May 16, 2003
One recent series of events I will repeat here: this week I've done stupid amounts of bombing around West Yorkshire, looking at vehicles. Read the rest of this monstrous article if you really want to know about bicycles, the new matte black, and... Mini Coopers?
First up, bicycles. Recently reminded how much I love... well, just turning cranks, I think, I dug out my old tourer and cleaned it up a bit. This involved chucking buckets of water at it, and stabbing away with a yard brush. I'm serious - it's been that long since I rode it. It's survived remarkably well, but still needed new cables before I'd trust my life to its brakes - oh, and a pump, since the old one exploded when I tried to use it.
Dangerously, this meant that I had to visit a bicycle shop. Dangerous, because I've hankered after a fast road bike for the best part of fifteen years. Really dangerous because the new breed of compact frames like the Giant OCR range would almost certainly fit inside my Mini, which opens up whole new ways of spending weekends.
But happily, fast road bikes simply aren't a practical proposition. They're terrific for... going very fast for half a day at the weekend, but you couldn't sensibly commute on one. And I do want to commute by bike when I get to Glasgow - so I've been looking at Brompton folders for seemingly ages, waiting for the new hub gears to actually work. Hybrids are clunky mountain-bike crossovers that are great for short trips but basically rubbish on or off road, by my reckoning; a fast road bike that's commutable is a self-built Audax machine, I thought. And I don't have the time to sort that, nor the commitment to spend that sort of money.
Er... no. It turns out that the latest trend is 'messenger,' 'street,' 'speed,' or 'flat-bar road' bikes. Slightly loose road frames with marginal mudguard clearance (ie. Audax frames), very light, 25 or 23mm tyres, flat bars for commuting but fit bar ends and stretch out. Suddenly, they're everywhere. And they're gorgeous. Oh shit.
OK, so Trek's 1200 flat-bar and Giant's FCR 2T are uncompromised road machines with flat bars (huh?), but Felt's SR81, Kona's Dr Dew, Scott's Roadster S2/S1... they're all spot-on road-based hybrid commuting bikes. Knock-out.
So, I started poking around, looking to see what I could find that was big enough for me, and also available. The Felt, for example, gets a corking review in Cycling Plus this month, but the distributor have no idea when they'll actually see any; The Kona has disc brakes and costs rather a lot of money, but I couldn't find one locally anyway. One shop described them as 'mythical.' The Specialised Sirrus range is sold by only one dealer in my region, and for historical reasons I'm not keen to give them more business.
But I did stumble over a Marin ALP Mill Valley. Which is, frankly, gorgeous. Then I saw a Ridgeback Genesis Day 1. Calling around, I found one each in my size (well, the Ridgeback was a Day 0 - same frame but crap bits). So I rode them.
The Ridgeback: Wow. It's a road bike. It's a stuffin' fast road bike. I mean, seriously quick, egging the rider on to flick the pedals just that little bit more. I'd almost forgotten what it's like. The ride is lively rather than harsh, the brakes only moderate, but the handling storming - flickable around potholes but still stable on the straight. Very, very well judged bike, I'd say.
Suitably buzzed (and thanking JD Cycles of Ilkley profusely for spending plenty of time listening and suggesting - great job, folks), I headed off to the Marin, expecting great things.
Er... no. Well, actually, that's not fair. It's the opposite end of the street bike scene - more like an ultralight hybrid than the barely-compromised road bike that is the Ridgeback. The Ridgeback would just about stagger to 28mm tyres; the Marin would take 35mm knobblies for roughstuff riding. On the road, it shows - where the Ridgeback swept, the Marin slumbered. Once up to speed it would happily sit there all day, churning away at a comfortable pace. And the incredible stability was deceptive, since it was still flickable around potholes. But it rode exactly like a well set-up touring bike - unfussed and uneventful. Great concept, not what I'm looking for.
The only thing that's stopping me ordering a Ridgeback is that it's been raining constantly since these rides. And I do want to get out on the tourer, just to see if it is as slow and cumbersome as I remember (it's built to handle camping gear - without it, it's just big and heavy, so far as I recall). Wimpy, I know, but I just don't believe in buying bikes when it's raining.
One of the weird things, incidentally, is that all of these bikes - well, not all, but the Scott S1, the Marin, the Specialized, the Ridgeback - are matte black. Most of them have black wheels, spokes, seat pins, saddles, and derailleurs too. I'm slightly surprised that none of them have black decals on the frames.
So, anyway, the other road test I found myself doing was forty minutes in a Mini Cooper S, the supercharged hard-bastard version of my own dear Cooper. It is, I have to say, a stonking little car. Quite happy pootling around in town, actually better than the Cooper, since there's a wall of torque to buy you out of being in the wrong gear. Just as nimble into corners. One hell of a lot faster out of them. Floor it, and the supercharger whine kicks in, there's a snort from the exhaust, you slam the Getrag box up a gear, and... oh, there's the speed limit. It's... well, it's more like a proper sports car than the 'hot hatch' Cooper.
Compromises to practicality are surprisingly modest, over the unblown Cooper. The gearbox and clutch are a bit heavier and clearly designed for shoving around, encouraging one to drive hard rather than smooth, but the latter is still possible with a little attention. The ride is harsher, but not unbearably so - and it is a sports car, for heaven's sake! A couple of friends of friends have taken their S back because they couldn't put up with the hard ride. I'm not sure what they thought they were buying, frankly. There's quite a lot of road noise from the tyres, but it's a small car and the wheels are massive, so there's not a whole heap BMW can do about that.
So - yes, I loved the thing to bits. But I also like my Cooper for its smooth, quiet and unfussed cruising, and its frugality. It's ridiculously cheap to run for something that's so much fun. So I think I'll end up with a less-compromised performance bike, and a more-compromised hot hatch. That's fine by me.
But if the Cooper S had been black... well, that would be another story.