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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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. 

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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

“Cheating”

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?

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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.)

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.

 

Domane Four and a Half, three rides in

With new saddle installed

I still can’t tell how fast I’m going, because my CycleMeter app keeps borking out with the phone’s battery at about 43%, but although it was a bit cold today, I felt a bit better.

I actually planned my whole week around going for a ride today because the weather forecast indicated two (!) whole rain-free days in a row. I hoped this would culminate in dryer roads, but I’ve had that thought before. A key difference today was a new saddle. I didn’t actually object too much to the Affinity 2 saddle supplied with the bike, but I ordered a Fizik Aliante in day-glo orange and black, hoping it would be a better match on the bike. (What I’m looking for is an excuse to put on orange bar tape at some point.) And, yes, that’s “glo”, not “goo”, autocorrect, you bastard.

I was hoping to get out of work at three, home in half an hour, and then out at the warmest point of the day, a couple of hours before sunset. But then an Al-Qaeda operative arranged a 1-day visit to school this Friday and the usual sense of tense panic descended. One upshot was that my Mrs was called into a meeting at three o’clock, so her meeting with the AQ op could be micromanaged. Bum. So we end up getting home 50 minutes later than planned, the sun’s already low in the sky, the temperature is dropping, ad I’m scrabbling around for my cycling gear.

Anyway, the roads were mostly dry. There were just three or four spots where water runoff covered the entire width of the road, but I felt much more confident on the slick 25mm tyres. I’m five rides in to what I’m calling pre-season training, but I did feel better today, maybe a mile per hour faster than I was at the weekend.

Here’s what I’ve noticed. I remain too heavy by far, but on those hills, those horrible hills in the final mile or so, I’m finding that I can sustain the spinning of the pedals and keep gliding up. Yes, it hurts a bit, but it doesn’t ever get to a stage where it’s unbearable. I can stay in the gear and the bike keeps moving. It’s hard to explain. On the old bike, when I felt this bad, the bike itself would start to feel bad, and I’d struggle to keep turning the pedals. On this bike, not so much. It’s a subtle difference, but I dare to hope that when I’m a few more rides in and it’s not so cold, I’ll start to feel great.

Not so sure about the saddle, though. It’s designed for the less flexible man, the “bull” as Fizik call them, but I’m borderline bull at best. It felt okay to begin with, but in the last mile or so started to feel a bit firm. But that’s just one ride, I do need to get used to it.

As to the iPhone battery, it was interesting to scroll through the diagnostic file that I’ve now sent on to the developer. It went, in 30 seconds, from 43% to 0%. And then, when I plugged it in again at home, it started back up again and immediately showed 39%, bang, like that. At this stage I don’t know if it’s a problem with the app (which worked perfectly before iOS 7), the operating system, or my phone, which is, what, just over a year old, but has only been showing battery issues since iOS 7.

Home again, home again

English: A Burger King bacon cheeseburger.

Got back from France the day before the new school term. Boy, that was a long holiday.

We arrived back home around three in the afternoon after a 12-hour drive, punctuated with fast food at the Burger King in the Eurotunnel terminal (what happened to Quick?). Within an hour, I was out on the bike for a blast of fresh air and a change of pace. Having expressed concerns, in my previous post, about my lack of leg-strength and stamina, I’ve been interested to see how I performed on my familiar routes.

First observation (it has to be said): British roads (Buckinghamshire British roads) are stupidly uneven and bumpy. Every road is as bad as the worst stretches of road I encountered in France, where exposed tarmac had melted in the hot sun and bits of it had been dragged up by fat car tyres. Most of the roads I was on in France were in good condition, allowing me at least an extra 4 km/h of basic speed.

It always feels windy round here, but I guess that’s only like climbing hills. I was obviously tired that first afternoon after a long drive in the car, so it wasn’t really a fair test. I rode just over 21 km and it took me 55 minutes. I got one Strava Personal Record and one 3rd best time. The PR was on a 3km stretch that goes downhill to a shallow valley and then uphill again. The worst gradient is about 4% for a few tens of metres, which was nothing compared to what I’ve been riding on. I’m now ranked 62/109 on that stretch,  which seems about right. I’m 50. Hopefully, if I was 20 years younger or whatever, I’d be further up the list. On the “3rd best time” stretch, I’m 245/489, a slightly higher ranking because it’s a mostly downhill bit, and I like going downhill, especially on a gentle gradient.

