Sunday, 29 June 2014

Where’s Wiggo?

There’s no point searching for Britain’s most famous cyclist in this year’s Tour de France; when Sky announced their line-up for the 2014 tour on Friday Brad’s name was notable by its absence. I'm not disappointed by the decision - I’m actually angry that the nation has been deprived of the opportunity to watch their most illustrious rider compete once more in the world’s greatest cycling race.

The decision to omit Wiggins from the team flies in the face of all reason. Froome is a clear favourite to win the general classification, but cycling is a team sport and he will need the strongest possible set of riders to support his efforts. Wiggins had promised that he would be happy to ride for Froome this year, and, alongside the likes of Tony Martin and Fabian Cancellera he would have been one of the most formidable domestiques in the peloton. His strength would have been invaluable in the sections of pavé that will cause chaos in stage 5 and when chasing down breakaways in the long stages of the final week. There is no question that he is in good form at present too; while he had to withdraw from the Tour de Suisse his performance at the National Time Trial Championships last week (he won, easily) shows that he has recovered well and is still in the form that took him to victory in this year’s Tour of California.

Of course the purpose of a cycling team isn’t solely to win races; the team must also consider the needs of their sponsors. When viewed from this angle the decision not to select Wiggins seems even more of an aberration. The team’s paymasters may actually have preferred Froome to be dropped in favour of Wiggins: as last year’s Sport’s Personality of the Year demonstrated, Wiggins has a popularity that transcends the narrow world of cycling and Wiggins competing in the race would have garnered more viewers than another Froome victory.

No, there is only one possible reason why Wiggins will not be riding this year’s Tour de France, and that is because Froome does not want him there. To be quite honest I don’t particularly care what Froome’s reasons may be; he has always seemed a petulant and querulous individual and this is in all likelihood a continuation of the grudge that began (publicly at least) at the 2011 Vuelta. Froome should not be choosing the team; this is the task of Dave Brailsford who should have picked Wiggins for his ability, for his popularity and because he has a palmarès that should have earned his place in the team a hundred times over. Opting instead for an easy life seems an uncharacteristically weak decision; perhaps Brailsford no longer has the stomach for the role.

With Wiggins in the squad I would have supported Sky and Froome. Without him I am wholly ambivalent about the general classification. Unless something unexpected happens, like the smaller teams I will be more interested in stage wins than overall victory. I shall be cheering on Cavendish at every possible opportunity, hoping for a stage win for Millar in his final tour and supporting Garmin every time they try to harry and disrupt the autocratic tactics of Team Sky.

Tuesday, 25 February 2014

An open letter to Boris on the sad demise of his bicycle

Dear Boris,

I was very sorry to hear about the demise of 'old bikey', lost I understand to one of London's bike devouring potholes. The passing of an old retainer is always a sad affair, but with cycles this sadness is always tempered by the knowledge that they can be readily replaced with something a little swifter, more eager and less querulous.

I understand that your new steed is to be flat barred and British. Patriotism immediately narrows the field quite considerably and of the many fine British marques we can immediately rule out the likes of Genesis, Orange, Condor, Kinesis, Dawes and Raleigh as either not building a suitable model or no longer being British owned.

One of the remaining options would be Chris Boardman's range of estimable bicycles. The hybrid models are sleek and swift and have more racing bicycle in their genes than is normally found in a commuting conveyance. Most of the models can be dismissed as being too skinny of tyre to truly suit the vicissitudes of a London road; only the more sturdy and dumpy MX model with its basic suspension fork and disc brakes looks to fit the bill. However practical it may be, easy on the eye it most definitely is not.

Boardman MX Hybrid bicycle

The nearest British equivalent to old bikey is the Charge Grater. With a lightweight aluminium frame, lots of gears and designed for both mudguard and rack this would be a worthy and practical if somewhat dull choice.

Charge Grater bicycle

More interesting is the Cooper Casablanca created by a company better known for their forty year association with the Mini. Cooper are not shy about letting you know about this racing heritage; the cycle is apparently named after the racing circuit in Morocco where Cooper's F1 cars first raced in 1959. The cycle itself is designed with commuting in mind rather than racing, has eight hub gears, Reynolds (British) steel tubing, a Brooks (very British) saddle and even has a Union Flag (still British but whither the Saltire) emblazoned on the forks.

