Monday, 26 May 2014

Le Bike

Back in 2009 I was lucky enough to be able to afford to buy my first carbon fibre bike. I still have it. We've done nearly 13,000 km together. It's my summer bike, normally used for fairly short rides (30-60 km) local to where I live.

It's a Willier Izoard, named after the Col d'Izoard, a pass in the Alps between Jausiers and Briancon. I bought it with a Campagnolo Athena groupset. At the time, it was one of the first Izoards with this group set in the country. It had a compact double chainset and a fairly normal 12-23 cassette. While the bike's incredibly light weight was a revelation, the gearing initially caused me some trouble on my local roads. There are quite a few hills that kick up to more than 11%, even though they are fairly short. I'm no lightweight and found the low cadence I ended up using a real struggle on the hardest of these climbs.

After a year or so, I changed the chain and at the same time went for a more 'fat man-friendly' 12-28 cassette and long cage rear derailleur. This was an immediate improvement, and has served well for the last few years, though the gearing definitely feels too short on fast descents.

As the time approached to replace the chain once more, and the plan to holiday in the Alps firmed up, the question, of replacing the groupset with something more suitable for mountains, arose. Luckily, at about this time, Campagnolo announced a triple version of their Athena groupset. This would allow me to have a 53 tooth big ring, 39 tooth small ring and a 12-28 cassette. Finally, a transmission to get a fat man up a mountain. Perfect!

Ordering the components proved simple, with a number of national cycle shop chains stocking the parts. One tricky element was the mounting of the front derailleur. The Willier needs a band-on derailleur, whereas the Athena front mechs now seem available only as braze-on items. Campagnolo does list a band on converter for attaching braze on items, but it seemed to be becoming obsolete. Fortunately, an eBay shop had a few left. Phew!

Fitting the groupset was pretty straighforward, but required a couple of special tools. The bike was originally supplied with an Ultra Torque crankset. This is the one with the joint in the middle of the crank axle and requires a special tool to undo it. That part was easy. Athena now uses Power Torque cranksets, where the non-drive side crank fits onto splines on the end of the axle. The problem in fitting these is that the tolerances of the splines are very tight. Despite liberal applications of grease, it proved impossible to push the crank onto the splines, during assembly. In the end, I used a woodworking sash cramp, together with a couple of pieces of wood, to press the crank onto the splines. That was really the only tricky process. Of course, the groupset also includes new cables, shifters, rear cassette and both derailleurs, but fitting them was straightforward.

I fitted the components a couple of months ago, and have been riding with them ever since. The change in my riding has been a real eye-opener. I now spin up hills that were a real struggle before the change. And I have a higher top gear for descending, and can easily be pedaling hard at speeds above 30 mph.

It's safe to say that if I fail to get up the climbs I'm planning to do, it won't be the bike's fault!

Sunday, 25 May 2014

In the Beginning...

It's been on my bucket list for a while. It's origins date back to 2006, when I completed a rather circuitous End-to-End ride, here in the UK. After 1660 miles in four weeks, what's next? It needed to be suitably challenging, but not ridiculous. There was little chance of getting a four week block of free time again until after retirement, so it would have to fit into a normal summer holiday.

It may be a bit masochistic, but as long as I've been cycling, I've always enjoyed the sense of achievement of conquering climbs. Climbing hurts, makes you breathless and sweaty and a long climb can seem interminable. But a good one rewards all the effort with ever changing vistas, and a real sense of achievement at the top. Everyone agrees that the best one in the UK is Bealach-na-Ba, in the Scottish highlands. I've been over it twice. The first time was during that End-to-End ride, in 2006, with a bike laden with all the paraphernalia that a long distance ride entails. It even had a tripod mount for my camera! I'll admit to getting off and pushing for a bit near the top. I did it again in 2009, without all the extra weight, on my Dawes Galaxy. It felt much easier the second time, though the weather was awful. Low cloud and drizzle meant no views, and I did feel sympathy for the riders that I met for whom this was the only opportunity to make the climb.

Bealach-na-Ba is the closest we have, in the UK, to the passes that litter the Alps. Simon Warren's 100 Greatest Cycling Climbs rates it as 11 out of 10, and I have no reason to argue. It's fabulous, but at only 9 kilometers in length, and an average gradient of around 7%, it's no match for the most famous Alpine cols. Having climbed it in 2006 in good weather, and been blown away by the views, I started to hunger for more, longer climbs in higher places. The repeat visit in 2009 just confirmed it. I needed to climb in the Alps.

Now it became a question of 'how', not 'if'.