Ode to a disc brake

Road specific disc brakes have been around for a while. Nonetheless, they are still headline news.

Killer disc brakes ate my Labrador!

Local butcher shaves wafer thin ham with Shimano Ice-tech!!!

I must confess to being a bit of a cynic. Coming from the hard-nosed world of pharmaceuticals, where a good story and a meaningless USP trumps hard evidence in the land of the marketeer and salesman, I was wise to this. My thoughts were:-

The hype

Bike companies need to sell us something new, they want our cash

You only have so much rubber on the road. How many times have I locked up when a car has pulled out or there's been a touch of wheels just in front?

What about the weight?

What about the aerodynamics?

They look, well errr WRONG!

The trial

Anyway, to prove what an open minded chap I was I decided that my next Winter bike would have disc brakes. I was fed up with abrading away the rim of one pair of wheels every winter. Every touch of the brakes was accompanied by a Scherrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrerch of eroding aluminium. Also I could get one at special rate from the wholesaler......

So, a nice Ti frame, Shimano hydraulics & 11 speed, mudguard mounts. What's not to like? Well, it is a full 4kg heavier than the summer bike, so it's no climbing KOM machine, that's for sure!

Anyway, initial feelings were good. It was fairly comfy (but on the stiff side of Ti, no armchair ride). It shifted well, it braked really well. What was most noticeable was that I didn't lock up the brakes every time. Indeed, even in wet conditions, it was all so easy, so light. Occasionally I would get spooked by a car overtaking, or pulling out from a side road. Thummmph. Stopped on a sixpence. Followed by a strange graunching noise and a distinct cry of NOOOOOO! I'd forgotten about the riding partner NOT riding discs. Oops.

So yes, maybe for a winter bike they made sense. But never for summer.

The road to Damascus

Actually, it was the road to Luddenden, West Yorkshire. The poor relation of North Yorkshire, the West has some outstanding climbs. And some terrifying descents AAAARRRRRGHHHHH! Stocks Lane is one of my favourite climbs and one of the scariest descents. Wainstalls is worse. 25% into a sharp left, onto 20%, right onto 100m of the biggest, gnarliest pave, onto a sharp left, 18% on greasy concrete under the trees. On rim brakes, you need the forearms of Popeye to control the speed. I've had wheels hissing with friction heat (thought I'd punctured!). On the discs? No drama. You don't take liberties, but you want to stop, you CAN stop.

On 'lesser' descents (15%, good surface, good visibility) I started to let the bike go, increasingly confident that I could bring it back when I needed to. I even started to get some 'top 10s' on downhill segments of the well known cycling website (and I've always been a bit of a pussy on the downhills. Sorry, it's true. There it is, I've said it.). Where I was once cautious, now I was confident. Where it was a bit scary, now I was unperturbed. Where it used to be terrifying, now I'm just a little cautious. No failures. No panic. No sliding.

What about the downsides, you ask?

Ok, the bike is heavier. Is it ugly? No, I have become quite appreciative of the clean lines & no rear bridge. The shifters are fairly good looking BUT they are the Shimano R685. The new 105s are so fugly! The Di2 non-series are so fugly! The SRAM shifters are like carbuncles! New Dura-Ace? Praise be, they are beautiful. As is the price (if your name is Mr Shimano).


I love hydraulic discs. I go looking for steep downhills & love it. My riding partners hate them (until they have some) as I can leave them quailing on twisty descents (not that there's many of those in the West Midlands). There is a weight penalty. They are probably not so aero as rim calipers (for those of you who cruise at 40kph).

Buy if you don't have ambitions of racing, you like to get out to Wales/Yorkshire/Alps, consider yourself a pussy at descending.

Don't buy if you do circuit racing/crits, cherish every saved gram, you do ride at a fair clip, you are still smiling as you do 80kph on a crappy surface.

