Tag Archives: style

Bar End Shifters

Bar End shifters-1When I was drafting up the specifications for my dream tourer I had pretty set ideas for just about everything I wanted on it – a threaded quill stem, a square-taper bottom bracket, quill pedals, a decaleur to help support a boxy French randonneuring handlebar bag, in short all the usual accoutrements one would expect to find on what might be called a retro-classic bicycle.

When it came to mounting the shift levers, however, I had a momentary quaver. Part of me was tempted – sorely tempted – to keep with the overall retro-classic theme and go with the old down-tube shifters, just like they had ‘em back in the day. I like down tube shifters, or the idea of them anyway, and I like the look of them on classic bicycles but in the end, I decided not to have them on my dream bike for the simple reason that they never formed part of my dream, and indeed played little role in my past as a cyclist.

I wanted to build a bicycle that was truly mine, not somebody else’s stylised ideal of what a classic tourer should look like, and the honest truth is that for nearly all of my cycling life I have used bar end shifters. And so when it came to the crunch, bar-end shifters are what I bought – Shimano Dura Ace nine-speed ones.  I love them. They are beautifully made and function beautifully.

I have liked bar ends ever since I first started using them, back in the 1970s. Simple, reliable, nice looking on a bicycle, they are less of a stretch to reach than down-tube shifters (especially when you are climbing up a mountain pass) and virtually never require servicing – in short the ideal set-up for a drop-bar touring bike, in my eyes at any rate.

Modern bar end shifters, like the Dura Ace nine-speeds I have on my classic tourer, are indexed for the rear – a pleasing touch of modernity – while relying on good old-fashioned friction shifting for the front derailleur, where there are no real benefits to indexed shifting, only endless hassles in trying to fine tune it.  With my bar-end shifters I love being able to trim the front derailleur as I ride, should it not shift perfectly. You can’t do that on Ergo or STI levers.

Those who want a choice can turn a catch in the rear shifter and disengage index shifting in back as well. I like to have that option. But then of course friction shifting was how I originally learned to ride.

I realise that I am bucking modernity in my fondness for old-fashioned bar-end shifters; that the vast majority of road bikes these days use the integrated shift and brake levers. In fact, I have a set on my Pegoretti (a 2008 Centaur groupset) While I like them on that nice swift Italian machine, and have yet to have a problem with them, I would still be reluctant to put such complicated and difficult to repair shifters on a tourer.

One of the most important aspects of a touring bike – and one of its chief beauties in my eyes – is its utter reliability and with these achingly simple levers there is just nothing to go wrong. So basic are they – and their down-tube cousins – that were you to snap one off you could practically whittle yourself a new one out of a chunk of drift wood. In the thirty-odd years I have been using them, over many tens of thousands of miles in all sorts of distant places and harsh conditions, I’ve never had one fail.

 

 

Posted in Journal | Also tagged 13 Comments

Leather Bar Tape

Brooks honey coloured leather bar tape on my Thorn eXp tourer/winter bike – the tape pictured here is in its third season of hard use.

Bar tape (for those of us on drop bars) is another of those idiosyncratic components on a bicycle, with everyone having their own preferences for look, colour and style, comfort and feel. Handlebars are a contact point and, as with saddles and pedals, we know what we like and what works for us – or at least we do after a certain amount of experimentation. Bar tape comes in a variety of materials – cork, cloth, synthetics and, finally and most expensively, leather. I have leather bar tape on two of my bicycles and I thought perhaps my experiences with it over the past three years might be useful to anyone contemplating trying out leather bar tape for themselves, especially given the high up-front cost.

For starters, several manufacturers offer leather bar tape. I can speak to two. I have Brooks’ honey-coloured variety on my Thorn eXp expedition tourer/winter bike and Gilles Berthoud’s pale calfskin bar tape on my Enigma randonneur. Both are expensive – €59.50 (without end plugs, and plus postage) for the French-made Gilles Berthoud tape, and around £35 for the Brooks’ tape which is made in China. Pricey though they are, both of these are quite a bit cheaper than the Cinelli variety, which sells for roughly £70. I’ve never tried the Cinelli, although I have read nice things – and for that money one would expect to hear nice things.

As to colour, the Cinelli comes in natural or black, while Brooks offers theirs in a variety of colours (brown, black, honey, turquoise, mustard, violet, green, white, raspberry, apple green, royal blue, mandarin, ochre, maroon, olive green, and red) Gilles Berthoud comes in natural calfskin.

Gilles Berthoud calf skin bar tape on my Enigma randonneur

I was an accidental convert to leather bar tape. Although I admired the classic stylishness of leather bar tape, the idea of it at any rate, the high up-front cost and the uncertainty of how well it would last, especially in the rain, made me shrink from wanting to shell out and see. A couple of years ago though, a mechanic at a bike shop up in London comprehensively screwed up my Thorn while attempting to do a service on it. Among other things he wrecked, he ruined the bar tape, some lovely Stella Azzurra Elegenza that I had put on there not long earlier. Since they were unable to supply a fresh roll of it (it seems to be hard to find, or was in 2009) the shop owner offered me whatever he had on hand to replace what was screwed up. I saw they had the Brooks honey coloured bar tape in stock and went for a roll of that, with some Fizik gel padding beneath it.

It was lovely. The leather tape felt rich, tactile and positive, but what surprised me more, as I rode through the first winter with it, was its resilience. It handled well in the wet. Although it soaked up the rain, it was still very positive to grip and hold and it dried out quickly afterwards. True, it can start looking a bit scruffy after a while, the finish on the leather wearing off with repeated hard use, but a touch of Proofhide (or similar) leather treatment can bring it back pretty well, surprisingly so, actually.

Better still, during the dry summer months, the constant gripping of the bars burnishes the leather nicely, rendering it a rich dark well-used colour which adds to the classic appeal. As to durability, let me say that the same roll of Brooks leather bar tape that was wrapped on the bars of my Thorn in September 2009 is still there now and what’s more it looks set to last for quite some time yet.

Having had a positive experience with leather bar tape, and liking the classic styling of it, I decided to use it again when I had my bespoke Enigma randonneur built for me last year. This time around though I decided to go with Gilles Berthoud – in part because I had since discovered that Brooks of England had their bar tape made in China and this annoyed me, and partly because I simply liked the look of the Made-in-France Gilles Berthoud stuff. Since I was already having a GB front rack, mudguards, and bar bag on the bike, as well as other classic French fittings (a TA Zephyr crank, TA chainrings, and TA quill pedals) a roll of this fine French-made leather bar tape seemed the perfect note to finish with.

And so it has proven to be. I very much like the luxurious look and feel of this calf skin tape – much more so than the Brooks, although to be fair, I have not yet given the Gilles Berthoud tape nearly as much time and hard usage. That will come. But it has been on the bike for over a year now and still looks and feels great.As with the Brooks, I had Fizik gel pads inserted under the tape to help dampen road buzz. That said, the bars still feel comfortably firm – there is nothing ‘gushy’ about them with the leather tape and gel pads.

Obviously leather bar tape isn’t for everybody. It is expensive for one thing (although its durability may make it an unexpectedly good bargain in the long run), and it is heavier, too, if that is a consideration, and frankly it wouldn’t look right – aesthetically speaking – on a lot of racier cutting-edge carbon bikes. But if you want a classic look, especially on a tourer, you can do a lot worse.

Posted in Journal, Reviews | Also tagged 2 Comments

Autumn Collections

A brisk ride along the seafront this morning with cold clear skies and temperatures down in the single figures, which made me grateful for my long-sleeve sportswool jersey and a nice lightweight breathable softshell. Between these two articles of clothing and a pair of three-quarter length cycling shorts, I was comfortably cool, the autumn chill coming across as crisp and fresh and invigorating rather than chilly.

Following on from my post the other day about discovering my inner MAMIL, I should also concede that I have become quite a fan of dedicated cycling clothing, after years (nay, decades) of disdaining it in favour of general casual street wear. On my long trek around Australia I wore just plain old ordinary running shorts and cotton T-shirts, with a lightweight fleece for those rare occasions it was cool enough to warrant one. I didn’t care for the bright tacky polyester cycling jerseys, covered with brand names and logos, and in those days, the mid-1990s, that’s about all that was on offer.

I was able to get away with wearing cotton in the desert and tropics stretches of my Australian trek, although later on when I was pedalling along the Victorian coast in a cold miserable driving rain I came down with a very nasty fever and chills and sore throat that I could directly attribute (at least to some degree) to my poor choice of clothing, particular those cotton T-shirts. Cotton as everybody knows (and I knew too, even if I didn’t act on the knowledge) doesn’t wick away moisture, nor does it keep you warm when wet or damp. All it does when the going gets tough is draw away your own vital body heat and set you up for a fine case of hypothermia – which is exactly what I got on the outskirts of Warrnambool. It was an unpleasant lesson, but I learned it and when I eventually got to Melbourne I raided the outdoor clothing shops and bought up a decent stock of wickable undergarments, long and short sleeve, and was gratified to feel the difference.

Even so I never cared much for these tight-fitting backpacker-style threads, effective though they were. Still less did I care much for the garishly branded cycling jerseys made out of the same or similar fabrics. Where possible I like to look presentable on my bicycle, even if I am a bit of a slob in real life. I also much prefer natural fibres. Although I eschewed the garish cycling jerseys, I did adapt to the snug-fitting, wickable base layers as a necessary evil, and indeed I wore them almost constantly when I pedalled from London to Istanbul a few years later, during what was one of Europe’s coldest and wettest summers in decades. I wore them, but I didn’t like them.

Happily though, in recent years there has been a trend to tasteful cycle clothing cut out of various wool-polyester combinations. Rapha has probably been the best known and most influential fashion brand in this regard, but there are others, and the trend seems to be growing in line with the uptake of cycling everywhere. I love it. Me, a guy who shops for clothes in Tescos, poring through the new autumn collections of the clothing houses. Between the new found popularity of cycling, the renaissance of hand-made bicycles and classic steel frames, and this trend towards tasteful yet functional cycling clothes, a middle-aged stick-in-the-mud like me could think he’s arrived; that these are the best of times to be out and about on your bicycle.

Posted in Journal | Also tagged Leave a comment

On Not Going Clipless

The aesthetics of a bicycle have always been important to me, so much so that one of the main reasons that I’ve remained so resistant to making the shift to clipless pedals is that I have yet to find a clipless version that is anywhere near as visually pleasing to me as the clean simple lines of an old-fashioned quill pedal. I like my bicycle pedals to look like bicycle pedals, not egg-beaters, or ski bindings or kneading paddles that have been suborned from somebody’s bread-making machine and put to use on a bike.

I’ve no fear whatever of using clipless pedals – of being unable to disengage my foot in a hurry or of embarrassing myself by toppling over as I wait at traffic lights, my feet still cleated snugly to the pedals. I’ve experimented with clipless, a Shimano touring variety, and had no trouble at all with remembering what do when I want to get off. Disengaging from a clipless pedal requires the same sort of instinctive wriggling of foot and ankle, albeit a different motion, that I long ago grew accustomed to with the old toe clips. And although I dimly suspect that going clipless could be a way of engendering knee problems, or aggravating the bone spur I’ve already got on my right hip, even that is not the reason I didn’t stick with my short-lived trial a few years ago.

No, my resistance to clipless is purely on artistic grounds. And yes, I know I am paying a price in speed and efficiency for my aesthetic idiosyncrasies, but what of it? I’ll happily forego whatever mechanical advantages a modern-but-soulless clipless pedal might offer me in favour of a quill pedal’s classical look and style. To be honest, it is a pretty easy concession for me to make. After all, I’m not racing anybody, I’ve no real need to power my upstroke or maximize my wattage, and since I grew up using the old-style pedals and toe-clips anyway, and have long grown accustomed to using them, and like them, I’ll never miss what I never had.

But I would miss what I did – and do – have. And that was, and is, the sweet freedom of swinging my leg over the saddle, any old time I please, wearing whatever footwear I happen to be wearing and setting off down the road on a bicycle that looks and feels like a bicycle.

Posted in Journal | 4 Comments

A Fondness for Drop Bars

I still remember the first time I came into meaningful contact with a bicycle equipped with drop handlebars. I was a kid then, pedalling around the neighbourhood on one of the ridiculous Stingray-styled bikes that were all the rage in America during the late ’60s – the ones with the chromed sissy bars, banana seats, slick tyres and high looping handlebars; part Easy Rider and part I-don’t-know-what. Mine was a loud candy-coloured magenta thing, bought out of the catalogue from Sears & Roebuck and I was quite happy with it.

But then a new boy moved onto the block with a Schwinn ten-speed, the sort of bicycle we used to call an ‘English racer’ – whippet lean, with narrow 27″ tyres and those elegantly curved handlebars whose lower position – ‘the drops’ – you could assume when you were racing and whizzing down hills. It was envy at first sight. I loved its foreign styling and cachet and general high-toned loftiness that made my magenta Sting Ray seem like a toy. Here was something classy.

In my covetousness I even went so far as to buy myself a pair of drop bars and put them on my Sting Ray (with purple bar tape to match) – an absurd modification that weirdly enough, turned out to be a strong selling point when I got rid of it in a garage sale in May of 1972 and applied the money to buying my first proper ten-speed. Nobody had ever seen a Sting Ray like it.

It has been forty years now this very month since I began using drop bars and with the exception of a brief few months when, after a back injury, I was advised to use flat bars for a while, I’ve never ridden on anything else. The whole MBT thing just passed my by, and while there are all sorts of other styles of handlebars available – bull horns, porteurs, risers, butterflies and the like – I’ve never once been tempted away from the good old ‘English racer’ drops, but still find them as classy and appealing and as versatile as I did way back then.

There are drops, and there are drops, of course with subtle variations in the bends and curves, flares and depth of drop making big differences in comfort and overall ride quality – the two criteria most important to me in choosing bicycle components, with aesthetics coming in not far behind. I’ve always favoured the randonneur-style bars, such as these 3TTT Morphe Randonneur bars on my old Thorn touring bike, which are subtly curved to give a comfortable riding position when you are gripping them behind the brake hoods. It was a style that evolved out of the touring bikes in the ’30s and ’40s and was designed for those riding long distances and seeing the countryside. This shape of handlebar is also easier on the wrists when you are sitting up, cruising along and resting your hands on the tops of the bars.

Given the emphasis on racing these days in road bike design, it’s no surprise that these more leisurely styled drops have been phased out of production by the bigger manufacturers. The Italian firm 3TTT, for example, no longer makes the Morphe Randonneur – nor, for that matter, do they make their handlebars in Italy anymore. It’s a changing world. Happily, though, there are some small, boutique manufacturers such as Nitto in Japan who, for a price, still turn out some beautifully finished and extremely fine randonneur-style bars such as the Nitto Noodle which I have on my Pegoretti and on my Enigma ‘Elgar’ tourer.

And while this will no doubt be anathema to weight weenies, I’ve developed a fondness over the past couple of years for leather bar tape (Brooks and Gilles Berthoud, underlain by Fizik gel pads). It is stylish, supremely comfortable, gives a good grip even in the wet, and wears like iron – the leather bar tape in the photo is three years old and uniquely mine, a chronicle of my riding style, darkened and polished by the grip of my hands in their customary places over many thousands of miles.

Posted in Essays | 4 Comments

That Randonneur Style

Travel romantic that I am, I’ve always had a soft spot for those old-style French touring bikes, the sort you see in those golden-age-of-cycling photographs – bike and rider all kitted up for distant places on dusty untrammelled roads and projecting either pre-war innocence or sunny, post-war optimism depending on the date of the photo.

So naturally enough when I decided to build up my own dream tourer last year I was keen to affect a bit of that yesteryear elegance and styling for myself. And to me one of the most evocative elements of that French randonneur ‘style’ were those boxy French handlebar bags into which you could tuck a bottle and a bird and head out into the countryside for your picnic. They were de rigueur on tourers back then but have largely vanished today.

Largely, that is, but not quite, for I discovered that there are a few boutique pannier makers these days – generally in the US – that have taken to reissuing these old style randonneuring bags; obviously I am not the only romantic out there. I wanted the originals, though, if I could, and once I found that French hand-built bicycle-maker Gilles Berthoud had acquired the patterns of the old original Sologne bags – the very ones you see in the old photos – and was making them, by hand, in a workshop France, as of old, my heart was set having one of those.

Knowing my champagne tastes I had a niggling feeling they were going to be expensive, and by golly they were. Not only did you need to buy the elegant hand-sewn bag itself, which on its own was nearly twice the price of Ortlieb’s top-self bar bag, but you also required a front rack on which to support it. In addition, when using these old-style bags a decaleur – a kind of bolt-on support bar that extends from the stem – is also considered not a bad idea. It was all there in the Gilles Berthoud catalogue – randonneuring bags of varying sizes, racks and decaleurs to match – everyone you needed to achieve this stylish authenticity, all of it hand-made in France, and all of them together adding up to a pretty hefty bill.

I had pushed the boat out pretty far already in the design and building of this dream tourer of mine, but after a bit of soul searching, and being the kind of guy who can resist anything but temptation, I decided I’d regret it if I didn’t nudge the boat out that bit further and so I took a deep breath and placed my order. The parcel from France arrived a few days later. I wasn’t disappointed. The goods inside oozed class. I’d ordered the GB28 bar bag, the largest size, in grey. It was an exquisite piece of luggage, hand-crafted of sturdy water-resistant cotton, trimmed with fine harness leather. As I took it out of the box it filled the air with an expensive, leathery smell. The accompanying rack and decaleur had also obviously been constructed with the same care and precision as the bag. Any lingering doubts I might have been harbouring at my having splurged like this were cast to the winds; here was the perfect finishing touch to my dream classic tourer. Guilt be damned.

The proof though is in using, and in this I was still a bit leery. I’d bought into this old-style randonneuring set up purely on the strength of its visual and emotional appeal. In practice I’d never ridden with anything like this combination of top-of-the-wheel front rack and bag, and frankly I wondered what the effect on handling would be.

At twelve litres my new GB28 bag was nearly twice the size of any of the bar bags I’d used in the past (my Carradice Super-C at 5.5 litres, and my old Ortlieb at 7) while the only front racks I’d ever used were low-riders. I was well used to riding with those, but here the weight would be higher up, riding above the front wheel. I am happy to report I needn’t have worried. As far as handling went, I soon forgot my big new randonneuring bag was even there. The bike rode like a dream.

I’ve had bag and bike for nearly eight months now, and while my lovely new tourer led a pretty sheltered life over the winter, I put enough miles on it last autumn and, more recently, this spring to form a better – and very favourable – impression of how the boxy randonneuring bar bag functions in real life. It rests nicely on the rack, despite there being no attachment point on the bottom of the bag – something I’d wondered about when I first set it up. I suspect the decaleur helps there, in keeping it stable. There is no shifting.

As I noted from the get-go, the bag’s effect on the bike’s overall handling is negligible, really, at least not with the loads I have put in it thus far – typically camera gear in the main compartment and with the usual assortment of roadside tools and spares tucked in the side pockets, of which the GB28 has five. Modest loads in other words, but enough to count. Obviously, with twelve litres capacity at your disposal and a rack to support it, you could carry a lot more.

From a photographer’s point of view, the extra space is useful simply by virtue of its being there. With so much elbow room in the bag I do not need to fuss and fiddle to pack things away, but can just chuck in my camera and mini tripod when I have finished a shot and want to move on. This can be especially handy when the light is changing and I want to shift my perspective in a hurry. Just grab and go. And with the classic bag’s old traditional loop closures – as opposed to the company’s newer style model with the (more expensive) buckles – getting stuff in and out is very quick. It’s great.

I suspect too the extra spaciousness of the big GB28 will prove very handy when touring. I like to travel light and for week-long tours in the past I’ve managed nicely, but with a squeeze, with just my Carradice Super-C bar bag (at 5.5 litres) and a Carradice Super-C saddlebag (at 23 litres). By using the capacious Gilles Berthoud randonneuring bag instead, I have 35 cubic litres to play with. While I wouldn’t fill the vacuum with more gear, the extra space would allow for swifter and easier packing on the road and give me greater freedom to buy and carry trail snacks et cetera along the way – or to keep my cameras handy and ready for use. In short, I really like this old randonneuring set up and while its retro styling might clash with modern compact-frame tourers and road bikes, someone who wanted to dispense with panniers and travel light could do a lot worse. And if you want to grab a decent bottle of red and all the accompaniments head out into the countryside for a stylish retro-classic picnic, you couldn’t do better.

Posted in Essays, Reviews, Touring | Also tagged 6 Comments

Oh to be a fly on the wall at Rapha

Just for fun the other day, when the weather was still balmy enough for such foolishness, I set up my camera and tripod on the Bexhill promenade and by the use of a self-timer did my own send-up of a Rapha fashion shoot – posing with my ‘epic’ face, that hard, gritty Rapha-rider look, as though I had just ridden two hundred kilometres to get there, all of it in 53×11, and was now contemplating the homeward journey and wondering if I’d get back in time for an early lunch.

It was an amusing way to put I half an hour but I don’t think the results will fool anyone, or have Rapha’s stylists clambering at my door anytime soon. Even if my utter lack of credibility as a Rapha model didn’t give the game away, the presence in-frame of an old, hard-bitten expedition touring bike (whose eleven ring, by the way, is spick-and-span, having never been used) should surely have done the trick. But you never know. Rapha’s imagery and art-house style of advertising cuts so close to self-parody sometimes, just about anything could be possible.

Rapha, in case you have been off cycling the canal paths on Mars and are unfamiliar with the name, is a relentlessly upscale London-based cycling fashion house that was launched a few years ago by a group of street-savvy, style-conscious road cyclists who tapped into the zeitgeist and almost overnight created a much-talked-about label that is either loved and loathed depending on your demographic and the depths of your pockets.

It isn’t just a matter of Rapha’s products being expensive. Other top-of-the-range brands, Swiss-based Assos, for instance, charge as much or even more for their cycling jackets and bib shorts without anyone kicking up a fuss – or at least not the kind of seething class-conscious resentment Rapha seems to inspire. But then again the folks at Assos don’t go miles out of their way to cloak themselves and their products in an aura of smug, English, upper-class exclusivity. The folks at Rapha do. In fact, they revel in it.

And it has earned them an absolute fortune. And the thought of that is like a red rag to a bull to certain elements of cycling’s garlic-and-onions proletariat.

For my part I have to confess that I have a liking for some of Rapha’s stuff – clearly I do or I wouldn’t have had the jersey, gloves and the pair of three-quarter-length Fixed shorts on hand to model for my silly photo shoot, although I should probably add in the same breath that all these things were bought on sale some years ago, and even then they were heavily discounted. I suppose the fact that I feel the need to make this clarification says something on its own about the unease I feel in buying into, or being perceived to have bought into, the Rapha ‘thing’.

And truly, that part of it is not me at all. I am no racer; still less am I out there on the roads and cols punishing myself, seeking the ‘glory through suffering’ that figures so prominently in Rapha’s race-oriented imagery and advertising. Not for me a reliving of the Belgian spring classics, or charging hard through a brutal Tour d’Etape, or the public Calvary that is the Fred Whitton Challenge. I’m out there on my bike simply to see the countryside and enjoy the freedom of the open road. As a cyclo-tourist I suppose I’ve done my share of suffering on a bicycle. Transiting the Great Sandy Desert in the height of summer, all alone, on a laden touring bike was no picnic, but I never felt like making a melodrama out of it afterwards. Indeed, when I think of it now, or tell others about the experience, I am more likely to recall the pleasures of solitude, the simplicity I found out there and the magnificence of the starry skies at night.

No, when it comes to Rapha, I admit to feeling a bit like the guy who says he buys Playboy for the writing and the articles. I buy Rapha stuff simply because it’s good. It’s tasteful, beautifully made, well thought-out and most importantly functions really well on the bike. And because their stuff is so well made, and lasts so long, and is backed up so well by the company, it represents really good value even if the up-front cost is high.

Take my old pair of Rapha leather gloves for example, hand-stitched in England out of soft kid leather and, at the present price of £100 a pair, one of the items in Rapha’s product line-up that comes in for the most derision from those who see only image and a price tag. I’ve had these exceptionally comfortable and smart-looking gloves for five years now and given them an awful lot of use, and they are still going strong. They might have died a year ago, having developed a tear along the wrist, but I sent them back to Rapha who repaired them, free of charge (offering me a discount on a new pair if it turned out my old ones were irreparable) and set them back special delivery. With their new lease on life they are good for another few seasons at least.

Do the math. Say I get another three years’ use out of them – probably I’ll get more, but say three – that’s eight years for £100 (although, once again, I bought mine on sale) which works out to about £12 a season for superbly made kid leather cycling gloves. I don’t think that represents bad value. And what’s more when I called up Rapha, the phone was answered by a real live human being, someone who lived in the same hemisphere as me. I liked that. That alone is worth a bit of a premium in my book.

I have nothing but praise too for Rapha’s jerseys, softshell jacket, and the three-quarter length Fixed cycling shorts all of which I have had and used incessantly for several years now and which show no signs of wearing out. They are stylish, comfortable, and beautifully designed for cycling and given their durability also seem very good value. And while they were cut with road racing in mind, their classic styling – a gentle harkening to road cycling’s perceived golden age in the Fifties and Sixties – makes them presentable off the bike as well, even dressy, no small consideration to touring cyclists who may find themselves being invited into local peoples’ homes, or wanting to enter a church or mosque without causing offence. When they stick to their knitting, so to speak, Rapha’s stuff is the best money can buy and given the longevity and reliability great value.

On the other hand, some of Rapha’s lateral offerings over the years have been simply cringe-making, patently a triumph of hype and hyperbole over common sense – and are the kinds of things that fill me with a certain wincing self-consciousness about wearing anything Rapha, and a sense of embarrassment on their behalf. Who can forget the gilt-paged leather-bound training diary, made for them by Smythson of Bond Street, that Rapha was (very optimistically) spruiking a few Christmasses ago for £135? Or the gentleman’s leg-shaving kit, I kid thee not, created especially for Rapha by London’s Geo. F Trumper, for £130. Both of these items, I noticed, soon vanished from their line-up and have never yet made a return. Nor, for that matter, do I find any mention these days of the £3500 bespoke three-piece cycling suit, inspired by gentleman riders of the 1930s and made by Savile Row tailor and Rapha collaborator Timothy Everest – which Rapha launched, for real, believe it or not, on April Fool’s Day in 2009.

Oh to be a Rapha project manager, and sit in on product development meetings and to hear the suggestions that were rejected for being too ostentatious and over-the-top. They’ll never stop coming up with them though. Why would they? This is their bread and butter – especially in the burgeoning and lucrative American market with this sort of arch English snobbishness goes down a treat. Where else but in the cloistered clubby Wodehousian world of Rapha would you find a tailored cycling jacket that you could wear with equal aplomb while shooting partridge on a Scottish highland estate? Or a range of skincare products based around herbs and aromatics that, we are told, grow on the slopes of Mt Ventoux? Or a collection of gentlemanly accessories that runs the gamut from tweed cycling caps to silk cravats to a discrete zipped leather ‘essentials’ bag (a steal at £40) in which one can stash one’s spare inner tube, keys and mobile phone while one rides.

And these things, by the way, are what’s available right now on the ‘general public’ pages of their website, stuff the hoi-polloi like me can ogle, snigger at or aspire to if they like. There is another, altogether more exclusive section of their site called Imperial Works, where the really upscale and limited production products can be found. God alone knows what’s on offer there – assuming He’s a member, that is. Access to those pages is by invitation only.

I’ve never been invited behind those doors, nor am I likely to be – nor, indeed, would I ever be likely to accept the invitation if offered. Not out of any inverse snobbiness, you understand, just simple, straight good old-fashioned hauteur of the sort that would no doubt draw an approving nod from the boffins at Rapha themselves. You see, I have my standards too. It’s like Groucho Marx said, I’m not so sure I’d care to belong to any club that would have me as a member.

Posted in Essays, Reviews | Also tagged 1 Comment

Waterbottles

So there you are – you’ve just spent a lot of time and thought, effort and energy, to say nothing of money making over your much-loved old bicycle, or designing a dream new one, so that it looks just the way you want it to look, tasteful, elegant, timeless; a perfect expression of your cycling history, aesthetic ideals and open road aspirations.

You’ve got the colour scheme just right, and fretted for hours over the detailing, debating with yourself whether you should have a contrasting or a complementary colour on the head tube, or whether or not you should have the lugs highlighted. You’ve selected the components with care, striving to obtain just the right effect, shiny bits rather than carbon, say, to achieve a kind of dramatic unity with your classic steel frame, and taken a lot of trouble in finding a saddle and the right shade of bar tape that will go nicely with everything else and complete the look.

And then you go looking for a water bottle to put in those beautiful old retro-styled stainless steel bottle cages you imported from the United States – and suddenly everything goes pear-shaped because despite all your care and hard work, your discerning eye and all your willingness to source just the right bits and pieces, all you can find are garishly coloured plastic things, usually with outsized corporate logos or some other clumsy form of branding on them. Not a one of these things do you want on your beautifully thought-out bicycle, but what choice do you have? They just don’t seem to make them any other way.

It’s not that they can’t, of course – after all, these things are just extruded plastic and on that score they can pretty much be made to any colour, pattern or style anyone could want; all they have to do is hold water. In fact, cycling fashion house Rapha did indeed make some quite tasteful and dare I say it, beautiful-looking water bottles a couple of seasons ago: smoke grey and patterned with a Spitalsfield flower design – pictured above – that could look good on just about any frame, no matter what the colour or style. They sold at a premium and I was happy to buy. Perhaps I was the only one who was.

At any rate these Spitalfields flowers water bottles seem to have gone the way of rumble seats and white tennis balls. The only water bottles Rapha offers now have RAPHA printed on them in large flowing corporate script – still in smoke grey and still more tasteful than most of the other offerings on the market, but nevertheless another exercise in logos and branding I could well do without. Given the amount of money cyclists are happy to spend to their steeds surely there is an opening here for some entrepreneurial genius to make a packet peddling tasteful, decorative, evocative water bottles – sans the logos and clumsy branding.

Posted in Journal | Also tagged 7 Comments

The Beauty of Cream Tyres

I generally take my coffee black, no cream, no sugar, no nonsense, and until a few months ago I’d have said pretty much the same thing about the way I take my bicycle tyres too – straight black, double shot. After forty-seven years of riding the same-old, same-old, it wouldn’t even have occurred to me to put cream-coloured treads on a bicycle. Like Henry Ford and his early Model-Ts, my vision for bike tyres extended only to … black.

But there’s nothing like conjuring up your dream bicycle to put you in touch with your inner cyclist and so now here I am sporting a pair of creamy white Panaracer Paselas on my new tourer and liking the look of them very much. They seem to me to strike just the right note on such a retro-classic as mine, calling to mind an era in the springtime of the last century when life was ‘swell’ and gentlemen wore silky fine Montecristi Panamas and white satin spats when they strolled the Boardwalk.

When I see and admire them on the bike now, it seems as though cream tyres must really have been in the back of my mind all along, an unarticulated vision, but the truth of the matter is that I owe a debt of inspiration to a fellow blog writer (I hate that word ‘blogger’) on the other side of the Atlantic, from whom I not only appropriated the idea of putting cream tyres on my new bicycle but the very notion of writing a blog myself.

Being the reclusive Luddite that I am, a man to whom a laptop is more or less a glorified portable typewriter with a built-in liquid-paper feature, and who has assiduously avoided all forms of social media such as Facebook and Twitter, I’d never even heard of a cycling blog until I started trawling the internet earlier this year looking for inspiration for colour schemes and liveries for my soon-to-become-a-reality dream tourer.

It was while stumbling about in the ether that I chanced upon a blog called Lovely Bicycle! It was, and is, an engaging blog written by a lady in Somerville, Massachusetts who by the sounds of her profile on the site is an artist and academic as well as clearly being an enthusiast of classic lugged-framed bicycles. After perusing one of her posts in which lugwork and paint schemes were thoughtfully discussed and deconstructed, I delved a little deeper into the blog’s back catalogue and came across an intriguing post extolling the beauties of cream tyres on classic bicycles. It was a fairly lengthy entry, liberally illustrated with examples of cream-tyred mixtes and tourers and hoop-framed transport bicycles and helpfully included a list of the various brands and models and sizes of bicycle tyre that came in cream for anyone who cared to take the plunge themselves.

I found myself scrolling up and down, secretly coveting this jaunty whitewall retro look and wondering if I’d dare affect such a thing myself. When I noticed that the Panaracer Pasela, one of my favourite touring tyres, just so happened to be on that cream-as-an-option list – in both 700×23 and 700×28 – I took it as a gentle nudge of fate and filed away this intriguing bit of data for future reference.

I bookmarked the site as well, and popped back a few days later to see what might have been discussed in my absence. And so it went. Over the coming weeks and months I found myself returning to Lovely Bicycle! with increasing regularity, even taking to offering my two cents every now and then. I grew to like this novel (to me) concept of blogging, what I could see of it anyway, and the platform it offered for writing about things you enjoyed writing about regardless of whether they fit in with some magazine’s publishing needs.

As time went by, and I could feel my fingers growing ever more fidgety over the keyboard whenever I dropped in, and ideas forming in the back of my mind, I resolved to launch my own blog one day.

That day has now arrived, and as I sit here writing a post in my own blog about the beauty of cream tyres on classic touring bicycles, I feel I ought to give a wave of acknowledgement across the blogosphere to “Velouria’, the author of Lovely Bicycle!

As for my creamy Panaracer Paselas, well, they’re running fine. The 700x28s I settled on seem a little plush for their stated size – I’m betting they are nearer 30mm – but two hundred (mainly dry) miles down the track they are still looking clean and fresh, with just a faint grey stripe along the contact surface. Later on, after they’ve seen some more serious mileage, I’ll post some ‘before’ and ‘after’ shots for the benefit of anyone else who might be thinking of stepping outside the envelope and giving cream-coloured tyres a go themselves. For now, though, enough of cream; I’m off to build myself a double espresso. I still prefer  my coffee black and there ain’t no way that’s going to change!

Posted in Journal | Also tagged , Leave a comment