Friday, 15 February 2013

An Interesting Day in Oman

Brilliant fight up Green Mountain yesterday. It feels a bit early in the season to be seeing the big names duelling it out, but I'm not complaining.

It's also probably too early in the season to read anything into the results, but I'm going to ponder anyway. As with last year's Vuelta, you get the feeling that Contador's acceleration is fractionally less powerful and sustainable than it used to be. Watching him grind his way onto Nibali's back wheel was a real surprise, Nibali being the sort of diesel climber that an explosive rider like Contador should be able to catch, match or despatch with a couple of pedal turns.

Evans and Froome were equally interesting. Both capable climbers, but falling short of the acceleration and top speed of Rodriguez or Contador, they overcame their shortfalls with brains and, in Froome's case with what  I suspect was a bit of bluffing. They stayed within themselves, didn't redline it following attacks they couldn't catch, and used the strength they'd saved to attack when their technically faster rivals were depleted. I'd expect that of a canny rider like Evans, but seeing it from Froome was a surprise.

In the past, I've been guilty of suggesting that Chris Froome's racing brain wasn't as strong as his racing legs. I always thought his high placing in the 2011 Vuelta was largely down to sticking to Wiggo, who was making all the smart decisions about who and when to chase. Yes, he was stronger in the TT and on Angliru, but I'm not sure if he's have been in contention by that point if he hadn't spent the first ten days benefitting from Wiggo's decisions. I know that sounds mean, but consider Froome's now forgotten reputation for burning all his matches in meaningless early attacks. Remember his attempt to sprint for a bonification a kilometre too early, or the old stories of him riding 50km to the start of a 150km race. He's not a chap you expect to ride cleverly or cagily, yet there he was peeling off to the side either in exhaustion or, more likely, disgruntlement, part way through the chase of Rodriguez, forcing Contador and Nibali to come through and do their share, presumably thinking he was spent.

I wish the camera had been on their faces when he tore past them. If the finish had been half a km further on, I think he might have caught Rodriguez and got the stage win as well as the leader's jersey.

And as for Rodriguez's attack, what can you say? It wasn't his usual lethal turn of speed, but it came when his major rivals were unprepared, and he used the element of surprise to make it stick. Poetic justice, given how Contador used similar tactics to pinch last year's Vuelta out from under J-Rod's nose.

Tuesday, 12 February 2013

Sensa Umbria Tiagra Review

When I was first thinking about buying a new bike, I typed the words "Sensa Umbria Tiagra Review" into google dozens of times over the course of about six months, in the hope of finding an opinion on the bike based on first hand experience. All I ever found were people on web forums asking the same questions that I wanted answered, with no actual reviews to be found anywhere.

I finally went to Merlin Cycles in Chorley to try one, and instantly decided to buy it. Not everyone gets to spend their Christmas half an hour from Chorley though, so I thought I'd write the review that I'd been looking for. 

Now I'll concede straight away that I own the bike. There's no way I can pretend to be objective. On the other hand, I am a hardware reviewer. For the last 12 years I've made my living figuring out what people want from a product and deciding how suitable it is for them. I've carefully placed hundreds upon hundreds of cameras, computers, TVs, phones, and heaven knows what else on a scale ranging from Awesome to Worthless and all points in between (Ok, most of my employers insist on a percentage score or marks out of ten, but really, it's all just an Awesome to Worthless scale). I'm not saying I'm unbiased, but I am level-headed, practical and equipped with a practiced critical eye.

I'm going to resist the urge to write this up the way I would a professional review, as that slightly distant tone would ring false having already pointed out that I own the bike. Besides, it's too exciting a review to write in that dry tone - which should give you a hint as to how I feel about the bike.

Since it was delivered a fortnight ago, my Sensa Umbria Tiagra has had three runs out to Richmond Park, one run out to Bushy Park, and a general potter around the streets. That means I've ridden it on everything from perfect tarmac, to run-down residential roads, to hard packed cinder pathways. It's been on rolling terrain, flat terrain and  12% gradients. Short of a return visit to Mt Ventoux, I'm pretty happy that I've given it a good range of use. 

