Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Time for some Austrian rubber bondage.

After reading the Road.CC review it took about 10 seconds to decide to order one of these puppies: http://getfinn.com/

UPDATE 3 Feb '13: these are now available in the UK from pOcpac:  (pair it with one of their waterproof cases for another £8 - review of that combo coming soon)

£10 / €12 - and you get a free €5 city cycling nav guide to download too. It arrived from Austria (Oomp-pa-pa Oomp-pa-pa) in 3 days.

As Road.CC found the first few times you put it on the bike you need 5 hands and a degree in Origami, but you quickly get used to it.

Basically it does what it sets out to do, and does it very well. It will fit to any bar, including 38mm oversized roadbike bars and even a stem, for a landscape-mode orientation if needed - although not the best for a bike with limited knee clearance.

On a long, fast road-ride over typical Hampshire country roads the phone stayed solidly in place - no hint of movement, even after an hour. The grippy nature of the silicone rubber means it stays put, and pressure from swiping or pressing the screen didn't result in any movement either. Fine adjustments to position left/right/up/down are possible by lifting the phone slightly off the mount and repositioning. The strap that runs over the charging port can be stretched down to accommodate a charging cable if needed for long days. Likewise, the stretchy bands mean you'll have no problem at all fitting any phone inside any case, should the weather dictate.

The Finn could also be used to mount a phone on pram handlebars - again, handy when walking or jogging somewhere new.

This will become a must-pack item for holidays to cities with rental bike schemes, to hold the phone for strange-place nav. Or for local rides on unknown roads. I haven't tried putting it on a BorisBike though - the design of the handlebar might not quite work. Next time I'm in London I'll give it a go.

Quick and easy bikecam mount

Another use is as a quick and easy bike camera mount. With most smartphones now featuring HD video recording, the Finn + phone can be a cheap and fast way to record rides - for fun or for internet hating on crap drivers. Portrait mode is the easiest, as most bikes have a horizontal bar to mount the Finn on. However if you ride a Really Useful Bike it will have a front rack with a vertical bar too. This will allow you to film without incurring the wrath of the Portrait Orientation Movie Haterz.

Using an iPhone the image was good enough to get stills of most car licence plates. No, it's not a GoPro Hero - but then it cost £10 not £300+, and when you get off your bike you just pop it in your pocket, no faffing with mounting hardwear you don't want to get nicked.

Quick and easy get-you-home bike light mount

These days smartphone owners always have a torch in their pocket - the LED flash doubles as a pretty bright light source. With a Finn mount, you could use your phone's torch app as a temporary solution if your front light breaks / gets lost / nicked etc.

...and here's possibly the best portrait-orientation footpath-riding Finn-mounted iPhone footage you'll see in the next minute or so:

(Note that this is not a great test of camera ability or YouTube resolution/playback - it's the fact the phone stayed on the bike and not in a million bits that's the main point. If you want RedBull-quality footage, Google is your friend)

...and in Landscape mode (RackCam!):

Monday, April 15, 2013

In God's [cycling] Country - a family holiday in the Ardennes

Escaping the worst UK spring on record for rural Belgium might not be your idea of fun. In fact, it's almost certainly not, unless you like chips/French Fries ('frites'), high alcohol-content beer or billiard-table-smooth, deserted roads over rolling hills and through winding river valleys. 

Or all three at once.

Laval is near Tillet, just to the west of Bastogne, which is just to the west of Luxembourg, which is between Germany, France and Belgium. Three hours on motorways from Calais, traffic around Brussels willing. Hopefully that sets the scene.

Breaking the hike from Calais in Brugge is always recommended, as Brugge is a stunning world-heritage site and also is home since 1564 to one of the best Belgian breweries, De Halve Maan ("The Half Moon"), where they make Straffe Hendrik Quadrupel, an 11% beer best described as bottled heaven, for only about €4.50 per 750ml. Wives and children can be amused with a coach & horse tour of the town while serious business is conducted. Ahem. Hic.

