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.
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.
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?
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.
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I 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.
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.
Lets’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?
The 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!
To 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.
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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.
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Stop the Press
I have had it all wrong for years as a captive of the Latest is Greatest Marketing Putsch. I have suffered the feverish attraction to the latest is greatest in bikes while, all the time, knowing full well that old is not necessarily… well … old. Just like me! Of course, you are now saying ‘so what, everyone knows that!’ Or ‘gee… he’s slow’. Maybe so.
The seed of my personal revelation happened just six months or so ago when I decided to go for a ride on my once Number 1 cherished bike, the Pinarello Prince (from 2009). Having far too many road bikes, I can rotate around my bunch on a long cycle between visits. This was my first ride on my Prince for over a year. My immediate impression of said Pinarello was just how much I forgot how well this thing rides. My Prince has legs longer than the annual techno geek cycle bi-cycle makers seem intent to pretend for bikes these days. Actually, any bike used by the Pro-Peloton in top-end races is pretty well current for five years or more, rather than the two or three bike marketers would have us believe (by way of contribution to their nevertheless worthwhile bottom line). I am no longer on the cutting edge. Or rather, my cutting edge just extended its width out from 12 months to five years or more. It’s harder to fall off an edge as wide as that and I really do not like heights.
Why? From where did this rather obvious insight come to pay me a visit?
It all started with the opportunity to purchase my very first factory demonstrator; a Giant Propel Advanced SL 0 (top of the line) wonder bike from way back in 2014… As this bike has a cut seat mast, it’s life as a demonstrator was, let’s say, rather constrained. So much so that until I came along, just about no one was able to ride the thing without the advice of a hack saw. Uncanny miraculous coincidence or not, what’s the chances for a current model demonstrator cut to exactly (to the mm) my size? My seat height is unusually high. So off I went and so did the bike. Mine. All mine. For 50% off! When I purchased my new ofd bike, it had just been replaced by the 2015 model. So was I out of date? Not exactly. Except for the paint. Mine is nero (black) raw carbon with blue highlights on the back end. The new model is raw carbon with white highlights on the back end. And that is about it. So, here I am with a new bike for 50% off feeling terribly pleased about extricating myself from the anxieties of the new model cycle cycle. Could there be more from this rich patch of bargain revelation?
Enter my new old Trek Madone 6.9SSL. Top of the top end, hand made in the USA (f-yeah!) from 2012. This one was a new bike that was never, really, delivered to its owner who, like me, was caught up in the throes of new bike fever. It had spent a year in my Local Bike Shop’s workshop waiting final delivery decisions. Out it went for, wait for it, 70% off! $13,500 down to $4,000. For all intents and purposes, band spanking new. Dressed in HED Ardennes wheels and Dura Ace (albeit 7900 rather than 9000 and 10 cogs on the back rather than 11). Having never ridden a Trek road bike before, I don’t have a benchmark from other Treks, but against the other 8 road bikes I own, it is a serious revelation! Just about perfect at everything. Now the new Trek 7.9 Madone may be better kitted with Dura Ace 9070 Di2 et al. but from all I have read, the upgrade is rather modest. If the trip from 6.9 to 7.9 is any kind of upgrade at all. Success again.
But now comes the piece de resistance!
Could it be possible for anything to match if not better my Number One All Time Greatest Ever bike: the Wilier Zero.7? Not likely, unless possibly the Wilier Zero.7 Mark II released earlier this year. Maybe. How could anyone improve on the perfection of this Mark 1 Italian masterpiece, decked out as it is in Super Record EPS?
And so I was confident in my confidence until I picked up a sadly riderless Bianchi Oltre Nero Limited (2012 model) sitting in a Specialized retail store (traded by someone who is really, really, going to regret his choice for downgrading to a S Works Tarmac). There it was. The one and only bike I had ever and always liked to the degree of a Wilier Zero.7 (at least on paper) but had never seen let alone ridden first hand. Never liking the prospect of a celeste green Bianchi Oltre, I was rather taken by this limited edition nero (raw carbon black) option way back when it was released in 2012. Though now owned by a Swedish manufacturing concern rather than being Italian to the core like Wilier, Bianchi is the oldest bike company on earth and this Oltre was a revelation, even to Bianchi, when some genius designed it by way their big come back to the technological cutting edge. The Oltre was the most important bike in Bianchi’s recent history. It was a make or break model though which to elevate themselves back into the limelight of the pro-peloton. And so it was, via Bianchi’s sponsorship of Vacansoleil and a team issue of this very bike. I do confess to having never, ever, seeing an Oltre in the proximity of my personal touch before. Bianchi does not have any kind of presence where I ride. It might sound silly, but seeing this lonely but much loved and meticulously-to-obsessively maintained Oltre was kind of like seeing my favourite Goya’s for the first time in the Prado Museum. The real deal up close is a big deal indeed. How could anyone ever imagineer a more magnificent bicycle than this?
And then to be reminded of the appalling horrors of bicycle depreciation, I could hardly comprehend the guilty possibilities of, for once, being on the side of beneficiary rather than on the miseries of the too-cruel selling side. A genuine Bianchi masterpiece for 50% off all by virtue of being just two years old. My new Bianchi, to pervert the usual story, had only ever been raced. Never used for training rides. It is, effectively, as new. Unmarked. Mechanically perfect.
What could I lose? This Oltre is still cutting edge. The subsequent Oltre XR (2013) and XR2 (2014 to date) iterations are not exactly significant upgrades. There’s not much in these updates other than 30 grams or so of ever higher modulus carbon and updated Shimano group sets. My Oltre has Shimano Dura Ace 7900 Di2. Ten speeds and one cog shifting at a time. Oh well. Campagnolo Super Record EPS it is not. But maybe one day I will contemplate a full-on Campagnolo restoration to the all Italian perfections it so seriously deserves.
