Of Gear, Gears and Gearing Up

A rainy rest day. A post for me and cycling nerds. Pass along please, nothing to see… 

So after two weeks how’s the bike and stuff holding up? 

Pretty good, and in large part thanks to Martin of Tavistock Cycles who has done a really good job of building a machine that is by far my best bike yet in 60 years of pedalling through life. 

It started when my previous Specialized TriCross required so many worn out parts replacing before the Pedal to Paris ride in Nov’15 that it would have been cheaper to get a new bike. In the event I had neither the money nor time to find one, so to get to Paris I borrowed Alex’s straight bar Specialized Sirrus Elite that was too big for him and deferred the decision.

Hated the straight bars, even with the turned up bits at the end – I’ve always ridden drops since age 15. The frame didn’t really fit, the gearing was wrong for touring. I was going to have to find a new bike.

I knew I wanted a bike for touring and commuting. Not going off road except on good surfaces, but not what they call a road bike which seem to be missing several important components like mudguards and carriers.

Most importantly I wanted a bike that fitted me well, and probably with a steel frame. I looked around at what was available off the shelf from various manufacturers starting with Dawes whose Galaxy now seemed to come in a galaxy of varieties, and comparing specs. A lot of makers seemed not to provide a drop handlebar version of their touring spec bikes. I tried various things but nothing felt quite right so I started to look at frame geometries.

I soon realised that most decent spec frames seemed to be designed around an average sized man set up for a fairly hunched up, head down, bum up, road sportive/audax rider. Great if you are looking for lightweight speed machine, but I wanted something a bit more relaxed.

I noticed that the Genesis Tour de Fer steel frames seemed to have a slightly longer wheelbase (about 2cm more) than most of their rivals and that sounded interesting. Tavistock Cycles were the nearest stockist so off to see what they had.

Unfortunately at that time Genesis were only doing drop bars on their road spec not touring spec model.

Ah says Martin, I could build you what you want on a Tour de Fer XL size frame, lets talk details and prices.

So it came to be, with further advice and opinions from friends who cycle (thanks Martyn) as well as Martin.

The frame. Genesis Tour de Fer size XL in dusty dark blue and black. Yes at 6’3″ the slightly longer wheelbase has made a difference. Still use a long extension for the bars at the top of the stem and a saddle post that moves the saddle about an inch back from the line of the tube, and the whole position is now much more relaxed and comfortable. 

The saddle. I knew what I wanted was a Brooks leather, but to save a few pounds on the initial price I initially reused the one I had had on the TriCross. I had a Brooks three bikes ago and found it very comfortable, so last winter I got myself a new shiny new black B60 and broke it in over short day rides and commuting. It is good and well worth the money.

The pedals. I had always previously ridden with toe clips (aka rat traps) although I had needed a decent pair of shoes for the Paris ride so had got a pair of Shimano shoes with recessed SPD cleat fixings. I’d been thinking of switching to cleats for some time so now was the moment to give them a go. However I also wanted to be able to use the bike with ordinary shoes sometimes and of course to be able to pop up to Gwel Dulas with wellies on. So I compromised a bit and went for a double sided pedal; flat one side and cleat t’other. After a bit of practice I’m totally converted to have feet clipped on to the pedals. Tempting fate to say it, but I haven’t yet fallen off failing to unclip in time. I’ve come close, but not yet. It’ll happen, no doubt. Of course the dual function pedals are a bit heavy, so I might get some lighter ones for touring, and swap back to the dual ones for home and welly use.

The wheels. I got the impression that Martin enjoys building wheels so I totally went with his recommendations for rims, spokes, hubs and tyres. I don’t have the specs to hand but can add them when I get home, or Martin can comment here if he reads this, but he has certainly done a good job. I think it is TK140 x 622 rims and Continental Touring Plus 34C tyres. They’ve had a fair amount of punishment heavily laden on stoney tracks on this ride and over the past year with no problems. The Continental tyres have only had one puncture and that was a thorn in the sidewall from hedge flail trimming in Underlane. I’ve even punctured a car tyre there. Initially I was dubious about going for a slightly wider tyre than previously but a technical report from CTC came out when we were agreeing the spec demonstrating that wider tyres did not necessarily increase rolling resistance.