The Pro cyclists? They should decide. Not the sponsors, eager for endorsement. Not the teams, eager to gain sponsors. As a wise double world champion once said "When the seagulls follow the trawler, it is because they think that sardines will be thrown into the sea". Or was it that everyone should have discs, or no-one should have discs. I can't recall exactly! Anyway, he knows best. And Froomey. He knows best too.

That's it for Spring 2017. Have fun!



Disintegrated headsets, unsealed cartridge bearings, stained steel, rust in pieces

They sit there, hidden away, quietly getting on with the business of easing us through corners & helping to ensure that our forks don't snap, catapulting us into a ditch or under the wheels of that van which has graciously conceded us 150mm space while passing. We forget about them, reduced down to the level of 'minor accessory', not in the same league as wheels, crankset, or even a stem (ffs).

Over the last few weeks I have noticed an increasing flow of headset issues. Crunchy headsets. self-centering headsets, headsets with mysterious brown gunge leaking out, loose headsets, seized headsets. All of these are the symptoms of a winter of hard abuse, often unprotected even by the flimsiest of mudguards (yes, Crud minor, we are talking about YOU!).

Let's give the headset the credit it deserves. In truth, they are not all anonymous integrated, concealed components. Some are flashy & downright expensive (yes, King major, we are talking about you & your cronies Creek & Hope). When properly adjusted & maintained even the humblest of headsets will smooth our progress, allow us to sweep through corners, ever faster, to look cool as we pedal hands-free swapping all manner of gels, gilets & smartphones between pockets, those micro-adjustments keeping us from running into that wheel to which we are clinging with increasing desperation...

So, you say, what can I do to absolve myself of this sin? I'm glad you asked!

Firstly you can pick up thy bike and walk. No, sorry, that's supposed to be in the bit about cobbled climbs!

Pick up your bike & give the bars a waggle. Nice & smooth? No grittiness evident? If you tilt the bike down slightly (easier with a workstand) & push the bars away do they rock into the straight ahead a bit too quickly? Next, back on the floor. Hold the front brake tight & rock the bike forwards and backwards. Any clunkiness? There shouldn't be anything beyond the faintest flex from the forks (just in case you are riding disc brakes, this might not be so easy). If these are all good, then carry on riding. If not, then read on!

Your bike will have two headset bearings. One at the top of the headtube, one at the bottom. These are compressed lightly together by the top cap on the stem. The procedure is 1: loosen stem bolts 2: loosen the top cap. Then, the mildly skilled bit 3:  tighten until you feel the resistance increasing, then back it off 1/8-1/4 of a turn. Over tighten and your bearings are crushed (or bearing races irreversibly scarred), too little and there is play in the bearings.  Then 4: retighten the stem bolts.  Check for crunchiness or over tightness. If you have any doubts about the results, repeat the above. If you are still not happy, bring it to me!

Three things to note. Almost all bearings are sealed cartridges. Save for applying grease to the outside to stop water penetration, there's not a lot you can do once they deteriorate. Secondly, those of you with full carbon steerers will be 'blessed' with some form of expanding bung to create a locating point for the top cap. Sometimes when tightening the top cap, these move. Often they move when you hit a pothole. Best to be careful with these, don't be heavy handed because... Thirdly we have torque ratings. Please note these are maxima. If it says 5, do not exceed 5. likewise 7, 4.5, 9 etc.

So, there you have it. All you wanted to know about adjusting headsets. Bet you're regretting it now, eh?


Advice for winter. You WILL clean your bike!

Sometimes I'm accused of being a bit of a Nazi when customers bring  their bikes in a poor state. This is untrue, as anyone who has had a visit from the Etape22 Gestapo will confirm, because they know what is good for them...

Seriously though, a clean bike is a happy bike. A clean bike is a faster bike. A clean bike is a cheaper bike. What's not to like?

Recently, I've had quite a few bikes in with worn chains, brake blocks, wheel rims, tyres with chunks of glass & metal in them. If I had a fiver for every time I've heard the phrase "but that chain has only been on for X miles" I could probably afford a new Ultegra groupset!