Cooper Casablanca bicycle

In spite of this prominent display of British heritage the Cooper, as with all of the bikes listed so far is course only partially British. While the conception may occur in the UK all are gestated and birthed in a factory in Taiwan. If your next bike is to be entirely British the choice becomes very narrow indeed.

One option would be to engage a custom frame builder. Bespoke bikes have been enjoying a renaissance in recent years with a plethora of builders both established and new to choose from; Mercian, Bob Jackson, Chas Roberts, Shand, Donhou and Swallow to name but a few. While the result would be a unique bicycle built to your exact specifications that would last a lifetime I suspect that an unsympathetic press would be quick to brand this an elitist choice.

Off the peg there are three marques still manufactured in Britain. The first is the resurgent Brompton. Whilst undeniably well designed and engineered, all folding cycles are a compromise and, unless forced to choose a folder by a lack of storage space or tyrannical train companies then you are wiser to look elsewhere.

Brompton bicycle, folded

The second is Moulton. The brainchild of the late Sir Alex, the Moulton may at first glance seem similar to the Brompton. In actual fact it is a very different beast designed to be a more efficient replacement to the traditional diamond frame rather than a compromised alternative to it. The Moulton has small wheels because they are stronger and lighter, a space frame because it is stiffer and full suspension to counter the bone rattling effect of small wheels and rigid frame. The result is a very capable bicycle that holds the speed record for upright cycles and which has been toured around the world multiple times. However, if a camera adds a couple of pounds being photographed on a small wheeled bike is likely to add a few more. People tending toward the robust can look a touch ursine on such a contraption; if considering a Moulton it would be wise to trial it under the watchful gaze of a critical friend before making a purchase.

Moulton TSR9

The final option is Pashley. Manufactured in Stratford-upon-Avon since 1926 Pashley cycles have chosen the route of slow evolution rather than leading, pursuing or indeed taking any notice of new trends. Such is the cyclical nature of fashion that they are currently quite trendy in spite of themselves, their popularity bolstered by the wryly ironic Tweed Run. Nostalgia is however a dangerous constituency for a politician, and a Pashley is the vehicular equivalent of  John Major's 'long shadows on cricket grounds'. For this reason I say avoid the über traditional Roadster; it is fusty and the type of bike that an old maid would select to convey her to communion on a misty day. Another model, the Gov'nor at first seems similarly anachronistic based as it is on a 1930's design. Possibly because it is based on a racing model it is however less stuffy than the Roadster and is in my opinion less staid than the Grater. Added to this the Pashley is supremely practical for modern roads beset from above by frosts and floods and from below by earthy eructations. The modern British road of pot, sink and probably kettle and hob holes is not so dissimilar to the unpaved roads the Gov'nor was originally designed to traverse. With its springy steel forks and heavy 28 inch wheels this is a bicycle that will sail serenely over all obstacles.

Pashley Guv'nor

So there you have it, a small but eclectic selection of cycles awaits your critical eye. Choose wisely and take comfort from the fact that after (presumably) riding a Boris bike for the last couple of weeks any of the above will seem almost skittish.

Wednesday, 12 February 2014

Why one is fun...

I ride a singlespeed. There, I've said it. I know what you're thinking; cut-off handlebars, low slung jeans, wispy moustache, hipster. While I must confess to a penchant for posh coffee please banish all other preconceptions from your mind; I do not have a chain dangling from my jeans and never smoke or wear headphones whilst riding (do such people even still exist?)

As a general rule of thumb any underground cycling subculture ceases to be cool at the precise moment that Specialized tries to join in. They released the Langster in 2004 and so presumably the 'Hoxton Massive' were already moving onto other things in 2003. Incidentally I note that Specialized have now brought out a fat bike. If you already own one of these bastard progeny of mountain bike and space hopper it is time to sell up and buy something else; for what it's worth my money is on offroad recumbent tricycles being the next big thing.

The author winning hipster of the year 1983

No, my choice of singlespeed steed was not a slavish following of a fashion long past. After an expensive winter of commuting on a mountain bike three years ago I decided that I needed a hack bike with lower running costs. The way ahead I thought was either singlespeed or hub gears and so arranged a test of the geared and ungeared versions of the Genesis Day 1. The Shimano Nexus hub offers a good range of gears but it weighs about as much as a suckling pig . Because of this riding up hills on the hub geared bike was a chore, easy but unrewarding. The singlespeed version on the other hand felt light, frisky and eager as soon as the road turned upwards. Such was its infectious enthusiasm for climbing I felt impelled to get out of the saddle and sprint up hills. I was smitten and bought the singlespeed on the spot.