But what could I gain? It only took three rides. This bike is, quite possibly, the greatest bike I have ever ridden. And, yes, that includes my Wilier Zero.7. Like my Trek Madone 6.9SSL, the Oltre is pitched to be great at everything. But unlike the Madone, the Oltre is just a little bit more: it is perfect at everything. This thing has a miraculous ride. And if I am using the Zero.7 (and the latest Giant Propel super bike et al.) as a benchmark, the Oltre has a ride that must be ridden to be believed. This thing is just as great a climber’s bike as the Trek Madone and (my all-time favourite climbing bike) the Merida Scultura SL. But the Oltre rides like a floating carpet of pure silk. The Oltre has a liquid ride. And boy oh boy did I take it on some dodgy roads! Round and around the worst roads in the State where I live (the goat tracks around Bellingen if you know the place). Nasty flood damaged roads that even make my local New England roads look good. It’s a simply astounding climbing bike. It is as stiff as I could ever imagine a bike could be. It’s efficient to the degree that would placate an efficiency obsessed climbing specialist in any pro-tour. It’s ride is magic. It is fast! And faster still. It is light. Almost as light as my Zero.7 (but not as light as my Madone). And, importantly, it is a work of art that just happens to be legal for the road. This is the bike that should be attached to a deep space probe in order to impress our alien neighbours with the engineering genius of the human race.
Now I am a Bianchi man. Hell, I might even paint my house in celeste.
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I have always liked the Giant TCR Advanced SL. It’s a wonderfully efficient, well considered, utterly proven design that ticks just about every box for your average hard core road cyclist. Light, fast, nimble, reasonably comfortable and fast, the TCR is the essence of an engineering-first design that simply works. I guess the TCR’s utter removal from hubris is another great feature! These TCR’s are not exactly the bike of choice for coffee shop poseurs. The TCR is more the bike you’d get if you wanted to remove every possible impediment from your crusade to win that next race or to simply fly like the wind on one of those forever-rides we endorphin addicted road obsessives like so much. Yes indeed. The Giant TCR Advanced SL is the bike I’d have if I could only have one bike.
So, as you’d imagine, I was interested when Giant decided to remove its flag from the TCR and hoist it from the retro-horizontal top tube of its brand new (as of one year ago) flagship, the Propel Advanced SL. While the TCR is still in business, it has become very much an orphan in the Giant line-up these days. Through the 2014 pro season, half the Giant Shimano squad were on the new Propel while the other half hung on to the TCR. Interestingly, all the climbers in that squad stuck with the TCR. But the fast boys like Marcel Kittel spent the season on the new machine. What’s the message here? Is the Propel a flat road bike that struggles in the hills like some kind of lightweight time trial bike?
I resisted the temptation to try out the new Propel based entirely on prejudice. I am not a sprinter. Kittle et al are sprinters and they ride Propels so a Propel, surely, is not for me. Plus, I was a non-believer when it comes to the aero fad. The elephant in the room for me was the big lump that still has to sit on top of all these new aero designs. That lump has not exactly progressed much in terms of aero facility since the days of Maurice Garin (1903 le Tour winner). I rather thought that barring some kind of radical cosmetic surgery involving bodily reconstruction to resemble a catamaran mast or the tail section of a modern fighter jet, this fascination with teardrop shaping our bikes was some kind of marketing ploy; or something only likely to be of value to the ultra elite looking for that last one per cent.
I was destined to remain unimpressed with the new aero bike project embodied by the likes of the Specialized Venge, Cervelo S5 and now the Giant Propel. Until my local purveyor of bicycles and all things related, Mark Bullen of Armidale Bicycle Centre, pointed me to a demonstrator Propel he’d just put on the floor. I suspected a plot… After all, how likely is is that a demonstrator appears in just my size and with a seat mast cut to exactly my specification (exactly 788mm, seat top to BB centre)? How often do demonstrators come in top-of-the-line Pro-Tour spec? How could I possibly resist? Exactly. Especially when this particular Propel is dressed in the new Dura Ace 11 speed Di2 group set. And is equipped with Zipp 404’s.
Like all flag ships, this Propel is dressed in flag ship parts. I’ve been wanting to try out Dura Ace Di2 ever since my love affair with Campagnolo Super Record EPS was initialised by my the Wilier Zero.7 to which that gruppo came attached. Nothing, I thought, could possibly be as good as EPS. But to make such a judgement, one rather needs to try out both back to back. This demonstrator Propel would, at the very least, allow me to validate the world conquering perfection of Campagnolo EPS.
My first ride was utterly loaded with negative preconceptions. This bike would be harsh on our local pave. This bike would ride the hills like an iron gate. This bike would be as inspiring as a front seat at a National Party political campaign (think Red Neck and the drooling of spit). Maybe I’d have to walk up my favourite hill. Maybe the very first side wind gust would catch these 58mm Zipp 404’s and blow me off the road. But at least I’d be able to judge just how good my Campagnolo EPS is by way of comparison. I was thinking I’d be returning this bike to the shop that very same day. After all, there must be a reason why half the Giant Shimano squad are still on the TCR. I was, I was sure, about to find out why.
Let me segue to sailboards.
Have you ever ridden a high performance sailboard/windsurfer? If so, you know about your feet strapped into stern foot loops, a harness hook connecting you to the boom and a sail filled with brutal speed. You’d know about flying from one bit of water chop to the next, you’d know about how it feels to be a human wind powered rocket. You’d know what it is to be able to fly! You’d know how that magnificent mylar/kevlar sail is dragging you into a slot where wind and water conspire into a pure vortex of speed.
The Giant Propel Advanced SL is a sailboard for the road. There’s no other way to describe how this thing performs.
You know how a head/forward side wind bashes you around and makes your ride a misery? Remember that? You know how a side wind punches your wheels off the road? Especially when descending a hill at speed? It’s all enough to make you want to ride your indoor bike instead.
Well, the Giant Propel is a brand new experience in the wind. Just like a sailboard, this thing actually sucks you into the wind. Headwinds still slow you down, but not in the same way as before. It’s like you are now riding a heated knife into a vat of buttery wind. The Propel kind of drags you along into an otherwise disagreeable head wind. There’s an extra dimension of control over your forward motion that has simply been missing to now. The closest I can come to describing the sensation is the difference between riding a sailboard with and without a centreboard rudder. The Giant Propel aero design is all about adding a rudder to the boats we usually ride. Now there is an added element of grip in the face of a front on or forward wind. It’s just like being sucked along for the ride!
