Monthly Archives: January 2013

The Disconnection of Pro Cycling

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I’ve been a player of many sports over the years, and consequently followed the professional versions of the same, whether that be football, cricket, rugby or many others. When I took up cycling last year, I knew virtually nothing about pro cycling; I’d heard of Lance Armstrong, but would have struggled to tell you which team he rode for, or who were the current leaders of the UCI tour. I was aware of Chris Hoy’s achievements, but oblivious to Bradley Wiggins. The last time I’d ever really watched cycling was at the Beijing Olympics in 2008. When I got on my bike for the first time in 20 years, it was in the wake of Tour de France and London 2012 fever. I naturally decided to watch the professional game and take an interest in elite-level cycling.

I was surprised, when I started taking an interest, at just how disconnected professional cycling feels from the amateur game. It may have something to do with the fact that cycling isn’t just a sport; for many people, it’s a form of transport. Car drivers aren’t all Formula 1 fans, after all. What struck me particularly was how remote the sport feels from the everyday cyclist. Maybe it’s because every major cycling competition takes place on the European continent, with only the Tour of Britain coming once a year to this country. Maybe it’s because there is only one real professional British team, Team Sky, who last year bore a strong similarity to the British Olympic team. Maybe it’s because of an almost complete lack of coverage of cycling news except on the Internet in this country. Either way, professional cycling feels remote and distant to me, an everyday British cyclist.

To add further insult to injury, I read Tyler Hamilton’s The Secret Race shortly before Christmas and was absolutely staggered at the obvious levels of cheating going on in pro cycling. I could think of no other sport in which limits had been pushed to such extremes that virtually all the competitors had resorted to wholesale organised cheating just to keep up with the pack. I was amazed at how tainted the sport I had just come to appreciate had made itself. It’s greatest hero – the only pro cyclist I really knew from my non-cycling day – was now being masqueraded as one of the greatest cheats of all. It certainly gave me no love for the professional sport, and I felt more distant than ever before.

To help in overcoming this disconnection, I think there needs to be more competition in this country. The UCI cannot now deny that Britain is one of the world’s leading competitive countries in cycling, whether on the road or on the track. We have the most fabulous countryside and world class velodromes. An annual visit of the 8-stage Tour of Britain, a class 2.1 event (i.e. not top tier), simply isn’t enough. There needs to be more competition – and better coverage – of the tiers of cycling below the UCI Pro Tour level. League structures make sports exciting, and as far as I know, no serious structure exists in this country, and even Pro Tour rankings are not taken particularly seriously – just whether or not a rider wins a particular race or not seems to be the main criteria.

British cycling cannot just be sustained by media coverage of Victoria Pendleton, Chris Hoy and Bradley Wiggins. Pendleton has retired, Hoy is about to and Wiggins is unlikely ever to repeat the achievements of 2012. In any case, only Wiggins rides for a pro team. What about other British riders and teams? Without coverage, British cyclists will just be things that pop up every four years, and the pro sport will remain in the doldrums. It needs to be clean, and seen to be clean – something I don’t have a whole lot of faith with while the UCI is the governing body of the sport, given their apparent collusion with the Lance Armsrong drug scandal.

A perceived corrupt sport, with remote stars and a lack of competition will see British cycling return to the doldrums. This will be a huge blow for the sport, just as it’s more popular than ever in Britain. Last summer, despite all the scandal breaking in the pro game, the connection with the wider public was made. People like me started cycling in droves. Now the professional arena has a responsibility to keep that up.

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Worn Brake Pads

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When your brake pads start to squeak and squeal horribly, it’s probably because the metal behind the pads has become exposed through wear. It’s time for a replacement. Without realising it, all four of mine had gone at the same time (see above for an idea of what they looked like).

There’s some really good videos on the Internet showing you how to replace the pads, and it’s certainly not a difficult job. The wear and tear on my pads was discovered a couple of months ago when I took my bike in for its 6-week service at Evans, and they only charged me £12 for a new set of pads. The difference is, as you would expect, quite amazing – as well as being critical for your riding safety. If your brakes are squeaking and rubbing, don’t leave it to chance. Have a look, and if they look like my old set here, get them changed.

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Cyclopark

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When I’m down visiting family in Kent, one of the many things I like to make time to visit is the Cyclopark, located just outside Gravesend. This brand-new facility is an innovative idea to re-use some brownfield land after moving the A2, following long-term construction work on the Channel Tunnel link. I first visited it last Autumn when very little of the site was open other than the main track. Now, the site boasts a cosy cafe, hire facilities, indoor facilities and an on-site shop.