Like most people I had assumed that riding up hills on a singlespeed would be extremely difficult. In actual fact singlespeeds are ideally suited to going uphill; many hill climb specialists opt for a one gear set-up partly to save weight and partly because that plumb straight chainline and lack of extraneous cogs, springs and other gubbins ensure that every ounce of your strength is being used to propel you up the hill. One of my favourite local hills is Wilson Avenue,  a long slow drag uphill from Brighton Marina to the racecourse at an average gradient of 6%. On the singlespeed shod with 35mm tyres the ascent takes me about 6 minutes. It was one of the first hills I tackled when I bought my new racing bike a couple of years ago. I was rather distraught to discover that the lighter weight and the advantage of twenty gears had made me a full 45 seconds slower. I rode the hill again the following day on my singlespeed to see whether it was due to a lack of fitness, but once more I made it to the top in about six minutes. This is not due to any magical quality of the bike however; with just one gear I was simply being forced to work harder. On the racing bike I thought that I was going flat out, but in actual fact was taking it pretty easy.

Obviously any gear that will get you up a 20% gradient will be a bit spinny on the flat. I ride a 42:18 which, as the internet will tell you means that I need to maintain a cadence of 110 rpm to ride at 20mph on the flat. This feels very odd at first but you soon get used to these higher cadences. With practice 140rpm can be maintained for quite some time but you do look a bit ridiculous. All of this means that switching to a singlespeed has surprisingly little impact on average speeds. I have a favourite 25 mile loop which takes in Devil's Dyke and Ditchling Beacon and my times on the singlespeed and racing bike are almost identical; wind strength and direction will make a bigger difference on any given day than choice of bicycle.

If you are still dubious you don't need to take my word for this - take a look at the average speeds recorded in the Tour de France. Until 1937 gears were banned. In 1936 the winner (Silvère Maes) completed the race at an average speed of 19.3mph. In 1937 the winner (Roger Lapébie), using derailleur gears for the first time completed a race of similar length and difficulty at an average of 19.7mph. Obviously Lapébie wasn't rocking a 22 speed Dura Ace setup but it does show that gears do not offer the startling speed advantage that natural prejudice would lead you to expect.

There are of course other advantages to a singlespeed other than being almost but not quite as fast as a geared bike. Over the last three years the singlespeed has saved me hours of time and no small amount of money that would have been otherwise wasted on overhauling a bike with gears. Every year or so I buy a new chain. Every now and then I adjust the brakes, pump up the tyres and oil the chain. That's it - my bike is ridden through all weathers, off road and on, is rarely washed, never mollycoddled and it just keeps on going.

The bike has also undoubtedly made me stronger. If you have lower gears to help you up a hill then sooner or later you will use them. With a singlespeed there is no option other than an ignominious trudge up a hill. I tend to wear road pedals and cleats to make this option even less attractive. As a consequence I ride up the steeper hills muttering 'in these shoes? I don't think so...'.

There is also pleasure to be gained from the simplicity of a singlespeed. With no gears there is no noise other than a soft mellifluous chatter from the chain. There are no niggling obsessive thoughts to clutter the mind too; no shifting repeatedly up and down to find the perfect gear, no need to pre-emptively change down for the hills, none of the graunching that ensues when you forget to do that pre-emptive gear change, no wondering whether you are in the big or the small chainring when riding in the dark and consequent worries about chainline. Best of all there is no grinding and clattering emanating from your maladjusted gears.

As the rain continues to fall on diluvian Britain, now is the time to admit that the Shoreditch fakengers were onto something. Grab yourself an unwanted hipster sledge from Ebay, fit some proper handlebars and a brake or two and take it into the hills. If you find yourself struggling meditate on rule number 5 and quit your whinging.

Friday, 7 February 2014

Faster cyclists are better looking say scientists. Nonsense say I!

A recent study claims to have uncovered a link between attractiveness and performance in professional cyclists. For the research published in the Royal Society journal 800 women were asked to rate the facial attractiveness of riders in the 2012 Tour de France. The top rated riders were found to have performed significantly better than their less comely colleagues with the top 10% of riders rated 25% better looking than the slowest.

