Wednesday, 7 August 2013

Condor Acciaio long-term review

Over half a year and several thousand kilometres since I bought it, the Acciaio frame-set is still here. That's not something to take for granted: the turnover in the shed can be brutal. More than that, though, it's still built up. And more than that, it's the bike I ride more than any other. So, what else to add to my early-days review?

I played with the setup more or less continuously until about a month ago. The basics have stayed the same: frame plus standard Condor full-carbon fork, Easton seatpost, Ritchey 110mm stem, Deda RHM02 bars, and mainly Ultegra groupset. The fiddling has been with the gearing: I started with a compact, switched to a (105) triple, switched back to the compact but with a 38-tooth inner ring, then switched back to the triple. 

The conclusion? I remain a fan of triples, and an out-and-out heckler of compacts. For me, the jump down from 50 to 34 on a compact is just too big. You shift the front derailleur, then have to crash down multiple gears at the back to get anything like a similar cadence. On a triple, especially a 110PCD triple (50-39-30), one change down at the front and one at the back is just about perfect.

The 30-tooth inner ring is little used, hence the experiment with a 50-38. I would have stuck with that, but the TA 38-tooth ring refused to shift smoothly, getting hung up on the downshift from the 50. So, back to the triple and its extra 100g or so. 

Contact points
I've tried various saddles, ending up with a Fizik Aliante. Fizik say this saddle is good for people who lack flexibility, but I'm actually quite flexible (at least by their simplistic can-you-touch-your-toes measure). The reason I prefer it is that when you want to extend your legs for a bit more power, you can slide back on to the rear of the saddle for a slightly higher, longer seating position.

I've also played about with the bars a bit. After a brief flirtation with some old Big Piegas, I've been using Deda's RHM02 bars. The jury's a bit out on these: the drop and curve are very comfortable, the forward bend (in the photo on the right) less so. A shallower radius would be more comfortable; this bend is so square it forces my hands further out than I'd like, making the bars feel wider than others of a similar size. On balance, I find the old FSA compacts, which were slightly narrower at the top than the drops, preferable.

Wheels can make or break a bike. I've used the lightweight Ksyrium SLs shown in the photo on the Acciaio, and also some nice-but-sturdy Harry Rowland 32-spoke wheels on Ambrosio hubs and Open Pro rims. The difference is marked, as you'd expect. With the SLs, the bike responds very readily to a press on the pedals, and accelerates quickly. The Rowlands give the bike a different character – not necessarily less enjoyable. It feels like a machine you can happily ride on cobbles and dirt roads, a real bruiser. Still, though, lightweight enough for fast riding.

We had to come to this in the end, didn't we? Depending on what bits it's wearing, the Acciaio (a size 55 frame) comes up at a bit under or a bit over 9kg: pretty heavy, relatively, for a bike that would cost about £2000 to build up to this spec from scratch (though about the same as a £1500 Specialized Roubaix). So, you could easily get something lighter for less. It just might not be as satisfying to ride or own.

It's possible to disguise a good frame using poor kit (especially wheels). It's also possible to make a so-so frame ride better with expensive equipment (especially wheels). I've built up and ridden the Acciaio frame with a range of middling and (in the case of the wheels) a-bit-better-than-middling kit, which has given me a good feel for its capabilities. I'd summarise it as a thoroughly modern version of an old-school steel frame. It's stiff enough to transfer power from your legs efficiently, is still comfortable on long rides (probably the most comfortable road bike I've owned), and is engaging to ride. (I'm trying really hard not to say "lively" here...)

Most of all, the Acciaio has a versatile nature that's welcome in an age of niches within niches. Build it light, drop the stem, and it feels close to a flat-stick race bike. Use more robust components, and you've got yourself a cobble basher. Strike the middle ground, and you have something that can do everything.

And it looks pretty, too.

Thursday, 1 August 2013

Welsh bikepacking

Little to say about this: beautiful countryside in mid-Wales, great company with Mark and Jason, many midge bites after sleeping in a damp Welsh wood. Riding off road for 8 hours in a day left me unable to feel either of the little fingers on my hands. It's never happened before, and I hope it won't again. But if it does, I obviously need a new mountain bike.

