village at the other end. 

These twin hills sit half way along a 250km route from the alpine New England Tablelands town of Armidale to the beach holiday town of South West Rocks. 

I ride this route once a year, as part of the local Tour de Rocks ride along with around 250 other cyclists, 248 of whom seem to insist on overweight mountain bikes as their peculiar weapon of choice.  

You’d think that this ride would be busy with cyclists, every other day of the year.. But there are fewer cyclists than cars on this road. Other than on the day the Tour de Rocks passes through. 

Why? 

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Because the first hill in the middle and the 100km to get to it is all gravel road, The second is sealed as is most of the rest of the 100km to the coast (unless you take a few interesting gravel road diversions along the way).

It’s as though the gravel/sealed road junction at the trough between the two peaks is something of a locked gate, a chasm or a wall. Almost no road cyclists will pass beyond the tar and most mountain bikers start to feel like they’re riding a tractor on the road once the gravel runs out.  

These hills represent something of a double dimension; the combination is a serious challenge to road cyclists on the one hand or the mountain bikers on the other. Neither is at home from one end to the other. The roadies ride the sealed side and return the way they came. The mountain bikers climb the gravel and suffer the tar. The hills are like a junction between two different gauge railway lines. The journey breaks in the middle. 

But the two hills and the two halves of this 250km journey the hills divide add up to a total trip that’s much greater than the sum of its two parts. They become a total journey of transition from rural tablelands, World Heritage Area country to sub tropical coast.  One half without the other is less than half the total deal. One part is black and the other is white (or gravel brown). Black without white would be too much black. Gravel and gravel would just become one long slug in the dirt. To ride from either end and return from the middle would be a totally different ride: one all remote and wild and the other all coastal and tropical. 

To ride the whole route is an adventure. To ride just one half there and back again is just a ride. 

I’ve ridden the whole thing on a mountain bike. Once on a hard tail XX1 KTM and another on a dual suspension XC Scott Spark 900 premium. Both very special bikes and each a chore on the tar. Especially on the long, long head wind-blighted blast of a last leg to the beach. Short of driving a 4WD tractor on the road, I can’t imagine anything worse than riding a mountain bike on the tar. Sit up and beg, all out in the wind with no place but one to rest your hands on the bars. Misery. I’d rather stick gatorskins on my road bike and hope for the best in the dirt. And probably break both my wrists over the bumps, washouts and a death defying 22km scream down the Big Hill Black Diamond dirt road sliding decent that dumps you 900 metres via a goat track embellished with 500 metre unguarded cliffs off to one side.  Fun on a dual suspension bike, hell on a road machine. 

I’ve also ridden the same ride twice on a cyclocross bike (A Giant TCX Advanced SL 0)  and twice on two exotically magnificent gravel bikes (a 3T Exploro LTD and most recently, an Open UPPER).  

Which brings me to the point of this story. 

These twin peaks are two versions of bliss on the right bike or a wall of no return on the wrong bike. Everything is about compromise here. The mountain bike can get you from one end to the other, if you must. The road bike is not going to work unless you are followed by a team support car with ten  spare wheels on its roof and a physio bench in the back. 

The right bike is a gravel bike.

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A gravel bike stitches the two halves of the ride together into the one seamless adventure ride. The twin peaks in the middle become an exclamation point of purposeful bliss. One peak in dirt and the other in tar become a thrill of transition rather than an agonised wall. 

A cyclocross bike is a bit more of a compromise on both halves with nothing particularly comfortable in the middle. A cyclocross bike is a bit like a hack that works ok on the dirt (though is a pain in the wrists and sobering on the Great Descent if you don’t want to be pot holed off the side of a cliff) and works on the tar (but you’ll be dreaming of your road bike once your too upright position starts to hurt). A cyclocross bike is WAY better for this kind of trip than any mountain bike, hard tail or full suss.

These twin peaks define the purpose of a gravel bike. And that purpose is adventure via astounding versatility. My Open UPPER with it’s sweet compliance and pedal stomping stiffness seems to transcend compromise on either the gravel or the tar. Yes a road bike might be faster when the road is well sealed, but you’d only really notice if you were in a race. And once you get to the dirt, your biggest challenge is to weave your way around all those mountain bikers wallowing all over the road like hippos dancing a waltz. 