In recent months I've spent the day on both a Specialized Allez and a Trek 1.5 and the Umbria Tiagra compares very nicely with both. It can't match either of them for weight: the Allez weighs in at 9.2Kg compared to the Umbria's 9.8Kg. Trek don't publish bike weights, but from hefting both, I'd guess the 1.5 saves as much weight as the Allez. If you're a weight weenie, the Umbria loses a few points to its most obvious rivals. For me, however, that's not much of an issue - my previous bike was a steel framed Peugeot. To me, the Umbria feels like it's made of rice paper and good intentions. Given that a £560 road bike is almost certainly selling to entry level purchasers or serious roadies looking for a winter bike, it's safe to say there aren't going to be many people fretting about 600g here or there.

More importantly, the Umbria actually beats the Allez for comfort. I feel cheeky saying that, and slightly controversial as well. The Allez has such a fine reputation that it feels a little like libel, but the fact is, on rough surfaces and rutted tarmac, the Umbria doesn't rattle under you as much, nor does it deliver an instantly numbing vibration through your fingers and palms. Given that the Allez has a full carbon fork while the Umbria uses a carbon blades/alu steerer mix, it was a surprise to find the Umbria putting out less buzz: I had thought my first move with the Umbria would be to double-tape the bars. I'm working on the assumption that  the sturdier wheels and thickset Ritchey bars are stifling some of the vibration.

Of course, comfort is about more than just material, it's down to the infinite array of configurations into which that material can be arranged. It was the 58cm Sensa Umbria's geometry in particular that sold it to me. A 548mm top tube combined with a long Ritchey stem gives the bike a nice long reach, but the 73.5 degree seat tube angle is comparatively gentle. The result is a bike that that allowed me to stretch into a comfortable, low position without being tipped head first into the cockpit. I'm a self-described lolloping beanpole of a rider, with long legs and a long back, and I like to ride in the drops, so by raising the saddle and taking full advantage of the long top tube I get a sporty but not strenuous position, and a reach that's actually a little longer than on my old 59cm Peugeot, where I always felt hunched over the bars.

Long reach, especially when achieved in part by a long stem, can mean less responsive steering, especially as the Ritchey Logic Curve bars are quite wide as well. A combo like that should feel like steering a bus, but again, for every extreme in one area, there's a compensation in another: a 45mm rake on the fork, which is admittedly about average on anything short of a Kermesse bike, but which is noticeably shorter than on my old Peugeot and which keeps the steering responsive but not jumpy. It never whips itself away from you, but responds as much to your weight as to your steering-you start looking at where you want to go and the Umbria is on its way before you put any real pressure on the bars. Even when rushing down steep inclines, the steering never gets excessively lively, and about the only thing I've had to get used to is the remote possibility of toe-overlap when cornering at low speeds.

Stick it in a big gear and the Umbria actually seems to get smoother and sharper the faster you go. After years of feeling like every high speed effort should result in a juddering hurtle across the tarmac, as greater and greater speeds were achieved by way of more force and less fluency, it's interesting to find myself on a bike that simply takes what I put on the pedals and transfers it to the wheels. You can laugh if you like, but I was genuinely surprised at how easy it was to pick up and maintain a high speed.

For me, this easier power transfer has an added advantage, as I'm trying to break my habit of pedal-mashing and move towards lower gears and higher cadences. The old whirlwind-legs and minimal-motion that high cadence riding used to produce is lessened on the Umbria, with long sessions spinning on the middle ring feeling natural, and seeming to deliver a much better average speed than it used to. That might just be me getting more comfortable with higher cadences, but I'm inclined to think a step-up in frame and component quality might have played a role in it as well.

The componentry is pretty much Tiagra all the way, with the exception of Sora hubs. A Tiagra groupset on a sub-£600 bike is pretty rare, and is a big part in why so many people are fascinated by/suspicious of the Umbria. I know that triple chainsets get sneered at by cycling's aesthetes, but I was desperately grateful for a mess of extra gears when I rented a Tiagra equipped Trek 1.5 for a climb a couple of years ago, and I expect I'll be just as grateful the first time the Umbria hits a lengthy ramp.  The Sora hubs are marginally less satisfying, as they have  a reputation for not being as weatherproof as the more expensive models, but in all honesty, just being aware of that fact is the most important step in dealing with it. In the short term, remembering to give the hubs special attention if I've been out in the rain is enough to keep things sweet. In the longer term, who doesn't upgrade their wheels anyway? It's the most telling upgrade you can make to a bike.