The bikepacking verdict? For me, probably more fun on a clear winter's night, with a less sweaty ride before you stop for the evening, no insects, and waking up with the frost dusting your nose.

But really, bicycles are about freedom: I'm not sure I like weighing them down...

Midge central.

Rolling hills of mid-Wales.

A reservoir, somewhere in a very wet part of the UK.

All images © Paul Mason: please do not use without permission

Monday, 21 January 2013

Condor Acciaio review

Until now, only three bikes have been permanent residents in my bike shed (though many more have passed through): a 2003 Specialized Allez; a Cotic Soul mountain bike; and a Condor Pista fixie. I've now bought a Condor Acciaio frame because, though stiff and responsive, the Specialized can be uncomfortable on longer rides. 

First impressions of the Acciaio are good. The frame seems well made, the paint’s beautiful, and the pre-sale prep by Condor is excellent. These guys do really care about making sure you’re happy with your bike. I chose to build the frame up myself, and it’s kitted out with mainly Ultegra from about 2008, Mavic Ksyrium SLs, and fairly ordinary bars/stem/pedals/saddle from the shed.

Contrary to Condor's reputation, the Acciaio seems good value. A hand-built frame made of triple-butted Deda Zero Replica steel, it costs £749.99 including full-carbon fork, headset, and (rather useless) seat clamp. Similar frames from builders such as Enigma, Duell, Pegoretti, Milani, or Zullo cost over £1000 once you include the forks; some of them, double that.

This is an early-days review: the bike’s only covered a few hundred kilometres since I bought/built it. That’s long enough, though, for the shining eyes of new ownership to dim, and the reality of day-to-day riding to come to the fore. So, how’s it doing so far?

• Ride quality
I’ve seen a couple of reviews suggesting that the ride’s a bit stiff on this frame, but for me, the balance between road feel and smoothness is very good. I built the Acciaio up with parts taken off my Specialized frame, which gave a near-direct comparison of the feel. It's certainly not as stiff, and feels a lot less chattery over rough surfaces, but the response to harder pedalling is still quick: it doesn't feel like a bike you have to wind up to speed. For me this frame has the same liveliness as my friend Hammy’s old steel Colnago, but with a much stiffer bottom bracket and modern geometry.
• Comfort/fit
This is excellent. I picked this frame because it has similar geometry to my Pista (and better materials), and I find that comfortable to ride for hours on end. Losing 15mm of spacers compared to the Pista (10mm for the taller head tube, 5mm for the lower bottom bracket) gives the same riding position, as the frame angles are the same.

• Handling
73.5º parallel frame angles should equal zippy handling, and they do. The front end feels particularly sharp. Cornering is precise, with no oversteer or understeer, as are sudden changes of line, but the ride doesn’t feel twitchy. There’s no high-speed wobble to the bars going downhill. I'm currently riding with a 110mm stem: I think the frame would happily take 120mm or 100mm without the handling being affected.

• Weight
The Acciaio frame weighs a claimed 0.5 kg more than the E5 alloy frame it has replaced (I suspect that might not be the whole story, but I didn't weigh it before building it up). I can feel the extra weight when I pick the bike up, but not so on the road; I couldn’t honestly say the bike ever feels slower than an alloy or carbon one. Generally, weight in a frame hides itself far better than weight in the wheels and tyres. (The Ti frame I used to own, which was actually lighter, DID feel heavier on the road because it was so soft at the back.)
            Of course, physics demands that on a long climb, extra weight has to slow you down: in the Alps or Pyrenees, maybe I’d be less sanguine about that extra half a kilo. On the other hand, on descents the Acciaio feels more planted and quicker – and I’m not as good at going downhill as pedalling up.

So far, I’m really pleased with the Acciaio. For general road-bike riding it seems like an excellent choice, with the handling and ride feel particular highlights. The positive ride characteristics of the frame material, plus its durability and reliability, outweigh the theoretical negative of a full water-bottle's worth of extra weight. (True weight weenies probably won't have got this far with the review anyway, of course.)