That’s what gravel road biking is all about. You need to ride a ride like this to know that gravel bikes are not a fad or a marketing ploy. They are more like a wormhole star drive of transcendence between the gravel and the tar. One bike to rule them all. And yes, that KOM over the twin peaks is mine!

The Astounding Wilier Zero.7

Note: this post was uploaded in early 2016 (to my original Bicyclism Blog – before it disappeared via data base errors and assorted hosting irresponsibilities). Since then, Wilier has ‘updated’ the bike to Zero.6 status. The Zero.6 is, naturally, six hundred and something grams as opposed to the seven hundred and something for the Zero.7. That’s fine and keeping up the trends, but the bike has been neutered in terms of looks and has been given a considerably harsher ride.  As someone who rides too much and too far, a harsher bike is not helping my aching derelict road maintenance wrists. 

 

And the winner is…

Wilier0 225x300Wilier Zero.7.

After a year of research, dreaming and anticipation, and an entirely spurious attempt to apply the Scientific Method to my selection routine, I whittled a new bike short list of five down to one. 

To recap. I created a probably once-in-a-lifetime budget for a no-compromise, largely open choice dream bike by way of legal wranglings and small victories over injustices rendered… to fund a bike that could be ranked as ‘The Best Bike I Have Ever Owned’ (or probably ever will own). I wanted a bike without compromises for my intended purpose of riding fast, long and, simply, to experience abject state-of-the-racing-bike-art. For this brief moment in time, I wanted to know how a perfect synthesis of design and performance might feel on the rides I love, in the places that are meaningful to me. I wanted to taste that top-of-the-line benchmark in the flesh. 

Naturally, not everyone will agree with the choice I made, and, therefore, with the reasons for rejecting the other bikes on my short-list as my research progressed. As research is my professional thing (though, admittedly, not usually around the theme of bicycles), I am satisfied that my ultimate choice will not be subject to buyer’s regret over ‘what might have been’. 

Especially after the real deal arrived on my dealer’s floor. 

Let’s face it. A bike like this is as much art as science. But more. It’s the synthesis of both. And like all syntheses, the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. Razor sharp technology meets wicked good looks. But this art must also live in the real world. So it has to be good on our crap roads. And, as I ride for pleasure rather than for money (as if…) I want my pleasure rewards to endure, and endure, and endure some more. I want some permanent ecstasy to be going on here. Only a real road cycling nut will understand… I wanted a bike where I’d go out for two hours and come back after five… I want a bike that is totally, utterly and outrageously irresponsible!

I have been caught out before with bikes translating poorly from spec sheets onto the realities of the road. My first attempt at a criterium bike flexed so badly, I literally threw it away. My search for an ultra stiff bike once led me to consider walking instead (that bike lasted two days before I took it back to the store). Up till now, the best bike I have ever ridden on our real world rough as guts rural roads was a Pinarello Paris (I have the Prince too, but it is not as good as the Paris for what I do and where I choose to go). I’ve also spent a year riding a 2012 Giant TCR Advanced Rabobank: a pocket rocket where the magic of stiffness and compliance is artfully under control. The Giant is a great, stunning bike. Until it broke. Yes, all that stiffness ended up with a cracked seat stay. So now a 2013 TCR SL 0 Advanced warranty replacement in on the way. But I am nervous about how this latest generation of silly-light, stiff frames will hold up to keen amateur use. I don’t race these days. But I do ride a lot, seven days a week, 20,000km per year. But I’d happily ride twice that if my family would let me. Which they won’t. 

So my short listing of The Perfect Bike needed to account for that magical mix of stiffness and compliance that my Giant, apparently, failed. I want feather light, UCI-illegal light weight, but not at the expense of a bike that breaks. But I also want a bike that I can ride for five hours without feeling all bashed up. 

What first caught my eye about the Wilier Zero.7 is its unique use of a composite layered with some ‘secret material’ purpose designed to add compliance and resistance to damage (like cracking!). The reviews I read all indicated that this unique ultra tech composite was indeed equal to a seriously fast but seriously comfortable ride. So I rang the Australian importer and had a yarn. They (DeGrandi) also import Pinarello (the Dogma was also on my short list and I have a long standing Pinarello passion with three in my stable right now). I spoke to a guy who was at the world launch of the Wilier in Italy. His advice was that the Zero.7 would give  me a ‘sweeter ride’ than the Dogma. It was genuinely compliant on the road. But also silly light and seriously stiff. A magic mix. The holy cycling grail (hail be to Merckx).

