Riding fixed gear in London

So I’ve been riding fixed gear in London for two solid weeks. What can I say; it has definitely been a very interesting experience.

I’ve been “kicked” by the pedals a fair few times (about 6 or 7). I soon learned my lesson – just keep spinning those pedals!

The first week of the commute had its horrible moments. Not only was I a bit unsure of how to handle the fixed gear bike, but the gearing that was provided on the built pompino was altogether too high, Perhaps not for some people out there, but I’m willing to bet it was too high for most people.I will discuss the gearing again further down, but for now let me just say that riding fixed gear is very interesting indeed.

In short – riding the bicycle feels like a lot of fun on fixed gear, It brought back those feelings I had when I learned to ride a bike for the first time as a child. There is a cetain purity to fixie riding. At first I thought to myself – I can’t coast over rough road, I can’t coast as I turn, I can’t change gear, etc. However, as nice as coasting and changing gear is, after a little while riding fixed, when you start to forget about coasting and changing gear, the part of the brain that used to think about those things all of a sudden is freed up to think about other things, or not at all. It’s nice not to faff around trying to decide anything to do with your pedalling, you just have to keep pedalling and that’s all there is to it! The rides have become somewhat more serene. Now, I can imagine that this sounds like a load of tosh – really the only thing to do is to try riding fixed for yourself. Doing it for 5 minutes doesn’t count as trying, it takes around 2 weeks or so to acclimatize.

Back to the gearing; the chainring originally was 48 teeth whilst the sprocket that was provided was 16 tooth. Coupled with the 170mm cranks and 700C wheels, this gave a gearing of 81 gear inches (or 6.1 gain ratio). This gearing is commonly used on velodromes as a warm up gear, so no good for the road at all really.

Sure enough, I ordered a 20 tooth sprocket and a KMC Inox track chain from velosolo. This arrived and I mounted it, and things have improved greatly! I’ve been riding in this new gear (65 gear inches, or 4.8 gain ratio) and my knees haven’t felt anywhere near as strained as before, my average speed went up and overall I feel much more confident on the bike. If anything, the gear is ever so slightly low, but all that means is that I can adjust to an increased cadence for a while – and there’s always the option of going for a 19 tooth sprocket in a few weeks.

This is what the mounted sprocket looks like:

Cromoly track sprocket Andel

20 tooth Andel Cromoly steel track sprocket.

And this is the drivetrain in all its glory:

Stronlight 48T Andel 20T drivetrain

KMC Inox stainless steel chain. 48T Stronlight chainring. 20T Andel cromo sprocket

As you can see, the sprocket is actually larger than the flange of the hub, which is hilarious and (to me) aesthetically pleasing at the same time. The KMC Inox chain feels really very sturdy and I am very happy I picked it. As a graduate engineer – stainless steel makes me hot under the collar so it was a natural choice really!

All in all, my drivetrain feels very solid, both due to being fixed, having easy gearing as well as being adjusted and tightened correctly. How to adjust the chain tension and rear wheel position took a surprisingly short time to learn and feels very intuitive.

On tyres and their diameters

Tyre width is an important aspect to think about, and opinions vary on the subject, with two rather polarized camps. You get the weight weenies that are running those skinny pencil-thin tyres (usually 23mm – and this diameter can even get lower!). They run them whilst claiming that thin tyres roll faster due to less friction on the road, or some similar excuse.

This has been proven to be a myth, and in fact wider tyres roll faster because of a reduced tyre casing deformation and hence a reduced loss of energy. Detailed info can be found here: http://www.bikeradar.com/gear/article/bicycle-tires-puncturing-the-myths-29245/ The same is true for larger tyre/wheel combos, bigger tyres/wheels roll faster too. 29″ tyres roll faster than 26″ tyres.

I am definitely in the camp of bikers who like to run fat tyres on our bikes. Fat tyres provide comfort, they have TONS more grip on the road. Ask anyone, ask your nan, even she knows! I recently acquired a pompino, which has a more aggressive riding position than my other bikes, and running the fattest tyre that I can find helps with the amount of shock travelling through the handlebars and into my hands and wrists. Not to mention – running a fat tyre means that I don’t need to worry about my front tyre skidding out sideways from under me as I take some of those aggressive turns. And I DID have a couple of wobbly moments where this happened using the original tyre that came with the pompino.

