Monday, May 30, 2011

Review: Kinesis Maxlight XCPro3, Custom build

Having just handed in a piece of work that I am not very proud of I decided to 'waste' more time by writing a review of the bike I have been riding for the past year.  The 'wasted' time that could (maybe should) have been spent on this report was instead spent enjoying the sunshine and the first opportunities to ride in two weeks.  I have managed to get out every day for the last 4 days and intend to get out on the mtb again today.  I have to say I don't regret it at the moment, although I do wish I had managed my evenings better and spent a little time on the report rather than leaving it to the last minute.  I came out of the weekend refreshed, clearer of thought and rejuvenated.  It's amazing what some nice days in the sun with mates will do for you.

So, this review, the sole purpose of which is to provide me with some kind of therapy and release.  I have many fond memories of my time with this bike and will be sore to see it go (and I will be very reluctant to let it go if I have to), not only has it carried me round some great races, seen some amazing places and done some things that it may not have been meant to do, but it has also seen new friends arise from rides.

The bike itself has been a dream.  I chose to buy this bike (as my first fully personally funded mountain bike I might add, having been somewhat spoiled by parents and sponsors) largely on a price point basis, but also because I knew that I got on really well with how the Kinesis frames handle having ridden an older maxlight (full alloy) as my first XC bike.  Coming from the Yeti AS-R sl it took a while to get used to the harshness of a hardtail again, and thee first few rides on it were more of a chore than I would have liked, with me longing for the end (although it came too soon thanks to a puncture) of the first race on it.  However on coming out here it really came into it's own.  I will maintain that flatter trails really favour a fully, whilst steep stuff is still an area hardtails can hold an advantage.

The build of the bike is a little odd and has changed a little throughout the year.  The current build is pretty much where I want it to be for a training/fun bike, not that it doesn't race well, but it could be lighter and some things need replacing.  I went a little over budget in a couple of areas, notably the fork (DT Swiss XCR100) and shifting (XTR shifter and rear mech, 1x9).  I made these choices as these are two of the most important areas for me and having riden XTR I find it very hard to return to anything less.  The smoothness of shift is unparalleled, with the shifter feel being pretty close to perfect, even with a ruined rear mech.  My rear mech, it should be added, is a 2-3year old one that has been between bikes or acting as a spare and should now be retired as there is a ridiculous amount of play in the join between cage and body; having stripped it down a number of times the only solution is a new cage or mech (carbon cages are prohibitively expensive). 

The DT Swiss fork was chosen without any real testing, but I was sold on the stiffness of the carbon lowers and 'carpark testing' a set the Madison (UK Shimano, DT Swiss and others distributer) rep had brought in.  He also have them to me on a bit of a steal.  Thankfully they have performed well, but with one really major fault which caused me quite a headache over the NZ Summer.  They are one of the smoothest forks I have ridden, and thanks to the carbon lowers seem to reduce buzz at the bars (certainly compared to other bikes with fox or rockshox forks) whilst maintaining pretty good stiffness.  The lookout is very good too, very stiff feeling and with a very useful remote lever (which I have mounted under the bar where a front shifter would be), I have to admit to not being a fan of lockouts, but having it so accessible has meant that I have used it a lot and these forks deserve it.  The damping is very plush and the way I have them set up they sag pretty easily to give them that extra small bump compliance (at the expense of bottoming out over large hits, but they cope, as do I), as such I find myself locking out on most climbs and firetrack sections. 

The one flaw I have really found is their lack of servicablility, with DT being adamant that they are not to be pulled apart by anyone other than the distributors own mechanics.  This wouldn't have been a problem if there had been no problems, but when I noticed play in the fork I decided to get them serviced; better to pay for a set of bushes soon rather than ruin a set of uppers later.  On return from the suppliers they were not achieving full travel (wrong oil height I suspect) so back they went and once again returned, full travel, but still getting play.  This repeated a few times until I went off travelling, still with play.  Since I have given up and accepted the play (which is ~1-2mm at the axle) but I will look into it further when I get back to the UK.

The rest of the build is fairly unexciting, Hope Tech X2 brakes, SLX crankset, E-13 chain device (best single-ring XC chain device in my opinion), Thomson Elite seatpost, Easton bar, Specialized bar and saddle, Hope hubs laced to ZTR Arch rims and a range of tyres.  So all in a fairly inexpensive and dull build.  But one that has worked pretty well.