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Looking good.

And yes, it really does. Look good. Like art. Nude carbon with flashes of red and strategic bits of white. The pictures looked astonishing. Especially with matching Fulcrum Red Wind XLR or Campagnolo Bora deep rim wheels. 

So, I shelved my Dogma plans and cut my short list to four. 

Which left me to contemplate the Colnago C59. Which, by pure chance, my local bike shop dealer (Mark of Bullen family track racing fame) just happened to get in for a bit of a look. And look and look I did. Despite being dressed, in this case, in blasphemous Dura Ace. (Italian = Campagnolo. End of). It’s a bit heavy. It’s an interesting mix of old tech pedigree (lugs!) but with a nod to the current state-of-the-art. Retro-current art. Lovely. But it does not punch me in the mouth like the Wilier does. It’s more of a nice warm bath than an electric Zero.7 shock shunted through wet electrodes into the pleasure dome of my mind. 2018 update: I have since added the C59 to my stable anyway, but mine is decked out in Campagnolo Super Record mechanical 11speed, as it should be. And with lovely, stunning Campagnolo Hyperon wheels which I have since installed permanently on my Wilier. 

I told you my selection process was rather less than a credible application of the Scientific Method…

Which leaves me with three. The Look 695, the BMC Teammachine SLR 01 and the Wilier. 

The Look is great value. But kind of weird. But the deal killer for me is the Look crank. I hate non-groupo cranks. With a passion. Having lived with one on my Specialized S-Works Roubaix and my Pinarello Prince. These things never work as well as the official groupo crank. Plus, I am unsure about the Look stem. It might work OK but you are going to be locked in. It’s as ugly as the stem on my Giant TCR. And the ride reports are rather equivocal. As I said, I don’t race much any more and the Look is looking a bit too purposefully pointed at the racing pro. Plus, I have yet to see one in the flesh. Unlike all the others on my short list. Not that my local dealer can’t get me one if I insist. Nothing is too much trouble for the team in my favourite bike shop. They support me like I support them. It’s a synergy thing…

And so for the BMC. I like it a lot. But it’s not a dream bike. I might still get one. But not today. It’s more Giant TCR than super exotic dream machine. To me, the BMC is higher ranked than the Dogma. I love the way they do efficiency and purposeful at BMC. There’s no gimmicks on this stunning bike. It’s a statement of efficiency but I am worried about the ride. As I said, I have just had a bike crack it’s frame on our local roads. To me, the BMC is the most efficient, value winning bike on my list. It’s $5000 less than the Wilier  and the Dogma (both at around $15,000). But just as good and an icon of Swiss purposeful design. This is the bike my economist’s mind would recommend. But my university professorial days are gone three years now (after some managerialist dead beat shut my research centre down). I make less rationalist choices these days. 

The Wilier is it for me

The Experience

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After drooling over photos of the Wilier Zero.7 for months on end, I wasn’t prepared for the looks of this machine in the flesh. It’s a bit like seeing the Grand Canyon for the first time. Great in the pics but a smash in the face for real. How could it possibly look even better in the flesh than it does on paper? But it does. And then some. And some for more. I’ll try to put it this way. The sensation of seeing my new bike for the first time was just like the feeling I got when I personally met my favourite painting (Hieronymus Bosch’s Garden of Earthly Delights in the Prado Museum in Madrid) for the very first time. And what an analogy through which to describe this bike! Garden of Earthly Delights for sure. If you are a cycling nutter like me. Paradise…in the flesh. 

One part of my selection routine is for a distributor that’s responsive to customer needs. DeGrandi is great. I have dealt with them lots of times before (through Mark Bullen at the Armidale Bicycle Centre – that’s them pre-delivering my bike in the photo to the right). No amount of mix and matching is too much of a chore in the Bullen store! So, out went the stock FSA/Wilier branded crank and in with the Campagnolo Super Record real deal instead. Out with the Fulcrum Racing 1’s and in with the Red Wind XLR’s. I want a bike without the need for a future upgrade path. I want everything to be perfect right at the start. 