The brakes. This was the big change for me. Disc or rim? Eventually it seemed a logical choice to go for discs for several reasons provided by Martin, Martyn, magazine and online articles and discussions. They say discs are slightly better when wet and laden, can’t say I’ve really noticed. For me it is the separation of function and maintainability that makes the case. Rims are for rolling on, brakes are for stopping. You don’t want any rim damage interfering with your braking and you don’t want your braking wearing out the rims.

Having decided on discs then there is the question of what type of mech. Hydraulics all the way from the brake levers may be the purists ideal but sounds like trouble on the road to me. Replacing a cable is simple, replacing a tube full of fluid sounds more complex. On the other hand having a cable directly pull the pads together is less efficient and harder to set up and keep aligned. So TRP HyRd was the answer; cable actuated hydraulics.

The transmission (gears and chain). My riding style is not to stand up much, maybe on a short rise but generally I stay sitting and keep pedalling at the same rate by changing gear. Also for a touring setup the lower gears are more important than the high ratios. You can always freewheel on the downs but you don’t want to be getting off and pushing on the ups. I do pride myself on just keeping winding up at a sub-walking pace even on the steepest hills. Ziggarson hill near Colloggett is 1 in 4 (20%) and used to be on my daily commute.

My natural cadence seems to be about 85rpm

So it has to be a triple chainset, which more or less means a 9 speed cassette. You need a bit of an overlap between ratios on the chainrings, and a derailleur that can cope with big front to big back and small ring to small (even though you shouldn’t use those combinations – in reality it happens)

So it comes down to a decently small ring as the smallest on the front and a large largest on the back without going as far as Euan’s “granny ring”  42 tooth.

So in the end it is 26T/36T/48T on the chainset and 34-30-26-23-20-17-15-13-11 on the cassette. That gives 1.65m development in the lowest gear at a gain ratio of 1.50. Equates to 7.8km/hr at 80 rpm cadence, but in practice of course the cadence drops significantly on a hard climb. At 60rpm I’m doing about 5.8km/hr in bottom gear and I know if it drops below 5km/hr then there is no possibility of unclipping without falling off and you’ve just got to carry on to the top or…

At the high end 48T front and 11T rear give a 9.43m development equivalent to 45km/hr at 80rpm and that’s about as fast as I go pedalling. I have occasionally topped 50km/hr. Goodness knows how pro road sprinters manage to hit over 65km/hr on a flat run in.

There’s a good degree of overlap between the three chain rings: 26/15 being nearly the same as 36/23 and 48/30 which I find good as you can get on the right front ring for the terrain and then dance around on the rear changer to keep the cadence and effort constant.

Shimano Deore mechs, not top of range but perfectly good and smooth for my use, controlled by Tiagra STI combo brake levers on the handlebars. I had those on the Tricross and really liked them. 

The only thing I slightly missed at first was the secondary brake levers for the sitting up position on the bars, but now I’ve forgotten them.

So that’s the basic bike and gears. Plus mudguards of course. Another advantage of disc brakes being that fitting mudguards does not interfere with the braking. One less thing to keep in alignment.

The toolkit. The frame has bosses for three bottle cages. I only have two fitted, one of them for a tool set in a bottle – much more convenient than having to delve to the bottom of your panniers when you puncture in the rain (as happened to me on the way to Paris). The most likely problems I have found by previous experience are no.1 puncture, no.2 brake problems and no.3 transmission problems/adjustment. Thus the tool set consists of a multi-tool including a chain link extractor and a set of allen keys, two specific useful full size allen keys, a cross head and small flat screwdriver, two good metal old school tyre levers (plastic ones break), one specific spanner, a puncture repair kit including instant and traditional patches, a spare inner tube (for the first puncture of the day much more convenient), spare brake pads, a small bottle of chain lube and an oily rag (naturally!). Oh and a swiss army knife of course, well sharpened. If I was going more out into the wilds I might carry more spares. 

The refreshment. That leaves only one bottle cage for water which I find ok for a day in the UK, but on this trip I have been needing to get a refill (which bars here are very happy to do) in the middle of the day. If heading south of La Loire in summer in future I’d fit the third cage. 

The carriers. Previously I had been using a Topeak pannier set that slides onto a custom rear carrier. Very convenient and so I simply transferred the rear carrier to this new bike. 

