Kalkhoff Integrale 8G Ltd White

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The bike arrived in a box that was practically bigger than our house – rendering ludicrous the request from the supplier that I keep the packaging if possible, in case the bike has to go back to their workshop. Well, I’ve thrown it in the garage for now (could barely close the door), which is only okay as long as nobody else wants to get in there.

First impressions: even without the box, the bike is massive. It’s a 55cm frame (Large, not even XL), which is just about 21.5 inches. The funny thing about that is that my first Trek hybrid bike was about that size, and I always thought it was on the small side. Well, frame sizes across manufacturers obviously aren’t standardised. Anyway, I knew it was a dilemma. I’m 183cm tall, which puts me bang on the borderline between Medium and Large. I went for Large because of my history of thinking a 55cm frame was too small. Don’t mistake me: this isn’t too big (at all), but it’s clear that I’d have probably been fine on a Medium.

And a Medium, of course, would have been a bit lighter. Second impression: wow, this is heavy. Think of an old-fashioned town bike, with a steel (or even aluminium) frame, heavy wheels, a chunky saddle, mudguards, a rack, and a basket containing 2 kilograms of potatoes, a jeroboam of champagne and panniers full of rocks: imagine how much that would weigh. Now double it. The downtube, seat tube and motor housing are cast from a single piece of aluminium alloy, and the rest of the bike is built to match – obviously strength is important, given the torque produced by the electric motor. So a lot of the weight is in the frame, and to that you can add the several kilograms of motor and several more kilograms of battery. Which is before you get to the chunky DT Swiss wheels and Big Apple 50mm balloon tyres.

It was all set up and ready to go, apart from the pedals and the handlebars, which had been twisted around to fit in the box and rotated to protect the brakes. The pedals that come with the bike are flat and plastic, with a grippy surface. I fitted instead a set of Shimano Deore XT pedals which are flat on one side, and which accept a cleat on the other. This means I can ride in regular trainers – or put on a pair of dedicated cycling shoes. I found the handlebar business a bit fiddly: I had to undo a lot of bolts to rotate brake callipers, shifters, the front light, the computer housing etc, but eventually got everything ready to go.

Meanwhile, I was charging the battery up to 100% for the first outing. First time you use it, they suggest charging it completely and then letting it go flat before you charge it again – in order to train the battery.

Let’s talk specs. The bike is a Limited Edition, which means that (unlike the standard 8G) it has no rack and a rigid fork. Mine is numbered 420 out of 500. I don’t know if that means they made 500 in total, or that many of each size. The engine is Kalkhoff’s own Impulse Evo 250 W mid-drive model with shift sensor technology. That means it drives the crank rather than the wheel hub. The shift sensor cuts the power when it detects a gear change so you don’t have to stop pedalling or slow down. In practice, it’s pretty seamless.

Integrated into the frame and giving the range its name is the battery, which is a 36V 17Ah battery. That’s over 600 watts, which is big for an e-bike. Very big. (And very heavy.) The battery can be charged on or off the bike. There’s a separate power supply for this, which connects to the battery using an Apple-style mag-safe adapter, which will only snap on the right way, thanks to magnets. The battery and motor are connected to the drivetrain by a Gates carbon belt drive rather than a chain, and the gears are Shimano’s 8-speed Alfine hub gears.

The white frame comes with matching mudguards but no rack. These are aluminium rather than plastic and they  properly go with this bike rather than being off-the-shelf. The rear mudguard has an integrated LED light (not as impressive as the rack-mounted light you get on other models). The front has a built-in 100 lux twin headlight. I don’t know how bright this will be in practice. It seems pretty good, but I’ve only ridden in daylight so far.

The Limited comes with a fancy Brooks Cambium C17 saddle (in black), with matching fancy handlebar grips. This is highly unusual in my experience. Even if you spend quite a lot of money on a bike (My Trek Domane 4.5, for example, was not cheap), you tend to get a bog-standard saddle, with the expectation that if you want a fancy one you’ll spend more. The Cambium retails at over £100, so it had better be good, right? It seems okay so far, but I’ve only been on one short and one 13-mile ride. The grips are another £50 value, and I’m afraid I’m a bit disappointed in them. They’re a bit hard (no cushion at all), and given the bike’s lack of any kind of suspension or damping, too uncomfortable. I was wearing cushioned gloves but still found my hand actually being bounced off the bar at one point. (The roads around here are disgraceful).

All of this weight and all of this power needs to be able to stop safely, and the Shimano M396 hydraulic disk brakes are up to the job. The Shimano Alfine shifter is the kind with a numerical display (it only indicates top, bottom, and fourth), though it feels a bit plasticky.

The brains of the bike are contained in an LCD display, which is about half the size of my phone. Using the simple control switch (which is on the left side of the bar, leaving the gear shifters on the right), you can set menu items such as level of assist (there are five settings, from Off to Turbo) and view battery level, speed, distance, cadence, and all the usual bike computer settings. The display also has built-in Bluetooth, so you can connect your phone to it through a companion app. This means you can use your phone as a sat nav, and the directions are displayed on the bike’s LCD display, meaning you don’t have to attach your phone. Should you want to do that, though, the LCD has a USB port which will supply a charge.

I went on two rides. The first one was just a quick blast to check that everything worked. I started off in Power mode (the next-to-highest level of assist) and in 4th gear, and from the first push on the pedal you could feel the motor kicking in and the bike surging ahead. I went around the block and through town, and my top speed was 27 mph. The motor cuts out at 15 mph, so anything over that is pedal power only – but if you’re going even slightly downhill it’s not hard to get up there.

