Road Cycling in Northern Portugal

It felt rather alien yet bittersweet boarding an aeroplane abroad, after the coronavirus pandemic marked a two year period of not venturing away from UK soil. Back in late April, I ventured to northern Portugal for two weeks. I’d previously visited mainland Portugal once before, mainly sticking to the Algarve nearest the Spanish border and I’ve also travelled to the island of Madeira.

The first week of my Portuguese sojourn was spent exploring the beautiful, historic city of Porto and its surrounding area, as well as a trip to see a friend towards Leiria in the centre of the country. The second week was to be spent in the mountains to the east of Porto and cycling, of course, was on the agenda. Portugal may not hold quite the allure of cycling compared to France, Spain or Italy but as I came to discover, it is a hidden gem for cycling. 

I stayed in the picturesque Mondim de Basto, a town at the epicentre of the cities of Amarante, Vila Real and Fafe. The town is domineered by the Nossa Senhora de Graça Sanctuary, a church at the top of its mountain. It is located close to the River Tâmega, a tributary of the more well-known Douro river, and lies in a valley at around a 160m elevation. The town is surrounded by mountains in every direction that hover around the 1,100m mark so it’s a great location for getting some hill training in. That elevation is about standard for Northern Portugal, with most of the mountains hovering under the 1,500m mark. If you want to ride in hillier terrain, the city of Covilhã and the Serra de Estrela national park would be your best bet, which peaks at around 2,000m and sees snow during the colder periods of the year.

I rented a Trek Émonda SL5 Disc 2022 for four days and got three memorable rides in, choosing to spend a day exploring in each direction of the town towards the major cities. I had to take a rest day between days 1 and 2, for reasons which will shortly become evident, and so didn’t head to the North West of the town.

Day 1 – Vila Real 

Distance: 91km
Elevation: 2,103m 

The plan for the first day was a ride to the city of Vila Real and looping back to Mondim de Basto. I’d woken up not feeling brilliant with a sore throat and a headache but partially put it down to having a fair amount of excellent Portuguese beer over the past couple of days. I took a paracetamol after a hearty breakfast and headed out. 

The temperature was a warm 23 degrees and it was pretty humid. The first 30km of the ride was a climb up to the Alvão Nature Park that sits at 1,100m. The climb was generally picturesque but pretty unpleasant at the start as it averaged a seven percent with some steeper sections which then levelled off. 

Almost immediately into the climb, I suffered a sharp cramp to my right thigh. I went through a period of suffering with cramps when cycling, particularly towards the end of a longer ride and it would tend to be on a climb. I’ve since made some changes and it hasn’t been a problem for around two years but as you’ll go onto read, this ride more than made up for it! 

I wasn’t sure if I had cramped due to a poor position on a new bike, the fact I was testing some new Assos shorts for work which offer a more compressive fit or that I wasn’t feeling 100 percent. I pulled into a cafe in the small village of Bilhó around 15km up the climb to rest it a bit and see if that would help. I briefly considered turning back and aborting the ride but I have a very stubborn mindset and wanted to get my money’s worth out of the bike, as well as taking advantage of the warm weather as the rest of the week wasn’t forecast to be quite as balmy. 

After the stop, I continued up the arduous climb, passing through several small villages and a serene woodland setting. Unfortunately, resting the cramp didn’t help and I had to make a stop every 2-3 kilometres or so as the shooting pain felt pretty horrific. The final third of the climb was fairly fierce in places with gradients around 13 percent but the beautiful view at the top of the natural park was worth the effort. If I’d had more time to spend in the area, I’d love to have tried some walking up here. 

The descent to the city of Villa Real was 10km to just under 400m and was a fairly typical European-style descent, packed with hairpins. An aspect that would become a theme on future rides is that the Portuguese seem to relish having cobbled sections on the main road through villages or town centres. Some of these can rather sketchy on a road bike, even with 700x28mm tyres, which is heightened when descending. Some added spice was added to this particular descent with the inclusion of some steep cobbled hairpins.

Vila Real was a reasonable city with an attractive centre but I found it to be a little soulless in its suburbs. After a lunch stop, it was onto the second major climb of the day which was roughly 20km up to 900m. This climb wasn’t as scenic as the first and the roads were much quieter and the surfaces not quite as smooth. 

Unfortunately, the cramp continued to play up and I had to make regular stops to rest it, including a drink stop at the village of Campeã, its small centre a vibrant hub for the locals. I was in a pretty foul mood all the way up until I reached the top of the climb and there were a few moments where I questioned my life choices! 

My bad mood instantly vanished as I crested the top of the climb and was welcomed by the most majestic of views, which more than made up for the low points of the day. I was now to enjoy a circa 30km gradual descent back to Mondim de Basto and I think it instantly became my favourite descent I have ever ridden. The views just kept on coming, each topping the last. The road was perfectly surfaced with no cobbled sections and the turns were gradual and could be seen in advance, so I barely had to touch the brakes. The cramp mysteriously suddenly vanished too!

There was a brief climb of around 100m after the initial 12km and the road then headed down again back to the centre of Mondim de Basto. Today was character-building but the final descent more than made up for the first 60km of punishment. 

Day 2 – Amarante

Distance: 79km
Elevation: 1,004m 

Today was to be an easier ride with less than half of the elevation after I didn’t feel brilliant on Day 1 and the sore throat had not abated, despite having a rest day too. 

Heading the opposite way out of Mondim de Basto to Day 1 was breathtaking crossing the River Tâmega and shortly afterwards, my Garmin prompted me to turn right up what looked to be a gravel track which then joined a buttery smooth disused railway line, the Ecopista da Linha do Tâmega, or in English, the Tâmega line. 

I have a particular fondness for exploring disused railways and in the UK, I’m fortunate to have lived within riding distance of both the Phoenix Trail that links the towns of Princes Risborough and Thame in Buckinghamshire and the Downs Link, which links Guildford to Shoreham-on-Sea. I now live in Bristol, which is surrounded by various paths, most notably the Bristol to Bath railway line which I use to commute to work on three days a week. 

However, the Tâmega line blows everything I’ve ever ridden in the UK out of the water and then some. The views were terrific as the path skirts along the river, through a variety of terrain from lush green vistas to backdrops reminiscent of Monument Valley. There are various old train stations along the route, which have been lovingly maintained with gorgeous architecture. You just couldn’t ask for more and I’d never have discovered this path without the presence of a bike. I got to enjoy the path for 30km down to the city of Amarante. 

Amarante itself is a wonderful city with beautiful architecture and a grand cathedral, its imposing yet graceful presence felt across the city. The River Tâmega flows through the city and there’s a tranquil path to walk alongside the river bank. 

After a drink in the centre, the second half of the ride was to climb up to 600m, passing through the town of Lixa and then reaching Castelo de Arnoia before descending back to Mondim de Basto. 

The route took me along the main road out of Amaranate, which was nothing special as it started to gently wind up in gradient, before turning onto a quieter main road to tackle the rest of the climb. One highlight was passing a closed night club that was humorously named ‘Sin City’. 

The climb wasn’t particularly scenic but the town of Lixa was pleasant enough and in keeping with other nearby towns, it featured a cobbled surface through its centre. The roads were quieter after Lixa and more scenic as the climb made its way through a couple of peaceful small villages, which were shaded by woodland. 

Castelo de Arnoia was another highlight with a quaint castle domineering the village and some chocolate-box cafes, so I took the opportunity to make a stop. 

The descent back to Mondim de Basto was another breathtaking one and similar to Day 1, the turns were visible and gradual so braking could be kept to a minimum. I passed through Celorico de Basto towards the end of the descent, another pretty town which the Tâmega Line passes through in its outskirts, before passing back over the river into Mondim de Basto. 

Day 3 – Fafe

Distance: 74km
Elevation: 1,273m

This was my final day with the bike and unfortunately, my cold was now full-blown. On any other day, I’d have kept away from the bike but given I had already skipped a day between the first two days, I was determined to get my money’s worth out of the rental. 

The original plan was to head to the city of Fafe and slightly further afield up to a lake further north called the ‘Praia Fluvial de Albufeira de Queimadela’. However, I tweaked the route as I wanted to ride the rest of the Tâmega line and as I felt less than ideal, I didn’t want to overdo it. Rain was also forecast from lunchtime, which I was keen to avoid. 74km and circa 1,300m of elevation is not an insignificant amount on a normal training day, let alone when you’re feeling under the weather. 

After crossing the River Tâmega, I took the same gravelly path right up to the disused railway and headed in the opposite direction towards Arco de Baúlhe, where it finishes. The railway path was just as glorious heading north as it was south to Amarante yesterday. The first five miles or so were gently uphill before a descent down the rest of the path. The path is slightly more shaded heading northbound and there are even several houses gardens that sit next to the path. In keeping with the section of the path I had ridden yesterday, this section was similarly blissful. 

Arco de Baúlhe, the end of the Tâmega Line, was a highlight with a staggeringly beautiful train station that is an attraction in itself, with a section of train track at its terminus, adorned with older unused trains that seemed in good condition. 

At the end of the line, I headed out via the train station into the town centre, which was also rather pleasant with a selection of cafes but as rain was forecast, I chose to carry on. I was now to start the first climb of the day, a 17km affair which would rise to 700m before dropping back down to 500m and then heading back up to 650m before descending to the city of Fafe. 

The climb wasn’t particularly scenic as it was on a main road in its early sections and I took the climb very easy and kept hydrated to keep my cold under control. The 200m descent after the peak was a particular highlight as it swept through some shrouded woodland. The 12km descent into Fafe was good fun, with a now customary cobbled section through a village towards the bottom. It was at this point of the ride it started to rain, so I headed for a drink in the city centre. 

Fafe is a fairly well-kept city with a pleasant centre, although Amarante is far and away my pick of the cities that Mondim de Basto is sandwiched between. It drizzled throughout my stop but luckily, the rain calmed down as I left to ride the final section of the ride. This was to be another climb up of 10km up to 750m before a 19km descent back to Mondim de Basto. 

In keeping with the first climb of the day, it wasn’t particular scenic until its later sections which featured more greenery. The descent, on the other hand, was wonderful. It was fast and flowy but like other descents, with turns easy to anticipate. The descent passed through the village of Gandarela de Basto which left a quaint impression and then snaked under the A7 motorway. The second half of the descent was in keeping with the first back to Mondim de Basto and luckily, I had managed to mostly avoid the rain throughout the ride, although it was still forecast to bucket down for the rest of the day. 

Whilst I didn’t feel great and riding with a cold is always to be advised against, I’m glad I rode today. This ride wasn’t as scenic as the first two but getting to ride the rest of the railway path and the final descent made it more than worth it. 

Summary

Cycling isn’t as prominent a sport in northern Portugal as it is in other European destinations. Other than a handful of small groups that I spotted throughout my stay, the sport doesn’t seem to have taken off in this region of Portugal.

That’s also reflected in the bike rental options in this region and after a fair amount of research, I found a grand total of two rental companies, both of which were based in Porto, that offered carbon road bikes to rent. I had originally factored in driving to Porto and back to pick them up but luckily, the company I went with dropped off and picked up the bike for a fee. 

Bicycle rental pricing is quite punchy in Northern Portugal – I paid €200 for four days and then an additional fee for drop-off and pick-up. I would typically pay around the €130 – 150 mark for an equivalent bike for the same duration in Italy, for example.

The drivers aren’t as accustomed to cyclists either compared to other European destinations and some of the overtaking wasn’t the most considered. I’d love to return to the region and explore further afield and without the poor luck of riding with a developing cold. 

With its well surfaced roads, visually arresting vistas and breathtaking descents that aren’t packed with hairpins, Portugal is a tucked-away treasure for road cycling. 

Review: Trek Émonda SL 5 Disc 2022

+ Uses the same frame technologies as the Émonda SLR 
+ Descending ability
+ Full Shimano 105 R7020 groupset

– Climbing performance inferior to previous Emonda’s
– Toe overlap 
– Heavy wheels and harsh aluminium seat mast ripe for upgrading

  • £2,700 / €2,999 / $3,249.99

Trek’s Émonda was initially launched as its weight-weenie climbing bike in 2014, destined for attacking the epic Alpine climbs of the Tour de France. The second-generation took the platform in an even lighter direction while increasing tyre clearances and adding a disc-brake option, the latter frameset claimed to weigh in at a scant 665g. 

