We did the Première Manche - the first round - of A Travers riding across France from Dieppe to Marseille in the summer of 2009, and it was the original inspiration for this blog. The plan to put the 'band back together again' for another go in 2013 for the second installment fell on stoney ground, with life just getting in the way for too many of us, much to our disappointment. However, our enthusiasm for the bike remains undimmed, and so I'll keep posting my thoughts on the diverse and beautiful facets of the sport regardless. But there's bound to be another big 'adventure ride' coming soon - quite possibly in Italy - so potentially a name change too: Attraverso l'Italia in Bicicletta anyone?

Friday, 22 May 2009

Urban Chic (or How To Convert an MTB to Fixed)

When I'm riding around town, I really don't want to look like a Tory MP on a bike - who would? - but if possible a bit urban and cool, without going completely down the tattoo, nose-piercing and mohawk look of some of London's more eye-catching bike messengers. I bought a Ridgeback Nemesis back in 2007 because I thought it looked good with its low-slung sloping geometry and straight-bladed forks reminiscent of a Kona - design I've always liked - but without the expense. I also thought it'd be a perfect zero-maintenance bike for commuting into work thanks to the Shimano Nexave-Nexus 8-speed roller brake hubs, and whilst I initially liked them for their robust feel, I soon started to resent that weightiness. However, the reason for my decision to undertake a fixie conversion was not solely with the weight, but more the time it would take to get either the front, but in particular the rear, wheel out whenever I punctured. Here's the required palava. You'll need around 30 minutes and a well-stocked toolkit:

1. Loosen the rear hub's track nuts using a 15mm spanner (I carried my trusty Campag track version);

2. Use a 10mm spanner to disconnect the brake arm where it connects to the brazed-on bracket on the left-hand chainstay;

3. Disconnect the rear brake cable using two 10mm spanners, one on the inside nut to stop rotation, loosening the one facing you. This is supposed to be possible simply by forcing the connector from its home at the brake drum, but I could never manage it;

4. Use a 2mm Allen key to rotate the gear pulley to allow you to disengage the gear cable, again by forcing the connector fron its seating, but I'd end up having to use the blade-ended driver from my multi-tool;

5. Now proceed as normal with the puncture repair, noting sadly that the standard-issue Conti rubber seems to have impossibly tight beads;

6. If you haven't pinched the tube putting the tyre back on, and you've successfully removed the bit of sh*t from the tyre that caused the puncture in the first place, you're now ready to repeat steps 1 - 5 in reverse order to get going again.

This kind of disaster always seems to have happened to me on the journey home to South East London in the dark during the winter, when the British drizzle has washed all manner of crap into the gutters where we're forced to cycle, and I've got cold, numb hands.

So, the Nemesis: really nice bike until you cop a flat. Something had to change, and I'd been noticing for a long time the beautiful simplicty of a fixed wheel and got caught on the wave, suckered in by youthful sites like Milano Fixed, No Brake and Fixedgearlondon. I thought that the Nemesis still looked fundamentally good, so used it as the basis for a makeover project. It had already been modded with a 14cm Deda stem (long arms, me - plus I like the roadie cachet of the same brand of stem I run on my Colnago), and a Sella Italia Turbomatic saddle, and I'd removed all the superfluous crud like plastic chainring covers the moment I got the bike home. Now to convert it to fixed.

have become real specialists in this kind of conversion, and their input has been invaluable. Sheldon Brown's excellent website contains all you'll ever need to know about chainline, and so was also a must-read. My little local bike shop, Balfe's Bikes, built the wheels and fitted all the new components for £100 - excellent value and highly recommended. Thanks guys!

Some pics:

Shimano Deore Hollowtech II MTB triple chainset replaces original Ridgeback single to give the correct chainline for single speed, 46-tooth outer ring held in place by replacement single chainwheel bolts, two inner rings removed.

Flopped Deore XT rear MTB hub from Velosolo, converted with track axle.

Now you've flopped the rear hub, use the disk brake mounts to bolt a Velosolo 16-tooth cog. Even though the cog and chainrings are 3/32", Pete at Balfe's Bikes used a 1/8" chain because it seems more robust and in keeping with the overall look and feel of a single speed bike. I've read around on chain-width compatibility, and it looks like there's no problem. Certainly rides fine.

Hope Mono Mini hydraulic disk brake lever up front, cut-down hose and 14cm Deda stem.

Mavic rims with grey surface anodising to match the overall 'stealth' look. IMHO all rims should be this colour - for an old roadie like me, it's clearly an SSC thing ...

Hope Mono Mini disk brake stopping a standard 160mm disk on the Deore XT front QR hub. This and fixed wheel is ample stopping power.

Another shot of the Deore Hollowtech II MTB chainset, converted to single ring.