I wanted to get a front handlebar bag because I have always found it a pain having to turn round and get odd things like maps and cameras and money out of the panniers. Slightly difficult to fit a bag between the brake and gear cable gubbins on drop handlebars but an R&K mount with an extension piece moves the bag far enough forward to fit between the cables. Trouble is then there is not really room to mount the GPS, bell and light on the bars. A vertical extension mounting rail provides the answer for the gps and bell, but the light is still obscured by the bag when it is mounted. Fortunately Cateye do a mounting bracket for my front light that fits where a front rim brake is mounted above the mudguard but clear below the bottom of the bag and still at the right height to be clearly visible to drivers. Problem solved. 

The electrics. As mentioned the front light is a Cateye 3 led, a few years old now but still good. Uses AAA batteries so I carry a couple of spare sets. By and large I don’t intend to ride after dark on unlit lanes so the light is to be seen rather than to see by. Also very important I think to have a light that does not dazzle motorists. Not people you want to annoy, and I get quite annoyed as a driver by cyclists with overbright lights. Have to resist a temptation to drive straight at them flashing my lights so I certainly don’t want to make other drivers feel like that about me. 

I also carry a headtorch to wear which for use on the road I have in flashing mode, it also has a red light flashing on the back of the head. 

For the rear lights I have two, one mounted on the seatpost below the saddle,  fixed so that it can’t be casually removed by the light fingered, and another bolted on the rear of the carrier. One I have flash, the other continuous. Both of these take AA batteries so I carry a few spares of those as well. 

The Garmin Vista HCX also uses AA. I don’t use rechargeables cos then you’ve got to carry a charger and adaptor and fart around remembering to charge them up and they go flat more often.  

Then there is the tablet which I now am using instead of a paper map, as well as writing this and making BnB bookings and whats-apping family etc. That has a waterproof pouch that I have velcro’d on top of the handlebar bag. Three problems after the first two weeks – firstly the extra strong sticky back velcro soft side has started to unstick itself from the top of the bag, secondly the mount has sagged slightly so that the bag tilts down from the horizontal every time I go downhill and the screen decides to flip 180 degrees, and thirdly it is almost impossible to see the screen when the sun reflects off the plastic window. At least the second problem should have been fixed today by adjusting the angle of the mount. The first problem requires use of needle and thread and the third one means getting a pair of supercool polarising shades. 

So I have to carry a charger for the tablet which just about lasts 7 hrs on a full charge so just ok for a full 120km day. Also for the mobile phone and the camera – I prefer to use a proper camera with a viewfinder and good optical zoom rather than the compromises fitted to the phone or tablet. 

The luggage. So I’ve mentioned the handlebar bag which carries tablet, phone, wallet, purse, camera, phrase book, light, plastic bags for camera and phone if it rains, and odd bits of snacks etc. 

For the pannier bags for this trip I have replaced the non-waterproof Topeak set with a more capacious Ortlieb back roller set that are really good. I have the external mesh bag on the back of one which carries my helmet that I haven’t felt the need to wear yet, and the small external pocket on the other carries my cape and saddle cover so they are accessible in case of rain without opening the main bag. 

And finally. For this trip I decided I would buy some insurance (I don’t normally approve of gambling especially where the odds are stacked in the house’s favour) and then discovered that the theft cover was only valid if I used a “gold standard” approved lock. So that is slung from the crossbar weighing a stonking 1.5kg that I deeply resent. I think I have used it twice, once on the ferry over cos they had run out of rope to tie the bike to the rail, and once outside some small town supermarket where a paper standard lock weighing 500g would have been quite sufficient. Still that’s the way they load the odds against you. 

So many thanks again to Martin at Tavistock Cycles who has built me a bike that fits well, rides beautifully and met my budget. I have got something far better than an off the peg bike for the same money and it is performing really well. 

2 thoughts on “Of Gear, Gears and Gearing Up”

  1. Hi Roger,
    Glad the Bike is performing well for you, sounds like you are having an interesting trip.
    Your wheels are built with DT Swiss TK540D rims laced with DT Swiss competition stainless steel spokes onto Shimano Deore 6 bolt disc hubs with Continental Touring Plus tyres which are 32mm wide. I built a pair of these wheels in 2007 for a guy who has toured all over Europe on many trips and they are still going strong so hopefully they should stand you in good stead.
    Best Regards,
    Martin at Tavistock Cycles.

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