I have broken a few things in my time here, including ruining a front rim after nosediving to flat from a 2m drop.  Lukily I was fine, but I suspect this may have been what caused the fork to be less than perfect.  I have also replaced a bent set of Raceface Deus cranks, a squashed carbon bar and an uncomfortable Fizik Gobi saddle.

As I said, she rides like a dream; she climbs admirably, sprints without noticeable flex and descends with the pluck of a terrier.  I have to say it's the descending that really has me sold.  The bike just feels so playful.  I went for the medium size, which is slightly shorter than may be ideal for me, but I like a bike with a large standover and shorter top tube.  I'm not sure why she feels so playful, it could be the head angle, the fairly short chain stays, BB just below the axles, stubby top tube or something completely different, but everyone who has spent a while on her has said the same.  She handles trails that big bikes are uncomfortable on, takes the abuse that I throw out (sideways landings after over-enthusiastic moto-whips and innumerable crashes) and carries on without a care. 

There have been some great moments with this bike, and every time she drifts round a corner or floats into a transition she has me grinning from ear to ear.  She will be in the country for only a few more weeks, so if you want a go you had better get onto me quick!

Monday, May 23, 2011

Comment: The Lance Problem

As far as comments go, this is probably going to one of the more uneducated ones around.  Nevertheless, the situation cycling finds itself in at the moment is a worrying one and it truly scares me to think of the uncertain future of my sport.

Lance is facing drug allegations, as he has throughout his career.  This time people are really dropping him in it, with two of his ex-team-mates (who have already lost their careers due to drugs) coming out against him and in doing so implicating the UCI (Union Cycliste International) for their part in a potential cover-up as Lance has never failed a drugs test.

This is what I understand. 

I am scared because of the implications this has for the UCI and the sport.  Lance is the most well known cyclist in the world.  All he has done for cycling and his prolific campaigns in the fight against cancer have ensured this.  Some would say that he stunted cycling's growth by being so dominant in le tour and the way his team operated, which in reality should have pushed the sport on to compete with him.  This is a poor excuse to dislike the man in my eyes.  I can't say I'm his greatest fan, I found some of his riding dull due to his dominance, but that wasn't really his fault.  I also found him a little turgid in his interviews during his career (he's no Bradley Wiggins...), but that doesn't stop me wanting him not to be guilty.

I am wholly for strong drugs charges and anti-cheating measures, don't get me wrong; if he is guilty then it should come out, but if he is then he is going to take the UCI down with him, and with it the sport of cycling as we know it.

I don't think this is overstating the consequences, yes cycling will survive, but our sport will forever be tarnished even more than it already is.  Not only would we be known to have cheating riders, we would have the highest profile drugs cheat in the world, coupled with a cheating governing body.  The FA will survive it's current under-the-table World Cup stories because of the fan base around football and the belief people have in the sport on it's own.  But cycling fans and cyclists are already skeptical as to how clean out sport is.  Many of my peers have been quick to discredit Contador and his wins (in fairness I am not firm in who I believe in this case either, but it doesn't hold quite the same level of consequence), there is general banter about drug use within the Sunday bunch rides, and there is always an underlying feeling of suspicion after any 'unknown' rider wins a big race (and even the known ones; Cancellara and the 'engine').  Even as we try to push drugs out of our sport, the common belief of cyclists as drug-taking-cheats will remain.

I hate every year having to explain to people that not all cyclists take drugs, and explain what we (and I say we because I feel that as a cyclist I have a duty to actively oppose drugs taking in my sport, if every cyclist doesn't then the nay-sayers will find out and feel vindicated) are doing to remove them from our sport.  It hurts me every time someone tarnishes us with the brush of a cheater.  I have never cheated in my sport, I will never cheat in my sport.  So how will we explain and justify our sports existence if it turns out that it is corrupt to the highest levels? 

