Category Archives: Product Review

Real or Fake?

Much like football supporters, cyclists often like to wear the team kits of their favourite stars and I’m no exception. Regular readers of this blog will know I’m quite the Team Sky fan, as well as being a regular follower of the GB National Team, and own a pile of cycling-related junk relating to both of them. Eventually, I decided I wanted to wear the kit as well, and wondered if a bit of Wiggo’s speed or Trotty’s skill would rub off on me.

Football shirts are often seen as a rip-off, but compared to the price of official team kits for cycling, they are a bargain. I was astounded at the cost of a (mostly) polyester and Lycra jersey. To kit myself out in Team Sky clothing would set me back something in the region of £175; more if I went the whole hog with gloves, overshoes and helmet. I found this staggering. Since Rapha Condor took over the clothing sponsorship for Sky, the prices have got even higher and a full jersey / shorts combination, made from exactly the same materials as the pros wear, will set you back closer to £300. These prices are staggeringly high. Of course, it doesn’t matter if you are one of the handful of pros riding for Sky, but for the rest of us, it feels like a bit of a rip-off, no matter how well made they are. These kits aren’t bespoke tailoring; they’re mass-market sportswear. If you crash and rip your jersey, that’s a big investment just gone down the plughole.

Having even a brief look at eBay, you will see how much these prices have fuelled a massive market for counterfeit clothing. At a conservative estimate, searching for “cycling team jersey” on eBay will return 90% Chinese copies of genuine team kit. The prices for these are considerably lower, and even including shipping, a jersey / shorts combination won’t set you back more than about £20 – probably around £150 cheaper than the genuine article.

I wondered – are they any good? I’d seen one of my work colleagues with some fake BMC gear from eBay and couldn’t spot the difference, so I decided to have a go myself. I purchased a couple of Team Sky kits from China and they duly arrived about a fortnight later.

I was surprised at the quality and feel of the kits. There was no poor quality printing, no cheap feel to the material, no glaring errors on the kit – in short, none of the shortcomings I expected to find. I tested the kits out on a couple of bike rides and found them both comfortable and durable. They’ve all been through the wash several times and still look as good as they day they were purchased.

When I went into Evans Cycles last week, I handled the real team kit. Apart from the Rapha logo on the left blue stripe being made out of a sort of raised gel-type printing on the genuine shirt (just printed on mine) and a slight variation on the “Believe in Better” slogan on the inside of the neck, the genuine Team Sky kit felt and looked the same in every way. I felt disappointed that this jersey, on sale for £75, had been equalled by a Chinese copy costing around 1/4 the price. Advocates of the genuine article may say, “The real ones are made of better material!” or “They last longer!” but that hasn’t been my experience in the last few months. Instead, it feels like there is rampant profiteering on the “official” kits – which cost far more than any Premiership football shirt. Perhaps it’s because cycling is a sport that appeals to the well-heeled who are prepared to spend money on flashy accessories and glamorous kit, but I can’t help but feel that the manufacturers are just taking advantage. This will surely fuel far-eastern counterfeiting in the future, and teams will lose out on sales altogether.

With all these thoughts in my head, I looked inside the Team Sky jersey to see where it had come from just before I put it back on the rack.

Printed on a white panel inside, it simply said, “Made in China”.

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Helly Hansen Base Layer Review

Helly Hansen Dry Stripe T-Shirt

The other day, I purchased a Helly Hansen Dry Stripe T-Shirt, based on the overwhelming number of positive reviews I’d been reading online. The shirt cost me £22 from Wiggle and seems to be a generally similar price wherever you go.

Base layers, as I’ve learned, can be very useful even in warm weather – but especially so now that we are in the Autumn and coming up for Winter. The Helly Hansen range of base layers features something that HH call “LIFA Stay-Dry Technology”, which claims to be able to keep you feeling dry, even when you’re sweating buckets out on a ride. HH produce a range of base layers, but the two big sellers are titled either “Dry” or “Warm”. I purchased the “Dry” t-shirt so that it can fit comfortably underneath my cycling jerseys, but you can also get them with long sleeves as well.

The shirt arrived within a couple of days from Wiggle, packaged in a little green and white box. The shirt itself feels quite thin and rough to handle (part of the “LIFA Technology, I guess), but is comfortable when worn. I had to place quite a lot of faith in HH’s size guide, which had me down as a “Large” size. Being a bit on the tubby side, I’m used to buying clothes in an “XL” size, but HH’s guide was accurate and the shirt was a snug fit. It is meant to be a bit clingy, since other clothes are worn over the top of it. I decided to test the shirt out on a 40-mile ride out to Reading in Berkshire on a warm day.

The base layer performed admirably when being worn under a standard lycra jersey. I was sweating and puffing all the way round, but not once did I feel wet or uncomfortable with the Helly Hansen on. When I stopped for a quick lunch break, I felt my skin and I was dry. There was no uncomfortable rubbing and I didn’t feel like a boil-in-the-bag dinner underneath my top. I was impressed. I was also surprised that I didn’t feel overheated at all throughout the ride.

The second test I gave the HH was during one of my early morning commuter rides. Setting off from my house at 5.30am almost always means that it’s cold, whatever the time of year, so I wore an Altura Night Vision jacket over the top of my lycra kit. Usually this means I sweat a lot and despite the jacket’s vents and best efforts to keep me cool, the inside is usually wet to the touch by the time I get to my station just 3 miles away. However, wearing the HH underneath, for the first time in just about ever, I was dry when I arrived at the station. I was hot & sweaty, cycling in the cold, but my clothes were dry – the HH had taken it all – and I didn’t feel uncomfortable in the slightest. I have worn it on every cycle ride since.

I only own the one Helly Hansen base layer shirt, but will purchase more as soon as my finances allow. It is one of the best bits of cycling clothing I’ve ever bought. Personally, I couldn’t wear it as a “t-shirt in its own right,” as Helly claim – mostly because I’m a fat bastard and it would make me look like I was wearing a stripey gimp suit – but I can see how cyclists of a slimmer profile could do so. The shirt is warm (even the “Dry” product) but not uncomfortable even in warm weather, where its “wicking” properties come into their own. This comfort is worth £22 of anyone’s money, so do yourself a favour this autumn and join the hordes of happy reviewers on the internet.

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Garmin Edge 200

I have to confess to being a bit of a stats hound and, while I don’t chase after King of the Mountain titles on Strava (as if I could!), I do like to keep a record of where I’ve been, how fast I went and how high I climbed. I love Strava as much as seasoned sporty semi-pros, even though I could never hope to match their achievements. To monitor my stats, until recently, I relied on my iPhone running the Strava app. The app is great – accurate, easy to use and fully-featured. The only downside is the drain on your phone battery’s life; it wasn’t good on the iPhone 4 and I dread to think what it would do to the iPhone 5. So, with a lengthy 5-hour ride down to Southampton in my sights, I decided to purchase a Garmin Edge 200 to save me from a flat battery. The unit is the lowest-priced in Garmin’s range, but I was able to pick it up for about £80 from Halford’s on a special deal. Its standard price is about £87.99 now.

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The Edge 200 is a simple GPS system and cycle computer, and its simplicity is its strength over other units. As you can see above, there are only four menu options: Ride, Course, History and Settings. This is not a touch-screen device, so each option is selected by pressing one of four little bumper-buttons on the side of the unit. Each menu option is context-sensitive, so when you click on Ride, for example, then some new menu options pop up – Start, Resume, Pause, etc. It’s very intuitive and easy to use.

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The screenshot above shows the main Ride screen, and this is what you’ll see most of the time you’re using the Edge 200 (with even the tubbiest of us going a bit faster). This is the “cycle computer” and shows you your speed, miles completed and average speed. If you’re running a Course (more on those later), then it will also show you the number of miles you have left to go until completion. There is no room here for heartbeat monitoring, gradient measuring, power output or any other clutter on screen; it’s just the simple information that you need. If you want more information, you need to shell out for the Edge 500 or Edge 800, which costs about five times the price.