My second trip out since I got back was after work on Thursday, fitting in with my normal pattern of rides, along the same route. This time, I did it in about 52 minutes and got 2 Strava PRs. The first was on the same 3km stretch, and the second was on another little climb, which is called on Strava The Col de Wicken. Again, it’s about 4%, flattening out to 2%, and it’s only about 700 metres, which is laughable compared to the half of the Ballon d’Alsace I managed, with a gradient of 7-10% for ten times further. I’m 139th out of 250 on that bit, which again seems about right.

So I’m doing a little better than before the holiday, but not much. These still feel like hills. Disappointingly, I didn’t lose any weight over the summer, in spite of riding a total distance of around 900km since the beginning of July, including 9km of “elevation gain” and over 40 hours in the saddle. On the other hand, I did only gain a kg (which I’ve since lost), in spite of all the alcohol, snacks, biscuits, cheese, and other French goodies I was stuffing in my face.

So we’ll call it even.

On balance, no ballons

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A farewell to France – for now

So I didn’t go back to the Ballon d’Alsace this summer. I drove up yesterday and went for a 2-hour hike around it, and just looking at the road, from the point I gave up before, was enough to convince me that I don’t have the legs for it.

Is it a strength thing? I’ve always been a 10-stone weakling, albeit these days trapped in a 14-stone body, and my legs may well not be up to it. My core is extremely feeble, and I rarely do anything to exercise my upper body, give or take the occasional mass movement of logs. That’s unlikely to change.

Is it a bike thing? All the bike mags have a very macho attitude to hills and climbing, and their idea of a “big gear” is a 34/28, which is what I have on my Trek.

[UPDATE: It turns out, I only had a 34/26 on my old Trek, which explains a good deal!]

But for me? Not enough. If I had a 34/32, or even a 34/30, I’d be happier, but most of all, I think I’d be happier with a triple. I see a lot of older men out on these French hills, and I try to have a good look at their bikes, and it seems to me that, out here in the real world, you want a triple if you’re going to do a lot of climbing, which would give you a 30/30, or at least a 30/28.

When I’ve saved up for it, I reckon my next bike will be a triple. On the other hand, if I win the lotto, I’ve already decided to get one with SRAM Force or SRAM Red, and their “true 22” gearing, with their WiFLi 11-speed rear cassette, which would give me a 34/32 on a lightweight frame. Then we’ll know if it’s the legs or the bike.

If it is the legs, it might not be just because I’m a 10-stone weakling. It might be the meds. I’m on blood pressure medication, as well as statins for cholesterol, albeit a small dose. The blood pressure tablets are a combination of two types (Candesartan and Almodipine), arrived at after a series of trial-and-error experiments and various side effects, including bloodshot eyes, swollen ankles, etc. About 1 in 10 people have muscle pain with statins. I’m only on a 20mg dose now, but there are also people who report muscle weakness with blood pressure medication, so I don’t know. I might be on a combination which leaves my ankles unswollen but my legs weak.

I honestly can’t believe that given the amount of cycling I’ve done, and the kilometres I’ve climbed over the past five weeks, that I wouldn’t be feeling some kind of benefit in terms of increased strength and stamina. But the fact is, I’m not. In the second week, my legs felt better than they do now. Looking at the last 6-7 kilometres of the Ballon d’Alsace climb, I just knew I wouldn’t be able to do it. Tellingly, although I can get up the Route d’Auxelles (the big hill up from Plancher Bas to Auxelles Bas), which is just a 2km climb, I’m not any better at it now than I was 5 weeks ago. And the Ballon d’Alsace is a 14 kilometre climb, from bottom to top. Getting halfway up it was the best I was ever going to do.

I’m disappointed. And I think I might visit the doctor when I get back home.

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Over the hill and far away

The route to Fresse
On the route to Fresse

I finished with a great big smile on my face and felt no compunction in texting my wife to request a taxi ride up the hill from Plancher to Auxelles. I think I could have done the final 140m climb, but I wouldn’t have enjoyed it, and it would have taken the shine off what had turned out to be a very shiny day.

I planned this route back in the winter and it was my only real target for this holiday. I probably won’t get up the Ballon d’Alsace, and I won’t conquer the 13% gradient in the Saint Antoine Forest, but I felt that the ride up to Fresse and down into Plancher was something within reach.