On the subject of wheels, and finishing kit in general, it's pretty clear where the price differential between the Umbria and the Trek 1.5 or the Peugeot CR22 comes from. The two nearest Tiagra equipped Alu bikes not only have a slightly more modern geometry and tube profiles, with all the weight saving and strength that brings with it, but they also have full carbon forks, come equipped with pedals and, in the case of the Trek, are adorned with Bontrager wheels, FSA seatposts and the like. I've said before, Bont is Trek's house brand, but it's a well know and trusted house brand compared to Sensa's own Supra brand of finishing kit which adorns the Umbria.

It's perfectly possible that if I'd been riding Bontrager wheels for years, I might have been uncertain about the little known Supra kit, but again, the Umbria is significantly lighter than my previous ride, and as comfortable as any other bike I've ridden in the last two years: I'd struggle to construct an argument that says the finishing kit isn't doing what it should. It's possible that when I upgrade the wheels or change the seatpost I might suddenly notice a massive pickup in acceleration or reduction in arse-buzz, but as I've currently got no complaints on either of those fronts, I'm not going to fabricate some now just for the sake of something to moan about.

The long top-tube and wide bars aren't going to suit a rider who's 5' 10" the way they suit me at 6' 2". The triple chainset and old fashioned big, straight tubes won't do much for the fashion conscious or scientifically minded, and it's quite likely that swapping out some of the Supra components in favour of premium brands will be necessary if you're the type who gets hung up on grams. 

On the other hand, you'll struggle to find a bike that rides as nicely for anything like this price. It's a comfortable, responsive bike that climbs and cruises easily. It's competitive if not class-leading when it comes to weight. The combination of fat round tubes, full size frame and short rear triangle give it a late 90s look that I'd take in preference to any modern frame, and it squeezes an incredible set of components onboard without making any fatal compromises elsewhere to cover the cost. It rides as well as bikes costing significantly more, and finds a nice balance between between being nippy and comfortable, with the emphasis on nippy. It's also got me hitting the roads in temperatures which would normally make me opt for a stationary bike, which is probably the most telling point in it's favour - you'll want to ride it. It won't be exercise, or training, or transport, it will be fun.

Monday, 11 February 2013

The Ride Journal Issue 7: Out Now

Just thought that I'd mention that the latest issue of The Ride Journal is out now, featuring contributions from Bradley Wiggins, Dan Craven, Jens Voight, Formula 1's Mark Webber and me.

Yes, I occasionally put my thoughts on paper rather than on a blog. And because print is sacred (not too mention immutable once it's off the press), I actually take the time to spell and punctuate properly when I write for print. Check it out for that novelty alone, I say.

Actually, far beyond that novelty, you should check out The Ride because it's a beautiful collaboration between writers, illustrators and designers that produces a work of art every few months while handing any profits over to charity.

If you visit The Ride's website you'll find a list of stockists as well as the option of buying a copy online as well.

The man, the legend, the Chris Boardman lookalike...

I particularly like the way Ned has positioned himself so that it appears that Mini-Ned is riding him up a hill climb.
Ned Boulting gave a one-off talk yesterday afternoon in Walton-Upon-Thames, covering his ten years as a cycling journalist, his thoughts on the sport's current troubles, a Q&A session and a reading from his upcoming book about Britain's cycling boom, On The Road Bike: The Search For A Nation's Cycling Soul.

He comes across in real life as a chattier version of the man on the telly. Engaging, droll, self-deprecating, a smart man occasionally feigning bewilderment for comic effect.What was surprising was how candid some of the opinions he offered were. The urge to repeat them here is overwhelming, but I'm pretty sure some of them were actionable, so I won't.

It was nice to hear him offering those opinions though-it was a step away from traditional journalistic detachment made all the more interesting as you knew it was underpinned by journalistic access. To put it another way, he politely said the same things a lot of sweary cycling fans say on internet forums, but with the important distinction that he actually knows what he's talking about.

Perhaps the only downside was the number of doping-related questions during the Q&A. It would be terrible for cycling if cycling fans went back to pretending doping wasn't an issue, but it's equally depressing that in a room full of cyclists and cycling fans - the people who love cycling the most - the focus is almost entirely on the negative aspects of the sport. Ferreting out and punishing dopers is vital to saving the sport, but it would be nice if we could remember why we want to save it. A room full of cycling fans should spend more time discussing breathtaking climbs, moments of inspiring bravery, lightning finishes and tactical battles than they do digging over who got caught doping and who hasn't been caught...yet.

On the subject of ferreting out dopers, one of the few things where I slightly disagreed with Ned was his suggestion that cycling should stop pointing the finger at other sports and concentrate purely on cleaning its own house. This is in light of Eufemiano Fuentes offering to name the footballers and tennis players he's worked with, but being told by the Operacion Puerto judge Julia Santamaria that he's only obliged to reveal the names of cyclists.

My main objection to the idea that cycling shouldn't be rattling anyone else's cage is right there in that summary. I don't want to see a situation in which justice is seen to be done because we've thrown another couple of cyclists on the fire. I don't want international governing bodies or national sports ministries butchering cyclists so that they can claim to be winning the fight against doping whilst ignoring doping in bigger, wealthier sports. Fuentes has said in the past that if he named all the sportsmen he worked with, Spain would be forced to hand the World Cup back. Most of us suspect they'd have to give back a few tennis trophies too. But those are high-profile sports so let's just conveniently scapegoat cycling.

This scapegoating has a more serious knock-on effect than just being dishonest and unfair, it undermines the whole fight against doping. For every fifty or a hundred athletes who are doping, there aren't fifty or a hundred dodgy doctors and pharmacists supplying products and expertise on a one-to-one basis.  Every doping ring has a hub, a few crooked individuals supplying the needs of hundreds of cheats from dozens of sports. Smashing these hubs is of infinitely more value than simply banning their clients (although we should continue doing that too). Compare the financial worth of cycling to that of football or tennis, compare the individual wealth of the sportsmen who might be paying for PEDs, and then explain to me how choking off the comparatively tiny revenue stream that doping doctors must make from cyclists will shut them down when they can expect a weekly visit from some teenaged multi-millionaire  from the Premiership or La Liga with a wad of cash and the cocky assurance that their own governing body is desperately looking the other way. Providing PEDs and doping expertise needs to be made into a high risk, low profit activity, and that means choking off the money flowing in from all sports, not just cycling.

If you want to defeat doping, you have to attack it on all fronts. That means investigating all sports. That means banning cheating athletes, guiding youth teams down ethical pathways, getting cheating doctors struck off, getting cheating pharmacists shut down, getting sponsors to make statements about valuing ethics more than results, and making the whole process as unprofitable as possible by attacking the big money sports instead of just scapegoating cycling.

Sorry, wasn't I talking about how much fun Ned Boulting is? Got a little sidetracked there. Still, Ned Boulting: clever, funny and engaging. If he's doing a book tour or reading near you, definitely go and see him.

Tuesday, 5 February 2013

Marianne Vos - Cyclo-cross World Championships 2013

I'm not normally a big fan of Cyclo-cross. Oh, I can appreciate it's blend of from-the-gun action and skill, and a good cross-mount is a thing of beauty, but it's always a time-killer for me, something to watch until the road season starts again.

Nevertheless, I felt I had to post this:

You'll need to fast forward to the 20 minute mark for the race start, but after that you'll get Marianne Vos winning the Cyclo-cross World Championship for the sixth time. Six times! That's on top of twice being Road World Champion, two World Track Championship gold medal in the points and the scratch race, and more World Cup and National Championships than anyone outside the UCI has time to count.

I've had the odd rant here about the absence of coverage for women's cycling, and I'm not going to repeat myself. Well, not today anyway. I just thought I'd stick up this video of Vos' commanding performance and let it speak for itself.

P.S. I lied, there is one other thing I wanted to mention. Louisville is, of course, home to the Louisville Lip, the Greatest of All Time himself. It's hard not to wonder if cycling will need to appropriate that title for Marianne Vos one day soon.