Later on, when it had stopped raining, I headed around my usual 20km (13-mile) circuit. I thought I’d try Turbo mode, the highest level of assist – mainly because I want to run the battery down before Monday. As I set off, the display reported that I’d have a range of 31 miles. Well, in spite of the fact that I haven’t ridden a bike for over a month, I’m still fairly cycle fit, so my pedalling was clearly more than the bike was expecting. In spite of wind, cold, wet roads, it was a joyous ride. In recent years, with my leg muscles (perhaps?) weakened by Statins (or the blood pressure meds, or a combination), I’ve been struggling round that route at around 13 mph, but today I did it at (ahem) 15.6 mph. That, you’ll note, is 0.6 mph above the legal cutoff speed for an e-bike in the UK. That means that for most of the journey I was slightly above the 15 mph, which I’m pleased with. I was also pleased to note that the range the bike was predicting, after 13 miles, was still 31 miles.

I suspect that Turbo mode is more than I need anyway. I didn’t need to use gears 1-4 at all, and only used 5th gear to get up all the hills that usually see me labouring. So I was riding around with a fairly narrow range of gears – just four! – and found that my downhill speed topped out at 30 mph simply because my legs were spinning so fast that I had to stop pedalling.

Mind you, you don’t half notice when you’re going up hill and the motor isn’t helping you. Have I mentioned how heavy this bike is?

All things considered, this was great fun. I found myself chuckling as I launched up hills at a sustained speed. Most of the time I was pedalling as normal — but instead of pain and suffering and struggling against the wind, I was swooshing along (in near-silence, I should add) and actually enjoying myself. It was like having the wind at your back all the time – or, you know, being fit. I even overtook somebody. It’s rare that I see someone going in the same direction (most people seem to prefer anti-clockwise circuits, whereas I go clockwise) so it’s not going to happen often. I wonder what he thought as I blasted past? The sound the bike makes is more to do with the belt drive than the motor, I think. Anyway, I was past him so quickly he would have barely had time to register the sound. What he will have noticed is the enormous size of the thing. The Kalkhoff is a giant tank of a bike made for giant Northern Europeans – about as far as you can get from an Italian road bike with skinny tyres.

As to the balloon tyres, they weren’t providing much cushioning today. I might have to deflate them a little on these roads. I’ll add too that although I didn’t notice how bright the lights were, they do have a neat safety feature in that they stay on for a while after you switch the bike off. This means, say, that if you stop on a dark road and are taking time to hoik the heavy weight of the bike up a kerb or walking along with it for a bit, you don’t suddenly become invisible. The front light stays on for about 15 seconds, but the back light stays on for a few minutes. The commuting begins next week.


Cycling’s dirty little secret?

The Information

I’ve continued to research the market in electric bikes and I’ve discovered some interesting things. At the same time, I’m finding it hard to settle on a purchase. Good information is hard to come by. There are a couple of YouTube channels that review e-bikes, and the odd web site, but the truth seems to be that there are a lot more e-bikes out there than there are reviewers. The limited number of reviewers means everything’s filtered through the preferences and prejudices of one or two people. Or the reviews are so generally positive they’re bland. Especially when it comes to finding out about more recent models, you’re kind of on your own. I thought there would – obviously! – be a magazine dedicated to e-bikes, but when I went to the big W H Smith in Milton Keynes, there appeared to be nothing available.

(An online research reveals an American title, but even then the latest issue shown on its web site dates from December 2015.)

It’s also hard to see them in person, unless you happen to live near a specialist retailer. Even then, most retailers tend to carry a limited number of brands, so there really isn’t anywhere you can go to see a wide variety.

Even a thorough trawl through the online reviews isn’t much help when it comes to current or forthcoming e-bikes. A YouTube review of a bike from 2014? In this fast-developing market, 2014 is ancient history. As Ferris Bueller said, in his documentary about e-bikes, “Life moves pretty fast.”

I think I know what the real problem is, and we’ll get to that. First, let’s talk about design.


I’ve never been a fan of the e-bike that has a rear hub motor and its battery on a rack over the back wheel. That’s a lot of weight over the back wheel, and it looks ugly, too. Bikes designed like this tend to be the older and cheaper ones. The motor can be placed in the front wheel instead, but your driven wheel is then also your steering wheel – and it still looks ugly. The ugliness is in the design (or lack of it): these are clearly regular bikes with electric motors glommed onto them.

As the market has grown – and it has clearly been growing – the designs have improved, and we’re starting to see electric bikes that are designed from the ground up as electric bikes. It’s increasingly rare to find a rear hub motor on a latter-day e-bike. Most manufacturers are offering a crank motor, which places the centre of gravity low and which responds more directly to your pedalling input. The key advantage of these in design terms is that both wheels can be a more conventional bicycle design, depending on the genre of the bike.


Trek Conduit+

Still, it’s common to see the battery attached to the rear rack or stuck on top of the downtube. We’re getting closer to the idea of an electric bike being true to its own nature, but I still think they’re ugly. The Trek Conduit+ made my original shortlist but I’ve discovered enough other options that I won’t consider it now.


Scott E-Sub Tour

The closer you get to a nice-looking e-bike, the higher the price. Forthcoming models from Specialized and Giant (see previous post) are going to retail between £2k and £3k, which makes your eyes water a bit. At least the Trek is closer to the £2k mark, as is the Scott E-Sub Tour. This latter is typical of the kind of design that’s making some effort to incorporate the battery into the design.

It’s in the hub

Which brings us to the Germans, and their Swiss/Austrian cousins. Once you get into the high Sierras of £3000 plus, the e-bikes start looking very nice indeed (though I have an issue with the drab colourways). Just look at this Rotwild.


German engineering

The battery-incorporating downtube doesn’t look any fatter than that on my carbon road bike. You’d pay similar money for the (Swiss-made) Stromer ST1, but that still has a hub motor. Stromer’s high-end ST2S, with electronic gear-shifting and a 180km range, comes in at a cool seven and a half grand. 