A sensible thing to have done would have been to drive the route in a car and familiarise myself with the turns. But then if I’d seen the climb between Mélisey and Fresse, I might well have not bothered. The 140m between Plancher and Auxelles is bad enough, but between Mélisey and beyond Fresse is one climb of 300 metres, more or less, which you take in three chunks, with a little rest (or false flat) in between each.

It’s all downhill from Auxelles to Ronchamp, via Champagney, but it’s not that pleasant. The road is busy, and, being French, people drive too fast, even if they do give you room. You ride further through Ronchamp than you really want to (there are a couple of opportunities to turn right and head up into the hills, but I didn’t fancy those. The smaller roads tend to be too steep). The downside was that I stayed on a busy RN for longer, albeit one that was pointing downhill, all the way down the valley of the river Rahin. Finally, you turn right onto the Road to Mélisey.

I didn’t know what to expect. I thought I might be involved in serious climbing straight away. The route essentially takes you out of one valley (the Rahin) and into another (l’Ognon), which runs almost parallel. In between: hills. There was a bit of a climb straight away (I was pleased to be able to overtake an old lady on a town bike on the hill – “C’est dur!” she said. “Oui!” I said), but then it flattened out, and there was a very gentle ride all the way to Mélisey, which is the gateway village to the land of a thousand lakes (lande des milles étangs), which is a fisherperson’s paradise. A right turn out of Mélisey, and you’re on a proper road to Servance, which is where you will find another Ballon (which goes up to 1158 metres, or higher if you leave the road), so you don’t want to go there. Instead, you turn right and head for Fresse, which is up at a mere 480 metres.

Still 170 metres to climb from here
Still 170 metres to climb from here

I was pleased with myself when I reached a brow of a hill and the road sign into Fresse, thinking that I’d done it. I stopped and took a photo. But there was more climbing to come, all the way up to the turning for Belfahy at 611 metres. Belfahy itself is 250 metres or so further up, but at the turn, there’s a little parking spot and an information sign and a very welcome descent down into Plancher – the very same on used on the Tour de France in 2012 (stage 7).

That felt good, and it felt good to be blasting down the valley of the Rahin again, knowing I could stop at my brother-in-law’s house for a bit of free internet. And next door, my in-laws themselves, who gave me coffee and biscuits while I waited for my wife to come down for a visit and a pick-up.

Anyway: fantastic ride, breathtaking scenery, and nothing too taxing (as long as you avoid that final climb up to Auxelles). This is my new favourite route.

The ride of shame
The ride of shame

Ballon d’Alsace – The Half Way

Cyclist Léon Georget in 1909.

It was as I was preparing to expose myself at the side of the road in order to have a pee, and the family in the black car chose that moment to pull into the lay-by, that I reflected I’d gone about this the wrong way. I was halfway out of my cycling jersey, and about to tug down the front of my bib shorts. (I haven’t ever attempted the pee-on-the-move thing that pro cyclists do. I’ve heard anyway that much of the pee goes down your leg, or up your shorts.)

There have been a lot of hot rides this holiday, temperatures well above 30°C and tarmac melting merrily away, so I’ve been conscientious about taking enough to drink. A lot of people think you’re crazy when you want to go for a ride on a hot day, but it’s fine, really. The breeze caused by just moving is enough to keep you fairly cool, and you only feel the heat when you stop, or find yourself on a steep gradient out of the wind. But you need to keep sweating, which means you need to keep drinking.

So I bought myself one of those backpack water carrier things. Camelback is the best-known brand, but mine is a Giant branded one. It holds up to two litres of water, which means carrying an extra 2 kilos on your back, which I’m not keen on. But with that and two 800ml bottles, I reckoned I had enough water for a long, hot ride, which is what I’ve been trying to build up to.

Two weeks in, I know I’m fitter. It still hurts to climb hills, but I’m not breathing as hard as I was. I still feel like I need another gear (or two), but I’ve been steadily increasing the amount of climbing I do, and the altitude I reach. I read about people doing these hundred-mile rides, and tackling TDF stages, all that, but I’m nowhere near being able to do that. I’m not strong enough, or fit enough. A 4km climb still feels really long to me, and I couldn’t contemplate making it up a 10-14 km climb, over an alp, or even a Ballon.

