Posted by: Ian | June 12, 2010

Five bikes

I’ve written recently about my the next bike I’m thinking of buying. Many might wonder what’s wrong with the four I already have. This is like asking why anyone might want five different articles of clothing. Each of my bikes is the best for at least one type of riding, and there’s another specific ride “need” I have now for which a new bike would be better suited than any of them. The word “need” is a relic from our Puritan past, when desire alone was too frivolous a justification for frittering away cash (which should always be “hard earned”). Renouncing all that, I’ll be clear: I just want the new bike because it would increase my cycling pleasure. Decadence is relative, and the appearance of it diminishes inversely with our capacity for increasing levels of (probably bourgeois) discrimination. So let me explain how the four bikes fit into my cycling ecology, and why there’s a niche for another.

The first bike I ever bought for myself was my Specialized Tricross, which I got when we returned from travelling only four years ago. When I took it on a test ride from the Holborn branch of Evans I couldn’t believe how light and easy to ride it was. I bought it straight away and felt an incredible sense of liberation as, for the first time, I sped along Oxford Street and around the landmark sights of London with unprecedented ease and freedom. Back in Somerset, it was robust enough for cycling anywhere. I had no clear view of the type of riding I’d be doing and back then I would quite often route across fields, as we do when we walk around here. With its cyclocross build, wide tyres and good clearances, the Tricross managed fine. Even now after kitting it out with full mudguards, the Tri is still the only bike I’ll take down unmade roads, even though the Van Nic would be able to cope with them too.

Currently, I’m running the Tri on 32mm Armadillo tyres inflated to 100 PSI. I don’t use it very much, in truth. Recently I gave it a clean and lube and took it out for only the third time this year. After cycling for a couple of thousand miles on more refined bikes the ride seemed surprisingly harsh, assaulting me constantly at every contact point. After only 18 miles I was almost glad to get off. That, though, or even less, would have initially been my typical distance. Round Hill Farm House, where it’s geographically impossible to have a flat ride, you get so much exercise from the hills that travelling too far seemed both hard and unnecessary. With its triple chainring (hence “tri”cross), the hills were all doable from the start. In fact, the cassette has a huge 34T sprocket so the granny ring is redundant now that my legs are more conditioned; last year I cycled up Dunkery Beacon on the Tri without needing it. These days I take the Tri out when and only when either the others aren’t available or the weather/conditions/terrain will be so unreliable that I don’t want to risk them.

The next of my current bikes that I bought was my Van Nicholas Amazon Rohloff, which I got as a consolation for selling my beloved BMW 840. It’s made of titanium, now also with a Ti seatpost, stem, bar and bar ends. Gearing is implemented through a Rohloff rear hub, which has 14 gears, more or less evenly spaced and, unlike those on a regular groupset, directly sequential. You change them easily, some might say sneakily, using a twist shifter integrated into the right-hand bar grip. And you can change when stationary or under full load, up and down as many gears as you like in one go. It’s more or less impossible to break, requires effectively no servicing and gives you the added benefit of a permanently straight, naturally taut chain. All in all, it’s a phenomenal piece of engineering. The rest of the bike is very decent too, with a Chris King front huband high quality throughout.

The ride quality is super-smooth, even creamy. (I think I’ve heard it described as “buttery”.) The frame also has the inexplicable characteristic of appearing to warm up as you ride. I’d love to hear if anyone else has observed this; if not, there’s not much I can say about it but it’s very welcome. Like the Tri, I ride this on 32’s too, though Conti’s rather than Armadillos, which I inflate to 85 PSI as per the sidewall instructions.

Like the Tricross, you can take it up any hill you come across. Although the Rohloff hub gives the bike an agriculturally heavy back end, the range of gearing is astonishing. It starts off lowish anyway and gets lower and lower and lower as you twist the shifter. (It used to get higher and higher and higher because the dealer I ordered it through cabled it up the wrong way round, which I quickly fixed.)

For long tours, this is my bike of choice. It eats up the miles with maximum comfort and I can load up the back (though not the front) with three large panniers and still easily get over any roads/hills I’m likely to encounter.

My next bike was my steel Condor Tempo, which is the fixie I use for commuting and generally zipping around London. I’ve done more hours – and indeed more miles – on this bike than any of my others this year, and it’s simply the most fun. Since it has no gears it would be a non-starter for events like the Tour of Wessex, but I can enjoyably cycle up any of the hills I’ve so far come across in London. Haverstock Hill from Chalk Farm to Hampstead is a favourite. Soon, we’ll have a training ride up Swain’s Lane in Highgate, which is listed in the 100 Hills book; maybe that will be my nemesis.

The Tempo is also my favourite looking bike, and has the same derailleur-less simplicity and strength of the Amazon.

The most recent bike in my collection, which I only bought last year, is my carbon Felt Z15. For weight and speed, this is in a class of its own compared to the others. When I pick it up and take it outside to ride, it’s like handling a living creature, and a creature that is determined to escape and be fast. For the past week when my opportunities for cycling have been limited, I’ve done two rides twice each, once on the Van Nic and once on the Felt. Today, I did a fairly flat (750 feet of ascent) 20 mile circuit around Taunton that I did yesterday on the Amazon. In both cases, I just rode at the speed the bike wanted to go with no intention of setting a good time. I held, by coincidence, precisely the same average heart rate (140 bpm) on the two rides, but completed the circuit on the Felt in 72 minutes, compared to 83 on the Van Nic, and consumed fewer calories (735 instead of 856) in the process, despite not setting different weights for the bikes into my Garmin.

