Blog

Objective Perfection – The Stupendous Greatness of the Giant TCR Advanced SL 0

Note: This post was originally uploaded in 2016. However, all comments remain just as valid for the 2018 TCR Advanced SL 0 rim brake version (the frame is unchanged, the Dura Ace group set has been upgraded by Shimano since, but the TCR has essentially remained unchanged since).  Of course, the Giant Propel has been radically upgraded since this review and the then top of the line Giant TCX Advanced 0 bike has been downgraded in terms of specification via Giant’s latest iterations of that brilliant design. 

P1000286I appreciate Giant’s conundrum over how to market its new 2016 TCR Advanced SL (and all the other bikes descending down that range). It’s a busy market out there with lots of similarly focused and at least equally race pedigreed offerings pitched at serious to enthusiastic road cyclists. They could do what others do and simply pitch a perfect correlation between podium wins and the winning character of the bike. But we canny roadies know that much of that pedigree is related to how furiously each maker sponsors pro-teams to ride their bikes. If you provide bikes to a bunch of teams (like Specialized does), you’re bound to come up with a winner now and then through which to endorse your bike. Colnago and Pinarello certainly flog that line a lot to sell their bikes. A maker might also attempt to go all scientifically objective and measure the qualities of their own bikes over others. Which is what Giant is trying with its new TCR via a new ’stiffness to weight ratio’ comparative test across a range of competitors bikes. Naturally, the TCR comes out on top. But that test, though no doubt fascinating, is not going to convince me to hand over my cash. Bike decision making is always more complicated than simply going for some kind of quantitative score. Actually, bike decision making is a wonderfully deep wallow in subjectivity. I’m always impressed by how many choices are made just on maker’s ‘reputation’ (like Colnago) or even just on appearance alone (it’s stunning to me how many people did NOT choose a Merida Scultura SL because of its eccentric lime green paint scheme…despite the abject brilliance of its engineering design). I am perpetually bemused by folk who proclaim Specialised over all others, despite rarely knowing what those ‘others’ are actually like. Bianchi ’nuts’ are as crazy as they come, in this regard (anything as long as it is in Celeste…). And why, would anyone necessarily choose a Dogma F8 just because Chris Froom is paid to ride one? But they do and the waiting list is at 3 months right now.

I am wondering if there really is any kind of objectivity that can be applied to the choice of one road bike over another. Or is it all a bit more like choosing art? Or is it both art and science with a bit of religion thrown in?

I’d really like to make a big statement about this new 2016 TCR, because it is worth making a statement about. As I don’t think measurement is the answer, I think I’ll couch my review in terms of Zen. Which is a bit different I guess, so I will need a bit of space to explain myself. 

Let’s start with the conclusion. This major 2016 upgrade to the Giant TCR Advanced SL is a big event for pro-tour level road bike tech. This latest TCR is the best yet of that line and is, via the convolutions of the probably eccentric and definitely unusual reasoning outlined below, the best road bike I have ever known and possibly less arguably than you might think, the best road bike ever made. 

It’s very un-zen to explain Zen. As the old Zen precept goes: those who know don’t say and those who say don’t know. All of which neatly avoides the necessity to clearly define the central theme of this review: that the one core characteristic of road cycling that appeals most to me is it’s ‘zen character’. Given the ‘aesthetic obscurantism’ of Zen, I can give myself licence to simply say that, for me, there is something deeply compelling, and very ‘Zen’,  about a machine that works as well as it looks. Which is the old form meets function deal that rather goes missing for so many contraptions these days. Going even deeper, the ‘Zen perfection’ of something like a bicycle happens when you just ‘know’ that a design is right simply from looking it over. This does not happen all that often! Most bikes miss that wonderfully hard to describe mark to the degree that a test ride is required to confirm any convictions to performance you might have assumed. But there are some bikes, some rare bikes, that simply speak the perfection of Zen without the need to prove or test. It’s a ‘yes’ aesthetic. Like I said, these philosophical-aesthetic notions are hard to describe and that is the point. Of the 20 road bikes I have formally tested over the past 20 years, this hammer blow of obvious perfection has only happened to me four times: the first was for my Vitus 979 aluminium racing bike from 1985. The next was for my Wilier Zero.7. And the third was for my Giant TCR Advanced SL from 2012 (the Rabobank team edition). And the fourth was the new TCR.

One aspect of this self-evident bicycle perfection thing is that there can be no kind of engineering compromise in evidence in terms of inferior bike components or any pandering to current trends just for the sake of pandering. Putting it another way, a bike can only reach this peak when it is pretty obvious that no economist or marketer has had any kind of fiddle with the design. Ever. A GREAT bike is a pure statement of engineering perfection. The purity of that statement is a big part of the Zen aesthetic I am talking about. For instance, I reckon that any bike that comes with road disk brakes is going to scream the interference of marketers in a bike’s design. So too is the offer of a top end frame dragged down by cruddy wheels, or other components stripped of performance in order to meet some predetermined lower pricing point. Which is not necessarily to imply that a GREAT bike must be expensive and out of reach. Actually, if a bike can escape the baggage of price point compromise, avoid pandering to ‘marketing trends’ and still come out more affordably than others on the market, that’s a boost to its overall character of ‘the perfection of Zen’. Which also implies that if a bike is offered at an astronomical price (like the Wilier Zero.7 at $16,500!), it really, really needs to deliver on the engineering side to meet the mark. All that Campagnolo Super Record EPS on the Wilier must be seriously, seriously good to justify that price over, say, the similar perfections of a bike like the Giant TCR at slightly less than half the Wilier’s price. You can spend more than you might on the Giant TCR, but it’s unlikely any more expensive bike will be ‘better’. At best, the more expensive bike will be a differently nuanced statement of perfection. Which is luckily the case for bikes like the Wilier Zero.7 or, perhaps, the Colnago C60. 