Who’d have thought that all this aero shaping of a bike frame could possibly make this much difference! Not me for sure. I must confess that these sensations of sailboarding on a bike had caused me to forget my intended focus on the Shimano Di2 and the expected harsh ride. But once I had started to acclimatise to this new feeling of riding a bike with a rudder, I started to notice that the ride is, actually, pretty close to the ride I get from my TCR. Yes, it is a touch more harsh, but not by much. Let’s say the effect is a bit like adding 10 psi more to your TCR’s tyres. The Propel’s ride is actually an impressive compromise between speed and efficiency on the one side and comfort on the other. Any serious roadie will have no problems pulling off a 200km ride on this bike. And I reckon my local roads are always going to be harsher then yours, wherever you might be. This bike’s integrated seat post and its Zipp 404’s conspire to provide a very impressively sorted ride. Not sweet like you’d get from, say, a Wilier Zero.7 or, say, a Colnago CX-1 or the new Colnago C60. But then again, after five minutes you get used to the Propel’s ride and forget that extra dimension of comfort and revel, instead, in a generally faster. more purposeful ride.
So what of the Shimano Dura Ace 11 speed Di2? It’s OK. This is the best Dura Ace yet. I like the two sets of shifting buttons that feature on the Propel; one set on the brake levers as usual and another set of tiny tabs sitting like claws within the handle bar drops. But this new Di2 is definitely not in the same league as Campagnolo Super Record 11 speed EPS. Campagnolo gives the feeling of a slot for each and every gear. Dura Ace Di2 is nowhere near as precise or positive in terms of definitive shifts. Nor are the hands anywhere near as comfortably supported as on EPS. Campagnolo is very definitely the more ‘ergonomic’ option in terms of bio-engineered precision. Yes, those secondary Di2 shifting tabs are ever so nice for shifting in the drops, but you simply don’t need two sets of gear shifters with Campagnolo EPS; the single set are simply perfectly positioned for shifting wherever your hands might be on the bars. This new Dura Ace also suffers in terms of shifting buttons that are never as easy to instantly locate as on Campagnolo EPS. Campagnolo got this right and so it stays.
How does the Propel handle the hills? I live in a place of regular, shortish, sharp hills. Average gradients are between 7 and 15 percent but most hills are less than 3km in length. Though one hill is nearly 20km long and averages 8 per cent so it’s a cat 1 or better, and there are three like that. But the usual pattern is agitated undulating with only a few places that are what anyone might regard as flat. Technically, this is the kind of terrain that fits more in the design brief of the TCR than the Propel. Which is why I enjoy my TCR so much. I wasn’t expecting much from the Propel in terms of facility with hills. For starters, even in this top of the line spec, my Propel weighs in at 7kg all up, which is about 0.3kg more than the TCR. But the TCR also has a compact frame; the Propel is almost a pure square rig (it’s apparently more aero like that given that a dropping top tube catches more wind). The Giant Propel feels like a bigger bike than the same sized TCR (both have exactly the same geometry). The TCR has better climbing credentials than the Propel, on paper and in practice. But not by much. Once again, the Propel surprises by its ability in the hills. It rides even stiffer than the TCR so there are no losses from a flexing frame. Of any kind. Best of all, the illusion of larger size disappears once a hill takes hold; the Propel simply disappears as gravity turns sour.
This is not to imply that the Giant Propel is a climber’s bike. My Merida Scultura SL eats it alive in the hills, as does my Wilier Zero.7, my Pinarello Prince and my even older Pinarello Paris. And of course, the Giant TCR is a more nimble, lighter ride. There is no contest here. The Propel is faster on the flats than on the steepest of hills. But the deficit is marginal, not deal breaking. If all you intend is to ride in the hills and hills alone, the TCR is the bike to get. The TCR is a climbers bike. The Propel is a bike for a ride with flats, sprints, and hills. The TCR is the bike to have if all you want is to take Strava KOM’s or crush your mates up the Alpe d’Huez.
And then there are those brakes…
In the cause of class-topping aero status, Giant ditched the usual brakes. Instead, we have a retro throw back to cantilever-like brakes of the kind now only to be found on some pre-disc cyclocross bikes. Sitting behind the front forks and cached into the rear seat stays, the Giant’s brakes are certainly streamlined. But do they compromise braking performance compared with conventional Dura Ace, Campagnolo or SRAM? Yes, they do. Nothing stops as well as dual pivot Campagnolo Super Record. End of discussion. Next up are SRAM Red. Then conventional Dura Ace. Last on any possible list would have to be these things on the Giant Propel. I do have a cyclocross bike and it has SRAM Shorty cantilever brakes that almost work quite well. And certainly better than the brakes on the Propel. These Propel brakes do work, but only if you are prepared to adopt the obsessive compulsive predilections of a micro surgeon to keep them adjusted just right. My brakes came standard half locked on the drive side front and back. They’d started to trench out my beautiful Zipp 404’s. They came with brake pads worn out on one side. Such is the life of a demonstrator bike! It took hours and hours to set these brakes up with a proper set of pads. But even then, I had to turn the drive side spring tension screws in all the way to even begin to get something like alignment on both sides of the same rim. Now I can ride without the brakes permanently rubbing on one side of the wheel braking track (the Zipps have carbon braking tracks so forget brakes when it rains). But the pads are permanently off set to one side, so if my wheels should ever go out of true the pads will be rubbing themselves out like the way they were when I rescued this bike from the hell of its life as a demonstrator ride. After 3,000kms my brakes are still kind of true. And they work reasonably well, in terms of stopping power. But they are simply totally outclassed by conventional brakes.
No contest. Basically, if you are the kind of person who has zero predilection for maintenance and/or are one of those dodgy tossers who destroyed the pads on my own bike while it was on the demonstrator circuit, you will come unstuck with these Propel brakes. The brakes on this bike are definitely its Achilles heel. They are almost unacceptable. Not dangerous. But a failed compromise where aerodynamic scores seemed to matter more to the bike’s designers than proper braking performance and reliability.