As you drive east toward Bastogne past Brussels the hills start to appear, slowly at first then with 'hey, Belgium is quite hilly isn't it' regularity, increasing past 'The North/South Downs are like this' to 'er, what was your smallest gear again?' with occasional bouts of 'Begorrah I'm glad I'm in a car for this one'-grade valleys.

The Gite at Laval, near Bastogne
Our base for a week's family holiday in the Ardennes was the Moulin Gite at Laval, a complex of five tastefully-done old- and one new-build holiday homes with a shared indoor saltwater heated pool and playground in a lovely rural setting. As a family or group base it's highly recommended. You can book the whole place if you like, or just the one. Free WiFi is limited to one public spot downstairs in the Moulin building, but works in the upstairs bedroom there. Mobile coverage is patchy. It's a 10 minute drive to Bastogne which has everything you're likely to need including a good bikeshop, a 24hr laundrette, loads of surprisingly posh shopping (€3,000 Tissot watch, anyone?) and a selection of supermarkets/petrol stations.

If you'd like to stay here, get in touch using the 'Contact Me' button on the right. We have a discount code for friends that will get you €30 off your rental.

You'll need to take sheets/towels/teatowels, kitchen stuff including dishwashing kit / tablets, toilet paper, and probably better pillows if you are fussy. All houses have fires apart from the Moulin, which  is an eco-house with underfloor heating. The pool (10am-6pm) also has a nice sauna. €150 deposit gets refunded into your bank a week after leaving if you didn't break anything. You can pre-pay cleaning, which is recommended. The owner lives over the road, and is a personable enough bloke. The Tripadvisor reviews seem to be half-made up of people who didn't understand the T&C's, hence the either 'great' or 'crap' ratings.

Day 1 was spent firstly in Bastogne acquiring Everything We'd Left Behind, coffee, cake, then a swim. An afternoon trip to the massive Wallonia open-air museum at Fourneau Saint Michel wore the kids out, and raised an adult eyebrow or two in the re-created rural knock-shop exhibit. This was no National Trust place, that's for certain. The playground there is rather amazing, and during summer when they have horses in residence it must be packed. Recommended for all ages.

Laval is at a crossroads, which means great riding in all directions. Which is what this is all about.

RIDE 1: Hotton - La Roche loop

Ride 1 was a stunner, albeit a minus-two-degrees stunner. Not wanting to miss out on riding time and mindful of spousal mutterings about abandoning families on the second day, I departed as early as clothing would allow. The route was to head up to La Roche, cross over the Ourthe valley and loop around Hotton, returning back along the Liege-Bastogne-Liege route from La Roche. About 110km and 2,000m climbing all-up. Here's the Strava info on the ride, and here's the Viewranger route/map. 

Viewranger was used to plan the ride, incorporating as much of the excellent opensource Rando Velo 7 route as possible. If you aren't familiar with Viewranger, it's a genius online cycle route planner that then syncs with the matching smartphone app so you can follow the route. You can download free Open Streetmap tiles before departing, so you have your entire route and surrounds for offline reference. Make sure to leave the app open to download all the tiles, and check beforehand they are all there.  OS Topomap map tiles can be purchased if desired.

Typical Ardennes riding
From the outset I was amazed at the quality of the roads in the Ardennes. Most were of far higher quality than any UK road, and some approached billiard-table-like smoothness. Sections needing a bit of repair were notable exceptions and quickly forgotten. Following a Rando Velo route for the first half of the ride meant almost no cars at all - maybe 5 in the first 50km to La Roche. as the weather had been dry the previous day mudguards were removed, and not a trace of moisture was evident on the roads - a rare treat after the UK's dismal winter and 'spring'.

Don't believe the hype (or GPS)
Arrival in La Roche was preceded by the obligatory valley of static caravans that seem to radiate out from anywhere even remotely scenic in the Ardennes. In the summer most of Belgium and the Netherlands apparently turn up to experience hilly nature at its best, by staying 6 feet from other Belgians / Dutch in beige plastic and Aluminium boxes. Probably eating waffles and drinking too much. La Roche is a very pretty town complete with rather fetching ruined castle and a nice central eating/drinking area, although at 9:30am on a Sunday it was rather empty so no stop was made. The climb up out of the valley was mercifully quick, and after some confusion as roads were closed in a village for a local fete and the normally unflappable Open Streetmap tried to route me down a farm track, Hotton approached. 

