John C. Kirk (johnckirk) wrote,
John C. Kirk

Bespoke spokes

I've had my Brompton (folding bike) for almost two years, and it's served me well. However, now that I'm cycling further, I think it's time for me to buy a new bike.

The Brompton is ideally suited to commuting: I can cycle to the station, fold it up and take it on the train, then cycle from the station to work. For short hops it's great, but if I do more than 10 miles then my lower back starts to ache. I initially assumed that this was because of my height; I have the extended seat pillar, but the handlebars don't raise because that would mess up the folding mechanism. However, Will Self is quite happy with his Brompton (as per his Independent article), and he's probably a bit taller than me. I now think that the real issue is body shape. Last year I had trouble finding bib tights that would fit, because they seem to assume a standard set of proportions, whereas I normally take XL tights and M jerseys.

Anyway, if I get a bike with a bigger frame then that should work better. In particular, I've been looking at touring bikes: I'll use it for commuting, and go the whole way between home and office (rather than taking the train). That's about 35 miles a day for the round trip, so I'll get quite used to the bike, and I'll learn how to do minor repairs. Then next year I'll cycle from Land's End to John O'Groats; this started out as a vague intention, but it's now a serious plan, so I'm currently working out the dates/route.

I considered getting a second hand bike, but I had a couple of reservations. Firstly, it might be stolen; Gumtree seem to advertise this! Secondly, I'm not sure whether I'd be able to identify a bike that's in good condition: I have quite a bit of experience with Bromptons, but less so with other types of bike. If I bought something cheap, but then had to replace all the parts, it wouldn't be much of a bargain.

In terms of brand, Dawes have a fairly good reputation (particularly their Galaxy range). I used to have one of their bikes when I was an undergrad, until someone stole it. The snag is that you can only buy their touring bikes from certain shops (their "Touring Specialists"), and there aren't any in London. Most of them charge the same prices, but Spa Cycles are significantly cheaper than the rest (and they do a 10% discount for CTC members), so I considered going up to Harrogate; I have some friends living nearby, so that would be a good opportunity to see them again. However, if I wanted to do a test ride first then I'd need to make two trips, and if I found any problems then it would be a long trip to take it back for repair.

Meanwhile, I read Sarah Lintern's LEJOG blog, which inspired me to make more serious plans. Her bike came from Roberts Cycles, which is in Croydon; in fact, it's about 100 metres away from the SJA building, although I'd never noticed it before. Digging around on the web, they have an excellent reputation, and it makes sense to take advantage of living so close by. I went along there this morning for a custom fitting, and I was very impressed.

While I was waiting to see Chas Roberts, I looked at their noticeboards, which are covered in postcards and photos/letters from happy customers. You wouldn't see that in a shop like Evans or Halfords! We then looked at the different types of bikes, to work out which one would be best for me. Although I originally intended to get a touring bike, Sarah used an Audax for her LEJOG, so I thought that might make sense for me too. As Chas said, the main issue is how much luggage you intend to carry, and if I'm doing "lightweight touring" (i.e. staying in B&Bs rather than camping) then that will reduce my load, and I won't be carrying that much stuff on my daily commute. So, that all pointed towards the Audax bike; the advantage is that it has a lighter frame, so it's a bit faster. However, after we'd been talking for a while I decided that I'd rather go for the Clubman (tourer), just to keep my options open; this will handle larger panniers at the back, and also front panniers. I'm doing some cycle camping in Brittany soon, and that might be something that I'd like to do in the UK too. Also, I often fill up the front/rear panniers on my Brompton at the moment (e.g. if I'm going swimming), so I think that I'd max out the volume on the Audax panniers quite quickly, even if I'm not carrying a great deal of weight.

We then went through all the other parts of the bike, so that I could spec out exactly what I wanted. This is a bit like choosing a computer: I built my home PC by buying all the components individually, and I've swapped bits and pieces around over the years to upgrade it. By contrast, lots of bikes are more like an Apple Mac, where you get the whole thing as a complete unit, and you have to rely on the manufacturer's judgement. Roberts offer a good balance: I choose what I want, but I rely on their expertise to actually build it. In particular, I said that I wanted a kickstand. You don't see them on adult bikes very often, but they're common on motorbikes and we use them on our ambulance bikes. It turned out that there isn't room for one on an Audax bike, but it will fit onto the tourer, so that worked out nicely. I don't want a leather saddle (trying to be a good vegetarian), but that's all they stock, so I'll buy one separately and give it to them; I won't have to throw their saddle away, because they'll just spec the bike without one.

I'm going for SPD pedals (the type that you clip your feet into); I've never used them before, but I know other people recommend them. I now have a pair of cycling shoes that will accept cleats, so I'm prepared there. Chas asked me whether I'm used to braking in the English style, and I assumed that he was asking about technique, e.g. "squeeze both levers at once and put your feet down". However, he actually meant that the left lever would control the rear brake, and right/front. I'd never given that much thought before, but apparently it's designed to make life easier if you indicate to the right while braking with your left hand. Presumably that's because we cycle on the left, so right turns are more hazardous than left turns. I've never cycled in another country, but I'll be interested to see whether the brakes are different when I go to France.

Once we'd finished choosing components, he took my measurements. I've never been to a tailor to get measured for a suit, but I imagine that it would be quite similar to this. He did a very thorough job, e.g. he got me to lift my knee up and down so that he could feel exactly where my hip joint was. It turned out that I have a 37" inside leg and a 22" torso, so that will be a bit of a challenge for them. ("You have a woman's legs, my lord!") My femur is 19", so that's "why" my legs are so long relative to my torso. I've noticed that if I try to do the proper cycling stop on my Brompton (sliding forward off saddle with right foot on pedal) then my knee hits the front pannier, so the long femur would explain that.

Getting a custom bike like this isn't cheap: he estimated £2,500 altogether, and I put down a £400 deposit today. However, assuming that he's correct about my body being an odd size, I think I will benefit from getting a custom frame rather than off the shelf (or second hand). A common phrase on the customer postcards was "fits like a glove", and if this saves me from back pain/injury then it will be worth the extra money. I'll get the full spec in about 4 weeks, and I should get the bike in about 8 weeks. So, I'll miss the height of summer, but that's not a major problem since I cycle all year round. Anyway, all in all I think that was a productive meeting.
Tags: cycling, lejog

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