Finally, some comments on the other bits on this bike. Giant has specced its own in house Contact integrated bar and stem for this top of the line model. The bars are, quite simply, a work of art. They are stunningly comfortable and resemble the wing of a jet. The drops are, at least for me, a perfect semi compact depth to the point where riding in the drops for hours on end is more than OK (especially with those lovely secondary gear changing claws located inside the drops). The bar tops are wide and flat and utterly perfect for climbing (if you climb with your hands on the bar tops like I do). Also standard is Fizik’s Arione R3 Kium (with alloy rails) saddle with the world’s most ill-considered white stripe down the middle. My Arione came equipped with a non-spec mark on the top so I ditched it for the next model up, the Arione R3 Braided (with carbon rails). What a transformation! The carbon rails of my replacement saddle managed to dampen more than a little road vibration through this bike’s integrated seat mast. The bike is now considerably more comfortable with such a simple upgrade (as a seat with carbon rails).
Also standard are Giant’s own 23mm P-SLR tyres which are nice and grippy, reasonably light but very temporary in terms of tread life. You can expect about 2,000km with these things. I plan to experiment with 25mm tyres (probably Mavic’s Yksium Powerlink/Griplink combination). The clearance between the rear tyre and this bike’s frame is kind of minuscule, so 25mm tyres might not fit. But if I can ram them in, I reckon that little bit more ride dampening on offer from wider tyres will really sort out the comfort side of my ride.
And finally, a comment on the bike’s appearance might be in order. My first glance in the Propel’s direction was 12 months ago and I forgot to notice anything other than it’s odd retro non-compact frame. On first glance, this bike is more weapon than looker. The 2014 spec blue/black combination is Giant corporate down the line. I like the combination but it is hardly soothing. There’s more white on the 2015 model seat tube but that is a retrograde aesthetic step, in my view (this marginally different paint job is the only difference between the 2014 and 2015 models). One would never, I suspect sit staring all slack jawed in admiration over the looks of the Propel, as one might over, say, a Wilier Zero.7 or, say, the New Colnago C60 or V1-r. The Propel has the purposeful looks of a B double cattle truck rather than the Italian design sensory overload of the Wilier. But it grows on you… All that raw carbon is purposeful to the point of some kind of statement. Giant is never likely to recapture the spectacular looks of its own TCR Rabobank Advanced SL from a couple of years back; but this new Propel has a techno-aesthetic all of its own. Intentionally, this is the exact same corporate flagship colour combination – techno-industrial look you also get on the latest TCR, Defy, and the brand new 2015 Giant TCX Pro 0 cyclocross bike (which comes with Dura Ace Di2 and disk brakes – guess what I have in my sights for my very next bike…). The paint jobs on the lower-down-the-range Propels are probably more interesting. The solid turquoise on the Advanced Pro 1 Propel is interesting but the wild orange on the Propel Advanced Pro is vastly more in-your-face. But the deep subtlety of the flagship naked carbon/blue combo is, however, and on reflection, the artistic stayer in the pack. I like it now.
Like the TCR Advanced SL, the Propel is equipped with Giant’s integrated cadence/speed sensor which is ANT+ compatible with standard Garmin units and thus social intercourse with Strava…
Who, then, is this bike for?
This is the bike for a rouleur (an all purpose ‘hard-man’ cyclist). It is fast, provided you are too. It is the bike for a sprinter who also has to endure a few hills before he gets to the finish line. It is a racing bike. It is not a bike for poseurs with more to invest in post ride lattes than miles in the legs. This is not a bike for casual road cyclists. It should never be an option for a new cyclist, or someone straight off a mountain bike. This bike is not a toy. It is a purpose designed tool for a serious road cyclist who enjoys speed and cutting edge performance. A serious cyclist will appreciate its stiffness, precision, speed, and facility in the wind. A casual rider will find it to be harsh, uncompromising and will probably be blown off the road in the first big gusty side wind (deep section rims and a flattened frame present something of a sail to cyclists who are nervous and inexperienced in conditions like that). A serious cyclist will enjoy this bike. This bike will give a serious cyclist an edge. My recommendation is that this bike is for the racing or speed addicted road cyclist contemplating his or her fifth or later ride; it is most definitely not suited to be anyone’s first bike. That is, in fact, this bike’s overwhelming best feature. The Giant Propel does not pretend or attempt to accommodate a wider user-base through intentional design compromise. There are plenty of more widely accommodating rides out there: the Giant TCR is one; any Colnago will suit a more diversified crowd. The Giant Propel is for a harder core experienced road cyclist and will energise all those things that serious roadies love about their bikes without the kind of compromises they would otherwise have to endure for bikes designed to fit a wider user base. It is a total credit to Giant that they have delivered such a magnificent weapon for the more single minded cyclists out there. This one-time demonstrator Propel Advanced SL has a top three placing in my all-time favourite list of bikes (third after my Wilier Zero.7 and, yes, the Giant TCR Advanced SL at number 2).
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I am an Apple enthusiast; I was the first person at my university to buy into the Apple Macintosh. I was playing with the Apple IIe weeks after its initial release. I have had every apple device and one of each model (except the iPad gen 3). Well, I did keep up until my corporate expense account ran out of tenure…
I guess I am impressed when the synthesis of design and function approaches a degree of perfection bordering the possibilities of the inconceivable. Apple consistently pulls this synthesis off time after time.The iPad, for instance, was a bomb shell of a paradigm shift. The iPhone was the same. The Macintosh certainly was. As was the iPod (even the squat square little one that most people hated).
There are other examples of this art of perfection where function merges with form. Sometimes in very surprising places. By way of the possibly obscure, I nominate the Anschutz Fortner Straight pull .17 HMR rifle, The BMW F800GS motorcycle (a cataclysm of perfection over all the other junk that pretends to the classification of dual purpose motorcycling), and, by way of a cycling-centric example, the astounding and very limited edition Mavic Ksyrium 125 wheelset (packing every single plus point ever associated with the Ksyrium line into one set of wheels to celebrate Mavic’s 125 years in business).
Now, naturally, opinions vary on these things. Perhaps we all come with differently configured balancing points upon which that synthesis of form and function pushes the right button. My button is pushed by that ultimate statement of cycling art reverently delivered via the Wilier Zero.7. That button is also pushed by the Olympus OMD EM-1 micro four thirds camera and Escoda Kolinsky sable water colour brushes… Yours might be pushed by Beats headphones or Mac Trucks. It’s all a matter of stuff fitting into your own mental socket just the right way.