Stromer ST1 has a rear hub motor

One thing I’ve discovered you have to watch out for are the so-called “speed” models, which are capped not at 25 but 45 kph. This means they have to be registered, licensed, and that you have to wear a proper scooter/motorbike helmet when riding them. You can usually tell it’s a speed bike because the motor is 350 watts – whereas the legislation limits the bike to 250 watts if you don’t want to register it etc. I can imagine that hurtling along at close to 30mph will make you want to wear a helmet, anyway.

So I’ve ended up looking at two manufacturers in the main. The first is Kalkhoff, which offers both regular and “speed” designs based around its “Integrale” design (the name refers to the integrated battery), and other models with the battery on the back of the downtube. The second is Scott, which offers its elegant-looking E-Silence in a variety of configurations.


Kalkhoff Integrale 10 has derailleur gears – like most e-bikes

It’s a complicated business. One thing that has been giving me anxiety is the combination of derailleur gears with the electric motor. Even without a motor, derailleurs are a pain in the arse: fine while they’re working, but I have proved myself over decades of cycling to be absolutely hopeless when it comes to maintaining or adjusting them. Why have gears at all? You might well ask. You’d think that with a motor, you could just have a single-geared bike and let the engine do the work. But these pedal-assist bikes all require you to be pedalling at a steady cadence, which means you have to keep your legs spinning at the same rate, even on the hills – hence the gears.

Which brings us to the nub, or hub, of my decision-making. On the one hand, I’ve never quite trusted the mysterious technology of hub gears. You can’t see them working, and even when you look at animations of how they work, I still don’t understand how they work. It’s all smoke and mirrors, man.


Belt drive? Oooh.

But then you see the words belt drive and you think, oooh.

A belt drive means no chain. And no lube. And no mess. Hub gears are sealed, designed for low maintenance, which means for a daily commute you could just get on and ride without worrying about the whirrrrr-click of a derailleur or the filthy gunk that accumulates on a chain in all weathers. A lot of people get a hub geared bike for winter riding anyway, but in the context of an electric motor they make even more sense.

So I’m pretty certain I’m going to plump for the belt drive option. The Kalkhoff S11 has Shimano’s latest and greatest 11-gear hub, but unfortunately it’s a speed bike, so it’s off the table. If they offered the 11-gear hub with a 250 watt motor I’d jump at it.


Kalkhoff Integrale 8 Ltd – belt drive and Shimano hub gears

A further disappointment came when the UK distributor said that the Integrale 8 (Shimano 8-gear hub, 250 watt motor) was sold out. But, they said, they have a few limited edition white ones arriving next week. These have a rigid front fork instead of  the standard suspension fork and mudguards but no rack. That’s okay: I have a rack. So that’s one option (see above).

My other option is a Scott, but their only belt drive model is the E-Silence Evo (below) which is (a) not out yet and (b) closer to £4k than £3k, so way out of my budget really. Why are we even talking about this? Well, because instead of a Shimano hub gear, it has a CVT – a continuously variable transmission. This is the Nuvinci N330, which offers a 330% range of gearing with a technology even more mysterious in its workings than a hub gear. It’s an automatic gearbox for bikes: you set the speed you wish to pedal and the bike automatically adjusts its gearing, keeping your feet spinning at the same rate – assisted by the motor, of course.


Scott E-Silence Evo with continuously variable transmission and belt drive


I was talking to someone the other day, and I mentioned my plan to get an e-bike and they said, “That’s cheating.”

Which brings us to cycling’s dirty little secret. You start researching this and you realise how big the market is, how much competition there is, and yet how hard these things are to see on the high street. Evans cycles, for example, are happy to sell you an e-bike on their web site, but when I went into their big shop in Central Milton Keynes the other day? Not a single e-bike.

The shop I went to in Dorking to drop off my carbon road bike for repair had one in the window – a Trek women’s model.

Your basic retail problem is that the staff in these places often display the same kind of twattishness common to guitar stores and record shops. They’re the kind of people who spout macho nonsense about suffering up the hills and sticking to The Rules (Rule #5: Harden The Fuck Up). You’d no more want to ask one of these people about an e-bike than you’d want to engage a music shop employee in a conversation about music.

This is the Strava crowd, the King of the Mountains crowd, the hypercompetitive macho manboys. I’ve been using Strava to keep a record of my rides for a while, but I’d been thinking maybe I ought to not use it when I get an e-bike, because it would belie my true status as the 450th fastest rider out of 750 on that particular hill.

But then, what better way to subvert the bullshit than to shoot up a hill twice as fast as usual and drive them all crazy?

e-bike gum

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In the background to all my iPhone vacillation is the fact that I busted up my road bike driving home from France. It looks as if (if I’m willing to take it apart and package it up to send away) I could get it repaired for around £500. But that’s a big if. How do you box up a bike to post it!? How much does it cost? Anyway, apart from the damage to the frame, the wheels are out of true, so there’s more work to be done. An alternative would be to buy a second hand one on eBay and use the premium components from my wrecked bike to upgrade it. But I’m not enthused.

Thing is, I’m thinking of getting an electric bike. I actually prefer to ride for a purpose, and  going out on “fitness rides” is a bit of a drag (plus I’m not built for hills and hate them). What I’d like to do is go back to riding to work on a regular basis, the way I used to in my 20s.  Most e-bikes are peddle-assist these days, which means you still have to pedal, and the motor cuts out at  15 mph (25 kph). You also still need gears, to keep your pedalling cadence steady. Well, 15 mph is a respectable speed to get to work (nine miles or so) and it would still be a bit of daily exercise. I’d still raise my heart rate a bit, but I wouldn’t necessarily arrive feeling weak and sweaty.

My shortlist candidates (so far) are pictured above.

