Posted by: Ian | October 31, 2010

The Beast on my Astraeus

On Friday, several months after the process of choosing my new winter training bike began, I returned home from Egypt and London to find my new Astraeus in a box in my study. As I wrote last time, my optimistic plan was to take it for a test ride on Saturday and give it a proper baptism in the Exmoor Beast on Sunday.

As I started to unwrap it the first problem I discovered was that Van Nicholas had fitted an FSA headset instead of the superior Chris King headset that I’d paid for, as confirmed on the enclosed order note. The next problem was that they had cabled but not taped the handlebars. The third problem was my fault: despite having done it many times before, I couldn’t get the sprockets to sit tight on the back wheel.

There wasn’t anything to be done about the headset but I took the Astraeus in to Brian at Bicycle Chain in Taunton on Saturday morning. He taped the bars and identified that there was, as I’d suspected, a spacer missing from my back wheel. (I found it in the garage this morning.) I left Bicycle Chain with my bike ridable.

My next task was to set the geometry as close to that of the Felt as I could manage. This wasn’t made any easier by the ludicrous mechanism Van Nicholas use to engage saddle rails in their seat posts. After some effort I managed to lever the saddle in and did the best job I could of getting the seat position and incline right. Moving on to the front end, I flipped the stem to get a less aggressive riding position. When I did this I found that the front cables were too short – not as cripplingly short as Emily’s had been when she got her Yukon but short enough that I’ll need to re-cable it soon.

With the Astraeus now in some sort of shape I took it for a ten mile test ride. Round here, that involves hills. The ride left me curious about how the Astraeus compares directly with the Felt so I took them both round the block, which is about two miles, also with interesting gradients. The Felt was lighter and livelier but I got the Astraeus round in only a few seconds more. Back in the garage I made a few more adjustments and set out again to see if it was yet in sportive shape. Going up a steep little hill I flicked into my lowest gear and the chain jumped off the cassette and wedged itself tight down the back of the large sprocket. I’ve had this happen before and been able to fix it but there was no budging it this time. With it on the workstand back at home I even tried to undo the lockring to take the sprockets off but with the force I was prepared to apply I got nowhere.

Having seen Brian at Bicycle Chain shortly after they opened, I now drove down to catch him before they closed. After quickly running through the steps that failed for me, he had the better idea of opening the chain, pinching it at the powerlink with a special tool they have in the shop. With the chain and wheel disentangled from the bike it was easy to remove the cassette and then free the chain from the back.

By now it was too dark to try the modified geometry Astraeus again. The prudent course would have been to take the Felt out for the Exmoor Beast this morning but I was by now committed to using the Astraeus so this morning I put in in the car. Paula kindly agreed to drive me to Minehead and be around while I did the sportive and at about 7:40 I crossed the start line and was away.

I’d fitted accessories. The Ti bottle cages from Van Nic are great – they’re as light as air and match the frame. I put a Lezyne pump alongside one of them too even though I was carrying air canisters in my wedgie pack. And I fitted an ugly but functional flying spray guard to the seat post to add to my rain ride comfort.

The bike itself looked very fine. The frame has interesting tube shapes and is flawlessly welded. With bar tape on and a nice saddle it’s classy.

Aesthetics aside, it was quickly obvious, though that I haven’t yet got the geometry quite right and my triangle of contact points isn’t yet as natural as the Felt, post my Bespoke fitting. The first big hill on the Beast arrives early – the slog up Dunkery Beacon. It was hard, and harder than I’ve found it on recent climbs. Partly this is because the Astraues is simply heavier than the Felt but also, more importantly I suspect, the unoptimised geometry results in me not delivering full power to the crank – that’s how it feels. (I suspect that pushing the seat rail forward 5mm would make a big improvement.)

Once I’d hauled over the top and made it across to the A39 coast road the bike felt fast on the relative flat. On the downhill at Countisbury it was every bit as sharp as the Felt. Despite this my memories of Emily’s fall and cracked rib last year had me touching the brake in respect on I approached Lynton. A Maserati driver on the way up was waving a slow down to cyclists: there had been another accident. An ambulance was in attendance and although the victim was up and walking she did not look well.

