Category Archives: Cycling Know-How

Hills

If I were to follow a professional cycling mould and make a laughable comparison of myself with a lycra-clad demigod, I would be more of a “Cavendish” than a “Froome”. I can’t climb hills to save my life, and hate them with a passion. As far as I’m concerned, the only good thing about a hill is coming down it.

Of course, I can actually go up hills – but I ride a heavy hybrid and not some sleek carbon-fibre road bike. I guess many of my readers are the same. Recently, I put my (limited) climbing skills to the test down in Mortehoe, North Devon, which has a very steep 20% (1 in 5) hill on approach to the town, rising 654 feet according to my Strava stats.

View of Mortehoe, Devon, looking down the hill from the village

I descended down this hill from my caravan site nearby and had to do much of it on the brakes. My little Garmin practically had smoke coming out of it when I hit 33mph, and I didn’t feel comfortable pushing it any harder. Country roads may be generally less busy than city roads like here in London, but drivers tend to occupy more of the centre of the road in my experience, and are generally driving at speeds closer to 60mph. The steepness of the hill was greater than any other I’d ever ridden down, and the photo here doesn’t really do it justice. I had to adjust my weight by sitting back in the saddle (keeping my back wheel closer to the ground) and making myself more horizontal, rather than my more traditional “sit-up and beg” riding position, so that I didn’t lean too far forward on the handlebars. Once the hill changed to a shallower gradient, it became a pure pleasure to descend down from the hill onto the far eastern end of Woolacombe beach.

This pleasure was fairly short-lived, as I pushed myself too hard coming up a hill on the other side in an area called “The Warrens” and had to stop and collapse on some grass nearby after only riding three miles. I was so out of shape, I even dry-retched a couple of times – something that happens to me quite a lot when I push myself too hard, too quickly, but something I usually get over very quickly. As I sat on the grass, it dawned on me that I would have to climb back up that same hill to return to my caravan. Pride prevented me from calling Mrs Tubby on a rescue mission.

I decided to take a longer route round, but climbing up a slightly shallower hill through the edge of Woolacombe itself. This had the added advantage of making my ride into a nice loop.

For the first half-mile or so, climbing out of Woolacombe with spectacular views over the coast, I felt fine and left my retching behind me. My legs were tired, but nicely warmed-up by now. Unfortunately, my ever-present companion, fatigue, set in after only another few hundred yards, and I found myself sitting on the edge of a hotel flowerbed, desperately gasping for air and contemplating Mrs Tubby’s rescue mission. Then, I made a decision that will seem like the most basic common sense to most cyclists, but had never really occurred to me up until that point: I was pushing myself too hard, and needed to go slower. It didn’t matter if I completed the course in pigeon-steps – the aim was just to complete it. This basic thought hit me as a revelation in its stark simplicity.

I cranked my gear down to its lowest setting of 2-1 (I don’t use the first front gear) and concentrated on each turn of the pedals, inching myself up the hill. Sure, my speed was no longer 10mph (more like half that), but I was going up the hill – and much faster than if I were walking it. I stopped worrying about being quick or pushing myself and just went slowly, enjoying the ride. I made it all the way round the course with only one more stop on a Cat 4 climb (briefly). Having stopped three times in the space of a mile before my simple thought, I now stopped only once in the remaining five miles – despite that being the section of the course with the steepest gradient.

My advice to fellow Two Wheel Tubbies? If you’re struggling up that hill, crank it down into a low gear and don’t worry about it. Go as slow as you like – just enough to keep your balance – and you’ll feel better than if you get off and push your bike along. It worked for me.

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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:

Always a dirt magnet - the front mech  IMG_0314 IMG_0315

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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