People will still ride bikes, that is unlikely to change; but would racing be the same?  Would there be professionals? Would there be sponsors? Would anyone ever want to touch our sport again?  There isn't enough money in cycling as it is for the amount of work that our athletes have to do; the day-in day-out hardships that they endure to reach their goals is on a scale unlike most other sports, and yet the pay for all but a select few is often not enough to support them, let alone let them live in the luxury of a footballer.  This is far more evident in mountain biking, with so many fighting for the elusive win and with less television coverage and subsequent sponsorship there just isn't the money there.  MTB XC is already suffering, I would hope that people would realise that there are far fewer drugs scandals in MTB than on the road and support us, but I can't in all honesty see it happening.  I think that this would likely kill XC as a professional sport.  It may be resurrected, but I can't see it happening in my lifetime, the memories would be too raw.

So what am I scared of?  I'm scared of the loss of professional cycling, not only for my enjoyment as a fan, but also because it would signal the loss of my dreams.  It will be the saddest day of my young life if Lance was to be found guilty.  Ironically the only way I can think to cope is to ride my bike.  Maybe there is hope yet.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

The week that was.

Preface: This is not a fun blog post; this is not worth reading, this is because I'm bored and I like to write occasionally.  If you are interested in the monotony of student life, some casual wine tasting and a general insight into my life without my bikes, read on.

So the worst week of uni in NZ is now over, albeit 3 days late.  Deadlines extended to Monday from Friday allowed me to spend another couple of sleepless nights worrying and working on my geophysics field report.  We had a good month or so to write this, but somehow (and as ever) the deadline crept up on me and my peers.  Thankfully I had managed to leave myself in a better position than some, not being able to ride does have it's advantages in terms of free time to work.  I would have liked to have been able to ride my bike this week, the de-stressing power of being high above the urban world drifting around trees and missing then by whiskers (or not as is so often the case) never fails to relieve stress.  My trackstands improve no-end during exams; my chosen revision break has been messing about on the bike, and when you only give yourself 10mins trackstanding seems to be a good way to spend it.

I managed to get the majority of this report finished on Friday night, although not without doing myself some damage in the process.  Glandular Fever requires lots of sleep, report writing does not; to combat this a lot of caffeine was consumed.  This resulted in a complete absence of real sleep when I did eventually allow myself to go to bed.  It also had some worrying physical side-effects, my heart started skipping beats on Thursday and by Friday night I was missing about 1 in ever 20.  This didn't help my sleep any, but thankfully a day without caffeine and a good nights sleep solved all those problems.

The aim was always to have the work done on Friday as I had prior engagements on Saturday meaning no work would be done.  This weekend it was two of my good friends birthday's, Heather and Gordon.  Heather took us to the theater on Tuesday night, which I have to admit is not something I would usually do, not because it's not my kind of thing, but it just doesn't occur to me usually.  We went to see Death and the Afterlife of Elephants, which caught Heather's eye as she loves elephants.  I'm not going to critic the play, suffice to say I, in my limited knowledge and theater experience, loved it.

Gordon took us wine-tasting in the Wiarapa on Saturday, and with me not being able to drink I was in charge of driving the minibus.  It's been a while since I drove a manual, let alone a van, but it was good to smash through a gearbox, burning the clutch over the Rimutaka hill road and throwing everyone about kept me entertained.  The wines were by an large fantastic, but the thing that made it all the more special was the people who shared the day, not only Gordon's friends, but also the people who educated us (the woman at Margrain was especially good, as was the couple at Julicher, both were very happy to talk).  We all went away with different favourites, although I have a new found love of Reislings and desert ('pudding' as Gordon would have it) wines.

With the Everton/University Hall ball in the evening I returned home, picked Rachael up from the airport with Heather and Sarah, had a quick half change of clothes and headed off.  As expected I crashed around 11pm and toddled off to bed satisfied with my day.  Sunday was spent putting the finishing touches to my report and doing my maths homework.  All is well, all is in, stress levels are much lower and all being well with a good sleep tonight I may actually be able to ride my bike tomorrow, although there is talk of doing the Tongariro crossing on Wednesday to show Rachael some on NZ and get Heather out doing some walking!

Ramble over, maybe next time I write I will have something more interesting.