On the weekend I changed the original tyre (Vittoria Randonneur Cross Pro 32mm) for a fatter tyre I had lying around (Innova 40-622). The main reason I changed the original tyre is that despite it being advertised as a 32mm diameter tyre, on my rims (which has 13.6mm internal width) the tyre actually measured 28mm in width:

Vittoria Randonneur Cross Pro 32mm

Vittoria Randonneur Cross Pro 32mm only measures 28mm on 13.6 mm rims

The Innova tyre, which is marked with ETRTO (which is meant to be the most accurate system) of 40-622 actually only measure 34mm on my rims:

Innova 40-622 tyre

Innova 40-622 measures 34mm on 13.6mm rims

Now, I can tell you that riding the Innova tyre feels really very nice, despite the fact that the tyre came free on a Halfords bike. It is much more sure-footed, as well as absorbing shock very well, providing me with a sort of front suspension.

Another thing to keep in mind is that in a similar way to clothes and shoes, not all 35mm tyres will actually measure 35mm. Some will be much thinner in order that the manufacturer can boast a lighter 35mm tyre, when in reality they’re flogging a 32mm tyre as a 35mm. All about this here (http://sheldonbrown.com/tire-sizing.html) The best indication of tyre size is usually given by the ETRTO sizing, which looks like this: 622×40 which denotes a 622mm bead circumference (i.e. 700C wheels) and a 40mm tyre diameter. For mountain bikes, the ETRTO sizing is 559×40 (for example). The 559mm part will stay constant, as that is the bead diameter for a 26 inch mountain bike tyre.

So, if you want to ride more comfortably, on tyres that give you better grip, more suspension and generally a safer/better ride, then I would suggest that you consider some wider tyres when the time comes to get some new ones. Or, in fact when you’re looking for some nice winter tyres, they’re really great on wet roads and those rotting leaves.

Some things to look out for:

  • The real tyre diameter will depend on the size of your rim (as shown in the pictures above)
  • The real tyre diameter will also depend on the brand which is making the tyres. I find Schwalbe to be quite honest in their sizing.
  • Make sure you have the clearance in your frame for a wider tyre. Some road frames are limited to 23-25mm.
  • Check the internal width of your rim and don’t go over the maximum tyre width recommended for that rim.

Go on, try some wide tyres!

The new bike is here! On-One Pompino

So it appears that I have been a good boy this year and Satan got me a new bike for Christmas/New Year!

It’s a fixed gear bike, which has always been something that I’ve been intrigued by. Over time I have heard various opinions, the full spectrum from “fixies are lethal” to “fixies are the best thing since sliced bread, and also the safest possible type of bike”. I’m not sure why people believe that sliced bread is that a great a thing, but that’s a tangent, for another day. In the meantime I have taken the advice of an experienced cyclist I know as well as Sheldon and decided that I would get a bike that is fixed, but with the option of a flip-flop hub should this be necessary.

Now, the bike in question is a On-One Pompino fixed that I got from Planet X. I originally hit the “buy it now” button on a custom clearance Pompino from the Planet X eBay store. It was a bargain price, and this was the main reason I went for it despite some drawbacks, namely the size was a medium, which is a tad small for me, and the rims were aero rims (we’re talking very deep, around 40mm at least) – which I really do not like. Through no fault of their own, Planet X sold the bike to someone else in the time between me comitting to buy the bike and paying for it (yes – I took my time). Credit to them for offering me a brand new Pompino in Large (which I prefer) – obviously for the same price. Happy New Year indeed!

The bike arrived by courier on Friday (Jan 3) and I spent a bit of time over the weekend “pimping it out”. I’m sure I’m using that phrase inappropriately, but I just don’t care 😛 Either way, the bike is now fitted with full length SKS Chromoplastic mudguards, a Topeak Super Tourist DX rack, an Ortlieb QL3 bag mounting kit, and Cateye mounting brackets so that I can use my Cateye lights.

Enough rambling, here are some pictures!

On-One Pompino Large White

First look at the On-One Pompino

The SKS mudguards were taken from a bike which originally had them but they were never used. The front mudguard was badly warped and so I had to cut the worst section off – and the upside is that (in my eyes at least) it’s aesthetically more pleasing than it was before:

Pompino front wheel

Pompino front wheel, Tektro canti brake and SKS mudguard

This Pompino build features the On-One midge handlebar which is reasonably unique in its shape. On paper it sounds much better than traditional handlebars, but only time will tell.

It’s fitted with brakes front and rear (as a matter of course) as well as my usual set up of full length mudguards and my favourite pannier rack:

Pompino rear wheel and topeak rack

Pompino rear wheel, mudguard and Topeak rack

That saddle is unlikely to stay on the bike for too long, we’ll see if I can find something suitable in the stable. Enough rambling, this has been the first look at the bike, the maiden voyage is tomorrow and I shall update the blog as soon as I’ve had a bit of time on the saddle. I’m off to bed 🙂

Schwalbe Big Apple for commuting – long term review

I originally purchased the Schwalbe Big Apple tyre in Autumn 2010 – so I can confidently say that I can provide a long term review.