This new third-generation series seeks to combine its lightweight agenda with an aerodynamic edge to allow it to be more of an all-round race bike. As a result, the round lightweight tubes are no more and the Émonda takes noticeable design cues from its aero brother, the Madone. 

The frame weight has increased as Trek claims the top-series SLR platform comes in at a sub-700g frame weight unpainted with the derailleur hanger attached in an unspecified size. Rim brakes are also no more with the Émonda and it is yet another platform that has gone disc-only. 

The graphic on the down tube is the only giveaway this isn’t an SLR.

Here on test is the Émonda SL 5, the SL denoting the second-tier frame comprised of Trek’s OCLV 500 series carbon, rather than the OCLV 800 series used on the SLR. The SL is claimed to weigh in at 1,142g, again unpainted in an unspecified size. 

There are further changes to the Émonda platform than a simple aerodynamic tweak. 

Tyre clearances are officially reduced to 28mm from the 32mm allowed on the second-generation. However, I think Trek has been on the cautious side here as there is still plenty of room for wider rubber.

The Émonda is one of the only performance road bikes out there at the moment not to jump on the dropped seatstay bandwagon. Trek’s seat mast design remains, which is fastened on top of an integrated no-cut post, for better or worse. This locks you in terms of options in that you can’t upgrade to a conventional carbon seatpost but at least there is some adjustment and you don’t have to cut it down to size, compared to Giant’s ISP design for example. 

I’m testing a size 56cm for my 180cm height. 

Integration 

The cables are routed underneath the stem before they are funneled through a proprietary stem spacer.

Like many modern performance road bikes, the Émonda integrates its cables. The SLR runs the cables on the underside of the handlebar before they are partially exposed as they are funnelled into an opening on a proprietary headset cover. Here, the cables run in front of the steerer tube and pass through the upper headset bearing before heading down the down tube to their respective locations. 

Trek uses a colour-matched ‘headset cover’ that completes the profile of the head tube. There is a plastic replaceable steering locking pin that is designed to prevent the bars from being oversteered and the handlebars hitting the top tube in the event of an impact. 

Trek offer some encouragement at the back of the cover.

You really want to avoid over-rotating the fork on this bike as Trek bizarrely don’t carry a full range of colour-matched headset covers (which tend to get damaged as part of the impact, from experience) and having them colour matched by a reputable paint shop is going to be significantly more expensive than the £50 the cover retails for.   

The crown of the fork also receives an aerodynamic update to sit flush with the underside of the head tube. 

The crown of the fork sits tightly with the head tube. You’ll want to avoid oversteering the bars to avoid any of the paint being taken off.

On the integration scale, the bike is on the easier end to work on in terms of routing cables as you don’t have to route them internally through the bar – instead, there are covers on the bars’ underside. 

That said, keep your headset bearings religiously greased as replacing them will result in undoing the brake hoses and performing a double-bleed. At the very worst, if you have not left some extra length on the hoses for the purposes of changing a headset change if you’re using a Shimano groupset, be prepared to replace the hoses.  

The SL, however, uses a conventional round Bontrager handlebar and stem but the integration arrangement with the proprietary spacers remains unchanged. It doesn’t look as neat as the SLR and the result is a serving of cable spaghetti at the front. 

The cables look a little unsightly when using a standard bar and stem.

Goodbye BB90, Hello T47 

Mechanics out there can rejoice as Trek has departed from its wanting proprietary BB90 bottom bracket standard to a threaded T47. 

In the plethora of press-fit standards that manufacturers have blessed the cycling industry with, BB90 was among one of my least favourite. The bearings pressed directly into the frame, which had a stepped profile to prevent you from using a different standard.  

Over time, the bearings could have a tendency to not fit as tightly and then, you’d have the dreaded creak. Trek brought out an oversized BB90 V2 bearing to counter this problem but it was only a stopgap until they started to fit loosely. Then, it’s either new frame time or have a reputable carbon frame repairer relay carbon in the bottom bracket shell to build it back up to accept a BB90 V1 bearing. 

I didn’t experience this issue on my Émonda in the 8,000km that it covered, although towards the end of my time with the bike, whenever I removed the chainset, the drive side bearing had a tendency to remove itself on the axle, signalling the potential start of a problem. That said, at that point, it was creak-free. 

The T47 is certainly a welcome update. 

Riding impressions

The Émonda was tested in hilly Northern Portugal.

I owned a first generation Émonda SL and adored its ride quality. With lighter (but financially sensible) upgrades to the wheels and finishing kit, I got the Shimano Ultegra 6800-equipped 56cm frame to 7.05kg including pedals. As one would expect, it climbed superlatively but what surprised me was how much of an all-rounder the bike was. 

Climbing bikes can have a tendency to underwhelm on the descents but this was not the case with the first-generation Émonda. It descended with plenty of confidence and precision and also offered a faster-than-expected ride on flatter terrain. 

Trek are certainly experimenting with a winning recipe here and the result is a surprisingly mixed bag. 

The handling on the Émonda SL is fast, responsive and on the twitchy side. It has a rather direct ride feel and it is far from a bump-taming ride. I didn’t mind the increased connection with the road as it gives the ride a more exciting feel and you have to put the work in. 

The bike transferred more feedback at the rear compared to the front and I think one of the first things to upgrade would be the seat mast topper, which is aluminium on the SL5. Higher models use one of a carbon variety and that’ll greatly increase compliance as it will soak up more of the vibrations. 

The aluminium seat mast isn’t as cosseting as a carbon offering.

On the climbs, the Émonda just doesn’t climb as well as its predecessors. The outgoing generations pranced up climbs with excitement and encouraged you to push harder. It’s just not the case here. Part of this quality is likely to do with heavy Bontrager TLR wheels that are specced and another upgrade here would be prudent to lighten rolling weight, which would make a substantial difference. 

Descending down the other side, at first I found the bike nervy. However, after the second ride I grew accustomed to its downhill manners and quite liked the quicker handling, which allows you to dive and pick your way through corners. 

Another thing I didn’t like about the bike was that it was possible for me to elicit toe overlap. This wasn’t the case on my previous Émonda that I owned which was also a 56cm size with the same 172.5mm crank length. 

There’s no mistaking it’s a Trek!

Aesthetically, I was unsure of the two-tone Blue Smoke / Metallic blue as the metallic is abruptly cut towards the top of the down tube and mid-length along the top tube. Both colours separately are stunning and I’d love to see a full frame with these options offered as single colours. However, the paint scheme grew on me over my time with the bike. 

The ‘Trek’ logo on the down tube is rather obnoxious in that it is so large and the end of the ‘K’ extends to the side of the head tube. There’s certainly no mistaking what brand of bike you are riding. 

Groupset performance

The 105 groupset is solid and dependable.

The Émonda SL5 is shod with a full Shimano 105 R7020 groupset. This was the first time I had ridden 105 in this generation and I was generally very impressed with it. 105 uses many of the same technologies as bigger brothers Ultegra and Dura-Ace but at an increased weight due to the use of more cost-effective materials. 

The shifts are nice and crisp, feeling a touch heavier than Ultegra or Dura-Ace in speed and as the lever body is aluminium, compared to the carbon levers on its more expensive siblings. The front derailleur is more finicky to set up with its Toggle-cam design but front shifts felt very light and fast. I’ve found the R9100 / R8000 series derailleurs to not be particularly durable over time as the cage seems to be more susceptible to developing play and I wonder if the 105 variant is more durable due to its metal construction.  

I’ve long been a critic of Shimano road disc brakes as I find them quite binary and the pad clearance is too tight, often resulting in rubbing of the disc rotor against the pads. Then, there is the lever bleed screw made of chocolate and the fragile ceramic pistons in the calliper. Both SRAM and Campagnolo brakes are far better modulated and the latter is less likely to experience pad rub as the backing plate of the pads is magnetic. 

No Freeza technology found here, which arguably is a good thing when it comes to disc rub.

However, I believe 105 offers a distinct advantage in braking over Ultegra and Dura-Ace in that the RT70 rotors are not equipped with the Freeza technology. Freeza technology is supposed to help the rotor cool down quicker and whilst it arguably does and looks far more of a fashion piece than 105’s RT70 rotor, I believe the RT70 to be a stronger rotor. The Ultegra and Dura-Ace rotor are quite easy to bend and I think exacerbate the issue of disc rub. 

The chainset uses a Hollowtech 2 design but unlike it’s more expensive siblings, the crank arms are solid-forged rather than a two pieces bonded design.

The bike was equipped with a 50/34 chainset and an 11-30 cassette, which is spot-on for the audience the Émonda is targeted at. The rear derailleur specced is a medium cage so you could change the cassette to an 11-32 and 11-34, if you so wished.  

Wheels and finishing kit 

The wheels, tyres and finishing kit are all supplied by Trek’s in-house brand, Bontrager. As mentioned, the TLR wheels are heavy but with a high 24 spoke count front and rear. The wheels would be ripe for one of the first upgrades you make to the bike but you might as well keep them as a Winter or training set. 

The Bontrager R1 Hard-Case Lite wire bead tyres rolled better than expected compared to other tyres from the brand I’ve ridden in the past. They’re more of a Summer tyre and I’d suggest once they wear out, upgrade for some faster-rolling rubber such as the Continental Grand Prix GP5000. 

The drop of the Bontrager handlebar is quite shallow.

The handlebars and stem are bog-standard aluminium affairs, with the stem compatible with Bontrager’s BlendR mount for lights, a computer or a GoPro. I’d prefer a 40cm bar compared to the 42cm specced as I find my arms splay out on the wider variety and I’d prefer a slighter deeper drop than the shallow one found here. The bars are adorned with Bontrager’s SuperTack Perf bar tape which is comfortable enough, if unremarkable. 

The saddle specified is Bontrager’s P3 Verse Comp. I didn’t get on with it using Assos’ Equipe RSR S9 Targa shorts on the first day of riding but got on better with it on days two and three using different shorts. But saddles are always a personal item, so it’s worth trying to see if you get on with it first before switching. 

Bottom line

While the Émonda improves the platform in some ways, it digresses in others.

Trek’s Émonda SL5 marks a solid entry point to the range and offers a quality frame with a race-oriented fit. It’s on the firmer side and its quick handling will particularly appeal to those who appreciate these qualities and it would make a good proposition for the aspiring racer. While the frame has undergone more of an aerodynamic makeover, I wish Trek had stuck to its initial guns and kept the frame as its lightweight, climbing-optimised bike. It simply doesn’t climb or descend in the composed fashion its predecessors did and it’s also got its quirks with the semi-integrated front end. 

Review: BMC Teammachine SLR01 Disc (Third Generation)

Now in its tenth year of existence, BMC’s Teammachine SLR01 has become a staple frame in professional racing, making quite the statement. It was pedalled to victory by Cadel Evans at the Tour de France in 2010 and Greg van Avermaet at the Olympic Road Race. 

The Teammachine sits as the race (or as BMC dub it, ‘altitude’) bike in the Swiss brands road range. The Roadmachine is their ‘one bike collection’ but in reality sits more at the endurance side and the Timemachine is poised as their aero weapon. The Teammachine is lightweight, race-focussed and suitably stiff, but also pretty comfortable for a race bike with its intelligent design. 

Although a fourth generation model was announced earlier this Summer, this review is of the third generation and there really isn’t a great deal to set the two apart. The new frame is more aerodynamic, has an integrated bottle cage system and an updated front end with a one-piece bar / stem system. 

BMC have always been a brand to be heavily focussed on their computer designed frames. BMC use what’s called ACE Technology, essentially a program where designers can model their bike on various factors and tune it to suit within certain parameters. Arguably, many of the current crop of heavily integrated bikes out there were inspired by this model as many seem to emulate the Teammachine’s design. 

BMC pioneered the dropped seatstay, which is almost ubiquitous on most of the brands offerings at the moment. This gives their frames a certain futuristic, boxy but clean aesthetic. The third generation Teammachine, like the first-generation Roadmachine had also done, omits the small bridge between where the top tube and seat tube intersect, on the one hand making for a cleaner look but also loses a little of BMC’s identity.

Integration is the main area where this third-generation SLR01 differs from its predecessors. Central to this is the ICS stem system. This system hides both the hydraulic hoses and Di2 wires through the underside of the stem and into the head tube where they run alongside a proprietary steerer tube and then journey down the down tube to their respective derailleurs or callipers. If you are using a mechanical groupset on this frame, you will have two cables exposed which enter a port in the down tube. They look rather unsightly on this frame as they sprout out and don’t take the cleanest path in terms of routing so if you are buying this frame, I would really look at having Di2 or eTap AXS on it. 