The spec list on this bike is a list of the best bits money can buy. Everything is top of the line. From the seat (Selle Italia’s carbon railed SLR, through to the post and stem (both custom projects by FSA) to Campagnolo’s unimaginably gorgeous Super Record EPS (yes… I did opt for electronic gears). Nothing, but nothing, on this bike is anything but top end. Mt Everest  pointy top end. Anything above what’s on this bike has yet to be invented. Or is so impractical to be of suspect use. Which means that yes, it is possible to customise with even lighter parts (freaky light but fragile seat post and seats, skeleton brakes, et al.). But realise this. This bike is already as light as anything available right now. The frame weights 697grams certified by Wilier. The whole bike draped in Campagnolo Super Record EPS and deep rim wheels is still a UCI illegal 6.6kg! So why bother with even more ultra light parts and compromise the strength integrity I can get with stock Super Record? I am not a weight weenie. Did I mention that I have a bike with a frame that has just cracked through use on our local roads??

Before I take you out for a test ride on this thing, I need to explain my choice of wheels. Campagnolo Bora’s are the maker’s intended wheels of choice. Bora’s are wheels for tubular tyres. I had tubulars for years. I am done with glue and my tubular sewing kit. I know they ride like flying in the air. But not for around here… Just to get to my house I have to negotiate 200 metres of anti-socially disposed gutted dirt ruts. And ever since our local ‘Council’ decided to opt for the obscenity of automated pot hole patching cyclist-hate machines, nothing less than a mountain bike is really sustainable on the roads I am fated to ride if my desire is to ever leave my house… No, clinchers or tubeless are the only real options so Bora’s are off the menu list unless I relocate to Sydney’s stunningly beautifully West Head road (which, perversely, is where I went to try out my new Wilier for a week of riding the roads where I cut my racing teeth). Hence my choice of Fulcrum Red Wind XLR’s. Which is the Fulcrum version of Campagnolo’s Bullet wheels (same factory, different graphics and spokes). Which, in turn, are Campagnolo’s clincher version of the Bora’s. 

Wheels matter. And the XLR’s are great. 

Let me get this Campagnolo lust thing out of the way. I have Campagnolo Record on both my Pinarello Price and my Pinarello Paris. There was no Super Record on offer then. I have bikes with Dura Ace and with SRAM Red. I have a bike with Ultegra too. I use them all. I am, apparently, obsessive compulsive about things needing to click with a serious clunk before I can be satisfied I have affected something to be shut. Campagnolo does the trick. Like a bolt into a death row cell door. You know you have changed gear. You know you are in gear. You know you will stay in gear. Dura Ace is a fop by way of comparison. You change gears with an effeminate quasi, mousy, weakling wimpy click. An apologetic click at that. A click that apologises for the apology of a click it represents. A click that has lost its clicker. And it does not stay clicked for long. Dura Ace always starts to grind away in the indecision of its effeminate location on cogs it seems to despise. I hate the stuff. Passionately! Campagnolo for me. End of. But the new Super Record EPS?? I love it for its outrageous contempt to be a contender on the value scale… I LOVE the way Campagnolo built this stuff first and then contemplated the price. Just like engineers rather than accountants always do. Super Record EPS is the group engineers rather than accountants would choose. It is stupid expensive. More than the price of most people’s cars. 

Wilier2 234x300Aesthetics and deep clicking aside, this new EPS Super Record is a revelation for me. I had no idea that changing gears could be like this. Hell, I go for rides just to change gears these days. There’s deep love to be had from this EPS. Unutterable perfection. This stuff is like putting a step ladder on the top of Mount Everest to keep all other contenders at bay. Nothing is as good as Super Record EPS except, perhaps, mechanical Super Record after a two month electricity outage (which is when you need to recharge the EPS battery).

And so to the bike itself. How does it ride? I have a few benchmarks to compare. Is it as good as the Pinarello Paris? In other words, how is the Wilier’s balancing act of stiffness and compliance in comparison with my treasured Paris? Better. More of both. Twice.

How about against the Giant TCR Advanced Rabobank (recently deceased)? Less harsh but just as stiff. So better again. Against my Pinarello Prince? Less harsh again. and twice as stiff. And here is a ring-in through which to seal the deal. I have just grabbed the 2013 Merida Scultura Team SL (as issued to Team Lampre Merida in the Pro Tour for this year). The Merida is THE statement for stiffness and compliance in magical harmony. It’s 1/3 the price of the Wilier. It’s a magical bike. I will be reviewing it next. But the Wilier is one step above, again. I had no idea that it was possible to find a bike with such an astoundingly comfortable ride while being so amazingly stiff as the Wilier Zero.7. This is supernatural stuff. After all, the norm is that you can have one or the other, but not both. The Merida pulls it off. But the Wilier turns this magical mix into a technical tour de force. Nothing that I have ever ridden rides like the Wilier Zero.7  