The result is a super-light, low-maintenance urban commuter that has the kind of estehtics I was looking for all along. Now to sort out the wardrobe to match; there's not gonna be much lycra in there.

Wednesday, 6 May 2009

Kent: Garden of England

I spotted this carpet of bluebells growing at the side of the road on Beddlestead Lane on a recent ride into Kent, and I took a photo to clear up a disagreement with my wife Kelda. She thinks that we've got them growing in our back garden, I was never convinced, and this pic proves her argument. I do apologise - we actually do.

So, instead of concentrating on training for France and my stated aim of wanting to be 'better' than Jamesy, I'm obviously riding along looking at flowers - more Charlie Dimmock than Charly Mottet - but perhaps without the prominent nipples. And even getting off my bike and photographing them.

Maybe I'm just getting old and appreciate these kind of things more and more, or maybe I never really had the kind of dedication and focus you need to actually be any good at cycling. Springtime, once it's warmed up a bit, sees me getting a little fitter, invariably enthused and always posing the same questions to my 40-something mates as we pretend any little steep climb, particularly if it's cobbled, is the Muur van Geraardsbergen: "Shall we race again?" Their response is always the same: "No. It spoils it."

Whilst I enjoyed racing when I could dedicate some time to training, I understand what they mean here. Racing without a proper base and then quality work on top is pointless: you might as well go to the race, pay the entry fee, and then stand on the start line, bend over and encourage the other competitors to come along and kick you up the arse, really hard. Then just go home in discomfort and slightly disappointed. Even as a 21-year old racing in France and skipping university lectures to train, I was still viewed as a dilettante by my DS: "Mais, tu bois cinq litres de bière par jour - but you drink 5 litres of beer a day." Not true (wine was more my tipple of choice). However, it is true that my focus was perhaps skewed: there just seemed so much other interesting stuff going on in Aix in addition to cycling: bars, cafés, films (when the grant cheque arrived), or sunshine and people-watching when it was running out.

I'm not sure I've ever been comfortable with the inherent 'nastiness' of competition either. The mind games. The psychological warfare. The deliberate flick in the last 200 metres where you'll end up on the deck trashing your prized £3500 Colnago and your £150 Assos shorts, which you bought because you wanted to look like a pro, not actually have to ride like one. I don't have Cav's reported pathological hatred of losing, and three BCF points over 25-plus years of on-off racing are clear testament to my enjoyment of simply riding, rather than racing, my bike. Jamesy, from past experience, simpy hates riding his bike around other people when he isn't fit enough to be able to give them a hard time. Last time we rode up the Ventoux in 2000 he hadn't touched the bike for 'quite
a while', and he made it pretty plain ("just f*ck off and leave me") that he didn't want me riding alongside him to witness his suffering, despite my good intentions of playing the supportive team-mate. I know he's been 'stacking the miles in' this time for July's trip.

That's not to say I don't enjoy being fit; a friend once said that being really fit 'was better than sex' (is he doing it right?). I love getting fitter on the bike, getting stronger, recovering more quickly after hard efforts, and of course, if I'm totally honest, being able to drop my friends on the climbs. But it's not that last part that makes it fun, certainly not anything to do with ego as such. We're simply playing at racing, it's a game to be enjoyed, and it's the far more intrinsic pleasure of pushing yourself beyond where you thought you could go and reaping the rewards of physical exercise, fresh air, feeling young and active that's where the buzz comes from.

It made me wonder whether the pros actually enjoy riding their bikes, or whether it sadly might be just like any other job. From where we're sitting as fans, we all know that it's the most beautiful sport in the world, but we also know that it's also the hardest. Were these guys just good at it as young riders, dedicated themselves to it and so followed a natural progression - perhaps lazily - into the paid ranks? Do they get time to marvel at the wonderful scenery that they ride through when the going is a bit more piano, or is the motivation purely based on winning, on glory, or simply doing a job that's better than working in a factory or worse? I always remember Bernard Hinault saying that he'd like to return and visit Italy after he retired, because it seemed like a nice place. Clearly, like Cav, his well-documented rage de vaincre meant that apart from possible relaxed stage starts or the celebrated 'ice-cream, laughs and letching until the last hour' Giro stages, the majority of his physical and mental energy was spent planning how he could simply win. No time to admire the scenery then.

Let's face it, for most it's a short-term career that isn't going to make the majority of riders particularly rich, and most are simply journeyman professionals, performing domestique duties. I'm sure the camaraderie is great - that's something I'm sure I'd have enjoyed - but constant pressure to perform from sponsors, living out of a suitcase and not being able to enjoy the wonderful surroundings that the luxury of all that travel affords you would certainly ruin it for me.

There: 500-odd words on why I never made it as a pro - because they wouldn't let me look at the flowers.