What can I say about the Schwalbe Big Apple? I was attracted to big, smooth tyres as I was keen to experience a cushioned ride that was also smooth.

I knew that big tyres were good at giving a cushioned ride, because I started commuting in 2009 on a mountain bike with 2.3 inch knobbly tyres on it. These tyres did take the bite out of cracks and potholes, but they were so hard to push around and could make cycling un-enjoyable on occasion… I wanted a tyre that gave me schock absorption but didn’t have high rolling resistance.

In come the balloon bike type tyres, such as the Big Apple. I purchased a black Schwalbe Big Apple in ETRTO 50-559 size (or 26 x 2.00 inch) This tyre has good volume at 2 inches wide, but at the same time it doesn’t grip the road quite as tightly as an off-road tyre, and hence gives a cushioned as well as a much reduced rolling resistance.

In terms of comments for this tyre, I struggle to think of any! I will tell you why this is a good thing – clearly I have mounted the tyre onto my wheel and I haven’t had to give it a second thought ever since! At first – I did notice that the bike rode much easier and I was happy with that. Over time, the tyre has simply turned into a good, reliable performing tyre. I ride with a lot of my weight on the saddle, and I also mount panniers onto my rack, so the back wheel and tyre take a lot of abuse. The Big Apple stood up to all that for 2.5 years,and very well – might I add.

You’ve guessed it by now, I’ve never had a puncture with this tyre. It’s been used every day for 1 year and then used once or twice a week for the past 1.5 years.

Understandably, after all this time, the central band of tread has worn quite a bit, and there are a few cuts present as well:

Schwalbe Big Apple tread - section 2

The following is a close up of the logo and as you can see, this is the older style of Big Apple which has the old design of tread on it:

schwalbe big apple logo cropped

This is how the tyre looks when it’s mounted on the wheel:

Schwalbe Big Apple tyre on back wheel

As you can see, my wheel and cassette and not faring very well, but the tyre is still going strong. Hopefully this image gives you a good idea of the volume that is available for shock absorption.

Now, I have had half a dozen different tyres – which have pros and cons compared to the Big Apple. I will be reviewing these in due course.

The main thing that the Big Apple has over other tyres is it’s good performance over a large period of time.

I liked this tyre so much, that I have decided to put my money where my mouth is, and get a pair for my newer and main commuting bike. Brown is the new black:

Schwalbe Big Apple Brown New Tread

The tyre has ETRTO sizing of 55-559 (so 5mm wider than the previous one) – or if you want the size in inches, it’s 26 x 2.15 inches. I mounted the logo over the valve hole a bit more centrally this time as well:

Schwalbe Big Apple Brown Logo

After my birthday – which is when a certain someone will get me another of these tyres as a “surprise” present, I will have a matching set and I take these tyres out for a good old ride I will let you guys know how I get on with a set of these larger Big Apple tyres. It will be the first time that I will have a matching set of tyres on my bike.

Over the last 2.5-3 years I’ve been experimenting with various tyres – which generally means that buy one tyre to try out, and I try it on the front and the rear, and see how I get on. Consequently I haven’t had a matching set of tyres on my bike ever since I decided to try out various tyres.

Now, however – it seems that I have settled with the Big Apple as a nice commuting tyre. It’s not as heavy as the seemingly indestructible Schwalbe Marathon Plus Tour, which is what I have on my main commuting bike at the moment – so I’m hoping that these will allow me to get to work that little bit quicker.

The Big Apple is much lighter than the Marathon Plus, whilst having proved that in terms of puncture resistance, they’re perfectly adequate for London roads.

Watch this space!


Shimano vs KMC bicycle chains

I have no idea what to use as the title for this post; because I don’t want to be too rude…

But let me start at the beginning. I’d been riding my Specialized Rockhopper for around 8 months when I decided to place an order for some bike parts for various bikes and thought I might as well get a spare 9-speed chain.

I thought I could benefit from a spare chain for the Rockhopper so that I can switch over to a clean chain in a few moments, should the need arise.

I ordered a Shimano 9-speed chain. It arrived, and I fitted it to the Rockhopper and rode to work. Well – it was a horrible experience. Shifting became horrible and sluggish, and the chain slapped the chainstay extremely often.

My first thought was that my casette and chainrings were shot, and that the new chain didn’t fit onto them. Certainly – this can happen to a badly worn drivetrain, if the components have worn together, i.e. the teeth are worn and the chain is stretched to match, then putting on a brand new chain will impede shifting. This theory is well and good, but all my components were barely 8 months old, and seeing as I was using this bike in conjunction with my old one, they had only covered 2000 miles, and so the sprockets/chain-rings were barely worn.