The ICS stem looks futuristic and clean-looking. It’s great that you can use a normal bar so you are not tied into a certain bar and isn’t as much of a royal pain as fully integrated systems are. 

Split spacers are employed so you can make adjustments to the stack height without having to take it all apart but if you want to change the headset, that will be a double brake bleed as both hoses run through the bearings. It’s not ideal and adds a lengthy amount of time onto what is a very simple job, so make sure you keep the bearings greased. 

Disappointingly, the top headset bearing is of a proprietary size. BMC say that it is a 1 1/8 but it mates perfectly with the ICS cover, preventing you from using anything else. I upgraded to a Chris King Dropset and the dimensions were perfect but the bearing will not sit in the cover. After contacting their support, they confirmed the bearing has to work with BMC’s cover. Other after-market options also won’t work. BMC also charge an exorbitant amount for a spare headset, which isn’t the best quality, so you will want to be religious in keeping this area maintained. Clearly, they bought a load during manufacture. Watch out for this nasty surprise! 

Mechanically, you will want to take care with the cabling on this bike. The Di2 wires / hoses have a tendency to rattle in the down tube so you will want to take the time to protect them during the initial build. The cables are secured with a pinch bolt on the underside of the ICS stem, just as they exit into the handlebar. You might want to get a friend for help here so they can pull the cables tight while you secure the cover that holds the cables. If they are not tight, they will also rattle! 

This frame has a BB86 bottom bracket which for a press-fit, is a pretty reliable standard and has been problem-free for me. I am just about to change the original after 10,000km – BMC spec a plastic Shimano BB86. A threaded bottom bracket would be better and is more foolproof but it’s good enough and is certainly one of the more preferable press-fit standards out there. 

On this Ultegra Di2 build, all of the wiring is well-integrated into the frame. The junction box is integrated into the top of the down tube which looks neat and means that you don’t have to have it unsightly poking from the bottom of the stem or at the bar end plug. Of course, if you’re running SRAM eTap, you would have no wires whatsoever. 

BMC utilise a D-shaped seatpost here for the seating which is both for aerodynamic and compliance reasons. The bolt to adjust the saddle height is neatly integrated into the bottom of the top tube and you can access it with most tools on the market with relative ease, unlike some other frame designs which are left wanting in this department. 

It is a different matter if you want to adjust the saddle fore-and-aft, as one of the bolts is not easy to access and it is a finicky and time consuming job as you need to align the bolt in between two O-rings. 

BMC use a direct-mount derailleur hanger which looks neat for the rear derailleur, if you’re running this standard. BMC save weight on the thru-axles that are ‘ultralight’ and ‘hollow’ which are a nice touch and have been problem-free. 

Another of the downsides of this frame is the front brake. BMC mount the calliper fixing bolt from the front of the fork so the calliper fits flush to the frame on the rear, saving the need for an adaptor. Aesthetically, this looks fantastic. However, mechanically, this is a low. It is very, very hard to align the rotor with the calliper. This isn’t just on my model – I have worked on other SLR01’s and they are all a nightmare. Pair this design with Shimano’s lacklustre road brakes and it is very hard to get rid of any pad rub. I’ve found that when you’re trying to put the power down or after a descent, the pads have a very annoying tendency to rub on the rotor for about 30 seconds and you get an annoying ‘ting’ sound. You’ll get this on other frames but this is noticeable on the front. I’ve seen other consumers get frustrated with this system and when I questioned BMC on their design, they insisted any pad rub was down to the brake calliper. One warrantied calliper later, this has helped somewhat but you can still get some rub. Tellingly, on the fourth-generation model, BMC have gone back to a conventional mounting for the front brake. I wonder why they did that… 

Spare parts for this frame can be obtained from the UK distributor, ZyroFisher. Many UK bike shops have an account with Zyro, so although a lot of parts have to be ordered from BMC direct, they are backed by a solid distributor. 

All in all, this is a very interesting and futuristic frame that three years since release in 2021, still looks state-of-the-art, and these are all small quirks, but quirks nonetheless, to live with. 

The Build 

This was a BMC Teammachine SLR01 Disc Three 2019 model but I have made some changes to the original spec. This has a Shimano Ultegra Di2 R8070 groupset. The groupset has generally been very good and I have been very impressed with the gears. I’ve been less impressed with the brakes though. I love how Shimano have integrated the hydraulics into the shifter and keep it the same size as their mechanical offerings but the braking is a bit on-off for my liking and lacks power. You don’t need to have powerful brakes as you don’t want to lock up the wheels but I would prefer more power here. SRAM’s road brakes are much better in terms of modulation and feel. 

The only deviation to the groupset is the chain and disc rotors. The chain is a KMC X11 SL. I find these are much quieter, much more durable and a lot lighter compared to the Shimano equivalent. the rotors are the Dura-Ace rotors which I upgraded purely for vanity’s sake – the black cooling fins match the aesthetic much better than the Ultegra ones, although they just as easily rub and ting on the calliper. 

The DT Swiss PRC1475 carbon wheels are an OEM offering but are largely based around the PRC 1400’s. They’ve been trouble-free and very good. They are shod with Continental GP5000 tyres which offer fantastic grip, speed and comfort and are a heck of an improvement over the Vittoria Corsa BMC specs the bike with. I found the Vittoria tyres to be lacking in grip and comfort, with a preposterously high minimum pressure for their size. 

The saddle is a San Marco Regale which is a very comfortable shape and its aesthetics match the bike very well. It is very light and has carbon rails. If it had a slightly bit more padding, it would be perfect. The bike came with a Fi’zi:k Antares, which I am not friends with from previous experience, so this was switched out instantly. 

The handlebar is a Zipp carbon which is a nice shape and has a short 70mm reach to allow me to run a longer stem, which I prefer as it improves the handling. The carbon bar dampens vibrations much better than aluminium although this Zipp one is a little on the stiffer side compared to other offerings out there. The BMC own-brand bar that comes on the bike felt like a cop-out considering the bike was close to £7,000, a very unremarkable aluminium offering and the shape didn’t really work well for me. 

Silca Nastro Fiore bar tape finishes the cockpit and it’s perfect in its grip, feel and durability, if on the expensive side. 

Overall, this is a pretty heady but realistic spec. You could easily get the bike lighter by running a more prestigious groupset and changing the wheels if you wanted to, so there is plenty of scope to get the most out of this frame.

How does it ride? 

Well, we have to talk about the ride, don’t we? This BMC Teammachine SLR01 Disc is a dream to ride. It is a very quick bike for its genre and really comes alive at higher speeds. The Specialized Tarmac is possibly a slightly more eager bike in terms of its handling compared to the Teammachine. The Teammachine is more comfortable than one might expect for a race bike, which often tend to be on the firmer side. Considering the integration of the front end, the steering on the bike feels telepathically smooth and reassuring. This bike has been predominantly ridden in the Chilterns and the Surrey Hills, where the road surfaces are pretty poor, and the bike hasn’t beaten me up. It has been taken on trips to the Cotswolds and Devon and has performed admirably there too. I can imagine this frame is a dream to ride in the Alps, which is what the brand have intended for it and it would likely be the perfect bike for it, as it climbs and descends with equal footing. 

The bike isn’t the lightest out there in feel compared to the Trek Emonda for example but it has a reassuring quality to its weight and is the best balance for the types of riding it caters for. In fact, the frame alone is lighter than the newer generation, perhaps signalling that the 800g mark is about as good as carbon frames are going to get without sacrificing anything. 

One aspect I wish this frame was better in is its tyre clearance. This frame can take up to a 700x28mm, which it just about does. The newer version can take up to a 30mm but I would like to see the clearances upped a little more for versatility and to allow you to run a wider range of rim and tyre combinations. A 28 tyre on a wider rim than the DT Swiss that I am running would be very tight and you need to make sure there is a sufficient gap between the tyre and frame to stop it abrading and damaging the carbon. 

Overall, the BMC Teammachine SLR01 Disc is pretty much as close to bike heaven you could desire and there is little to criticise. It will be interesting where the fifth generation of this frame changes, given how the fourth generation is an evolution rather than a revolution of this third-gen frame. It has been a joy to live with for 3 years and 10,000km and it hasn’t lost its sheen.

King Alfred’s Way Bikepacking Route Experience

The King Alfred’s Way is a circular route designed by Cycling UK and historian/journalist Guy Kesteven that takes in the sites of the famous King and connects many of the UK’s best paths. It officially starts in Winchester, where King Alfred is buried and passes Salisbury, Stonehenge, the Salisbury Plains up to Avebury where you then join the Ridgeway to Goring before briefly jumping on the Thames Path to Reading, down through Berkshire into Surrey where you pass through Farnham and the Devil’s Punch Bowl before heading into Hampshire and joining the South Down’s Way back to Winchester.

We completed the ride in the middle of September and we were generally very lucky with the weather and trail conditions. We decided to start the route at Reading Station as this isn’t too far away from where we all live on the Berkshire / Buckinghamshire border. We split the route into three days. Day 1 would be from Reading Station to East Meon, where we had booked two rooms in an eco-lodge. Day 2 would take us through Winchester and the Salisbury Plains before diverting off the route slightly to stop in Devizes at a pub. Day 3 would be a shorter ride from Devizes to Avebury and along the Ridgeway back to Reading. 

The Team

It was originally going to be five of us completing the ride – myself, Rob, Charlie, Deane and Nick – all members of an informal off-road group. We tend to ride one weekday evening with a pub stop at the end and then some bigger rides on some weekends. We don’t ride every weekend as we all like our road cycling and we belong to different local clubs in the Maidenhead area. 

It was always Nick’s intention to peel off in Winchester and take the train back as he had plans for the Sunday, so that would leave 4 of us to complete the entirety of the route. Closer to the event, Deane had to drop out and in the final days leading up to the event, Rob experienced a setback where the prospect of riding at all was in jeopardy. Fortunately, he had somewhat recovered, but was not 100% and decided to ride up to Winchester where he would also peel off with Nick, leaving myself and Charlie to finish the route.

The Bike

I used a gravel bike for this trip, specifically a Niner RLT 9 RDO. The route is recommended for gravel or mountain bikes. You would certainly have fun on a mountain bike on some of the more technical trails but gravel bikes are pretty capable and are able to cover long distances more efficiently. You can read my first look on the Niner here, but needless to say, this Coloradan frame with Campagnolo Ekar made for a luxurious steed.

I had only just built the bike up recently after waiting almost a year for some of the Ekar components with the parts shortages so I only managed to get two short rides in on the bike prior to the event. This is not an ideal way to enter a bikepacking ride, as you should always be familiar with your equipment, but the fit of the bike felt familiar on the first two rides, so I took a gamble as my previous bike, a Norco Threshold C, is a much racier cyclocross frame and it lacks all of the mounting points for luggage that the Niner contains and has much closer gear ratios.

All other members of the group also rode gravel bikes for the event, ranging from a second-generation Specialized Diverge, a titanium Reilly and a Mason Bokeh, so a real range of brands and bikes that sit in different areas of the ever-growing gravel spectrum. 

The Equipment

This is my first bikepacking escapade so it was time that I ‘bagged’ up. I’d read many articles, watched some videos and sought advice from friends on what to pack and how to store luggage on the bike. Niner conveniently make their own bag that mounts on the inside of the front triangle and they make a top tube bag, so that was half of the luggage sorted. 

After lots of research, I settled for some Miss Grape bags in front of the bars and behind the seatpost, the Tendril and Cluster respectively. The Cluster is a particularly impressive bag in its construction – easy to fit, it holds securely on the seatpost and you can adjust the tension via some clever velcro straps. The Tendril is also a reasonable bag and is very long so you pack it down to suit. It didn’t play especially nicely with my set up as I run narrow 40cm bars so you have to pack it compactly. The straps adjust around the handlebar onto a hooked loop. On the ride, the straps detached a couple of times, despite being under correct tension. This aspect of the bag needs to be worked on and I think the way to remedy it would be to have some sort of lock and release so that the strap can’t shake free of the clip. 

Preparation

I’ve been on reasonable form this year prior to the event, not my best but not my worst and I have done plenty of single rides of this distance and off-road variants over the years. What I wasn’t prepared for was having to ride these distances off-road consecutively over three days. My training consisted of some longer distance rides, both on and off-road and I had planned for some back-to-back riding on some weekends with another ride on a Friday or Monday to try and simulate the event. I ended up doing 2 of these weekends in the run-up to the event and I would have tried to fit in another block, but I annoyingly had a setback in early August where I had my first cold in a year and a half! These blocks of three big rides really helped and I rode them solo to make it harder, as rides always go quicker when you have company.

