Most cyclists look forward to Christmas on account of the promise of quiet roads and an unusual sense of bonhomie amongst the general populace of car drivers. As such, it’s a perfect opportunity to bust out the winter bike and rack up the base miles. My good friends at Rapha sponsor the ‘festive 500′. It’s one of the things Rapha do very well, along with sponsoring several cycling events, backing a pro-tour team and providing expensive garms to legions of hapless choppers with more money than sense. You need to ride 311 miles between Christmas Eve and New Year’s Eve. Simple. 39 miles a day. I’ve managed 95 miles thus far, leaving a paltry 224 to turn in by Wednesday. If i’m lucky, I might make it an imperial festive 100. If you can’t beat ‘em, start your own competition and win that. I think I will award myself a third chocolate orange on completion of this epic feat.
On the way back from the ‘Nham I came across some genuine Europro wannabes. Tommeke doesn’t count: he’s wearing sponsored kit from a team. He’s earned that look, and it’s more hardcore domestic pro with stripes than Eurosmasher. He has won road races and moved up through the categories as a result of hard work and diligence. Unlike the two Castelli head-to-footers on summer bongo-rockets who couldn’t even manage to lift a finger from the bars to acknowledge the presence of a fellow cyclist on the road to Uley at Christmas. Shame on them. I shall carry on waving, not drowning.
The title gives it away. The best bike-related item I bought this year was the Brooks Cambium Saddle. I didn’t actually buy it, it was a birthday present from the wife. Some people have real trouble with saddles. I’ve generally had no difficulties in finding the right perch.
Some time ago i experimented with a San Marco Regal, it’s one of the nicest looking retro-saddles. It made some unwarranted and painful changes to my lower goochular region and has been banished to the shed ever since. The Cambium is not dissimilar in looks, with a riveted construction. The base is made of vulcanised and hard rubber with the top coating of cotton canvas. It’s slightly rough compared the smooth sheen of a Fizik or San Marco, to the extent that some johnny-come-lately peak-millenial bike boom converts have taken to lambasting the saddle for wearing out or through a pair of expensive jeans. It doesn’t wear through lycra, but if you’re over anxious about distressing a pair of pre-distressed jeans then this might not be the saddle for you. Unless of course you’re pairing it with the Rapha city riding jodphurs and softshell kepi, for epic, concierge-led rides with the Dalston Chapter.
As a general rule, the only time saddles really matter are when I’m doing lots of fixed miles, usually over winter. This is because there is more lateral movement, or movement in general, when riding fixed, thus leading to an increase in chafage and other unpleasantness. All of which reliably answers the question ‘how is the new saddle?‘, with ‘it tore me a new one‘.
I have used a Brooks C17 and a Spa Cycles Aire. Both were OK. The Brooks is very heavy and little bit too antiquated. The Aire is much cheaper than the Brooks and is racier, but also has a high gap between the rails and saddle which make it look a bit wrong. The racier Brooks saddles are fiercely expensive. The Aire is also impossible to break in. It’s made of reinforced kangaroo-hide and is leatherier than Tom Jones’ face. Not that I’d try to break in the latter.
Last year Brooks bought out a new line of saddles with a cotton covering, called the ‘Cambium’. They do a wide C17 and a narrow C15. They have managed to capture the middle ground between racy and retro. I took one on test from Strada Cycles and had no difficulties at all. They come in at about £110, but with club discount I essentially got it cheaper than it would be from any well-known online retailers.
The best way of knowing if a saddle is right is if you complete forget it’s there. This is unequivocally the case with the Cambium. It does the job with a minimum of fuss; it’s just wide enough with a sturdy and hard plastic base under the covering to support the sit bones. I’ve had no issues at all. In fact, i promptly went out a bought the narrower C15 for the Mercian.
After 6 months of commuting and longer rides the Cambium is proving its worth, it’s very comfortable. It’s the only saddle i’d recommend unequivocally to anyone. I’m not a huge Brooks fan, as a rule of thumb I’ve had difficulties even breaking in the C17, my low weight means i haven’t so much as dented the leather after thousands of miles. The Cambium has more ‘give’ because of the construction. It also looks lovely and complements both the Bob Jackson and the Mercian and both the C15 and 17 have a set of bag loops hidden within the construction; perfect for the Carradice. It’s not far off being the perfect saddle.
I went out riding today, upping the mileage considerably to a whopping thirty miles. It may or may not have been fully thirty and it might have not happened at all because it wasn’t a digitised ride. I have yet to switch the garmin back on. It was a pre-christmas loosener, aimed at salving my conscience ahead of ongoing food and wine imbibement.
On the way back I stopped off at Strada Cycles, Bedminster Chapter. They don’t have a concierge. Instead, the appointed minion offered me a cup of tea in a SRAM mug. It was the proprietor’s cup of tea, but I was encouraged to drink it because he was outside being molested by a dog. This is the kind of service i’d expect for £200 a year. Nothing less than a reckless hot beverage gazumping and a floor show involving the Strada “Brand Manager” and an over-excited, wantonly salivating canine.
It was a windy day. A buzzard flew alongside in silent contemplation. herons circled drunkenly, their movements both laboured and graceful.
It’s good to be back on the bike and out in the countryside.
It’s a generally accepted truth that Rapha make some nice kit. They also charge an arm and a leg for most of it. Aside from that, Rapha have proven adept at marketing a representation of cycling; mining the past for gritty truths, digging down until they hit a seam of glistening heroism, then selling it on for their slavering punters.