P1000278

There’s another aspect of the Zen character of a machine and living with a machine that adds to the overall picture of perfectionism I am describing here. That’s the dimension of ‘being in total knowing connection’ with both the operation and workings of that machine, as all so wonderfully obscured by Robert Pirsig in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. That’s when your deeply realised ‘knowing’ of how a machine operates or works meshes with and supports your ‘riding experience’. When you know the workings of the machine (which is more than simply knowing the basics of bicycle mechanics, but truly understanding how the thing works as opposed to how to repair it), your capacity to experience becoming at one with the machine is enhanced. This is the dimension of the Zen perfection of bicycling that connects most with me. Have you ever seen that tee shirt design that depicts the evolution of man from ape-like to upright-walking-man to man-on-a-bike? That’s what I am talking about. When we ride a momentously GREAT bicycle, we become one with that bike. We are something new and something greater than a person doomed to riding in a car or taking a train or being gassed by fumes and viruses in a ‘plane. 

Not all bicycles offer the prospect of a connection like this. Mountain bikes, for example, don’t do it for me: too many springy bits to disconnect rider from the road. I consider the necessity to read a manual to decipher the workings of modern suspension settings a pretty big fail in terms of necessary man-machine empathy. No, mountain bikes are busy technology tools, that, though great fun to ride, don’t do the Zen thing for me. Many road bikes also don’t do it for me in terms of offering up a real connection to become at one with the machine. A road bike that rattles and squeaks will not do it for me. A bike with brakes that don’t work too well won’t do it either. And a bike with shifters that are imprecise or with buttons deployed in less than ergonomic perfection will insert a layer between the bike and my experience of the ride. For instance, the appalling shifting of the old Dura Ace 7900 mechanical gear train was a blot on the landscape of any bike that groupo afflicted. That would never, ever, do it for me. But more subtly, a bike with an unnecessarily harsh ride is going to remind you that your bike is separated from you via a layer of pain. That’s not good either. And, as a climbing enthusiast, a bike that flexes during out-of-the-saddle climbs is going reduce a ride to a man-versus-machine rather than the man-and-machine-are-one result I am looking for.  

As you can see, there’s a lot involved for a bicycle to be declared as ‘GREAT’ if not to be ‘the BEST’. At least according to the metric of my admittedly eccentric conditions through which that greatness is claimed. In all of this there are the hazy justifications I use to convince myself of the need for yet another bike. Otherwise, I’d just be a ‘collector’ and I can’t see much point in collecting as a point worth the kind of investment these bikes require. After all, collecting bicycles is a vastly dodgy affair when compared to endeavours like collecting art. The depreciation that blights bikes damns bike collecting to the point of insanity. No, there has to be better reasons for collecting more and more bikes. I justify this path as being the search for that enlightenment when all the dimensions of ‘Bike-Zen’ mesh together in a rare but enlightened spark. After all, if we are to explain cycling as meditation on wheels, it’s nice to clear that meditative path via the context of perfection that becoming at one with the bike and, therefore, at one with the experience of the ride that a great bike can support. A great ride via a great bike is the church! This is a vastly more benign religion than declaring some kind of jihad or getting obese on a pew. 

I needed to work through these philosophical notions in order to justify and explain my contention that the new 2016 Giant TCR Advanced SL (the top-of-the-line version) is, quite simply, one of if not the best bikes I have ever ridden. The notion of ‘best’ is all explained in the philosophical notions around the nexus of ‘Zen’. Which, while hard on the brain, is, I think, a more honest and compelling justification for describing something as ‘best’ than simply declaring it so. Or, if you like, the ever so common game of asserting something as being ‘the best’ needs some kind of justification if such claims are to be believed. By justifying myself via philosophical notions, I am making the point that making claims that one bike is better than others or is better than all the rest is indeed a murky, imprecise business. But, after riding my new TCR for over 1,000km in the past two weeks, I invoke all the insights of Zen through which to declare that this new bike is the one that really, really, does it for me. This new bike is IT. It is home. It is a home run. It is the best. I just KNOW it is. I don’t need to measure my claim. It just is. 

P1000284Lets’s start with the notion of ‘being connected with the bike’. We riders are more in control than we could ever be with cars or motorbikes. Sure, there are some cyclists who don’t even attempt puncture repairs, but the point is, the opportunity to take full mechanical control is higher for a bicycle than it is for any modern, computerised car. I never tire of watching all the bits of a bicycle working together as some astoundingly profound exemplar of synchronicity at work. Now that is art! Why should I pay someone to have all the fun of tinkering with my bikes? For me, a bicycle is at the limit of mechanical self-sufficiency; and that is reassuring when I am way out in the backwoods riding roads as unpopulated as the canyons Mars. There’s Zen in there… there’s a beauty in a design that manages to combine mechanical complexity with practical simplicity. Which does not necessarily imply that I wouldn’t enjoy being followed by a team car loaded with spare wheels, food, water and motivation speeches shouted from the open window. It’s just that the freedom from being self-contained and in-control is a tonic counterpoint to otherwise dragging an elaborate support network of commercial services through which to keep your adventures mobile. The road bike sings to control freaks like me.

