Hill climbing – repetitions, training and technique

I'm actually rolling down backwards. It's easier than climbing.Hills. I love and hate hills in equal measure. Love rolling down ‘em, hate riding up ‘em, some might say. Not me. There’s a distinct pleasure in the pain of heading to the heavens. Not that many cyclists share my passion for hills.

Beginner cyclists in particular tend to hate hills, as I once did. A love affair with hills takes time to mature. Like kids enjoying the taste of cabbage or adults the taste of olives. Hills, you might say, are like a certain branded yeast paste. You either love them or hate them.

Why cyclists hate riding up hills

There goes that Strava segment time

There goes that Strava segment time

This one’s obvious right? Climbing hills on a bike is damn hard. Humans by nature are lazy, at least this one. We’re smart enough not to toil unnecessarily. Why go up when I can go around?

The beginner cyclist in particular is at risk of death by a thousand pedal turns when they hit an incline. Overweight? You will suffer. Got the wrong position on the bike? You will suffer. Wearing unsuitable clothing? You’ll suffer too. Chosen the wrong gear? Yup, more suffering. Started too quickly? Oh dear, guess what, more suffering.

Even the most experienced of cyclist who has learnt the art of hill climbing can, and will, suffer. There are few worse cycling experiences than attacking a hill too early and looking up at the remainder of the climb, legs and lungs empty, head full of quitting talk.

Hill repeats

Track stand for photo

Track stand for photo

If climbing a nasty hill once is hell, then what do you call hill repetitions? Crazy is one word. I’m one of the strange creatures who climbs a hill only for the sake of rolling back down it and climbing it again. Not because I enjoy pain but because I’m in search of speed. Odd, right? Crawling slowly up a hill to increase my speed? With so little time in life for the joy of cycling, short sharp hill intervals are an excellent way to maintain and improve fitness.

On the down side, hill repeats leave you feeling dizzy, sick and near death. If you don’t feel sick then you’re not trying hard enough. Three puke pushing hill repetitions are better than ten comfortable climbs. You’re there to hate yourself, to empty the tank, not to enjoy the view.

If anybody tells you they enjoy hill reps they are lying. Sure, I enjoy the satisfaction of completing hill reps but only after, and never during, the ride. If this all sounds like masculine posturing, trust me, I don’t look especially tough at the end of a hill repetition session.

Why cyclists love climbing hills

Focus on the view

Focus on the view

It is inconceivable to some how hill climbing can be enjoyable. Forgetting the extremes of hill repetitions, a single climb elevates you, both literally and mentally. Plus there’s often a great view awaiting at the top. Many of the best hills are in countryside perfect for great cycle rides, be it the Surrey Hills, Devon, Wales, the Moors, Dales, Peak District, Lake District or Scotland.

The climb itself is a battle of wills, fighting your every weakness in the legs, lungs and mind. Sometimes it can seem as if your body is against you, but it matters not, you’ll be dragging it to the summit despite its many calls to quit.

I have few cycling goals except to ride more, and usually, faster whenever I can. Hills certainly draw out my inner chimp. Long before Strava my personal bests were tattooed onto my brain. I openly admit to shrieking like a girl the last time I beat a specific time climbing my local hill. The buzz lasted a week. I am King Kong climbing the Empire State. Hear my wheeze roar.

How to climb a hill on your bike

Don't look back. Or up

Don’t look back. Or up

First of all forget about the bike. Forget about the hill. These are inconsequential in the grand scheme of things. Improving your hill climbing technique is at best five percent bike and five percent hill. The remainder is all about you. Your physical and mental state will dictate how you climb. Oh and the wind, but there’s not much you can do about that but choose your Strava segment hunting days wisely.

The advice below is for those who want to climb hills quickly. I’m not going to pretend hill climbing should be some mythical science. It is not. Ride any hill slow enough in a gear low enough and you’ll reach the top.

Believe – the psychology of hill climbs

Don’t look up. Hill climbs make us suffer with reverse vertigo. We get dizzy if we look up at the incline stretching out ahead, the never ending, brutal gradients with more hairpins than your local beauty salon.