Although not having the greater than 5:1 ratios between lowest and highest gears of both the Specialized and the Van Nic, the Felt’s compact groupset with 11-28T cassette is enough for all the hills it’s seen yet, and being so light it gets up them faster. The transitions on all three of the geared bikes are fine, but the shifting on the Felt’s Dura-Ace gears is far and away the slickest, as you’d expect – even more so after a recent pre-sportive check-over by the guys at Bicycle Chain in Taunton. On both the Felt and the Tempo I run my favourite 23mm Conti GP4000S‘s inflated to 120 PSI.

The Felt transmits conspicuously more of the road surface through to the rider than the Van Nic but was still smooth enough to take me 340 miles a couple of weekends ago with no need for remedial surgery. However, where the Van Nic could be locked against any number of campsite fences, languish for weeks on end unnurtured in a damp garage and quite possibly even be left to the mercy of Gatwick baggage handlers without any real danger to the frame, the Felt always feels vulnerable in an osteoporotic kind of way.

The new bike I’m after will be more robust than the Felt. Although I don’t need to be able to plough through fields on it, as I can on the Tricross, it has to be impervious to bad weather, our low-tax-economy roads, cattle grids and occasional failures of maintenance. I don’t want it to be as fast as the Felt, either on the flat or up hills, because I like the feeling I have when I get on the Felt now of it being faster than my other bikes: I want to ride it less to enhance this quality. So far this year, I’ve racked up around 1,000 miles on each of the Felt and the Tempo, which accounts for almost 80% of my total. I’d like the proportion on the Tempo to be unchanged and the proportion on the Felt to decrease. On the other hand, I do want the new bike to be a fun, exciting ride, and, more than anything, comfortable after several hours in the saddle. Summarising, here’s how I’d score what I have and what I want:

The early front runner for Bike 5 was the Condor Classico. For a variety of dreary reasons, Condor have effectively removed themselves from the competition and now the short list is down to: (1) an Independent Fabrication Steel Club Racer or Crown Jewel, bought and fitted from Mosquito in Islington, and (2) a Van Nicholas Euros, quite probably with a prior independent bike fitting from Bespoke Cycling. The IF’s are exquisitely beautiful, and I have little doubt that Mosquito can offer the customisation service that Condor cannot. Van Nicholas also have great service, though remotely, and the Euros is, it seems to me, a much better value bike. I wouldn’t get the custom finish of the IF but the polished Ti looks perfectly fine and it won’t chip, it’s lighter and it’s rustproof.

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Responses

  1. Although I’ve toured perfectly happily on my Amazon and still enjoy it, I’d probably ride it even more if it had drops. If I were you, I’d sort this out beforehand and tell Van Nic this is what you intend to do. Then they will either sell you an Amazon Rohloff with the frame geometry of the regular Amazon and drop bars or tell you why it won’t work well. You’ll probably have to pay the custom frame fee and fit the hubbub adaptor yourself to make the bike rideable but you’ll save the cost of the flat bar and get what you want right away. Personally, although the idea of drop bars is very appealing, a shifter on the end of the drops would, for me, just be in the wrong place. Perhaps you could try this instead, or see what VN suggest:
    http://viksbigdummy.blogspot.com/2008/10/rohloff-shifer-on-drop-bar.html 

    • I asked VN if they could shorten the effective top tube by 2cm (from 55 to 53), which I am thinking would make it ideal for use with either drops or flats depending on stem length. They said that would be fine (extra cost), but they questioned how I would get the shifter to work on the drops… I know there are a few solutions and one company that I know of is doing it to their stock builds (http://www.co-motion.com/single_bikes/amerohloff.html). The two piece drop bar certainly looks interesting and I like that shifter placement better than on the bar end. I think I would still want the ability to have a flat bar (longer stem)? The problem with sticking to a 55cm top tube is that I would need a 70mm stem for drops, which would likely make my steering twitchy… and with a 53cm top tube, my stem may need to be very long (120mm) for flats… I’m not totally sure yet, but I am thinking that maybe I should stick to one or the other and not both (drops or flats). What do you think?

      • I do recommend you commit to one arrangement before you buy the bike. Having said that, I’ve thought about clipping on tri-bars to mine for a change of position on a long ride. Another alternative to add a drop option to a flat bar is this:
        http://www.origin-8.com/product_detail.php?short_code=Drop+Ends&cl1=HANDLEBAR+ACCESSORY
        As you say though, you need to choose the right frame for the way you’ll ride it.

      • Note if you wanted to get the drop bar ends as per the last comment you’d need to get a flat bar with the right (22.2 mm) grip size and a stem of corresponding clamp size. The VN flat bar is 31.8 mm OS.

  2. Ian, thanks for the comparisons. I am considering the VN Amazon Rohloff and noticed that it has a comparatively long top tube, which, I assume, is due to the flat bars that it’s spec’d with. I think I would eventually want to put drop bars on it for longer rides (touring), but then I would need a very short stem to compensate for the extra length. I am wondering if I should customize the geometry for drops with the same geometry as the standard Amazon frame. For the Rohloff shifter, I would just mount it on the bar end of the drop with a hubbub adapter. What are your thought on this? Thanks.


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