The Zen-like simplicity of a road bike also tends to have been lost by modern mountain bike designs. I guess there’s a bit of a thrill to be had to mastering the intricacies of dual suspension settings and keeping all those pivots moving about, but to me, all that’s all a baggage that diverts from the pure simplicity of a dedicated road bike ride. Which is why I tend to prefer riding cyclocross bikes than having to ride heavy, overly complex mountain bikes. Which is not to say that I don’t admire the modern mountain bike. With the emphasis on the word ‘modern’. Because, and here is my main point, mountain bikes are the product of a rather more disturbed and frantic heritage than the calmer trajectory of road bikes. The perfections of the road bike were pretty much as well embedded 20 years ago as they are today. My Vitus  979 from 1985 is still on the same page as the latest Giant TCR to which, believe it or not, this review applies. You can’t say that about mountain bikes from 20 years past: nasty, harsh, heavy, disagreeable bogan-like contraptions – they were a veritable punk anti culture bash to the refinements of the road bike. The evolution of the mountain bike has been a shouty, brash exercise of histrionics compared to the quiet, collected, considered trail we roadies have enjoyed from then to now. Consider electronic gear shifting. Mavic started that game way back in the ’80’s. It’s been a slow considered path since. it was the biggest thing to happen since Shimano invented index shifting. With the latter being the progenitor of the former. This has been an evolutionary rather than a revolutionary path. Each iteration along the way was a comprehensible upgrade, rather than an explosion of ‘the next big thing’ that seems to colour mountain bike evolution more along the lines of computer tech than the glorious conservatism of change in the road bike scene (putting aside the mindless pointlessness of road bike disc brakes…) 

I don’t think I have ever ridden a bike that offers such a profound, unfiltered connection between rider and machine as this latest TCR. Along the lines of the preceding model, the new TCR simply disappears when you really start to ride. It becomes a part of you and you become a part of it. One reason for this enhanced connection is the astroundlngly uncluttered character of the TCR. The new bike is pared down to the absolute essentials and those essentials are utterly refined. The ride is sitting right on the balancing point of stiffness and compliance. A bit more in either direction (like the Propel which heads off into a stiffness focus and, say, the Defy which shades down to the domain of compliance), and you would start to notice the bike as an insertion between you and the road. For me, the new TCR’s longer wheel base (over the older model) and its astonishing SLR0 in-house wheels clinch the deal over the old model. And, of course, the integrated seat post is a key engineering feature of this bike and is fundamental to how well it performs.  

There is astonishing  beauty to behold in simplicity. The whole is apparent from the sum of its parts and the parts add up to a whole lot more than anyone would at first guess. Each bit is worthy of a deeper look. The more you look the more you see, all the while while keeping the context of the whole in view. If that does not confuse. Which good design never does. Just about every aspect of the new TCR combines to proclaim a breathtaking statement of simplicity. There is nothing out of place, nothing that is not needed and no single part that does not connect to and enhance every other part on the new TCR Advanced SL. It’s raw carbon and somehow utterly ‘right’ electric blue colour patches is perfect for the overall character of ‘purposeful simplicity’ that is at the core of the Zen aesthetic. But in keeping with the Zen concept of layers of perfection unfolding like a Mandelbrot Set the deeper you look, we can be ever more impressed when we look more deeply into the new TCR’s carbon frame down to the carbon itself. This is Giant’s own T-800 carbon fibre material woven in Giant’s own composite factory. This is the best carbon you can get and it is restricted to this top-of-the-line model TCR. No one does better carbon than this. It’s a stunning frame material that warrants a good look via a magnifying loupe. Lovely stuff.  

All those fiddly fads of market driven design are slow to take hold in the road cycling scene. Just look at how slowly the argument over disc brakes for road cycling is taking to resolve. That’s the way it should be. Don’t add complications to a winning model unless there are very good reasons to do so. Each and every part of a road bike is the product of a process of engineering evolution with a history that way precedes the motorcar. The thing is that road bike design has, by and large, always worked and worked better than almost any other engineering work with which humans have  been involved. The things we add and change are worked through in agonising detail and at the studied pace of cautious scepticism. We all need at least one benchmark of engineering that works at the pace that engineering drives rather than being driven by the vastly more frantic and, often pointless pace of marketing or economic inspiration. It keeps us grounded. The new TCR is grounded like nothing else I have ever seen. 

A road bike is a statement of minimalism; nothing is added that does not add to the ultimate efficiency of the whole. Which kind of explains the reluctance of we road cyclists to accept things like valve caps, reflectors and guards of any kind. There are people out there who endlessly search for the ultimate weight:efficiency ratio for water bottle cages and saddles, and even handlebar tape. (Guilty). To prove the value of this otherwise ineffable design-engineering aesthetic, I need only point out that the more a bicycle maker refines this aesthetic, the higher the price that is charged for the final product; and we cyclists have proven time and time again that we are willing to pay a premium for what, in effect, becomes less and less (at least in terms of weight and clutter). How many car drivers out there could care less about hiding, for example, all the wires that clutter under the hood (have you ever, really looked at a modern car’s wiring loom?). How many roadies would not prefer internal cable routing on their bikes these days? And if this art of paring down and down weren’t real, why is SRAM investing in wireless gear shifters as their next big road bike thing? The art of creatively engineering for pared-down-efficiency rather than pointless complexity is a defining beauty for the road bicycle.