Things should not look like this.
About 3km outside Hotton, on a dead-flat, straight section of road, disaster [almost] struck. The bike's gears jammed up, in what felt for all the world like chainsuck. Normally a quick backpedal would sort this, but it's very fortunate no effort was exerted before stopping to have a proper look. The resulting mess of mangled front derailleur and chain along with bent frame braze-on filled the heart with woe, foreboding of large bills and curses. No practical explanation was found for why the front mech decided to so spectacularly attempt to rip itself from the bike in this manner.

Frites. It is Belgium, after all.
Half an hour later after some judicious bending, tweaking and more cursing a jerry-rigged setup seemed to work in the large ring only, and didn't threaten to pureé the remaining hardware. With increasing speed and confidence Hotton was reached and in honour of over a century's worth of Liege-Bastogne-Liege competitors, Frités were obtained and consumed. Then it was on down the valley back to La Roche, on what was by far the busiest section of road so far. La Roche is a favourite destination for fair-weather tourists and motorbikers, and in summer this road would probably best be avoided entirely. From La Roche the 150m Category 4 climb up onto the plateau between there and Bastogne was a surprisingly quick affair, what with not having any other option but to use the big ring. Any pretence that this was 'normal' was put paid by a heart rate of 'technically dead' percent and the knowledge that the only thing worse than pedalling would be walking up the hill in cleated roadcycling shoes pushing a bike.

The rest was a blur of rolling hills through small villages back to Laval, 112km under the wheels in glorious sunshine. Catching the last hour of Paris-Roubaix (in Dutch for authenticity) while sipping a Rochefort Trappiste was pure icing on the cycling cake.

Here's a full set of photos and a map, to give you the full picture of what the ride was like.

The next day spent in Luxembourg finally erased any idea that these were 'low countries'. The hills got bigger, the valleys deeper. And as a bonus, diesel is cheaper. Just remember to fill up *before* leaving :-/

Luxembourg City - wow. Just...wow.
It was a nice surprise to discover that the posh but understated building opposite our mid-morning cafe was in fact the residence of the Luxembourg head of state. Just the one armed soldier outside, who did a good job of not reacting to our kid's increasingly enthusiastic attempts to get a smile out of him.

Ride 2: St Marie-Chevigny - St Herbert Loop

After the all-day epic of Ride 1 the spousal tolerance tank was running low, so a shorter 50km loop was planned in Viewranger. The fact it was torrential rain forecast might also have had something to do with it. A good test for the new Shutt Velo Rapide Performance jacket then - close to zero, high winds, lots of moisture. And matching Roubaix fleecy tights too.

Happy now.
I was a bit nervous about riding out with just one layer under the jacket (the Merino/poly mix Shutt LS top) but the combo of Merino top and Performance jacket worked perfectly. This was a quick, hilly  ride (avg speed of 25.6km/hr & 835m climbing) and the combo did a good job of not feeling sweaty-clammy whilst keeping the nasty weather out. A Buff headscarf-thing under a Shutt Yorkshire Tweed cap kept the head toasty warm and rain more or less out of the eyes.

One thing is abundantly clear: use mudguards in the Ardennes if it's wet. The roads were mostly excellent, but excellent covered in cow poo and mud is still...well, covered in cow poo and mud. I cannot understand the aversion some cyclists have to putting excellent mudguards like the SKS Raceblade Long (£45) on a £3,000 bike wearing £500 worth of kit. Without guards both end up looking like the rider has previously ingested an industrial-strength laxative, and certainly would not be welcome in any respectable cafe mid-ride for coffee and cake. Which is what cycling is all about, of course. Photos and map to be had here.