Which brings me to the just announced AppleWatch. On this day (September 9, 2014) I am no longer an Apple fan boy. After watching the one and a half hour keynote presentation, I actually felt ill. Embarrassed. even – for the human race. Watching this audience’s reverential standing ovations and sycophantic adulatory applause to what must have been the most obscene commercialisation of something that hitherto has been free and unconstrained by battery power, I can’t help but put what might otherwise seem to be two unrelated pictures of Babylon into a single frame: the disease of Islamic fundamentalists shooting off their boy guns in the back of pick up trucks and this Apple cheer squad praying to Tim Cook on his AppleWatch Launch. Ugly high priest manic fanaticism at its very, very worst.
It’s not the watch itself that sickens me. That seems like a typically refined Apple design, for sure. No. It’s Apple’s launch into the ‘fitness’ arena that has me planning a hermit-like retreat into the wilderness for ever more.
It’s a con job. It’s marketing spin. It is the end credits to this era of the material commercialisation of everthything.
Wearing a bloody watch will NOT make you fit! I don’t care if it does have clever heart rate sensors in the bottom of its case. I don’t care if it does motivate its wearer with customised beeps and syrupy heart pumping emoticons to share with your mates. Apple has just consolidated this perversity of a trend into a marketing fait accompli. That trend started by fit bit and the like is now locked down, packaged, and delivered. The gymnasium glitterati have now taken over the game.
The deal is done. Now the image association between fitness and technology is complete. AppleWatch plus exercise equals health and fitness. The fitness you might associate with a six day intensive cycling training camp is now to be pushed out to the realms of the seriously uncool. Cool is now measured by the output of your AppleWatch. Now we can quantify just how wonderful we imagine ourselves to be and, worse, share the metrics involved with anyone else connected to the internet cloud. Which, thanks to Apple, is everyone who is anyone at all. Fitness without quantitative proof is the same thing as wealth without consumption. The real exercise is to exercise your results with everyone else. To join the young-and-beautiful perfections of human kind you need an AppleWatch and the very latest Gucci running/cycling wear. You need to spend up big on the accoutrements of fitness to be fit. Fitness that is not shared via the cloud is just sweat and stink.
The new great THING will be fitness sharing apps powered by your brand new AppleWatch. Everyone but everyone will be sharing their Jony Ive designed fitness accomplishment readouts by way of social intercourse from this day on. Whereas once you might greet someone with a rather rhetorical ‘how are you’, now you will be able to receive a complete set of readouts by way of response. Yes, this fitness monitoring and sharing thing has been trending over the past few years, but Apple’s latest toy is about to make it go nuclear.
I am old fashioned now, it seems. The only fitness metric that I reckon we need to share is one that does not need to be spoken, let alone measured and shared. It’s your’e lack of fat and ability to offset the assaults of gravity. You don’t need readouts to prove or demonstrate your fitness on a bike; you do that by dropping everyone else on a hill or by winning a race. Once we ride together, or run together, or whatever else we choose to do, we soon get a picture of who is lagging behind. That’s the best kind of metric to share. Words don’t need to be spoken, and you don’t need to be in range of a data transmission tower.
While some of us are addicted to parading our fitness data on social networking sites like STRAVA, it’s not quite the same thing. STRAVA and the like are pretty hard core. You don’t go on STRAVA to satisfy the latest fitness campaign devised by workplace Occupational Health and Safety or HR bureaucrats (unlike the new AppleWatch, STAVA won’t record your efforts to stand up for one minute each and every workplace hour). Few people share their STRAVA results by way of casual social exchange (most of us check out STRAVA achievements in a manner more akin to stalking than shoving each other’s watches in our respective faces). STRAVA is hardly some kind of universal language through which to parade your imagined prowess. It is at this precise point that Apple has moved into the picture. Through the fitness monitoring dimension of its new AppleWatch, Apple has set up a new universal language of fitness sharing that will be transmissible to absolutely everyone, given that absolutely everyone is now likely to buy an AppleWatch (just like they did with the iPhone and iPad). In this regard, the new AppleWatch is the missing link.
Putting it all another way, the AppleWatch is a focus on the micro fitness domain. STRAVA is more on the macro side: big bang fitness metrics like king of the mountain awards and the like. The AppleWatch will now allow, facilitate and encourage people to compare seriously marginal fitness increments that would be way beneath the resolution of macro fitness tracking systems like STRAVA. With micro level fitness sharing, fat people can now boast about achievements down the the resolution of one kilojoule. Achievements at that level are swamped the first time one eats a single Mars Bar, or even a single M&M.
Now, there’s nothing wrong with people being encouraged to exercise more. And if the AppleWatch and the social peer pressure support network that this device will now empower can improve personal fitness, more power to Apple. That’s definitely not my problem. My problem is that we are now headed into that same kind of faux fitness fantasy that once was attached more exclusively to gym memberships and Sunday coffee shop rides. Faux fitness is dangerous because it is delusional fitness. Have you ever noticed all those seriously fat people who convince themselves that their fitness is in hand simply because they subscribe to a gym? Somehow, spending money on a gym membership is equated to becoming fit, per se. You can become fit in a gym, but how many people actually do? We are set in a culture of the monetisation of everything, including fitness. These days, when we consume fitness, we exhaust our credit cards rather than our bodies. Somehow, many people can’t distinguish between these two outcomes. The danger comes if our imagined fitness is rather different from our physiological fitness. And it is in this regard that social fitness sharing is likely to make things much worse. If two unfit people compare their AppleWatch results as the metric through which to track progress, the whole improvement game might just stay in the far left corner of pre-marginal gain. As they say, if you and your mates are being chased by a lion, you only need to run faster than the person behind you than the person way out in front.
I can’t see this forthcoming social fitness sharing thing to be a healthy initiative by itself. Given the predilection of nearly everyone to satisifice down to the minimum level of exertion in everything other than the accumulation of money, the new AppleWatch might well become a giant mattress thrown over the hitherto pain-equals-gain metric from which true fitness flows. Apple, it seems to me, has dropped a new engine into an already alarming universal inclination to physical mediocracy.