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The Edge 200 has a very simple way of storing some of your historic ride information (see above), but I imagine this is really only for when you want to review something on the go. Ideally, these stats are meant to be uploaded to the Garmin Connect website, which is free to access for all Garmin customers as the unit stores many more statistics than it can display on this little screen. The unit won’t lose your data, though, and can store about 200 rides’ information before it starts deleting things to make room.

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The final clincher for many deciding whether or not to purchase this unit will be the Course mode. It was certainly my biggest question before diving in. The short answer: yes, you can plan routes and then follow them on your Edge 200. Is it as good as the Edge 800 with its maps? No, but that’s why this unit costs £90 and the Edge 800 costs £400. You pays your money and takes your choice.

In order to plan a route, you need to use a computer. You cannot plan anything using the Edge 200, although you can save your ride data as you go along to “create” a route and save it for later – think of it as like leaving a snail trail behind you. You can also reverse your ride data to create a “return” route and go back to where you started. However, the main method of planning is to use an external GPS mapping system, such as that found at the British Cycling website, or using an app such as Cycle Streets, which can export your map in .gpx format. Once you’ve plotted and exported your route, adding it to the Edge 200 is a simple case of dragging and dropping your .gpx file into the Edge 200’s “New Files” folder using your PC or Mac and it will then appear as a Course to follow in the relevant menu.

Following a course can be a little tricky unless you have some idea of where you’re going, so I would always recommend having a map available, but the Edge 200 will show you where to go by pointing a line in the relevant direction. It’s surprising how accurate this can be, but can be tricky to follow if you find yourself at an intersection with multiple paths all going off in broadly the same direction. However, it’s accurate enough that you should be able to pick up any deviations, and the Edge 200 will alert you if you go “off course” and point you in the right direction to get back on it. I managed to navigate myself all the way from Basingstoke to Southampton doing this, but I was also following NCN Route 23 which helped.

When it comes to uploading, the Garmin Connect site is very easy to use – just plug your Edge 200 into a USB port using the supplied cable and it will detect it and, with just a single click, you can upload your ride. The unit is also directly compatible with the Strava website, which works in exactly the same way. The data recorded is accurate and a delight to review, allowing you to see how fast you were at any given point, along with altitude and estimated power. You can also compare yourself to other riders using Strava segments. There are other tools in the Garmin Connect website that I haven’t played with, simply because I’m such a fan of Strava instead, but there looks to be lots else you can do – including route planning from Garmin’s own site.

The battery life on the Edge 200 is amazing. Officially, the battery lasts for 8 hours – but I’ve used it for over 5 and barely lost one bar of energy. The simple LCD screen means that the unit can keep going for hours and hours without a charge, unlike it’s more expensive counterparts. It charges off either the supplied USB lead or USB plug, also supplied. Instructions for use are included, with full-colour diagrams. There is no complicated software to install on your system; the hardest thing you’ll have to do is fit the cradle to your bike to hold the unit, but this is little more than stretching a (very) taught rubber band around the pivot of the handlebars. The unit is then simply mounted by turning it 90 degrees into place.

The Edge 200 is an ideal entry point for anybody who wants to know how fast they’re going and to review their ride data afterwards. It’s perfect for a training aid for serious cyclists and a great joy for those of us who just like to show off where we’ve been. The unit is capable of outputting enough information to keep most cyclists happy, and unless you really need those maps (and have deep pockets), the Edge 200’s course capability is enough to plan most rides with. I take it with me on every ride now, and haven’t used my iPhone app since.

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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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Muck, Sweat & Gears

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Muck, Sweat & Gears is a little book I’d seen on the shelves of my local Waterstones, but always put back after a quick browse. I’m not a big fan of little books filled with trivia which seem to have become quite commonplace these days (e.g. Schott’s Miscellany, dressed up with a veneer of faux-Victorian antiquity and grandeur), and I had no urge to acquire one specifically devoted to Cycling. However, when I saw the same book in my local library, I thought it was worth a shot.

Muck, Sweat & Gears is a collection of facts and trivia about all aspects of cycling – historic inventions, race statistics, biographical facts, and so on. It is organised in no particular order, which makes reading it quite difficult. I suppose you’re meant to dip in and out, but you have no way of knowing what you’re dipping into. It’s like a jumbled encyclopaedia – and utterly hopeless for looking anything up, even if you wanted to. The information itself seems accurate enough, although some quotes and statistics are without attribution and source.

I can’t really summarise the book, since there are no chapters, sections or anything resembling organisation throughout. Each piece of trivia generally takes up less than a page, though some run for a couple, but none of it really links to anything else. On the whole, I didn’t mind the book while I was perusing it (usually on the toilet), but now I come to review it a couple of weeks after I put it back, I can hardly remember anything factual from its pages. It’s a collection of fleeting information – interesting the moment you read it, but gone the next. Personally, I wouldn’t buy it – but it might make a nice token gift for the cyclist in your family when their birthday comes around. It’s got to be better than one of the many general trivia books out there…

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Shirt Shuttle

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For cyclist commuters, the Shirt Shuttle has proved to be one of the most useful cheap gadgets I’ve bought. Once upon a time, I used to try and fold my work shirts against something firm and hope they weren’t too creased by the time I got to the office. It rarely worked, and me and a colleague chipped in to buy a cheap iron and camping ironing board so that we looked like we’d actually made an effort to get dressed. It added 15mins to the start of our working day, which was an annoyance for both of us.

While up at he Cycle Show in Birmingham earlier this year, I stumbled across the Shirt Shuttle. Designed to get your shirts from A to B without creasing or getting dirty, it sounded like an ideal product for me and my colleague – no more ironing! It consists of a sturdy plastic shell, designed to allow for the collar of your shirt, which is secured with a zip around the outside. It’s durable and waterproof. However, the real innovation is the plastic insert – this is what you fold your shirt around, following a simple procedure. The principle is, “something folded around a curved surface cannot crease”, and this seems to be true. Once folded around the insert (see photo above), the hanger doubles as a retaining clip, and the whole shirt is then just put in the plastic shell. Simple, safe and secure.

The Shirt Shuttle really does work. I’ve been using it for about 3 months now, and have nothing but good things to say about it. There is perhaps a slight tendency to put a tiny crease in the shirt pocket area, caused by the rubber feet on the inside of the case to help hold the shirt in place, but this is nothing in the grand scheme of things.

It retails at full price for £30, or £40 if you opt for the slightly newer model, which claims to be slightly smaller and lighter. Personally, I have no issues with the weight of the original, which can now often be found discounted – mine cost just £15 – but have a feel for yourself and find out. An ideal gift for cyclists this Christmas!

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Traffic Free London

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One of several books published by Sustrans, Cycling Traffic Free London promises to offer a selection of rides in the capital, all of which are safe and, mercifully, car-free. When I saw this on my local library shelf, I was excited – the idea of pedalling around London on undiscovered routes appealed to me, and I’ve had good experiences with some of their other books in the same series before.

The book contains a selection of 20 routes, all marked out with proper street mapping. So far, so good. The selection of routes takes in the whole city, so where ever you visit, there will be a route somewhere nearby that you can take advantage of. However, you won’t be going past many of London’s more famous landmarks – and here lies such an ambitious book’s major shortcoming; much of London simply isn’t Traffic Free. Even the new Barclays Cycle Superhighways – while sounding very grandiose – amount to little more than a painted 1m wide blue lane at the edge of otherwise very busy roads. As such, many of the routes in Central London are very limited. One suggested “route” from Waterloo to London Bridge isn’t even 3 miles long – shorter than my daily commute.

The other shortcoming is that some of these “traffic free” routes aren’t that “traffic free” either and, inevitably, you will encounter some areas on most routes where you will be advised to proceed with extreme caution. This isn’t to knock to the book too much; London is one of Europe’s most unfriendly capitals for cycling and this book is playing its part in getting more cyclists onto the capital’s roads – surely a requirement for them to become more acceptable to motorists and other road users. If you already have my previously recommended book, also published by Sustrans, you’ll find a fair amount of duplication in here – some of these London routes appear in “Traffic Free Trails”, which I consider to be much better value overall. However, there are some good inspirational routes here, especially in the outer boroughs of London, and it’s great to see some effort being made to promote London as a cycling destination.

My advice, if you decide to pick a copy up, is to use it for ideas to generate your own routes and then, along with the free maps available from TFL, accept that you’re going to have to deal with some traffic if you want to see the best of London by bicycle.

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The Power of Headlights

At this time of year, with the light getting dark at around 4pm, headlights are (in my view) an absolutely essential purchase – though, of course, not legally required.

When I first bought my Pinnacle, I also got a pack of Cateye lights thrown in on the Ride to Work scheme. “I only need them to be seen,” I told the salesman, and duly he gave me a pack of lights that could just about light up the inside of a paper bag. The folly of this purchase became painfully obvious to me when riding on the huge cycle paths near Woking in Surrey – they’re absolutely no good whatsoever. If you can’t see the pavement in front of you in the dark, you’re riding dangerously. Even street lights often don’t give you much light to ride by, and car headlights present all their own hazards.

For the winter, I purchased a Lezyne Power XL from Evans Cycles. Retailing at around £85, it came as highly recommended by Cycling Active magazine as one of the best purchases for under £100. Prices for bike lights can go to stupid heights – I’ve even seen one set for over £400. That’s more than my bike cost. Anyway, the Lezyne is powerful – with several modes of varying brightness, all of which give different longevity to the battery, which is USB chargeable. This is a constant balancing act for cyclists. Simply put, we don’t have the huge batteries of cars, and no alternator to charge up on the go. The more light you want, the less time your battery is going to last. Lezyne claim that the Power XL will give you around 4 hours light on its maximum setting, but in reality I’ve found it’s more like 2 – 3, and can get quite a bit dimmer as it tries to conserve energy in its death throes. The Power XL does give off a decent beam, though, and is ideal for commuters. The fitting to the bike can be a bit of a pain, and has a tendency to shake loose if you go over a hard bump, but that may just be the way I’ve got it installed. It’s frequently discounted, and the bargain price of £64 I paid makes it worth every penny.

Things brings me to my final point: other cyclists. If you’re in a 2-way cycle lane, coming head-on to other cyclists, and you have no headlight, you’re an accident waiting to happen. Twice in the last month, I’ve had to brake sharply because a cyclist couldn’t see the lane properly and was about to hit me head-on. Be safe, be visible, and invest in a decent light.

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My Bible

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My cycling bible is “Traffic Free Cycle Trails” by Nick Cotton, shown above. Weighing in with a colossal 400+ routes all over the country, I think it’s a book that should be on every leisure cyclists shelf. It isn’t particularly expensive (around £14.99 if you pay full price) and gives you great value. Most of the rides it suggests are around 5 – 10 miles long, but the author assumes that you are cycling the route in both directions. Some routes are broken down into multiple rides, such as the famous Tarka Trail in Devon (in three parts here) or the Basingstoke Canal (also in three parts).

Unlike some books I’ve read, these routes are genuinely “traffic free”. At the start of each regional section, there are also notes on mountain bike trails and land owned by the Forestry Commission suitable for taking a bike over.

Perhaps one omission is the use of any OS mapping in the book, meaning that if you’re unsure of the route, you’ll either need to have a map to hand or photocopy the guidebook. Fortunately, having now ridden many routes in the guide, I can report back that most of the trails are very well signposted and I’ve never needed to purchase any additional material.

Use it as a guide to inspire rides, take it with you on holiday – whatever – but this book is a great source of days out, providing an excellent guide to pleasant leisure routes, catering to all ages and abilities.

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