I’ve seen the Giant Quick E+ (or similar) in the Giant shop in Belfort this summer. This is an attractive range of bikes. I like the way the battery is incorporated into the down tube. Giant’s advantage is that they have their own drive system and battery. Of course, it still weighs a ton, but that goes with the territory. The motor is in the hub, and it’s got built-in lights and hydraulic brakes. I don’t like the colour, but all of these commuter bikes (including mudguards and lights in the package) are dull.

The Scott E-Silence is a better colour, but an unknown quantity in terms of pricing, as it’s just been announced. It uses a Brose “silent” belt-drive motor, so it’s supposedly much quieter than other e-bikes. It too incorporates the battery into the down tube and if anything it’s better looking than the Giant.

Finally, the Trek Conduit+ looks like a bit of a throwback, with it’s lumpy battery sitting on the down tube. It uses the Shimano Steps motor and has the best built-in lights of the three. The front light is in the head tube and the rear lights are on both sides, at the end of the chainstays. I like the look of the Trek the least, but it’s probably a very practical design. For example, the ugly battery is easy to remove so you can take it in to charge it, or to transport the bike on a carrier. It’s also a Trek, and my last three bikes were all Treks, so…

Waiting till I finish paying for the car we bought for Chloé’s driving lessons, but then I’ll be taking the plunge… maybe.

(In France the summer, we followed someone on a mountain bike up our very steep hill one night and they were going at such a clip, it was really impressive. Most people cycle past our house with their legs spinning like mad and the bike barely moving. This cyclist was easily doing the speed a normal person might manage on the flat. So it was that the e-bike idea crystallised in my mind.)

60,000 steps in Berlin

Berlin was a compromise city for us. Because we weren’t going to France this holiday (Bruce Springsteen this Friday), the family wanted a short city break so we weren’t hanging around at home like animals. (I should add that my personal preference would have been hanging around at home.) Barcelona was mentioned; Rome; Copenhagen. In the end, almost out of the blue, I suggested Berlin. This was because I knew Roy had been there more than once, and because I noticed that a four-star hotel in Berlin cost about the same as a three-star in Rome/Barcelona.

So it was booked. In spite of the anti-depressants, I was very anxious about the trip, but took it all one step at a time. We flew out from Luton early in the morning, and stayed two nights at the Winters Hotel, which is actually fairly near the star at the centre of the Berlin map. Flying Easyjet is a lot less stressful now they allow you to reserve seats on the plane (for a fee). Given this, I wonder why so many people still pay the extra for speedy boarding – but they do. Maybe it’s a class thing.

Anyway, we landed at Schönefeld at around nine in the morning. My first rookie traveller mistake was in finding directions (via TripAdvisor) to the Mitte area rather than specifically to the Hotel. This meant we got the train to Alexanderplatz, as directed, and then were to look for onward travel by bus, tram, or train. But then my second mistake came into play. I’d downloaded an offline map through Triposo, and (*ahem*) it didn’t look like too far to walk. I always prefer to walk through a city. But Berlin is huge, and it was a long walk. Luckily, my third mistake didn’t affect us (there are two Winters hotel locations, but they’re fairly close to each other, not on opposite sides of the city).

So having fucked up the airport transfer, we all had tired legs and sore feet. But the clock was ticking, so we went out again. Checkpoint Charlie was close by (tacky), and there we paid to go in to see an impressive panorama called The Wall, which showed Berlin as it use to be. It was actually quite good.

Next, we walked again, in search of some remnants of the actual wall. This took us through ordinary Berlin neighbourhoods, and through the kind-of parks/cycleways that have been left where the wall was. We eventually reached the East Side Gallery, which is opposite a huge, modern train station – but also near to a completely decrepit block of flats daubed with the words “FUCK OFF MEDIA SPREE” and “REFUGEES WELCOME”. As they say of all such places: city of contrasts.

We then went back to the hotel for a bit, then went out to look at the Brandenburg Gate, browse some shops, and find somewhere to eat. The weather had been warm and sunny up till then, but on the way to the Gate, we were caught in an intense thunderstorm, and got completely soaked.

This had been the weather I was expecting. My always-pessimistic weather apps had both predicted overcast weather and quite a lot of rain. In the event, we were caught in that one storm, but most of the time experienced high temperatures and sunshine. Sunglasses were deployed. My biggest problem was that, in packing as light as possible, I had only catered for the predicted grey skies and rain. I had one pair of jeans and several long-sleeve shirts – two made from merino wool. It was 28°C in the shade. I spent that first day continually trying to overcome a raging thirst. It was finally slaked when we stopped at a (good) Chinese restaurant and I ordered a Berliner Pilsner, forgetting that I wasn’t supposed to be drinking on these pills. Oops.

Shopping wasn’t really a thing. Tired legs, dehydration, and sore feet meant that I didn’t feel like trying on clothes and shoes. And travelling hand luggage only meant that even the WMF kitchen equipment shop didn’t excite me. The Lindt chocolate shop was pretty great, though. Day one step count: 30,077 (21.29 km).

Day two meant galleries and museums, and more tube travel. We got a travel card (eventually: the machines wouldn’t accept our cards) – and hopped on and off the U-Bahn all day long. This saved our feet (a bit) but the damage had been done. We went to the Hamburger Bahnhoff for modern art (a Carl Andre exhibition was on, but I enjoyed most the gallery of so-called “degenerate” art that was banned under the Nazis). And after viewing the Holocaust memorial, we went down to the DDR Museum, which was quite enjoyable. By this time, I was done with the walking, blisters on both feet, but there was, inevitably, more. We ate disappointing Italian in the evening and went down to the Brandenburg Gate to see it again but without the thunderstorm. Day two step count: 24,048 (just 16 km).

Observation: lots of embassies round there: French, Russian, US. There was no visible security outside the US embassy. A couple of cops were standing outside the French one, but only the British embassy, it seems, necessitates the closure of a whole section of street and the permanent posting of 6-8 cops with two vans. That’s how much the world fucking hates us.