Finally, while the new AppleWatch is a fine piece of industrial design, it is a rather poor device with regards to fitness tracking per se. It might be fine as an adjunct to your iPhone for messaging and the like, but for fitness tracking, a simple Garmin running watch will eat it for lunch. For starters, with a Garmin watch (like, say, the wonderful new Garmin Forerunner 620), you don’t need to strap an iPhone to your body as well. Plus, you don’t need to be in range of a Telco tower. The Garmin has inbuilt GPS and more running functions than the AppleWatch, and all for much less money if you discount the need for an iPhone as well. On the cycling side, the AppleWatch is vastly inferior to any Garmin device. Mainly for the same reasons. Plus, the Garmin will go for 3 days to the day or less that the AppleWatch battery is likely to support. And on the matter of not forgetting that the AppleWatch requires that you also need to be ‘wearing’ your iPhone for it to work, how exactly does that work out for your work out in a gym? Especially now that all the new iPhones are to be so much bigger than the models they have replaced. This is not very practical, to say the very least. There is no way on this planet that I am going to go running with an iPhone 6 Plus strapped to my arm and no doubt it will feel like carrying an iPad in my cycling shirt instead of the petite iPhone 5 I currently possess.
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I 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.
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Facebook? Phooey. Phaw. Here I am… I’m eating Maccas and guzzling Coke. My favourite colour is puce and my favourite band is … Gee whiz. Fancy that. I keep hearing the bleating of 1 billion sheep.
Strava? Now we are talking. Today I crushed five King of the Mountain records before expiring from exhaustion in the middle of the road… Here is the map of my ride and here are my KOM’s for you to try. Go on, I dare you… And I am in 237th place in Australia (out of 18,000 people on the current list) for people my age in terms of average weekly distance ridden. Now we are talking! Yes.
If you are going to expose your egotism issues, what better place could there be? CAN you stand out on Facebook? You sure can on Strava!
Consider this. What is the biggest metric for how totally brilliant you are on Facebook? Number of followers, that’s what. Now consider the kinds of people with a huge following. Shakria with 71, 397, 098? Lady Gaga 59 million. And, yes, I am not making this up: Coca Cola 73 million. Are they serious? 73 million followers of a vomitous lolly water drink? Really? What stimulation do these followers receive by way of response? If these deadheads would follow a bottle of Coke, I bet the’d follow Adolf Hitler if he reincarnated into the next iteration of Justin Bieber (56,849,339, and counting, like sheep, in your sleep).
Is there anything more pointless than this?
I reckon I can outperform a bottle of Coke…
If you are going to suffer egotistical neuroses, why not head to a social networking site that encourages exercise rather than the doubtless delights of following a bottle of Coke. Stava is the social network for people with something to actually boast about. Followers are earned. Pedigrees are created rather than claimed. Does Facebook test your assertions to fame? Strava does. You have to submit data to climb in that social crowd!
Just in case there is someone reading this who, perchance, does not know what Strava is, let me briefly explain. Strava is the website to which you connect your Garmin cycling device (or iPhone). When you go for a ride, you upload your data and you get to see all the essentials neatly plotted out on a map. Totals are tallied and you get a cumulative score. You can see how far you have ridden today, this week or this year. You can compare and contrast with your records from the past. Your rides are broken down into their constituent hills. And then the fun starts. You are given timings for the most exciting segments of your ride (like hills or circuits or stretches of note) and the times for other people who have ridden the same segments in the past (Strava finds these comparisons automatically). You are automatically ranked. If you have the best time, you are awarded a King of the Mountain (KOM) time. And a ‘suffer score’. There are now millions of Strava subscribers so you are comparing yourself with a pretty large pool.
But that’s not all. You don’t have to compete. You can simply use Strava to keep your records and keep track of your training progress. And you can explore the routes, courses or the rides of others in your area or in areas to which you might be planning a visit. You can download these courses and install them in your device. Then you can follow the route and maybe not get lost. But there is more! You can chat and interact with others with a similar mind. You can share and brag to your heart’s delight. This is a great place to set up a group ride. It is a great place to discover fellow riders you might like to meet. You can use your records to keep on track with various goals Strava allows you to set. You can compete in public challenges or simply set a weekly goal for yourself. You don’t even have to make your rides public if your ego is well under control!
Strava is free. Except when you decide to pay AUD$60 per year to add power recording, route making and suffer scoring to your list. But most of Strava is free for all. It’s the lowest priced drug in town.
Strava is for boasting and posing about stuff that’s real and for stuff that you have genuinely achieved. Facebook is for all those car drivers out there. If you are such a loser that harassing cyclists with your 40 tonne SUV is the only source of egotistical reward, Facebook is the place for you. You can rant on about cyclists all you like on your Facebook page. You can form a cyclist hate goup and work yourself into a sweat (the only sweat you’re likely to get in this crowd). You can become a cluster of muttering tossers like trolls in a cave. Or you can become a Strava elite!!
But let’s not get carried away. Strava is dangerous. Strava is the next great opportunity for dopers and cheats. I can see it now.
Some I know (not me of course!) will do ANYTHING to wrest a KOM from someone else. Strava has given rise to a new breed of cyclist; a breed I’d rather not find out on the road: the Strava Troll. Strava Trolls search out inane little KOM’s they reckon they can steal. They drive their cars to the bottom of a likely Strava hill, unpack their bike and ride each challenge without the context of having to ride there first. The Strava Trolls seek out KOM’s that are off the regular cycling routes. They seek out KOM’s held by hybrid bike riders or lower (you can see what bikes a rider has used in the segment reports these Trolls so like to read). Strava Trolls avoid routs used by pro cyclists and the like. They hit the hills for which they have the best possible chance for a kill.
Some Strava folk are in a perpetual sweat; they develop anxiety over their KOM records and monitor them like guards on a castle wall. Life is suspended to defend an attack.
All Strava diehards live in perpetual terror of a cycling pro firebombing their KOM routes.
I can see the day, if that day is not already here, when dopers move into the Strava scene. I can see a new market for EPO. I can see some folk hitting themselves up for an enhanced Strava raid. I can see midnight marauders. I can see records taken on the tail winds of hurricanes. (Which is how I explain every KOM record that is taken away from me!). I can even see Strava riders getting a tow up killer KOM record hills through hanging on to a friend’s motorbike or car; under the cover of dark, or through some other nefarious scheme. Recall that Maurice Garin, winner of the very first Tour de France, was caught out cheating on the second Tour though hopping on a train. Such tactics are bound to start blighting the Strava scene!
