Thursday 23 June 2011

Strada Handbuilt Wheels - Major Tom offroad test

Dedicated followers of cross wheelsets won't have failed to notice the arrival in the market of the Velocity Major Tom tub wheels, handbuilt by Strada, not least because I have been banging on about them via a number of channels. And very taken with them I have certainly been.

Whilst I have ridden and reviewed them in detail for road use, I had yet to comment on their ability in their true vocation on the course. Cue some gluing of brand new FMB Gripos and a handily scheduled Yorkshire Summer Cross series race for an ideal opportunity to look at their performance off road.

I've commented on the quality of the build in the previous review, but after some decent abuse, I mean riding (sorry Jonathon from Strada), on cobbles and the Dickensian potholed roads in my part of the world, the Toms remain absolutely true to the micron. I've never used wheels before that have remained that true after that type of use. Impressive.

Gluing wise, as suspected they are a dream for the wide, flat base tapes found on FMBs and Dugast cross tubs. Narrower carbon, as well as alloy rims can make it harder to seat the tub and get a solid gluing surface. Cheats like gluing base tape fillers in the centre to flatten the profile of a too concave rim profile never feel good and add extra faff to the gluing process.

No worries here, the tubs seat without any fuss and maximum security. The Major Tom rim profile will also work well for Vittorias and other similar tubs with a central seam bulge on the base tape as there is still a channel for this to sit in, whilst the important outer contact patches at the rim edge remain in close contact with the basetape of the tub.

And so to the ride off road......

The race I did was one of the Huddersfield rounds and came at the end of a pretty dry period. Hence the conditions were dry and fast. Not necessarily usual cross fare, and for a while I pondered whether it would have been more useful to try the wheels in normal, muddy conditions. on reflection, I think not. In then mud speeds are lower and what can reveal the most about a wheelset for cross is the way it performs in carving turns, and in the way it accelerates out of corners, not grinding through the mud. The course that evening had multiple 180 degree turns, fast cambered and off cambered turns, some very greasy and some bumpy sections where maintaining speed was crucial. It was in fact an ideal testing ground for the Toms.

They were simply flawless. As they are light and very stiff, I found them spinning up really quickly out of the many tight turns and switchback sections. They may even have flattered my far-from-race-honed form too - it certainly felt like it. The stiffness was also on show in the slow turns in these sections. Breaking hard from speed into these 180 degree momentum sappers was controlled and predictable - the braking surface is generous and well milled and contributed to plenty of power from the TRPs I was using. Into the turn and the stiffness allowed a good amount of lean and pushing of the front wheel through the turn for grip.

I am not a particularly technical rider, and have always struggled on this kind of tight turn, blaming my lankiness and high centre of gravity for poor performance (ahem). That night, however, I was losing very little if any time to riders around me and enjoyed pushing for more speed through them each lap. I firmly believe the Toms were helping me on that count.

Finally, a superb section of downhill right and left through changing cambers allowed me to establish that they work well at speed too. Flicking the bike rapidly from side to side through this section was a joy and it felt so stable at the front and the back as the wheels did their thing.

There are a reasonable amount of alloy tubular wheelsets out there in the market and the Major Toms are perhaps a little more expensive than some of these offerings (though not all). They do however have one clear advantage for me - their handbuilt quality - and this makes them a winner and worth paying a little more for. Their performance is spot on for the weekend cross warrior and will not leave you wanting more. Their overall quality really shines through and will reward you for many seasons and because of this I'm confidently recommending them to lots of friends and fellow cross riders who are looking for a new wheelset.

Wednesday 15 June 2011

Rapha Night Ride 3 June

There's something beautifully simple, yet arresting about riding through the night and into the dawn. It's been years since I did it, but I clearly remember the experience, etched indelibly on my mind as it was, with a full moon and minus 5 degree C temperatures. Somewhat more clement conditions then for a June ride, with clear skies, reasonable temperatures but unfortunately no full moon.

I'd been contacted by Konrad at Rapha after I had already expressed an intention to do the ride, so it was fun to be involved in coming up with a suitable route and fine tuning some of the organisational details for the Manchester spot in the Rapha Mobile Cycle Club UK tour.

Pic: Konrad Manning/Rapha - signing folks in with the sheen of freshly embro'd was surprisingly cold at times.

A small but select band braved the hordes of overexcited female Take That fans spilling into the Velodrome carpark from the nearby City Ground. Fuelled with wild coffee from the legendary Rocket machine, leaving Manchester for the hills at around midnight meant braving kicking out time for the local hostelries, but the group passed through without incident and the view looking back as I led it out on the most direct route out of town, revealed the great sight of a line of powerful headlights heading into a long night.

Pic: Ben Lieberson/Rapha - our intrepid group at the Velodrome zinging with strong coffee.

Rapha have long been associated with tough and epic rides, and whilst myself and Konrad wanted to respect this tradition, we had to temper it somewhat with an unknown group and a dark, all night setting. And whilst the group contained a few of the finest 24hr mountain bikers in the country putting in some big miles for summer races (see Jason's report as well as Dave's), it also contained some who were more used to slightly shorter and less hilly adventures. We pressed on through wild dark descents and some tough climbs and into the Peaks proper.

The Cat and Fiddle climb, on my own and in the predawn dark but with the glow of the sun below the horizon was one of the most powerful experiences I have had on a bike. The intensity of feeling of pure physical effort, matched with an affinity for the surroundings caught me by surprise. It was one a few standout memories on the ride and one to be savoured.

We stuck together, just, despite errant sheep in the dark, and made it for a surreal feed stop at 4am near Buxton for coffee and cognac from Ben Lieberson (of Rapha Continental fame) and Kieran Young from the Mobile Cycle Club, who looked after us superbly all night. I also managed to eat my own bodyweight in cake and banana as I had bonked badly just before the stop.

Pic: Ben Lieberson/Rapha - Kieran prepares coffee and cognac at the feed stop, predawn.

Onwards into the breaking dawn, it was so special to be out in perfect conditions, in the beautiful White Peak dales and plateaus. One of our party was suffering considerably by this point and I stayed back to ride with him. It was humbling, as I have never seen someone suffer so much, yet have so much desire to push on and continue. Green, grey and white all at the same time, Russ went to places I'm ashamed I haven't been yet, just to keep going. It was inspiring to watch but sadly he finally admitted defeat at Buxton, faced with another 30 miles to go and another ascent of the Cat climb. He'll be back though, I suspect, as I think something changed inside him that night. For the good.

Pic: Konrad Manning/Rapha - Cat and Fiddle for the 2nd time, in the early morning.

The odd hour of the day and differing paces meant the group split now and people went at their own pace. It was a shame though inevitable really, but small groups coalesced on the flat run into Manchester to savour the ride and where we had been, physically or otherwise.

Rolling back out of the Velodrome at 7.30am, and feeling slightly delirious, I drove home to normality and the Saturday morning routine of activities with the kids. I carried with me though, a little piece of that solitary climb up the Cat and Fiddle in the dark - all the reasons for, drivers to, insecurities in and pleasures of, riding a bike wrapped up into a little nugget of truth.