So, with the weather being unremittingly wet & abrasive & many of you baulking at the thought of mudguards, here's a few tips to help your components stay working, last longer & save you money. This is just the minimum. Feel free to go the whole hog if you want! Sound ok?

Wet ride (aren't they all)? Wash down your bike as soon as you get in! Gentle hosing, not jetwasher. If you do it immediately, most of the crap will hose right off. Hold the hose over the chain & run it through the flow of water. This will remove most of the silt & grit which will eat your chain in no time!. If you want to give it a proper wash, all the better. A little squirt of WD-40/GT85 on the chain, jockey wheels & derailleur pivots will keep rust at bay. Then you can have your coffee & cake & biscuits & protein shake & creatine & whatever takes your fancy!

Phew! Now that you are fed & showered, go back to the bike. If it's not dried off, give it a wipe to remove most of the water.

Wipe the chain with an old rag & apply proper chain lube. Not too much. Little & often is best.

Drop out the wheels. Wipe the rims with a cloth or some sturdy kitchen towel. Eeesh! Yes, you didn't realise they were that dirty, did you?

The brake blocks. Take an old toothbrush & some detergent (washing up liquid will do, but rinse off thoroughly as it's got salt in it). Give the brake blocks a scrub. More filth. Rinse the detergent, dry off & grab your smartphone. Engage the torch app & examine those pads. Ooh, pretty, sparkly bits of aluminium & grit in there. Take a small sharp tool (I use a small flathead screwdriver) & dig that shit out of there. That stuff is eating your wheel rims everytime you brake. Not cool. Very expensive.

Tyres. Have a close look to see what bits of glass & metal you have in there. Deflate the tyres so you can pinch them. This makes it easy to remove the objects which are slowly working their way into your inner tube. I use the small flathead screwdriver again for this. If you have any medium sized cuts, you can try superglue, when it's dry. This can work, but no promises. If the sidewalls are damaged, then don't risk it!

There you are, good to go. All in the time it would take you to fix a puncture on the road. Rather less unpleasant though! Your riding buddies will be grateful & so will your bike.

Make it so....

P.S. Be sure to give your bike a proper scrub once every 3 or 4 rides


About 12 years ago, my best mate said "hey, Al. When you visit next, do you want to go for a bike ride instead of running?" He'd grown a bit tired of my making him suffer, pounding the streets of North Notts (& I was a bit of a bandit at the running thing). Yeah, why not? I'd watched the TdF on ITV4 for a good few years & even as a runner, I'd spotted the crossover between sports. The suffering, the injuries, the mud. The pain. I knew that Ullrich would crush Riis in '97. I said so to a cyclist I ran past on cardiac hill the day before. "But I don't have a bike!", I objected. No problem, he would 'source' me one.

About a month before the visit, I asked about the bike. "Nige will lend you one" he casually replied. Alert! Alert! That would be Nige? Brother Nigel? Aka 'the Animal'? Never mind that Nige was 4" taller than me, Nige was indeed an animal! Former world class rock climber, Mr intense. Nige never did things by half. "This shit just got real!" I thought (occasional film references may appear...). Anyway, I knew it would be trouble. It turns out this social bimble for 15 miles was a 60 mile club ride. I hadn't ridden a bike since I smashed myself up riding back from school, head down in the rain, wham, into the back of a stationary Morris Minor (classy, eh? And old).

Anyway, I hotfooted it  down to Red Kite in Shirley, bought some SPD-SLs (first edition) & slapped them onto an old Peugeot from a friend of the wife. Four weeks of training. Sometimes over 20 miles!! I was ready!

So the day came. Nige's bike was way too big. I nearly lost it in the first 10 metres (who has a gravel drive in this day & age?). Sort of survived it. I found out that when you lose the wheel, it's gone. Still, I wasn't last to the tea shop, and made it back in one piece. Something new to try? Secretly, I always fancied it. Shame it took so long.

So it begins...