One thing I would not recommend is packing new bags the night before the ride, especially when it is not obvious how one of them mounts to the frame! Get to know your bag prior to an event if you are in the same situation and another piece of advice would be to try and carry out some practice rides with the bags fully loaded to try and simulate how it will feel in the event. 

Day 1

It felt surreal that this day had arrived, after weeks of preparation. I set the alarm for 5am and I had a breakfast of pasta as I find that keeps me going through a long ride and rolled out the door. What was immediately apparent was how heavy the bike was with all the bags and how it handled differently. I started to ride over to Maidenhead station and having cycled along the A4 for many years, but the bike felt very alien! Rob joined me part-way on the ride over and we quickly arrived at the station, where Charlie was already waiting and we brought a coffee for the train journey to up the caffeine levels. Nick then met us shortly afterward on the platform. 

We very swiftly arrived in Reading and after some obligatory faffing and a toilet stop, the ‘Play’ button on the Garmin was pressed and the King Alfred’s Way trip had officially begun. Riding on the canals around Reading was quite a welcome change from the bustling major roads, which I tend to avoid on the road bike. This was a very flat start to the ride and before we knew it, we had crossed the A33 and were on some more exciting towpaths heading into the countryside. We passed through Riseley and made our way out of Berkshire to the outskirts of Hampshire and then into Surrey.

As we were travelling on a trail that was by a farm, sealant started spraying out of Charlie’s rear tyre. I hadn’t noticed but apparently, it was also spraying out the front. We stopped to inspect the damage but the sealant seemed to have done its job. Or, as is often the case with these types of mechanicals, so we thought… 

We carried on into the outskirts of Farnham where there was quite a spicy descent which was loose and rocky. It was so bone-shaking that my front bag came off and I had to quickly stop to correct it to avoid it abrading on the frame. Charlie had to slow down for me and he must have hit something as his front tyre had now failed. We stopped for a bite to eat whilst Charlie tried to sort the front tyre but he had to resort to patching it with a bacon strip-like tubeless plug. Tubeless really never is fun when it goes wrong and when you’re covered in sealant trying to fix a problem, you forget the benefits that the system offers that outweigh the negatives!

We shortly arrived into Farnham and found a Sainsbury’s so we stopped to buy a meal deal and the plan was to eat it in Frensham Ponds, a picturesque area with two lakes and a ‘beach’. It is quite a busy crossing on the A31 on the route, and you also have an uphill gradient to contend with as well as avoiding traffic. Frensham was a lot further than envisaged, as there were some trails to negotiate first and two climbs. We had our lunch at the top of a hill rather than by the beach, as we didn’t really fancy another climb on top of what was already a big day in the saddle and knowing that the ‘proper’ hills were about to start. We met 4 other riders riding the King Alfred’s Way at lunch, two determined riders on Mason Bokeh frames, much to Charlie’s delight as they shared his taste, and two more relaxed riders on titanium hardtails.  

Now deep into Surrey, the route is quite undulating and there are some quite technical sections and a fair amount of slippery sand to contend with. One section that passes a golf course was quite memorable as there were Portaloos rather randomly dotted around.

The Garmin then flagged up that we were about to ascend hill number 2 of 6 today and that it was close to 280m elevation. This could only have been the Devil’s Punch Bowl, which I have tackled on the road before and it wasn’t too taxing but this was an off-road variant. Compared to the road, this was an arduous climb and I cannot even begin to imagine what it would be like in the wet. The KAW route has you climbing on a sandy off-road section for almost 100m elevation before you then meet the road where you have some respite. This road then turns into a very rocky trail and you then negotiate a cattle grid whilst climbing. The climb is then impossible as sharp rocks that scream ‘puncture’ thrown in with a gulley for good measure. We dismounted and walked for quite some distance and even on foot, the climb was unrelenting. You then pass over another cattle grid and after a short walk, the gradient and surface eases and it is rideable. At the top, you are met with a stunning view of the Devil’s Punch Bowl and it would have been rude not to have stopped to take some photos. This would be an even tougher climb in the wet and is one of the areas where a mountain bike would have better served the terrain but even still, I think you’d have to walk some of it.

Passing through Hindhead, the route then takes you on a cracking descent on the road as you pass under the A3. The route is still quite rolling and we passed the two riders on Mason’s from lunchtime who rode behind us but then turned off randomly. We then descended down a trail to a gate where Charlie’s tyre had now completely failed. He stopped to carry out the unenviable task of removing the tyre full of sealant and fitting an inner tube in it to carry on his ride. We then discovered that we were off-course and that the two Mason riders had taken the right turning but that descent was too fun to resist! We managed to find a route that would take us back on course once Charlie had sorted his tyre which continued to be undulating until you reach the outskirts of Liss, where it is a little flatter as you pass through the village. We stopped in Liss at a Tesco Express for some more welcome supplies, whilst carrying out a bit of people watching.

We begun to head further south in the direction of Rogate, which is famed for its downhill mountain biking park. The route doesn’t take you quite as far as Rogate itself but you ride on the outskirts of the park. Like Surrey, the terrain here was very sandy and having climbed up a ramp, it was now time for an exciting descent. You’ve got to be quite careful on the descent as it’s technical and there was a large branch on the ground, which you can’t bunnyhop. What goes down must go up and the uphill looked tough! Rob wanted to try and outsmart the route by avoiding this climb and on his Hammerhead device, it looked like you could go around it, which we started. Big mistake! The uphill is a combination of a gulley and sand, so about a third of the way up, you have no choice but to get off and walk. It was at this point that one of the team suggested turning back and tackling the prescribed climb but having climbed this far up this annoying climb, we weren’t going to turn back now. Well, we should have done, as you’re forced into a left turn which then takes you back down the other side to where you started! Our funny faux pas cost us a couple of kilometres and we still had to go up the horrible climb! One could say we had an extended tour of Rogate. The climb wasn’t quite as tough as it looked but it was still a walker at the top as there was a gulley that was hard to navigate, but you are then rewarded with an exciting descent to a main road. 

Rob took the descent a little easier and at the bottom whilst we were waiting to regroup, Nick suggested a shorter route on the road to Petersfield and East Meon. We thought as we had come this far, we may as well stick to the route, not knowing what was about to come ahead. Well, what was about to come ahead was the South Downs Way! 

As we passed through the village (rather than region) of Quebec, the elevation kept on coming and before we knew it, the signpost that this was the South Downs Way. We were all pretty tired by this point and relieved that there were only 10 or so miles left to the finish. The South Downs Way was achingly beautiful, despite its unyielding nature. As we descended again, we then passed through a car park and barrier signalling that we were passing through the ‘Queen Elizabeth Country Park’ before another gravel climb that was just about rideable but brutal! There was then a spicy descent down to another car park, with the A3 in view.

What also came into view was Butser Hill, a climb that GCN described in their King Alfred’s Way video as a ‘beast of a climb’. Legs shot, some of the group suggested a road variation of the route but this didn’t really seem to be possible without crossing the busy A3. Butser Hill was as marketed by GCN. It’s always demoralising when you can view what you have to climb throughout. My gamble of having a gel at the top of the previous climb paid off as I found the climb hard but not impossible and there was only one section where it gets a bit rougher just before a gate where I had to get off and walk. When you reach the top, you realise that there is even more climbing to go until you actually reach the top but you get a phenomenal view of the Downs. We regrouped at the top and we were all even more ruined than before!

Another excellent descent towards East Meon, we then took a left at the bottom of the road for our final climb of the day towards Day 1’s accommodation. It was another grovel of a climb and we were thoroughly relieved when the turning for ‘The Sustainability Centre’ came into sight, a centre which offered camping or rooms. Although perhaps camping would be more authentic for this type of epic, but I am not one for turning down a bed and a warm shower! 

Dinner was a 2 mile downhill journey to ‘The Bat and Ball’ in the hamlet of Hambledon, where the combination of beer and cooked food was very welcome compared to energy bars and gels. This was a decent pub that didn’t have an extensive menu but everything they offered was well made. 

After dinner and some beers, we rode back up the climb back up to the accommodation. I could barely sit on the saddle at this point so I spent most of the journey back unseated.

Day 1 was the very definition of an epic but I had totally underestimated its difficulty. This was definitely up there in my top ten toughest rides as the hills are unrelenting after you pass through Farnham, a sentiment shared through the group. The thought of 92 miles on Day 2 was on my mind – the King Alfred’s Way is certainly not a route for the inexperienced and if it was going to be as difficult as today, we had our work cut out for us. Lucky for Rob and Nick, their journey would end 35km into the day but for myself and Charlie, there were two more days to go. 

I am aware of a friend of mine riding to up to Winchester on the KAW route from Reading in one day and a group in my club had ridden the entirety of the route in two days last year. I can’t quite comprehend how as I couldn’t imagine having another batch of climbs added on to today’s route! 

DAY 2

After a relatively good night’s sleep, we enjoyed a hearty breakfast at the hotel and we were ready to roll out at 9. We had intended to start earlier but the earliest that breakfast was being served was from 8:00. Rob seemed to be back on form as he had a particularly hearty breakfast, which was a far cry from yesterday where he couldn’t eat or drink very much. With yesterday’s efforts firmly being felt in my legs, we started Day 2.

It was a beautiful morning with fog but not too cold to warrant jackets or thermal clothing in the Meon Valley. The route began with a technical gravel descent and we then passed through a farm with a field of cows next to it which was particularly visually arresting with the fog. 4km in and we were then reduced to walking with a particularly technical off-road climb – I hoped this wasn’t going to set a precedent for the day! There was a coffee van at the top of the climb, which seemed to be popular with cyclists but it was too early in the day to stop, especially with another 80 miles plus for Charlie and myself. It was a good job that we had had breakfast as this van didn’t seem to sell any substantial food, so it would have been a long ride for breakfast. I hadn’t really warmed up by this point and this up-down beginning didn’t really play to my strengths. I find I have to ride for about an hour and a half or so before I feel comfortable.

As we continued to ride the uncompromising but stunning South Downs Way, Rob was on particularly fine form as he made light work of the ascents and negotiated the technical descents without fear. There were lots of mountain bikers out this morning and we let some riders pass periodically to avoid holding anyone up who wanted to have their downhill fix. 

It was pretty hilly going into Winchester and the cathedral city began to beckon in the distance. As we got nearer, we crossed under the busy M3 before riding alongside a busy canal path beside the River Itchen. King Alfred’s statue stood resplendent at the bottom of the Broadway in the city centre. Seeing as it was another 25 miles to Salisbury, it made sense to buy provisions for lunch now. 

Greggs and an M&S Simply Food were the options for food and we all shared an early lunch. Rob had been on fine form this morning and contemplated carrying on but made the courageous decision to end the ride here, given how he had been feeling prior to the ride. It was a fairly swift lunch as Charlie and I had a way to go yet and we parted ways, Nick and Rob heading for the train station. 

As we navigated the streets of Winchester, Charlie kept his eyes peeled for a bike shop as he wanted to stock up on inner tubes after his tyre fiasco yesterday but there was nothing obvious. As we were on the outskirts of the city, we were met with a fairly sharp road climb which then diverted into a picturesque off-road descent through a Shire-like setting.

The route to Salisbury was hard work, but possibly not quite as hilly as the South Downs but with the cumulative miles in the legs so far, it was tough! As we neared Salisbury, Charlie started to struggle on the climbs as he couldn’t find any power in his legs but was fine on the flat. He contemplated getting the train back as he didn’t think he could make it to Devizes, which was still some distance away. We passed a sign that signalled there being 1.5 miles to Salisbury. However, Salisbury never arrived as the route actually doesn’t go through it.

There was then quite a twisty climb alongside Old Sarum and the route continued to be unabating, Charlie continuing to find the climbs tough. We passed through several hamlets and villages but there was no shop to be found to stop at to restock, so if you are riding this route and choose not to stop at Winchester, you would be wise to divert into Salisbury to stock up. 

As we had finished climbing a particular brute of a climb, we stopped by the side of the road where there was a sign for Stonehenge. Charlie wanted to road it back to Salisbury but after a bit of coaxing, he had a break and had something to eat. Two road riders passed who courteously stopped to ask if we were ok and we got into conversation with them. They were relatively new to the Salisbury area and were on their way back to the city, but they encouraged Charlie to carry on. 