Yes, less is more in the road biking scene. Of the 20 plus road bikes I have ridden over the past few years, none have hit this ‘perfection of minimalism’ better than the new TCR. Giant took a razor to clutter on this bike. If there was an award for the perfection of bicycle design austerity, the TCR would win. Which, if you followed the arguments about the perfections of design simplicity, you’d know this is the ultimate compliment for road bike design. Finding that design point which is the nexus of minimalism and engineering efficiency is the BIG THING these days: from Apple Inc’s agonisings over too many  buttons on iPads to Max Richter’s epic 8 hour Sleep, an exploration in music with almost no notes, the aesthetic splendours of pared down ‘Zen’ deign is at the deep freeze end of Cool. Yes, the new Giant is a masterpiece in purposeful minimalism moulded in deep Cool.

If all this appears to be overly philosophical to you, consider just why it is that you would ever, if not for an at least implicit empathy with notions such as these, be prepared to pay a price premium for a bike sans all the bells and whistles that you might demand for things like cars. I suppose, it might just all boil down to less is more in terms of speed and speed wins races. Whatever floats your boat. I don’t want to be carting an anchor of unnecessary technology around in any boat I ride up my local 12 per cent hills. But try to sell me a car without at least 6 speakers and an on-dash GPS, and auto sensing windscreen wipers and light sensing automatic lights and I will tell you to go away. If I decided to buy a car. Which I won’t. Because that would detract from my budget to buy more bikes. 

All of which brings me to the final dimension of Zen that I would like to discuss. The engineering perfectionism aesthetic of the road bicycle needs to apparent and evident without any kind of recourse to packaging, dressing, pretension or, really, anything else that marketers might determine to matter for their own bottom line. A great bike makes a statement without shouting its own name. The greatness of a bike does not need a name to assert its value. The true cycling connoisseur can detect greatness without the ugly brutality of marketing. No one ever needed to promote Beethoven with TV prime time jingles; the music sells itself. The true cycling connoisseur will ‘know’ the feeling of perfection when a maker crafts a statement of the form-meets-function of engineering perfection. He or she will just know when the mark is hit square on bull’s eye. He or she will just know when nothing more can be added or taken away from a design that has hit the level absolute perfection possible within the context of the nexus of art and science. 

So, I have worked through a couple of thousand words to say now what needs to be said. It is indeed possible for an enterprise like the Giant bicycle company to produce as much of a masterpiece of the bike maker’s art as a company such as Pinarello, Colnago or Wilier. And they have. 

The new 2016 Giant TCR Advanced SL (the top of the range offering in this line) is an unmitigated work of art. On any terms, in any place, at any price. 

I am not just talking through my hat. I have lived with top-end Pinarellos, the esoterically magnificent Wilier Zero.7. I have a Colnago and I have a top-end Trek Madone. And a line-topping Merida (Scultura), a top-end Bianchi Oltre. I have ten top-of-the-line, pro-tour-level road bikes currently in my shed and have sold off many more. Even a Specialised S-Works or two. I am not trying to boast any kind of psychopathic bicycle elitism here. I am only trying to suggest that I am comfortable with making a grand statement like I have. This new Giant TCR is definitively THE best bike I have ever owned. At half the price of the Wilier and the Pinarellos in my shed. 

How do I define ‘best’ in this regard?

P1000294The ride for one. This new Giant has needle-pointed the absolute bulls-eye of frame stiffness and compliance. No other bike I have ever ridden comes as close as this. When a bike misses or does not quite hit that mark, the contest is always compliance verses stiffness. The search is usually for the best compromise. Were compliance wins, comfort overlaps speed. When stiffness wins, we get a rougher ride. Some bikes get close to the perfect balance (where compromise seems to have been completely removed and  both facets win in seemingly impossible equal measure). The Wilier Zero.7 is a close, close performer in this regard. Others, like the Pinarello Dogma and the Giant Propel don’t even seem to bother. Stiffness and speed are all that seem to matter. You don’t need to be any kind of roadie connoisseur to know that both stiffness and compliance are the two most desirable traits in any bike and the talent of a bicycle designer is judged by how well balanced these conflicting traits can be controlled. All set, of course, within the context of minimum bicycle weight. Bicycle weight, stiffness and compliance; choose two. Until now. My M/L Giant TCR weighs in at 6.4kg with Look Blade 2 (Ti spindles) attached. Beat that! Go on. Try. And try that without spending more than AU$8,500. My Wilier was $16,500. 

Photo Above Left shows the new TCR and the Propel, indicating a very coherent design brief for both

There is, of course, more to a bike than stiffness, compliance and weight. Let’s look at a few additional bits of the TCR equation.

The new TCR is one brilliant descender. While some rides like my Wilier and even the Giant Propel can seem a bit highly strung, if not ‘nervous’ when it comes to a flat out descent, this new TCR descends so well that all thoughts of caution with regard to bumps in the road and devious side wind gusts disappear. As for the old TCR Advanced SL, which I still own too, this new bike descends with authority and a degree of stability that is utterly confidence inspiring. You rarely need to feather your brakes. Or think about doing so. 

The new TCR is one brilliant ascender too. This is a climbers bike. There is no flex. None whatsoever. Not in the frame or, importantly, in Giant’s own new included carbon 30mm SLR wheels. Whatever power you might have goes straight to the ground. If you are lean, this lean bike will reward you to a degree approaching the limits of gravity aggravated by the degree of incline.  But it is not a skittersh fragile climb of the kind that characterise so many ultralight climber’s bikes these days (aka the Scott Addict, say). No, that same planted, grounded stability we noticed on furious descents also applies when going up hill. The rider always seems to be a part of this bike rather than sitting on top. The avid climber becomes one with this bike when going up or down hill, not to mention when moving along the flats.