The highlight of the park is a 1.4 mile circuit, with multiple possible routes around. There is also a superb mountain bike track, BMX track and skate park, as well as a safe kids’ cycling area. There is a full map and plenty of images on the main Cyclopark website if you want an idea of what it looks like. Unfortunately, I was having so much fun when I visited the other day, I forgot to stop and take pictures of my own!

The main circuit is a completely smooth tarmac surface – smoother than any other road I’ve ever been on. It’s more like the Herne Hill Velodrome surface than a road, albeit without the race markings. Riding round it is an absolute joy. According to Strava, my fastest speed around the track is around 28mph (pedalling furiously off a downhill section, I might add), but I’ve seen plenty of competitive riders top 40mph. The track is wide enough to accommodate several riders side-by-side (I’d say it’s about 15ft wide), so there’s no danger of a quick rider being held up by a slowcoach like me. There are plenty of hills, twists and turns to keep things interesting, and there are lots of shorter loops you can do if you don’t want to ride the full circuit.

The mountain bike trail, however, is keeping my washing machine busy right now. This goes alongside the circuit,  but in the opposite direction. It’s artificial, but entirely made with natural materials. There is a blue run and a red run (thrill-seeking black runners look elsewhere) which caters to most abilities. The blue run contains some gentle bumps, rises, a couple of steps to bounce down and some gentle banked twists and turns. The red run, which I accidentally went down at one point, contains some much bigger and steeper climbs, lots of jumps, rock piles and other obstacles to jump over – definitely not one for beginners! Again, there are lots of loops and alternative routes for the adventurous rider to find.

I haven’t tried the other facilities yet myself, but they seem to be very well used – especially the BMX track and skate park. Most of the facilities, including the main track, can be booked for private functions, club runs, etc. and I’ve seen it being used on a few occasions for teaching cycling skills.

In short, this is an outstanding facility. It costs a very reasonable £3.50 for 2hrs of anything, peak rate – which is classed as evenings, weekends and all the time in school holidays. Off peak is an even more reasonable £3.00 – so it’s probably cheaper than going to your local swimming baths. The parking is currently free – and there’s plenty of it – but this may change in the future. I hope not, because the site is quite difficult to get to if you don’t drive – but there are cycle paths leading to it!

The Cyclopark is a model facility for others to follow. It’s a haven of cycling, where people can ride in whatever style they like in complete peace and safety, with excellent supplementary facilities that everyone can enjoy. There should be one in every town.

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Library Run

One of the many advantages of cycling is that it saves me money on trips to the city centre. Whereas I used to have to pay something in the region of £1.80 an hour to park my car, now I pay nothing for the use of one of the many bike racks in the area. The down side is that a bicycle isn’t ideal for doing much shopping – even if you have panniers fitted – though I would happily stand to be corrected if someone could show me a convenient way of doing it!

One of the things I enjoy most is a ride to the library. My local one is okay, but it’s a satellite library and often doesn’t have much in the way of stock. A few books can easily be fitted into my backpack, though, and the one in the city centre is always well-stocked. It   even has a particularly good cycling section!

Unfortunately, one downside of the route is that the cycle paths have largely fallen into disrepair. They look like they were constructed a number of years ago, and are largely shared pavements with pedestrians – not ideal, but much better than nothing. My ride into the city was plagued with pot holes, heavily cracked pavements, overgrown paths – even a tree across it at one point – as well as it being thick with moss and leaves, making the ride quite treacherous at times. Cycle paths need more than just to be painted and left indefinitely. They need to be maintained just as much as regular roads and pavements – so if yours is falling into disrepair, like mine, have a look at http://www.fixmystreet.com/ where you can report such problems and receive updates on progress. Let me know if you have any success!

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The Big Bike Cleanup

Bike maintenance is one of those things that I often think I should do, but frequently find excuses to just go out on “one more ride” before getting round to it. As a rough guide, so I was told, routine maintenance – including cleaning, checking tire pressure and so on – should happen about once a month, unless there are obvious problems. In winter, cleaning should be more frequent, owing to the generally wetter, dirtier and grittier road surfaces. As I’m largely an off-road cyclist in my leisure time, I’m quite good at the once-a-month clean – but I have neglected my bike a bit of late. After my Boxing Day ride, I simply had to brave the weather the day after and get on with it – my wheels and gears were clogged with mud, and I could literally feel the grit and muck in the chain as I pedalled when I came back home. Worryingly, my chain appeared to have gone rusty in all the bad weather of late.