Mark Cavendish

From these findings the author of the paper concludes that facial attractiveness could be an indicator of physical fitness, and specifically physical endurance. This he argues implies that a capacity for physical endurance has been subject to sexual selection in our evolutionary past. 'Indeed', the paper suggests, 'high endurance performance is thought to have been the target of selection in early hominids, as being able to efficiently cover large distances allowed for more efficient hunting, gathering and scavenging, resulting in a number of uniquely human adaptations'.

It goes without saying that the conclusions drawn are complete hokum. The author does not need to roll up his trouserlegs for me to know that his calves are skinny and hairy; he has never pushed a pedal in anger. Because of this he has failed to understand the data and drawn dubious conclusions from it.

The first and most obvious point to make is that professional cyclists are by and large a pretty rum looking bunch; supreme endurance athletes yes, pinnacles of masculine beauty no. The life of a racing cyclist is tough. Snow, hail, driving rain and baking sun weathers and ages them, and the struggle of a thousand superhuman efforts etches itself as deep fissures and wrinkles in the skin of hoary old professional riders. Crashes can regularly fracture cheekbones and jaws and twist septums out of true. Every one of them looks significantly older than they actually are. Cadel Evans is still in his thirties. Honestly. If  you still doubt me then take a look at Tim Kölln's excellent pictures of the peleton. If amateur riders were included in the survey I suspect that all correlation between athleticism and good looks would be lost.

Secondly, and more importantly there is a fundamental assumption underpinning the research that the fittest cyclists will be at the top of the rankings and the weakest athletes at the bottom. This would be an entirely fair assumption if the peleton consisted of 219 individual riders. It doesn't; The Tour is contested by 22 teams of riders and because of the tactics involved, once you get past the top 10% of the classification a rider's ranking does not necessarily bear any relation to their individual ability.

Each rider in the team has a job to do and for the vast majority that job is not to appear as high as possible in the overall classification. At the very most there will be about twenty riders with hopes of finishing in the top three at the start of the race; by the half way mark that number will have dwindled to a mere handful. The other riders will be chasing individual targets; the king of the mountains or points jerseys, stage wins, long breakaways (which increase the airtime for the sponsors who's logos are emblazoned across the riders' backs) or helping their team leaders in the battle for the overall win.

Most riders can be classified as domestiques, although in practice this term covers a multitude of specialisms. Domestiques tend to share many of the same physical characteristics as the team leaders; they are excellent endurance athletes with the power to ride strongly at the front of the peleton, battling into headwinds and suffering their way over mountain passes. All cycle racing tactics are determined by slipstreaming. The rider at the front of a group will be using about a third more energy than the ones behind him. All teams with a contender for the general classification will therefore spend the bulk of the race protecting their lead rider so that he will be fresh for the decisive moments in the race; the timetrials and specific mountain passes. All of the grunt work; riding quickly at the front to prevent breakaways, launching breakaways, chasing down breakaways, pacing the team leader up mountain passes etc will be carried out by the domestiques. They will ride until they can ride no more at which point they will be left to struggle to the end of the stage in any way they can, often losing large amounts of time after a particularly big effort.

Because of this it is entirely possible that the strongest rider in the tour (measured by some objective scale) was in fact buried somewhere further down the general classification. Tejay Van Garderen finished below his team leader Cadel Evans in 2012 despite clearly being the stronger rider. David Millar finished in 113th place that year; this is in no way representative of his strength and class.

This brings us back to the question of why the riders at the top of the classification are better looking than those at the bottom. One obvious factor is age. The riders chasing the general classification will be at the peak of their careers, which for a cyclist means that they will be in their late 20s or early 30s. The lowlier riders will include amongst their number callow youths in their early twenties and washed-up old pro's in their late thirties and early forties. Female participants in the survey with their decision making ovaries keenly attuned to the needs of the next generation are likely to favour riders in their virile pomp. This suggestion is supported by the detailed data analysis which indicates that the mean most attractive age is 29.6.

A second factor may be good grooming. Whilst not on the level of professional footballers, the most successful cyclists earn a fair amount of money these days, much of which comes from advertising and personal endorsements. Appearance matters to advertisers, and so anyone with sponsors will probably run into a personal stylist at some point. The general dogsbodies on the other hand make all of their money from cycling and care less about their personal image.

Thirdly there is the question of how the leaders are selected. In the modern era it might be assumed that this is decided by science; that the team leader will be the rider with the highest VO2 max threshold, or the rider who can generate the most power over a sustained period. Much as Team Sky might wish this to be the case it cannot be, or at least this cannot be the only factor. In order to win the Tour simply being the strongest rider isn't enough; you need a strong team, good tactics, a slice of good luck and an overwhelming will to win. Winning is therefore about personality as well as physicality and choice of leader must be a subjective matter.