Monday, May 16, 2011

Ramblings of an invalid

Sitting on the bus coming back from my most recent field trip chatting aimlessly with Sarah Osborne, half listening into Heather Willott's conversation from the seat in front of us and meandering vaguely about the topics of geology, family, work, life after uni and sport my mind stumbled across the idea of why I ride.  This is a very common thought for me when I'm going through dark points in my life; as I've said many times before my riding is the thing that keeps me going, it's the thing I fall back on in times of need, it's been my constant for the last 6 or 7 years, I wouldn't be who I am without it, I wouldn't have met the people I have, I wouldn't have explored the places I have.  I probably wouldn't be a Leeds student and I almost certainly wouldn't be a Victoria student without it as both universities were chosen primarily for their riding with educational value the second priority.  As many more erudite and well-versed individuals have said over time (and if I were better read I would be able to quote someone here) our lives are the results of the many decisions we make on a daily basis.  I would go further and to say that not only are our lives the result of our own choices, but also the result of the choices made by those around us, as as ever it is our friends and those around us who determine many of the opportunities open to us.  I'm sure there could be some sociological study into the number of opportunities open to people and the relationship to the number of people they have contact with, although I'm sure this effect has diminished somewhat with the advent of the Internet which has undoubtedly provided many with previously unfathomable opportunities.

I digress; the thought that spawned this rambling was that of why I ride.  Sarah was telling me of how she was pushed to run when she was younger by her parents, and appreciated this, it made her run harder, train more and achieve things she may not have been able to achieve otherwise.  I however don't feel like I was ever pushed by my parents into doing anything, I can't say whether either parenting style is right or wrong, certainly Sarah is far more successful than me in her studies, and she has an incredibly bright future ahead of her.  I would like to think I have a lot of opportunities for my future too, although my academic life may be somewhat limited by my attitude towards work, my love of riding and my occasionally poor time management (for example, this week is the busiest of my year so far and here I am spouting a crudely constructed blog on the basis of an off hand thought I had a day previous).

The fact that my parents never pushed me into any one thing allowed me great freedom to do as I pleased as I grew up, flicking from rugby, cricket and athletics onto riding, having had a short spell of being fascinated by the saxophone (I still plan on learning to play the saxophone later in life, purely for my own pleasure) before sport took over completely.  If I'm honest the saxophone fascination was mostly due to one person who still plays a major part in my life; Sophie Dennis is my oldest and closest friend and a very talented musician who I wanted to impress (I'm sure she knows this so it should come as no surprise), however in doing this I discovered that although I have little musical talent I do have a real love of music.  My world is not complete without music and I forever have songs running through my head, but I feel something similar to Stephen Fry ('Moab is my Washpot' is well worth a read) in that I cannot replicate the sounds that reverberate around my mind, much to my frustration.

I loved all the sports I competed in, but found that my body held me back, almost as much as my mind.  When I found cycling thanks to my uncles and friend Morgan Jones I knew that this was what I wanted to be doing for the rest of my life.  I started off dreaming of being 'the next Steve Peat' although it would appear that the next Steve Peat is actually Steve Peat as he is still going strong and will hopefully continue to be a force to be reckoned with for years to come.  It didn't take me too long to realise that my fitness allowed me to ride xc pretty well and that DH was prohibitively expensive, especially for someone living in the flat South of England.  For this reason and the Steve Peat link I have always felt that I should have grown up in the North.  This really comes out in my poor attempt at a Yorkshire accent, and even more so when I am in Yorkshire.  I apologise to any true Yorkshiremen, I don't mean any insult with my impersonations, it's merely a sign of admiration.

However even with my geographical limitation I continued to pursue the riding dream and I now find myself on the other side of the world with some of the most amazing riding around, a British National Championship race 9 weeks away (give or take) and glandular fever meaning that I can't train for it.  So I find myself questioning why I ride, why I have spent so much of my money on my bikes, why I have given up so much time to riding, neglecting my studies and friendships along the way.  I can't say it's for competition, I haven't won a race in over 2 years now and I can't see myself winning any any time soon (although coming close in local races in Wellington was lovely), yet I still continue riding and training (somewhat scrapily as work commitments get in the way more than I would like).

I gave a brief description of why I ride to Sarah, and it's an idea that's well formed in many people's minds and as such is well documented in cycling magazines, and I'm sure variants of it come from all sports people the world over.