The next day was an excursion to the World's Smallest Town of Durbuy (pop. 400), also vying for World's Most Ridiculously Photogenic Cobbled Streetscape and World's Largest Topiary Garden. Although apparently they already won that last one, certainly in the 'Portrayal Of Self-Propelled Aquatic Craft' category. Plus waffles and beer from the micro-brewery. Then from Durbuy back home, via a demonstration of the Belgian national passtime of 'Incendie Station d'Essence Confitage'. 

What could *possibly* go wrong?

Ride 3: Wigny - Senonchamp Loop

Belgium. God cycles here.
Then in the afternoon, a quick 30k spin around the area to the north and east under cloudy but not rainy skies. 

Climbing out of the Laval valley through dark pineforests on smooth, silent roads was a perfect way to begin, followed by what can only be described as several stretches of molten cycling joy. The feel of buttery-smooth fresh tarmac under the wheels of a long gradual descent that lets you push the highest gear is as close to flying as I can imagine. The total lack of cars on a road wide enough to be a UK dual carriageway obviously lent itself to swerving back and forth across the whole road at increasingly sharper cambers, the Continental Ultrasport/Gatorskin combo never giving the slightest hint of Teutonic complaint. A minor deviation from the planned route was no issue, the second mislabeled road in the otherwise excellent Open Streetmap database being easily rectified. The photos of the ride don't do justice to how much fun was had.

On the whole the Ardennes were a fabulous family and cycling holiday destination, well off the UK-centric beaten path and well worth a return visit. If my UK tax pounds end up funding the laying of tarmac like this in the backwoods of Euroville for my cycling holiday edification, I'm OK with that. 

Where can I pay more, please?
A Happy Belgian Camper.

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

SKS RaceBlade Long and 650c wheels: Mission Impossible?

UPDATE early 2016: SKS have updated the retaining clip design (good), but fundamentally the stays and mounts are the same. So there's no reason to think this hack wouldn't work on the 2016 model. Here's my in-depth review of the new model: http://road.cc/content/review/181061-sks-raceblade-long-mudguard-set

As a low-cost foray into road cycling my wife recently purchased a B'twin Triban 3 roadbike from Decathlon - a huge French sports retailer. These £299 carbon-forked aluminium roadbikes with Shimano Sora/2300 components are highly rated as winter trainer or commuter bikes, as they cost not much and do pretty much what you need. Reviews are unanimously positive - no, this isn't a full-carbon Ultegra + Zipp 303 rocketship, but then again it cost less than one shifter or wheel on a posh racer.

It always was our intention to put mudguards on, and the SKS RaceBlade Long was the guard of choice - easily removable, light, robust and good-looking, and can be fitted to bikes without mudguard mounts too, using the quick-release skewer to hold them in place. Reviews are pretty positive too. So £44.95 later the box arrived, and all looked good.

(If you are already convinced, please click here to buy from Wiggle. I get 4% to spend on cheese, bikeparts and beer, the rest foolishly)

Now the accepted wisdom of fitting SKS guards seems to be:

1. Read instructions
2. Read instructions again
3. Discard instructions, make large mug of Yorkshire* tea
5. Get On With It

and I fully concur. So off we go Trev...

...except we ran into a *minor* snag. You see, unbeknownst to us, and certainly not mentioned anywhere on the Decathlon website is the fact that apparently frame sizes below 54cm come with 650c wheels, smaller than the standard 700c ones SKS make the RaceBlade Long to fit. A perfectly acceptable thing to do, as 700c wheels on tiny frames is just silly. It would have been nice to know, however, to ensure spare tyres and tubes were to hand. At this point it was a good thing the children were in bed, as there was some colourful language used.

A quick Google confirmed that apparently no-one on earth makes removable 650c mudguards. So in true No. 8 wire spirit, and with much spousal scepticisim, the Fettling began.

What was obvious was that the stainless steel stays were far too long. No amount of bodging was going to change this fact, so they had to be cut down in a way that didn't compromise the rigidity of the guard or profile against the tyre. Knowing that Mrs GâteauVélo would be insufferable if this lack of Fettliness was allowed to stand, a plan was hatched...

