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.

Thursday, 23 January 2014

The civilising effect of roads...

It's not just the past that is a foreign country; Belgium too shares this accolade. This is not to imply that Belgium is in any way backward; indeed I would ideally like my future to be more Belgian. Where else in the world can you step into a bar on a Sunday afternoon and watch cyclocross on a big screen whilst steadily working one's way through a menu of three hundred beers, all with their own novelty glass and not one of them under 6% alcohol? It is my fervent hope that even now the government is putting together a team of stout trenchermen (and trencherwomen) to go on a fact finding mission to ascertain exactly how the UK could become more Belgian.

Alongside sampling the beer (or perhaps just slightly before sampling the beer, given the large quantity of canals in the country and the aforementioned alcohol content which really can take you by surprise) I would urge any government mission to spend some time cycling around the cities of Belgium. Robert Goodwill, the new minister for cycling would like to see more 'basket-on-the-handlebars' type cyclists on British roads. If he pops over Bruges on the Eurostar he will see many of these wobbling around on the pavé.

I do not have a basket on my handlebars; partly because they do nothing for bike handling or aerodynamics, and partly because I have set my handlebars so low that it would rub against the front wheel. The slammed handlebars probably put me in the category Goodwill describes as the 'Lycra mob' who are in his view as intimidating to novice cyclists as cars and trucks. This actually isn't quite as silly as it seems; he was probably thinking specifically about this lycra mob:

There is a reason why cycling shorts should be black...

I suspect however that in this instance the gripe is more about cycling style and speed rather than sartorial taste. As a commuter I tend to ride as quickly as possible at all times. This is admittedly partly because of my abysmal time management skills but mostly because it enables me to keep up with the traffic flow and behave like a car when necessary, especially now that the admirable Brighton Council have introduced a blanket 20mph limit across the town. I ride like this irrespective of whether I am wearing shorts and t-shirt or a tweed suit; by dint of sheer physical presence motorised transport sets the tone and the pace of a road and cyclists can either ape their behaviour and speed or put their lives in the hands of others by crawling along in the gutter.

In cities such as Bruges, Amsterdam, Hamburg and Copenhagen there is undoubtedly a much nicer cycling culture. There are many more cyclists on the road and most of these are Goodwill's everyday people wearing normal clothes and riding upright, traditional bicycles. Average cycling speeds are much lower, cyclists tend to obey the rules of the road and almost no-one feels the need to wear a helmet. This is not because the people riding bikes are any different to those in the UK; it is simply because they are not asked to compete with cars on busy main roads. Given a similar network of completely segregated cycle paths whole swarms of waspish, vituperative commuters with their helmet cams, small wheels and sharp elbows would be transformed into amiable dandies atop Pedersens. Like this chap:

Stolen from Brooks...

Of course we do have cycle paths in the UK, and some of them are even segregated. Unfortunately they are for the most part completely unusable. In Brighton they are like a mountain brooks that run swift and clear for a few hundred metres before disappearing unexpectedly. A handful are well designed and built it is true, but most are pavements which have been bifurcated with paint and are much too narrow to serve their purpose. The one thing that is consistent about all the cycle paths is that they are absent where they are needed most; they have been built where they can be fitted around the existing roads and pavements, not where dangerous junctions need to be made safer.

It's nice that cycling is back on the political agenda, and good that Goodwill has pledged to spend £375m over the next five years to improve infrastructure. I suspect that the changes that are bought by this money will be slight however, and it is small fry next to the £28bn that the government has pledged to spend improving the road infrastructure over a similar timeframe (cycling is not mentioned once in the document incidentally - it is all high speed trains, planes and automobiles). I hope I am proven wrong, and if so I pledge here and now to leave the lycra mob, swap my helmet for a cloth cap and purchase a Pashley. I'm damned if I'm cycling it up a hill though...