Knowing thy enemy will help, but don’t get making a mountain out of a mole hill. If the hill has you beaten before you climb on a bike then you’re in trouble. Besides, nervousness is energy wasted, energy that could be spent turning the cranks.

Break the hill down. It’s ten 100 metre segments, not a kilometre of madness. Plan your effort accordingly, rest at the outside edges of hairpins where the gradient slackens. Focus on the next pedal stroke. Count the revolutions, verbalize the pull and push of every half crank turn, dream of the bacon sandwich awaiting your return, anything to distract you from the wall of tarmac ahead.

Power to weight ratio – get the body ready

Never put your foot down

Never put your foot down

You don’t need a physicist to tell you things of lower mass are easier to lift. What? Cut the pork scratchings out young man. Oi, stop licking the bacon grease from the frying pan. Sucking your belly in may work at the cake stop but offers little aerodynamic advantage when hill climbing.

There’s a reason why the hill climbing season is so short, a) it’s hard work climbing and b) even harder keeping the weight down. Not that I’m advocating crash diets or a desire to look as frail as Froome. Just lose the puppy fat, cut a few treats out and boom, off you go. Cheaper than new wheels.

Don’t get attacking hills too hard if you’re unfit. The traditional UK hill climb season begins in September for a good reason. A glorious summer’s riding has given us the strength and stamina to ensure we don’t injure ourselves when we inevitably overcook it on a hill or two. Make sure you have a good base fitness if tackling hills relentlessly, otherwise you risk injury.

Above the waist

The cyclist’s body – a cling film wrapped chicken carcass

The cyclist’s body – a cling film wrapped chicken carcass

Cyclists are not renowned for their upper body strength. Opening pickle jars is a challenge let alone ten press ups. Yet the aspiring grimpeur (French person who climbs mountains) must condition their upper body to help pull on their bars when the gradient hits crazy percentages. I’m not advocating barbells and silly gymnasium machines here, simply do a few press ups at home every now and then.

Don’t neglect your core strength either. Firstly you’ll need a strong middle to avoid injury when you put your body through the heightened stress of an all out hill climb. Core strength will improve your balance, your pedalling technique and stamina, especially when you get out of the saddle.

Again, I’m not suggesting you take up yoga or Pilates. A few sit ups or planks at home will be enough. Or maybe the dreaded burpees if you’re mad enough.

Know your enemy

Steepest hill climb

Should have taken the cable car

Treat each and every hill like a new lover. Study their faces and learn their curves, their mood swings, and er, how they like to be ridden. Short and sharp? Power up. False flats? Don’t get overexcited. Long and steady? Stay seated, find a rhythm. With Strava and countless other sites providing climb profiles and even the times of people riding them, it doesn’t take too much effort to cosy up to your chosen one before you climb on your bike.

When riding a hill for the first time you have a few options. One, ride up slowly and take note. This is not for me. I simply cannot ride slowly up hills, unless of courses I’m exhausted! Two, approach the hill so that you need to descend before you can climb. This helps a little but it can be hard to judge a hill when descending, with curves, gradients and lengths easily over or underestimated.

Finally, there’s the third approach for the kamikaze in you. Hit the hill as hard as you dare and see how long you survive. If you make it, then well done for this is a rare feat. More likely you will run out of juice and crawl to the top begging for forgiveness. Still, you’ll have learnt a very valuable lesson. Never go to into the red on a climb until the last few metres.

Finding the correct pace for a hill can take time. Mix up your approaches to see if you’re a consistent steady sort or a slow starter with a powerful kick. Your tactics will undoubtedly vary depending on the hill, from the short sharp lung busters to the long and steady thigh tremblers.

What about the bike?

It's raining bikes

It’s raining bikes

Lastly, and least importantly, think about your bike. What do I mean the bike isn’t important? Well most hill climbers sure do like to obsess about the weight of their bikes. All well and good once you’ve mastered the basic hill climbing advice above, which is where the biggest time gains in hill climbing will come.

So what about the bike? Sure drill holes in your components and follow other weight saving advice should you so wish. For most of us little tricks like reducing the amount of water we carry are enough.

Perfect hill climbing technique

UK steep hill climbing

Remember to unclip before grinding to a halt

Such things will matter little if you choose the wrong gear when climbing the hill. Aim to maintain a high cadence. I’m not saying you should spin away like Froome or Armstrong. Circa 90 rpm should do the trick. If your cadence begins dipping below 60 it’s a sure sign you need bigger cogs on the back, or bigger thighs.

What else? Stay seated. Don’t waste precious energy supporting your own body weight. Some say standing up is a sign you’re overgeared or underpowered. Technically true but every rider is different. Besides, there’s a lot to be said for standing up to stretch tired legs. Plus you’ll also be using different muscles when standing, resting those that are screaming for help.

Wow, that all sounds like incredibly hard work

Ha, and so we come full circle. Hill climbing is inevitably hard work. Anyone can climb any hill, but to climb that hill quickly will take practice and effort and research and a certain detachment from reality for however long the pain lasts.

Easy, right?
Last one to the top buys the beer.

What about you, what hill climbing tips do you have?

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Images courtesy of 1) Joolze Dymond 2) Unknown 3) Russell Burton 4) Unknown 5) Jim’s Cycling Adventures 6) INRNG 7-10) Unknown

Jelly legs, iron will – Cycling in Wales

Cycling in SnowdoniaGreen pastures dotted with sheep, rolling hills wrapped in mist, the odd castle ruins here and there, jagged rock and a soul-searching isolation. This is cycling in Wales. Around every corner is a hill, the incline rarely gentle, the view usually breathtaking, assuming of course, the climb left you with breath from which to take.

Wales is a remarkable land to cycle. A pedaller’s paradise. Be it the austere Brecon Beacons in the south, or the lush and remote Cambrian Mountains at the country’s core, or heading further north to the verdant valleys and mounts of Snowdonia. The beauty comes at a price. If there’s a flat piece of road in this land I’m yet to find it.

Every time I cycle in Wales, I wonder if I could live there. If cycling was all there was to life, then yes. Unfortunately, one needs employment and more blue skies than the Welsh heavens permit. That said, on the couple of occasions I’ve been cycling in Wales the weather has been amazing. A mini heatwave in April (!) cycling Wales end to end (highly recommended) and then recently I was hunting steep hills whilst wearing shorts and a short-sleeved jersey. In late September. Sometimes the cycle gods can be kind.

This time last year I was cycling the climbs of Majorca which was stunning and yet, in terms of scenery, the Mediterranean isle is no match for the Celtic charm of Cymru. Yet again I set off in search of the biggest, baddest hills. The leg breakers, the lung busters, the mashing monsters. Well you get the picture, steep yeah? In Wales you don’t need to look too far for such punishment.

Bwlch Y Groes – Cycling Hellfire Pass

Don't look up. You're not done.

Don’t look up. You’re not done.

Which takes me to Bwlch Y Groes. A legendary climb amongst cyclists, I wondered how this Welsh dragon would compare to the equally heralded Hardknott Pass in the Lake District, which is without doubt the hardest climb chiselled into my calves. Looking at the gradient, I had little fear and yet, much to my surprise, Bwlch Y Groes was a beast of an entirely different nature.

I warmed up for the climb by cycling up the gentler side of the hill approaching from the north, not the best of route planning I realised half way up, sweat on my brow. This was my first mistake. My legs had certainly warmed up by the time I reached the summit. On the plus side, I descended the hill which gave me a view of the climb proper. This was my second mistake. There’s nothing like descending a hill to make you underestimate the climb back up!

‘This is nothing, pah, this is barely a hill’, I thought to myself rolling down unaware of my dangerously high speeds. ‘I will attack this. The Strava KOM is mine, all mine!’ I continued to think despite almost crashing into a barrier on the descent. So bemused by the climb was I that I actually began wondering what all the hype was about and why I’d driven many an hour to climb this little bump.

How foolish I was.

Half way up and the monster bit. I was not attacking the climb, it was murdering me. Hellfire Pass indeed. So why did I misjudge the climb so spectacularly? The gradient is never severe, at one point it hits 25%, yet the brutal remainder taunts you, fluctuating between 12-15% for 3km, making for an uncomfortable grind to the top on a standard double crank with a gear of 39×25.

I’ve not quite faced anything like it. Sure I’ve tackled the leg breaking hills of the Lake District but whilst these are insanely steep they do offer rest. Bwlch Y Groes offers no such respite. All it offers is a never-ending journey into hell. Heart rate at 99%, you look up to realise you still have a quarter of the climb ahead of you. Will this ever end?

Legs like jelly, arms shaking, it is at this point where you either put your foot down or turn your mind to other things. Like fluffy kittens. Or a hospital bed. I shall not be beaten. Never. Iron will kicked in and I made it to the top, sweat pouring off my face, lungs gasping for air.

It’s been a while since a climb turned my legs to jelly. One day I shall return. A 28 tooth cog packed in my suitcase, on which I imagine Bwlch Y Groes makes for a more enjoyable ride.

Bwlch Y Groes GPX route. The big climb is the first one on my route but don’t miss the chance to venture into the valley just to the north which is home to some incredible scenery and great riding. Hilly of course. Here’s the route on Strava.

Ffordd Pen Llech – Steepest hill in the UK

This cheeky little number is claimed by some to be the steepest road in the UK. There’s a 40% gradient warning at the top. At the bottom is a no entry sign, for this hill climbs the wrong way up a one way street, of appeal to law breaking, leg breaking cyclists like myself.

The reputation of this climb already had my legs trembling and the descent down its hairpins didn’t help too much either. Wow, pretty darn steep and twisty. Imagine a helter skelter built to train kamikaze pilots.

Yet at just 0.2 miles long, this brute was a breeze. Unlike Bwlch Y Groes, this time I overestimated the climb and took it easy when really I should have been sprinting up. By the time I reached the top I was barely out of breath and all set to do it again, only the thought of more hills later in the day persuaded me otherwise.

Disappointingly easy. Certainly not 40% although I’ll gladly take the awe and incredulity of the two families that I passed as they walked up this little leg opener. I’d recommend the video above, if only for the sight of the man reading his newspaper as he walks down the hill!

The Devil’s Staircase

The Devil's Staircase. Resist the temptation to put your foot down.

The Devil’s Staircase. Resist the temptation to put your foot down.

When a hill has a nickname you know you’re in trouble. After Hellfire Pass the day before it was only natural to tackle the devil’s very own staircase. I parked the car ten miles short of the climb thinking I’d take a ride and enjoy the scenery, not realising the 20 mile loop would mean climbing over 1,000 metres. Ouch.

That said, what a beautiful route it was, definitely one of the best cycling routes in the UK. Rugged and bleak, I was very aware of my isolation as I heaved and weaved my way across the single track roads that seemed to lead to nowhere. So alone, you fear a mechanical as much as you fear the cycling bonk.

The climb itself is a classic. It begins with some steep 25% hairpins before slackening off a little into a long stretch of a lesser yet still challenging gradient that laughs at your empty legs. Hard work, but a stunning part of the world you simply have to cycle through.

A tough climb indeed but fortunately I had found my touring legs. You know the feeling, when you’ve cycled past tiredness and cycled up everything the earth can possibly throw at you. You feel invincible. Nothing will stop you.

That’s not to say you are invincible of course. You don’t quite realise it but your body has slowed to a pace suited to your exertions and so can handle anything you throw at it. Suddenly those 25% climbs are a breeze, never mind the fact you’re cycling slower than a Sigur Ros album intro.

Dodgy energy gels

A quick ramble. At some point on the ride I craved energy and so reached into my jersey pocket for a random energy gel. I had no idea what flavour it was until it hit my mouth and promptly reminded me of mint sauce on a lamb roast dinner.

Yes, I was living the dream, a Willy Wonka dream where my cycling gel was in fact a full Sunday roast! Sadly, I looked at the wrapper after the ride. Mojito flavoured apparently. Which is crazier? Sunday roast flavoured gel or mojito, an alcoholic cocktail for er, cycling.

Cycling Wales end to end

Black and white. Everything is black and white after climbing Bwlch y Groes

Black and white. Everything is black and white after climbing Bwlch y Groes

Ready for some tough but rewarding days on the bike? Off to Wales you go. Plan carefully. Look for a tail wind. Avoid A roads where possible. And be sure to check the terrain map when choosing your roads. It was a few years back when I planned my end to end trip, which was relatively flat back before I had developed an addiction to hill climbing. Besides, panniers and hill climbing are not the best of bed fellows.

I purposely chose a route that avoided the big climbs. In total I climbed just over 5,000 metres, an elevation gain you could easily double if not triple should you choose to tackle the lumpy stuff. Whichever route you choose, you’ll see some of the best views in the UK. Without trying I have stumbled across so many beautiful valleys I wonder how many more I have missed.

Looking for a route?
Here’s my three-day route avoiding (most) of the hills for day one, day two and day three. I started in Newport because it was easy to get to on the train. I’d do things very differently now. After all, you can’t reach heaven without going up.

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Images courtesy of 1-3) Unknown 4) Allan Wellings, Flickr

The inexplicable good and bad days on the bike

Wiggins and Froome (smile)You feel great. You feel like shit. Yin and yang, attacking and being dropped, good and bad days on the bike are unpredictable at best, maddening at worst. Despite the best efforts of psychologists, nutritionists, coaches, and strict training plans, there are those days when anything can happen, we can be at the top of our game or grovelling, pedalling with our ears as the French might say. Why?

No rhyme, no reason. It is inexplicable. Illogical. No amount of rational reasoning will help you understand why we have good and bad days on the bike. And how do we react? Being creatures who focus on our faults, we over analyse our bad days, searching in vain for the reason why we were seemingly unable to turn the pedals in a tailwind. On good days we take it for granted that yes, we are heroes. Of course I was amazing, I am amazing, quick hand me that pro contract.

Diet, sleep, stress, physical tiredness, all undoubtedly play a part, yet we’ve done everything by the book, that book being The Obree Way, The Boardman Way, The Merckx Way, you know, the right way. Yet still you suffer. Or perhaps you was out enjoying a few beverages the night before, and a kebab, and you’ve barely turned a pedal in weeks and yet out you go and BOOM!, you destroy the road. Perhaps that drink was spiked with EPO, right?

“It is only through mystery and madness that the soul is revealed”
Thomas Moore

The human body is a complex being. Five fruit and veg plus exercise minus alcohol multiplied by a few good nights sleep don’t always add up to a good day on the bike. You often hear the mighty professionals complaining of bad days despite their science and carefully planned training.

That’s the thing with those extraordinarily unpredictable days, no matter what our approach it can sometimes seems as if the cycling gods have decided our fate before we’ve even pulled on the Lycra. I like to think there are two gods of the road, the good and the bad. Let’s name them in true Greek God style, Jeus, god of the phantom tailwind and Fades, god of never-ending journeys.

The bad days

What do you mean, 'we're only halfway'?

What do you mean, ‘we’re only halfway’?

I’m not talking of simply being tired, of overtraining or experiencing the bonk, no, these are the days when you go out with legs like cooked spaghetti and suffer for no apparent reason. Grovelling. Pedalling squares. Legs heavy, we beg for the end. We do not want to see a bike let alone cycle.

Everything hurts. There’s more life at the bottom of your mouldy water bottle. Quads burning, calves tight. Our saddle is a razor, our heads heavy and quick to drop, unable to look the road in the eye for we know it has beaten us. Every turn seems to bring a headwind yet the leaves on the trees are still. We always seem to be a gear short as we mash our way downhill at 10 mph. Yes, my odometer is broken. Must be, because I’m going nowhere.

Gravity is against you. Einstein would struggle to explain this phenomenon. You watched the weather last night and saw nothing of this super thick air you seem to be wading through. Soup, you are cycling through minestrone. And then the rain comes. Typical. If somebody offered you a fiver for your expensive shiny bike you’d gladly take it and hitch-hike home.

On such rides there is no recovery. There is the end. Eventually. You lock your bike away and throw away the key. I am never cycling again. This ride won’t be making it onto Strava. You don’t want to talk about it or think about it, let alone share it with the world. Nobody should see such a pathetic ride. You look accusingly at your legs. Where the eff were you today, you ask? It’s 30 degrees outside yet you put trousers on because you don’t want to see these two lifeless limbs. You lie down and vow never to cycle again. Until next week anyway.

The good days

Flying. You wear Lycra. You are superman.

Flying. You wear Lycra. You are superman.

Accelerating, you can out sprint farts, hills flatten before your very eyes, the applause of the imaginary crowd echoes in your head, Strava segment times tumbling, you are the greatest cyclist that has ever lived. You keep one eye out for the Team Sky car for surely they’ve noticed this prodigious talent everyone is applauding. It’s only a matter of time before Sir Dave Brailsford discovers the YouTube footage of this blur, this machine, this future Tour de France winner.

These are float days. Everything is effortless. You know the days. The pedals turn themselves as if somebody installed a motor in your bottom bracket overnight. Your bike is so light you’re convinced you’re riding a feather. Your puny cycling biceps bulging, you could tear your way through phone books and dictionaries should the need arise. You pass the tattoo parlour and go inside to get the world championship rainbow stripes etched onto each arm for nobody will ever take your crown. Ever.

God do you love cycling. You were born for this day. You laugh in the face of the stiffest of headwinds and 20 percent climbs. You tease wheelsuckers who struggle to remain in the shelter of your shadow. You destroy chain gangs without trying and there’s no lamppost in the world that anybody can beat you to. Upon turning back towards home you realise you’ve been out all day, your legs still fresh, you could cycle forever. This is love.

That rarest of days

Bad day? Time for a hero to slay the joker on the bike.

Bad day? Time for a hero to slay the joker on the bike.

Sometimes, just sometimes, a bad day turns into a good day. Never the other way around. Perhaps you’ve finally digested breakfast, or your legs have eventually warmed up, or a hard sprint has shaken you into life, or a hill climb puts you so near to death it makes you feel alive. Such days are mystifying but welcome.

As much as we strive to explain the human condition, it’s the mystery of it all that we must embrace. Some cyclists ride to become machines. Not this cyclist. For every 99 bad days on the bike there’s that one good day. Maybe it will be tomorrow. Just maybe. There’s only one way to find out…

“One machine can do the work of fifty ordinary men. No machine can do the work of one extraordinary man.”
Elbert Hubbard, arriving home after a float day

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Images courtesy of 1-4) Unknown

Upcycle and upgrades – Make your bike ride like new

Bike components broken down into piecesShiny, shiny. The carbon temptress awaits on every high street, every cycling forum, every ride and every conversation. Everyone, it seems, is buying a new bike. After complex calculations that included n+1, I had persuaded everyone, even my girlfriend, that I needed a new bike. Everyone that is, except me.

So even with full clearance to buy a third bike, I relented. Why? Not long ago two bikes seemed unnecessary and here I was considering a third! But no, reason had kicked in. Reason and bike buying, what was this phenomenon? I’m a frugal creature. Bling is not for me. And yet I was tempted, why?

It goes without saying I have a very fond attachment to my current ‘best’ bike, a second-hand £600 Bianchi from eBay. My second bike was also an eBay bargain, a fixed commuter bike. Yet my upgrade dilemmas had nothing to do with my existing bike stock. No, I was scared of being left behind in the great bicycle arms race. Literally.

When buying a new bike is not the answer

Maybe I've been overdoing the whole n+1 thing. Maybe.

Maybe I’ve been overdoing the whole n+1 thing. Maybe.

Truth is there was a dark and dusty corner of my brain that wondered if buying a new bike would make me quicker. Daft I know, but like any other cyclist, I’ll pursue any silly notion to shave seconds off a hill climb PB. Research began but no matter my search terms, even the evil empire that is Google could not lie. No, it screamed after search #99, buying a new bike will not make you a quicker rider.

Sure, I’d be a few grams lighter but ultimately no quicker. I could carry less water or eat fewer pies for such gains. Internal cable routing would make me more aerodynamic perhaps but I couldn’t really believe such claims. So what would a new bike achieve aside from denting my bank balance? Little. In fact, I could only see negatives.

I’m a fairly humble fellow and the thought of hitting my local roads on a super bike would have made me self-conscious. I know, I know, fear not the judgement of others for only your Strava segments are to be your judge. Yet I wasn’t worried about being overtaken by other cyclists on cheaper bikes because i) I’m a fairly rapid rider and ii) I ride my own race. What then? Like any shrink worth their hourly fee, I needed to dig deeper into my past.

It all stems from my working class sensibilities. Obvious, right? I do not like to be ‘flash’ as my mother might once have said when seeing a neighbour’s new sofa or car or haircut or handbag. Not that she was jealous, quite the opposite in fact, it was more the pity to see somebody seeking pleasure in material gain. That’s a very long-winded way to say I am not materialistic. Bike bling? No thanks, I’d rather just clean my old bike.

You are not your Pinarello Dogma

Don't worry, I've got some spare inner tube glue in my saddlebag

Don’t worry, I’ve got some spare inner tube glue in my saddlebag

Or you are not your IKEA kitchen, as Tyler Durden of Fight Club fame might have said. This is why a fancy new bike simply wouldn’t have worked for me. For one, I would have been scared to ride such an expensive toy.

Whilst I respect my bike, I like to get rough with it. I wash it in the bath and stand it upside down on the pavement to fix my gears. I’ve been known to ride home on the rims when caught short of inner tubes, my tyres stuffed with grass. Yeah, I will not let a bike be the boss of me. You see, I cannot have nice things. Besides, a shiny new bike would only have given me more reasons not to cycle in the rain.

In addition to being fearful, tight, lazy and overly self-conscious, I’m also paranoid. There is no way anybody could have ever seen me riding a shiny bike to my house as I would have suspected every man, woman and child of being a potential bike thief. N+1 is a simple enough calculation but it doesn’t account for the additional cost of hidden extras when buying a bike. Like dead bolts, a house alarm, infra-red security lasers, the rottweiler, the gun.

My own true love

A little retro styling

An ode to my bike. I bought my Bianchi with very little consideration of frame size, of weight, of gear sizes, of anything much than a little research into the gear set. Whilst I am known to often plan the smallest of decisions down to the finest of detail (it can take me a day to buy new inner tubes, no amount of research is ever enough!), when it comes to the bigger decisions in life I am often at the mercy of my whimsy. In this instance I had convinced myself my bike must have Shimano Ultegra gears and I ignored pretty much all other criteria. Odd, I agree. Oh and the colour, it couldn’t be garish. Or stolen.

A few days of eBay sniping later and I was taking a Bianchi Via Nirone Special Edition for a test ride which consisted of a lap around a very small car park. The bike was quiet. It was equipped with Ultegra. It was not garish. Sold!

An aluminium frame with carbon fibre rear and front forks, the bike handles like a dream. It does not jerk, it does not whither, it simply floats. Four years old when I bought it, another three years of hard pedalling has not diminished my lust for my next ride. Ooh er, missus.

That said, the bike is in need of some tender loving care. Whilst I’ve been fastidious (ish) in my cleaning and basic maintenance of the bike, tyres aside, there have been no upgrades. The bars are still wrapped in the original bar tape! Seven year old bar tape. If it wasn’t grey in the first place, it is now. Time for some TLC.

How to make your bike feel like new

What cyclists get up to on rainy days

What cyclists get up to on rainy days

Don’t waste money on a new bike when you can upgrade your existing ride with little effort and just a little cash.

  • Degrease and oil the chain. There is no greater pleasure than riding a bike with a clean chain and chain set. Smooth.
  • New bar tape. Every cyclist loves new bar tape. Both the finished new look but also that heroic feeling after a successful application. At first the thought of fitting new bar tape is a little bit of a mystery until you realise it’s just a simple wrap. Soon you can wrap your bars like an experienced nurse applying a bandage when tending to open wounds. In addition to your new go faster colour of choice, you’ve also got a better grip and perhaps more padding too.
  • Learn how to index your gears. For many a year I lived in fear of the dreaded skipping gear. No more. Thanks to Global Cycling Network and their simple How to video series, I can now index my gears. The secret? Forget about those mysterious high and low screws, it’s all about cable tension. Soon your gear shifting will be smoother than the snot wipe on the back of your gloves, which Google tells me is gloriously named a snot spot.
  • New gear cables. Gears not working no matter how much you adjust them? Time for some new cables and bingo, away you go.
  • Cheap bike fit. Forget about spending your hard-earned pocket-money on an expensive bike fit when you have all of the world’s knowledge at your finger tips. There’s plenty of bike fit videos on YouTube, of which this one has cured my knee and neck pains. Sure, there’s no fancy 3D motion sensors or videos of you wobbling about on the bike, yet these simple tips will get your position on the bike 99 percent perfect and make for a pain-free ride. Don’t be afraid to experiment.
  • New tyres. Tyres are undoubtedly the best value for money upgrade a cyclist can invest in. I wasted many a ride rolling around on cheap Michelins until I broke down and splashed out on a set of Continental GPS4000. Roads become smoother, sharp corners seemed to straighten themselves out, and punctures became as rare as a dry cycle ride in the Lake District.
  • New saddle. My saddle has been peeling like the pink skin of a Brit on day three of their beach holiday. There’s been a flappy piece of skin on the side of my saddle for the best part of 12 months and in truth, the saddle has always been a little uncomfortable. So why haven’t I upgraded? For me the grass is always er, yellower on the other side. What if my new saddle is actually even more uncomfortable? The idea of finding a new saddle fills me with dread. What is my body shape? Er, human? How flexible am I? Ish. And finally, who is going to measure my ass, sorry sit bones?
  • New wheels. After upgrading your tyres, the wheels are your next best investment. Both the weight and aerodynamics of some expensive wheels will make your bike lighter and a little more aero. As with buying a new bike, don’t get expecting any miraculous speed improvements. At best you’ll be quicker off the mark and up hills. Remember the true benefits of deep rim wheels don’t really kick in until you’re approaching speeds in excess of 20 mph.

My new bike

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Ok, so it’s not exactly new and the casual eye wouldn’t even notice the difference between the before and after images. Yet I know. The upgrades bring me great pleasure and have rekindled my love affair with riding my bike. Sure, I’ve only actually bought new handlebar tape and a new saddle but yes, the impossible has been achieved. I enjoy cycling more than before! I even broke down and bought a small saddle bag after seeing that picture!

Purchasing a new saddle

The new seat. Sleek.

So, did I get my ass measured? No. Somewhat like buying a new bike, I ignored all practical advice and purchased my new saddle on a whim and on the basis of what I thought looked like my new saddle. Yes, I bought a saddle because it was aesthetically pleasing! I mean how could you resist? Look at it, my god, I’m in love with a saddle, what have I become? As it happens the saddle is a heck of a lot more comfortable than the previous aged skin flapping incumbent. And yes, I’m sure it has made me faster. At least that’s what I’ll keep on telling myself.

What about you? What are your tips for upgrading your bike?

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Images courtesy of 1) The excellent Things Come Apart blog 2, 3, 5) Unknown 4, Gallery, 6) Human Cyclist – C’est moi