So the verdict is – Shimano chains are garbage. Not good. This is echoed by A. the man I trust with all things bike related and B. a plethora of online cyclists that have slated Shimano chains.

Personally I fint it ironic that a Shimano chain didn’t do as good a job at being a chain (shifting, etc) on Shimano chainrings and sprockets compared to a KMC chain.

Here is a picture of the Shimano chain after a week of riding:

Shimano 9 speed chain CN-HG73

Shimano CN-HG73 chain RUST!!

It’s rusted! After a week of horrible shifting and frequent chain slaps – the chain rusts! It certainly wasn’t built to last. I mean, sure – we’re all familiar with the concept of “inbuilt obsolesence“, but this kind of rusting and wear is taking the proverbial visit to the men’s room, in order to urinate…

This brings me nicely onto my next point.

KMC chains. Now, KMC chains – in complete contrast to Shimano chains – I have found to be a dream! They are resistant to stretching (or at least more so than Shimano chains), they work better on Shimano components than Shimano’s own chains, and they’re not too expensive either. I’ve found that their coating means that they don’t rust. The absence of rust can only be a good thing. For one, you wouldn’t get the rust flaking off, mixing with the lube on the chain and creating a rather abrasive paste that speeds up the wearing of your drivetrain components.

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again, there is something meaningful about the fact that some certain companies choose to make only one type of component or item. The company that I am about to praise is KMC, they only make chains and as such they make arguably the best chains on the market (for the average Joe commuter, that is, I cannot comment on what the pros would use).

When a company makes only one type of item – i.e. chains in the case of KMC, you can imaigne that all their R&D budget goes on developing chains, and they go over the top with developing their niche product. Call them saddoes, geeks, nerds or whatever, but that’s who I want to buy my niche products from!

Here is a photo of an 8 month old KMC chain next to a 1 week old Shimano chain:

KMC chain on left (used 8 months), Shimano chain on right (used 1 week)

Just by the picture, when you see the 8 month old KMC chain and it looks good as new compared to the rusted Shimano chain, which one would you rather buy?

Conclusion: don’t bother with Shimano chains. KMC chains rock the house. I have only KMC chains on all my bikes, and I do mean all three of them, even the vintage Carlton Corsa. They work!

And no, I am not getting paid comission (or anything for that matter) from KMC for this plug; I am simply plugging their product because it’s the bee’s knees. At the same time, if KMC was to get in touch with me and send me some chains – who am I to say no?

Carlton Corsa – saddle choices

The Carlton Corsa that I have already blogged about has been on my mind a lot lately.

I am still to use this bike to commute to work – but I did use it for a shopping trip yesterday. It was rather a lot of fun but one thing that I did not enjoy has been the rather narrow saddle that adorn this bike:

Big Ben Saddle

The original “Big Ben” saddle on this 1977 Carlton Corsa

The saddle unfortunately seems to be narrow enough to move into the space between my ischial tuberosities/ sitting bones, and a lot of my soft tissues are resting on the saddle. This isn’t too bad for a 10 minute trip to the shops, but won’t do for the 30 minute commute. Now, as you will learn soon – I am a very big fan of leather saddles, namely ones made by Brooks. I have tried various saddles, but none have been as comfortable to me as leather saddles so I stuck with them.

I have two brooks saddles so far, one for each bike, and I plan to get a Brooks saddle for this bike.

I’ve narrowed it down to three choices:

The B17 Special, which comes in a rich, deep green, and copper rivets:

B17 Special with copper rivets

B17 Special with copper rivets – in a rich green colour

The B17 Special is really quite tempting, the copper rivets look good as well as reportedly increasing the longevity of the leather on saddle. These saddles cost in at £90.

The B17 standard, which comes in a choice of colurs, including Apple Green:

B17 Apple Green

Apple Green B17 Standard with Steel Rivets

The B17 Standard is more affordable at £70, and the Apple Green colour (looks more like an acid green to me) will actually match with the colour of the frame a lot better (I think). This is a matter of debate, of course, matching the colour of the saddle to the frame does not necessarily mean to match the colour as closely as possible, but instead a nice clash might be best (this remains open for discussion) The steel rivets are reportedly inferior to copper rivets.

Last but not least, the Brooks Flyer:

Brooks Flyer - black

Brooks Flyer in black, steel rivets and cushioning springs

The Brooks Flyer is an alternative to the green B17 saddles. The leather top is the same as the B17, but it offers the addition of 2 rather handy springs which cushion the ride. Seeing as the bike has no suspension to speak of, the Brooks Flyer seems like the logical, sensible choice – despite the copper rivets. The flyer costs £70, same as the B17 Standard.