After our break, we carried on and descended on the road down the hill and we were very quickly into Amesbury, where we found a petrol station to stock up on food and drink. It was 15:00 at this point and as we still had a way to go, I called the hotel for tonight to let them know we were going to be late.

The route then took us on the outskirts of Stonehenge, which you don’t get a particularly good view of from the official route, so if you’d like to visit this landmark in all its glory or want an Instagram image, you’ll need to divert. We then started to ride the Salisbury Plains section, which was markedly flatter than what we had experienced today so far but on a windy day, this section could be hard work as it is quite exposed. We could hear the sounds of MOD vehicles and military machinery and there were signs warning to be weary of unexploded ordinance and suspicious objects. One of the highlights of this section was seeing a MOD towing another MOD, which both Charlie and I hadn’t seen before!

As we crossed the Plains, Charlie’s rear tyre lost air and wanting to avoid having to use a tube in the rear, he used a plug on it and re-inflated it. We carried on along the Plains until we reached Market Lavington at about 18:15.  There are a couple of turns in this Northern section of the Plains that aren’t obvious on a GPS device, so be careful to make sure you are still en-route. Knowing we had about an hour until sunset and another 20 miles or so on the route, we chose to ride to Devizes on the road as we were already knackered and we didn’t particularly fancy missing dinner as the kitchen closed at 21:00. 

The A360 into Devizes was a bit of a rat run but we’d definitely made the sensible decision. Charlie’s tyre kept going down and we stopped to re-inflate it a couple of times to make it to the hotel. We arrived at The Castle Hotel which was quite a grand and quirky old building and had an interesting place to lock the bike as one would expect of an 18th century coaching inn.

After a warm shower, it was dinner and straight to bed for me, as I was knackered and the thought of the Ridegway on Day 3 came into mind, especially with rain forecast for the morning. 

Day 2 wasn’t quite as hard as Day 1 but it’s a big day on the bike. I wouldn’t recommend trying to cover so many miles in one day – I think 70 is the magic number. 

DAY 3

After an even better night’s sleep than the first night, I woke up to find that the weather forecast had changed and there was no more rain forecast for the day. It had clearly rained overnight though as the ground was wet. Prior to breakfast, Charlie had gone to replace the inner tube on his tyre before breakfast. Charlie and I shared a late breakfast and we got ready to ride the final day. As we went to unlock and head out on the bike, Charlie’s tyre was flat again! Charlie was out of tubes and I had been carrying two so I gave him one of mine to use, which was rather narrow for his wider tyres but it was enough to get him riding. We had a quick Google to see if there were any bike shops in Devizes and the answer to that was yes, but nothing open on a Sunday!

Having ridden parts of the Ridgeway in the past, we knew that water was going to be few and far between so we headed to Sainsbury’s to stock up and to buy some lunch. I had a quick gander in there to see if there were any tubes as sometimes, supermarkets sell items like this but no luck. Charlie then had the bright idea to try Wilko which was in town and we next headed there where he struck luck and brought two heavy-duty looking tubes for the journey. Who knew that Wilko stocked them?

10:30 and although late out of the gate, we were now ready to ride. We started to head back to the official route (Devizes was a diversion), which took us briefly along the Kennet Canal before we diverted onto a Kansas-style gravel track, which seemed to be a popular route for the Sunday road club riders that we passed. This brief gravel section transformed into a game of bicycle parkour as we found ourselves in a field and the GPX route through it wasn’t immediately obvious until we found a stile and gate that was the obvious candidate to navigate. If we were to revisit the KAW route again, this would be an area of the route to improve. 

After passing through the sleepy village of All Cannings, we were then met by the first climb of the day, Tan Hill. This was a road climb that then turned into a gravel track at the top that then turns into singletrack as you descend towards the A4 near Avebury. Although climbing on tired legs, this was perhaps the most scenic climb of the entire King Alfred’s Way, a beautiful monolithic climb that felt extra-terrestrial and felt as if you were climbing a stairway to heaven. The vast landscapes at the top were stunning.

The singletrack descent towards the A4 is a rather spicy one and as it’s quite overgrown, your tyres either have to stay in the allocated track or you’re off! There were a few hairy moments on the descent so it is one to take with caution. 

After crossing the A4, the route then takes you through Avebury and right by the historic stones and very shortly after, you then reach another long climb that takes you up to the Ridgeway. This was another tough climb that went on for longer than it should and similar to the Tan Hill descent, some sections of it are quite narrow-going. This was made even harder to negotiate with a group of motorbikers trying to pass us, mixed with some walkers. The sign to turn onto the Ridgeway came shortly after and this marked the start of a significant portion of the rest of the ride. The Ridgeway can be quite tough going as it is undulating and a cacophony of surfaces. Conditions were favourable so far.

After the first handful of climbs and descents, we came across the two riders on Mason frames that we had encountered on Day 1 on a climb. They were on their final stretch of the route and were due to finish at Market Liddington, not too far from Swindon and had about 10 miles to go. You could see the outskirts of Swindon from the top of the Ridgeway for quite some way, so it must have been tougher for them knowing they didn’t have far to go. We pressed on as they took a break. There was an exhilarating grass descent on one section after a prolonged climb with an optimal tailwind and another more rocky descent, made tougher by another group of motorbikers trying to overtake. 

Charlie’s tyre then made the unenviable sound of deflating, although that said the road tube had held up pretty well compared to the correct tubes he had used before! It was time to test the quality of the Wilko tube and it did the job as this was to be Charlie’s final puncture stop for the rest of the ride. The two Mason riders passed us, eagerly heading towards their finish.

Once the tube had been installed, we set off again and although it was around 13:00 and lunchtime, there was still a long way to go and we didn’t want to finish in the dark so whilst we still felt moderately energetic, we chose to try and ride for another hour before stopping for lunch. The route continued to be rolling in profile and on a road crossing, we spotted the two Mason riders one final time as they were waiting for transport and they wished us good luck for the final section of our journey. 

Conveniently around 14:00, we spotted a food van that seemed quite popular so we thought we would stop there to fill up on water and have a proper lunch rather than a meal deal. The menu was rather basic – it was a choice of pork or pork! Charlie had a filling-looking pulled pork wrap but I wanted to avoid a stodgy lunch so opted for the only non-pork item on the menu which was a leek and potato soup. 

As we tucked into our well-needed lunch, a large group of cyclists were also eating pork-related lunches and it transpired they were also riding the King Alfred’s Way, only they had started from Winchester so they had quite a way to go and were due to stop in Reading overnight. The group presented as a real mixed range of ability, with some members seasoned gravel riders and others were beginners.

Unfortunately, about a mile or two after lunch, we encountered the group again and one members derailleur hanger had snapped off and they were converting the bike into a fixed gear to get to Reading, where there are a selection of shops, although that might have been a tad optimistic in hoping they have the specific hanger there. It was also likely to be a long and arduous ride for the poor rider, given that the Ridgeway continued to be undulating!

The rest of the Ridgeway continued to be scenic and it turned out to be a rather warm afternoon for the time of year, contrary to the forecasted rain. There was a nice section towards Wantage that was a wide and loose gravel path with a fun descent (that I had to dodge quite a sizeable pothole on at the last minute!) and some panoramic views of the Oxfordshire landscape. We had a short break about an hour later as Charlie’s feet were uncomfortable so we both took a breather and allowed our feet a chance to air out. 

The final descent of the Ridgeway into Goring was a highlight of the day as it was quite loose with a couple of drops that we managed to achieve some airtime on, the first and only instance of the ride! I was very relieved when we completed the Ridgeway as it was quite a tough 50 up-and-down section and we were very lucky to have ridden it in favourable conditions.

You’d be mistaken in thinking the route into Reading would be flat, given the amount of elevation you achieve on the Ridgeway. The Thames Path into Whitchurch was surprisingly hilly and there was even one section with stairs that required walking up! This was generally the last of the off-road as it was mainly a paved road back to Reading. It’s quite surprising how you suddenly end up in the heart of Reading as the large town isn’t visible from the north. 

Before we knew it, we were in the centre of Reading and we rode through the park and ended up at the train station back where we started. It had been three days of high emotions but memorable and epic riding and as it was quite late, we headed straight for the train which almost telepathically arrived as soon as we set foot on the station, a rare feat for First Great Western! 

KAW Reflection

This bikepacking trip makes for an excellent gateway into this genre of cycling and the route delivers on all fronts from its picturesque settings to historic landmarks. I was especially impressed, seeing as this route is largely on my doorstep and it gave me a newfound appreciation. To those who believe that gravel riding only really exists in the United States, this route proves that the UK more than packs its own punch. It’s impressive how little of the loop is on-road.

I’m very glad that we chose Reading as our start. If you choose to start in Winchester as the route officially suggests, you’ll have the bulk of the climbing in the final day which will be hard work. Make sure you’re well stocked on food and water as there are long isolated sections without a town or city and as with any event, make sure your bike is in prime mechanical condition to avoid the risk of any problems as you will generally be quite far away from assistance. 

This route is harder than the Cycling UK route guide may have you believe, who market the ride as accessible for everyone. Yes, that is true but the route will have you off your bike in sections and walking and certainly if you want to tackle the route in 3-4 days, you will want to have a strong level of fitness. If you’re riding the route on a gravel bike, I’d cap each day at around 70 miles if you’re not camping, as we tried to take on too great a distance in Day 2 and to a certain extent, also in Day 1. 

I’ve got the bikepacking bug and I’ve got it hard after riding the King Alfred’s Way and I’m already planning another adventure!

Niner RLT 9 RDO with Campagnolo Ekar (First Look)

It has taken a while with my desired specifications and the parts shortages, but the Niner RLT 9 RDO is finally built up.

Having originally introduced the RLT (Road Less Travelled) in 2013 at the very beginning of the emergence of the adventure and gravel bike genre, this latest iteration of the RLT from the Coloradan brand is bang up-to-date with its features and standards that it offers.  

Predominantly famous for their mountain bikes, Niner hasn’t had a particularly large presence in the UK but since the brand has experienced a rejuvenation after briefly going bust, it has landed a UK distributor in the form of Zyro-Fisher and they are more easily available.

The RLT 9 RDO is the carbon gravel frame from the brand and this is a frameset that focuses on versatility but is equally comfortable on long gravel epics and races. This generation of the RLT is offered in three materials – aluminium, steel and carbon. I have opted for the halo carbon frame offering. The aluminium would be a sound budget option and the steel frame is an interesting proposition and a material that many brands have shied away from. Carbon frames are significantly lighter than metal and generally more comfortable, as they have better vibration-damping properties, which is why it was my pick. It also doesn’t fatigue as long as you don’t impact it and most types of damage can be repaired on a carbon frame if you damage it structurally. I’m 5’11 and fit comfortably on a 56cm frame.

It is chock-full of mounting points for bottle cages, racks and bags, Niner quoting 26 mounts in total. Niner have created specific bags that fit into the front triangle and on the top tube. I’ve purchased the bags and they fit logically and look clean on the frame. Extra points to the brand for omitting an under-the-down-tube mount as these always get clogged with mud.

The frame can take up to a mammoth 700x50mm tyre or a 2-inch 650b tyre. The RLT 9 RDO makes a compelling case as a one-bike-for-everything if you were to have a couple of wheelsets for different purposes.   

As is standard for most frames, the RLT 9 RDO routes its cables internally. What is impressive and your mechanic will thank you for it is that the internal routing is fully guided. You simply feed a cable through its designated hole and it will pop out of a hatch underneath the BB where you then route the final section. There is a little bit of ‘fishing’ required with the hydraulic hose from the hatch to its exit point, but nothing a magnet and internal cable routing kit couldn’t solve. I’m running the frame with a 1x groupset but the frame allows you to use a 2x system, should you wish, and there is also routing for a dropper seatpost and a Dynamo light. The frame uses full housing for the gears (more on that later) so once you’ve routed the cables in the initial build, it will be easy to change inner cables every so often to refresh the system as you won’t need to ‘fish’ any cables in the frame. 

The frame uses a standard 1 1/8 to 1.5 headset which is compatible with lots of different options and a PF30 bottom bracket. The PF30 BB is primarily used as it is compatible with Niner’s BioCentric system, should you wish to run the bike as a singlespeed, but I wouldn’t imagine many riders taking up this option. PF30 isn’t my favourite standard and I’d have preferred a threaded but it’s certainly far from the worst of the pressfit standards.

The colourways that Niner offer for this frame are seriously cool. There are two options for the carbon frame – ‘baja blue / sand’ which is this particular colourway and ‘olive green / orange’ which also looks rad, although until I see the frame in person, I’m not sure if the orange graphics clash with the green / black of the rest of the frame. There are nods to adventure on the paintwork with topographical lines on parts of the top tube, seat tube and fork. It’s also a cool touch how Niner include a graphic on the underside of the down tube, which inform you of the important specs of the frame if you are not mechanically knowledgeable.

The Build

Rather than buy a bike off-the-shelf from Niner, I chose to buy a frameset as I wanted to spec the the frame with a Campagnolo Ekar groupset. The builds that Niner offer are with a plethora of options from Shimano and SRAM. I have previously used a SRAM Rival 1 groupset on a previous bike which was very good but it didn’t quite have the range I’m after and remains 11-speed. Now that 12 and 13-speed options exist, this makes sense if you are running 1x. I didn’t fancy ponying up for SRAM eTap AXS as it has its quirks – it is very expensive, which I don’t see the need for on a gravel bike that is going to be caked with mud off-road. I’m rather uncomfortable with the rear mech costing almost £600 as it’s a part that can very easily get knocked! There are also the usual irritating SRAM quirks such as the DUB cranks and bottom bracket system, the XD / XDr driver body system and whilst I love the lever shape of the mechanical hoods, the eTap AXS hoods feel rather bulky and bulbous to me. Shimano also has its pluses and minuses. I believe Shimano GRX is a half-baked system in that it is only 11-speed and doesn’t go far enough in furthering itself from the road groupsets. I also, controversially, don’t rate Shimano’s current generation hydraulic disc brakes.

The Campagnolo Ekar groupset is a real rival to Shimano and SRAM in that it is 13-speed which is excellent as you get a wide range of gears and less prominent jumps between them as there is another gear to share the load. I really like the idea that the first cluster of gears have 1 tooth jumps, so you can really fine tune your gear when you’re on the flat or descending, whereas with my previous SRAM 1x, there were some parts of the cassette ratio where you were looking for a gear in between the teeth that were offered.

The cassette is offered in 9-36, 9-42 or 10-44. I’ve opted for the 10-44 option as I will be using this bike for bikepacking, so favour the easier gear and I’m unsure on Campagnolo’s use of a 9t cog in terms of wear. The cassette itself looks aesthetically pleasing and Campagnolo have introduced a new N3W freehub, which is a shortened version of its existing freehub that is backwards-compatible with 9,10,11 and 12 speed systems. This is a real breath of fresh air, as many brands are guilty of introducing new standards for the sake of it, forcing consumers to upgrade. At this point in time, there are not many wheelsets on the market with an N3W option but there will be more in time.

The chainset is a thing of beauty with its carbon allure and attention to detail with its removable rubber crank boots, to stop the ends of the crank arms from scuffing. I’ve gone for a 40t variant, but Campagnolo offer the chainset in 38, 40, 42 or 44 narrow-wide tooth options. The crank axle still connect via a Hirth joint with the bottom bracket bearings pressed onto the axle itself rather than the frame. This is known as the Ultra-Torque system, which Campagnolo have used for many years. Ekar, however, is slightly different in that it uses a ‘ProTech’ bottom bracket, where the bearings and cups have an additional seal to withstand the abuse of gravel riding.

The shifters will be familiar to anyone familiar with Campagnolo’s other offerings and the shape of the lever is particularly sculpted. The levers are aluminium rather than carbon but have some slight texturing to the bottom of the lever to help with grip. The noticeable change with these shifters is the new ‘Lever 3’ design of the shift paddle, which has grown in size and offer you two locations to downshift from, as you can now access it from the drops of the handlebars. I won’t be surprised if this new design migrates to Campagnolo’s road groupsets.

Ekar’s brakes remain the same as previous Campagnolo’s offerings, only they are re-branded as Ekar, the rotors are steel, there is an improved pad compound, and the system no longer uses Magura’s Royal Blood as brake fluid (although you can still use this) and use a new red mineral oil from the brand. The performance of the brakes is the best out of the Big Three. They offer confidence-inspiring modulation and don’t rub as easily as Shimano or SRAM’s offerings (the former being the biggest culprit, where if you do so much as look at the brake, it will start to rub!) as the pads use a magnetic piston to retract, which is a genius solution. 

My first impressions are that Campagnolo have pulled a blinder with their first foray into gravel. The quality of the Ekar parts looks very impressive and set-up was fairly straightforward. Things to watch out for if you’re building an Ekar-equipped bike include the B-gap adjustment of the rear mech, which is particularly sensitive as it is on 12-speed systems, so you’ll want to take care here to ensure good quality shifting. I found the brakes quite difficult to bleed compared to Shimano and SRAM, despite following Campagnolo’s tutorials. After a couple of sub-par bleeds, a mechanic that has plenty of experience with Campagnolo recommended bleeding it in the vein of a SRAM system (pushing / pulling between the two syringes) and this helped no-end in achieving a confidence-inspiring result. 

A final obstacle with Ekar is that Campagnolo simply don’t believe in full housing for the gears if your frame implores this technique and you want to use the included ‘Maximum Smoothness’ cables. I’d recommend using the Maximum Smoothness cables as there is less friction in the system and a 13-speed system is always going to be more sensitive to perfect set-up compared to an 11 or 12-speed system. You can’t buy a length of full outer housing online so you will either need to visit a Campagnolo dealer and ask nicely for them to cut you off the required length from a reel or buy a 25 metre reel. This is a mad but very Italian move from the groupset manufacturer. 

I can’t wait to test this groupset in real world conditions and I’ll report on my findings in due course.

The wheels are currently Fulcrum Rapid Red 5’s which are a bombproof but unremarkable aluminium wheelset with a (wide for an Italian brand) 23mm internal rim diameter. I had ordered some Campagnolo Shamal’s but they are yet to arrive so bought the Fulcrum’s at the last minute to get the bike built up for now. When the Shamal’s eventually arrive, they will become the Summer wheels and the Fulcrum’s can be used for the Winter slop.

Onto the finishing kit, the handlebars are Easton EC70 AX’s which have a 16 degree flare to them, which isn’t too dramatic compared to other options, and are carbon fibre so should be really comfortable as they’ll take away some of the sting from surface vibrations. The stem is a generic aluminium one for now from my parts bin – I’ll upgrade it to something nicer once I’ve got the position dialled.

The bar tape is the new Silca Nastro Cuscino which is super thick and seems like it will be supremely comfortable and hard-wearing but my god, it was one of the hardest bar tapes I’ve ever had to wrap. Silca don’t give you enough in the pack and it is very difficult to negotiate the tape around the shifters. On the one hand, you have to figure-of-eight it but because it’s quite chunky, it doesn’t look right so be prepared to spend a while if you want to have a good job.

I’ve also used Silca for the bottle cages with their titanium Sicuros which are pure bike porn and offer a super-solid grip of the bottle from a couple of tests. These look set to be a lifetime item.

The seatpost is a Specialized COBL GOBL-R which is carbon fibre and has a cobra-like kink at the top where it uses a ‘Zertz vibration damper’ at the head of the post, to boost compliance. I’ve carried this post over from a previous bike and have always got on with it and the saddle that is fitted to it is a Fabric Scoop.

So as you can see, this is one very luxurious steed and I’ll be sure to report back on my thoughts on the bike once I’ve got some miles on it and can comment on the durability. I’ve completed one brief hour-long ride on it so far and my initial impressions are very positive but it is far too early to be definitive. I’m aiming to get a couple more shorter rides on it and next week, I will likely be throwing it straight in the deep end as I’m bikepacking the King Alfred’s Way, a 350km circular off-road route.

Seven SRAM Successes (And Seven Aspects They Can Improve On)

SRAM are the newest kids on the block out of the ‘Big Three’ groupset manufacturers (joining Shimano and Campagnolo), but they have left a sizeable impression on the market and have been instrumental in pushing the other brands with their rival technologies. SRAM generally start at a higher price point than Shimano, who is by far the dominant groupset manufacturer, and offer groupsets from the mid-range to the pinnacle of the sport. Here are seven areas where the American manufacturer succeed and seven aspects that they can improve on.

SUCCESS: Positive Shifting

Although some regard SRAM’s shifting as clunky, I love the fact that the shift is very positive. You know when you’ve changed gear as there is a satisfying ‘ker-clunk’ both when you action the shifter and when the rear mech derails the chain from the gear that it’s on and moves it to its selected gear. SRAM have also brought this over to their wireless groupsets, which makes it seem less alien and more akin to a mechanical system, even though it is far from it. Shimano’s shifting is more accurate and much faster, but markedly more vague.

FAIL: DUB Chainsets (and GXP)

A major turn-off when considering a SRAM groupset, why oh why do the crank bolts on SRAM’s chainsets require a Herculean effort to undo?! SRAM prescribe a very high torque of 48-54NM (most other chainsets of this design that feature one 8 or 10mm hex bolt tend to be around the 40NM mark) and trying to undo the bolt often resorts to exasperation if you’re trying to break the bolt by hand, an assistant (or two) to either help break the bolt or hold the bike, breaker bars of large proportions, swearing, impact guns, heat, freezing and more swearing. This was a big problem on their older GXP / BB30 chainsets but is even more prevalent on their DUB chainsets, a standard that was meant to simplify everything!

My most successful method is to try and undo the crank bolt before you start working or stripping the bike so that you don’t have to try and undo the bolt once you’ve removed the wheels and / or the rest of drivetrain. I like to use a toe strap to hold the non-driveside crank arm to the chainstay to stop it from moving and then use a ‘big boy’ breaker bar.

Once you’ve finally broken the bolt free, you hear a sound reminiscent of a gunshot, often infused with the smell of smoke. If the bolt has been previous overtightened, it makes life even harder and I have seen some chainsets in the workshop of the company that I work at being left on as to remove it would require destructive methods.

This really shouldn’t be a thing and I would highly recommend making sure you maintain the chainset regularly to avoid it seizing any worse. SRAM have also brought out a little-marketed steel crank bolt that weighs twice as much as the aluminium bolt that is used when you buy a chainset off-the-peg, which I have bought and recommend every owner buying, as it makes life much easier down the line for whoever is working on the bike.

SUCCESS: Wireless Technology

SRAM are perhaps most famous for pioneering wireless groupsets with their original eTap groupset and have now developed with their eTap AXS ecosystem. There are no wires whatsoever from the shifters to the mech, the shifters communicate with the mechs via AIREA (essentially SRAM’s version of Bluetooth) and both mechs have removable batteries on them. It’s a refreshingly simplistic and innovative system and it’s always satisfying when you are working on a bike that doesn’t require the hassle of internal cable routing as you can literally just bolt on the four (or three if you are running 1x) components of the system once they are paired. If you’re working on one of the latest integrated bikes where cables or wires run through the bar, stem and then down the side of a proprietary profiled steerer tube before heading through the frame, it makes the job even easier as you just have the hydraulic hoses to route.

At the time of writing, both Campagnolo and Shimano’s electronic groupsets are wired and in the case of Shimano, their upcoming, redeveloped Dura-Ace groupset doesn’t seem to be completely wireless from some publications’ sneak peeks.

FAIL: Front Shifting

SRAM’s front shifting has never been on par with Shimano or Campagnolo and the Yaw front mechs are particularly finicky to set up. SRAM’s Yaw technology denotes that the mech will work with the chain in every single gear combination and won’t rub as the mech pivots slightly to compensate for the alignment with the chain, rather than with Shimano and Campagnolo where you have to ‘trim’ the mech. A nice idea but a real headache to set up perfectly as it requires the mech to be at an optimum height and angle and there is no leeway for error. Even when it’s set up perfectly, the shifting still isn’t on the level of the brand’s rivals.

SUCCESS: 1x Drivetrains

Perhaps as a result of their inability to manufacture a proper front mech, SRAM have pioneered the 1x system. A 1x removes the front derailleur and the chainset has a single chainring, whilst the cassette has a wider range cassette to compensate for the lost gear ratios. You save a little bit of weight as you omit the front mech, cable and housing for it and the front shifter, although the rear mech and cassette’s are heavier so the weight saving is marginal. Chain retention is much better as the rear mech has a clutch in it to stop the chain from slapping on the chainstay and the chainring has a narrow-wide tooth set up, again to better hold the chain and stop it from dropping. The result is a reliable and eerily quiet system which just plain works and SRAM’s Eagle mountain bike groupsets have further developed the scope of the technology with their now whopping 10-52t cassettes that are 12-speed. 1x isn’t the solution for every style of riding but I certainly think it is the case for off-road where the front mech is a mud magnet and both Shimano and Campagnolo followed suit reticently after SRAM’s market success.

FAIL: Road Shifter Cable Insertion

A problem now solved with the fact that their road groupsets are now almost exclusively wireless, it is often pot luck when you are trying to install a new gear cable in the shifter that you will get it through on your first couple of tries. Unlike Shimano where the cable logically emerges from the side of the shifter when you route it and you can then guide it into the outer housing, SRAM thought it was a good idea for the cable to route through the underside of the shifter where it then takes a tight 180 degree turn around a spool before emerging from the side of the shifter. A plain stupid idea and I’m glad it’s now mostly not a thing.

SUCCESS: Powerful Brakes with Excellent Modulation

A controversial point as many take offence to SRAM’s brakes in that they use DOT fluid, which is corrosive, and from the legacy of Avid brakes, particularly the Elixir’s, which I will agree were awful. But SRAM have reinvented their history with their past couple of generations of brake. I find SRAM brakes to have a confidence-inspiring level of power and they have excellent modulation. I’ll concede that perhaps DOT fluid is not the nicest of fluids to be dealing with but as long as you follow SRAM’s bleeding method, you will have a successful bleed far more than you would with Shimano. Shimano’s brakes suffer from a myriad of problems in their construction and the braking is more binary with more of an ‘on / off’ feel. SRAM’s contact adjustment of their higher level of brakes is a system that works really well and unlike Shimano where you have to cut the hose whenever you undo it (and then often have to replace it when you cut it too short if you are working on an integrated bike), this isn’t really a problem with SRAM.

FAIL: Quality Below Rival / GX Eagle

There has always been a marked difference in quality and reliability of SRAM’s components between groupsets, whereas Shimano’s groupsets often use the same technologies, just with heavier materials. On the road side, there is a marked difference between Apex (their entry offering), Rival and Force. Force feels far more smoother in its use of carbon construction and quality of the pivots / bearings.

There is a greater difference between SX and NX Eagle (SRAM’s entry mountain bike Eagle groupsets) and GX. Both SX and NX are very plasticky and the shifting is quite crude and I’ve seen many of the rear mech’s suffer ghost shifting. Shimano have the upper hand on the entry to mid level of mountain bike groupsets and their Deore groupset blows SX and NX out of the water. There is also a great difference between GX and XO (the first of SRAM’s two top offerings, with XX1 being the lightest weight, money-no-option groupset). The shift feels so much better on XO as the shifter uses a bearing and the chain is far smoother and longer-lasting.

A clear separation of quality between groupsets isn’t a bad thing and it’s the reason why users would spend more or less on one and SRAM perhaps take this a little too literally.

SUCCESS: Innovative Nature

SRAM have always been the best out of the ‘Big Three’ in announcing innovative products and trying to change conventions. Whilst in the case of DUB or Yaw front mechs, this isn’t for the best, in the case of their wireless groupsets or their unconventional chainring sizes on their road groupsets, they have completely reimagined the widely accepted gear ratio options. I’d rather see a brand take an ambitious risk and fail than adopt an ‘if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’ mindset and you have to admire them for trying to shake things up.

FAIL: XD and XDR Standard

I appreciate that SRAM had to introduce a new freehub standard to work with the 10t cog on their cassettes but the XD / XDR standard isn’t quite there. The threads that the cassette fits onto are very fine and if you don’t religiously remove and maintain your cassette / freehub regularly, I have seen examples of cassettes fusing onto the freehub and having to be cut off. This shouldn’t be a thing and I hope SRAM can improve the system.

SUCCESS: Universal Mech Hanger

Although not all that prevalent at the time of writing, SRAM’s universal mech hanger is another example of the brand’s positive innovation and trying to redefine the generic constructs of cycling technology. Every frame uses its own proprietary mech hanger, which results in a careful Internet search of what hanger will work with your frame and then corroborating your findings by matching the profile of the hanger up with the profile on the screen. SRAM have introduced one universal standard and both Trek and Santa Cruz (as well as some other brands) have started to adopt this standard on their frames. I hope more brands get on board as this will resolve a problem that shouldn’t really exist.

FAIL: Bottom Brackets

The quality of SRAM’s bottom brackets is pretty shocking. Both Shimano and Campagnolo’s offerings are bombproof but SRAM’s are plasticky and don’t last very long. They just plain suck. SRAM have tried to simplify bottom bracket standards with their DUB system and the threaded variations seem better, but they are not up to standard compared with the competition. The press-fit DUB bottom brackets aren’t great and often require an ungodly amount of whomping to remove them from the BB shell.

SUCCESS: Availability

Although perhaps an unfair topic due to shortages in the coronavirus pandemic, I really admire that SRAM have always announced a product and it is in stock almost instantaneously, rather than announcing something where you then have to wait a while before you can actually buy it. Both Shimano and Campagnolo need to take a leaf out of SRAM’s book on this front.

FAIL: Road Lever Shape  

SRAM’s hydraulic road lever shape on their current generation of shifters isn’t a patch on Campagnolo’s, which is by far the best or Shimano’s, which is impressively small in profile but not quite as comfortable as the Italian brand. SRAM’s shifters are more bulbous and knob-shaped, which isn’t particularly ergonomic. Their previous hydraulic road or CX1 shifers were much better because even though they were taller, they were less bulbous in their circumference and far more ergonomic in the hand.


What are your thoughts on SRAM and where they succeed and fail? Let me know your opinions in the comments. If you enjoyed this article, you can read my article on Shimano’s successes and aspects they can improve on here.

Seven Shimano Successes (And Seven Aspects They Can Improve On)

Shimano are by far the dominant groupset manufacturer out of the ‘Big Three’ (Shimano, Campagnolo and SRAM) and their products occupy the widest range of the market, with options catering from the low end to the very pinnacle. Both SRAM and Campagnolo’s lowest offerings start at a higher price point and comparable with Shimano’s mid-range options. Here are seven items where the Japanese manufacturer succeed and seven aspects that the brand are lacking in. 

SUCCESS: The Hollowtech Standard

The Hollowtech standard is Shimano’s patented standard where the cranks attach to the frame via two 5mm pinch bolts and a proprietary Hollowtech cap fitting. Shimano have been very stubborn in keeping this standard and haven’t really experimented with using carbon cranks, but the standard is probably the best one of attaching cranks to a bicycle frame. Most other manufacturers cranks attach via single larger bolt which requires a lot more effort to remove as it has a higher torque. With Hollowtech, the age old ‘if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’ saying comes to mind and no other manufacturer’s system is as straightforward to work on as this. 

FAIL: Free Stroke Adjustment 

Shimano’s mountain bike brake levers have a free stroke adjustment which adjusts the contact point of when the pads touch the disc rotor. A nice idea but the problem is it doesn’t do anything… or if it does, the difference is imperceptible. Shimano have been stubborn in keeping on to this technology for years and they should just get rid of it if they can’t do it right. Compared to SRAM’s brake contact adjust that actually works, this is something that Shimano need to improve. 

SUCCESS: Front Shifting

Yes, the cycling industry keeps setting itself on 1x, but Shimano make a strong argument for 2x with the quality of their front shifting, that far outweigh its rivals. Shifts are light and snappy and their front mechs are far less temporal than SRAM’s Yaw design, which relies on perfect set-up for it to work properly. 

FAIL: Road Rear Derailleur Barrel Adjusters

This shouldn’t be a thing. Shimano barrel adjusters have been serviceable but specifically on Ultegra R8000 and Dura-Ace R9100, they have changed to a new design of barrel adjuster. The problem is it isn’t very good! The cheap plastic feel of the adjusters doesn’t feel nice and it is easy for them to round out. The amount of times I’ve resorted to adjusting the gears by manually pulling on the cables. This shouldn’t be a thing. 

SUCCESS: Di2 Ecosystem

Di2 is not flawless (the eTube app is rather reminiscent of a Windows XP program) and SRAM AXS boasts some advantages in that it is wireless, but Shimano’s system is far more refined and slick in its operation. The latest generation of Di2 is a very hard system for them to improve on and it is virtually impossible to fool the system. 

FAIL: Dura-Ace Cables

There’s no doubt that these top-of-the-line offerings sure feel nice when they’re installed and offer superb shifting and braking feel. Shifting and braking is silky smooth. The ugly side to these cables rears its head when you are trying to remove them to change for new cables. As you remove the inner cable, it likes to leave snakeskin so be prepared for having to pick this out and have fun if you’re going to reuse the outers! 

SUCCESS: Di2 Hydraulic Lever Hood Shape

It’s impressive how on Shimano’s current Di2 hydraulic offerings, that they have been able to get the size of the hood to be the same as their mechanical offerings. Both SRAM and Campagnolo’s hood shape for hydraulic shifts feel much larger in the hand and whilst this is good for some qualities, having a nice small sleek hood is excellent. 

FAIL: Chains

Shimano chains are noisy and just don’t last very long. Their stubbornness to use a quick link and rely on a joining pin is annoying and whilst they have brought out a quick-link on the latest group sets, it’s still not worth it. Switch to a KMC for a longer lasting and quieter experience. 

SUCCESS: Pedals

Shimano’s pedals are bombproof. I have serviced my pedals once in about 7 years and they still feel like new. If you do need to service them, servicing is straightforward and intuitive. Their SPD system is also great and no other off-road cleated system comes close. Other than for bike fit purposes, why would you choose to run anything else? 

FAIL: Road Disc Brakes 

A whole topic in itself. Shimano’s road disc brakes are just not very good. Where does one even start with their flaws? How about the on-off feel of the brakes and lack of precise modulation? Or the ceramic calliper pistons that are very easy to damage? Or the bleed screw made of chocolate that is easy to round out? Or how about if you take one look at the brake and it will choose to squeak and squeal and make all kinds of noises. I really hope Shimano focus on their disc brakes in their next updates of groupsets as this is the biggest thing holding the brand back. 

SUCCESS: Rim Brakes

Conversely, Shimano’s rim brakes are superb stoppers. The feel and modulation is phenomenal and they are easy to set up. If only they could apply this methodology to their disc brake offerings! 

FAIL: I-Spec

There’s nothing wrong with the standard per-say but it is fiddly when you have one hand with the Allen key trying to undo the clamp and another hand trying to push the release pin. I-Spec also does not play nicely with SRAM. 

SUCCESS: Adjustable Clutch

Shimano are the only manufacturer to offer an on-off switch on their clutch rear derailleurs. This is a good thing, particularly for gravel riding and makes wheel removal nice and straightforward as it’s far easier to flick a switch than to turn off the cage lock on SRAM. 

FAIL: Availability 

A bit of an unfair one in the current pandemic situation but let’s face it, even in conventional times, Shimano have always been poor on availability. They will release a product and it just won’t be available for months. Think about XTR for example where they announced it and then had to omit a certain technology before it could be released. SRAM are much better here in that when they release a product, it is pretty much immediately in stock. 


What are your thoughts on Shimano and where they succeed and fall short? Let me know your opinions in the comments. If you enjoyed this article, you can read my article on SRAM’s successes and aspects they can improve on here.

Review: Does the Sidi Shot hit the bullseye?

Note: This review was submitted as part of a test article.

Italian manufacturer Sidi’s range-topping road shoes, the Shot, was first spotted by eagle-eyed fans being worn by Chris Froome during the opening stages of the 2016 Tour-de-France. He would go on to ride them to victory that year and then again in 2017. The Shot superseded the brand’s previous range-topper, the Wire. The main difference between the two is a redesigned closure system (more on that later), otherwise there is very little to distinguish the two coveted kicks. The Wire remains in the line-up at £20 cheaper than the new offering. 

Weight is down slightly and for my pair of size 45’s, these came in at 711g on my digital scales of truth (Sidi quote 580g for a size 42, so this is probably about right). They’re certainly not the lightest out there. Specialized S-Works 7’s come in at a claimed 450g for a size 42 and Giro report a 440g weight for their Imperial shoe in the same size. But Sidi have never been one for chasing those that are weight conscious. At a somewhat eye-watering £359 RRP, something has to be special with these shoes, right?  


The ‘Microfibre Techpro’ upper material has a premium look and feel.