Getting back to the airport was much easier. A couple of hops on the tube to Friedrrichstraße and then the Airport Express – which would have been so much easier if we’d done it on the way in. Might have saved the feet, for a start.

So I enjoyed the trip in the end. One thing I do wish we’d done is hire bikes (I was outvoted). Berlin is flat and very cycle friendly, and getting around on bike is absolutely the best way. Two days isn’t enough though, and I never enjoy the pressure to see the sights in the time available. My favourite part of the whole trip was when we sat in a coffee shop for breakfast, reading over the shoulder of a WordPress blogger through the window, and watching people for half an hour. My ideal such holiday would be to do just that: watch the people of the city go about their business. But I’m outvoted.


Ibera PakRak System

Of course, following the crippling back pain, there had to be a solution that would put the weight on the bike and not on my back. As reluctant as I am to add weight to my carbon bicycle, I obviously can’t use the backpack any more.

One of the reasons I’m reluctant is that, at the weekend and on holidays, I want to ride my bike with as little on it as possible, so I really didn’t want to fit a complicated pannier system that would be difficult to fit and remove. And because the main weight I’d be carrying would be my laptop, a pannier system would end up being imbalanced. So I hit the YouTubes and the interwebs and I did some research. Topeak offer a range of solutions, including a rack that fits to your seatpost and a selection of trunk bags, including one with fold-out panniers. Tantalisingly, they used to have an actual laptop bag, but that no longer appears to be available (in the UK, at least).

A similar, but cheaper, system is available from Ibera, and its this I went for, as their biggest trunk bag looked like it might just be big enough to contain my laptop. The first step is the seatpost-mounted commuter carrier, which gets around the lack of rack fixings on my bike. It looks kind of precarious, but (it says here) it can support up to 10kg, which should be more than sufficient for my needs. It attaches where the seatpost meets the downtube, and comes with a couple of shims you can insert. I used the thicker of the two shims, hoping it will be right. The rack itself can be adjusted – I pulled it back to its furthest position to accommodate the big bag.

Step two is the trunk bag itself, which attaches to the rack with a snap-on system. It has a lightly padded interior and an ABS plastic base which looks pretty solid. It comes with an optional carry strap and has one big pocket with three smaller ones around the outside, plus one on the top. There are also some bungee cords to tighten around a rain jacket or something, and inside there’s a zip compartment in the lid. It seemed as if it ought to be able to contain what I carry to work: laptop, wallet, keys, pen, spare cartridges, maybe a bottle of chocolate milk. It could also potentially contain a shirt and tie, maybe even a rolled up pair of trousers, but let’s not go overboard.

The true test was, could it contain my 13″ MacBook Pro? The dimensions seemed to indicate that it might. And it does – just. But that’s no bad thing. The snugger the fit, the less the thing is going to move around. Above you can see it in its resting place. The zips, once you go past the first corner, do up pretty easily really, and it seems fairly secure. Of course, I haven’t tested this setup over the bumpy British roads on the way to work, but we shall see. If you have a 15″ Pro, that won’t fit, and nor might the older non-retina design with the built-in DVD drive. If you have one of the new 12″ MacBooks, that’ll go in easy, as will the 11″ air (you’d probably need extra padding). Given that the next-generation MacBook Pro will probably be thinner and lighter, the future is bright.

Getting on the bike with the bag on is no easy feat if you have issues with your hips and back. Getting my leg over was a stretch. But I am in a bad way at the moment, so maybe it won’t be too much of an issue. I can also ask someone to snap the bag on for me once I’m on, I guess.

So now the Port Designs GOLED backpack will be going on the eBay. This Ibera solution, by the way was pretty cheap: the seatpost rack was just £22, and the trunk bag was £34. So £56 all-in, about half what the Topeak solution would have cost.

Biking to Work

aid1493229-728px-Align-Your-Hips-Step-2-Version-2In all the years I worked at the old place, I summoned the courage to cycle in just once. It was a 19-mile journey, which I managed at a respectable 15 mph. But I put the bike on the roof of the car to get home, and I never did it again.

Tuesday is Strava’s global bike to work day, but I won’t be participating because it looks like it’ll be raining, and I’m not up for that. But I have, already, cycled into my new place of employment twice. It’s (depending on the route) 9-11 miles, so an easier ride, and because I no longer share a ride with the rest of my family, I cycled home both times too.

My first attempt was a couple of weeks ago. Forecast had been fairly decent, though it did change on the day, and it was much colder and cloudier than I’d originally been hoping. In fact, it was so cold first thing in the morning that I had to wear the full winter gloves, three layers, and my phone’s battery was nearly flat when I arrived. That was not just temperature-related, but because I was using Google to follow the recommended cycling route on the back lanes.

How did it go? Pros: I was on a post-exercise high all day at work, and in such a good mood that some students (clearly sensitive to my moods) actually commented on how cheerful I was. I also broke the duck: dealt with the colossal faff of making sure I had everything I needed, including a pair of shoes in the cupboard at work and an emergency shirt in case I was disgracefully sweaty. As far as the latter, I wasn’t (because: cold), and the regular, non-cycling merino roll neck sweater I wore was perfectly suitable – with the bonus feature that it was something I have been wearing to work on a regular basis, anyway.

It’s ironic that I went for this jumper, considering the quantity of specialist cycling gear I own. But all the cycling gear, even in XL configurations tends to look a bit tight around my wok belly, so while I like wearing it on a loop ride, I didn’t want to be walking around all day looking like that. I did wear my Rapha commuting trousers, but I’m still skeptical about them. Although I ordered my standard waist size, they’re a lot tighter than all the other trousers I wear in that size, and they’re not terrific for riding my road bike. Sure, they’d work for an upright commuter bike on flat roads, but they’re not really suitable for drop-bar riding.