Their latest wheeze is a global cycling club with an annual membership fee of £200 and a limited number of members. Any application requires a 100-word tiebreaker describing ‘the perfect ride’. I could have a go now; “Any ride completed in its entirety without the presence of a ‘rider’ clad head-to-toe in rapha threads, astride an overpriced and underused bongo-rocket.”
There is a huge amount of ire aimed at Rapha, most of it from people who baulk at the constant self-mythologising, over-priced trinkets and endless epicness. The new ‘club’ consists of 16 ‘chapters’. Last time i saw anyone who was a member of a ‘chapter’ they were all heading off to do some motorpacing.
Like all modish industries, Rapha have a ‘brand manager’. I suspect they have a host of other 21st Century job titles on offer, . According to the Raphaspeak, each ‘chapter’ has a ‘concierge’ who is able to help the hapless Raphanaut navigate the mean streets of an unforgiving new urban environment and serve up a complimentary flat white, no doubt with some funkalicious latte art and grainy footage of Belgian hard men to inspire the current generation of weekend warriors. An identical Rapha in every identical global city? Check.
The motto for the new club is “Ex Duris Gloria” or something like that. There’s a startling disconnect between any notion of suffering and the reality of this enterprise. Rapha is just another bogus symptom of late era capitalism (although even the term ‘late capitalism’ seems irrevelant, the system just marches on in a rapacious, money-grabbing goosestep). It fits securely within Baudrillard’s notion of simulacra and simulation, saving the cycling principle for legions of soft-pedaling schmucks, seduced by a hideously expensive fluffing and packaged softshell heroism. Rapha have elevated the concept of suffering with no accompanying reality. It is the apotheosis of the hollowness of modern bike riding and the shabby, empty lives of the current wave of corporate acolytes, lured away from a life on the golf course by the promise of a new kind of perjured authenticity.
Longstanding readers of this blog, of whom there are three, my wife and mother notwithstanding, may recall various posts in which i question the sportive ‘juggernaut’. It’s one of the dominant tropes of the current bike boom; in short, a commercial reaction to the legions of new consumers. I’ve highlighted the consequences of the exponential growth in an unregulated sector; both in terms of the cultural effects of overwhelming country lanes with thousands of cyclists, and the way some events have ridden roughshod (no pun intended) over longstanding bike races which happened to be on the same roads many years previously. I’ve also mentioned the positive effects; namely more people cycling is a good thing, but ultimately it’s not hard to see where I’m leaning. The sportive market is one symptom of the voracious consumerism of cycling. Sometimes I even find myself feeling sympathy for the New Forest dwellers. This doesn’t last that long though.
Few things in life are certain, death and taxes being the hoary cliché (is hoary cliché a cliché?). You can be assured that the current bike boom will peak and then subside, and with it the waves of neo-choppers will ebb and flow back out with the tide to resume other sports and pursuits. What lies beneath this ephemeral world is a dedicated amateur racing scene; led, developed and fostered by cycling clubs. I am fearful of the damage being done to the bedrock of cycling by the rapacious sportive market, something encapsulated by the current problems being faced by the Bec hill climb. Speaking from experience, club events are designed to break even, there is no profit or loss, no-one takes a cut and everything is voluntary. This is in marked contrast to most sportives. There is a salutary article by Garry Beckett here that is well worth ten minutes of your time.
In days of yore by now I’d now be well into the winter base work. This winter has been a bit different; I’ve canned pretty much all cycling with the exception of the 6 miles to work and back every day. Once a week, give or take, I’ve ridden the long way to work. I think a couple of seasons ago i did something similar, heading out just before christmas to card an 11mph average on a flattish route. Hardcore.
For most of my peers winter tends to be the time to pile on the mileage, re-establish the base and endurance, and enjoy some steady group rides and good conversation. There isn’t any pressing need to be doing absurd distances before January; too much winter training can lead to a mid-season burn-out and diminishing returns from there on in.
My main aim at the moment is to keep the weight down enough so I can still fit into my clothes; i’m a 30″ waist, this doesn’t leave much margin for error, and keep fit enough so i can avoid that palsied sensation of out of breathness and muscular atrophy. I’m also flying under the radar, no garmin or recording devices – there’s not really anything worth recording.
I joined the club run this morning for the first time in a very long time. It now consists of three groups of different paces. This is primarily because of the numbers now riding; the bike boom has led to increased numbers for the club, now hovering at around 120. I went for the medium group and decided to cling on in.
It was a decent day for cycling, a balmy 6 degrees with dry roads. There was a headwind on the way out, i realised this when on the front, so slipped surreptitiously to the back of the group and hid amongst the bigger chaps. After about 20 miles i peeled off and headed for home, discretion being the better part of valour. It was my longest effort since August. I didn’t fancy putting in an early bid for the bonk hammer, best off leaving that one to the professionals.
My last race of the season was at Burrington Combe. Tejvan returned for the first time in a few years and the field was full of rapid people. It was great to see the Champion’s jersey in full flight. I came 11th out of 100. It was as well as i’d hoped after a 3 week lay off and a lack of motivation. I managed to get under 8 minutes, which is always a bonus.
Thom Heald made a short film about the discipline with some shots of this year’s event. I’m just visible in the background of one shot. the rest of it is wall to wall Rob Borek trying to articulate the desperate excitement of a first full hill climb season. He does a good job. Rob is a new young tyro for the South. Rob’s known for his exploits in club colours, getting up at 4am to “smash it”, powered only by gin and the reckless swagger of youth. He’ll go far.