It’s not a radical compact frame but it’s also not Colnago conventional diamond either. The WIlier’s top tube gracefully curves like a lazy Italian lunch into a set of Italian super model seat stay legs. The effect is a statement of compliance art. Big muscular (but not fat) chain stays are of the trendy asymmetrical kind. But without smash-you-in-the-mouth curvy Pinarello Dogma over baked marketing machine overstatement. The big frame architecture feature (aside from the secret but ever so brilliant composite mix) is the humungous BB 386 bottom end. When this bike came out only Wilier and BH were using this new bottom bracket (an 86mm extended version of the already large BB30 as seen on so many new bikes these days). This bottom bracket is HUGE. This is where much of the frame stiffness resides. My Merida also has this 386 BB. 

Because the head tube is less bottom heavy than many of the Wilier’s competitors (being of a lesser width than, say, the new Giant TCR Advanced SL 0 I am about to receive by way of warranty replacement for my broken TCR). This gives the Wilier a rather engaging steering dynamic. Some might classify the Zero.7’s steering as being too ‘loose’, or of being ‘nervous’. But it is intentionally ‘light’ in this regard to facilitate steering that is quick in a tight corner; perfect for criteriums and for avoiding blue rinse biddies in their motorised shopping cars (or P Plate bimbos attending to their texting rather than to the realities of the road). The steering is very ‘obvious’ when you take your first ride. I wouldn’t be giving this bike to a first time rider or a mountain biker seeking a conversion to the world of tar. But I am not implying any kind of lack of precision here. The steering this bike has is something to be desired, once you have some racing miles in your legs and head. I can’t imagine a better dynamic through which to keep pace in a fast moving peloton. But it is not like riding on rails for those who might prefer to autopilot down steep hills. You need to stay alert and in control and this steering is the tool through which to keep your descents in tune with the vagaries of any road. 

Wilier4 225x300

I have invested about 4,000km in this machine so far (2018 update: now over 25,000km). I have taken it everywhere and then some. So inspired by this bike, I loaded it into my car for a 1,000 km round trip to my old racing roads of Sydney’s Akuna Bay, West Head, just to see how it might ride on perfect hot melt, rather than our local strips of bankrupted Council Contempt. After 25 years away, I was born again! I am the sort who has 30 plus years of cycling log book data to recall. I have all the hills archived and my speeds were all up on those I was getting when I raced A Grade one quarter of a century before. I am wondering how Eddy Merckx or my hero Laurent Fignon (my racing buddies called me Laurent by way of nick name ’cause I looked like him at the time) might have gone on this Wilier Zero.7 back in their day. Perhaps if they had a bike like this no one would have thought of experimenting with EPO… 

And so, I will conclude, my mission was more than accomplished. I wanted the bike of my dreams and got something even better after a year of search through research. Perhaps there are bikes just as good, and there will certainly be bikes just as good in the future, if not better still, but for now, right here in the first bits of 2013, the Wilier Zero.7 is at the top of the tree. This one ticks boxes I didn’t know I had. This is, truly, the bike of at least my dreams. (2018 Update: at least until my Open UPPER arrived two weeks ago…given the relative delights of riding on gravel roads and thus avoiding car trolls and related traumas – astoundingly, this gravel bike frame is actually the same weight as the Zero.7!)

 

 

Flying Outside the Matrix

IP6010002 have always considered that the essence of what defines a person’s intellect to be either engaging or as dull as an Australian politician is the degree of reflexivity inherent in that intellect. A reflexive intellect is one that recognises that other points of view are not only possible, but that you might actually be wrong!. And if you are open to the possibilities of being wrong, you are likely to be open to the possibilities of learning! I enjoy the company and conversation of people who genuinely enjoy being challenged by new ideas and/or having existing mental models challenged. I don’t enjoy any kind of conversation with people who have closed minds. But then again, the latter usually only converse with rubber stamps or tick boxes to be checked.

This is quite pathological with me. I really, really, do not enjoy the company of dull witted types who’s idea of argument is to put a position on the table and then proceed to stick their fingers in their ears while you waste your time arguing to the contrary. Or worse, who don’t bother to reason why I might be wrong other than to say that I am wrong and that my arguments are ‘bull’…

I know more than a few people like this. Sometimes they have other redeeming characteristics. Usually they don’t. But things get really bad when these dull wits have managed to sludge their way into some sort of empowerment wherein their stupefyingly robotic mental models can be asserted over others. My local council (The Armidale Dumaresq Council) is utterly bloated with this kind of stupefying dullard. You will know the kind immediately, I am sure. These are the kind who claim that we must comply with some inane regulation or requirement ‘because the rules say so’.  

My last encounter with the Planning staff at this council left me looking up membership forms for the Misanthropist Society. We had a road that connected to a new house we wanted to build. But that road did not have clearly specified access rights (despite the fact that it was our road on our land). So this asylum for the mentally deranged decided we had to build a new road at the cost of $20,000 or be refused permission to occupy our new house. I had a one hour conversation with the head Planner involved. I wanted to know why we couldn’t use our existing road to access our new house. ‘Because it is illegal’. Why? Because it is illegal. Why is it illegal? Because it is. But why? Because the title deeds don’t specify your rights of access. But it is our land and our road. Does not matter, the Title Deeds don’t say so. Well, add some words to the Deeds. Can’t. Why? Because. Why? … In the end we had to build a new road because us spending $20,000 was easier for Council then it was for Council to add those words to the Deeds. Why? Because no one knew how. There was no real pathway with neon sign posts to show these dim wits how to proceed. No path, no journey. You can’t expect a robot to clear a new path when his programming neglects to support a challenge such as active thought. 

My one time university (the University of New England) was also bloated by mental unimpressives of this kind. The second from last boss of that now appalling degree-factory-with-delusions-to-relevance operated on the astoundingly inane premise that whatever happened in his last university should now happen to the one over which he now had the reins: to shut down any research group not in a faculty silo. Why? Because! That’s why. So out I went along with all my students. It might sound strange, but I found as big a dearth of intelligent life at that university as I found at our local Council. The dullards are in control. One place feeds the other. Literally.

And here is the rub. When the dullards mange to grab empowerment, they empower themselves over recruitment. And if there is one thing a dullard likes is even duller dullards under him or herself to control. So recruitment processes proceed along the lines of an ever descending spiral of stupidity until the point when an entire organisation becomes one big turgid bloat of dullards with the collective intellectual breadth of a beach sponge. Professors who should inspire us with the mind of a mental gymnast are, instead, more like the intellect in your local Automatic Teller Machine. Try to conduct an intellectually provocative argument with an ATM and you will just have your card confiscated. Try to conduct and intellectually provocative argument with one of these new generation professors and you will have your career terminated. Just like happened to me. 

You can understand why the robot brains are taking over. If you are in charge of an organisation, and you have a mind with less capacity for intellectual creativity than a traffic light, you will hardly be wanting to appoint more creative thinkers than you as your deputies, will you! I reckon you can always pick the character of an organisation through interviewing that organisation’s leader. I should have known my career was on the skids when I first met this new university head. I have met more inspiring carrots. I should have known we were in for it with our new house when I first met the General Manager and the Mayor of our so-called local council. The intellectual lights are definitely out in both organisations.

Yes, dullards can be dangerous.  

Cycling, for me, is my escape. This is just about the only place where I can fly outside the gravitational anchors of the robo-brained dull-wits-in-charge. 

Think about it. Just imagine being allowed to take a F1 grand prix car out for a spin on a public road. Yeah right. But that’s precisely what we can do with our Pro-Tour racing bikes. Breathtaking! 

Yes, we have to wear helmets, and have to obey the traffic rules. But, for most practical purposes, we can ride at the limits of our power and still stay legal. Try that in a car. Even if we do speed, we are not required to have a speedometer on-board so can plead ignorance (despite the Garmin 510 with second by second incriminating evidence if only Mr Plod knew…). We don’t have to ride with a number! Where else in society can we play without a number through which rule enforcers can enforce their rule? We can get away with things like carbon wheel braking (aka, no brakes when it rains) and glue on tyres. We can avoid obstacles that leave the car trolls holed up for hours simply by dismounting, hopping a fence or barrier, or weaving through the metallic mess they cause when they bash into each other rather than into us. Just imagine having to have our bikes inspected by bureaucrats with clip boards once a year. Just imagine if the OH&S ATM Brains were put in charge of designing road rules for cyclists and the bikes we ride. Just imagine what an OH&S bicycle would look like!! Just imagine how it would ride…

And then there is the breathtaking lack of regulations over the engines we cyclists use. No emissions controls, no caps on horse power. No catalytic converters and silenced exhausts. Indeed, government campaigns exist to encourage us to keep adding ever more horses in our corsets. The world’s most powerful cycling engine is every bit as legal as the most feeble. We don’t have to pay penalty insurance premiums as our watts go up. We don’t have to reduce our air intakes to constrain our power. Where else is power so unconstrained as it is for we cyclists? And, even if you don’t consider regulations and rule making, where else does performance remain so unconstrained by use? With a car, engines wear out and servicing costs go up with use. By and large, for cyclists, increased use only makes us go faster and longer! (Within constraints, as Strava over-performers will no doubt confirm).  Where else are the curves for costs and rewards so skewed in our favour as with cycling? Yes, cycling defies the axioms of economics in a most reassuring way!

Yes, we have many of the freedoms car drivers once had back in the 1950’s and before. Yes, we are not entirely un-constrained. But those constraints are nowhere near as intrusive as they are for any other road user. Basically, I am amazed that in this era of robot-brained idiocracy that we are actually allowed to use the road at all. I certainly have encountered many many car drivers who are also amazed at this too; and do everything they can to redress the problem by trying to run us off the road. 

Often times I think that riding my Wilier Zero.7 on the road is some kind of glorious aberration. I should enjoy it while I can, before the bureaucrats finally have their way. Can such an endeavour as riding a high performance bike on a public road really be a long-term pleasure? I ride like each day will be the last that such a thing will be allowed. Often, I think that riding is like receiving a lottery win on the wrong ticket. We have the money but surely, someone will pick up on the mistake and ask for the money to be returned. Can such a pleasure that is so profoundly at odds with the ordered, rule-bound machine world of  bureaucracy continue so profoundly under the radar of its reach? I ride like someone who has stolen something. I am getting so paranoid that I even feel guilty after a fast hard ride. What? Haven’t they banned this yet? Really? Wow. Off for another ride before some bureau-brain fills this hole in the social fabric matrix of our machine ruled world.

I know I am being controversial, but I think we are getting dangerously close to the end-of-cycling-days every time some bureaucrat orders the construction of a new cycleway. 

Maybe cycle ways work where you are, but around here they are simply an exercise of bureaucratic contempt; an exercise in ‘harmonising’ we cyclists into the matrix of ordered rules that has squashed the life out of everything else that once gave us pleasure. Building a cycle way usually involves painting a stencilled bicycle logo on what was otherwise the shoulder of a road. We are then expected to cycle on the glass/gravel detritus that car drivers effuse as part of the pollution package they dump wherever they go. We are expected to ride on road shoulders used by cars to park or otherwise decompose. Worse still, we are expected to share these ‘cycleways’ with pedestrians, wobbling casual pre-cyclists and worst of all, ebikers!; and all at speeds half that at which we can cruise on the road. My main worry is that once installed, the legislators frequently insist that we have to use a cycleway when one is available. I am not going to start riding a pedestrian infested gravel trap on my 120psi 23c tyres any time soon.

But where there is a cloud, the sun also often shines. I dream of the ‘metre matters’ metric being turned into law. Just imagine if the car trolls could actually be fined for brushing our handle bars or wing mirroring us into a ditch. This would be a veritable culture shifting catalyst for driver behaviour, especially if that new rule were to be ruthlessly enforced. I am sure the very next must have gadget for our handlebars would be a combination one metre radar detector and number plate recording device with satellite streaming to police stations everywhere! I can dream, can’t I?

I rather suspect that the reason for our relative freedoms on the road is more to do with the ‘monolith effect’ than it is to do with any laxities in rule maker diligence. By monolith I refer to that wondrous black slab that appears in front of the pre-bone weilding cave men in the film 2001. Any attempt to control we cyclists with the comforts of deep litter rules must hurt the brains of diligent mono-tracking rule makers just like making sense of the black monolith must have been to those pre-historic man-apes in the film. But once they did consider and enter the gateway, evolution went through a worm drive upgrade. I wonder what kind of a brain shift might happen to otherwise rule-bound dull thinking bureaucrats should they fall through the monolith into a life of active cycling. I rather think the effect would be like flying. They would be reborn in some mysterious hotel room into the higher plane of creative, reflexive thinking that had hitherto been evolutionarily denied by the dystopian rule-bound bog within which they currently primordially wallow.