Perhaps the conclusions of the paper are therefore correct, albeit for the wrong reasons. Men were surveyed along with women for the study, and while there was a weaker correlation between the men's ratings of good looks and a rider's position in the overall classification, there was nonetheless a marked pattern. Perhaps we have therefore evolved to display and be able to read signifiers of physical fitness in peoples' faces and this informs the process of selecting a team leader.

There are other possibilities. At the professional level the difference between winning and being an also-ran are marginal. As I have outlined above there are many other factors, particularly tactical nouce that will determine who wins the Tour de France. Better looking team leaders may be selected because their looks are a signifier of intelligence rather than because of a link between facial appearance and athleticism.

On the other hand, as Dave Brailsford has recognised, winning at the elite level is as much about psychology as innate physical ability. It could be that good looks are a driver for physical excellence rather than an indicator of good quality genes. Handsome people may be more arrogant than their less prepossessing peers and consequently may pursue team leadership and overall victory more aggressively.

Obviously there is a lot more work that needs to be done before anyone can truly say whether good looking cyclists really are quicker. If anyone would like to provide me with a substantial grant to watch cycling for the next couple of years I would be prepared to undertake this arduous work. Please contact me via the comments section...

Tuesday, 4 February 2014

Bring me my screw hammer

Jerome K Jerome once advised that there are two ways you can get exercise out of a bicycle: you can overhaul it or you can ride it. "The mistake some people make" he goes on to say, "is in thinking they can get both forms of sport out of the same machine.  This is impossible; no machine will stand the double strain."

I am not one of nature's gifted mechanics and I am deeply envious of those who with a deft turn of an allen key can banish any given squeak, clunk or grind. Knowing this, I tend to put up with minor niggles until they become a major impediment to forward motion or actually life threatening. Currently my bicycle wails like a particularly forlorn banshee at even the most temperate application of the brakes. You need to toe-in the brakes I hear you say. Toe-in the brakes be damned say-I; it makes no difference. Rather than waste futile grimy hours, knuckle skin and my entire repertoire of swear words correcting mechanical faults I have learnt instead to apply a lubricating gobbet of positive thinking to the problem. Since the onset of the screech pedestrians have become more aware of my presence; the squealing brakes have therefore morphed into a useful safety feature.

Because of this, any maintenance beyond a light oiling of the chain is ignored until the bike requires carrying to the nearest competent mechanic. Unfortunately I am not able to apply the same principle to my partner's bike; she will not let me. On a sunny weekend we might decide to spend the day on a leisurely ride in the countryside. You would expect that bicycles put away in a dry shed in full working order would emerge in that same happy state. Sadly they do not. Lonely, cold and neglected they self-harm, stretching their cables, loosening vital bolts and jamming their bearings until they emerge blinking in the unaccustomed sunlight creaking, stiff and arthritic.

My first approach on being faced with the poor forsaken thing is denial. I will rattle and grind my way through a quick test ride before declaring the moribund beast to be absolutely fine. This approach used to be quite effective. I once persuaded G to cycle five miles on a bike with a broken axle before she finally stopped on a steep hill with the rear wheel jammed sideways in the frame. The walk home was long and mostly silent.

Nowadays, on the discovery of a fault I am generally forced to attempt an immediate fix:
"The front gears are grinding".
"There is a slight rattle it's true. I'm sure that it'll go as soon as the chain warms up though".
"No it won't; fix it now or we're not going out".

Anyone with the capacity for learning from their mistakes would suggest going for a walk at this point. However male pride and a predilection for sunny optimism tend to prevail and and so I will set to work. After five minutes the chain will no longer budge from the largest chain ring. Ten minutes after that it will be irrevocably jammed in the front derailleur. After a further fifteen minutes of increasingly inventive cursing it will be freed and sort of shifting but the grinding noise will have returned.

It is at this point that I will notice that the rear brake is rubbing. After twenty minutes of tweaking the adjusting screws and cable tension I will conclude that it is because the wheel is out of true and I will reach for the spoke key. I should really throw the thing away; no good has ever come of the spoke key; I have caused more harm to more bicycles with a spoke key than with any other tool in my armoury. In operation it is very simple. You loosen and tighten the appropriate spokes by a quarter of a turn. Nothing happens. You repeat the process with another quarter turn. Again no change. You make one further quarter turn adjustment and suddenly your almost-true wheel is the shape of a Pringle. Later that week the local bike shop (they will assume that the wheel was vandalised by a drunken thug and you will do nothing to disabuse them of this theory) will declare the damage terminal and sell you a new one.