Measure, measure and measure again

 As every bike's mudguard mount location and fork rake differ, there is no perfect calculation to make here. So you have to measure up against the guard on your bike, to get the correct length to cut the mudguard stays to.

Step 1: Leave the stays off the mudguard, and fix the whole setup to the bike as per instructions. Make sure the stays are slid all the way down inside the black plastic endcaps that attach to the quick-release tabs - there is a small Allen screw that locks them in place, so loosen it first to make sure the stays are all the way in. Here you can see the depth of the stay inside the endcap.  Make sure you have the maximum inserted.

Attach the under-brake mounts and get them all lined up nicely, clipping the mudguard into the under-brake mount. Basically what you have done is fitted the mudguard, but not slipped the stays over it so it can flop against the tyre.

Step 2: Lift the mudguard off the tyre to the desired clearance. Stuff some rags in between, folded over to give the right thickness.

Step 3: Take a caliper or ruler, and measure the gap between the top of the mudguard and the BOTTOM of the black plastic stay bridge. This gives you the distance the stays need to shorten by to correctly space the guard from the tyre. In this case, 55mm.

Step 4: Remove the steel stays from their plastic endcaps, and measure along them by the required distance - in our case 55mm. Note this needs doing in two parts as the stay is bent - if you measure direct from the tip you are 'cutting the corner' and will be cutting it too short, which is very bad. I cannot emphasise enough getting this right - if you cut too short then you have just ruined £45 worth of mudguards. Use a pair of pliers to mark the point.

Choppy Choppy

Step 5: NOTE: do this step for just one side of one stay first. Take deep breath and cut the stay. As this is very high quality stainless steel, normal pliers probably won't do the job - use either a high TPI hacksaw or a set of specific cutters (these ones date from 1948, bah gum).

Step 6: Using a vice, get an un-cut stay as a guide and bend the newly-cut one to match, in the same direction it will need to sit into the endcap. Do not try to bend it in the endcap - they are not strong plastic and the force needed to bend is considerable.

Step 7: Take your newly-cut-down stay and slide it onto the mudguard, into the correct position, 1/3 of the distance between brake and rear. Re-insert it into the plastic endcap. Check your handiwork (leave the other side out of the plastic cap for now). If there is a God in Heaven your mudguard should now be correctly spaced from the tyre, with some adjustment room left in the endcap if needed. If correct, now measure and cut the other side of the stay the same length. If you have measured correctly but need a bit less clearance, just cut down the stay a few more mm or whatever. If you have cut the stay too short and there isn't enough adjustment in the plastic endcap to hold it securely, re-read Steps 2-5, collect credit card and off to eBay with you. Do not pass Wife.

Step 8: If all is good with the 'top' stay closest to the brake, now repeat process for the 'bottom' stay furthest away.

Step 9. Make another mug of Yorkshire tea. Do all over again for front wheel.

And Voilå! You now have a rock-solid set of removable guards on a 650c wheelset. These guards are easily strong enough to pick the bike up with, don't rub at all even under heavy pedaling/cornering, and unclip / refit in a few seconds each. A bonus in putting a 700c guard on a 650c wheel is that the guard extends even lower down the back of the wheel, offering even more protection from water/crud.

With guards removed - not too shabby.

If you want to buy a set of Raceblade Long guards, your LBS should be able to oblige. If you intend to purchase online, please click here to go to Wiggle's online store - I'll get a whopping 4% of your purchase, and this will of course be spent wisely on beer, cheese and bike parts.

* don't ask me why it has to be Yorkshire tea. Just trust me. Any subsequent tendency to suck your teeth, say 'eee lad' or stroke a whippet is entirely a personal issue.

Thursday, January 17, 2013

The Power of Strava. And Fudge.

Yesterday I had a full VO2Max and blood lactate threshold test done at Winchester Uni, as part of a critical power research program I'm a lab rat for (full article to follow). It said my threshold for blood lactate is around 240W 226W. This is on a £35k SRM bike with a darned fancy blood analyser thingy and a blood sample being taken every 3 minutes as the power increased.

Going back over my 'baseline' 1hr / 30km Strava segment that I do maybe twice a month, Strava has consistently pegged me at between 230 and 240W over the hour, over the last 6 months rides. It's a ride I do as fast as possible, and I've got a good feel now for how hard I can go initially on the flat without blowing up 40 minutes in on the hills.

 Brace yourself, Marsha:

One correlation pointed out in the below article is that sticking to 65-75% of maimum heart rate is typically the lactate threshold (LT) that you can sit on pretty much all day. For these rides where I've logged 230-240W, my HR has hovered around 160, or around 85% of my Max HR. Noting that for this particular ride, Strava had it at 872KJ burnt, whereas the Suunto HRM said 768. I'd probably be inclined to believe the HRM over the Strava estimate based on a GPS track, as Strava can't account for wind, tyre pressure, bike aero-ness or weight, wheel efficiency etc.

So if Suunto's energy consumed measurement is accurate, then you'd expect that real-world average power would be a bit less - maybe 10%. But if the HRM's 85% is accurate (which I believe it is), that one hour rate of work must be above my LT. (This is possible - I could try doing two laps and see if I can maintain the 30kph average. One for better weather methinks).

BUT, I know from experience in adventure races that I can go at an average of 150BPM or ~80% for four to eight hours without blowing up

UPDATE: James the PhD advised that on closer analysis of the lactate curve, the LT figure is more like 226W, not 240W. Which almost perfectly correlates with the Strava 1hr data. I doubt very much I'd be able to do another lap at that speed, so it's probably a shade over or right on my LT. So the lower HR average of 150 for day-long races would reflect the real LT of 226W. Hover just under that and go all day if you keep the flapjacks and water coming. So it looks like my above guess that 85% or 240W is indeed above my LT, and I'd be asking for cramped-up-in-a-ditch-vomiting trouble trying to sit on 85%. So Strava is most likely reading a bit under in terms of power / over in terms of KJ consumption, but close. And Suunto HRM's are pretty much spot on. Thinking more on this, these historic 1hr laps were done on a Cyclocross bike with around 80PSI knobbly CX tyres on - certainly a world away from 115PSI road slicks, and no doubt not what your average Strava-ite would be seen dead wearing. Having just fitted some decent slick rubber I should get out there and start collecting some new data, I'd expect Strava to come more into line with reality, all things considered.


Clearly there's a ton of fudge involved comparing all these various fruits. But overall, for a *free* app that only needs a phone, Strava is pretty good at power estimation. This is potentially invaluable info, and if I had a HRM that could show accurate average power (or a correlating metric) I'd definitely use it on long rides to ensure I was staying away from The Wall. Maybe I'll continue to stick with aiming for an 80% average HR.

Or maybe I need one of these.

No, dammit, I definitely need one.

Question is, which kidney to sell?


Here's an excellent, reasonably-understandable article on Glycogen, Glucose and Lactic Acid, and how they relate. While it's running-centric, the same mechanisms apply. I was surprised to read that 'Hitting The Wall' isn't a lack of Glycogen in the muscle, rather the effects of the buildup of Lactic Acid . I was also surprised that after 1hr of running your body gets 3 times the energy from burning fat as from muscle glycogen or blood Glucose. Those long, slow miles really are the best for loosing fat.

"Above the anaerobic threshold, the volume of carbon dioxide production exceeds the volume of oxygen consumption. The removal of carbon dioxide (through exhalation) can no longer maintain blood acidity within reasonable limits. The rapidly rising hydrogen ion concentration and falling blood pH cause the fatigue and cramping we know as the Wall. Labored breathing is a sure sign of this process, and therefore monitoring it will help you determine how close you are to the threshold. For average marathoners, running at about 65% but perhaps up to 75 % of your maximal heart rate will keep you just below the threshold. This is how you avoid hitting the Wall."