My top layer was my Chapeau jacket, which came into its own in the cold air, and looked acceptable enough that a colleague expressed disappointment that I wasn’t wearing lycra, because they’d wanted to poke fun.

But I might wear lycra in the future, and just change into a pair of trousers at work.

Cons: I found it hard. I hate first-thing exercise, preferring to ride in the afternoon, and in warmer weather. The restricted movement of the trousers made me uncomfortable, and my feet were freezing. The biggest problem (apart from my own weight) was the weight of my backpack, containing my laptop and some sustenance, as well as all the bits and pieces I usually carry in my jacket pocket. I guess with the best will in the world the backpack added 3-4 kg in weight, and it puts additional pressure on your neck and shoulders, lower back, hips etc.

Cycling home was just about okay. My legs were tired (and teaching means I’m on my feet most of the day, so it’s not as if I was resting), and I had a couple of gumption moments on the steeper inclines. But I got there.

And then I did it again this recent Thursday. It was warmer (only just, in the morning), so I was able to wear regular gloves and my feet didn’t get cold. I also took a more direct route, on a busier road. The thing about the back roads route was that it was (a) two miles longer; and (b) involved a full mile on the A43 dual carriageway. The more direct route (on the A422) does involve a lot of impatient and dangerous cars/trucks (but the speed limit is 50, and at most people were waiting, what, 5-10 seconds to overtake – many of them too closely).

Cycling in was okay. The merino roll neck was slightly too warm once I was at work (my room gets hot on sunny days) and the backpack was still too heavy, but I managed, if slowly. I didn’t feel quite so much of a post-exercise high, and I still found the preparation (shifting stuff from jacket to backpack etc.) a big faff. For the route home, I took off a layer (the jumper) and took it easy, but I did stop about half way to put a bit of extra air into my back tyre. This was mainly through concern that the weight of the backpack was compromising it, especially over bumps and unavoidable potholes. So that added 5 minutes to the journey.

Then a thing happened. The following morning, reaching forward with a slight twisting motion to pull my right sock on, my lower back went into spasm. 24 hours later, I’m still in pain (not so much), and I think the real problem is with my hip, which is out of alignment. Now, I’ve had problems with my hips for years, and one of the reasons I cycle rather than run is that I need low-impact exercise. But clearly the combination of cycling and wearing a backpack has put my left hip out of alignment.

I was in extreme pain on Friday. I shouldn’t have gone to work, but I had classes I needed to see, and I knew that a day at home would be just as painful. The fact that I kept moving all day probably helped. But the pain was so bad I couldn’t pull the zips up on my boots until lunchtime, and even this morning, I had to sit down to pull on my trousers, and I’ve not risked trying to put socks on.

So I’m still keen to ride to work, but what do I do about my MacBook? I could leave it at work – but that would mean being without it at home for two nights, and if I wanted to ride to work, say, twice a week, I’d be without my laptop (either at home or at work) for most of the week, unless I risked carrying it in one direction or another.

So this is annoying, particularly as the backpack was quite expensive. Dammit.


Port Designs LED backpack

IMG_9213Although I only recently bought a new backpack for work, when I saw this in my favourite shop (Nature et Découvertes), I thought about it for a few days and then went back and bought it.

My requirements are quite simple these days. I’m a teacher but I travel light. If I need to transport a set of books, I just carry them in a plastic crate. If I’m given a piece of paper in a meeting, I “lose it” quite quickly. This time last year, when I found myself in the unaccustomed position of not having a classroom base, I found myself having to lug all kinds of shit around (you can’t trust that board markers or blank paper will be in your next classroom, for example), and it was depressing and heavy. Now I have a base again, I need my laptop and a few spare ink cartridges. I take a bottle of water, but I rarely bother with lunch these days.

So the small backpack I bought (in the same shop, oy) in February was fine, and I’d been steeling myself to cycle to work as soon as the weather was better. To push myself, I’ve also added front and rear lights, and even purchased a lock, just in case I couldn’t fit my bike in the cupboard at the back of my classroom.

But then, as I say, I saw this bag. Same as the old bag, really, except it has a built-in LED light that can be used to signal left and right, straight on, and, um, !, I suppose for danger.

It cost €150, which is a bit steep, but I was so tickled by its novelty that I bought it anyway.

It comes with a built-in USB cable for charging, and on-off button and has a supposed battery life of up to 40 hours. There’s a small plastic remote control for switching the lights on and off, but you’d better not lose this, because there’s no other way to do it.

The remote will clip over something, or slip inside a mesh pocket on the rucksack strap, or can be attached to your handlebars. You hold the centre button for a couple of seconds to turn the thing on and off, and then you can push the buttons to signal.

Here’s the thing. You’re on your bike, right, and you want to signal left. Is this thing on? You think so. But the light on the remote flashes whether it is or not. So you don’t know. So you stop, heave of your backpack, and check. Yep. Working. When not signalling, it kind of cycles through the LEDs in a pattern. So you carry on again, and you get to a dangerous roundabout on the A43 and you signal right, look over your shoulder, and use a clear hand signal, and you hope it’s on, right?

I think it was on. I like the idea of having a clear signal as well as my hand signals. Sometimes, you need both hands on your handlebars after signalling, and it’s nice to have the backup. But the fact that you can’t really see it’s working is an issue. I suspect drivers will find the thing a novelty.

Most people would say panniers are better for commuting, and they are. But my main bike is not one to put panniers on. So if you need a backpack, this is one. And it has lights.

Bit expensive though.

Bluetooth earbuds and the price point problem

Halterrego Liberty H bluetooth earbuds (écouteurs)

143-9-1404895145Here’s a funny story. Well, not that funny. I’ve been putting up with my Plantronics bluetooth headbuds for a while, and growing increasingly uncomfortable in them on my bike rides. There’s an unfortunate clash between earbuds, glasses, and helmet and/or cap. It’s not so bad when I wear my regular glasses, which are Oakleys with straight arms, but in the sunshine I wear my RayBan prescription sunglasses, and they hook over the ears in the traditional way. So what I’ve been hankering after for a while are earbuds that just go in the ears and don’t hook over them.

I’d been steeling myself for trying something else, but the thing with earbuds is, they’re like bike saddles. You can’t really try them on (ew), and even if you could, you wouldn’t be able to tell in a few seconds what the reality of wearing them for an hour or more would be. I make the analogy to bike saddles because there are loads of options when it comes to saddles, at lots of price points, but until you’ve ridden around on one for a few hours, you don’t know if it suits you. I want to try a Brooks Cambium, but at £150 it’s just too great a risk. £150 and my arse doesn’t like it? What then?

Steeling myself, as I said, for buying something else, and maybe working up to spending on something like the Jaybirds Bluebuds, which at £126 look very expensive, especially when compared to the myriad el cheapo options now available. What to do, what to do?

What I did was, I went on holiday for six weeks and inadvertently left the Plantronics at home. So I was looking around, everywhere I went, for something I could use, something not too outrageous.

France isn’t generally great for electronics, so there wasn’t much doing. I ended up in an E Leclerc Electrical Goods/Books/Entertainment shop (not attached to the main supermarket, but across the road), where I saw these, the Liberty H by unknown brand Halterrego.

Which brings me to the price point problem. On the one hand, £14.99, which seems a bit cheap for what they’re supposed to be. What do you want? Sweat proof, comfortable to wear, decent sound quality, decent battery life. £14.99 doesn’t give me much faith that such things are possible. On the other hand, £126 for something I’m going to be wearing for an hour or two each week is tad steep. What you want, ideally, is something halfway between the two. Shopping on Amazon, you can find the Plantronics Backbeats for about £60, but in France you’ll only find them in Fnac for the full €120. And they hook over the ears, so no.

The Libertys were about €80, or £59. But they were a brand I’d never heard of, so what to do, what to do?

I bought them. They come overpackaged, in a hard plastic case with a slidy in bit and a challenging unpacking procedure. They come with alternative earpieces, standard stuff, and they have some kind of attachment that’s supposed to help them stay in your ears. It’s not an over-ear hook, but some kind of in-ear gizmo. Once you remove them from the heavy packaging, they weigh almost nothing. So you think you’ve just paid £60 for a pair of £14.99 earbuds. The battery can’t possibly last more than an hour, you think. But it does. The sound quality is fairly decent too. They’re louder than my old Plantronics, and I’ve got no complaints about that at all. The sound they’re competing with on the bike is not traffic, but wind. Travelling downhill at 30+ mph, you hear nothing but wind in your ears. They’re even fairly decent for use with the big French petrol lawnmower, although only for music, not for podcasts. You can’t hear This American Life and mow with the Honda.

I don’t think they’re sweat proof. The USB connector for charging is uncapped, for a start. They’re quite fiddly to switch on (tiny little button), but they paired quite easily and have done so reliably every time I used them. The battery seems to last at least 7 hours, if not longer.

It’s the comfort angle that’s bugging me. With the ear hook things, I didn’t know what to do. Didn’t know what angle to put them at or how they’re supposed to work. No helpful instructions included. It’s assumed you know. So I took the gizmos off. At first, I thought this was better, but I’m still constantly having to push them back in my ears. Maybe I’ve got the wrong size earpieces on, but past experience tells me that I’m not happy with any size. Couldn’t tell you if my earholes are small medium or large. I can’t see them and I’ve got nothing to compare them to.

Riding out at the weekend, they were in but not firmly in and they moved about whenever I turned or dipped my head. Annoying. At one point, the right side came out altogether and yet when I jammed it back in (whilst on the move), it stayed put till the end of my ride and didn’t even move. It made me wonder why I couldn’t put it in like that at the start of the ride.

I don’t find them too comfortable after about an hour. My ears start to feel funny and it’s sweet relief to remove them.

All in all, I wish I’d never bought them, but I mostly wish I’d remembered to take the Plantronics. Now I feel like I’ve already spent £60 on new earbuds and cannot justify another purchase so soon.

(I know it’s potentially dangerous to wear earbuds whilst pedalling, but I’m very experienced on the bike, and I’m very careful. I look over my shoulder a lot, and you can generally hear traffic approaching – it’s not as if they’re noise cancelling. Anyway, if a car comes up behind me and the driver decides to knock me into a ditch, being able to hear it happen isn’t going to help much. Most cars come up behind you and overtake you quite safely.)


turtle-bike_350pxI haven’t written much about cycling this year, and there are a number of reasons. The main one is that I allowed the stress and exhaustion of my horrible job to get on top of me, and have neglected to get out on the bike on weekdays – even when the evenings were long. So I’ve only really been out on the bike at the weekends, and even that I haven’t managed every weekend.

When I have been out, I have not enjoyed myself, and have even questioned why I’m doing it at all. I’ve complained on the Twitter a few times about the wind. It has been windy this year! It has. For example, at noon today, the wind speed around here was 25km/h – and so it has been, most of the times I’ve been out since April. Anything over 20 km/h, frankly, feels like something I don’t want to be in, especially in the negative frame of mind I’ve been in of late. Doesn’t matter that I’m on a loop: the wind direction always seem to be such that the wind feels like it’s against you all the way.