The Ballons des Vosges are rounded granite hills, part of a deeply forested national park  (Parc Naturel Régional des Ballons des Vosges) which is a great destination for cycling, featuring rolling roads and some challenging climbs, but nothing on the level of an alp or a Pyrenee. With my own lack of fitness, my main concern has been to get out of the valley of the River Rahin, or the Savoureuse, over at least one climb, so I could extend my range and spend more time in the saddle. At home, my nightly fitness rides of about an hour take me on a 20km circuit, and at the weekend, I’ve been extending this to 30+ and even 40km, with attendant problems with shoes and other equipment (see blogs passim).

Here in Auxelles Bas, my problem is that, even if I wanted to go for a 50km or 60km ride, the only way to do that is to climb, and this is something I’m not very good. My whole cycling life, I’ve just tried to go fast, and I’m having to learn the whole discipline of climbing and gearing and tricking your body into not thinking that it’s sprinting, which is what generally happens when you hit a hill and push harder on the pedals.

The good news is that I spent two hours on the road on Friday and arrived home without even a hint of a numb foot. These Bontrager multisport shoes seem to be the business for me, combined with the Shimano touring pedals. My saddle was starting to give me gyp, but that’s a whole other chapter (to come).

So, after climbing 140m on the first (Thursday) afternoon, I gradually increased the elevation over the first week, managing a ride with 457m of climbing by the following Wednesday. I immediately trumped this with 534m on the following day, but then I had my first mechanical of the holiday when I threw a spoke, which deformed my back wheel and meant I couldn’t ride for a couple of days while it was being repaired.

We also had a couple of days of rain, which meant that the second week was a bit of a step backwards. But, after a couple of days of rain-enforced rest, I decided to set out for the Ballon d’Alsace and see how far up it I could get. I had a little note in my phone of a tiny settlement on the map called Roche du Cerf, which sits at around 566 metres up the valley of the Savoureuse river. Just above that, the RN D465 takes a turn for the steep, and begins to switch back and forth up the west face of the Ballon, topping out at 1170 metres.

In global climbing terms, not much really, but at least 10x more than I’ve ever tackled in one go. The gradient is not too bad, 10% in places, which is about what I can manage on the hill between Plancher and Auxelles, but for nothing like as long.

I didn’t think I was going to make it all the way up. La Roche du Cerf was the target. I set off in the wrong direction, in order to avoid the 60m climb on the road to Giromagny, which may have been an error. I rode down to Chaux, which is mostly downhill, and a nice warmup before turning around and riding gently up through Rougegoutte and Vescemont. You do the same amount of climbing in the end, but a lot more gently and enjoyably. A sharp turn before la Planche le Prêtre, and I descended down into Giromagny, down to about 480m, before heading up the road to the Ballon.

I was carrying my 2 litre water pack and two bottles, and I had a couple of gels and a couple of energy bars. I was feeling okay, but it wasn’t really hot enough to be carrying so much water, and it was on the gentle start of the road up to the Ballon that I started to feel I needed to pee. It wasn’t all that hot, only around 20°C, which meant that the water pack was overkill. Once an idea like that insinuates itself into your brain, there’s no getting it out. The problem was, there are quite a lot of houses along that road, and there were no quiet spots to hop off for a wee. In fact, I was up to about 700 metres before I saw an opportunity. By this time, my legs were protesting, and I was already feeling that I might have overdone it, given that I still had the climbs between where I was and home to negotiate. I stopped and threw the bike down. I wasn’t on too steep a gradient at that point, but the stopping place was on the edge of a precipice, and the ground beneath was not all that sturdy, consisting mostly of cut brambles, it turned out. As I was unzipping, the black car pulled into the lay-by. The family inside gave me a look as the driver turned the car around. I’d seen a few other cyclists, but there was nobody else around as the car pulled away. I risked it.

I don’t like peeing in public at the best of times, but having to keep looking left and right on what was actually quite a busy road was quite stressful. In the end, it was almost as if I didn’t need to pee at all.