The reason I ride is for that perfect moment.  It may only come around once a year, it may come around daily.  I could last for a fleeting second, or it may last for a whole ride.  However long and frequent it is, the memory remains.  The search for these moments is what gets me out of bed in the morning to ride, makes me brave the cold, wind and rain; has left me scared, broken and out of pocket, and what keeps me coming back every time wanting more.  I have always said when it's not fun anymore I'll stop, but I'm not sure what that will take, there's always hope that you will have the chance for another perfect moment.

These moments are indefinable, they can sneak up on you at any time; you just have to give them the opportunity to be there by getting out there on your bike and riding.  It could be a corner perfectly railed, shooting you out faster than you came in, the ripping sound as your tyres struggle for traction or the slop of mud.  It could be a climb nailed, getting to the top like you had wings.  It could come from all sorts of directions, it could even be a view that makes you stop and take note.  All of these things have happened to me since Christmas and the memory of them and the realisation that they will come again sends shivers down my spine.

I'm so hungry to experience them again, and I know I will.

I made a promise to myself and to Sian that I would take a couple of years out after uni to try my hand at my sport and see how far I can take it.  I feel that I owe it to myself to do this, even if I don't make it, if I can train hard for 2 years and get faster and experience more of these moments then it will be time well spent.  Others may not understand it, a lack of results or anything tangible to show for my time would frustrate many, and does frustrate me constantly, but all I have to do is remember these moments and I know why it's worth it.

I don't think I'm special in this feeling, I'm just grateful that I can appreciate it.  I look forward to ripping the trails up again, in the meantime I will continue to sift around.  If you see me riding slowly up a hill in Wellington, don't laugh at me or pity me; I'm out there on my bike pursuing these moments, you never know, I might rail past you on the next descent.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Learning the Art of Sifting

Sifting was a completely new concept when I came out to NZ, introduced to me by Dave Aldred (of NZMTB fame and general chilled froode) when he showed up to ride in baggies etc with me in my usual lycras.  Whenever I rode with people at home it was either on the road (lycra) or riding hard with racers off road.  Occasionally I would go for chilled rides with Steve, but even then there was always a jersey involved and a lot of sprinting after each other.  This is all well and good, but I have actually learnt to enjoy a chilled out, relatively slow ride, or sift in my time out here.  This is going to be quite a necessity if my body keeps on playing up the way it has been.

Another bout of illness saw me with a wicked fever last night having done a hard training session on Sunday which involved smashing myself around the Makara road loop for an hour at above race pace.  Or at least above the pace I would usually sustain for a 2hour race but would be aiming to hold/break for the nat champs at home.  This did see me stamping up the rolling roads out to Johnsonville and getting lose on the main descent, leading to me getting a little sideways as the back end stepped out on some gravel as I cut the apex of a hairpin at 45kph sending me onto the other side of the road.  Thankfully nothing was coming the other way.  I did ride slightly more cautiously, and restrained myself from overtaking the car that pulled out in front of me, although I maintain that my cornering speed was a lot greater than his.

Anyway, after this fun I got my recovery going, trying to look after myself (compression tights, recovery drink, chilling, not exposed to other people...) but still I managed to wake up Monday morning feeling like I had been hit by the mother of all man-flu's. Again.  Today though I feel a lot better, having slept for 37 hours in the last 48, although the fever last night didn't help matters; I always have fairly lucid dreams when I have fevers and I hate it.

On waking and walking to Uni this morning it would appear that Wellington had pulled out all the stops to provide us with a beautiful day; still conditions with fog lingering in the harbour and sun penetrating the mist.  By the end of the day (4pm) I couldn't resist a ride.  Sifting it was.

It wasn't a fast, hard, long or overly technical ride, but it was just what I needed.  The body coped and hopefully riding gently like that will actually help me overcome the illness rather than hinder my progress.  I just rode along Highbury Fling and down Transient, including the newly finished section of it allowing me to avoid the road.  It was great, sliding around the unsurfaced, muddy tracks, pumping to avoid pedaling, and just generally chilling out on the bike.  Hopefully I will be able to ride hard again soon and not have to worry about waking up ill again.  Maybe the doctor will be able to reveal something on Friday, all being well I will be able to get a blood test and find out what is up with me; just doesn't seem right going from being consistently healthy to being ill for most of the last 9 weeks.