Which brings me to the all important comparison to bikes like Giant’s own Propel: the speed freak’s aero sprinting machine. I love my Propel. It always feels like riding a hot knife when negotiating the hot butter of a head wind flat road ride. Until the first side wind hits those gigantic 55mm ZIPP 404 rims. Or the first set of pot holes that Council workers always seem to so creatively neglect via some kind of plan aimed at converting us to the poverty of driving a car. Surprisingly, the new TCR is almost as quick on the flats as the Propel.  But with considerably more comfort via a vastly less harsh ride. I was thinking the demarcation between the Propel and the TCR (and indeed, the endurance orientated Defy) would be greater than this when riding fast. I never felt such a close match in this regard between the Propel and the old TCR. But the new TCR is even more of a speed machine than its always admired predecessor. Frankly, the Propel now seems rather marginalised to the more specialised end of sprinting and time trials. The TCR does everything well and some things  brilliantly so: namely climbing and descending. The Propel is a great sprinter and serviceable descender. It’s an OK ascender unless you are running for GC. The Propel and the TCR are offered at the exact same price. I suspect that the Propel’s sales are about to fall faster than the new TCR can climb. 

But there is more on offer here by way of becoming the embodiment of ‘ best’.

Giant is now following the lead of Trek and Specialized in in-housing production of more than just the bicycle frame. Like its rivals, Giant is now in the wheel making game. This is no OEM rebranding exercise. Though the new top-of-the-range SLR0 carbon wheels feature DT Swiss hubs, the rest come from Giant’s vat. These rims are the product of an engineering exercise at least as intense as the design of the new bike. Giant has now launched itself from zero to the max with its new wheels. They now sit on most models in the TCR, Propel, Defy and vastly neglected and almost always overlooked (but nevertheless brilliant) TCX (cyclocross) range. This is a serious taking-on of ZIPP et al effort on Giant’s part. I can not judge as I am not comparing like with quite like, but the new Giant SLR0 30mm all carbon clincher wheel set on the TCR Advanced SL are as stiff and compliant as the ZIPP 404’s most definitely aren’t. The ZIPP’s (firecrest 404, not the newer fire strike 404’s) which are or were standard on the Propel flex when out of the saddle efforts are required. On the Propel, the ZIPP’s flex to the point where they cause brake rub unless those brakes are adjusted out a fair way. Not deal killing flex. Just flex that can be noticed as opposed to the none at all you don’t notice with the new SL0’s on this new TCR. The new wheels weigh in at about 1,300 gm, which is an industry podium placing for wheels like this. They are not the lightest wheels available, but then again, they were designed to match and synergise with the intentional engineering characteristics of the new TCR. That is the point and the true advantage of building wheels in-house. The wheels and the frame become two components of a whole under the total control of the same engineering team and within the same engineering brief. It’s about time. I never could understand why something as fundamental to an overall bike design as the wheels should ever be ’outsourced’ to the general market place. Sure, the bike designer can tap some inspired wheels for OEM. But that exercise becomes a search for wheels that are as close to a desired engineering brief rather than being a part of the same brief. The potential to reap the engineering rewards of intentional, designed synergy between wheels and frame are maximised, in theory, when the same team does both. In theory. Not disregarding the idiosyncrasies of the wheel building art that engineers focused hitherto on frames might now need to also master. But theory meets practice with these new wheels. Giant has delivered a coup to no doubt concern the independent wheel makers of the world. And by the way, the all carbon top-of-the-line PSX1 rims on the range topping Giant TCX Advanced Pro 0 CX bike are also ZIPP level plus. 

In terms of spec., the new TCR leaves nothing to desire. The new bike is dressed in Shimano Dura Ace Di2, say no more (other than to simply wonder what a Campagnolo Super Record EPS set up on this bike might be like). Giant has equipped this bike with its all carbon Contact SLR handlebars and stem. That is a great team of carbon bits to no doubt even further sweeten the new bike’s ride (but not by as much as that work-of-art integrated bar-stem combo on the top-end Propel (sigh). And while I am at it, where oh where are the sprint shifters I got with my Propel? I love those things when riding in the drops. Oh well. 

The new TCR comes in three divisions of declining price. The Advanced SL comes with Di2 at the top or mechanical 9000 Dura Ace for a few thousand less. Then there is the Advanced Pro group with lesser carbon and no integrated seat post. Last is the Advanced range. But for me, the integrated seat post is not negotiable. For me, this integrated post is what has always defined the TCR. It is also the source of some, if not more, of the TCR’s compliance qualities. The ISP soaks up the bumps on both this new machine, the old TCR, on the top-end Propel and to a modified degree, on the Defy and TCX range toppers as well. [photo below shows the new TCR (bottom), the new TCX (middle) and the Propel (top)] And there is no chance of slipping or creaking seat posts ever again!

P1000311To conclude, if you carry a bias against Giant for reasons to do with (misplaced) snobbery and the like, the looser will be you. Take it from someone who does possess some of the everests of road bike art (e.g.. the Wilier Zero.7 and Pinarello’s finest), this new Giant is right up there. You can pay more,  but you will not buy a better bike than this. If you define ‘better’ in terms of engineering perfection and performance as usually described. Plus, in its naked carbon and slightly less than subtle electric blue colour patches, the design of this bike is the very essence of Zen. It is a fundamentally beautiful bike. Nothing it does not need and it needs nothing more. In my view, this new bike is exquisite, in a total holistic sense.

I have ridden the new TCR for over a month. Just today, I decided it was time to ride something else. So I took my one time all time favourite bike, the Pinarello Prince (the classic ultimate Pinarello from the pre carbon Dogma era), out for a ride. I always regarded my Prince as the sweetest riding bike I ever owned. Now, I can only see it’s flaws. The new TCR has me thinking about selling a pile of bikes on eBay. 

The genuine, intelligent road bike enthusiast will not be blinkered by the stupidities of brand bigotry. He or she will choose a bike based on all the qualities of any bike under review. I don’t care if this TCR is made by Giant or Bianchi (and Giant probably makes both, anyway). Mount Everest is Mount Everest. To find a better bike, you’re going to need a space suit and a good imagination, because right now, there is nothing higher up than this latest TCR. 

The 3T Exploro. The Next Big Thing

IMG 3512

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

IMG 3528

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

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

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

IMG 3516

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

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

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

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

So how does it ride?

IMG 3519

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Road Rage

NewImage

I have developed a perception of death. Death happens if and when I can’t ride my bikes anymore. And not the other way around. Day in day out, every single day, I sometimes wonder how on earth I can stay motivated to ride so persistently; especially when the experience, sometimes, is less than pleasant. It’s not as though I have nothing else to do, despite what our neighbours might think and say (and say they do, apparently). So, when is the riding experience less than pleasant? When the hills are really, really tough?  No, for reasons I don’t understand, I love riding up hills. Is it when it rains and howls a headwind gale on a near zero fridge/freezer day? No, there’s technical gear for that and, really, the sheer ludicrousness of riding in such conditions gives a kind of perverse pleasure.

When then, does the cycling experience turn bad? When some car driving troll tries to run me off the road, or worse.

All cyclists know about this one. It happens frequently.

Maintaining a long term cycling habit implies some kind of coping routine through which to recover from every incident of this kind, presuming, of course, that we survive the latest assault.

Think about it. How many other endeavours involve the necessity to recover from potentially fatal encounters with the deep, deep darkside of abject, and usually unmitigated human aggression? Add to that the fact that cycling is an endeavour that we do voluntarily, and with enthusiasm, and passion. How many other pleasures could sustain such a persistent onslaught of outrageous hatred directed, almost always, at us without any kind of reasoned cause? This hatred is extraordinarily unbalanced. While we might hate at least some car drivers and more than a few car drivers might hate us, it is the expression of this hatred that is the problem here. I have no liking for any car driver unless that car driver proves him or herself worthy of my respect (usually by not trying to run me over). I react like most other people when some troll vomits abuse from the lounge chair comforts of his (almost aways, his) car window, or cuts me off, or, like yesterday, actually chased me down and baled me up in the middle of a shopping mall suggesting that I should depart this earth in a most timely way. If not at his hand, then by some other person’s righteous hand. While I might have repetitive strain injury in the middle finger of my right hand, do I attempt to run car drivers off the road with my bike? Do I slam on my brakes in order to promulgate a painful collision? Do I ride around, through and over cars expecting them to get out of my way when they have the right of way? I can prove that I don’t do any of these things. I am still alive. At least for today.

If this were any other endeavour, I’d probably have given up by now. Assuming sado-masochism is not on the cards, why bother to keep on attracting a seemingly never ending barrage of abuse from the dark side of the human race? Wouldn’t it be cleverer to cosy up to water colour painting or wood turning instead? I don’t know the answer to this. I do not enjoy encounters of this kind. I try to wash the fallout from my mind within seconds of each event. But you’d have to be a pretty accomplished buddhist monk to pull off that rather extreme perfection of equanimity. It is always a struggle not to allow each encounter to accumulate into an ever deepening pool of destructive resentment. Which rather implies that the positives from cycling must be pretty profound to push back the impact of anti-cyclist vitriol and supremely unconstrained motorist ignorance. On balance, the equation balances out in cycling’s favour. At least it does for me. But I know of cyclists who can’t keep the equation balanced. They give up. Or stick to mountain biking instead. And yes, I have engaged in cycle commuting in the big angry city. Really, cycle commuting in Sydney is, on balance, a more ‘comprehensible’ endeavour than the kind of rural cycling with which I am engaged these days. Around here, the breeding pool from which car drivers are selected is rather smaller and less discerning, and education is so frequently all done in by the age of five.

So how do we cope with and overcome the exhibitions of car driver hate? And cope we must if we want to continue to ride on public roads.

I have no doubt that the best response it to ride predicatably, courteously, righteously and passively with the equanimity of a buddhist master. Do the right thing and never, ever, let them get you down. If you are abused, wave and smile. If someone runs you over, show genuine concern over the panel damage you might have caused to their car. Offer to wash your blood off their bonnet. Bless them and be on your way. Or apologise for inconveniencing them if an ambulance is needed to take you away.

Clearly, this committed misanthropist is challenged by an approach of that kind. Only this year, a fellow cyclist I know and for whom I have genuine regard (not frequently given by me as many who know me would attest), was killed by a hit and run encounter with a car driver on our local rural roads.

I use my misanthropy to sustain me in my cause. I will not let that minority of car driver trash keep me from the biggest and greatest passion of my life. They will not win. They will not prevail. But I will not let the desolations perpetrated by car-drivers build to a consuming hate that taints the purity of whatever it is that keeps cycling alive for me, year in, year out.

One insight that helps is that the kind of car driver that I encountered yesterday are a minority. And that their toxicity is fuelled and cooked in the ovens of their cars. When they step out of their vehicles, they turn into just ordinary, unlikable, generally harmless non-entities of the kind it is easy to ignore.

It helps me to classify car drivers into a kind of toxicity scale.

At the bottom are those who are, simply, ignorant. These drivers are not aggressive, in any kind of considered way, to cyclists, or even in possession of any definitive attitude towards those who choose to ride bikes on their roads. These drivers are usually just as ignorant of the rights of other car drivers to use what they believe to be their space on the road. This kind cuts everyone off. This kind think nothing of overtaking any other road user and then slamming on the brakes to turn left 20 metres down the road. The problem for us cyclists is that we are particularly invisible to car drivers of this kind. Their car-induced comas generally admit the possibility of giving space to, possibly, a truck; but, never, ever, to a cyclist. This is the behaviour of people who fully absorb the sensations of removal that sitting in a tin box seems to encourage. The world outside of their car becomes a kind of video game where the only real person is him or herself. They probably never spare a thought for the cyclist they have just cut off enroute to turning left. They never see the middle finger raised in the trail of resentment they blissfully leave behind. These drivers are dealt with most effectively through assuming that all car drivers are of that kind. We cyclists need and must assume the very worst if we are to stay alive. I know some cyclists think that taking on such an extreme stance of defensive riding tends to taint the experience of what should otherwise be our blissful rides; but I reckon if we ride as though every car driver has fangs and a predilection to strike, we can soon acclimatise to the realities of the road and the car-induced behavioural perversions that sitting in a climate controlled tin box seems to invoke.

Next up the scale are those who are both ignorant and intentional in their hurling of abuse. These are the horn honkers, the window down ‘get off the road’ (or worse; much, much, worse) aggro bloatards who are so unaccountably annoyed that anyone should ever get in their way. We should take consolation that this kind also take umbrage to other car drivers as well. The aggravations from this level of the ‘toxic spectrum’ are short lived. When you take them out of their tin boxes, they almost seem normal, if not the kind you’d ever want to invite around to dinner. It is here, and only here, I think, that we cyclists can be successful in playing the ignore them routine. There is, generally, and by my definition at this level of the toxicity scale, a cap on how far this kind will go. Should they choose to get out of their car at the next set of traffic lights or roundabout to confront the cyclist victim of their hate, they have self-selected upwards to the next highest level on the scale.

That next level are pathologically disturbed. These are the people (usually male) who, via a flood of testosterone, will exit their car to raise a fist or deliver the very antithesis of a Shakespearian sonnet in the direction of the cyclist who, at least while ensconced in the delusional protections of their car, seemed  to be an easy target for the exercise of their territorial hate. A hatred that peters out very very quickly when standing man to cyclist outside the protections no longer on offer from their car. This kind are cowards. This is the kind who confronted me the other day. This rather time ravaged bloke with a fascinating lack of front teeth and an astounding inability to string more than five words together before brain fade, burst out of his SUV to confront me in the pedestrian mall where he saw me pull up. The fist I knew of his presence was when he pushed his body right up against me, bloated stomach and gap toothed red-necked rage as physically forced as he might without using his fists,  to articulate his intention to ‘do me here and now’. Whatever a fat enfeebled 60 year old might imagine he could actually inflict on someone, let’s say, who was taller, fitter to many orders of a degree, and, most impressively, I thought, laughing in his face. ‘Do me for what?’ I enquired. ‘You think you own the road’ he suggested. ‘Really?’, I asked.  ‘Who was it that illegally overtook me at the traffic lights and then slammed on his brakes to turn right into some pastry shop?’ Yes, I gave his car a good slap to wake him up. Which was dumb because the then took off after me and swerved across the road in an attempt to knock me off my bike. I disappeared between two cars and he then took up the police car chase of his dreams to take a victory of confrontation in that mall. Or so he thought up until about a minute had elapsed from leaving the securities of his SUV. I rather ungraciously proffered some suggestions about his likely long-term residency in a low rent caravan park and accompanying lack of front teeth before he rather gave up the game only to reappear, half an hour later, in a last ditch attempt at a road block with his ample body and opened car door back at those traffic lights where we first met. I upset him again by ignoring him totally. With a practiced straight ahead focus on what I was asserting to be my uninterrupted ride. On reflection, I was also at my worst by way of response. I could see that this guy was rather past the stage of actually giving grievous bodily harm without the backup of his car. But I neglected to consider how he might have subsequently used that car to take me out. And, really, I was rather concerned that he might elect to kick my bike and take out some spokes as an alternative to his struggling inarticulate verbal abuse. I had my number one most treasured bike by my side; my Bianchi Oltre. That gave me pause for concern, then and through to now.

And what if that tragic, enraged simpleton had turned out to be on the next level up my toxicity scale? What if as well as being ignorant, profoundly uneducated, and hyper aggressive, he’d also been willing to actually use his fists. Or worse, actually go the next step and run me over with his car without fear of consequence? Then, I would be in some other place.

Fortunately, I have rarely encountered that kind who inhabit the enraged murder-end of the scale. They certainly exist. Cyclists are killed off by that kind every year. There is no defence from pathologically toxic characters of that kind. I have only ever met one of these, and my escape was lucky rather than the outcome of some kind of considered strategy. I survived  because he was driving a truck and I managed to escape between two cars as he attempted to throw me off the Urunga bridge, into the river below. Literally. My crime was to simply be on the road, in a 50km/hour urban zone. There was no verbal intercourse on my part. I was simply doing a Cavendish sprint to avoid this truck driver who had most intentionally tried to run me off the road to the point where he almost hit a tree with his b-double truck. What a man! And what a man he wasn’t when he exited his vehicle to confront me on the bridge. Stubby shorts, thongs, fluro singlet, lots and lots of body hair, five foot six, and 11 months pregnant with fat. And a terry towelling hat.  Only the residual image was funny. I have never seen such vitriolic burning hate  before.

