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5 February, 2008

Cycling jury's in

As reported earlier, I replaced my bike last summer, buying a Specialized Globe Comp IG8.  Now I've had a full six months (er, very nearly seven) to become accustomed to it, what do I think?

I'm not sure.

Fundamentally, I think I was poorly advised by the bike shop staff.
I explained my requirements quite clearly:

  • I commute ~7 miles each working day, then go for a recreational ride of ~50 miles at the weekend* . Almost all riding is on roads, though I need the ability to tackle unsurfaced canal towpaths and farm tracks. However, I don't ride fully off-road.
  • I favour the mountain bike riding position, and have been very happy with my previous hybrid bike: a MTB profile but with road-optimised components.
  • Performance (speed & efficiency) is a priority, though not as much as robustness – I've had lightweight road wheels in the past which have buckled under little more than a meaningful glance.
  • Comfort is not remotely a priority, though I wouldn't actively choose discomfort either.
  • Realistically, I don't find time for careful maintenance; whatever my initial intentions, I'm self-aware enough to know that regular cleaning, lubrication and readjustments just wouldn't get done.
I don't think there's anything contradictory in all that, but in hindsight the shop staff seemed to focus on the daily commuting aspect at the expense of the weekend recreational riding, and ignored my disinterest in comfort.

'Cos that's what I've ended up with: a bike better suited to gently pottering around town than blasting up the Lune Valley and over high passes in the Yorkshire Dales.

The 'IG8' part of the name indicates that it has an eight-speed hub gear system rather than derailleur gears with ~27 increments. I'd never tried this variety before, and didn't seek it, but the promised ease of maintenance (i.e. none) and robustness certainly impressed me: I already have a (non-deliberate!) tendency to use components until they wear out and need replacement, so the fact I'd have to do that with internal gears was no problem. An enclosed mechanism protected from mud & grit and reduced wear on a thicker-than-normal chain seemed ideal.

Only... the performance is mediocre. The highest gear isn't as high as my old derailleur, and the lowest not as low. On my old bike, I could attain a cruising speed of 18-22 mph knowing that a little greater pressure on the pedals would accelerate me to about 27mph (on the flat). On this bike, the same effort gets me to 16-18mph with little left in reserve; greater pressure on the pedals doesn't transfer much extra power to the wheels. 22 mph is achievable but requires an exertion – very rapid pedaling – I couldn't sustain for 10 miles (as I used to do), and 27 mph would be a brief all-out sprint.

That's partly because it's a heavier bike with greater rolling resistance. The internal gears are appreciably heavier than a derailleur system and overall, the new bike is slightly heavier than the old one, with the weight distributed differently.
The rolling resistance is a result of strange wheels: they're huge, with surprisingly wide tyres (for a road bike). Presumably the wide tyres are intended to cushion a comfortable ride, but as I said, I don't particularly want that, and have tried to pump them up for stiffer yet faster performance. However, the sheer volume of air is an obstacle, and it's difficult to maintain 65-70 psi.
Another problem is that the riding position is more upright than I'd choose, particularly unappealing when the arc of one's arms and chest form a sail against a headwind. I prefer to be lower over the handlebars, but with the saddle set correctly for my leg length and the headset as low as possible, the seat is ~3 cm lower and the handlebars ~3 cm higher than my previous bike – surprisingly significant. I was tempted to buy tribars, so I could get right down, elbows on the handlebars, but the bike isn't really designed to be controlled that way, and it could be foolhardy.

Some of the 'comfort' features are pleasant enough, I suppose, but just not what I'd have chosen; the money spent on a sprung seatpost and anti-vibration frame inserts could have been better invested in components optimised for speed & strength.
I don't like the saddle: too soft and too wide, impairing my ability to pedal in a way an otherwise-sedentary commuter mightn't notice but which becomes annoying after 30 miles at 18 mph. It's a saddle for sitting on, which may seem obvious, but that's not what I need. Whilst pedaling, my weight is supported in my legs and the saddle is merely an aid to balance or an axis against which to push. Hence, I prefer to rest lightly against the very back of the saddle, not sit on the middle. I've become used to this saddle to some extent, but I'm still tempted to swap it for my old one.

In summary, my short-term reaction to the shiny new bike was profound disappointment, even depression: I'd 'upgraded' to a heavier bike with markedly inferior performance or, at the very best, no better than the one I already had. I really should have invested £150 in a bike I liked (a lot) rather than £450 in one I didn't. A. really likes it, particularly praising the simple, uncluttered lines, but I haven't been able to muster any enthusiasm. In fact, I'm not sure whether the wet weather really is the main reason I've only been for two long rides within the past half-year; cycling just doesn't have quite the same attraction as it did and no-one likes a constant reminder of a poor decision.

However... I'm coming to realise the bike mightn't be as bad as I thought: not inferior but different. Though my peak (sustainable) speeds diminished drastically, my travel times over familiar routes only dropped slightly. This may be a matter of cadence.
My favoured riding style features a low cadence of something like 50 individually-powerful strokes per minute which isn't exactly orthodox cycling. Though it's considered more sustainable, and maybe better for the bike, to practice a higher cadence of 60-70 gentler strokes per minute, I prefer to get into a high gear quickly and have one slow, powerful stroke carry me a certain distance rather than 3-4 individually gentler strokes. If even the highest gear won't provide the resistance I like and I have to pedal quicker to attain the same speed (and can't sustain the extremes), I suppose I'm forced into better practice. Hence, over a 40-mile route I'm less likely to vigorously ride at 22 mph on the outward leg then limp home at 12 mph, instead riding at 18 mph out and 15 back. That's almost 8 minutes faster overall – and I'd still have the energy to cycle further.
Even over the short distance to work, I've noticed the difference and as my leg strength has changed (perhaps less in total, but with improved stamina) my winter trip times are back up to the summer trip times I was routinely achieving on my old bike.

So, if I replace the thick tyres with thinner ones when they wear out, and if I do find a way to refine my riding position, maybe this won't have been such a bad buy, after all.

*: Probably not a lot by the standards of 'real' cyclists, but I ride in order to take my camera to pretty locations, not for the exercise and definitely not for the 'challenge'.

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