Tuesday, 5 May 2009

Cheating Death

The two words of the post's title have been widely used, either singularly or together, to describe the two athletes above.

Waxing Lyrical

I saw this ad outside a tanning salon the other day, en route for a quick training ride along the North Downs and Pilgrims' Way. Questions from non-cyclists as to why I remove the hair from my legs just never seem to abate: why do you do it, does it make you more aerodynamic, how far up do you go before you stop, do you shave, wax or use depilatory creams? And so on.

This promotion seems like an ideal solution to my bathroom invariably looking like a badly-maintained abattoir each time I reach for the shaving foam and do mine - especially the tendons at the back of the knee. Next time I'll go here and get my left leg done. And my right. And can I take advantage of your generous offer and get the middle one done for free?

How a Trip Should Be Organised

OK, this is purely administrative and boring I know, but here's the final version of where we're staying each night, and some vital contact details for each. I'd really recommend having a print-out of this on you, so that if we get lost or split up in some way we'll still be able to get to where we need to be.

Note also: the emergency number in France is 112, available from any phone whether fixed or mobile. Let's hope we don't need this at all.

I'm really hoping that we can replicate in some part the smooth and stylish training camp trip I witnessed, but unfortunately was not part of, in Mallorca back in 1998. I'd gone on Barry Clarke's trip - he of the Old Port's favourite Bournemouth haunt of the Fircroft Hotel - and well, how can I put this nicely: it was all a bit 'Carry On Abroad', a quintessentially British holidaying experience. Judging by the reviews of his Bournemouth hotel here, I should have known better.

Out riding one day around Cala Bona, I bumped into a group of German cyclists, all on up-to-the-minute Giant TCR sloping (or 'slooping' as they seem to say in France) compact frames like the ONCE team rode on around this era, all with matching kit and really looking good. I chatted with them and they told me that the bikes were hired from the organisers (with the option of purchasing at the end of the trip), meaning that you'd only need to bring your personal 'contact points' - saddle, pedals and shoes - and not have to worry about getting your own bike trashed in transit. And quite possibly paying the airline around £25 for the privilege too. Top-class hotels, secure overnight storage, energy bars and drink, evening massages and proper bikey food were also part of the deal. I suppose you get what you pay for.

Best of all for me though were the maps they had of the island made from Tyvek, a rip-proof, waterproof material, with routes of various difficulty marked out on them. The routes were colour-coded, not unlike ski runs, and corresponded to stenciled directional arrows painted in the same colour at each of the necessary road junctions, ie red riders turn right here, green and yellow straight on. I've always been aware that Mallorca was cycling-friendly, but that's a real eye-opener that I can't imagine being agreed to in the UK - we probably don't even have enough portions of decent, un-potholed road on which to paint anything like this in the first place. These days you'd no doubt get downloadable routes for your Garmin or similar, but at the time I found it an impressive example the sort of attention to detail that denotes a well-organised trip.

BTW: I dunno why I've left the days of the week in French here. I'm hoping you might all pick up on it and get into the swing of speaking 'a bit of the lingo'. Allez!

1. Samedi 11 Juillet: Menesqueville


Contact: Martine Hollain

1, Rue du Général de Gaulle

Tel: +33 (0)
Fax: +33 (0)
Email: relais.lieure@orange.fr

2. Dimanche 12 Juillet: Chartres (Barjouville)


Contact: Marie-Amelie Bollecker

41, Rue des Pierres Missigault
ZA Barjouville "La Torche"

Tel: +33 (0)
Fax : +33 (0)
Email: h3481@accor.com

3. Lundi 13 Juillet: Bourges (Fussy)


Contact: Catherine Brys

30, Route de Paris
18110 FUSSY

Tel: +33 (0)
Fax: +33 (0)
E-mail: cbrys@hotmail.com

4. Mardi 14 Juillet: Clermont Ferrand (Orcines)


Contact: Jean-Louis Amblard

34, Route de Limoges
Lieu-dit "Chez Vasson"

Tel: +33 (0)
Fax: +33 (0)
E-mail: info@hotel-leshirondelles.com

5. Mercredi 15 Juillet: Le Puy-en-Velay (Saint-Hostien)


Contact: Pascal Julien

Route Du Puy Rn 88

Tel: +33 (0)
Fax: +33 (0)
Email: hotel.lemeygal@wanadoo.fr

6. Jeudi 16 Juillet:- Caromb


Contact: Cyril Frizet

22, Place Nationale
84330 CAROMB

Tel: +33 (0)
Fax: +33 (0)
Email : info@hotel-la-mirande.fr

7. Vendredi July: Marseille (Carry le Rouet)


34, Avenue Draïo de la Mar
13620 Carry le Rouet

Tel: +33 (0)
Fax: +33 (0)
Email: hotel.latuiliere@libertysurf.fr