I can see the UCI starting to police Strava record taking . And that would not be before time!
As I write this, I am wondering if someone has taken my hill from this morning’s ride? I am wondering how long I can resist checking my email for the dreaded message that my record is lost!
I am starting to think that there is a point to Facebook after all. How cozy it must be to simply worry about competitive colour choice, band preferences and messages detailing who is in hospital and who is not. Sounds like a much more relaxing place to be…
Oh, and my Strava page is strava.com/athletes/roderic_gill Don’t you dare take away my hills!
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WIth a more than well stocked shed, these days I am only ever on the market for a new bike when an old one breaks or something absolutely exceptional comes along. Or when I am offered a bike to test ride.
Living as I do in an area with equal measure of rural car-lean dirt and sealed roads, not to mention a fortune of off-road riding opportunities that I have hitherto neglected to exploit even to a reasonable minimum, I tend to devote my cycling pleasures pretty evenly between road and mountain biking. I could not live without either and reckon that having the choice keeps my cycling passions alive; mountain and road biking are far enough apart in terms of experience to stop cycling from ever becoming a chore.
Plus, when you allow both road and mountain bikes into your pool, the landscape of stuff over which to geek out is wonderfully broad! I can get just as excited by the astounding perfection of Campagnolo’s (relatively) recent Super Record EPS as I can by SRAM’s gut bustingly brilliant XX1.
So when I spotted my first ever KTM hard tail mountain bike in my local cycling store, I suspect that I must have become something like Toad of Toad Hall: mesmerised; because an hour passed for which I still can’t account.
Like most people with at least a passing interest in off road adventure motorcycling, KTM is one of the main range peaks. Their machines are purposeful, efficient, high performance and expensive. So, not knowing that KTM were also into bicycles, seeing this machine was cause enough to stop and stare. Unlike those badge engineered bikes from Ferrari, Aston Martin and the like, KTM is a serious bicycle maker and has been since the 1960’s. Though the motorcycle and bicycle divisions are completely separate, there is a definite cross over in terms of highly intentional, engineering-first design, a fixation on performance and that wonderful corporate KTM colour scheme! Orange on (carbon) black is my favourite combination and, as far as I know, unique to KTM.
You can’t miss the KTM Myroon 29er bike in any crowd. The frame on this thing is utterly unique.
I love hard tails. I have always preferred them to their dual suspension counterparts. I love the relatively greater manoeuvrability and the potential for a stiffer frame. I love the more direct transmission of power (without the energy sponging that a rear shock usually imposes between the pedals and the rear wheel). I have a theory that us roadies will tend towards hard tails for the more ‘road bike’ like manners that an unsuspended rear usually provides. But hard tails are also a vastly better option for hard fast rides on our endless local dirt roads and fire trails. I love the relative simplicity of a hard tail over the complications of all those linkages and other moving bits that a dual suspension bike necessitates. And best of all, I love the speed. I will always contend that a good hard tail with always be faster than a good dual susser, on fast open trails. Horses for courses though. Dual suspended bikes still rule in the rough stuff and KTM have a range of double bouncers as well.
So, as you can now understand, I am preconditioned to noticing an interesting hard tail when I see one. And this KTM is the most interesting bike I have seen in years.
For starters, the frame is a seriously purposeful, no compromise XC racing machine and XC is my favourite blend. I love going up hills, vastly more than going down. I love going fast and I have a general disinclination to rough single track. My biases are all tuned to the minimal travel hard tail racing side of things, even when I choose not to race. That’s probably because of my dual bike sport passions (road and mountain).
The first, most interesting feature of the new (ish) KTM is the cleverness of its design. Like so many new road bikes of late, the Myroon 29er frame is designed to flex a bit through the seat stays. Actually, you can watch the stays move vertically when you give the seat tube a good horizontal push. That gives the bike an extra degree of suspension without the cost of extra weight and tricky moving bits, and without, necessarily, adding any undesirable frame flex that gets between your pedals and power applied to the real wheel. That works for my Wilier Zero.7 and Merida Scultura SL road frames. And it certainly works for the KTM Myroon 29er. The KTM Myroon carbon layup includes some secret sauce to produce this intentional flex. I believe KTM is using flax in its composite mix to achieve this aim.
As standard, the Myroon 29er comes with a pretty modest kit. The drive train is Shimano 2×10 SLX with an XT rear derailleur. (There is no way I would ever, ever, consider a triple chain ring mountain bike these days -2×10 is the second best thing to happen to mountain bikes in recent years. 1×11 is better still…). Brakes are also SLX. Nothing wrong with that. Shimano SLX is the greatest bang for the buck you could put on any bike; it works flawlessly, without fuss and, certainly, without pretension. The standard wheels, however, are a bit odd. They are Alex rims with Shimano XT hubs. And schrader valves! (what on earth?? – why?). One gets the impression that these wheels are a kind of dummy inclusion, like those demo plastic pedals some lower end bikes come with, designed to get you out of the shop but not much further. Basically, the standard Myroon wheels are a nasty bean counter’s tattoo on an otherwise remarkable bike. They are filling in the space where real wheels are designed to go. The next most interesting feature of this bike is that it comes standard with through axels front and back. It has a nice 15mm front and a 12mm rear. This is pretty much a requirement for the current state-of-the-art. Then there are the 180mm brake discs front and rear. Which is probably overkill but impressive nonetheless. More subtly, the next thing to note is that the Myroon frame sizing is aimed at the tightest rather than the most luxurious end of the dimension scale. The size L in this frame is the smallest L I have ever owned, which means that it is an utterly perfect fit. Though, mind you, you need to watch the seat post length which is less than generous for people with longer legs. My preferred setting has the post out to its maximum extension limit.
But most intriguingly of all, this bike was a demo bike. For the first time in my life, out of something like 20 bikes purchased thus far, I could try this one out before deciding to buy. Or, really, just to go for a ride! I reckon that KTM Australia’s choice to offer demo bikes to their dealer network is a glowing testimony to their confidence in this particular product. So, naturally, I shoved this bike in my car for a weekend of ‘testing’.