The key selling point of Sidi, compared to other brands, is that many of the small parts on the shoe are replaceable. This simply isn’t the case with most other shoe brands. Although the asking price for this is high compared to top-end offerings from brand such as Giro and Fi’zi:k, it’s in line with the Specialized S-Works 7 for example. With the (potential) extra investment, longevity is a key advantage for Sidi and with the right care and occasional replacement of parts, these could be fit for purpose for a very long time.   

The upper of the shoe is composed of Sidi’s ‘Microfibre Techpro’ material, which they claim is ‘not only durable, stable and light’ but ‘also repels water and has been treated to prevent the growth of bacteria and mould so your shoes remain odour-free’. This is coupled with their Vent carbon sole. The Vent carbon sole is optimised for a balance of optimal power transfer and comfort. I found these shoes are stiff but not overly so. Heck, if it’s stiff enough for Chris Froome, it’s stiff enough for us mere mortal riders! Sidi claim they use a ‘specific carbon weave’ to improve comfort. However, they haven’t elaborated on the weave or how it makes the sole more comfortable. 

Whilst I’ve been lucky not to be rained on with these shoes yet (I don’t actively seek to go out when it’s wet!), out on the road, I can certainly attest to their stable and durable feeling. As for the weight, when you’re riding, you don’t feel it and they certainly feel lighter than what they are. There are other places to minimise weight – shoes are a contact point after all and comfort should be the deciding factor. 

I also found their ventilation to be impressive. There is a small tab that with a small flathead screwdriver, you can open or close the vent depending on the weather conditions you’re riding in. This makes a big difference and riding in the couple of weeks heatwave in July here in the UK, I never had hot feet and could feel a cool breeze permeate its way through the shoes. Both the Shot and the Wire come in an ‘Air’ version if your riding will be in hotter conditions. This would be ideal if you are constantly riding in higher temperatures but I would otherwise stick to this standard version. No complaints here though. 

Fit is something that really impresses with these shoes. As with their previous Wire and other range-topping shoes, the Shot comes with an adjustable heel retention device. One can adjust this to stop your foot from slipping, helping to achieve the optimum fit. I’ve really got on with the ‘locked-in’ feel of some top-end shoes recently. I love the Specialized S-Works 6 for example, which although you have to fight a little to get your foot in, when it’s in, it’s superlative. On the Shot, having this adjustability a great idea as it can cater to a number of different shaped feet. However, I did find with the Shot that I can’t quite get it to close tight enough and there is a bit of lift.  


The gloss red rigid heel cup beautifully contrasts the matt red upper. The Italian flag by the reflective strips is a subtle nod to Sidi’s heritage.

Other features of this shoe include a ‘replaceable anti-slip polyurethane heel pad’. It’s meant to aid with walking but who really walks in road shoes for long periods? I can’t say I noticed the benefits. That said, the fact it is replaceable can only be a good thing. There are still far too many shoes out there where once you wear down the heel pad, it’s game over. Sidi also include reflective strips on either side of the back of the shoe to help with visibility when riding in lower light conditions. This security feature is a nice touch as anything that makes a cyclist a little more visible at night must be a plus.   


Two ‘Tecno 3 Dials’ on a single base work in tandem to fasten your foot in and out of the shoe. But is the positioning ideal? 

Sidi use their proprietary dial system to lock your feet in. The Shot has a ‘Double Tecno-3 Push’ closure system. It is basically as described. It consists of two Tecno 3 dials on one base that act as a pair to fasten the shoes on. The idea of this double system is to create the perfect tension to achieve supreme comfort. To fasten the dials, you simply press the ‘Push’ button on both dials which opens the dials up for you to adjust. You then interchange tightening up the dials to your liking. If you need to loosen them a little, there are two release clips on either end of the double dial where you can make minute adjustments. To get your foot out of the shoe, just hold the two releases down and lift your foot out of the shoe. 

I’ve always got on with Sidi’s Tecno system on previous models of theirs and it’s a suitable alternative to other systems like the eponymous BOA which is found on the majority of high-end shoes. I’ve had BOA wires kink on me before or outright fail, but luckily they are backed by BOA’s very useful and super-efficient lifetime warranty. I’ve not had this problem with Sidi before so haven’t tested their warranty program and hopefully I won’t need to! Ultimately, it’s swings and roundabouts. They both perform the same function using a slightly different method. 

I do have a problem with the location for these dials on the Shot’s though. They are right in the middle of the tongue. I feel like you can’t really get them that tight enough and I think a side-loading mechanism like on the Wire would be a lot better. The Wire could be a better pick if you agree with the positioning of the dual dials as it has one dial in the middle and a ratchet covering the span of the shoe. You are definitely best comprehensively trying both pairs of shoes before you buy! 

Finally, aesthetics of a shoe are important and this ‘Matt Red’ option looks, quite simply, amazing. As is course with Sidi, there are a plethora of colour options you can select from which perfectly match your frame and the rest of your kit. No excuses here. 

Ultimately, the Sidi Shot represents more an evolution rather than revolution in the brand’s current line-up of shoes. The price may be high (premium shoe prices seem to be ever-increasing at the moment) but the craftsmanship here is top-notch with their robust, ski-shoe like quality and their varied fit should suit a lot of riders, with the numerous adjustments one can make. I’m looking forward to getting many more miles on these Shot’s and I’m confident that these will be up to the task for a very long time.  

Ten Products I Loved In 2018

2018 was an interesting year in the cycling industry, with many interesting new products and developments. These included an influx of aero bikes from many different bike brands, the continued rise of disc brakes and more road bikes geared to venture slightly more off-road to name but a few trends.

Here I will detail ten products that I loved last year, products that are well designed and that I will use for years to come. In no particular order, here are my picks for the products that I loved most in 2018.

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Image from Castelli’s website.

Castelli Inferno Bib Shorts

I’ve always got on well with Castelli bib shorts as the padding in them is generally excellent and they are well made but last year year, I bought an Inferno for hot weather and it really comes into its own in hotter conditions and has become a favourite. The best compliment I can give these shorts is the cliched argument that you forget you are wearing them. They fit perfectly and after many uses, have proven to be impressively durable given the lightweight materials used.

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Image from Osprey’s website

Osprey Syncro 15

This bag is excellent both for commuting and for riding. With well-placed pockets and clever integration of storage, it feels excellent when commuting. I used the bag on a 70 mile ride down to the coast this year and whilst I could still tell I was wearing a bag, it’s better than a lot of other options out there that would be far more cumbersome.

BMC Teammachine SLR01 Disc

I upgraded to (one of) my dream bikes last year and I am very impressed with this bike. Aesthetically, this is one of the cleanest looking bikes on the market and the red paint job is just stunning. BMC have cleverly focussed on integration and there is barely a cable in sight. Whilst this is a hard bike to work on mechanically, at least BMC have designed the bike to be fairly logical to work on. The Teammachine SLR01 is a perfect blend of lightweight, stiff and aerodynamic and has proven to be an excellent all-rounder.

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Image from BikeRadar’s first-look at the Shimano Ultegra R8000 series groupset

Shimano Ultegra Di2 R8070

This one is a bit of a cheat seeing as it’s part of my BMC but I have been equally impressed with this groupset. Although more an evolution than revolution of the outgoing 6870 series, Shimano have integrated the hydraulic reservoir into the shifter impeccably and the shifter feels like a normal road cable-actuated shifter. It works very well and gear changes are more noticeable than on previous models, which was a common complaint for feeling a little vague.

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Image by Dave Rome, CyclingTips. Original article – https://cyclingtips.com/2018/03/silca-t-ratchet-ti-torque-tool-kit-review/

Silca Ti-Torque and T-Ratchet

The first (of many) Silca products that I bought last year when I discovered this brand. Silca are a brand whose ethos I strongly get behind who take a pride in engineering exceptional quality tools with no corners cut. This T-Ratchet set with the Ti-Torque beam is a masterclass as it combines pretty much every single bit you’d need on a beautifully crafted ratchet and has a torque bit to boot which displays live torque as you are tightening bolts. I use this day in day out where I work at a bike shop, it gets taken with me on every ride for any eventualities and it’s perfect on holidays when I hire bikes and don’t need to worry about working on carbon components. A masterpiece.

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Image from Kalf’s website

Kalf Flux Jersey

Kalf, exclusive to Evans Cycles, are a clothing brand that launched in 2017 and for the reasonable prices for their kit (generally everything is less than £100), it’s all really well-thought out items that rival other clothing brands that target the same demographic. This Flux jersey is their more race-focussed product (Club products are a more relaxed fit) and it is brilliant – great on hotter days due to lots of ventilation and the fit is spot-on.

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Image from Pedro’s website

Pedro’s Tyre Levers

The only set of tyre levers you should own. Perhaps a rather boring item to pick, these are perfectly designed and get most tyres off with ease or with relative ease if a difficult tyre. No tyre lever I have used compares to this. The shape is just perfect for real world conditions. And what’s more, they have a lifetime warranty to boot with no quibbles if you break them.

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Image from Clif’s website

Clif Energy Bar

The only food I look forward to eating when on the bike, these always hit the spot. They’re an impressively big portion so you could have one bar in two goes when on the bike and they taste very nice. The best compliment that I can give is I would be happy to eat these off the bike! The ‘Crunchy Peanut Butter’ is my pick of the bunch with the ‘Cool Mint Chocolate’ hotly contesting second place.

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Image from KMC’s website

KMC X11 SL Chain

I was fed up of having to replace Shimano chains after not a lot of mileage so I thought I’d give this uber-lightweight chain a go. This chain is sensational and you can really feel the difference when you ride. I’ve also found it a lot quieter to ride than Shimano and shifts remain silky smooth. The only chain to have!

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Image from Castelli’s website

Castelli Arenberg Gloves

Whilst now updated in 2019 (and now not quite as good), the previous version of the Arenberg gloves were excellent. The padding is in the right place, they fit very well and these are very comfortable to use on the bike, combined with quality bar tape.


What kit have you enjoyed using on the bike? Let me know your picks in the comments. 

Five Most Exciting Road Bikes For 2018

The 2018 model year bikes are now pretty much firmly released, so what better time to have a look and see what are the most exciting ones. Here, I will list my personal opinions of which bikes are the ones to have a look out for. This list will include a range of road bikes and some more off-road offerings.

Here we go:

Trek Emonda SLR Disc

This is a particularly significant bike as Trek have just proved that having disc brakes on a bike isn’t necessarily a weight disadvantage. The disc frame weighs a scant 665g, just 25g heavier than the rim brake SLR and 25g lighter than the first generation rim brake model. How Trek have done this is nothing short of amazing and it will be very easy to get one of these frames built up under 7kg. My only gripe with it is that Trek have decided to route the hose for the front disc brake externally down the fork with a zip tie – on a premium bike, despite the mechanical hassle, internal would look so much better.

Specialized Tarmac SL6 

The newest iteration of the Specialized Tarmac doesn’t really boast any big claims in the weight or aerodynamics department, but it does promise to do everything well. I’ve previously ridden the SL5 and own an Allez DSW SL which is based off the SL5 geometry so if they’re anything to go by, then the SL6 must be a winner. Even more exciting to look forward to is the imminent release of the new disc model – it’s been on the UCI approved list and there is talk of it being released during the Tour Down Under.

BMC Teammachine SLR01

I love the previous iteration of the Teammachine SLR01 and the new one looks even better. It borrows a lot from the Roadmachine, a bike billed as the ‘One-Bike Collection’ that released last year, such as the integrated cockpit and lack of exposed cables. I tested the Roadmachine and whilst it’s an ambitious bike, I don’t think it quite manages to accomplish what it set out – I have my problems with it. That said, I think my problems with it would work in the Teammachine’s favour. My only gripe with the new SLR01 is it is obscenely expensive.

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Image from Bike-Packing.com

Norco Search XR

Moving away slightly off-road, the new Norco Search XR is a radical departure from the previous model. An adventure road bike, the Search XR is capable of taking both 700c and 650b wheels, is suitable for bikepacking with a plethora of mounting points for bags and racks and as well as carbon models, also comes in a luxurious steel edition too. My only issue with it is the size of the Norco logo on the downtube, which just looks a little out of place.

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Image from Specialized website

Specialized CruX

Now onto full-on mud, Specialized make a second appearance in this list with their revamp of the CruX. The CruX has gone on a significant weight diet for 2018 and is now a dedicated cyclocross machine instead of the all-rounder the previous CruX was – the Diverge now fills in the gap. For me, this is easily the best looking bike of 2018 and the S-Works frameset with the hydrophobic paint job is a work of art.


What would your picks be? Let me know in the comments.