With half the day lost, emotionally drained and with stinging knuckles and filthy fingernails I will set off with G for a trudge across the Downs.

Friday, 31 January 2014

Zen and the art of bicycle buying

All of my Ebay success means that I am now in the market for a new bike. I do actually still have one bike; a do-it-all/rural/urban/singlespeed/cyclocross/roughstuff/adventure/touring/commuting bike of which I shall say more at a later date. Right now however I feel the need, the need for... a racing bike.

Cavendish Venge

At this point I should be enlisting the marketing departments of a hundred different cycle manufacturers to guide me through the phantasmagoria of choice that is the modern bike industry; they are after all the experts. Willing souls that they are they do their best with talk of their 'nano-silica filled powerlux resins', high modulus carbon fibre lay-ups, oversize this, tapered that and aerofoil the other. The kings of hyperbole are perhaps Specialized, for whom 'all roads lead to awesome' and who design bikes that are a 'pure science mind wrapped in a lay-down-the-law body'. For the life of me I have no idea what that is meant to mean. No, bike manufacturers are of no use whatsoever when choosing a bike, their websites exist solely to validate the 'awesomeness' of your purchase, not as the basis for any decision making.

Cycling journalists are no better at guiding you through the miasma of choice. Their reviews consist of copy and paste technicalese interspersed with hackneyed clichés. Pick any review at random and you will read something along these lines:

Those thin walls combine with the tapering curve of the leaf spring-style top tube and super-skinny seatstays and genuinely seem to catapult you forwards. (Bikeradar).


However, nobody could say this bike wasn't smokin': a cigar is due for the level of comfort that all this achieves without compromising raciness. (Cycling Weekly).

Most reviewers seem completely hung-up on the holy grail of bicycle design; the creation of a frame that is both stiff and vertically compliant, ie rigid and bendy at the same time. This is much like the ancient alchemists quest to convert base metals into gold. Stiffness is good - a stiff frame helps you to accelerate more quickly. Bendy can be good; a bendy frame is more comfortable and (like many steel frames) has a nice springy feel to it. Unfortunately this quest is utterly futile; no frame can be both stiff and bendy at the same time as this would defy the laws of physics; anyone who tells you otherwise is deluded. That said making your bicycle more vertically compliant is easy - all you need to do is remove 20psi from each tyre. This has the added benefit of being a much cheaper solution than buying a new carbon fibre frame.

Rather than worry about all of this, I shall instead use just two criteria when selecting my new bike; it must be as light as possible and exquisitely good looking.

Having a light bike will make almost no difference in reality. On the flat a light bike is no quicker than a heavy one (unless you're trying to accelerate). Going downhill the lighter bike will be slightly slower (all other things such as aerodynamics and rider weight being equal). It is only going up  hills that a light bike is an advantage, and even here the significant difference is in your imagination rather than bedded in reality. If you suspect that the bike you are riding is a little corpulent this will form the basis of the mantra that you mutter rhythmically under your breath as you climb 'stupidheavypieceofjunk, stupidheavypiece of junk' (repeat ad (possibly literal) nauseam). Only if you know that your bike is the lightest that money can buy will you finally accept that there is no inanimate object for you to blame. You will still be muttering 'stupidheavypieceofjunk' as you ascend, but this time you will be referring only to yourself.

It is a sad fact that in cycling it is the engine that is the important limiting factor; the quality of the bike is almost irrelevant. A race up Mont Ventoux between myself on a Pinarello and Nairo Quintana on a Raleigh Shopper with a rusty chain and two flat tyres would still not be any kind of a contest. Does this mean that I should buy a Raleigh Shopper and be done with it? Not at all because of category two:

The most important criterion for buying a particular bike has to be looks. There needs to be an element of coup de foudre to the buying process. Your eye must be captured by the elegant lines, the colouring and a certain radiant gleam emanating from the object of your attention. If you find a bike that you can't help gazing at from across a crowded beer garden during post ride recovery drinks, or one that attracts jealous glares from your comrades then you have found 'the one'. Any faults; a slight lack of vertical compliance perhaps, or a twitchy nervousness on technical descents will be forgiven in the face of such shimmering radiance.