Still, I managed it, and, back on the bike, for a few wondrous moments, my legs didn’t feel too bad. I kept climbing. There’s something of a mental assault in a gradient that stretches ahead, and that you know will keep stretching thus after every switchback bend for the next few km. In fact, I count 7 hairpins on the map, with each stretch between growing longer and longer. At this stage, I think I had a good 10km of climbing to go before I reached the top. I kept my head down and tried to turn the pedals at a cadence that didn’t leave me out of breath. But the problem in the end wasn’t the breath, but the legs. I got past a restaurant called La Saut de la Truite (where my in-laws had their wedding reception), and shortly after that, another – fitter, stronger, faster – cyclist breezed past and said, “Bonjour.” I was so in the zone that he made me jump out of my skin. I made some horrible surprised noise, which sounded nothing like bonjour, I’m sure. At this point, the jimmy legs were having no more of it. I turned and freewheeled down. I’d reached 717m, and would need to climb another 450 or so to get to the top, which had never been the aim, but would have been a triumph.

When you’re so knackered, it’s hard to enjoy a descent, especially after suffering a mechanical a few days before. I worried about my brakes (and my spokes), but still hit over 50 kmh on the downhill. By the time I needed to pedal again, though, my feet felt like lead weights at the end of my legs (I now understand why some people obsess about the weight of shoes and pedals).

Somehow, I got over the hill from Giromagny up towards Auxelles. Somehow, I managed to climb from the roundabout at the bottom of Auxelles up to our house. I gave myself permission to walk the last few metres after the last right turn, when the gradient on our road gets really steep, but I was watching the stop watch on my Strava app and it was counting up towards exactly two hours, so I gave myself permission to walk when it hit 2:00:00. And then it did, but I was unclipping outside our front door. I still had more than 2 litres of water left, which meant I’d carried an excess 2kg for two hours, but what the hell.

Total climbing for the ride: 767m, which was 233m more than I’d ever managed before. I slept a lot for the rest of the day.

In two more weeks, I wonder, will I have those extra 450m in my legs?

ballonsud

Major Climbs

The road goes on and on
The road goes on and on

So, one week on, where do we stand?

Arriving in France last Thursday afternoon, I’d been up since midnight and on the road since about one in the morning, UK time. We arrived in Auxelles Bas at just after half-past two, French time, so 12 hours on the road, more or less.

To clear my head, I immediately went out for a spin, just 8.5 km down to the bottom of the hill and back up again, 140m of climbing. Nothing I can’t handle, normally, except most of the 140m is just one, non-stop climb. It’s hard, a 10% gradient for some of its length. It’s also a main road and can be quite terrifying as the lorries thunder by. Worse than that, it’s a climb that awaits me at the end of any ride: no matter how far I go and how far I climb, I’ve always got to climb that last 140m in one go.

So there were a couple of days of rain, which I took as rest days. Otherwise, I’ve been out every day, trying to gradually increase the distance I travel and the altitude I reach. On Friday, I went 24 km and climbed 270m. On Saturday, I went 26 km and climbed 395m. It was on this ride that I hit a particular gradient, at an elevation of 599m. It was just too much, too steep for my legs and/or my gears. 10% I can (just about) handle, but this bit is 13%, and I just can’t do it. I ride a compact, and I think my biggest gear is 34/30 or maybe 34/28 [UPDATE: turns out I was very wrong about this. My bike had a mere 34/26, so I was a long way short of the 32 I probably needed.]. Whatever, my legs just wouldn’t turn. So I stopped, had a drink, and headed back down my favourite stretch of road, a long downhill drag all the way from 599m to 430-ish. And then back up the hill.

So this bend in the road, this 13% gradient, has become my bête noir. I’ve been on other routes, but I keep coming back to this one. Yesterday, I got up to 653m and climbed  a total of 457m, though I had to get off and walk up that little stretch of road. And again today, I wanted to push further, but found myself unclipping in exactly the same spot. After it, the road keeps climbing but only at gradients between 1% and 4%.

The problem is, by the time I reach this nasty bend, I’ve been climbing steadily for 10-12 kilometres, all uphill, all the way from 430-ish metres to 599. And there’s just nothing there. I’m not strong enough or fit enough to make it stick. So I walked it again today, then got back on the bike and carried on, this time all the way up to 697m, making a total climb for the day of 534m, my biggest yet.

I know other cyclists revel in these challenges, but I kind of enjoy riding on flat roads, and I absolutely love riding on a slight downhill gradient, even if it’s against the wind. Yeah, I’m a wimp, but in a week I’ve climbed almost 2000 metres, and here’s my problem. If I want to go further, for longer, and I do, then I’ve got to keep climbing higher. There is no alternative.

P1010545
Taken at today’s turning around spot, 50 minutes in

Today, the neighbour invited me for a little ride. Only up to 800m, he said. Not yet, I said.