At the bottom of the hill I said a quick Hi to Paula and then had the first of three more chain problems, now around the chainrings rather than at the back. None of them was serious but they each needed the bike turning upside down.

The long hill out of Lynton, and all further hills, were also harder than I wanted them to be. This one, which last year Stu and I had ascended as far as the end of the main gradient, went on and on remorselessly beyond that. The ride was draining me and this was less than half way round. My shoulders and back hurt, I wasn’t taking on enough food, I was frustrated at how hard I was finding it and I was also worried that I might, for the first time, bonk. I eschewed the food station at Simonsbath and instead met Paula, who gave me a couple of ham sandwiches. I bolted down one while I rested over my bike by the car and tucked the other into my back pocket.

On a nasty little hill out of Exford my left leg went into a spasm of cramp and I had to walk a few paces to loosen it until I could get back on the bike. The next 20 miles were tough work, but fortunately cramp free. I knew that the last stretch was essentially downhill so ground it out until I came to the start of the final descent. Although my Garmin had, as usual, dropped a few miles from the start so I didn’t know my actual road distance, I realised that if I gunned it back down to the end I may manage to get back in under five hours, and qualify for a consolatory Silver certificate. So I gunned it back down to the end. At Dunster, which is close to the finish, the route planners had found a last cruel climb for us. Many cyclists were pushing their bikes up but I really wanted to make my new target so stood on the pedals, which seemed less likely to give me cramp, and gave it a last effort. Just before reaching the top my leg started to spasm again but somehow I carried on to the downhill, where I could free it up with some stretches and easy pedalling.

I crossed the line at 4hrs 55 mins. Whereas I know that the one function that the Garmin can do reliably is record the passage of time, I didn’t know how much time I’d lost to food stops (next to nothing) and chain stops (a bit more). In the hall the woman handing out certificates gave me a bronze award, with a time of 5:02. It felt like a slap in the face, but it’s only what I deserved.

Paradoxically, the day leaves me feeling hopeful about the Astraues. It was never supposed to be as fast as my carbon racer – I got it because Ti makes for a more robust and durable frame, particularly for riding in rubbish conditions. Today I sped it over numerous cattle grids without that pang of concern I have when doing that on the Felt. Also, it’s better that my dedicated race bike should be faster than my trainer. I also chose Ti for its comfort. Although I ended the Beast feeling tired out and achey, I hadn’t ridden the Astraeus at all before yesterday and I’m sure it will be much more forgiving when all the bits are in the right place. And it has to be said that the Beast, with 7,000 feet of ascent in 100 km, is a tough ride. I like the look of the Astraeus too and experienced enough hints about the ride qualities it will offer to be optimistic.

Having said all of that, the process of buying a bike from Van Nic has been such a nightmare that if I were to rewind and face the same decision again I’d get an Enigma, no question.



  1. […] Exmoor Beast I rode my Astraeus, only two days after taking it out of the box it was shipped in. That didn’t go so well but with over 2,500 miles of running in since then I was tempted to use the Astraeus again this […]

  2. […] Equally significantly, I’d sized the Zephyr after a great session with BespokeCycling. When the Astraeus arrived, with an FSA headset that offered less height than the Chris King headset recorded on my order, it took me many weeks/months to find a configuration that worked for me. Getting the triangle of contact points right is more important than getting the right frame (the latter only matters more because it’s harder to change). Consequently, my first major outing on the Astraeus – last year’s Exmoor Beast – was something of a struggle. […]

  3. […] Equally significantly, I’d sized the Zephyr after a great session with BespokeCycling. When the Astraeus arrived, with an FSA headset that offered less height than the Chris King headset recorded on my order, it took me many weeks/months to find a configuration that worked for me. Getting the triangle of contact points right is more important than getting the right frame (the latter only matters more because it’s harder to change). Consequently, my first major outing on the Felt – last year’s Exmoor Beast – was something of a struggle. […]

  4. […] the ride down), the Hell of the Ashdown, the Puncheur (kind of), the Cornwall Tor, the Blenheim, the Beast of Exmoor, the Tour of Britain ride, and (my favourite domestic event this year) the Tour of Wessex. I hoped […]

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