I didn’t need a weekend. Or even an hour. Even in its standard set up, this Myroon 29er is so very obviously unique and very, very special. I was sold 5km down the road.
What we have here is a purpose designed thoroughbred XC racing machine with the unique extra dimension of an amazingly compliant ride. This hard tail is more like a 1.5 suspended bike than a single suspended machine. It rides like a firm dual suspension machine but without the added weight penalties and all the benefits that the shorter hard tail wheel base can provide. But it is heavy. In standard dress, this KTM is 13kg, which is heavier than some higher-end dual suspension bikes (my Scott Spark 900 SL dual suspension bike is 9kg ready to race). But let’s be reasonable here: the Myroon has an asking price of $3000! What could you possibly expect?
But there is more to this picture than meets the eye. Much much more. You see, the KTM Myroon range extends from the entry level at $3000 to a top-end, Shimano XTR decked out spec level at around $7500. But, and let me emphasise this next point as emphatically as I possibly can: every model in the range has exactly the same frame. Every bike in the range has the top-end frame. I am not aware of any other bike maker who does this. Everyone else tends to offer frames that are lighter and more technically advanced as you ascend their range. Not this one. The implication is that this KTM Myroon is an upgrader’s dream. Buy this bike at its bargain basement opening price and up-spec as your finances allow. You can end up at precisely the same point as the top of the range as you play the up grade game. This bike comes with one of the best, most interesting carbon frames you can buy from the start. Who else puts their top-of-the-line frame into the bottom-of-the-line bike in the range?
I left my Myroon in standard spec for 6 months. Mainly because I enjoyed it so much as it came. Notwithstanding the heavy standard wheels, this thing is an endless joy to ride. It is fast wherever you go, compliant when things get rough, astoundingly precise when things get tight, brilliant if not spectacularly brilliant at climbing and comfortable wherever you go and for as long as you’d like any ride to last. This thing has put my Felt 29er (the estimiable, range-topping Carbon 9) hard tail back on the shelf. Despite being 2 kg lighter than the Myroon.
It could not, of course, last. The urge to upgrade is like gravity with a bike like this. But it was a good thing that I waited as long as I did. Because three months after purchasing my Myroon, SRAM introduced their XX1 drivetrain onto the Australian market. I can’t tell you how much I have wanted to throw out the front derailleurs on all my mountain bikes… I rode my KTM 280km from where I live to the coast back in April without needing to change out of the large chain ring, even once. That ride netted me around 7 Strava KOM’s up some amazing hills. However, whenever I look down at my front chain rings, I always imagine the little rings to be reminders of the decrepitudes of forthcoming old age. I don’t want reminders like that on my bikes, thanks all the same! Obviously, I don’t go places where little chain rings might be of some use. Like I said, I avoid the really rough stuff where smaller rings might help out. There is much much more to the XX1 11 speed system than just a single chain ring; it’s a hugely researched total drive chain solution that involves a uniquely huge rear cluster, dedicated hub bodies on your wheels and a dedicated bottom bracket (with ceramic bearings no less). Why hasn’t someone thought of a stock single chain ring solution before now?! XX1 is not the same thing as running a single chain ring on a dual ring spider as seen on cyclocross bikes. Or a single ring fixie solution. XX1 is a purpose-designed total system that works on the principle of simplicity and precision. With the 34 tooth chain ring installed (as opposed to the 32 tooth ring that is supplied standard by SRAM), this XX1 set up gives a gear range that is actually wider than the SLX 2×10 gear spread that comes with the bike. I knew what to expect from XX1 as that is the standard set up on my Scott Spark 900 SL (the best dual suspension bike I have ever ridden, and probably, the most exotic bike I own – a story for another post). I had been riding my Spark for a couple of months before making this Myroon upgrade.
So I had to have XX1 on my KTM Myroon 29er! And I had to reduce my bike’s overall weight closer to 9kg than it’s stock 13. So out went all the Ritchey aluminium bits (bars, stem, seat post). Out went those strange Alex wheels. My new spec is XX1, Mavic Cross Max SL wheels, Niner carbon bars, a Botrager XXX stem, SRAM XO brakes (not the trail version, which are heavier and unnecessary given the front and back 180mm disc size I decided to retain) and a Rock Shox RCT3 SID fork (over the standard Reba RL). But I did keep the original Prologo KTM customised seat. It is only 170gm and looks the part anyway. There was only one issue with this upgrade. The XX1 derailleur will not install on the standard Myroon derailleur hanger. The B screw will not reach and XX1 setup is very (very) dependent on precise B screw adjustment. The Australian KTM distributor just happened to have a replacement hanger in stock to make this all work. That hanger was from some other bike in the KTM range (not sure which). So finding the right hanger might, perhaps, be something of a chance (you’ll need to get the right guy on the ‘phone). KTM designs this bike exclusively for Shimano gears. That we found a hanger that works is good fortune, but I am pretty sure you can’t order an XX1 hanger off the shelf.
The result is more of everything that made this bike brilliant in its standard trim. Now it is faster when it was already fast enough! The suspension is harsher but way more precise and efficient. And those gears! XX1 is perfection on this bike. The Myroon is the fastest, sharpest handling, siffest, most comfortable hard tail I have ever ridden. Actually, it almost disappears when riding on rougher terrain. It feels far smaller than it is, and lighter than it’s now leaner 9.5kg might otherwise suggest. It is massive fun! I have never had a bike like this before. It is simply the best mountain bike I have ever owned. This is the bike to take when the urge to take a few Strava records takes hold. And when riding this bike, the urge to take Strava KOM’s is pretty much turned on all the time!
With all the new bits, my Myroon has cost me $7500, but I have lots of spare parts to build a second bike for the wife… That is still competitive for a top-end XC racing hard tail. Without testing every other hard tail on the market, I would simply suggest that it would be a tall order indeed for anything to outperform my Myroon 29er XX1.
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And the winner is…
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 short list of five down to one. The backstory to this search is spread across the previous two Bicyclism Blog posts.
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).
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.
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
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.
Aesthetics 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.
I have invested about 4,000km in this machine so far. 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.
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