100 MILES ON A £100 BIKE
CAN YOU DO A CENTURY RIDE ON A £100 BIKE? WE SENT TECH WRITER SIMON WITHERS TO TACKLE RIDELONDON AND FIND OUT…
Tech writer Simon takes on Prudential RideLondon on a late-’90s Raleigh M-Trax 6000R
The idea for the day came from CP editor Rob Spedding. “Can any of you do a 100-mile ride on a 100-quid bike?” he asks the team, as they whistle distractedly and try not to make eye contact. But as the team’s resident cheapskate and go-to guy for testing budget-related kit, there was only ever going to be one, er, ‘volunteer’. “Oi! Withers! You’re doing it!” Which is why I’m struggling up the Surrey hills on an overgeared bike.
The lower reaches of Leith Hill in Surrey, just after the halfway point of the 100-mile Prudential RideLondon sportive, was where I discovered the
big difference between today’s road bikes and their skinny steel equivalent from the late 1990s. Forget carbon fibre and big-diameter tubing, ignore aerodynamic this and ultra-stiff oversized that – the real change is the widespread use of the compact chainset.
I found this out when I flicked from the 52-tooth outer ring to the 42-tooth inner for the ride’s first ascent and barely noticed the change down. Which didn’t bode well as the biggest sprocket isn’t that big – so the granny gear isn’t that OAP-ish – and part way up its length Leith Hill briefly reaches 12 per cent. It didn’t help that the first time that day I’d tried an out-of-thesaddle effort – to look aggressive and show off my finest Alberto Contador moves for the official photographers – I shipped the chain off the inside of the inner ring, came to a halt and nearly crushed my dangly bits on the top-tube. This meant out-of-thesaddle climbing wasn’t possible, while the lowest gear was too big to spin comfortably while seated.
WA LK ON BY
So, hoping nobody I knew was watching I unclipped and walked for a minute or so, at about the same speed I was cycling! I was in good company as a long line of pedestrians clipped, clopped and stumbled up the left-hand side of the road. I’d anticipated this eventuality by fitting a pair of single-sided SPD pedals and wearing my softer-soled – and easier to walk in – commuting shoes. By that stage I’d already broken several of the cardinal rules for riding a major event, so what was one more?
We recommend you don’t tackle a big day out on kit you’re not used to. Well, thanks to a combination of work and illness, I hadn’t managed more than a mile or so on the circa-1997 Raleigh M-Trax 6000R I’d just bought from eBay, enough to ensure the correct saddle height and that nothing would fall off. I measured and greased the seatpost, oiled the chain, checked the brakes and nothing did fall off… Oh, except the chain a couple of times. One of the other joys of down-tube friction shifters that I’d forgotten. And I couldn’t prevent the saddle from slipping forward until I tightened it as far forward as it would go.
It could have been worse, and the climbs that much harder, as some of that era’s M-Trax bikes had 53/42 chainsets with a decidedly not knee-friendly 12-23 cassette.
One thing that hasn’t changed over the years, in fact it’s got worse, is the plethora of standards. I needed a slightly shorter stem than the M-Trax had. Simple. Bristol has loads of bike
“One thing that hasn’t changed over the years is the plethora of standards”
shops where I’d be able to pick one up. Sure enough, the Bristol Bike Workshop had a handful in stock. Bingo. Until I had a thought and got out the Vernier callipers. Ah yes, Raleigh had gone with the Italian 26mm clamping standard rather than the English standard 25.4mm. And the shorter stems? Yep, the smaller diameter. Luckily Cycling Plus’s office is more-or-less next door to Black Beard Bicycles, which specialises in classic bikes, and a couple of days before RideLondon, co-owner Patrick swapped the bar and stem combo for an identical one with a shorter stem. It’s just as easy to do this as it is to swap the stem; along with the compact chainset the modern stem with four-bolt face plate is a real and underestimated boon.
RideLondon is fantastically organised event, a celebration of the delights of two-wheeled transport and part of a weekend of events for cyclists of every ability that culminates in a race for the pros over the same course, which means you have to get a bit of a wriggle on if you’re not a speedster and aren’t one of the first off the line.
The start at the Olympic stadium in Stratford is smoothly marshalled and a good chance to check out other bikes. Swanky all-carbon machines mix it with more modest bikes, a sprinkling of tandems, Bromptons and singlespeeds (fixies aren’t allowed), though I only saw one other bike with downtube shifters.
The weather was nigh-on perfect, so my lightweight showerproof stayed in my mini-saddlebag as we powered through East London and alongside the Thames. The early part was carried out at a very decent lick, as I got used to the bike on pleasingly car-free roads, after I stopped reaching for STI levers that weren’t actually there. Using down-tube shifters, you don’t want to look down at what your gears are doing
“RIDELONDON IS A CELEBRATION OF THE DELIGHTS OF TWO WHEELED TRANSPORT”
when you’re sharing the road with 25,000 other riders of varying ability. I was riding directly behind a serious rider-caused crash last year and I certainly didn’t want to cause one this year.
Most of the time I didn’t notice I was riding an old bike. At 10.25kg it’s heftier than a contemporary one, but it’s only a kilo or so heavier than a top-end bike of its time (Bjarne Riis’s and Marco Pantani’s Tour de Francewinning Pinarellos weighed around 9kg), and decent hand-built wheels make for a smooth and easy ride on the flat. I changed the tyres and saddle, just in case, and there was a tiny amount of play in the rear wheel’s bearings, but nothing that a service wouldn’t sort. The rims are narrower than a modern bike’s but with quality 23mm tyres and a Fabric Spoon saddle there were no issues with comfort, and it could bomb downhill once I’d puffed and grunted my way up. I was happy to reach 40mph or more on descents, only a bit slower than on my own bike.
The real joy of the day is sharing the roads with other cyclists, realising just how much good cycling there is within a few miles of one of the world’s major
A smooth start from the Olympic Park stadium
Our man Withers was just one of 25,000 riders who took part in the weekend’s riding
The city is left behind to head to leafier Surrey