Like most people, I find cleaning my bike a bit of a chore – but one thing I found very helpful was my latest Christmas present, the Raleigh “Bike Hand” Workstand. This allows you to lift your bike off the ground and work on all the mechanical parts at eye level. It also allows you to freely spin the wheels (the importance of which I’ll cover later) when you’re working, and you can move freely all around your bike – something you can’t do if you’re leaning it on a wall or on the ground. It retails for around £100, and my first impressions were that it was sturdy, of good quality and very easy to use. I had to tighten a couple of the quick-release levers, but that was just a case of turning a couple of nuts.

Bike ready for cleaning

A variety of cleaning products are marketed at cyclists, such as Muc Off, Pedros and Dirtwash, all designed to remove tough mud from your bike without the use of soap and water. Here, for me, lies the rub – none of them, in my experience, are any better than using a bucket of hot water and a sponge. I’ve never had trouble with even the hardest packed-on mud. I have, however, been using a bottle of Dirtwash lately, because it’s given away free by Evans Cycles in their regular Fix It! classes. I don’t think I’ll bother to replace it when it’s empty, but you get quite a generous amount.

As you can see from the following images, my bike had suffered quite a bit with my latest ride – look at the colour of the chain and casette, particularly:

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However, as well as a bottle of Dirtwash and some soap & water, my other tool of choice is the excellent Park Tool “Cyclone” Chain Scrubber, seen here on my kitchen side:

Park Tool Chain Cleaner

Short of removing the chain completely, I haven’t ever used anything that’s come even remotely close to being as good as this for cleaning up the chain. It works by filling the gadget with de-greaser (available from most cycle shops; basically just a lemon juice / detergent solution), clamping it around the chain and then turning the pedals. The cranking action pulls the chain through the scrubber, which has several little brushes inside to get into all those hard-to-reach places between links. Park Tools also supply a handy stiff-bristle brush with the chain tool, which is ideal for scrubbing mud out from between the gears and rear derailleur:

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If you try and do it with a cloth, you’ll probably shred it to pieces on the teeth of the cogs.

I started my cleanup by liberally squirting Dirtwash all over my bike and left it for about 30 seconds before going over it with hot, soapy water. The mud just slid off, leaving behind clean and shiny surfaces all over. This was all easy enough – just don’t use a jetwasher to do this, else you run the risk of blasting grease out of important parts and damaging fragile bits & pieces. Imagine having to put the rear derailleur back together because you shot it to bits with high-pressure water!

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Once I’d removed all the clogged bits of mud, I scrubbed between the cogs with the brush shown above. Sure enough, great chunks came out of my gears, including grass, stones and clumps of grit – all little things that could do damage to your bike long-term if not taken care of. I then came to the fun part – cleaning the chain. This used to be a hassle when I had to find ways of standing my bike up so I could crank the wheels round, but the Raleigh Bike Hand had now made short work of that. As a result, the Park Tool cyclone worked like a dream, and I was amazed as I watched my chain change colour before my eyes; it wasn’t rusty after all! You can see how much muck was taken off just the chain alone in the picture below – this was after I’d accidentally spilled the mucky water in the bottom of the cyclone on the ground while setting up this photo:

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The tissue was used just to remove excess water and grit left on after going through the cleaning mechanism. You can see a good video over on Youtube showing exactly how this tool works. Look at the difference it made to my chain:

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All that was required after this was an application of Wet Weather lubricant to every link and rivet in the chain – again, very easy if you’re using a workstand. If you use a summer Dry lubricant, you won’t get the same level of protection. You can get “all year round” lubricants, but the last bottle I had of one of these was utter crap – I now use specific lubricants for specific conditions. It needs to be applied liberally.

The end result of my Bike Bike Cleanup looked like this:

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Considering I hadn’t taken my bike apart and cleaned each piece by hand, I was very satisfied with the end result. Bike maintenance doesn’t have to be expensive – you don’t *need* the chain cleaner, Dirtwash (or Muc off, etc) or the workstand, but they do make life easier. You can’t, unfortunately, do without the degreaser or the lubricant. Maintenance should be performed regularly – I recommend monthly – and it is here that you’ll notice any problems developing. While doing this cleanup, I also noticed that my rear brake lever was having problems (easily fixed by tweaking the barrel adjuster and adding some lubricant) and that my tires were woefully under pressured. This simple, regular maintenance can stop long-term expensive problems developing. You also get the satisfaction of a job well-done, restoring your pride and joy to nearly-new bike-shop condition!

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Happy New Year

Happy New Year to all my readers and fellow cyclists!