So I’ve not been out much, and when I have been out I’ve suffered. I can only think of one time when the legs felt better, stronger, than they had on the previous ride. There have been other positive signs, though. On my most recent ride, I encountered three other cyclists around my age. (I’m assuming their ages based on hair colour – all were greyer than me, but then I’m mousy and the grey doesn’t show much.) Usually, this means me being overtaken, severally, as I struggle up the slightest gradient. On this occasion, however, I managed to catch and overtake one of them – not because I was racing, but just by dint of my steady pace being slightly faster than his steady pace. I try to ride with the same level of effort all the way around, which also meant that when the second of these cyclists overtook me, I eventually caught up with him when he was resting at the side of the road, obviously having overcooked it.

I was aware he was probably going into the ‘old man red’ as it were, because when he did overtake me (and the other guy, the one I overtook too), his legs were spinning in a very low gear, comparative to the one I was in. He’d clearly put in an extra effort to overtake the two of us, but I saw him stop twice to let his legs recover, which is when I went past him.

The third guy also overtook me, and went off a hundred metres or so ahead, but then stayed at a more or less fixed distance in front of me. This was clearly another case of a guy putting in an effort to ‘breeze’ past and then having to dial it back a bit. Again, I wasn’t chasing, but I was being the tortoise to the hares. This last guy turned off the route I was on anyway, so we’ll never know if the tortoise would have caught him.

All of this stuff – this measuring of myself against other people – is not really me. I have never seen cycling as a social activity, and I have zero competitive spirit. Which is not to say that these guys are the same as I. Clearly, at least two of them saw a fellow cyclist ahead of them as a challenge to be met. This is the part of manhood I find depressing and boring. All that said, I am always in a battle against myself, my pathetic legs and my lack of stamina. The ultimate project here is simply to prolong my active life. Both of my parents became more and more immobile as they got older, and I don’t want to end up like them. So, yeah, it did mean something to me that I was out there on the road with other 50-somethings and able to sustain a reasonable pace – for an hour at least. I remain concerned at the lack of stamina. If I could manage two hours on the bike I’d be happier with myself, but that would probably mean dealing with the hip/back/foot pain problem all over again.

So I’m off to France, and the bike is coming with me. Last year, I reached a level of fitness before the summer that meant I was more ready for the mountains than I am at the moment. Then again, I have also felt in the past that I peaked too early in the summer, and struggled for the last couple of weeks in France. No danger of that this year.

Thoughts on the Domane 4.5 (cycling bores only)

Screen Shot 2014-08-22 at 19.41.23

In thinking about my feeble legs and slow pace, I’ve neglected to discuss the actual bike, and how I’m getting on with it. It has only been in the last few weeks that I’ve spent serious amounts of time on it.

It was after struggling up these hills on my old bike that I determined that, if I were able, I would get myself a new one for this year. 


We won’t dwell much on the weight. A lighter carbon frame and lighter race wheels mean that this bike is lighter than the old one, but the rider isn’t. Suffice it to say that in spite of being much lighter, it doesn’t feel skittish or vulnerable to being blown off course by head- or crosswinds.


My feet are much more comfortable now, in the wide-fitting shoes and with the Time pedals and cleats. I’ve also suffered much less from back pain since I adjusted my riding style. Even my hip isn’t giving me much gyp, so the whole experience of riding has improved since the bike fitting. My biggest problem now is with my hands, which is largely down to gripping too tight around the hoods and not being relaxed enough in my riding posture. If I could achieve a relaxed style, I would probably fix any lingering back problems, too. I’ve noticed that gloves that are too loose get really uncomfortable on longer, sweatier rides, so I’ve a pair that will be relegated to lawnmower duty or the bin.

In terms of the clever design of the Trek’s frame, and its ability to absorb bumps in the road, it’s one of those things you have to force yourself to notice. You really do only feel the very biggest bumps in your backside (inadvertent potholes, manhole covers etc), and the rest of the time it feels very smooth. It struck me today as I descended a fairly bumpy road that the bike feels much more secure in situations like this, feeling planted on the road surface rather than jittering all over the place. I’m sure I hit at least one bump, hidden in the dappled light of the woods, that would have seen me flying into a ditch on the old bike, but the Domane stayed planted on the road.


Fantastic. Whenever I’ve needed them, they’ve been there, predictable, progressive, and assured. When I’m on the drops, I do find it a bit of a stretch to reach the levers, though.


Shimano Ultegra has been a revelation to me. If you’ve been asking yourself if the extra money is worth it, I can assure you that it is. Even after several months, even with me in charge of them, the gear changes remain smooth and undramatic, achieved with a bare tap on the shifter. Because of my well documented feet problems, I’ve adopted a high-cadence riding style, and I like to keep my legs spinning, without feeling like I’m putting undue pressure on the pedals. The Ultegra shifting means you can go up one and down one all day long without breaking rhythm and without fear. My previous bike had Tiagra, so I’ve entirely skipped the rite-de-passage of Shimano 105 in favour of the next grade up, so I don’t know how Ultegra compares to the more common 105, but I don’t really care. If you can afford it, go for Ultegra.


Charge Spoon saddle remains in place, and I’m generally happy with it. I’d love to try something fancy like a Brooks Cambium, but I’ve no real complaints about the Spoon, which looks especially good on my bike (see above).


I paid extra for the slightly padded Race Lite Isozone bar, and with the fairly padded bar tape, you could probably quite happily ride this bike without padded gloves. On the other hand, as I mentioned above, my hands are now the main source of pain, due to my tense grip. I probably don’t move around the bars as much as I used to, because I’m conscious of not wanting to adopt a more upright position, lest it gets my back hurting again.


I’ve only experienced cheaper, heavier entry-level wheels and these Race ones. Bontrager obviously have several ranges above these (Race Lite, Race X Lite etc). The bog standard Race seem okay. As with the saddle, I’d love to experiment with some of the much vaunted light ones, like the Bontrager Aeolus 5, which is supposedly their best climbing wheel, but I don’t have a spare £2000 right now. So I’ll stick with these. I can’t imagine spending as much again on wheels as the bike cost, unless I win the lotto.