So, yes, I have seen them all and survived, at least until today. I am not going to give up because I love to ride and riding is my thing.

I can only recommend a simple strategy here. We can never really know where an aggravated car driver fits on the toxicity scale until we have made his unpleasant acquaintance and that is an encounter we should go out of our way to avoid. So, the strategy I use and recommend (as best I can given my imperfections with dealing with humans of this kind) is to treat all car drivers as, at best, ignorant and dangerous until their actions prove otherwise. Never, assume we will be given the right of way. Always stick to the road rules to avoid confrontations where we can be officially judged in the wrong, and learn to forget as fast as we can. Why give toxic losers rent free space in our minds? These types should never be privileged above the pleasures we take from riding our bikes. They are not worth the space of our attention other than for the duration avoiding them requires.

One other recommendation is to consider one observation I’ve made trough over thirty years of riding on the road. The vast majority of car drivers are simply incapable of recognising the different ‘tribes’ to which we cyclists belong. Most car drivers cannot separate a difference in likely behaviour between casual cyclists and serious shaved legged, lycra wearing roadies. Or any class of cyclist between. To these drivers, all cyclists are simply pedestrians on wheels. We all ride at 5km per hour and are, like roadkill or truck spill, something to overtake or otherwise pass without forethought or consideration. Nearly every bad encounter I have ever had with car drivers was the result of their profound ignorance of my capacity to more than keep pace with cars at least around town. I cannot count the number of times I have been overtaken by car drivers while I was, at least, at the legal posted speed limit. The desperation these drivers exhibit to overtake what their simian brain perceives as an almost stationary road obstacle is often something to behold. And is frequently astoundingly dangerous to both me and other road users. And guess who gets the blame when the overtaking car driver almost collects an oncoming car via his or her profound misjudgment? It’s at this point that that frequent accusation of me being ‘insane’ originates. When forced to reflect on a near miss, any car driver I ‘question’ post-encounter almost always shifts blame to their perception of my insanity to ride in such an unexpectedly rash way. Whereas, my perception is of myself as a road user obeying the road rules and travelling at pace with the prevailing traffic. Most car drivers simply cannot conceive of a cyclist who can keep up with their car driving brethren, or indeed, that a cyclist could possibly be a legitimate vehicle for travel on those roads. Most people do not like their perceptions to be shocked in such an unseemly way.  Most people don’t like to countenance the merest possibility that perceptions alternative to their own might even exist.The proof of concept of this behavioural theory is that these self same car drivers also treat truck drivers the exact same way. I have discussed this at length with a few truck drivers I know. These car drivers with an ‘overtake at all costs’ mentality are the bane of truck drivers as well.

The message here is that even if you do look like a GC level pro-cyclist and you are riding a bike worth more than just about any car on the road, you will be grouped with those twice a year, shopping bag-on-the-handlebars, street-clothed, wobble cyclists who really can’t travel at more than 20km per hour.

As a related piece of advice, I have this controversy to add: never, ever, ride on the edge of the road. That is absolutely asking for death by being run over. Most car drivers are, let us say, somewhat less talented at the art of driving than the designers of those cars might have intended. When you ride on the edge of the road, you will find yourself being overtaken as a matter of course and with even less consideration than you would receive when riding in the middle of your lane. When you encounter that overtaking car, you will be encountering the non-driver side. The possibilities for your survival depend entirely on how well that driver judges where, exactly, the off side of his car might be in relation to you. Now I don’t know about you, but I don’t ever want to be giving the average car driver the benefit of the doubt in relation to his or her driving skills. Not when the loser in such a judgement call will always be the cyclist. If you ride on the edge of the road you are only reinforcing the drivers’ perception that you are an obstacle on the road to be by-passed. And you will be putting your life in the hands of that driver’s driving skills. Why would anyone do that? It makes absolutely no sense. Ride in the middle of your lane unless you are riding up a really steep hill that is wide enough to accommodate three vehicles abreast (you, the overtaking car and the inevitable car coming the other way – which will force the overtaking driver to crowd you off the road even more). But even then I stick to the middle of the lane.

I cannot reinforce the last point more other than to say that casual cyclists who persist on riding on the edge of their lane are not just putting their own lives on the line. They are endangering all cyclists through reinforcing car driver attitudes and behaviours that are at least as deadly as a deranged nutter blasting away with a shotgun in a shopping mall. If every cyclist rode in the middle of their lane, car drivers would soon get the message. Cyclists require an at least basic degree of thought to overtake. Even if in so doing those car drivers feel the need to vent some rage. Just watch out for the nutters who live further up the toxic driver scale. If they pass and seek to confront, pass them by and don’t interact. Hopefully you will survive.

Having said all that, to avoid the accumulation of driver-rage induced misanthropic sludge in my mind, I recommend taking regularly to the mountain bike (in the dirt, where mountain bikes exclusively belong), or to the freedoms of riding remote rural dirt roads on a cyclocross bike. Drivers out there are, almost always, of a vastly more benign kind. A ride on a remote rural road or cross country where cars can’t go is the recharge I need to stay on the road. Sometimes, that recharge takes some time. All roadies should invest in a mountain bike! And a GoPro video camera for their handlebars. For evidence in court.