Mmm Molteni

I must confess to not being overly enamoured with the current crop of bikes which are all fussy curves and unsightly bulges; I much prefer tubes that are straight and tubular. Because of this, and because of a touch of impecuniousness my next bike will be a second hand one; I currently have my eye on a Cannondale caad3. In search of validation I have managed to track down a Cannondale brochure from 1999 which assures me that the frame is 'lighter than titanium' and has a 'flex-resistant, large diameter power pyramid to combat flex'. Plus ça change...

However, nobody could say this bike wasn't smokin': a cigar is due for the level of comfort that all this achieves without compromising raciness.
However, nobody could say this bike wasn't smokin': a cigar is due for the level of comfort that all this achieves without compromising raciness.
However, nobody could say this bike wasn't smokin': a cigar is due for the level of comfort that all this achieves without compromising raciness.

Tuesday, 28 January 2014

Top tips for Ebay sellers

My one experience of buying a bicycle from Ebay was not a happy one. The description was somewhat lacking in detail but in the picture the bike looked perfect. And indeed it so nearly was. It was a 1970s Peugeot roadster that was exactly what I wanted in every way except one; it was a little on the small side. Well actually really very very small indeed. Tiny in fact.

The author on his ebay purchase

Chastened by this experience, and also by an unwillingness to buy a bike that I haven't had at least a short test ride on, I probably wouldn't buy another bike from Ebay. I do however think that it is a great medium for selling bikes. I have now sold two bikes on the site; the first was a Boardman mountain bike that sold for a little less than I had hoped and the second was Bianchi racing bike that sold for much more. While there will always be an element of luck when selling on Ebay I learned a number of lessons from the first sale which I think helped the second. Because I never intend to buy from Ebay again I am happy to share these lessons with you here:

Check the completed listings first.
Before listing your bike search for it amongst the completed listings. Pick the the one that sold for the highest price and use this as the basis for your advert; the chances are whoever listed it did a good job of writing the title and description and selecting suitable filters and search terms.

Take good pictures
It is the pictures that sell the bike. As well as the obvious (in-focus, correctly exposed etc) there are some less obvious rules to obey. When the winner of the auction for the Boardman collected the bike his first act was to scrutinise the left hand side of the frame. All of the pictures I had taken were of the drive side and he (and presumably other potential bidders) had assumed there was something wrong with the other side.

A complete set of pictures should include straight views of both sides of the complete bike, a 'hero pose' taken at a 45 degree angle from the front of the bike and then close-ups of the best features; neat frame welds, upgraded components, Campagnolo logos and anything that shows the bike off to the best effect.

Finally avoid anything too arty. My mountain bike had a set of DMR magnesium pedals that were twice the age of the bike. Several years of hard riding had warn away most of the paint in a way that I, ponce that I am, thought looked stylish and worthy of a close-up. On the basis of these pedals the buyer assumed that the bike had been much more heavily used than it in fact had been and expressed some happy surprise when he collected it, even though I had taken other pictures of the frame showing it to be pristine and shiny.

Always give a postage option
Bikes are a bit of a faff to package and post. Do not let this put you off however; unless you live in the centre of London, insisting that the buyer collects will greatly restrict your target audience and will therefore restrict your winnings.

Posting is actually easier than you might expect. If you speak nicely to your local bike shop they will probably give you a box to fit the bike in. The Royal Mail will not accept a bike box so you will need to use a courier. I used Parcel Hero and for about £35 they collected the package within an hour of the order being placed and delivered the package safe and sound the next day. There are dozens of blogs and videos providing instruction on how to pack a bike box; I used this one.

Do not specify a reserve price
This is obviously a bit of a gamble, but I started the auction for both of my bikes at one pence and did not stipulate a reserve. All Ebay buyers use the site in the hope of finding a bargain. There is therefore general resistance towards 'buy it now' items and anything with a reserve price; however low the reserve is set, people always feel that they are not getting the best possible deal. The flip side of this is that people tend to assume that if they win something in an auction with no reserve price it must ipso facto be a bargain. This can happen to an extraordinary degree; I once participated in an auction for a second hand Rapha jersey which eventually sold for £140 at a time when you could still buy the item from the Rapha website, new and unused for £130.

It is for exactly this reason that I will continue to sell bikes and bike bits on Ebay. As someone wiser than me once noted, an Ebayer is someone who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing.