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. 

Road Bike Buyers Guide

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If you’re in the market for a road bike, there’s a lot to consider. Here, I will take you through everything I feel is important when looking at a new steed. I will explain my experiences in my years of cycling and also through working part-time in a bike shop and all the knowledge that I have accumulated. This will be an honest guide and I will explain what areas are best to prioritise on and what areas are best to upgrade in the future. I also intend for this to be an article that I will regularly update as time goes by, so do feel free to check back once every so often.

When looking at a road bike (or any bike for that matter), I feel there are 4 main areas to look at and in order of importance, here they are:

  • Frameset
  • Groupset
  • Wheels and Tyres
  • Finishing Kit

Frameset

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Image from BMC’s website

The frameset consists of the frame and fork. In my opinion, this is most important because unless you buy a new bike, you’ve got this frameset for a while. (Or alternatively, if you’re mechanically able, you could buy a not-so-great frame with brilliant parts and upgrade the frame in the future and put all those parts onto it…) You can upgrade the parts that hang off the frame if they are not up to scratch. There are two important things to look at when you’re looking at a frameset in my opinion – frame materials and intended use.

There are generally four main types of materials used in a frame – aluminium, carbon, steel and titanium. Aluminium and carbon are the most prevalent in the bike industry and account for most mainstream bikes that are on the market. Aluminium is generally much cheaper to manufacture and accounts for bikes mainly around the £1000 mark. Carbon is generally the exotica material people crave for in a bike and can generally be found from £1200 upwards. Carbon is generally regarded as a better material as it dampens road vibrations and is much lighter and with carbon, manufacturers can create more complex tube shapes. However, it is extremely important to note that there are varying levels of both of these materials. Higher-end aluminium is much better than a lower-grade of carbon and I’d generally argue that if your budget is less than £1500 on a full RRP bike, go with aluminium as you’ll get a much better specced bike and it will feel more lively and ultimately, be a better ride.

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Image from Dolan Bicycles

On aluminium bikes at entry level prices, it’s important to have a look at the material the fork is made from. I would only ever buy a frame with a carbon fork as carbon will dampen the vibrations on the front end before you feel those vibrations at the handlebars. I would personally steer clear of a bike with an aluminium fork – the difference is night and day.

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This example is a Specialized D’Aluisio Smartweld frame – note the welds near the head tube. The welding on this bike makes the frame stiffer and lighter. Specialized even have an S-Works level of the Allez, so this proves that you can make wonderful frames out of what is generally regarded as a lesser material.

Make sure you have a look where the frame material used in a particular bike ranks in a brand’s hierarchy. Specialized, for example, have two grades of aluminium – E5 and D’Aluisio Smartweld and their carbon bikes range from FACT 8r carbon all the way up (9, 10, 11) to 12r carbon reserved for their S-Works level of bikes. I would always say get the best frame you can, for the reasons I stated before, you’ve got that frame generally until you buy a new bike.

The next important thing to consider frame-wise is style of frame and then geometry. Unfortunately, there is no such thing as “a road bike”. There are many different sub-categories. This guide will exclusively be dealing with road bikes, not cyclocross / adventure / touring / TT bikes (which I may write about in a future post).

With road bikes, I would split them into four categories:

  • Endurance
  • Race
  • Climbing
  • Aero

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Specialized Roubaix – this is an example of an endurance bike. The Roubaix has a taller head tube and shorter top tube so you’re more upright. It also has a FutureShock which is a cartridge in the head tube that offers a little suspension, the seatstays are dropped to offer more comfort as the seatpost can flex and the seatpost has a Zertz pad at the top, also to take some sting out of the roads. Image from Specialized’s website

An endurance road bike (people also refer to these sometimes as sportif or granfondo bikes) are bikes that are designed for comfort or longer distances. They are generally taller on the front end so you’re not in a very low and aggressive position and the top tubes are generally shorter, again so you’re not too stretched out. Many brands build in specific compliance features to aid comfort in the frame for the rider – for example, Trek and their use of IsoSpeed decouplers in some of their frames.

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Cannondale SuperSix Evo – this is an example of a race bike. Compared to the endurance bike, it has a shorter head tube, longer top tube so you are in a more aggressive position. There is no fancy suspension here like on the Roubaix either! Image from Cannondale’s website

A race bike, I would argue, is the nearest definition to a road bike. These are bikes that are comfortable enough for any riding you want to do, generally lightweight but in comparison to an endurance bike, they are more aggressive in position.

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Trek Emonda – this bike is purely designed for its light weight. The frameset weighs an astonishing 640g. With this particular bike, the geometry mimics more of a race bike than an endurance bike and there are no aero features as such. Image from TrekBikes

A climbing bike, not as prevalent as the other three categories, is a bike purely designed to be as light as possible for you guessed, climbing. In terms of geometry, these borrow mostly from a race bike.

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BMC Timemachine – this is an example of an aero bike. Note the aero tubing, in particular how close the tyre comes to the frame to minimise drags. For futher aerodynamics, this bike also has integrated brakes within the frameset. The head tube will be shorter than a race bike generally and the top tube longer as well to put you in an even more aggressive, aerodynamic position.

An aero bike is a bike purely designed with aerodynamics in mind, for maximum speed. These types of bikes will quite often use aero / kammtail tubing which often means that they compromise on comfort although with bikes like the Trek Madone, this is not always the case. If you want to go as fast as possible or race and don’t mind sacrificing on some comfort, this is the bike for you.

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The BMC Roadmachine caters for all of these disciplines as its frame is fairly lightweight, you can use the different spacers to control how high or low the handlebars for comfort. For comfort too, it has dropped seatstays to allow the seatpost to flex and wider tyres. It is also a bike you could race on with its slight aero profiling and by putting it in its lower position. Image from RoadCycling UK – https://roadcyclinguk.com/gear/bmc-roadmachine-rm01-ultegra-2017-road-bike-review.html

Of course, road bikes aren’t strictly confined to these categories and you will find many that will fall in different places on the spectrum or even with a bike like the BMC Roadmachine, a bike that BMC envisage as ‘the one-bike collection’, designed for all of these types of riding.

I would have a good long think about what it is exactly you want to do and achieve with this new investment and go for the frame that best suits your needs. There’s no point of you buying an aero bike when your goal is to complete a 200km sportive for example, likewise if your looking at racing, there’s no point getting something more for endurance.

That said, if you buy a bike and want to adapt it to another style of riding, there’s nothing stopping you. For example, if you bought an aero bike but then found you wanted to ride sportives on it, in order to make the bike even more comfortable, you could look at sticking some wider tyres on, fitting thicker bar tape, upgrading to a carbon handlebar / seatpost. Just because you have a road bike that doesn’t quite match your riding needs, it doesn’t mean that you’re doomed. But still, if you’re in the market to purchase a new bike, you might as well get the style of bike that initially matches what you want to do on it.

To make things easier, I have created a table with many of the big brands and their different models and what categories they come under.

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Groupset

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The groupset are the parts that hang off the frame, as it were, and is the collective term for the shifters, brakes, chainset, front and rear mechs, chain and cassette. I will go into more detail on a future post about groupsets but in essence, all of the major manufacturers (Shimano, SRAM and Campagnolo) have different levels of groupset to suit different price points hence why I’m going to go straight in with using all of the jargon.

The most important thing as of writing is the braking due to the rim brake / disc brake divide at the moment. This is due to the fact that the frame needs to be specific for the braking system. I’ve previously written a detailed post on the evolution of disc brakes which you can read about here and this will hopefully help you make a decision.

With any groupset, I would urge you to go to 11-speed (11 gears on the back) with regards to gears if you can as it means the jumps between each gear are much smaller and you still have the same range. You can generally find Shimano 105-equipped bikes from about the £1000 mark and what it means is that in the future, if you are to upgrade to a presumably better bike and want to interchange wheels between them, you haven’t got the headache of incompatibility. That said, if your budget doesn’t stretch, you can always look to upgrade in the future, particularly if you do get the cycling bug.

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Image from Road Cycling UK

Shimano tends to be the groupset manufacturer that tends to be sold on most bikes. It’s all very good stuff and works very well. SRAM and Campagnolo aren’t quite as common but all three manufacturers all offer intuitive shifting and braking at different price points. Again, stay tuned for a future post where I will go through these in more detail.

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Two different size chainsets together. Image from BikeHugger.com – ‘ The Rise of the Compact Crank’

Pay attention to the gear ratios that are specced on the bike as well. The gear ratios correspond to the number of teeth on the chainrings and cassette. When it comes to the chainrings, most bikes typically tend to have 50/34 (50 teeth on the bigger chainring, 34 on the inner chainring), which is good for climbing and most people are comfortable with this configuration. Race and aero bikes and pro riders often have bigger gearing with 53/39. 53 means you can reach a higher speed, but you’d need to really be going some to spin out a 53-11. To accommodate in between, race bikes can also come with a 52/36 which is a nice compromise – you’ll spin out a 52 less easily than a 50 but then the climbing gear isn’t as tough as a 39.

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A 48/32 example Image from FSA’s website

Adventure Road bikes and even some endurance bikes may either have a sub-compact (which is a 48/32 or 46/30) to give you an even easier climbing gear and Cyclocross bikes are often 46/36 as the gear range that you need to cycle off-road is much closer – you wouldn’t need a 50 for example.

Some cheaper bikes or touring bikes may still come with a triple chainset which is often a 50/39/30 to give you an easier climbing gear. Bear in mind though that triples are not as efficient as you have a lot of duplicate gears.

Image from FeedTheHabit.com

Some bikes, particularly Adventure Road and Cyclocross are now coming with single chainsets and a wider-range cassette at the back. This offers a cleaner look, less weight as you ditch the front mech, cable and shifter and systems such as SRAM 1x incorporate additional measures for chain retention such as clutch derailleurs and narrow/wide chainrings to better hold the chain and stop the chain slapping on the chainstays.

cassettes

Different cassette ratios

Speaking of the cassette, this is the other thing to bear in mind in conjunction with the chainset gear ratio. Most bikes come with an 11-28, offering a good fast gear with the 11 and a nice climbing gear with 28. Race and aero bikes may come with an 11-25 or 11-23 which aren’t as easy for climbing but it means that the jumps between each gear are smaller. Endurance bikes and adventure bikes may come with 11-30 or 11-32 which is a nice, wide range as you get an easier climbing gear but remember that the jumps between each gear will be bigger. With 1x groupsets, it’s not uncommon for the single chainset to be combined with a 11-36 or 10-42 cassettes to give you that wider range. However, you cannot fit these onto a normal 2x groupset as the derailleurs’ cage isn’t long enough to reach those bigger cogs.

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Image from Shimano’s website

If you see yourself in the future wanting to upgrade to electronic gears such as Shimano Di2 or Campagnolo EPS, you need to make sure the cables in the frame are internally routed as the battery for the groupset sits inside the frame.

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This bike has specced a non-series Shimano RS500 chainset as opposed to the 105 one. It is a little heavier compared to the 105 one, but this is an easy area for the brands to save costs. Image from BikeRadar

Also, when looking at bikes, have a look and see what you’re not getting. A particular bike may advertise itself as having a Shimano 105 groupset but on closer inspection of the spec sheet, you may only be getting the 105 shifters and mechs and the rest of it isn’t 105. Brands do this, most of the time (there are some exceptions), for cost-cutting purposes. A bike might have an FSA chainset for example, or a KMC chain or Tektro brakes. I wouldn’t worry too much about these, particularly for a chain for example as you’ll end up replacing that at some point anyway after it’s worn. However, I would be a little weary if the brakes were downgraded, such as Tektro as these typically won’t offer as much stopping power and may lack bite. You could change the pads out for some cartridge pads once they’ve worn out and that will dramatically improve them or perhaps upgrade in the future.

Wheels and Tyres

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Image from Mantel.com

Wheels and tyres are paramount to how your bike rides and a good set of wheels and tyres is a vast improvement compared to a shoddy set. With most bikes, the wheels and tyres are unlikely to be up to par with the frameset and groupset and this is often deliberate. What would be the point in buying a bike with deep section, aerodynamic wheels when you’re after a really shallow, lightweight set?

Unfortunately this logic doesn’t quite translate with tyres and tyres are in my opinion, even more important, than wheels as they are your main contact point with the ground. Unless the tyres that come on the bike really are pants, I don’t see any need in upgrading straightaway as you may as well wear out the tyres that came on it and then subsequently upgrade. However, when it does come to buying new tyres, do not skimp – even the ride of an utterly rubbish bike can be transformed with good tyres as is the case the other way around.

When it comes to upgrades, the wheels and tyres should generally be the first thing you do as it will make the world of difference to your bike – tyres, again because they are the main contact point with the ground but also wheels because it reduces rotating weight. You’re far more likely to reap more benefit upgrading your wheels as opposed to a stem for precisely that reason.

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The wheels on this Trek Emonda ALR are in line with the rest of the build on the bike. Image from Trek Bikes

I have noticed a couple of brands such as Trek, for example, are beginning to offer consumers the option of the same bike but with an upgrade in wheels for a nominal cost. If the wheels suit the type of riding you want to do, this is probably a brilliant deal and saves you the job of upgrading down the line. But for I’d say 90% of cases, the wheels are always sub-par in comparison to their respective frameset and groupset they’re paired with.

Finishing Kit 

The finishing kit is essentially the rest of the bike – the seatpost, saddle, handlebars and stem. These aren’t as important as the frameset, groupset and wheelset but are still something you should have a look at.

However, what is important is I would set some money aside (included in your budget) for potentially, a new saddle, handlebar and stem. It is impossible for manufacturers to spec these parts perfectly for you as everyone is so different. I wouldn’t rush with changing them straightaway (except maybe for the stem as this aids in bike fit) but after a few rides, you’ll know whether or not these parts work for you. I won’t go into what saddles or handlebars you should look at here but don’t be surprised if you find you need to change these.

Whilst not essential as well, it would be worth having a look and seeing what material these parts are made from. Most of the time, they’ll be aluminium but carbon is a nice upgrade in these areas (not always for saddles though) as it can aid in comfort as they dampen vibrations from the road.

A Note on Prices 

I just wanted to highlight as well that you really don’t need to spend a ridiculous amount of money on a bike. From experience of working in a bike shop and from my own personal riding of riding bikes at different price points, the biggest differences in spec come towards the comparative lower end of the market. The minimum I would spend on a bike would be £400 (as of present) as generally but not always, anything lower is likely to be majorly flawed in some way – I’ll reiterate a point I made earlier on in that I would never buy a bike which didn’t have carbon forks on it.

The biggest differences come as you go up to the £1000 mark and I would say £1000-1200 would be where you could find a brilliant Shimano 105-equipped high-end aluminium frame. Notice that in the space of £500-700ish the lengths of difference from comparative Shimano Tourney or Claris-equipped bikes at the beginning of the range. Of course, you need to take every single bike you look at for its own merits but I have found this generally to be the trend.

I personally wouldn’t bother with carbon unless you want to spend upwards of £1500 as generally but not always (unless there is a sale), it will be inferior to its higher-specced aluminium alternative both in frame and components. As you spend even more venturing into the £2000-2500 category, you then get better quality frames and higher end components. And then after that, you then access the best frames with the best components but I personally see no need to spend more than £3000 as you then start to spend a lot more money for not all that much difference.

Summary

I hope everything here makes sense to you and if you have any questions at all, please feel free to leave me a comment and I will get back to you promptly. It can be a daunting process buying a road bike but I’m of the philosophy that I’d much rather you know what you’re buying than just blindly head down to the bike shop  or press the ‘order’ button online and pick out the first thing you see. After all, a good bike could be the make-or-break if you choose to pursue cycling or not.

I must stress that it is difficult to find the perfect bike that ticks all of these boxes. You may find you need to compromise somewhere, but with your own research and from my experiences that I have detailed in this article, hopefully you can work out what would most suit you.

Happy Cycling!

First Bike Build Project

It’s taken a while but I’ve finally managed, for the first time, to build up a road bike from a bare frameset. This has been one of my bike-related dreams for a while and I feel very proud to have fulfilled it…and I’d happily do it again.

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First, a bit of context behind this build. As a Winter bike, I’ve been riding a B’Twin Alur 700 for several years which has mostly been fine and has made for a reliable Winter / university workhorse. It’s fairly light and comfortable and has served me many miles, embarking on many club rides, sportives and the odd TT here and there. However, the rear brake is chainstay-mounted which has caused many problems particularly in the Winter months with all the mud and dirt getting caught into it and odd headset bearings. So I have been looking for a while for something that will do the job a bit better and also who doesn’t always envy a new bike?!

However, I managed to find a Specialized Allez DSW SL frameset, brand new too, for a very reasonable price. If that all sounded completely confusing, the Allez DSW SL is Specialized’s higher-tier aluminium frame featuring their D’Aluisio (named after the designer) Smartweld technology making for a lighter, stiffer and stronger frame.

I bought the frame around Christmas time last year but as I had my B’Twin up at uni, I didn’t get a chance to bring the old bike home until May. I then managed to transfer a lot of the parts over from the B’Twin and changed a couple of other parts in the meantime as to me, it made sense to. I ran into a couple of snags though, for example when I broke a stem bolt and had to wait ages to get a replacement and also holidays and work got in the way. I have only just completed it earlier this month and went out on my first maiden voyage the other day. I’ll do a full review and write up once I get to know the bike more but so far, so good. Here it is:

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Here’s a full list of specs for those interested:

Frame and Fork: Specialized Allez DSW SL

Groupset: Shimano 105 5800, 50/34 chainset, 11-32 cassette (I will change this to an 11-28 when it wears out)

Wheelset: Mavic Aksium Race (these are still going strong from my original bike, once these are worn, they’ll be replaced)

Tyres: Continental Grand Prix 4 Seasons, 700x25c

Pedals: Shimano 105

Saddle: Fi’zi:k Aliante (this will probably be changed at some point)

Seatpost: Specialized S-Works Carbon

Handlebar: Specialized S-Works Carbon Handlebar, 42cm (I upgraded this from the 3T Ergosum Pro handlebars I originally had as they were the wrong shape for me and I was so impressed with the carbon handlebars on another bike, I thought I might as well bite the bullet now if I have to tape them and mount the shifters / sort out cables etc…)

Stem: Bontrager Race Lite 100mm (this will be changed soon as well. Part of the reason why this post is so late was because I broke a bolt on the original Deda stem I fitted to the bike but I need to see how the bike works size-wise before upgrading.

Headset: Tange Seiki, 1 1/8 to 1 3/8 (these will be upgraded when they wear out)

Bottom Bracket: Unbranded BB30 (this will be upgraded when it wears out)

Handlebar Tape: Specialized S-Wrap Roubaix Wide (Black)

Bottle Cages: Elite Cannibal

I’m not sure on the weight yet but I would imagine it to weigh in the low 8’s region. I’ll update this article when I know.

I would definitely recommend building up your own bike if you get the chance as you get to pick and choose all the components you want and also it means that you haven’t got to buy something you don’t want (ie. if a bike you buy is not specced how you want it and then have to spend money to upgrade). I would definitely do it again and over the years, as I have worked with bikes and know a lot more of how they work, I can upgrade or change sections at a time rather than just buying new bikes. I’ll say it again, building your own bike is an EXTREMELY rewarding process.

 

The Evolution Of Road Disc Brakes

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“Disc brakes”, I hear you say, “not this petty argument again.” You would be right and I cannot agree enough how sick I am of people complaining that they don’t need them and that they are fine with rim brakes and vice versa. This isn’t what this article is about – instead, I am going to highlight how I feel they have evolved over the last couple of years and how we are getting even closer to a better set of standards. Rim brakes are still brilliant in their own right as they allow you to have a generally lighter bike and still offer excellent braking and it’s good to see brands such as Trek, who offer consumers the choice rather than forcing you into one type of braking. Looking at a lot of the 2017 model year bikes and the majority of bikes for 2018, it is clear that disc brakes have evolved a lot since their inception into road biking. Let’s take a look at this apparent path of evolution.

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When disc brakes were first announced on road bikes, many of them were mechanical disc brake systems (operated by a cable, not hydraulic fluid) which in my opinion, are lacking. I can see the benefits to mechanical for those who tour in that it is easier to get hold of a cable as opposed to specific hydraulic fluid. However, mechanical disc brakes are subject to cable stretch and require a lot more maintenance than hydraulics which self-adjust as the pads wear. You don’t get as much modulation and feel or bite compared to hydraulics. In my opinion, they’re not really good for anything and brand such as TRP introduced the Hy/Rd which is a part hydraulic system but to be honest, I would agree with Matthew Allen’s assessment in a recent BikeRadar article that this is a solution to a problem that shouldn’t exist in the first place. Of course they’re cheaper than going the whole hog to a hydraulic system but as you will see, as is the case in the bike industry, now that disc brakes on road bikes are no longer in their infancy, they have been subject to trickle down to lower levels.

Hydraulics were introduced onto road bikes by SRAM and Shimano which instantly propelled this technology and improved the quality of braking on these various road bikes that came equipped with them. However, hydraulics were still in their infancy. Both Shimano and SRAM’s levers were considerably more bulbous in order to house the reservoir for the hydraulics.

Shimano weren’t confident from the outset of their hydraulics and didn’t incorporate them into their groupset line, instead labelling their levers with part numbers – R785 for the electronic-hydraulic lever, RS685 for the mechanical-hydraulic lever that was aimed at the Ultegra level, RS505 for 105, RS405 for Tiagra. The latter two are perhaps the most ugliest shifters I have ever seen (although this is personal opinion) and also affect fit of the bike as it means that your hands are further out on the hoods. As I work part-time in a bike shop, these two models do complicate the fitting process as you have to account for this. These later models have been introduced throughout the years and it’s refreshing to see Shimano offer hydraulics at the Tiagra level. Whilst these systems all worked well, it was interesting to see that Shimano weren’t confident enough to incorporate these levers into their official groupset line.

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SRAM did however incorporate hydraulic braking into their line of groupsets but then famously suffered a widescale recall in late 2013 due to some quality control issues. Although the replacement was still considerably more bulbous, it was a lot smaller than the original iteration.

It is very interesting to note Shimano’s recently announced Dura-Ace and Ultegra groupsets and Shimano have now totally revamped the levers, rotors and callipers and have branded them into these levels. It is astonishing to see, the Dura-Ace version in particular, maintain the same shape as the cable-actuated version and this is proof that you can get these levers to the same size in order to get the same feel. If you’re going to go for Shimano disc brakes, I would say now is the time where you can finally feel confident.

SRAM haven’t yet announced their next generation groupsets but I am confident that they will follow suit with the way that Shimano have done. This just leaves Campagnolo alone in the water, who are only just beginning to bring out their own hydraulic systems.

The actual brake itself though isn’t the only thing to consider when it comes to disc brakes. You also need to consider the size of rotor, how the calliper attaches to the frame and how the wheel attaches to the bike. This is why disc brakes have been quite a complicated affair over the years and why they haven’t yet been introduced into the pro-peloton. If you needed a spare wheel from neutral service, how would you know if the wheel you were getting would fit the same standards as your bike?

When it comes to rotor size, the bigger the rotor, the more powerful the brake. With road bikes, you don’t need anywhere near as big a rotor as you would on a mountain bike and at first, the standard seemed to be 140mm. However, other brands spec 160mm and some brands spec 160mm front, 140mm rear such as my Norco cyclocross bike. This standard still isn’t set in stone but with brands releasing adaptors to convert between the two, this certainly helps and I suspect 160mm will be the preferred size as time goes on.

In terms of mounting, the two types are flat-mount and post-mount. Post-mount pretty much follows the IS standard it replaced from mountain bikes whereas flat-mount discs sit flush against the frame and make hose-routing (particularly when the hose is routed internally through the frame) better. Again, you are able to convert between the two depending on what standard your frame is but in my opinion, this makes the bike look quite ugly. Each to their own though.

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(Left) Post-Mount, (Right) Flat-Mount             Images from BikeRadar

Keeping in tune with how disc brakes have evolved over the years, it looks very much like flat-mount will be the main standard and is much more predominant on 2017/18 bikes than it has been before. Shimano, who invented the standard, only sell callipers for their new Dura-Ace and Ultegra groupset in a flat-mount configuration.

The final thing to consider is how the wheel attaches to your bike. At first, quick-releases (QR) were used which are good enough but there is always an element of adjustment with them which means you need to position the wheel perfectly so your disc rotor doesn’t rub. There is also the very small risk that the forces exerted by the disc can cause a QR to loosen.

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Image from BikeRadar

Thru-axles (TA), carried over from the mountain bike world, are now popular on road bikes with disc brakes as it makes the frame much stiffer as TA’s only go into the frame in one direction and it also reduces the risk of disc rub. It is also more difficult overtighten them as a lot of them come with a preloaded torque. Systems such as Focus’ RAT system make this process even easier – the RAT system requires a quarter-turn to undo which makes wheel changes even quicker.

In terms of standards, at first there were many. On the front, 100×12 and 100×15 for example (and on the back, 142×12 and Specialized’s infamous 135×12 (more on that in a minute). These dimensions refer to the size of the thru-axle and the frames that manufacturers released were also specific to these sizes. You can’t change between them because the thru-axles need to be specific to the frame. Looking to the present, it now looks as if manufacturers have settled on 12mm front and 12mm back. However, wheel manufacturers such as Zipp give you different end-caps with their wheels so you can swap between them all and also QR.

You also need to consider how the thru-axle is removed from the bike. Some have a lever-design with a ratchet, some require an allen key to remove them, some such as DT Swiss’ lever can do both. Carrying around an allen key to take your wheel off is a bit of a faff but it does make the bike look cleaner and of course, the industry is always chasing for integration and aerodynamics. When you look at how this aspect could be a dilemma in the pro peloton, it could mean that certain riders can get their wheels changed quicker than others which is a little unfair. But for the likes of you and me who presumably don’t race professionally, surely the added security and stiffness of a thru-axle is a better benefit than a faster wheel change.

So taking all these standards into account, it looks like the industry will go for 140/160 disc rotors, flat-mount disc brakes with 12mm thru-axles front and rear. This would make sense and would mean that because these are all the same, if neutral service were to carry wheels of this spec or if you were to buy or swap your disc-brake wheels from bike to bike, they would interchange together.

Now that we’ve looked at the actual disc brakes, the models and the various standards that go with them, we finally need to have a look at the frames that manufacturers have made to accommodate disc-brakes.

Frames in most cases, need to be specific to the braking. A disc frame needs to be able to react well to the different forces a disc brake exerts compared to a rim brake. Generally, they are a bit beefier and a little heavier to accommodate this. When you look at geometry charts, it’s often quite telling to see how in most cases, manufacturers need to change the geometry to suit.

Have a look at chainstay length for instance. Generally, the shorter the chainstay, the more nimble the bike will handle on the back end and it’ll mean a shorter wheelbase too (distance between the axles, a longer wheelbase means a more stable bike, a shorter wheelbase means more nippy). However, this affects the chainline and the groupset brands specify a chainstay length of 420mm needed to ensure good performance of the gears. You don’t really need to worry about this on endurance bikes as they tend to have a longer wheelbase anyway as they are designed for comfort. However, when brands such as Specialized made disc-brake versions of their Tarmac and CruX for instance, typically bikes designed for racing, you don’t want to change the properties of the frame as if you have longer chainstays than their rim-brake counterparts, this then affects how the bike handles as it’ll have a longer chainstay which will mean more stable.

Specialized infamously tried to combat this by introducing SCS (Short Chainstay System) and to do that, it had to change the rear thru-axle size to accommodate this to 135x12mm. This received uproar as it meant that many wheel brands didn’t support this size and you were only tied to Roval (Specialized’s in-house brand) and a few others for wheels. Cannondale have managed to do this in a slightly more friendly way and additionally create further mud clearance on their cyclocross SuperX bikes by redishing the rear wheel 6mm to the right.

As you can probably tell, there is a lot to consider when it comes to the method of braking you go for when it comes to picking a road bike. But I now feel that with a solid set of standards seemingly set, now is a much better time to make the jump if you’re unsure as it looks like you will be supported in the years to come. My next road bike will certainly be disc as I feel that the manufactures have reached a high-enough level. The manufacturers will only further improve and now that they all seem to have more confidence in their own product and have managed to make the levers an almost indentical to their cable-actuated counterparts, it shows that this technology is being taken seriously.

Norco Threshold C Rival (First Look)

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So it’s finally happened… After planning on giving cyclocross a go, I’ve finally managed to get myself a bike that I think is going to be perfectly suitable. Although cross season is pretty much done for, in-between and after finishing studying this year at university, I’m going to try and prepare myself for some cross races and perhaps some off-road sportives or adventure-style type of riding. We’ll have to see how things go as I’ve got some road riding plans too but that’s the plan thus far.

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The bike is a Norco Threshold C Rival, Norco being a reputable Canadian brand that are exclusively stocked by Evans Cycles in the UK. They tend to be great value for money and the bike was actually a lot cheaper for me than a lot of lower-spec aluminium offerings, specifically from BMC and Specialized. For cross, I was looking more at aluminium-framed bikes as they can be chucked about a little more but do bear a weight penalty so this was quite a nice surprise to see. The frame is made of what Norco call, ‘mid-modulus’ carbon and their top-end frames are made of ‘high-modulus’ or in some cases, ‘ultra-high modulus’. This means that the frame is a little heavier than other carbon offerings by this brand but I think Norco have done a lot of interesting things with this frame to fully utilise it for cyclocross. The seatstays are what’s called ‘ARC-Race’ which from the image, you can see arc a little to provide a bit more comfort and the frame is what is built around a particularly beefy PF30 bottom bracket – I’m not a fan of press-fit bottom brackets but so far this has been problem-free. The frame also has an ‘Armor-Lite’ coating which supposedly protects from stone chips and the like so as not to ruin that lovely frame and the internal cabling implores a technology called ‘Gizmo’ which stops the cables rattling inside the frame and stops dirt attracting into the cabling. I absolutely love the paint-job of this bike – Norco have decided to employ a chequered black and red and I think it really stands out from the crowd. Weirdly though, the bike has a whole host of eyelets to fit mudguards / racks etc… but seeing as this is designed as a race-ready cyclocross bike (the Search is their adventure model), it is a little strange but doesn’t detract from the ride.

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The groupset is a full SRAM Rival 1x groupset, something which I really wanted to have on this bike due to the added security of the clutch-mechanism in the rear derailleur and the narrow-wide chainrings to perfectly match the X-Sync PC1130 chain. For cross, I don’t think Shimano are even remotely near the level that SRAM have come to, they’re onto a winner with their CX1 systems. The levers are a little bulbous as they contain the reservoir for the hydraulics but I actually quite like the look of them and they feel very snug and secure when handling the bike. In terms of gear ratios, the bike came with a 42t chainring which is a little on the big side but at least it means that you get a harder gear with 42-11. Cassette-wise, an 11-32 is specced but I instantly changed this to an 11-36 so the bike is more suitable for road-riding. Off-road a 32 would have been fine but it would have been hard work getting up the short, steep climbs of the Chilterns on the road.

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The wheels are Alexrims A-Class CXD4’s which are pretty unremarkable but roll nicely and they don’t weigh too much. It’s a shame they’re not tubeless-ready but I might have a go at converting them to ‘ghetto-tubeless’ at some point by using electrical insulation tape and sealant which seems to work. Clement MXP tyres are specced which I’ve been impressed with off-road so far but I have punctured already and this is why I think tubeless is ultimately the way I’ll go on this bike as not only will it reduce the risk of punctures but also I can run lower pressures off-road. You can’t really do this with inner tubes as if you go too low, you could pinch-flat. A feature that I was very keen on having was thru-axles as opposed to quick-release skewers for added stiffness and better disc rotor alignment and Norco have specced DT Swiss Thru-Axle’s front and rear. You really can tell the added stiffness they bring and after riding my road bike after this, it’s very noticeable to perceive this added benefit.

The stem and handlebar are own-brand Norco which again are unremarkable but have a good anatomical shape. The bar tape is nothing special but easy to replace in the future. I also instantly changed the seatpost and saddle, the saddle to a Fabric Scoop as I get on with this and it’s very easy to clean which is always a bonus. The seatpost is a Specialized S-Works COBL GOBL-R which has a Zertz-insert at the head of the post which gives it a cobra-like shape but I’ve been mightily impressed with it so far. The bike came with a Norco carbon seatpost which I will put on another bike.

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So that’s the bike and over my Christmas holidays, I’ve managed to get a few rides in around the local trails and even went on a club CX ride. Unfortunately I won’t get a chance to do any more until Easter as I’m at university but once I have put the bike through its paces, I will fully review this bike but so far on a handful of rides, I’ve been very impressed. It handles very nicely, the Rival 1x groupset is excellent and it has ample clearance for mud which it has certainly experienced so far. It may lack technical features such as Trek’s IsoSpeed or Cannondale’s SpeedSave technology but this is an unashamed, Canadian-flavoured off-road powerhouse that I am very positive about so far. In terms of cyclocross as a sport, I think it may even be more fun than road riding as you can take the bike just about anywhere and it will handle it. The only downside is constant cleaning of the bike if I head off-road and I would suspect the bearings on the bike will need to be serviced / replaced more frequently. But in terms of the ride, it’s potentially the best fun you can ever have on two wheels!

Stay tuned for my full review soon