One likely change: I may try a triple on it. It currently has a compact, but I feel there's a lot of duplication of ratios, and the rouleur character of this bike feels like a natural for a 39-tooth front ring – with a 30-tooth bailout option for safety.

Tuesday, 4 December 2012

Memory Lane

Sunday, a groggy morning after an evening talking, drinking, talking, eating, talking, drinking. Creep downstairs, find the teabags, find the milk, find a mug. Back to the bedroom... which door? Not this one – oops. Here, good. Drag unfamiliar curtains aside and sip tea as a red sun slides up to the horizon.

I'm a guest at my friend Will's new house; he, Russell, and I are here to ride. We said leave at eight, but the hour hand has slid past ten before the endless faffing is done. As we skid down the lane on a skim of frost, I'm glad. The winter sun is weak, and all through the day the shout of "ICE!" is going to be heard.

They don't know it yet, but I have an ulterior motive. I cut my cycling teeth about 25 km southeast of here, in the rolling countryside around Hambledon. Gifted with too much energy, I'd wheel my old Falcon (ten speed!) out of the garage and take off for the morning, afternoon, day. One hill in particular, winding up to my Mum's cousin's house at the top of Hambledon Hill, would be repeated again and again. I want to see if it's as steep, as long, as I remember.

Further secret aims: the two houses I lived in as a nipper are within a couple of kilometres of here. What will they look like now? Will the pawprints of the small boy and the basset hound still be in the cement?

We roll out of Tisted at a gentle pace – one that won't be broken all day. A gentlemen's Sunday ride. Any faster and the windchill would make it hard to grip brake levers; already I'm wishing I'd gone the extra layer. Fast and lightweight is good. Slow and wrapped up is good. This morning, I'm neither, stuck in a liminal zone where nothing quite fits. I can't find my legs.

Beacon Hill, Old Winchester Hill, down into the Meon Valley, to Exton. As ever, the Meon's reputation dwarfs the size of the stream itself. This is wonderful riding country, though – rolling like Flanders, classic puncheur territory, but with the familiarity of home. Distances that to a nine-year-old me were unimaginable, impossible, are covered in ten minutes, less.

Hambledon appears on the horizon, draws close. There are little sharp flints everywhere on the road. It pays to avoid the centre strip, where they haven't been cleared by car tyres, but sometimes you have to swap sides to avoid the ice. Here's the turn; no, here. We take off up the hill. Jesus, this really is steep. I'm starting to... ouf. Then, just as it's really bitten, I'm up. Steep like I remember; short like I didn't. But then, as a nipper my record was 11 times: up, turn round, down, up again, no stopping. Then I puked. I hope my mum doesn't read this, she doesn't know about that. She won't be happy, and there's nothing dignified about a man of my years running away from his wooden-spoon-wielding mother.

Next stop, Pipers, then Heybrook, Base Camps 1 and 2 for my career in the world. Weirdly, really weirdly, they don't seem to have changed. Then it's back to Hambledon, to The Vine for lunch. God knows how many of my childhood Sundays were spent here, sitting in the garden with my brother, trying to make a Hartridge's lemonade last more than 10 minutes, while my parents got slowly plastered inside before driving home. This, too, feels largely unchanged.

The way back to Will's is marked by no false turns, 2 punctures, one pretty bad case of fringale (not me...), and a welcome helping of hot, hot soup.

Memory Lane ridden. Still trying to work out what I think about it.

Saturday, 13 October 2012

Back in Britain

Back in Britain for two weeks, during which it has rained every single day. What are the ten most important things I learned from a year of travelling around Europe, meeting people, seeing new places, riding my bike, and paddling my surfboard?

1) France is really good, but the lunch thing is quite annoying. 12.30, everything stops. 2.30, some things start again. 3.30, almost everything's started again. (And 6.00, everything's closed again.)

2) The Basque Country is also really good.

3) Spain is actually a bit rubbish, except the bits where the place names have lots of x spellings that you pronounce 'ch' and pelota is a religion. The thwack of those pelota balls hitting the wall is the most evocative sound.