Note that the saddles above are essentially the same in terms of size, they all the the B17 leather top on them.

I currently own a Brooks Flyer Select, and can attest to its comfort. As much as I love the Brooks Flyer Select, its light tan colour does stain very easily, and the price is a little prohibitive at £125.

I also own a B73, which contains a lot of springs and I really find these great for my upright bike. The B73 doesn’t come in a select or special option, and so is effectively a standard Brooks saddle in black, with steel rivets, and I certainly haven’t had any issues with it so far. The difference between the Flyer Select and the B73 might show in terms of longevity in a few years time, but at the moment, the steel rivets vs copper rivets issue doesn’t bother me.

Back to the matter at hand – what would you do about getting a saddle for this green vintage bike? Would you go down the fashion route and colour match a green saddle, or would you go the sensible/cautious route and get the sprung saddle for increased comfort and shock absorption.

Thanks for reading, answers on a postcard, or just email me, tweet me, or comment on here.

First Post – Bringing a Carlton Corsa to its former glory part 1

I had no idea how to start this blog; too many ideas you see – a review, a random musing, a piece of advice?

I settled in the end with writing about my latest bike acquisition – my mother-in-law’s Carlton Corsa.

Today has been the culmination of getting this bike roadworthy. It was actually completed last weekend, on the 10th of March – except that me and a friend built it in a “minimalist style”, without mudguards or a rack. I was quite happy that it was roadworthy as it was, but in reality if I was going to use this bike in London to get from place to place, it needed full length mudguards and a rack of some sort.

Here is a picture of the bike in its final form:

Carlton Corsa - refurbished
The last thing I want to do is grab this bike, make my way outside, see that it is raining, and then have to change bikes. And your opinion may vary, but I would never ride on wet ground without mudguards, especially in London. I don’t want to arrive at my destination with a wet streak of muddy water on my back as well as my bottom. I see plenty of other cyclists do it, but it is not for me. So all my bikes have full length mudguards attached to them, as well as a rack, so sue me! 😛

In terms of the bike’s history – I am reliably informed that this bike has seen about 5 miles on the road back in the late seventies, and has since been hung up in the garage. So I have a mint condition steel frame bicycle on my hands, which should last me for a good long while, seeing as steel is comparatively fatigue-free, not to mention that this grame is rather light and responsive. 🙂

When I got the bike to London, after examining it I saw that various components needed changing out; namely the wheels and the brakes. The wheels were untrue, and their soft steel spokes were very slack after 30-odd years in a garage. The brakes were not pulling uniformly from both arms, and there was no way to adjust the spring tension. I decided to get some new brakes to replace them, and while I was at it I decided to modernise the whole braking system – seeing as this is quite important for safety, that and I had a particular brake configuration in mind for a while.

Tektro LeversI decided to go with Tektro drop bar levers twinned with Tektro secondary levers (cross top interruptors). It’s my first time on a bike like this (my other bikes have me reasonably upright with either flat or mary bars) and I want the option between two different riding positions so that I do not have to spend all my time on the drops as I’m not used to riding like this. The secondary levers allow me to ride on the top of the bars and the modern drop bar levers allow me to ride on the hoods, which I have so far favoured.

Speaking of brake levers – I definitely think there is something to be said of any items, including bike components that are made by a company that specializes in making only one type of component. Tektro are an example of this, as Tektro only make brake components. I’m sure that there are brakes made by other companies that are brilliant – all I’m trying to say that a company that only makes one component is extremely unlikely to be making that component badly. So far I have really enjoyed my Tektro levers, and I’m quite happy that I only paid £20 for each set of brakes levers. I’ve had great experiences with Tektro brakes and levers in the past and these have so far not disappointed.

I have placed a KMC 8 speed chain onto my Carlton Corsa.

Carrying on with the theme of companies that only make one type of component – I wanted to make a special mention of the chains that I now use. I have stopped using Shimano chains (I will cover this in more detail in another post) and have started using KMC chains exclusively. KMC are a company that only makes chains, and these are highly regarded by cyclists as well as various bike manufactureres who place these chains on their bicycles. I have found KMC chains to be hard wearing as well as looking the part.

I had some spare green camouflage tape, which I decided to use on the chainstay, to act as a chaingard, guarding against chipping the paintwork on the chainstay in the event of a chain slap. I don’t think there will be much chain slap with this bike and its transmission system – but better safe than sorry.

I am going to end this post here, there is plenty more to write about, but that’s another story for another day.