4) If you're going to spend a year living in a camper van, get one with a shower and toilet.

5) Drivers in Europe either don't mind cyclists, or actively like them.

6) Viewed as a whole, British drivers really seem to hate cyclists. And motorcyclists. And, now I think of it, other drivers.

7) TV in general is better in a foreign language, because there's a lot more room for you to imagine what's happening. The plots are better when you're making them up yourself.

8) Not watching the evening news or reading a newspaper is very good for me. 

9) Watching/reading them really isn't.

10) All Tories are heartless shits. Plus ça change. I think this lot is actually worse than the last bunch. At least some of the 1980s Tories climbed up the ladder under their own steam before booting everyone else in the face, rather than being carried up by Daddy's servants.

Friday, 14 September 2012

Mountain migrations

Driving through the Alps in summer, you can’t help but be astounded by their numbers. Hordes of Big Gay Germans on BMWs, apparently obeying an immutable law: if half the BMWs manufactured since 1973 are not present in the Alps every summer, the world ends.

What makes them BGGs, even though they probably aren’t actually friends of Dorothy at all? Partly a kind of chubby middle-aged groomedness exhibited by well-to-do homosexuals the world over. But mainly, really, it’s the fact that they ride matching bikes, and often wear matching clothes. They’re like the motorbiking equivalent of those couples you see wearing exact-same jackets, forever a reminder of one of the Glamorous Companion’s clients: “We were the perfect couple, Miss Glamorous. Matching jumpers and everything.” As far from Wild Bunch roughness as it’s possible to get.

This great, flamboyant migration brings thoughts of another: the travels of Demoiselle cranes. In September these birds gather in flocks of hundreds, before crossing the Himalayas heading south. Large numbers don’t make it, falling victim to predators, hunger, or simple exhaustion. Birds that are turned back by the weather can never gather enough strength for a second attempt, and die in the northern foothills. It’s a desolate business being a Demoiselle crane – though if they make it to northern India, the villagers feed them before the birds fly on.

Demoiselles are important in the culture of northern India and Pakistan. Legendary travellers are often compared to them; beautiful women too, because of the birds’ elegant shape; the sight of a Demoiselle being killed, and its mate’s grief-stricken cries, is even said to have inspired the Ramayana.

Clearly, on some deep level these legendary birds have inspired the BGGs on BMWs. The attachment to one’s travelling companion, the matching plumage, the arduousness of the journey (sometimes they have to stay in 2-star hotels), and not least the reckless disregard for life.

BGGs on BMWs count as wasted any bend in the road not taken with at least their head leaning out into the opposite carriageway. Ideally their whole body will be sticking out like an old-fashioned railway signal. It’s a miracle that hundreds of headless riders don’t sail off the edges of Alpine roads, like Demoiselle cranes that have run out of go-juice halfway after turning left at Everest.

Monday, 27 August 2012

Hiding from the heatwave

We've spent the last few days hiding from the heat, high up in the French Alps. Since we were last here a large hole has appeared in the ground next to Hammy's chalet. This has made late-night returns hazardous, as we used to short-cut across the adjacent plot. Must remember to go round...

Bits and pieces here, mostly work: good, because I don't want to become one of the town drunks down by the fountain outside the tourist office, and without money to pay for stuff that's what could happen. Also because it's been too hot to do much else. We've done a bit of biking, a bit of walking, and one gorge exploration that ended in a wonderful swimming hole underneath a waterfall. The Glamorous Companion, and even the dog, took the plunge. Chilly, but that's what you want when it's 40 ºC and rising.

Now we're en route for the Basque Country. Waves! Too long since I got my scales wet, over a month. In a ritual every surfer knows, the board has been taken from its cover, inspected and replaced. The van has been reorganised in a get-into-your-wetsuit-quicker way. And I've woken up dreaming about dawn patrols on a little reef break south of... Ah, but I can't say, can I? Not without risking a car bomb. It's a spot between Guéthary and Lafitenia: easy to find, with a bit of wandering, but a long paddle over dark water. Bigger than it looks from the cliffs.

Soon come.